Published: 01 January 2001





Colin Nicholas


Paper presented at the conference on “People Before Profits: Development For Communities”,

Kuala Lumpur
, 4-5 November 2000 and subsequently published in Kua Kia Soong (ed.) (2001),
People Before Profits: The Rights of Malaysian Communities in Development,
Petaling Jaya, pp. 39-52.





The term ‘profit’ is not found in any of the local indigenous languages. The Malay term untung is often used instead. However, it does not mean that indigenous peoples have not known about profits. On the contrary, long before the term ‘development’ came into vogue and before the trans-boundary corporations began to distress ordinary people, indigenous peoples were already being sought for the profit they could bring to others.

In earlier epochs, they were hunted own and taken into slavery just so others could profit from their labour. Their skills as collectors and harvesters of forest produce (such as gutta percha and rattan) were also exploited in trading practices that gave big profits to the outsider at the expense of the indigenous supplier.


Development and Profit-seeking

However, with the advent of the development model as we know it today, and with the tentacles of big business reaching out into every single nook, it is not just monetary profits that are being appropriated from the indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples now find their traditional territories, and the natural resources found therein, highly coveted by others.

This is because, today, the indigenous peoples occupy the last remaining resource frontiers in a nation-state dominated by a profiteering system. The potential profits that indigenous peoples’ lands and resources can bring to these individuals and corporations are so substantial that basic humanity – that is, the basic spiritual obligation to be co-responsible for all humankind (the Semai call this tenhaq) – is overlooked or, worse, scorned upon as a primitive value.

And with the loss of their traditional territories and the access to their traditional resources, indigenous peoples’ livelihoods become severely affected, with predictable devastating consequences to their cultural identity and their continued ability to live as a distinct people.


The profit-grabbing does not stop at the mere theft of their lands and resources.  The more sophisticated and technology-based corporations of today are extremely responsive to the enormous financial profits that can be reaped from what the indigenous peoples know of the huge store of beneficial uses Mother Nature has bequeathed humankind, and which the indigenous peoples took years of careful experimentation and research to discover.

Not surprisingly, indigenous knowledge is now an efficient and highly cost-effective shortcut for large pharmaceutical companies to extract the ‘green gold’ that our diverse biological resources have to offer. Local and international laws however seem to encourage the theft and piracy of indigenous knowledge and even serve to protect the presumed rights of these corporations (e.g. via patents and copyrights) to their so-called new discoveries that are based on indigenous knowledge.


However, while there is a growing awareness of this new source of profit-generation among indigenous peoples in Malaysia, they are less likely to be disturbed by the super profits to be made from bio-prospecting corporations than by the immediate threat to their lives, livelihoods and cultures as a result of the loss of their traditional territories and their resources.

For this reason, the common denominator unifying indigenous peoples in Malaysia is the struggle to exercise control over their traditional territories and the control over their lives. That is to say, the struggle for self-determination.



Indigenous development

Indigenous peoples in Malaysia have lost their traditional territories, or have had their natural resources destroyed by a variety of ‘development’ projects. These include dams, airports, a university, golf courses, highways, recreation parks and resorts, oil palm plantations, dams, housing and commercial townships, logging concessions and FMUs, national parks and conservation areas, industrial centres, pulp and paper mills, and more dams. Clearly such development projects are not aimed at indigenous peoples’ development. And clearly such development is at once at variance with what indigenous peoples regard as genuine development.


(Dams, in particular, epitomises the imposition of one way of life over another; where the water and power needs of urban folks ride over the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, their way of life, their right to survival with dignity.)


For indigenous peoples, the concept of development is based on the implementation of indigenous rights which focus not just on individual but, more especially, on collective rights. Indigenous development, therefore, is based on the special relationships that indigenous peoples have to features of their world. These special relationships form parts of their collective identity and provide them with the means of life.

For example, indigenous peoples’ traditional lands are frequently held collectively in trust from ancestors to descendants with the spirit world acting as guarantors. Households have access to resources in agreement to the rest of the community, and have the right to use the resources as long as they need, in accordance with the appropriate indigenous practices.

