NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
This paper attempts to demonstrate that while the various laws affecting Orang Asli rights to their traditional lands and resources may not be explicit in protecting these rights, there is actually enough in our local laws to support recognition of this inalienable right - if we only want to do so.
The hierarchy of legislation in
1. The Federal Constitution;
2. Acts passed by Parliament;
3. Regulations and other subsidiary
legislation passed by the executive
4. State laws and regulations.
Ironically, as we shall see for the case of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, it is the last category - state laws and regulations - that effectively take precedence in determining Orang Asli rights to their traditional land and resources.
Laws Concerning Natural Resource Management
That Affect Orang Asli
Several laws and regulation affect the status of the Orang Asli even though they may not directly concern them or mention them specifically. Examples are Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act No. 172) and the Local Government Act 1976 (Act No. 171) - both of which effectively remove any semblance of autonomy that the Orang Asli may have had over their traditional lands.
The following laws, however, have a greater bearing on the Orang Asli insofar as the management and control of their territories and the resources found therein are concerned:
Code 1965 (Act No. 56) National Land
- Land Conservation Act 1960 (Act No. 385), revised 1989
- Land (Group Settlement Areas) Act 1960 (Act No. 530), revised 1994
- Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 (Act No. 76), revised 1976, 1991
- National Parks Act 1980 (Act No.226)
- Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 (Act No. 134), revised 1974
The National Land Code established a uniform system of tenure under which title to an interest in land depends on registration. This act applies only to the
The Land Conservation Act 1960 consolidates the law relating to the conservation of hill lands and the protection of soil from erosion and the inroad of silt. Section 5 provides that no person shall plant any hill land with short term crops (i.e. crops that normally complete their life cycle within two years after planting) without an annual permit from the Collector of Land Revenue. Section 6 goes on to prohibit the clearing of hill land. These provisions are detrimental to Orang Asli communities who live in forest and forest fringe areas and who still depend on the traditional swiddens for their subsistence.
The Land (Group Settlement Areas) Act 1960 enables land agencies such as the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) , the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA) and other agencies such as the Pahang Tenggara Development Authority (DARA) to take over State land and to develop them for the purpose of land settlement which culminates in the issue of titles to the settlers. Frequently Orang Asli traditional areas have been converted to such land schemes with them not enjoying both the fruits of the programme nor being entitled to such titles for the land.
A law that expressly mentions the Orang Asli (or 'aboriginal community') is the Protection of Wildlife Act of 1972 (Act 76). Wildlife Reserves and Sanctuaries may be declared by the state under this legislation. In such areas, an Orang Asli may shoot, kill or take certain wildlife for the purpose of providing food for himself or his family.
Another law that is applicable to the Orang Asli is the National Forestry Act of 1984, which provides for the administration, management and conservation of forests and forestry development in the states. It also states that forest produce is property of the state and that harvesting requires a license. Basically, it treats the Orang Asli harvesters of such forest produce (e.g. rattan and petai) as labourers of the traders who hold the necessary licences (or 'bund' as they are called in Perak) from the Forest Department.
The National Parks Act (Act 226) of 1980, is an act to provide for the establishment and control of National Parks and for matters connected therewith. While usufructuary rights of the Orang Asli may not be curtailed in such parks, their right to own and control their traditional territories certainly come under serious jeopardy.
The Aboriginal Peoples Act (1954, revised 1974) is the only law that specifically refers to the Orang Asli. And while the Act provides for the establishment of Orang Asli Areas and Orang Asli Reserves, it also grants the state authority the right to order any Orang Asli community to leave - and stay out of - an area. In effect, the best security that an Orang Asli can get is one of 'tenant-at-will'. That is to say, an Orang Asli is allowed to remain in a particular area only at the pleasure of the state authority. If at such time the state wishes to re-acquire the land, it can revoke its status and the Orang Asli are left with no other legal recourse but to move elsewhere. Furthermore, in the event of such displacement occurring, the state is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site, and may only do so.
Thus, the Aboriginal Peoples Act laid down certain ground rules for the treatment of Orang Asli and their lands. Effectively, it accorded the Minister concerned - or his representative, the Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) - the final say in all matters concerning the administration of the Orang Asli and in matters concerning land, to the state authority.
All these laws give the Federal and State Governments a tremendous amount of leverage against the Orang Asli. (This, at least, is how the above laws, and especially the Aboriginal Peoples Act were interpreted - until, that is, the October 2005 decision of the Court of Appeal in the Sagong Tasi case, as discussed below.) Even supposedly sustainable and rights-respecting initiatives such as the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) prefer to hide behind the catch-all clause "subject to national laws" knowing full well that such national laws generally favour the interests and greed of the well-placed and well-heeled rather than the Orang Asli inhabitants of the areas they now seek to exploit or appropriate.
The Federal Constitution, Land, Natural Resources
and the Orang Asli
The Federal Constitution specifies the division of powers between the state and federal governments. The Constitution's Ninth Schedule divides the various responsibilities, privileges, and jurisdictions into three lists: List 1, the Federal List; List 2, the State List; and List 3, the Concurrent List. In particular, the welfare of the Orang Asli comes under the Federal List while land and forest matters come under the State List. Also, as every state is independent under the Constitution, federal legislation in most cases is not binding on the states.
On the contrary, the Federal Constitution accords substantial powers over land use and natural resource management to the respective States. And though under the Constitution the Federal Government is empowered to make laws it deems necessary to ensure continuity throughout the country, the Federal Government often serves merely as a coordinating entity. As such, federal agencies like the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) would consequently assume only a liaison and cooperative role with respect to the state authorities.
In fact, this line of rationalising - that while the Orang Asli are a federal concern, all matters pertaining to land reside in the state over which they have no say or influence - is an oft-heard explanation whenever those responsible for gazetting or reserving lands for the Orang Asli are asked for the reason for the dismal progress in this matter. That there is a glaring precedent in the case of FELDA (which effectively utilises the Land (Group Settlement Areas) Act of 1960 to direct states to give up some of their land for landless settlers in their development schemes) is somehow lost on these administrators and decision-makers.
The crux of the problem lies in the fact that with forests being such a valuable productive resource in the country, it is in the interest of the States to maintain control over their forest lands. Creating Orang Asli reserves in their now-valuable land banks would effectively deny the State of a revenue-generating facility as such reserves would now come under the purview of the Federal Government. Thus, it does not make economic sense for the States to gazette lands for the Orang Asli.
This is, of course, based on the presumption that States enjoy the legal right to those lands that are contested by the Orang Asli as their own. But as we shall see below, this perception is steadily giving way to an interpretation of natural resource laws that are bound to bring changes to the way traditional territories are controlled and managed.
The Changing Status of the Orang Asli
in Natural Resource Law
Only Orang Asli have rights to forest produce in Orang Asli areas
(Koperasi Kijang Mas v Kerajaan Negeri Perak)
In 1992, the Ipoh High Court, in deciding the case of Koperasi Kijang Mas & 3 others versus Kerajaan Negeri Perak & two others, held that the State Government of Perak had breached the Aboriginal Peoples Act, 1954 (revised 1974) when it accepted Syarikat Samudera Budi Sdn. Bhd's tender to log certain areas in Kuala Kangsar. These areas included lands which have been approved by the State Government as Aboriginal Reserves namely the regroupment schemes of RPS Sungei Banun and RPS Pos Legap.
The High Court went on further to hold that Syarikat Samudera accordingly had no rights to carry on logging activities and that only Orang Asli as defined in the Aboriginal Peoples Act had the right to the forest produce in these reserves.
An important point canvassed by the State Government was that the lands, although approved had not been gazetted. Justice Malek in a strong opinion held that gazetting was not a mandatory requirement. The approval of the State Government for the lands to be aboriginal reserves had, without the necessity of gazetting, created the reserves and thereafter only Orang Asli have exclusive rights to the forest products in the reserves.
This decision has important implications for Orang Asli land rights as official sources indicate that some 29,144.18 hectares of aboriginal lands in 2002 have been approved, but are yet to be gazetted. In respect of these lands therefore, Orang Asli have some measure of statutory protection from encroachment and displacement by many other interests.
Orang Asli have proprietary interest on the land
(Adong bin Kuwau v. State of
In 1997, the Johor High Court awarded compensation to 52 Jakuns for the loss of 53,273 acres of ancestral lands. The state government had taken the forested land and leased it to the Public Utilities Board of Singapore who subsequently constructed a dam to supply water to both Johor and
Justice Mokhtar concluded that the Jakuns had proprietary rights over their lands, but no alienable interest in the land itself. That is to say, while the Jakuns may not hold title to their traditional lands, they nevertheless have the right to use it for their subsistence and other needs. In this instance, the court ruled that while certain lands are reserved for aboriginal peoples, they also have rights to hunt and gather over additional lands - the "right to continue to live on their lands, as their forefathers had lived."
Such proprietary rights are protected by Article 13 of the Federal Constitution, which required the payment of "adequate compensation" for any taking of property. In accordance with this, the Jakuns were awarded a sum of RM26.5 million for their loss of income for the next 25 years. With interest accrued, the final payment was RM38 million. This judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 1998, with no leave being granted for appeal to the Federal Court.
Orang Asli have proprietary interest in the land
Sagong Tasi v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor
Sagong Tasi was among 23 family heads from Bukit Tampoi in Dengkil, Selangor who had 38 acres of their land taken from them for the construction of the Nilai-Banting highway linking with the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 1995. Some also had their crops and dwellings destroyed. While they were paid a nominal amount for these, there was no compensation for the land. The authorities maintained that the Orang Asli were mere tenants on state land and as such were not entitled to compensation under the Land Acquisition Act 1960.
With the help of a pro bono team of lawyers from the Bar Council, the Temuans took their case to the courts. They asserted that are the owners of the land by custom, the holders of native title to the land and the holders of usufructruary rights (i.e. right to use and derive profit) to the land. They also maintained that that their customary and propriety rights over the land which they and their forefathers have occupied and cultivated for a long time were not extinguished by any law.
In April 2002, Justice Mohd ruled that the Temuans did have native title under common law over their lands. And as such compensation was to be paid to them in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act, 1960. The four defendants (the Selangor state government, United Engineers Malaysia (UEM), Malaysian Highway Authority (LLM), and the Federal Government) appealed.
In October 2005, Justice Gopal Sri Ram sitting with two others, unanimously threw out the appeal and held that the High Court was not misdirected when it decided, based on a large quantity of evidence and fact that was not challenged, to rule that the Temuans did indeed have propriety rights over their customary lands. As such, these lands should be treated as titled lands and therefore subject to compensation under the Land Acquisition Act.
Thus it can be seen that the Orang Asli were deemed to be in possession on titled rights to their lands all this while -- only that the state and federal authorities chose to impose their interpretation of the natural resource laws to their own advantage. Unfortunately, this was a right that had to be challenged in court and not one that was conceded with magnanimity as befitting a position that is just and equitable.
Earlier, we noted that in the hierarchy of legislations in
His 59-page judgment in the Court of Appeal is more than just an affirmation of the rights of the Orang Asli to their traditional lands. It was a condemnation of the way the Orang Asli have been treated by the authorities and a wake-up call to the government to fulfil its fiduciary responsibility towards the community. In his words, "Here you have a case where the very authority - the State - that is enjoined by the law to protect the aborigines, turned upon them and permitted them to be treated in a most shoddy, cruel and oppressive manner."
Failure in Fiduciary Duty
Acknowledging that the purpose of the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 was to "protect and uplift the First Peoples of this country", Judge Gopal asserted that "it was therefore fundamentally a human rights statute, acquiring a quasi-constitutional status giving it preeminence over ordinary legislation. It must therefore receive a broad and liberal interpretation."
This was in keeping with the early debates and discussions as recorded in the Federal Legislative Assembly hansards, newspapers of the day and archival records which clearly showed that Orang Asli lands were to be recognized. For example, as noted in the judgment, when the Orang Asli representative, Tok
Steps are now being taken to create these reserves and there are also in existence others which were gazetted prior to the introduction of the Ordinance. At the moment there are in existence in the Federation, 58 Gazetted Aborigine Reserves covering in all approximately 30 square miles, and including some 5,200 aborigines. An additional 120 areas are currently under consideration, with a view to gazetting as Reserves. They cover about 389 sq. miles and include approximately 21,000 aborigines.
Alas, as the court was later to find out, none of these good intentions were realized. In the case of Bukit Tampoi, the Temuans faced both under-gazettement as well as non-gazettement of their lands. Thus, as a result of the state and federal governments' neglect in both under-gazetting and not gazetting areas which they knew were inhabited by the Temuans, the latter's rights in the land were placed in serious jeopardy. For the state and federal governments now to say that no compensation is payable to the Temuans because the disputed lands were not gazetted, is to add salt to injury - injury caused by their own neglect and failure. This prompted Judge Gopal to comment that, "I am yet to see a clearer case of a party taking advantage of its own wrong."
Making the Aboriginal Peoples Act Compliant
with the Federal Constitution
The practice to date has been to use the 1954 Act as the legal basis for compensating the Orang Asli only for their crops and dwellings whenever their lands are taken. The 1954 Act has also been used to argue that the Orang Asli do not hold proprietary interest in their land, and that the state governments exercise wide powers as to the disposal and compensation of these lands. The Orang Asli as such are only tenants-at-will, living on state land at the state's largesse.
Citing a number of legal precedents and justification, Judge Gopal reversed this interpretation. In light of the obvious conflict between the 1954 Act and the Federal Constitution, wherein Article 13(2) states that, "No law shall provide for compulsory acquisition or use of property without adequate compensation," he ruled that relevant portions of the 1954 Act had to be brought into conformity with the Constitution.
This is achieved, he says, by not reading the words in section 12 of the 1954 Act, "the State Authority may grant compensation therefor" as conferring a discretion on the State Authority whether to grant compensation or not. But by reading the relevant phrase as "the State Authority shall grant adequate compensation therefor." In so doing, the modification is complete.
This is a pro-active move that has the positive effect of restoring justice to a community that has long been denied of their rights by the narrow interpretation of natural resource laws.
The judge added that, "I am aware that ordinarily we, the judges, are not permitted by our own jurisprudence, to do this. But here you have a direction by the supreme law of the Federation that such modifications as the present must be done."
If we only want to
The judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of Sagong Tasi and 6 Ors v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor and 3 Ors is without doubt a landmark decision in many aspects.
For certain, it is a refreshing breath of just air given the spate of judicial setbacks indigenous peoples have faced in the courts. It also shows that there is enough in our local laws to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and resources if we only want to.
Anaya, James & Robert A. Williams, Jr. (2001), The Protection of Indigenous Peoples' Rights over Lands and Natural Resources Under the Inter-American Human Rights System, Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 14, Spring.
Bettinger, Keith Andrew (2005). Protecting Sovereignty Versus Protecting Parks:
Legal Correspondent (1992), 'High Court Declares State Government Has No Power To Award Logging Rights To Private Company', Pernloi Gah, Issue No. 2, Center for Orang Asli Concerns, Petaling Jaya.
Published as 'The Orang Asli: First on the Land, Last in the Plan' in: Richard Mason & Arifin S. M. Omar (Eds) (2005), The 'Bumiputera Policy': Dynamics and Dilemmas, special issue of Kajian Malaysia: Journal of Malaysian Studies, Vol. XXI, Nos. 1 & 2, July/December 2004, pp. 315-329.
The Orang Asli ("Original Peoples") are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. They are the descendants of the early inhabitants of the peninsula before the establishment of the Malay kingdoms. They number 133,775 today, representing a mere 0.5 per cent of the national population. Anthropologists and administrators have traditionally regarded the Orang Asli as consisting of three main groups which in themselves comprise several distinct tribes or sub-groups. The main groups are the Negrito (Semang), the Senoi, and the Aboriginal-Malay. Each group is further divided into six subgroups.
