Published: 01 March 1997



Colin Nicholas

Paper presented at the “Conference on Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives”, ISEAS, Singapore, 24-27 March 1997. Jointly organised by International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Institut fur Ethnologie, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and Center for Environment, Gender and Development (Engender). Subsequently published in Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou (Ed)(2003), Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives. IIAS-The Netherlands /ISEAS-Singapore, pp. 119-136.

Before 1960, the Orang Asli – as an ethnic category – did not exist. The various indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia did not see themselves as a homogenous group, nor did they consciously adopt common ethnic markers to differentiate themselves from the dominant population. Instead, they derived their micro-identity spatially, identifying with the specific geographical place they lived in. Their cultural distinctiveness was relative only to other Orang Asli communities, and these perceived differences were great enough for each group to regard itself as distinct and different from the other.

This is not to suggest that traditional Orang Asli societies developed in isolation. On the contrary, far from remaining static, they have continually changed and adapted themselves, and their social organisation, to their neighbours. However, with increased contact with the dominant population, it became clear that the various Orang Asli groups had more in common with each other than they did with the dominant population (Carey 1976, p. 6).

It is argued here that Orang Asli homogeneity is more a creation of non-Orang Asli perceptions and ideological impositions than it is self-imposed. Nevertheless as a result of social stress brought about by the implementation of new development paradigms and new political equations, the various Orang Asli communities quickly adopted the ethnic label – largely as a political tool for more effective negotiation. Orang Asli identity however is perceived differently by the Orang Asli themselves, and is utilised variously by different categories of Orang Asli. This gives rise to problems of representation of Orang Asli interests and, consequently, this has implications for the genuine progress of the community.

Giving Orang Asli a Name
Particular ethnic labels and identities had historically been ascribed to indigenous communities by others who wanted to discriminate against them on the grounds of real or assumed ethnic characteristics (Veber and Waehle 1993, p.14). The Orang Asli are no exception.  In the colonial period, the generic terms ‘sakai’ and ‘aborigines’ were commonly used to refer to this group of peoples – terms that carried varying levels of derogatory connotation.

In fact, the term ‘sakai’ continued to be used in popular and official communication well into the late 1950s even though it was despised by the peoples so addressed, as it was used to mean slave or servant. Ironically, it took the communist insurgents, who were then waging a civil war against the Malayan government, to make the authorities realise that a more correct and positive term was necessary if they were to win the hearts and minds of the Orang Asli – and the Emergency of 1948-60. Realising that the insurgents were able to get the sympathy of indigenous inhabitants by referring to them as ‘Orang Asal’ (original peoples) – a term in itself ascribed from the outside – the government, in turn, adopted the next closest term, ‘Orang Asli’ (literally ‘natural people’, but now taken to mean ‘original people’).

Prior to this, anthropologists and administrators referred to the Orang Asli 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 of the sea). Others were descriptive of their perceived characteristics (as in ‘Besisi’ – people with scales, ‘Mantra’ – people who chanted, and ‘Orang Mawas’ – people like apes). Still others were outright derogatory and reflected the assumed superiority of the ‘civilised’ speakers (‘Orang Liar’ – wild men, ‘Pangan’ - people who roast, and ‘Orang Jinak’ – tame men) (Skeat and Blagden 1906, I, pp.19-24; Wilkinson 1971, pp.15-20; Wazir-Jahan 1981, p.13).

Nevertheless, giving Orang Asli names, or analysing the semantics of their given name, have always interested researchers. In 1956, a team from the Department of Aborigines, led by R.O.D. Noone, the Federal Advisor on Aborigines, went to a Jakun village in Terengganu, did their analysis, and promptly pronounced that the people were not what they always considered themselves to be. In retrospect, the newspaper headline of the day is rather comical: “Surprise! These ‘Jakuns’ find that they are really ‘Semoq-Beris’” (The Singapore Standard, 17 October 1956). [1]

More recently, another researcher has related how the Che Wong - or ‘Siwang’ as the earlier researchers referred them - in the Krau Valley got their name (Howell 1984, pp. 12-13). A British forester had requested a Malay forest department worker to ask the people what they were known as. Wrongly thinking that his name (Siwang bin Ahmat) was being asked, the latter was to go down in Orang Asli, or at least Che Wong history, as having a whole classification of people named after him. Howell (personal conversation, 1996) now suggests that there is no point spelling the name as two words, as is done officially, ‘Chewong’ being preferred instead. A local anthropologist however decided to Malay-ise the term, and further shortened it to "Cewong" (Edo 1992, p.21).