Also, for indigenous peoples, their territories are not only very specific and clearly-defined, they are also inalienable. This means that no person has the authority to hand them over to outsiders on a permanent basis.


Indigenous self-development therefore is the implementation of rights in order to restore their control over their lives and territories.



Control a People, Controlling Resources

On the contrary, developmental policies pursued by the state consciously or unconsciously ignore the economic and social interest of indigenous peoples. The state has come to regard indigenous peoples as being no different from the other citizen groups and thereby not warranting government on different terms.


This situation stems primarily from the refusal of governments to recognise that relations between indigenous peoples and governments revolve largely around the fundamental asymmetry of the parties involved: a people and a state. Governments frequently choose to see indigenous peoples simply as a community of individuals and the latter as a legal and political organization in which indigenous communities are simply aggregates of separate individuals belonging to a category.


Indigenous peoples, however, regard themselves as separate and distinct groups deserving of self-government and sovereignty in the particular territorial bases that they are usually associated with. Indeed, the attachment of indigenous peoples to particular localities, or ecological niches, is one of their most notable and politically significant features. The inability to comprehend this has often caused governments to ridicule indigenous peoples for not wanting to move to resettlement sites where better facilities are available.


Governments, also, in addition to ideological and economic interests, are motivated by a range of specifically short-term political, social, and bureaucratic interests. Cramb (1989: 2) holds the view that resettlement schemes continue to be a popular form of development project because they serve the interests of politicians, bureaucrats, donor agencies and businessmen.

For politicians, land settlement schemes can be used to legitimate those who hold power by demonstrating, in a highly visible fashion, that something is being done to alleviate rural problems.

For bureaucrats, such schemes are attractive because they can be planned and developed in ‘project units’ that are amenable to the algebra of conventional cost-benefit calculations.

For donor agencies, land schemes are an ‘off-the-shelf’ project type that can be speedily planned and funded on a large scale.

Finally, commercial interests favour such projects because of their high dependence on external expertise and supplies, opening up profitable opportunities for business.


Furthermore, given specific political and bureaucratic interests, the impact of government interventions – sometimes contradictory and inconsistent in themselves, often is to initiate significant changes in the lives of indigenous peoples. The changes habitually conform to state interests and frequently produce a pattern of policy failure and local crises, accompanied by a growing pattern of local dependency and reduced local autonomy.


Thus, for the state, unlike the private corporations they frequently work in cahoots with, the extraction of monetary profits is not the only goal. In effect, a reduction in local autonomy is the key instrument for the state to effect control over indigenous society and resources.

Thus it can be said that indigenous peoples have begun to be a target of internal colonialism. This is a state in which the indigenous peoples are subjected to administrative control, dispossession of lands and resources, and forced or induced assimilation. This is certainly the case for the Orang Asli.


Preparing the Setting for Profit-Seeking

The situation of the indigenous communities today is marked by an increase in the loss of autonomy and control over their lives and traditional territories. In most, if not all, of these situations the perpetrator is likely to be some business entity or developer singly motivated by the greed for profit.


However, in the case of the Orang Asli, dispossession from their traditional homelands has also become a project of the state – under the guise of the altruistic goal of assimilation or integration into the mainstream society. This is in response to the fear of not being able to exploit the resources that lie within the territories of the Orang Asli, if access to them is impeded by their living there.

Arguments of ‘primitiveness’ vs. ‘development’ and ‘traditional society’ vs. ‘progress’, further serve to justify the state’s desire to resettle Orang Asli, so that the exploitation of natural resources on Orang Asli territories can be realized unhindered.



Regrouping for Recouping Resources

The programme of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) of resettling Orang Asli in regroupment schemes (Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula, RPS) is considered one of its major functions. The expressed objectives of the regroupment schemes are:

  • To eradicate poverty or to reduce the number of hardcore poor among the Orang Asli;
  • To modernize their way of life through provision of social services and basic facilities such as education, health, housing, water and electricity supply, etc.;
  • To regroup and reorganise (menyusun) Orang Asli in suitable centres in their traditional areas; and
  • To guarantee the security of the Orang Asli from subversive and anti-national elements (JHEOA 1992).


