How Ketuanan Melayu has dispossessed the Orang Asli

According to historians, Orang Asli had been victims of the slave trade by the Malays and Bataks. Despite official denials of slavery, Orang Asli oral literature has indeed recorded slave raids. The English colonial official JWW Birch had documented their enslavement since as early as 1874.

By Dr Boo Cheng Hau & Helen Ang, Free Malaysia Today

Malaysia is the Asia-Pacific’s “best model” in dealing with the rights of indigenous peoples – or so it is claimed. Last Saturday (incidentally the same day Dr Mahathir Mohamad launched the Perkasa inaugural congress), BN MP Makcus Mojigoh said, in his paper presented at a regional conference, that the government is serious about the plight of the Orang Asli. Really? The Orang Asli don’t think so.

Mojigoh’s comments follow on the heels of the march by more than 2,000 Orang Asli from all over the country on March 17 in Putrajaya. They had gathered to demand recognition of their customary rights to ancestral land – “Tanah kami, maruah kami” was the rallying cry.

The protest is not surprising as the Orang Asli have increasingly been pushed to the margins by Ketuanan Melayu – since the infamous Malay Dilemma of Mahathir and long before that.

Mahathir argued in his 1970 book that the Orang Asli are not the definitive people of the peninsular as they did not form the first effective government, and moreover “at no time did they outnumber the Malays”.

Furthermore, he brushed off the notion that Orang Asli might have prior claims above “the right of the Malays to regard the Malay peninsula as their own country…” and cited his own reading of history to bolster the Malay contention.

Today, learning from school textbooks, pupils would be left with the impression that Malaysian history started from the Malaccan Sultanate, and that before the conversion to Islam of the prince Parameswara, the country was some kind of no-man’s land.

The Malay Dilemma also contended that “in fact, there are no more than a few thousand aborigines”. Contrary to Mahathir’s assertion rubbishing their numbers, in 1969 there were 52,943 Orang Asli.

Orang Asli are not a single ethnic group but collectively composed of 18 (official) tribes. The biggest grouping is classed Senoi, who are the Semai, Temiar, Jah Hut, Che Wong, Mah Meri and Semoq Beri tribes, while two other groupings are Negrito and proto-Malay. All are indigenous people.