An intern's take at interning at COAC

Published: 17 September 2015

Jia Sheng (at right) with fellow intern Jia Shern (middle) and JOAS staff Yein in COAC's office.

Fong Jia Sheng
COAC Intern (July-August 2015)
17 September 2015


Over the course of two months as an intern at the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), I have learned a lot. For starters, did you now know that ‘Orang Asli’ is an actual English term, aside from it being a Malay word? Yes, it is. It means original or first peoples.

I also learnt that the Orang Asli consider themselves as Orang Asli based on three factors, on top of the fact that their ancestors were the first to step foot on the land. The three factors are that the person must (1) still be communicating in his/her native language, (2) practicing the traditions passed down by his/her ancestors and (3) teaching the younger generations the traditions.

Besides that, it has been brought to my knowledge that proving native land rights is very different from proving common law land rights.

Nine important points have to be taken into consideration when proving native land rights. They are: distinct boundary, prior occupation, continuity of occupation, organized society, unique and distinct society, exclusive society, presence of specific customs on land, continuity of customs on land and continuous occupants’ dependency on land.

Interning with COAC has also given me the chance to go on field trips to kampungs and even to Sarawak to help out and attend the national-level World Indigenous Peoples Day Celebrations!

For the past two months, I have been to three different courts – Ipoh High Court, Johor Baru High Court and the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya. 

And six villages – Kampung Angkek, Kampung Mengkapor, Kampung Kelaik, Kampung Lebor, Kampung Ulu Tual and Kampung Kuala Masai. I was travelling almost every week. 

This great opportunity has provided me not only legal erudition but also simple yet important life lessons. 


“Balai Adat” of Kampung Kelaik, Kelantan


The first time I visited a kampung, Kampung Angkek in Kelantan, I was awed by how simple yet beautiful their abodes were. The indigenous peoples do not live in big houses but beautifully and carefully weaved rattan-and-bamboo-walled huts.

Each hut has its own unique patterns as all of them are hand-made. I realised that most of us are so caught up with material things that we have often forgotten to admire the beauty of all the austerity around us. However, through modernisation, such art is slowly dying and there are lesser and lesser of such huts.


Fatimah (lower right) and her family walking towards the logger.


Fatimah and her family confronting the logger.


According to Winston Churchill, “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”. 

If that is the case, the indigenous peoples of Malaysia are probably one of the most courageous people that I have come across. 

The villagers from Kampung Mengkapor, Pahang, have sat down and listened to what the court has to say and they have also stood up and confronted the loggers who continued logging their land despite the court’s decision. 

I still remember how stern Fatimah, one of the villagers, was when she demanded the loggers to leave. The way she asserted that the King has no rights over their land impressed me a lot.

The villagers of Kampung Lebor, Sarawak, too, share their lionheart. They are threatened to have their land destroyed but their fear is not as strong as their courage. They have set up barricades and have been protesting against such action for well-nigh a year or more now. They will not stop until they are left alone. 

Little coverage has been provided by the media. This is a very strong reminder that if we do not stand up for ourselves, no one will.


Andak, the grandmother with her heart on what's best for the future generation.


Also, in Kampung Angkek, a minor was abused by a few teachers. The grandmother was approached by the authorities to patch things up but the grandmother did not settle because she has had enough.

The speech she gave still echoes in my head. She said that Orang Asli have long been discriminated and bullied. She believed that if she doesn’t stand up and put her foot down today, her future generations will continue to be mistreated.

People are like rubber band, she said. If pulled too far, it will snap right back, hard. As such, never abuse the kindness and tolerance of someone else.


Incredibly tall tree seen on the way into Kampung Ulu Tual, Pahang


Going into kampungs also made me realise how much we have neglected Mother Earth. When I was on my way to Kampung Ulu Tual in Pahang, the thick foliage that I passed through was so captivating. The sight of the tall trees and greenness brought so much peace. 

The trees were so tall, they probably have been overlooking the development of our country over the years.I wondered if the trees are proud to see that our country has made it this far. But with the sacrifices of so much beauty of nature, is it worth it?

What seems to be incredibly beautiful to us now is probably a common sight to the people of the olden days. Are we proud of ourselves to have destroyed the Mother who has given so much to us?


The crystal clear river in Kampung Ulu Tual, Pahang.




Just a huge black float – a lorry inner tube – can bring so much joy to the kids.


While we were in Ulu Tual, we went for a swim in the river. The water was crystal clear. Everything was so beautiful. On the right of the river, I saw a group of people who were sitting on the wooden bench which they have built; relaxing and overlooking the kids having the time of their lives.

On my left, there was a bulldozer ready to bulldoze whatever that was in its way. The river will soon be turned into murky water and the kids will no longer be able to take a dip in it. Their playground will soon be snatched away from them.


Children picking rambutans from the tree.


But kids being kids, they were oblivious of what was happening around them. They were still having the time of their lives. Their smiles and laughter radiate from within them. Their happiness was contagious because after looking at them, I find a smile hanging on my own face. I feel so warm and fuzzy watching them play. 

Maybe it was because it reminded me of my childhood or maybe it was because they made me realised that staring at an animated screen is not true joy but merely just a way to pass time. 

If that is the case, are our urban children really enjoying being a child? Will they know how great grass feel beneath their feet and how fun it is to be running and playing under the rain?


The very adorable, energetic and fun-loving kids, from Kampung Ulu Tual, and I.


As we all know, all kids have the right to education. However, such right is more of a privilege to the kids in the rural areas as the nearest school may be a good few kilometres away from them. 

Hence, these kids may be denied of the access to education. Identifying such problem, a few of my colleagues have undertaken the task to build a community learning centre in Ulu Tual where villagers of all ages can go to learn.

