Time to Respect the Original Peoples

loading Girl from the Batek tribe.

The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia have been manipulated long enough.

The term “Orang Asli”, or “original people”, is a collective appellation for the 18 ethnic tribes “officially classified for administrative purposes under Negrito, Senoi and Aboriginal Malay”.1 It was coined by the British colonial government when the administration realised “a more correct and positive term” was vital to win the indigenous community’s support against communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960. (Derogatory terms such as “jakun” and “sakai” were previously used.)

Legislative initiatives to protect the Orang Asli’s welfare were likewise implemented, including the establishment of the Department of Aborigines in 1950 and the enactment of the Aboriginal Peoples Act in 1954. But the road to socio-economic progress has been a frustrating journey for the indigenous peoples post-Independence; many are still fighting for their basic rights and for a place in Malaysian society.

Minimal Employment Opportunities

The general reticence in admitting the Orang Asli into the workforce has been an enduring problem for the indigenous peoples. Indeed, the community has its back against the wall. “As Orang Asli, our livelihood is very much dependent on the selling of forest products. But with the extensive deforestation we’re currently facing, it has been a struggle to earn RM100 a day, let alone RM1,000 a month,” says Kelantan Orang Asli Village Committee youth chief, Dendi Johari, during a three-day Orang Asli youth visit to Penang last April. “Under Penang’s administrative system however, I see its citizens are provided with employment opportunities to survive regardless of their backgrounds. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy the same privilege in Kelantan.”

Local guards from the Senoi tribe at Fort Kemar, one of a chain of posts in the heart of the central mountain range of Malaya. These forts protected the local population from raids by communist guerillas and also provided forward bases for British operations.

Sabariah Yusri concurs: “Other Malaysian states should look to Penang as an example in providing employment opportunities for their citizens as well. But because of our traditional way of life, we Orang Asli cannot be separated from our customary lands. So, our occupations must be related to the forest. We can be trained as forest rangers and trekkers as well as teachers to provide accessible education for our young.”

Pahang native Muits bin Masitaz, adds: “In fact, there are several employment opportunities available for the Orang Asli communities in Kelantan and Pahang. Kelantan, for example, is abundant with limestone clusters and caves. Visitors to the state will be able to gain from a wealth of knowledge about the area, about our people and about our customs and traditions if the Orang Asli are given the opportunity to be employed as tour guides. I think it would be an advantageous enterprise for us and the state government since its eco-tourism industry will receive a boost as well. But I’m not sure why the idea has not been implemented yet.”

Fighting for their Land

The contest over customary land rights, both in and out of courtrooms, has equally been an unending source of distress for the Orang Asli ever since the days of British rule.

Encroachment on Orang Asli Customary Land in Peninsular Malaysia: Causes and Solutions explains that “through Western European colonisation around the world, the modern statutory legal framework on matters relating to land, forests and natural resources has disseminated the documentary land titling system that is built upon legislation. From that point onwards, land without a state-issued written grant or document was automatically claimed as property of the state. The reservation process, which is proclaimed in a government gazette, was also introduced, if the state wishes to reserve an area for any specific purpose which it defines as consistent with the public interest”.2

Muits bin Masitaz.

Dendi Johari.

The indigenous customary lands are “without any document of title or reservation from the state, although the communities may be allowed to remain within their original territories”.3 This prompted uncertainty concerning “the status of the indigenous customary land rights within the modern legal framework. While such indigenous villages have continued to practice customary land rights ownership based on their traditional laws, the ruling authorities from the colonial period up to the present day have claimed such ancestral land as the property of the state. They have then proceeded to marginalise such rights as merely a limited form of usufructuary rights or a right no better than that of a tenant at will. This has resulted in widespread encroachments on indigenous customary land rights”.4

The Kenong Rimba National Park in Pahang, where a Batek tribe (under Negrito) resides, is one such example. “We are concerned about how the park’s uncontrolled logging has affected the living conditions of the Batek tribe,” says Muits. “Intervention from activist groups and the media have done little to help; if anything, they merely halted the exploitation of the rainforest temporarily. Once the uproar calmed down, the businesses simply picked up where they left off. They used the back roads to where the Batek tribe lives instead and forced the tribe’s signed consent in order to use their village for logging purposes.”

