JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: Review of Roy Jumper's Orang Asli Now
Published: 07 March 1999
Narrative assessment of Roy Jumper's manuscript on
'Orang Asli Now: The Orang Asli in the Malaysian Political World'
on its merits for publication by a leading Asian publisher, 7 March 1999
I was really looking forward to reading the manuscript that promised to be the "first research endeavour to supply a comprehensive and intimate internal perspective of the Orang Asli polity as it emerges from relative obscurity" and one that takes readers "on a journey deep into unchartered territory" (preface, p. xv-xvi).
To claim the right to use these adjectives, the author must not only demonstrate a good grasp of the literature and of the issues at hand, but his interpretations and conclusions must also be based on sound data that are accurate and verified. A good command of English and a vivid imagination are not the only ingredients for a scholarly piece of work.
In brief, the author has failed to convince me that his work has met any of the claims he makes of it.
Cases of Misreading the Real Context or Fact
and Imputing his Interpretation and Conclusion
The author is happy to depend on whatever little bit of 'evidence' he has, and to interpret them accordingly. This is often subsequently presented as fact whereas they remain mere unsubstantiated opinions. Such a trend is rather prevalent in the manuscript, revealing an inability, or reluctance, on the part of the author to check and verify basic data.
Some examples follow:
"The latter term (Bumiputra) is most commonly associated with the Malays, although it was recently expanded by the Government of Malaysia (GOM) to include Orang Asli and other tribal peoples living in East Malaysia. This act represented GOM's second attempt to build up the bare Malay majority in Malaysia." [p. 2]
In fact, the term 'bumiputra' was instituted when the New Economic Policy was introduced (1970) to restructure Malaysian society. And even then the term included the Orang Asli and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. And to suggest that the 60,000-odd Orang Asli in the 1960s – less than half a percent of the total population – could shore up the Malay majority is not statistically correct. But more importantly, the author does not explain what were the implications, or rationale, for the government to do what he says was done. The paragraph is full of interesting assumptions that cry out for more coherence and logic.
On the contrary, the opposite is true. The Malay papers carry little "provocative" news, certainly very much less than the English papers. Besides, it is interesting to know how the author came to his conclusion since it is known that he does not read Malay. Clearly this statement is merely to present an opposing view to that of the "observers" (who are not referenced or attributed) merely for the sake of taking an opposing view.
How can this be when the Orang Asli were just getting dragged into the war. The fact is, the Ordinance was introduced to check the communist threat, which the Orang Asli were perceived as being a party to, then. There was no nothing to suggest that it was to be a reward. In reality, a careful reading of the act would reveal why this legislation has become the bane of the Orang Asli quest for the recognition of their various rights today.
In order to argue his case about the political practicality of converting to Islam and being aligned to UMNO, he cites the case of Anthony Williams-Hunt as a "stellar example of this practice" [p. 86 (fn 14), p. 193]. The facts are:
· Williams-Hunt did not convert to Islam to advance his career
· He does not enjoy a good standing in UMNO (he is not even an
· He does not remain the Perak director of POASM (he has in fact
· He is not well compensated for his work as a result of converting
· He has not completed a Ph.D. degree (let alone sign up for one);
· He is not the founder of COAC (although he sometimes lists himself
And I am certain that Anthony Williams-Hunt (frequently referred to, rather erroneously, as Hunt in the manuscript) would strongly object to the falsehood [p. 121] that "many members of POASM were relieved when Hunt was taken out of the limelight". On the contrary, he received more than 95 per cent of the votes at the Annual General Meeting and had actually decided not to stand for re-election in the wake of the scramble for the presidency by Long Jidin.
Williams-Hunt would also strongly object, and rightfully so, for being labeled as a "communist sympathiser" [p. 121] simply on the presumption that "Williams-Hunt's ancestral village lies in an area where there was a strong communist presence during the Emergency and many Orang Asli there openly sympathized with the Malayan Communist Party". The fact that his father was the then British Adviser on the Aborigines somehow does not factor into the author's mode of logic.
Also, the so-called "streamlining of POASM's divisional structure" [p. 138, fn 13] is said to be done to "undermine to some extent the grip of Williams-Hunt over the Perak Branch of POASM". How can this be when the person responsible for the "streamlining" (or more correctly, amending the POASM constitution to allow direct membership and open participation at AGMs) was none other than Williams-Hunt himself! It is surprising that the author does not know all this, despite his claim to have conducted in-depth interviews.
