Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The real pribumi of Malaysia

By Deborah Loh

Orang Asal at a September 2008 gathering in Kuala Lumpur

IN an interview with The Nut Graph, Pribumi Perkasa Negara (Perkasa) president Datuk Ibrahim Ali was careful to mention that Perkasa wants affirmative action for all races. He was also careful to mention "native rights" in the same breath as Malay Malaysians.

But despite the word "pribumi" in its name, Perkasa has championed little for the Orang Asli and Orang Asal of Malaysia. Despite professing to be defenders of Malay Malaysians and native bumiputera, Perkasa's rhetoric has focused solely on the Malay Malaysian race.

As shown in recent reports on the plight of the Orang Asli regarding their rights to healthcare and ancestral lands, the original peoples of Peninsular Malaysia only have the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA). The JHEOA's commitment and capabilities, however, are suspect if evidence compiled by civil society groups is anything to go by.

And even as Perkasa loudly champions for Malay bumiputera rights and privileges, some of which are constitutionally enshrined, who really looks after the Orang Asli, who are the only non-migrants in this country?

No constitutional protection

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution on the special position of Malay Malaysians and bumiputera omits mention of the peninsular Orang Asli. Only the natives of Sabah and Sarawak are specified. That's why Parti Keadilan Rakyat supreme council member Datuk Zaid Ibrahim had to correct Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz's assertion that Orang Asli had the same constitutional rights as bumiputera. Zaid also noted that the poorest Malaysians were Orang Asli.

Orang Asli in Kampung Rembai, Selangor (Pic by Azdla @ Flickr)

"Others are dictating to the Orang Asli what they deserve. They are treated as charity cases, which is completely wrong. Orang Asli should be allowed to work within the government system, to contribute to the advancement of their own people, and to make decisions for themselves.

"This paternalistic attitude towards the Orang Asli has to stop, and a complete change in the system has to be made," Bar Council past immediate president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasen tells The Nut Graph. She represented Orang Asli at their 24 Feb 2010 protest against the JHEOA.


Outside government

What has evolved over the years is that advocacy for the Orang Asli has developed on a separate track outside the government's ambit. Civil society groups like the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) are the ones pursuing research on what affects the Orang Asli. Church groups are providing food and medical assistance to villages. Many churches maintain long-standing ties with Orang Asli villages, and have been helping develop community projects.

I know this because of my own participation in church efforts to give tuition to Orang Asli children in the Tras area in Pahang. Several of these kids were enrolled late in school, some attending school for the first time at age 11.

The common complaint by their parents was that nobody from the JHEOA came to their villages to register new births or to ensure that their children were schooled. Some parents did not even know they had to register their children's births.

On 27 March 2010, I attended the opening of a boarding home for Orang Asli children in Tras. Some 25 indigenous children live there as it is closer to the school they attend, as opposed to travelling daily from their villages in the jungle interior. The home, run by staff of a Christian non-governmental organisation, was officially opened by Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok. Tras assemblyperson Choong Siew Onn was also present.

Dompok, in his speech, said that while he may not be able to directly affect change for the Orang Asli in his ministerial capacity, he would always be available to listen to their concerns and raise them in cabinet.

Dompok giving his speech (Pic courtesy of Eugene Khoo)

That's commendable of Dompok. But in the larger picture, what does this indicate? It suggests to me that higher levels of authority are indeed aware of how JHEOA has fallen short of fulfilling its mandate. Despite this awareness, there is a lack of political will within the government to reform the entire system of Orang Asli welfare and development.

Perkasa's rhetoric

Do we need the Orang Asli to be specifically mentioned in the constitution before their status as the poorest of Malaysia's poor is to be taken seriously? Are they not logically the true pribumi of Peninsular Malaysia? Why, then, do they rarely figure in public discourse and policy about disadvantaged Malaysians?

To let a group like Perkasa get away with claiming that it fights for all pribumi when it is only concerned with Malay Malaysian privileges is an injustice to the Orang Asli who are pribumi.

It is also a distortion of historical fact to equate Malay Malaysians with pribumi when the only ones who can rightfully claim to be the original inhabitants of this land are the indigenous peoples. As the ancestral stories of many Malay Malaysian interviewees in The Nut Graph's Found in Malaysia section show, Malay Malaysian bloodlines originated from a variety of places through migration and inter-marriages.

Perkasa's rhetoric holds that Malay Malaysians, as the majority, deserve the most help. Unfortunately, it's a view that has long shaped the minds of some of our policymakers and executors. What about the Orang Asli, who are a minority, but in fact the original dwellers of this land?

Some of the Orang Asli kids Deborah Loh has helped with tuition didn't have the motor skills to hold a pencil, let alone write. Courtesy of Nut Graph

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