Land, to the orang asli, is their identity, heritage and also their livelihood. But with encroaching development, they worry they might lose this lifeline. Twenty-five Semai orang asli settlements in Perak formed a network in May this year, hoping to change things for the better. CHRISTINA KOH reports.
THEIR motto is sinui pai nanek sengi, meaning “new life, one heart” in the Semai language, and their aim is nothing less than to bring about a stronger voice for the orang asli.
This group of orang asli formed a network on May 4 which bonds some 9,000 members from Semai settlements spread across Perak, with the aim to address age-old worries such as land encroachment, the need for education, ethnic and gender equality as well as access to infrastructure like electricity, water and roads.
The villages in the network include Kampung Sungai Bill, Kampung Changkuak, Kampung Langkap, Kampung Tisung, Kampung Sandin, Kampung Chang Baru, Kampung Kenuh and Kampung Sungai Bot.
Although scattered, their concerns are united – with the chief concern being ownership of their traditional land which is slowly dwindling as development projects increase, according to Tijah Yok Chopil, 35, the network's adviser.
“To the orang asli, land is their identity and their heritage. Often, it is their only means of livelihood,” she said in an interview at Kampung Chang Lama Sungai Gepai, a Semai settlement about 5km from Bidor.
It was here on Nov 1, during a festival to celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, that the network made its presence felt.
Handing over a memorandum to visiting officials of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), the network repeated its appeal for the Perak Government to gazette their land as an Orang Asli Reserve, in accordance with the Land Act and the National Land Code.
Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Tajol Rosli Ghazali had replied that unlike Sarawak, Perak had not granted her indigenous people customary rights to the land.
Instead, he said, the Government had gone a step further, that is, helping the orang asli by giving them facilities such as clinics and schools, and land for agriculture purposes for those who ask for it.
Tijah said, however, that for many orang asli, it is not enough to just be given land to grow rubber and oil palm.
“All we are asking is a guarantee that the native land is
ours and will not be disturbed.
“We no longer want to apply to the state government for the land because the lease will only be for 99 years.
“The land belongs to us by birth but until today, many orang asli are left in the dark about the status of their land,” she said.
Her network wants to address the alleged discrimination and marginalisation of the orang asli who are, she claimed, more often than not, still considered by many to be slow and backward.
For many orang asli the discrimination goes as far back as childhood, said Tijah, who could still recall some of the names her schoolmates used to tease her with.
“Some called me kura-kura (a tortoise), or said we eat biawak (monitor lizard) or monkeys, or they called us other names to imply that the orang asli are ‘dirty’.
“People meant it as jokes but it isn’t funny for us. The sad thing is, we never intended to distance ourselves from the rest of society.
“Some orang asli are simply not ready to interact with others because they are just not used to it.
“They suffer from this phobia of speaking with 'outsiders’, especially those who belittle us and talk to us as if they were superior.”
For instance, Tijah said, indigenous people were usually expected to sell their products at a lower price than anyone else.
A bundle of 80 stalks of petai sold to a third party for RM5 to RM10 ends up on display at the roadside for a price of up to RM50, she said.
Tijah felt that one of the keys to solving her people’s plight is further education.
She commended the Government for sponsoring orang asli children through primary school and secondary school, but after that, she lamented, little help is given for them to pursue their studies further.
She was nine years old in 1976 when she began her studies in Year Three at SK Bidor. She later studied at SM Syeikh Abdul Ghani in Bidor from Form One to Form Three.
Halfway through Form Four, however, she had to stop because her family was having trouble supporting itself after her father died.
Although her mother became ill and Tijah had to help her sister find work and look after two younger brothers, she decided to continue her studies and finish her SPM with the encouragement of a Catholic priest named Clement Priere.
In the months that followed, Tijah worked mornings in a vegetable farm in Bidor, cycling many kilometres over rough terrain through the jungle from her village.
From 3pm to 11pm, village children would later gather around Tijah for reading, writing and counting lessons, and through stories, help to pass on the oral traditions of their community.
Since the age of 18, Tijah has been teaching the children of her village how to relate mathematics and other school subjects to their daily lives.
“When I first tell people about the importance of education, few of the adults would listen to me seriously because I was only 18! I decided to set up centres to teach the children, because the young are more able to change their ways.
“I want to tell the children that no matter how much they disliked school or the lessons, they needed to go on. They needed to finish the examinations and make a better future for themselves.”
On efforts by the Orang Asli Affairs Department to guide and coach them in applying for financial aid and scholarships, Tijah said there were repeated cases of department staff handing over the forms to the parents and telling them to follow the written instructions, without proper guidance.
“All we ask, for instance, is that someone tells the parents how to travel to a particular university in Kuala Lumpur and find accommodation for their children there.”
She suggested that the department guide the children early by briefing them in schools on where to go after SPM and how to apply for further studies.
Tijah also suggested that the orang asli be given an alternative or supplementary system of teaching for the children.
“If we must learn Sejarah (history) in school, it would at least be nice to learn about our own history instead of just from the Malay perspective.
“We keep hearing about wars and Malay history, but what about our own? We have our own legends.”
The idea of the network came about soon after Tijah began working with the villages to promote equality among men and women in orang asli society and to close the age gap between the young and the older generation.
Today, other orang asli who were inspired by her have set up six other similar education centres for children in their villages.
“My dream is to see the orang asli treated on the same level as everyone else, as proud Malaysians. But to do that, things have to change. We have had to struggle for this all our lives,” she said.
The network can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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