Colin Nicholas

Pak Diap's last days were lived in this shanty (pic by Antares)
The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. The name is a Malay term which transliterates as 'original peoples' or 'first peoples.' It is a collective term introduced by anthropologists and administrators for the 18 sub-ethnic groups generally classified for official purposes under Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. They numbered 105,000 in 1997 representing a mere 0.5 per cent of the national population.

The Orang Asli, nevertheless, are not a homogeneous group.  Each has its own language and culture, and perceives itself as different from the others. Linguistically, some of the northern Orang Asli groups (especially the Senoi and Negrito groups) speak languages - now termed Aslian languages - that suggest a historical link with the indigenous peoples in Burma, Thailand and Indo-China.

The members of the Proto-Malay tribes, whose ancestors were believed to have migrated from the Indonesian islands to the south of the peninsula, speak dialects which belong to the same Austronesian family of languages as Malay, with the exceptions of the Semelai and Temoq dialects (which are Austroasiatic).

The Orang Asli have equally varied occupations and ways of life. The Orang Laut, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri, for example, live close to the coast and are mainly fishermen. Some Temuan, Jakun and Semai people have taken to permanent agriculture and now manage their own rubber, oil palm or cocoa farms.

About 40 per cent of the Orang Asli population - including Semai, Temiar, Che Wong, Jah Hut, Semelai and Semoq Beri - however, live close to, or within forested areas. Here they engage in swiddening (hill rice cultivation) and do some hunting and gathering. These communities also trade in petai, durian, rattan and resins to earn cash incomes.

A very small number, especially among the Negrito groups (such as Jahai and Lanoh) are still semi-nomadic, preferring to take advantage of the seasonal bounties of the forest. A fair number also live in urban areas and are engaged in both waged and salaried jobs.

There is no doubt, however, that the Orang Asli are the descendants of the earliest inhabitants in the peninsula. It has been suggested that they retained much of their identity to the present day because of their relative isolation from the other communities and the forces of change.

This is not to suggest that the Orang Asli lived in complete isolation, existing only on subsistence production. Economic dealings with the neighbouring Malay communities were not uncommon for the past few hundred years, especially for the Proto-Malay groups. Those Orang Asli living in remote forest areas also engaged in some trading with the Malays, with jungle produce being exchanged for salt, knives and metal axe-heads. There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among certain tribes. It has also been shown that the Orang Asli have played a significant role in the Malay Peninsula's economic history as collectors and primary traders as early as the 5th Century A.D. An early 19th century report also tells of Negritos providing forest products as tribute to the Malay chiefs of the river basins they resided in.

There seemed, therefore, to be a certain amount of interaction between the Orang Asli and the other ethnic groups, particularly the Malays who resided along the fringes of the forest. Some of the initial contacts, however, were unfortunately characterized by cruelty and mutual hostility.

Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were not an uncommon feature in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slave-raiders were mainly Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as 'kafirs', 'non-humans', 'savages' and 'jungle-beasts.'

The modus operandi was basically to swoop down on a settlement and kill off all the adult men. Women and children were preferred as they were less likely to run away and were 'easier to tame.' The Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour.

A considerable trade in slaves thus soon developed - and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. In fact, the derogatory term Sakai used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of this century meant slave or dependent. Many elders still remember this sad period of their history, and all Orang Asli detest being called Sakai.

Specimens and Souls
The coming of the British administrators led to some outcry against the slavery of the Orang Asli, but there were no efforts to promote their welfare. Because of their 'primitiveness' and their 'uncivilized culture', Orang Asli were regarded as excellent subjects for anthropological research. That the Orang Asli were seen so can be gleaned from the fact that the earliest official act directed towards the Orang Asli was the setting up of the Perak Museum in Taiping, from where research into Orang Asli demography and ethnography was to be carried out.

Also, being regarded as 'uncivilized' and therefore, it follows, 'unsaved', placed the Orang Asli in good light for the zeal of missionary proselytizers. The Catholics began their missionary activities among the Temuans in the middle of the 19th Century. The Methodists started theirs in the 1930s. Bahai missionaries also had a following in the 1960s while Muslim missionary work became increasingly more active over the last two decades.

