Remembering marginalised Malaysians


Shahar’s artwork titled “Nightmare of Moyang Bajos” reflects on the destruction of the mangrove forest in the indigenous Mah Meri community, which represents one of Peninsular Malaysia’s 18 recognised indigenous Peoples. This is one of his many paintings that merge activism and art to fight challenges of the Orang Asli community.

HE was just a carefree child living life in the jungle where shades of green rustled in the wind and river water ran clear. That serenity came to a halt when predatory land developers encroached upon the grounds of his people - the indigenous Temuan Orang Asli tribe in Banting, Southwest Selangor.

Reminiscing of fond childhood memories that included fishing in the peat swamp and hunting small animals in the jungle, award-winning contemporary artist and activist Shahar Koyok (also known as Shaq Koyok) shares that plenty of Orang Asli across the country would have had shared similar traumatic experiences of witnessing their land being claimed.

This was Shahar’s motivation to fight for his people’s land rights through a glorious merger of brush strokes on canvas and activism. The artist, who graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam, in 2009, says there seems to be no end to the long-standing plights of the Orang Asli in Malaysia.

Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) founder Dr Colin Nicholas—who has helped the Orang Asli through several court cases involving their rights for decades—points out that the Orang Asli community is remembered when they are needed for three things - land, politics and religion.Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) founder Dr Colin Nicholas—who has helped the Orang Asli through several court cases involving their rights for decades—points out that the Orang Asli community is remembered when they are needed for three things - land, politics and religion.

Empty promises

The marginalisation of the Orang Asli persists due to various systemic issues and historical neglect, according to Orang Asal Women’s Association of Malaysia (PWOAM) deputy secretary-general and Malaysian Care community development senior manager Ita Bah Nan - who hails from the Semai Tribe, Perak.

“Despite government promises and efforts, challenges such as bureaucratic hurdles, inadequate allocation of resources hinder effective implementation of policies and initiatives. Additionally, deep-seated prejudices and misconceptions about indigenous peoples further contribute to their continued marginalisation.”

Ita cites historical injustices including systemic inequalities, denial from the government and a failure to understand the unique needs and relationship of the Orang Asli with their land, as well as lack of political will as a few reasons behind the Orang Asli community getting sidelined continuously.

“Political parties tend to exploit Orang Asli issues for electoral or personal agendas, rather than genuinely advocating for Orang Asli concerns. Furthermore, the government lacks seriousness in addressing the issues faced by the Orang Asli community, often relying solely on the Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa) to resolve them.”

Ita also calls for an overdue, comprehensive review and improvement of the Orang Asli Act 1954, focusing on any provisions that no longer reflect the current realities and lifestyles of the Orang Asli or that have served to constrain and suppress their rights.

“Such a review is crucial to ensure that the legal framework governing the Orang Asli community aligns with the principles of justice, equality, and respect for indigenous rights.”

Echoing Ita, Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) founder Dr Colin Nicholas—who has helped the Orang Asli through several court cases involving their rights for decades—points out that the Orang Asli community is remembered when they are needed for three things - land, politics and religion.

“Orang Asli are remembered and looked out for during the General Elections. Though they only make up 0.7% (230,000) of Malaysia’s population, they can determine votes in certain areas—Cameron Highlands was a classic example.

“Besides that, they are only thought of when they are needed for conversion of religion, or when their lands are needed for direct exploitation like for logging and mining or for hydroelectric development,” says the expert who received his PhD (with Distinction) in 1999 from the Institute of Advanced Studies, Universiti Malaya on the topic of Orang Asli: Politics, Development and Identity.

The Orang Asli are a talented bunch when given the opportunity. Shahar Koyok (pictured) - an award-winning contemporary artist and activist - is a perfect example.The Orang Asli are a talented bunch when given the opportunity. Shahar Koyok (pictured) - an award-winning contemporary artist and activist - is a perfect example.

Neglected voices, lasting mistreatment

Currently, 38% of Malaysia’s total 230,000 Orang Asli are still poor. In 2020, Jakoa reported that 99.25% of the Orang Asli are in the B40 group. When this figure is compared with the national poverty rate, which is less than 5%, it is clear that the Orang Asli are being sidelined.

Pointing out that there has been minimal advancement on Orang Asli rights since the last four decades, Nicholas says many recommendations, suggestions, requests, demands that were put through fell on deaf ears.

“In terms of land, there is the National Inquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous People by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). There were 18 recommendations and only one has been taken into account, the rest have been ignored.

“In 2019, the first National Orang Asli Conference was conducted where 197 resolutions were put forward there and almost all of them have not been acted upon.”

“The Orang Asli rights have already been enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—which is endorsed by the Malaysian government—but these have yet to be recognised and actualised locally.”

