ORANG ASLI SELF-DETERMINATION and the Control of Resources
Published: 01 January 1999
Today, however, the once politically autonomous and independent people are but a pale likeness of their ancestors. Much of this has to do with the fact that the Malaysian nation state does not recognise the Orang Asli as a separate people – that is, as distinct groups associated with particular territorial bases and requiring ‘government’ on a different basis from that of the other communities.
But, as can be discerned from their demands, Orang Asli are not, at least as yet, seeking self-determination in the sense that they want to secede from the Malaysian nation state. Rather, the desire is to exercise full autonomy in their traditional territories, both in the control and ownership of their lands, and in the determination of their way of life and in the way they deal with the dominant society.
However, it is inconceivable that the Malaysian state will, on its own accord, grant any level of autonomy to the Orang Asli, even if restricted only to their own traditional territories. For, if the state were to do so, there are both political and economic implications.
Politically, this would be tantamount to the state conceding to the Orang Asli the right to self-determination. That is to say, the state acknowledges the right of the Orang Asli to own and manage their own territories and to lead separate lives from the dominant society.
Economically, granting Orang Asli autonomy over their traditional territories would effectively remove the state’s access to them. This is especially significant as the appropriation of Orang Asli traditional territories and resources is an important project of the state since Orang Asli lands are no longer considered a ‘frontier’ resource, but a much sought-after factor-of-production, especially if they can be obtained cheap.
Thus, assertions of Orang Asli autonomy invariably challenge the state’s own political and economic authority over a people and a territory. The response of the state, therefore, has been to reduce, if not eliminate altogether, any semblance of Orang Asli local autonomy.
Introducing and maintaining the concept of a mainstream, in fact, has been politically important insofar as the state has been able to assert its logic of a single nationality – and hence its legitimacy to exercise control over its citizens. However, because the Orang Asli insisted on remaining in their traditional territories, the state could not appropriate these territories. Further, because this insistence was, in the first case, based on aspirations of sustaining cultural identity and political autonomy, rather than meeting the need for economic and physical sustenance, the state had to remove Orang Asli attachment to the land so that it could appropriate these territories. This was achieved by forcibly removing or relocating them from their traditional territories, or by instituting strategies and programmes aimed at their de-culturalisation ¬– all under the guise of integrating the Orang Asli into the mainstream society.
Ensuing state actions – including appropriation of traditional territories by administrative fiat, exploitation of natural resources through state-engineered privatisation deals, or programmes aimed at converting Orang Asli to the official religion, Islam – were all aimed at crushing Orang Asli autonomy by bringing about their de-culturalisation. 
Inadvertently, in reinforcing the concept of the state and its imagined mainstream among the Orang Asli, specific Orang Asli communities experienced severe social stress as various policies and programmes were implemented to their disadvantage or detriment. Consequently, the very attempt at bringing the Orang Asli into the mainstream caused them to distance themselves from that mainstream and create their own politics.
Orang Asli then began to look at themselves from the outside, identified the problems that faced them, and understood why an assertion of their identity was a prerequisite for their survival. The collective identity that emerged soon gave rise to a sense of Orang Asli indigenousness. This was an assertion by the Orang Asli of their unity, and difference, directed against the power of outsiders, and focused primarily on the nation-state.
The state was nevertheless aware that Orang Asli indigenousness was a basis for political action. It was also aware that an Orang Asli indigenous movement was immediately a challenge to the state because it argued that the notion of a mainstream society was not sufficient reason to take control out of the hands of a people. Consequently, in order to protect its interests, the state actively sought to impede the development of Orang Asli indigenousness. Towards this end, the objective of integration/assimilation with the mainstream society was further reinforced by the state, with emphasis now on rejecting Orang Asli identity and politics and replacing these with those of the dominant culture.
Further, in order for the Orang Asli to escape being categorised as ‘just another ethnic minority’ by the state, and in order to promote and protect their claims for special status and rights within the national society, the Orang Asli had to simultaneously make themselves both like, and unlike, the mainstream they dealt with. Thus, on one level, they felt that they had to constantly demonstrate the fundamental cultural differences between themselves and the majority population. On another, they wanted to be treated as equals with the state on one side and themselves, as a people, on the other.
The need to negotiate with the state, however, raised problems of Orang Asli representation – both in the content of that representation and in deciding who should be accorded the right to such representation.