Interest in the Orang Asli therefore tended to revolve around their usefulness as anthropological curiosities or as convenient subjects for proselytization. Otherwise, the official attitude towards the Orang Asli was one of indifference.

Until the late 1940s, there was no specific administration for the Orang Asli, but it became regarded as a responsibility of the Taiping Museum Curator to concern himself with research among Orang Asli in Perak. The Orang Asli continued to be regarded as noble savages, leading an idealized and romantic existence; the task of government was to protect and preserve them from the ravages of modern life.

A rather detailed 1936 report by H.D. Noone, then the field ethnographer (and later, Director) of the Perak Museum at Taiping, sought to perpetuate the view of the British colonialists that the Orang Asli should remain in isolation from the rest of the Malayan population, and be given protection.

Noone called for the establishment of large aboriginal land reservations where the Orang Asli would be free to live according to their own tradition and laws. Noone also proposed the creation of "patterned settlements" in less accessible areas, where the Orang Asli could be taught agricultural skills.  He also sought the encouragement and development of aboriginal arts and crafts, and the creation of other forms of employment among the Orang Asli.  Several protective measures were also proposed, such as the banning of alcohol in Orang Asli reserves and the controlled peddling of wares.

Although not implemented by the government of the day, his 'Proposed Aboriginal Policy' did however lay the groundwork for future government policy towards the Orang Asli.

The Emergency
The Orang Asli were insignificant players in the political sphere until the Emergency began. This was Malaya's civil war between the Colonial government and the communist insurgents from 1948 to 1960.

In the early years the insurgents received much help and supplies from sympathizers in
the rural areas. However, the Brigg's Plan, which involved relocating much of the rural population into closely-guarded 'new villages', successfully cut the link between the two parties. Consequently, the insurgents were forced to operate from areas in deep forests, where they sought the help of the Orang Asli. Some Orang Asli were known to provide food, labour and intelligence to the insurgents.

The Colonial Government quickly saw the importance of the Orang Asli in winning the war and created the post of Adviser on Aborigines. However, initial attempts at controlling the Orang Asli proved disastrous for both sides. In an attempt to prevent the insurgents from getting help (food, labour and intelligence) from the Orang Asli, the British herded them into hastily-built resettlement camps.  A few hundred Orang Asli died in these crowded and sun-baked camps mainly due to mental depression rather than disease.

Later, realising their folly, and recognising that the key to ending the war lay in 'winning over' the Orang Asli to the government's side, a Department of Aborigines was established and 'jungle forts' were set up in Orang Asli areas, introducing the Orang Asli to basic health facilities, education and basic consumer items. The strategy proved successful such that support for the insurgents waned, with the Emergency being officially lifted in 1960.

This period also saw the first important attempt at legislation to protect the Orang Asli with the publication of the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance in 1954. This Ordinance (later amended in 1967 and 1974 to conform to changing conditions) was considered a milestone in the administration of the Orang Asli, for it indicated that the government had finally officially admitted its responsibility to the Orang Asli.

At about the same time, the Department for Aboriginal Affairs was enlarged in order to make it an effective force. But, as the former Commissioner for Orang Asli Affairs noted, the only reason for such re-organization was to ensure a better control over the Orang Asli and to make sure that they would have less inclination and few, if any, opportunities to support the insurgents.

Later, in an apparent reversal of the government's policy towards the Orang Asli, the jungle forts were abandoned and replaced by 'patterned settlements' (later to be called 'regroupment schemes'). Here, a number of Orang Asli communities were resettled in areas which were more accessible for the Department officials and the security forces and yet close to, though not always within, their traditional homelands. The schemes promised the Orang Asli wooden stilt houses as well as modern amenities such as schools, clinics and shops. They were also required to grow cash crops (such as rubber and oil palm) and practise animal husbandry so as to be able to participate in the cash economy.

Nevertheless, the strategy proved successful in that support for the insurgents waned. This prompted massacres by the insurgents of Orang Asli communities who were thought to be on the government's side. Alas, despite the important role the Orang Asli played in helping to end the Emergency, many books on this period do not acknowledge the fact.

The Emergency formally ended in 1960; but for the Orang Asli it spelled the beginning of a more active and direct involvement of the state into their affairs and lives.