And seemingly for tabulation convenience, the 19 official Orang Asli sub-ethnic groups have been reduced to 18 so as to have exactly six sub-ethnic groups under each of the major classifications of Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. The Temoq have apparently disappeared as a people, presumably subsumed under the Proto-Malay Jakun, although anthropologists would rather they be classed under Senoi, for linguistic arguments.

And the trend of late has been to refer to the Negrito groups as Semang in academic writings. In 1952, P.D.R. Williams-Hunt (p. 14) said that no "Negrito" would answer to the term ‘Semang’. My own limited acquaintance with some of these peoples reveal that they still do not answer to, let alone know, the term "Semang" - or for that matter, "Negrito" as well. Some of the Semai, however, still refer to these peoples as Semang, although they admit the term has a derogatory connotation.

Even the generic term ‘Orang Asli’, a term in use since 1960, has seen attempts at change. In 1977, the then Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Ghafar Baba, wanted to reclassify the Orang Asli as ‘Putra Asli’. Educated Orang Asli working in the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) objected to this. In fact, the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM) was mooted largely in response to having to deal with this attempt at renaming them. The term "Orang Asli" was still preferred as it correctly reflected their historical niche.[2]

In 1984, however, the Sultan of Johore, prior to his installation as the Yang DiPertuan Agung, reopened the issue. He declared that the Orang Asli should be referred to as "Bumiputra Asli", arguing that the only reason that they are not Malays is that they are not Muslims (The Star, 26 April 1984).

More significantly, since 1989 there was a conscious effort by the government to regard Orang Asli as Malays. By 1992, newsreports were already emphasising this ‘fact’. Official statistics were also subsuming the Orang Asli under ‘Malay’. And at the launch of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples in December1992, the Malaysian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Razali Ismail, revealed the current position of the government vis-a-vis the Orang Asli: that the Malays and the Orang Asli go back to the same beginnings, but the former left the forests and made their choice towards modernisation (Razali 1993). The implied suggestion is that the Orang Asli are those Malays who did not modernise.

As will be noted, all the semantic activities have come from outside the Orang Asli community. In fact, even the definition of who constitutes an Orang Asli legally was formulated by non-Orang Asli, as in the Aboriginal Peoples Act. This is diametrically opposed to the efforts now being made in the United Nations to accord indigenous peoples the right to self-identification, in line with the Draft International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

And while academics and activists are fond of brandishing the term "tribals", "fourth world", "cultural minorities" and such, the ordinary Orang Asli do not identify himself in this manner. His identity is closely linked to a specific territory, which forms the basis of his material and spiritual being, and his source of physical and emotional sustenance. [3] A Semai in the Buntu catchment of Pahang, for example, would consider himself first as Mai Buntu before he asserts his affiliation with the wider Semai-Senoi ethnic category.

Nevertheless, precisely because of such a highly localised sense of identity, and because the Orang Asli were often concerned with matters that often do not readily correspond with the larger political agenda of the nation state, they were never regarded as a political entity with accompanying clout and inherent rights.  It was such observation that led two Prime Ministers to justify Malay political dominance in Malaysia.

Mahathir Mohamad, the current Prime Minister but writing when he was in political exclusion, held that “the Malays are the rightful owners of Malaya” because

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. There was no known aborigine government or state. Above all, at no time did they outnumber the Malays. It is quite obvious that if today there were four million aborigines, the right of the Malays to regard the Malay Peninsula as their own country would be questioned by the world. But in fact there are no more than a few thousand aborigines (1981, p.126-7)

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first Prime Minister, concurred with him. Responding to suggestions that the Malays, Chinese and Indians were all immigrants to the Peninsula, the Tunku reiterated that

… there could be no doubt that the Malays were the indigenous people of this country because the original inhabitants did not have any form of civilisation compared with the Malays.…[These] inhabitants also had no direction and lived like primitives in mountains and jungles (The Star, 6 November 1986).

