Empowering the sons of toil

The Orang Asli have been left out and are forced to grapple with poverty. Now, a group aims to empower them through education.

“We are imprisoned in our own country by this act. We are given no chance to speak up, we are not given a chance to express ideas or make decisions on whether we agree or not on certain matters – everything told must be followed by us.”

Aneesa Alphonsus, Free Malaysia Today

Sons of the Soil, The Original People, and The First Ones. There are such noble sounding monikers for a community which has become more like sons of toil, the forgotten people and last on the list.

The Orang Asli of Malaysia constitute only 0.5% of the population and are diverse in culture, language and beliefs, a legacy borne of 18 different ethnic groups.

However, their shared experience of exclusion from the policy arena and a resulting lack of opportunity to voice their concerns became the impetus for the formation of a group named Sinui Pai Nanek Sengik (New Life, One Heart).

Recognising that communities were having their livelihoods destroyed by government policies that took away their traditional rights to land and other resources, the Sinui Pai Nanek Sengik (SPNS) began an educational programme to mobilise communities for political and social action.

The small number of Orang Asli is one of the many factors contributing to their current problems. Orang Asli have now become like refugees and illegal immigrants in their own country.

Among the core problems are land ownership, culture, identity, and the lost of rights as the Orang Asli have been left out in the field of education and development. Most of the non-Orang Asli in Malaysia refer to the Orang Asli as a barbaric and backward community.

Hence there are many who say that the Orang Asli is a community that is too lazy to work hard to develop themselves and their race. They also accuse the Orang Asli of preferring to ask other parties to change their fate.

Plus, there is no space for the Orang Asli to speak out about their dissatisfaction on certain aspects of the government policies towards them.

The strict control and the neck-logging by the government resulted in the Orang Asli community being unaware that they actually have rights to claim and can speak out about the biased treatment they have received in every government development plan.

Badly hit by logging

Alison Ghani, who is an independent volunteer for Orang Asli issues, says that many villages have been badly hit by logging. She shared the story of a man she fondly refers to as Pakcik Musang of the Jakun tribe who with his family, was harassed away from the land he was residing on.

Today, Pakcik Musang lives in a flimsy shack with no guarantees that he will not be chased away once again.

“Never enough can be written about Orang Asli issues. It’s incredibly disturbing that they are being denied convenient access to medical treatment and medicines. Take Pos Gob in Kelantan for example. The nearest town from them is Kuala Betis which at 80km away translates to a five hour journey on foot.

“Distance is always a problem. Orang Asli children of Pos Gob attend school at Pos Tohoi which is 60km away from their village, a four-hour journey on foot. Because their parents cannot afford the petrol money to bring them home every week, children as young as seven who are very attached to the families and the community only return home during the school breaks. Many of them refuse to return to school after the break is over,” she said.