Orang Asli

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Orang Asli
Orang Asal
Orang asli.jpg
A group of Orang Asli from Malacca in folk costume
Total population
178,197 (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Aslian languages (Austroasiatic)
Aboriginal Malay languages (Austronesian)
Animism, Christianity, Islam, Baháʼí
Related ethnic groups
Peninsula Malays
Semang, Senoi, and Proto Malay of Peninsular Malaysia
Maniq of southern Thailand
Orang Rimba, Talang Mamak, Akit, Sakai of Sumatra, Indonesia

Orang Asli (lit. "first people", "native people", "original people", "aborigines people" or "aboriginal people" in Malay) are a heterogeneous indigenous population forming a national minority in Malaysia. They are the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.

As of 2010, the Orang Asli accounted for 0.6% of the population of Malaysia, numbering approximately 180,000. Although seldom mentioned in the country's demographics, the Orang Asli are a distinct group, alongside the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the indigenous East Malaysians of Sabah and Sarawak. Their special status is enshrined in law.[2]

Although often perceived as a homogenous group by outsiders, the Orang Asli comprise many distinct subgroups or tribes. Orang Asli settlements are scattered amongst the main, mostly Malay, population of the country, often in mountainous areas or the jungles of the rainforest. Each group identifies itself by a specific geographical and ecological space, which they consider as customary land. Accordingly, each of them considers itself independent and different from the other communities. The main force uniting the Orang Asli is their opposition to mainstream society of the three major ethnic groups of Peninsular Malaysia and their historical side-lining in social, economic, and cultural matters.

Like other indigenous peoples around the world, Orang Asli strive to preserve their own distinctive culture and identity, which is linked by physical, economic, social, cultural, territorial, and spiritual ties to their immediate natural environment.


Orang Asli near Cameron Highlands playing a nose flute.

The term "Orang Asli" is relatively recent: it has only been officially used since the early 1960s.

For a long time, the indigenous population of Peninsular Malaysia was not perceived as a separate category of the population, just as the Orang Asli themselves did not have such a perception. However, towards the end of the British colonial rule on the Malay Peninsula, there were attempts to classify these disparate groups in some way. Residents of the southern regions often called them Jakun, and those in the northern regions called them Sakai. Later on, all indigenous groups became known as Sakai, meaning Aborigines.[3] The term "aborigines", as an official name, appeared in the English version of the Constitution of British Malaya and the laws of the country.

Both of these names are negatively perceived by the Orang Asli. The Malay word Sakai and the English term Aborigines carry a derogatory connotation, hinting at the supposed backwardness and primitivism of these people. The Malay term Sakai is also completely hated by the Orang Asli, as it refers to them as a dependent, subjugated, slave category of the population.[3]

Little attention was paid to all this before the start of the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s. Then, the Communist rebels, seeking to have the support of the indigenous tribes, began referring to them as Orang Asal, meaning "native people", from the Arabic word, `asali (أصلي meaning, "original", "well-born", or "aristocratic"). The Communists did win the support of the Orang Asli, and the government, in an attempt to win over the indigenous population themselves, started to address them using the same terminology. Thus, the new, slightly modified term "Orang Asli", carrying the same sense of "original people", was born.[3]

Later on, the Malay term "Orang Asli" became official. It began to be used as is in English, where it is identical in both the singular and the plural.[3]

Despite its origin as an exonym, the term was adopted by indigenous peoples themselves, as a result of its official use.


For ease of administration, the Aboriginal Department, which has been responsible for dealing with Orang Asli issues since the British Malaya government, has developed a classification of indigenous tribes based on their physical characteristics, linguistic kinship, cultural practices and geographical settlement. Eighteen ethnic groups, divided into three main categories with six ethnic groups each has been allocated:

  • Semang (or Negrito), generally located in the northern portion of the peninsula.
  • Senoi (or Sakai), residing in the central region.
  • Proto-Malay (or Aboriginal Malay), in the southern region.

The basis was the classic three-member scheme of division among the indigenous population of the Malay Peninsula on physiological and cultural-economic grounds, which was used during the British colonial rule. The Negritos (short dark-skinned nomadic hunter-gatherers with Asiatic facial features and tightly curly hair), the Senoi, taller than the Negrito and wavy-haired people who were engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture and periodically changed their place of residence) and the aboriginal Malays (dark-skinned, of normal height, with straight hair, are usually settled farmers).[4] This division does not claim to be scientific, and it is easy to detect its shortcomings on almost any of the grounds,[4] but it operates at the official level. There is also different level of admixtures in all 3 groups. Due to cultural contacts and exchanged Negrito admixture can also be found in individuals Aboriginal Malay and Senoi.

Such a classification was only an administrative decision. This was not enough to develop a common identity among the various Orang Asli groups. In reality, each tribe has its own language and culture, and feelings of community different from others. The first two main tribes like The Semang and the Senoi groups, being Austroasiatic also known as Mon-Khmer language speakers, are the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula. The Proto-Malays (Third Tribe), who speak Austronesian languages, migrated to the area between 2500 and 1500 BC. The Orang Asli were originally considered ethnic Malay, but reclassified as part of Orang Asli by the British colonial authorities due to the similarity of their socio-economic and lifestyles with the Senoi and Semang. There are also various degrees of admixture within all 3 groups. It was only over time that the indigenous peoples began to identify themselves under a common name "Orang Asli", by unconsciously adopting this official ethnic marker in order to differentiate themselves from the country's dominant population, the "others". Such self-identification was conditioned by the need to defend one's personal and collective identity in the struggle against the power of "foreigners", in particular, the state. For them, the identity of the "Orang Asli" means their "nativeness" belongs to the country's indigenous population.

The Orang Asli makes up one of 95 subgroups of indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asal, each with their own distinct language and culture.[5] At the same time, Orang Asli never associate themselves with the categories of "Negrito", "Senoi" and "Aboriginal Malays".[6][7]

Semang tribals[edit]

A Semang man from Kuala Aring, Ulu Kelantan, 1846

According to the Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the Semang or Pangan are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They live mainly in the northern regions of the country, and are considered to be mostly descend from the people of the Hoabinhian cultural period, with many of their burials found dating back 10,000 years ago.[8]

They speak the Aslian languages branch of the Mon-Khmer language which is part of the Austroasiatic language family, as do their Senoi agriculturalist neighbours. Most of them belong to the North Aslian language group, only the Lanoh language belongs to the Central Aslian languages group.

Negrito tribes:[6]

Tribal name Traditional occupation (pre-1950s) Settlement areas Branch of Aslian languages
Kensiu people hunter-gatherer, trade Kedah North Aslian language
Kintaq people hunter-gatherer, trade Perak North Aslian language
Lanoh people harvesting, hunting, trade, slash-and-burn agriculture Perak Central Aslian languages
Jahai people hunter-gatherer, trade Perak, Kelantan North Aslian language
Mendriq people slash-and-burn agriculture, hunter-gatherer Kelantan North Aslian language
Batek people hunter-gatherer, trade Kelantan, Pahang North Aslian language
Mintil people hunter-gatherer, trade Pahang North Aslian language

As of 2010, the Negrito ethnic group numbers approximately 4,800. The Negritos mostly live in Perak (2,413 people, 48.2%), Kelantan (1,381 people, 27.6%) and Pahang (925 people, 18.5%). The remaining 5.7% of Negritos are distributed throughout Malaysia.[8]


A group of Senoi men from Perak, 1901

Senoi is the largest subdivision of the Orang Asli, accounting for about 54% of their population.[9] This ethnic group includes 6 tribes namely, Temiar, Semai, Semaq Beri, Jah Hut, Mah Meri and Cheq Wong. They live mainly in the central and northern parts of the Malay Peninsula; where their villages are scattered in the states of Perak, Kelantan and Pahang, mainly on the slopes of the Titiwangsa Mountains, which run from north to south in the middle of the peninsula. The Mah Meri people are the only ones settled on the westcoast of the Strait of Malacca.

Physically, the Senois in general differs from the indigenous tribals in terms of being taller in height, much lighter skin colour, wavy hair, and they also have similar physical characteristics to the Mongoloids, and even the Dravidians. Just like the Semang, they also speak Aslian languages. Many other Senois are believed to be the result of mixing Negritos with migrants from Indochina,[5] probably Proto-Malays.

The term "Senoi" comes from the words sen-oi and seng-oi, which means "people" in Semai language and Temiar language, respectively.[5]

The traditional economy of the Senoi people was based on jungle resources, where they would engage in hunting, fishing, foraging and logging. In contact with the Malay and Siamese states, the Senoi people were involved in trading, and were the main suppliers of jungle produce in the region. Now most of them work in the agricultural sector, and have their own farms to grow rubber, oil palm or cocoa. Some are hired workers; among the Senois are workers of various qualifications from unskilled workers to professionals.