The former Director-General of the JHEOA, Jimin Idris (1983: 48-9) acknowledges that the initial proposals for a resettlement policy similar to that adopted during the Emergency of 1948-1960 came from the military establishment in early 1977. For this reason, the early regroupment schemes were located along the spine of the central mountain range, areas thought to be the bases of the communist insurgents. With such a rationale, therefore the other objectives of poverty eradication and modernisation appear to be afterthoughts.


Nevertheless, the security motive was not always the primary reason for a policy of resettling Orang Asli in regroupment schemes. Orang Asli have been regrouped or resettled for a whole host of reasons: for example, to facilitate projects such as the new international airport (in Sepang), a university campus (in Bangi), and dams (as in Banun). In all these schemes, it is clear that the motivation for relocation or resettlement was not the more altruistic objectives of poverty eradication and modernisation. Rather, it was because their traditional territories were required for an externally-imposed development project.


This can be easily supported by the observation that the promised development projects or basic infrastructure facilities in these regroupment schemes were invariably never in place when the Orang Asli were required to move. In several cases, they were never delivered until several years later (18 years in the case of RPS Banun). Some have yet to be delivered. Invariably, in all schemes, the alternative income-generation projects (usually cash-crop agriculture) were not started until several years into the project. Even when the promised items were delivered, they were often insufficient for all.

For example, the JHEOA recognises at least 2,563 households involved in the regroupment schemes, but only 1,408 houses have been planned. Presumably, the other 45 per cent of households were expected to construct their own houses, as seems to be the trend in the schemes. (In reality, however, only six were constructed for the use of the Jahais!)


That the regroupment schemes are not achieving their social objectives can be gleaned from the nutritional status of the Orang Asli children living there. Khor (1994: 123) contends that:

Some 15 years after relocation, the nutritional status of Orang Asli children in regroupment schemes can be described as poor with a moderate to high prevalence of underweight, acute, and chronic malnutrition. Their dietary intakes are deficient in calories and several major nutrients. … There exists an over-simplified assumption that introduction to cash-cropping will lead to increased income, which will provide more money for food, and in turn result in improvement in nutritional status…. In reality, relocation entails cultural uprooting and lifestyle changes which may not be overcome by the provision of physical facilities and economic incentives only.


Such lamentable conditions in the regroupment schemes can be attributed to the smaller subsistence base and psychological disenfranchisement caused by uprooting the Orang Asli from their traditional territories.

For, while the authorities argue that regroupment does not necessary entail resettlement or relocation, the reality is their resource base becomes smaller, invariably to be shared with others who have been relocated from their own traditional territories.

For example, in the Betau Regroupment Scheme in Northwest Pahang, often projected as the model scheme of the JHEOA, a total of 20 settlements within a 14.5 kilometre radius of the confluence of the Betau and Jelai Rivers were ‘regrouped’ within a 5.6 kilometre radius. In the case of Kampung Kuala Tual, I estimated that the traditional territory of the community was close to 7,000 hectares. However, on relocating downriver in the Betau Regroupment Scheme, the total land area allotted to Kampung Kuala Tual was 95.1 hectares – or only 1.4 per cent of their traditional nenggirik (Nicholas 1994: 18, 52).


Loss of Land and Resources

Another immediate impact of regroupment, however, is invariably a dramatic reduction in control over territory and resources. In fact, in all regroupment schemes, the management and decision-making – as to what crops to grow, where the settlements is to be located, how allocations are to be disbursed, control of entry of visitors and traders – is now in the hands of the local representative of the JHEOA, who is often a non-Orang Asli.


Regroupment also brings with it a whole gamut of other social problems, especially when a community is expected to impinge on another’s traditional territory, or if food and other subsistence needs are hard to come by. The case of RPS Banun in northern Perak illustrates this assertion (Nicholas 1995: s. 99-113).


