MALAYSIA’s first peoples have attracted much media attention in recent weeks all for the wrong reasons. We have had reports of tragic deaths due to a mysterious illness and unscrupulous loggers and miners encroaching into Orang Asli lands. And alarming exposés of forced religious conversion and involuntary female sterilisation. Along with the fact that Orang Asli fare miserably in almost every socio-economic indicator relative to the national average, what we are presented with is an utterly grim picture of Orang Asli life in general. The risk with such media attention is that people may become wearily accustomed to such dismal news, leading to the possibility of being de-sensitised to their woes. To foster empathy for Malaysia’s first peoples, I would like to narrate a sad story of a child I met in a Semai village where I lived for 14 months in the early 1980s.
One day while visiting a home in the village, I noticed a sick boy of about four years old in the main room of the hut. When I asked what was wrong with the child, his father replied that his son was suffering from “soul loss”.
He told me that his son had been unwell for several days. As someone who believed in the efficacy of modern medicine, I advised the parents to take their sick child to the clinic in town. They were hesitant at first, revealing their apprehension of potential mistreatment at the clinic as the reason for their reluctance. Then the father disclosed that he did not have any money to pay for his son’s treatment. I offered to drive them to town with their son, accompany them to the clinic, and pay the medical bill. After some persuasion, they accepted my proposition. On the drive down, I could see through the rear mirror how frail the child was, lying in the arms of his concerned mother.
The doctor diagnosed the child as suffering from severe gastroenteritis and recommended urgent treatment at the nearby hospital. When we returned to the car, the parents said that they did not want to take their son to the hospital. My pleas to reconsider their decision fell on deaf ears. The father reasoned with me that he had to return to his economic pursuits of collecting petai to earn the much-needed income to support his family, which included three other children. His wife said she was worried about being asked to stay with her child in the hospital; she has had bad experiences of staying in the local hospital. She was ridiculed for not being fully conversant in Malay and was treated disparagingly: some hospital staff called her a “sakai” (a derogatory term held invidious by the Orang Asli in general).
We returned to the village and several hours later I received the sad news that the child had died. Recounting this story has been emotionally challenging for me but telling it, I believe, is necessary to reinforce my plea for an empathetic engagement with the Orang Asli. To counter any possibility of blaming the parents for the child’s death, let me provide a broader context to this story and why some of the solutions offered to solve the Orang Asli predicament are misconceived.
Several have called for more studies and stakeholder consultations. A quick search for published works on the Orang Asli will produce a massive list. For decades, scholars and NGOs have detailed the deplorable social, economic and ecological conditions in many of the Orang Asli communities. In one of my three books on the impact of development in various Orang Asli villages, I recorded the drastic changes in the lives of the Jahai Orang Asli resettled in Sg Rual in Kelantan from 1975 to 2006. I reported on how the government-sponsored resettlement and its attendant economic and ecological transformation had led to poor nutrition, diet, and sanitation, concomitantly resulting in a high incidence of disease and shocking rates of mortality.
The question is do we need more studies to tell us about the appalling conditions in Orang Asli communities?
Plenty of proposals to alleviate the dismal conditions of Orang Asli have been offered. The well-worn “teach them to fish, instead of giving fish” was one of them, ignoring the overwhelming evidence indicating how our “fishing techniques” have engendered ecological calamities, economic hardships, and social woes.
Shifting attention from the impoverished material conditions to religious deficiency, some religious preachers advocated religious conversion. They appear to be more interested in the afterlife of the Orang Asli than the hellish conditions prevalent in the present life of their prospective converts.
Implicit in all these proposals is the longstanding, prevailing and almost unshakeable view that the Orang Asli are of lesser human beings and that their cultures are “backward”. This view of inequality profoundly shapes how we treat them, behave towards them, and our efforts to remould their lives according to our designs. Orang Asli are regularly on the receiving end of exploitation, impoverishment, discrimination, racism, and domination. This is a form of violence that social scientists call structural violence because it emanates from the structures in society fuelling marginalisation and disempowerment. We play a part in this violence directly in the ways I mentioned above, but mostly
indirectly when we turn a blind eye to it, keep silent about it, or do nothing about it.
To return to the story: Put yourself in the shoes of the Orang Asli. The child could have been your son, your grand-son or your nephew. How would you cope if it was? If the child survived, he would be 41 years old today. His drooping eyes as he looked up towards me before he slept eternally is an image etched in my memory, an image that still haunts me despite the passing of time and this is one of the key reasons as to why I care about the Orang Asli.
Dr Alberto Gomes is an anthropologist who has studied the Orang Asli since 1975. He is also Emeritus Professor of La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and global director of the Dialogue, Empathic Engagement and Peacebuilding (DEEP) Network.