The author's two maps also clearly reveal his lack of appreciation of the geographical scale of the subject he refers to, or else it reflects a poor attempt at misrepresenting the reality.
The first map (on the linkages between the GOM and NGOs, POASM and UMNO, p. v) makes no sense at all.
The second map (on Orang Asli political demographics, p. vi) is an attempt at misleading the reader into thinking that the Orang Asli have a significant (political) presence in the whole of the states so marked. More significantly, he marks out the state of Perlis as being a state in "which the Orang Asli are confirmed to have made a difference in Malaysian elections" [map legend]. On p. 166, he also lists Perlis as "one of the states with sizeable Orang Asli populations".
Attributing "facts" Without Basis or Reference
Frequently, I found myself turning to the footnotes in the normal expectation of finding a reference source but instead was presented with more presumed "facts". The manuscript suffers greatly in that as one reads on, one becomes extremely suspicious if his 'facts' are actually fiction.
"There are 18 sub-groups among the Orang Asli but despite this fragmentation they are thought by some scholars to have been autogenous at one time." [p.3]
As far as I know, no Orang Asli scholar would make such a claim, or has yet made such a claim, nor does he state who they are.
"... a new willingness by the Government of Malaysia (GOM) to entertain the notion of an Orang Asli polity." [p. xv]
My own research says this is to the contrary, but I was willing to allow the author to argue his case. Unfortunately, he does not put forward any substantial, or even any remotely-linked evidence, to suggest that this is so.
The author has the habit of avoiding the need to cite sources, giving the impression that he is in fact the source of the information. But information and opinions are two different things.
One would get the impression that based on his very brief fieldwork in Malaysia, he was able to capture a lot of Orang Asli internal politics. However, apart from my discussion with him, during which he took profuse notes, I also gave him several of my writings on Orang Asli politics, including one of mine that he considered "cutting edge stuff". However, for reasons best known to him, he has conveniently failed to acknowledge this particular article, let alone list the other articles in his bibliography.
Thus apart from being factually inaccurate in some parts, the manuscript can be labelled as being academically dishonest to a large extent. This is a reflection of his training as well.
Instances Displaying Non-familiarity
With the Subject Matter
The author should familiarise himself with Malaysian politics more intimately and have a better grasp of the local situation before making conclusions that would open himself to criticism of being unfamiliar with his subject matter.
The author frequently (incorrectly) refers to the Aboriginal Peoples Act (which is a separate piece of legislation in itself) as Article 134 (of the Constitution?).
He makes repeated reference to the Semangs and the "various Jakun groups in the south". Semang is a derogatory term not used (or understood by most Orang Asli groups) while the Orang Asli in the south are NOT "mostly Jakuns". Further he persists in classifying the Orang Asli sub-groups into Semang, Senoi and Jakun despite being told re his earlier book, that "Jakun" is a single sub-group under the category 'Aboriginal Malay'. To say that a Temuan or an Orang Laut (who are also Aboriginal Malays) are also Jakuns, is to misrepresent that community's identity. This is akin to labelling the Cantonese and Hakka as Hokkiens for example.
In his persistence to use the category Semang (and Jakun), he does not explain why he chooses to use that term, when the official term is Negrito (albeit only a little less derogatory). The letter from the POASM president appended in his manuscript further attests to the difference in his classification of the Orang Asli groups.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the author has appended two documents [in Appendix 1], duly signed by the President of POASM, to his manuscript. Presumably this is done to show proof of his analysis or conclusions. Unfortunately, the author has taken no initiative, and exercised no academic inquiry, to verify the correctness of the information so provided or to appraise the purpose of the documents.
In the first document, it is stated that the membership of POASM is 20,000 and that all 18 ethnic groups are represented. On seeing this remarkable jump in a year from the 15,000+ in 1998, I checked with the secretary, who confirmed that the figure is closer to 16,000. And not all 18 groups are represented.
Also, at a glance, the organisation chart so appended seems so out of place to the organisation's constitution (which the author himself had noted had been amended three years back). For example, there should be no more branches, divisions and liaison chairmen. Nevertheless, even without pre-knowledge of POASM's constitution, any reader would quickly see that something is amiss, especially when the Secretary-General, Treasurer and Information Head enjoy a position of authority above the vice-presidents, and on the same level as the Deputy President!
