According to data from 2019, the Orang Asli (OA) population amounts to 210,611 within Peninsular Malaysia, comprising 18 tribes and each possessing its own unique culture, language and social norms.
Poverty is also a huge problem within the OA communities, with the poverty rate among the Orang Asli standing at 89.4% in 2019. Colin Nicholas, coordinator for the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) added that 99.25% of the OA community is in the B40 income bracket.
Alongside poverty, there are many issues that are also prevalent in the OA communities including the lack of education, lack of governmental aid, shortage of food supply due to the destruction of their forests and so on.
However, there are powerhouse women within the OA community looking to give back, support and aid their communities. These women have also carved paths for the rest of the OA communities and generations to come. Here are just eight of them:
#1: Sapiah Mohd Nor, the first Orang Asli Woman appointed as the Director-General of the Orang Asli Development Department
Sapiah Mohd Nor made history as she became the first Orang Asli woman from the community to be appointed as the Director-General of the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa).
Last year, she received her letter of appointment from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob during a ceremony that was held at the Prime Minister’s office.
Her appointment also created history in Jakoa, with a woman leading the department, subsequently increasing the involvement of women in the decision-making process involving the Orang Asli community in the civil service. – Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, Rural Development Minister
Sapiah graduated and obtained a Master’s Degree in the domain of Business Law from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 2007.
Sapiah’s years of service have allowed her to climb the career mobility ladder. She joined the civil service and became an assistant administrative officer in 1991. She also has 30 years of experience across several government departments and ministries which include the Finance Ministry, Primary Industry Ministry and the Public Service Department.
Just before being appointed as the Director-General, she served as an enforcement officer with the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry since 2003.
#2: Tijah Chopil, Founder of Sinui Pai Nanuk Sngik
Tijah Chopil is of Semai descent and has been a distinguished leader of the OA community. In 1995, she founded Sinui Pai Nanuk Sngik (SPNS) which means New Life, One Heart. SPNS fights for and advocates for the OA’s rights.
A part of what led to establishing SPNS was Tijah’s struggles and journey as an OA. Throughout her life, Tijah has had unpleasant encounters as an OA, even as an 8-year-old. The unfair and rude treatment OAs faced, limited rights, along with numerous other issues, presented as a constant for the OA communities.
Tijah knew something has to change.
Aside from her willingness to instil change, what helped her was Tijah’s independence which was moulded at a young age. As the 6th of 10 children, she took it upon herself to help her mother after her father passed away when she was only 12 years old, aiding her mother in raising the younger siblings.
When she was 17, she realised that education could change the realities of the OA. Tijah taught her siblings and neighbours’ kids to read and write. She eventually started tutoring and spreading her knowledge, beginning an evening kindergarten in her village.
Inspired to do more for the OA, she took a leap and started changing lives within her community in ways she could best.
I found the men who claimed to be our leaders were not really engaging with the community or finding creative ways to solve our problems. So instead of waiting for them, I decided to start my own group. I decided to engage with the womenfolk and we called ourselves Kumpulan Ibu-Ibu Kampung Chang (Kampung Chang’s Women’s Group). – Tijah Chopil, Founder of Sinui Pai Nanuk Sngik (SPNS)
Kumpulan Ibu-Ibu Kampung Chang (Kampung Chang’s Women’s Group) is now known as Sinui Pai Nanuk Sngik. The organisation voices out OA’s rights and runs classes and workshops for the OA community. SPNS also successfully fought off land threats and incursions into their native customary territories.
After many years, the young people who had been my students and the womenfolk became my strong allies. They helped me organise the community when there are land incursions or when we need to voice our demands to the government. – Tijah Chopil, Founder of Sinui Pai Nanuk Sngik (SPNS)
Tijah Yok Chopil was among the people nominated as Wild Asian Heroes in recognition of her efforts to empower and fight for local communities.
#3: Nia Vanessa Suhana, Professional And National Mountain Biker
Hailing from Pahang, Nia Vanessa Suhana would tag along with her friend, Siti Natasha, to the cycle track to see her train every weekend.
Nia would bring water for the others whenever they needed it during the sessions. Having prior experience in canoeing and rowing, it never crossed her mind that mountain biking could pique her interest.
I was the water girl. – Nia Vanessa Suhana, professional mountain biker
However, her story was set to change when her friend’s trainer eventually decided to invite her to join in on training. This marked the beginning of her journey as a mountain biker.