Thus, being perceived as without civilisation, without government, without direction, without numbers and, it follows, without a collective name, proved to be the Orang Asli’s political bane.

The State, Capital and the Basis of Orang Asli Discontent
It is not any a priori cultural difference that makes Orang Asli identity so pertinent, but rather the specificity of the power relations at a given historical moment and in a particular place. Invariably, the perception towards the Orang Asli - and the genesis of Orang Asli identity - is closely linked to the current ideologies subscribed to by the state.

It is now evident that the history of Orang Asli incorporation and development is in many ways a history of justifications of the different powers that were in political control. Thus, at different times, different capitalisms related to the Orang Asli differently.

For example, the Orang Asli were largely left alone during the British Colonial period. But this was only because the British colonised Malaya with capital rather than its people (as it did in Australia and Northern America). At most, the Orang Asli became excellent subjects for the zeal of Christian missionary activity or stimulating objects for anthropological pursuit. Ethnographers and administrators, who wanted to situate the ‘tribes’ of a region conveniently on a map, felt it pertinent that the various ethnic units should be divided clearly into separate population groups. Nevertheless, with the exception, perhaps, of the institution of slavery, the impact of this epoch on the Orang Asli was relatively minimal.

This was not so with the Emergency of 1948-60. The Orang Asli were directly affected as the interests of the British Colonial and Malayan governments were being threatened by a civil war waged by the communist insurgents whose close rapport with the Orang Asli in the forests was a cause for strategic concern. As a consequence, in the name of national interest, the Orang Asli were uprooted from their traditional homelands, and consequently suffered death and misery in the ill-conceived resettlement camps. But the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, promised that after the Emergency was over, the Orang Asli would be able to return to the “place of your choice, and live in peace as before”.[4] This was a clear indication that their displacement was only temporary, and for reasons of national security.

However, the Orang Asli began to suffer immense anguish and material loss, especially in the last two decades, when development capital came to dictate the ruling state ideology. Orang Asli lands, in particular, became coveted by the state and the commercial-industrial complex, and were regularly acquired or reclaimed – invariably without adequate reciprocal compensation or replacement.[5]

Inadvertently, in the context of Orang Asli development, the state has always played a leading role in facilitating the exploitation of lands and resources held by Orang Asli. The state's own involvement in administering the Orang Asli, particularly through the JHEOA, has been justified by complex social and ideological considerations as well as by economic factors. This is best manifested by the expressed policy objective of integrating the Orang Asli with the mainstream society.[6] In practical terms, the mechanisms advanced for achieving these objectives are through regroupment and Islamisation. The former involves relocating Orang Asli from their traditional homelands (and so destroying the material basis of their ecological identity), while the latter advocates conversion to an alien religion (and so effectively displacing the spiritual basis of their micro-identity).

In its simplest elaboration, the ideology that is imposed on the Orang Asli assumes that it is the duty of a people to maximise the exploitation of those resources with which nature had bestowed them. The failure to do this necessarily implied "backwardness" on their part. It is argued that a people so disposed had no right to stand in the way of peoples representing "higher levels" of civilisation. Further, it was assumed that the state of backwardness itself was a symptom of inferiority. Needless to say, progress was thus equated with civilisation. But what is not made explicit in this ideology is the people's realisation that progress in the abstract meant domination in the concrete for them (Devalle 1992, pp. 38-9).
This explains why, with earlier forms of capitalism, the different ethnic groups were allowed to exploit non conflicting territorial niches - since it was in the self interest of each group to maintain good relations with the other, for each are both customers for the resources they control and providers of the product the other lack (Fidler 1989, p.23). Present day capitalism however is less likely to tolerate indigenous cultures such as the Orang Asli in its midst. This is so since it is felt even more that capital cannot exploit the resources that lie within traditional territories if the Orang Asli impede access to them.

