The New Straits Times of Malaysia has taken a much more balanced approach to the Malaysian government’s treatment of the Orang Asli than it did earlier this year. Their story on February 24 clearly sympathized with the government’s official position, which is that it was necessary for the Batek to accept government resettlement schemes. Two stories in the paper on May 15, however, provide a more nuanced discussion of the issues.
One story, headlined “Focus: Everyone Must Work Together,” concentrates on the opinions of Datuk Seri Abdul Aziz Shamsuddin, Minister of Rural and Regional Development, who believes that the Orang Asli will do fine if they will only accept “the full use of the facilities and privileges provided for them.” According to the newspaper, the official believes his ministry is helping the advancement of the Orang Asli.
He denies many of the allegations made by critics, that the government is not trying to help the original peoples of Malaysia. He indicates that one Orang Asli person is even an administrator in the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, and more would be “given the opportunity to head a department that looks into their interests” if they were qualified. Apparently, the qualification of coming from the Orang Asli community and understanding their needs first hand is not sufficient.
He goes on to praise the government for giving out small tracts of land to the Orang Asli—one-quarter of an acre of land for a house and six acres for plantations. But the article goes on to describe many of the problems with the quality of the land actually assigned to the Orang Asli in the various resettlement schemes, particularly the fact that it is often too steep to use for oil palm plantations.
A second article in the newspaper on May 15, “Focus: My Forest Home,” is even more sympathetic to the Orang Asli problems. While many of the examples the story cites come from Sarawak and Sabah, the insular portions of Malaysia, the examples would be familiar to students of the Semai, Batek, or Chewong societies on Peninsular Malaysia as well. The New Straits Times correspondent quite effectively portrays the way these peoples depend on the forest for food, supplies, and the other necessities of life.
Representatives of several rights advocacy groups, the Jaringan Orang Asal Malaysia (Indigenous Peoples Network, Malaysia), the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, and Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) are quoted repeatedly by the news story. They explain that the Malaysian natives do not have land titles, that protests over the abuse of their rights are usually fruitless, that an Orang Asli person should head the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, and, perhaps most significantly, that they should be involved in the decision-making over the lands where they live.
The representative of Suhakam concludes that the Orang Asli should have their customary rights. “They deserve it. These peoples were around … long before we had modern laws. …. They need to be treated fairly.” It almost seems as if the editors of the newspaper may have read the scholarly article by Endicott and Dentan about the history of government mistreatment of the Orang Asli peoples, reviewed here on March 24. It is encouraging that critical evaluations of the government’s discrimination against the Orang Asli are getting publicity where they matter most—in the Malaysian media.