ORANG ASLI SELF-DETERMINATION and the Control of Resources

Published: 01 January 1999




and the Control of Resources

Colin Nicholas

Published in Cultural Survival Quarterly 23:49-54. 1999

Orang Asli is the collective term for the 19 sub-groups of ‘first peoples’ in Peninsular Malaysia. Numbering 105,000 in 1997 – or a mere 0.5 per cent of the Malaysian population – the Orang Asli are largely forest or agriculture based although several individuals have achieved levels of educational and economic success comparable to those of the dominant population. Nevertheless, it is no hidden secret that the Orang Asli rank among the most marginalized of Malaysians today – not just in terms of numbers but in their ability to determine their own fate.
The Orang Asli, however, never lived in isolation nor were they always a marginal group divorced from an imagined mainstream. On the contrary, Orang Asli communities, especially in Southern Peninsular Malaysia, were well established before the reign of the Malay sultans, with Orang Laut groups even providing crucial military and economic support during the formation of the Johore and Malacca Sultanates. That the Orang Asli were part of the emerging Malay states can also be gleaned from the customary practices in some states, as in Negri Sembilan and Pahang, where it was necessary to assert genealogical links with Orang Asli ancestry to legitimise local rule.

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.

Undermining Autonomy
A reduction in local autonomy was, in fact, the key instrument for the state to effect control over the Orang Asli and their traditional territories. Accordingly, policies and programmes for Orang Asli development were markedly devoid of autonomy-augmenting objectives and actually included elements of internal colonialism – including administrative control [1], dispossession from traditional territories, loss of traditional resource rights, and expressed objectives of assimilation into the ‘mainstream’.

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. [2]

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.

Indigenousness and the New Orang Asli Polity
It was the contest for their traditional territories and resources that first caused the Orang Asli to become aware of the threat to their future. Their initial response had been to initiate various forms of indirect and symbolic opposition at the local level. Eventually, however, as the stakes against them increased, the responses involved a broader, pan-Orang Asli consciousness that was never previously affirmed. The main vehicle for this was POASM, the broad-based Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association.

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.

Orang Asli Organisation and Representivity
The Orang Asli were initially a collection of diffuse local communities, each with their own locus of cultural identity, ethnic sanctuary, and economic opportunity.  As mentioned earlier, shared experiences and common causes of social stress vis-à-vis the nation state helped promote a collective awareness among the Orang Asli.

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 [3]  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.

The ‘New’ Demand
Rist (1999: 243-4), in The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, 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 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.

Achieving Autonomy
Orang Asli have applied all manner of non-confrontational methods ¬– including dialogue, lobbying, and use of the media – to persuade the state to recognise them as a people and, accordingly, recognise their right to manage their traditional territories and their lives. However, at least in the current context, it is inconceivable that the state will concede any level of autonomy or self-determination to the Orang Asli as it would mean having the state relinquish control over some of its territory and, at the same time, bequeathing to the Orang Asli an aspect of its sovereignty.

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.
Negotiate from a Position of Strength
Without doubt, Orang Asli have to negotiate from a position of strength in order to assert their aspirations for autonomy and self-determination. Their relatively small and diverse population, however, dictates that this should come from political, rather than numeric, strength.

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.

Arrest Erosion of Orang Asli Autonomy
Thus far, Orang Asli activism has largely been in response to threats to their traditional territories and resources. The Orang Asli should recognise that other policies and programmes of the state also act to erode, or reject, Orang Asli autonomy. These include policies of integration through regroupment and village-twinning programmes (with Malays), assimilation through religious conversion, privatisation of Orang Asli development, and submission to a mainstream education system. The scope of Orang Asli activism should therefore be widened to embrace all activities, programmes, and policies that seek to erode Orang Asli autonomy and self-determination, no matter how remote and inconsequential they appear to be.

Procure Favourable State Policies
While taking measures to check the erosion of Orang Asli autonomy, political representation should also be made to procure favourable state policies or actions that will promote self-management of Orang Asli communities and traditional territories.

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.

Develop an Orang Asli Ideology of Struggle
In order to avoid potential disagreement over fundamental issues, and to further develop solidarity among various Orang Asli groupings and individuals, an integrated assertion of what constitutes their socio-political programme and vision is needed. The process of developing such an ideology is, in itself, expected to further evolve an informed and united Orang Asli polity.

Reclaim Representivity
It is commonly held that without representivity, Orang Asli organisations would not be able to persuade the state to adopt the policies they prefer. This is because Orang Asli representivity is currently a political resource for the state. Nevertheless, political representivity is not the sole prerogative of the state. In reality, political representivity of Orang Asli organisations is as much a problem for Orang Asli organisations as it is for the state. It remains, therefore, for the Orang Asli to regain the right to use representivity as a resource for itself. That is, the challenge remains for Orang Asli to turn representivity from a state-assigned privilege into an Orang Asli-achieved status.

In the final analysis, short of challenging the state in open confrontation, it still remains imperative that Orang Asli autonomy is dependent on the state’s recognition that the Orang Asli are a separate people worthy of an autonomous existence. Such recognition, however, is not likely to be bestowed by the state on its own accord. The Orang Asli would therefore have to regain their political strength before they can solicit genuine reconciliation from the state, with a view to achieving full autonomy once again.


1.  The chief means of administrative control was via the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), a government agency led by non-Orang Asli and which has imputed upon itself the role of godparent of all the Orang Asli, often representing the Orang Asli on their behalf.

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.