Linguistically, some of the northern Orang Asli groups (especially the Senoi and Negrito groups) speak languages, now termed Aslian languages, that suggest a historical link with the tribespeople in Burma, Thailand and Indo-China. The members of the Aboriginal-Malay groups of the south speak dialects which belong to the same Austronesian family of languages as Malay, with the exceptions of the Semelai and Temoq dialects (which are Austroasiatic).
The Orang Asli have equally varied occupations and ways of life. The Orang Laut, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri, for example, live close to the coast and are mainly fishermen. Some Temuan, Jakun and Semai people have taken to permanent agriculture and now manage their own rubber, oil palm or cocoa farms. About 40 per cent of the Orang Asli population – including Semai, Temiar, Che Wong, Jah Hut, Semelai and Semoq Beri – however, live close to, or within forested areas. Here they engage in swiddening (hill rice cultivation) and do some hunting and gathering. These communities also trade in petai, durian, rattan and resins to earn cash incomes. A very small number, especially among the Negrito (e.g. Jahai and Lanoh) are still semi-nomadic, preferring to take advantage of the seasonal bounties of the forest. A fair number also live in urban areas and are engaged in both waged and salaried jobs, and there are several professionals among them today.
To a large degree, the Orang Asli remained in relative isolation during the colonial period (ca. 1640s-1940s) and led autonomous, self-sufficient lives primarily because the colonialists regarded them as people of no political or economic import. About the only people who were interested in the Orang Asli then were the missionaries and the anthropologists. Prior to this, however, when Malaya was being peopled by others in the archipelago, the Orang Asli were an organised, independent people, respected enough to be spought for help in the establishment of the early Malay kingdoms (as in Johore, Melaka, Negri Sembilan and perhaps even Perak). Nevertheless, it was events during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) that brought the Orang Asli into the scheme of modern government and control -- and which eventually led them to be categorised as 'bumiputera' although, as I argue below, while they may be indigenes on this land, they are certainly not the princes.
What the bumiputera policy is about
For the purpose of my discussion here, I have interpreted the 'bumiputera policy' to mean more than the mere the economic rights that the general populace normally is concerned with. However, in Malaysian realpolitik, the bumiputera policy is more than this; it is about giving recognition to a category of Malaysians who are perceived to be endowed with special rights and status on account of their primal presence on this land. Thus, apart from economic 'rights', other rights or privileges extended to bumiputeras are the greater protection and recognition of their religion, culture, language, education, representation in government, leadership in key government positions and institutions, and political dominance, just to name a few.
At the onset, I should stress that I am not an adherent of any social or economic doctrine that suggests that social, political or economic rights should be linked or attached to any particular group based purely on the merit of their ancestral blood line, or that others should be discriminated against purely on account of their perceived racial differences or lateness in arrival. I subscribe to the simple rule that fairness and justice should always prevail as the fundamental premise for any distribution of rights, resources and opportunities. This does not rule out exemptions or affirmative actions being taken for a category of people. It does insist however that such departures should be based on the sole purpose of alleviating difficulties and for achieving the demands of justice.
Nevertheless, since I have been tasked to comment on the way in which a peripheral community, the Orang Asli, have been affected by the bumiputera policy, I shall restrict my discussion to the specifics.
Although the term 'bumiputera' is frequently perceived to be directed at the Malays, there is accord that the Orang Asli are also bumiputera, as are also the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. It is also generally perceived by the Orang Asli and the Bornean Malaysians that they are, in most regard, the lesser bumiputeras insofar at least as the (extended) rights and privileges they enjoy are far removed from those enjoyed by the Malays.
So if the Orang Asli are to be assessed in terms of the bumiputera policy, for us in Semenanjung it is only logical that we do so with regard to their progress and advancement vis-à-vis the Malays.
The Orang Asli and Distributive Justice
A quick glance at the social indicators for the Orang Asli, using the government's own figures, will show that the Orang Asli are indeed among the most marginalized of Malaysians today.
Poverty and Wealth
Statistics based on a 1999 survey by the JHEOA show that 81.4 per cent of the Orang Asli live below the poverty line (compared to 8.5 per cent nationally). Of these, 49.9 per cent are among the very poor (compared to 2.5 per cent nationally).
Other indicators also point to the poor quality of life that the Orang Asli experience. For example, only 47.5 per cent of Orang Asli households had some form of piped water, either indoors or outdoors, with 3.9 per cent depending on rivers, streams and wells for their water needs. The availability of toilet facilities as a basic amenity was lacking in 43.7 per cent of the Orang Asli housing units, compared to only 3 per cent at the Peninsular Malaysia level (Department of Statistics 1997: 47). For lighting their homes, 51.8 per cent of Orang Asli households on kerosene lamps (pelita).
Another indicator of wealth (or poverty) is the availability (or absence) of selected household items that could provide an approximate measure of material wellbeing. About a third of the households in the rural settlements (35 per cent) own a motorcycle, confirming its place as an important means of transportation. A fair proportion of both rural and urban Orang Asli households also have access to a radio or television (this negates the presumption that they are 'isolated', or that they are blissfully impervious to outside influences). Significantly, also, almost a quarter (22.2 per cent) of all Orang Asli households did not have any of the selected household items - indicating a "certain lagging in economic development" (Department of Statistics 1997: 42).
Clearly, there must be something wrong in the distribution of economic justice if, while the national poverty rate is decreasing to single-digit levels, that for the Orang Asli is actually increasing and affects more than fourth-fifth of the Orang Asli population.
While there has been some improvement in the levels of education attained among the Orang Asli, education levels still lag far behind those achieved by other communities. Almost half (49.2 percent) of the Orang Asli are illiterate, while the remainder (38.5 per cent) have mainly primary education. Only 177 Orang Asli have achieved tertiary education, and this figure is not expected to increase markedly in the near future in view of the meritocracy policy put in place by the government.
In general, about 62 per cent of Orang Asli schoolchildren drop out of school each year while 94.4 per cent do not go beyond secondary (SPM) level. The former opposition leader, Tan Chee Khoon, published articles in The Star and Utusan Melayu in the early 1980s addressing similar lamentable statistics regarding the Orang Asli. He opined that if all these things were happening to the Malay community, there would be a big hue and cry and some heads would roll. Two decades on, and the situation is not much better for the Orang Asli. And no official's head has even turned.
But there are programmes in place today to uplift the standard of education (and so lower the dropout rate) among the Orang Asli, such as the RM4.8m Stay-in-school project announced in 2000. Or the move to transfer the responsibility of Orang Asli education from the JHEOA to the Ministry of Education since 1995. But, as I argue elsewhere, the motivation for doing so is not to promote and advance Orang Asli bumiputera-ism.
In terms of health, the Orang Asli are still disproportionately afflicted with health problems -- specifically tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, cholera, typhoid, measles and whooping cough -- that are easily preventable and curable. Data on Orang Asli health also indicate that malnutrition is highly prevalent, even 15 years after they have been relocated in government resettlement schemes.
The crude death rates and infant mortality rates for the Orang Asli also do not compare well with the national statistics. Orang Asli generally recorded a much higher infant mortality rate (median=51.7 deaths per 1,000 infants) than the general population (median=16.3). Similarly, the crude death rate for the Orang Asli (median=10.4) was doubled that of the national population (median=5.2). Accordingly, their life expectancy at birth (estimated at 52 years for females and 54 years for males) was also significantly lower than that for the national population (68 years for females and 72 years for males). The lower life expectancy at birth for Orang Asli females could be due to their higher maternal death rates caused by child-birth or poor maternal health (Ng, et al 1987, cited in Razha 1996: 13), or that Orang Asli mothers are over-burdened with reproductive, as well as productive tasks. Maternal mortality is also disproportionately higher among the Orang Asli. For example, of the 42 mothers who died during delivery in 1994, 25 (60 per cent) were Orang Asli women. Given that the Orang Asli community is only 0.5 per cent of the national population, this means that an Orang Asli mother in 1994 was 119 times more likely to die in childbirth than a Malaysian mother nationally.
Thus, despite the relatively good medical service provision, the health problems that the Orang Asli face are still those that reflect underdevelopment (Chee 1996: 63). Nevertheless, experts are of the opinion that there is sufficient information on Orang Asli health available to enable the Orang Asli to enjoy and benefit from better healthcare facilities, especially since most Orang Asli health problems are easily preventable and curable.
Ownership of Land
The attachment Orang Asli have to their traditional lands cannot be over-emphasised. Most Orang Asli still maintain a close physical, cultural and spiritual relationship with the environment. Increasingly, however, Orang Asli are beginning to see the ownership of their traditional lands as an essential prerequisite for their material and economic upliftment. Under present Malaysian laws, the greatest title that the Orang Asli can have to their land is one of tenant-at-will -- an undisguised allusion to the government's perception that all Orang Asli lands unconditionally belong to the state. However, provisions are made for the gazetting of Orang Asli reserves, although such administrative action does not accord the Orang Asli with any ownership rights over such lands.
In 1999, a total of 127,234.6 hectares of Orang Asli land were given some form of recognition by the government, but not full title. Of this, 19,507 hectares (15.3 per cent) were gazetted Orang Asli reserves, while another 29,932 hectares (22.7 per cent) had been approved for gazetting but have yet to be officially gazetted. Still, another 78,795 hectares (61.9 per cent) have been applied for gazetting and for which no approval had been obtained as yet. However, it should be stressed again that these areas are merely those that the government deem to be Orang Asli lands. From calculations made based on the JHEOA's Data Tanah, it was found that the area gazetted represented only 15 per cent of the 779 Orang Asli villages. The remaining villages faced (even greater) insecurity of tenure over their territories.
Of more concern is the realisation that the size of gazetted Orang Asli reserves had actually declined from 20,667 hectares in 1990 to 19,507.4 hectares in 1999 -- a decline of 1,159.6 hectares. Similarly, approval for gazetting have been withdrawn from 7,443.8 hectares of the 36,076 hectares originally approved before 1990. However, there had been an increase (of 11,775 hectares) in new applications for gazetted Orang Asli reserves, mainly for new regroupment schemes where Orang Asli are to be relocated to once their original lands have been taken.
Taken on a per-capita basis, the reserve land allocation works out to 0.15 hectares per Orang Asli. This figure compares poorly to the same computation for the Malays. With the size of the total Malay Reserve Land being 4.413 million hectares (The Sun 23.5.1996), and with a Malay population of 10.2 million in 1996 (The Star 31.1.1998), the Malay reserve land to population ratio is 0.43 hectare per person. This is this is almost triple that for the Orang Asli
In terms of actual titled ownership to Orang Asli traditional lands, the statistics are even more dismal. Only 51.185 hectares (0.28 per cent) of the 18,587 hectares of gazetted Orang Asli reserves were securely titled. Furthermore, in terms of individuals, only 0.02 per cent of Orang Asli (19 individuals) have title to their land.
Orang Asli reserve land, in effect, has none of the security that Malay reservation land guarantees. The government perceives that the Orang Asli are only tenants-at-will (at the will of the government) on their land and it can acquire the land at any time without any need for compensation, save for what the Orang Asli have built or planted on it. Ironically, even in the much-publicised move to grant so-called 'land titles' to Orang Asli, the move involves relocating Orang Asli to new resettlement schemes where in they will be given 99-year Temporary Occupancy Leases (TOL) to up to 6 acres of agricultural land and a quarter acre of homestead for each household. Such a move would usually require the Orang Asli to give up their claim to more than 70 per cent of their traditionalland. In contrast, Felda settler-applicants, who were landless in the first place, get to have 10 acres of agricultural land (for this is what has been established to be the minimum acreage required to keep a household above the poverty line) and full title to the land as well.
The (Missing) Orang Asli in the Federal Constitution
But, as mentioned earlier, the bumiputera policy is not about improving social indicators only. It is also about the exercise of special rights and privileges as provided by the Constitution.
Orang Asli legal commentators have long pointed out that there is a glaring omission in the categories of people that are accorded special privileges under Article 153 (Reservation of quotas in respect of services, permits, etc., for Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak). Despite being the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli are not made the beneficiaries of the special position assured to the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak by this article. This article posits the mandatory duty of safe-guarding the special position on these 'bumiputeras' in specific areas of economic activity, education and employment on the Yang DiPertuan Agung.
The Orang Asli are, in fact, mentioned in only four places in the Federal Constitution. And that too in a rather unclear way that it has also become increasingly difficult to argue for the same rights and privileges that are accorded to, for example, the Malays (on account of their claim to indigenity). The four places where the Orang Asli are mentioned in the Federal Constitution are:
- Article 8(1), which legitimizes discriminatory legislation in favour
of Orang Asli by way of provisions in the law of their protection,
well-being and advancement (including the reservation of land) or
the reservation to aborigines of a reasonable proportion of suitable
positions in the public service.
- Article 45(2), which provide for the appointment of Senators
'capable of representing the interest of the aborigines'.
- Article 160(2) which rather unhelpfully defines an aborigine as
'an aborigine of the Malay Peninsula' and Ninth Schedule; List 1
that vests upon the Federal Government legislative authority for
the 'welfare of the aborigines.
An indirect reference to Orang Asli is inferentially made in Article 89 regarding Malay Reservations, which would appear to authorize reservation of such lands in favour of 'natives of the state' besides Malays. But in reality, the government has chosen to interpret the vagueness in the Constitution in its favour, rather than to protect the rights and interests of the Orang Asli bumiputeras. Thus, while the Constitution does authorise the government to enact laws that are in favour of the Orang Asli "for their protection, wellbeing and advancement" it has not done so.
JHEOA: Controlling the Orang Asli
The Orang Asli have the unrivalled 'privilege' of having a specific department to govern them. However, the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) is arguably responsible for making the Orang Asli the most controlled and regulated community in the country. It is run predominantly by non-Orang Asli and exercises wide powers in a variety of functions, including the appointment of village heads, as de-facto 'land-owner' of Orang Asli territories, and as general decision-maker for the community -- in effect effectively treating the Orang Asli as its 'children', as wards of the state.
The JHEOA has also persistently ignored calls by both Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli observers for it to be managed by the Orang Asli themselves, the usual excuse being that there are no Orang Asli who are qualified or who have applied for the job. Both of these arguments are no longer valid, as there are Orang Asli today who have higher qualifications than those presently holding managerial positions in the JHEOA, including that of the top post. Also, there is no programme of working towards the eventual management of the JHEOA by the Orang Asli.
Imagine any other bumiputera agency (such as MARA, PNB or UiTM) being run by a non-Malay, or even a non-bumiputera. So why the exception in the case of the JHEOA?
Accepting Orang Asli Identity
Again, based on the privileges and rights enjoyed by the Malay community as the standard-setter to assess those enjoyed by the Orang Asli, on the basis that both are bumiputera, we now turn to the maintenance, development and regard for Orang Asli identity (including its culture and religion).
When you have an expressed policy to "integrate the Orang Asli with the mainstream society", or more specifically to "assimilate the Orang Asli into the Malay sector of society", you cannot place the Orang Asli on the same level as the dominant bumiputera ethnic group to which it is supposed to assimilate into. Furthermore, the expressed objective to convert all Orang Asli to Islam, coupled with the general inability of the Orang Asli to reject state-sponsored dakwah among its fold, should they want to, clearly indicate that the Orang Asli do not enjoy the same bumiputera 'privileges' as the dominant mainstream society. Also, while there are moves for Orang Asli's culture and arts to be "geared up" not only "to preserve their traditions, but also as tourist attractions", there are no state-sponsored actions to protect and promote Orang Asli traditions and languages, be it in the education system or in mainstream government.