The 13 Jahai communities in the Banun area were resettled at the Pulau Tujuh Resettlement Scheme in the mid-1970s – at the recommendation of the National Security Council that saw resettlement of the Orang Asli as a military strategy to isolate the villagers from the communist insurgents. In 1979, when it became obvious that the original Pulau Tujuh site would be inundated by the Temenggor dam being constructed then, the resettlement project was moved to the present site at RPS Banun.

However, just a few months after the Orang Asli were regrouped at RPS Banun, some scheme participants began to withdraw. Traditional food resources within the new area were quickly depleted as a result of the much higher population density. The government rations – and, later, the cash subsidies (RM50.00 per family per month) – were insufficient to sustain them, and the Orang Asli had to place greater reliance on fishing in the lake, which was two kilometres away, and on the sale of rattan for cash incomes, to subsist. The death of 18 Jahai within a short span also prompted many groups to leave the scheme.


Withdrawal from the scheme also grew as a result of conflicts over land. Officially, at least 13 distinct communities, each led by its own penghulu or village head, were technically under the RPS Banun scheme in 1988. However, by 1993, only the group who claimed traditional territorial rights to this part of the Belum area was residing within the 2,529.2 hectares allotted to the Banun scheme.


Furthermore, despite being promised agricultural projects such as rubber and fruit gardens, none were forthcoming, either upon their acceptance of the scheme – not an unusual expectation given that the Jahai's socio-economic system is based on immediate-return activities – or even 18 years after the scheme was established. Apart from unsuitable soils, the JHEOA also recruited incompetent contractors who did not finish their jobs. Another complaint of the Orang Asli of RPS Banun was that as of 1993, only eighteen houses had been built for the 176 households – and of these eighteen, twelve were for the JHEOA administrative staff.


Since regroupment for the Orang Asli does not provide any additional security of tenure to the land, it appears that they would be better off not being regrouped if late or non-delivery of ‘development benefits’ is the norm.

For the state, however, regroupment fulfils its many needs. For one, it is the most effective, socially-acceptable means to appropriate Orang Asli traditional territories for its own use or for use by others. Regroupment programmes also provide the additional bonus of controlling people, effectively undermining their autonomy.



Privatization: State vs. Orang Asli Interests

One element of the 10-point development strategy of the JHEOA is “introducing privatization as a tool in the development of Orang Asli areas.” More specifically, the Ringkasan Program (JHEOA 1992: 5) lists the methods to achieve this, as:

    1. To co-operate with the private sector to develop potential Orang Asli areas, especially in forest-fringe areas with developed surroundings; and
  • To establish suitable organizations to represent the local Orang Asli community in joint-ventures with the private sector.


Basically, such joint-ventures work by having the Orang Asli sign away their rights to their traditional territories – usually through the JHEOA, an ostensibly Orang Asli cooperative, or a representative committee of the community (such as a Majlis Adat or Customary Council) – to a private corporation, which may or may not be an Orang Asli entity. In exchange for the right to mine, log, and own the land in perpetuity or on lease, the corporation enters into an agreement to provide basic infrastructure facilities and housing for the Orang Asli. In some instances, the promise of titled individual plots is thrown in.


As of June 1997, the JHEOA had received a total of 25 applications from corporations interested in developing Orang Asli areas under the privatization programme (JHEOA 1997: 15). These applications, of which three had already been approved then, involved 1,176 families and 5,996 hectares of Orang Asli traditional territories. I am told that several proposals are currently being considered, or rather negotiated.


The first of such privatized Orang Asli regroupment plans was launched in May 1997, with the signing of an agreement between the Johor State Government and Taktik Sejati Sdn. Bhd. Some 600 Orang Asli from 149 families in Kampungs Lenek, Selai, Kemidak, Kudong and Tamok in Segamat district in Johor were to receive assistance in terms of “economic, social, personal, mental and outlook (sic) development.” A total of 748 hectares of the land will be developed for agricultural, housing, infrastructure and other purposes. Another 290 hectares will be surrendered to the state to be alienated to the Orang Asli once the agreement lapses in the 92nd month (Berita Harian 28.4.1997, New Straits Times 28.4.1997, The Star 28.4.1997).