Still, because the material and spiritual basis of the Orang Asli – their traditional land - has not been completely destroyed, Orang Asli identity persisted in the face of state onslaught. The state’s logical aim now would therefore be to destroy the material basis so that Orang Asli identities disappear and a new (mainstream) one emerges (cf. David and Kadirnagar 1989, p.3).[7]

Like the threat to their traditional resource base, the sustained and often aggressive efforts of the state to assimilate Orang Asli also served to generate within Orang Asli communities a remarkable persistence and deep sense of grievance and justice - key elements that formed the basis of the political claims that they are beginning to make openly and directly today.

And as Dyck (1992, p. 18) points out, a common sense of grievance vis-a-vis the attitudes and actions of non-indigenous/dominant citizens and governments can provide a powerful means of mobilising an indigenous constituency beyond the micro-local level. For the case of the Orang Asli, they have had more than a sufficient share of grievances to stimulate the creation of an Orang Asli identity.[8]

Becoming Orang Asli – politically
Merely coming together, as in seeking medical attention at the Orang Asli hospital in Gombak, or in attending JHEOA-sponsored fairs or sports events, does not create identity. These can be a means to creating identity but they are not sufficient in itself for identity formation. Thus, when meeting with the Jahais in Perak and Kelantan in 1993, the Jahais of Banun (Perak) emphatically denied that those in Jeli (Kelantan) were also Jahais. Similarly, the Jeli Jahais strongly insisted that they were the real Jahais. This is despite both groups having similar physical features and linguistic affiliations.

It is clear that ethnic groups such as the Orang Asli do not form because people are the same race, or that they share the same language, or the same culture, or because they are lumped together and treated by outsiders as members of a distinct group. They form because people who share such characteristics decide they are members of a distinct group (Maybury-Lewis 1994, p. 61). Orang Asli identity, therefore, is essentially a political phenomenon. It is mainly articulated in the sphere of political action, with the state and the nation being the major determinants.

Having a single government agency – the JHEOA – as the sole intermediary for all dealings concerning the Orang Asli did help to focus Orang Asli grievances at a clearly identifiable entity. In disputes with the state, especially over land matters, the JHEOA has invariably sided with the authorities. Individual JHEOA officers have also obtained pecuniary benefit because of their position and a few have been convicted in court. The JHEOA has also been slow to act in resolving Orang Asli issues, especially those pertaining to the gazetting of their lands.

As a result, Orang Asli are becoming increasingly critical of the JHEOA, preferring to equate its earlier, more commonly used, acronym (JOA) to mean “Jual Orang Asli” (selling out the Orang Asli). Individual Orang Asli have even gone to the extent of calling for the abolition of the department,[9] while others seek a revamp of its structure and role. It has also become increasingly common to hear Orang Asli complain that after four decades of JHEOA intervention, the Orang Asli are still among the poorest in Malaysian society. The statistics, revealed by the JHEOA Director-General recently, attest to this (The Star, 19 February 1997).[10]
The JHEOA is, however, only an administrative arm of the state. Nevertheless, it is the JHEOA at whom the Orang Asli target their grievance, even if state policies (such as regroupment, integration and Islamization) are not dictated by them. In fact, the sustained and often aggressive efforts by the state to assimilate Orang Asli, especially when this is to be done through Islamization, served to generate within some Orang Asli communities, a deep sense of grievance and increased persistence to their “Orang Asli-ness”. This is only to be expected since most minority groups need, and want, to have their cultural identity protected against the encroachment of the predominant culture, and not to be assimilated or integrated into it (Okin 1991, pp. 126-7).

Furthermore, as Roosens (1989, pp. 13-14) suggests, it becomes more interesting to appear socially as a member of an ethnic group than as a specimen of a lower socio-economic category. If one identifies oneself as a member of a lower class, one places oneself at the bottom of the social ladder. The class division is vertical and is thus a hierarchical division of groups of people; the ethnic division, on the other hand, is horizontal, and it creates equivalencies rather than hierarchies.

Orang Asli claims to an ethnic grouping coincide with an emergence of social self-awareness, brought about in part by increased incidences of social stress, and greater communication between the communities. Those claims being made in the name of cultural identity are no longer primarily based on culturalist (or anthropological) definitions and interpretations. They are now inherently political; the concept of Orang Asli identity being a concise expression of aspirations that speak the universal language of contemporary politics - a language that is a strategic one aimed at legitimising specific intra-national relations.

