Friday February 18

Orang aslis of Malaysia

In a temporary side-step from the usual internet-focused entries, I took it upon myself run a peripheral investigation of the orang asli situation in Malaysia because some friends of mine are attending a tour of an orang asli tribe. (Orang aslis are the members of tribes of Malaysia, much like the aboriginals of Australia.) In doing so, I found that the government of Malaysia has been treating the local aboriginals with the similar paternal attitude as the government of Australia did with their own some fifty years ago.

In the 1970s, after enlisting the orang aslis to fight communists in the jungles where they lived, the government of Malaysia created a section called the Department of Orang Asli Affairs. Its mission was to "ensure that Orang Asli community achieves a level of socio-economic well-being at par with those of other communities in this country, and imbued with ethical values while at the same time maintaining their identity." Ethics is an interesting word to use. This being the same government which was given the same score on the international corruption index as United Arab Emirates where baksheesh is still an accepted form of exchange. The Department however is not charged with identifying the existing values of the orang aslis nor is it charged with attempting to assimilate the accepted values of the country with those of the tribes. It is clear that the Department is trying to enforce an unidentified code of ethics on the orang aslis that has been created by persons who are similarly unidentified.

The Department's mission statement goes on to say that it is "committed to become a credible, efficient and effective agency in developing the Orang Asli community in line with the objectives of the country's national vision." Again in the wording we see the overshadowing of the orang aslis with some external agenda further suggesting that the orang asli's views are inconsequential to their governance. This agenda apparently includes converting all the orang asli into muslims which is the main accusation of this paper called Ethnocide Malaysian Style by two American researchers. It says that the Malaysian government has has been attempting to force Islam into the orang asli culture at the expense of education and economic programmes.

Investigating further, I found a paper presented by Dr Colin Nicholas (of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns) in 2002 to the Commonwealth meeting of indigenous rights in South Asia and South East Asia. The paper, entitled "Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources", says that the orang asli have benefited overall in terms of their health. They live longer and are generally in better shape. But the paper also points out several court cases brought by tribes people which highlight that the government have been giving away their land and forcing the tribes people to be subordinate to commercial projects that humiliate them.

I doubt that Dr Nicholas was very popular with the Malaysian government after publishing his paper. In fact the Department now requires all researchers who want to study the orang asli to sign a form that states that they cannot represent the orang asli in any political activities (points 8 and 14).

This of course puts my friends in a rather awkward position. So I wrote to Dr Nicholas and to the people of Magickriver.com (an orang asli information site) asking for their advice on what we ought to do if we wanted to visit the tribes but don't want to turn them into a circus or contribute to the coffers of the Department that is busily robbing them. The owner of Magickriver.com, who now goes by the name Antares, replied. He said the best solution was probably a meeting of nature and culture in a place called Bukit Lagong which is about an hour out of Kuala Lumpur. There, Antares lives with a village of orang asli which is not part of the tourist circus, near a waterfall and great hiking trails.

It's an invitation that I hope more people will take up instead of going along with the government-sanctioned orang asli tourism trails.

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