In the daily life of the Senoi people, the norms of customary laws are observed. Their belief system is based on the belief in the existence of a higher supernatural force responsible for the creation of the world and all that inhabits in it. Senoi shamans are able to communicate with supernatural beings, with the help of which they are able to heal their patients from diseases, and to protect them from visible and invisible threats. Since the days of the colonial era, missionaries of world religions have been active among these jungle dwellers, and now there are adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Baháʼí Faith among the Senoi tribes.

Senoi tribes:[6]

Tribal name Traditional occupation (pre-1950s) Settlement areas Branch of Aslian languages
Temiar people slash-and-burn agriculture, trade Perak, Kelantan Central Aslian languages
Semai people slash-and-burn agriculture, trade Perak, Pahang, Selangor Central Aslian languages
Semaq Beri people slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting-gathering Terengganu, Pahang Southern Aslian languages
Jah Hut people slash-and-burn agriculture, trade Pahang Jah Hut language
Mah Meri people slash-and-burn agriculture, fishing, hunting-gathering Selangor Southern Aslian languages
Cheq Wong people slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting-gathering Pahang Southern Aslian languages

Aboriginal Malays[edit]

An Aboriginal Malay family in Selangor, 1908.

Proto-Malays or Aboriginal Malays is the second largest group of Orang Asli, their making up about 43%.[9] This group consists of 7 separate tribes, namely, Jakun, Temuan, Temoq, Semelai, Kuala, Kanaq and Seletar people. In colonial period, they were all erroneously called Jakun people. They live mainly in the southern half of the peninsula, in the states of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Johor. Most of the settlements of the Aboriginal Malays are located near cities or form separate quarters within them.

Their customs, culture and languages are very similar to the Malaysian Malays. They are similar to the Malays in appearance, have a dark skin colour, straight hair and an epicanthic fold. Today, Aboriginal Malays are firmly settled people, mostly permanently employed in agriculture. Those who live on the river banks or on the coast are engaged in fishing. Many of them are also employed, and there are those who are engaged in entrepreneurial activities or work as professionals.

The group lumps together tribes that are very distinct from each other. Temuan people, for example, have a long tradition of agriculture. Orang Kuala and Orang Seletar, who live by the sea, are mainly engaged in fishing and seafood industry. Semelai people and Temoq people differ from other groups in language.

The Aboriginal Malays are considered a race of people grouped within each smaller tribes of their own in which has hitherto, wholly remained unaffected by foreign influences.[10] It appears the simplest way to distinguish the Aboriginal Malays from the Malaysian Malays is to point out that they are generally not Muslims. However, the Orang Kuala converted to Islam before the independence of Malaysia. The difference is in the origin of these sub-groups. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the theory of the existence of two branches of the Austronesian peoples are identified as Proto-Malays and Deutero-Malays. According to this theory, the Proto-Malays inhabited the islands of the Sunda archipelago about 2,500 years ago. The migration of Deutero-Malays is attributed to later times, more than 1,500 years ago. They mingled with the Proto-Malays who were already inhabiting the land, as well as with the Siamese people, Javanese people, Sumatrans, Indian ethnic groups, Thai people, Arab and Chinese merchants, resulting in the formation of the modern Malays of the Malay Peninsula. Although this theory has not found a scientific basis, it is generally accepted in the attitude of the Malays toward the indigenous tribes.

Some of the Aboriginal Malay tribes, including the Orang Kanaq and Orang Kuala, are difficult to be regarded as indigenous to the Malay Peninsula, as they only migrated in the last few centuries, much later than the Malays. Most Orang Kuala still live on the eastern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, where they are also known as Duano people.

The languages of the Proto-Malays belong to the Malay group, in fact they are archaic dialects of the Malay language. The only exception is the Semelai language and the Temoq language, which are part of the Aslian languages, as are the Senoi and Semang languages.

Aboriginal Malay tribes:[6]

Tribal name Traditional occupation (pre-1950s) Settlement areas Languages
Jakun people agriculture, trade Pahang, Johor Malayic languages
Temuan people agriculture, trade Pahang, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka Malayic languages
Semelai people slash-and-burn agriculture, trade Pahang, Negeri Sembilan Southern Aslian languages
Temoq people agriculture, fishing, hunting-gathering Pahang Southern Aslian languages
Orang Kuala fishing, other employment Johor Malayic languages
Orang Kanaq agriculture, trade Johor Malayic languages
Orang Seletar fishing, hunting-gathering Johor Malayic languages


Malays make up just over 50% of Malaysia's population, followed by Chinese (24%), Indians (7%) and the indigenous of Sabah and Sarawak (11%), while the remaining of Orang Asli is only 0.7%.[11] Their population is approximately 148,000.[9] The largest group are the Senois, constituting about 54% of the total Orang Asli population. The Proto-Malays form 43%, and the Semang forming 3%.[9] Thailand is home to roughly 600 Orang Asli, divided between Mani people with Thai citizenship, and 300 others in the deep south.[12] At the same time, the number of Orang Asli has been growing steadily for many years. Between 1947 and 1997, the average growth rate averaged at 4% per year. This is largely due to the overall improvement in the quality of life of indigenous people.

Population statistic of the Orang Asli:-

Year 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1947 1957 1970 1980 1991 2000 2010
Population 9,624[7] 17,259[7] 30,065[7] 32,448[7] 31,852[7] 34,737[7][5] 41,360[5][13] 53,379[5][13] 65,992[7][5] 98,494[7] 132,786[5] 160,993[5]

Distribution of Orang Asli by state (2010)[5]

  Pahang - 63,174 (39.24%)
  Perak - 51,585 (32.04%)
  Кelantan - 13,123 (8.15%)
  Selangor - 10,399 (6.46%)
  Johor - 10,257 (6.37%)
  Negeri Sembilan - 9,502 (5.90%)
  Меlaka - 1,502 (0.93%)
  Теrengganu - 619 (0.38%)
  Кеdah - 338 (0.21%)
  Кuala Lumpur - 316 (0.20%)
  Penang - 156 (0.10%)
  Perlis - 22 (0.01%)

More than half of the Orang Asli live in the states of Pahang and Perak, followed by the indigenous peoples of Kelantan, Selangor, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. In the states of Perlis and Penang, the Orang Asli are not considered indigenous. Their presence there indicates the mobility of the Orang Asli, in search of employment opportunities they come to the industrial areas of the country.

Distribution of Orang Asli tribes by state (1996, JHEOA census):-[7]

Кеdah Perаk Кеlantan Теrengganu Pahang Selangor Negeri Sembilan Меlaka Johor Total
Кеnsiu 180 30 14 224
Кintaq 227 8 235
Lanoh 359 359
Jahai 740 309 1,049
Меndriq 131 14 145
Batek 247 55 658 960
Теmiar 8,779 5,994 116 227 6 15,122
Semai 16,299 91 9,040 619 26,049
Semaq Beri 451 2,037 2,488
Jah Hut 3,150 38 5 3,193
Маh Meri 2,162 12 7 4 2,185
Cheq Wong 4 381 12 6 403
Jakun 13,113 157 14 3,353 16,637
Теmuan 2,741 7,107 4,691 818 663 16,020
Semelai 2,491 135 1,460 6 11 4,103
Кuala 10 2,482 2,492
Кanaq 64 64
Seletar 5 796 801
Total 180 26,438 6,794 506 33,741 10,472 6,188 831 7,379 92,529
A typical Orang Asli stilt house in Ulu Kinta, Perak.

According to the 2006 census, the number of Orang Asli was 141,230. Of these, 36.9% lived in remote villages, 62.4% on the outskirts of Malay villages and 0.7% in cities and suburbs.[14] Thus, the majority of the indigenous population are in rural areas. Some of them make regular trips between their native villages and the cities where they work. Orang Asli do not show much desire to permanently settle in cities because of the high cost of living for them. In addition, they feel out of place in urban communities due to differences in education and socio-economic status, as well as language and racial barriers.

The location of Orang Asli villages largely determines their accessibility and, consequently, the level of state aid they receive, as well as the participation of indigenous peoples in the economic life of the country and the level of their income. As a result, residents of villages located in different areas differ in living standards.

Orang Asli is the poorest community in Malaysia. The poverty rate among Orang Asli is 76.9%.[1] According to the Department of Statistics of Malaysia in 2009, 50% of indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia were below the poverty line, compared to 3.8% in the country as a whole.[11] In addition to this high rate, the Statistics Department of Malaysia has classified 35.2% of the population as being "very poor".[5] The majority of Orang Asli live in rural areas, while a minority have moved into urban areas. In 1991, the literacy rate for the Orang Asli was 43% compared to the national rate of 86% at that time.[1] They have an average life expectancy of 53 years (52 for male and 54 for female) against the national average of 73 years.[5] The national infant mortality rate in Malaysia in 2010 was 8.9 children per 1,000 live births but among the Orang Asli the figure was at a maximum of 51.7 deaths per 1,000 births.[15]

The Malaysian Government has undertaken various measures to eradicate the poverty level among the Orang Asli, many of them have been relocated from their nomadic and semi-nomadic dwelling to a permanent housing estate under the relocation program initiated by the government.[16] These settlements are equipped with modern amenities including electricity, running water and school. They were also awarded plots of palm oil land to be cultivated and as a source of income.[17] Other programmes initiated by the government includes various special scholarship for the Orang Asli children for their studies and entrepreneurship courses, training and monetary funds for Orang Asli adult.[18][19] The Malaysian Government aims to increase the monthly household income for Orang Asli from RM 1,200.00 per-month in 2010 to RM 2,500.00 by year 2015.