Nia began participating in competitions at the age of 17 both locally and internationally. She’s participated in foreign grounds such as the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, finishing among the top three for every single one of them.
Earlier this year, Nia bagged first place in the women’s open category at the Enduro Bukit 300 Challenge 2022 in Perak.
Nobody thought I could do it. I used to be the weakest one in the team. – Nia Vanessa Suhana, professional mountain biker
Aside from partaking in training and competitions, she also puts her focus and efforts into her upcoming exams during the night when she can.
In the long run, Nia hopes to open a cycling centre in her village for the OA children. However, her plans call for a collective effort from the public and relevant organisations.
Anyone would be able to join, not just Orang Asli children. But this would be very expensive, and Orang Asli children are poor. They have no money for bicycles. If we could get sponsors, maybe more people could join and more athletes could be found. – Nia Vanessa Suhana, national mountain biker
#4: Edaziana Matoyam, First Woman Firefighter In Her Community
Becoming the first firewoman within the community is not an easy feat. Edaziana Matoyam trained in an extensive and fierce programme at the state fire and rescue department to reach her dreams.
The two-week training was arduous but I am glad that I pulled through. It was tough. I also had communication problems and cultural issues. I thought about giving up but I did not want to let myself down. – Edaziana Matoyam, Firefighter
Ezadiana also stated the most challenging part when she underwent the training was the rescue operation.
Once that stage came to an end, she was then posted to a station in Jitra, Kedah.
Her passion manifested itself when she saw the exploits of firefighters on television and heard of their heroic and courageous acts in school.
#5: Susherrie Suki, First Orang Asli To Receive First-Class Honours
Susherrie created history as she was the first Orang Asli to graduate with first-class honours in the United Kingdom, hoping her story sparks inspiration in other people in her community.
I am honoured to be the first Orang Asli from the Semai tribe to step foot inside UCL(University of London) and the first to graduate with a first-class honours degree. – Susherrie Suki
Determination and hard work led to Susherrie’s success in graduating from a world-class university that is ranked No.8 globally by the QS World University Rankings 2023 and fourth in the UK.
After completing my studies up to form five at Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC) Ave Maria Convent, I continued my A-Level studies at MARA Seremban College and then got an offer at UCL for a Bachelor’s degree for three years. – Susherrie Suki
Susherrie opted to major in Urban Planning due to her love for building and urban architecture, wanting to become a professional urban planner.
Since this was her first time moving to a foreign country, she had to learn to speak English fluently in order to survive. Upon arrival Susherrie immediately enrolled for additional English classes and took up a part-time job to earn extra pocket money and practice English.
Far from home, Susherrie worked around the clock and gave her best during her time at UCL. Little did she know, her hard work would result in the unexpected.
When I received the news about the awarding of a First Class Degree at UCL, I jumped for joy and kept calling my sister to tell her about this news because, for me, this is not an easy thing to achieve. – Susherrie Suki
As for her future plans, Susherrie wants to continue her studies at UCL and pursue her Master’s in Urban Design and City Planning.
#6: Ayu Majid, Orang Asli Educator
Ayu A/P Majid was born in Kampung Chengkelik, R.P.S. Kuala Betis, Gua Musang, Kelantan.
This all began when she was young, playing with her friends as a ‘pretend teacher’ and teaching them as they listened under the tree.
When she grew up and tried to get into the teaching field, it was harder than she had thought. Ayu was clueless about how she would become an educator.
However, once she got introduced to SOLS 24/7, a humanitarian organisation, she applied to gain the skills she needed because they were giving educational programs in her village.
At that point in time, I had already been offered a teaching position under SOLS 24/7. When I saw their [the students’] struggle I was even more inspired to help these kids. This was my opportunity. This was my chance to make a change. – Ayu A/P Majid, Orang Asli educator
She joined the SOLS 24/7 team to work as a teacher, earning the job she desired. Today, Ayu focuses on teaching the underprivileged and helping whoever she can regardless of their background.
Aya hopes to support the Orang Asli community by teaching and helping them strengthen their English. She also wants to ensure that they know the language to increase their chances for a brighter and a successful future. As someone who struggled with English during her school years and the way both her parents and grandparents didn’t have the chance to get a formal education, she was hoping to make it possible for the future generation.
