|Regions with significant populations|
|Aslian languages (Austroasiatic)|
Aboriginal Malay languages (Austronesian)
|Animism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baháʼí|
|Related ethnic groups|
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 the heterogeneous indigenous population that forms as a national minority and also the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.
Orang Asli makes up only 0.6% of the total population of Malaysia (2010), with a total number that exceeds 160 thousand people. Although not usually mentioned in the country's ethnic situation, the Orang Asli are a distinct category of population, as are the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the indigenous East Malaysians of Sabah and Sarawak. Their special status is enshrined in law.
The homogeneity of the Orang Asli is a result of their perception by outsiders, based on cultural and ideological criteria. In fact, they are made up of many tribes and peoples who have never felt as one. Orang Asli settlements are scattered among the main, mostly Malay, population of the country, often in mountainous areas or in the jungles of the rainforest. Each group identifies itself by a specific geographical and ecological space, with which they consider it as customary land. Accordingly, each of them considers itself completely independent and different from the other communities. What unites the Orang Asli is only the opposition to mainstream society of the three major ethnic groups of Peninsular Malaysia, and the fact that they are all mostly on the sidelines of the social, economic and cultural life of the country's development.
Like other indigenous peoples around the world, Orang Asli strive to preserve their own distinctive culture and identity, which is inextricably linked by physical, economic, social, cultural, territorial and spiritual ties to their immediate natural environment.
The term "Orang Asli" is relatively recent, it was only officially used in 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 Jakun, and Sakai in the northern regions. Later, all indigenous groups became known as Sakai or Aborigines, which is equivalent to the Malay Sakai. The term "aborigines", as 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" carries a derogatory connotation, hinting at the 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.
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 indigenous tribes, they became known as Orang Asal, in the sense of "native people", from the Arabic word, `asali (أصلي meaning, "original", "well-born", or "aristocratic"). The Communists did have the support of the Orang Asli, and the government, in an attempt to win over the indigenous population, began to address them with the terminology, among other things. Thus was born a new, slightly modified in comparison with the insurgent, the term "Orang Asli", in the same sense of "primitive people".
Later, the Malay term "Orang Asli" became official. Without translation, it began to be used in English. It is accepted that it should not be canceled or change its form in the plural.
Despite its external origin, 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. 18 ethnic groups, divided into 3 main categories with 6 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 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). This division does not claim to be scientific, and it is easy to detect its shortcomings on almost any of the grounds, but it operates at the official level.
Such a classification was only an administrative decision. This was not enough to develop a common identity among the various Orang Asli groups. In real life, each tribe has its own language and culture, feels like a community different from others. The first two main tribes like The Semang and 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's 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. At the same time, Orang Asli never associate themselves with the categories of "Negrito", "Senoi" and "Aboriginal Malays".
According to the Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the Negritos (Semang or Pangan) are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They live mainly in the northern regions of the country. They show physical affinities to Australo-Melanesians and mostly descend from the people of the Hoabinhian cultural period, with many of their burials found dating back 10,000 years ago. Negritos belong to various subgroups, namely the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Jakun, Mendriq, Mintil and Bateq. Those from Perak, Kedah and Pahang are also known as Sakai (lit. "debt slaves"), while those from Kelantan and Terengganu were called Pangan (lit. "forest peoples"). The Senoi and Proto-Malays arrived much later, probably during the Neolithic period. As their name implies (negrito in Spanish means "little negroes"), they are people of short stature (1.5 meters or less), dark-skinned (color varies from dark copper to black), with curly hair, wide noses, round eyes and low cheekbones. Physically, they resemble the indigenous Andamanese peoples of the Andaman Islands, the Aeta people in the Philippines, the Melanesians of Oceania, and the Aboriginal Tasmanians.
From ancient times the Negritos led a nomadic lifestyle, using the rich natural resources of the country. Their traditional way of life of jungle hunter-gatherers is considered to be the most primitive among all indigenous groups. Now a large part of the Negritos live in permanent settlements, but periodically they go to the jungle to hunt or harvest wild berries. They collect some jungle produce, including rattan and aloe plant, for sale. This way of life is due to the fact that the Semangs are often considered nomads and the most economically backward group of the Orang Asli.
Negritos still adhere to animistic beliefs, believing that all natural objects have souls. Their shamans act as intermediaries between the visible world of people and the invisible world of spirits. They practice magic to predict the future, to cure diseases. Special rites accompany all important events in their lives.