Excluding those living in designated Orang Asli settlements which would amount to about 20,000 more people.
Orang Asli population by groups and subgroups (2000)[20]
Negrito Senoi Proto Malay
Bateq (1,519) Cheq Wong (234) Jakun (21,484)
Jahai (1,244) Jah Hut (2,594) Orang Kanaq (73)
Kensiu (254) Mah Meri (3,503) Orang Kuala (3,221)
Kintaq (150) Semai (34,248) Orang Seletar (1,037)
Lanoh (173) Semaq Beri (2,348) Semelai (5,026)
Mendriq (167) Temiar (17,706) Temuan (18,560)
3,507 60,633 49,401
Total: 113,541

Changes in the distribution of Orang Asli by religion (according to JHEOA and the Department of Statistics of Malaysia):-[7]

1974 1980 1991 1997
Animists 89% 86% 71% 77%
Muslims 5% 5% 11% 16%
Christians 3% 4% 5% 6%
Others 3% 4% 12% 2%

The highest proportion of Muslims among Orang Asli, according to 1997 data, was in the states of Johor (46.3%), Kedah (51.9%) and Terengganu (100%). In Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, it was only 9.2% and 8.5%, respectively.[7]


A map showing the distribution of the indigenous Orang Asli of Malay Peninsula by language branch.

The division of Orang Asli into three categories is not due to linguistic differences but is merely sociological: linguistically they divide into two groups. Those two language groups spoken by the Orang Asli are from the Austroasiatic languages and the Austronesian languages family.

Northern groups (Senoi and Semang) speak languages that are grouped into a separate Aslian languages group, which form part of the Austroasiatic language family. On the basis of language, these peoples have historical ties with the indigenous peoples of Myanmar, Thailand and the larger Indochina.[1] These are further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut language.[21] The languages which fall under the Jahaic language sub-group are the Cheq Wong, Jahai, Bateq, Kensiu, Mintil, Kintaq, and Mendriq languages. The Lanoh language, Temiar language, and Semai language fall into the Senoic language sub-group. Languages that fall into the Semelaic sub-group include the Semelai language, Semoq Beri language, Temoq language, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri people).

The second group that speaks Aboriginal Malay languages, except Semelai language and Temoq language, is very close to the standard Malay language, which form part of the Austronesian language family. These include the Jakun and Temuan languages among others.[22] Semelai people and Temoq people speak Austroasiatic languages, with the latter are not distinguished in Malaysia as a separate people.[1]

According to Geoffrey Benjamin,[23] a leading specialist in the study of Aslian languages and project Ethnologue: Languages of the World (20th edition, 2017) classifies the 18 Orang Asli tribes of Peninsular Malaysia linguistically as the following:-

The study of Orang Asli began in the early 20th century, but by the 1960s there was very little professional research. The amount of materials began to increase significantly in the early 1990s, when field research began to be conducted intensively. However, these languages still remain yet to be somewhat fully understood.

There is a threat of extinction of certain Orang Asli languages.[26]

Almost all Orang Asli are now bilingual; in addition to their native language, they are also fluent Malay language, the national language of Malaysia. They are increasingly able to read and write, of course, in Malay. In addition, the impact of informational and technical influence on the Orang Asli people are also in Malay language. Malay is gradually displacing native languages, reducing their scope at the domestic level. The biggest threat is to South Aslian languages. These languages contain the most Malay loan words, and their speakers are more likely than others to switch to Malay language as the first language.

The state of Orang Asli languages is also affected by direct contacts between their speakers. The role of lingua franca in these contacts is usually played by the Semai language or Temiar language, which establishes a dominant presence. The state of the Northern Aslian languages also remains stable. Nomadic groups who speak them have little contact with the Malays, and although these populations are small, their languages are not threatened with extinction. Today, the Lanoh language belongs to the category of endangered language, but among others the Mah Meri language is in the greatest danger.[23]

Radio broadcasting in Orang Asli began in 1959. Asyik.FM currently broadcasts daily in Radio Malaysia in Semai, Temyar, Teman and Jakun languages from 8 am to 11 pm. The channel is also available via the Internet.[27] In the past, programs were sometimes broadcast in other Aslian languages, including Mah Meri language, but they've stopped. Hosts Asyik.FM, who spoke in the native languages, employ a significant amount of Malay words, especially in the news. Often their language is mixed with phrases from different Orang Asli languages.

Orang Asli languages have no official status in Malaysia. None of them has written literature. However, some Baháʼí Faith and Christian missionaries, as well as JAKOA newsletters, produce printed materials in Aslian languages. Orang Asli value literacy, but they are unlikely to be able to support writing in their native language based on Malay or English.[23] Private texts recorded by radio announcers are based on Malay and English writing and are amateur in nature. The authors face the problems of transcription and spelling, the influence of the stamps characteristic of the standard Malay language is felt. A new phenomenon is the emergence of text messages in the Orang Asli language, which are distributed by their speakers, in particular, when using mobile phones. Unfortunately, due to fears of invasion of privacy, most of them are not made known to outsiders. Another development in the development of indigenous languages was the release of individual recordings of pop music in Aslian languages, which can be heard on Asyik FM.[23]

In some states of Malaysia, attempts are being made to introduce Orang Asli languages into the educational process of primary school. The reason for the state's interest in the development of indigenous languages is to reduce the irregular attendance of Orang Asli children in schools, which remains a problem for the Malaysian education system. But so far these attempts have not been successful, because the languages themselves have not been sufficiently studied, and for them to developed a standardised spelling system.[23]


First settlers[edit]

Location of Orang Asli groups, and the evolution and assimilation of settlers on the Malay Peninsula.

The earliest traces of modern humans in the Malay Peninsula, archaeologists date back to a period of about 75,000 years ago.[6] Next, a number of evidence of ancient people living in the north of the peninsula were left about 40,000 years ago.[28] The climate and geography of Southeast Asia at that time were vastly different from today. During the Ice age period, the sea level was much lower, the seabed between the islands of the Sunda archipelago was then land, and the Asian mainland extended to present-day Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kalimantan, Palawan, forming the so-called Sundaland. Prehistoric people moved freely through these lands in search of new natural resources.

About 10,000 years ago, as warming began, glaciers started to melt and sea levels rose. Approximately 8,000 years ago the Malayan peninsula was formed.[28] Some groups of the existing prehistoric population continued to survive. It is believed that they were the ancestors of today's Semang people. Recent genetic studies do identify them as a relic group of people who are descendants of the first migrants who came from Africa between 44,000 and 63,000 years ago.[4] This does not mean, however, that they have survived to this day in their original form. Over thousands of years, they have undergone local evolution. Thus, the Hoabinhian inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were taller than the modern Semang people and did not belong to the Negrito race.[4][6] Recent studies have also shown genetic differences between Semang people and other Negritos, such as the indigenous Andamanese peoples and those from the Philippine Islands.[4] Other groups of Orang Asli may also have among their ancestors the first settlers of the Malay Peninsula.

Evidence of early human occupation of the Peninsula includes prehistoric artefacts and cave paintings such as the Tambun rock art, which is estimated to be around 2,000 to 12,000 years old. About 6,000–6,500 years ago, climatic conditions stabilised.[6] This period is marked by the appearance of the Neolithic on the Malay Peninsula, which is associated with the archaeological culture of Hòa Bình.[29] New groups of people genetically related to the population of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are arriving on the Malay Peninsula. Migrants brought in new technologies, better tools and ceramics. In the peninsula, slash-and-burn agriculture is commonly practiced. Traditionally, these migrants are associated with the ancestors of the Senoi people,[6] but genetic studies suggest that the influx of new population was small, and migrants were mixed with locals.[28]

According to Glottochronology data, speakers of Aslian languages appeared in the Malay Peninsula, dating from about 3,800 to 3,700 years ago.[23] This is consistent with the peninsula ceramic tradition of Ban Kao from Central Thailand. During 2,800-2,400 years ago, the differentiation of the North Aslian language, Central Aslian languages and Southern Aslian languages began to developed.[23] It is not known what languages the local population used to speak, but it has also changed to Aslian languages.

