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The New Straits Times recently reported that the Orang Asli (original peoples) of Malaysia are increasingly being converted to Islam, Christianity, and Bahai, a trend which threatens to destroy their culture. This story supplements a recent scholarly article on the same subject by Kirk Endicott and Robert Knox Dentan which was reviewed here last year.

The influential Malaysian paper is taking a more careful approach to conditions affecting the Orang Asli than it did last year, when it accepted the government’s discriminatory approach to resettlement schemes at first, then later became more critical of the official positions.

The current story alleges that missionaries of the three faiths are particularly targeting children, especially girls, for conversion. The missionaries find that it is easier to convert the young people, and those converts will subsequently raise their own children in their new faith.

Once converted, the children look on the ways of their elders as primitive. Often, they then refuse to have anything further to do with the traditional customs of their societies. Harvest dances and prayers to forest spirits, for instance, are contrary to the beliefs of the world religions, so a lot of young people are no longer participating. Rituals such as these, which have held the people together for millennia, are being forgotten.

The state governments apparently encourage the activities of the missionaries, particularly the Muslims. A few weeks ago the assembly of Kelantan State learned that Muslim missionaries who marry Orang Asli women and convert them to Islam are entitled to generous monetary payments from the state government. The state also supports the missionaries by giving them the use of four-wheel drive vehicles, monthly allowances, and free housing.

The reporter for the New Straits Times quoted Dr. Colin Nicholas, head of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, who said that almost all of the villages have been visited by missionaries from one of the world faiths. As the young people convert, they start to view the traditional practices as so much superstition and pagan black magic, he says.

The president of the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), Majid Suhut, says that the missionaries offer monetary rewards as inducements to convert people to their religion. Many young Orang Asli fall for the lure.

Dr. Juli Edo, an anthropologist at the Universiti Malaya, indicates that a large number of the Orang Asli have been converted. About 25 percent of them in Peninsular Malaysia are now Muslims, 15 percent are Christians, and nearly 5 percent are Bahai. At this point, just over half retain their traditional beliefs.

Juli, himself a Semai who has resisted numerous attempts at conversion, is particularly incensed that the missionary work is fostered by the state governments. The missionaries evidently justify their activities by arguing that the Orang Asli do not have any religion. Juli thinks that is wrong.

“They do have a religion. Although their practices vary, generally they believe that there is a God and that there are spirits around where they live, whether in stones, lakes or forests,” he maintains. “These spirits go by different names such as keramat penunggu or guardians.”

He points out that the number of Batek people who participate in Halak, their annual festival that honors the honey spirits, is declining. He cites other Orang Asli societies that are losing their cultural traditions.

He is concerned that even the art of weaving is declining in some of the Orang Asli societies. Weaving is closely connected with religious beliefs for some of these peoples. “If [these cultural practices] are stopped, there is a risk that they will be gone forever,” he says.

He is also quite concerned by the fact that some of the missionaries are encouraging the young Orang Asli to speak the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, rather than their own languages. Once the young people are no longer speaking their own language, it is easier to convert them. But decreasing use of their own languages may cause them to become extinct, he argues, which will harm the social structures of the societies.

The Orang Asli Affairs Department (JHEOA) of the national government is critical of the conversion campaigns of the state governments. Datuk Fadzil Mahamud, director of the agency, replied to the newspaper’s inquiry by criticizing state governments that give money to encourage conversion to Islam. He was especially critical of the practice of paying people to marry and convert their spouses to their religion.

But he also denied that conversion will destroy the traditional practices of the Orang Asli peoples. He argues that their traditional customs can adapt to new religions.

Juli disagrees. Changing the traditional practices of people such as his own Semai society amounts to sacrilege, he thinks.

The experts are doing what they can about a situation that they have little control over. Juli is documenting the rites, practices, and laws of the 18 different Orang Asli societies, a monumental and costly project, before they are lost. POSAM is trying to form an umbrella organization that will foster the Orang Asli traditional beliefs. Nicholas says that “there must be respect for them and their beliefs.”