Thursday, 17 January 2019

Letter to the Editor: Orang Asal Communities Deserve Greater Voice and Representation


Pakatan Harapan candidate M. Manogaran’s statement that the Malay community “would not even buy kuih from the Orang Asal, let alone vote for an Orang Asal candidate”, may be tactless and distasteful, but is less of a denunciation of the Orang Asal communities than an attestation that our society has unequivocally failed Orang Asal communities. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society would not vote for an Orang Asal candidate is not a sign that the candidate is unqualified or incapable, but a sign that we as a society have so systemically marginalised and ‘othered’ the Orang Asal that we mistake injustice and a denial of rights for protection and concern. We have normalised paternalism and oppression, and passed it off as safety and stability. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society “would not even buy kuih from the Orang A(sal)” is not a sign that the Orang Asal are not capable of running their own businesses, but a symptom of the pervasive religious indoctrination that depicts non-believers as unclean and uncivilised infidels. 

That Pakatan Harapan senator Bob Manolan Mohamad’s threat to stop the payment of stipends to the Tok Batin of Orang Asal communities had sparked public indignation is not a sign that the Orang Asal communities are unable to survive without governmental handouts and public donations, but a sign that the government has denied the Orang Asal self-determination and self-sufficiency and offered them handouts as a miserable compensation for the same. It is a sign that protectionist laws, policies and government agencies have disenfranchised the Orang Asal and given them welfare in the place of rights. Land and property laws and policies have demoted the Orang Asal from the position of stewards and guardians of their customary land to the position of squatters and tenants-at-will, to be evicted by property developers and state governments and displaced and relocated at the convenience of the authorities. 

Our Orang Asal are not living museum pieces to be objectified and ogled at by tourists and anthropologists, or passive recipients of government handouts. Orang Asal communities do not need our condescension, interference, religious proselytisation or cast-off clothing and toys. They need representation, the right to be heard and the right to control their own destiny. They cannot continue to be patronised and treated as wards of the government and mainstream society, but must instead have the opportunity to exercise their autonomy, structure their own solutions and make decisions related to their land rights, political rights and the fate of their communities. 

Our Orang Asal are not a homogenous cultural group but consist of many different ethnic subgroups with distinct languages and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, what is needed is more Orang Asal representatives to bridge the divide between Orang Asal communities and government decision-makers, and more Orang Asal activists speaking up for each community and their specific needs. What Orang Asal communities need and deserve are representatives in parliament, governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations who can advocate for their communities and make decisions without fear or favour and without being coerced into converting their religion or becoming sycophants for political parties. 

Fielding and voting in more Orang Asal candidates would create opportunities for the Orang Asal communities to participate in decisions that would affect their rights, lives and fates. If there were actual and adequate representation and autonomy for Orang Asal communities, they would not have to resort to measures such as blockades and petitions just to get their voices heard. Nobody enjoys having to participate in blockades and marches to Parliament – farms, families and villages have to be left unattended when Orang Asal activists are away and income is lost. Fielding just one Orang Asal candidate does not make us an inclusive and diverse society any more than giving handouts to Tok Batins of Orang Asal communities make us a caring and compassionate society. That we are not fielding more Orang Asal candidates is not an indication that the Orang Asal communities are uninterested in politics or that there are insufficient qualified candidates, but an indication that we as a society have been deaf and blind to the rights, needs and concerns of the Orang Asal for too long. 

The first step to recognising the rights of the Orang Asal for us as a society is to prioritise the security and control of the Orang Asal over their native customary lands, and to include and consult the Orang Asal in any discussions on land use and any development and education processes and policies that affect them. We need to implement and enforce laws to ensure Orang Asal land rights are protected. We need to recognise the Orang Asal communities’ role in conservation and learn from them. Until we have more Orang Asal voices in positions of leadership, the fielding of token Orang Asal candidates by political parties and coalitions amount to nothing more than insincere and empty gestures.