ORANG ASLI OFFICIAL-SPEAK: The doublespeak you can be doubly sure is all hog-wash

Published: 01 January 1992


The doublespeak you can be doubly sure is all hog-wash

Colin Nicholas

Published in Aliran Monthly, Vol. 12 (9), 1992, pp. 2-4.


It seems that, with the Orang Asli, you can lie through your teeth and confidently get away with it.

It used to be the case when one would only dare make 'deceiving statements' if one were in the wake of a solely Orang Asli audience. But perhaps because they have frequently managed to get away with their never-ending promises (of 'development', of land titles, of compensation) that some government leaders have become more daring and gone on to make blatantly deceiving statements, not only on TV but also in that august house, Parliament.

Take for example the statement by the Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), Jimin Idris, in a TV Forum in April 1989. In reply to a question from an Orang Asli panelist, he said, among other things, that "there were 1,700 staff in the Department, of which about 1,000 are Orang Asli."

However, in a written reply to a parliamentary question by DAP's Dr. Tan Seng Giaw just one month before this, the JHEOA revealed that there were no more that 395 Orang Asli employed in the JHEOA – and not 1,000 as claimed on national TV.

Hidden) Key positions
Then again last December, the Parliamentary Secretary to the ministry now responsible for the Orang Asli, the Rural Development Ministry, disclosed that there were 1,375 'key positions' in the JHEOA. This in itself is a misleading reply as it suggests that there are many more staff in the Department in 'non-key' positions.

Nevertheless, his reply, in response to a question by DAP's Dr. Kua Kia Soong on the number of key positions held by Orang Asli in the JHEOA, was more misleading. According to him, of the 1,375 'key positions' in the JHEOA, 58.9 per cent were held by Orang Asli.

This is something extremely hard to believe because it is common knowledge that there is not a single Orang Asli in the 20-odd Category A positions in the Department, and no more than two in Category B. The majority are in Categories C and D (drivers, clerical staff, labourers, medics, field assistants). And yet we are told in Parliament that more than half of 'key positions' in the JHEOA are held by Orang Asli!

Downplaying Orang Asli Academic Success
Further questions on the Orang Asli by the Member for Petaling Jaya during the December session exposed more deceiving responses from the Parliamentary Secretary. For example, when asked for the number of Orang Asli who had completed higher education, the latter replied that to date only 14 Orang Asli had achieved this. And to think that it was none other than the Deputy Director-General of the JHEOA himself who had stated, in a seminar paper a year before, that at least 51 Orang Asli had as of then completed higher education. The figure today must be more than 51. How the figure of 14 was obtained is anybody's guess.

The question, then, would be: why would the government want to give a lower figure when in fact such academic achievement among the Orang Asli would have been a feather in its cap?

It appears that this brazen attempt to downplay the (higher) academic performance of Orang Asli has to do with calls from the Orang Asli community to have more Orang Asli in decision-making positions in the JHEOA. This is a call with much basis, not only because they themselves should know better what is best for their community, but also because there are Orang Asli today who are more qualified, academically, than those currently holding the top posts in the Department.

To sidestep this demand the government has perhaps found it necessary to totally exaggerate the number of key positions in the JHEOA held by the Orang Asli, as well as intentionally downplay the number of Orang Asli who have completed higher education.

Downsizing Orang Asli Land Ownership
In that same parliamentary session, there was more deceit to come. When asked about the status of Orang Asli lands, the Parliamentary Secretary said that 34,951 hectares have been approved for gazetting, and of these 20,666.96 hectares have been gazetted. This works out to 59.1 per cent being gazetted (though the newsreports quoted the Parliamentary Secretary having said it was 50 per cent, while the hansard has a ludicrous figure of 575!).

The truth about the status of Orang Asli land, as JHEOA statistics show, is that 20,666.96 hectares have been gazetted as Orang Asli reserves, another 36,076.33 hectares have been approved for gazetting but have not been gazetted, and a total of 67,019.46 hectares have been applied for gazetting but have not been approved yet. That is, out of a total of 123,762.75 hectares which has been variously deemed to be officially Orang Asli land, only 16.7 per cent have been gazetted, not the 50-plus per cent disclosed in Parliament.

