Beng Maroi (photo:
        Colin Nicholas)Ethnocide Malaysian Style:
Turning Aborigines into Malays

Kirk Endicott and Robert Knox Dentan

The Orang Asli (Malay for "Original People") are the aborigines of Peninsular Malaysia.¹   Most of them descend from the Hoabinhians, stone tool-using hunter-gatherers who occupied the peninsula as early as 11,000 B.C. (Bellwood 1997: 155-171). Today Orang Asli comprise at least nineteen culturally and linguistically distinct groups. The largest are the Semai, Temiar, Jakun (Orang Hulu), and Temuan. In 1999 they numbered about 105,000, less than 0.5% of the total Malaysian population (Megan 1999). Orang Asli once were thinly scattered throughout the peninsula, but most were pushed back into the interior montane forests as the Malay population grew on the coastal plains and major river valleys. Most Orang Asli still live in rural and remote areas. Until recently they lived by various combinations of hunting, fishing, gathering, swidden farming, aboriculture, and trading forest products. Nowadays land development projects and government programs have turned many into rural peasants or day laborers.

Since 1961 Malaysian officials have expressed a desire to “integrate” Orang Asli into the Malaysian “mainstream.” This has come to mean bringing them into the market economy, asserting political control over them, and assimilating them into the Malay ethnic category. Yet, despite continuous efforts by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, or JHEOA), most Orang Asli still live on the fringes of Malaysian society, cut off from most social services, poorly educated, making a meager living. A 1993 census showed 80.8% of Orang Asli in poverty, 49.9% among the “poorest of the poor” (rakyat termiskin in Malay) (Ikram Jamaludin 1997; see also Todd 1990: 12; Mohd Tap 1990: 328, 471-472). Their health and nutrition are at about the same level as in 1960 (Khor Geok Lin 1994; Baer 1999).

This chapter examines the government’s goals for Orang Asli and why it has failed to achieve them. We discuss changing government policies toward Orang Asli, the legal position of Orang Asli, the JHEOA, and the contradictions in the government’s programs. ²

The Evolution of Government Policies Toward Orang Asli

Precolonial Period

In the early first millennium AD the Austroasiatic-speaking ancestors of most Orang Asli lived in sparsely scattered settlements and camps from the coasts to the mountains, while Austronesian-speaking “Sea People” (Orang Laut in Malay) and farmers, ancestral Malays, were scattered along the coastal plain and on off-shore islands. Small-scale trade in forest products between peninsular people and traders from India and China began as early as 400 AD (Dunn 1975; Andaya and Andaya 1982: 10-20).

The earliest polities were small kingdoms centered in villages at some major river deltas. Rulers borrowed Indian ideas of government, like divine kingships, and drew their material support from controlling trade and taxing (in labor and kind) people living near the capital. Society included a ruling class, which—Malays legends say—consisted mostly of Austronesian-speaking immigrants from various parts of modern-day Indonesia; a commoner class of farmers, traders, and fishermen; and a class of slaves, who worked mainly as servants and sex objects in aristocratic households and estates (Endicott 1998). Other Austroasiatic- and Austronesian-speakers lived independently, outside the orbits of the kingdoms.

In the early fifteenth century the ruler of the west coast kingdom of Malacca became a Muslim, and other rulers soon followed suit (Andaya and Andaya 1982: 31-68). Islam and the rulers’ language, probably an early form of Malay, gradually spread to people living under the sway of the kingdoms. Those beyond the rulers’ control retained their languages, “animistic” religions, and other cultural beliefs and practices. The ruling class called these people “sakai,” a derogatory term bearing the same semantic relationship to the modern phrase “Orang Asli” that, in the United States, “nigger” bears to “African American.”  Sakai meant, and means, dark-skinned people who are stupid, nomadic (like beasts), wild, uncivilized, and fit only to be exploited in trade, driven off their land, or enslaved (Dentan 1997).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slave raiding of sakai (called Orang Asli today) became a small industry (Endicott 1983). Malays periodically mounted expeditions into the interior to capture slaves for their own use or for sale in the international slave trade. Usually they killed the adults and took only children, who could be more easily “tamed” and were less likely to try to escape. In the nineteenth century gangs of immigrant “Malays,” mostly from Sumatra, roamed through the hinterlands of the peninsula, killing and capturing Orang Asli to sell in slave markets. Outnumbered and outarmed, Orang Asli could do little but retreat ever deeper into the interior and try to avoid contact with all but their most trusted Malay neighbors or trade partners. Former lowland farmers, like the west Semai, became fugitives, hiding in tiny homesteads and fleeing at the first sign of trouble. Fear and distrust of Malays became burned into the consciousness of the Orang Asli, as stories of atrocities were preserved in their oral traditions. Even today Orang Asli teach their children to fear and distrust outsiders, especially Malays (Dentan 1968, 1978).

Colonial Period

In the mid nineteenth century, the British began to extend their control into the peninsula from the previously established Straits Settlements. The colonial government outlawed slavery, beginning in 1883 in Perak, but otherwise left the Orang Asli to their own devices (Andaya and Andaya 1982). The state of Perak was an exception. In 1901 state officials appointed Captain G.B. Cerruti, an Italian explorer with a romantic interest in tribal peoples, to a position as Superintendent of the Sakais (Orang Asli), which he held for sixteen years (Cerruti 1908). In 1939 the field ethnographer of the Taiping Museum, H.D. Noone, was appointed to the newly-established post of Protector of Aborigines (Holman 1958: 66), but his tenure was cut short by the Japanese invasion in 1941.

During the Japanese occupation (1941-1945), most Orang Asli retreated into the interior to avoid the Japanese and other outsiders. The only organized resistance to the Japanese was a communist-dominated guerrilla force, the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), operating from bases hidden in the interior mountain forests. The guerrillas befriended Orang Asli and protected them from outsiders in return for food, information about enemy movements, and logistical support (Jones 1968: 293-294).

The Emergency

Not long after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Orang Asli suddenly became crucial players in a struggle to control the country. The returning British colonial rulers tried to exclude the communists, who were mostly Chinese, from the anticipated post-independence government. In 1947 the communists returned to the forest and started an armed insurrection, the “Emergency,” which would last from 1948 to 1960. For support they enlisted Chinese squatters on the forest fringe and their old Orang Asli friends in the interior (Jones 1968; Carey 1976: 290-295, 305-320; Leary 1995).

To separate the guerrillas from their rural supporters, British authorities resettled about 500,000 mostly Chinese squatters in guarded settlements called “new villages,” forcing the insurgents to retreat deeper into the forest and to rely more on Orang Asli. Realizing that they had to control the Orang Asli and flush with their success resettling Chinese, the authorities decided to resettle Orang Asli as well. They dragooned residents of the more accessible villages into camps, where they were surrounded by barbed wire and under constant guard, but did not provide proper shelters, sanitary facilities, or nutritionally adequate food. Large numbers of Orang Asli died from disease, malnutrition, and demoralization. Some escaped from the camps and carried stories of the government’s cruelty back to their relatives still in the forest. By 1953 virtually all the Orang Asli of the central highlands—mostly Temiar and Semai—had turned to the communists for protection against the government (Carey 1976: 305, 311; Jones 1968: 297).

This setback convinced government officials that they could win the cooperation of the Orang Asli only by kindness, not coercion. Security forces let the remaining “detainees” go home. Then they established “jungle forts” in Asli areas with high concentrations of guerrillas. The Police Field Forces at the forts tried to gain the support of the local Orang Asli. Patrols regularly visited Asli villages to protect them from guerrilla intimidation. Male nurses at the forts provided basic medical care, and staff opened small shops selling salt, tobacco, and metal tools (Carey 1976: 313-314).

