Acting On The Knowledge: Seeking Recognition for Malaysia's Orang Asal

Published: 06 December 2005



Seeking Recognition for Malaysia’s Orang Asal

Colin Nicholas

Keynote Address presented at the "National Conference on Communities, Cultures and Change in Malaysia – Indigeneity, Identity and Social Transformation", organised by the Kadazandusun Chair and the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, 6-7 December 2005.


My sincere thanks to the School of Social Sciences and the Kadazandusun Chair for inviting me to present this keynote address. I must commend the organisers, especially Prof. Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan, for doing the unorthodox and inviting a non-academic to do the honour. This invitation reassures me that our universities are not totally closed to free dialogue and exchange of views. 

When I asked Dr. Jacqueline earlier if there were any constraints as to what I can or cannot say in my paper, her reply was: "Just say what you think is right."

This was most refreshing especially since only a few months earlier, when presenting an invited paper at an "international conference on the indigenous people" organised by the University of Malaya, I was accused by an academic from the floor of unfairly using the avenue of the conference to 'hantam' (slam/attack) the government.

Having said this, I should add that I feel a heavy responsibility has been placed on me this morning, especially if I am to fulfil the trust of the many Orang Asal (indigenous) individuals present today. I will try.

Discrimination and the Orang Asli
Malaysia practices discrimination. It is so pervasive and so plain to the person in the street that it has become internalised and accepted in the mindsets of Malaysians. But say this to an ‘enlightened' and 'educated’ audience and you are likely to be warned of the Sedition Act or be called a traitor, a racist, or even worse.

But the reality remains that Malaysia practices discrimination. And this is most clearly attested by the fact that we have different categories and policies for Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera Malaysians.

Saying so is not to make a value judgement on whether such a dichotomy of our citizenry is right or wrong. Or whether positive discrimination, as in the practise of affirmative action policies, is both good and necessary in our context. I personally feel that special treatment for members of disadvantaged groups is justifiable – but only as long as the discrimination and inequality persists. However, this is not the venue for a discussion on the matter.
My aim here is to show how discrimination as practised in our country actually acts against the interests of the other indigenous Bumiputeras. A simple test to demonstrate this is to juxtapose the privileges and rights enjoyed by the Malay community as the standard to assess those enjoyed by the Orang Asli and other indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak, on the basis that all are Bumiputera communities.

For example, in the maintenance, development and regard for Orang Asli identity (including their culture, language and religion), a clear gap is evident. In brief, Orang Asli identity markers do not get the same protection and regard as those of the Malays. For when you have, for example, 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” (JHEOA 1961, 1993), you cannot place the Orang Asli on the same level as the dominant Bumiputera ethnic group to which it is supposed to assimilate into.

Discrimination in 'protections'
Furthermore, with the expressed objective to convert all Orang Asli to Islam (JHEOA 1983), and the absence of credible state-sponsored actions to protect and promote Orang Asli traditions, territories, and languages, you cannot justify the claim that all Bumiputeras are treated equally. On the contrary, for the Malay Bumiputera, state support for these are not only institutionalised and heavily sponsored but also regarded as a given right, and often vehemently defended.

The disparity in protections also extents to more material aspects of Orang Asli and Native concerns, especially in the security of tenure of their traditional lands. Orang Asli reserves (and, as it is becoming increasingly evident lately, NCR lands in Sabah and Sarawak as well) do not enjoy the same legal tenurial security as does Malay reservation lands. (Try de-gazetting Malay reservation land without the inhabitants’ consent and see what happens?)

On the other hand, Orang Asli gazetted reserves are habitually de-gazetted without even the constitutional provisions being adhered to, or with the knowledge, let alone consent, of the Orang Asli. In Selangor state, for example, between 1990 and 2002, a total of 7,994.5 hectares of Orang Asli reserves and approved lands were de-gazetted without consent or adequate notice.