Early history[edit]

Some groups of the Austronesian speakers began to arrive in the Malay Peninsula, probably from Kalimantan and Sumatra, in 1000 BC.[6] According to linguists, some of these early non-Malay arrivals are of Malayo-Polynesian peoples.[28] These Proto-Malay tribes inhabited mostly small, geographically divided groups along the coast and along rivers, while the inner jungle areas remained entirely with the local population. Each group of Proto-Malays developed their local character, adapting to specific local conditions.[28] The Southern Aslian speakers had the greatest contact with the newer population. It is believed that the ancestors of Jakun people and Temuan people who now speak Malay language, were native speakers of Aslian in the past.[23]

The Orang Asli kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in the first millennium CE.[30] During this time, maritime trade routes were formed, in which the region are connected with other countries. Traders from India, China, the Mon kingdoms located in modern-day Myanmar, and later from the Khmer Empire of Angkor, came to the peninsula for local produce. Living in the interior, they bartered inland products like resins, incense woods, and feathers for salt, cloth, and iron tools. From about 500 BC, on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula and on either side of the Kra Isthmus, traders established their settlements, some of which later grew into large trading ports. Kedah, in particular, was becoming an important center of international trade.

Long before the emergence of the Malay kingdoms, the Orang Asli were already a part of the world economy. They were suppliers of various exotic and other goods from the interior of the land, including tin, tar, camphor, rattan, wax, aromatic wood, rhino horns, elephant tusks, turtle shells, exotic bird feathers and more. Locals exchanged their products for salt, rice, cloth, iron tools, and necklaces.

The emergence of the Malays[edit]

The rise of early civilisation in the peninsula, together with later Hindu-Buddhist kings and subsequent Islamic Malay sultanates system during the common era forever revolutionised the dynamics of Malay Peninsular society. At that time, existing Orang Asli groups that were residing there already also had their own political organisation. Parameswara, the first ruler of the state of Malacca, established ties with local Orang Asli and through prudent marriages included their leaders in the political hierarchy of his kingdom. The merger of the Malay elite with the ruling Orang Asli leaders took place in other regions of the peninsula, including the current states of Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Johor, and Perak. The positions of local rulers in the early states in the territory of Negeri Sembilan and adjacent areas were especially strong. Orang Asli kinship was then a necessary condition for Malays to control the territories. Some of the people whose descendants now regard themselves as Malays probably had Orang Asli heritage.

With the strengthening of the Malay states, the situation began to change. The Malay language and culture gradually spread, the Orang Asli assimilated, and in parallel the influx of new groups of Malays and other Austronesian peoples from the territory of modern Indonesia continued. Orang Asli communities gradually became subordinate to the Malay sultanates, and their leaders began to receive state titles in exchange for obligations to perform certain services or duties in favour of the sultan.

In the early 15th century, the ruler of Malacca, probably under the influence of Muslim merchants from India, converted to Islam. The new religion created a barrier between orthodox subjects of the sultan and kafirs (infidels or pagans), which make up the bulk of the Orang Asli. Malay Muslims considered the Orang Asli to be inferior in status. The natives were of interest to them only as suppliers of natural resources, guides and porters when traveling through the jungle.

The development of the slave trade in the region was a powerful factor influencing the fate of the Orang Asli. Based on historical records, the enslavement of Negrito tribes commenced as early as 724 AD, during the early contact of the Malay Srivijaya empire. Negrito pygmies from the southern jungles were enslaved, with some being exploited until modern times.[31] Muslims, according to the laws of Islam, could not be slaves.[32] Therefore, the efforts of slave hunters were focused on the Orang Asli. It was at this time that the Malay people began to use the derogatory term sakai, meaning "slaves". They were treated as wild animals. Aceh Sultanate, located in the north of the island of Sumatra, in the early 16th century equipped special expeditions to capture slaves in the Malay Peninsula, and Malacca was at that time the largest center of the slave trade in the region. Raids on slaves in the villages of Orang Asli were common in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, Orang Asli groups suffered raids by the Malay and Batak forces who perceived them to be of lower in status. Orang Asli settlements were sacked, with adult males being systematically executed while women and children being held captive and later sold as slaves.[33][34] Hamba abdi (meaning, bondslaves) formed the labour force both in the cities and in the households of chiefs and sultans. They could be servants and concubines of a rich master, and slaves also did labour work in commercial ports. When such Orang Asli were later freed from slavery, they became Malays.

The Orang Asli of Hulu Langat in 1906.

However, the relationship between the Malays and Orang Asli was not always hostile, as many other groups enjoyed peaceful and cordial relation with their Malay neighbours.[35] With the easement of mobility and contact between various groups of people, the walls that separated the myriad of historical Austroasiatic and Austronesian tribal communities who once dwelled across the peninsula were dismantled, being gradually drawn and integrated into the Malay society, identity, language, culture and belief system. These Malayised tribes and communities would later be part of the ancestors of present-day Malay people.

The new situation prompted many Orang Asli to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders. These other smaller, closely related tribes; often located further inland compared to their coastal Malayised cousins, managed to be spared from the Malayisation process due to their secluded geographical location and nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle, hence preserving and developing their own endemic language, customs and pagan rituals.[35][36][37] As the Malays advanced into the country, the Orang Asli slowly retreated further and further, concentrating mainly in the foothills and mountains. They were fragmented into small tribal groups that occupied certain ecological niches, such as the river valley, and had limited contact with neighbouring outsiders. Now they began to live in isolation. Malay settlements were usually located on the coast or along rivers, as the Malays rarely crossed into the interior jungles. Nevertheless, there are some Orang Asli groups that were not living in complete isolation from their Malayalised brothers as they engaged with economic dealings and trading with the Malays.[36]

The number of Orang Asli has sharply decreased. It was a minority that rejected assimilation and found themselves outside of mainstream society. Among these groups were not only the indigenous tribes of the Malay Peninsula, but also some of the new groups of Orang Asli who did not convert to Islam, such as the Orang Kanaq or the Orang Seletar.

Colonial period[edit]

The founding of British settlements brought further foreign influence into the lives of Orang Asli. When the Malay Peninsula was colonised by the British, the British colonial government began to recognised the Malays as "natives", and the Orang Asli as "aborigines",[7] considering that they are subjects of the Malay rulers.[13] The British did not pay attention to the actual autonomy of the Orang Asli communities in the interior of the country. The image of aborigines as defenseless beings with limited intelligence, unable to decide their own destiny, was created. Thus began the policy of paternalism in relation to the Orang Asli.[13] The British colonial administration formally banned all forms of slavery in the Malay Peninsula in 1884, but in practice it continued to exist even in 1930.[7] However, other matters the Orang Asli were ignored by the British authorities. Some interest in them was shown only by Christian missionaries who began preaching to the Orang Asli, as well as anthropologists who saw in the indigenous population of the peninsula an unploughed field of their study and an interesting subject for research, began conducting research on them.[38]

During the British rule, the ethnic character of the peninsula population changed significantly. The development of the colonial economy caused a significant influx of Chinese and Indian people. Chinese traders also appeared in the settlements of the Orang Asli. Due to the traditional antipathy to the Malays, the indigenous Orang Asli were more inclined to improve relations with the Chinese, who were perceived as reliable trading partners.

During the Japanese occupation of Malaya (1941–1945), most Orang Asli hid in the jungles. Here in those days had its bases and army of the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army, which was the main force of anti-Japanese resistance in the country. These armed groups consisted mainly of ethnic Chinese and their actions are coordinated by the Malayan Communist Party, which was also mainly Chinese.

After the end of World War II and the surrender of Japan, the British returned to the Malay Peninsula. The Malayan Communist Party tried unsuccessfully to gain influence over the post-war government, and in 1948 the Communists returned to the jungle to launch an armed uprising. The colonial government declared an "emergency" in Malaya, which lasted from 1948 to 1960. During the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) many Orang Asli villages became strategic locations due to their secluded jungle locations which were frequented by the communist guerrillas of the Malayan National Liberation Army. Until 1953, most Orang Asli were under communist influence. The indigenous Orang Asli not only supplied the guerrillas with food, but also acted as scouts and guides for them. The positive attitude of the Orang Asli towards the Chinese, in comparison with the Malays, was noticeable.

The British government understood the importance of the indigenous population in this situation and began to implement measures aimed at removing the Orang Asli from the influence of the Communists and encouraging them to support government forces. Strategically, the goal was to cut off the rebels from the bases and put an end to the uprising. Due to their perceived support for communist guerrillas, the first step was the implementation of a programme to forcibly relocate the Orang Asli from the areas of communist influence to the so-called "new village" system where they were sent to live in newly-constructed settlements controlled by the government under the Briggs Plan. Such a policy proved tragic for the indigenous population. Orang Asli crowds relocated hastily built resettlement camps. Hundreds of people detached from traditional lands have died in these overcrowded camps, mostly due to mental depression and infectious diseases.[13] The operations concerning the Orang Asli were then cancelled after many of them started to succumb to disease.

