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The Orang Asli of West Malaysia: An Update

Shuichi Nagata et Csilla Dallos
p. 97-112

Notes de l’auteur

The authors wish to extend their gratitude to Professor Robert K. Dentan for his invaluable comments on an early draft of this text.

Texte intégral

1In 1989, Geoffrey Benjamin published an overview of studies on the indigenous peoples of West Malaysia. Over a decade later, the feeling that a wide-ranging update might be useful has provided the stimulus for this note. Although many worthy reports on the Orang Asli have appeared since 1989, some of which we refer to here, we focus our attention mainly on the following new books:

2Semelai Communities at Tasek Bera: a Study of the Structure of an Orang Asli Society, by Hoe Ban Seng, edited by A.S. Baer and R. Gianno, Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 2001, xii + 191 p., tables, figures, photos, bibliography.

3Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia: A Comprehensive and Annotated Bibliography, Lye Tuck-Po (ed.), Kyoto: Kyoto University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Research Paper Series, No. 88, 2001, xxxiii + 282 p., appendices, indices.

4The Orang Hulu: a Report on Malaysian Orang Asli in the 1960s, by Narifumi Maeda Tachimoto, edited by Adela Baer, Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 2001, xiv + 104 p., glossary, figures, tables, plates.

5The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia, by Colin Nicholas, Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, & Subang Jaya: Center for Orang Asli Concerns, IWGIA Document No. 95, 2000, xxv + 285 p., tables, maps, plates, glossary, bibliography, index.

Origins of “Orang Asli”

6Determining when the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia rose to the horizon of popular consciousness may depend on the locality one is considering. We take the war in Vietnam as one point in history when tribal minorities came to the attention of world politics. It was a bloody conflict between the Nationalist-communists and outside powers trying to regain their former influence and control. In the process, ethnographies of the Mnong Gar (Condominas 1957) and the Mu˛o˛ng (Cuisinier 1946) were incorporated in a book used in the United States Army’s Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina (1964-65). In 1970, the US Department of the Army put out an 1100-page volume on the minority groups of Thailand. Around the same time, Hmong refugees in tribal costumes began to add color to the streets of Minneapolis.

7It was Malaya, however, that first made the world aware of such indigenous minorities. The Emergency (1948-60), the warfare against the “independence” guerilla forces, led to the recognition of the non-state but politically autonomous “indigenous” peoples of the Peninsula as a pertinent category, the Orang Asli (Nicholas 2000: 6, 12, 83). The Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, or JHEOA), established in 1950 “along the lines of the US BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and the Australian Department of Aborigines” (ibid.: 107), and the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance of 1954 (ibid.: 12), later revised as the Aboriginal Peoples Act (ibid.: 81), became the instruments for the state to control the Orang Asli during its struggle against the communist insurgents. These instruments are “unique in that [they are] the only piece of legislation and the only government department that are directed at a particular ethnic community” (ibid.: 82). The same may be said of the American BIA, the Canadian DIAND, and the Australian Department of Aborigines. Just like the United States, Canada, and Australia, Malaysia is a “settler” colony (Gray 1995: 37), where non-Orang Asli, including the now politically dominant Malays, are “settlers” and not indigenous (Nicholas 2000: 175).

8Unlike the United States or Canada, however, there was no acknowledgement in Malaya of the indigenous peoples as either a “domestic sovereign nation” or one capable of contracting treaties. They were not recognized as a “people” (Nicholas 2000: 232) but were treated as “wards of the state” (ibid.: 83, 107). Government policy for the Orang Asli was largely paternalistic (ibid.: 79f). Although Orang Asli came to be a category in the state register, for many years the people continued to act as discrete ethno-linguistic groups. Apart from some lowland Semai converts to Christianity (ibid.: 12), the majority continued being “pagan races of the Malay peninsula” and provided material for anthropological research.

9It bears noting, however, that the economic and political role of the Orang Asli in pre-colonial Malaya was crucial in the formation of the early peninsular states. Exports of forest products, prized in the royal courts of Asia, were collected by Orang Asli and then transferred to middlemen of various ethnicity. The leaders of such pre-Islamic states as Johore, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan (Lewis 1960), and Perak (Edo 1990: 48-50) were legitimized and supported by the Orang Asli, through either intermarriage or covenants. Hang Tuah, the hero of the famous Hikayat Hang Tuah, is said to have been of Orang Laut stock (Nicholas 2000: 74, Maeda 2001: 80). The Orang Laut ensured the hegemony of the kingdom of Johore in the seventeenth century (Andaya 1975: 44-54). They claim that the first raja was an Orang Laut and the Malays were late arrivals to the Peninsula (Pelras 1972: 144). The Orang Hulu (Jakun), Besisi (Mah Meri), Semelai, and other groups in the south of the Peninsula retained a complex series of titles such as jukra (jorokra), panglima, and ulubalang, apparently granted by Malay royalty for their services (Wilkinson 1910: 26; Hoe 2001: 47; Maeda 2001: 80).

10Aside from the question of subsistence, viz. whether or not nomadic Malayan foragers like the Batek could exist independent of trading and exchange with farming populations (Endicott & Bellwood 1991), a good deal of evidence points to sultanate-aboriginal ties, including letters of authority (surat kuasa) and other symbols of delegated authority like keris and spears (Benjamin 1968, Dodge 1981, Nagata 1997). Members of royalty were also curious about the Aborigines, like King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, who attempted to raise a Negrito orphan boy, Kanam, in his court in Bangkok and composed a play based on the life of Negritos (Schebesta 1973: 263-265).