To win Orang Asli loyalty, the government established the Department of Aborigines, the precursor to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. As early as 1950 the government appointed Major P.D.R. Williams-Hunt, who had a special sympathy for Orang Asli, as the first (but powerless) Federal Advisor on Aborigines (Jones 1968: 295). Williams-Hunt died in a tragic accident in 1953 and was succeeded, after an interval, by Richard O.D. Noone, the younger brother of H.D. Noone, who had died in the war. In 1954 the government dramatically expanded the Department of Aborigines and gave it primary responsibility for enlisting Orang Asli in the government cause. The Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954 (Malaysian Government 1994) gave the Department control over all matters concerning Orang Asli. Field assistants—mostly Malays with some police or military experience—were posted at the jungle forts. They took responsibility for medical care, and some offered informal classes in reading and writing Malay to Orang Asli children.

The efforts of Department of Aborigines personnel contributed to a slow shift by Orang Asli to supporting the government, though the security forces’ successes probably influenced them at least as much. Orang Asli planned to end up on the winning side. By the late 1950s the security forces had even formed an anti-guerrilla unit composed mostly of Orang Asli, the Senoi Praak (Fighting Aborigines) (Jones 1968: 300-301; Carey 1976: 317-318). In 1960, three years after independence, the government of the Federation of Malaya declared the Emergency officially over. However, a few guerrillas did not surrender until 1989, and until then the military controlled access to the north central mountain range, home to many Orang Asli.


During the opening of Parliament in 1961, the King declared that the nation would not forget Orang Asli even though the Emergency was over. His government, he said, was creating a “long-term policy for the administration and advancement of the aborigines” in order “to absorb these people into the stream of national life in a way, and at a pace, which will adopt and not destroy their traditional way of living and culture” (quoted in Jones 1968: 302). In November 1961 the federal government made the Department of Aboriginal Affairs permanent and gave it responsibility for all programs concerning Orang Asli. One reason for the single agency approach was that over 60% of Orang Asli still lived in isolated areas, far from normal government services like education and medical care. The Department staff had developed some expertise in dealing with Orang Asli. Security concerns kept the Aboriginal Peoples Act in effect, giving the Department extensive control over Orang Asli.

The Assimilation Policy

The government’s oft-stated goal since the end of the Emergency is to bring the Orang Asli into the national "mainstream.” Documents and official pronouncements have been ambiguous about what that means. The Ministry of the Interior's Statement of Policy of 1961 states that the goal is "their ultimate integration with the Malay section of the community,” adding that it prefers "natural integration as opposed to artificial assimilation" and that "special measures should be adopted for the protection of the institutions, customs, mode of life, persons, property and labor of the aborigine people" (Ministry of the Interior 1961: 3, 5). This seems to suggest that Orang Asli groups would enter into a close relationship with Malays but remain culturally distinct. However, others advocated assimilating Orang Asli into the Malay community, so they would cease to exist as a separate ethnic category. JHEOA officials made ambiguous pronouncements about their ultimate goal through the 1970s (Jimin et al. 1983: 55-56; Mohd Tap 1990: 112-119). However, by the early 1980s, the Department had tilted decisively in favor of assimilation, apparently under pressure from the Islamic Affairs Section of the Prime Minister’s Department. In 1990, then Director-General Jimin stated that he hoped the Orang Asli would fully integrate into Malaysian society, “preferably as an Islamized subgroup of the Malays” (Todd 1990: 11).

Mah Meri dancer
            from Carey Island (photo: Antares)The assimilation policy stems from Malaysia’s ethnic politics. In Malaysia the major ethnic groups—Malays (51% of the total population), Chinese (30%), and Indians (9%)—compete for power and wealth through a parliamentary political system and a market economy. Since independence in 1957, the majority Malays have dominated the political arena, while Chinese have dominated business. The federal constitution adopted at independence guarantees special rights and privileges to Malays—including preferential access to higher education, government jobs, and business licenses—on the premise that, despite the extrapeninsular origins of many Malays, they are the “indigenes” (bumiputera in Malay) of the peninsula, by contrast with the “immigrant” Chinese and Indians (many of whose parents were born in Malaysia). One reason to absorb Orang Asli into the Malay population is to increase the number of Malay voters, although the small number of Orang Asli makes this consideration minor. More importantly, absorbing Orang Asli would eliminate a category of people arguably “more indigenous” than Malays. Chinese and Indian critics of Malay special rights and privileges argue—privately, since it is illegal to question Malay prerogatives—that Orang Asli, not Malays, are the true bumiputera. They say that Malays, like themselves, descend from immigrants. If the government can assimilate the Orang Asli into the Malay population, then, it can eliminate a serious political embarrassment. As one Semai man told Dentan, “When all Orang Asli have become Malays, then Malays will become Orang Asli.”

Governmental efforts to assimilate Orang Asli into the Malay sector are many-faceted. They involve resettling them in accessible locations, destroying their political autonomy, transforming their economies into market-oriented peasant economies, and inducing them to adopt Islam and other features of Malay culture (see below). The constitutional definition of a Malay is a person who habitually speaks the Malay language, practices Malay customs, and is a Muslim (Malaysian Government 1982). Since most Malaysians can now speak Malay and Malay customs are variable and ever-changing, the definitive criterion is Islam. JHEOA officials seem to believe that if Orang Asli can be converted to Islam, the other features will follow, and they will merge—after a few generations, anyway—into the Malay population. However, the vast majority of Orang Asli have strongly resisted government pressures to turn them into Malays.

The Legal Position of the Orang Asli

The Orang Asli clearly occupy a unique and disadvantaged status in Malaysian society. Despite being an indigenous people they are not accorded any of the binding special privileges that are provided in the Constitution to the other indigenous people—the Malays, and the native peoples of Sabah and Sarawak.  ~ Sothi Rachagan  (1990)

Uja Anak Lahai of Pertak Village
          (photo: Antares)The Malaysian Constitution makes Orang Asli citizens; therefore they are entitled to all the rights and protections of citizens, including freedom of religion (Malaysian Government 1982). However, the Aboriginal Peoples Act, established during the Emergency to remove Orang Asli from communist influence, remains in effect. This act gives the government, in the person of the Director-General of the JHEOA or the Minister responsible for the JHEOA, extraordinary control over Orang Asli. Officials can even determine who can visit Orang Asli and what they can read (Malaysian Government 1994). Government officials, the Malaysian public, and Orang Asli themselves assume that Orang Asli can do nothing without JHEOA guidance and permission.

Until 2002, Malaysian law acknowledged no Orang Asli rights to their ancestral lands. Malaysian land law, of colonialist origin, assigns to the states all land not held by registered deeds. Thus, Orang Asli on land their people have occupied for centuries were legally "squatters."  In early 2002 the Selangor State High Court ruled that seven Temuan Orang Asli in Kampung Bukit Tampoi, Dengkil, Selangor, must get adequate compensation for lands originally theirs by custom but taken by the government to be used for a road to the new international airport.  It remains to be seen whether this courageous and democratic decision will survive the inevitable challenges and constitute a precedent for future cases involving land rights. Even if it does, it is unlikely to lead to the government’s voluntarily returning large tracts of land to their Orang Asli former owners or paying large amounts in compensation to those who lost their land. More likely it will mean that individual Orang Asli will have to fight the confiscation of their land in court on a case-by-case basis, something that few Orang Asli have the knowledge and resources to do.

