A Brief Introduction
Published: 20 August 2012
THE ORANG ASLI
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 (officially) 18 ethnic subgroups generally classified for official purposes under Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. They numbered 178,197 in 2010 representing a mere 0.6 per cent of the national population (28 million).
The members of the Proto-Malay (or Aboriginal Malay) subgroups, 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.
Of the 869 Orang Asli communities in the peninsula, 37.2 per cent are in interior/forest areas while 61.4 per cent are in forest-fringe or rural areas. Only 1.4 per cent of the Orang Asli settlements are in, or close to, urban centers. Many of the communities living live close to, or within forested areas – including Semai, Temiar, Chewong, Jah Hut, Semelai and Semoq Beri – still engage in swiddening (hill rice cultivation) and do some hunting, fishing 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 Batek) are still semi-nomadic, preferring to take advantage of the seasonal bounties of the forest. A significant number of Orang Asli also have salaried jobs or are self-employed.
Nevertheless, one fact remains the same for all Orang Asli: they are the descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the peninsula and they have retained much of their identity which is distinct from the mainstream society.
There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among some Orang Asli groups. 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 CE.
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.
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 last 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 was often taken to mean ‘slave’ or ‘dependent’. Many Orang Asli elders still remember this sad period of their history, and all Orang Asli detest being called Sakai.
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 began in the 1950s and 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 and one where it was a matter of “having other more important things to worry about”.
A rather detailed report in 1936 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.
In the early years the insurgents received much help and supplies from (mainly Chinese) 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 these two groups. 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.
Later, realizing their folly, and recognizing 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.
This period also saw the first important attempt at legislation to protect the Orang Asli. The Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance of 1954 (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 formally 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 Orang Asli support for the insurgents waned. This waning support for the insurgents prompted massacres of Orang Asli who were thought to be on the government’s side. The Emergency formally ended in 1960. 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.
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 recognize 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, according to a narrow reading of the Act, the best security to land 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 appears to lay 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. This is despite the preamble of the Act stating that it is to be “An Act to provide for the protection, well-being and advancement of the aboriginal peoples of West Malaysia”!
As such, during the mid-1970s when communist insurgents revived their war with the government (sometimes called the ‘Second Emergency’) efforts were made by the JHEOA to persuade Orang Asli 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 Semai communities – with a total population of 1,284 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.
More recently, however, the call to sedentism has always followed some other ulterior intention. The Orang Asli were being resettled because their lands were needed for some project or by someone, be it an agricultural expansion project, a dam, a new airport, a new development project or even a golf course – invariably always for others.
But perhaps the more distressing effect of regroupment is that the government, through JHEOA agents, begin exercising powers over the regrouped Orang Asli that would not normally be exercised over non-Orang Asli. In essence, the single-most effect of resettlement and regroupment is the loss of the Orang Asli’s political and cultural autonomy which they had always practised and enjoyed in their traditional societies.
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 ‘modernize’ 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, and of course, a loss of Orang Asli autonomy.
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 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.
[It should be added, however, that the current active Islamic missionary activity among the Orang Asli is, in large part, a reaction to the equally active (and somewhat successful) efforts of the Christian missionaries. All missionaries, however, treat the Orang Asli as ‘lost, unsaved souls’ and do not recognize their indigenous religions as being on par with theirs.]
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 (at least in the beginning) 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 many of their requirements.
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 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, often do not rest with the Orang Asli.
The general conclusion is that, after five 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
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, as asserted by the government.
To further aggravate the problem, only about 12 per cent of the 869 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 and especially after the mid-1970s.
Often, Orang Asli reserves are degazetted without their knowledge while long-standing applications for gazetting have gone unheeded for as many as 40 years. In the last decade, for example, 1,062.42 hectares of Orang Asli reserves were degazetted for other purposes, while another 6,932.15 hectares of Orang Asli territories that were approved for gazetting as Orang Asli reserves were not only never gazetted at all but have in fact lost its status as Orang Asli land and reverted to the state!
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 ‘development’ projects. In cases where the Orang Asli are resettled in regroupment schemes, even here there is still no permanent security of tenure – the trend in some states being to give individual 99-year leases to the Orang Asli instead.
Land dispossession 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 example, the Semai in Kampung Sandin, Bidor had their orchards and community lands taken from them under duress only for it to be given to others as part of a group settlement scheme for other non-Orang Asli Bumiputra. The Temuans in Sepang too had to give up their well-established settlements to make way for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. In Stulang Laut in Johor, the Orang Seletar were relocated to make way for a commercial and customs complex and then had their church demolished in the resettlement site because it was built on state land. And the Temuans in Bukit Unggul, Bangi first had to make way for the construction of a university (UKM) on their land, and then had to move again from their resettlement site to make way for a golf course!
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 the 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. 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 licenses 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 licenses shall be issued to persons not being Orang Asli normally resident in the area.
Voicing Out Dissatisfactions
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 should be stated emphatically that the Orang Asli are not anti-progress or anti-development. On the contrary, the Orang Asli also desire the fruits of development but ask that they be consulted before such ‘development’ is foisted on them.
This would require an approach that centres on forging a new culture of respect, cooperation, freedom and social justice. It would involve reforming the regime of laws, policies and the institutions that have directed the administration of Orang Asli affairs thus far. 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.
More specifically, and of greater urgency, reforms in the following areas are needed:
The granting of titles to Orang Asli lands is a matter of urgency as currently only about 12 per cent of all the 869 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, and can be clearly identified on existing maps. 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 recognizing 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 privatize and sell communal homelands piecemeal would make it easier for developers to obtain land through distress sales.
While Orang Asli resource rights are recognized 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 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.
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).
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. At the same time, measures should be taken to ensure that the deserving Orang Asli are the ones who are to benefit.
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 needing and deserving such assistance.
Regulations delegating traditional power to the authorities (such as the appointment of headmen and the apparent 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.
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.
The call for Orang Asli to hold more decision-making positions in the JHEOA, or even to head the department, 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 themselves.