Let's work together with our orang asli

OUR - and by "our" I mean Malaysia's orang asli have it rough. Let's face it, the effects of their daily struggle to live made it to the front pages of The Star twice at the end of November.

I'm sure the reports of Jahai children living in the Royal Belum State Park coming down with oral thrush are still fresh in the memory of the urban public, and I'm also sure that many will still remember the report about the horrible state of the Kuala Betis Transit Centre for pregnant orang asli women in Gua Musang.

Sadly, I am also sure that until the next incident or expose makes it to the pages of a daily paper - either in print or on the web - the challenges faced by Malaysia's orang asli will once again fall out of sight and out of mind among most urban Malaysians.

So this had me thinking. What can we urban Malaysians do to help them on a consistent, regular basis? Because there must be something we can all do to help.

This is why I spoke to an expert, Center of orang asli Concerns (COAC) coordinator Dr. Colin Nicholas. And believe me, Dr Nicholas has a strong, solid wake up call for many of us urban Malaysians - including yours truly.

He started by making one point very clear.

"The reality is that economically, educationally and health-wise - the orang asli fare much, much worse than other Malaysians. They are less than half a percent of the population, but their rights are not being acknowledged and their needs are not being met," said Nicholas.

He added that our orang asli are lacking in access to health, education and economic development and nutrition among other areas. Areas that many of us urban Malaysians take for granted.

"Incidents of malaria, TB, malnutrition and infant mortality are highest among the orang asli compared to other Malaysians, They have the highest education dropout rate among all Malaysians," said Nicholas.

And he added that while there are sufficient budget allocations for the orang asli but it is not translating into improvements in the quality of life of the orang asli.

He spoke of the case of the Jahai living in the Royal Belum National Park.

"The orang asli were moved from their traditional lands when the Belum Dam was built in 1977 and they were asked to move because the land was unsafe - but now M K Land has moved into those same lands that were declared unsafe. Ironically, the lands that were unsafe for the orang asli are somehow now safe for rich people to buy bungalows in what was traditionally Jahai land," said Nicholas.

He also had several key comments on what was reported recently about the deaths due to illness among the Jahai of the Royal Belum State Park's Sungai Kejar area.

"In the case of the Jahai, the statistics are not up to date. Are the parties responsible doing their job? They are in a bad situation because they are held at a very low priority. The park, the animals - they seem to take precedence," said Nicholas.

He added: "M K Land had spent so much on researchers, publications and conferences but was unaware of what was happening in their own backyard in Sungai Kejar, that people were suffering and deaths were happening. They didn't report it?"

I have no reason to doubt that he knows what he's talking about. The COAC works very closely with orang asli communities across Malaysia on a hands-on basis.

And with that in mind, I asked Nicholas what we could do as urban Malaysians.

"Firstly, the public must not be gullible and must be more proactive in their reading of what is being done for the orang asli, the Kejar case was just one very sad case. There are other situations where people have died from water being released from a mine, or children dying of diarrhea due to poor water quality," he said.

Nicholas called on Malaysians to get to the facts of the situations being reported in the media and the official statements being made in response.

"You cannot just listen to the authorities. You have to read between the lines. The public has to really see what is being said and question what is being said and reported," Nicholas said.

And then, Nicholas said something, which I feel, is really valid.

"orang asli do not need charity. We need to empower the Orang Asli so they can handle their situation and take things into their own hand. We need to engage with them, get involved with them and recognize their rights as Malaysians and as people," said Nicholas.

He added that instead of giving them a fish or helping them to fish - we have to recognize they have a right to fish in their own lands according to the ways they know best.

"The most important thing is to not look down on the Orang Asli. Don't think they're stupid," said Nicholas.

He also pointed out that the Orang Asli are not superstitious as some have claimed, saying that we have to understand and respect their cultural taboos instead of dismissing them as superstitions.

"They have a different perspective of their world, to help preserve their people and sustain the environment. The taboos are there to ensure their continuity as a people and culture and keep their environment sustainable," said Nicholas.

And this is something I have seen first-hand. A year ago I had the chance to speak to Tok Batin Harun Siden, one of the two headmen of Kampung Ulu Tual, a Semai village that's about two hours away from Cameron Highlands by four-wheel drive.

Our conversation turned to development of the area around his village, and Harun said any development should take into account the history and knowledge of the local orang asli.

"If the government wants to do a development project that destroys the environment, we do not want it. Our history is in this area, the graves of our ancestors. Everything, even the trees have their names. The rivers, the hills and mountains have their names where our forefathers are buried. Our history is in the area," he told me.

Harun added that the whole area around the village was rich with the knowledge and history of Kampung Ulu Tual's founders and the forefathers of its residents today.

"The plants and animals of the jungle are beneficial to us. The various fruits, plants are our medicines. If the plants and animals are destroyed in the name of progress, such as by logging or mining, our lives will be threatened by landslides, mud floods and other disasters," he said.

And if you ask me what I think of what he said to me - I'll say this. That's not superstition that Harun's speaking. He's speaking common sense right there.

So yes. Let's speak up with our orang asli to call up for equal rights for all Malaysians. Let's give them their due respect.  Can we do that?

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