Although Malays tell the Chinese they were there first, the country’s true natives are marginalized
The Orang Asli, the 170,000-odd indigenous peoples of the Malaysian peninsula, who for decades have remained mostly sidelined from social, economic, and cultural life, are coming under extreme pressure from both federal and state governments. They face multiple efforts to evict them from customary lands, destruction of their heritage sites and efforts to convert them from their animist beliefs.
Part of the problem is that although their existence on the peninsula predates ethnic Malays by centuries, their status has been eroded politically by the drive by ethnic Malays to picture themselves as the indigenous peoples in the effort to accuse the ethnic Chinese, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s 32 million people, as interlopers.
Accordingly, the Orang Asli have never had the strength and support to hold onto their rights. These rights have been paternally held by non-Orang Asli ministers responsible for Orang Asli affairs in the ministry of rural development. There is nothing in the national land code (NLC) about customary land. They have been mal-administrated by those with the hidden agenda of assimilating them.
As distinct from the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, the Orang Asli comprise three main groups – the Semang generally in the northern part of the peninsula, the Senoi within the central region, and the proto-Malay in the southern region of the peninsula.
For instance, a new dam is being built at Nenggiri in Kelantan, a mountainous state on the east coast, to produce hydroelectricity. There are fears by the local Orang Asli communities that the dam will destroy their heritage sites, which include sacred caves, ancestral burial grounds, customary land areas, water resources, crops, and access routes. They have been forced to move by authorities.
In addition, the Pakatan Harapan government in the state of Selangor has announced the intention to de-gazette a major part of the Kuala Langit North Forest Reserve, considered Orang Asli customary land, to construct an industrial estate. Also in Selangor, residents of an Orang Asli village along the coast in Sepang are being evicted to make way for the expansion of a resort owned by Permodalan Negeri Selangor Bhd (PNSB), a Selangor state government investment company.
In Pahang, an Orang Asli tribe in the Temerloh district is being evicted from lands they have occupied for generations to make way for a state government development project.
Individuals and companies seeking land are also squeezing out the Orang Asli from other customary tribal lands. Under state government practices in Pahang, the chief minister, Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail, personally signs off all deals over government land holdings whose titles are issued by the land office. This allows individuals and companies to claim legal ownership of customary tribal lands after which they often seek to remove and evict Orang Asli villagers.
Recently, unidentified assailants burned a Semelai woman’s crops and the house she had lived in since her grandfather built it 30 years ago in the Temerloh district of Pahang, often a tactic used to forcibly remove the Orang Asli from customary lands, actions ignored by authorities. Communities have been warned by the Pahang Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) director Johari Alwi, that those who don’t register for Covid-19 vaccination won’t get aid and assistance on land issues.
Many within the Orang Asli community believe that they are systemically discriminated against by police. One notable case that dramatically increased indignation was the attempted prosecution of four Orang Asli for killing a tiger, a protected species, while collecting jungle produce in 2012. Defense attorneys pleaded this was in self-defence, leading to a court acquittal celebrated by the community. In a 2014 incident, a group of Orang Asli were injured during an altercation with a group of Myanmar workers. Although the Orang Asli made a police report, local Kelantan police wouldn’t take action against the foreign workers. After the Orang Asli, with the assistance of the Malaysian Bar Council made another police report at Bukit Aman, in Kuala Lumpur upon return to Kelantan, they were arrested by police for possession of weapons during a riot. They claimed trial and were acquitted.
The 2019 arrest without bail of Orang Asli attempting to blockade loggers led to former minister for national unity and social well-being in the Prime Minister’s department P. Waytha Moorthy, intervening on behalf of the Orang Asli. However, too often state forestry officers and district police have taken the side of loggers even though the courts have ruled in favour of customary land rights. Logging licenses given to companies in state forest reserves over the years have created a lot of mistrust by the Orang Asli of state authorities. Although courts are likely to rule in favor of customary land rights over the loggers, court delays mean loggers can denude areas before the case comes up for hearing.
