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Left in the margins

Temiar children from RPS Kemar, Perak. The Temiar here routinely dress up in their traditional gear,
as a sign of emerging pride in their culture (© Centre for Orang Asli Concerns)

MULTICULTURALISM is one of our most touted traits: Malaysia, Truly Asia. Nevertheless, it is an open secret that Malaysians coexist uneasily, and that national policy discriminates according to religion and ethnicity. In the public consciousness, issues of community rights are painted in broad strokes, along the Malay-Chinese-Indian matrix.

Focus on big battlefields means that individual skirmishes get little attention. These include the indigenous peoples, who are constitutionally bumiputera; to smaller ethnic communities, like the Malaysian Siamese; to subsets of “major” groups, like ethnically Indian plantation workers and urban-poor populations.

Self-formed Semai traditional dance group from Kampar,
mainly members of an extended family
(© Centre for Orang Asli Concerns)

These ethnic minorities and marginalised communities not only face great obstacles in accessing their basic rights to culture and way of life, but also in getting what they deserve as equal Malaysians.

During a Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam)-hosted roundtable on the rights of such communities in Malaysia on 12 Nov 2008, Suhakam vice-chairperson Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Simon Sipaun affirmed the importance of safeguarding the rights of the least dominant of society’s members.

“If there are minorities based on gender, ethnic or religious groups whose rights are not respected or protected, then the society at large will become poorer for it,” Sipaun said in his keynote address.

A different reality

While Malaysia has double-endorsed the UN’s Drip, the reality is different. (© Asif Akbar /

If Sipaun is correct, Malaysian society is already impoverished. In a paper titled First on the Land, Last in the Plan, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns co-ordinator Colin Nicholas revealed that, while Malaysia has double-endorsed the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Drip), the reality is different.

According to Nicholas: “With regard to the Orang Asli, the UN-Drip is but a far cry from being implemented, whether in part or in full in Malaysia.”

He demonstrated how the Orang Asli community — which accounts for about 0.6% of the national population, but make up 54% of the hardcore poor — has had their rights to land and self-determination repeatedly impinged.

Many national schemes, typically managed by the Deparment of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), look good when announced, but actually disadvantage the Orang Asli. For example, a new land policy would deprive the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia of more than a third of their current lands, and turn these lands into 99-year leaseholds, he said.

In his presentation, Nicholas juxtaposed the state of the Orang Asli with the privileges and rights enjoyed by the Malay community, on the grounds that they were both bumiputera. Not only was it obvious that the two are not equitable, Nicholas points to a 1993 JHEOA report which states that the expressed state policy is to “assimilate the Orang Asli into the Malay sector of society”.

“They want to change the Orang Asli,” Nicholas said, “deny their autonomy and identity, and control their lands.” Public outcry is kept to a minimum, due to the perpetuation of the stereotype that the Orang Asli are backward and “anti-development”, he added.

Moral weight

The roundtable included reviews of the Drip and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, two UN declarations directly related to the subject of marginalised/minority rights. Lawyer Ramdas Tikamdas, in his critical evaluation of the latter, concluded by saying that:

Ramdas Tikamdas

“The underlying basis of the rule of law for civilised states is non-discrimination and equality of rights and opportunities for its nationals. These twin principles … are also the precondition for any state aspiring to national integration and progress towards developed status.”

The declaration does not require ratification by member states, and has no mechanisms for enforcement; it carries moral, not legal weight. However, Tikamdas argued that the fact it directly references other human rights instruments — such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) — allows the declaration international customary law status.

Non-signatories of the ICERD are shown in light grey on the map (source:

Tikamdas pointed out that 173 of the UN’s 192 member states have ratified the ICERD.

“Malaysia cannot continue to be in an isolated gallery of non-ratifiers if it seeks to achieve its goals of national integration and developed status in a globalised world,” he asserted. Among the non-signatories are such states like North Korea and the military dictatorship of Myanmar — disreputable company at best.