11Another link was slavery, prevalent not only in pre-colonial Malaya but elsewhere regionally. Southeast Asia was and still is a region of low population density, and one cause of wars between pre-colonial mainland states was manpower shortage. War was not for the conquest of land but for the acquisition of captives, who were often forcefully moved to the conquering kings’ courts (Adas 1981: 218, 231). Slaves filled the needs of domestic labor and were marketable as well (Dentan et al. 1997: 55). In Malaya, slavery was abolished in all states only in 1920 (Dentan et al. 1997: 58).

12What are we to make of these linkages, including slavery, that existed before the emergence of Orang Asli as a category but changed and disappeared during the colonial period or later? Is it another instance of the Leach thesis, whereby lowland kingdoms stand in complementary opposition to the hill “tribes”? As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, did the non-state peoples of Malaya form “‘sub-nuclear societies’ that depended for their own existence on the existence of larger civilisations as their nuclear reference points” (Benjamin 1968: 38)?

13As the Malay polity became firmly established, however, the position of the Orang Asli was reversed from the legitimators of Malay political order to that of “subjects” under its protection (Nicholas 2000: 76). While the original Malay settlers of the plains and valleys sought permission from the Orang Asli to live in their territory, now it was the Orang Asli who resided at the sufferance of Malay authorities. The oppression by the plains people, epitomized in slavery, was marked in the names, such as Semang and Sakai, used to identify Orang Asli groups (Dentan 1997).

14These hardships for the indigenous peoples were intensified by Britain’s interference between the rajahs and the Aborigines, while also welcoming immigrant labor from China and India so as to exploit Malaya profitably. In contrast to the previous era when the Aborigines were part of the societal make-up, the new era of colonialism and economic development, with its stratified, multi-ethnic society, alienated them. They retreated to the interior and remained more or less incognito to those outside. Their later emergence in the world was triggered by the collapse of high colonialism and by the nationalist struggle that followed it.

15The Aborigines’ emergence during the Emergency era, however, was not due to the complementary requirements of trade and culture but to state violence imposed on them in the name of security as a result of warfare between the polity and the insurgents. The insurgents, who labeled the Aborigines Orang Asal, shaped their subsequent emergence as an administrative category under the name of Orang Asli (Dentan et al. 1997: 61; Nicholas 2000: 6). The circumstances behind this development have been told many times. We only need to point out here that, while the aboriginal peoples were forcefully exposed to the world by the construction of jungle forts, resettlement and other means, they were strictly under the state’s “paternalistic protection […] from external influence” (Nicholas 2000: 232). According to Nicholas, this was “quite the opposite of the current policy of integration/assimilation into the mainstream” (id.). Their isolation was also contrary to the aboriginal experience prior to the Emergency, when they had inter-ethnic interactions for trading and cultural exchange. If the Malays were confined to Malay Reservations as rice-growing peasants during the British period, the Aborigines were withdrawn to the forested interior under the protection of the Aborigines Department.

16There is no denying that the British administration eventually improved the Aborigines’ welfare through its medical services to the people of the interior (Bolton 1968), so much so that occasionally Malays living nearby came to aboriginal settlements seeking medicine and aid from the Department’s medical assistants. The hospital in Gombak became a hub for aboriginal peoples from all over the Peninsula to get to know each other, functioning as an arena for cultivating Orang Asli identity (Dentan et al. 1997: 151). However, the “paternalistic protection” provided by the Department during the Emergency became ingrained in the mind-set not only of the Aborigines but also of those who interacted with them, to the extent that the first question that a Malay or Chinese might ask a visiting anthropologist was if s/he came to jaga orang asli (“protect the Orang Asli;” Nagata 1998). Yet, “Semai remember the closing days of the ancien regime as a sort of Golden Era, [but] in fact, except for a spate of generous policies designed to ‘win over the hearts and minds’ of Semai during a Communist insurrection in the 1950s, British policies towards Semai were indifferent to Semai interests” (Dentan 1999: 427).

17One of the saddest legacies of the British administration of the Orang Asli is the unfathomable distance and mutual suspicion this paternalistic policy created between them and Malays of various social positions. Orang Asli distrust of Malays increased when governance of them was transferred to the Malay-dominant administration after the British departed in 1957. Today, after four decades of independence, some resettled foragers still say: “mEni/ say”N oraN putih bal”/; u/ say”N samah oraN asli/” (“We miss the white people; they miss Orang Asli;” Nagata 1998).

Toward “People-hood”?

18In the early 1970s, when the New Economic Plan to eradicate poverty and ethnic division of occupations was instituted, the Aborigines were left out of its purview. Tun Razak, who succeeded Tungku Abdul Rahman as Malaysia’s prime minister, had initiated the Plan. He once asked his officer just how many Orang Asli there were in the country. When told they were less than one percent of the population, he said there was no need to bother with them for development purposes, as they would not carry any weight in elections.

