Skip to main content

Orang Asli Self-Determination and the Control of Resources


Orang Asli is the collective term for the 19 sub-groups of `first peoples' in Peninsular Malaysia. Numbering 105,000 in 1997, or a mere 0.5 per cent of the Malaysian population, the Orang Asli are largely forest or agriculture based, although several individuals have achieved levels of educational and economic success comparable to those of the dominant population. Nevertheless, it is no hidden secret that the Orang Asli rank among the most marginalized of Malaysians today, not just in terms of numbers, but in their ability to determine their own fate.

The Orang Asli, however, never lived in isolation, nor were they always a marginal group divorced from an imagined mainstream. On the contrary, Orang Asli communities, especially in Southern Peninsular Malaysia, were well established before the reign of the Malay Sultans. Orang Laut groups even provided crucial military and economic support during the formation of the Johore and Malacca Sultanates. That the Orang Asli were part of the emerging Malay states can also be gleaned from the customary practices in some states, for example Negri Sembilan and Pahang, where it was necessary to assert genealogical links with Orang Asli ancestry to legitimize local rule. Today, however, the once politically autonomous and independent people are but a pale likeness of their ancestors. Much of this has to do with the fact that the Malaysian nation state does not recognize the Orang Asli as a separate people - that is, as distinct groups associated with particular territorial bases and requiring `government' on a different basis from that of the other communities.

But, as can be discerned from their demands, Orang Asli are not, at least as yet, seeking self-determination in the sense that they want to secede from the Malaysian nation state. Rather, the desire is to exercise full autonomy in their traditional territories, both in the control and ownership of their lands, and in the determination of their way of life and in the way they deal with the dominant society.

It is inconceivable, however, that the Malaysian state will, on its own accord, grant any level of autonomy to the Orang Asli. For the state to do so, even if restricted only to own traditional territories, there would be both political and economic implications.

Politically this would be tantamount to the state conceding to the Orang Asli the right to self-determination. That is to say, the state acknowledges the right of the Orang Asli to own and manage their own territories and to lead separate lives from the dominant society.

Economically, granting Orang Asli autonomy over their traditional territories would effectively remove the state's access to them. This is especially significant as the appropriation of Orang Asli traditional territories and resources is an important project of the state since Orang Asli lands are no longer considered a `frontier' resource, but a much sought-after factor-of-production, especially if they can be obtained cheap.

Thus, assertions of Orang Asli autonomy invariably challenge the state's own political and economic authority over a people and a territory. The response of the state was therefore to reduce, if not eliminate altogether, any semblance of Orang Asli local autonomy.


A reduction in local autonomy was, in fact, the key instrument for the state to effect control over the Orang Asli and their traditional territories. Accordingly, policies and programs for Orang Asli development were markedly devoid of autonomy-augmenting objectives and actually included elements of internal colonialism - including administrative control, dis-possession from traditional territories, loss of traditional resource rights and the expressed objectives of assimilation into the `mainstream'.

Introducing and maintaining the concept of a mainstream, in fact, has been politically important insofar as the state has been able to assert its logic of a single nationality, and hence its legitimacy to exercise control over its citizens. However, because the Orang Asli insisted on remaining in their traditional territories, the state could not appropriate these territories. Further, because this insistence was, in the first case, based on aspirations of sustaining cultural identity and political autonomy, rather than meeting the need for economic and physical sustenance, the state had to remove Orang Asli attachment to the land so that it could appropriate these territories. This was achieved by forcibly removing or relocating them from their traditional territories, or by instituting strategies and programs aimed at their deculturalisation - all under the guise of integrating the Orang Asli into the mainstream society.

Ensuing state actions included appropriation of traditional territories by administrative fiat, exploitation of natural resources through state-engineered privatization deals and programs aimed at converting Orang Asli to the official religion, Islam. All actions aimed at crushing Orang Asli autonomy by bringing about their de-culturalisation; inadvertently, in reinforcing the concept of the state and its imagined mainstream among the Orang Asli, specific Orang Asli communities experienced severe social stress as various policies and programs were implemented to their disadvantage or detriment. Consequently, the very attempt at bringing the Orang Asli into the mainstream caused them to distance themselves from that mainstream and create their own politics.


It was the contest for their traditional territories and resources that first caused the Orang Asli to become aware of the threat to their future. Their initial response had been to initiate various forms of indirect and symbolic opposition at the local level. Eventually, as the stakes against them increased, the responses involved a broader, pan-Orang Asli consciousness that was never previously affirmed. The main vehicle for this was POASM, the broad-based Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association.