However, the Orang Asli involved were not happy with this move. Juki Sungkai, an Orang Asli youth leader, had questioned why forest products valued at RM60 million were to be apportioned by the Koperasi Daya Asli Johor Berhad (mainly set up by JHEOA officers) and not by the local community.

In fact, a few months earlier, the Johor Menteri Besar himself, Abdul Ghani Othman, had accused the state JHEOA of carrying out illegal activities and wanted the federal government to help investigate the matter. He said the Department had been giving out logging concessions without consulting the state government. In one case, he added, the Department gave out a 10-year logging contract to one Goh Ah Seng without referring the matter to the state (New Straits Times 12.9.1996, The Star 12.9.1996, The Sun 12.9.1996).


The Orang Asli were nevertheless not in favour of the project as it would mean that three of the settlements would have to move into the traditional territories of Kemidak and Selai – that is, into a smaller area only in order to benefit from infrastructure facilities that they were already enjoying in their existing settlements.


One of these, Batin Keli Osman of Kampung Lenek, disputed the reason, given in a JHEOA working paper for a briefing session, that the village was too far in the interior and therefore needed to be relocated.

“The actual fact is,” he said, “our village is located next to the Malay kampung of Kampung Panca Jaya, about 6 kilometres from the main road. We have easy access to schools, clinics, shops and others, while enjoying the economic stability that comes with cultivating our own land” (New Straits Times 12.11.1997). He added that it was puzzling that two other kampungs located about 64 kilometres in the interior would not be relocated, while his should be relocated.


Earlier in the year, the communities had demonstrated against the company carrying out logging activities on their land.

Kampung Tamok headman, Batin Aaer, said that while he was happy with the Johor Menteri Besar’s efforts to bring development to the Orang Asli, he felt the state government should first consult the Orang Asli before making plans for them. “We are not the same Orang Asli community as thirty years ago, which was then set in its primitive ways and had rejected development.”

He added, “The government should not think the Orang Asli were stupid people who did not understand what was good for them.” (New Straits Times 27.1.1997).


The Johor State Government, however, declared that it “would not succumb to the whims of isolated Orang Asli groups who reject projects aimed at providing greater security for them.”

State Unity and Social Welfare Committee Chairperson, Halimah Mohd Siddique, said that it was the state government's prerogative to provide the best for the Orang Asli community, and the state would fervently pursue projects to upgrade infrastructure for them, including organizing and restructuring their villages. “Our endeavour is to institutionalize them and make them a part of state's development process,” she added (New Straits Times 24.11.1997).


However, today, while more than 1,000 hectares of timber has been logged, there are still no signs of the promised infrastructure projects and oil palm plantations being delivered.


The above case is not the only one where Orang Asli are facing unfair deals with the “privatization of their development.” A similar issue has emerged in the case of Bukit Lanjan, just outside an exclusive area in Kuala Lumpur, while others are emerging in Pulau Carey, Selangor and Buluh Nipis, Pahang. Clearly, the JHEOA’s policy of using privatization as a tool for developing Orang Asli areas is but another mechanism to effect control and appropriation of Orang Asli traditional territories.



Greenwash and People-wash

Because of growing awareness and aggressiveness of indigenous communities and friendly NGOs, the government and the private corporations have been forced to spend a considerable amount of money (to be eventually reimbursed with taxpayers’ funds) on public relations efforts to reverse the negative portrayal of their business ventures.

Similarly, a considerable amount of money and effort is also spent on courting community leaders or committees who will be amenable to the wishes of the government or the private corporation. Frequently, these are blatant and crude acts of deception and insincere concern. Unfortunately, however, they seem to work.



The ‘New’ Development

So, if the ultimate goal of development is the wellbeing and happiness of every member of society, how is this development to be implemented?


For one, change cannot be imposed from outside or from above. The rate of change must also accommodate human capacities. Above all else, for the health of cultures and the quality of the natural environment, all people must retain their sense of dignity, their sense of self-confidence. They must feel that they have some control over their lives and over their environment.