The proposed building of two flood mitigation dams in Kelantan has also been vehemently opposed by the state’s Orang Asli community as it will lead to the destruction of their villages. The dams are to be built in Sungai Nenggiri and Sungai Lebir and will affect several villages of the Temiar and Batek tribes, including Kampung Pos Pulat, Kampung Wias, Kampung Pos Tehoi and Kampung Kuala Wook. “We are saddened to hear this as it will destroy our houses, our history, our grave sites and the jungle where our source of livelihood and income is,” says Dendi, adding that the villagers were not consulted on the project.

The Orang Asli youths visiting Kampung Permatang Tok Subuh at Bukit Mertajam.

“When our reserve lands get taken from us, it is frequently dismissed as ‘it’s only the Orang Asli’s foraging land’,” says Muits. “It angers us whenever we hear ‘foraging land’ being used as an excuse because when we venture into the forest, it is to work for our daily income. If the lands are taken from us, what is there left for us to survive on? It is easier said than done for the Orang Asli to find employment elsewhere. But the forest has been an integral part of the indigenous community’s identity and existence for many generations now.”

A "Positive Discrimination" Policy

In the early 1980s a state-led Islamisation policy toward the Orang Asli began, resulting in a steady increase of Muslims among the indigenous peoples. However, their integration and assimilation into the Malay community were not without deep-rooted effects.

A “positive discrimination” policy was adopted and those who religiously conformed received benefits such as better housing (including water and electricity supplies), income-earning opportunities, and education, health and transportation facilities while those who refused did not. This resulted in segregation within the Orang Asli community.

“There have been cases in Lanchang in Pahang of Orang Asli being given houses if they choose to embrace Islam. It’s discouraging to see religion being used as a measuring tool for progress among my people,” says Sabariah.

“I don’t think religion should be used as a means to integrate us. Big religions have tried to convert us; they have tried to Westernise us or to make us grow beards. But from what I can see, not a single one of these religions have ever been successful in permanently converting us,” explains Muits. “I’ve seen my people leave Christianity only to temporarily embrace Islam before reverting back to animism. I think it would be for the best if we are left with the freedom to choose and practice our individual religions. If we decide to convert, then of course, we will seek out the right people to assist us in our religious conversions. But until then, I strongly urge that our faiths be respected.”

If we are to be left alone in the forest for another thousand years, I don’t think it would be a problem for us. But when the modern world comes knocking, it is essential that we arm ourselves with knowledge to make sense of things.

Muits has also been working hard to bridge the ever-widening education gap of Orang Asli youths. In 2014 he set up a community learning centre, Pusat Didikan Komuniti Cenwaey Penaney, at Kampung Ulu Tual, Pahang to provide free basic education for the indigenous children. “They are taught to read and write, mathematics, and the Orang Asli culture and traditions. We’re also teaching them about technology to prepare the children for the modern world. Personally speaking, if we are to be left alone in the forest for another thousand years, I don’t think it would be a problem for us. But when the modern world comes knocking, it is essential that we arm ourselves with knowledge to make sense of things.”

Though some headway has been made for the Orang Asli community, there still needs to be a change in mindset and behaviour among the dominant population in order for the Orang Asli to be truly accepted as part of the Malaysian community. And as the nation approaches its 60th anniversary of independence, perhaps it is time we accord these indigenous peoples the respect and importance they deserve.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

1 Colin Nicholas. The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development, and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia. 2000.

2https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/foemalaysia/pages/24/attachments/original/1483860696/2016_SAM_JKOASM_Encroachment_on_Orang_Asli_customary_land.pdf1483860696

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