In theory, Orang Asli have some security when occupying land officially designated ("gazetted") as "Orang Asli reserves." But the JHEOA has had little success getting states to establish such reserves. The Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association, (POASM) estimates that nearly 80% of the Orang Asli villages have no legal rights to the land which they have farmed and harvested for generations. Most have been waiting 20 years or more for approval of applications to gazette their dusun (orchards) and rubber gardens as Orang Asli reserves (Todd 1990: 11; see also POASM 1991: 8).  The effects of the new ruling on this situation remain unclear.

JHEOA statistics in 1999 show that 19,507.4 hectares have been gazetted as Orang Asli reserves, another 28,932.2 hectares have been approved but have not been gazetted, and 78,975 hectares have been applied for gazetting but have not yet been approved (Rashid Yusof 1999). The acreage gazetted as reserve has actually declined by 5.6% since 1990 (Colin Nicholas in New Straits Times 1999). The 127,415 hectare total is only what the JHEOA has asked for and is far less than the actual amount of Orang Asli traditional lands.

In fact even in Orang Asli reserves land rights are neither secure nor adequate to support the people. State governments can revoke the area's reserve status for any reason without notice or compensation. They do not hesitate to take over Orang Asli reserve land for such things as roads, dams, airports, commercial plantations, and golf courses, any use that is for the "greater good"—in other words, the good of non-Asli. State governments also retain all timber and mineral rights in Orang Asli reserves; they routinely sell logging and mining concessions without consulting the inhabitants. The JHEOA and the Orang Asli residents cannot prevent their reserves being logged off, dug up, and turned into wastelands. Because fully 99.8% of Orang Asli lack individual land titles, they cannot get loans or assistance from banks or government agencies to make their land more productive.

JHEOA and other federal officials claim they are helpless to force states to establish Orang Asli areas and reserves (Jimin et al. 1983: 67). But Article 83 of the Constitution gives the federal government ample power to acquire land from the states. It exercises this power frequently for purposes it considers important, like airports and roads, but not to create Orang Asli areas and reserves (Rachagan 1990: 103-104). In May 1999, First Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin told the annual general assembly of the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association that the process of gazetting the land already applied for should be expedited, and he pledged to exert pressure to get it done (Megan 1999; Rashid Yusof 1999). POASM president Majid Suhut replied that they had heard many such promises from government officials before, promises still unfulfilled (Megan 1999). Malaysian politicians often make promises to the poor shortly before elections, as in mid-1999, only to forget them afterward.

Orang Asli also lack the special privileges that the Constitution guarantees to Malays and Native Peoples of Sarawak and Sabah on the grounds that they are indigenes (bumiputera) (Malaysian Government 1982). By denying those privileges to the undeniably indigenous Orang Asli, the government has put Orang Asli in a position in which the only way they can attain the rights of other indigenous citizens is by becoming Malays.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs

Understanding government policies toward Orang Asli requires examining the JHEOA, the agency charged with administering those policies.


The JHEOA is a federal government body, now under the Ministry of Rural Development and Cooperative Development. The Department's headquarters is in the national capital, Kuala Lumpur. The JHEOA also maintains a hospital, training center, museum, and library at Gombak, in the foothills about twelve miles outside Kuala Lumpur. There are six state branch offices, of which four cover two states or districts: Pahang, Perak/Kedah, Kelantan/Trengganu, Johore, Negeri Sembilan/Malacca, and Selangor/Wilayah Persekutuan ("Federal District"). These branches administer 36 district offices and 133 post (pos) or poject (projek) ofices.

The Director-General of the Department is assisted by three Deputy Director-Generals. Under them are Directors of the Department’s various divisions: the Administration and Personnel Division, the Finance and Supply Division, the Transport and Communication Division, the Socio-Economic Development Division, the Research and Information Division, the Training Division, and the Medical and Health Program. The functions of the different divisions are self-explanatory, with one exception. The Research and Information Division does not do any research, although it collects research reports and publications produced by outside scholars (Jimin et al. 1983: 89-92). The Division is responsible for gathering intelligence on threats to national security, a job which presumably has diminished in importance since the communist surrender. Today it spends most of its energy propagating Islam among Orang Asli.


Most JHEOA employees—and all in policy-making positions—are Malays. The Department gives widely varying figures on how many Orang Asli it employs, sometimes even in the same publication (see, e.g., Jimin et al. 1983: 100, 117, 181). In 1997 the Director-General said 30% of the Department’s staff were Orang Asli, none at management-level (Ikram Jamaludin 1997; cf. Nicholas 1992: 10; Carey 1976: 299; Todd 1990: 12). The other employees are almost all Malays. Apparently the Department no longer hires Chinese or Indian Malaysians, except occasionally as doctors. Thus, Orang Asli see themselves as ruled by a Malay department acting for Malay interests. They sometimes refer sardonically to the JHEOA as Jabatan Gob, the "Malay/outsider Department."

It may seem odd that Orang Asli are so few in a department devoted to their welfare. After all, who would better understand their problems and be more eager to solve them? Off the record JHEOA officials admit that they cannot have Orang Asli in policy-making positions in the Department because Orang Asli might resist the government's plans for their people, such as its plan to assimilate Orang Asli into the Malay population. Besides, the government's policy that four of every five bureaucrats must be Malays applies even in the JHEOA.

The fact that all senior JHEOA personnel are Malay influences JHEOA policies and how officials deal with Orang Asli. Generally, Malay employees of the JHEOA seem less prejudiced against Orang Asli than most Malays. But even sensitized Malays find it hard to think of Orang Asli as their cultural equals, especially in terms of their "level of advancement" and their religions. The Department refers to Orang Asli religions as "superstitions" (kepercayaan) rather than "religions" (ugama). Malays do not feel comfortable entering the homes of Orang Asli and usually will not eat with them because of Muslim dietary prohibitions. Malay government employees working with rural Orang Asli generally prefer to live in Malay villages and commute (Mohd Tap 1990: 307, 313).

Logging-induced erosion,
            courtesy of JHEOAThe attitudes of Malay JHEOA officials toward Orang Asli are also affected by their positions as bureaucrats. In traditional Malay patron-client hierarchies, bureaucratic services were favors that social superiors, at their discretion, bestowed on their inferiors. In return they expected elaborate shows of humility, respect, and gratitude. JHEOA officials regard themselves as giving Orang Asli numerous services, programs, and opportunities. Therefore, whenever Orang Asli resist Department programs, officials complain about their “ingratitude.” The fact that dispossession and displacement (see below) have left many Orang Asli dependent upon the Department reinforces these patron-client attitudes.

Until about 1990 the JHEOA was “closed” (i.e., promotion was from within), so people in top positions had a chance to develop some expertise about Orang Asli. Moreover, from 1961 to 1992 all Director-Generals had formal training in anthropology, two having doctorates. Since 1992, however, the Department has been “open” (i.e., the Public Services Department appoints top officers, usually bringing them from other government departments and ministries). The result is that recent Director-Generals have little if any prior knowledge of Orang Asli. For example, one recent Director-General was a former mayor of the city of Ipoh.


High ranking officers in the Department's Kuala Lumpur headquarters devise all programs; state and local officials implement them (Mohd Tap 1990: 87, 92). The supposed beneficiaries have no way to initiate programs. Malays decide what the government will do for and to the Orang Asli. Department planners worry more about what the Malay-dominated government wants and what other departments do than about what Orang Asli themselves want (Mohd Tap 1990: 87). This top-down procedure fits the feudal Malay idea that government services are favors that superiors do for (or to) their inferiors.