To achieve greater material productivity at the cost of losing, or depriving someone else of, a satisfying spiritual and social life is not necessarily ‘progress.


Rist (1999: 243-4), in fact, contends all the ‘development’ measures of the last few decades have resulted in material and cultural expropriation. The failure has been so complete that it would be futile to want to go on as before as this would only lead to an increase in poverty and inequality.


Hence, the main task is to restore the political, economic and social autonomy of marginalized societies. No more can be expected of the state, except that it should refrain from stifling the initiatives of grassroot groups.


This is true in the case of indigenous peoples. The single strength that their traditional societies had was the integration of social, political and economic aspects of their societies. Rapid change in any one area was avoided as it could adversely affect the whole and weaken the links that bound their society together. On the contrary, under the current model of development, economic growth was seen as an end in itself, divorced from, and often impacting upon, indigenous politics, economics and culture.


For indigenous societies to become culturally and materially healthy again, a corrective to development is needed. However, the modern state has been so successful in limiting access to plausible alternatives to the way we live, that we seem to have lost all imaginative capacity to entertain serious alternatives to the less-than-satisfactory models we have now.


Nevertheless, several writers have suggested that for an alternative model of development, a few basic elements must feature. For one, the development should take into account both the interests and the expertise of those in the areas to be developed, ensuring at the same time that people develop along lines of their own genius without any imposition from outside.

Also, the results of development programmes should be judged by the quality of human life that is evolved, not by economic statistics.

Steps must also be taken to arouse awareness, form local organizations, and meet social and economic needs – without the creation of dependence. The leadership and participation of women should also be ensured.


In any case, an important first step for genuine indigenous development is for them to regain control over their lives – that is, to regain autonomy and self-determination. For the purpose of immediacy and strategy, this should logically translate into first regaining ownership and control over their traditional territories. This is not to deny that other issues – such as the threat of assimilation or the erosion of political autonomy – are less significant.


On the contrary, the issue of indigenous land rights is but the most visible and deeply-felt manifestation of the principal problem facing the indigenous peoples: the inability or, worse, refusal of the state to recognize the indigenous peoples as a distinct people. For only when such recognition is denied can policies of assimilation, or appropriation of their traditional territories, for example, be justified.


Using the ‘land rights’ problem as a strategy for indigenous political mobilization is also sensible because the issue is deeply felt among the communities, it is easily identifiable, and is the source of much social stress for the indigenous peoples. However, if indigenous peoples are effectively to plan, implement and control their own future, political representation is the key.


As many indigenous peoples now realize, without political representation, they will find themselves in a weak position vulnerable to social, economic and legal abuse.

Nevertheless, political representation can only be effective if such representation is sustained by broad-based support from the community and reinforced with a willingness to endure temporary setbacks initially.






Cramb, R.A. (1989). Contradictions in state-sponsored land schemes for peasant farmers: The case of Sarawak, Malaysia, 1963-1988. Agricultural economics Discussion paper 3/89. Department of Agriculture, University of Queensland.


JHEOA (1992). Ringkasan Program. Kuala Lumpur.


JHEOA (1997). Pelan Strategi Pembangunan Orang Asli 1997-2005. June.


Jimin bin Idris (1983). Planning and Administration of Development Programmes for Tribal Peoples (The Malaysian Setting).  Kuala Lumpur: Center on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific.


Khor Geok Lin (1994). Resettlement and Nutritional Implications: the Case of Orang Asli in Regroupment Schemes. Pertanika – Journal of the Society for Science and Humanity,  2, 2, pp 123-132.


Nicholas, Colin (1994). Pathways to Dependence: Commodity Relations and the Dissolution of Semai Society. Monash Papers on Southeast Asia No. 33, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria.



Nicholas, Colin (1995). Belum Area Management and Development Plan: Orang Asli Sector. In: Management Guidelines for a Proposed Belum Nature Park. Prepared by Tunku M. Nazim Yaacob and Associate. Sponsored by GTZ Germany, pp. s.99-113.


Rist, Gilbert (1999). The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith. University of Cape Town Press (Pty) Ltd, South Africa.