Orang Asli then began to look at themselves from the outside, identified the problems that faced them, and understood why an assertion of their identity was a prerequisite for their survival. The collective identity that emerged soon gave rise to a sense of Orang Asli Indigenousness. This was an assertion by the Orang Asli of their unity, and difference, directed against the power of outsiders and focused primarily on the nation-state. The state was nevertheless aware that Orang Asli Indigenousness was a basis for political action. It was also aware that an Orang Asli Indigenous movement was immediately a challenge to the state because it argued that the notion of a mainstream society was not sufficient reason to take control out of the hands of a people. Consequently, in order to protect its interests, the state actively sought to impede the development of Orang Asli Indigenity. Towards this end, the objective of integration/assimilation with the mainstream society was further reinforced, with emphasis on rejecting Orang Asli identity and politics.

Yet, in order for the Orang Asli to escape being categorized as `just another ethnic minority' by the state and to promote and protect their claims for special status and rights within the national society, the Orang Asli had to simultaneously make themselves both like, and unlike, the mainstream they dealt with. On one level, they felt that they had to constantly demonstrate the fundamental cultural differences between themselves and the majority population; on the other, they wanted to be treated as equals with the state - as a people.

The need to negotiate with the state, however, raised problems of Orang Asli representation - both in the content of that representation and in deciding who should be accorded the right to such representation. This was to figure prominently in future Orang Asli-state reconciliation processes.


The Orang Asli were initially a collection of diffuse local communities, each with their own locus of cultural identity, ethnic sanctuary and economic opportunity. As mentioned earlier, shared experiences and common causes of social stress vis-a-vis the nation state helped promote a collective awareness among the Orang Asli.

To achieve some degree of mobilization, Orang Asli leaders, mainly in POASM, had to transform apathy by creating a vision around which Orang Asli could identify or organize politically. This vision was not informed by ideological argument, but rather by ethnic self-affirmation in the defense of primarily economic interests. This gave rise to problems of representation because Orang Asli aspirations and wants were frequently as varied as the number of Orang Asli individuals and organizations vying for the same resources for economic gain. Some Orang Asli, for example, were willing to forsake communally-held ancestral territories in exchange for promises of individual land titles in new, often smaller, locations merely because these titled lots afforded greater opportunities for material advancement (such as the possibility of using the land to obtain bank loans).

In pursuit of Orang Asli political and economic development, therefore, several Orang Asli representative organizations and institutions emerged. Apart from POASM, there has been the institution of the Orang Asli Senator and various welfare organizations, business enterprises and cooperatives, each claiming to represent Orang Asli interests and constituents.

To be truly representative as an Orang Asli organization, it had to be seen as representing the views, needs and aspirations of the Orang Asli to the government and the public. No single organization or institution has met these criteria. On the contrary, the variety of claims to Orang Asli representation has provided the state with a new resource for their control: the state was now able to assign, or deny, recognition to the claim of Orang Asli representation. Although POASM has more representatives than the JHEOA or the various Orang Asli business-cooperatives, it was accorded less political representation by the state.

Not infrequently the Orang Asli organizations and institutions that enjoyed political representivity from the state were those mainly motivated by economic gain, and who were not fully accountable to the community they claimed to represent. Invariably, in pursuit of their objectives, the impact of these `representative' organizations on the Orang Asli has been the further appropriation and exploitation of their traditional territories and resources. While it is commonly held that without representation, native organizations would not be able to persuade governments to adopt the policies they prefer, it is a fallacy to assume that only the state should wield the power to assign, or deny, political representation.

Thus, if the Orang Asli are to reassert their autonomy, they must reclaim for themselves the right to assign representation, and not to relegate that power to an external entity. But first, Orang Asli must define, and agree, on what they aspire to. That is to say, there is a need to go beyond demands for mere economic distributive justice.


Rist (1999: 243-4) contends all the `development' measures of the last few decades have resulted in material and cultural expropriation. The failure has been so complete that it would be futile to want to go on as before as this would only lead to an increase in poverty and inequality. Hence, the main task is to restore the political, economic and social autonomy of marginalized societies. No more can be expected of the state, except that it should refrain from stifling the initiatives of grassroots groups.

This is true in the case of the Orang Asli. The single strength that their traditional societies had was the integration of social, political and economic aspects. Rapid change in any one area was avoided as it could adversely affect the whole and weaken the links that bound their society together. On the contrary, under the current model of development, economic growth was seen as an end in itself, divorced from, and often impacting upon, Orang Asli politics and culture.

