MALAYA achieved ‘Merdeka’ (political independence) from Great Britain in 1957 and with it, the prospects of a better life for all Malayans.
By now, 66 years later, we should enjoy a better standard of living for all Malayans, irrespective of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds. We should have advanced infrastructural developments and mature political leaders.
The overall physical and economic development is not to be disputed – if you live in ‘the right place’. However, for many Malaysians living in the rural areas of the country the ‘Buah Merdeka’ (Fruits of Independence) are on the top branch of the tree, where they cannot reach!
I’m referring particularly to the plight of certain groups of Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia.
To know them is to love them
Orang Asli is a collective term for some 18 First Nations people indigenous to the Malay Peninsula. These are now officially classified under three major groups – the Negritos, the Senois, and the Proto-Malays.
Within each main group are the people called by various names. For instance, among the Negritos are the Jahai, Batek, Kintak, Kensiu, Mendriq and Lanoh. Those of the Senois are the Semai, Temiar, Jah Hut, Chewong, Mah Meri and Semaq Beri.
Those belonging to the Proto-Malay group are the Temuan, Jakun and Semelai, Orang Kanaq, Orang Kuala Seletar and Orang Kuala.
As at 2010, their combined population was 178,132 souls, out of Malaysia’s population of 28.3 million. By 2017, their numbers were 140,000.
While the nation’s population has reached over 32 million, the numbers of the Orang Asli are estimated between 140,000 and 150,000 only.
I cannot explain the reduction in their numbers.
I have been reading about why their children refuse to go to school or even drop out of school altogether. It is because of poverty, fear of being looked down upon by other pupils, difficulty in facing racial slurs and in inability to withstand bullying.
In the remote parts of the jungle in Gua Musang, Kelantan, the children have to be picked up by trucks travelling on slippery roads on the way to school.
A big deal!
Incidence of poverty was visible in the rural areas in some of the Malay States during the days before and immediately after ‘Merdeka’. However, with the creation of new villages within the palm oil plantations and the resettlement of the Malays from their old villages to those plantations run by the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), the economic life of the ‘peneroka’ (settlers) has seen a great improvement indeed. Many Felda boys and girls are holding important posts in government and corporate bodies today.
In 1973-74, I was attached to the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Felcra) as a part of a Sarawak government’s plan to create a statutory – now known as the Sarawak Land Development and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) – for the main purpose of developing the native customary land in Sarawak.
I had the chance of accompanying Felcra and Felda officials (a number of Felda scheme managers were from Sarawak) on their rounds of many projects in Peninsular Malaysia. I did not see any settlement/development scheme (oil palm or rubber) specifically reserved for the Orang Asli groups in the states that I had passed through.
I would not know about the position after that.
Recently, however, I heard about a scheme to resettle the Orang Laut in Johor to an area of land somewhere in Mukim Sungai Tiram. After a decade-long legal battle against trespassers on their land, they have finally accepted to be resettled elsewhere with certain conditions – allocation of an alternative area of land developed as a modern reserve, which will be provided with street-lights and basic amenities such as water and electricity to their homes, ready in five years’ time.
Sounds a fair deal in the circumstances – the best deal for a small community with little political clout versus the might of the real estate developers!
I wish the Sarawak government would offer a similar deal to the people of Rumah Nyutan who were dispossessed after losing a legal battle to a plantation company several years ago.
Lawyers familiar with the cases (Adong and Sagong Tasi) will tell you how the Orang Asli finally resorted to the court of law to get their claims recognised over lands, territories and resources that they have traditionally acquired, owned, occupied or used. In the past, they would have left their fate to the rulers in each state.
Thanks to the decision of the High Court of Australia in 1992 in the case of Mabo 2 (1992), Malaysian judges have one landmark case to look at when determining whether or not the indigenous peoples of Malaysia have legal ownership rights to their lands.
Have the Orang Asli customary rights to land?
Despite the precedent and the fact that under international laws, indigenous peoples (Orang Asli included) hold cultural and property rights, there is still a gap between court decisions and the reality on the ground.
Many people may have forgotten about the contribution of the Orang Asli fighting for Malaya during the Emergency. They have heard about the Iban trackers helping the British soldiers defeat the communist guerrillas in Malaya, but many may forget about a similar role of the Senoi Praq. It was Tan Sri Muhammad Ghazali Shafie who had told me how brave the Orang Asli were during the Malayan Emergency. I did not know about this before.
Tan Sri Ghazali was the chairman of the Majlis Perundingan Ekonomi Negara (National Economic Consultative Council, or Mapen), and I was a member of that Council.
Count on your fingers: how many of their leaders are local government councillors, or state legislators, or members of Parliament, or Senators now? I hope the new government of Malaysia would address the gap in terms of development for the voiceless indigenous Malaysians of Peninsular Malaysia. The least the government can do is to improve the Internet access by their students staying in the school hostels.
I am sure the incumbent government is taking notice of the plight of the Orang Asli, judging by the recent statement made by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, to the effect that no minority group in the country would be marginalised in terms of his ‘Malaysia Madani’ (the Malay acronym for ‘SCRIPT’, which stands for sustainability, care and compassion, respect, innovation, prosperity, and trust).
Got the message?