Clearly, therefore, a policy of assimilation for the Orang Asli does not reflect its bumiputera status. Some, however, will be quick to deny that there is such a programme of assimilation directed towards the Orang Asli. Nevertheless, despite the protestations to the contrary, it should be obvious that the policy of Orang Asli "integration with the Malay/mainstream society" is clearly one of assimilation" for domination (when one community takes control of the other), paternalism (which occurs when one society governs the other in what it views as being the other's best interest) and integration (which occurs when single institutions are developed and ethnic origin ceases to be recognised) all occur within the general framework of assimilation (which involves an internalisation of the values of the dominant or majority group).
To a large degree, the Malay claim to political dominance is based on their indigenity. While they may stake their claim as the indigenes of this land, the Orang Asli however do not enjoy the accompanying political clout. On the contrary, two of our Prime Ministers have gone onboard to officially deny any possibility of the Orang Asli getting that status.
"There was no doubt that the Malays were the indigenous peoples of
this land because the original inhabitants did not have any form of
civilisation compared with the Malays ... and instead lived like primitives in
mountains and thick jungle." (Tunku Abdul Rahman, The Star 6.11.1986).
"The Malays are the original or indigenous people of Malaya and the only
people who can claim Malaya as their one and only country... the Orang
Melayu or Malays have always been the definitive people of the Malay
Peninsula. The aborigines were never accorded any such recognition nor
did they claim such recognition... Above all, at no time did they outnumber
the Malays." Mahathir Mohamad (1981: 73).
Save for an Orang Asli senator, who is appointed by the government (and in the case of at least two past senators, the choice had been opposite to what the Orang Asli wanted), the Orang Asli are not represented in any political position, be it at state or federal level. Thus, unlike the other bumiputera groups (for example, in Sarawak where even a minority bumiputera can hold much of the state in his sway), the Orang Asli do not enjoy this 'right'.
Concluding remarks (not a conclusion)
The above discussion seems to go against the grain of what I set out at the beginning insofar as I said that I am not in favour of any social or economic policy that is based purely on ethnic categorisation. It appears that I am saying that the Orang Asli are among the most marginalized of Malaysians because the affirmative policies and actions that should be accorded to them, by virtue of their bumiputera status, were not in fact accorded to them. This is not so.
On the contrary, the high level of poverty among the community has not dented the rise in the number of Orang Asli businessmen "Orang Asli Baru" who have bettered their economic situation at the expense of the community, largely through logging activities and development projects in Orang Asli areas obtained on the "merit" of their good relations with the authorities and on the strength of their Orang Asli identity. This has led to a furthering of the gap between the Orang Asli haves and have-nots (to use a phrase popularised by Tun Razak when he applied the bumiputera body politic at the onset of the NEP).
So why are the Orang Asli still on the periphery? Simply because fairness and justice had not prevailed in the distribution of rights, resources and opportunities. It is not fair when the land you and your ancestors have lived on and tilled for generations is now given to a corporation that only came on the scene a couple of years ago and only because the corporate bosses were able to convince the political masters of their need for it. It is not fair that an Orang Asli student should compete on merit with other students who had the advantage of better facilities, better teachers and a full belly, to enter into an institute of higher learning, while at the same time those Orang Asli who are more qualified to help manage their own department are denied that opportunity. Also, where is the natural justice if you are required to become somebody else, to integrate with the dominant group, and so give up your identity?
Lest anyone should argue that the Orang Asli are far behind the other Malaysians because they are anti-development, let it be stated clearly that on the contrary the Orang Asli have persistently asked for development -- but on their own terms. The Orang Asli have, in fact, put forward several necessary preconditions for their assured development, well-being and progress. Some of these include:
- Recognise Orang Asli traditional land and accord it permanent title.
Once this is in place, the authorities will be required to treat the
Orang Asli as legitimate land-owners and so deal with them accordingly;
- The Government should also recognise the right of the Orang Asli
to use the forest where they reside. (The courts have already done so.)
- There should be full and informed participation, including access
to information, in all programmes or projects involving the Orang Asli
communities concerned before a project is implemented.
- The Orang Asli should be allowed to administer themselves via the
JHEOA. If necessary, proper training and education should be
given so that the goal of an Orang Asli-run JHEOA is realised.
- Orang Asli, like other Malaysian citizens, have a right to basic
infrastructure facilities such as water supply, electricity, roads,
housing, schools and others – and priority should be given to
the provision of these facilities instead of on programmes to
change their values and religion.
- The resources of the state and its authority should not be used
to get the Orang Asli to convert to any religion. On the contrary,
such energies and resources should be utilised to further promote the indigenous culture and spirituality.
These are not special privileges that are being asked for. These are basic demands that all Malaysians are entitled to.
The label 'bumiputera' has little meaning or usefulness for most Orang Asli. To them, they are Orang Asli first. And even Orang Asli have rights and privileges as citizens.
Baer. A. (1999). Health, Disease and Survival: A Biomedical and Genetic Analysis of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, Subang Jaya: Center for Orang Asli Concerns.
Barry, Brian (2001). Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculuralism. Polity Press, Cambridge UK.
Bowen. John R. (1999). Should We Have a Universal Concept of "Indigenous Peoples' Rights"? Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor Of Anthropology, Washington University, in St. Louis. [http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/ ~symp2000/jbowen.pdf.]
Commission On Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Working Group on Minorities Ninth session 12-16 May 2003: Minorities and the State in Malaysia and Singapore: Provisions, Predicaments and Prospects (Paper prepared by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, School of Economics and Political Science, University of Sydney, Australia)
JHEOA (1983). Strategi Perkembangan Ugama Islam di Kalangan Masyarakat Orang Asli, Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Hal-Ehwal Orang Asli.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------- They instead identified themselves by their specific ecological niche, which they called their customary or traditional land, and with which they developed a close affinity. Much of the basis of their culture and spirituality was derived from this close association with the particular environment that they regarded as theirs. This is not to suggest that early Orang Asli societies developed in isolation. On the contrary, far from remaining static they have had to continually change and adapt themselves, and their social organisation, in order to deal with their neighbours and others. Around the first millennium AD, for example, the Orang Asli living in the interior traded forest products such as resins, incense woods, rhinoceros horns, feathers, and even gold with merchants from India, China and the Mon civilizations in Southern Thailand, in exchange for salt, cloth and iron tools. Some of the Orang Asli groups, especially in what is today Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Johor and Perak, also played dominant roles in the establishment of the early Malay political systems. However, the rise of the Malay sultanates coincided with a trade in Orang Asli slaves that prompted many Orang Asli groups to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders. By this time the Orang Asli were being referred to by anthropologists and administrators by a variety of terms. Some were descriptive of their abode (as in Orang Hulu – people of the headwaters, Orang Darat – people of the hinterland, and Orang Laut – people who live by the sea). Others were descriptive of their perceived characteristics (as in Besisi – people with scales, and Mantra – people who chanted). Still others were clearly derogatory and reflected the as¬sumed superiority of the ‘civilised’ speakers (Orang Liar – wild people, Pangan – eaters of raw food, Orang Mawas – ape-like people, and Orang Jinak – tame or enslaved people). Towards the end of the (British) colonial administration, however, there were amateurish attempts to categorise the various Orang Asli groups into a homogenous one. Thus those in the south were frequently referred to as ‘Jakuns’, while those in the north were called ‘Sakai’, and at times these terms were used interchangeably. Ironically, it was the Emergency of 1948–1960 that made the colonial government realise that a more correct and positive term was necessary if they were to win the hearts and minds of the Orang Asli (and so win the war with against the communist insurgents). Realising that the insurgents were able to get the sympathy and support of the indige¬nous inhabitants in the forest, partly by referring to them as ‘Orang Asal’ (original people, from the Arabic Asali), the colonial government in turn adopted the next closest term, ‘Orang Asli’ (literally ‘natural people’, but now taken to mean ‘original people’ as well). It also became official policy that the Malay term be used even in the English language. With the benefit of enlightened anthropological research and better ethnographic insight, at least 19 different Orang Asli sub-groups came to be identified. These were distinguished into 3 broad categories – Negritos, Senoi and Aboriginal Malays – based of physical characteristics, linguistic affinities and cultural practices [see table] Today, their total population stands around 148,000. The Negritos, or as some anthropologists would prefer to use the term ‘Semang’, comprising a little over 3 per cent of the Orang Asli population, is the smallest of these three categories. They are also the oldest, and are believed to have been in the Malay Peninsula for at least 25,000 years although current archaeological evidence seems to link the Negritos to the Hoabinhians who lived between 8,000 BC and 1,000 BC during the Middle Stone Age. The present-day Negritos are the direct descendants of these early Hoabinhians, who were largely nomadic foragers, living in one location as long as the food supply was able to maintain the community. Today, however, many of the Negrito groups live in permanent settlements in Northeast Kedah (the Kensiu people), along the Kedah-Perak border (Kintak), Northeast Perak and West Kelantan (Jahai), North-central Perak (Lanoh), Southeast Kelantan (Mendriq), and Northeast Pahang and Southern Kelantan (Batek). As the name suggests, the Negritos (‘little Negroes’) are generally physically small in stature (1.5 metres or less), dark-skinned (varying from a dark copper to black), typically woolly or frizzy hair, and with broad noses, round eyes and low cheek-bones. Their languages are in the Northern Aslian division of the Aslian family of Mon-Khmer languages. The Senoi are the largest group of Orang Asli with about 54 per cent of the Orang Asli population. They are a Mongoloid people who are descendants of both the Hoabinhians and the Neolithic cultivators who entered the Malay Peninsula around 2,000BC from the north. At about 43 per cent of the Orang Asli population, the Aboriginal Malays, are the second largest group of Orang Asli. They live mainly in the southern half of the Peninsula – in Selangor and Negri Sembilan (Temuan), Central Pahang and East Negri Sembilan (Semelai), South Pahang and North Johor (Jakun), East Johor (Orang Kanaq) and West and Central Coasts of Johor (Orang Kuala, Orang Seletar). While prehistoric recordings in the south are almost non-existent, it is generally accepted that between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, the southerly groups encountered the sea-faring peoples from Borneo and the Indonesian islands. Some of these Orang Asli who traded with Austronesian-speakers assimilated with them, hence the term Proto- (or Early-) Malays often used to refer to them. As such, Orang Asli homogeneity was initially a creation of non-Orang Asli perceptions and ideological impositions rather than being something that was determined by the Orang Asli themselves. Nevertheless, with increased contact with the dominant population, it became clear to the various Orang Asli groups that they had more in common with one another than they did with the dominant population. This was especially so since much of this latter contact was not amiable or beneficial to them. The social stress that they experienced as a result of these relations caused these dispersed and unrelated groups to develop a common identity – ironically, under the now widely-accepted label, ‘Orang Asli’. Legally, however, an Orang Asli is defined in the Aboriginal Peoples Act (No. 134, 1954/1974) as a member of an aboriginal ethnic group (either by blood descent or by adoption), who speaks an aboriginal language and who habitually follows an aboriginal custom and belief. Such a definition, if strictly conformed to, can pose problems for today’s Orang Asli. This is especially so when the goal of the government is to assimilate – or if this is not possible, then to at least integrate – the Orang Asli with the mainstream (Malay) society.
Published in Encyclopaedia Malaysiana, Volume 12, Peoples and Traditions, pp. 20-21.
The Orang Asli, as the name denotes, are the Original or First Peoples of the Malay Peninsula whose ancestors inhabited the Malay Peninsula before the establishment of the Malay sultanates. They did not see themselves as a homogenous group as, for the most part, the early Orang Asli lived in remote communities, each within a specific geographical space such as a river valley.
With time, the term ‘Sakai’ – despised by the Orang Asli even today for its derogation and its allusion to backwardness and primitivism – came to be used as a generic term for all the Orang Asli groups. The English equivalent – aborigines – was also used interchangeably to refer to the various Orang Asli groups.
However, this administrative fiat in itself was not enough to forge a common identity among the Orang Asli sub-groups, and as such did they not immediately accept the term or identified with it.
Customarily, some groups enter the forest for varying lengths of time such as during the fruit season to practise opportunistic foraging, or to extract forest products (such as rattan and gaharu) to be exchanged for cash. Such activities have often caused them to be labeled as nomadic and to be considered the more economically backward of the Orang Asli sub-groups.
They are physically different from the Negrito in that they are slightly taller; their skin is of a much lighter colour and their hair wavy rather than frizzy. They continue to speak Austro-Asiatic languages of the Mon-Khmer sub-group, thereby manifesting their ancient connection with mainland Southeast Asia.
Today, the Senoi sub-groups live mainly on both slopes of the Main Range in Perak, Kelantan and Pahang (Semai, Temiar), in Central Pahang (Jah Hut, Chewong), Coastal Selangor (Mah Meri) and South-central Pahang (Semoq Beri). While they were mainly swiddeners and dependent on the forest for their subsistence in the past, today many of the Senoi have taken to permanent agriculture (managing their own rubber, oil palm or cocoa farms) and participate in the wage sector (in unskilled, skilled and even professional capacities).
Today, the Aboriginal Malays are very settled peoples, engaged mainly in permanent agriculture or in riverine and coastal fishing. Many of them are also in the wage market as well as in entrepreneurial and professional occupations. Physically, they are very close to the Malays while their languages remain as archaic variants of the Malay language (with the exception of the Semelai and Temoq languages that have links to the Senoic languages).
Equally so, given that the foundation of the Orang Asli’s culture and spirituality lies in their continued ownership and control of their traditional homelands, the destruction or loss of these ecological niches immediately affects the integrity and survival of the Orang Asli as a people.
Perhaps, it was with this foresight in mind that the authors of the Malaysian Constitution did not expressly accord the Orang Asli the special status enjoyed by the other Bumiputera communities viz. the Malays and the Natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Again, it seems, others are deciding how the Orang Asli are to be categorized and identified.
They instead identified themselves by their specific ecological niche, which they called their customary or traditional land, and with which they developed a close affinity. Much of the basis of their culture and spirituality was derived from this close association with the particular environment that they regarded as theirs.
This is not to suggest that early Orang Asli societies developed in isolation. On the contrary, far from remaining static they have had to continually change and adapt themselves, and their social organisation, in order to deal with their neighbours and others. Around the first millennium AD, for example, the Orang Asli living in the interior traded forest products such as resins, incense woods, rhinoceros horns, feathers, and even gold with merchants from India, China and the Mon civilizations in Southern Thailand, in exchange for salt, cloth and iron tools.
Some of the Orang Asli groups, especially in what is today Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Johor and Perak, also played dominant roles in the establishment of the early Malay political systems. However, the rise of the Malay sultanates coincided with a trade in Orang Asli slaves that prompted many Orang Asli groups to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders.
By this time the Orang Asli were being referred to by anthropologists and administrators by a variety of terms. Some were descriptive of their abode (as in Orang Hulu – people of the headwaters, Orang Darat – people of the hinterland, and Orang Laut – people who live by the sea). Others were descriptive of their perceived characteristics (as in Besisi – people with scales, and Mantra – people who chanted). Still others were clearly derogatory and reflected the as¬sumed superiority of the ‘civilised’ speakers (Orang Liar – wild people, Pangan – eaters of raw food, Orang Mawas – ape-like people, and Orang Jinak – tame or enslaved people).
Towards the end of the (British) colonial administration, however, there were amateurish attempts to categorise the various Orang Asli groups into a homogenous one. Thus those in the south were frequently referred to as ‘Jakuns’, while those in the north were called ‘Sakai’, and at times these terms were used interchangeably.