Orang Asli have minimal influence over projects intended for them. Except for regroupment schemes (see below) and Muslim religious facilities, the Department does not force Orang Asli to accept programs. It offers projects consistent with the government's overall goals. Asli communities can accept or reject them. As a former Director-General says, "Orang Asli know what the Department wants to give and the Department knows what the Orang Asli expect" (Jimin et al. 1983: 137). Although Orang Asli can accept or reject some projects, no mechanism exists for feedback from Orang Asli to modify projects during either planning or implementation.

One result, as a former JHEOA official says, is "programmes that do not thoroughly reflect the felt needs of the people" (Mohd Tap 1990: 88). For example, planners think Orang Asli should have "modern" houses. The JHEOA standard-issue house is a small version of rural Malay houses, a rectangular box on short posts with a veranda at the front, one or two living/sleeping rooms, and a kitchen at the back. It is prefabricated from cheap wood, with corrugated iron roofing. The Department does not modify the plan to suit local conditions, cultures, or wishes. Some features of the standard house are undesirable for anyone, like the corrugated metal roof, which makes the house unbearably hot on sunny days and rattles violently during rainstorms (Dentan 2001:7-8). . "It is a common feature for recipients of these houses to construct a traditional house for daily living, alongside or attached to the pre-fabricated house supplied. In such circumstances, the modern house is generally used for storage and for show to visitors" (Mohd Tap 1990: 90). Top-down Malay-centered planning necessarily generates unsuitable, unpopular, and unsustainable programs. Low ranking JHEOA staff fear criticizing even bad programs, because their employment prospects depend on their not rocking the boat (Mohd Tap 1990: 93). When Orang Asli resist JHEOA plans—no matter how detrimental, as in the case of regroupment schemes—officials berate them. Blaming Orang Asli for the failure of programs obfuscates the question of whether the Department conceived and executed them well in the first place.

Programs and Problems

We take care of them from the womb to the grave. ~  Jimin bin Idris, former Director-General of the JHEOA

Medical Program

The JHEOA medical program was originally intended to make Orang Asli loyal to the government as well as to improve their health.³ After the Emergency was over, the government continued and expanded the service because many Orang Asli still lived far from clinics and other medical facilities. The hub of the system was (and still is) the 450-bed Orang Asli hospital at Gombak, in a forested valley outside Kuala Lumpur. The hospital had a number of features designed to make it congenial to Orang Asli, like small, wooden wards sited under trees along the Gombak River. Now a multistorey building has replaced some of the old wooden wards. The other key component of the medical system is a series of medical posts in Orang Asli communities, some at former jungle forts. Each medical post has at least one partially prefabricated building containing an examination area, a few patient beds, a medicine storage area, a two-way radio, and a living area for a medical assistant. Some posts also have a helicopter landing pad for emergency evacuations. Doctors tour the medical posts every month or so to treat patients and look for problems.

The JHEOA medical service is a qualified success, although the quality of care has not improved appreciably since the 1960s. The former Director-General claimed in 1983 that "the overall health standard of the Orang Asli is generally good and comparable with that of the main community [Malays]" (Jimin et al. 1983: 84). Certainly many diseases, like ringworm and yaws, have declined dramatically since the 1950s. The infant mortality rate appears to be down, and the total population is increasing. Yet malaria and tuberculosis are still serious problems, respiratory diseases are common, pollution-caused diseases have increased, and malnutrition is widespread (see, e.g., New Sunday Times 1983; Hurst 1990: 55; Jeyakumar Devaraj 1993: 11-12; Khor Geok Lin 1994, 1997; Baer 1999). Most rural Orang Asli now seek medical care at government clinics instead of JHEOA facilities.

Educational Program

Until 1995 education was a key mechanism in the JHEOA campaign to assimilate Orang Asli and to improve their standard of living by giving them new occupational opportunities (Mohd Tap 1990: 257-258, 296 n.26). The program was to supplement, not replace, the national educational system, to compensate for the Orang Asli's isolation from government schools and their lack of familiarity with formal education (Mohd Tap 1990: 259). The Department ran a three-tiered educational program aimed at preparing Orang Asli children to enter the national education system (Mohd Tap 1990: 259-260, 295 n.24; Jimin et al. 1983: 69; Carey 1976: 301, 333). It included about eighty schools in remote areas. During the first three years children went to village schools taught by JHEOA field staff, some Malays and some Orang Asli. None were trained teachers, and most had a low level of education themselves. Students who continued after three years went to central primary schools in larger Orang Asli communities where they could continue through grade six. Teachers there were Malays, provided by the Ministry of Education. Students who passed their exams at the end of sixth grade could go to normal government secondary schools in nearby rural or urban areas. “In 1987, JHEOA maintained 14 hostels in the urban areas to accommodate these children” (Mohd Tap 1990: 260).

The JHEOA’s educational program was—as all parties admit—a dismal failure (Juli Edo 1991; Mohd Tap 1990: 260-270; Jimin et al. 1983: 70; Carey 1976: 301, 333; Ikram Jamaludin 1997). According to JHEOA statistics (e.g., Jimin et al. 1983: 70), the dropout rate in the 1980s was extremely high, especially in the lower grades. On average 25% of the children who started primary school, mostly in JHEOA schools, dropped out after only one year, and about 70% of all students dropped out by the end of grade five (Mohd Tap 1990: 263, 265, 270). According to a study in October 1994, about two thirds of Orang Asli children (47,141 out of 70,845) between the ages of five and eighteen were not attending school at all (de Paul 1995). The few Orang Asli who made it to the tertiary level of education had most or all of their schooling in ordinary government schools. In 1995, recognizing the futility of its efforts, the JHEOA turned over the responsibility for all Orang Asli education to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry allocated M$45.5 million for “developing” the schools, but an official said that they expected problems because “many qualified teachers are reluctant to teach in Orang Asli schools due to the lack of facilities and because the environment is not conducive to learning” (de Paul 1995). A recent study by Malaysian anthropologist Hasan Mat Nor shows that the dropout rate among Orang Asli is still extremely high (Hanizah Hashim 1999).

JHEOA educational programs for Orang Asli failed for many reasons. JHEOA officials tend to blame the Orang Asli. According to Jimin bin Idris, a former Director-General of the JHEOA:

Firstly, it must be realised that there is no formal education in Orang Asli society. None of the Orang Asli tribes have their own alphabet or writing. Moreover, the introduction of a formal education process was met with general apathy.

Orang Asli children go to school because there is a hot-meal programme. They will stay away from school if they are scolded by their teachers. Then there is the problem of parents taking their children away for weeks—to look for wild fruits during the season. (Malay Mail 1986)

A later Director-General blamed the high dropout rate on Asli lack of self-discipline and the lack of parental pressure to study (Ikram Jamaludin 1997).

Certainly there is a clash between some features of Orang Asli cultures, like their abhorrence of corporal punishment, and Malaysian formal education, but many problems derived from the educational program itself. One major difficulty was that all primary education was in Malay, a language many Orang Asli children do not know when they begin school. Another problem was a curriculum, centered around the needs and experiences of urban children from other ethnic groups, that was irrelevant and often incomprehensible to Orang Asli children (Jimin et al. 1983: 71; Mohd Tap 1990: 266-267, 269-272). A major reason for the poor performance of Orang Asli children in JHEOA schools was that the teachers were generally bad. Teachers in the three-year primary schools were JHEOA field staff with no training as educators (Jimin et al. 1983: 72; Mohd Tap 1990: 269, 295 n.24). Teachers in six-year central schools came from the Ministry of Education, but were generally those who had failed their LCE (Lower Certificate of Education) exams. Many resented being assigned to JHEOA schools (Mohd Tap 1990: 269), and they often took out their resentment and frustration on their students.