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.
|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||slah-and-burn agriculture, hunter-gatherer||Kelantan||North Aslian language|
|Batek people||hunter-gatherer, trade||Kelantan, 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.
Evidence of early human occupation of the Peninsula includes prehistoric artefacts and cave paintings such as the Tambun rock art. The Orang Asli kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in the first millennium CE. Living in the interior, they bartered inland products like resins, incense woods, and feathers for salt, cloth, and iron tools.
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. 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. Other smaller, closely related tribes, often located further inland compared to their coastal 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.
Some of these Orang Asli groups were not living in complete isolation from their Malayalised brothers as they engaged with economic dealings and trading with the Malays.
In the 18th to the 19th centuries, some 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. 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. 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 forests were enslaved, with some being exploited until modern times.
The founding of British settlements brought further foreign influence into the lives of Orang Asli. Christian missionaries began preaching to the Orang Alsi, while anthropologists began conducting research on them.
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. Due to their perceived support for communist guerrillas, many Orang Asli were forcibly transferred to the so-called "new village" system where they were sent to live in newly-constructed settlements under the Briggs' Plan. The operations concerning the Orang Asli were cancelled after many of them started to succumb to disease. Two administrative initiatives were introduced to highlight the importance of the Orang Asli, as well to protect their identity. The Department of Aborigines was established in 1950, and the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance was enacted in 1954. 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.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia experienced a period of sustained growth characterised by modernisation, industrialisation, and land development, which resulted in encroachments on Orang Asli land. In response to this encroachment, the Orang Asli mobilised and formed the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), which has given them a stronger voice and greater visibility. Orang Asli are now known as Orang Kita ("our people") following the introduction of the "One Malaysia" concept by Najib Razak, who was Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time.
In 2000, the Orang Asli constituted only 0.5% of the total population in Malaysia. Their population is approximately 148,000. 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%. Thailand is home to roughly 600 orang asli, divided between Mani people with Thai citizenship, and 300 others in the deep south.
The poverty rate among Orang Asli is 76.9%. In addition to this high rate, the Statistics Department of Malaysia has classified 35.2% of the population as being "very poor". 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. They have an average life expectancy of 53 years (52 for male and 54 for female). A high infant mortality rate is also evident with 51.7 deaths per 1000 births.
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. 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. Other programs 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. 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.
|Orang Asli population by groups and subgroups (2000)|
|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)|
The division of Orang Asli into three categories is not due to linguistic differences but is merely sociological: linguistically they divide into two groups.
Kulanchi was one of the major and trade and business oriented tribe of the then era. It is also believed that Kulanchi later traveled to east Asian countries to save interest of their own and interests of monach,The first group speak Aslian languages, which form part of the Austroasiatic language family. These are further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut. 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, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri people).
Besides these, most Orang Asli are fluent in the Malay language, the official language of Malaysia.
Lifestyle, religion, and diet
Orang Asli are traditionally animists, where they believe in the presence of spirits in various objects. However, in the 21st century, many of them have embraced monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity following some active state-sponsored dakwah by Muslims, and evangelism by Christian missionaries.
On June 4th 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. 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.
Social and legal status
The government agency entrusted to oversee the affairs of the Orang Asli is the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs) (JHEOA). This body is under the Malaysian Ministry of Rural Development, and it was first set up in 1954. 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 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%. 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.
Some legislation concerning the Orang Asli are 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 accorded 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. 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 using its powers conferred under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favour of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
The Orang Asli are classified as Bumiputras, a status signifying indigenity to Malaysia which carries certain social, economic, and political rights, along with the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. However, this status is generally not mentioned in the constitution.
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. 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.
A major scandal involving the deaths of several escapee Orang Asli students led to a discussion over the role of religious indoctrination in schools.
Notable Orang Asli
- 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.
- Ramli Mohd Nor, current member of Parliament for Cameron Highlands, born to a Semai father and a Temiar mother.
- Yosri Derma Raju, former Malaysian footballer
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- Alan G. Fix (2015). Kirk Endicott (ed.). 'Do They Represent a "Relict Population" Surviving from the Initial Dispersal of Modern Humans from Africa?' from Malaysia's "Original People". NUS Press. pp. 101–122. ISBN 99-716-9861-7.
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- Malaysian Orang Asli Foundation
- Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Graduates Association (PSOA)
- Department of Orang Asli Development/Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli - JAKOA
- Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)
- Perak Orang Asli Foundation
- MOASF ( Orang Asli on Facebook )
- Orang Asli di Taman Negara
- Melawat Kediaman Orang Asli Di Asia Camp Taman Negara
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