Again, a check with POASM revealed that the appended chart is not correct, eventhough it was signed by the President (who, in reality, does not read or write sufficiently adequate English). I am told that these two documents were merely prepared to shore up the chances of one of the committee members' application for a travel grant to attend an indigenous peoples meeting outside the country.
Conclusions Based on Inaccuracies
The author is of course entitled to his own opinion and conclusion. But the basis for arriving at such conclusions must be based on facts and reality, not conjecture and assumption.
"The Emergency was unilaterally declared over by the British shortly before Merdeka." [fn 3, p. 41]
Merdeka, or Independence, as any writer on Malaysia would know, was in 1957. And the Emergency, as any writer on Malaysian politics would know, ended in 1960. Thus, to make a statement to the effect that the Emergency ended before Merdeka is reflective of a chronological dysfunction or a gross ignorance of basic Malaysian history.
Also, to say that the Perak Orang Asli Foundation is a "discreet operation designed to generate funds to support political activities" [p. 66], without providing supporting basis, is to display a lack of understanding of why the "foundation" was established (actually it is registered as a private limited company and not as a foundation) in the first place. Or else it is an example of gullibility to whatever the author is told.
On Orang Asli NGOs
The Orang Asli organisations mentioned in his book are all taken from an earlier conference paper of mine ("cutting-edge stuff" as he remarked to me when I made it available to him). There is no acknowledgement of this and of the other papers made available to him. On the contrary, the author gives the impression that the data and interpretation are the result of his sweat and brains.
Yet, the author is still able to get some facts wrong, especially about the nature and intent of these organisations. This has to do mainly with the assumption that the author makes of these organisations: that these so-called secular and non-secular Orang Asli NGOs are into politics and in the quest for power (which they are not). Then he goes to some pain to say that they are incapable of achieving this aim. Next he describes POASM as having political ambitions, and then goes to great pain to say that POASM is the only platform for the Orang Asli for political power. This is the crux of his whole thesis. A most elaborate attempt to try to demonstrate the obvious and to create a situation when there is none.
His generalization of Orang Asli NGOs, as displayed in the first map for example, reflects a simplistic understanding of Malay/Orang Asli/Government polity and situation, as well as his weak grasp of the subtleties and historicity of the context. There is much to comment here, but I will just cite some instances to demonstrate the author's obvious insufficiency of knowledge when it comes to some organisations.
For one, the so-called Muslim Orang Asli Association (MOAA) is not called such.
The author mentions "D-POASM" but does not explain what it is [p. 169], and in the same para, he goes on to say that "this maneuver to circumvent POASM, bitterly contested in the Malaysian courts by the new Suhut administration of POASM, was unsuccessful." Such gross imagination and conjecture. No such thing ever happened! But this statement would surely be the basis of a libel suit against the author by Majid Suhut, the POASM president.
The author lists the Perak Orang Asli Foundation, Paslim and KMC as NGOs. Instead, they should be regarded as Orang Asli-related business entities as their goal is strictly monetary and material gain for their members. They are in the business for themselves and not for POASM. Thus to suggest that the business activities of these organisations are "the primary source of POASM funds" [p. 153] is mere conjecture and blinkered imagination.
Exposing himself to libel suits
The author's interpretation of COAC's role and functions, and that of its members' "ambitions", clearly opens himself to libel action. As an affected party, I will not comment on this except to say that if I were in the business of making a living from libel suits, this work of his would be the first target – and only because it would be an easy walkover in any court.
Similarly, I am sure POASM leaders would not agree to many of the "facts" that the author attributes to the organisation, including that its constitution is now a near-copy of UMNO's, or that it campaigns actively on behalf of Barisan Nasional candidates, or that it was established basically for trade union-like motives. Such conclusions, assuming they were the result of "in-depth interviews", could only be arrived at by someone with a poor interviewee base, or by someone with a gifted flair for fiction.
Further, his analysis of POASM's political history through the leadership of the four presidents smacks of the traditional school history books that love to narrate history through the eyes of the rulers and the victors. Herein lies the author's fundamental weakness: the context of the political changes revolving around the whole Orang Asli polity is not taken into account.
The author prides himself in his ability to do meaningful research by breaking the ice and as such getting valuable information from his respondents. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in his own interpretations of his interview subjects. It is thus highly doubtful that these interviews were "in-depth interviews" of any breadth.
Apart from the gross distortion of the personality of Anthony Williams-Hunt mentioned earlier, his caricatures of his interview subjects – presumably to provide evidence that he did have such in-depth interviews – expose his weak grasp and knowledge of his primary sources of information.
For one, Prof. Jomo is not from Sarawak, and neither am I from East Malaysia. Dr. Baharon was not the first of the JHEOA Director-Generals, and neither did he sign the letter of authority of Batin Lepan. In fact the author could not have interviewed Batin Lepan – as the batin (headman) died in 1960!
The majority of his interview subjects are English speakers, thus reflecting a bias in his information sources. He has an obvious confusion as to how to denote Malay names in the bibliography, neither does he bother to get the correct spelling of the names of several individuals.
He tends to makes assumptions about the (current and anticipated) potential of some of the interviewees. For example, he lists Elwan as being active in the (POASM) movement. However, Elwan is not even a POASM member now (1999). Also, Long Jidin, the Orang Asli senator, never served in Perak, and Melati is a personal secretary to the Manager in Petronas, not the manager herself.
Most revealing of his "analysis" of his interview subjects is his impression of an Orang Asli interviewee who was described to be "a pseudo diplomat par excellence", "Orang Asli representative to the Malay world", and "easily the equivalent of an Orang Asli foreign minister".
However, the author is unable to connect the news-story he cited ("26 Orang Asli Detained Over Rally", NST 29 December 1997) with this personality. The 26 Orang Asli were arrested after they have tried to stop loggers from entering their area – loggers who were working for a concession-holder, the chairperson of which was none other than the interview subject concerned!
Much of the basis of the author's thesis is based on his interviews and his interpretation of his interview-material. Clearly, he has not fully appreciated the context of his interviews. Further, from his list of interviewees, one would be led to think that there are no other Orang Asli leaders or political entities, apart from those mentioned in his end-pages.
Thus, with inadequate understanding of his primary information, coupled with its latent unreliability, the author is not in a position to use such data for conclusive interpretations, let alone regard his work as "a journey deep into unchartered territory."
Had the author enlisted an Orang Asli specialist, an informed Orang Asli, or even a Malaysianist, to browse through his manuscript, many of the obvious discrepancies could have been easily avoided. One wonders why this was not done.
The author is of course entitled to his own opinion and conclusion. But the basis for coming to such conclusions must be based on facts and reality, not conjecture and assumption.
· Assess a sampling of the work on the Orang Asli and Orang Asli
· Take the opposite position held in the publications;
· Look for the evidence;
· If none is available, create the evidence or interpret others
· Present the work as a path-breaking scholarly work.
I met the author in 1998 when he was on a short visit in Malaysia. I discussed Orang Asli politics and issues with him and also made available several of my then unpublished articles on Orang Asli politics and identity. I also commented on his earlier book, Power and Politics, that suffered from the same academic pitfalls as the current manuscript.
I am also aware that his fieldwork has been limited to a very brief period of brief conversations with mainly English-speaking Orang Asli respondents – most of whom I had put him in touch with or was responsible for his contacts and was, in fact, his first link to the Orang Asli leaders he writes about.
I am also privy to much of the background context of the information presented in the manuscript. And also to the manner in which some of the interviews were conducted and with whom and when. Thus, it would be safe to say that any general reader would not read the manuscript the way I did. As such, the author is perhaps right in assuming that the manuscript is good enough for publication.
Nevertheless, for reasons listed above, I regret that I am unable to recommend the publication of this manuscript in its current state. But to be fair to the author, I recommend that a second reader be asked to vet the suitability of this manuscript for publication.
It turns out there was a second reader for the manuscript who also did not recommend the book for publication. The author subsequently (self-)published it under the auspices of the 'University Press of America' in 1999.
I do not normally do book reviews. And if I do, I always aim to take a positive stand towards the manuscript. This case however is extraordinarily different and should be highlighted as bad research masquerading as the "first research endeavour to supply a comprehensive and intimate internal perspective of the Orang Asli polity as it emerges from relative obscurity." Certainly it is nowhere near its claim that it takes readers "... on a journey deep into unchartered territory".
Also, several of my photographs were used in his book, neither with my permission nor with any acknowledgement. Worse still, the context of the photos were at times distorted.
I also note that the author was attached to the United States Navy at the time. If allowed to use his free reign of conjecture and assumptions, I must say that the book does seem to read like a hastily-written CIA report of the quality the US is now famous for.