(It is important to note that the percentage would be much smaller if the total claims of the Orang Asli to their traditional lands were considered, and not just the claims which the authorities feel are just.)

The figures may seem a lot. Or at least they seem to suggest that the government is actively working towards granting Orang Asli some rights to their lands. Perhaps for this reason, when asked subsequently as to the number of Orang Asli settlements that have been gazetted in the last ten years, the Parliamentary Secretary answered obliquely (or nonsensically, if you wish) that "what are gazetted are Orang Asli areas and not Orang Asli kampungs." And that was it.

This was an obvious evasion of the fact: in the last ten years, no more than 50 hectares have been gazetted as Orang Asli reserves!

The truth is, most of the moves at gazetting Orang Asli lands, and their actual gazetting, were done during the time of the British Colonialists. On the contrary, field observations today suggest that a number of Orang Asli areas are being re-classified for non-Orang Asli purposes, sometimes without Orang Asli knowledge, let alone consent or compensation.

Misleading statistics about land 'owned' by Orang Asli are not only made in Parliament. Recently, the Pahang Menteri Besar invited Orang Asli from other states to settle in Pahang. There is plenty of land in the state, he said, adding that each Orang Asli in Pahang owned an average of 16 hectares of land compared to 3 hectares for other families.

The facts, again according to official JHEOA statistics: 6,625.75 hectares in Pahang are gazetted as Orang Asli reserves, with the Orang Asli population there being 28,269. This works out to 0.23 hectares per Orang Asli, not 16 hectares.

Even if the total area approved (16,609.95 hectares) and applied (23,392.36 hectares) for gazetting were taken into account, the area per Orang Asli would be 1.65 hectares, not 16 hectares. But more importantly, it should be stressed that, even if the land is gazetted as Orang Asli reserve, the Orang Asli do not hold permanent title to it, whether individually or as a community. As such, the Orang Asli do not legally 'own' their land as claimed.

Plucking Figures from the Air
If by now you conclude that whenever it comes to matters concerning the Orang Asli, figures are just plucked from the air and tossed about, you are not far away from the truth. Figures do seem to be thrown about to suit any argument wanted. Sometimes this is done to make Orang Asli take the blame for some wrong done by others. The most common instance is when scapegoats are needed to divert the public's eye from the true cause of forest destruction.

From the Prime Minister down, the Orang Asli and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak have had to take the brunt of baseless accusations against shifting cultivation being the cause of forest destruction.

Take the Perak Forestry Department, for example. In 1989, they claimed that the Orang Asli in Perak had up till then destroyed 25,000 hectares of forests (with a total revenue loss of 22.2 million ringgit). In 1991, they brandished a figure of 22,000 hectares (with a revenue loss to date of 93.4 million ringgit).

Any thinking person would be quick to point to the preposterous increase in lost revenue to the tune of 71.2 million ringgit despite a drop (this, in itself is an impossibility) of 3,000 hectares from 1989 to 1991. Absurd, yes. But only possible if you resort to stewing up figures to substantiate a non-truth.

A recent Harvard/UPM study in fact revealed that rotational (or shifting) cultivation affected less than 0.1 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia, and that deforestation had been caused primarily by expansion of tree-crop plantations like rubber and oil palm as well as logging.

Statistics that can promote ill-will
But it is not always that we are given deceiving statistics. Sometimes we are refused them altogether. In Parliament last May, the Member for Petaling Jaya requested statistics on the population (with a breakdown) of the indigenous minorities in Malaysia. The question was rejected by the House Secretary on grounds that it contravened section 23(2) of the Standing Orders. We are thus led to think that an accurate and truthful reply to the question could 'promote feelings of illwill or hostility between communities in the Federation or infringe a provision of the Constitution or Sedition Act.' This boggles the mind.

Official statistics, it appears, is a prerogative of the government. They can choose not to give it out, or if they do, they can choose to doctor it.

Time to stop the lies
They have lied when it came to the Orang Asli, about the various scandals, and, you can be sure, in most official statistics too.

It's about time we took our leaders to task for their blatant deceit. There are sufficient provisions in the various legislations and standing orders to do so.

A more vigilant and concerned public is necessary to check this.