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What the pandemic tells us about the Orang Asli

Orang Asli demanding their rights - File photo courtesy of Komas

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A more committed effort to uplift the Orang Asli’s socioeconomic status would help to put substance to the theme of this year’s Merdeka celebration, Malaysia Cares, Mustafa K Anuar writes.

The enforcement of the movement-control order, which is meant to curb the spread of Covid-19 virus, also applies to the Orang Asli.

To protect themselves, some members of the indigenous tribes in certain parts of the country were reported to have taken upon themselves the responsibility of erecting blockades at the entrance of roads leading to their kampongs and settlements.

This is to prevent outsiders from entering and spreading the virus in their respective communities.

The collective and self-reliant effort is illustrative of minority communities that have to fend for themselves, especially when confronted with external threats, such as outsiders who encroach into their customary native lands in pursuit of fortune.

These encroaching cohorts often leave a trail of environmental degradation, polluted rivers and water resources, and destroyed food resources, which bring about the destruction of the Orang Asli’s livelihood and culture, and malnutrition.

External assistance from government agencies, such as healthcare, is sometimes scarce partly because the deep jungle or jungle fringe, where some indigenous tribes live, is inaccessible by land – hence, the need for communities to be vigilant about health issues during the pandemic.

A recent visit by The Malaysian Insight to the Muadzam Shah district in Pahang revealed that indigenous tribes have been adhering strictly to the standard operating procedure of the movement control order that was implemented since last March. This adherence to this procedure is commendable as it suggests that members of the communities are conscious of their collective responsibility and their vulnerability; viral infection would be made easier if they adopt a lax attitude.

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Their vulnerability is derived from malnutrition, and they also do not have the financial means to pay for fines if they breach the standard operating procedure out of sheer carelessness.

Nor do the Orang Asli have the wherewithal to plead for leniency in terms of fines and jail sentences imposed, let alone seek atonement of sorts, if caught breaking the law.

As it is, their socioeconomic status leaves much to be desired partly because of general neglect by the authorities concerned over the years. Poverty is abundant within the communities. For example, it was only after 60 years and just before the forthcoming Slim by-election, that the Orang Asli in Kampung Sungai Teras were provided with electricity supply – a living testimony to such neglect. Providing basic public amenities, particularly electricity, at the eleventh hour of an electoral campaign is nothing less than vulgar political expediency.

The pandemic also revealed that indigenous communities have had difficulties in getting enough food and jobs to survive during the movement control order period.

As shown by a few individuals who have grown their own food for survival since the movement control order was imposed, these communities need sizeable plots of land where they can grow their own vegetables and other food to sustain themselves and to generate an income.

These sad conditions are still prevalent, despite many purported promises by previous governments of national development, shared prosperity and a caring society over the years that would have taken care of the Orang Asli’s welfare more effectively.

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Such unsatisfactory treatment of these communities is not befitting their indigenous status, which supposedly has been accorded a special position in the Federal Constitution with a view towards the improvement of their socioeconomic standing.

A more committed effort by the powers that be to uplift the Orang Asli’s socioeconomic status following the pandemic would help to put substance to the theme of this year’s Merdeka celebration, Malaysia Cares.

Source: themalaysianinsight.com

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