Realising the absurdity and flaws of their actions, the British administration changed tactics. Two administrative initiatives were introduced to highlight the importance of the Orang Asli, as well to protect their identity. First, the Department of Aborigines was established in 1950, which was to take over the implementation of state policy towards the Orang Asli. Secondly, the British abandoned the "new villages" and began to create so-called "forts in the jungle", located within the traditional lands of indigenous communities. These reference points were provided with basic medical institutions, schools, and points of supply of basic consumer goods, designed for Orang Asli. Subsequently, the forts ceased their activities, and for the Orang Asli began to create so-called exemplary settlements called Patterned Settlements. A number of Orang Asli communities have been relocated to these settlements, which are accessible to Aboriginal and Security Department officials and yet close to traditional indigenous ancestral lands. They promised to provide their residents with wooden houses on stilts, as well as modern amenities such as schools, hospitals and shops. They also had to grow commercial crops (rubber, palm oil) and practice animal husbandry in order to be able to participate in the monetary economy. This strategy was successful, and support for the rebels from the Orang Asli weakened.

Finally, an attempt was made to legislate to protect the indigenous population, the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance resolution was enacted in 1954; which, with some modifications, still operates today.

Thus, the circumstances of the State of Emergency had brought the Orang Asli out of isolation, and they have since become an integral part of Malaysia's political system.


Malaysia declared independence in 1957. By this time the communist uprising had been largely suppressed, and in 1960 the newly independent state of Malay declared a state of emergency.

Shortly before the proclamation of independence, there were about 20,000 Muslims among the Orang Asli; after independence, most of them were recognised by the Malays.[7] The rest continued to live in inland forest areas and adhere to their traditional way of life. They remained outside the country's development until the late 1970s, forming a specific marginalized population.

After independence, development of the Orang Asli became a prime objective of the government, and in 1961 a policy was adopted to integrate the Orang Asli into the wider Malaysian society.[38] The Malaysian government retained the Department of Aborigines, but changed its name to the Malay, Jabatan Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli, abbreviated JOA), later renaming it to Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs, abbreviated JHEOA), and finally since 2011, the Jabalan Kemajuan Orang Asli (Department of Orange Asli Development, abbreviated JAKOA). The main functions of managing the Orang Asli communities, providing them with medical care, education, and economic development were retained. The Aboriginal People Act 1954, which gave JHEOA broad powers to control the Orang Asli, also remained in force. State intervention in the life of the indigenous population during the years of independence has intensified markedly. Initially, the strategic goal was to integrate the Orang Asli with the Malay population as part of society while preserving and protecting their traditional institutions, customs and way of life. However, in practice, JHEOA's activities were aimed at assimilating the Orang Asli into the Malay ethnic group.

In the late 1960s, the Malayan Communist Party resumed its armed struggle and began the so-called Second Malayan Emergency (1968–89). Again, the main rebel bases were located in the inner jungle areas. The government quickly drew attention to the Orang Asli as a likely ally of the rebels. A military decision was made to physically remove the Orang Asli from their traditional environment. In 1977 a new project of resettlement of indigenous people was presented, and it was now called the Regroupment Schemes (Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula, RPS). Given the mistakes of the past, the process of "regrouping" also involved the implementation of development programmes, and the regrouping schemes themselves were created within the customary lands of the respective Orang Asli communities or close to them. In addition to the provision of medical and educational services, the participants in the schemes were provided with permanent land plots for housing construction and homesteading. They were also involved in one form or another in income-generating activities, mainly the cultivation of commercial crops such as rubber and oil palm.

The 1980s were a turning point in the history of the Orang Asli. During this decade, the pace of economic development in Malaysia was the highest,[39] as Malaysia began to experience a period of sustained growth characterised by modernisation, industrialisation, and land development, which resulted in encroachments of Orang Asli land. Logging and replacement of jungles on plantations have become widespread, and encroachments on traditional Orang Asli resources have become widespread. This seriously disrupted the lives of most indigenous communities as they were no longer able to live on traditional farming methods.

At the same time a significant impact on government policy was Islamic movement and integration policy of Orang Asli, took the form of Islamisation.[7][40] The Malaysian government established an institution of Islamic missionary work, Dawah, which was to operate in indigenous communities. Special community development officials, Pegawai Pemaju Masyarakat were appointed, and public buildings, Balai Raya are equipped with Muslim prayer halls called Surau that were built in the villages of Orang Asli. The policy of so-called "positive discrimination" was applied, when the converts of Islam was stimulated by certain preferentials. JHEOA tried to provide converts with housing, water and electricity, and vehicles. They were paid for schooling, provided with scholarships for university studies, created better opportunities in the field of health care, in terms of income and promotion in the civil service.

The policy of "positive discrimination" provoked a negative reaction in the Orang Asli communities. Many of them refused to convert to Islam, even in spite of the advantages afforded to them. Others, in response to the situation, out of poverty nominally converted to Islam, but made no effort to change their religious beliefs or behaviour.

The isolation of the Orang Asli communities ended and they became part of Malaysian society. Today, the goal of most Orang Asli is to become successful Malaysian citizens, while maintaining their national identity and culture. Now they learn about world events from television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. Orang Asli villages have become more open and accessible. Their residents receive from the state services in the field of health and maternity, child care, dental care, police and security services, communications and education. Some of the Orang Asli managed to obtain higher education, which allowed them to obtained prestigious jobs and skilled jobs. They are trying to be competitive in modern society.

Indigenous responses to the seizure of their customary lands and resources ranged from a repressed tacit perception of the situation and simple political lobbying of their interests to loud protests and demands for legal protection. In response to this encroachment, a landmark mobilisation and creation of the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia, POASM) by the Orang Asli in 1976, which has given them a stronger voice and greater visibility. POASM was able to become a focal point that integrated the grievances and needs of Orang Asli communities. The organisation's popularity grew, and in 2011 it had about 10,000 members.[6] Thanks to the activities of the Orang Asli's association, they felt more cohesive, became more visible in society and declared themselves as a cultural and political entity. In 1998, POASM became a collective member of the Malaysian Indigenous Network (Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, abbreviated JOAS), an informal association of indigenous organisations and movements in Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. Unfortunately, POASM's activities gradually faded. Resulting the formation of the niche, Network of Orang Asli Peninsular Malaysia Villages (Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia), an informal association of Orang Asli, which advocates for the rights of the country's indigenous peoples, and seeks to represent the Orang Asli's interests to the government and the general public.[6]

Orang Asli leaders seek to disseminate information about their communities and the challenges they face in the general public both in Malaysia and beyond. The Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), established in 1989, provides powerful assistance in this regard. More attention was paid to the Orang Asli after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which globally changed the world's view of respect for traditional knowledge and rights of the indigenous peoples.[39] The United Nations' declaration of 1994-2003 as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People also had a positive effect.[13] Orang Asli are now known as Orang Kita ("our people") following the introduction of the "One Malaysia" concept by Najib Razak,[38] who was Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time.


An Orang Asli man and a boy, indoors.

The way of life and management of certain groups of Orang Asli differs markedly. There are three main traditions that existed in the past, the nomadic hunter-gatherers Semangs, the settled population engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture Senois, and settled farmers who additionally collect jungle produce for sale Proto-Malays. Each of these traditions corresponds to a certain social structure of society.

About 40% of Orang Asli, including the Temiar people, Cheq Wong people, Jah Hut people, Semelai people, and Semaq Beri people, continue to live in or near jungles. Here they are engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture (growing Upland rice on the hills), as well as hunting and gathering. In addition, these communities sell foraged of jungle resources (petai, durian, rattan, wild rubber) in exchang for money. Coastal communities (Orang Kuala, Orang Seletar and Mah Meri people) are mainly engaged in fishing and seafood harvesting. Others, including Temuan people, Jakun people and Semai people, are constantly engaged in agriculture, and now also have their own plantations for growing rubber, oil palm and cocoa. Very few Orang Asli, especially among Negrito groups (such as the Jahai people and Lanoh people), still lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle and prefer to enjoy the seasonal bounties of the jungle. Many Orang Asli also live in cities where they work as hired workers.

Nomadic groups, such as the Jahai people and Batek people, live in families that occasionally gather together in temporary camps and then separate from each other again, but to reunite in a new camp and in a different composition. Some agricultural groups, such as the Temiar people, are organised into extended families and small groups linked by a common origin. They trace their descent from a common ancestor along both male and female lineages. The Semang and Senoi ethnic groups are politically and socially egalitarian, where everyone in the community is completely autonomous. If they have their leaders, they exercise only temporary situational power, which is based solely on the personal authority of a certain person. Such a leader has no real authority. At the same time, some southern groups, including the Semelai people, the Jakun people, and the Temuan people, had their own hereditary batin (meaning, village head) leaders in the past.

All Orang Asli consider their customary territories to be free for gathering by all members of the community. In some groups, individual families have exclusive rights to the agricultural land they cultivate, which they have cleared from the jungle on their own. However, when such a field is abandoned and is overgrown with jungle, it returns to the common property of the whole community.

One remarkable feature of Orang Asli communities is that they prohibit any interpersonal violence, both within their groups and in relationships with outsiders. Their survival strategy has traditionally been to avoid contact with the country's dominant populations, and they teach their children to refrain from all forms of violence.

