Indigenous Peoples

orang asli land

There are numerous groups of indigenous peoples (other than the Malays) although they formed only approximately 2.1 million or 10.2% of the population of Malaysia. The major issue confronting these ethnic communities is the dispossession of land.

Until 1996, 18,587.26 hectares of land have been gazetted as Orang Asli Reserves in the Peninsula, while another 83,269.86 hectares have been applied for by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA). Given the Orang Asli population of 92,529, this works out to only 0.2 ha or less than 2 acres per individual. Furthermore, according to the JHEOA, only 0.02% of Orang Asli have title to their land. (Suaram, 1998: 131).

In Sabah and Sarawak, in theory, laws pertaining to National Customary Rights (NCR) and other similar laws protect the right to land. In practice the state has been able to alienate large tracts of land for logging, development projects and commercial purposes.

For example, about 12% of the total area of Sabah has been reserved for commercial plantations to government statutory bodies.

In Sarawak, over the years, amendments to the Land Code have been passed to make it more difficult for indigenous communities to hold on to or protect their land. Such amendments empower the Minister to extinguish NCR to any state Land. Such policies have led to indigenous communities resorting to blockades to protect their land but amendments to the Forest Ordinance in 1987 make such action subjected to arrests and remand fines of RM6,000 for the first offence and RM50 each day the offence continues (Suaram, 1998: 135).

Violations of native land rights have been assiduously monitored and documented by several NGOs working in this area as follows:

  • Indigenous land rights in Peninsular Malaysia: Orang Asli Association (POASM), Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
  • For Sabah: Partners of Community Organizations, Sabah (PACOS).
  • For Sarawak: IDEAL, Indigenous People Development Centre, and SACESS.
A national conference on "Indigenous Peoples' Land Rights and Identity" was held in Kuala Lumpur in September 1996, organised by the Indigenous Peoples' Network, Malaysia (JOAS). The conference ended with a number of resolutions aimed at recognising and protecting indigenous peoples' land rights. In its 1998 report on indigenous peoples and their plight, SUARAM concludes that:
"Indigenous peoples in Malaysia are marginalised socio-economically and culturally. Politically the natives of Sabah and Sarawak as a whole are in a relatively better position compared to the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. However, they share a common problem of being dispossessed from their land, which had led to an erosion of their cultural identity. The erosion of their cultural identity is being exacerbated by an inappropriate education system, which fails to accommodate their beliefs and practices and in some cases by efforts to convert them to other religions. Additional factors include the effects of mainstream development as well as policy such as that for the integration and assimilation specifically targeting the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. This policy imposition, without consultation with the affected peoples, contains values that run counter to their worldviews, lifestyles, cultural and spiritual traditions." (p. 152).