Thus, when the Peninsula Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM) embarked actively on a membership drive in 1989, the response was overwhelming. From a membership of 277, comprising mainly Orang Asli working in the JHEOA in Gombak, it swelled to about 11,000 in two years, and stood at around 15,000 members in early 1997.

Although registered as a society, many Orang Asli had aspirations for POASM to become a political party then. Said Bek Gerahoi, a Semai headman: "The Malays have their UMNO, the Chinese have their MCA, and the Indians have their MIC. We too need our own political party."[11] Such a statement was commonplace at most POASM gatherings, especially in the early 1990s.

In the same vein, Majid Suhut, a Temuan and now the current POASM President, regularly advocated that the Orang Asli needed an independent organisation such as POASM:

"Are Orang Asli to squat (menumpang) in other people's houses [such as UMNO, MCA, MIC]? … Even if we have a bamboo house, no matter how small, it is better to stay in our own house rather than menumpang in other people's houses.”[12]

But more than just having an independent representative organisation for themselves, the call at recent general assemblies of POASM has been to “consider ourselves as Orang Asli. Not as Temuan, Semai and such. We must be like UMNO – they are united even though there are many types of Malay.”[13]

Nevertheless, while the creation and the political affirmation of Orang Asli ethnic identity has ironically been the result of the threat of cultural and economic subjugation, whether real or perceived, brought about by the expansion of the dominant society, the response has been to claim a communal identity that combines cultural particularity (which never before had to be affirmed) with modern political aspirations. Such political aspirations, however, are never always seen in the same light by various sectors of the Orang Asli community.

The personal and the political
Following Hakim (1996, p. 1494), the issue of Orang Asli identity, besides being discussed from the perspective of ‘the other’, should also be approached from another angle: the viewpoint of the community itself regarding its own identity.

As it is, in most instances Orang Asli intellectuals – those with some level of formal education and those engaged in the formal sector - are invariably in the forefront of the process of advocating an Orang Asli identity.  They are also usually the ones who have lost contact with their cultural roots, and who share little or none of the social experience of their group. Understandably, there is some variance between the perceived aspirations of this group and that of the Orang Asli (especially the elders) still in the communities.

But this is not a unique situation. Sowell (1994, p. 28) submits that it is a common social phenomenon around the world that those who have lost a culture have often been its most strident apostles. They now "identify" with their group, and may even do so in a highly vocal and exaggerated form. But because, as Roosens (1989, p. 13, 151) notes, ethnic self-affirmation is always related in one or another way to the defence of social or economic interests, many people are willing to assert an ethnic identity only if they can gain by doing so. This creates a paradox, for the ethnic claims and slogans are mainly formulated by people who seem to have markedly moved away from their own culture of origin, which they want to “keep”.

This incongruity in the perceived content of Orang Asli identity is perhaps best manifested in the regard both groups have for the customary lands. For the ‘traditional’ Orang Asli, the land is more than a resource base; it is also the spiritual and material basis of their (micro-)identity.

Thus a traditionalist like Batin Hun-ho, the Semai headman of Kampung Sat, Perak would have no reservations telling off a JHEOA officer:

Each time you come here, you tell us that we have to move. That this is Tanah Melayu [Malay Land]. But we are from here. Like that durian tree. It grows tall. It flowers. It bears fruit. The fruits fall, and new seedlings emerge. Then new trees grow. We are like the durian trees here. We are the sengoi asal [original people] here.”[14]

The ‘move’ the batin was referring to was to a regroupment scheme a few kilometres downriver from their present site. The promises of wooden houses, potable water, electricity, agricultural projects – and even the possibility of permanent land titles - were not enough to entice the Semai elder to give up his community’s link with its specific ecological niche. Furthermore, he did not want to impose himself on another community’s traditional land.

