Better deal for Malaysians?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 April 2013 © Selangor Times

MALAYSIANS are finally going to the polls on May 5 after intense speculation for more than a year.

BN chief Datuk Seri Najib Razak pledged more cash handouts and development projects in a manifesto themed “Aku Janji” unveiled last Saturday.The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) is going all out to regain the two-thirds majority in Parliament and five states it lost -in 2008.

Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which aims to unseat the half-a-century-old regime, promises lower petrol, water and electricity prices, to reform public institutions and wipe out corruption in its manifesto titled “Pakatan Harapan Rakyat” released earlier in February.

BN & PR manifestos' cover

The manifestos provide a gauge for our 13.27 million voters the direction BN and PR plan to take our country, particularly for some three million people who will be voting for the first time.

So how do the two coalitions size up against each other? Selangor Times speaks to independent analysts and academics to get their immediate thoughts.

Business-as-usual for BN

Merdeka Centrer for Opinion Research programme director Ibrahim Suffian thinks BN’s manifesto is an extension and report card of Najib’s attempted reforms.

“It has a lot of explanations about what the (incumbent) government has done and the future projects that they want to put in place,” he said in a phone interview.

Najib took over the premiership from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi exactly four years ago.

Notable reforms implemented during his administration include the abolition of the Internal Security Act, emergency laws and annual licence for newspapers.

He also set up the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) which introduced the “Government Transformation Programme (GTP)” and “Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)” in a bid to overhaul the bloated civil service and national economy.

Yet, Najib’s tenure has also been plagued by corruption scandals involving the National Feedlot Corporation, submarine deals and most recently, native customary land grab in Sarawak.

Ibrahim pointed out that as the incumbent government, BN has found it difficult to tackle corruption, cut wastage in the public sector and address other systemic problems in the economy.

“They promised to carry out open tenders but this has not been done,” he noted.

As such, the BN manifesto focuses on giving more cash back for the public and infrastructure development such as building more roads, highways and schools.

In comparison, the independent pollster said PR offers more groundbreaking proposals to promote good governance.

The three-party alliance has vowed to restructure the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, restore its integrity by focusing on big corruption cases as well as reviewing anti-graft laws.

PR leaders have also agreed to abolish the Official Secrets Act and enact a Freedom of Information Act after earning brickbats from critics for failing to include it in their manifesto.

Populist policies

However, Ibrahim and political economist Prof Dr Edmund Terence Gomez think that both manifestos are populist in nature.

While BN pledged to give more cash to low-income earners and increase subsidies, PR said it would lower fuel and utility tariffs, abolish the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and provide free tertiary education.

In addition, both coalitions have promised to raise government servants’ salary.

“They didn’t deal with the issue of how the government is going to pay for it,” said Gomez, an academic from Universiti Malaya Faculty of Economics and Administration.

He said the country relies on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive economic growth but inadequate attention has been paid to economic reforms needed to spur the growth of SMEs.

To be fair, PR did mention it would set up a RM500 million innovation fund and divert government assistance from large industries to SMEs if it comes into federal power.

And BN has mentioned in its manifesto that it would implement a plan for the “transformation” of SMEs and set up a National Trading Company to promote SMEs’ products in overseas markets.

But Gomez hit out at Najib’s administration for failing to implement significant reforms under the much-touted New Economic Model, ETP and GTP.

“They have identified the problems in our government, economy, education and came out with recommendations.

“But they have had problems instituting the reforms over the past four years. Why should we assume that they will be able to keep their promises (in the manifesto)?” he said.

Responsible promises

Gomez acknowledged that increasing the Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia for singles up to RM600 and households to RM1,200 is a highly effective way for BN to garner electorate support among t  e poor.

The cash handout will provide temporary relief to low-income groups.

“But is it sustainable? Will it solve the issue of poverty?” questioned the public intellectual.

He noted that Sabah, Sarawak and other states in Peninsular Malaysia such as Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis remain the poorest states in the country.

And BN has failed to address the widening regional development gap despite being in government for 55 years.

Although a manifesto is a set of election promises to woo voters, it should still be based on sound policies that are feasible and sustainable.