At the federal level, the Orang Asli, who are animists, have been targeted by programs seeking to convince or force them to convert to Islam via various targets. As many as 30 percent have been tagged as officially Muslim, although many don’t practice. These attempts have risen dramatically over the past decade as official embrace of Islam has grown in the government.
The official Orang Asli development unit, under the ministry of rural development has been accused of marginalizing families who don’t convert. In contrast, villagers who do are provided with Infrastructure, amenities, cash handouts and gifts. Utazs or Islamic teachers are stationed in villages to influence people to convert. Within the department, Muslim Orang Asli are promoted over non-Muslims.
This has created a class divide. According to an ethnographic study, refusal to convert was regarded as being in opposition to the government, with Orang Asli afraid of being arrested and jailed. The Malaysian government has not tried to integrate Orang Asli communities into society but rather to assimilate them into the Malay community instead.
In pre-colonial times, the Orang Asli were said to have been attacked by Malays, killing the men and taking the women and children as slaves. The Malays at the time considered Orang Asli as savages, labelling them as Sakai, a derogatory term, conveying the meaning of “savage.” They were interned in fortress villages during the emergency period (1948-1960), first by the British and then after independence by the Malayan government.
From a Malay perspective, the government’s program of assimilating Orang Asli to the Malay culture has some cultural basis. Under the colonial period, Muslim Orang Asli were considered Malays and non-Muslim Orang Asli were classified as aborigines. The term “masuk Melayu” (become a Malay), has taken on the meaning “masuk Islam” (become a Muslim). From this perspective “Malay Adat” or custom is accommodating to outside peoples who assimilate and take on Malay customs and practice Islam. Many ethnic groups like the Indians and Chinese coming to Malaya, adopted Malay customs, like the Mamaks and Babas.
Orang Asli suffer a high incidence of poverty, with many village communities lacking even basic amenities, including health care. Their homes and farms lack legal land tenure, and many fear forcible eviction. Some feel alienated within their own land. The culprits encroaching on customary lands are the often authorities themselves. Rights and freedoms are institutionally restricted, and their very culture and freedom of religion are being attacked. Their customs, culture, and relationship to the land are ignored within the constitution.
Constitutional history and the subsequent application of administrative law has shown that there is built in discrimination against the Orang Asli. Although, Section 8 (1) of the Malaysian constitution guarantees that all persons are equal before the law, an exception has been made for the Orang Asli under clause (5) C of the same section, givnig the federal government the right to legislate for their “protection, well-being and advancement” including the reservation of land. This has been abused where administrators have been free to decide what is best for the Orang Asli without consultation with the Orang Asli communities.
These constitutional powers are extended by the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954, which confers powers to the federal government over the Orang Asli. Orang Asli activist groups in conjunction with the Malaysian Bar Council. The groups claimed that the act has not protected the Orang Asli, but harshly interfered with all aspects of Orang Asli lives. The government according to the Malaysian Bar Council has acted in contravention to the Malaysian appellate court’s ruling, giving legal recognition to Orang Asli rights over customary lands and related resources, and exceeded the law by evicting Orang Asli from these lands.
In contrast, the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, under Part VI of the Malaysian constitution are required to give consent over matters affecting them. This was never extended to the Orang Asli, making these groups the most marginalised group in Malaysia, something that is being regularly taken advantage of in Malaysia today.
Some have ventured into politics as an attempt to further their rights. Orang Asli activist Armani Williams joined the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party in 2011, but left a few months later, as he found the party wasn’t interested in minority issues. Armani stood for a Perak state constituency in 2013 as a member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat but was defeated. Ramli Mohd. Nor subsequently won a Cameron Highlands seat as a member of the United Malays National Organization in 2019. Since his election, Ramli has been active fighting for Orang Asli rights. He is currently arguing that the next director general of JAKOA should be an Orang Asli.
But he has a long and dispiriting campaign ahead of him. His people are becoming more dispossessed without any way to seek remedy as state governments ignore the courts. The Ketuanan Melayu doctrine of ethnic Malay superiority is a major factor in further destroying multicultural Malaysia.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel, Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here