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Myths And Truths About Orang Aslis In Malaysia

When we think of Malaysia’s indigenous community (otherwise known as the Orang Asli), we think of native villagers living in deeply forested areas throughout the nation. The term itself means the ‘first’ or ‘native’ people in Malay that encapsulates numerous indigenous groups[1]. In 2019, the Orang Asli population was 217,000, comprising 18 tribes, each with its own unique culture, language and social norms[1].

The first people of the land are incredibly diverse and unique. Many of them have kept traditional practices passed down through generations and their way of life may be different and even fascinating to most Malaysians. One thing is certain, ​​Orang Asli’s are natives of the land. They are to be honoured, recognised and treated equally in society. In order to stand in solidarity with our natives, we need to build a greater understanding about and for them. Let’s start by debunking some of the myths that have surrounded these communities.

Myth #1: Orang Asli’s Are Poor And Helpless

Truth: Orang Asli’s may be cash-poor But They Are Anything But Helpless

The harsh reality is that despite being the first people of the land, Orang Asli’s remain one of the poorest groups in Malaysia. 33% of the Orang Asli population fall into the ‘hard-core poverty’ category earning significantly less than half of the national poverty line[1]. During a 2019 press conference, Dr Colin Nicholas of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns stated that 99.2% of the Peninsular Orang Asli population are in the B40 income bracket earning less than RM4,000 a month[2]. Many of them still do not have electricity, piped water and proper toilets in their homes. Their lack of basic necessities are fundamental to basic human rights[1]

Orang Asli Farmer. Source: FreeMalaysiaToday

Yet, as most consider the Orang Asli’s poor by common standards, they do not view themselves as poor. These communities are resourceful and resilient, providing for their families through age-old techniques of foraging and using forest resources and farming skills[3]. Their income and occupations depend on their community’s way of life and it is closely linked to the natural landscapes where they live. 

Orang Asli Fishermen. Source: The Star

For example, the Orang Laut, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri live close to the coast thus encompass their lifestyles around the sea and are mainly fishermen. Some Temuan, Jakun and  Semai people have taken to agriculture and now manage their own rubber, oil palm or cocoa farms[3]. Those inhabiting forest regions take to hunting and also gather forest resources like petai, durian, rattan, and resin to generate income or for personal consumption[3]. There are even members of the Orang Asli community that live in urban areas and participate in waged and salaried jobs[3]. Orang Asli’s thrive in the natural surroundings they grew up in. Those that really struggle to survive have external factors contributing to their plights, such as land removal and land grab issues.

Myth # 2: Orang Asli’s don’t worry about food security. There are plenty of forests to go around.

Truth: Orang Asli’s are skilful foragers and farmers but their children are showing signs of food insufficiency.

While it is fair to say that the Orang Asli’s will not go hungry (for now) because of their skill to till the land and afford food purchases – it is a stretch to guarantee that their food security is not a concern in the future. 

Two Orang Asli farmers working on their farms, which are intended to sustain them during lockdown. Source: FreeMalaysiaToday.

Orang Asli communities that plant cocoa, pepper, rubber, and oil palm earn an income from the raw produce they harvest. However, these earnings fluctuate according to market prices and the amount they harvest. Furthermore, they are also not products that can be consumed. As a result, many communities do not have sufficient income to sustain nutritional and healthy diets[3]

This nutrition gap is evident among the young. Child malnutrition among Orang Asli children ranges between 30-60%[4]. To demonstrate the severity of the situation, Malaysia’s national average for moderate malnutrition is 7.5% and only 0.6% are severely malnourished[4].

