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“When all Orang Asli have become Malays, then Malays will become Orang Asli,” one Semai man explained, getting right to the heart of a major problem for his society. In a recent article, Kirk Endicott and Robert Knox Dentan review many facets of the continuing Malaysian commitment to assimilating the Orang Asli societies—the Semai, the Batek, the Chewong, and several others living in the Peninsular section of Malaysia. The article updates and expands their 1997 book on the status of the Orang Asli, and it explains the meaning of the Semai man’s comment.

The authors review briefly the history of government policies toward the Orang Asli (“Original People” in Malay), but they quickly come to the heart of their article when they address the obvious question as to why the Malaysian government is so strongly committed to assimilating these minority peoples. The answer apparently stems from the ethnic power-sharing structure of Malaysian society. Their constitution establishes special privileges for the Malay people, even though they constitute only 51 percent of the population. They have preferential claims to government positions, business privileges, and higher education, and they control the political structure of the country. Malaysians of Chinese origin, 30 percent of the country, and of Indian origin, 9 percent, have their own political representatives, but to repeat, the Malays control the country.

To buttress their claim, the Malays define themselves as the original inhabitants of Malaysia. They follow that be defining the Chinese and Indian Malaysians as immigrants, even though many of them were born there. The problem for the Malays is that the Orang Asli, a tiny fraction of the overall population, have lived on the Peninsula much longer than they have, for perhaps 13,000 years. They are far more “original” than the Malays. However, as the Semai man said, if all the Orang Asli people were to integrate and accept Islam, they would become de facto Malays. With the Semai, Batek, Chewong and the others all integrated as Malays, the latter would no longer have any cloud over their claim to being the original inhabitants of the country. They would all be original. By extension, this would strengthen their claim that the Chinese and Indians are the recent immigrant outsiders. Their grip on the power structure of the country would be strengthened.

Endicott and Dentan describe the many fascinating—and depressing—ways the government has tried to force assimilation on the Orang Asli societies. The story is complex but very well explained. The authors describe the attempts of the government agency that controls the affairs of the Orang Asli, known by its Malaysian acronym as the JHEOA, to integrate the Orange Asli and impose political and hierarchical structures on their societies. The JHEOA itself is staffed at the top levels by Malays, which prevents changes being made to the integration program.

Some of the government programs have benefited the Orang Asli. Endicott and Dentan indicate that the incidence of certain diseases among them, such as yaws and ringworm, have declined over the past 50 years, and infant mortality rates have dropped. Other diseases and malnutrition, however, are still very serious problems. The qualified successes of the health program have to be weighed against the failures of the education efforts. The Orang Asli are unable to tolerate the corporal punishment used in the Malay schools, and since even primary education is in the Malay language, they start out at a disadvantage.

The JHEOA has tried to modernize, whatever that has meant, the economies of the Orang Asli by pressuring them to live in compact, regroupment settlements where government agents can more easily monitor their activities. These regroupment schemes have been generally unsuccessful because of inadequate support by the government for food production, lack of promised facilities, separation from traditional sources of livelihood, lack of sufficient land at the regroupment site, poverty of the soil at the new location, and so on. To compound the problems, only 20 percent of the Orang Asli have legal titles to the lands they have lived on, harvested from, and cultivated for millennia, and they lack access to the privileges that the Malays have guaranteed to them in the constitution. However, the Malaysian press has supported the government’s perspective on its success with the resettlement schemes.

The Islamization Program—the pressure by the JHEOA on the Orang Asli to convert to Islam—pervades the work of the agency. As an outgrowth of the government’s master plan to convert all Orang Asli, promulgated in the early 1980s, the JHEOA has consciously rewarded them for becoming Muslims by providing material improvements to people who convert, such as better health facilities, education programs, housing, and opportunities for earning wages. This program was kept quiet by the government until the early 1990s, since the Malaysian Constitution restricts religious proselytizing, but the government has decided, apparently, that the political advantages to be gained from openness about their Islamization program outweigh the potential ethical and legal problems.

The Islamization Program has been strikingly unsuccessful. Despite government funding for Muslim chapels and religious officers in Orang Asli communities, the conversion rate has been quite modest. The Malay Muslim missionaries seldom conceal their dislike for living among the Orang Asli, who, for the most part, make it clear that they do not want to become Malays. The Orang Asli resist conversion due, in part, to the ritual restrictions of the Malay Muslims that would limit their consumption of a lot of hunted, gathered, and harvested foods that they really cherish eating. In addition, the Orang Asli are opposed to the circumcision requirement of Islam.

However, the Orang Asli opposition to Islam goes beyond problems with Islamic rituals. They also cherish their own traditional beliefs. As one Batek man commented, “We can’t just forget our superhuman beings.”

Endicott, Kirk and Robert Knox Dentan. 2004. “Into the Mainstream or Into the Backwater? Malaysian Assimilation of Orang Asli.” In Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, Edited by Christopher R. Duncan, p.24-55. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.