However, to achieve some degree of mobilisation, Orang Asli leaders, mainly in POASM, had to transform political apathy by creating a vision around which Orang Asli could identify or organise politically. This vision, however, was not informed by ideological argument, but rather by ethnic self-affirmation in the defence of primarily economic interests. This gave rise to problems of representation because Orang Asli aspirations and wants were frequently as varied as the number of Orang Asli individuals and organisations vying for the same resources for economic gain. Some Orang Asli, for example, were willing to forsake communally-held ancestral territories in exchange for promises of individual land titles in new, often smaller, locations merely because these titled lots afforded greater opportunities for material advancement (such as the possibility of using the land to obtain bank loans).
In pursuit of Orang Asli political and economic development, therefore, several Orang Asli representative organisations and institutions emerged. Apart from POASM, there has been the institution of the Orang Asli Senator and various welfare organisations, as well as business enterprises and cooperatives, each claiming to represent Orang Asli interests and constituents.
However, to be truly representative as an Orang Asli organisation, it had to be seen as representing the views, needs and aspirations of the Orang Asli to the government and the public. No single organisation or institution has met these criteria. On the contrary, the variety of claims to Orang Asli representation has provided the state with a new resource for their control: the state was now able to assign, or deny, recognition to the claim of Orang Asli representation. That is, the state was now able to assign, or deny, political representivity  to an Orang Asli entity of its own choosing, and as opportune. For example, although POASM was more representative than, say, the JHEOA or the various Orang Asli business-cooperatives, it was accorded less political representivity by the state.
In fact, Orang Asli organisations and institutions that enjoyed political representivity from the state were frequently those mainly motivated by economic gain, and who were not fully accountable to the community they claimed to represent. Invariably, in pursuit of their objectives, the impact of these ‘representative’ organisations on the Orang Asli has been the further appropriation and exploitation of their traditional territories and resources.
Nevertheless, while it is commonly held that without representivity, indigenous organisations would not be able to persuade states to adopt the policies they prefer, it is a fallacy to assume, in the first place, that only the state should wield the power to assign, or deny, representivity.
Thus, if the Orang Asli are to reassert their autonomy, they must reclaim for themselves the right to assign representivity, and not to relegate that power to an external entity. But first, Orang Asli must define, and agree, on what they aspire to. That is to say, there is a need to go beyond demands for mere economic distributive justice.
This is true in the case of the Orang Asli. 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, Orang Asli politics and culture.
Thus, an important first step for Orang Asli cultural and political health is for them to regain control over their lives and their future – that is, to regain autonomy. 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 Orang Asli land rights is but the most visible and deeply-felt manifestation of the principal problem facing the Orang Asli viz. the unwillingness of the state to recognise the Orang Asli as a distinct, autonomous 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 Orang Asli political mobilisation is also rational because the issue is deeply felt among the communities, It is also easily identifiable and is the source of much social stress for the Orang Asli. However, if Orang Asli are to effectively plan, implement and control their own future, political representation is the key. As many Orang Asli now realise, 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 a willingness to endure initial setbacks.
The challenge, therefore, is for Orang Asli to find ways to separate their relations with the external systems of expansion and domination. To do so, they must first alter the status quo and the way the state perceives them. Some of the measures that are being taken, or need to be taken, are discussed below.
Towards this end, a united and visible Orang Asli polity is a prerequisite. This, however, does not mean that the Orang Asli should have a single representative organisation. Rather, while allowing for disparate representative Orang Asli organisations and institutions, there should be a commitment by all to a unified goal or vision.
First, the state should be persistently reminded that it is multi-ethnic and that priorities vary accordingly. The Orang Asli, for example, may want to seek quite different futures from the national society.
Second, statutory and constitutional guarantees should be provided for the rights of Orang Asli to legal recognition of their lands and resources, to their communal forms of land-holding, to their socio-political and economic organisation, and to their religions and languages. The Orang Asli, as such, should never be over-administered or overwhelmed with a multiplicity of schemes and policies, all determined from outside the community.
Persistent political representation in pursuing the above goals not only serves to (very slowly, but surely) persuade the state to consider such contentions and demands, but more importantly, debates and mobilisation on these matters help to galvanise broad-based Orang Asli support and solidarity.
2. I have discussed the various methods used to achieve the de-culturisation of the Orang Asli at length in my doctoral dissertation, ‘The Orang Asli in the Malaysian Nation State: The Politics and Development of a Marginal Indigenous Community’, University of Malaya, 1999. Also, much of the discussion in this article is based on the concluding chapter.
3. See Sally Weaver (1989). Political Representivity and Indigenous Minorities in Canada and Australia. In: Noel Dyck (Ed), Indigenous Peoples and the Nation State: Fourth World Politics in Canada, Australia and Norway, pp. 113-150.