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The real pribumi of Malaysia

Orang Asal at a September 2008 gathering in Kuala Lumpur

IN an interview with The Nut Graph, Pribumi Perkasa Negara (Perkasa) president Datuk Ibrahim Ali was careful to mention that Perkasa wants affirmative action for all races. He was also careful to mention “native rights” in the same breath as Malay Malaysians.

But despite the word “pribumi” in its name, Perkasa has championed little for the Orang Asli and Orang Asal of Malaysia. Despite professing to be defenders of Malay Malaysians and native bumiputera, Perkasa’s rhetoric has focused solely on the Malay Malaysian race.

As shown in recent reports on the plight of the Orang Asli regarding their rights to healthcare and ancestral lands, the original peoples of Peninsular Malaysia only have the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA). The JHEOA’s commitment and capabilities, however, are suspect if evidence compiled by civil society groups is anything to go by.

And even as Perkasa loudly champions for Malay bumiputera rights and privileges, some of which are constitutionally enshrined, who really looks after the Orang Asli, who are the only non-migrants in this country?

No constitutional protection

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution on the special position of Malay Malaysians and bumiputera omits mention of the peninsular Orang Asli. Only the natives of Sabah and Sarawak are specified. That’s why Parti Keadilan Rakyat supreme council member Datuk Zaid Ibrahim had to correct Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz’s assertion that Orang Asli had the same constitutional rights as bumiputera. Zaid also noted that the poorest Malaysians were Orang Asli.

Orang Asli in Kampung Rembai, Selangor (Pic by Azdla @ Flickr)

“Others are dictating to the Orang Asli what they deserve. They are treated as charity cases, which is completely wrong. Orang Asli should be allowed to work within the government system, to contribute to the advancement of their own people, and to make decisions for themselves.

“This paternalistic attitude towards the Orang Asli has to stop, and a complete change in the system has to be made,” Bar Council past immediate president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasen tells The Nut Graph. She represented Orang Asli at their 24 Feb 2010 protest against the JHEOA.


Outside government

What has evolved over the years is that advocacy for the Orang Asli has developed on a separate track outside the government’s ambit. Civil society groups like the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) are the ones pursuing research on what affects the Orang Asli. Church groups are providing food and medical assistance to villages. Many churches maintain long-standing ties with Orang Asli villages, and have been helping develop community projects.

I know this because of my own participation in church efforts to give tuition to Orang Asli children in the Tras area in Pahang. Several of these kids were enrolled late in school, some attending school for the first time at age 11.

The common complaint by their parents was that nobody from the JHEOA came to their villages to register new births or to ensure that their children were schooled. Some parents did not even know they had to register their children’s births.

On 27 March 2010, I attended the opening of a boarding home for Orang Asli children in Tras. Some 25 indigenous children live there as it is closer to the school they attend, as opposed to travelling daily from their villages in the jungle interior. The home, run by staff of a Christian non-governmental organisation, was officially opened by Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok. Tras assemblyperson Choong Siew Onn was also present.

Dompok, in his speech, said that while he may not be able to directly affect change for the Orang Asli in his ministerial capacity, he would always be available to listen to their concerns and raise them in cabinet.

Dompok giving his speech (Pic courtesy of Eugene Khoo)
That’s commendable of Dompok. But in the larger picture, what does this indicate? It suggests to me that higher levels of authority are indeed aware of how JHEOA has fallen short of fulfilling its mandate. Despite this awareness, there is a lack of political will within the government to reform the entire system of Orang Asli welfare and development.

Perkasa’s rhetoric

Do we need the Orang Asli to be specifically mentioned in the constitution before their status as the poorest of Malaysia’s poor is to be taken seriously? Are they not logically the true pribumi of Peninsular Malaysia? Why, then, do they rarely figure in public discourse and policy about disadvantaged Malaysians?

To let a group like Perkasa get away with claiming that it fights for all pribumi when it is only concerned with Malay Malaysian privileges is an injustice to the Orang Asli who are pribumi.

It is also a distortion of historical fact to equate Malay Malaysians with pribumi when the only ones who can rightfully claim to be the original inhabitants of this land are the indigenous peoples. As the ancestral stories of many Malay Malaysian interviewees in The Nut Graph‘s Found in Malaysia section show, Malay Malaysian bloodlines originated from a variety of places through migration and inter-marriages.

Perkasa’s rhetoric holds that Malay Malaysians, as the majority, deserve the most help. Unfortunately, it’s a view that has long shaped the minds of some of our policymakers and executors. What about the Orang Asli, who are a minority, but in fact the original dwellers of this land?

Some of the Orang Asli kids Deborah Loh has helped with tuition didn’t have the motor skills to hold a pencil, let alone write.

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9 Responses to “The real pribumi of Malaysia”

  1. Wilson Wong says:

    Dear Deborah,

    On this statement,
    “…who really looks after the Orang Asli, who are the only non-migrants in this country?”

    I think you meant in ‘Peninsular Malaysia’.

    Dear Wilson,
    You are right! Thank you for pointing out. Mistake acknowledged.