Village Flasher
          (photo: Antares)In regular government schools Orang Asli students face another set of special problems. Although the teachers are generally better and possibly more sympathetic, they do not know much about Orang Asli. Moreover, students from other ethnic groups often harass Orang Asli students and treat them cruelly (see, e.g., Lim Hock Chye 1984; Tan 1992: 9). The expenses of sending children to secondary school are also a hardship for many Orang Asli families; in 1998 or 1999 the JHEOA apparently stopped subsidizing Orang Asli children, leaving the poorest people in the country the sole responsibility for paying school fees and incidental expenses (Baer 1999). Orang Asli students at secondary schools—and some in primary schools—have to live in hostels far from their families. The hostels are spartan at best and squalid at worst. Parents often resist sending their children to school if it requires them to leave home.

To improve Orang Asli education appreciably, the Ministry of Education will have to develop an educational program molded to the special needs of Orang Asli, beginning with the hiring of qualified teachers trained to respect Orang Asli and their cultures. Mohd Tap, a former JHEOA official, calls for a curriculum which builds on the people's own traditions and experiences and improves the skills they need in everyday life (1990: 271-272). But tailoring education to Orang Asli needs would work against assimilating them into Malay society.

Political Integration

Another major JHEOA goal is to bring the Orang Asli under government surveillance. The government's desire to control the Orang Asli has not waned as the threat of communist subversion has vanished. The Aboriginal Peoples Act gives government officials the authority to confirm or remove headmen. Department officials use this authority to ensure that only pliant leaders are confirmed (Nicholas 1990: 74, 77; Mohd Tap 1990: 286, 485-490). Among groups which traditionally had leaders, like the Temuan, the people's hereditary or chosen leader, if acceptable to the Department, is officially recognized and earns a small salary, conditional on his acting as liaison, conveying his group's concerns to the Department, and organizing and motivating the people to carry out the Department's wishes. Among groups without a traditional political hierarchy, like the Batek and east Semai, the Department either appoints headmen or urges the group to choose one, whom the Department can accept or reject. Officials want to create a hierarchical political system in which headmen, rather than representing their people to the outside world, represent the government's authority to the people. They express great frustration with the inability of Orang Asli leaders to control their followers, even in groups that traditionally had leaders. Still, as a former JHEOA Director-General said:

It is also quite obvious that the traditional sociopolitical organization of the Orang Asli has been affected [by JHEOA manipulation]. As a result of their exposure to outside forces, brought about by “governmental interest,” the traditional organizational structure of the community has, to a certain degree disintegrated. (Jimin et al. 1983: 135)

Orang Asli do not take the JHEOA’s assertion of control lying down. The Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), which began as a grievance committee for Orang Asli employees of the JHEOA (Mohd Tap 1990: 500 n.11), is now a broad-based organization with thousands of members. Its officers, like current president Majid Suhut, have become prominent spokesmen for Orang Asli needs and concerns (e.g., Rashid Yusof 1999; Megan 1999). Recently First Finance Minister Daim conceded that “only the association [POASM] knows the needs and expectations of the Orang Asli” (Rashid Yusof 1999), thus tacitly recognizing the illegitimacy of JHEOA claims to speak for Orang Asli.

Economic Modernization

Another JHEOA goal is to "modernize" Orang Asli economies, to shift them from subsistence activities—like hunting, gathering, and growing crops for their own consumption—to activities directed toward market exchange—selling commodities or labor and buying food and other necessities (Mohd Tap 1990: 239). Officials view traditional Orang Asli subsistence activities, like swiddening, as backward and embarrassing, while they see market-oriented ones as “progressive”" and “modern.” For the JHEOA, to abandon subsistence farming is a sign of economic progress (Jimin et al. 1983: 196). Officials do not explain why Orang Asli economies should be modernized in this way, believing, perhaps, that the advantages are self-evident. Malaysian policy-makers in general think that economic “modernization” is inherently good. As a former Deputy Prime Minister said, the Government's programs for Orang Asli are intended to ensure that they are not “left behind in development that would improve their way of life” (New Sunday Times 1986).

One method the JHEOA has used since the early 1960s in pursuing this goal is "in situ land development" (Jimin et al. 1983: 63-64, 140-141; Mohd Tap 1990: 243-248). The Department tries to get families in existing Orang Asli settlements to grow cash crops—usually rubber, but also oil palm, coconut, and commercial fruits (Mohd Tap 1990: 238). Usually a low-level Department official acts as the organizer and motivator for the project. He persuades community members to clear, burn off, and plant a 50-100 acre area, in which 4-6 acre plots are allocated to each family. The Department supplies the necessary tools, seedlings, weed-killers, and fertilizers. The residents provide the labor, for which the Department pays them a small daily wage. For newly settled foraging groups, the Department gives additional economic assistance—mainly rations—until the trees begin to produce income, about five years in the case of rubber.

Since the late 1970s, however, the Department has focused its efforts on a more radical method of transforming Orang Asli economies—“regroupment schemes.” In 1974-1975, guerrillas from the vestigial Communist Party of Malaya, perhaps encouraged by the communist successes in Vietnam, launched terrorist attacks against some public monuments and trains. Their military stronghold was in the central mountains on both sides of the Thai border, an area inhabited by Temiar, Jahai, and Lanoh. In 1977 the National Security Council, fearing that the Orang Asli would once again fall under communist control, ordered the JHEOA to move the Orang Asli out of that area (Jimin et al. 1983: 48-54; Mohd Tap 1990: 280-282; Nicholas 1990: 69-70). The Department's policy back then was to avoid resettling Orang Asli because it had had such disastrous consequences when the military did it in 1952-1953 (Carey 1976: 320 n.11; Jimin et al. 1983: 50), but rejecting the order was impossible. So JHEOA bureaucrats counterproposed that Orang Asli not be removed but merely “regrouped” in consolidated settlements within their traditional areas. They argued that regroupment would let the military monitor the Orang Asli and allow the Department to institute economic modernization on a larger scale than before. Officials described the specific goals of one large regroupment project as (1) substituting settled cash-crop agriculture for swiddening [economic modernization], (2) reducing the communist threat [security], and (3) “reuniting the Orang Asli with the other communities in the country” [assimilation] (New Straits Times 1982). The government accepted this proposal.

Despite beginning as a surveillance program, regroupment soon became the Department's basic method for "modernizing" Orang Asli economies everywhere. It created regroupment schemes (Rancangan Perkumpulan Semula, or RPS) "outside the security sensitive areas with a view of providing a comprehensive development package to overcome the slow progress of the improvement approach [in situ land development]" used since the early 1960s (Mohd Tap 1990: 282-283). By 1999, eighteen regroupment schemes were completed or in progress.

Utat Anak Merkol
            (photo: Antares)The Department's general aim was (and is) to transform participants into settled, self-sufficient farmers after the five years or so needed for their rubber trees and other cash crops to become productive. RPSs should be relatively self-contained communities with an administrative center surrounded by family farms and communal plots of forest and pasture land for grazing livestock. The Department supplies school and hostel facilities, a medical clinic, a cooperative shop, an administrative and management office, a multipurpose hall, and access roads. Each family gets ten acres of land for rubber, oil palm, and fruit trees, and two acres for a house and subsistence crops (Jimin et al. 1983: 96; see New Straits Times 1982 for slightly different figures). RPSs are typically in logged off areas (New Sunday Times 1983). This eliminates the need for the residents to clear the land, but it also makes swidden agriculture or traditional agroforestry impossible. As in the in situ land development projects, the Department supplies the equipment, seedlings, and fertilizers, and the residents provide the labor for planting and tending the crops.