19Meanwhile, logging, mining, and government land schemes such as FELDA and FELCRA, with funding from the World Bank, began to make blatant encroachments into aboriginal areas. Although the Emergency was declared to be over in 1960, the government launched “the Second Emergency” in the early 1970s to deal with renewed activity by the Malayan Communist Party in northern areas (Nicholas 2000: 95). “Regroupment” schemes were instituted that, for security reasons, aggregated dispersed settlements into much smaller areas, in one case only 1.4 percent of the former territory (ibid.: 114; 1994: 51-2). These regroupments continued even after a truce was concluded with the Communists in 1989 (ibid.: 96) because, for the government, “[i]t is the most effective, socially-acceptable means to appropriate Orang Asli traditional territories for its own use or for use by others” (ibid.: 116). Then, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, a paradigmatic shift occurred in the state’s relation with the Aborigines. As the countryside was pacified, developmental energies were directed to the exploitation of resources available in the interior, the habitat of the majority of Orang Asli.

20Lest it be thought that the Aborigines in those years were always at the butt-end of development, the government through the Department of Aborigines initiated a number of programs for the ostensible purpose of raising their living standard – introducing livestock by airlifting goats to the forests of Ulu Kelantan; providing courses on carpentry, sculpting, and rubber tapping; or establishing primary schools in the interior. But these actions did not seem to be sufficient to improve the negative perception of the Department. As the pace of development accelerated under the Mahathir regime in the late 1970s and land was needed for the development of high-rise buildings, highways, airports, dams, etc., land under traditional Orang Asli tenure was invaded at an alarming speed. Some of these invasions totally ignored aboriginal occupancy and, more than once, destroyed structures on the land under the very eyes of the Orang Asli owners, without any prior warning (e.g., the Srigala incident in Dentan et al. 1997: 68ff; Nicholas 2000: 171).

21The major reason why Orang Asli are losing land occupied for generations is the weakness of the land rights they are allowed to claim. As Nicholas points out, “[t]he greatest title that the Orang Asli can have to their land is one of tenant-at-will” (2000: 33), which the state can revoke at its pleasure. Land gazetted as Orang Asli reserves covers only 15 percent of the 774 Orang Asli villages (ibid.). But gazetting may be revoked by state governments, with the result that the size of gazetted land decreased from 1990 to 1996 (ibid.). Further, “[o]nly 0.28% of the 18,587 ha of gazetted Orang Asli reserves, [is] securely titled […] only 0.02% of the Orang Asli (19 individuals) have title to their land (The Star, 19.2.1997)” (Nicholas 2000: 38).

22In Malaysia, land comes under the jurisdiction of each state, not the central government in Kuala Lumpur. When a state wishes to remove Orang Asli from their traditional lands, it uses the attraction of individual title to induce them to relocate. “The Orang Asli want the traditional territories on which they are residing to be either gazetted as permanent reserves or for some form of permanent title to it to be issued. The state governments, however, see relocation to another (invariably smaller) site as a precondition for granting land titles – individually, not communally” (Nicholas 2000: 118). Moreover, since Orang Asli have no individual land titles, they are unable to obtain bank loans by using the land as collateral (ibid.: 235). All these disabilities contribute to their mounting frustration.

23In the early 1990s, as the abuse of Orang Asli persons and property by public officials and private concerns went beyond the level of their tolerance, they began resorting to demonstrations and to the courts to obtain restitution (Nicholas 2000: 188). At least in one case, they obtained a favorable decision (ibid.: 152). In 1993, Jahai people in the resettlement community of Jeli, Kelantan, resisted Malay intruders who arrived to seize their land by force, and in the ensuing fracas one of the intruders was killed. No longer was the quiescence of Orang Asli taken for granted. Also in the 1990s, the Orang Asli organization (Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia, or POASM), first registered in 1973, came into public prominence (ibid.: 153ff). These events made the Orang Asli aware of their common fate and reinforced their sense of all of them being in the same position of neglect and exploitation in the country. POASM helped to promote this sense of “people-hood.” The temporal conjuncture of these developments is also important. As Nicholas points out, the 1990-93 period saw growing interest in indigenous issues in Sabah and Sarawak, as well as protests by South American natives at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992). In 1993, the United Nations declared the International Year of Indigenous People and in “1998 […] POASM formally celebrated World Indigenous Peoples Day with a two-day cultural fair in Tg. Sepat, Selangor” (ibid.: 193).

24The state was by no means indifferent to the growing sense of Orang Asli identity based on “indigenousness.” In appropriating traditional Orang Asli territory, the state was fully aware that Orang Asli attachment to land was intricately tied to their “religio-cultural spirituality” and that the only way to loosen them from this attachment was either “by forcibly removing or resettling them, or by instituting strategies and programmes aimed at their de-culturalisation” (Nicholas 2000: 102, see also 111). Islamization as a major program of de-culturalization began in the early 1990s (ibid.: 98-99). It aims to assimilate the Orang Asli “with the Malay section of the national community,” as advocated in the 1961 Statement of Policy Regarding the Administration of the Aborigine Peoples of the Federation of Malaya (ibid.: 12 n. 8). With the Orang Asli assimilated to the Malays, Malays may also claim indigenousness and escape the stigma of being “settlers” to the country. As far as land is concerned, however, making Malays out of Orang Asli creates a problem: While this may give Malays claim to settle on Orang Asli land, the reverse may pose a threat to Malay Reservation Land, to which Orang Asli so far have no claim (ibid.: 112).

