Orang Asli are the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, but their place in the country is never truly recognised.
Malaysia is home to multi and diverse ethnicities. They are categorised as Malay, Chinese, Indian, and lain-lain (others). While the first three found their place in the society though some with endless struggles, the “lain-lain” are often left out, forgotten, and abandoned.
The “lain-lain” are the Orang Asli (indigenous people), who have inhabited Peninsular Malaysia since around 2500 to 1500 BC, residing and surviving in the jungles.
There are 18 tribes of Orang Asli today, divided under three main tribal groups: Senoi, Aboriginal Malay, and Semang.
They are Malaysians, as much Malaysian as one can get, either basking in the privileges of health and education, or proudly waving Jalur Gemilang on the Independence Day.
But the way they are treated tells a different story.
They are made fun of for staying true to who they are
Going back to the early days, Orang Asli was deemed “wildlife”, because their total populations could only be counted following the records of the animals habituating in the jungles.
To some people, they were not humans, just because they chose to stay true to their cultural identity and traditional way of life.
In today’s Malay slang, the word “jakun” is often used to describe someone being overly enthusiastic about something they have never experienced before. But in the dictionary, “Jakun” is the name of one of the Orang Asli tribes living in the jungles of Pahang, Johor, and Negeri Sembilan.
That’s how far some people would go to make fun of the Orang Asli. It may not be intentional, as some just follow the trend without knowing the reason behind it, but this only reflects how little some Malaysians know and acknowledge the existence of the Orang Asli.
A story by anthropologist Dr Alberto Gomes in The Star highlighted the discrimination faced by a married couple in Semai village whose son suffered an unknown illness. After Dr Gomes persuaded the couple to bring their son to a clinic, they learned that he had severe gastroenteritis.
When asked to bring him to the hospital for urgent treatment, they refused, recalling the one time they spent a night in a hospital where the mother was ridiculed for not being able to properly converse in Malay.
The family, and other Orang Asli tribes from all over Peninsular Malaysia, has been called “sakai”, a derogatory word to unfairly describe the Orang Asli in general.
Not only are their cultures seen as “backward”, their entire beings always end up on the receiving ends of exploitation (see Deadly Measles Outbreak).
They are also being forced out of their homes
Adding insult to injury, just recently a United Nations envoy during a visit to Malaysia to study poverty criticised the Kelantan officials for their “outrageous” attitude towards the Orang Asli.
The attitude was referred to the officials’ plan to relocate the Orang Asli from their villages to some 1,800 concrete housing units in urban centres.
Orang Asli is known for living off their customary land, and as if deforestation, urbanisation, and the building of dams are not enough to deprive them off of their primal needs, their homes are now being taken away from them.
Relocating them away from their origins will not help them, instead it would only threaten their already fragile existence.
There are genuine efforts being done to help ameliorate their lives, but the Orang Asli themselves may find it hard to believe in the sincerity of the help simply because the people made it so.
Orang Asli are more than just the “lain-lain” ethnicity. They were here long before Malaysia found its way towards peace.
Providing them a safe home and treating them equally do not require much, just a small fraction of humanity and sincerity, and earning their trust is the key.