Thoughts on the Selangor River Dam: Orang Asli and the Politics of Indigenousness in Malaysia

Early in January this year, 75 Temuan families living on the banks of the Selangor River in Malaysia learned that their land was in danger of being submerged by the construction of a dam. The Selangor State Government had already taken the first steps by granting permission to developers to conduct a feasibility study for the project. The dam on the Selangor River is intended to alleviate the severe water shortages that the heavilypopulated and increasingly industrialized Klang Valley has been experiencing over the past few years. The Temuan are one group of Orang Asli, or the "Original People" of Malaysia, and it is not the first time that they have been pushed aside in the name of national development. The Selangor River dam would be the fifth built at their expense, and already more are being planned.

Such stories have been heard the world over: developers versus aboriginal natives. For those who are wary of the reductive tendency to sentimentalize such conflicts, this article will begin to unravel the complexity of this particular case. To some, it may seem to be a question of the inevitable loss of a traditional way of life in the face of a changing world, but it is simply a case of real, hard, and entirely contemporary politics. The Orang Asli are not able to own their land because they have been set apart as a separate constitutional category in Malaysia. The Temuan of Pertak and Gerachi, the two villages to be flooded, are all but unable to defend themselves against resettlement without adequate compensation because of this, and because of a national struggle over the right to be "first." Thus, the conflict over the dam strikes at the heart of the concept of "indigenous peoples" and its appropriateness in local contexts, and of the legal categories of a national constitution that supports or defies this concept. It tells the story of a nation intent on industrializing and "modernizing" in the next two decades, and its cherished development project. More importantly, it is the story of a group of people who are struggling to defend their right to choose, if they wish, an alternative lifestyle for their future -- one rooted in their past.

In Malaysia the legal and political issues at stake are particularly contentious because of the nation's intriguing ethnic composition and checkered history. Located in Southeast Asia, for centuries a crossroads of the sea routes and colonial pursuits of the world, Malaysia has several distinct ethnic minorities: the Peninsular part of it is almost a third Chinese and almost a tenth Indian, while the Malays constitute less than 60 percent of the population. In such a nation, claims to indigenousness become a powerful political weapon, as evident in the "Bargain" struck by the Malays and the minorities in 1957: while the Chinese, for example, would be allowed to continue to dominate commerce, they would not question the Malays' birthright, as the "indigenous race," to political dominance. The Malays are the bumiputra, the "sons of the soil," and special quotas guarantee them the majority of places in higher education and government employment. (81 percent of the Orang Asli, by contrast, are classified as termiskin, the "poorest of the poor".)

The Malays' definition is clearly at odds with the one of indigenous people as "non-dominant sectors of society," as defined in 1986 by the United Nations, and echoed by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation. This definition arose in areas of substantial European settlement and applies without question to peoples such as Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and the Maori of New Zealand. But more and more groups throughout the world have been labeling themselves as indigenous to partake of the clout and benefits of the global indigenous people's movement, a trend which is contested by some Asian nations. China and India, for example, argue that the concept is simply inapplicable, if not dangerous, in their part of the world, which has not experienced significant European settlement. Patterns of the migration to these countries by ethnic groups have been quite different, and questions of historical priority take on a political edge that is distinct from those in Canada, Brazil or Australia.

Nevertheless, the Orang Asli, who comprise less than one percent of the population of Malaysia, are generally acknowledged to have been the first inhabitants of the Peninsula. They number around 105,000 people, and the term encompasses at least nineteen distinct groups with varying languages, cultures, economies and physical characteristics. Today they have mostly been pushed into marginal areas such as mountains and foothills, forests and some coastal areas. There is strong archaeological evidence to suggest that at least some of the Orang Asli ethnic groups are descended from people who lived there up to 10,000 years ago, and they definitely predate the arrival of the first Malays some 3,000 years ago. Thus the Orang Asli, like the native inhabitants of Sabah and Sarawak, are (usually) officially accorded bumiputra status, but they are not accorded the same rights as the Malays or their compatriots in Borneo.

Hence, in Pertak and Gerachi, the Temuan fear that they will go the same way as the Orang Asli who were relocated to make way for the nearby Batu Dam fifteen years ago, who have "No money. No medication. No food. No land. No job. No education. No piped water. No electricity. No support." Though dramatically-phrased, this assessment by a journalist is not an inaccurate reflection of the lot of the average Orang Asli dam displacee. Not only do they not own their land in the first place, the compensation they receive is only for the trees they have planted on it, the only thing they legally own -- and even that is arbitrary. But the most salient concern of the Orang Asli represents their most tragic loss: "I am worried because our life and culture will end," says penolong batin (assistant headman) of Gerachi, Yahya anak Tanog.

