EXCERPT: The impact of development policies on the Orang Asli in Peninsular M’sia

May 1st, 2006 by Mabel
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We stay poor and everyone else gets rich. The Chinese get rich. The Indians gets rich. The Malays get rich. And they all get rich from the land of us indigenous people. Is that fair?
– Bah Tungkoot, Semai man
(Quoted in Dentan, R. K. et al, 1997)

This paper is a report on the impact of development policies on the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. The aim of this report is to examine the feasibility of current Orang Asli policies with specific regards to modern development theories. Therefore, the paper will be divided into four sections: Introduction, Literature Review, Status Report and Suggestions.

The first section will give some basic and introductory information on the Orang Asli, concentrating briefly only on their historical, political and economical background.

The second section will give a brief introduction on classical and contemporary development theories, concentrating on only the ones that apply to the Orang Asli case. Communication theories, however, do not apply in this case namely because of the report’s developmental and policy based nature.

The third section will include a current status report on these policies as well as a footnote that refers to the background of the assimilation policy and the Islamization policy.

The fourth section will put forth suggestions on how to solve the problems facing Orang Asli and Malaysian policy makers, with references to development theories discussed in the second section.



The Orang Melayu or Malays have always been the definitive people of the Malay Peninsula. The aborigines were never accorded any such recognition nor did they claim such recognition. There was no known aborigine government or aborigine state…It is quite obvious that if today there were four million aborigines, the right of the Malaysia to regard the Malay Peninsula as their own country would be questioned. But in fact there are no more than a few thousand aborigines.
– Mahathir bin Mohamad, Premier of Malaysia
(Quoted in Mohamad, 1970)

The two policies have caused negative effects on Orang Asli groups in Peninsular Malaysia, as it does not reflect the intensity of involvement as well as the basic needs of the Orang Asli. With relations to development theories and models, the move to assimilate the Orang Asli into modern Malaysian society is seen as counter productive, as to be debated in the next section of this chapter.

Poverty and Insecurity
Policies that have been set up by the government are aimed at developing Orang Asli economies but instead have made them more reliant and vulnerable to market prices. The Orang Asli are removed from their self-sustaining economies to a more agriculture base where they are now involved in small scale rubber farms. Thus, this only serves to make them reliant on the fluctuations of market demands on rubber. In most instances, the amount of land provided in the regroupment scheme is inadequate for subsistence crops. The Orang Asli also faced the problem of supporting themselves before their rubber trees mature and began to produce income (Endicott, 1987).

Not only that, they also have no training and experience in farming or agriculture. Instead of being more independent with economic improvement (Nicholas, 1990), the Orang Asli are now vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen and in some cases, officers from the Department (Dentan at el, 1997). The JHEOA (Department of Aboriginal Affairs) Director-General concedes that Orang Asli are the poorest, earning MYR2100 (US$830) annually as opposed to MYR76000, the annual income of an average Malaysian (Dentan at el, 1997).

One result that has been ‘unexpected’ from regroupment policies is the dependence of the Orang Asli on the government. Since the 1940s, especially during the World War, “the Orang Asli have been transformed to a community that is totally dependent on the Department (JHEOA), and the government for even the most trivial of things like, like buying pencils for their school going children” (Mohd Tap, 1990 in Dental et al, 1997). Also, the dependence of Orang Asli has been an excuse for the government to shift blame whenever regroupment schemes fail. Blaming the Orang Asli has only served to enforced more negative stereotypes of Orang Asli (Dentan et al, 1997).

Social Problems
Issues such as alcohol abuse, fights, and prostitution are the results of traditional social organization and norm breakdowns in settlements. With exposure to all-night dancing parties, it has become a norm to consume cheaper forms of alcohol (palm toddy and rice wine). Most drinkers are men and conflicts often arise from alcohol abuse. Incidents of violence and spousal abuse, which have been previously unheard of, are now on the rise in these settlements (Dental et al, 1997). Orang Asli women are also involved in prostitution, mainly for financial reasons. The erosion of traditional knowledge is also a problem as young Orang Asli in villages have no proper schooling and have lost respect for their elders, due to their exposure to the modern world (Dentan et al, 1997, Mohd Tap 1990 in Dentan et al, 1997). As concluded by Mohd Tap, “drinking, dancing and gambling seem to be expressions of their frustration and inability to fulfil their expectations of the ‘good life’” (Mohd Tap, 1990 in Dental et all, 1997).


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