The arrival of Malaysia's Orang Asli

The country's marginalized indigenous people finally get a sniff of power
The arrival of Malaysia's Orang Asli

An Orang Asli artist works on an wooden statue at Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Malaysia's indigenous people have been forced off their land and deprived of their rights. (Photo by Teh Eng Koon/AFP)

For decades they have been bullied, ignored and marginalized, forced off their land and deprived of their rights. All that is about to change for the unassuming Orang Asli, the indigenous people of Malaysia.

They have suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of kingmakers in a political tug-of-war that will go some way toward determining their destiny.

At one end is the untested reformist Pakatan Harapan government, while at the other is the corruption-tainted Barisan Nasional coalition with Islamist ideologues — the Malaysian Islamic Party commonly known as PAS — in tow.

They are about to contest a Cameron Highlands parliamentary constituency that is 33.5 percent Malay, 29.5 percent Chinese, 21.5 percent Orang Asli and 14.9 percent Indian. The winning margin in the last election was just under 600 votes.

Cameron Highlands is noted for its cool weather, farmland, waterfalls, wildlife and the Orang Asli. It is in northern Pahang, one of only three states remaining under Barisan Nasional control after the shock election result last May. The constituency has always been administered by Barisan Nasional.

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After the courts declared the seat vacant due to bribery and ordered a fresh election, Barisan Nasional in a shrewd move selected Ramli Mohd Nor, a member of the local Semai people, as its candidate.

The retired senior police officer is a source of pride among his community. Barisan Nasional is betting that shared heritage will temper misgivings about a continued role for the coalition in voters' lives. Ramli, after all, could be the Semai's first-ever MP.

He is up against the government alliance's Manogaran Marimuthu of the Democratic Action Party and independent candidates Wong See Yee and Sallehudin Ab Talib.

Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, an NGO focused on advancing the cause of the minority group, agrees that the Jan. 26 election is an opportunity to draw attention to their woeful circumstances.

"Because of the way Malaysian politics is organized, Orang Asli voters in the Cameron Highlands, although only representing a fifth of the voters, are positioned to be the major determining factor as to who will win the seat," he says.

There is concern, however, that the community has again become a pawn in the heavyweight tussle between the two coalitions.

Nicholas believes there is justification for the conjecture surrounding Barisan Nasional's motives in choosing Ramli to represent the coalition after ignoring the Orang Asli for decades.

"The Orang Asli candidate is representing a failed party with very little to show as to what it [the Barisan Nasional-controlled state government] has done for the Orang Asli. The question asked is: why choose an Orang Asli to contest a parliamentary seat only now?"

Nicholas says the candidate representing the Pakatan Harapan government would have had an easy walkover over Barisan Nasional had the seat been defended by the coalition's traditional partner, the Malaysian Indian Congress.

"The choice of a seemingly qualified Orang Asli, and a local too despite him not being an UMNO or Barisan Nasional member, has dramatically changed the equation. It is now a very close fight," he says.

 

Racial polarization

Racial and religious issues, always a factor in Malaysian politics, have further muddied the waters. Barisan Nasional and PAS leaders have urged voters not to vote for Pakatan Harapan's Manogaran because he is not a Muslim.

Ti Lian Ker, a senior official in the Malaysian Chinese Association, a Barisan Nasional coalition partner, has also seen signs of a racial voting trend.

"Will the voters in the Cameron Highlands stay above the racial divide and put a stop to political racial polarization that's more and more obvious of late?" he asked in a statement to the media.

Disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak, due to stand trial for corruption linked to the scandalous mismanagement of the 1MDB state wealth fund, is also on the campaign trail, stirring communal suspicions.

Lauding the "close and intimate" partnership between his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and PAS, he repeated the refrain that together they are the future of Malaysia.

Top PAS leaders are all out canvassing for Barisan Nasional, urging Malays to unite against minorities. They have branded Pakatan Harapan as anti-Malay and a threat to Islam as the official religion of the country.

Nicholas is alarmed over the tone of the campaign. "The amount of venom and ridiculousness is disappointing and dangerous," he says. "It is the result of an active and premeditated program by politicians to keep their support base ignorant, arrogant and blind to the causes of their own exploitation. It doesn't augur well for the country."

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been solicitous of the long-held grievances of the Orang Asli, and so too has Anwar Ibrahim, the man expected to fill his shoes when he steps down.

"The living conditions of the Orang Asli generally are really poor. They have been neglected and marginalized," said Anwar, acknowledging that the government must have a clear plan to redress their grievances.

The election campaign period has been a boon for those Orang Asli yearning for the right to be in charge of their destiny.

Their plight has come into sharp focus. The federal government is sympathetic and has already announced it will file a suit against the Kelantan state government for defrauding the community of its land.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, the Orang Asli may have finally arrived. When the election buntings have disappeared along with the VIPs, there is a fair chance these forgotten people will be respected and empowered but not patronized.

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