BN & PR key promises

Gomez highlighted that both coalitions have pledged to build more affordable homes without dealing with the core problem of escalating construction cost and property speculation.

Meanwhile, PR also seems to be contradicting itself by vowing to improve public transportation, reduce traffic congestion yet slashing car and fuel prices at the same time.

With cheaper cars and travelling costs, the public will have little incentive to adopt public transport.

“It will likely congest our streets even more (and increase carbon emission). At an age where everyone is concerned about climate change, is it a wise move?” Gomez remarked.

A better Malaysia

Finally, providing quality public education is central to eradicating poverty and nurturing the human resources needed to steer Malaysia towards achieving developed status. But the declining standard of our education system has become a common complaint among parents, teachers and students.

Educationist Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon said the BN’s approach to education has been a failure.

“They talk about creating a world-class education system but I don’t see how they can achieve it,” Toh said in a phone interview.

The retired academic believes under PR, at least there is hope that greater emphasis will be placed on meritocracy in the recruitment and promotion of teachers.

“There’s also hope that there will be greater decentralisation, providing state education departments and district offices more flexibility in the implementation of education policies,” said the soft-spoken Toh.

He said decentralisation in decision-making in the government has helped to raise education standards in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.

The former Gerakan politician added that PR is more forthcoming in its pledges to provide equal resources to schools from various language streams.

On top of that, the young coalition vowed to loosen the government’s stranglehold on our tertiary institutions and restore academic freedom by abolishing the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Overall, PR seems to offer a bolder manifesto to reform our government, economy and education.

But aside from the manifestos, the quality of candidates put forth by political parties will influence voters’ decision in the polls too.

Come May 5, whichever coalition makes it to Putrajaya, it is up to citizens to hold the political parties accountable to their election promises and ensure the new government implements responsible policies to develop the country.


Sidebar: What’s in it for the women and indigenous people?

WOMEN make up half the population in the country but local political parties have been slow to adopt policies to promote gender equality.

Both Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and Barisan Nasional (BN) have pledged to increase women’s participation in decision-making roles in their manifestos.

But are they serious in removing obstacles that hinder female participation in politics and the economy?

In the 12rh General Election, only 23 women were elected to Parliament, making up slightly over a tenth of the 222 seats.

The statistics are even lower in state legislatures, where there were only 27 BN female lawmakers and 21 from PR out of the 576 state seats.

Women’s rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah thinks both coalitions should put forth more women candidates in the upcoming polls if they were committed to their pledge.

“We definitely need more women in Parliament and State Assemblies,” said the executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) in an email interview.

She pointed out that both coalitions are more interested in giving out cash to married women in their manifestos.

Policies that empower young or single women are notably missing.

“Both are weak in substantive empowerment due to the welfare approach. There’s nothing wrong in giving money but it’s a short-term measure,” said Maria.

The saving grace for BN, she said, is that the coalition claimed it would implement schemes to support women working from home.

“But what about men who choose to work from home? Why are they not encouraged?” questioned the activist.

She said the policy is based on a false, stereotypical assumption that only women work from home.

Furthermore, Maria took the BN regime to task for failing to implement significant gender reforms after 55 years in government.

“Women’s groups have been fighting for the recognition of other forms of rape in our laws such as marital rape and gang rape, the review of Syariah laws that discriminate against Muslim women, the implementation of sex education to reduce sexual violence against women,” she cited as examples.

She added that there has been little effort by the BN regime to address the increase of women affected by HIV and AIDS, human trafficking and review the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

Maria gave PR credit for addressing some of these issues in its Agenda for Women, which was launched separately last year.

It also promised to adopt gender budgeting, which is about breaking down government data to ensure public resources are allocated equally to both sexes.

“It will shift the burden of women’s welfare from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to the Health, Education, Transport and other ministries that also deal with women’s problems,” she explained.

Meanwhile, both BN and PR have promised to uphold the indigenous people’s native customary land rights (NCR).

However, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns director Dr Colin Nicholas said if BN was sincere, its federal and state governments should have withdrawn from court battles over land disputes with the indigenous people.

“Why make free promises now?” questioned the academic-turned-activist.

