Sep 08 2011

The Orang Asli (First People) of West Malaysia

Published by at 10:39 am under Kuala Lumpur excursions

Ask visitors who the indigenous people of Malaysia are, and I suspect the answer from the overwhelming majority would be “Malay”, which is not surprising given the sustained efforts of Malay nationalists to perpetuate this misconception. Malays have indeed lived in what is now West Malaysia for several hundred years. But when they first arrived, the land had already been inhabited by other people for many thousands of years.

A fast disappearing way of life.

A fast disappearing way of life.

The original inhabitants of West Malaysia, as with much of Southeast Asia, were Negritos — small statured hunter-gatherers, with dark skin and frizzy hair. Some 3,500 direct descendants of these people still live in small family groups, in hard-to-reach forested areas. Together with the Senoi people, who are descended from later waves of Mongoloid settlers, and Aboriginal Malays, who despite their name are genetically distinct from modern Malays, they make up the Orang Asli (First People), of West Malaysia.

The less than excellent Orang Asli Museum.

Given their virtual invisibility in modern Malaysia, it should not be a surprise that the Muzium Orang Asli (Orang Asli Museum), should be 25km from central Kuala Lumpur, in the middle of nowhere. Nor that the museum (open Sat-Thurs 09:00-17:00; free admission), gives a completely sanitised version of the treatment of West Malaysia’s approximately 178,000 indigenous people.

Orang Asli kids from the Batek (Negrito) people.

Orang Asli kids from the Batek (Negrito) people.

Officially sanctioned land grabs, forced resettlement, deforestation, environmental degradation and an aggressive policy of assimilation mean the survival of the Orang Asli as separate peoples is hanging in the balance. The Malaysian government’s stated aim is to integrate the Orang Asli into Malay (rather than Malaysian) culture, most significantly by conversion from their predominantly animist beliefs to Islam.

Getting lost in the crowd -- the future of the Orang Asli?

It’s not that the Orang Asli are opposed to all development. They are, after all, by far the poorest people in West Malaysia, with the highest infant mortality rates, lowest life expectancy and lowest literacy levels. But they want a real say in what development happens, so that they are not forced to abandon their ancestral land or belief systems as part of the process.

Hunting with blowpipes as their ancestors did, but for how much longer?

Hunting with blowpipes as their ancestors did, but for how much longer?

The museum does nothing to reflect the fight of the remaining Orang Asli to hold onto their traditional way of life. And why would it, given that it is run by the Department of Orang Asli Development, the body at the forefront of the assimilation drive? By all means visit the museum (it’s the last stop on Rapid KL bus U12 from Chow Kit), if nothing else for the fascinating black and white photos. But also have a look at the Center for Orang Asli Concerns‘ website , to get the full story.

This is not a human theme park.

This is not a human theme park.

As a final note, please do not go on tours which include visits to Orang Asli villages. For the most part, villagers are very uncomfortable being treated like human zoo exhibits by camera-toting tourists. A small number of communities run their own home stay programmes, but even with these places, please do not show up without prior warning.

Muzium Orang Asli
Batu 12, Gombak Utara, Selangor

T: (03) 6189 2122

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2 Responses to “The Orang Asli (First People) of West Malaysia” ...

  1. enni nooron 04 Apr 2013 at 7:18 am

    The aborigines of Malaysia were known before as Sakai but because the word seem derogatory to them therefore the government through its agency changed the name to Orang Asli which means ‘natural’ people or people of nature and also because they were mostly naked and was in their original natural attire. It does not mean that they are the original people of Malaysia and the Malays are not. The Malay’s existence in the Malay Peninsula pre-dated history and the Malay archipelago is the original home of the Malays with area stretching from Madagascar in the west and the Easter Islands in the east. The Negritos are from an African lineage and are similar to the aborigines of Australia. The Senoi group are similar to the Mon Khmer group of Indochina.The Proto Malay group are from this region and are very close in nature with the mainstream Malays , only difference is the religion and mannerisms. Since the minority Orang Asli lives side by side with the Malays , it is best if they assimilate altogether with the Malays.

  2. Pat Famaon 25 Aug 2013 at 3:52 am

    You wouldn’t work for JAKOA (Department for Orang Asli Development) would you Enni Noor, because you appear to have swallowed their propaganda without question?

    The term Sakai is offensive because its accepted meaning is “slave”. For many hundreds of years Orang Asli villages lived in terror of Malay slaving parties. Indeed, slavery was only abolished in what is now Malaysia by direct British intervention.

    Talk to any Orang Alsi though and you will see that Sakai is still a term of abuse used against them, amongst many others (“monkey”, “dirty”, “lizard”). This is particularly true in government schools where Orang Asli kids endure bullying and abuse at the hands of both their fellow pupils and their teachers. No wonder so few Orang Asli kids finish secondary school, or if their parents have a choice, go to Chinese or Indian vernacular schools.

    The accepted meaning or Orang Asli, including the Centre for Orang Asli Affaris, who should know after all, is “first” or “original people”. Which makes sense, as they were the first modern humans to live in West Malaysia by a margin of tens of thousands of years.

    The Negrito people are indeed of African lineage, as is every single person who lives in the world today. Every single non-African in the world is descended from the same small group of modern humans who left Africa some 70,000 years ago. Massive DNA studies over recent years have established that all non-Africans share a common female ancestor, dubbed the “real Eve”.

    The idea that Malays are a distinct race is wishful thinking at best, and racist nonsense at worst. The first mention of “Melayu” (a Sanskrit word incidentally), was made by Indian traders barely two thousand years ago. At that time it referred to a small people in what is now the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

    By the time the collection of different peoples who have come to be known as Malay, moved to modern day Malaysia, the Negritos had been there for 40,000 years, and the Senoi at least 1,500 years. The proto-Malays started arriving some 2,500 years ago. DNA studies have shown they are a distinct people from modern Malays.

    The name Malaysia, and before that Malaya, came about AFTER Malays became the dominant group. In the same way, both France and England are named after relatively recent settlers (Germanic tribes who migrated after the fall of the Roman Empire). Just because the French live in France, and the English live in England, does not make them the indigenous people of those two countries.

    As for assimilation, have you ever talked to an Orang Asli person about what they want? Have you ever asked them whether they want to lose their culture, language, belief systems, ancestral land? I have, and the unanimous answer has been a big fat “no”. As one Batek (the largest group of Negritos) told me, “I am Batek. I am not Malay. They cannot make me Malay.”

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