The Orang Asli are paterealistically "looked after" by the Malay-run Department of Orang Asli Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli -- JHEOA), and they are dependent on it for everything. There is no provision for the Orang Asli to be involved in any decision making, and the Department is the sole negotiator with any party that can affect their fates in any way. Hence, the Temuan were not consulted by any of the parties involved in the planning of the dam, not even about the kind of livelihood compensation they were to receive, or where they were to be resettled -- and this is their chief complaint. They claim that they tried to meet with the state development authorities in January, but were prevented by the JHEOA and too much red tape. The batin (headman) of Pertak, Bida Chik, says: "The [JHEOA] has said that we have agreed to move. That is all lies. We have also not agreed on the spot they have chosen for us. We don't want that place. If they do manage to force us off our land, we want to have a say in where we go." Chik even claims that he was "intentionally misquoted by TV3, which said he was "agreeable" to the project. (TV3 did a voice-over)."

Plans for the compensation of the Temuan are at best vague. The Temuan insist that they were verbally assured that they would receive 5,000 Malay Ringgit per family from JHEOA, an insulting amount. The state government, after the release of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the dam in March, and the media outcry that followed it, hastily announced that it had allocated RM 10 million for the resettlement of all the Temuan, though it has not legally committed itself to anything. Ramsit Anong, batin of Gerachi, says, however, that they will not settle for any less than RM 2 million per household. For comparison, RM 10 million has also been allocated to one other major victim of resettlement alone, a stateowned youth training centre. The developers have also extravagantly promised that they will provide the displaced with three-room houses, amenities, individual land titles, and oil palms, appearing to care little whether oil palm (a highly polluting industry that requires very specific skills) is the Temuans' crop of choice. But promises -- broken or fallen of expectations -- are something the Orang Asli have come to know all too well. The Batu Dam displacees and thousands of others have been left with nothing.

Construction of the dam is to begin before the end of this year, if approval is given. However, the state government, which has a 30 percent stake in the project, has already given the consortium the go-ahead to begin designing the dam, confident that the Department of the Environment's assessment of the EIA will be positive. Never mind that the dam is supposed to silt up within several years with the increased soil erosion from forest clearing, never mind that additional measures will have to be taken to provide water for the burgeoning population by the year 2007 anyway. The Orang Asli will continue to be shortchanged while their legal status keeps them as they are: child-citizens without a voice.

Certainly their separate, "primitive," non-Muslim culture has something to do with it: until the name was officially changed in 1966, they were commonly known by the derogatory term sakai. Other factors are the legacy of colonial rule and the politics of ethnicity in modern Malaysia, as well as a historical accident. During the Communist insurgency, the "Emergency" in the 1950s, when Malaysia was still under British rule, the guerrillas retreated into remote areas and tried to enlist the aid and support of the Orang Asli. As a result, the colonial government enacted the "Aboriginal People's Act" in 1954, ostensibly to protect the Orang Asli from the insurgents by a series of paternalistic measures in the interest of national security. While the Malaysian Constitution guarantees all citizens various rights, including freedoms of religion and speech, the right to own property and access to education, and so on, the Aboriginal People's Act of 1954 curtails some of these rights and places the Orang Asli under government "care." The Act in effect means that they are dependent on the JHEOA, which became a permanent agency of the Republic of Malaysia in 1961, for everything from education, health care, to permission for invited guests to enter their reserves, or to get a passport and leave the country. In addition the Government "may regulate what crops the [Orang Asli] grow, what land they clear, what animals they hunt, and what jobs they take."

The largest obstacle to Orang Asli control of their own destinies, crucial in the Selangor River situation, is their lack of rights to own their land. Once again this is a vestige of colonial rule: under the British, all land not held by individual title belonged to the Crown; after Independence in 1957 it was taken over by the State. The Constitution of the new Republic acknowledged the customary land laws of the natives of Sabah and Sarawak -- but not of the Orang Asli. Most of them lived in remote areas and did not have access to land offices. The Aboriginal People's Act does stipulate, however, that the Orang Asli may apply to have their land gazetted as an Orang Asli Reserve. Most groups who applied and received approval in the 1960s, like the Temuan of the Selangor River Valley, are still waiting for their land to be gazetted. Even a reserve, however, offers little protection, because they still may not hold individual land titles. Stories abound of other groups applying for pieces of Orang Asli land and getting it, or the government taking it away for development purposes, such as airports, universities, plantations, golf courses, or hill resorts. The perennial excuse in these cases is that the Orang Asli were merely "squatters" on state land.

