The root cause of the Orang Asli’s marginalisation is the lack of respect and recognition of their rights to self-determination, says Wandering Malaysian.
I borrowed this title from a presentation by Colin Nicholas of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC). One cannot discuss inclusive growth in Malaysia without highlighting the living conditions of the 18 major Orang Asli communities in Peninsular Malaysia.
To begin with, we don’t seem to have any reliable statistics on the Orang Asli population. The Malaysian Human Development Report 2013 report indicates that there were an estimated 308,000 Orang Asli in 2010 living mainly in Pahang, Perak, Selangor and Johor. The COAC reports 869 Orang Asli communities with a total population of 178,197 for 2010. The Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli, JKOA (formerly the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, JHOA until 2011) which ought to be the authoritative source, provides only a 2006 population estimate of 141,230.
Perhaps it is just evidence of how we as a nation treat the Orang Asli: with paternalistic indifference rooted in ignorance and prejudice. The Orang Asli are not covered under Article 153 of the Constitution that confers special position to the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. They come under legislation for the protection of aboriginal people under the Aboriginal Peoples Act, 1954.
Without reliable population data, poverty estimates are rather meaningless. The 2013 MHDR refers to 2003 data that reveals a poverty rate of 77 per cent of which 35 per cent are hardcore poor. It is unlikely that conditions have improved significantly over the past 10 years. The average life expectancy of an Orang Asli is significantly lower than the national average with higher rates of maternal and child mortality.
Historically, the Orang Asli have been enslaved, converted, coopted into conflict, controlled, patronised, displaced, disempowered and exploited (you have to take these assertions at face value as I do not have hard data).
The core of their wellbeing is their ancestral land which gradually and systematically is being denied them. Land already gazetted as Orang Asli reserves has shrunk and land approved but not gazetted has decreased by more than 30 per cent. Conversely, land applied for gazetting but not approved has increased by over 30 per cent. The Orang Asli are therefore being (systematically?) denied their rightful land through sheer inaction or even complicity of local authorities.
Government programmes for the Orang Asli managed by the JKOA/JHOA are euphemistically termed arranged placement, economic and social development. There is little evidence that these programmes have had any significant positive impact on their lives. (I hope I am wrong.)
An objective assessment of the performance of the JKOA/JHOA would probably merit their shut down. As a footnote, amongst the objectives of the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Jakim) is to proselytise to the Orang Asli, following in the long tradition of the Christians and others to save their souls.
The root cause of the Orang Asli’s marginalisation is the lack of respect and recognition of their rights to self-determination: where and how they choose to live and their social, economic, cultural and political rights.
All Malaysians need to support people like Tijah Yok Chopil of the Jaringan Kampong Orang Asli Semenanjung (Village Network of Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli) who are struggling to fight for a place for the Orang Asli under the Malaysian sun.