Individual states have also promised to give land titles to Orang Asli. Perak, for example, promised to do so by 1990. Needless to say, this is yet another empty promise. Nevertheless, even when such land titles are given, as in Pahang in more recent years, this is on condition that they resettle to sites that routinely constitute about a quarter of their original traditional land areas. And their ‘land titles’ (for an area of 4 to 6 acres per household) are actually temporary occupational leases for 99 years.

Compare this to originally-landless Felda applicants who apply to be settlers and are given land, in perpetuity, on plots that are 8 to 10 acres in size, the minimum acreage deemed by the experts to be necessary to keep an agricultural household above the poverty line. The Dayaks and Orang Ulu who were displaced by the Bakun Dam, if you recall, only received 3 acres each – and had to fork our RM51,000.00 for their respective units in their wooden longhouses. Why the discrimination?







The Orang Asal include the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and the Native Peoples of Sabah (Anak Negeri) and Sarawak (Dayak and Orang Ulu).                            

Political Dominance
There are several reasons why Orang Asli and the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak (collectively called Orang Asal) are able to be discriminated against. But ultimately it boils down to who stakes, and wields, political dominance today.

That the Malays have political dominance today cannot be disputed. And it is frequently asserted that the Malay claim to political dominance is based on their indigeneity – which is asserted as a legitimate foundation for staking political dominance. This rationale however does not extent to the Orang Asli – the ‘First’ or ‘Original’ Peoples of the peninsula – and the Natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

While the Orang Asli can also stake their claim as the indigenes of this land, they however do not enjoy the accompanying political clout that such indigeneity should bring. That is to say, while they are accepted as Natives or Indigenes, they are not recognised as the political masters of the land. That this is so can be gleaned from the pronunciations of two of our former Prime Ministers:

Tunku Abdul Rahman, The Star (6 November 1986):
“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.”

Mahathir Mohamad, Malay Dilemma (1981: 73):
“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”.

So it appears that the criteria for political dominance – that is, the prerequisites for controlling your life and those of others – are: a civilised society, numerical superiority, and self-accordance and assertion of recognition.

Having now established numerical superiority, and having asserted and claimed recognition as the indigenes of this country, it only remains for the Malays to ensure the perpetuation of the myth that the Orang Asli and other native peoples are still the uncivilised, anti-development, nomadic, isolated pagans in need of administrative intervention. Some of these perceptions were repeated by high level officials as recent as the past month (e.g. ‘Resettling Orang Asli’, New Straits Times, 27.10.2005).

It has to be mentioned however that the Orang Asli were never always a subjugated people. During the turbulent formation of the Malay sultanates, Orang Laut help was sought to prop up the sultanates in Malacca and Johor. Hang Tuah himself was said to be of Orang Laut origin. In Negeri Sembilan, the position of the Biduanda tribes were ensconced in the Adat Perpatih such that the Batins (Orang Asli chiefs) had more than a mere ceremonial role in the institution of the ruling Undangs. And then of course, there is the Legend of the White Semang which relates how the first Sultan of Perak took an Orang Asli (‘Semang’) wife.

It is not within the scope of this paper to go into the ‘rise and fall’ of the Orang Asli in early modern Malaysian history. Rather, for our purpose here, it should be noted that, going both by the exhortations of our national leaders and in the realpolitik of today, the Orang Asli (and it follows, the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak) today are not recognised as the indigene of this land.

Without Power and in Poverty
And without the attendant aspects that come along with the status of a people in power, it is not surprising that the Orang Asal rate as among the most marginalised and disadvantaged in Malaysian society today. For example, while the national poverty level had dropped remarkably to 6.5 per cent in 2004, more than three-quarters (76.5 per cent) of the Orang Asli still live below the poverty line. The other social indicators (health, education, access to basic facilities, etc) all show that the Orang Asal rate far behind the Malaysian mainstream (Nicholas 2000 & 2005; Nicholas & Baer, forthcoming). Without doubt, the Orang Asal meet Chamber’s (1983) definition of the poor as being a combination of five elements: insufficient reserves of cash and food, physical debility and illness, isolation, vulnerability in the face of the unexpected, and a lack of influence.