The rules governing marriage differ from one tribe to another Orang Asli. In Semangs, social structures are adapted to their nomadic way of life of hunter-gatherers. They are forbidden to marry and have intimate relations with blood or related relatives through marriage. These rules of exogamy require one to look for a spouse among distant groups, thus creating a wide network of social ties. The tradition of Senoi is associated with the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture. Their local groups are more stable than those of the Semangs, therefore the prohibition of marriages between relatives is not so strict, as a result, family ties are concentrated within a certain river valley. The Malay tradition is associated with a sedentary lifestyle, so Malays and Aboriginal Malays prefer to marry within a village or locality, and marriages between cousins are allowed. This practice of local endogamy strengthens people's commitment to their own economic system, keeps them from accepting other traditions. Such differences in views on the rules of marriage allowed for several thousand years to coexist side by side and not to intermarry with groups with very different economic complexities.

Traditional Orang Asli religions consist of complex systems of beliefs and worldviews that give these people the concept of the meaning of the world, the meaning of human life, and the moral code of conduct. Orang Asli are traditionally animists, where they believe in the presence of spirits in various objects.[41] It allows the indigenous people to be in constant harmony with the natural environment. Most Orang Asli believe that the universe consists of three worlds, namely the celestial upper world, the terrestrial middle world, and the subterranean lower world. All three worlds are inhabited by various supernatural beings (spirits, ghosts, deities), which can be both helpful and harmful to humans. Some of these supernatural beings are individualised entities that have their own names, and are associated with specific natural phenomena, such as thunderstorms, floods, or fruit ripening. Most Orang Asli believe in the "God of Thunder", who will punishes people by sending them a terrible storm.

Traditional Orang Asli rituals are designed to maintain a harmonious relationship between humans and supernatural beings. They offer sacrifices to the spirits, praise and gratitude, to ask permission to kill animals during hunting, cut down trees, plant cultivated plants, and to ask for abundant harvests of wild fruits. More complex rituals are performed by shamans, many of whom have their own spiritual guides in the spirit world. Most of these people believe that spells can cure diseases or ensure success in any fields of activity, usually with the help of supernatural beings. During those ritual sessions, the shaman falls into a trance, and his soul goes to travel the worlds, looking for the lost souls of sick people, or meets with supernatural beings and asks them for help.

However, in the 21st century, many of them have also embraced monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity[41] following some active state-sponsored dakwah by Muslims, and evangelism by Christian missionaries.[42] Pahang Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (Majlis Ugama Islam Dan Adat Resam Melayu Pahang, MUIP) filed new Orang Asli Muslim converts from Pahang in 2015 alone.[43] On June 4, 2007, an Orang Asli church was allegedly torn down by the state government in Gua Musang, Kelantan. In January 2008, a suit was filed against the Kelantan state authorities.[44] The affected Orang Asli also sought a declaration under Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia that they have the right to practice the religion of their choice and to build their own prayer house.[45] A major scandal involving the deaths of several escapee Orang Asli students led to a discussion over the role of religious indoctrination in schools and forced conversion of Orang Asli community to Islam by the state government.[46]

The lifestyle of certain Orang Asli groups that were formed for over many centuries, has resulted the way of solving practical problems and opportunities that these people faced in specific natural and social conditions. Orang Asli communities demonstrate how social life can be reconciled without a hierarchical political system as an intermediary, but instead with gender equality, a combination of close cooperation and mutual assistance with personal autonomy.

Some of their methodology, which the Orang Asli themselves take for granted, seems to gain the attention of Westerners. Andy Hickson and his mother, Sue Jennings, after living in the Temiar community for more than a year, not only appreciated the nation's social heritage but also began to apply it in their practice. Andy Hickson, who works as a consultant in the education system, began to use interactive methods of Temiar people in the fight against the phenomenon of intimidation of students. Therapist Sue Jennings applies aspects of the Temiar ritual traditions in her group therapy sessions.[6]

Status in society[edit]

An Orang Asli woman and a child indoors.

Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia enjoys certain rights due to the fact that they are indigenous to the country. This is recognised in the Federal Constitution as allowed under the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 (Revised 1974) and specified in the 1961 policy statement entitled "Statement of Policy Regarding the Administration of the Orang Asli of Peninsula Malaysia". All other legislation and bylaws are based on the provisions of the Aboriginal Peoples Act.

The Aboriginal Peoples Act is the only law that specifically applies to the Orang Asli.[47] It defines and describes in detail the terms and concepts for recognising the status of Orang Asli communities. Legally, Orang Asli is defined as members of an indigenous ethnic group who are of such origin or who have been admitted into the community by adoption, or they are children from mixed marriages with the indigenous, provided that they speak the indigenous language and follow the way of life, customs and beliefs of the indigenous people. Preservation of the traditional way of life involves the reservation of land for the Orang Asli. Legislation of such matters concerning the Orang Asli is the National Land Code 1965, Land Conservation Act 1960, Protection of Wildlife Act 1972, National Parks Act 1980, and most importantly the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli Reserve Land. However, the Act also includes the power according to the Director-General of the JHEOA to order Orang Asli out of such reserved land at its discretion, and award compensation to affected people, also at its discretion.[48] The state government may also revoke the reserve status of these lands at any time, and the Orang Asli will have to relocate, and even in the event of such relocation, the state government is not obliged to pay any compensation or allocate an alternative site to the affected Orang Asli victims. A landmark case on this matter is in the 2002 case of Sagong bin Tasi & Ors v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor. The case was concerned with the state government using its powers conferred under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favor of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.[48] Nevertheless, customary land disputes between Orang Asli and state government still occurs from time to time. In 2016, the Kelantan state government was sued due to a dispute over land by Orang Asli.[49]

There is an obvious refusal to recognize the Orang Asli as the autonomous communities that they once were. Orang Asli have the unsurpassed "privilege" of having a special department to manage them. Even during the British administration, the Aboriginal People Act 1954 gave management functions on all matters relating to the Orang Asli, a specially created Department of Aborigines. Since independence, it has changed its name several times, but still, now as JAKOA, it continues to care for the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia.

The department has broad powers, including controlling the entry of outsiders into the areas of Orang Asli settlements, the appointment and dismissal of village heads (batins), the ban on planting any specific plants on Orang Asli lands, the issuance of permits for deforestation, jungle harvesting produce, hunting in traditional areas of Orang Asli, as well as determining the conditions under which Orang Asli can be hired.[13] When appointing village elders, JAKOA focuses primarily on the candidate's knowledge of the Malay language and his ability to follow instructions. The final decision in all matters concerning the Orang Asli are decided by the authorized state official, the General Director of JAKOA.[47] The department is the de facto "landowner" of the Orang Asli territories, it also shapes the general decisions of the communities, and essentially effectively keeps the Orang Asli in the status of its "children", acting as their state guardian.

In a number of issues where more effective action is needed, the state government acts directly through the relevant ministries. This applies, in particular, to the implementation of programs in the field of education, health care, and agricultural development.

Orang Asli do not enjoy constitutional rights equivalent to other communities but instead, depends on the government for everything. They are seen as an ethnic group that is incapable of running its own affairs and needs government intervention to ensure their protection, well-being and development. Indigenous communities do not have the power to determine their own identity, the affiliation of certain persons to the community, or to identify the community itself (indigenous group). Such strong power of the state government does not apply to the Malays or natives in Sabah and Sarawak.[11]

The envisaged powers of the JAKOA to act on behalf of the Orang Asli are often a bone of contention between the Department and the Orang Asli themselves, and they invariably cause much annoyance to the latter. The activities of the Department are perceived by the Orang Asli with a sense of deep distrust. JAKOA employees are largely non-Orang Asli people, made up of mostly ethnic Malays. They are not well acquainted with the customs, culture and problems of the Orang Asli, but decide their fate. In cases where there is a conflict between the interests of the state government and the interests of the Orang Asli, and this applies mainly to the ownership of customary lands, JAKOA invariably takes the position of its founder, and the situation is resolved in favour of the state government.

Orang Asli communities seek to decide their own destiny and dispose of their lands and traditional resources, or at least participate in decisions about their use. They demand the right to manage JAKOA's activities themselves. Orang Asli also seeks to be able to freely develop their own cultures, languages and customs, to maintain their own social institutions, and to pass on folk traditions to future generations. In a broader sense, they want to regain their right to self-determination, to be able to develop and progress as individuals and as a people on the basis of a social order that they themselves will determine.

A significant problem for Orang Asli, in addition to the official status, is the specific attitude towards them, which has developed in the mainstream society. An echo of the early Malay states and British colonial era is the view of indigenous peoples as inferior, second-class people who are not subjects in society. This attitude dominates at the household level and at the subconscious level affects the fate of the Orang Asli.