He highlighted that PR has vowed to gazette 141,000 hectares of Orang Asli land but he said that is less than 20% of their customary land.

“It’s not enough and it’s what the BN government recognises as well,” said Nicholas in a phone interview.

While the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government has tried to gazette Orang Asli reserve over the past five years, the Kelantan government has been embroiled in land disputes with the Orang Asli there.

“It’s very difficult to ask the Orang Asli there to vote for PAS,” he said.

Nicholas said both BN and PR should come forth and support the UN Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, implement laws to comply with the it if the coalitions are truly for indigenous people.

“Saya bukan Melayu, saya Orang Asli”

by Gan Pei Ling / 2 May 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics below courtesy of Tijah Yok Chopil)

ONCE, when she attended a job interview in the Klang Valley, Tijah Yok Chopil’s Malaysian employer did not get it when she told him she was an Orang Asli.

“Dia ingat saya orang Indonesia atau Melayu … Saya beritahunya [selalu kita cakap] Melayu, Cina, India dan lain-lain, saya [sebahagian daripada] dan lain-lain … Apabila saya beritahunya ada 18 suku kaum Orang Asli di Semenanjung, dia lagi pening,” Tijah recalled.

The activist said it goes to show how ignorant some Malaysians could be about the indigenous people in Malaysia.

Tijah started her activism by founding her own women’s group in her kampung in Bidor, Perak called Kumpulan Ibu-Ibu Kampung Chang. From there, the group evolved into Sinui Pai, Nanek Sengik (New Life, One Heart) in 1995. They ran programmes to empower the community with economic skills and knowledge about their rights.

Over the years, the model spread to other villages in Perak and other states, eventually resulting in the formation of Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (JKOAS). The grassroots network has been highlighting Orang Asli issues and campaigning for the government’s recognition of their land and indigenous rights.

Tijah, who is now JKOAS secretary, shares her humble beginnings and some Orang Asli folk tales with The Nut Graph in an interview on 23 Oct 2010 in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: Bila dan di mana Tijah dilahirkan?

Saya berasal dari Kampung Chang Lama Sungai Gepai di Bidor, Perak dan dilahirkan pada 17 March 1968 – sama tarikh dengan demonstrasi Orang Asli tahun lepas di Putrajaya.

Boleh kongsi asal-usul keturunan Tijah?

Saya tulen berketurunan Semai.

Mengikut kepercayaan nenek moyang saya, komuniti Semai sudah wujud di sini semenjak batu-batu masih lembut. Buktinya tapak-tapak kaki yang masih kekal di atas batu dekat kawasan air terjun kami.

Footsteps made by her ancestors when the rocks were still young, according to Tijah’s village folk tales

Ceritanya, [pada masa dahulu], ada dua orang adik perempuan yang dikejar hantu rusa. Kami memanggil dua orang gadis itu ubai baleh dalam bahasa Semai. Rusa itu sepatutnya dimakan tetapi tertangguh-tangguh selama tujuh hari sehingga terjemar menjadi hantu dan mengejar dua budak perempuan itu semasa ibu bapa mereka pergi ke hutan. Tapak kaki dua orang adik-beradik dan hantu rusa masih ada di kawasan air terjun sampai sekarang.

Ramai orang pernah tanya saya sejak bila Orang Asli wujud di tanah Semenanjung, kami tidak pasti jangka masa [yang tepat], tetapi kami tahu kami memang orang asal tanah ini, tidak ada keturunan dari negara-negara lain macam orang lain.

Selain daripada cerita tadi, apa cerita Orang Asli lain yang sering diberitahu orang tua yang Tijah gemar?

Ada banyak cerita. Menurut kepercayaan kampung saya, pada sesuatu ketika, tanah Semenanjung ini berada dalam keadaan yang gelap sebab bulan telah terjatuh ke bumi. Saya pernah mendengar cerita yang sama di kampung-kampung lain, mungkin keadaan ini berlaku sedunia.

Maka salah seorang nenek moyang kami yang halak (mempunyai ilmu spiritual yang tinggi) telah mengadakan sewang bubun gelap selama 14 malam, 14 siang untuk memujuk semangat bulan kembali ke langit. Ini kerana mereka mempercayai semakin lama [bulan] tinggal di bumi, dia akan makan manusia.