25Islamization may also be the state’s response to the political opposition’s claim that it is not faithful to Islam. Hence by converting the Orang Asli to Islam, the state may reclaim its legitimacy. But this may also result in the Orang Asli converts being drawn to the political opposition because of the latter’s firmer Islamic credentials. Ironically, during the 1999 general election, a Malay government-party candidate had to allow a Christian missionary to urge the Orang Asli not to vote for the opposition, led by the Islamic Party, as the latter’s victory might mean the establishment of an Islamic state (Nicholas 2000: 200). Therefore, given the current political climate, Islamization is a two-edged sword for the state.

26That the assimilation policy is self-contradictory is also shown in the statements of, on the one hand, Malaysia’s representative to the United Nations, who said that Malaysia does “not want them [Orang Asli] to become objects of curiosity or tourist attractions […],” and, on the other hand, the Aborigines Department, which says it is trying “to preserve their traditions […] as a tourist attraction” (Nicholas 2000: 135).

27The conflicting outside forces of development and assimilation have increased Orang Asli awareness that their future lies in finding their own identity separate from other “racial” communities of the country and independent of government “protection.” This awareness found its basis in “indigenousness,” which in turn allowed Orang Asli to link up to others with the same claim. Thus, in 1998, “POASM formalised its participation in the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) […] indigenous (Orang Asal) groups in Sabah, Sarawak and the Peninsula” (Nicholas 2000: 192). The term Orang Asal, first coined by the Communist insurgents to designate the Aborigines of the Peninsula, now re-emerged in a new garb among “the NGOs and indigenous communities to refer to the indigenous peoples of the whole of Malaysia” (ibid.: 192 n. 4).

28While the claim of Orang Asli identity has thus been advanced by the Orang Asli themselves, mainly through POASM, the outside world, including the state and the general public, is yet to accept it as genuine and legitimate. In fact, the state has resisted giving full recognition to POASM’s claim by assigning groups and institutions not endorsed by POASM to “represent” Orang Asli. In particular, the position of Orang Asli senator, recognized in the Constitution and appointed by the government, has been a bone of contention between the state and the Orang Asli, who once proposed that the president of POASM be appointed as senator (Nicholas 2000: 212). This the state refused to do. Consequently, these two positions of prominence in Orang Asli life may split the ethnic loyalty of the Orang Asli. In 1997 the state appointed an Orang Asli who stood in opposition to the president of POASM (ibid.: 218) and thus denied POASM’s claim to be the legitimate representative of the Orang Asli. In fact, the state manipulates the question of representativity (ibid.: 207-208) to its advantage at various levels of Orang Asli activities.

29The most immediate level of representativity for most Orang Asli is that of the village headman. This is a government position with a formal letter of appointment and a fixed allowance, and sometimes with a walking cane as a symbol of authority (Nicholas 2000: 209). Moreover, now that Orang Asli votes, so-called undi Sakai, may be decisive in political races in certain areas, headmen who can influence villagers’ votes become crucial to the government in power. Hence the state attempts to ensure their support by providing annual bonus batin (ibid.: 165-166, 198) and other perks. In appointing a village head, the State may ignore the will of the village. As a result, it may have one state-appointed head and another chosen by the villagers, either according to the customary rule of succession or by the tacit decision of the people (ibid.: 209).

30Partly to convey the image of the state as supporting Orang Asli interests, and partly to ensure that development projects proceed without undue resistance from them, the state has allowed some public works contracts to be signed by business organizations claiming to represent Orang Asli. “The 1990s have seen an increasing number of Orang Asli companies and businesses being established to exploit natural resources in Orang Asli areas. Some of these entities are ‘Orang Asli’ only by virtue of having a ‘representative name’ in their management or membership. Others are incorporated by a few Orang Asli. Invariably, none represent whole communities, even though they purport to, as in the case of various Orang Asli ‘cooperatives’” (Nicholas 2000: 221-222).

31As in the case of Ali-Baba, wherein a Malay holder of a government license (Ali) lets a Chinese entrepreneur (Baba) run the licensed business, these enterprises may be Orang Asli in name only, while allowing indigenous resources to be exploited by others. These situations make it difficult for the Orang Asli to speak with one voice, say, through POASM. For the state, the ambiguity is an opportunity to manipulate Orang Asli claims of indigenousness.

32Although the name Orang Asli, imposed by the state a half century ago, has emerged as a substantive ethnic category with its own organization, the people have not yet achieved “people-hood,” with the right of self-determination (Nicholas 2000: 232). Their “status” is still bound by the 1970 Act and legally “administered” by the JHEOA, whose previous acronym of JOA (Jabatan Orang Asli) some Orang Asli claim actually stands for Jual Orang Asli, “Selling out the Orang Asli” (ibid.: 171). The suggestion to either abolish the Department or let the Orang Asli manage it themselves, has not been taken up so far. JHEOA officials have even been representing Malaysia at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples since 1995 (ibid.: 177). The Orang Asli are yet to “regain[ing] control over their own lives and over their traditional territories. This requires recognition from the state that they are a separate people. The task at hand for the Orang Asli, therefore, is to recover that recognition” (ibid.: 240).

33This task calls for an engagement on two fronts, as Nicholas explains: “[I]n order for the Orang Asli to escape being categorized as ‘just another ethnic minority’ by the state, and in order to promote and protect their claims for special status and rights within the national society, the Orang Asli had to simultaneously make themselves both like, and unlike, the mainstream they dealt with. On one level, they had to constantly demonstrate the fundamental cultural differences between themselves and the majority population. On another, they wanted to be treated as equals with the state on one side and themselves, as a people, on the other” (2000: 234). In other words, the equal treatment by the state should not be at the expense of their claim to indigenousness, which is the basis of their “separate”-ness. The recognition they seek must synthesize these two demands in the context of the Malaysian nation.

