|WRITTEN BY DR BOO CHENG HAU & HELEN ANG|
|THURSDAY, 01 APRIL 2010 00:00|
This article is published at english.cpiasia.net;
Malaysia is the Asia-Pacific’s “best model” in dealing with the rights
of indigenous peoples – or so it is claimed.
On Saturday (incidentally the same day Dr Mahathir Mohamad
launched the Perkasa inaugural congress), BN Member of Parliament
Dr Makcus Mojigoh said, in his paper presented at a regional
conference, that the government is serious about the plight of the Orang
Asli. Really? The Orang Asli don’t think so (seememo).
Mojigoh’s comments follow on the heels of the march by more than
2,000 Orang Asli from all over the country earlier on the 17th of this
month in Putrajaya. They had gathered to demand recognition of their
customary rights to ancestral land – “Tanah kami, maruah kami” was the rallying cry.
The protest is not surprising as the Orang Asli have increasingly been pushed to the margins by
Ketuanan Melayu – since the infamous Malay Dilemma of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and long
Mahathir argued in his 1970 book that the Orang Asli are not the definitive people of the peninsula
as they did not form the first effective government, and moreover “at no time did they outnumber
Furthermore, he brushed off the notion that Orang Asli might have prior claims above “the right of
the Malays to regard the Malay peninsula as their own country …” and cited his own reading of
history to bolster the Malay contention.
Today, learning from school textbooks, pupils would be left with the impression that Malaysian
history started from the Malaccan Sultanate, and that before the conversion to Islam of the prince
Parameswara, the country was some kind of no-man’s land.
The Malay Dilemma also contended that “in fact, there are no more than a few thousand
aborigines”. Contrary to Mahathir’s assertion rubbishing their numbers, in 1969 there were 52,943
Orang Asli are not a single ethnic group but collectively composed of 18 (official) tribes. The
biggest grouping is classed Senoi, who are the Semai, Temiar, Jah Hut, Che Wong, Mah Meri and
Semoq Beri tribes, while two other groupings are Negrito and proto-Malay. All are indigenous
people (Dentan et al: 9).
Similar to apartheid
According to historians, Orang Asli had been victims of the slave trade by the Malays and Bataks.
Despite official denials of slavery, Orang Asli oral literature has indeed recorded slave raids.
The English colonial official J.W.W. Birch had documented their enslavement since as early as
1874 (Yang: 104).
Totalling some 147,500 persons in 2003, Orang Asli comprise about 0.6 percent of the population,
and are disenfranchised on many counts.
Commenting on the demonstration in Putrajaya, Suhakam vice-chairman Simon Sipaun said: “It is
expected that the Orang Asli community would protest as they have been marginalised in a system
similar to apartheid”.
Previously in South Africa, the white Afrikaner nationalists used an ideology almost identical to that
propounded by Mahathir to justify their own indigenous status above the black Khoisan, whom
according to the white supremacists, had never established a ‘civilised government’.
If one were to look at Article 153 of our federal constitution, it says that the ‘special position’
is extended only to Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Omitting mention of the Orang
Asli in the said article excludes them from the guarantee of quotas.
[But] ‘We are not Malays, we will always be Orang Asli’ – declare the placards hoisted in
Putrajaya on March 17. How then?
‘Refugees’ in own country
Not too long ago on Feb 24, a group of Orang Asli held a demonstration outside the Orang Asli
Affairs Department (JHEOA) hospital in Gombak. Speaking to reporters, their spokesman Sokyen
Man said the hospital is dominated by non-Orang Asli who are incapable of fulfilling the needs of
The group submitted a petition against the hospital which said, among other things: “A lot of us
have faced medical staff who are uncomfortable with the Orang Asli. Sometimes, they pass
comments on our features and skin colour.” This particular complaint infers that they are
considered an ‘out group’ or ‘inferior group’ (implied by the derogatory connotations of ‘sakai’)
by the mainstream.
The term ‘Orang Asli’ was first used by the post-Independence federal government and means
‘the original people’. Colin Nicholas of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) notes,
“one fact remains the same for all Orang Asli: they are the descendants of the earliest inhabitants
of the peninsula.”
It is they whose fate could well be equated with that of aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New
Zealand and Native Americans in the United States. This is a more compelling comparison than
Utusan Malaysia’s constant, tiresome refrain that Malays are like Palestinians in their own homeland.
It is the Orang Asli who are akin to displaced refugees!
Most destitute group
Going by any socio-economic indicator, the Orang Asli are the
worst off among all the local ethnic groups. About half live below
the poverty line – according to the government’s most recent
statistics. Relative to the other races, their children are
malnourished and have high infant mortality rate; and Orang
Asli have a lower life expectancy.
PKR Pahang Orang Asal affairs chairman Suhaimi Said said he
knew of Orang Asli villagers in his state who survive by
scavenging at rubbish dumps and sourcing food from the trash.