RPSs have not been very successful. RPS Betau in Pahang is typical. It holds 1356 east Semai from seventeen former settlements on 2860 acres. The new settlement occupies 572 acres; another 572 acres are devoted to fruit trees; and 1716 acres are rubber and palm oil plantations. The only connection with the outside world is an unimproved logging road to an oil palm plantation about eleven miles away (Sunday Star 1993). Thirteen years after RPS Betau opened, a Malaysian anthropologist who had originally supported the plan reported abandoned houses, a "hospital" with no medical staff, and disgruntled people.

Ideally, RPS should be self-sufficient, creating a conducive environment for the Semais to take part in the country's economic activities.... Their lifestyle should have changed tremendously—for the better. I am sad that this scheme did not turn out as planned. The land cultivated with rubber trees were supposed to generate income for them but Felcra [Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority] has taken over instead. (Hasan Mat Nor, quoted in Matayun 1993)

Many problems keep regroupment schemes from working as intended. During implementation, people were often expected to move into the RPS before the promised facilities were in place. Sometimes the facilities and support never materialized, due to inadequate funding and poor planning and execution. A basic problem is that the assistance given in the early years and the income generated by the cash-crops later are inadequate to support the residents. They must therefore fend for themselves, seeking whatever sources of food and income they can find, and consequently neglecting their cash-crops (Nicholas 1990: 72). The regrouped Semai at RPS Betau concentrate on gathering petai beans in their old home areas and searching for rattan in any remaining patches of rainforest they can find (Nicholas 1990: 73). Because the Department provides inadequate alternative sources of income, residents must spend their time satisfying their immediate needs. "Faced with the choice, the Orang Asli are more likely to devote more time to their subsistence and income generating activities, rather than to an activity which, in theory will only yield income a few years into the future" (Mohd Tap 1990: 248).

The land and resources devoted to regroupment schemes are also inadequate to support the residents. The size of the regroupment areas varied from 1.1 to 15% of the size of the people's original territory (Nicholas 1990: 71-72, 1994: 51-53). In RPS Betau, one group of east Semai was allotted 95.1 hectares, which "represented barely 1.4 per cent of [the people’s] claim to approximately 7,000 hectares of communal land" (Nicholas 1990: 71). Also, RPSs are wastelands, already stripped of any valuable resources and rejected by other communities (Mohd Tap 1990: 46, 69-70). Regroupment has the further disadvantage that it cuts the people off from traditional subsistence resources in their native lands (swidden land, fruit, game, fish, etc.) which cushioned them from the ups and downs of the market.

Another problem that undermines Orang Asli commitment to government-sponsored land development projects in general is that they lack secure land titles. What’s the point, they ask, of investing a lot of effort if the trees will just be taken away by outsiders? Also, not having title to their land, they cannot get loans and government assistance needed to improve it. No wonder, then, that most Orang Asli put their efforts into activities with short-term and reliable payoffs—like subsistence farming, collecting forest products, and wage labor—rather than investing their labor in growing slow-maturing cash crops.

Even if RPSs were implemented well, they would not solve the problem of Orang Asli poverty and marginalization. Like in-situ land development, they promise at best to move Orang Asli into the rural poverty of rubber smallholders. Dependence on the market economy increases Orang Asli vulnerability to price fluctuations and exploitation by middlemen. The JHEOA does not adequately protect them from exploitation, and in some cases the exploiters are Department employees (Mohd Tap 1990: 84). The Department's control over trade at RPSs actually makes matters worse by restricting the number of middlemen with whom the Orang Asli can trade (Nicholas 1990: 85 n.19).

Another unintended consequence of regroupment and the associated displacement of Orang Asli from their land has been increasing their dependence on the government for survival:

Their ability to be self-subsistent and self-reliant being drastically impaired, the Semai have been forced to seek government aid in almost every sphere of development. Consequently, in place of traditional self-confidence, the Semai were reduced to a state of "imitative dependence." This is a highly degraded state associated not only with an inability to provide themselves adequately with the material means of sustenance but also with the loss of cultural and psychological integrity. (Nicholas 1990: 78)

Since World War II, "Orang Asli have been transformed to a community that is totally dependent on the Department and the government for even the most trivial of things, like buying pencils for their school going children" (Mohd Tap 1990:486). (In the late 1990s, the JHEOA stopped buying pencils.)

Although the JHEOA's major effort toward modernizing Orang Asli economies has been to promote cash cropping, the Department has increasingly emphasized educating and training Orang Asli for salaried and wage-earning jobs outside agriculture. In 1989 the then Director-General expressed the Department's economic goals for Orang Asli thus: "If they can progress from practicing wholly subsistence agriculture to modern agriculture and later into the industrial, manufacturing and service sectors, then the community can consider itself to be liberated" (quoted in Abdul Jalil Hamid 1989).

Islamization Program

Until the mid-1970s the JHEOA tried to “mainstream” Orang Asli by raising their living standards.4 Although the Department let Muslim organizations and individuals—including schoolteachers and Department officials—proselytize among Orang Asli, it gave them no official backing. In the late 1970s, however, the government began to pressure the Department to actively promote Islam among Orang Asli (Mohd Tap 1990: 228). An Islamic "revival"—inspired by the Iranian Revolution and led by the main Malay opposition party, the Islamic Party (PAS)—was sweeping the country (Sardesai 1989: 255-257). To undercut PAS’s appeal to devout Muslims, UMNO, the dominant Malay party in the ruling coalition, mounted a campaign to infuse the government and the Malaysian ethos with Islamic values. Its newfound zeal to bring Orang Asli into the fold was part of this larger movement (Mohd Tap 1990: 228). Bureaucrats also worried about the successes of Christian missionaries among Orang Asli, which threatened to subvert their goal of absorbing the Orang Asli into the Malay population.

The JHEOA therefore formed a special dakwah ("Islamic propagation") unit to “develop” Orang Asli “spiritually” and to coordinate with other Muslim missionary groups (Mohd Tap 1990: 229, 462-463). The staff are Muslimized Orang Asli trained as missionaries. They use persuasion only, trying to convince other Orang Asli of the virtues of the Muslim beliefs and lifestyle.

In the early 1980s, JHEOA officials joined officials from the Islamic Affairs Division of the Prime Minister's Department, the Institute for Proselytization and Islamic Training, and the Centre for Islamic Studies in developing a master plan for converting all Orang Asli (JHEOA 1983). The JHEOA is to provide general support and coordinate the activities of other agencies. All Orang Asli communities are to get religious facilities and instructors. The JHEOA is to create a visible distinction in prosperity between converts and non-converts—"positive discrimination"—to give material incentives for Orang Asli to become Muslims. The Department tries to provide converts with better housing (including water and electricity supplies), income-earning opportunities, schooling, health, and transportation facilities than it supplies non-Muslims. Muslim Orang Asli working for the JHEOA get preference in promotions and special rewards for converting other Orang Asli (JHEOA 1983).

Orang Asli kids affected
            by dam project (Colin Nicholas)Until the early 1990s, the JHEOA pursued the goal of Islamizing the Orang Asli more or less covertly, skirting Malaysian Constitutional restrictions on religious proselytization, especially of children without their parents’ free consent (JHEOA 1983: 12). JHEOA officials did not even admit publicly that the program existed (see, e.g., Ikram Jamaludin 1997). Its budget was buried in that of the Division of Research and Information. The Department recognizes that these activities are open to question on legal and ethical grounds (Mohd Tap 1990: 450). But recently the government has begun to publicize the program in Malay language news media (see, e.g., Berita Harian 1993). Apparently UMNO politicians now feel that the advantages of letting Malay voters know about their efforts override the disadvantages of possibly being called to account for them by opposition politicians or jurists.

