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The Orang Asli, the original people of Malaysia, have been making the news lately because of both proposed government grants and the protests of the people themselves.

The Deputy Prime Minister of their country, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, announced nearly two weeks ago that the Malaysian states would begin giving land titles to Orang Asli households. He said that between 0.8 and 2.4 hectares would be awarded to each head of a household for agricultural purposes, plus about 5,000 square feet of land for their houses. “The land is given to the Orang Asli community in perpetuity and is part of efforts to take the community out of poverty,” he said.

Muhyiddin said that about 19,990 families would be given land, a number that represented 72 percent of the 27,841 Orang Asli families in Malaysia. The grants would include about 50,000 total hectares.

The Deputy Prime Minister indicated that certain conditions will be attached to the grants. The lands will only be given to heads of households, as defined by Section 3 of Act 134. News stories about the grants did not address the issue as to whether lands would be given to heads of households who happened to be women, much less households in societies such as the Batek, which are gender equal and don’t really have male heads. Furthermore, Muhyiddin said the land could not be leased out, rented, or mortgaged without the permission of the appropriate state government authorities. It could not be transferred for at least 15 years, and after that only to another Orang Asli.

He also said that, in order for the Orang Asli communities to be properly managed—at least in ways the government would approve—the land would first be developed for oil palms, rubber plantations, or other comparable cultivated crops before it was transferred. Apparently the desire of some Orang Asli families to continue living off the land using traditional harvesting, gathering, and hunting methods are not part of this latest scheme.

Last week, the Orang Asli themselves raised a fuss in the office of the Prime Minister with a petition asking that two more senators be appointed from their communities to the upper house of the national parliament, the Dewan Negara. Majid Suhut, president of the Orang Asli Association of Malaysia, argued that six senators could not effectively represent the views of the three different branches of Orang Asli societies—the Senoi, the Proto Malays, and the Negritos. “We have Orang Asli in every state (in Peninsular Malaysia) except in Penang and Perlis. We want a bigger voice,” he said.

Majid also asked that one of the six senators the government appoints should be axed. He said that Senator Mohamed Olain appears to represent the interests of UMNO, the United Malays National Organization, the largest political party in the country, of which he is a member. Majid said that his organization has no overt quarrel with the senator, but most of the Orang Asli have never heard from him and he does not seem to represent his constituency.

Six senators have been appointed by the government from the ranks of the Orang Asli societies since 1957. Only two of them have been non-Muslims, and one of those subsequently converted to Islam. Senator Itam Wali Nawan, a Semai, is the only one who remains outside the fold of the state religion.