The Aboriginal Peoples Act
Apart from the establishment of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), the Emergency also saw a special legislation being enacted for the Orang Asli. This was the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. This Act is unique in that it is the only piece of legislation that is directed at a particular ethnic community. (For that matter, the JHEOA is also the only government department that is to cater for a particular ethnic group.)

Originally enacted during the height of the Emergency, the Aboriginal Peoples 1954 (revised in 1974) basically served to prevent the communist insurgents from getting help from the Orang Asli. It was also aimed at preventing the insurgents from imparting their ideology to the Orang Asli. For this reason, for example, there are provisions in the Act which allow the Minister concerned to prohibit any non-Orang Asli from entering an Orang Asli area, or to prohibit the entry of any written or printed material (or anything capable of conveying a message). Even in the appointment of headmen, the Minister has the final say. The Act treats the Orang Asli as if they were a people unable to lead their own lives and needing the 'protection' of the authorities to safeguard their wellbeing.

Nevertheless, the Act does recognise some rights of the Orang Asli. For example, it stipulates that no Orang Asli child shall be precluded from attending any school only by reason of being an Orang Asli. It also states that no Orang Asli child attending any school shall be obliged to attend any religious instruction without the prior consent of his parents or guardian. Generally also, the Act allows the right of the Orang Asli to follow their own way of life.

And while the Act provides for the establishment of Orang Asli Areas and Orang Asli Reserves, it also grants the state authority the right to order any Orang Asli community to leave and stay out of   an area. In effect, the best security that an Orang Asli can get is one of 'tenant-at-will'. That is to say, an Orang Asli is allowed to remain in a particular area only at the pleasure of the state authority. If at such time the state wishes to re-acquire the land, it can revoke its status and the Orang Asli are left with no other legal recourse but to move elsewhere. Furthermore, in the event of such displacement occurring, the state is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site.

Thus, the Aboriginal Peoples Act laid down certain ground rules for the treatment of Orang Asli and their lands. Effectively, it accords the Minister concerned or the Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) the final say in all matters concerning the administration of the Orang Asli. In matters concerning land, the state authority has the final say. The development objective of the Act, therefore, appears to have been subsumed by both the security motive and the tendency to regard the Orang Asli as wards of the government.

Policy of Sedentism
The perceived nomadic lifestyle of the Semai, particularly of those in the interior areas, posed a problem to the security forces in their effort to maintain surveillance over their activities and movements. Since these settlements were in 'black areas' (where the insurgents were believed to be still active), the need to keep a close watch over the Orang Asli in these areas was even more urgent for the state. Having the Orang Asli lead a more settled or sedentary way of life would, it was deduced, greatly aid the state in its goal of national security.

As such, during the mid-1970s   when communist insurgents revived their war with the government   efforts were made by the JHEOA to persuade village headmen to heed the call for regroupment. Promises of permanent housing, piped water and other modern facilities (such as schools and hospitals) were made. Coercion was not employed. Instead, persuasive methods (including taking the headmen on field trips to other successful government schemes) were the norm.

The decision to accept permanent residence in a particular location meant that the resource base of the Orang Asli, as far as their subsistence activities were concerned, were now restricted to a rather limited area. Furthermore, the grouping together of a number of other settlements in a smaller area tended to further deplete the potential of the subsistence base. For example, in the Betau Regroupment Scheme, 20 settlements, with an estimated total population of 1,284 Semai, who were originally spread over a 14.4 km radius of the administrative center, were now confined into an area within a 5.6 km radius, or about 15 per cent of the original area. This immediately implies a severe strain on the ability of the now smaller subsistence base to provide for the needs of the increased number of people depending on it for their water, food and other subsistence materials.

Lately, however, the call to sedentism has always followed some other ulterior intention: the lands of the Orang Asli were needed for other purposes, be it a new agricultural project, a dam, a new airport, or even a golf course.

But perhaps the more distressing effect of regroupment is that the government, through JHEOA agents, begins exercising powers over regrouped Orang Asli that cannot be exercised over non-Orang Asli (such as control of entry of non-Orang Asli, appointment of headmen, imposition of economic policies and programmes, and institutionalised religious proselytizing).