Nenek moyang yang halak itu kami memanggilnya Tok Churoq. Dia telah berjaya menghantar bulan balik ke langit. Maka bulan pun ingin membalas budinya dan memanggilnya untuk menyediakan tujuh lapis tikar krawoq, sejenis tikar mengkuang dengan anyaman khas yang sangat cantik.

Namun Tok Churoq tidak sempat menyiapkan tikar itu dan tuhaad (hadiah mengenang budi) itu terus menembusi bumi. Bulan memberitahunya batu itu sebenarnya batu umur, sesiapa yang uzur bersandar dekat batu itu akan menjadi muda lagi. Tetapi sekarang batu itu sudah jatuh ke dasar bumi, maka ditakdirkan umat manusia di dunia ini akan mati di atas bumi dan dihidupkan kembali apabila dikebumikan. Kepercayaan ini masih dikekal di kalangan kami.

Saya tahu cerita ini macam cerita dongeng, tetapi kami mempercayai dan menurunkan cerita-cerita ini dengan jelas kepada anak-anak kami.

Ada lagi cerita tentang asal-usul kejadian pokok, ikan, binatang dan sebagainya, saya suka mengambil cerita-cerita ini tetapi tidak ada masa untuk mencatat dalam buku betul-betul.

Apakah kenangan Tijah yang paling kuat semasa membesar?

Ibu bapa saya sangat baik hati, kami bukan orang senang, memang orang susah, tetapi mereka akan berkongsi apa yang ada dengan orang kampung. Kami tidak pernah makan bersendirian, mesti ada tetamu. Kadang-kadang kami berasa sedih kerana kami sendiri pun tak cukup makan.

With 100 other Orang Asli representatives attending a convention in Kuala Lumpur in December 2010

Bapa saya meninggal dunia ketika saya 12 tahun, keadaan menjadi lebih susah, emak saya terpaksa pergi menoreh getah, memancing ikan dan mencari ubi keledek, ubi keladi atau ubi kayu walaupun sakit tulang. Emak masih akan berkongsi makanan kami dengan orang lain pada ketika itu kerana dia memang tidak sampai hati orang lain melihat sewaktu kami makan.

Walaupun hanya 12 tahun, saya macam sudah dewasa kerana terpaksa membantu emak dan kakak, bersama-sama pergi menoreh getah kami seluas dua ekar. Pokoknya tidak banyak kerana sudah tua dan mati dimakan anai-anai.  Saya dan kakak juga bekerja di kebun sayur orang Cina, kami berjalan kaki sejauh tiga hingga empat batu tiap-tiap hari.  Kami tidak bermain-main seperti kanak-kanak lain, bekerja itu menjadi sejenis permainan bagi kami.

Sungguhpun saya seorang perempuan, saya pernah membuat pelbagai kerja macam anak lelaki – membacu simen, membuat pagar, memotong kayu sepanjang lapan kaki, sebesar ibu jari kaki dan diikat sebanyak 25 kelamin, selepas itu mengangkutnya ke suatu tempat yang diperlukan dengan memikul dibahu. Kerja ini kami lakukan sebelah petang selepas kembali dari kerja di kebun-kebun sayur Cina.

Adik-adik saya sangat berdikari kerana kami kerap meninggalkan mereka di rumah semasa kami pergi cari makan. Dari usia lima atau enam tahun mereka kena menjaga sendiri.

Tijah ada beberapa orang adik-beradik?

Semuanya ada 10 tetapi seorang telah meninggal dunia. Pada masa itu, dua kakak dan satu abang saya sudah berkahwin dan duduk di kampung lain, anak kelapan pula dipelihara mak cik saya. Maka tinggal kakak, saya, dua orang adik perempuan dan satu adik lelaki di Kampung Chang Lama.

Saya anak keenam. Kakak saya tidak mampu menghantar kami semua ke sekolah, hanya saya dan adik ketujuh yang bersekolah. Kami tidak tahu macam mana memohon bantuan daripada Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (sekarang ditukar nama kepada Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli) walaupun ia wujud. Semua orang di kampung kami membeli buku dan baju sekolah sendiri.

