Orang Asli in Malaysia. Picture from © De Visu / Shutterstock
Orang Asli, or indigenous peoples, have unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli community is separated into three main tribal groups, including Semang (Negrito), Senoi and Proto Malay (Aboriginal Malay) and consists of an estimated 19 ethnicities. The Orang Asli of Malaysia are not a homogenous group, where there are at least 95 subgroups, each with their distinct language and culture. Some argue that the current appearances of Orang Asli resulted from conquest, occupation, settlement or other means of British colonial rule. But the reality is that the Orang Asli community were the original occupants of the Malayan land (pre-independence) who were left displaced with reduced land rights.
Plundered for Resources
Arguably, the Orang Asli community is one of Malaysia's most severely exploited groups. As a result of systemic marginalisation through the lack of policies provided for them, they are often subjected to lucrative deals for corporations that they may need to be fully informed about. A prime example was in early 2021 when 2,021 leaders in Sabah (who have remained anonymous for the sake of their tribes) from the Kadazan-Dusun, Murut and Rungus ethnic signed a profit-sharing agreement to market carbon and other natural capital from more than 2 million hectares of the state’s forests. Yet, despite the long-standing commitment, the communities living in and around those forests knew nothing about it.
The agreement was termed a “nature conservation agreement” by Tierra Australia, an Australian consultancy. Tierra Australia acted as a middle-man between the corporations in question and the Orang Asli community. The agreement ultimately allowed for the sale of credits for carbon and other ecosystem services to companies to meet sustainability goals, such as aiming to reduce their carbon footprints by offsetting their emissions. However, given that Tierra Australia is a consultancy agency driven by profit-incentives, they are unlikely to fully consider the well-being of the Orang Asli community in the midst of the discussions regarding the nature conservation agreement – even if it impacted the homes of the Orang Asli.
The terms of the deal consisted of Tierra Australia and its partners acquiring 30% of the profits from the natural capital – which is the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things – sold for the next 100 to 200 years. The remaining 70% would go to the Sabah state government to fund economic development for people living in and around the forests. Ultimately, it is hard to gauge whether the Orang Asli community were genuinely aware of the terms of the deal enough to make informed decisions regarding this decision. Although acquiring 70% of the profits seemed like an ideal situation for the Sabah state government, there has not been any clear indication if this end of the deal followed through based on the reports online.
This is not a one-off instance in which the Orang Asli community was exploited under lucrative deals. About 20 years back, during the construction of the RM9 billion Bakun dam project in the Belaga district in central Sarawak, some 13 Penan children died during a measles outbreak due to the influx of workers into the area through no fault of their own. And more recently, a group of native landowners from Miri lost their final legal battle when the Federal Court dismissed their appeal to reclaim over 500 hectares of native customary rights (NCCR) at Sungai Liam, Bakong in Miri division from a company.
The origins of Oppression
These circumstances illustrate a pressing issue in Malaysia — where the Orang Asli community is perpetually exploited both in terms of their land rights, and their livelihoods.
Regulations enacted by the British during their colonial rule that acknowledge the indigenous peoples' customary land rights and law are still in force in Sarawak and Sabah. But, the government consistently disregards them in favour of large-scale resource extraction, the plantations of for-profit companies, and the interests of state institutions rather than the rights and interests of Indigenous communities, failing to implement them effectively. Although Orang Asli customary land rights are not included in Peninsular Malaysia's National Land Law, they are recognised under Malaysia’s common law. The primary statute controlling the Orang Asli administration, including property ownership, is the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954.
The poor treatment of the Orang Asli community is indicated through the lucrative business deals they have been looped into and the insufficient damage control the government had carried out to protect these communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Pandemic and the Orang Asli community
Picture from the New Straits Times
The Covid-19 outbreak is another example of the self-perpetuating cycle of abuse that affects the Orang Asli community. For instance, the number of Covid cases among Peninsular Malaysia's Orang Asli increased more than tenfold in only one month in 2021, from 287 occurrences on July 20 to 3,293 cases on August 20. By the end of 2021, Sabah had 238,357 instances of Covid, with the Orang Asli community making up most of those cases. The coronavirus also started to spread in Sarawak, particularly in the region's northern countryside, predominately occupied by Native communities.