But the Orang Asal are not just ‘poor’ in the socio-economic sense. They are also ‘the people’ as defined in Chamber (1983), namely: those who are invisible and unknown, those who do not speak, those who are the last in line, and those who are forgotten.

As such, the Orang Asal, i.e. ‘the people’, are at one extreme of the social spectrum; at the other being those who are visible, those who expound, those who determine the playing fields, and those whose presence dominate the landscape – i.e. the world of developers and researchers, of decision-makers and intellectuals, and of politicians and entrepreneurs.

I should add, however, that despite the high level of poverty among the community, this has not dented the rise in the number of Orang Asal businessmen who have bettered their economic situation at the expense of the community, through contracts and projects in Orang Asal areas, obtained on the “merit” of their good relations with the authorities and on the strength of their Orang Asal identity. This is especially evident in the Orang Asli context where these Orang Asli Baru – or to borrow the phrase of Brian Barry (2001: 21), these ‘ethnocultural political entrepreneurs’ – use the ‘politics of difference’ to exploit its potential for their own ends by mobilizing a constituency around a set of sectional demands.

But the fact remains that the majority of the ordinary Orang Asal folk live on the margins and are kept on the margins. The questions to ask then are how are we to bring them to the fore? How can we make them visible to those in power and those who have (political, economic, academic) power? And who is to do this?

Also, we need to ask why, despite a vast amount of research and literature on Orang Asal issues and situations, these indigenous peoples remain the most marginalised and poorest in Malaysia today.

How & Who?
Maybury-Lewis (1996: 8-9, 38) reminds us that indigenous cultures and indigenous livelihoods are not extinguished by natural laws but by political processes that are susceptible to human control. Indigenous peoples, then, are victims of the convenient use of power against the relatively powerless. It may sound cliché but it follows that the first task then would be to empower indigenous peoples such that they are able to exact recognition of their status and consequently achieve self-determination and self-development.

But who is to do this? And how?

The actors that come to mind are several. They include the Orang Asli themselves, their networks and their political movements. And they are doing it themselves already. Non-governmental and other advocacy organisations also have a role to play, as do the media, the peoples’ elected representatives, and even the ordinary citizen. The scope of this paper does not allow me to dwell in detail on these actors. I shall, however, focus on one category that, in my opinion, has had the most impact, or can have the most impact in influencing the people who decisions affect the Orang Asal and their lives.

These are the academics, the intellectuals, the experts, and the development agents who directly or indirectly relate with the powers-that-be or their functionaries. How this group perceives the Orang Asal and the Orang Asal problem can be instrumental in determining whether the Orang Asal are able to regain some control over their lives, their livelihoods and their traditional territories.

Rethinking Development Activities
One of the most common and most impactful activities to be foisted on the lives of the Orang Asli is exogenous development, sometimes implemented for their direct benefit but most times a consequence of the development needs of others. And development agents are at the fore-front of this universal activity.

However, as Olivier de Sardan (2005: 205) asserts, the classic methods of training development agents do not prepare them for a future role as mediators between indigenous and modern paradigms. Instead the training teaches them to look down on the indigenous peoples as ‘ignoramuses’. Or passes off old-world imperialism as modern-day ‘development’. This according to Arnfred (1998: 77) manifests itself in five characteristics of present day development practice:

1.   The “they-have-the-problem-we-have-the-solution” approach;
2.   Immunity to adverse facts;
3.   The development agent as expert;
4.   The development agent as male; and
5.   The exclusion of indigenous experience and knowledge.

The Orang Asal do not need ‘development’ that destroys their livelihoods or denies them their right to culture, identity and justice. For the Orang Asal, dispossession and displacement from their customary or adat lands – an invariable consequence of modern-day development and modernisation – can never be truly compensated. So when these aspects of their lives are regularly threatened, even when their lives are not at risk, it is to their cultures that they often cling to, in order to give meaning, dignity and security to their lives. Frequently, they assert this with much sentiment and emotion such that ethnic consciousness and common identities are frequently incubated, often to the detriment of the designs of the development agent!