Ironically, it was the Emergency of 1948–1960 that made the colonial government realise that a more correct and positive term was necessary if they were to win the hearts and minds of the Orang Asli (and so win the war with against the communist insurgents). Realising that the insurgents were able to get the sympathy and support of the indige¬nous inhabitants in the forest, partly by referring to them as ‘Orang Asal’ (original people, from the Arabic Asali), the colonial government in turn adopted the next closest term, ‘Orang Asli’ (literally ‘natural people’, but now taken to mean ‘original people’ as well). It also became official policy that the Malay term be used even in the English language.
With the benefit of enlightened anthropological research and better ethnographic insight, at least 19 different Orang Asli sub-groups came to be identified. These were distinguished into 3 broad categories – Negritos, Senoi and Aboriginal Malays – based of physical characteristics, linguistic affinities and cultural practices [see table] Today, their total population stands around 148,000.
The Negritos, or as some anthropologists would prefer to use the term ‘Semang’, comprising a little over 3 per cent of the Orang Asli population, is the smallest of these three categories. They are also the oldest, and are believed to have been in the Malay Peninsula for at least 25,000 years although current archaeological evidence seems to link the Negritos to the Hoabinhians who lived between 8,000 BC and 1,000 BC during the Middle Stone Age. The present-day Negritos are the direct descendants of these early Hoabinhians, who were largely nomadic foragers, living in one location as long as the food supply was able to maintain the community.
Today, however, many of the Negrito groups live in permanent settlements in Northeast Kedah (the Kensiu people), along the Kedah-Perak border (Kintak), Northeast Perak and West Kelantan (Jahai), North-central Perak (Lanoh), Southeast Kelantan (Mendriq), and Northeast Pahang and Southern Kelantan (Batek).
As the name suggests, the Negritos (‘little Negroes’) are generally physically small in stature (1.5 metres or less), dark-skinned (varying from a dark copper to black), typically woolly or frizzy hair, and with broad noses, round eyes and low cheek-bones. Their languages are in the Northern Aslian division of the Aslian family of Mon-Khmer languages.
The Senoi are the largest group of Orang Asli with about 54 per cent of the Orang Asli population. They are a Mongoloid people who are descendants of both the Hoabinhians and the Neolithic cultivators who entered the Malay Peninsula around 2,000BC from the north.
At about 43 per cent of the Orang Asli population, the Aboriginal Malays, are the second largest group of Orang Asli. They live mainly in the southern half of the Peninsula – in Selangor and Negri Sembilan (Temuan), Central Pahang and East Negri Sembilan (Semelai), South Pahang and North Johor (Jakun), East Johor (Orang Kanaq) and West and Central Coasts of Johor (Orang Kuala, Orang Seletar).
While prehistoric recordings in the south are almost non-existent, it is generally accepted that between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, the southerly groups encountered the sea-faring peoples from Borneo and the Indonesian islands. Some of these Orang Asli who traded with Austronesian-speakers assimilated with them, hence the term Proto- (or Early-) Malays often used to refer to them.
As such, Orang Asli homogeneity was initially a creation of non-Orang Asli perceptions and ideological impositions rather than being something that was determined by the Orang Asli themselves. Nevertheless, with increased contact with the dominant population, it became clear to the various Orang Asli groups that they had more in common with one another than they did with the dominant population. This was especially so since much of this latter contact was not amiable or beneficial to them. The social stress that they experienced as a result of these relations caused these dispersed and unrelated groups to develop a common identity – ironically, under the now widely-accepted label, ‘Orang Asli’.
Legally, however, an Orang Asli is defined in the Aboriginal Peoples Act (No. 134, 1954/1974) as a member of an aboriginal ethnic group (either by blood descent or by adoption), who speaks an aboriginal language and who habitually follows an aboriginal custom and belief. Such a definition, if strictly conformed to, can pose problems for today’s Orang Asli. This is especially so when the goal of the government is to assimilate – or if this is not possible, then to at least integrate – the Orang Asli with the mainstream (Malay) society.
ORANG ASLI POPULATION STATISTICS
The data given below have been collated from various sources including government reports, official seminar presentations, newsreports and academic articles.
ORANG ASLI POPULATION TREND
Orang Asli population
ORANG ASLI POPULATION BREAKDOWN
as at 2000
| || || || |
The figures do not include those living outside designated Orang Asli settlements and centres.
HEALTH CARE FOR THE ORANG ASLI
Consequences of Paternalism and Colonialism
Center for Orang Asli Concerns
Oregon State University
Revised manuscript of a paper presented at the workshop on ‘Healthcare in
Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 9-11 September 2004 . Published in Chee Heng Leng & Simon Barraclough (2007), Health Care in Malaysia: The Dynamics of Provision, Financing and Access, pp. 119-136.
The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. They are the descendants of Pleistocene-era inhabitants of the peninsula, that is, long before the establishment of the Malay kingdoms. The Orang Asli population grew from 54,033 in 1969 to 92,529 in 1994, at a rate of almost 2.3 per cent per year (Lim 1997). In 2004, they numbered 149,512, representing a mere 0.6 per cent of the national population.
Like indigenous peoples the world over, the Orang Asli are among the most marginalized communities, faring very low in all the social indicators both in absolute terms and relative to the dominant population. For example, while the national poverty rate has been reduced to 6.5 per cent, the rate for Orang Asli remains at a high 76.9 per cent. The official statistics also classify 35.2 per cent of Orang Asli as hardcore poor (compared to 1.4 per cent nationally) (Zainal Abidin 2003). It is not surprising, therefore, that the Orang Asli lag very far behind in basic infrastructure and in political representation. The same is true for literacy and educational attainment. In 1990 only 14 per cent of Orang Asli villages had a school. The literacy rate for Orang Asli in 1991 was 43 per cent, while the national rate was 86 per cent; however, not all Orang Asli children attend school and in 1995, 68 per cent of the attendees had dropped out at the primary level (Lim 1997). This drop-out rate means that no more than 30 per cent were functionally literate.
In this chapter, we examine the development of health care services for the Orang Asli by the colonial state and its later trajectory under the post-colonial, developmental state. We will argue that the British colonial state had a paternalistic attitude toward the Orang Asli. In conjunction with the exigencies of fighting the communists during the Emergency era (1948-1960), this attitude led to the inception of the Orang Asli health care services. Within this paternalistic framework, medical professionals in the colonial service provided services that improved Orang Asli health. Nevertheless, the paternalistic framework also led the British to establish laws and institutions that treated the Orang Asli as ‘wards of the state,’ not as an indigenous people with particular rights to land and resources. In the post-colonial period, fundamental changes occurred in the nature and the role of the state, and concomitant changes also occurred in state attitudes toward the Orang Asli. In this context, the health-care system that had been developed with paternal care has retained its original structure but not its substance or spirit. In the hands of a highly ethnicised, post-colonial state with a narrow Malay nationalist agenda, the paternal structures, of which the health care services is one, have worked against the interests of the Orang Asli.
Orang Asli concept of health and illness
Traditionally in Orang Asli settings, when a person suffered an illness that was serious enough to warrant some action, it became a concern of the whole community. Other ailments, such as skin diseases, evoked no general concern as they were considered to be harmless, since the victims could still function normally. Like most traditional communities, the Orang Asli have long perceived disease as being the result of a spirit attack, or of the patient’s soul being detached and lost somewhere in this world or in the supernatural world (Gianno 1986: 6). The Orang Asli also believe that both their individual and communal health are linked to environmental and social health. If there is too much pollution, for example, or too much blood spilt, and taboos governing correct behaviour have not been followed, then disease and even death will strike (Endicott 1979, Howell 1984). The Orang Asli believe that such illnesses are better treated by incantations and ritual, rather than by modern medical practices. Treatment is usually given through healing ceremonies, coordinated by one or more shamans, and invariably involving the whole community.
Thus, as opposed to the biological concept of disease, the Orang Asli concept of illness is culture-specific (Kleinman 1973). Healing is often a community effort. The shaman or healer (who may also be the midwife in some communities) is an important anchor in the traditional Orang Asli health system. As Wolff (1965) noted, the intimate ties created between patient and healer in a traditional framework reinforce a strong sense of socio-medical reciprocity that government officials or western-trained doctors are rarely able to replicate. It is not surprising therefore that the Orang Asli have an intense desire for healing to be integrated within their local socio-cultural context. Traditional healers and their methods are thus unlikely to disappear easily from Orang Asli culture.
Furthermore, rather than being a mish-mash of mumbo-jumbo, the Orang Asli’s traditional medical system is an ordered and coherent body of ideas, values and practices embedded in a given cultural and ecological context. Infused in all this is the presumption that health is a communal or kinship responsibility, that taboos and all other practices related to maintaining health and preventing illness are necessary, and that any breach by one individual will have repercussion on others. The Orang Asli are also very clear about the link between maintaining their environment and maintaining their health and sustenance.
Orang Asli health and health care in colonial times
During the British period, most Orang Asli diets were nutritionally satisfactory (Bolton 1972: 799). Noone (1936) contended that Temiar who have less contact with outside society were generally healthier than those with more contact. As Jeyakumar (1999) and Kuchikura (1988) have observed, when Orang Asli traditional territories are left intact, undiminished and un-appropriated, they provide adequate protein and a healthy variety of fruits and green vegetables.
This does not mean that Orang Asli living in the past were devoid of health problems. On the contrary, in the 1930s, for example, the Temiar were known to have malaria and other fevers, bronchitis, boils, scabies, wounds, neuralgia, dental caries, intestinal worms, and yaws  (Baer 1999). At that time, modern health care was largely unknown. A few Orang Asli who happened to live near a friendly tin mine or rubber estate did receive basic medical assistance from the company’s first-aid provider. Also, some European explorers, game hunters, railroad surveyors, and even colonial officials, in a humanitarian spirit, provided medical supplies to some Orang Asli communities that they visited.
Moreover, during this time, the encroaching outsiders brought new pathogens to Orang Asli areas. Smallpox, cholera, typhoid, flu, syphilis, and other life-threatening maladies became all too common (Baer 1999: 156, note 57). These diseases, against which the Orang Asli had no immunity, killed many Orang Asli, even wiping out whole villages, and contributed to the long-standing Orang Asli fear and distrust of strangers. The Batek, for example, reported that before 1942, their population was much larger than it is now and that many had died in disease epidemics brought into their lands by encroaching Malays (Endicott 1997).
However, most Orang Asli did not see any medical personnel until after the onset of the Emergency in 1948, when British troops invaded interior areas to combat Communist insurgents operating from there. As we shall see below, this was the impetus for the authorities to act in a positive manner to the Orang Asli. In particular, Orang Asli health and health care, which until then had received no attention from the colonial government, began to attract official concern.
The impact of the emergency and the establishment
of Gombak Hospital
Soon after the British reoccupied Malaya at the end of World War II, they regained control of the towns and settled areas, and as they harried the Communist insurgents, the Malayan Communist Party withdrew its followers to camps in the forests. These road-less, inland areas offered both concealment and the opportunity to sway the forest Orang Asli to the insurgents’ cause, whether on the basis of intimidation, or past friendship, or by misinforming them about the political situation. Orang Asli were enlisted as messengers, informers, and growers of farm produce to feed the camps.
To ‘protect’ the Orang Asli from this situation and thereby weaken Orang Asli aid to the insurgents, the British herded Orang Asli into hastily-built resettlement camps during the early years of the Emergency (1948-60). As many as 7,000 Orang Asli died in these squalid camps from disease, malnutrition and depression (Polunin 1953; Carey 1975). When it became obvious that this tactic was a failure, the British began to build forts and associated amenities for the Orang Asli in the forest. These amenities were meant to win their loyalty, but while most forts had a functional medical post staffed by a medical orderly, only two medical doctors were available to pay regular visits to the many Orang Asli villages located near these forts or further afield (Bolton 1968).
With the Communist insurgency widespread and on-going, the medical posts at the forts had little effect on the overall health of the Orang Asli. For this reason, the government built a special hospital for Orang Asli in 1957 . This was a significant historical development for Orang Asli health services. Run by the Department of Aborigines (Jabatan Orang Asli, or JOA), its first medical director Dr. J. Malcolm Bolton planned to provide a hospital where the family of an ill person could accompany him or her. It was thought that this would encourage Orang Asli to seek treatment at the hospital, as it was believed that their primary fear was leaving their familiar forest surroundings and their family (Bolton 1973a, b; Harrison 2001). There were two main advantages to this plan: first, it made the patient more comfortable at the hospital and second, accompanying family members could be given medical examinations, especially for tuberculosis (Bolton 1973a). The idea was to create a hospital that integrated into Orang Asli life.
Bolton recognised that western medicine and traditional medicine occupied different niches in the healing spectrum and so had the potential to be complementary rather than contradictory. He realised that the Orang Asli did not tolerate or accept long-term hospitalisation as a necessary means to regain health. Such hospitalisation not only cut off the patients from their forest environment and their community but also from access to their traditional healers and treatments (Bolton 1973a).
However, one of the key reasons for the success of this programme to encourage Orang Asli to stay in the Gombak hospital was the fact that patients there usually had a ‘relative’ on the staff who spoke their language, understood their wishes and fears, and could explain to them the origin of their disease and the purpose of the treatment given (Bolton 1968). The original staff at the hospital had no medical training, but they were provided with ‘practical training’ in government hospitals (Bolton 1973a). By 1963, 143 of the 161 medical staff at Gombak were Orang Asli .
By 1972, there were 139 inland medical posts for Orang Asli, all staffed by trained Orang Asli personnel (Bolton 1973b). ‘Flying’ doctors and nurses periodically visited many interior areas, sometimes travelling onward by boat or foot (Kinzie et al. 1966; Sjafiroeddin 1968). Emergency helicopter evacuation to hospital was also provided, as was iodized salt to goitre-prone areas. Furthermore, since neonatal and infant death rates – as well as maternal death rates – were still high in the 1960s, prenatal and obstetric care at Gombak was given great attention (McLeod 1971). Mothers were tested and treated for anaemia, malaria and intestinal helminths. Iron, folate and vitamin supplements plus a good diet were provided. X-rays were screened for tuberculosis. Accompanying family members were also tested, treated, housed, and fed. Iron and vitamin tablets were provided for newborns. Moreover, in the 1970s, Gombak Hospital was training midwives for in-village deliveries.
In retrospect, while this era in Orang Asli health-care delivery was motivated by the desire of the government to win the hearts and minds of the Orang Asli (and so deprive the Communist insurgents of valuable help and information), it was the dedication and empathy of individual medical practitioners, notably Dr. Bolton and his teams of volunteer doctors and nurses under the programmes of organisations such as CUSO (Canadian University Services Overseas) and CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), that resulted in significant improvements in Orang Asli health services, as well as an increasing willingness of the Orang Asli to accept modern medicine alongside traditional healing. The introduction of western medicine was, after all, the main thrust of the health programme then (Polunin, 1953). The Orang Asli’s rights to their culture and traditions were respected by Bolton’s staff, in order that the health programme would not be jeopardised.
The Emergency ended in 1960 with the retreat of the Communist forces, and the nation gained independence from Britain in 1957. Although the Orang Asli health-care services was largely continued, by the late 1970s there were signs that it was in decline . This prompted Khoo (1979), an officer working in the JOA, to publish a plan to improve the JOA medical services for Orang Asli as it became more Malaysianized. His first priority was community education . Second was maternal and child health, given the existing high mortality and high under-nutrition, as well as “maternal depletion”  among Orang Asli mothers. Third was control of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, fourth, improvement in curative services, and last, the gathering of information on health problems – that is, research.