By 1993 government agencies had built 265 combination multi-purpose halls and religious schools in Orang Asli settlements at a cost of M$20 million, then about US$8 million (Berita Harian 1993). The buildings typically are two-story structures with a community hall on the ground floor and a Muslim chapel on the upper floor. A Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department said the federal government would build a total of 300 such structures with associated teachers' quarters in Orang Asli settlements around the country (Pernloi Gah 1993: 4, citing New Straits Times, January 13, 1993). Religious officers in these facilities will "guide the Orang Asli toward embracing Islam" (Berita Harian 1993).

How successful, then, has Islamization been? Published figures on the number of Orang Asli Muslims must be taken with a grain of salt. All that is needed for Orang Asli to qualify as Muslims is for them to declare, once, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet." Many "converts" are Muslims in name only. They do not believe or even understand Islamic doctrine, and they follow few if any Muslim practices. Some, after making the declaration in a moment of enthusiasm or weakness, revert entirely to their traditional behavior, although according to Malaysian law a Muslim can never cease to be a Muslim. Census takers, usually Malays, may list anyone who does not object—and Orang Asli are easily intimidated—as Muslims. JHEOA staff have every incentive to maximize their success in converting Orang Asli. Thus official figures on Orang Asli Muslims are often exaggerated.

Even so, the numbers, after thirty years of heavy proselytization, are unimpressive. In 1968, JHEOA figures listed 1,600 Muslim Orang Asli, 1,400 of them Orang Kuala who were Muslim before arriving in Malaysia (Carey 1976: 234-235). Thus, about 3% of the 53,000 Orang Asli were Muslims before the government's Islamization program began. In 1997, the Director-General stated that 16% of Orang Asli were Muslims (Ikram Jamaludin 1997), still an insignificant proportion considering the amount of effort.

Ten years after the construction of the portmanteau chapel/meeting halls, the program is in disarray, according to informal observations by many Malaysian and foreign anthropologists. The greatest successes have been among the foragers of the north. For example, at least one religious officer (officially a community activist, penggerak masyarakat in Malay) lives among the former foragers and threatens visitors, and the Batek basically divided up into those who want to settle down and become nominal Muslims and those who do not, with the latter moving into Taman Negara, where they can pursue a folkloric form of their traditional life for tourists. In Semelai and Btsisi’ (Mah Meri) communities, the never-used structures are in disrepair, and no religious officer has ever appeared. Elsewhere, a Malaysian observer remarks wrtly, “Most of the time the [religious officer] is nowhere to be found and is always out of the village.” Still, the policies of Islamization and “positive discrimination” for Islamized communities remain in place, although the department has become less forthcoming about them.

The failure of the chapel program suggests one reason for the more general failure of Islamization among Orang Asli (for details, see Dentan 2003). Bureaucratizing and politicizing religion benefits bureaucrats and politicians, not religious people. A Malay observer says that television programs on the conversions struck her as “forced” and “condescending.” Her impression is that Christian missionizing among Semai is better organized and more consistent, an impression that Malay and other observers have had since the 1980s. Malay culture in general and JHEOA bureaucratic culture in particular do not embrace sacrificing personal comfort for the supposed spiritual benefit of a despised pagan minority. Orang Asli are aware of the subtext of assimilation in official Islamization, and some of them, especially activist younger women, turn to nominal Christianity as a way of preserving traditional values, since converting Christians poses legal problems, but converting “animists” does not (cf. Nicholas, Tijah, and Tiah 2003).

Orang Asli voice a number of objections to becoming Muslims, centered mostly on ritual requirements rather than spiritual ones. The two most often mentioned are circumcision and food restrictions. A Semai nickname for Malays is "chopped people," referring to circumcision. The idea of chopping off flesh is repugnant to most Orang Asli. Orang Asli also do not want to have to abandon many of their favorite foods. Orang Asli diet is extremely varied. It includes many species of plants and animals that Malays shun, some of which are subject to Islamic food taboos. Traditional Orang Asli insist that they could not survive if they gave up the foods conversion would require. Certainly the loss of wild game especially, without substitute sources of animal protein, would worsen nutritional deficiencies. Fasting all day, as Muslims should during Ramadan, would also be impossible, they say.

Islamic theology is alien and incomprehensible to many Orang Asli. Although Muslim missionaries ignore this fact, most Orang Asli groups have full-blown religions of their own, which make sense of their world and give meaning to their lives. Their beliefs, prohibitions, and rituals are intricately woven into their everyday lives. Like well-socialized people everywhere, their culture's world-view is reality to them. As one Batek man told Endicott, "We can't just forget our superhuman beings." Pressures to convert to Islam have merely induced Orang Asli to conceal their religions from outsiders.

Many Muslim missionaries harm their case by disrespecting Orang Asli and presenting their own religion in a dogmatic and self-righteous manner. The missionaries seldom venture into the backcountry where most Orang Asli live. They dislike living with Orang Asli, preferring instead to make brief visits. Now the JHEOA and religious organizations are paying proselytizers to live at Orang Asli settlements.

Perhaps the major underlying reason Orang Asli resist Islam is that they simply do not want to "become Malays." Most Orang Asli prefer living among their own people, and they feel safer surrounded by their own relatives. Conversely, they do not particularly like Malays or enjoy associating with them. Orang Asli converts often find themselves cut off from their own people, without being accepted by their Malay co-religionists (Mohd Tap 1990: 226, 453). Muslim food prohibitions keep them from even eating with other Orang Asli. Converting, then, requires stepping into the abyss between two societies, a drastic step indeed.

Islamization has not only largely failed to achieve its goal, it has also caused great resentment toward the government and the JHEOA in particular. Orang Asli resist joining regroupment schemes partly because joining exposes them to relentless pressure to become Malays. So does taking government employment, like joining the army. Some Semai and Temiar have become Christians and Baha’i to escape pressure to convert to Islam. In early 1995, the newly appointed JHEOA Director-General, Asan Ishad, admitted at a meeting with POASM leaders that the Department's Islamization program was a "bad idea." But it is unlikely that government leaders will let the JHEOA return to its former policy of integration without assimilation.


Thirty years of JHEOA efforts have failed to turn the Orang Asli into Malays. In fact the Orang Asli population has grown steadily from about 44,000 in 1960 (the first systematic census) to 105,000 in 1999 (Megan 1999). Also, during the last few decades people who once identified only with their ethnic groups (Temiar, Batek, etc.) have begun to see themselves as Orang Asli, part of a larger group which shares a separate identity from Malays (Carey 1976: 335; Jumper 1997; Nicholas 2002). One expression of the growing strength of Orang Asli identity is the growth in membership of the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association from 277 in 1989 to about 15,000 in 1997 (Nicholas 2002).

