Sense of Duty: Decades of marginalisation won’t stop Malaysia’s indigenous people from exercising their democratic rights

Photo: An Orang Asli couple with their child after working the morning shift at their Durian orchard in Ulu Geruh, Perak/Coconuts file pic
Photo: An Orang Asli couple with their child after working the morning shift at their Durian orchard in Ulu Geruh, Perak/Coconuts file pic

After several years of political turbulence, Malaysians are hoping that the results of  Malaysia’s upcoming 15th general election (GE15) on Nov. 19 will bring stability and positive change to the country. 

But for the nation’s indigenous people, the Orang Asli, those hopes are tempered by decades of marginalisation by the government and broken promises from politicians. 

Despite that, the Orang Asli leaders we spoke to said they were still determined to get their communities out to the polls to make sure their voices are heard.

The 217,000 Orang Asli living in Peninsular Malaysia comprise 18 tribes, each distinct with its own unique cultures, languages and social norms. They make up a small percentage of West Malaysia’s population and decades of marginalisation have had a profound impact on them and their way of life, making them the poorest and most overlooked group in the country

Despite their relatively small numbers, the votes of the Orang Asli community could prove decisive in several races. For example, some 10,000 Orang Asli voters will likely determine who becomes the member of Parliament for Gua Musang in Kelantan.

While politicians have often promised to look after the community’s interests to woo their votes, these promises have rarely been kept post-election season, This has left the Orang Asli extremely vulnerable, particularly in their fights against the big corporations that prey on their indigenous lands. In these battles, they receive little or no help from state governments, who often stand to profit from their misfortune. 

Losing ground

The Orang Asli were self-sufficient for many centuries, despite being cash-poor. Through the use of forested resources and subsistence farming, they were able to adequately support themselves and their families. 

But the increasingly widespread takeover of the Orang Asli’s customary lands by corporations has resulted in grave violations of nearly all of their basic rights including their access to clean water, food, healthcare, shelter, security and life. The most obvious indication of the severity of their marginalisation is in these violations of their customary land rights.

Agriculture development, logging, hydroelectric dams, and tourism are all being aggressively pursued on Orang Asli customary lands.

Tijah Yok Chopil, 53, is a Semai Orang Asli woman and teacher from Kampong Chang Sg Gepai in Perak. At the age of 17, she founded Sinui Pal Nanuk Sngik – “New Life One Heart”, an organisation focused on improving the lives of her people. 

Photo: Tijah Yok Chopil/Wiki Impact 

Since then, she’s held several important positions in Orang Asli organisations, contributed to research and reporting on the use of rainforest resources by Orang Asli women and founded various educational initiatives for Orang Asli children. 

Despite all of the infringements Orang Asli rights have suffered over the years, she insists that her people must still go out to vote as it is their duty as citizens of Malaysia. Although, she herself is not confident that the next government will be able to uplift her community. 

“I don’t want to put so much hope on the parties contesting since they seem to be more interested in being in power instead of fixing the country,” she told Coconuts. 

“I just hope that the rise of independent candidates who are competing will win so that their existence can balance the government that will rule later.” 

“The important thing now is that the people should go out to vote because it is an obligation,” she added. 

However, she said that as long as Malaysia does not amend Act 134 of the Aboriginal People Act to strengthen the rights of the Orang Asli over their customary lands and their rights as a whole, including fair access to basic facilities like clean water, then these issues will continue to persist. 

Looking for change

Research conducted by Dr. Amar-Singh HSS, a paediatrician, illustrates the disparities that the Orang Asli community faces. He found that 80% of the population live in extreme poverty and childhood malnutrition rates among Orang Asli children remain high, with 60-70% classified as malnourished by 5-7 years of age. 

His survey for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty found that the primary reason for poor health is the high prevalence of malnutrition caused by external social factors affecting the Orang Asli people including resettlement schemes as well as logging and river silt pollution, all resulting in a loss of protein sources. 

Mia Yusri is an Orang Asli from the Jahut tribe in Pahang who works as a Field Office Manager with the Global Peace Foundation (GPF). GPF is a non-profit that works with the Orang Asli community through a series of initiatives. 

Photo: Mia Yusri/Global Peace Foundation website

“For me, I want to change the government. During these 3-4 years, we have changed several prime ministers but none made a significant impact, especially towards the Orang Asli community,” the woman in her thirties said. 

“So among a lot of bad apples, you have to choose the few good ones, at least,” said Mia, whose father is also an Orang Asli activist. 

“I believe the change of government can show the power of the people, checks and balances. The old government has ruled for so long that they are comfortable and don’t care about the power of the people,” she said. 

Mia said the sentiment among the Orang Asli in her area is that they are keen to have a general election, although they are unsure who to vote for, while some want to see a change in government and what a new administration could do to help their community. 

Nasir B. Dollah, a Temiar activist from Kelantan who once ran as a candidate under Pakatan Harapan during the last general election, told Coconuts the Orang Asli community these days cares heavily about the state of politics in the country. 

Photo: Nasir B. Dollah/RoketKini 

“The sentiment of the Orang Asli community is that they want a big change in the history of Malaysia. That is, they want a government that is really committed and dares to make changes to the rights and interests of the Orang Asli,” he said. 

“For example, the issue of Recognition of Indigenous Land Rights and Customary Territories, changes in the Orang Asli’s department policies and bureaucracy, improvements to the education system, health, infrastructure such as basic facilities, especially issues of roads, clean water sources, and houses.” 

“We have seen national leaders who previously led government and failed to defend the fate of the Orang Asli people – Tun Mahathir, Muhyiddin Yassin, Ismail Sabri and even Najib Razak. They led UMNO for almost 60 years but the main issues facing the Orang Asli community still remain unresolved,” he said while throwing his support behind Anwar Ibrahim, the prime ministerial candidate of Pakatan Harapan in this election. 

“The Orang Asli or society may blame the 22-month administration for their sufferings, but do they realise it is the 63-year BN administration that had failed to defend their rights and uplift their welfare, especially in providing roads, clean water and electricity?”

Representing hope

No matter how the Orang Asli community votes in GE15, the chances that their interests will be represented in the next government remain limited.

The only Orang Asli who has ever won office is Ramli Mohd Nor, a Semai, who won the Cameron Highland by-election in 2019 with 12,038 votes under Barisan Nasional. 

In GE15, Ramli and Teratai Bah Arom, also a Semai, will be the only Orang Asli candidates.

Teratai will run as an independent for the Chenderiang state seat in Perak. She is also the first Orang Asli woman to contest in the country’s general election.

Furthermore, in browsing through the GE15 manifestos of the top three coalitions – Pakatan Harapan, Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional – we found that only Perikatan Nasional promised to establish a Special Cabinet Committee on Socioeconomic Development and Rights of Orang Asli if they win GE15. 

So where can the Orang Asli look to for hope that their community will finally have its voices heard and rights protected? Mia said her people shouldn’t pin their hopes on any particular political group but must instead find the strength to make change happen themselves.

“I don’t want to be obsessed with any political party, but this time I really hope the government changes. If it doesn’t work and there is no change, we change it. We will give them time to come up with a plan for the people but not too long, especially with the Orang Asli. We have suffered long enough.” 

Editor’s note: The article previously stated that there was only one Orang Asli candidate in GE15 when there are actually two. We have amended the article and apologise for the error. 

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