Last week, Bernama, the Malaysian national news agency, issued a five-part series of feature articles on the Orang Asli societies, the Original People of Malaysia. The focus of the articles was on the assistance provided to the Semai, Batek, Chewong and 15 others groups by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA), the national agency charged with managing the aboriginal communities. The series emphasized the ways the Orang Asli are being helped by the government—and changed into modern citizens of the Malay state.
The first article, issued on Monday, lists the 18 Orang Asli societies and the three categories into which they are generally grouped: the Senoi, the Negritos, and the Proto Malays. The Semai and the Chewong are considered to be Senoi societies, and the Batek are Negritos. While the series does not specifically discuss the three peaceful societies, its overall emphasis and approach is worth attention.
According to statistics provided by JHEOA, there are now 141,230 Orang Asli individuals, 37 percent of whom still live “in the interior,” meaning, presumably, in reasonably traditional communities; 62 percent live in semi-urban areas and less than one percent in cities.
The first article quotes the Director General of JHEOA, Mohd Sani Mistam, extensively. He says that the mission of the agency is to integrate the Orang Asli peoples into mainstream Malaysian society. He argues that many of them resent being stereotyped as dowdy, filthy, or indolent. Members of the younger generation, he believes, particularly suffer from low self esteem.
A hopeful sign, he says, is that more mixed marriages are occurring: “This is the testament that our efforts for a more systematic development [have] been accepted by the community. This is the positive change that we have been hoping for.” The Bernama journalist writes that the people are slowly changing from their earlier, forest-based, subsistence lifestyle into “a more contemporary one.” They are increasingly working on farms or as wage laborers. Mohd Sani argues that these changes fulfill the development planning of the government.
The journalist, Melati Mohd Ariff, repeats JHEOA statistics about the reduction of poverty among Orang Asli families, from 19,433 poor households several years ago down to 1,810 this April. She provides details about the health and education programs run by the agency, and she indicates that some Orang Asli youths receive effective vocational training, such as repairing cars and motorbikes. She adds, “meanwhile, the fairer sex of the Orang Asli can opt for the sewing or hairstyling course and up to 2008 a total of 331 Orang Asli girls underwent training in [these] two courses.”
The government formed five focus groups last July to study the problems faced by the Orang Asli in the areas of education, amenities, health, economy and traditional knowledge. Mohd Sani, the JHEOA Director General, emphasizes that no one will be left out of the development process—except those who want to remain on the sidelines of progress. “If there is anyone left out, it is probably due to their reluctance to change their traditional way of life,” he says.
Tuesday’s article discusses the achievements and attitudes of Awang bin Alok, 69, the headman of the Orang Asli village of Kampung Gumum. He has a very positive take on the developments he has seen in his community, thanks to modernization, such as electricity, piped water, a paved road, and many comfortable houses. He praises JHEOA effusively.
Wednesday’s piece focuses on a 44 year old woman, known as Kak Nor, who expressly denies that when an Orang Asli woman marries a Muslim man and converts to Islam, she is fated to die in poverty. She says she does not expect that to happen to her.
Part four, issued on Thursday, describes Nisra Nisran, a young Orang Asli man who is now the Deputy Director General for Development in JHEOA. His father moved his family about when he was young, which exposed him to many different communities in Malaysia and helped him break out from the Orang Asli way of life, according to the article. While 30 percent of the positions in JHEOA are held by Orang Asli people, he is the only one who holds a professional post.
Nisra Nisran accepts the state’s model for development for the Orang Asli. Most of them no longer live in isolated villages, and many are fortunate, in his opinion, to be close to Malay communities. “Whether they like it or not,” he says, “development [has] reached their doorstep and now they have no choice but to embrace development. The jungle resources that the community was dependent on [are] slowly being depleted as the forest is slowly being replaced by palm oil and rubber plantation[s]. They have to make a transition from [their] traditional to [a] modern economy that can guarantee a better future for them and their children.”
On Friday, the fifth article concluded the series by portraying another high-achieving Orang Asli man, who expresses his gratitude for the assistance that JHEOA gave him, which helped him to eventually get ahead.
Much of the information in the series is worthwhile. For instance, some Orang Asli youngsters are bullied and harassed in schools by the Malay students, which may prompt them to drop out rather than continue to take abuse. The series, however, is a completely uncritical review of the program for enticing the Orang Asli into accepting the majority, Malay, way of life. There is no indication that the Orang Asli communities themselves are having any input into setting the goals of the agency, other than the fact that the one young man is a top official. Also, the five focus groups set up last July did not appear to include one on land rights, an issue that is central to many Orang Asli defenders—and anathema to the government.
Last week’s Bernama series contains no criticism, no expression of other opinions, no evaluations, nothing but a rosy portrayal of the wonderful progress the Orang Asli are making under the benevolent guidance of the Malaysian government. Perhaps a careful re-reading of Endicott and Dentan (2004) would be worthwhile. Their scholarly, thorough analysis of the reasons the Malaysian government is so keen on converting the Orang Asli into good Muslim Malays is a sobering antidote to the Bernama stories.