Orang asli

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For the Orang Asli, the forest functions as their shopping mall, their work place, their utilities provider, their playground, their cultural center, and it houses their religion. It explains why almost all of the young adult Temuan Orang Asal in Desa Temuan, an orang asli resettlement housing estate in Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, want to leave for the forest, even though some of them practically grew up in the city.[1]
Location of Orang Asli groups, and the evolution of settlers in the Malay peninsula.

Orang Asli (lit, "original peoples" or "aboriginal peoples" in Malay) is a general term for the indigenous groups that are found in Peninsular Malaysia. These indigenous groups, however, feel that "Orang Asal" is a more accurate term than Orang Asli.[3]

The Orang Asli are divided into 3 main tribal groups:

  1. Semangs (Negritos), usually found in the northern region of the peninsula;
  2. Senois in the central region; and
  3. Proto-Malays (aboriginal Malays) in the southern region.

The Orang Asli are further subdivided into 6 sub-ethnic groups each (see table below right), according to their different languages and customs.

2.  Demography: In 2000, the Orang Asli comprise only 0.5% of the total population in Malaysia.[4] Their population is approximately 148,000.[5] The largest group are the Senois, constituting about 54% of the total Orang Asli population. The Proto-Malays form 43%, and the Semang forming 3%.[5]

The poverty rate among Orang Asli is 76.9%.[2] In addition to this high rate, the Statistics Department of Malaysia has classified 35.2% of the population as being "hardcore poor". The majority of Orang Asli live in rural areas, while a minority have moved into urban areas. In 1991, the literacy rate for the Orang Asli was 43% compared to the national rate of 86% at that time.[2] They have an average life expectancy of 53 years (52 for male and 54 for female). A high infant mortality rate is also evident with 51.7 deaths per 1000 births.[6]

Orang Asli population by groups and subgroups (2000)[7]
Semang Senoi Aboriginal Malay
Bateq (1,519)Che Wong (234) Jakun (21,484)
Jahai (1,244) Jahut (2,594) Orang Kanaq (73)
Kensiu (254) Mah Meri (3,503) Orang Kuala (3,221)
Kintak (150) Semai (34,248) Orang Seletar (1,037)
Lanoh (173) Semoq Beri (2,348) Semelai (5,026)
Mendriq (167) Temiar (17,706) Temuan (18,560)
Total: 113,541
Excluding those living in designated Orang Asli settlements which would amount to about 20,000 more people.

3.  Languages: The division of Orang Asli into 3 categories are not due to linguistic differences but merely sociological. Generally, the orang asli language is part of the Austro-Asiatic language group, whereas the Malay language is part of the Austronesian language group, a family of language spread across the islands of Southeast Asia. Through contact with these people, the language of the Proto-Malay have acquired Austronesian features.

The Semelai and the majority of Orang Asli sub-ethnics speak languages classified as Aslian languages. This is further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut.[8] The languages which fall under the Jahaic language group are the Che Wong, Jahai, Bateq, Kensiu, Kintak, and Menriq languages. The Lanoh language, Temiar language, and Semai language fall into the Senoic language category. Languages that fall into the Semelaic group include the Semelai language, Semoq Beri language, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri group). Meanwhile, some Orang Asli minorities speak languages classified as Aboriginal Malay languages. This includes the Jakun and Temuan languages among others.[9]

Besides these, most Orang Aslis are fluent in the Malay language, the official language of Malaysia.

Evolution of Orang Asli settlers in the Malay peninsula.

4.  History: According to the Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the Negritos, who number approximately 2,000, are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They are of Australo-Melanesian affinity and probably descend from the people of Hoabinhian cultural period, with many of their burials found dating back 10,000 years ago. They speak the Aslian languages which is part of the Austro-Asiatic language family, as do their Senoi agriculturalist neighbours. Negritos belong to various subgroups, namely the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq and Bateq. Those from Perak, Kedah and Pahang are also known as Semang, the meaning of "Semang" is debt slaves, while those from Kelantan and Terengganu were called Pangan, the forest peoples. The Senoi and Proto-Malay arrived much later probably during the Neolithic period. Orang Asli are traditionally animists, where they believe in the presence of spirits in various objects.[10] However, in the 21st century, many of them have embraced monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity[10] following some active state-sponsored dakwah by Muslims, and evangelism by Christian missionaries.[11]

Orang Asli living in remote forest areas engaged in some trading with the Malays, with jungle produce being exchanged for salt, knives and metal axe-heads. There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among certain tribes. It has also been shown that the Orang Asli have played a significant role in the Malay Peninsula's economic history as collectors and primary traders as early as the 5th Century A.D. An early 19th century report also tells of Negritos providing forest products as tribute to the Malay chiefs of the river basins they resided in. [1] Orang Asli kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in the 1st millennium AD. Living in the interior they bartered in land products like resins, incense woods and feathers for salt, cloth and iron tools. The rise of the Malay sultanates, coinciding with trade in Orang Asli slaves, forced the group to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders. Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were quite common feature back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as 'kafirs', 'non-humans', 'savages' and 'jungle-beasts.' The modus operandi was basically to swoop down a settlement and then kill off all the adult men. Women and children were captured alive as they are 'easier to tame.' The captives Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour. Slaves trade soon developed and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The derogatory term sakai is used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of the 20th century meant slave or dependent. Many of the elders Orang Asli still remember this sad period of their history, and they detest being called Sakai. [2]

The arrival of British colonists brought further inroads in the lives of Orang Asli. They were the target of Christian missionary and subjects of anthropological research.[12] During the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960, the Orang Asli became a vital component of national security, as with their help, the Malaysian army was able to defeat the communist insurgents. Two administrative initiatives were introduced to highlight the importance of Orang Asli as well to protect its identity. The initiatives were the establishment of the Department of Aborigines in 1950, and the enactment of the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance in 1954. After independence, the development of Orang Asli become the prime objective of the government where the government adopted a policy in 1961 to integrate the Orang Asli into the wider Malaysian society.[12]

Within the decades of 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia was in the period of sustained growth. With development that emphasize modernization and industrialization, new lands were developed. This development has resulted in encroachments on Orang Asli land. In response of this encroachment, the Orang Asli mobilized themselves and formed the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM). With this association, the Orang Asli has become more visible and vocal.[12]

An Orang Asli Story - The REAL Malaysia Captured on Video 3 of 6
(Uploaded by PahlawanVolunteers on 17 December 2008)

5.  Legal status in Malaysia: The Orang Asli are classified as bumiputeras,[11] a status signifying indigeneity to Malaysia and carrying with it certain social, economic, and political rights, along with the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. The government agency entrusted to oversee the affairs of the Orang Asli is the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs) (JHEOA), a body set up in 1954 under the Malaysian Ministry of Rural Development.[13] Among its stated objectives are to eradicate poverty among the Orang Asli, improving their health, promoting education, and improving their general livelihood. Notwithstanding, in 1997, after 40 years of independence, 80% of all Orang Asli still lived below the poverty line. This ratio is extremely high compared to the national poverty rate of 8.5% at that time.[14] The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli Reserve Land. However, the Act also includes the power accorded to the Director-General of the JHEOA to order Orang Asli out of such reserved land at its discretion, and award compensation to affected people, also at its discretion.[15] A landmark case on this matter is in the 2002 case of Sagong Tasi v. Government of Selangor. The case was concerned with the state using its powers conferred under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favour of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.[15]

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