Younger Orang Asli leaders are likely to view things differently. They see nothing wrong, for example, in exchanging their vast customary tracts for household lots of 6 to 8 acres, individually titled, and in a completely different location. They have even chastised their elders for refusing to move, arguing that with titled lots, they would be able to get bank mortgages which could be used for investments or to improve their livelihood.[15]
There is difference also in the way Orang Asli symbols are being used by both the young intellectuals and the traditionalists. Batin Asoi, the Jakun headman of Kampung Kudong, Johor, describing the demonstration they organised to stop the logging in their area, said that:

"Pisau, sumpitan, raga, kita bawa sebab lambang Orang Asli. Kalau tidak bawa, orang lain anggap kami Orang Melayu."
(We brought the machete, blowpipe, back-basket because these are Orang Asli symbols. If we did not, others will think we are Malay.)[16]

However, Itam Wali, an established businessman and then the Orang Asli senator, viewed the use of Orang Asli symbols differently. In a congregation of Orang Asli leaders and non-Orang Asli sympathisers during a break in the proceedings of the 1994 POASM General Assembly, he emphasised that, “We don't want to be pegged with the traditional identity. Majid has a Ferrazo [a 4-wheel drive vehicle]; I have a Mercedes. We have to change our attitude.” Only then, he argued, could the Orang Asli Baru (the New Orang Asli) be identified as such.

At the same POASM General Assembly, the incumbent President, Long Jidin, himself a Jakun, wore a traditional Temiar plaited-mengkuang headband and sash. “We must continue (kekalkan) the culture,” he told me, partly to justify the western lounge suit he was wearing.[17] From the text of his subsequent speech, it was clear that his choice of adopting the symbols of both the traditional and the perceived-dominant cultures was calculated to project his personal ambitions.[18]

Precisely because of latent personal ambitions, or apprehension about their livelihood, Orang Asli intellectuals-cum-leaders are wont to tread a cautious line vis-à-vis the dominant population. While the leaders in the communities would mince no words about the manner in which their lives are being affected by government policies and programmes, some Orang Asli leaders openly acknowledge and accept the state’s hold over Orang Asli affairs. In doing so, they reinforce the perception of the apparent impotence of the Orang Asli in matters concerning their autonomy and self-determination.

The issue of ‘assimilation through Islamization’ best illustrates this stress in asserting Orang Asli identity. At the 1994 POASM General Assembly, the membership was very vocal about the government’s programme to have live-in community development officers (penggerak masyarakat) in their settlements. The true role of these officers, who were invariably Muslim-Malay males, was never a secret: to achieve the government’s objective of converting all Orang Asli to Islam.[19] During the debate on the tabling of a resolution to call for an end to this programme, a POASM supreme council leader, and also a senior employee of the JHEOA, warned against any protest against the programme. His advice to the assembled Orang Asli:

This is a sensitive issue, a policy of the government. The Penggerak Masyarakat comes under the Islamic Department of the Prime Minister’s office. Yes, the aim is to Islamise Orang Asli. POASM can protest about the behaviour of the Penggerak Masyarakat. But POASM cannot object to them being there because this is a government policy.[20]

It is clear therefore that there exists an increasing gap between various sectors of Orang Asli as to what constitutes Orang Asli identity. The actual content of this identity in itself has not been articulated, but the obvious advantages of promoting such an ethnic category is already evident among both communities and individuals.

Representing the Common Identity
With varying perceptions of the constituent components of Orang Asli identity, the question of political representivity arises.[21] Arguably, POASM has been at the forefront of creating Orang Asli social awareness and, it follows, an Orang Asli identity. Its large membership base also gives semblance of ethnic representivity, although in reality some of the smaller groups (such as the Orang Kanaq, Temoq, and all the Negrito sub-groups) are not represented. At various times also, it has negotiated with the government on behalf of the Orang Asli, conveying demands and opinions that are often projected as being in response to the wishes of the Orang Asli.

However, POASM is not the only body organised on the basis of Orang Asli representivity. A myriad of organisations now compete for such representivity, all asserting a common Orang Asli identity. These include the Muslim Orang Asli Association, Perak Orang Asli Foundation, the Orang Asli 4B Youth Movement, the peninsular-wide Kijang Mas Cooperative, a host of smaller state-level Orang Asli cooperatives, and local branches of UMNO.[22] The most recent addition to the stable of Orang Asli organisations is the Orang Asli Business Association (Paslim), established along the lines of an Orang Asli chamber of commerce.