Selepas itu, kakak saya jatuh sakit dan emak pun tidak boleh bekerja kerana kena menjaganya. Dua orang adik terkecil pun mengikut emak dan kakak pergi tinggal di Kampung Langkap. Saya pula menumpang dengan satu keluarga Katholik di Tapah untuk menduduki SPM, tinggal adik saya yang menduduki SRP tinggal bersendirian di rumah.

Sebenarnya saya tidak merancang untuk mengambil SPM, saya sudah berhenti belajar semasa Tingkatan 4 dan keluar bekerja kerana kakak tidak mampu membeli buku untuk saya dan sudah kelihatan kurang sihat.

Tetapi seorang paderi datang mencari saya dan memujuk saya untuk menyambung pelajaran walaupun pada masa itu sudah bulan lima dan tinggal beberapa bulan sahaja sebelum SPM. Dia menyuruh saya untuk mencuba sahaja.

Speaking at an Orang Asli convention in December 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. This was when the idea to organise a march to Putrajaya in March 2010 to protest against a controversial land policy first emerged

Maka Tijah ada habiskan SPM?

Saya tidak mendapat apa-apa gred tetapi lulus beberapa subjek dan mendapat sijil am. Selepas itu saya tidak menyambung pelajaran lagi dan bekerja sekejap sebagai guru tadika di sekolah St Mary dan pernah bekerja di kilang juga.

Namun saya rasa tidak puas hati dan pekerjaan-pekerjaan ini rasanya bukan panggilan saya. Maka saya berhenti kerja, balik ke kampung dan bekerja di ladang sambil membuka kelas untuk mengajar budak-budak.

Saya juga cuba berbincang dengan orang kampung – apa yang terjadi dengan Orang Asli? Kenapa keadaan kita macam ini? Adakah kita suka keadaan sekarang?…Saya berfikir Orang Asli tidak akan menjadi orang terpinggir jika wujudnya satu sistem yang baik untuk [melindungi hak-hak] Orang Asli. Tetapi daripada menyalahkan orang lain, lebih baik saya memulakan sesuatu dan menguji adakah cara saya lebih berkesan untuk menjadikan Orang Asli lebih berkeyakinan diri.

Dan pendapat saya memang tepat, keadaan berubah selepas saya memulakan program untukempower komuniti. Daripada Orang Asli malu dan takut bercakap, mereka menjadi lebih berani untuk berkongsi pendapat mereka. Memang Orang Asli bercita-cita untuk memperbaiki status mereka supaya setaraf dengan orang lain, cuma selama ini mereka salah dianggap orang bodoh dengan otak kosong.

Orang lain yang sentiasa memutuskan dan berfikir bagi pihak Orang Asli apa yang bagus untuk mereka. Maka, semakin lama mereka bukan semakin terbuka, malah, kebijaksanaan dan keyakinan diri semakin terhapus.

Selepas saya yakin cara saya adalah betul, saya terus mengadakan aktiviti dan diskusi dengan orang kampung. Hasil usaha itu kami boleh lihat … Orang akar umbi yang tidak pernah bersekolah dan mendapat apa-apa pendedahan lebih baik daripada Orang Asli yang berpendidikan atau status tinggi, yang takut sangat nama atau gaji mereka terancam.

Sebaliknya, orang kampung tidak terikat dengan apa-apa, dia bercakap ikhlas apa [masalah] yang dihadapinya [di kampung], berdasarkan kebenaran. Kebangkitan dan kesedaran [golongan ini] lah yang menjadi isu Orang Asli lebih hangat timbul, masyarakat Malaysia juga lebih mengambil perhatian terhadap isu kami.

Jika tidak, selama ini Orang Asli dianggap anak emas kerajaan – Orang Asli minta apa-apa sahaja dan kerajaan akan beri! Itu tanggapan negatif yang salah. Sekarang ramai orang masyarakat sudah sedar apa yang benar-benar sedang berlaku dengan Orang Asli.

Bagaimana pula Tijah mengaitkan pengalaman-pengalaman ini dengan identiti sebagai warganegara Malaysia?