Volunteers make weekly deliveries of milk, biscuits and vitamins for the children of Pos Kemar. Source: The Star

There are many reasons behind poverty and malnutrition among the Orang Asli community. Many of which correlate with disruptions of their rights to land[5]. Agricultural land is destroyed by logging and pollution of rivers and government resources barely penetrate remote areas where some of these communities reside[5]

Myth 3: Orang Asli children have access to education and they are able to perform at the same standard

Truth: Orang Asli children learn differently and they face an uphill battle in the local education system

Orang Asli children studying to not fall behind in E-learning. Source: The Star

Although integrated into Malaysia’s education system, the Orang Asli population are faced with several economic, geographic, and cultural factors that influence their poor education performance in Malaysian schools[6]

Children living in poverty have many unseen barriers that limit their odds at performing well in school. This includes limited access to good schools as a result of geographical location. Many only start school at Primary One – contributing to low literacy and numeracy. Language barriers also make it more difficult to learn and grasp knowledge in school[6]

In Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia and English are the two main mediums of instruction in the national education system. Many Orang Asli students do not speak it[6]. When these children enter Primary School, they take a relatively long time to understand subjects, given that they are not fluent in Bahasa Malaysia and also lack basic educational amenities at home[6]. This poses a challenge for the students trying to learn as well as the teachers who are not prepared to handle them.

Orang Asli students taking part in E-learning. Source: The Malaysian Reserve.

The educational aid provided for them by JAKOA is not enough to support their education. This could be a testimony to why these children experience high dropout rates, whereby only 61%  pass core subjects in UPSR and only 30% complete secondary school[6]

The reality is not that they are bad students, but they learn differently from other Malaysian children. Rather than Science, Maths, and English subjects, these children learn through their indigenous languages, arts, rituals, folklore and taboos. Rather than having strange teachers educate them, their schoolhouses are run by the parents, extended family, elders, neighbours and the community[6]. Orang Asli children learn about the riches of their environment including the forest from their elders[6]. Where they struggle to read and write, they excel in singing, playing and eating[5].

Myth #4: Orang Asli’s live longer than other Malaysians

Truth: The average life expectancy for Orang Asli is 53 years, compared to the national average of 73 years. Healthcare is still an issue.

Orang asli children are not being vaccinated
Persatuan Kebajikan Saudara Perak volunteer medical team give the Orang Asli community health check ups. Source: The Star.

Mobile clinics are set up in different parts of rural Malaysia to service the Orang Asli community. The lack of proper road access and secludedness of villages make it difficult for Orang Asli’s to get to basic healthcare facilities. The average distance from an Orang Asli village to the nearest primary healthcare clinic is 5.87km[7]. This usually takes them either 4.71 minutes by land transportation or 70.42 minutes by walking to reach them[7]. But bare in mind this is only one area. The nearest government clinic and school in the resettlement scheme (RPS) called Pos Kemar is at least an hour away on foot.

Orang Asli children are malnourished. Source: The Star.

As a matter of fact, the health of the native community has deteriorated over the years. The national infant mortality rate for Orang Asli infant mortality rate is at a high of 51.7%. Many of these children die before their fifth birthday. The average life expectancy for Orang Asli is 53 years, compared to the national average of 73 years [3]. Malnutrition amongst both adults and children is a growing concern [5]. Unfortunately, the true extent of illnesses in the Orang Asli community is unknown as many deaths do not get reported. So the question is not if they can access primary health, but is the primary health care enough to sustain the community?

Explore Our Source

  1. O. K. Hui. (n.d.) Poverty, Inequality and the Lack of Basic Rights Experienced by the Orang Asli in Malaysia. Link.
  2. A. Lai. (2019). Poverty: More than meets the eye. The Star. Link. 
  3. T. Masron, F. Masami, N. Ismail. (2013). Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia: population, spatial distribution and socio-economic condition. Link. 
  4. A. Singh. (2019). Malnutrition and Poverty among the Orang Asli (Indigenous) Children of Malaysia. Link. 
  5. A. Singh. (2008). Mortality, Morbidity and Malnutrition in Orang Asli Children. Link
  6. K. K. Abdillah. (2018). Poverty and Primary Education of the Orang Asli Children. Link. 
  7. Mohamad Fadli K, Rosliza AM, Muhamad Hanafiah J, Sharifah Norkhadijah SI. (2019). Spatial Analysis on Primary Healthcare Distance for Orang Asli in Batang Padang District. International Journal of Human and Health Sciences (IJHHS). Link. 

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