New Straits Times, 7 March 2001: "The Orang Asli as they really are."

Colin Nicholas: The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen, and Center for Orang Asli Concerns, Subang Jaya, 2000. xxv + 285 pages. RM35.00

Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer

Despite the misconception that race, and particularly the conditions of the various races and their relations with one another, is a strictly taboo’d subject in Malaysia, in fact much discourse on these topics does take place. The carefully moderated general authoratitive positions as expressed in the mass media take premier place in this discourse. However, there is a level which, though public, is much less visible to Malaysians at large, and here flourishes a lively and well-informed debate on the issues of our multicultural mix. Books are researched and written, and in a book-length study it is possible to deal fairly and in depth with complex problems that in newsprint appear as crude conflicts and oppositions.

    Colin Nicholas’s excellent book is a revision of his doctoral dissertation, the product of long interest in the Orang Asli and research among them. Contest is the first detailed examination of the conditions of the Orang Asli as we enter the new millenium, and the first long study at all of the Orang Asli published in Malaysia these many years, although academics abroad have been active in research and writing, as Dr. Nicholas’s lengthy bibliography shows.

    It is nothing new that the Orang Asli have received very little attention from other groups in Malaysia. A consequence of this is that most Malaysians know little about them or their culture, and to fill the vacuum misconceptions have proliferated. The important first benefit of Nicholas’s book is to deconstruct these fantasies and give us a description of who the Orang Asli are and how they live now. Some of Nicholas’s points, in which he lays a foundation for a proper understanding of the Orang Asli, should be stated at some length.

    Orang Asli, “original people,” (a term first used only in 1960) should be understood as plural: “original peoples.” There are, broadly speaking, three separate groups of peoples, and 18 or so subgroups—if such classification is important to you. The Orang Asli are not Malays. Over half of them speak languages not belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian family, while even those classified as “Proto-Malays” stem from ancestors who lived here well before the Malay kingdoms were established, and can differ markedly in culture from their linguistic brethren.

    The Orang Asli have never been “nomads,” a preposterous thing to call them. They derive their sense of identity, now as in ancient times, from the particular land their ancestors lived on and on which they live. They have never been out of touch with the world outside their own. A thousand years ago they were trading valuable forest products—resins to gold—for goods from China and elsewhere.

    Until the relatively recent past, the various Orang Asli peoples lived autonomously, and distinct. They grouped themselves into no more inclusive polity. As Nicholas notes, “the various indigenous minority peoples in the Peninsula did not see themselves as a homogeneous group, nor did they consciously adopt common ethnic markers to differentiate themselves from the dominant population.” It was non-Orang Asli who lumped all these peoples together and stuck a single label on them.

    The best known appellation these outsiders gave to the Orang Asli is the term sakai, “slaves.” During the period of the Malay sultanates, the Orang Asli were often exploited as themselves a commodity, mere labour, as the term witnesses. It was the terror of slave-raids that drove many Orang Asli into remote areas.

    Even if, at times, a tribe and a Malay ruler might become allies, the Orang Asli strongly resisted being numbered among a sultan’s subjects. To the British, the Orang Asli were “savages,” curiosities to be studied or a simple, helpless people to be protected from debt-bondage. Only the Emergency forced everyone to take the Orang Asli more seriously, since they were in a position significantly to help or harm one side or the other. The British first attempted to control the Orang Asli by rounding them up into “resettlement camps,” where hundreds died.

    The Nation-State demands that all persons within it recognize it as the sole authority: aboriginal autonomy is a concept alien and repugnant to it. The British dealt with the anomalous Orang Asli, neither subjects nor, in British eyes, participants in a political entity of their own, by delivering them to the Sultans as “wards,” an anomalous position in which the Orang Asli lost both the protections of citizenship and their traditional liberty, and in which any sense of their own identity as a people counted for nothing.

    This role defined for the Orang Asli has bedeviled relations with non-Orang Asli and with the Malaysian state up to the present. In a matter of a few decades the Orang Asli beheld themselves reduced from being the owners, as they saw themselves, and productive inhabitants of the land they lived on to mere “tenants-at-will” on State territory. Nicholas neatly sums up his thesis in his title. Orang Asli lands were once remote, “waste,” and undesirable; now they represent (in Nicholas’s words) “the last remaining resource frontiers in a nation-state dominated by a profiteering system searching for natural resources.”

    Peoples define themselves in great part by their way of life. Economics and identity go together. It is a common misconception that indigenous styles of life, hunting and gathering, swidden-farming, represent poverty. In fact, peoples that thrive in these ways can be said to be highly capitalized, except their capital is land, not money. The Orang Asli are attached to their land in great part because the land still gives them their livelihood, or because, in short, it is their wealth, their patrimony, and they have every right to it.

    Nicholas’s narrative dispells an equally common misconception, that different ethnic identities must inevitably disappear through extinction or assimilation, that worldviews and ways of life can be abandoned at will for others more “modern,” and also, that people cannot reinvent themselves and adapt to changing times. Indigenous peoples are peoples of the present, and are as keen to become prosperous and to take advantage of modern education and medicine as anyone. The difference is, the Orang Asli, like every other indigenous people, want to change on their own terms, and not have conditions dictated to them or forced upon them. In spite of the pressures working on the Orang Asli, they are still there, and if anything even more tenacious of their identity than before.

    Ironically, it is outside pressure that has forced them to come together. In the place of the low status that outsiders gave them, the Orang Asli are discovering their own proud status as natives. Nicholas documents how they are overcoming the relative fragmentation of their societies to speak to the majorities of Malaysia in a unified voice of political strength.

    Minorities everywhere, throughout history, have been oppressed, robbed of their possessions, their liberty and sense of being a person along with their livelihood. Often this has been accomplished through devious means, by twisting and forging false representations of the group to be exploited. History also shows that the way out of oppression opens when the oppressed start helping themselves. Nicholas’s account of the growth of Orang Asli cultural and political awakening shows that it has been a painful struggle against forces outside, and often within. On the whole, Nicholas presents a picture of growing pride and effectiveness, which we hope will continue.

Contest is available at the Universiti Malaya Co-op, or inquiries may be made by e-mail to