    Deborah Loh
    Assistant News Editor

  2. weisan says:

    I feel sometimes like the Orang Asal are the forgotten children of the land. Perhaps it Is necessary to state and name them explicitly in the Federal Constitution because as a “subgroup” under bumiputra. Otherwise they will continue to be marginalised and sadly, conveniently forgotten.

  3. M.K. says:

    So now we know for sure who the real Bumiputras are!

  4. Joshua says:

    The one stumbling block that is keeping all the good intentions of the New Economic Model (NEM) plan from becoming reality is Perkasa and Umno hardliners.

    A Malaysian Malaysia is indeed the vision of God for this country. My pastor said this is why Malaysia is called a rainbow nation where all the colours blend together side by side. Maybe red is a more dominant color but it occupies the same width and wave lengths as other colors.

    According to the bestselling writers of “Freakonomics”, the self-implosion of the Klu Klux Klan was caused by a former insider revealing in public all the secrets of the Klan and exposing their childishness and intellectual immaturity. It was shame and the loss of tribal secrecy that caused them to disband voluntarily.

    I suggest the same should be done with Perkasa/UMNO, find an insider to expose their modus operandi and make it a funny tale (published online of course).

    Then we can start tackling the NEM seriously.

  5. bujangperantau says:

    I attended Perkasa’s function in Johor Baru last month, wanted to hear what it was all about. I was very skeptical about whether it was really for all bumiputera.

    Not long before the function started, the emcee of the day announced that the function was for Muslim bumiputera. Being a non-Muslim bumiputera, I was about to leave but made the decision to stay put a little longer to listen to the talk.

    I wasn’t surprised when the talk was entirely about Malay [Malaysians].

    So, what are we, the bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak. Aren’t we bumiputera? Just because we are not Muslims, it doesn’t mean that we are not bumiputera.

    If we the non-Muslim bumiputera or Sabah and Sarawak are not treated equally with the bumiputera of Tanah Melayu, who are Muslim Malays, then I don’t think any other races including the Orang Asli will have better opportunities in this country.

    Whenever the government says bumiputera, it actually means Malays and to be exact Muslim Malays.

  6. An says:

    “To let a group like Perkasa get away with claiming that it fights for all pribumi when it is only concerned with Malay Malaysian privileges is an injustice to the Orang Asli who are pribumi.”

    Dear Deborah, I would like to correct your statement and those like it: Perkasa is not concerned about true Malay Malaysians, they are only concerned about the BN – primarily Malay [Malaysians] in Umno while using the majority of Malays as their justification. You should be able to see how they treat those Malay [Malaysians] not in their league. In fact, those non-Malay [Malaysians] in their league will get better treatment.

    You should get the distinction right if you want this country to be truly for Malaysians. Such statements that potray Perkasa as fighting for all Malay [Malaysians] can only cause animosity amongst the true Malaysians – non-Malays and Malays.

  7. Muslim says:

    Forget it An, at TNG, if you are a Malay [Malaysian], you are first a bad guy. But if you are a pervert, then you may enjoy all this racist big talk.

  8. Chung says:

    Very thought provoking article by Deborah.

    My view is that, the claim of “indigeneity” will hardly bring us anywhere, if the chief aim is to address the hardship and inequality faced by the Orang Asli community. We can all go to many credible sources to look for the evidences of how Orang Asli have been discriminated systematically in their pursuit of a better life. If we observe closely, it is not surprising to find that the OA’s version of “better life” is NOT distinctly different from that of ethnic Malay, Chinese or many other respectable ethnic groups. A secure economic income, the ability to send kids to school, accessible and affordable healthcare services, respect from within and outside your own ethnic community – Orang Asli are not longing for this conditions, but working at least equally hard as the Malay/Chinese [Malaysians] to achieve them. But why are they so far behind from the rest?

    The calls to pay attention to the plight of Orang Asli seem to be louder recently, and hopefully what follows are not merely empty political promises. Policies and actions to improve the livelihood of the Orang Asli NEED NOT be justified by claiming they are the true pribumi while the others are semi-, quarter and fake Bumi. The debate can go on (and should be allowed to) in universities among the anthropologists and the lawyers to formulate how to best amend laws to protect the true indigenous people’s rights.

    But now, the burning needs to provide better healthcare and education, to stop chasing the Orang Asli from the land they live, to give the Orang Asli worker a decent salary no less than the Malay [Malaysian] or Indonesian or Chinese [Malaysian] of same working skills – we should and could make all this happen not because Orang Asli are Orang Asli, but because Orang Asli is fellow citizens of Malaysia.

    We need not discredit or disqualify the pribumi claims by Malay [Malaysians] to accord the Orang Asli their demand of basic social services provided by the state and society. They are not asking for 30% board membership in Bursa-listed companies. They need schools, healthcare, secure income, and respect. And respect.

  9. Paul Liau says:

    There are a number of orang asli settlements in Perak and I have been to a couple of them. I agree that much more should be done for these communities as these are the REAL Bumiputra of Malaya.

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