Unfortunately, these proposals were not put into effect. By the 1980s, several reports were published asserting that the medical services for Orang Asli under the JHEOA (Jabatan Hal-Ehwal Orang Asli, or the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, the new name for the JOA) were inadequate. Veeman (1986/87), for example, wrote about the attitude of the government and the scarcity of medical personnel. She noted that maternal and infant death rates were still high and that Gombak still had no facilities for handling birth complications. Among other problems, primary health care was still not available to all Orang Asli and travelling medical teams were lax in making their scheduled rounds. Lambros and co-workers (1989: 6) also reported that anti-malarial prophylaxis:
… is infrequent if not nonexistent. Fansidar and chloroquine have not been freely available to the Orang Asli. Medication is only available when they become so sick that they must leave their forest dwellings and travel long distances to seek medical care at a clinic or hospital.
These reports correctly identified the gradual slackening in the medical and health care of the Orang Asli in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve in the 1990s. By then, it was reported that only 67 of 774 villages (9 per cent) of Orang Asli villages had clinics (Lim 1997), compared to 139 medical posts active in the early 1970s (Bolton 1973b).
Orang Asli health today
Direct and indirect health effects on the Orang Asli were recently reviewed (Baer 1999). Among the findings, the crude death rate for Orang Asli is twice that for all of West Malaysia (Ng et al. 1992). In terms of women’s health, sex ratios for Orang Asli today, as in the past, favour men; that is, the women die off at earlier ages (Department of Statistics 1997). Indeed, the maternal death rate for Orang Asli in 1995 was much higher than for other Malaysians. The Orang Asli suffered 4.8 per cent of these deaths, although they made up less than 0.6 per cent of the population at that time . As Hema Apparau reported in 2002, Orang Asli women have the highest recorded rates of postpartum hemorrhage and puerperal sepsis, far above the rates for other groups.
In terms of infectious diseases, Orang Asli children in Perak have three times the incidence of tuberculosis as the state average, and Orang Asli of all ages have 5.5 times the state average (Jeyakumar 1999). Despite their very small population size, Orang Asli had 51.5 per cent of the malaria cases recorded in Peninsular Malaysia in 2001 (JHEOA 2005: 22). In 2003, this proportion had increased to 53.6 per cent (JHEOA Gombak Hospital 2004). For 1994, the leprosy rate for Orang Asli was 23 times higher than for others in West Malaysia (Fadzillah 1997). The incidence of leprosy is also on the increase among the Orang Asli, from 8.74 reported cases per 100,000 of the population in 1998 to 19.63 in 2002 (JHEOA Gombak Hospital 2004). Also, the ‘old’ diseases and infections that have plagued Orang Asli for as long as they can remember still plague them today. These include skin infections such as scabies, worm infestation, diarrhoea (sometimes resulting in fatality), and goitre. In fact, although goitre is easy and cheap to prevent, up to a third of Orang Asli adults are goiterous today, which is about the same proportion that had goitre 50 years ago (Baer 1999). A ‘new’ disease, HIV/AIDS, has also been found among the Orang Asli. Data from the JHEOA hospital in Gombak in 2004 revealed that there were 31 cases of HIV/AIDS among the Orang Asli in 2003.
Orang Asli women and children are especially vulnerable to nutritional deficits and attendant intestinal parasitism. Lim and Chee (1998) found that the nutritional status of the 34 Orang Asli women they examined in Pahang was generally not satisfactory. Their mean nutrient intake levels (except for Vitamin C) were below the required minimum, while their mean iron intakes were about one-quarter to one-third of the required level. In Pahang, 35 per cent of the Semai women studied by Osman and Zaleha (1995) had protein-energy malnutrition and 64 per cent were goiterous; even 35 per cent of the men had goitres . In Perak, 73 per cent of the Temiar women and 48 per cent of the Temiar men studied had intestinal worms (Karim et al. 1995). Moreover, the vast majority of Orang Asli children are underweight and stunted (Zalilah and Tham 2002). This supports the findings of Osman and Zaleha (1995) who found that 80 per cent of Orang Asli children studied were undernourished and stunted. Many of the children also had intestinal worms and protozoa, anaemia, dental caries, and vitamin A deficiency (Kasim et al. 1995; Ariff et al. 1997; Norhayati et al. 1995, 1998; Rahmah et al. 1997).
It is well to emphasize here that most Orang Asli lack food security (Zalilah and Tham 2002). With the majority of them living below the poverty line, their narrow margin of survival makes the Orang Asli’s health situation precarious. They are also vulnerable to natural hazards and the whims of ecosystem destruction by others.
State ideology and policies, and the JHEOA
The British established the Department of Aborigines (JOA) in 1950 during the Emergency period, to ‘protect’ the Orang Asli. This department, now the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), controls the Orang Asli through Act 134: Aboriginal Peoples Act, 1954 (Revised, 1974). Under this Act, the JHEOA is empowered to create and regulate Orang Asli settlements, appoint and remove headmen, control entry into Orang Asli abodes, control the crops Orang Asli grow and the usage of their lands – among other arbitrary powers. Since the provisions of the Act effectively destroy the autonomy of the Orang Asli, they directly contradict the concept of indigenous rights (Nicholas 2000). Notably, this is the only piece of legislation that is directed at a particular ethnic community.
There is an obvious fissure between the actual situation of Orang Asli health today and JHEOA goals, stated in the following verbatim extract from their website:
… To create an individual, family and community of Orang Asli who are healthy and productive by a health system that is fair, easily accessible, disciplined and adaptive to change in response to environment and customer's expectation with every stratum besides encouraging individual responsibility and social participation towards improving the quality of life .
This fissure is an outcome of state ideology and the way the Orang Asli and the Orang Asli ‘problem’ are perceived and administered. The Orang Asli are regarded as ‘wards of the state’ and the JHEOA, their godparent. That the relationship is conceptualised as one of parent and child is reflected in various ways. For example, Jimin Idris, JHEOA Director-General from 1986 to 1992, frequently asserts that he had to care for 70,000 ‘children’, “from the womb to the grave”. That the Orang Asli are to be treated as children is not something new. In a matter involving an application for land by some Orang Asli towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British Resident wrote that, “They must be provisionally treated as children and protected accordingly, until they are capable of taking care of themselves” (Selangor Secretariat/2853/1895). McLellan (1986: 91) further maintains that the JHEOA “has continued the British paternalistic and the Malay feudal patronage role toward the Orang Asli, so it settles claims and decides policy without actively involving or even consulting those concerned.” The Orang Asli, therefore, are not recognised as a people, but rather as individual subjects requiring large doses of governmental support in order to assimilate them into mainstream society. This underlying attitude extends well beyond legal and land matters, and into the realm of health policy and healthcare for the Orang Asli as well.
The underlying assumption in state policies is that Orang Asli backwardness is a result of their way of life and remote location. Government policy therefore is to introduce strategies and programmes to ‘integrate them into the mainstream’. What exactly this ‘mainstream’ refers to, is not clearly spelt out. But from early policy proclamations and current development programmes, it is apparent that this four-decades-old objective of the JHEOA is basically about moulding all of today’s Orang Asli into mainstream Malay society. Such an objective has ramifications for the Orang Asli, even in aspects of health-care delivery and their general health situation, as this chapter argues. Primarily, however, as discussed by Nicholas (2000), it sets the ideological and political basis for subjugating a people.
When Malaya was granted political independence by the British colonialists upon the defeat of the Communists, the Malay-based political party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), rode to political power on the crest of Malay nationalism. Subsequent nation building was based on the historical pact that accorded special privileges to the Malays in exchange for citizenship rights for the non-Malay immigrant population. The special position of the majority Malay population was premised on the notion of their indigenous status. As such, the historical precedence of the Orang Asli was difficult to acknowledge. Eventually, the way in which the state tried to resolve this incongruity was by policies that attempted to assimilate the Orang Asli into the Malay population. The Orang Asli were treated differently and separately but never fully recognised as an indigenous people with all the rights that are conventionally accorded to indigenous peoples by international custom. These rights include recognition as an autonomous people, recognition of the right to traditionally-occupied lands, recognition of the right to practice, maintain and develop their culture, language and religion, and recognition of their traditional knowledge and indigenous systems and the right to protect and promote these.
The non-recognition of these rights has directly brought about the fate of the Orang Asli, in terms of their poor socio-economic status and political inconsequence and, as we argue here, the abysmal state of their health.
Dominance, authority and control
The paternalistic institutions inherited from the British accorded to the Orang Asli  a unique position that allowed them to be treated differently from other sectors of Malaysian society. In the absence of a willingness to recognise the Orang Asli as an indigenous people with inalienable rights, and in the context of a particular ethnicised politics, the state translated this difference into dominance and authority over the Orang Asli. As will be seen from the examples given below, this dominance and authority was often manifested in discrimination against, and control over, the Orang Asli. Unfortunately this has been as true for Orang Asli health care as for other aspects of Orang Asli living.
Blaming the victim instead of oneself appears to be quite commonplace in administrative dealings with Orang Asli, especially in matters about health. For example, in October 1985, when 23 FELDA  settlers in Trolak, Perak, came down with jaundice, the health authorities were quick to blame the nearby Semai village and to call for its resettlement. This call was made on the ‘possibility’ and ‘feelings’ that the Semai were contaminating the water supply by their unhygienic practices. Although another 1,057 people in the district had come down with jaundice in the preceding month, no drastic action like resettlement was suggested for non-Orang Asli communities. As it turned out, the cause of the outbreak was insufficient chlorination at the treatment plant (The Star 18 February 1985, 2 December 1985).
In February 1997, when two Jah Hut children in Kuala Krau, Pahang died from an overdose of anti-malarials irresponsibly dispensed by a health department team, the authorities denied it was their fault and suggested that the deaths were due to the parents’ negligence. A coroner’s inquiry, however, ruled that the cause of death was in fact an overdose of anti-malarials (Toh 2000, Nicholas 1997, Baer 1999). Notably, this was the fourth fatal incident arising out of the anti-malaria programme in the same state!
Recently, in April 2004, when four Semai children died within five days with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea, the authorities were quick to attribute the tragedy to salmonella poisoning – and, consequently, the poor hygiene of the Orang Asli (Husairy Othman 2004). The government reiterated that it could only provide proper health facilities and infrastructure if the Orang Asli were resettled. The Health Minister who made this comment did not realise that RPS Terisu in Cameron Highlands, where the tragic deaths occurred, was a resettlement scheme and had been so for many years!  The cause of the deaths was eventually found to be a rota-virus infection.
Even more recently, in July 2004, when a university study found high levels of Escherichia coli in Tasik Chini lake that caused rashes and diarrhoea in some Orang Asli living in their five lakeshore villages, the Minister in charge of Orang Asli affairs immediately suggested that the Orang Asli be resettled into one place “so that they can attain proper amenities”. However, as the village batins there pointed out, the problem only started when the authorities dammed the Chini River to prevent the lake water from flowing into the Pahang River. Moreover, the university study plainly said the contamination was due to improper sewage disposal by a local resort and by the Tasik Chini national service camp at the lakeside! (The Star, 26 July 2004, 27 July 2004, 29 July 2004).
Such blame-shifting on health problems reveal the underclass status of the Orang Asli. No dominant social group would accept such allegations without a counter-challenge, and no politician would dare to pit himself against a group that could jeopardise his own position. Such attitudes about Orang Asli also clearly show how those responsible for promoting Orang Asli welfare and health are themselves ill-informed or ignorant of the issues involved. Worse, they wield their authority and dominance by backing measures that would further marginalise the Orang Asli.
The official stance of authority and dominance, coupled with ignorance of Orang Asli culture, is sometimes reflected in an insensitive technocratic way of handling problems. For example, in 1996, when the President of the Malaysian Association of Maternal and Neonatal Health revealed that 60 per cent of the 42 mothers who died during home births in 1994 were Orang Asli (Sunday Star, 29 September 1996), the Minister responsible for Orang Asli Affairs immediately ordered that the seven existing Orang Asli health-transit centres be turned into Alternative Birthing Centres (ABCs) (John 1997, 2004).
This official order may appear to be decisive and prompt, but on the ground, it had drastic repercussions. For one, Orang Asli mothers-to-be were ‘warded’ for about a month before the delivery date to ‘wait out’ their time. Not only was this psychologically stressful for the women, it also placed a heavy burden on the rest of the family, especially for those families living near subsistence. Home births were discouraged and in some cases forbidden by local health staff .
Orang Asli mothers still prefer home delivery because institutional delivery not only creates problems for the rest of the family, it is also culturally ‘unfriendly’. It may be true that by encouraging institutional deliveries, maternal death rates will decline, but a more sensitive way of implementing this policy would be to create conditions that allow Orang Asli mothers to feel more secure and comfortable, as well as mitigate the problems faced by families. Another way to reduce Orang Asli maternal mortality is to train resident midwives and make available telephone and transport services.
The myth of development and resettlement: Inability to see traditional resources as necessary to health
Development planners and policy makers commonly assume that Orang Asli health will improve if the Orang Asli accept development programmes designed for them or accede to resettlement elsewhere (usually with cash-crops as the main means of subsistence). The reality is far from this, based on the known regroupment failures, such as at Busut Baru, RPS Banun, Bekok, RPS Kedaik, Kuala Koh and, RPS Terisu .
The poor nutritional status of Orang Asli children living in regroupment schemes shows that the scheme’s social objectives are not being met. Khor (1994: 123) wrote that:
Some 15 years after relocation, the nutritional status of Orang Asli children in regroupment schemes can be described as poor with a moderate to high prevalence of underweight, acute, and chronic malnutrition. Their dietary intakes are deficient in calories and several major nutrients. … There exists an over-simplified assumption that introduction to cash-cropping will lead to increased income, which will provide more money for food, and in turn result in improvement in nutritional status. ... In reality, relocation entails cultural uprooting and lifestyle changes which may not be overcome by the provision of physical facilities and economic incentives only.
Such lamentable conditions in these myriad schemes is due to the narrow subsistence base and psychological disenfranchisement caused by uprooting Orang Asli from their traditional territories. While the authorities argue that Orang Asli regroupment does not necessary entail relocation, the reality is that the local resource base declines because it must be shared with others who have been moved in from their own homelands. This is a major cause of poor nutrition among the Orang Asli.
In reality, resettlement is often not for the purpose of improving Orang Asli health or lifestyles, but for other reasons such as security (resettling Orang Asli during the Emergency), making way for public projects (the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia campus, highways, dams),or even making way for private projects (housing developments, golf courses, resorts, other settlers). It is made possible because there is no legislation protecting the Orang Asli as an indigenous people with inherent rights to their traditional territories.
The state of Orang Asli health care today
The Orang Asli health care services is now made up of 125 treatment centres (designated locations where a mobile clinic visits periodically), 20 transit centres (centres where patients and accompanying persons are housed while waiting to be transferred to a hospital for treatment), and 10 health clinics (JHEOA 2005). There is an understanding between the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the JHEOA’s Department of Health and Medicine, whereby the MOH provides services to the areas that are accessible by land transportation, leaving the interior villages, numbering 323 villages out of a total of 869, to the JHEOA.
Nevertheless, there are major shortfalls in health service provision to the Orang Asli. The JHEOA itself, in its Orang Asli Community Health Action Plan (JHEOA 2005), points to the lack of comprehensive health services in the interior villages . The same document attributes the falling admissions rate in Gombak Hospital, now a 166-bed hospital, to the shunting of Orang Asli patients to MOH facilities. There are, however, other organizational problems that may be related to this.
Since the early 1990s, there has been no governmental recruitment of Orang Asli paramedics or health providers. This is diametrically opposite to the policy adopted by Dr. Bolton and his team in the 1960s. There has been no official reason for this but some past officers of JHEOA have attributed this state of affairs to the prejudices of certain JHEOA decision-makers, while the JHEOA on its part contends that there were no qualified applicants from the Orang Asli for these roles.