Ethnic and/or Human Rights?

34As Nicholas’ rich account of these trying times for Malaysia’s “Original Peoples” stresses (2000: 102), the aim of Orang Asli de-culturalization or assimilation is to detach them from their ancestral lands so that outside interests, public or private, may access them in the name of development.

35If the “contest for resources” that Nicholas discusses lies behind the pressure to assimilate, any successful solution must, first of all, deal with this underlying issue. The method of organized resistance advocated by Nicholas, however, does little to relieve resource competition between Malays and Orang Asli. It amplifies it and may even increase antagonism between the two groups. For organized resistance to be effective, there must be government recognition of the right of self-determination for minorities. The Malaysian government has never recognized this right, and what works in developed countries may not work in the framework of Malaysia. Indigenous advocacy needs different strategies in such countries. Orang Asli and their leaders must work primarily on economic goals, on carving out a distinct economic niche to replace the one that has been lost. In the past, the autonomous cultural identity of Orang Asli, despite their lack of political strength, was largely due to this niche, not to a conscious promotion of indigenous culture.

36An economic, instead of cultural, focus would also allow solutions differentiated enough to fit the diverse interests and practices of Orang Asli groups. The solution for the Senoi is not necessarily the same as that for the Semang because of different economic practices, mobility patterns, internal social organization, and the extent of traditional interaction with other ethnic groups. While Nicholas is familiar with the problems of the Senoi, he appears to be less familiar with those of the Semang. For people who traditionally focused on trade, the most pressing issue besides resettlement and land loss is the external economic factor, primarily the reduced demand for forest products. The Semang need this issue addressed. Yet, because they are under-represented in the Orang Asli movement, this issue may be neglected. While POASM seemingly has been recruiting members from all Orang Asli groups, figures showing its ever increasing membership (Nicholas 2000: 153) could be somewhat misleading. People in Air Bah, Perak, said that POASM representatives had come to Grik to recruit local Orang Asli and had collected membership fees, promising improvements, mediation, and representation, but had not been heard from since this brief appearance.

37Moreover, certain Orang Asli leaders may use the movement as a vehicle for personal advancement at the expense of their fellow Orang Asli. A focus on individual well-being, as opposed to communal identities, could reduce this danger. Given that Orang Asli leaders are mainly Senoi and are those quite familiar with the “ropes” of mainstream society, they may be more assimilated than most Orang Asli. The Lanoh, for instance, often mistrust these leaders, saying that they “already” look and act like Malays.

38Finally, the idea is absurd that culture can be preserved while economic practices, interpersonal and inter-group relations, and social organization, which produced the culture in the first place, are changing. Without the lifestyle and practices that support a particular culture, it is often reduced to superficial markers that have lost their meaning. While retaining cultural autonomy is desirable, and might even be achievable for Orang Asli, it need not be based on such superficial markers. Intolerance of Orang Asli and pressure on them are the problems. Compared to these, cultural markers, whether for Orang Asli or Malays, are often merely straw men. Preserving cultural markers does not necessarily signal victory for the Orang Asli movement, while abandoning them is not necessarily defeat.

39Malaysia has changed, not only for Orang Asli, but for all its inhabitants. The framework of a modernized nation-state and religious fundamentalism are as alien to traditional Malay culture as they are to Orang Asli cultures. For the Orang Asli in this new Malaysian society, the best chance for self-preservation may be to retain cultural flexibility, the essence of most traditional Orang Asli life.

40Ultimately, the question of Orang Asli self-determination cannot be separated from the issue of Malaysia’s democratization. Until this happens, instead of promoting collective identity, Orang Asli advocacy could focus on individual rights and economic goals; the improvement of health and living conditions; and better treatment of Orang Asli, especially in their daily dealings with others. This is basically a matter of human rights and thus has roots in Muslim ethics. The Malaysian government could hardly object to such goals, since it would appear to disregard Islamic codes of charity and therefore seem “backward,” even inhumane. What ultimately matters is the well-being, freedom, and opportunities of the individual under the new order, whether Orang Asli, Tamil, or Iban. In our experience, individual rights is what most Orang Asli primarily care about as well. Despite the efforts of several devoted and enthusiastic Orang Asli leaders, these rights have not yet been achieved.

41The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources raises issues of urgency not only for Malaysia but also for the indigenous peoples of the world. These issues should be a matter of debate for all concerned with development and human rights of indigenous peoples. Copies of Nicholas’ book are, unfortunately, not easy to obtain in some countries. If the book were to be reprinted by an university press in North America, this would provide a wider availability.


42The aboriginal peoples of Malaya attracted anthropological attention from the early days of the colonial period. A century ago, Western universities organized a few expeditions to visit them, and museums collected their artifacts. Some Senoi individuals were taken as exhibits to Europe and Japan. The two-volume book on the Malayan Aborigines by Walter Skeat and Charles Blagden (1906) cited more than two hundred titles in European languages.

43This interest continued in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly focused on Upper Perak, until the outbreak of the Pacific War. The peoples studied were Noone’s Ple Temiar and Evans’ and Schebesta’s Jahai, Kensiu, and Kintak. During the Emergency, research was continued by the scholar administrators of the recently created Department of Aborigines. It is notable that anthropologists throughout these years and some more recently (Skeat, Evans, Noone, Williams-Hunt, Hughes, Benjamin, Baharon Azhar) were from Cambridge University, where Alfred Haddon promoted general anthropology.