Despite the fact that Orang Asli fully comply with international definitions for "indigenous peoples", their "nativeness" at the national level has a special meaning. Malays have been considered a "native people" in Malaysia since colonial times. Orang Asli, according to local notions, are communities of "primitive" people who never formed an "effective statehood"[11] and were dependent on the Malay state. The very perception of the term "Malay" in the Malay world should also be taken into account. What matters here is not the origin of a person, but one's higher status in society compared to the "completely indigenous" population, which is characterised by the practice of Islam, knowledge of the Malay language, compliance with the norms of Malay society. There is also a specific phrase "masuk Melayu" which is "to become a Malay", when a considerable number of these people has reached these requirements.[11]

Historical prejudices about the Orang Asli as a lower and subordinate group of people persist to this day. The Malaysian government treats the Orang Asli as the "poor cousins" of Malays who needed to follow the Malay path of development to be so-called successful. All actions of the state government are aimed at destroying the autonomy of the Orang Asli and including them in the dominant "mainstream" society such as the Malay community. In practice, this means the controlled assimilation of the Orang Asli.

Another problem is that the Malaysian state government does not recognise the Orang Asli as a "people" at all in the sense as defined in United Nations documents.[13] Such recognition would mean that Orang Asli have the right to self-determination and can exercise autonomy in their traditional territories. Thus, the right of the state government to exercise control over the lands and resources of the Orang Asli will be called into question. This problem is manifested both politically and economically. Recognition of the Orang Asli as a separate people (or peoples), and even as an indigenous people, would call into question the legitimacy of the ethnic Malays in their pursuit of political dominance in the country because of their native nature and privileges as opposed to the "immigrant" Chinese and Indian communities of the country. In economic terms, the recognition of Orang Asli rights to their customary lands and resources may hinder the implementation of ambitious development programmes.

Unsurprisingly, such a policy has created a sense of self-differentiation among the Orang Asli, to separate from the rest of society. Increasingly, Orang Asli seek to defend their individual and collective identity in order to fight against the power of "outsiders", including the state government. On this basis, they formed a sense of "nativeness", their own self-affirmation in contrast to the majority of the population. The Orang Asli's "nativeness" is their attempt to defend a broader political autonomy. Recently, some Orang Asli groups, with the support of volunteer lawyers, have made some progress in asserting their constitutional rights to customary lands and resources in the courts. They demanded compensation in accordance with the principles of common law and the international rights of indigenous peoples. Such decisions are very difficult.[6]

In the early 1970s the government began to introduce Malaysia's so-called New Economic Policy (NEP), as part of which created a new class of people "bumiputera", "prince of the land". The Orang Asli are classified as bumiputeras,[42] a status signifying indigeneity to Malaysia which carries certain social, economic, and political rights, along with the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Based on their initial presence on this land, the bumiputera received economic and political advantages over other non-native groups. In addition to special economic "rights", the bumiputera enjoy the support of the state government in terms of the development of their religion, culture, language, preferences in the field of education, in holding positions in government and government agencies. However, this status is generally not mentioned in the constitution.[42] In reality, bumiputera as a form of Malay supremacy policy is used as a political means for the furtherance of the political dominance of the Malay community in the country. The indigenous people of East Malaysia Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia are practically perceived as "lower bumiputera" pribumis, and as for the Orang Asli in particular, the Federal Constitution does not even mention them under the label "bumiputera". The status of a bumiputera has little or no benefit to most Orang Asli. They continue to be a dependent (ward) category of the population.

the Orang Melayu or Malays have always been the definitive people of the Malay Peninsula. The aborigines were never accorded any such recognition nor did they claim such recognition. There was no known aborigine government or state. Above all, at no time did they outnumber the Malays. It is quite obvious that if today there were four million aborigines, the right of the Malays to regard the Malay Peninsula as their own country will be questioned by the world. But in fact there are no more than a few thousand aborigines.

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's fourth and seventh Prime Minister (1981) The Malay Dilemma, pp. 126-127[50]

Malaysia's fourth and seventh prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, made controversial remarks regarding the Orang Asli, saying that Orang Asli were not entitled more rights than Malays even though they were natives to the land, as posted on his blog comparing the Orang Asli in Malaysia to Native Americans in the United States, Māori in New Zealand, and Aboriginal Australians.[51][52] He was criticised by spokespeople and advocates for the Orang Asli who said that the Orang Asli desired to be recognised as the true natives of Malaysia and that his statement would expose their land to businessmen and loggers.[53][54]

Orang Asli have equal voting rights with other citizens of the country, participate in national and state elections. In addition, in order to involve them in the legislative process in parliament, since 1957, five senators from among the Orang Asli have been appointed.[55] However, the Orang Asli have no real representation in state bodies. The situation is complicated by the fact that the organisation or person who has the right to represent the interests of a particular indigenous community is determined by the state government. Therefore, in their activities, such representatives do not reflect the thoughts, needs and aspirations of their community, and moreover, are they are not accountable to it. A clear example of the current situation is the case when in June 2001 one of the Orang Asli senators raised in the Malaysian Dewan Negara Senate the question of the inexpediency of spending funds that the state government directed to the introduction of the Semai language in school.[23]


An Orang Asli in Taman Negara starting fire using traditional method.

Since independence in 1957, the Malaysian government has begun to develop comprehensive Orang Asli community development programmes. The first stage, designed for the period 1954-1978, focused on security aspects and aimed to protect the Orang Asli from the influence of the communists. In the second phase, which began in the late 1970s, the government began to focus on the socio-economic development of the Orang Asli communities. The goal is to "modernise" their economy by changing their livelihoods to activities aimed at a market economy.

In 1980, the state began creating Orang Asli settlements under the so-called Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula (RPS), a "regrouping scheme". There were established 17 RPS with 6 in the state of Perak, 7 in the state of Pahang, 3 in the state of Kelantan and 1 in the state of Johor;[56] totalling of 3,015 families that lived in them.[6] The RPS scheme targeted remote and scattered settlements and was to organise Orang Asli agricultural activities as their main source of livelihood. Programmes for the introduction of commercial crops, such as rubber trees, oil palm, coconut palm, and fruit trees, were implemented. These programmes were implemented mainly by two government agencies, namely the Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (RISDA) and the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA Berhad).[55] Each family received up to ten acres of land as part of large plantations and two more acres for housing and homesteading. JHEOA provided people with tools, seedlings, herbicides and fertilisers for farming. Orang Asli began to receive dividends from the sale of products from these plantations, in addition, they can work directly in production and receive payment for it.

According to the regrouping scheme, the villagers were provided with housing, kindergarten centres, electricity and tap water, and access roads that connects these remote areas with the outside world. Each RPS has an administrative centre, a school, a clinic, a shop and a multifunctional public hall.

Collector groups that have only recently left the nomadic lifestyle also received food and basic necessities so that they could survive until the trees began to generate income. Of course, indigenous communities were painfully aware of such changes, as they were forced to abandon their usual way of life.

Eventually, the RPS became a model for modernising the Orang Asli economy. In 1999 a restructuring of village project called Penyusunan Semula Kampung (PSK) was approved and implemented, which provides for the modernisation of basic infrastructure and public services in existing Orang Asli villages, whose residents began to receive the same incentives and benefits as the RPS participants. As of 2004, the project covered 217 Orang Asli villages. 545 Orang Asli villages (63%) were supplied with electricity, and 619 villages (71%) received water supply. A 2,910 km of rural roads was also built, and they provide access to 631 (73%) Orang Asli villages.[55] Orang Asli then began to acquire ownership of their lands.

Recently, economic development has spread to inland areas. A special programme Program Bersepadu Daerah Terpencil (PROSDET) is focused on the development of settlements located in remote areas and inaccessible to any type of vehicle. A pilot project under this scheme is being implemented in the village of Pantos, located in the Kuala Lipis region, Pahang. The programme covers 200 families.[55]

The Malaysian government seeks to eradicate poverty among its citizens, including the Orang Asli community. In order for them to compete in the labour market, the government considers it important to teach the Orang Asli the skills needed to do so. As part of its economic development programmes, JAKOA opens training courses in crop and livestock care, entrepreneurship courses, material assistance and equipment for indigenous people to start their own businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants, machanic shops, Internet cafes, construction companies, fishing, potato, lime, aquaculture of tilapia, poultry, goats, and so forth, with funds allocated for the construction of premises for business space, where Orang Asli entrepreneurs could operate and sell their products.[57] JAKOA organises trainings and develops training programmes for Orang Asli under the Training and Employment Programme known as Program Latihan Kemahiran & Kerjaya (PLKK).[58][59] In addition, Orang Asli community members are allowed to invest in shares in Amanah Saham Bumiputera, a fund management company owned by the government, reserved for the bumiputeras only.[55]

Considerable attention is also paid to the establishment of friendly relations and mutual understanding between government agencies and Orang Asli communities.

JAKOA / JHEOA has implemented a three-tier educational programme among Orang Asli communities aimed at preparing Orang Asli children for integration into the national education system. In each Orang Asli village, children undergo three years of education at the first level, then for 6 years they continue their education in second-level schools located in large Orang Asli communities. At the end of the sixth grade, they take exams and can go on to study at normal public high schools located in nearby rural or urban areas.