Policy of Integration and Assimilation
In 1961, the expressed policy of the government towards the Orang Asli was their integration into the wider society. In particular, the JHEOA was "to adopt suitable measures designed for their (Orang Asli) protection and advancement with a view to their ultimate integration with the Malay section of the community."

The assumption behind this policy was that the Orang Asli were backward and isolated from the rest of the national society and as such had to 'modernise' in order to be regarded as being on par with the other communities.

Programmes to introduce cash-crop agriculture were introduced (thereby placing the Orang Asli at the mercy of the world economy), education was introduced (with the national Malay-based curriculum being used), and social organisation transformed (with headmen now being appointed by the JHEOA, for example). The end effect of such a policy of integration has been a slow, but sure, decline in the traditional structure and content of Orang Asli society.

In more recent times, the policy of integrating the Orang Asli with the Malay section of the national society has taken on a new dimension: making Orang Asli Muslims. The JHEOA has a special section to look into the 'spiritual' development of the Orang Asli, with other government and non-governmental bodies each having their own programme for similar objectives. The assimilationist tendencies, best epitomised by the publicly expressed intention of converting all Orang Asli within the next ten years, undermine whatever genuine intentions the government may have for the wellbeing of the Orang Asli. At the very least, it brings the justification for attention towards Orang Asli one full circle back to the early days of the British colonial government when the Orang Asli were merely regarded as ripe objects for the zeal of religious missionaries.

Tendency Towards Dependency
Orang Asli have been incorporated into the national economy insofar as many have made the shift to peasantry, are tied to the cash economy, and are dependent on, or are directed by, external domination. The point is that the incorporation of Orang Asli into the national economy is usually the result of the expansionist policy of state disguised under the label of integration.

Also, economic development for the Orang Asli has often been promoted at the expense of indigenous institutions. The various development strategies often tacitly assume that there are no viable institutions or practices in indigenous cultures that can be used to foster development.

The creation of the JHEOA as the sole agency responsible, for the most part, for all matters concerning Orang Asli has also given rise to a situation where the Orang Asli came to be dependent on the JHEOA for most of their needs.

We have seen that the Aboriginal Peoples Act arms the JHEOA with much authority over the Orang Asli. In aspects of Orang Asli living too, Orang Asli have no or very little say. For example, the decision to be resettled in a new location is often done without consultation with the Orang Asli, let alone with their consent. Even in resettlement schemes, the choice of commercial crops grown, or the economic activities to be undertaken, does not rest with the Orang Asli.

The general conclusion is that, after four decades of intervention by the Department of Aborigines and later by the JHEOA, an unhealthy state of paternalism towards the Orang Asli has been created. The JHEOA sees itself as godparents to these "wards of the state," taking care of the Orang Asli "from the womb to the grave."

Loss of resource rights and land rights
However, without doubt, the greatest threat today to Orang Asli culture, identity and livelihood is their dispossession from their traditional homelands. Orang Asli are guaranteed no rights whatsoever to their lands under the Aboriginal Peoples Act.

In fact, it is often said that an Orang Asli is allowed to remain in a particular area only because of the big-heartedness of the state authority. At any time should the state want the land back, it can revoke the status of the land and the Orang Asli practically has no other legal recourse. To make matters worse, in the event of such dispossession occurring, the state is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site. This is provided for in the Aboriginal Peoples Act.

To further aggravate the problem, only about 15 per cent of the 667 Orang Asli villages are gazetted as Orang Asli Areas or Reserves. This means the majority of Orang Asli villages are on state land, though the Orang Asli themselves would not concede to this classification of their land. Efforts at gazetting the remaining Orang Asli lands have been sluggish, to say the least, since the 1960s.

Sometimes, Orang Asli lands are degazetted without their knowledge while long-standing applications for gazetting have gone unheeded for as many as 35 years. In the last two years, for example, 2,764 hectares of Orang Asli land were degazetted for other purposes.