For certain Orang Asli tribes, the economic consequences of the outbreak raised significant questions about food security for the community. As a result, the mothers found it more challenging to provide for their family's nutritional and medical requirements. Moreover, as they were forced to employ conventional support methods, customarily regarded as the preserve of Orang Asli women, those who relied on the monetary support found it highly challenging.
Politicians also seized upon the epidemic. By announcing the State of Emergency early in the year, the Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) administration at the federal level prevented a power shift.
On December 18, 2021, the state of Sarawak conducted elections. Using Covid restrictions and lockdowns, the incumbent Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS, Sarawak Party Alliance) was able to win by a significant margin. The (split) opposition candidates, many of whom were Indigenous activist types, had limited freedom of movement and opportunities for interaction with the public. The Sarawakian Orang Asli community resisted against these state-backed attacks into their customary territories, barricading logging roads, protesting in Malaysian cities, establishing NGOs, filing legal challenges and forming alliances with local and international groups. Unfortunately, they were met with intimidation and violence, further destruction of their homes and criminalisation of their activities.
Where does that leave them?
Picture from BERNAMA
The outbreak and the resulting restrictions, lockdowns, and regulations have increased the opportunity for the federal and state governments and other interested parties to exploit and control the Orang Asli community and their lands, territories, and resources. In addition, the reduction in support for Indigenous Peoples' rights has been attributed to court rulings against the Orang Asli community, and the existence of politicians who are apathetic to their needs and rights.
Yet, selecting a Semai-Orang Asli woman (Sapiah Mohd Nor) as the Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Development has been a significant advancement, at least for the Orang Asli community. To raise awareness of their position, goals, and rights, young Orang Asli women have also turned to social media, including their own YouTube channels.
Beyond that, in the recent 15th general election, Sabah and Sarawak were promised one-third of the seats in parliament. This was stipulated in the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), where Deputy Prime Minister Fadillah Yusof said that the discussion regarding the progression would take two to three years to complete as it had multiple stages to go through before it would be fully implemented.
Fadillah is also the plantations and commodities minister, and he said that the one-third parliamentary seat allocation for Sabah and Sarawak was vital as it would facilitate the “Sarawak First” slogan adopted by the people and government of Sarawak to restore the spirit of the state to build together and develop Malaysia.
Ultimately, if the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak obtained a third of Malaysia’s parliamentary seats, this would directly translate into political power, allowing them a more considerable say in government matters if they can form a united bloc. This would entail being more effective in pushing the federal government to give the two states greater autonomy and a higher revenue share from their pol and gas resources, contributing significant revenues for Malaysia.
Sabah and Sarawak receiving more seats in parliament addresses the underlying issue of the underrepresentation of the Orang Asli community in politics, which is intrinsically tied to the lack of budget allocation for the maintenance and conservation of their land that is also considered their home. Although corporations and state governments benefit off the profit earned from the extraction of resources from the Orang Asli community’s land, there is still a disproportionate allocation of funds to the community in regards to their size and population. This is further exacerbated by the way the Orang Asli community was treated during the pandemic, indicating to us just where they lie on the lists of priorities for the federal government.
The Orang Asli community is not a monolith, and to treat them as such will erase each unique ethnic background that they carry with them. There are still efforts to be made in regard to progressing Orang Asli's rights to be similarly on a par with other ethnic groups in Malaysia as discussed in the article, but further efforts need to be made in order to fully uplift the community and provide them with the resources they deserve. The way in which the Orang Asli community is treated is not simply and indication of a lack of government policies in their favour, but systemic displacement after years of exploitation by large-scale corporations and their agreements. Alongside the disregard for their livelihoods with insufficient consideration for meaningful policies, historical events such as the British’s colonial occupation affected the way in which the Orang Asli community is viewed in our land to the present day.