He adds that the Orang Asli’s want to be recognised as the Indigenous Peoples of the Peninsula, and with it the right to determine for themselves what is best for themselves, including the right to development of their design, at their own pace, and on their own land.

Nicholas further explains that their customary land is the most important right the Orang Asli are asking for. This is because their identity, culture, history and all the factors that make them Orang Asli, depend on their specific ecological space or geographical nature.

Emphasising that listening is an important component in improving the lives of the Orang Asli, Shahar suggests for authorities to allow a safe space, free of police presence, for the Orang Asli community to express frustrations, ideas, views and on-the-ground information without fear.

“Listen to what we have to say. You’ll find out more about us when you listen, instead of acting on our behalf and thinking you know better about us, than us. Orang Asli are humans who just want to live our lives peacefully,” pleads Shahar.

Orang Asal Women’s Association of Malaysia (PWOAM) deputy secretary-general and Malaysian Care community development senior manager Ita Bah Nan calls for an overdue, comprehensive review and improvement of the Orang Asli Act 1954, focusing on any provisions that no longer reflect the current realities and lifestyles of the Orang Asli or that have served to constrain and suppress their rights.Orang Asal Women’s Association of Malaysia (PWOAM) deputy secretary-general and Malaysian Care community development senior manager Ita Bah Nan calls for an overdue, comprehensive review and improvement of the Orang Asli Act 1954, focusing on any provisions that no longer reflect the current realities and lifestyles of the Orang Asli or that have served to constrain and suppress their rights.

Noting that the lack of genuine and meaningful consultation with the Orang Asli community hinder effective implementation of policies and initiatives, Ita says: “Policies and development projects are imposed on Orang Asli communities without their consent or input—disregarding our unique perspectives, values and knowledge.

“This leads to initiatives that are ineffective in addressing challenges or improving quality-of-life and solutions that are disconnected from the realities and priorities of the Orang Asli.”

She adds that the top-down approach to decision-making undermines the autonomy and self-determination of the Orang Asli communities, hindering their development and well-being.

“It also erodes trust between the government and the Orang Asli community, impeding the establishment of mutually beneficial partnerships for sustainable development.”

Inclusive development and access

Despite strides made globally in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, critical challenges persist, particularly within marginalised indigenous communities like the Orang Asli locally.

Nicholas notes that discussing DEI for the Orang Asli is pointless when their rights are continuously denied. He says: “If they are recognised as the Indigenous Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, by Malaysian logic and practice, they should have rights to their land, culture, and spirituality. Accordingly, also, they should also be accorded priority in economic, civil service employment and political matters.

“Only 31.4% of the area recognised by the government as Orang Asli lands—a very small proportion of what the Orang Asli are claiming—have actually been gazetted as Orang Asli reserves. Even so, they do not enjoy security of tenure over these areas as they can be quite easily degazetted.”

Besides listening to the community’s grouses, Ita points out that cultural sensitivity and equal distribution of resources are required when including Orang Asli.

“Initiatives often overlook the rich cultural heritage and traditions of the Orang Asli, disregarding the traditional knowledge, customs and practices that have sustained generations of the Orang Asli.

“Furthermore, the failure to recognise and respect Orang Asli culture can perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions, further marginalising and undermining our sense of identity and belonging.

“Meanwhile, unequal distribution of resources hinders our access to education, healthcare, infrastructure and the protection of their rights as Orang Asli, as well as economic opportunities. This is in addition to widening the poverty gap and deepening the divide between them and the general society,” Ita notes.

Overall, incorporating DEI principles into policies and initiatives related to land rights and livelihoods for the Orang Asli is essential for promoting justice, equality and sustainable development.

By prioritising community consultation, equitable resource allocation, capacity building and addressing discrimination, the government and the general public can work together to ensure that Orang Asli communities have the necessary support and opportunities to thrive.

For Shahar, DEI efforts should also include stories of the Orang Asli in the education system as many misconceptions towards us stem from the lack of understanding about the community because no knowledge about the Orang Asli has been disseminated in schools.

Pointing out that a systemic apartheid towards Orang Asli has been on-going for a long time, he says putting an end to it first requires the removal of people’s “priority complex”.

“I’m always hearing that the Orang Asli are dirty, poor, uneducated, eat wildlife, do not have religions, can’t speak well, dress improperly, do not want development and are always anti-government projects. These are misunderstandings, partly created from being treated as second-class citizens for generations.”

“DEI efforts should be led with compassion, especially when you don’t understand or know much about the community. When you listen from the heart, it allows mutual understanding and for you to really hear what is being said and this leads to an easier path towards finding solutions,” says Shahar.

To end, the 230,000 Orang Asli in Malaysia only make up 0.7% of the nation’s total population but their rights to life have yet to be fulfilled after decades. The reason behind marginalisation of these Malaysians is something worth pondering about. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

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