The Indian equation

In a discussion on the plight of ethnically-Indian rubber plantation workers, Education, Welfare & Research Foundation Malaysia research director Dr S Nagarajan outlined a disconnect between state policies and the callous reality on the ground.


“Plantations are classified as private property,” Nagarajan explained. Because of this technicality, “things like mobile clinics, poverty eradication programmes, and education bypass plantation communities.”

The problems affecting the Indian plantation workforce have been endemic since pre-Merdeka, and are tied to the fact that plantations were structured to keep workers and families in their confines. Today, as Malaysian agriculture shifts in focus from rubber to palm oil, and plantations make way for land development, these communities are forced into squatter areas and merge with the urban poor, said Nagarajan.

Chewong, from Bukit Cenal, Pahang. This small community is to be resettled for the Kelau dam project, even though
their hillock-hamlet is way above the water-level of the proposed dam (© Centre for Orang Asli Concerns)

This migration is clear when you look at the statistics. In 1970, according to the Population and Housing Census Report, 65.3% of the Indian Malaysian population was in the rural areas and 34.7% in the urban areas but by year 2000, only 20.3% were in the rural areas while 79.7% were in urban areas. (As Indian Malaysians were historically employed in the plantation sector, rural means plantation in this context.)

“I am sure the percentage of Indian Malaysians in rural areas will be below 20% by now because evictions from the plantations are still going on,” pointed out Nagarajan.

There were many suggestions at the roundtable as to how the problem of discrimination could be addressed. These include the creation of a statutory commissioner, who would function as an ombudsman in hearing the grievances of minorities; and a fine-tuning of the National Development Policy, to make it based not on race, but need.

Other suggestions include strengthening of civil society networks, so that the influence of non-governmental organisations extends beyond urban areas; and educating the civil service and policy-makers to appreciate cultural diversity.

Success stories

There have been success stories. Persatuan Siam Malaysia representative Siri Neng Buah raised several issues as being close to the Siamese community here: unfair citizenship exams; the necessity of sijil Siam (Siamese certificates) in the states of Perlis and Kedah, before the ethnically Siamese could work the land for agriculture; and the fact that Buddhist wats could not be gazetted in these states.

“If you look at a map [of the state] there is nothing there,” Siri said, “but actually there would be a huge temple building”. As a result, wats have been demolished to make way for Felda settlements in the past.

Siri Neng Buah

By contrast, the Islamic theocracy of Kelantan sports 20 such temple complexes, all recognised by the PAS state government — Tumpat’s Pikulthong Wat was even the site of a diplomatic event on 12 Nov that saw the Kelantan Menteri Besar and a Thai royal representative in attendance. The sijil Siam, which Siri points out is an apparatus of racial discrimination, does not exist in Kelantan.

Yet, at the root of the problem is the Malaysian government’s willingness to discount these issues. Kelantan-style high-mindedness does not yet happen at the federal level. As one participant of the roundtable put it: “We can talk the whole day, but if we can’t reach the political masters, nothing can be done.”

Tikamdas believed that the government gets away with being all bluster and little action because it is allowed to. It is the onus of Malaysians to keep government accountable and public policy fair and effective. “Citizens need to stand up and demand that they want equal rights,” he said. TNG

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2 Responses to “Left in the margins”

  1. fleas says:

    The map showing countries that have ratified ICERD is hilarious!

    What’s the use of ratifying something if absolutely no steps are taken to actually implement anything? This is 100% lip service.

    In those green countries, you can see all manner of racial discrimination ranging from political incorrectness to genocide.

    The entire Eastern Europe, India and Pakistan are green for Satan’s sake!

  2. Zedeck says:

    Hello fleas:

    What the ICERD map does show is that there are some countries to whom the appearance (if nothing else) of being against racial discrimination is important — and other countries where it is not.

    Malaysia is not being hypocritical here, because it could not care less.

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