44In Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy, a section shows the hero, Victor Crabbe, observing the way an American linguist studying Temiar works, and concluding: “The British […] had been merely gifted amateurs. […] Now was the time for the professionals” (1972: 549). The time was close to Independence and the British were about to leave the country. This change from “gifted amateurs” to “professionals” applied to the anthropology of Malayan Aborigines as well. The 1960s saw the arrival of the first “professional” anthropologists, whose work, unlike earlier generalist approaches, was highly problem-oriented. This work was informed by specific anthropological theories and extended periods of field work, living in the communities and speaking the languages of the people under study. In the following decade, the publication of monographs and journal articles based on this research catalyzed subsequent studies on Orang Asli. The achievements and problematics of this work have been covered in detail by Benjamin (1986) and Hood Salleh (1987).

45Scholarly knowledge of Orang Asli, while deepened thanks to the intensive field work of anthropologists, remained rather group-dependent and monographic. Although there was much on the Semai, Temiar, Batek, and Chewong, little was known of other Orang Asli groups. These other groups, however, have been studied in recent decades. The problem in this enterprise is that the socio-cultural systems of Orang Asli, like other traditional cultures, do not remain constant, especially when they are encapsulated by a state sector bent on eradicating traces of pre-modern social life. Also, all Orang Asli cultures are pre-literate and do not provide records of chronological value. Hence, to see an Orang Asli group in temporal perspective, a longitudinal study is needed, practically an impossible task. At best, one ends up with a few snapshots of a community or a culture taken at different points in time. By having these, it may be possible to reconstruct the process by which a particular group has changed. The two short reports recently published by COAC are valuable precisely because they provide such pictures for the history of the Orang Asli groups in question.

46Ban Seng Hoe’s report, based on six weeks of field work in several Semelai villages around Fort Iskandar in 1964, gives a sort of baseline image of the community that Rosemary Gianno has been studying since 1980, as exemplified in her invaluable monograph on Semelai resin technology (1990). In fact, Gianno collaborated with Adela Baer in editing Hoe’s report, expanding and correcting his observations where necessary. The report contains a large chapter on language, with a 25-page word list and ten pages of utterances, all re-transcribed by the editors using the transcription system that Gianno developed in her 1985 work (Gianno 1985, Hoe 2001: xii). With the study of Nicole Kruspe (1999), described by Benjamin as “probably the most detailed account yet of any Mon-Khmer language” (Lye 2001: 165), Semelai may now claim to be the best studied Orang Asli language so far.

47Hoe’s chapters on leadership, economic activities, kinship, and marriage are rich in intriguing details. The organization and analysis of the data are informed by Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalism. Chapter 4 on kinship and marriage, while containing much information for comparison with other Orang Asli, also singles out the Semelai as being unusual in Aslian social organization. Thus Semelai in-law taboos (Hoe 2001: 42, 91) are reminiscent of those related to the Thunder God complex of some other Orang Asli groups, but their practice of male circumcision (ibid.: 51, 71, 81, 146) is quite incongruous when one recalls that the major objection of Orang Asli to Islam is their fear of circumcision. Yet, the Semelai are not Muslims and do eat pork (Hoe 2001: 59, Gianno 1997: 54). Indeed, eating pork is the reason for the absence of intermarriage between Semelai and Malays (Hoe 2001: 59).

48At the time of Hoe’s research, the Semelai were already experiencing land shortages and the crowding of houses in their resettlement area (Hoe 2001: 159, 160). Swiddens were being cut in the Forest Reserve (ibid.: 185) or in the neighboring state of Negeri Sembilan (ibid.: 162). Although wet-rice cultivation was encouraged by the government, its adoption was limited because of time constraints, fear of mono-crop specialization, and other factors (ibid.: 170).

49The report briefly covers the government-introduced projects of education, health services, and communication (Hoe 2001: Ch. 9). Noting that these projects did not reflect the Semelai’s specific needs but rather were drafted as “pan-Malayanized schemes” and applied regardless of differences in culture and tradition, hence the difficulty of implementation, Hoe called for a detailed study to determine the needs and aspirations of the Semelai before drafting such plans, to ensure the success of government projects (ibid.: 185).

50Maeda’s research on the Orang Hulu, part of a Kyoto University project, was based on field work of eight months in 1965 and 1966, with another visit two years later (Maeda 2001: viii). The results of this research were previously published in English or Japanese by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University. Thanks to the efforts of COAC, they are now melded together in this book with numerous photographic illustrations.

51The Orang Hulu are also known as Jakun, although this term is considered derogatory by the people Maeda studied and was used by them to refer to another group (Maeda 2001: 10). Their language is a variant of Malay (Austronesian family), whereas Semelai is a Southern Aslian language and, along with Besisi, among “(t)he most endangered languages […] whose speakers have long been shifting to Malay, becoming in the process linguistically more like their Orang Asli neighbors, the Jakuns and Temuans” (Benjamin 1999: 4).

