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10 Issues Facing The Indigenous And Native Communities In Malaysia

The indigenous and native communities residing in Malaysia are composed of Orang Asli, Orang Ulu and the Anak Negeri. In 2017, it was estimated that around 13.8% of the 31,660,700 million national population are the Indigenous Peoples Of Malaysia[1].

Defining The Indigenous And Native Communities In Malaysia 

  1. The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority in Peninsular Malaysia. There are 18 Orang Asli subgroups within the Negrito (Semang), Senoi and Aboriginal-Malay groups accounting for 0.64% (206,777)[2] of the population of Peninsular Malaysia (32,400,000) in 2020[3].
  2. In Sabah, the Indigenous ethnic groups are known as natives or Anak Negeri. In 2017, it made up 56.8% (2,233,100) of Sabah’s 3,813,200 population. There are 39 different indigenous ethnic groups in Sabah including Dusun, Murut, Paitan and Bajau groups[1].
  3. In Sarawak, the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Lunbawang, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan, Kejaman, Ukit, Sekapan, Melanau and Penan are collectively known as natives (Dayak and/or Orang Ulu). The community constituted around 1,932,600 (70.5%) of Sarawak’s population of 2,707,600 in 2017[1].

Despite Malaysia’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Populations in 2007, the indigenous population has been riddled with perpetuating issues worsened by existing inequalities. The indigenous communities are identified as a vulnerable population as many are unable to access basic facilities such as healthcare. Many are living on the fringes of poverty despite being the first people of the land.

We have highlighted 10 issues continuously plaguing the indigenous community and whether progress has been made over the years.

#1: A Piece Of Land To Call Their Own

  • In the National Land Act, there is a clear indication of Orang Asli’s customary land rights in the National Land Code. This was placed under the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 allowing the community to remain on their ancestral lands. However, less than 20% of their ancestral lands are legally acknowledged as Orang Asli lands[4].
  • With growing land scarcity and development projects being approved, some, like the Mah Meri group have been at risk of being evicted[5] or unknowingly signed their land over to developers due to illiteracy such as the Batek group in Kelantan[6].
  • In East Malaysia, the British colonial rule recognised the customary land rights of the Indigenous Peoples[1]. However, authorities have ignored the laws and given priority to profit-making activities such as logging, creating plantations and building dams. The Penan villagers of Ulu Belaga, for example, were promised seven acres of land to build new homes. However, the building of new homes remains stagnant due to the lack of building materials provided[7].
  • The Bajau Laut community, familiarly known as the ‘sea nomads’, live in wooden shacks on stilts. The houseboats sometimes house up to ten inhabitants[8].

#2: Still Riddled With Poverty

  • In 2019, a finding from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) indicated that 99.2% of the Peninsular Orang Asli population were in the B40 income bracket earning less than RM4,000 a month[9].
  • A study focusing on the Orang Asli in Terengganu found that the community earned less than RM 880 a month, lower than the national poverty line of RM2,208[10].
  • The Orang Asli communities, such as Orang Laut, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri are coastal dwellers and rely on sea provisions. Communities such as the Temuan, Jakun and Semai practice agriculture and manage their rubber, oil palm or cocoa farm. Those living in the forest hunt for forest resources such as petai, durian, rattan and resin to generate income. However, their earnings can fluctuate according to market prices and harvest.
  • Communities such as the Mah Meri have diverged into tourism and earn a living through their cultural village, performing and selling handicrafts. However, the pandemic and possible eviction have resulted in the loss of income.
  • In Belaga, Sarawak, where the ethnic groups of Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Ukit and Lahanan ethnic groups reside, the median household income is RM3,442[11] lower than the state’s RM4,554 median and the national median income of RM 5,873.
  • The villagers in Belaga lived off the land and sold handicrafts and jungle products. However, on average, the families living in the longhouse don’t earn RM1,000 a month in 2020[12].
Source: Time Out KL

#3: Limited To No Access To Basic Infrastructure

In 2015, 92% of the Malaysian population reportedly had access to safely managed water and 82% to safely managed sanitation[13].

However, these statistics do not reflect the lack of necessities of piped water, proper toilets and electricity in indigenous communities’ dwellings.

  • 53% of Orang Asli communities do have access to piped water in 2020[14]. In a Jakun dwelling, it was found that proper toilets and proper waste management are also absent in their village.
  • The lack of waste management insinuates issues of waste disposal and pollution. At the same time, improper sanitation and low water quality cause health issues amongst the indigenous communities.

