The Orang Asli (First People) of West Malaysia

The Orang Asli (First People) of West Malaysia

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.

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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.

A fast disappearing way of life. Photo by: Pat Fama.
A fast disappearing way of life. Photo: Pat Fama

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.

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.

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.

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 Concernswebsite, to get the full story.

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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