COAC named UN (Malaysia) Organisation of the Year

Published: 27 October 2011

Keiisha, Kar Lye and Jenita receiving the award from Mr. Kamal Malhotra of UN-Malaysia and YB Richard Riot, the Deputy Foreign Minister.

Keiisha, Kar Lye and Jenita receiving the award from Mr. Kamal Malhotra of UN-Malaysia
and YB Richard Riot, the Deputy Foreign Minister.

At the UN Day event where COAC was named the organisation of the year by the United Nations in Malaysia, some individuals decided to walk out during the acceptance speech of Colin Nicholas, the coordinator of COAC. And we don't think it was because it was already past the scheduled end of the event (4.30pm).

(Some of) those who remained, however, including those from the foreign embassies, gave an encouraging ovation at the end of it.

The full speech is given below so that you can see for yourself whether you would have walked out, boo-ed or applauded.



Full verbatim text of Colin's acceptance speech:

"This is the first award, or public acknowledgment of this nature, that the center has been honoured with.

When Mr. Kamal (the UN Resident Coordinator in Malaysia) called me the other day about it, I was reluctant, to say the least, to accept it on behalf of the center. But he was very persuasive and it did occur to me that it would sound arrogant on our part to turn down this kind gesture of UN-Malaysia.

After all, he did emphasize that the award was not for an individual but for the organisation.

Believe me, I had thought hard for some days after that conversation, as to whether I made the right decision in accepting the honour. Even my colleagues here did not know of the award until a few hours ago.

My main concern is that it does seem inappropriate to accept this honour especially when the work we set out to do is still unfinished, and our wider objectives are not yet realised.


The Real Issues

The Orang Asli, as you know, despite making up only 0.7 per cent of the national population, account for about 20 per cent of the nation’s hardcore poor.

But what we find more disturbing is the observation that, over the past two decades or so, the psychological and mental health of the Orang Asli has rapidly deteriorated. The Orang Asli are not as cheerful and confident as they were in the recent past.

We attribute this occurrence to the absence of the human dimension in the development programmes foisted on them. People are not the focus here, when they should be.

The real issues and problems the Orang Asli face are therefore not economic or material. Their poverty and their marginalisation are in fact manifestations of a bigger indicative root. This is the political and operational denial of the right of the Orang Asli, to a level and nature of development of their own choosing, on their own terms, and on their own land.

In other words, their right to self-determination.



Humanizing Development

For sure, you cannot expect to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When they are still treated as wards of the government requiring welfare aid “from the womb to the tomb”.
  • Or when you spend RM200 million for 209 village water filtration systems that for the most part do not work as planned even after 1½ years;
  • Or when you misrepresent, and sometimes even lie, about what the Orang Asli want and are saying;
  • Or when you cut down the forest lands of the Orang Asli, and then give it to somebody else to plant rubber or oil palm – and still tell the world we do not clear new forests for our mono-crop agricultural expansion, nor take away indigenous lands;


No, it is not possible to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When the development model for them is founded on a programme to change their culture, their mindset and their spirituality;
  • Or when you have young children dying of diseases that are easily, and cheaply, treatable;
  • Or when you fail to recognise the rights of the Orang Asli to their traditional lands and territories, even though the highest courts in our land have done so;


It is not possible to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When the Prime Minister has yet to respond or even acknowledge the Orang Asli memorandum to him, which was delivered in the presence of 2,000 plus Orang Asli in Putrajaya in March last year;
  • Or when, for example, a senior police officer, as part of a ‘community policing activity’ in an Orang Asli village in Gua Musang, campaigns for the national ruling party. And at the same time, accuses the young Orang Asli community organisers of usurping the powers of the headmen in protesting against the logging, when in actual fact it was the headmen themselves who were against the logging;


No, it is not possible to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When you have the Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan still insisting that the Orang Asli in his state are nomadic and need to settle down permanently;
  • Or when you have elected representatives, like the one in Kelantan recently, asking the Orang Asli not to follow (‘ikut’) the pro bono lawyers from the Bar Council because they are not a government body, and that they were Indian and Chinese lawyers who had brought a “bad name” to Malaysia;


No, you cannot expect to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When a significant slice of the Orang Asli budget is spent on expensive re-branding and public relations campaigns, to project the government and the department in a good light. On the contrary, the Orang Asli’s testimony and genuine gratitude for any well-executed project would be much better and credible PR material, and for free as well.