Also, the human dimension in development is frequently absent in development activities when it relates to the Orang Asal in particular. People are not the focus here, and they need to be. For, in the context of the Orang Asal, there can be no real development if there was no element of self-determination involved in the first place. Thus, even if the aim is to conserve the natural environment, it is pertinent that the people should be the focus if the desired goal is to have a chance of being achieved.

The present environmental crisis is, after all, the direct result of human over-consumption, human disruption of natural cycles, and human simplification of ecosystems. Simplification, as Larry Lohman of World Rainforest Movement (WRM-UK) points out, is most evident in the pursuit of development and modernisation, especially in this globalized age.

Thus apart from simplification of ecosystems, there is a trend towards simplification of landscapes, biodiversity, the political system, property rights, research programmes, right down even to the simplification of DNA as in the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This comes with the centralization of the physical, political and legal systems. The same can also be said for social science research especially as it pertains to indigenous peoples: complex societies and cultures are being treated as homogenous simplexes, and people are being treated as mere research objects.

On Doing Research
There is no denying that the Orang Asal are usually treated as mere research objects by a whole host of individuals and teams out to glean information from them, or to use them as temporary research assistants or data-gatherers. Invariably the Orang Asal are the data-givers, but rarely the information-receivers, especially in research efforts such as Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Social Impact Assessments (SIA) that have a direct bearing on their lives in the face of an impeding project in their area.

The motives for doing research are sometimes very disappointing. Recently a post-doctoral researcher revealed to me that the reason for wanting to study the Orang Asli was to improve the researcher’s academic marketability (by having a second subject people in the cv). I also know of several research proposals which were projected as important and necessary projects only to be abandoned when the funding did not come through. Then there were others that were undertaken primarily because the available funds dictated the subject matter.

The current trend towards resorting to rapid appraisals, as opposed to the more lengthy participatory rural appraisals (PRA), is another cause for concern. Clearly the goal of such data-gathering methods is to gather as much information as possible in a short period and then to extrapolate that data into generalised analyses. Anyone who has done a stretch of time in the field will know that in the context of the Orang Asal, no single fortnight can be representative of the community’s calendar year – whether it be in the case of documenting available sources of subsistence food, the sources of cash income, the weather, or even in some cases, the number of people in the household. As such, a quick anthropological overview cannot provide all the answers sought.

Not surprisingly therefore that despite the large anthropological literature on the impact of modernization on indigenous societies, it has contributed relatively little toward the construction of a more adequate theory of human adaptation and culture change. Part of the reason, as Eder (1993: 6-7) contends, rests on the failure to focus clearly on individuals and communities in situations of change – on their wants and needs, on the demands placed on them.

In reality, Orang Asal are capable of doing their own careful research when given proper guidance and encouragement. In fact, Orang Asal have undertaken their own research for a variety of uses, often for advocacy purposes. This includes the drawing of community maps, the recording and transcribing of oral histories, and documentation of various sorts. One research activity – community mapping – was so effective and forceful that at least one state government, Sarawak, saw it necessary to amend its laws to prevent their use in legal suits against the state!

Stakeholders or Rights-holders?
In situations where the management or development of the natural environment is involved, especially if that natural environment is also claimed by the Orang Asal as their customary lands, the negotiations frequently treat the Orang Asal as one of the several stake-holders in the matter. But the Orang Asal are more than mere stakeholders; they are rights-holders. And a rights-based approach should be the proper framework to analyse and assess the Orang Asal. 

Essentially, according to the UNHRD, a rights-based approach integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into the plans, policies and processes of development. The norms and standards are those contained in the wealth of international treaties and declarations. A rights-based approach to development would therefore include the following elements:

• an expressed linkage to rights;
• accountability;
• empowerment;
• participation;
• non-discrimination; and
• attention to vulnerable groups.

According to the United Nations Working Group on the Right to Development (UNWGRD), rights become responsibility when it applies to a marginalized community that is deprived of that right. It becomes the responsibility of the authority responsible for seeing to the maintenance and enjoyment of that right. Thus, with a rights-based approach for the Orang Asal, the authorities are required to demonstrate that Orang Asal rights as enshrined in international documents such as the ILO Convention 169 or the (Draft) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are adhered to.