Thus, with numerous Orang Asli organisations claiming Orang Asli representivity, the state is able to treat such representivity as a political resource that it can assign and withdraw to serve its own interests. Thus, at one time POASM may be recognised by the state as the authorised representative of the Orang Asli. At other times, it could be the state-appointed Orang Asli senator, or any of the other “Orang Asli” organisations.

In any case, the fact that the state deems it necessary to assign representivity variously to Orang Asli organisations is in itself testimony that an Orang Asli identity has evolved. It is now up to the Orang Asli to increasingly assert their identity, and to use this identity to reclaim a birthright. If used wisely, an Orang Asli identity can be a powerful tool to resist assimilation and to seek political redress and distributive justice.


1. The caption accompanying the photos of the ‘Semoq-Beris’ reads: Surprise is the keynote of this gathering (at left) of “Jakuns” in Jabor Valley when they, in a discussion with Aborigine Department officials, re-discovered their identity as the “Semoq Beri”, believed to have become extinct in the wake of Kuantan’s development in the last century. (Singapore Standard, 17 October 1956).

2. According to the minutes of the special meeting held on 6 October 1973 to specifically discuss the ‘Putra Asli’ proposal, a vote was taken on the motion and the results were as follows: None for ‘Putra Asli’, 1 for ‘Bumiputra Asli’ and 41 for retaining ‘Orang Asli’. The meeting also noted that several other names were being used to refer to the Orang Asli – such as ‘saudara lama’ in the Department of Information – which gave cause for worry as to whether Orang Asli identity will be protected.

3. This is similar to what Maeda (1997, p. 32) refers to as the ‘ecological identity’ – the site-consciousness or proto-identity that is related to a sense of place and a feeling of dissociative togetherness against uncertain life-chances that are perceived to be shared. Put more simply, it is the identity shared by a community that has a common destiny in its political economy.

4. “Address by the Prime Minister Introducing the New Radio Malaya Programme for the Aborigines on 3rd February 1959.” Arkib Negara Malaysia, TAR 1:2:59.

5. Some of these cases have been described in various issues of Pernloi Gah, the occasional newsletter of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, Kuala Lumpur as well as in Nicholas (1996, pp. 168-72).

6. The policy is laid down in the ‘Statement of Policy Regarding the Administration of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia’ (JHEOA, 1961). The original version of the Statement, however, placed the policy objective squarely on the Orang Asli’s “ultimate integration with the Malay section of the community” (p. 2).

7. Perhaps knowing that Orang Asli ethnicity will persist as long as the material basis is not destroyed, and to coincide with the needs of capital, the government has stepped up its programme to dislodge the Orang Asli from their traditional homelands under the guise of resettlement or regroupment schemes. Various rationale have been put forward to convince the Orang Asli of the ‘genuine’ intentions of the authorities. The Perak state government, for example, argues that they want to relocate the Orang Asli because "the lands they are residing in at present are unproductive; and we want to relocate them to more productive lands"(The Star, 26 October 1994). The Orang Asli were not convinced with this argument. However, following the tragedy of the mudslide at Pos Dipang (where 39 Orang Asli were killed), the new rationale for resettlement is to “relocate Orang Asli settlements to safer ground” (The Star, 23 April 1997). But the Orang Asli know better: their lands are coveted.

8. See Nicholas and Williams-Hunt (1996) for a critique of the various government policies towards the Orang Asli, and an elaboration of Orang Asli dissatisfactions and grievances.

9. Arif Embing, a Mah Meri leader from Selangor called for the dissolution of the JHEOA because “I feel that we can live better lives without their presence” (Harian  Metro, 18 April 1996).

10. The statistics reveal that 80 per cent of the Orang Asli live below the poverty line (compared to 8.5 per cent nationally), that 50 per cent are among the very poor (compared to 2.5 per cent nationally), that only 0.02 per cent of Orang Asli have title to their land, and that only 30 per cent of Orang Asli in the regroupment schemes have electricity and water (compared to 90 per cent nationally). Also 66 per cent of the Orang Asli are illiterate.

11. The United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) is the dominant party of the Malays, and the senior partner of the Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition party. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) are the dominant political parties for the Chinese and the Indians respectively, and are also in the ruling coalition.

