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According to a young Semai person, the Orang Asli “only know that the police are government, and the government can have them arrested.” Alice M. Nah interviewed the Semai individual for a recent journal article on the indigeneity of the Orang Asli, the “Original People,” of Malaysia.

She begins her piece with a history of the legal status of the Orang Asli. When the British began colonizing what they called the Malay Peninsula, there was no overall governing authority, though several rajas ruled over individual coastal communities. The British negotiated with those rulers and ignored the interior, Orang Asli, societies, which they felt were less civilized.

The British brought Chinese and Indian laborers into the Peninsula from 1870 through 1930, which prompted many of the Malays to begin defining themselves as ethnically and racially distinct from the immigrant communities. Malay intellectuals started talking about themselves as a “Malay Race” rather than as subjects of particular ruling sultans. Feeling threatened by the growing economic success of the Chinese, Malays decided they had to unite across geo-political boundaries in the Peninsula in order to defend what they felt were their rights to their land.

After the Japanese occupation during World War II, the British tried to re-impose their authority in more streamlined ways than before the war, but the protests of the Malays forced them to give in to demands for a new constitution. As they worked to develop a new political order, the Malays wanted to assert their predominant power position on the Peninsula. They were not satisfied with proposals that all people should have equal citizenship: erasing distinctions between themselves and the other communities—Chinese, Indians, and the indigenous peoples—was not acceptable.

Debates in 1946 on a post-colonial society framed the issue very clearly. The Malays demanded that their group alone should be the privileged people in the land because, they argued, they were there first. When the Malays used indigeneity as the foundation for their privilege, however, they ran into a major difficulty: the existence of the aborigines. The Orang Asli had settled on the Peninsula long before the Malays.

The 1957 constitution for the newly independent country did recognize the aborigines as a separate group that had citizenship, but it did not give them the same special privileges that the Malays had. As Nah explains, “ Malaya was still positioned as the land of the Malays” (p.291). Islam became the designated religion of the land, and Malay the national language.

The author focuses the second half of the article on land issues relating to the Orang Asli. The basic problem for the aboriginal people is that they do not have the same guarantees and customary titles to their lands as the Malays do. A Malaysian law, the Aboriginal Peoples Act, does not give the Orang Asli the implicit ownership of their own traditional lands.

This lack of title has become an increasingly significant issue because of the rapid development of the country. Orang Asli communities occupy lands that Malays covet. As a result, land has literally been sold out from under them, and they have been dispossessed by large projects such as reservoirs. (See the video noted here on January 11, 2007, about the threatened dispossession of a Chewong community.]

But the Orang Asli have slowly been gaining rights to their lands, particularly in the Malaysian courts. In 1997, they won a case in which an Orang Asli community claimed it had not been adequately compensated when their lands were taken from them for a dam. The judge was willing to consider the precedents of similar cases in the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. He stated that “it is the right of the native [sic] to continue to live on their land as their forefathers had done” (p.293).

That right, the judge said, was not based on documents or titles: “future generations of the aboriginal people would be entitled to this right of their forefathers.” The rights of the Orang Asli included “the right to move freely about their land, without any form of disturbance or interference … since they have been in continuous and unbroken occupation and/or enjoyment of the rights of the land from time immemorial” (p.293). He ruled that the state must compensate the Orang Asli for the loss of their livelihoods, to which they have a right. His decision was upheld on appeal.

In 2005, another court came to a similar decision. The government of Selangor state, a highway authority, the Federal Government, and a contractor evicted an Orang Asli community in order to build a highway to a new international airport for Kuala Lumpur. The Orang Asli received compensation for their homes, fruit trees, and crops, but not for their lands. The agencies did not accept their claims that they had proprietary rights to the land. The judge in that case, however, accepted the precedent of the earlier decision. The agencies lost in the Court of Appeal, so they are appealing the decision to the Federal Court.

These decisions suggest that the relationships between the Malays and the Orang Asli are not settled, Nah argues, and that the definitions of indigeneity are still in flux. While the Malays are still completely in power and still control the structures of privilege, the Orang Asli are finding ways of unifying and articulating their needs. They are beginning to challenge the Malay domination.

Nah, Alice M. 2006. “(Re)Mapping Indigenous ‘Race’/Place in Postcolonial Peninsular Malaysia.” Geografiska Annaler Series B, 88(3):285-297