#4: Health And Wellbeing Of These Communities Are Compromised

  • Compared to the national average life expectancy of 73 years, the Orang Asli’s life expectancy is 53 years old[15]. The infant mortality of the Orang Asli community is 51.7% among 1,000 live births[15]. Many of the children die before their fifth birthday.
  • Due to the limited access to clean water, the Orang Asli community is prone to contracting parasitic infection, at a 90% higher rate compared to other communities[16].
  • Bajau Laut children are prone to skin infections, hookworm or skin lesions. Severe health problems amongst adults are malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis [17].
  • The malnutrition registered in the Orang Asli communities is considerably high. This owes to insufficient income to sustain nutritional and healthy diets. Child malnutrition among Orang Asli children is between 30-60%[18], higher than the national average for moderate malnutrition at 7.5% and 0.6% of children are severely malnourished[18].
  • When the indigenous communities fall sick, visiting a healthcare provider is a perilous journey. The Penans in Ulu Belaga, Sarawak, are forced to travel to Sungai Asap Medical Centre, a three hours journey from their settlements. Some would not have the same access to healthcare due to their stateless status. Due to this, mobile clinics run by NGOs fill in the gaps in providing rural healthcare to the indigenous communities.
Source: MyMetro

#5: Education Is A Privilege To Them

A way to escape the poverty cycle is to gain an education, but for the indigenous communities, sometimes the odds are stacked against them. Due to this, dropout rates of Orang Asli children reached 26% in 2017 compared to the national rate of 4%[19].

Source: Bernama
  • The children may only start school at Primary One, with no prior preparation when it comes to reading and writing. At the same time, the children may be taught in their indigenous languages and their tribe’s folklore making it harder for them to grasp lessons conducted in the national language and English[20].
  • There have been educational aids provided to the Jabatan Kebajikan Orang Asli (JAKOA). However, it was insufficient. Only 30% of Orang Asli completed their secondary education in 2018[20].
  • The pandemic threw another curveball to the community as learning shifted online, the community did not have internet access or the connectivity was slow in their area; to attend online classes. Further, their communities and parents have limited IT literacy[21].
  • In East Malaysia, it is common to read that students would have to wake up early and travel to school on muddy roads. As a solution, boarding schools are built in rural areas.
  • For example, all school-going children from Ulu Belaga from Matu Tungang Longhouse did not attend school as the nearest school is two hours away and their parents were unable to send them daily. However, the costly transportation to boarding schools is enough to deter the parents from enrolling their children in school[7].
  • But there have been success stories from the indigenous communities, some rising above the difficulties and successes, such as Professor Dr Bahari Belaton, Hamdan Akau and Teacher Ayu. But, more has to be done to ensure the indigenous communities are provided with the education they deserve.

#6: Period Pains Are Not Their Only Concern

Period or menstruation affects women in different communities differently. To the indigenous girls and women, the time of the month posed various issues ranging from inaccessibility to sanitary products, lack of proper sanitation and hygiene and infrastructure, and some still view menstruation with taboo-tinted glasses.

  • Menstruating girls in indigenous communities are at risk of dropping out of school as many are absent during the time of the month. Procuring sanitary pads in the community requires travelling out of the village and the price is expensive.
  • In place of sanitary pads, women and girls opt to use old cloth or other non-absorbent materials such as coconut husks, banana leaves and newspapers. However, the methods are unhygienic and expose them to severe health risks and urinary tract infections (UTI). Changemakers such as Athena Empowers, Bulan Sisters and Bunga Pads are working to combat period poverty by providing sanitary supplies and promoting reproductive health to the communities.

#7: Children Married Off For Financial Security

The incidences of child marriages amongst indigenous communities often are underreported. The national Act that stipulated minimum marrying age does not apply to native communities. Their marriages and divorces are subjected to native customary law or customs.

  • Due to this exception, child marriage practices are common. It was reported by the Sarawak Council for Customs and Traditions, that 1,472 child marriages took place between 2011-2016 amongst the natives[22].
  • One of the perpetrators of child marriage is poverty. During the lockdowns, three reported cases of child marriages were found among the Orang Asli communities[23]. Parents sought economic security by marrying off their children to ease the financial strain.
  • The incidences of child marriages weigh heavier on girls as many would drop out of school, and become mothers at a young age exposing them to health risks and a life with unfulfilled potential.

 #8: The Detriments Of A Modern World

Sometimes development and provision of facilities may not all be in good faith. The Kensiu tribe in Baling, Kedah, were exposed to substances that had made their community become substance abusers and addicts.

  • The influx of cheap alcohol and drugs in the early 90s was the start of youths getting hooked on the substance. However, the severity of alcoholism is more apparent in expectant mothers. Due to this, their children were born with multiple disabilities and suffered from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASDs)[24].
  • Another harmful practice is glue-sniffing which has also been observed amongst the children of the Bajau Laut community in Sabah as a method to combat hunger.