This insecurity over the tenure of their lands has resulted in many Orang Asli communities losing their lands to government land schemes, private plantations, mining concessions, highway and dam projects, housing projects, recreation areas, new townships, sites for universities and various other forms of 'development'. In most cases, the Orang Asli are resettled in regroupment schemes, where even here there is still no permanent security of tenure. The Orang Asli in Temerloh, for example, are now worried as there is talk of them having to resettle to a new place yet again but this time further inland.

Land dispossesion remains a persistent issue facing the Orang Asli. There are numerous instances when Orang Asli had to give up their lands, or had the lands taken from them. For instance, the Orang Asli community at the 6th mile Cameron Highlands Road planted rubber and fruit trees in their traditional lands in 1974. In 1979, neighbouring villagers applied for part of the Orang Asli land, and were successful. When the Orang Asli protested, they were told by the Assistant District Officer to move out because the area was now 'Malay Reserve Land' and that they were staying there illegally.

After much confrontation and negotiation, extremely low compensation at 2 ringgit per rubber tree, 60 ringgit for each mature durian tree, and 20 ringgit for each petai tree was offered (RM1 = US$0.25). However, till today, some of it is still not paid. The tenure of the remaining rubber trees and orchards of the Orang Asli is just as insecure since only 0.2 hectare of the land belonging to the 40 Orang Asli families has been gazetted.

In another case, in Bidor, part of the land of the Orang Asli has been taken over by a tin mining company. Then without notice nor consultation, a large portion of the remaining land was cleared by the authorities to make way for a government (Felcra) agricultural development project. Many fruit trees belonging to the Orang Asli were destroyed, despite assurances by the JHEOA that it would not happen. And the Orang Asli were not assured of any kind of compensation. To make it worse, they were asked by the JHEOA to move to another area further inland.

When asked why they had to move, the JHEOA officer said that it was not advisable to stay in the old area since the land was too small for them. Besides, he added, the Orang Asli might grow crops in the area, and will cause inconvenience to Felcra by using their roads. The irony of it all: someone takes away your land and leaves a little for you - and then tells you to move because the land is too small for you!

And in Bukit Unggul in Bangi, Selangor, the Temuans had to make way for the construction of a university on their land, only to be asked to move again recently - to make way for a golf course!

Generally, for most Orang Asli lands that are not gazetted as reserves, it has been difficult for the communities to resist pressures to relocate. The source of these pressures are varied: the government (as in the case of Sepang in Selangor where the Temuans were resettled to make way for the new international airport), corporations (as in the case of Stulang Laut in Johore where the Orang Laut were relocated to make way for a business complex), and even individuals (as in several rural fringe areas where locals as well as foreign migrant workers are staking out Orang Asli lands for their own).

The last category is best exemplified by the Jeli case, where nine Jahai men were charged for the death of three non-Orang Asli land encroachers. They had gone to the Jahai settlement with three others and demanded that the Orang Asli vacate the place immediately as they had acquired the land for themselves. The three died in the ensuing scuffle when the Jahais came to the rescue of their headman who was about to be stabbed by one of the outsiders.

When one of the non-Orang Asli encroachers was asked in court the reason for going to the settlement, he replied "to work on my land."  And when asked for evidence of his ownership to the land, he replied, "I began to work on it, so it is mine. The Orang Asli cannot own it as they do not have houses on it - only thatch huts"!

It is not surprising therefore that a common complaint among Orang Asli these days is that the Government is insincere in its call to have to Orang Asli settle permanently in one area rather than move from place to place. They draw attention to the various statements made by government leaders explaining how hard it is to 'develop' the Orang Asli on account of their nomadic lifestyle.

Anyone who knows the Orang Asli, knows that this is a myth perpetuated by the government to absolve its responsibility to the Orang Asli. In fact, the Orang Asli are now saying that if ever they are to be regarded as nomadic, it is only because the government has forced them to move from place to place!

Also, because the lands of the Orang Asli are not gazetted or titled, a host of other problems arise. Loggers get their concessions from the state authorities, leaving the Orang Asli totally in the dark about the deal. Non-Orang Asli enter their lands and steal their petai and durian fruit claiming that the trees were planted by the bears and tigers, and that the forest is "no man's land" and hence is a "free-for-all." The Forest Department also habitually issues licences to non-Orang Asli to trade in forest products such as rattan and petai - despite a provision in the Aboriginal Peoples Act stipulating that no such licences shall be issued to persons not being Orang Asli normally resident in the area.

