Orang Asli of the Malayan Peninsula

Alternative names: Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq, Bateq, Temiar, Semai (Semang), CheWong, Jahut, Semoq Beri, Mah Meri, Jakun, Temuan (Balandas), Semelai, Temoq (Temok), Orang Kanaq (Kanak), Orang Laut, Selitar
Location: Highland and rain-forest jungles of Malay peninsula
Population: 75,000 (est.)
% of population: 0.55% of Malayan peninsula
Religion: indigenous animist beliefs, Christian
Language: various

The Orang Asli “original people” are the aboriginal tribes inhabiting the rain forests of the Malay peninsula. Most are believed to have migrated to the region over a long period between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago, following the southward movement of peoples throughout South-East Asia. Numbers are difficult to ascertain but the 1970 census gave an overall figure of nearly 71,000. The Orang Asli belong to 19 various tribes and sub-tribes, difficult to distinguish clearly, as tribal and linguistic boundaries have become somewhat blurred. The major groups are Negrito, Sengoi and Proto-Malay, as follows: (i) the Negrito are small in stature, averaging five feet or less in height with dark skin and woolly hair. The Negrito language is distantly related to the Mon-Khmer group. They live in the forested hill regions of the north and north eastern Malaya and southern Thailand and are hunter-gatherers. Negrito tribes are the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq and Bateq; (ii) the Sengoi are larger in stature although still small. They are less dark than the Negrito and have wavy hair. Their language is also related to the Mon-Khmer and they practise shifting cultivation — mostly tapioca and hill rice — in addition to hunting and gathering activities. They are known for being a peaceable people and live in the remoter areas of the central highlands. Senoi tribes are the Temiar, Semai (Semang), Che Wong, Jahut, Semoq Beri and Mah Meri, and (iii) the Proto-Malay group embraces people who are similar in appearance to the Malays but who are of diverse origins, some probably having entered the region by sea in recent centuries whilst others may have been living in the peninsula for over a thousand years. Proto-Malays live among the straits of Malacca and in Southern Jahore and some have been absorbed into the Malay community and have adopted Islam. Proto-Malay tribes are the Jakun, Temuan (Balandas), Semelai, Temoq (Temok), Orang Kanaq (Kanak), Orang Laut and Selitar.

The Malays inhabiting the lowland valley and coastal areas traditionally regarded the Orang Asli as inferior; the term commonly used in reference to them was Sakai, which carries the connotation of “slave”, and indeed they were exploited by the Malays as slaves, causing them to retreat even deeper into the jungle areas. They were largely ignored by the British authorities although there was a certain amount of Christian missionary work in the aboriginal regions. The Catholic Church established a small community in Negri Sembalan in 1847 and Methodists began work with the remote Sengoi people in 1930. This work was resented by the Malay royalty who saw it as an infringement of their authority over the Orang Asli. The Methodists agreed not to baptise any Orang Asli for a period of ten years although they continued to run medical and educational services; however, the 10-year period was ended by the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the situation was left unresolved.

Because of traditional antipathy between the Orang Asli and the Malays, the Orang Asli have tended towards better relations with the Chinese, with whom they engaged in a certain amount of small trade. This relationship made it relatively easy for Chinese guerrillas to recruit them into the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, a guerrilla organization formed by Malay Chinese in response to the Japanese invasion; however, it was the Orang Asli who bore the brunt of the Japanese retaliation.

In 1948, the Chinese who advocated a Communist Revolution again entered the jungles in order to enlist the support of the Orang Asli. The British Government now realized their importance in the war and began a concerted effort to prevent Communist influence over them. Many were moved to “protected settlements” in the lowlands but the large numbers of deaths and social disruption meant that the policy was changed to one which advocated the extending of administrative and social services to the Orang Asli in their own environment. A Department of Aborigines was established in 1953 and a series of forts was built to protect the region from communist infiltration. Schools and clinics were established in these forts, which also acted as centres for administration.

Malayan independence was declared in 1957 by which time most of the Communists had been defeated. The Department of Aborigines passed to Malay control and was renamed Jabaton Orang Asli and with the end of the Emergency in 1960 the official policy towards the Orang Asli was reassessed. In 1961 a “blue book” was issued according to which existing social services would be continued and a long-term programme of development was pursued. The aim of this programme was to prepare the Orang Asli for eventual integration into the Malay community, and conversion to Islam. This latter aim has proved extremely difficult as tribal customs and laws are far removed from those of Islam and most Orang Asli have strong objections to conversion. There are a number of Christian converts however, although Christian missionary work has been prohibited in aboriginal areas since Christianity is viewed by the government as a foreign religion.

Life in the deep jungle regions is becoming increasingly difficult for the Orang Asli. The programme of medical aid and primary education has continued, although there is apparently a substantial element of Islamic instruction in the curriculum and in any case many Orang Asli do not attend school either because of poverty or the prejudice they frequently face from teachers and officials. Although many Orang Asli live on traditional lands they have no legal title to them or control over them. Legally land belongs to the state and the Orang Asli are squatters, although they are normally allowed to occupy state land which is not currently being used. The greatest threats to their livelihood have come from appropriation of land for cultivation of cash crops by Malays and logging. Environmental destruction is destroying the basis of the Orang Asli hunting and gathering way of life and may force many of them into a sedentary life in government settlements or urban areas.

(See also Orang Ulu of Sarawak)