52The Orang Hulu subsist mostly by swidden farming, for which a resident household is allotted a plot by the hamlet headman (batin), while hunting and fishing are other activities that do not entail monetary transactions (Maeda 2001: 35-37). These subsistence activities are said to be in the moral order and are contrasted to those in the technical order that comprise collection of rattan, logging, and wage labor (ibid.: 44-50). A few Orang Hulu have been running shops, but money is used in few transactions, one being the sale of boats (ibid.: 50-51, 56-57). Land is not for sale but belongs to the batin, while fruit trees belong to those who planted them and are inherited by their descendants (ibid.: 55). As among the Semelai, cash is obtained from a variety of sources and activities and used to purchase clothing, essential foodstuffs like rice and salt, metal tools, building materials, or items for various feasts (ibid.: 61). Fines, paid to the batin, are another context of money use (ibid.: 82).

53In domestic organization, Orang Hulu are closer to Malays than to more northern Orang Asli. Marriage between siblings, real or adopted, “is strictly prohibited,” but marriage between cousins is not (Maeda 2001: 72). While Benjamin noted that, “[n]either the Malays nor the southerly ‘Jakun’ Aborigines possess the mother-in-law avoidance” (Benjamin 1973: 7), Maeda says Orang Hulu observe “some degree of obedience and reserve (or avoidance) between mentuha (spouse’s parent) and menantu (children’s spouse) or between ipar (siblings-in-law)” (Maeda 2001: 71). This latter observation brings the Orang Hulu closer to northern Orang Asli.

54Orang Hulu are unique among Orang Asli in that their batin-ship is more clearly defined than among other groups. It is said to be a hereditary position along the agnatic line. In one village, it was claimed that if someone outside the suku saka batin, or batin-clan, assumed the position of batin, he would fail in his duties, adding that a former batin of Peta village died because he was not from a suku saka batin (Maeda 2001: 81). This rule of succession comes from the Orang Hulu tradition that they were first ruled by “Raja Benua, a younger sister of the Sultan of Johor, who renounced the world and lived in the forest, adopting a [Orang Hulu] boy and later marrying him” (ibid.: 80). Eventually her descendants settled in different parts of Pahang, including the Endau area. The batin of the Orang Hulu are thus legitimated by this Raja Benua legend, yet those of different villages appear to differ in influence and prestige, based on their diplomatic and administrative skills and power of eloquence and persuasion, and there is competition among them – one batin, considered as foremost among the five batin along the Endau River, insinuated to government officials that he should be made Great Batin over all the hamlets of the Endau (ibid.: 81, 84-86).

55Although an Orang Hulu batin may be able to accumulate wealth with the collection of gifts and fines, he uses his money “to entertain generously,” since his prestige depends on this (Maeda 2001: 82). Batin also play the role of diviner-magician, pawang, although this role may also be filled by a medicine man, bomoh (ibid.: 38, 96). At the time of Maeda’s research, the selection of batin was formalized by the government with the issue of a certificate and an annual allowance of forty Malaysian dollars (ibid.: 89).

56The societal makeup of the Orang Hulu, with their relatively elaborate political organization and Malay-like marriage arrangements, forms the bridge between Malay and Orang Asli social organization. One may align the transition as: Malay – Orang Hulu – Semelai – Semai/Temiar – Semang. Benjamin (1980) discussed a series of “transformations” between these cultural systems, suggesting that they are variations of a common theme. This powerful hypothesis can guide ethnographers of the Orang Asli in formulating their research plans.

Legacies and Civil Conjuncture

57The literature on Orang Asli is accumulating rapidly. The number of publication outlets has also increased enormously, particularly with the emergence of university presses in Malaysia and Singapore. Government research organizations such as the Forest Research Institute and Department of Statistics also publish articles related to the Orang Asli.

58James Logan’s Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, established in 1847, was the first to print information on Orang Asli. Later, Malayan Civil Service officers wrote for the journals of the Malayan and Straits branches of the Royal Asiatic Society. Museums in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and particularly Taiping performed an invaluable service by publishing reports of visits to Orang Asli settlements. After he arrived from Sabah at the Taiping Museum in the 1920s, Ivor H.N. Evans worked indefatigably editing the Journal of the Federated Malay States Museums, which now provides a major source on the Semang in Perak and Kedah.

59In independent Malaysia, as new universities were established, new publications in the humanities and social sciences were initiated, some under the leadership of Syed Husin Ali. Although some disappeared after a few issues, they provided a new outlet for aboriginal studies. A further development of sorts came in the 1970s, when Kirk Endicott began the Orang Asli Newsletter, and Anthony Walker and Shuichi Nagata put out typed student fieldwork reports on Orang Asli communities in the hope of encouraging similar studies by local scholars, particularly Malays. Around the same time, two Malay scholars were pursuing doctorates at Cambridge and Oxford based on Orang Asli research. One, Mohd. Hood Salleh, took up teaching and research at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, after his doctorate from Oxford, to encourage Orang Asli studies by local students. The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia also began publishing journals for social science research in Malaysia, including those on Orang Asli.

60Meanwhile, Colin Nicholas set up an advocacy group, the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), and started a newsletter, Pernloi Gah, for a limited circulation (No. 1 was issued in December, 1990). POASM put out the first number of Berita POASM in October, 1989. The Aborigines Department (JHEOA) also launched a newsletter, Nong Pai, in the 1980s, carrying articles written by employees. Even earlier, issues related to Orang Asli were reported in a few NGO publications, like Suara SAM (newsletter of the environmental NGO, Sahabat Alam Malaysia) and Utusan Konsumer (monthly newsletter of the Consumers’ Association of Penang), the latter of which was particularly active in publicizing the Sarawak Native Blockade of 1987. That incident became a piece of world news due to the activity of Bruno Manser, the recently deceased Swiss environmentalist.