This time period was also marked by a high level of corruption in the JHEOA as acknowledged by a former senior officer of the JHEOA (Mohd. Tap 1990: 84, 104). Newspapers even reported that hospital staff had turned parts of the Gombak hospital premises into daylight gambling dens (Bertita Harian, 3 March 1984, 10 March 1984). There were also cases of Orang Asli girls (accompanying their sick relatives) being abused or asked to engage in prostitution; as well as cases of ambulance drivers asking for monetary incentives in order to send recovered patients back to their village .
Orang Asli were often treated condescendingly or berated when some minor error or omission occurred. As such, many Orang Asli said that they did want to go to the hospital because the employees did not treat them with respect (cf. Gianno 2004: 64) or because they were insensitive, discriminatory, and unfriendly (Harrison 2001).
This is not to suggest that there are no instances of exemplary dedication and sensitive dispensation of healthcare to the Orang Asli today. We acknowledge that particular individual healthcare providers – be they doctors, nurses or paramedics – have displayed the same genuine concern and responsibility so admirably exhibited by the early volunteer doctors and nurses under the still-remembered supervision of Dr. Bolton in the 1960s and 1970s.
However, these individuals are the exception and are more likely to be attached to medical centers of the Ministry of Health rather than the JHEOA medical service. It is not uncommon to hear JHEOA doctors attributing their “sacrifice” to serve the Orang Asli to their “pity” for the people. Also, it is no longer a priority in the Orang Asli medical service to have first-line Orang Asli health workers who can support and clarify technical matters for their hospitalised ‘relatives’. The introduction of a programme to train village-level Orang Asli Health Volunteers (Sukarelawan Kesihatan), although an excellent idea, has unfortunately yet to achieve its desired goals.
Orang Asli health care has indeed taken a beating in the past two decades, not for lack of resources or knowledge of what needs to be done, but primarily because the political and ideological basis of the Orang Asli ‘problem’ has not been corrected (or even acknowledged). The Orang Asli have been treated as not-so-deserving beneficiaries of government largesse, rather than the other way round. This situation is further worsened by discrimination and the formal denial of Orang Asli inherent rights, such as their rights to their traditional lands and resources. Those responsible for Orang Asli health (or for that matter, their overall well-being and advancement) could not or did not want to see the link between Orang Asli wellbeing and good health on the one hand, and their need to be in control over their traditional lands and resources on the other.
With increasing pressures to privatise healthcare in Malaysia, and the unwillingness of the state to accord the political and social recognition that is due to the Orang Asli as the first peoples on this land, it is difficult to see how Orang Asli healthcare will improve through the initiative of the state and its functionaries. It remains a major project, therefore, for the Orang Asli to assert the recognition of their rights as a people, and with it, the delivery of a more sensitive and effective healthcare system.
Orang Asli (lit, "original peoples" or "aboriginal peoples" in Malay) is a general Malaysian term used for any indigenous groups that are found in Peninsular Malaysia. They are divided into three main tribal groups – Semang (Negrito), Senoi, and Proto-Malay (Aboriginal Malay). The Orang Asli are further divided into 18 sub-ethnic group according to their different languages and customs. The Negritos are usually found in the northern region of the peninsula, the Senois in the central region, and the Proto-Malay in the southern region. There is an Orang Asli museum at Gombak, which is about 25 km north of Kuala Lumpur.
Orang Asli kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in first millennium AD. Living in the interior they bartered in land products like resins, incense woods and feathers for salt, cloth and iron tools. The rise of the Malay sultanates, coinciding with trade in Orang Asli slaves, forced the group to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders. The arrival of British colonists brought further inroads in the lives of Orang Asli. They were the target of Christian missionary and subjects of anthropological research.
During the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960, the Orang Asli became a vital component of national security, as with their help, the Malayan army was able to defeat the communist insurgents. Two administrative initiatives were introduced to highlight the importance of Orang Asli as well to protect its identity. The initiatives were the establishment of the Department of Aborigines in 1950, and the enactment of the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance in 1954. After independence, the development of Orang Asli become the prime objective of the government where the government adopted a policy in 1961 to integrate the Orang Asli into the wider Malaysian society.
Within the decades of 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia was in the period of sustained growth. With development that emphasize modernization and industrialization, new lands were developed. This development has resulted in encroachments on Orang Asli land. In response of this encroachment, the Orang Asli mobilized themselves and formed the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM). With this association, the Orang Asli have become more visible and vocal. Orang Asli are now known as "Orang Kita" ('our people') since Dato' Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak introduced the "One Malaysia" concep
Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were quite common feature back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as 'kafirs', 'non-humans', 'savages' and 'jungle-beasts.' The modus operandi was basically to swoop down a settlement and then kill off all the adult men. Women and children were captured alive as they are 'easier to tame.' The captives Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour. Slaves trade soon developed and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The derogatory term sakai is used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of the 20th century meant slave or dependent. Many of the elders Orang Asli still remember this sad period of their history, and they detest being called Sakai
Orang Asli living in remote forest areas engaged in some trading with the Malays, with jungle produce being exchanged for salt, knives and metal axe-heads. There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among certain tribes. It has also been shown that the Orang Asli have played a significant role in the Malay Peninsula's economic history as collectors and primary traders as early as the 5th Century A.D. An early 19th century report also tells of Negritos providing forest products as tribute to the Malay chiefs of the river basins they reside
In 2000, the Orang Asli comprise only 0.5% of the total population in Malaysia. Their population is approximately 148,000. The largest group are the Senois, constituting about 54% of the total Orang Asli population. The Proto-Malays form 43%, and the Semang forming 3%.The poverty rate among Orang Asli is 76.9%. In addition to this high rate, the Statistics Department of Malaysia has classified 35.2% of the population as being "hardcore poor". The majority of Orang Asli live in rural areas, while a minority have moved into urban areas. In 1991, the literacy rate for the Orang Asli was 43% compared to the national rate of 86% at that time. They have an average life expectancy of 53 years (52 for male and 54 for female). A high infant mortality rate is also evident with 51.7 deaths per 1000 births
The division of Orang Asli into three categories are not due to linguistic differences but merely sociological. The Semelai language, for example, is part of the Austro-Asiatic language group, whereas the other Proto-Malay groups, such as the Temuan language, are part of the Austronesian language group. The Semelai and the majority of Orang Asli sub-ethnics speak languages classified as Aslian languages. This is further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut. The languages which fall under the Jahaic language group are the Che Wong, Jahai, Bateq, Kensiu, Kintak, and Menriq languages. The Lanoh language, Temiar language, and Semai language fall into the Senoic language category. Languages that fall into the Semelaic group include the Semelai language, Semoq Beri language, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri group). Meanwhile, some Orang Asli minorities speak languages classified as Aboriginal Malay languages. This includes the Jakun and Temuan languages among others.
Besides these, most Orang Aslis are fluent in the Malay language, the official language of Malaysia.
Lifestyle and religion
Orang Asli are traditionally animists, where they believe in the presence of spirits in various objects. However, in the 21st century, many of them have embraced monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity following some active state-sponsored dakwah by Muslims, and evangelism by Christian missionaries.In June 2007, an Orang Asli church was allegedly torn down by the government in Gua Musang, Kelantan. As of 2008, a suit has been filed against the authorities. The affected Orang Asli also sought a declaration under Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia that they have the right to practice the religion of their choice and to build their own prayer house
Negritos of Peninsular Malaysia
According to the Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the Negritos, who number approximately 2,000, are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They are of Australo-Melanesian affinity and probably descend from the people of Hoabinhian cultural period, with many of their burials found dating back 10,000 years ago. They speak the Aslian languages which is part of the Austro-Asiatic language family, as do their Senoi agriculturalist neighbours. Negritos belong to various subgroups, namely the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq and Bateq. Those from Perak, Kedah and Pahang are also known as Sakai, the meaning of "Sakai" is debt slaves, while those from Kelantan and Terengganu were called Pangan, the forest peoples. The Senoi and Proto-Malay arrived much later probably during the Neolithic period.
Social and legal status
The government agency entrusted to oversee the affairs of the Orang Asli is the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs) (JHEOA). This body is under the Malaysian Ministry of Rural Development, and it was first set up in 1954. Among its stated objectives are to eradicate poverty among the Orang Asli, improving their health, promoting education, and improving their general livelihood. There is a high incidence of poverty among the Orang Asli. In 1997, 80% of all Orang Asli lived below the poverty line. This ratio is extremely high compared to the national poverty rate of 8.5% at that time.
Some legislations which concerns Orang Asli are the National Land Code 1965, Land Conservation Act 1960, Protection of Wildlife Act 1972, National Parks Act 1980, and most importantly the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli Reserve Land. However, the Act also includes the power accorded to the Director-General of the JHEOA to order Orang Asli out of such reserved land at its discretion, and award compensation to affected people, also at its discretion. A landmark case on this matter is in the 2002 case of Sagong Tasi v. Government of Selangor. The case was concerned with the state using its powers conferred under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favour of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.The Orang Asli are theoretically classified as Bumiputras, a status signifying indigenity to Malaysia which carries certain social, economic, and political rights, along with the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. However, this status is generally not mentioned in the constitution. It is also not shared by general Malay society, who argue the Orang Asli were never identified by the invading colonial powers (Portuguese, Dutch and British) as the sovereign rulers of the Malay Peninsula
The People of Malaysia – with Wired Destinations
Aborigines, Malays, Indians, Europeans, Chinese — these are just some of the many and diverse peoples that have given Malaysia its unique character. The Malaysia traveler will be fascinated by the obvious multi-ethnicity of the country: there are Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians; as well as large tribal communities like the Kadazandusuns of Sabah and the Than of Sarawak. And given the melting pot of ethnicities, a sizeable number of people of mixed race abound as well.
The population stands at around 25 million today, with 83 percent living in Peninsular Malaysia, 9 percent in Sarawak and the remaining 8 percent in Sabah. The distribution of population is grossly unequal when one considers that most people are found in the peninsula, which at 131,587 sq km (50,800 sq miles) is considerably smaller than Sarawak (124,967 sq km/48,250 sq miles) and Sabah (72,500 sq km/27,900 sq miles) put together.
The original inhabitants of the peninsula, the Orang Asli, were followed by the Malays, who built upon traditions of the soil and ocean, and embraced influences from elsewhere as well. Due to its rich resources and strategic location, Malaysia attracted still others – the culturally-rich Indians, Chinese, and Europeans – resulting in rich yet culturally diverse traditions.
Orang Asli in Malaysia
Undoubtedly, the oldest inhabitants of the Malaysian Peninsula are the Negritos, arriving in the Malay Peninsula at least 10,000 years ago. Numbering around 2,000, they are mostly dark-skinned and frizzy-haired, their features, though unique, are similar to the peoples of Papua New Guinea or East Africa. The Negritos mostly inhabit the northeast and northwest of the peninsula, and are the only truly nomadic of the Orang Asli tribes. Practicing little or no cultivation, the Negrito tribes pride themselves on their mobility. However, like other tribes, some Negritos have left the forest and sought education and jobs in the city.
The largest group, numbering around 40,000, is the Senoi – thought to share a common ancestry with the hill peoples of northern Cambodia and Vietnam – arrived in the Malay Peninsula between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Most of the tribes are shifting cultivators, moving from a settlement when the land is exhausted. Many Senoi in the Cameron Highlands have become wage-earners, working on the highland tea estates. Others have headed for the bright city lights, getting jobs as varied as civil servants and taxi drivers.
The last group of Orang Asli, the Proto Malays or Aboriginal Malays, were the last to arrive – from the Indonesian island of Sumatra – around 4,000 years ago. Many of this group also have a distinct resemblance to the Malays; indeed modern Malays have a common ancestry with many of them.
Malays in Malaysia
As a whole, Malays comprise 52 percent of Malaysia's population. Historically, the Malays have always wielded political authority. However, when the status quo of the Malays was threatened in the 1969 elections, culminating in bloody racial riots, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was set in place to protect the interests of the bumiputra. Racial quotas, scholarships and business and housing subsidies were introduced to raise the Malay stake in the economy.
Rural Malays today still cherish the simplicity of the uncluttered, outdoor life, nurturing a provincial conformity laid down centuries ago. Malay kampung are peaceful enclaves, with wooden houses propped up on stilts above courtyards shaded by coconut palms, banana and papaya trees. The village mosque calls the faithful to prayer several times a day, often interrupting evening television programs that are now a part of everyday family life.
Kampung youth and children may favor shorts and blue jeans but the daily dress code is still the comfortable cotton sarung. Rolled expertly at the waist, and topped off with either a batik shirt or T-shirt, this airy garment is especially indispensable among older Malays. On special occasions, the traditional and comfortable baju kurung, a long-skirted suit usually made of colorful silk, is worn by women, while men don their baju melayu, a loose pantsuit worn with a short sarong, topped with a black velvet fez known as a songkok.
The inherent talents of the Malays, however, find outlets far from the countryside. Malay businessmen and civil servants in the cities wear Western-style clothes, drive cars, speak English fluently, and carry mobile phones. Urban youths pick up the latest in street fashion from the US and display their new togs in shopping malls. Hard rock and heavy metal is popular, as is the electric guitar. The amplified sounds of the instrument can even be heard blaring, from isolated kampung houses.
Although the rift between the kampung and the city has widened over the years, it does not threaten the strong unity the Malays derive from a common faith. The laws of Islam immediately set a Malay apart from fellow Malaysians. Intermarriage between races is uncommon, though Muslim foreigners are accepted, keeping the Malay-Muslim cultural identity distinctly separate.
Muslim women, especially, stand out from other ethnic Malaysians mainly because of their dress codes. Recently, an increasing number of Malay women have chosen to wear the veil, or tudung, a garment of modesty. Despite this seemingly strict dress code and traditional Islamic laws, Muslim women in Malaysia are given an increasing amount of employment and property rights; many run their own businesses and have high-profile jobs.
Indians in Malaysia
Today, Indians (mostly concentrated in the states of Selangor, Perak and Penang) make up less than 10 percent of the population of Malaysia, yet they own less than one percent of the country's corporate wealth. It has been estimated that four out of five Indians, mostly Tamils, are still manual laborers on plantations, a situation that has been explained as a legacy of colonial Malaysia.
However, as the country gains in economic prosperity, other Indian communities are increasingly well-represented in the various professions. Several programs have been initiated to raise the Indian share of Malaysia's wealth but the general consensus is that the economic restructuring plans of the NEP have generally overlooked the Indians.
Indian Muslims are also a significant part of the Indian community. When they arrived in Malaysia, many opened restaurants, textile shops and other successful businesses, and some of them married Malay women.
Southern Indians have brought a rich cultural influence and color to Malaysian life. Bright silk saris, fiery Indian cuisine, Tamil movies with their song-and-dance scenes, and the indomitable prevalence of the Hindu faith that continues to absorb change have all become part of Malaysia.
It was for both fortune and adventure that the Chinese first headed for Nanyang, the South Seas. From the 13th century onwards, the Chinese were frequent traders in the Indonesian and Malay Archipelago. However, the majority of the Chinese arrived in the 19th century during the Manchu dynasty when problems were rife in China. An edict was issued banning Chinese from traveling abroad, but a number risked their lives and escaped. These later Chinese immigrants were organized under clan associations (kongsi) and secret societies, which often engaged in rival warfare. The new settlers took on many of the toughest jobs in tin mining, road and railway construction; but they also played as hard as they worked, and opium and gambling, were popular pastimes.
Rather than integrating with Malay culture, the Chinese community has put its own traditional stamp on the land. Officially, all Chinese must learn Malay, but at home, Mandarin and local dialects prevail. Younger generations, however, are more caught up in modem Western lifestyles.