Sebenarnya Orang Asli sangat jelas dengan identiti kita. Kita bukan orang Melayu atau Cina, kita Orang Asli, orang lain yang confuse.

Tijah (right) in Kampung Chang in August 2008 to celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

Orang Asli tidak macam komuniti lain, kita komuniti yang sangat terikat dengan alam semulajadi dan tanah kita. Kita punya budaya, kepercayaan, kesenian, falsafah kehidupan, cerita mitos … semua berkait kuat dengan tanah di mana kita berasal. Oleh sebab itu, apabila Orang Asli tiba-tiba diusir ke kawasan baru, mereka akan hilang identiti mereka. Berbanding dengan Orang Asli yang masih tinggal di tanah adatnya, Orang Asli yang dipindah ke kawasan baru, jiwa mereka tidak tenang dan adat resam mereka mudah hilang.

Kalau mengikut perlembagaan, kita bukan bumiputera. Kami memang anak jati sini yang tidak berketurunan dari negara lain, kami peribumi tanah ini. Orang Asli memahaminya, tetapi [selepas 53 tahun sejak kemerdekaan Malaya] pemerintah masih belum [sanggup] meletakkan Orang Asli di kedudukan yang tepat.

Setakat ini kami dikenali sebagai Orang Asal bumi Semenanjung tetapi jika secara rasminya masih dikategorikan sebagai “Dan Lain-lain” tanpa maksud yang jelas.

Malah kita sering dimasukkan sebagai orang Melayu, walaupun kita melihat orang Melayu sangat berbeza dengan Orang Asli. Nama Orang Asli pun digalakkan menggunakan “bin” dan “binti” walaupun sebelum ini kita biasa memakai “a/l” dan “a/p”. Ada juga ahli Umno yang menyogok Orang Asli menyertai Umno sedangkan parti itu tidak ada kena-mengena dengan Orang Asli. Jika Orang Asli boleh masuk Umno, maka kita sepatutnya boleh masuk MCA dan MIC juga.

Nampaknya pemerintah sendirilah yang confuse.

Saya pun tidak pasti sama ada mereka benar-benar confuse atau sengaja hendak mengelirukan orang lain.

Iktiraflah kedudukan Orang Asli di dalam perlembagaan. Kita bukan hendak mencabar atau mengambil alih kedudukan orang Melayu. Kita memahami mereka adalah bumiputera, tetapi macam Orang Asal di Sabah dan Sarawak, kita peribumi tanah ini dan sepatutnya hak-hak kita sebagai peribumi dipertahankan. Sekarang [pemerintah] yang memutuskan segala-galanya, ambil tanah Orang Asli dan menentukan siapa yang boleh digelar Orang Asli [sesuka hatinya]. Identiti kita macam sesuatu yang dipermain-mainkan.

Apakah perubahan yang Tijah ingin lihat di Malaysia pada masa depan?

Saya mahu Malaysia yang menghormati semua kaum. Kalau saya boleh mendapat sesuatu, kamu juga boleh dapat. Saya rasa itu lebih adil.

Saya tidak mahu Malaysia yang dikuasai oleh satu kaum sahaja dan kaum lain terpaksa menunduk kepada satu kaum. Itu tidak baik kerana siapa yang menentukan satu kaum lebih mulia daripada orang lain? Tuhan mewujudkan dunia ini dengan pelbagai kaum.

Saya hendak melihat rakyat Malaysia yang menyayangi satu sama lain, bekerjasama berjuang untuk kedamaian semua orang.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.

Restricting indigenous rights

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 October 2010 © The Nut Graph

IN the upcoming Galas by-election, Umno is expected to harp on “Ladang Rakyat”, a PAS state government development project that has reportedly benefited a private company over the rights of settlers. While Umno is championing the land rights of Malay Malaysian settlers, however, the Orang Asli remain one of the most impoverished communities under the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

The Orang Asli remain one of the most impoverished communities under the BN government.

In the name of development, customary lands belonging to the indigenous peoples have been seized; their forests, houses and crops destroyed with minimal or zero compensation. And yet, Umno has announced its determination to win the votes of the 2,000 Orang Asli voters in the by-election.

