Voices from the Periphery: The Orang Asli in Malaysia

By Lance Jackson —

Orang Asli fisherman off the coast of Johor, Malaysia. Source: Emran Kassim’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Development projects in Johor, Malaysia, made headlines after former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that they would attract a massive wave of Chinese immigration. However, development projects in Johor have long earned the ire of the Orang Asli, a common name for the many indigenous peoples of Malaysia. Despite receiving far less media attention, the Orang Seletar, a tribe of Orang Asli, have been embroiled in a legal battle with land developers and their government backers since 2012. They say development has been adversely affecting their community since 2000.

“Orang Asli” (“original people”) is a catchall term for a relatively diverse group of people. Among the Orang Asli, there are three main groups. The Orang Seletar are from the Proto-Malay group, and possibly distantly related to Malays. The other two groups are the Senoi and the Semang. The origins of the Senoi are obscure, but genetic studies suggest they could have migrated to Malaysia from Indochina or southern China. The Semang were the first residents of peninsular Malaysia. They are a people of darker complexion, possibly related to Melanesians and Andaman islanders. The Orang Seletar mainly live in nine villages along the Johor Straits. The government only recognizes two of these villages as indigenous lands. Traditionally, the Orang Seletar have survived through fishing, rearing mussels, and catching prawns and crabs in the waterways and mangrove swamps near their communities. However, silt from land reclamation efforts have clogged up smaller tributaries, and the mangrove forests are being removed by developers. As a result, fishery resources have been drastically reduced. According to interviews with the Orang Seletar, the daily income from fishing has fallen from $45 a day to under $7.

In December 2012, two Orang Seletar villages from Johor Bahru took their grievances to court after developers allegedly attempted to desecrate their ancestral burial grounds. They filed a class action law suit against the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and 11 other parties, including the federal government and the state government of Johor.

IRDA is an entity at the federal and state level in charge of mobilizing resources and investment to transform southern Johor, across the straits from Singapore, into a metropolis of international standing. Seven Orang Seletar villages are located within the Iskandar development zone. Their case will set a new legal precedent because the Orang Seletar are pursuing a claim for customary sea rights, an issue that has yet to be considered by the Malaysian courts, in addition to a claim for customary land rights.

The fate of the Orang Seletar and their way of life are currently in legal limbo. At a hearing before the High Court of Johor in 2013, the Orang Seletar were granted an injunction, which brought the development activities immediately affecting their villages to a halt. Ultimately, the legality of the developments will be decided by a full trial. The trial wore on until July 2016. However, the ruling, which was set for October 2016, has been postponed until the end of February 2017.

For better or worse the Orang Seletar will soon have the court’s opinion on their claims to customary land and water rights. However, across Malaysia, there are many more points of conflict between modern economic development and the traditional lifestyle of the Orang Asli. In the northeastern state of Kelantan, the Orang Temiar, Orang Asli from the Senoi ethnic group, have been locked in a longstanding struggle with state forestry officials and logging companies. The conflict has led to the erection of blockades, arrests, and accusations of violence.

The treatment of Orang Asli grievances varies considerably from case to case. However, in January 2017 the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) issued a statement supporting the Orang Asli in Kelantan. According to SUHAKAM, the Orang Asli as a whole “face substantial, discriminatory, and unbearable obstacles to the exercise and enjoyment of their rights to own, possess, and control their lands and territories.” Only time will tell if the Malaysian government heeds SUHAKAM’s call to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples.

Mr. Lance Jackson is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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