I have been there once and at first, I started with reading a book to the kids and they slowly started to bring more and more books to me. I soon found out that they do not really understand what I was reading to them. They just enjoyed being read to. 

They all have such love and passion for knowledge and denying them of education seems to be unfair. By setting up a learning center there, my colleagues have definitely done a very noble act.


My colleagues. From left: Jia Shern, Sze Ning, Hui Yein, Lily [Not in the picture is Nasir]


Speaking of my colleagues, I personally feel that I have learnt a lot from them too. They are all extremely committed and selfless. They always put others’ needs above theirs. 

I have learnt especially from one of my colleagues that I am always in control of my fate. She could have been an illiterate as she did not have the opportunity to attend school but she did not let that happen. She is always looking for ways to improve herself and her life. 

Until today, she still constantly reads and does not stop learning new things. I learnt that just because something started off badly, it does not mean that it will end badly. Hard work and determination can change anything.


My boss, Colin Nicholas, picking rambutans from a tree.


I also appreciate the fact that my boss, Colin Nicholas, gives me constructive criticisms. He said that I sometimes take instructions too literally and that I am a little too shy when it comes to approaching the Orang Asli. I have been working on it ever since.

I am in this cocoon that is cracking and when it breaks, I know I will be able to achieve great things.

Travelling with my boss has also allowed me to truly understand the scout motto – “Be Prepared”. 

We would always be going on day trips. However, sometimes unforeseen circumstances are bound to arise. A day trip would turn into an overnight stay.

When we were on our way up to Ulu Tual, my boss had allowed me to practice driving his manual Ford Ranger up the hilly track.

I was very nervous and shouted a lot. I would shout phrases like “WOW WHAT WAS THAT?!” and “BUT WE ARE SO NEAR TO THE CLIFF”. 

This subsequently led me to carelessly and accidentally break the clutch plate, which I have felt very guilty up until today.

We then had to ask for help from strangers to strangers – of which none of them rejected to help – to get our car to the nearest mechanic which was 60 kilometres away as we were on our way into a kampung.

As my boss is always prepared for unpredictable happenings, he had a box of tools and equipment in the trunk which came in handy to get us down the hill and to the nearest town.



The only light that illuminated our path were the headlights.


That was really an unforgettable adventure as the darkness has blanketed the countryside. Everything was pitch black and it was pouring. The steel cable that tied our truck to the aider’s truck broke a couple of times but we still managed to make it to the town safe and sound. No doubt it was scary. 

I found myself saying my prayers a few times. However, looking back now, it was really a lot more fun than scary.


Construction site in Kampung Masai, Johor, is also the children’s playground.


The houses of the “Orang Asli Laut” that are right by the sea.


The scenery from a small pier in Kampung Masai, Johor.


Then there was another trip to the Johor High Court for the hearing of the Kanawagi’s case. We were only supposed to be there for a day but we ended up staying for another as the court case actually spanned for two days.

I had to sleep in my shirt and slack because I did not pack an extra set of clothes.

The next day, after the hearing, we made our way to Kampung Kuala Masai.  It was the village of the Orang Seletar (or Orang Laut), which means the sea indigenous peoples.

I felt so out of place when I was visiting them as I was dressed so differently. However, the people there did not care. One of the kids, Daniel, even held my hand and brought me around. 

They were so down to earth and the place they live in is so beautiful. Imagine waking up to the smell of the salty seawater, taking a dip in the sea at your own leisure, fresh seafood every day and watching the sunset by the sea.

But, of course, even the most wonderful thing will seem ordinary if we have too much of it.


Orang Asli of Kampung Mengkapor, Pahang, enjoying the company of each other.


Working with Orang Asli and visiting their kampungs has been a great reminder that Mother Earth is a wonderful gift which humans have neglected. Orang Asli are just like you and I. At the end of the day, despite who we are, our flesh and bones will turn into ashes. 

My point is, we are all the same and we have so much to learn from each other. In order to foster a mutual relationship, respect is a definite element to be present. 

Previously, I have never really given much thought to the plight of the Orang Asli. From young, I have always read in the newspaper on how the government is helping the Orang Asli by providing them electricity, internet and other amenities.

However, after working with COAC, I found out that the aid is only given to targeted kampungs and these helps are not enough. To quote, Martin Niemöller in his poem, 

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Socialist.
then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This quote is able to reflect the reality of how everyone just cross their hands when they are not affected. Relating to the context, just because we are not affected, it does not mean we should just stand by and watch. 

We should encourage and support a cause that, even though it has nothing to do with us, will lead to another group of people having a better and less marginalized life. Selfishness is in most of us and it is a quality that has to be dropped.

Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize Winner, said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” 

Standing up for the ones whose voice are too soft to be heard or the voiceless will help them go a long way. Be the tinder and kindling that help keep their fire burning. Help them grow until they are able to keep their own fire ablaze.


Pua Kumbu, a traditional patterned multi-coloured ceremonial cotton cloth used by the Iban. Every design on the Pua Kumbu tells a story.


Outside the Ipoh High Court with a group of Orang Asli and their lawyers after a hearing. Bah Tony is at the second row, fourth from left.


It is difficult to highlight everything in a report as so much has happened over the past two months.

I attended an art exhibition on Pua Kumbu, sat at a roundtable with Dato Ambiga Sreenevasan, had Andrew Khoo from the Bar Council telling me how much he enjoyed the traditional dish served during the World Indigenous Day Celebrations in Kuching, met Bah Tony (the first Orang Asli male to be admitted into the legal fraternity) and so on. 

KPUM-Asasi and COAC have given me the opportunity to learn a lot more than what are in the books. It was definitely a summer well spent. Thank you so much!


[This report was originally prepared for the KPUM-Asasi programme which placed him in COAC for his internship.]

For more photos of the internship experience, click on this link: