THE ORIGINAL CHAMPION: Dr. Tan Chee Khoon and the Orang Asli Cause

Published: 01 August 1996



Dr. Tan Chee Khoon and the Orang Asli Cause




Colin Nicholas

22 October, 1996


Published in Aliran Monthly. 16(8) pp. 28-30. 1996.

In the early 1980s, whenever people heard that I was researching the Orang Asli they always referred me to the writings of Dr. Tan Chee Khoon, particularly his articles in The Star and Utusan Melayu in 1980 and 1981. The microfilm copies, in negative format, from the university library were difficult to read but they were very clear in exposing, for the first time, the shoddy deal that the Orang Asli were getting. In these, and in his other articles over the decade, Dr. Tan minced no words and spared no one in his bid to speak up for yet another neglected sector of the Malaysian community.


In his 1984 interview with the Sultan of Johor, on the latter's inauguration as the Yang Di Pertuan Agung, he reiterated that the government was responsible for the Orang Asli - or the Bumiputra Tulen ("True Sons-of -the-Soil"), as he preferred to call the Orang Asli. He reminded the King that "while the government has done a tremendous amount to improve the living standards of the Malays, it has not done much for the Orang Asli."


Also, in his typical parliamentary fashion, he was always quick to expose shortcomings in the budget allocations for the Orang Asli and analyzed the various 5-year Malaysia Plans for their commitment to Orang Asli progress.


His criticisms and his suggestions were never without foundation. He knew what was happening on the ground, and had good grassroot links with the Orang Asli. On education for the Orang Asli children, for example, he was highly critical of the standard of teachers and the double standards practiced by the government.


"I gather that there are 'good' primary schools in 7th mile Cameron Highlands, and in Sungei Judah and Bumbun on Carey Island. But why are the worst teachers sent to them? It is a scandalous state of affairs to send failed LCE teachers to the Orang Asli primary school. If this was done to a Malay primary school, there will be a hue and cry and the Education Minister will not last long in that post."


He added that "MARA had has quite rightly built residential junior science colleges in every state to improve the standard of science in our schools system and to prepare bumiputras to take up places in the science disciplines in our universities. And MARA has also sent bumiputras by the droves overseas to continue their education there. But has MARA spared a thought or done even a fraction for the children of Orang Asli in this country? I regret to say that the answer is a categorical NO."


He summed up the educational neglect of the Orang Asli as follows: "I say that the problem is too big for the Jabatan Orang Asli to handle. It has neither the funds nor the resources to provide a decent standard of education for the children of the Orang Asli of this country."


Fifteen years later, in January 1995, the government finally realised the problem and placed the responsibility of Orang Asli education (rightly) with the Ministry of Education.


With Orang Asli health, Dr. Tan was also not silent. In one of his early writings, he noted that "It is true that the medical posts have been increased but one common complaint is that the visits (by the medical team) are few and far between and what is worse, very often the residents are told that the medicine that is prescribed for them is not available. This happens time and again."


He fully supported the efforts of Dr. Bolton, the well-remembered doctor for the Orang Asli, to train Orang Asli to serve as paramedics both in the Gombak hospital as well as in the medical posts in the interior. Many Orang Asli leaders today still remember Dr. Tan for speaking against the attempt to replace the Orang Asli paramedics by Malays.


His cure: "As with education, I say that health should also be taken out of the hands of the Jabatan Orang Asli as the problem is far too big for that department to handle."


Clearly, Dr. Tan had much to say about the way the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) was going about its statutory duty to bring about the progress and wellbeing of the Orang Asli. As he saw it, "the Jabatan Orang Asli must set up a mission of working itself out of existence because if they do their work well, and the living standards of the Orang Asli are raised, then there would be no need for the Jabatan Orang Asli."


According to him, "the Orang Asli do not look to the JHEOA as a friend to whom they can turn to when they have any problems. This is not surprising seeing that the federal and state offices of the department are staffed almost entirely by Malays and there are very few Orang Asli in these offices. A few of them are to be found in the ranks of Division IV."


He continues, "The question to be asked is this: 23 years after Independence why is it that not a single Orang Asli has been prepared for a senior position in the JOA? Experience has shown that given educational training and opportunity the Orang Asli can do as well as anyone else. Why has this not been done?"


Today, after 39 years of Independence, this has still not been done!


Dr. Tan was also concerned with the land rights of the Orang Asli. He pointed out that "kuasa" rights given to them by the Sultans in some states have been slowly eroded by Felda and by Malays who have settled in land reserved for the Orang Asli. "What has the Jabatan Orang Asli done to preserve the kuasa rights of the Orang Asli?" he asked.


In the case of resettling Orang Asli, he advised that "if the department want the resettlement schemes to succeed, they have to be well thought-out and the Orang Asli consulted before embarking on such schemes." Sadly, even today, this is not done most of the time.


Dr. Tan was also quick to see the emerging social problems among the Orang Asli, and called for urgent attention by the authorities.


"The problem of drugs," he warned, "has now reared its ugly head among the Orang Asli living along the fringes of small towns or of rural areas. It is a great source of worry to the penghulu or batin. I see that the problem is not recognized as such by both the Department of Orang Asli Affairs and Pemadam. This is a serious omission."


"Prostitution too," he noted, "is beginning to be a problem, for Orang Asli girls are found in the company of men in cheap hotels and I hope both the police and Department of Social Welfare will take action to check this new menace."


Dr. Tan also did not spare his fellow parliamentarians. He was critical of their misguided thinking as to what constituted Orang Asli needs.


"From time to time," he wrote, "the affairs of the Orang Asli have attracted the attention of UMNO backbenchers and PAS members in the Dewan Rakyat. Unfortunately, practically all of them are mainly concerned with feeding the Orang Asli with massive doses of Islam as a solution to their problems. They seem to want to use Islam as an opiate to dull the senses of the Orang Asli so that they need not ask for any improvement in their socio-economic status."


Dr. Tan's writings would seem extremely daring, even seditious, in today's context. It wasn't because society was more tolerant then, or that he was his usual fearless self. Rather, everyone knew that he spoke with genuineness and honesty, and that every criticism of government or every defense of the marginalised was prompted by a strong desire for rectification of a wrong based on the exposure of the truth.


Yes, long before it became fashionable to champion Orang Asli rights, Dr. Tan Chee Khoon made the "Orang Asli cause" a part of his life-long commitment to service and justice.


His prophetic warning in 1980 to Department of Orang Asli  "that the Orang Asli are dumb no longer and very soon, they will articulate their hopes, their needs and their aspirations for their own people" has come true today. This is in itself is testimony to the groundwork laid by him, a testimony of the example he has shown for others.


The Orang Asli have lost a great friend in Dr. Tan Chee Khoon.