Why does the Federal Government cling to these discriminatory laws which arose in a time of national emergency, half a century ago? Robert Dentan, Kirk Endicott, and other anthropologists who have worked with the Orang Asli claim that this fact clearly indicates a desire on the part of the government of Malaysia to assimilate the Orang Asli into mainstream, Muslim Malay society. This directly contravenes their right to freedom of religion guaranteed by the Malaysian Constitution. According to Dentan et al., it is useful for the government to keep the Orang Asli uneducated, voiceless, and powerless because this will aid the Islamisation and resettlement policies that turn them into Malays. They are an embarrassment or a hindrance as "primitive" jungle dwellers with traditional cultures in a country whose leader has proclaimed in his "Vision 2020" that will be fully modern by the year 2020. Prime Minister Mahathir wants Malaysia's standard of living-to be like that of Singapore or Europe; to achieve this, among other things, its population must more than quadruple in the next century, and primary industries like logging, commercial plantations, and mining must drive the budding service and manufacturing sectors.

The crux of the matter, however, lies in the simple fact that assimilation policies are a powerful political weapon. They "solve a problem for Malay leaders in their competition with Chinese and Indians. The ideological basis for the special privileges of Malays and the special economic program to uplift bumiputera [sic] is that Malays, unlike Chinese or Indians, are indigenous. Many Malays, especially politicians, are unhappy about the existence of a group called the "original people," as it implies that Malays are merely another immigrant group." This motive, the most purely political of those outlined above for the discrimination against the Orang Asli, reveals the contentious and instrumental nature of the term indigenous, and why the Orang Asli cannot contest the Malays' right to being one of the bumiputra, even though they themselves clearly predate their arrival in the Peninsula, and fit the international definition of indigenous much more readily. Ultimately, assimilation gives an Orang Asli "values consonant with life as a state citizen, gives administrators a new avenue of social control, and eliminates indigenous religions that might provide a basis for resistance."

The Orang Asli are resisting, nonetheless. Now that more of them have become educated and aware of their rights, their organizations have begun to have more clout. The Orang Asli Association of Peninsular Malaysia (Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia -- POASM) invited the First Finance Minister to their Annual General Meeting in May this year, where they received his assurance that 127,415 hectares of Orang Asli land nationwide would finally be gazetted. He promised to take the matter up with State Governments (though he also insisted that "the Government would hold steadfastly to the Constitution which gave all Malaysians the opportunity to prosper").

Orang Asli have also been active lobbyists and have pursued justice through the courts. For example, the Jakun people who resettled to make way for the Linggiu Dam sued the state of Johor and the Johor Director of Land and Mines for compensation, and received RM 26.5 million -- for the loss of their livelihood from forest produce and their fruit trees, but not for their land. The Temuan of Selangor are also planning to sue if they are not adequately compensated, but as Colin Nicholas of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) says, "It is a sad reflection of the Government's treatment of the Orang Asli that they should have to resort to the courts to assert this inherent right." Orang Asli are "merely seeking their rightful place in the system of ethnic rights that is put in place in Malaysia."

The villagers of Pertak and Gerachi are waiting for the final verdict on their land and their river. Sadly, they are not the first, nor will they be the last Orang Asli in Malaysia to helplessly face the destruction of their property and their way of life. Their situation reveals the legally and institutionally constrained existence they have been forced to lead since the advent of the independent Malaysia that signalled freedom to most. It also demonstrates that "indigenous" is not a pure descriptive word, but an empty concept whose meaning is politically contestable, and contested. Some writers, therefore, note the implausibility of "indigenousness" as a fixed category, and advocate a more flexible definition based on the common characteristics of marginal ethnic groups other than simply historical priority. Benedict Kingsbury, for example, includes criteria such as "the wish to retain a distinct identity," "long connection with the region", and experience of, or vulnerability to, "disruption, dislocation or exploitation." Using such criteria to form a global network of groups with similar problems may help them in their struggle for self-determination, without entangling them in politically sensitive national questions of who came first.

Finally, the Selangor dam situation serves as a reminder that indigenous and tribal people everywhere are vulnerable to, but also capable of, political and legal maneuvering. The Malaysian government needs to rid itself of the notion that they are not entirely of this world -- that they are somehow anachronistic; and perhaps we all do. Only then will they be able to participate as equals in national and global communities.

Zuzanna Olszewska is a senior at Harvard College, majoring in anthropology.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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