61In the mid-1980s, several civic groups took part in publicizing the problems of environmental degradation, development abuses, and the plight of Orang Asli. It was the time when civil society made its presence felt in the country. The Jeli incident of 1993, mentioned above, mobilized NGOs and concerned academics in defense of the Orang Asli. Although the court case ended with a dismissal of charges on technical grounds, it gave a strong message both to Orang Asli and the general public that concerted efforts by the two groups can bring about an outcome favorable to the Orang Asli.

62The history of Orang Asli research, viewed from the voluminous body of publications, is competently covered in Lye Tuck-Po’s introduction to the bibliography that she compiled (Lye 2001). Work on this bibliography started in late 1999 and was completed in two years, faster than some people had expected, attesting to the commitment of the editor. As she acknowledges, many Aslian scholars contributed items for inclusion and wrote short annotations. Although other bibliographies exist on Orang Asli studies (Bishop & Peterson 1995, Hood Salleh 1987, Malaysia 1977/1397, Corfield 1990), Lye’s is more comprehensive. It contains information useful to anyone wishing to learn about the Orang Asli. It is not just a list of publications but includes also a short exegesis of what each title is about and where it can be found. Nor is it only concerned with the Orang Asli of Malaya. It also includes the Negritos, Orang Laut, Moken, and Mlabri or Phi Tong Luang in neighboring countries – Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Burma (Part 1). Moreover, the book contains information on newsletters and news bulletins (Part 4) and a list of research reviews, bibliographies, and “Guides to the location of material collections” (Part 3). Published material on the Orang Asli, not limited to print media, also includes audio discs, videos, and films (Part 2, “Non-Textual Materials,” along with the locations that hold them). This part also has a section on museums, archives, and herbarium collections.

63Part 1 of the bibliography is topically divided, although the items are numbered consecutively to facilitate cross-referencing. The editor has also appended a guide to using the bibliography. Other appendices include a glossary of ethnonyms and language groups, a list of authors arranged by the years of publications, and the same for university theses. Four types of indexes conclude the bibliography – topics; names of court cases, institutions and organizations, and authors; ethnic and linguistic groups; and place names. The index of ethnic and linguistic groups is particularly useful, noting all the publications relative to a particular Orang Asli group.


64Small, disparate “pagan” peoples, scattered all over the Malayan peninsula, were the objects of study by administrators and scholars in the middle of the nineteenth century, the beginning of British colonial tenure. A century and a half later, these peoples have recognized themselves and are recognized by others as the indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asli. They became the subjects of their own selves. The process that brought this about has been long, tortuous, and often humiliating and has not yet reached its end.

65The logic that governed the process was dialectic. On one side were the forces of paternalism, assimilation, and integration, embodied in the policies of the state, colonial or independent. On the other side were the acts of acquiescence, adaptation, avoidance, resistance, flight, and escape of the indigenous people, in the course of which the awareness of their common fate as Orang Asli came to prevail.

66The dialectic moment for the birth of this unifying awareness arose from a synergy of various civic agents, academic or lay, Orang Asli or other, in a multitude of ways. In related developments, a bibliography was completed, as here reviewed; Orang Asli archives at both COAC and Keene State College, USA, were started; and POASM members gave presentations for the enlightenment of the public. This last effort has made Tijah Yok Chopil, a Semai lady from Bidor and deputy president of JOAS, familiar to people on the street (Baer 2002: 59). By such means, the Orang Asli have been brought to public attention. As the state became challenged by the growth of civil society, Orang Asli have organized themselves to claim their identity as “a separate people.”

67The process of “en-peopling,” or acquiring “people-hood,” is by no means unique to Orang Asli. The indigenous peoples of North America and Australia went through a similar history in the face of changing state policies and rejection and accommodation of the surrounding society. Like the aboriginal peoples of Malaya, they were initially isolated from each other, culturally, politically, and economically. They were also brought together by state policy and herded into reservations. Neither in North America nor in Australia, however, were they assimilated, nor did they disappear. They remained as separate peoples. Now that they are so recognized in their respective nations, the cultural fabric of their countries are that much enriched. And so is the identity of each citizen in the nation:

68“One’s own identity as a citizen is inseparable from a shared history with other citizens who are irreducibly different; whose cultures have interacted with and enriched one’s own and made their mark on the basic institutions of society. The loss or assimilation of any of the other cultures is experienced as an impoverishment of one’s own identity” (Tully 1995: 205).

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Shuichi Nagata

Born in Tokyo (1931), Nagata studied physical anthropology (Tokyo, B.Sc., 1954), social anthropology (Tokyo Metropolitan, M.A., 1958), and anthropology (Illinois, Ph.D., 1967). His doctoral thesis, Modern Transformations of Moenkopi Pueblo, was published in 1970 (University of Illinois Press). He currently focuses on social and cultural change among an Orang Asli resettlement community in Kedah, Malaysia.

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Csilla Dallos

Dallos, born in Budapest (1963), studied history and linguistics there, then received a B.A. in psychology and anthropology (Toronto, 1993) and an M.A. in social anthropology (Toronto, 1994). She is now completing her Ph.D. dissertation in social anthropology at McGill University, Montreal, based on ethnographic fieldwork among Lanoh (Orang Asli). Her interests are in hunter-gatherers and social change.

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