“They live without water or electricity supply and rely on swamps for drinking and bathing
water,” revealed Suhaimi when contacted by Malaysiakini recently.
Their basic needs have not been catered to and the many Malaysia economic plans relaying
amenities and infrastructure to the rural areas have bypassed them.
A bitter irony is that the authorities insist on perpetuating the myth that Orang Asli are ‘nomadic’.
According to Robert Dentan, most of the Orang Asli have in fact settled in stable lifestyles
although a small number remain semi-nomadic.
There are about 870 Orang Asli settlements (as at December 2003) mainly in Pahang, Perak
and Kelantan. More than 500 of these villages are considered to be located in the fringe and
323 in the interior. About 400 villages are categorized as ‘backward’.
If at all Orang Asli can be regarded as nomadic foragers roaming in the forest or “tanah rayau”
– a dismissive phraseology adopted by the government – it is this very government that is
forcing them to move from place to place.
The Temuans in Sepang and Bangi had their land taken from them to build KLIA and UKM
respectively. In Stulang Laut in Johor, the Orang Seletar were relocated to make way for a
commercial and customs complex.
Need for self-determination
Source: Center for Orang Asli Concerns
The “regroupment” – an euphemistic official doublespeak – of Orang Asli settlements has resulted
in even their resettlements again giving way to logging, mining concessions, highway projects,
industrial parks and golf courses (Dentan et al: 7).
The federal government expects to table amendments to the National Land Act in Parliament
by June. It is learned that the new legislation will give the Orang Asli only 50,000 hectares of the
128,000-ha land they live on (see table), which ultimately amounts to “a policy of planned poverty”.
The Bar Council has recommended the following legal measures on the Orang Asli land issues to
empower the community:
(1) the issuance of individual land titles to every indigenous family;
(2) the gazetting of communal land parcels by the State Governments under Section 62 of the
National Land Code 1965;
(3) the gazetting of communal land parcels under the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 with perpetual
and unlimited foraging rights extending beyond the gazetted communal land parcels; and
(4) in exceptional cases of certain semi-nomadic indigenous communities, who are the most
vulnerable of indigenous peoples, perpetual and unlimited foraging rights (with concomitant
and greater opportunities for education and vocational training towards sustaining their livelihood).
The authorities tend to take a narrow reading of the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 (revised 1974)
and regard the Orang Asli’s rights to their land as being one of ‘tenant-at-will’. And that their right
to remain in a particular area is at the pleasure of the state authority which can, if it so wishes,
remove the Orang Asli from their lands without having to pay compensation for it.
The courts, especially in the Sagong Tasi case, have however deemed such thinking as archaic and
unconstitutional. The Orang Asli do exercise native title rights over their traditional lands under
common law. But it appears the government is not about to accept this legal precedent.
Writing in Aliran, Yogeswaran Subramaniam observes, “If past records are anything to go by,
the states’ performance for gazetting Orang Asli reserves has been nothing short of dismal”.
The policy that the government is now putting on the table does not recognise customary lands
but instead proposes to change the face of Orang Asli land into plantations. Orang Asli who
accept the government’s deal offering 50,000 ha (amounting to just over one hectare per
household and with no forests) will not be able to bring any claims later to the courts for customary
lands or loss of such lands.
The Aliran article calculated that even assuming Orang Asli want to operate oil palm smallholdings
at one hectare, each household will only be able to produce around 15 tonnes annually. The cash
crop sold at RM500 a tonne would bring net earnings of RM5,000 a year, or average income
of just over RM400 a month – a poverty level income!
The Orang Asli are a vulnerable minority who have been physically removed from their traditional
source of livelihood in the forests. Government coercion has additionally caused the erosion of
their traditions, customs and values – and its attendant side-effect of mental stress.
They did not venture to the swanky Putrajaya for “school-holiday sightseeing” as gibed by the
condescending Rural Development Minister Shafie Apdal. The Orang Asli descended on the
administrative capital because the community has reached a crisis level.
Dentan, Robert Knox, Kirk Endicott, Alberto G. Gomes and M.B. Hooker, ‘Malaysia
and the Original People’, Needham Heights, Allyn and Bacon, 1997.
Mahathir Mohamad, ‘The Malay Dilemma’, Times Books International, Singapore and
Kuala Lumpur, 1970.
Mahathir Mohamad, ‘The Way Forward’, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998.
Mohamed Suffian bin Hashim, Tun, ‘An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia’,
2dn Ed., Kuala Lumpur, Government Printers, 1976.
Nicholas, Colin in ‘Aliran Monthly’, 1998, Volume 18(1)
Yang, Pei Keng, ‘The Other Side of the Story’ (Chinese Edition), Kuala Lumpur,
Yogeswaran Subramaniam, “Proposed Orang Asli land policy: Planned poverty?”
in Aliran.com, 2010, March
Related articles:Lawatan ke kampung Orang Asli Pasir Salam, Ulu Tiram