There is a strong belief in self-help and industriousness among the Chinese, but close family and clan ties are also priorities. The Chinese in Malaysia are defined by their history of hardship and pioneering, as well as the three important Chinese codes of ethics: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Even if converted to Islam or Christianity, this background is deep-rooted and many of the associated festivals are regularly celebrated.
Even among, modern Malaysian Chinese, the belief in symbolism is prevalent. Jade is worn by the majority of Malaysian Chinese for aesthetic reasons as well as for its evil-warding powers. Feng shui (literally, "wind, water") is the Chinese belief system based on geomantic omens. The numeral 8 is extremely coveted for house numbers and car license plates, as it sounds like the Cantonese character for "prosper"; meanwhile, the number 4 is carefully avoided, as it sounds like "death".
Peranakans in Malaysia
Subsequent generations of Chinese-Malays were known as Straits Chinese, or Peranakan, which in Malay means "born here". When the Dutch colonists moved out in the early 1800s, more Chinese immigrants moved in, thus diluting Malay blood in the Peranakans, so that later generations were almost completely Chinese. However, this did not alter the Straits Chinese identity, which combines the best of Malay and Chinese cultures. This colorful balance encompasses Malay dress such as the sarong kebaya, a unique bi-cultural cuisine, and a spoken language of mixed Malay, Chinese and some English colloquialisms.
Peranakan culture reached its height in the 19th century, and though Melaka was the Peranakan centre, large communities also flourished in Penang and Singapore. Today's Peranakans are proud of their heritage and consider themselves different from the other Chinese, although they are counted as part of the community.
Eurasians in Malaysia
Nearly 500 years after their arrival, there is still widespread evidence of the Portuguese legacy. Eurasians in Melaka, as well as in other towns in Malaysia, bear such Portuguese surnames as Sequiera, Pinto, Dias, D'Silva and D'Souza, and still cherish the traditions of their European lineage. They are proud of their unique Eurasian cuisine, and some still continue to speak Cristao, a medieval dialect from southeastern Portugal. The language has long since died out in Europe, but is still used in some parts of Malaysia. Descendants of cross-cultural marriages in the 19th and 20th century are equally proud of their English or Dutch heritage.
The People of Sabah and SarawakThe two easternmost states of Sabah and Sarawak, situated in the north of the island of Borneo, have the most diverse racial groups of all Malaysia. Most of them are of Mongoloid extract and moved here from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).
In Sabah, the largest group comprises the Kadazandusun tribes, followed by the Murut, Bajau and Rungus, and Bisaya, Suluk, Lundayeh and Kedayan in smaller numbers.
In Sarawak there is an even greater diversity of peoples and languages: the Dayak include Ibans, who make up the majority of the Sarawak population, and the Bidayuh or land Dayaks. The Melanau are also a large community, and then there are many tribes lumped together under the name of Orang Ulu. This term, meaning "interior people", has become somewhat derogatory in the sense that it denotes a primitive and ignorant people – most tribes prefer to be known by their own names. The Orang Ulu group includes the nomadic Punan and Penan, the highly structured Kayan and Kenyan communities, and the Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and Bisaya. Even these names house several different tribes who have their own special names.
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THE ORANG ASLI
OF PENINSULAR MALAYSIA
The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. The name is a Malay term which transliterates as 'original peoples' or 'first peoples.' It is a collective term introduced by anthropologists and administrators for the 18 sub-ethnic groups generally classified for official purposes under Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. They numbered 105,000 in 1997 representing a mere 0.5 per cent of the national population.
The Orang Asli, nevertheless, are not a homogeneous group. Each has its own language and culture, and perceives itself as different from the others. Linguistically, some of the northern Orang Asli groups (especially the Senoi and Negrito groups) speak languages - now termed Aslian languages - that suggest a historical link with the indigenous peoples in Burma, Thailand and Indo-China.
The members of the Proto-Malay tribes, whose ancestors were believed to have migrated from the Indonesian islands to the south of the peninsula, speak dialects which belong to the same Austronesian family of languages as Malay, with the exceptions of the Semelai and Temoq dialects (which are Austroasiatic).
The Orang Asli have equally varied occupations and ways of life. The Orang Laut, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri, for example, live close to the coast and are mainly fishermen. Some Temuan, Jakun and Semai people have taken to permanent agriculture and now manage their own rubber, oil palm or cocoa farms.
About 40 per cent of the Orang Asli population - including Semai, Temiar, Che Wong, Jah Hut, Semelai and Semoq Beri - however, live close to, or within forested areas. Here they engage in swiddening (hill rice cultivation) and do some hunting and gathering. These communities also trade in petai, durian, rattan and resins to earn cash incomes.
A very small number, especially among the Negrito groups (such as Jahai and Lanoh) are still semi-nomadic, preferring to take advantage of the seasonal bounties of the forest. A fair number also live in urban areas and are engaged in both waged and salaried jobs.
There is no doubt, however, that the Orang Asli are the descendants of the earliest inhabitants in the peninsula. It has been suggested that they retained much of their identity to the present day because of their relative isolation from the other communities and the forces of change.
This is not to suggest that the Orang Asli lived in complete isolation, existing only on subsistence production. Economic dealings with the neighbouring Malay communities were not uncommon for the past few hundred years, especially for the Proto-Malay groups. Those Orang Asli living in remote forest areas also engaged in some trading with the Malays, with jungle produce being exchanged for salt, knives and metal axe-heads. There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among certain tribes. It has also been shown that the Orang Asli have played a significant role in the Malay Peninsula's economic history as collectors and primary traders as early as the 5th Century A.D. An early 19th century report also tells of Negritos providing forest products as tribute to the Malay chiefs of the river basins they resided in.
There seemed, therefore, to be a certain amount of interaction between the Orang Asli and the other ethnic groups, particularly the Malays who resided along the fringes of the forest. Some of the initial contacts, however, were unfortunately characterized by cruelty and mutual hostility.
Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were not an uncommon feature in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slave-raiders were mainly Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as 'kafirs', 'non-humans', 'savages' and 'jungle-beasts.'
The modus operandi was basically to swoop down on a settlement and kill off all the adult men. Women and children were preferred as they were less likely to run away and were 'easier to tame.' The Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour.
A considerable trade in slaves thus soon developed - and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. In fact, the derogatory term Sakai used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of this century meant slave or dependent. Many elders still remember this sad period of their history, and all Orang Asli detest being called Sakai.
Specimens and Souls
The coming of the British administrators led to some outcry against the slavery of the Orang Asli, but there were no efforts to promote their welfare. Because of their 'primitiveness' and their 'uncivilized culture', Orang Asli were regarded as excellent subjects for anthropological research. That the Orang Asli were seen so can be gleaned from the fact that the earliest official act directed towards the Orang Asli was the setting up of the Perak Museum in Taiping, from where research into Orang Asli demography and ethnography was to be carried out.
Also, being regarded as 'uncivilized' and therefore, it follows, 'unsaved', placed the Orang Asli in good light for the zeal of missionary proselytizers. The Catholics began their missionary activities among the Temuans in the middle of the 19th Century. The Methodists started theirs in the 1930s. Bahai missionaries also had a following in the 1960s while Muslim missionary work became increasingly more active over the last two decades.
Interest in the Orang Asli therefore tended to revolve around their usefulness as anthropological curiosities or as convenient subjects for proselytization. Otherwise, the official attitude towards the Orang Asli was one of indifference.
Until the late 1940s, there was no specific administration for the Orang Asli, but it became regarded as a responsibility of the Taiping Museum Curator to concern himself with research among Orang Asli in Perak. The Orang Asli continued to be regarded as noble savages, leading an idealized and romantic existence; the task of government was to protect and preserve them from the ravages of modern life.
A rather detailed 1936 report by H.D. Noone, then the field ethnographer (and later, Director) of the Perak Museum at Taiping, sought to perpetuate the view of the British colonialists that the Orang Asli should remain in isolation from the rest of the Malayan population, and be given protection.
Noone called for the establishment of large aboriginal land reservations where the Orang Asli would be free to live according to their own tradition and laws. Noone also proposed the creation of "patterned settlements" in less accessible areas, where the Orang Asli could be taught agricultural skills. He also sought the encouragement and development of aboriginal arts and crafts, and the creation of other forms of employment among the Orang Asli. Several protective measures were also proposed, such as the banning of alcohol in Orang Asli reserves and the controlled peddling of wares.
Although not implemented by the government of the day, his 'Proposed Aboriginal Policy' did however lay the groundwork for future government policy towards the Orang Asli.
The Orang Asli were insignificant players in the political sphere until the Emergency began. This was Malaya's civil war between the Colonial government and the communist insurgents from 1948 to 1960.
In the early years the insurgents received much help and supplies from sympathizers in
the rural areas. However, the Brigg's Plan, which involved relocating much of the rural population into closely-guarded 'new villages', successfully cut the link between the two parties. Consequently, the insurgents were forced to operate from areas in deep forests, where they sought the help of the Orang Asli. Some Orang Asli were known to provide food, labour and intelligence to the insurgents.
The Colonial Government quickly saw the importance of the Orang Asli in winning the war and created the post of Adviser on Aborigines. However, initial attempts at controlling the Orang Asli proved disastrous for both sides. In an attempt to prevent the insurgents from getting help (food, labour and intelligence) from the Orang Asli, the British herded them into hastily-built resettlement camps. A few hundred Orang Asli died in these crowded and sun-baked camps mainly due to mental depression rather than disease.
Later, realising their folly, and recognising that the key to ending the war lay in 'winning over' the Orang Asli to the government's side, a Department of Aborigines was established and 'jungle forts' were set up in Orang Asli areas, introducing the Orang Asli to basic health facilities, education and basic consumer items. The strategy proved successful such that support for the insurgents waned, with the Emergency being officially lifted in 1960.
This period also saw the first important attempt at legislation to protect the Orang Asli with the publication of the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance in 1954. This Ordinance (later amended in 1967 and 1974 to conform to changing conditions) was considered a milestone in the administration of the Orang Asli, for it indicated that the government had finally officially admitted its responsibility to the Orang Asli.
At about the same time, the Department for Aboriginal Affairs was enlarged in order to make it an effective force. But, as the former Commissioner for Orang Asli Affairs noted, the only reason for such re-organization was to ensure a better control over the Orang Asli and to make sure that they would have less inclination and few, if any, opportunities to support the insurgents.
Later, in an apparent reversal of the government's policy towards the Orang Asli, the jungle forts were abandoned and replaced by 'patterned settlements' (later to be called 'regroupment schemes'). Here, a number of Orang Asli communities were resettled in areas which were more accessible for the Department officials and the security forces and yet close to, though not always within, their traditional homelands. The schemes promised the Orang Asli wooden stilt houses as well as modern amenities such as schools, clinics and shops. They were also required to grow cash crops (such as rubber and oil palm) and practise animal husbandry so as to be able to participate in the cash economy.
Nevertheless, the strategy proved successful in that support for the insurgents waned. This prompted massacres by the insurgents of Orang Asli communities who were thought to be on the government's side. Alas, despite the important role the Orang Asli played in helping to end the Emergency, many books on this period do not acknowledge the fact.
The Emergency formally ended in 1960; but for the Orang Asli it spelled the beginning of a more active and direct involvement of the state into their affairs and lives.
The Aboriginal Peoples Act
Apart from the establishment of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), the Emergency also saw a special legislation being enacted for the Orang Asli. This was the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. This Act is unique in that it is the only piece of legislation that is directed at a particular ethnic community. (For that matter, the JHEOA is also the only government department that is to cater for a particular ethnic group.)
Originally enacted during the height of the Emergency, the Aboriginal Peoples 1954 (revised in 1974) basically served to prevent the communist insurgents from getting help from the Orang Asli. It was also aimed at preventing the insurgents from imparting their ideology to the Orang Asli. For this reason, for example, there are provisions in the Act which allow the Minister concerned to prohibit any non-Orang Asli from entering an Orang Asli area, or to prohibit the entry of any written or printed material (or anything capable of conveying a message). Even in the appointment of headmen, the Minister has the final say. The Act treats the Orang Asli as if they were a people unable to lead their own lives and needing the 'protection' of the authorities to safeguard their wellbeing.
Nevertheless, the Act does recognise some rights of the Orang Asli. For example, it stipulates that no Orang Asli child shall be precluded from attending any school only by reason of being an Orang Asli. It also states that no Orang Asli child attending any school shall be obliged to attend any religious instruction without the prior consent of his parents or guardian. Generally also, the Act allows the right of the Orang Asli to follow their own way of life.
And while the Act provides for the establishment of Orang Asli Areas and Orang Asli Reserves, it also grants the state authority the right to order any Orang Asli community to leave and stay out of an area. In effect, the best security that an Orang Asli can get is one of 'tenant-at-will'. That is to say, an Orang Asli is allowed to remain in a particular area only at the pleasure of the state authority. If at such time the state wishes to re-acquire the land, it can revoke its status and the Orang Asli are left with no other legal recourse but to move elsewhere. Furthermore, in the event of such displacement occurring, the state is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site.
Thus, the Aboriginal Peoples Act laid down certain ground rules for the treatment of Orang Asli and their lands. Effectively, it accords the Minister concerned or the Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) the final say in all matters concerning the administration of the Orang Asli. In matters concerning land, the state authority has the final say. The development objective of the Act, therefore, appears to have been subsumed by both the security motive and the tendency to regard the Orang Asli as wards of the government.
Policy of Sedentism
The perceived nomadic lifestyle of the Semai, particularly of those in the interior areas, posed a problem to the security forces in their effort to maintain surveillance over their activities and movements. Since these settlements were in 'black areas' (where the insurgents were believed to be still active), the need to keep a close watch over the Orang Asli in these areas was even more urgent for the state. Having the Orang Asli lead a more settled or sedentary way of life would, it was deduced, greatly aid the state in its goal of national security.
As such, during the mid-1970s when communist insurgents revived their war with the government efforts were made by the JHEOA to persuade village headmen to heed the call for regroupment. Promises of permanent housing, piped water and other modern facilities (such as schools and hospitals) were made. Coercion was not employed. Instead, persuasive methods (including taking the headmen on field trips to other successful government schemes) were the norm.
The decision to accept permanent residence in a particular location meant that the resource base of the Orang Asli, as far as their subsistence activities were concerned, were now restricted to a rather limited area. Furthermore, the grouping together of a number of other settlements in a smaller area tended to further deplete the potential of the subsistence base. For example, in the Betau Regroupment Scheme, 20 settlements, with an estimated total population of 1,284 Semai, who were originally spread over a 14.4 km radius of the administrative center, were now confined into an area within a 5.6 km radius, or about 15 per cent of the original area. This immediately implies a severe strain on the ability of the now smaller subsistence base to provide for the needs of the increased number of people depending on it for their water, food and other subsistence materials.
Lately, however, the call to sedentism has always followed some other ulterior intention: the lands of the Orang Asli were needed for other purposes, be it a new agricultural project, a dam, a new airport, or even a golf course.
But perhaps the more distressing effect of regroupment is that the government, through JHEOA agents, begins exercising powers over regrouped Orang Asli that cannot be exercised over non-Orang Asli (such as control of entry of non-Orang Asli, appointment of headmen, imposition of economic policies and programmes, and institutionalised religious proselytizing).
Policy of Integration and Assimilation
In 1961, the expressed policy of the government towards the Orang Asli was their integration into the wider society. In particular, the JHEOA was "to adopt suitable measures designed for their (Orang Asli) protection and advancement with a view to their ultimate integration with the Malay section of the community."
The assumption behind this policy was that the Orang Asli were backward and isolated from the rest of the national society and as such had to 'modernise' in order to be regarded as being on par with the other communities.