Voicing Out Dissatisfactions
The days of the Orang Asli reacting passively to attempts to abrogate their rights are coming to an end. Acting largely through the 15,000-strong Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), various actions have been taken, some of them through the courts.

In essence, these dissatisfactions revolve around the insecurity of tenure over their traditional lands, the lack of consultation in matters affecting them, the control of their department by others, and the discrimination in distributive justice.

It would become clear therefore that the Orang Asli are not anti-progress or anti-development. On the contrary, the Orang Asli call for the approach towards their development needs to be reoriented.

Such an approach should centre on forging a new culture of respect, cooperation, freedom and social justice. This should involve reforming the regime of laws, policies and the institutions that have directed the administration of Orang Asli affairs. It would also involve the developing and strengthening of national dispute-resolution arrangements especially in relation to the settlement of Orang Asli claims to land and resource rights.

And in the planning and implementation of development programmes affecting them, it would require that the Orang Asli be consulted. More specifically, and of greater urgency, reforms in the following areas are needed:

Security of Tenure over Customary Lands
As land is pivotal to Orang Asli existence, identity and wellbeing, Orang Asli claims to their customary land must be recognised. Continual residence and economic occupation should suffice to establish Orang Asli title to these lands.

The granting of titles to Orang Asli lands is a matter of urgency as currently only about 17 per cent of all the 776 Orang Asli settlements live are duly gazetted as Orang Asli reserves. The interim measure, therefore, should be to speed up the process of gazetting all the remaining Orang Asli settlements. This should not be difficult since these are areas currently occupied by the Orang Asli, and not generally disputed by others. Any delay in giving Orang Asli some legality of tenure over these areas can lead to disputes over ownership, as is already happening in some settlements.

Accepting that the bureaucratic procedures involved in gazetting Orang Asli reserves can be time-consuming, an initial declaration can be made by the respective state land offices recognising the existence of present Orang Asli settlements. Such declarations would be useful in settling any dispute over land ownership when Orang Asli areas are leased or titled out to others for exploitation. It would also ensure that, in the event of compulsory acquisition of their lands, Orang Asli are equitably compensated for their lands (and not just for their fruit trees or dwellings, as is the practice now).

To retain the identity of Orang Asli communities, all such lands are to be vested in the name of the community. There should therefore be no intermediary agency holding land in the name of the Orang Asli. Strong group rights reduce divisive pressures by maintaining the integrity of Orang Asli lands and reinforcing traditional mechanisms for sharing and distributing group resources. On the other hand, policies which encourage Orang Asli to privatise and sell communal homelands piecemeal would make it easier for developers to obtain land through distress sales.

Resource Rights
For Orang Asli, the most obvious and reliable way to earn an income is through economic control and sustainable exploitation of the resources on their own lands. Every effort should therefore be given to assist the Orang Asli in obtaining full title to their lands, as well as rights to the resources above and below those lands.

While Orang Asli resource rights are, to a large degree, recognised by the Aboriginal Peoples Act, the same recognition is not accorded by various other agencies such as the Forestry Department and the District Office. The timber, sand and fruits of the Orang Asli, among other resources, are frequently exploited by non-Orang Asli who often have the permission of these agencies. Orang Asli not only have no share in the extraction of such resources but they also have to bear the burden of environmental destruction of the their lands that come in the wake of these activities. For this reason, encroachments into Orang Asli lands, whether officially sanctioned or not, are to be stopped immediately.

Legal Reforms
Policies alone provide no guarantee to the Orang Asli that their wellbeing and advancement would be assured. Safeguards for their rights can only be guaranteed if they are enshrined in the Constitution and legal framework of the country. While it is accepted that any reform will undoubtedly involve a long and meticulous process, such reform can no longer be postponed. Basically, what is needed is to turn the policy reforms discussed above into law.

It should be equally important to ensure that the reforms, once incorporated into the Constitution and other legislations (such as the Aboriginal Peoples Act and the National Land Code), should take precedence over conflicting provisions found in other laws (such as the National Forestry Act and the Land Conservation Act).

