Original and yet second class

OCTOBER 19 — Orang Asli are rarely heard or seen outside of the community, particularly from the privileged view of the so-called civilized and modern world of ours. And when we do see or hear them, it is often when calamity and misfortune strike them, which in turn become instant headlines. 

(Or, if they’re darned “fortunate”, a number of Orang Asli would appear — with a strained smile plastered on the faces — on a tourist postcard or poster, or conveniently paraded on the television screen on Merdeka/Malaysia Day to lend credibility to claims of ethnic and cultural diversity in the country.) 

The recent disappearance of seven Orang Asli schoolchildren in Pos Tohoi in Gua Musang for 47 long days is a case in point. Only two of them were later found alive, having survived on river water and fruits in the thick jungle. 

What’s equally disturbing — and newsworthy to boot — is the allegation that these young kids ran away into the jungle to escape possible disciplinary action from their teachers after they had a dip in a nearby river. 

Swimming in the river may be one of the many prohibitions prescribed by most government schools such as Sekolah Kebangsaan Pos Tohoi, but surely the schoolchildren need not be terrified, if not traumatised, allegedly of the school authorities so that they felt compelled to flee to the extent of endangering their precious lives. 

Such an incident only reinforces the concern of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) that recently reports that it "continues to receive complaints of abuse by teachers and is appalled by the actions of teachers who abuse, bully and/or mistreat Orang Asli children in their care.” 

One hopes that Malaysians won’t need to hear of yet another human tragedy to remind them that all is not well with the Orang Asli community in the country. This is because Suhakam has already expressed disappointment with Putrajaya for having neglected its recommendations to improve the socio-economic status of the community, which resulted in the continuing social and economic marginalisation of the Orang Asli and violation of their human rights.  

It’s shamefully outrageous that the welfare of the original inhabitants of this land did not get the rapt attention and action they deserve by a federal administration whose members are conceivably mostly composed of pendatang origins. In this regard, the government leaders, like some of us in the apparently civilised world, do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticising the way, say, the Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines were treated by their respective governments. 

To be sure, the Orang Asli do need an improvement in their collective life in such areas as education, health, culture and even politics. For instance, schools and clinics near to their abode and meaningful political representation would be of immense benefit to the community. The school syllabus should incorporate adequate information about the Orang Asli. These are indeed their human rights. 

Having said that, one ought to be mindful that to say that the Orang Asli have the right to education, health etc that come from the mainstream of our national life is not the same as proposing cultural assimilation to this community. For we have to respect their right to their cultural and political identities, which are important for self-preservation. That is why, for instance, crass attempts at religious proselytisation of the Islamic or Christian variety can be a bane to the spiritual existence of some members of the community. 

Besides, the Orang Asli community has a lot to offer to those living in the seemingly civilised world in such areas as education and culture. They could show to us, especially the “development” predators, how to respect and care for Mother Nature. The Orang Asli could provide a guiding light especially when it comes to the issue of deforestation that has now been made, regretfully, synonymous to economic progress. 

This is especially so when the forces of “modernisation” and “progress” often encroach and infringe upon the lifestyle, traditions and heritage of the Orang Asli whenever there are highways and dams to be built, or housing estates or oil palm plantations to be created. The sanctity of their customary land tends to be violated by the state. 

And just because we don’t normally hear of their grouses, fears, needs and dreams in the national narratives, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a contented lot without life’s problems. For one thing, the Orang Asli as a community does not have the wherewithal, such as a public relations outfit, to inform in a systematic fashion the public about themselves or help shape policies pertaining to their collective interests. 

Indeed, a lack of economic and political clout among the Orang Asli becomes a deterrent to them having a substantive voice in the national discourse. 

This situation is exacerbated by the lack of coverage by the urban-centric media of the Orang Asli so that they invariably become invisible particularly to the urbane public. As intimated above, the Orang Asli only become “visible” if and when incidents or events revolving around the community occur and consequently draw public attention. 

Even if occasionally there is information about the Orang Asli, it is likely that it comes from a secondary source, not from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. This means that a story about the Orang Asli is defined and shaped by the viewpoints held by this external source, such as the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which may not necessarily convey accurate information. 

Orang Asli, just like the natives (collectively called Orang Asal) in the jungles of Sabah and Sarawak, should be seen and heard. There are pertinent and vital issues that can be investigated and brought to the fore by journalists, such as the impact of modernisation on the community particularly the younger generation, alcoholism among the young, exploitation of Orang Asli labour and ignorance, the loss of customary land, the protection of indigenous knowledge about, say, plants of medicinal value, the erosion of their culture and heritage, and loss of languages. 

In so doing, the media and other concerned Malaysians not only help to raise the status of the indigenous peoples to equal citizenry, but also protect and promote their human rights and also at the same time curb the patronising attitude of the outsiders towards the perceived uncivilised and primitive people. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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