It may be wishful thinking on my part to think that the rights-based approached would be given to the Orang Asal on a platter, but if those who draw up Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) or other consultancy reports that affect the Orang Asal would just take note of this requirement and implement some part of it, the Orang Asal would be one step closer to their goal of regaining recognition.

Academics, Knowledge and Action
It needs to be said that Governments have failed the Orang Asal very badly, and they have done this frequently and consistently. But academics, consultants and researchers, to a large degree, have not been vocal or vociferous enough to stop this. Perhaps it has to do with the continued belief in the fallacy of ‘working from within’. Or perhaps it is due to a case of base individual self-interest. Alas, it took the courts to tell the authorities that they have treated the Orang Asal shoddily, and to stop making them victims of the authorities’ own incompetence and negligence.

Sadly, I have also had encounters with local academics who saw themselves more as civil servants, out there to promote and protect the government, rather than the critical intellectuals entrusted by society – to improve social and environmental wellbeing, to identify where wrongs are being perpetuated, and to show how to redress such situations.

But, some may say, should not a (social) scientist be neutral and objective? Well, even if it were possible to be a neutral and objective scientist – for one loses objectivity as soon as one chooses to do one area of study over that of another – I have to agree with Wallerstein (2004: 15) in that academics need to move away from an image of the neutral scientist to that of the intelligently concerned scientist.

People, it needs to be repeated, must be the focus of our exertions. (I would argue that it should be children that should be our focus, but this would be bringing in another idea.)

In any case, theorizing, just like history, is never at an end because all our knowledge however valid it seems in the present, is, in a cosmic sense, transitory – because it is tied to the social conditions out of which it is learned and constructed (Wallerstein 2004: 78). Remember how the ‘science’ of Aristotle and Newton held the court in their days? For this reason, it has been suggested that perhaps science itself should be treated as a part of culture!

Even so, indigenous cultures perceive and respond to crisis in many different ways. What is needed, according to Bodley (1985: 11) is perspective – a combination of detachment, a predilection for viewing the total picture in the widest spatial-temporal frame, and a clear recognition of the interrelatedness of social, cultural, biological, and psychological factors. It is especially important to understand how they all fit together.

However, there can be no social analysis that is not historical or political. Or put another way: any social analysis of a people or a social situation must include its history and its political context.

For an intelligent concerned scientist, the mere pursuit of knowledge is not an end in itself. Knowledge must be followed by action. Knowledge and action, however, can be so opposing that the scientist would be severely challenged to make a stand in support of action.

Bachelard, cited in Olivier de Sardan (2005:199), succinctly captures the seeming contradictions between knowledge and action, as follows:

Scientific knowledge is constructed through a continuous, unrelenting fight against error, by means of meticulous criticism, intellectual polemic, theoretical and methodological vigilance, and of constant examination of acquired knowledge. Action, on the other hand comprises arbitration, ambiguities, compromise, wagers, wills and emergencies
Knowledge doubts, while action needs to believe.
Knowledge is purportedly disinterested, while action claims to be up to its elbows in grease.
Knowledge takes time. Action hasn’t got the time.
Knowledge wants to observe social processes. Action wants to orient and control them.

The pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a bad thing in itself. But if knowledge can inform and induce decisive action that can help improve human (and environmental) wellbeing, it would be a better good.

A Common Goal
The Orang Asli and the Native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak are among the most marginalised of Malaysians today. A major reason for this had to do with the fact that the Orang Asal, while accepted as indigenes or Bumiputeras, are not accorded the full political recognition and political power that comes with such status.

Short of a plea to the dominant political community to voluntarily remove the barrier of selective discrimination, the Orang Asal communities are more likely to succeed in seeking recognition if they can garner broad-based sympathy and empathy for their cause.

The Orang Asal, however, must first begin to reclaim such recognition. This implies not just mere political-economic redistribution but the recognition of their rights in order to seek redress and to correct the imbalance.

If this is our goal, we will need to work together on it.

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