Thus, an important first step for Orang Asli cultural and political health is for them to regain control over their lives and their future i.e. to regain autonomy. This should logically translate into first regaining ownership and control over their traditional territories. This is not to deny that other issues - such as the threat of assimilation or the erosion of political autonomy - are less significant. On the contrary, the issue of Orang Asli land rights is but the most visible and deeply-felt manifestation of the principal problem facing the Orang Asli viz. the unwillingness of the state to recognize the Orang Asli as a distinct people. For only when such recognition is denied, can policies of assimilation, or appropriation of their traditional territories, for example, be justified.

Using the `land rights' problem as a strategy for Orang Asli political mobilization is also rational because the issue is deeply felt among the communities, easily identifiable, and it is the source of much social stress for the Orang Asli. If Orang Asli are to effectively plan, implement and control their own future, political representation is the key. As many Orang Asli now realize, without political representation they will find themselves in a weak position, vulnerable to social, economic and legal abuse. Nevertheless, political representation can only be effective if such representation is sustained by broad-based support from the community and a willingness to endure initial setbacks.


Orang Asli have applied all manner of non-confrontational methods - including dialogue, lobbying, and use of the media to persuade the state to recognize them as a people and, accordingly, recognize their right to manage their traditional territories and their lives. At least in the current context, however, it is inconceivable that the state will concede any level of autonomy or self-determination to the Orang Asli as it would mean having the state relinquish control over some of its territory and bequeathing to the Orang Asli an aspect of its sovereignty.

The challenge, therefore, is to find ways to separate their relations with the external systems of expansion and domination. To do so, Orang Asli must first alter the status quo and the way the state perceives them. Some of the measures that are being taken, or need to be taken, are discussed below.


Without a doubt, Orang Asli have to negotiate from a position of strength in order to assert their aspirations for autonomy and self-determination. Their relatively small and diverse population, dictates that this should come from political, rather than numeric, strength. Towards this end, a united and visible Orang Asli polity is a prerequisite. This does not mean that the Orang Asli should have a single representative organization. Rather, while allowing for disparate representative Orang Asli organizations and institutions, there should be a commitment by all to a unified goal or vision.


Thus far, Orang Asli activism has largely been in response to threats to their traditional territories and resources. The Orang Asli should recognize that other policies and programs of the state also act to erode, or reject autonomy. These include policies of integration through regroupment and village-twinning programs (with Malays), assimilation through religious conversion, privatization of Orang Asli development and submission to a mainstream education system. The scope of Orang Asli activism should, therefore, be widened to embrace all activities, programs, and policies that seek to erode Orang Asli autonomy and self-determination, no matter how remote and inconsequential they appear to be.


While taking measures to check the erosion of Orang Asli autonomy, political representation should also be made to procure favorable state policies or actions that will promote self-management of Orang Asli communities and traditional territories.

First, the state should be persistently reminded that it is multi-ethnic and that priorities vary accordingly - the Orang Asli, for example, may want to seek quite different futures from the national society. Second, statutory and constitutional guarantees should be provided for the rights of Orang Asli to legal recognition of their lands and resources, to their communal forms of land-holding, to their socio-political and economic organization, and to their religions and languages. The Orang Asli should never be over-administered or overwhelmed with a multiplicity of schemes and policies all determined from outside the community. Persistent political representation in pursuing the above goals not only serves to (very slowly, but surely) persuade the state to consider such contentions and demands, but more importantly, debates and mobilization on these matters help to galvanize broad-based Orang Asli support and solidarity.


In order to avoid potential disagreement over fundamental issues and to further develop solidarity among various Orang Asli groupings and individuals, an integrated assertion of what constitutes their socio-political programme and vision is needed. The process of developing such an ideology is, in itself, expected to further evolve an informed and united Orang Asli polity.


It is commonly held that without representation, Orang Asli organizations would not be able to persuade the state to adopt the policies they prefer. This is because Orang Asli representivity is currently a political resource for the state. Nevertheless, it is a fallacy to assume that representation is the sole prerogative of the state. Political representation of Orang Asli organizations is, in reality, as much a problem for Orang Asli organizations as it is for the state. It remains for the Orang Asli to regain the right to use representivity as a resource for itself. That is, the challenge remains for Orang Asli to turn representivity from a state-assigned status into an Orang Asli-achieved status.

In conclusion, it is clear that the prospect for genuine Orang Asli reconciliation with the state is only possible when the state recognizes the Orang Asli as a separate people worthy of an autonomous existence. It may be necessary for the Orang Asli, however, to first regain their political strength in order to bring the state to this consensus.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.