#9: Some Remain Invisible And Without An Identity

Despite being the first people of the land, some tribes remain stateless and are not entitled to the rights proclaimed to them.

  • One of the marginalised stateless communities is the Bajau Laut. In fear of prosecution, many live out in the sea in dilapidated boat houses.
  • Another is the Penan living in the heart of Ulu Belaga. The Penan Affairs Department of the Sarawak Planning Unit stated that there were 21,367 Penan in 2019. Despite being classified as Bumiputera, their lack of identification and documentation to denote their citizenship removed them from enjoying the privileges[25].

#10: Isolated From Government Aids

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the indigenous communities were living in isolation, in fear and cash-strapped.

  • Orang Asli in Kampung Lubuk Perah, Pahang, were hesitant to leave their settlements for fear of being arrested or infected[26]. The palm oil plantations, once their source of income was closed during the pandemic lockdowns. This left them high and dry without an income. It also resulted in food shortages in Kampung Chang Sungai Gepai in Bidor, Perak[27].
  • Some took the initiative of barricading their villages from outsiders who might infect the villagers. Those who were living on forest fringes retreated further into the forest to acquire sustenance.
  • In the moment of crisis, the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) found that the implementation of government food aid programmes and cash stimulus packages had hiccups.
  • Civil society organisations stepped in to provide help where necessary, as part of a contingency plan; KUASA (Persatuan Aktivis Sahabat Alam), KAMY (Klima Action Malaysia), Gerimis Art Project and Shaq Koyok, an orang Asli have trained OA communities in Pahang to farm, security of when lockdowns happen again.

Explore our sources:

  1. The International Work Group For Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). (2020). Indigenous World 2020: Malaysia. Link
  3. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2022). Key Findings Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2020: Administrative District. Link 
  4. Y. Subramaniam. (2021). Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli land rights: A new deal for new Malaysia? University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute. Link.
  5. W.Muthiah. (2021).PNSB, Mah Meri Orang Asli to settle land dispute amicably. The Star. Link
  6. C. Humphrey. (2019). Indigenous communities, nat’l parks suffer as Malaysia razes its reserves. Mongabay. Link.
  7. SUHAKAM. (2007). Penan in Ulu Belaga: Right to Land and Socio-Economic Development. Link.
  8. H. Chiew. (2019). ​Bajau Laut: Once Sea Nomads, Now Stateless.​ Malaysiakini. Link.
  9. A. Lai. (2019). Poverty: More than meets the eye. The Star. Link.
  10. Ramli, MW. (2020). Keadaan ekonomi komuniti orang asli Semoq Beri di Kampung Sungai Berua, Terengganu. Research Gate. Link.
  11. Wiki Impact. (2020). Poverty Project: Household Income Map. Link
  12. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2019). Household Income & Basic Amenities Survey Report. Link. 
  13. World Health Organisation & UNICEF (2015). Joint Monitoring Programme. Link 
  14. Metro News. (Sept 2020). Committed to bringing clean water to Orang Asli villages. The Star. Link.
  15. T. Masron, F. Masami, N. Ismail. (2013). Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia: population, spatial distribution and socio-economic condition. Link
  16. Elyana, FN. et al. (2016). A tale of two communities: intestinal polyparasitism among Orang Asli and Malay communities in rural Terengganu, Malaysia. NCBI. Link.
  18. A. Singh. (2019). Malnutrition and Poverty among the Orang Asli (Indigenous) Children of Malaysia. Link.
  19. New Straits Times. (2020). Improve education policies FOR Orang Asli Children: New Straits Times. NST Online. Link.
  20. K. K. Abdillah. (2018). Poverty and Primary Education of the Orang Asli Children. Link.
  21. Kamarudin, K. (2019). Orang asli’s ICT challenge. The Star. Link
  22. Ng K., Seah S., Tay S. (2020). Married at 12, a mother at 13: a Malaysian child bride’s story. South China Morning Post. Link.
  23. UNICEF. (2020). Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Vulnerable Children & Families in Malaysia. United Nations Children’s Fund. Link.
  24. M.N.Aswad. (2019). Helping the Kensiu tribe fight problems of drugs and alcohol. New Straits Times. Link.
  25. J.Laeng, N.Sim & H.H.Lim. (2021). Hundreds of indigenous bumiputera in Sarawak still stateless. Malaysiakini. Link
  26. Tan, V. (2020). Isolated and short of SUPPLIES, Malaysia’s indigenous groups depend on aid to ride OUT movement control ORDER. CNA. Link.  
  27. IWGIA (2021). The indigenous world 2021: Malaysia. Link.

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