Programmes to introduce cash-crop agriculture were introduced (thereby placing the Orang Asli at the mercy of the world economy), education was introduced (with the national Malay-based curriculum being used), and social organisation transformed (with headmen now being appointed by the JHEOA, for example). The end effect of such a policy of integration has been a slow, but sure, decline in the traditional structure and content of Orang Asli society.
In more recent times, the policy of integrating the Orang Asli with the Malay section of the national society has taken on a new dimension: making Orang Asli Muslims. The JHEOA has a special section to look into the 'spiritual' development of the Orang Asli, with other government and non-governmental bodies each having their own programme for similar objectives. The assimilationist tendencies, best epitomised by the publicly expressed intention of converting all Orang Asli within the next ten years, undermine whatever genuine intentions the government may have for the wellbeing of the Orang Asli. At the very least, it brings the justification for attention towards Orang Asli one full circle back to the early days of the British colonial government when the Orang Asli were merely regarded as ripe objects for the zeal of religious missionaries.
Tendency Towards Dependency
Orang Asli have been incorporated into the national economy insofar as many have made the shift to peasantry, are tied to the cash economy, and are dependent on, or are directed by, external domination. The point is that the incorporation of Orang Asli into the national economy is usually the result of the expansionist policy of state disguised under the label of integration.
Also, economic development for the Orang Asli has often been promoted at the expense of indigenous institutions. The various development strategies often tacitly assume that there are no viable institutions or practices in indigenous cultures that can be used to foster development.
The creation of the JHEOA as the sole agency responsible, for the most part, for all matters concerning Orang Asli has also given rise to a situation where the Orang Asli came to be dependent on the JHEOA for most of their needs.
We have seen that the Aboriginal Peoples Act arms the JHEOA with much authority over the Orang Asli. In aspects of Orang Asli living too, Orang Asli have no or very little say. For example, the decision to be resettled in a new location is often done without consultation with the Orang Asli, let alone with their consent. Even in resettlement schemes, the choice of commercial crops grown, or the economic activities to be undertaken, does not rest with the Orang Asli.
The general conclusion is that, after four decades of intervention by the Department of Aborigines and later by the JHEOA, an unhealthy state of paternalism towards the Orang Asli has been created. The JHEOA sees itself as godparents to these "wards of the state," taking care of the Orang Asli "from the womb to the grave."
Loss of resource rights and land rights
However, without doubt, the greatest threat today to Orang Asli culture, identity and livelihood is their dispossession from their traditional homelands. Orang Asli are guaranteed no rights whatsoever to their lands under the Aboriginal Peoples Act.
In fact, it is often said that an Orang Asli is allowed to remain in a particular area only because of the big-heartedness of the state authority. At any time should the state want the land back, it can revoke the status of the land and the Orang Asli practically has no other legal recourse. To make matters worse, in the event of such dispossession occurring, the state is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site. This is provided for in the Aboriginal Peoples Act.
To further aggravate the problem, only about 15 per cent of the 667 Orang Asli villages are gazetted as Orang Asli Areas or Reserves. This means the majority of Orang Asli villages are on state land, though the Orang Asli themselves would not concede to this classification of their land. Efforts at gazetting the remaining Orang Asli lands have been sluggish, to say the least, since the 1960s.
Sometimes, Orang Asli lands are degazetted without their knowledge while long-standing applications for gazetting have gone unheeded for as many as 35 years. In the last two years, for example, 2,764 hectares of Orang Asli land were degazetted for other purposes.
This insecurity over the tenure of their lands has resulted in many Orang Asli communities losing their lands to government land schemes, private plantations, mining concessions, highway and dam projects, housing projects, recreation areas, new townships, sites for universities and various other forms of 'development'. In most cases, the Orang Asli are resettled in regroupment schemes, where even here there is still no permanent security of tenure. The Orang Asli in Temerloh, for example, are now worried as there is talk of them having to resettle to a new place yet again but this time further inland.
Land dispossesion remains a persistent issue facing the Orang Asli. There are numerous instances when Orang Asli had to give up their lands, or had the lands taken from them. For instance, the Orang Asli community at the 6th mile Cameron Highlands Road planted rubber and fruit trees in their traditional lands in 1974. In 1979, neighbouring villagers applied for part of the Orang Asli land, and were successful. When the Orang Asli protested, they were told by the Assistant District Officer to move out because the area was now 'Malay Reserve Land' and that they were staying there illegally.
After much confrontation and negotiation, extremely low compensation at 2 ringgit per rubber tree, 60 ringgit for each mature durian tree, and 20 ringgit for each petai tree was offered (RM1 = US$0.25). However, till today, some of it is still not paid. The tenure of the remaining rubber trees and orchards of the Orang Asli is just as insecure since only 0.2 hectare of the land belonging to the 40 Orang Asli families has been gazetted.
In another case, in Bidor, part of the land of the Orang Asli has been taken over by a tin mining company. Then without notice nor consultation, a large portion of the remaining land was cleared by the authorities to make way for a government (Felcra) agricultural development project. Many fruit trees belonging to the Orang Asli were destroyed, despite assurances by the JHEOA that it would not happen. And the Orang Asli were not assured of any kind of compensation. To make it worse, they were asked by the JHEOA to move to another area further inland.
When asked why they had to move, the JHEOA officer said that it was not advisable to stay in the old area since the land was too small for them. Besides, he added, the Orang Asli might grow crops in the area, and will cause inconvenience to Felcra by using their roads. The irony of it all: someone takes away your land and leaves a little for you - and then tells you to move because the land is too small for you!
And in Bukit Unggul in Bangi, Selangor, the Temuans had to make way for the construction of a university on their land, only to be asked to move again recently - to make way for a golf course!
Generally, for most Orang Asli lands that are not gazetted as reserves, it has been difficult for the communities to resist pressures to relocate. The source of these pressures are varied: the government (as in the case of Sepang in Selangor where the Temuans were resettled to make way for the new international airport), corporations (as in the case of Stulang Laut in Johore where the Orang Laut were relocated to make way for a business complex), and even individuals (as in several rural fringe areas where locals as well as foreign migrant workers are staking out Orang Asli lands for their own).
The last category is best exemplified by the Jeli case, where nine Jahai men were charged for the death of three non-Orang Asli land encroachers. They had gone to the Jahai settlement with three others and demanded that the Orang Asli vacate the place immediately as they had acquired the land for themselves. The three died in the ensuing scuffle when the Jahais came to the rescue of their headman who was about to be stabbed by one of the outsiders.
When one of the non-Orang Asli encroachers was asked in court the reason for going to the settlement, he replied "to work on my land." And when asked for evidence of his ownership to the land, he replied, "I began to work on it, so it is mine. The Orang Asli cannot own it as they do not have houses on it - only thatch huts"!
It is not surprising therefore that a common complaint among Orang Asli these days is that the Government is insincere in its call to have to Orang Asli settle permanently in one area rather than move from place to place. They draw attention to the various statements made by government leaders explaining how hard it is to 'develop' the Orang Asli on account of their nomadic lifestyle.
Anyone who knows the Orang Asli, knows that this is a myth perpetuated by the government to absolve its responsibility to the Orang Asli. In fact, the Orang Asli are now saying that if ever they are to be regarded as nomadic, it is only because the government has forced them to move from place to place!
Also, because the lands of the Orang Asli are not gazetted or titled, a host of other problems arise. Loggers get their concessions from the state authorities, leaving the Orang Asli totally in the dark about the deal. Non-Orang Asli enter their lands and steal their petai and durian fruit claiming that the trees were planted by the bears and tigers, and that the forest is "no man's land" and hence is a "free-for-all." The Forest Department also habitually issues licences to non-Orang Asli to trade in forest products such as rattan and petai - despite a provision in the Aboriginal Peoples Act stipulating that no such licences shall be issued to persons not being Orang Asli normally resident in the area.
Voicing Out Dissatisfactions
The days of the Orang Asli reacting passively to attempts to abrogate their rights are coming to an end. Acting largely through the 15,000-strong Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), various actions have been taken, some of them through the courts.
In essence, these dissatisfactions revolve around the insecurity of tenure over their traditional lands, the lack of consultation in matters affecting them, the control of their department by others, and the discrimination in distributive justice.
It would become clear therefore that the Orang Asli are not anti-progress or anti-development. On the contrary, the Orang Asli call for the approach towards their development needs to be reoriented.
Such an approach should centre on forging a new culture of respect, cooperation, freedom and social justice. This should involve reforming the regime of laws, policies and the institutions that have directed the administration of Orang Asli affairs. It would also involve the developing and strengthening of national dispute-resolution arrangements especially in relation to the settlement of Orang Asli claims to land and resource rights.
And in the planning and implementation of development programmes affecting them, it would require that the Orang Asli be consulted. More specifically, and of greater urgency, reforms in the following areas are needed:
Security of Tenure over Customary Lands
As land is pivotal to Orang Asli existence, identity and wellbeing, Orang Asli claims to their customary land must be recognised. Continual residence and economic occupation should suffice to establish Orang Asli title to these lands.
The granting of titles to Orang Asli lands is a matter of urgency as currently only about 17 per cent of all the 776 Orang Asli settlements live are duly gazetted as Orang Asli reserves. The interim measure, therefore, should be to speed up the process of gazetting all the remaining Orang Asli settlements. This should not be difficult since these are areas currently occupied by the Orang Asli, and not generally disputed by others. Any delay in giving Orang Asli some legality of tenure over these areas can lead to disputes over ownership, as is already happening in some settlements.
Accepting that the bureaucratic procedures involved in gazetting Orang Asli reserves can be time-consuming, an initial declaration can be made by the respective state land offices recognising the existence of present Orang Asli settlements. Such declarations would be useful in settling any dispute over land ownership when Orang Asli areas are leased or titled out to others for exploitation. It would also ensure that, in the event of compulsory acquisition of their lands, Orang Asli are equitably compensated for their lands (and not just for their fruit trees or dwellings, as is the practice now).
To retain the identity of Orang Asli communities, all such lands are to be vested in the name of the community. There should therefore be no intermediary agency holding land in the name of the Orang Asli. Strong group rights reduce divisive pressures by maintaining the integrity of Orang Asli lands and reinforcing traditional mechanisms for sharing and distributing group resources. On the other hand, policies which encourage Orang Asli to privatise and sell communal homelands piecemeal would make it easier for developers to obtain land through distress sales.
For Orang Asli, the most obvious and reliable way to earn an income is through economic control and sustainable exploitation of the resources on their own lands. Every effort should therefore be given to assist the Orang Asli in obtaining full title to their lands, as well as rights to the resources above and below those lands.
While Orang Asli resource rights are, to a large degree, recognised by the Aboriginal Peoples Act, the same recognition is not accorded by various other agencies such as the Forestry Department and the District Office. The timber, sand and fruits of the Orang Asli, among other resources, are frequently exploited by non-Orang Asli who often have the permission of these agencies. Orang Asli not only have no share in the extraction of such resources but they also have to bear the burden of environmental destruction of the their lands that come in the wake of these activities. For this reason, encroachments into Orang Asli lands, whether officially sanctioned or not, are to be stopped immediately.
Policies alone provide no guarantee to the Orang Asli that their wellbeing and advancement would be assured. Safeguards for their rights can only be guaranteed if they are enshrined in the Constitution and legal framework of the country. While it is accepted that any reform will undoubtedly involve a long and meticulous process, such reform can no longer be postponed. Basically, what is needed is to turn the policy reforms discussed above into law.
It should be equally important to ensure that the reforms, once incorporated into the Constitution and other legislations (such as the Aboriginal Peoples Act and the National Land Code), should take precedence over conflicting provisions found in other laws (such as the National Forestry Act and the Land Conservation Act).
Orang Asli are not anti-development, as often alleged by the government. On the contrary, they have frequently requested for various forms of assistance, especially for improvements in the quality of life - in areas of health, education, human capital formation and infrastructure.
Alternative development strategies must reflect the needs of the Orang Asli and their specific social and physical environments. For example, aboriculture could be developed for communities undergoing the transition from traditional, subsistence-oriented economies to more settled, agriculture-based communities.
The preferential treatment status accorded to the Orang Asli in Article 8(5)(c) of the Constitution should also be applied.
The right to affirmative action should be transformed into actual programmes and opportunities. For example, positive discrimination in economic projects affecting or involving Orang Asli traditional areas (such as eco-tourism projects, trading in forest products and alternative agriculture) as well as preferential status in business opportunities, educational placings and job placements should be instituted.
Every encouragement and assistance should also be given to Orang Asli efforts to uplift their economic position through their own cooperatives, foundations or other such bodies.
The integration of Orang Asli with the mainstream national society should be a natural process without any attempt to set artificial targets or to apply dominant perceptions of what constitutes "integration."
Successful adaptation of the Orang Asli to new circumstances can best be handled by the Orang Asli if they are encouraged to retain their indigenous customs as this would enhance maintenance of their ethnic identity and their stability as a productive unit.
Development efforts should be directed towards the Orang Asli, not for the sake of achieving "integration" into the mainstream, but simply because they are a community deserving such assistance.
Recognising that much of the social and economic decisions affecting Orang Asli are situated in the political realm, Orang Asli representation in politics should be increased. The sole seat in the Senate reserved for Orang Asli is inadequate representation. There should be provisions for representation in Parliament and the State Assemblies as well. This can be done through elections in seats where Orang Asli represent a sizeable section in the constituency, or through appointment.
The Orang Asli community should not be more controlled than any other community in the country. Doing so merely extends the perception that the Orang Asli are wards of the government, incapable of leading their own lives.
Regulations delegating traditional power to the authorities (such as the appointment of headmen and the control of entry into Orang Asli settlements) should be restored to the community. In general, Orang Asli should be allowed to maintain the social order within their community. And in all other matters affecting the Orang Asli, there should be consultation and consensus-seeking by the parties concerned.
Reform of JHEOA
Responsibility for developing the Orang Asli should not be the sole responsibility of the JHEOA. Instead a multi-agency approach should be adopted, with a special Orang Asli unit set up in each of these agencies to attend to the social and economic needs of the Orang Asli.
The JHEOA itself is to be revamped, with greater Orang Asli control and involvement, and with greater powers to effect recommendations and programmes. As a federal agency, the JHEOA should occupy itself primarily with getting the respective states to grant permanent tenure to Orang Asli lands.
The role of the JHEOA should also be restructured so that it acts as a watchdog body to ensure that policies and programmes for the advancement and wellbeing of the Orang Asli are implemented. Among its other functions would be to look into Orang Asli grievances and to resolve disputes with other agencies or non-Orang Asli.
Need for Political Priority
The above policy reforms are not unworkable. Everything hinges on the political priority accorded to the genuine advancement and wellbeing of the Orang Asli. For example, much of the funds devoted to the "spiritual development" of the Orang Asli - estimated at 20 million ringgit (US$5 million) over the past three years - could have been better applied to more tangible developmental projects.
The call for Orang Asli to hold decision-making positions in the JHEOA is also feasible as there are sufficient numbers of Orang Asli today who are qualified to do so.
Orang Asli calls for security of tenure to their lands can also be effected easily since most of the present settlements are being occupied by Orang Asli and are not disputed by others. It is not as if the Orang Asli are demanding new land areas to be gazetted as theirs.
Legally, too, there are provisions in the Federal Constitution to regard the Orang Asli as a federal matter, allowing the authorities to invoke this clause in the event of administrative obstacles faced at state levels, especially in the area of land alienation.
In conclusion, it must be stressed that many of the policy reforms suggested above involve no large additional financial cost; they merely require a dose of political resolve - and more active mobilization on the part of the Orang Asli.
photos by Antares