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The plight of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The Orang Asli, the 170,000-odd indigenous peoples of the Malaysian peninsula, who for decades have remained mostly sidelined from social, economic, and cultural life, are coming under extreme pressure from both federal and state governments. They face multiple efforts to evict them from customary lands, destruction of their heritage sites and efforts to convert them from their animist beliefs.

Part of the problem is that although their existence on the peninsula predates ethnic Malays by centuries, their status has been eroded politically by the drive by ethnic Malays to picture themselves as the indigenous peoples in the effort to accuse the ethnic Chinese, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country's 32 million people, as interlopers.

Accordingly, the Orang Asli have never had the strength and support to hold onto their rights. These rights have been paternally held by non-Orang Asli ministers responsible for Orang Asli affairs in the ministry of rural development. There is nothing in the national land code (NLC) about customary land. They have been mal-administrated by those with the hidden agenda of assimilating them.


As distinct from the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, the Orang Asli comprise three main groups – the Semang generally in the northern part of the peninsula, the Senoi within the central region, and the proto-Malay in the southern region of the peninsula.

For instance, a new dam is being built at Nenggiriin Kelantan, a mountainous state on the east coast, to produce hydroelectricity. There are fears by the local Orang Asli communitiesthat the dam will destroy their heritage sites, which include sacred caves, ancestral burial grounds, customary land areas, water resources, crops, and access routes. They have been forced to move by authorities.

In addition, the Pakatan Harapan government in the state of Selangor has announced the intention to de-gazettea major part of the Kuala Langit North Forest Reserve, considered Orang Asli customary land, to construct an industrial estate. Also in Selangor, residents of an Orang Asli village along the coast in Sepang are being evicted to make way for the expansion of a resortowned by Permodalan Negeri Selangor Bhd (PNSB), a Selangor state government investment company.

In Pahang, an Orang Asli tribe in the Temerloh district is being evicted from landsthey have occupied for generations to make way for a state government development project.

Individuals and companies seeking land are also squeezing out the Orang Asli from other customary tribal lands. Under state government practices in Pahang, the chief minister, Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail, personally signs off all deals over government land holdings whose titles are issued by the land office. This allows individuals and companies to claim legal ownership of customary tribal lands after which they often seek to remove and evict Orang Asli villagers.

Recently, unidentified assailants burned a Semelai woman's crops and the houseshe had lived in since her grandfather built it 30 years ago in the Temerloh district of Pahang, often a tactic used to forcibly remove the Orang Asli from customary lands, actions ignored by authorities. Communities have been warned by the Pahang Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) director Johari Alwi, that those who don't register for Covid-19 vaccinationwon't get aid and assistance on land issues.


Many within the Orang Asli community believe that they are systemically discriminated against by police. One notable case that dramatically increased indignation was the attempted prosecution of four Orang Asli for killing a tiger, a protected species, while collecting jungle produce in 2012. Defense attorneys pleaded this was in self-defence, leading to a court acquittal celebrated by the community. In a 2014 incident, a group of Orang Asli were injured during an altercation with a group of Myanmar workers. Although the Orang Asli made a police report, local Kelantan police wouldn't take action against the foreign workers. After the Orang Asli, with the assistance of the Malaysian Bar Council made another police report at Bukit Aman, in Kuala Lumpur upon return to Kelantan, they were arrested by police for possession of weapons during a riot. They claimed trial and were acquitted.

The 2019 arrest without bail of Orang Asli attempting to blockade loggers led to former minister for national unity and social well-being in the Prime Minister's department P. Waytha Moorthy, intervening on behalf of the Orang Asli. However, too often state forestry officers and district police have taken the side of loggers even though the courts have ruled in favour of customary land rights. Logging licenses given to companies in state forest reserves over the years have created a lot of mistrust by the Orang Asli of state authorities. Although courts are likely to rule in favor of customary land rights over the loggers, court delays mean loggers can denude areas before the case comes up for hearing.

At the federal level, the Orang Asli, who are animists, have been targeted by programs seeking to convince or force them to convert to Islam via various targets. As many as 30 percent have been tagged as officially Muslim, although many don't practice. These attempts have risen dramatically over the past decade as official embrace of Islam has grown in the government.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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