You cannot expect to achieve true humanizing development for the Orang Asli:

  • When the new 5-year Strategic Development Plan for the Orang Asli ignores the fundamental rights-based principles that are enshrined in the 1961 Statement of Policy Regarding the Administration of the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia;
  • This includes the right not to be moved from their traditional areas without their full consent; and the right to retain their own customs, political systems, laws and institutions.


These are the same rights, amongst others, that are enshrined in the UNDRIP – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – that Malaysia has endorsed, but which the government has not taken any action to disseminate, let alone apply, it.


Main cause

In our opinion, the failure to apply the UNDRIP principles into the development strategy for the Orang Asli, accounts for the slow achievement levels (of humanizing development), and also for the current psychologically-depressing situation the Orang Asli are in today.

Certainly, in the context of the Orang Asli, there can be no real humanizing development if there was no element of self-determination incorporated. Or without having their full involvement and participation, based on the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

The same would apply for other marginalised sectors such as the homeless, the disabled, the urban poor, the contract workers, and other indigenous groups like the Penans in Sarawak and the Orang Sungai in Sabah.


What we need to do

Surveys, questionnaires, statistical analyses and departmental reports are not sufficient to give you a true picture of the Orang Asli reality. We need to listen to the Orang Asli. We need to engage with them as equals. We also need to differentiate those Orang Asli who are in it for their own gain.

The resolution of the Orang Asli problem lies in it not being considered as an issue of welfare or development. But of justice.



Premature honour

I have said earlier that this award for the center is in a way premature as the Orang Asli ‘problem’ still persists. And there is still a lot of work to be done.

The award however comes at a time when we could do with a welcome boost to our morale. It will certainly inspire us to continue to trudge the long journey ahead with the required focus and integrity.

I know that one is expected to be gracious and say nice things at functions that honour one’s work. But, as I said earlier, this is the first time we are being thrust into this scenario and I hope you will forgive our inexperience.

The Orang Asli would surely say that I should be more courteous and respectful, and I apologise for not being so.

If I have offended any individual or organisation, please know that it is not my intention to do so. I am only taking this opportunity to echo what courageous and concerned Orang Asli leaders and villagers have said, time and time again, in different fora and media.

The honour today has been given to the center as an organisation. We are not a membership-based society. Rather, we are just a very small centre.

But we have many friends, collaborators, and volunteers, both Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli, who, while they may not associate themselves with COAC, are people on whom we rely heavily for getting our work done. We see this award as also a recognition of their contribution.

So once again to UN Malaysia, on behalf of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, I thank you for the very kind and unexpected honour."


27 October 2011



Here's the full text of the citation:

"The Center for Orang Asli Concerns is being recognised for its long-standing commitment to advocating the rights of the Orang Asli. The center has been wholly dedicated to articulating Orang Asli concerns since its establishment in 1989.

It works to advance the cause of the Orang Asli through the greater dissemination of Orang Asli news and views, assisting in court cases involving Orang Asli rights, and through research to develop arguments for lobbying and advocacy.

Working with other Orang Asal groups, the center facilitates Orang Asli initiatives for self-development, sustainable livelihoods and in defense of their rights, and supports those who want to promote such initiatives. It focuses on Orang Asli communities who want to exercise autonomy and control over their social situations, their traditional territories and their future, but are unable to do so fully because of factors beyond their control. The center maintains its independence by not applying for, or receiving, any form of institutional funding. 

The search committee in selecting the Center for Orang Asli Concerns for the UN award 2011 stressed that it has been impressed by the quiet, yet determined and sensitive manner in which the center has worked with unwavering integrity and independence in a critical area for Malaysian development. The center’s contribution has been distinctive and unique in the Malaysian context at national level and has had positive impacts at all levels: local with Orang Asli communities, national in terms of land rights issues and other policy matters, and international since they have both published internationally and are often quoted as the definitive source on Orang Asli issues.

The search committee also felt the focus of Orang Asli issues was timely and a good message for the UN in Malaysia to send in 2011 since not only are the Orang Asli now the most marginalised and vulnerable community in Malaysia, but the Suhakam land rights public hearings and forthcoming report, and the government's desire to amend the Orang Asli Act, together with the 2011 UN Award, should serve to bring more attention in a constructive manner to Orang Asli concerns and issues, and hopefully help their early and appropriate resolution."