Mah Meri Topeng
          Dancers (photo: Antares)We have discussed some reasons particular JHEOA programs failed. These failures stem in part from fundamental contradictions in the Department’s charge and between its various programs. One contradiction is that, although the goal is to assimilate the Orang Asli into the Malay population, using a special agency to administer them formalizes a distinct Orang Asli identity and increases the sense of difference Orang Asli feel between themselves and members of other ethnic groups. Another contradiction is that federal and state governments refuse to recognize secure land rights for Orang Asli, thus undermining JHEOA efforts to convert them into self-sufficient cash crop farmers. Leaving aside the question of whether this goal is desirable, it will never be achieved as long as people suspect that they will not benefit from their labor. Similarly, the government-dictated drive to Islamize Orang Asli undermines all the Department’s other programs, including education and regroupment. The main effect of the Islamization program has been to exacerbate Orang Asli distrust and resentment of the JHEOA: “We want electricity,” says a Semai leader. “They give us a surau [chapel].” There is also a fundamental contradiction between the goal of the Department, assimilation, and the goal of most Orang Asli, integration and prosperity with their distinctive identities intact (Dentan et al. 1997: 155-159). As long as the JHEOA is an organization of Malays promoting a Malay agenda, it cannot serve the interests of Orang Asli as they see them. It is no surprise, then, that most Orang Asli now want the JHEOA either abolished or turned over to Asli control (Megan 1999).


The economic planners… envisage the systematic elimination of the peasant… For short term political reasons, they do not use the word elimination but the word modernization.  Modernization entails the disappearance of the small peasant (the majority) and the transformation of the remaining minority into totally different social and economic beings. ~ John Berger (1975:209)
In this chapter we have argued that, to contain the country’s ethnic multiplicity and mystify its “imagined” (i.e., ersatz) “Malayness,” the Malaysian government, of which former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is chief and greatest exemplar, tries to penetrate every aspect of its subjects’ lives, dominating all potential alternative types of social organization: schools, media, “opposition” political parties, and, of course, ethnicity.  Government censors monitor live performances and recordings of transnational and local stars, banning shows which  might “promote negative aspects of Western culture.” Radio Television Malaysia is forbidden to play songs with words that “stimulate one to violence” and/or “music that is too westernized” (Tan Sooi Beng 2002).  Many topics, like special Malay rights, are simply taboo, creating what Paulo Freire calls a “culture of silence” (quoted in Bishop and Robinson 1998:195).

In such tenuous circumstances, the almost completely powerless, unknown, isolated, and impoverished Orang Asli offer the bureaucrats a sort of respite, an arena free from the threat of resistance or retaliation, in which they can enact, or at least whisper about enacting, their fantasies of total surveillance, complete control, and hegemonic assimilation.  The restiveness of shifting blocs of citizens under this palsied hegemony constantly threatens to undermine or even overwhelm the current social order.  Many, but not all, Malaysians see Prime Minister Mahathir as the bulwark against such potential anarchy and fear a crisis of legitimacy, often citing the Chinese-Malay riots of 1969 (Khoo Boo Teik 2002; cf. Siikala 2001).

To maintain the fictions by which it creates its legitimacy, the current regime has created its own version of Malaysian history (Pillai 2003).  Malaysia, it would seem, has always been Malay.  Well, at least since the Malacca sultanate, with which, schoolchildren learn, Malaysian history begins.  A millennium of Hindu-Buddhist influences?  The response is to ban the traditional shadow plays which tell the stories of Hindu deities; to trash indigenous Malay tradition to stabilize the “Malay” state.  Chinese celebrations?  Ban them, too.  Need an Islamic state to keep dissenting Islamic parties in line?  Well, Malaysia has always been an Islamic state, says Mahathir, whatever that means, despite the explicit constitutional denial. Any admitted change in this antihistorical model would unleash (pick one) Chinese revanchism, Al Qaeda terrorism, chaos.  Not much room in this house of cards for a people whose arrival on the peninsula antedates that of the Malays and whose religions may show traces of the Hindu-Buddhist past (Dentan 2002).

But a recent court decision recognizing Orang Asli land rights in Selangor State (Center for Orang Asli Concerns 2002) may unleash possibilities, although not perhaps as hopeful as those Siikala (2001) sketches for the Pacific Islands.  If the government actually enforces the 2002 Selangor State High Court ruling on Orang Asli land rights, non-Orang Asli will  have to treat Orang Asli as landowners rather than as squatters or as tenants-at-will. To take or develop Orang Asli land, they will have to acquire it under the Land Acquisition Act or enter into a genuine joint venture agreement with the people.  Although land rights will remain insecure, the situation could be a tremendous improvement.

Mak Minah,
            Temuan ceremonial singer (photo: Roland Takeshi)Moreover, there are signs that the “cultural aphasia” (Bishop and Robinson 1998) and resulting ignorance about Orang Asli is gradually eroding.  As we have suggested, this ignorance facilitates exploitation by and corruption within the government departments overseeing Orang Asli (cf. Bishop and Robinson 1998). Nowadays, a liberal internet news service, carries occasional stories about the plight of Orang Asli, such as the article in 2003 commenting on the rise of Orang Asli political activism outside the “protection” of official government parties (Yap Mun Ching 2002).  An ethnically heterogeneous band of musicians has self-produced and widely distributed a record of “world”/Temuan protest music, focused on a woman shaman’s songs (Dentan 2001:9-10; Akar Umbi 2002; Tan Sooi Beng 2002).  And there remains a continual trickle of often-critical ethnographic reportage, of which this chapter represents a small element.

Other positive signs can be seen. Malaysian government officials are defensive about foreign criticism, but they are sensitive to world opinion. They do not want their country to have a reputation for mistreating its ethnic minorities. In recent years some younger politicians and bureaucrats have shown genuine concern about the problems of Orang Asli. A recent Minister of Education has shown some interest in experimenting with Semai as a medium of instruction in half a dozen schools.  Two nongovernmental organizations—the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) and the Orang Asli Association of Peninsular Malaysia (the above-mentioned POASM) are working diligently for Orang Asli welfare and rights.  In addition, many members of the legal profession have volunteered their time to help Orang Asli in court cases.

It is hard to be hopeful about the Orang Asli future.  But there does seem to be a chance that it will be better than the present, and that has not been true for a long time.

(Originally published under the title "Into the Mainstream or Into the Backwater:
Malaysian Assimilation of Orang Asli" in Legislating Modernity, C. Duncan, ed. Cornell University Press, 2004)


© Kirk Endicott and Robert Knox Dentan, 2004


1. The indigenous Austronesian-speaking peoples of East Malaysia differ linguistically and culturally from Orang Asli.  More importantly, for purposes of this paper, under the Malaysian constitution they occupy a radically different and more privileged position in the Malaysian polity than do the mostly Austroasiatic-speaking Orang Asli.  The complex reasons for this difference are historical, political, and beyond the scope of this chapter (see, e.g., Appell 2000; Endicott, 2003).

2. This chapter is based in part on the book Malaysia and the “Original People”: A Case Study of the Impact of Development on Indigenous Peoples (Dentan et al. 1997). For a more detailed discussion of the effects of development and government programs on Orang Asli see that book and Nowak 1984, 1985, 1998; Nicholas 1994, 2000; Baer 1999; Dentan 2000, 2003;  Endicott 2000; and Lye 2002.

3. For descriptions of the JHEOA  medical service see Bolton 1968, 1973a, 1973b; Carey 1976: 300; Jimin et al. 1983: 74-84; and Mohd Tap 1990: 272-75.

4. For a fuller discussion of the government’s Islamization program see Dentan 2003.

References Cited

Abdul Jalil Hamid. 1989. “'White' Asli Hopes Future Better for Community.” Daily Express. February 22.
Akar Umbi. 2002. Songs of the Dragon. Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor: Magick River.
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COAC        Center for Orang Asli Concerns

JHEOA       Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Aboriginal Affairs)

PAS          Partai Islam (Islamic Party)

POASM      Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (Orang Asli Association of Peninsular Malaysia)

RPS          Rancangan Perkumpulan Semula (regroupment schemes)

UMNO       United Malays National Organization