The Orang Asli – From Slaves to Specimens to People

The Orang Asli – From Slaves to Specimens to People

Support our journalism. Become a Patron!
April 4, 2007

The Orang Asli are those Indigenous to Peninsular Malaysia. Numbering over 100,000, the Orang Asli are comprised of 18 different communities – most of whom hold their own Languages and Traditions.

Living primarily in the Forests of Malaysia, the Orang Asli (which means ‘Original People’ in Malay) have had an historical experience not unlike the Indigenous with the Colonial States of Canada, America, and Australia…

In the 18th and 19th centuries slavery was a ‘common feature’ among the Orang, who were commonly viewed as as ‘kafirs’, and ‘non-humans.’

The modus operandi was basically to swoop down on a settlement and kill off all the adult men. Women and children were preferred as they were less likely to run away and were ‘easier to tame.’ The Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour.

During the time of the slave trade, the British arrived, taking favour to the Orang Asli as specimens for anthropological research.

In the middle of the 20th century, the slave trade finally came to it’s end – but the legacy of servitude was to continue — the Orang were placed in Missions, during which time an aboriginal policy began to take form:

A rather detailed 1936 report by H.D. Noone, then the field ethnographer (and later, Director) of the Perak Museum at Taiping, sought to perpetuate the view of the British colonialists that the Orang Asli should remain in isolation from the rest of the Malayan population, and be given protection.

Noone called for the establishment of large aboriginal land reservations where the Orang Asli would be free to live according to their own tradition and laws. Noone also proposed the creation of “patterned settlements” in less accessible areas, where the Orang Asli could be taught agricultural skills. He also sought the encouragement and development of aboriginal arts and crafts, and the creation of other forms of employment among the Orang Asli. Several protective measures were also proposed, such as the banning of alcohol in Orang Asli reserves and the controlled peddling of wares.

Although not implemented by the government of the day, his ‘Proposed Aboriginal Policy’ did however lay the groundwork for future government policy towards the Orang Asli.

Then, in the late 40’s a war erupted between the Colonial Malaysian Government and Communists, which lasted until 1968.

The Oraang Alsi were used by both sides. Ultimately the Colonial Government proved to be the better bargainers,

a Department of Aborigines was established and ‘jungle forts’ were set up in Orang Asli areas, introducing the Orang Asli to basic health facilities, education and basic consumer items.

But of course, not before the British herded the Orang into make-shift ‘resettlement’ camps; where a few hundred died.

Later, in an apparent reversal of the government’s policy towards the Orang Asli, the jungle forts were abandoned and replaced by ‘patterned settlements’ (later to be called ‘regroupment schemes’). Here, a number of Orang Asli communities were resettled in areas which were more accessible for the Department officials and the security forces and yet close to, though not always within, their traditional homelands. The schemes promised the Orang Asli wooden stilt houses as well as modern amenities such as schools, clinics and shops. They were also required to grow cash crops (such as rubber and oil palm) and practise animal husbandry so as to be able to participate in the cash economy.

Nevertheless, the strategy proved successful in that support for the insurgents waned. This prompted massacres by the insurgents of Orang Asli communities who were thought to be on the government’s side.

The policy of assimilation and integration therein took it’s place- as it continues today.

In more recent times, the policy of integrating the Orang Asli with the Malay section of the national society has taken on a new dimension: making Orang Asli Muslims. The JHEOA has a special section to look into the ‘spiritual’ development of the Orang Asli, with other government and non-governmental bodies each having their own programme for similar objectives. The assimilationist tendencies, best epitomised by the publicly expressed intention of converting all Orang Asli within the next ten years, undermine whatever genuine intentions the government may have for the wellbeing of the Orang Asli. At the very least, it brings the justification for attention towards Orang Asli one full circle back to the early days of the British colonial government when the Orang Asli were merely regarded as ripe objects for the zeal of religious missionaries.

Current Events

Now it is said that the Orang Asli have essentially been incorporated into the national economy, “dependent on, or directed by, external domination.” Current events however, reveal a slightly different picture:

1. Orang Asli Refuse to Move: The Che Wong orang asli community, which is facing relocation because of the Kelau Dam project in Pahang, has decided that they will not move from their current location ~

2. Indigenous Tribe Hinders Malaysian Park: An indigenous community is slowing the government’s plans to create a botanical park in an ancient rain forest in northern Malaysia, voicing fears the project threatens their traditional livelihoods and seeks to make them a tourist attraction, a spokeswoman said Monday ~

The Paths That Lie, ahead

However effected by assimilation, however divided or foreign to their own traditions because of 300 years of systematic abuse, forced relocation, social conditioning, and indentured servitude – The Orang Asli have begun to stand up, and have begun to come together for their own common needs and interests.

Before today I never hear of the Orang, but when I came upon this news I felt a great deal of inspiration and excitement. Depsite so many years of violence, manipulation, and sickening policies coming from all different sides, here we have these people, still practicing their traditions, and doing their best to protect the land and their ways of life.

This is what it means to be Original People – heck, this is what it means to be human. And in the face of politics and business, keeping one’s humanity can be the most difficult thing of all, because so often politics and business needs you to compromise yourself and settle down in some nice looking dugout, where you can spend the rest of your days.

I’m sure this is something the Orang understand, but will anyways add that it matters not how the Malaysian Government, the citizenry, corporate interest groups and the international community conducts itself. And it matters not whether any agreements are made with the government or corporations –

What matters is that the Orang Asli continue standing and continue living as Original People – with integrity and traditions intact.


Further Reading

Stop the oppression: The Orang Asli are people too!
Triggering the Ripple effects for the Orang Asli
Don’t encroach on orang asli land
Malaysia’s indigenous tribe says farming, logging desecrating their graves


Center for Orang Asli Concerns

We're fighting for our lives

Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.

independent uncompromising indigenous
Except where otherwise noted, articles on this website are licensed under a Creative Commons License