#7: Hanim Apeng, Orang Asli Weaver And Community Leader
Hanim is a self-made entrepreneur and member of the Jakun-Jahut tribe, where she worked as the weaving coordinator and advisor for the weaving project; Weaving Hopes project. Her work focuses on producing original Orang Asli handicrafts, as well as homemade soaps, upcycled products and so on.
Hanim was also the chair of MPKKOA (the Orang Asli Village Community Management Council) Sungai Buloh for many years and is known as someone who is very vocal and passionate about uplifting and empowering her people.
Before she took on the responsibility of helping the OA community, Hanim previously worked as a nurse and customer service officer. Her previous roles boosted Hanim’s confidence in working with large OA communities.
The previous work experience made me more confident, in fact, I don’t want to be seen as an unskilled and weak leader. – Hanim Apeng, coordinator & advisor for the weaving hopes project
Hanim is active in giving talks about the Orang Asli as well.
As a community leader, she also encourages the OAs’ to step out of their comfort zones and chase success. Hanim is living proof that success is meant for everyone, regardless of where they come from.
#8: Rosdila Ngah Roslan, Sharing Visual Stories Of Orang Asli Communities Through Video
Rosdila Ngah Roslan, a Temiar tribe woman, was part of the production crew members for the films that were being produced concerning the Orang Asli Community in FreedomFilmFest (FFF) 2020.
Being part of this project and making it come to life made other Orang Asli tribes elated that they were being represented and that this would give them a voice.
They were very happy with how brave we were in expressing ourselves and our voices through these films. They wanted more Orang Asli women to produce films and stories. – Rosdila Ngah Roslan, production crew member
As for Rosdila, this project meant giving them the chance to protect and defend her Orang Asli identity.
I would be very sad if this identity is eventually lost. This film is a way to maintain the identity, reel by reel. – Rosdila Ngah Roslan, Production Crew Member
They filmed Selai Kayu Yek (Roots Of My Land) and Klinik Ku Hutan (The Forest, My Clinic), which sheds light on the issues the OA face. One of the films addressed the importance of the forest to the Orang Asli people while adding that the forest’s natural resources should be protected at all costs.
This project only strengthened Rosdila’s sense of her Orang Asli identity.
With this film, I decided that I must continue collecting and disseminating the information about our Orang Asli heritage for the next generation so that our uniqueness is not lost – Rosdila Ngah Roslan, Production Crew Member
As of late, she uploads videos on the Youtube channel Apa Kata Orang Asli, which is a platform young Orang Asli women get the opportunity to produce and express their creativity whilst also using their voices to be heard by the public.
Explore Our Sources:
- IWGIA (2022) The Indigenous World 2022: Malaysia. Link.
- Wan Salleh. D Azhar. (2022). Govt policies on Orang Asli ‘doing more harm than good.’ Free Malaysia Today. Link.
- A Povera (2021) Sapiah becomes first Orang Asli woman to helm Jakoa. New Straits Times. Link.
- J. Ong (2010) A Semai woman overcomes all odds. The Star. Link.
- B. Adela (2001) Tijah Chopil of Malaysia: A vision of one heart. Cultural Survival. Link.
- N. Hasliza Mohd Salleh. (2022). From water girl to national mountain bike for young Orang Asli woman. Malaysia Now. Link.
- I. McIntyre (2020) First orang asli woman to become a firefighter. The Sun. Link.
- Z.Zulkiffli (2020) Semai woman gets job at Kedah Fire and Rescue Department. Link.
- Bernama (2022) Susherrie impikan bergelar perancang bandar profesional. MY Metro. Link.
- Z. Mat Arif (2022) Ipoh girl makes history as first Orang Asli to graduate with first-class honours from University College London. New Straits Times. Link.
- Wiki Impact (2021) Meet Ayu. A Successful Orang Asli Educator Who Is Paying It Forward. Link.
- Weaving Hopes (n.d) The Team. Link.
- M. Al Qayum Aziz Ai (2019) Gigih ubah nasib komuniti Orang Asli, Hanim Apeng tetap junjung prinsip “Sejauh mana pergi, jangan lupa asal usul”. Link.
- Freedom Film Network (2021) How does a documentary change lives? Link.
- S. Devan (2020) #Showbiz: Young Orang Asli perspectives. New Straits Times. Link.
Note: Cover photo source from WACANA