How it will do that will soon be revealed when campaigning begins. What is more significant though is that over the years, the BN government has systematically used the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 and Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) to exert control over Orang Asli communities. A new land policy the BN government passed in 2009 looks set to further restrict indigenous rights even as Umno clamours for settlers’ land rights.

Problematic new land policy

The National Land Council, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, passed a controversial Orang Asli land policy in December 2009. Muhyiddin claimed the new policy would help to eradicate poverty among the indigenous communities in the peninsula.

Orang Asli at a September 2008 gathering in Kuala Lumpur

However, over 2,000 Orang Asli marched to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2010 to submit a memorandum in protest of the policy that was passed without consultation with the indigenous communities.

Under the new policy, instead of recognising Orang Asli rights over their customary lands, the state would instead “give” them between 0.8 to 2.4 ha of land per family, and an additional 5,000 square feet to build houses.

Colin Nicholas

But Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas warns that under the policy, it is likely the Orang Asli will no longer be recognised as indigenous peoples.

“One of the key elements in the definition of indigenous peoples is their collective attachment and control over a particular customary land,” he said in a 9 Oct 2010 Bar Council forum in Kuala Lumpur. Nicholas noted that the new land policy does not take into account the Orang Asli’s unique way of life and the diversity of their traditional land use practices.

“Unlike the Malay [Malaysians] who have their Malay reserves, and the Sabah and Sarawak natives who can make a claim over their native customary rights (NCR) lands, the Orang Asli will only be accorded individual land titles,” Nicholas explained.

Furthermore, only sanctioned development agencies, not Orang Asli themselves, would be allowed to develop the lands. In other words, the Orang Asli would have little control over their land.

Additionally, the communal customary lands known as tanah adat or “roaming areas” will be lost to the Orang Asli under the proposed amendments to the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Orang Asli would also be prohibited from making land claims in court once they accept the government’s land titles.

Nicholas claimed the new land policy was the federal government’s reaction to restrict Orang Asli land rights after the Adong Kuwau and Sagong Tasi landmark rulings, which extended recognition of Orang Asli rights to their traditional lands and resources.

Aboriginal Peoples Act

Apart from the new land policy, the BN government has also yet to amend or repeal the problematic Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 that does not fully recognise Orang Asli land rights.

A colonial product, the law was supposed to “provide for the protection, well-being and advancement of the aboriginal peoples of Peninsular Malaysia”.

Augustine Anthony

However, lawyer Augustine Anthony pointed out during the Bar Council forum that all 19 sections in the Act need to be amended, if not repealed.

“For example, under Section 3(3) of the Act, it is the minister that decides who is an Orang Asli (not the Orang Asli themselves).

“Also, under the Act, an aboriginal area or reserve can be changed to Malay reserve or a forest reserve by the state at will,” said Anthony, adding that the Orang Asli cannot transfer, lease or sell their land without the consent of the director-general of Orang Asli affairs.

“Clearly, the Act was established by the British to exert control over the Orang Asli communities during the communist era,” said Anthony. And the BN government has continued to use the same tool to control the Orang Asli since independence.

Who is responsible?

Full house at the Bar Council forum

Conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, close to 200 Orang Asli attended the Bar Council forum that sought Orang Asli feedback on the new land policy. All voted against the new policy.

Additionally, many spoke out against JHEOA and the BN government during the forum. A few complained that the politicians would make sweet promises to grant them land titles during election campaigns, but disappear without a trace after that.

“We can always blame the government, but the way I see it, we Orang Asli must unite and stand up for ourselves, too,” said Tijah Yok Chopil from Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia.

Tijah Yok Chopil

“We can’t keep thinking that all our problems including our land woes will be solved once we vote for a particular party. BN or Pakatan candidates, we can’t just sit down [and wait for them to fulfil their election promises]. We need to look for them after the elections,” Tijah, a Semai, said.

Indeed, while civil society and the Bar Council may help to amplify indigenous voices, it is still up to the Orang Asli to continue to pressure the federal and state governments to uphold their rights and fulfil election promises. The Galas by-election will provide just the opportunity to keep doing so.

Gan Pei Ling wishes governments would stop trampling on nature and the indigenous communities in the name of “development”.