For a long time, education was not considered a particularly important function for JHEOA, as training standards were very low, and the infrastructure and training facilities for Orang Asli were clearly inadequate. All of this caused an abnormally high dropout rate in primary and secondary education. Beginning in 1995, however, responsibility for indigenous education was transferred to the Ministry of Education, and all Orang Asli schools were to be permanently transferred under the ministry by 2001. It can be argued that this is a positive step. An education system was introduced using a national curriculum modeled on national public schools.[55]

Education is one of the main development programmes of Orang Asli, as it can lead to social and economic changes to improve the quality of life. Government efforts to modernise the Orang Asli are focused primarily on adolescents who are more adaptable to change in the population. It is not only about general education, but also about the organisation of various courses, trainings, study trips, and so on, aimed at changing perceptions and moods among young Orang Asli. They need to gain new knowledge and experience that will allow them to move forward, just as other communities in the country do. Funds are allocated for the sponsoring of scholarships for students from among the Orang Asli.

As part of the implementation of health programs in Orang Asli villages, 125 medical institutions were opened. There is a hospital in Gombak District, specially created for the needs of the Orang Asli. In 2003, it was modernised, equipped with new medical equipments and an additional of 166 beds. In addition, 10 other hospitals and 20 transit centers were built for the indigenous population. Vaccinations, lectures on health and family nutrition are provided to improve public awareness and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. However, statistics show that health indicators in Orang Asli communities remain low.

Socio-economic situation[edit]

Malaysians, including Orang Asli, protesting against the Australian rare-earths mining company Lynas from operating in Malaysia.[60]

Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs, JHEOA), a government agency that was first set up in 1954 is entrusted to oversee the affairs of the Orang Asli under the Malaysian Ministry of Rural Development.[61] Among its stated objectives are to eradicate poverty among the Orang Asli, improving their health, promoting education, and improving their general livelihood. There is a high incidence of poverty among the Orang Asli in which they belong to the poorest group of the Malaysian population. In 1997, 80% of all Orang Asli lived below the poverty line. This ratio was extremely high compared to the national poverty rate of 8.5%.[62] 50.9% of households, according to the United Nations Development Programme in 2007 lived in poverty, and 15.4% hardcore poverty living below the poverty line. These figures contrast sharply with the national figures of 7.5% and 1.4%, respectively.[5] In 2010, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, 76.9% of the Orang Asli population remained below the poverty line, with 35.2% classified as living in hard-core poverty, compared to 1.4% nationally.[5]

Other indicators also indicate a low quality of life in the Orang Asli. This is indicated, in particular, by the lack of basic amenities in many families such as plumbing, toilet, and often electricity. Thus, in 1997, according to the Department of Statistics of Malaysia, only 47.5% of Orang Asli households had some form of water supply, both indoors and outdoors, with 3.9% dependent only on other water sources such as rivers, streams and wells to meet their water needs. Toilets, as a basic convenience, were lacking in 43.7% of Orang Asli housing units, while for Peninsular Malaysia in general this figure was only 3%. 51.8% of Orang Asli households used kerosene lamps to light their homes.[63]

Another indicator of low wealth is the lack of basic household items in many Orang Asli families; including refrigerators, radios, televisions, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and so on, which may reflect the state of their well-being. According to the same Department of Statistics, in 1997 almost a quarter (22.2%) of all Orang Asli households did not have any of these household items. Only 35% of Orang Asli households in rural areas had motorcycles, which is an important mode of transportion.[63]

At the same time, there is a large difference in security between Orang Asli households in urban and suburban areas and households located in rural areas, and even more so in remote jungle areas. In fact, there is very little difference between the share of household items between urban Orang Asli households and the rest of the Malaysian Peninsula population. Another issue is Orang Asli settlements that are located in the jungle. They are deprived of access roads and other infrastructure facilities, serious problems with the provision of medical care and primary education, as well as the provision of these institutions with qualified specialists of the required standard.

The government sees the causes of poverty in the Orang Asli communities includes excessive dependence on jungle foraging,[64] living in remote and inaccessible areas,[65] low self-esteem and isolation from other communities,[65] low level of education,[65] low or no savings, lack of modern skills for employment, land encroachment and lack of land ownership,[64] and excessive dependence on state aid.

Customary lands and resources have been their only source of livelihood for the Orang Asli for centuries. Most Orang Asli still maintain a close physical, cultural and spiritual connection with the environment in traditional areas. Relocation to other areas as part of development programmes deprives them of this connection and forces them to adapt to new living conditions. The appropriation of traditional Orang Asli lands by the state and private individuals and companies, deforestation, the creation of rubber and oil palm plantations, and the development of tourism are destroying the foundations of the traditional indigenous economy. This forces many of these people to move to a sedentary lifestyle in villages or urban areas. The loss of customary lands becomes a trap for them, leading them into poverty.[66]

During the years of independence in Malaysia, there has been a marked improvement in the provision of medical care for the Orang Asli and the availability of treatment and prevention facilities for them. However, there are still many problems. Health standards among Orang Asli communities remain low compared to other communities. More than others, they are exposed to various infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid fever and more. The problem of malnutrition is also urgent among Orang Asli, particularly among children.[67] Access to information on the health status of residents of remote settlements and the availability of medical facilities there is generally limited.

Due to the lack of proper education, Orang Asli cannot be competitive in society at large.[68] This leads them to become overly dependent on JAKOA's help.

At the same time, the general high level of poverty among the Orang Asli communities has not stopped the growing number of businessmen from their environment, the so-called Orang Asli Baru. By establishing good relations with the authorities and by virtue of their belonging to the indigenous population, they were able to significantly improve their economic situation at the expense of their own communities. The projects they implement are mainly related to jungle development or the development of Orang Asli communities.

Notable Orang Asli[edit]

  • Amani Williams Hunt Abdullah, Orang Asli politician and Orang Asli activist, born to an English father and a Semai mother.
  • Professor Dr. Bahari Belaton, the first Orang Asli to be appointed as a dean in Malaysian history and also the first to hold two head of department positions simultaneously in an institution of higher learning in Malaysia. He is the dean of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) School of Computer Sciences (SOCS) and also serves as the National Advanced IPv6 Centre (NAv6) director. He belongs to the Semai tribe of Tangkai Cermin in Perak.[69]
  • Ramli Mohd Nor, current member of Parliament for Cameron Highlands, born to a Semai father and a Temiar mother.[70] He is the first indigenous Orang Asli candidate elected an MP into the Dewan Rakyat.
  • Yosri Derma Raju, former Malaysian footballer.[71]
  • Sapiah Mohd Nor, Director-General of Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa). She is the first Orang Asli woman to be appointed to the post.[72]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Benjamin, Geoffrey & Cynthia Chou, ed. (2002), Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Social and Cultural Perspectives, Leiden: International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) / Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), p. 490, ISBN 978-9-812-30167-3
  • Benjamin, Geoffrey (1985). Karl L. Hutterer, A. Terry Rambo & George Lovelace (ed.). In the long term: three themes in Malayan cultural ecology. Cultural Values and Human Ecology in Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor MI: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan. pp. 219–278. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.3378.1285. ISBN 978-0-891-48040-2.
  • Benjamin, Geoffrey (2013). Ooi Keat Gin (ed.). Orang Asli. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO. pp. 997–1000. ISBN 978-1-576-07770-2.
  • Benjamin, Geoffrey (2013). "Why have the Peninsular "Negritos" remained distinct?". Human Biology. 85 (1–3): 445–484. doi:10.3378/027.085.0321. hdl:10220/24020. ISSN 0018-7143. PMID 24297237. S2CID 9918641.
  • Orang Asli Now: The Orang Asli in the Malaysian Political World, Roy Jumper (ISBN 0-7618-1441-8).
  • Power and Politics: The Story of Malaysia's Orang Asli, Roy Jumper (ISBN 0-7618-0700-4).
  • 1: Malaysia and the Original People, p. 21. Robert Dentan, Kirk Endicott, Alberto Gomes, M.B. Hooker. (ISBN 0-205-19817-1).
  • Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Vol. 4: Early History, p. 46. Edited by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (ISBN 981-3018-42-9).
  • Abdul Rashid, M. R. b. H., Jamal Jaafar, & Tan, C. B. (1973). Three studies on the Orang Asli in Ulu Perak. Pulau Pinang: Perpustakaan Universiti Sains Malaysia.
  • Lim, Chan-Ing. (2010). "The Sociocultural Significance of Semaq Beri Food Classification." Unpublished Master Thesis. Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya.
  • Lim, Chan-Ing. (2011). "An Anthropologist in the Rainforest: Notes from a Semaq Beri Village" (雨林中的人类学家). Kuala Lumpur: Mentor publishing(ISBN 978-983-3941-88-9).
  • Mirante, Edith (2014) "The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia's 'Negrito' Indigenous Peoples" Bangkok, Orchid Press.
  • Pogadaev, V. "Aborigeni v Malayzii: Integratsiya ili Assimilyatsiya?" (Orang Asli in Malaysia: Integration or Assimilation?). - "Aziya i Afrika Segodnya" (Asia and Afrika Today). Moscow: Russian Academy of Science, N 2, 2008, p. 36-40. ISSN 0321-5075.

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