12. President’s speech, POASM’s 7th General Assembly, Gombak, 19 November 1995.

13. Delegates to POASM’s 6th General Assembly (13 November 1994) were even asked to emulate their UMNO/Malay counterparts and work towards a new generation of forward-looking, entrepreneurial and aggressive Orang Asli – the Orang Asli Baru (or New Orang Asli). In the words of outgoing POASM president, Long Jidin, “Kalau Melayu ada ‘Melayu Baru’, kenapa Orang Asli tak ada ‘Orang Asli Baru’?” (If the Malays have the New Malay, why is it that the Orang Asli do not have their ‘New Orang Asli’?

14. Personal conversation, 12 May 1995.

15. This poser over the government’s plan to issue individual land titles came to light again recently (New Straits Times, 1 April 1997). POASM President Majid Suhut acknowledged that, “individual land titles would benefit those Orang Asli living near towns, … or in areas which are likely to be developed. This would enable the Orang Asli concerned to get loans for developing their lands or improving commercial output from it.”

Jali Yusuf, of Kampung Tamuk in Segamat, Johor differed in opinion. On the state government’s proposal to grant individual land titles to the Orang Asli in five settlements provided they move to Bekok, Jali was mystified that relocation should be a condition especially since their present settlement already had facilities like telephones and proper roads. He added, “Wouldn’t it be easier to give titles to the lands we are occupying now? These are lands that have remained in the same families for many generations.”

16. Personal conversation, Kuala Lumpur, 18 September 1996.

17. POASM funds were used to pay for the lounge suits that were made for each member of the supreme council. “We meet with leaders, big shots. Don’t expect us to wear a T shirt,” justified Long Jidin. Nevertheless, on that day, he was the only one with a suit, even including the guest-of-honour, the Director-General of the JHEOA.

18. At this general assembly, Long Jidin was forced to withdraw from the elections given the extremely low support he had been able to garner through the nominations. Three other Orang Asli were challenging him for the post of president. Long’s popularity dropped immediately after he encouraged Malays to join the association, and especially after installing a Malay politician and the Director-General of the JHEOA, also a Malay, as the patron and adviser of POASM respectively. This provision (for Malays to be members of POASM as well) was formally dropped from the constitution in May 1997, an indication of the unwillingness of the Orang Asli to share their identity with others. Nevertheless, since dropping out of POASM, Long went on to set up the equivalent of an Orang Asli Chamber of Commerce and after intense lobbying with the Minister for Orang Asli affairs and the JHEOA, was installed as Orang Asli senator on 27 May 1997. Needless to say, neither the Orang Asli community nor POASM were consulted on this appointment.

19. The Orang Asli have become the target of institutionalised Islamic missionary activity particularly after 1980 when a seminar on ‘Islamic Dakwah among the Orang Asli’ was organised by the Malaysian Islamic Welfare Organisation, Perkim. The recommendations were largely accepted by the JHEOA in a policy statement (JHEOA 1983). The expressed objectives of this policy were two-pronged: the Islamisation of the whole Orang Asli community and the integration/assimilation of the Orang Asli with the Malays. Towards the end of 1991, the appointment of 250 'welfare officers'   to be trained by the Religious Affairs Department and the JHEOA   and a programme of building surau-cum-community halls in Orang Asli settlements - was announced (Berita Harian, 26 November 1991). The establishment of a special unit called "Dakwah Orang Asli" in Pusat Islam demonstrates the official continuation of this policy (Berita Harian, 23 June 1995).

20. Fieldnotes, 13 November 1994.

21. Weaver (1989, p. 114) attributes three meanings to political representivity. In the first meaning, an indigenous organisation is considered to be representative if it is seen to represent the views, needs and aspirations of its constituency to the government and the public. That is, it is both authorised to be a reliable vehicle of communication and is held accountable to its constituents for its conveyance. In the second meaning, an indigenous organisation is seen to be politically representative if it is representative of its constituency. In other words, the members of the organisation are expected to be a social microcosm of its constituency. The third meaning stresses representativeness by responsiveness: whether the organisation actually responds to the needs and demands of its constituency by providing services needed or expected by the constituency.

22. The cooperatives and the UMNO branches also involve non-Orang Asli (Malay) members but their establishment incorporates an Orang Asli membership base.



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