Malaysia’s Perak State appears to be responding to criticism about its history of repressive practices toward the Semai. The new chief minister of the state says things will change. A news story last week in Bernama, the Malaysian National News Agency, indicated that the current Menteri Besar (chief minister) of Perak, Dr. Zambri Abdul Kadir, has toured a Semai village along with several top members of his government plus, critically, the Sultan of Perak, His Majesty Azlan Shah, and one of the Sultan’s daughters, Datuk Seri Raja Eleena.
The Bernama piece indicates that the royal party visited several Semai homes and gave some assistance to the poor in the process. The chief minister assured the Semai that the state government would seek the best solution to the issue of their having titles to their ancestral lands. He also told the Orang Asli (original people) that the government was working to resolve problems of illegal settlements and trespasses on their properties.
“The state government and the Land and Mines Office give assurance and [commitment] that the Orang Asli [ancestral] land will be conserved for their future generations,” the Menteri Besar said at the village. He promised that Orang Asli education, agriculture, human resources, and development would be priorities of his government. He announced that RM 2 million (US $542,000) would be spent for agricultural assistance for the Orang Asli in Perak this year. The money is to be used for seeds, fertilizers, and agricultural training.
Dr. Zambri also spoke about education for the Semai young people. “Orang Asli youth would be sent for skills training courses. If they are interested in joining the security services like the military and police we will give priority,” he said.
The Sultan of Perak, a lawyer by training, has been heavily criticized for his involvement in the recent political situation of the state in favor of the Barisan Nasional (BN) Party over the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition. The Sultan was a major actor in the constitutional crisis in the state in early February. The BN, the party of Dr. Zambri, had ruled Perak and most of the rest of Malaysia for over 50 years. It has had a half-century history of discrimination against the aboriginal societies such as the Semai. A traditional, Muslim-focused, Malay rights party, BN supported the values of the Sultan.
The PR, a reforming coalition, came to power in 2008, but it was in office for less than a year before it was overthrown by the BN, with the assistance of the Sultan. During its brief time in office, the PR began providing justice for the Orang Asli, particularly in the critical issue of land titles. According to criticisms in the media only a few weeks ago, the Semai were quite upset by the political change in early February, which promised a return to the repressions of the past.
Whether the new Menteri Besar is really committed to Orang Asli land rights will only be demonstrated over time. His use of plastic words such as “development” may be portents of future repression. Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, published a scathing opinion piece a few weeks ago about terminology used to brutalize indigenous people in order to justify taking away their lands. Corry singled out “development” as a particularly ominous term, along with “primitive,” “stone age” and the like. Governments use these terms when they intend to repress indigenous people and expel them from their traditional territories.