The silent and gagged force

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The power tussles in Perak mean the Orang Asli are again ignored.

 

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It is not that they haven’t asked for help. They have. But not many bothered to listen.I mean no disrespect to anyone in the recent Kampar tragedy, but there are some for whom a safe crossing across the river is a daily and dangerous struggle.

‘They’ are the forgotten few. Decades ago, they helped us rid the country of communists. During peacetime, they collected valuable jungle produce for our consumption. We once found them curious objects, worthy of anthropological study. Today, they are conveniently used to inflate numbers in proselytization. In an earlier era, they were hunted for slavery. Sadly, they are still hounded. Until recently, they had a ‘voice’. Who are they? They are the Orang Asli of Perak.

In Perak, the Orang Asli live in 248 villages, in the forest fringes or the interior. Half these communities are moderately developed; the rest, remain undeveloped. Malaysia’s Orang Asli population, around 147,000 (2003), has a high poverty rate (80%) with a sizeable (35%) hardcore poor. The literacy rate is low (43%), the life expectancy is only 53 years and their infant mortality rate is high.

True Malaysians

They are the true, original Malaysians but don’t enjoy all the benefits, opportunities and incentives. We take for granted everyday things like clean running water and electricity. Not them. Besides, they have little or no access to opportunities in health, education, infrastructure, skills training and business.

They are considered an inconvenience. Only a few, like the nomadic Jahai and Batek, take advantage of the seasonal forest bounties for their livelihood. When it suits the authorities, the Orang Asli are moved on – first, their ancestral lands are confiscated; second, they are resettled. Then, when someone, or some company strikes a lucrative land deal, in road building, logging, mining or a housing project, they are again shoved. That the Orang Asli are nomadic is only an Urban Myth.

Conversion Targets

Each different group has its own language, culture, and occupation. Coastal Orang Asli are mainly fishermen; those living in forested areas, practice hill paddy cultivation, hunting, fishing and gathering. We are repulsed that they practice animism. Since the mid-1800s, they have been targeted by the Catholics, the Methodists, the Bahais and lately, the Muslims. Missionaries, regardless of the cloak worn, and whichever book of God they subscribe to, consider the Orang Asli as lost souls.

Recently, Kelantan enticed its Muslim preachers with RM10,000 to marry an Orang Asli woman, in efforts to propagate Islam. This idea was first launched in 2006 because of dissatisfaction with the conversion rate. Interestingly, the offer included free accommodation, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a fixed monthly allowance of RM1,000.

This financial inducement is morally wrong and objectionable. How does one differentiate between the sincere attraction for the religion or otherwise? What will stop the proliferation of bogus preachers? This marriage of convenience is not made-in-heaven and should the Orang Asli spouse wish to abandon Islam, for whatever reason, she will find it an impossibility.

Why not leave them alone? We have grabbed their lands, denied them their rightful place in society, withheld their social and political dues, removed their identity, culture and language, and now we want to own their souls too? We transplant them into unfamiliar surroundings, then conveniently blame them for giving in to vice, violence and drugs.

Perak’s Efforts Must be Revived

Fortunately, Perak is free of such underhand, tainted bribes.

In 2008, Pakatan Rakyat formed the Orang Asli Taskforce. However, the power tussles in Perak mean the Orang Asli are once again ignored. Revive this Taskforce. Seriously empower them. Engage them. Encourage them in decision-making. Return their dignity. And reinstate their distinctive identity. It is time we acted with humility, rather than drag them into obscurity.

Mariam Mokhtar