Development Assistance
Orang Asli are not anti-development, as often alleged by the government. On the contrary, they have frequently requested for various forms of assistance, especially for improvements in the quality of life - in areas of health, education, human capital formation and infrastructure.

Alternative development strategies must reflect the needs of the Orang Asli and their specific social and physical environments. For example, aboriculture could be developed for communities undergoing the transition from traditional, subsistence-oriented economies to more settled, agriculture-based communities.

The preferential treatment status accorded to the Orang Asli in Article 8(5)(c) of the Constitution should also be applied.

The right to affirmative action should be transformed into actual programmes and opportunities. For example, positive discrimination in economic projects affecting or involving Orang Asli traditional areas (such as eco-tourism projects, trading in forest products and alternative agriculture) as well as preferential status in business opportunities, educational placings and job placements should be instituted.

Every encouragement and assistance should also be given to Orang Asli efforts to uplift their economic position through their own cooperatives, foundations or other such bodies.

Natural Integration
The integration of Orang Asli with the mainstream national society should be a natural process without any attempt to set artificial targets or to apply dominant perceptions of what constitutes "integration."

Successful adaptation of the Orang Asli to new circumstances can best be handled by the Orang Asli if they are encouraged to retain their indigenous customs as this would enhance maintenance of their ethnic identity and their stability as a productive unit.

Development efforts should be directed towards the Orang Asli, not for the sake of achieving "integration" into the mainstream, but simply because they are a community deserving such assistance.

Recognising that much of the social and economic decisions affecting Orang Asli are situated in the political realm, Orang Asli representation in politics should be increased. The sole seat in the Senate reserved for Orang Asli is inadequate representation. There should be provisions for representation in Parliament and the State Assemblies as well. This can be done through elections in seats where Orang Asli represent a sizeable section in the constituency, or through appointment.

The Orang Asli community should not be more controlled than any other community in the country. Doing so merely extends the perception that the Orang Asli are wards of the government, incapable of leading their own lives.

Regulations delegating traditional power to the authorities (such as the appointment of headmen and the control of entry into Orang Asli settlements) should be restored to the community.  In general, Orang Asli should be allowed to maintain the social order within their community. And in all other matters affecting the  Orang Asli, there should be consultation and consensus-seeking by the parties concerned.

Reform of JHEOA
Responsibility for developing the Orang Asli should not be the sole responsibility of the JHEOA. Instead a multi-agency approach should be adopted, with a special Orang Asli unit set up in each of these agencies to attend to the social and economic needs of the Orang Asli.

The JHEOA itself is to be revamped, with greater Orang Asli control and involvement, and with greater powers to effect recommendations and programmes. As a federal agency, the JHEOA should occupy itself primarily with getting the respective states to grant permanent tenure to Orang Asli lands.

The role of the JHEOA should also be restructured so that it acts as a watchdog body to ensure that policies and programmes for the advancement and wellbeing of the Orang Asli are implemented. Among its other functions would be to look into Orang Asli grievances and to resolve disputes with other agencies or non-Orang Asli.

Need for Political Priority
The above policy reforms are not unworkable. Everything hinges on the political priority accorded to the genuine advancement and wellbeing of the Orang Asli. For example, much of the funds devoted to the "spiritual development" of the Orang Asli - estimated at 20 million ringgit (US$5 million) over the past three years - could have been better applied to more tangible developmental projects.

The call for Orang Asli to hold decision-making positions in the JHEOA is also feasible as there are sufficient numbers of Orang Asli today who are qualified to do so.

Orang Asli calls for security of tenure to their lands can also be effected easily since most of the present settlements are being occupied by Orang Asli and are not disputed by others. It is not as if the Orang Asli are demanding new land areas to be gazetted as theirs.

Legally, too, there are provisions in the Federal Constitution to regard the Orang Asli as a federal matter, allowing the authorities to invoke this clause in the event of administrative obstacles faced at state levels, especially in the area of land alienation.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that many of the policy reforms suggested above involve no large additional financial cost; they merely require a dose of political resolve - and more active mobilization on the part of the Orang Asli.

© 1997, Colin Nicholas, Center for Orang Asli Concerns

Peleng, the Village Flasher
photos by Antares