More needs to be done for the wellbeing of indigenous communities, and that requires efforts that go beyond polling day, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
The wish for better amenities and other fruits of the country’s socio-economic development indicates that the Orang Asli’s welfare has not been addressed adequately.
This desire, expressed recently by the Orang Asli community in the run-up to the Cameron Highlands by-election, highlights the unfulfilled promises made to these people in past elections.
This is despite the fact that the indigeneity of the various Orang Asli tribes qualifies them for privileges and protection under the Federal Constitution.
The neglect of the Orang Asli over the years is not only confined to those living in the areas surrounding Cameron Highlands. Other Orang Asli sub-groups in the peninsula, such as the Temiar, Semai, Batek, Jehai, Tonga, Temuan, Jakun, Orang Kanaq and Orang Selitar, face similar problems.
It is understandable why Chief Justice Richard Malanjum recently called for an audit to assess to what extent the government has honoured the rights of the indigenous peoples in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.
The Pakatan Harapan government, which supposedly ushered in a “new Malaysia”, should see to it that the mistreatment of indigenous communities by the past Barisan Nasional administration will not be repeated.
At the very least, politicians from both sides of the divide should not humiliate these communities by dangling carrots they don’t intend to honour every time an election comes along.
One of the issues that require the authorities’ urgent attention is the increasing loss of customary land to the state, corporations and politically connected individuals. And, as if to add insult to injury, compensation for the loss of this land is often tight-fisted and meagre.
Moreover, when so-called development takes place, nearby rivers often get polluted and fruit trees and hunting grounds are trampled upon, thereby depriving the indigenous community of their livelihood.
The deprivation of their self-sustaining lifestyle has brought about problems such as poverty and malnutrition, which in turn gives rise to health issues among the young and adults alike.
The Orang Asli’s attachment to and respect for the land should be instructive to the ‘civilised’ people in urban areas of the country. If anything, the indigenous people serve as a bulwark and useful reminder against environmental destruction wreaked by certain marauding corporations.
While the indigenous people deserve to have basic modern amenities that many of us take for granted, such as electricity and piped water, their right to their traditional way of life should not be tampered with or replaced completely with what we call “modern living”. In other words, their right to self-determination needs to be respected and promoted.
Just as urban dwellers value their cultural identities, so too do these indigenous people, especially when theirs are often looked down upon as “backward” and “primitive”.
In this regard, their various languages should be preserved, and schools in areas where the indigenous communities are located should teach children of these communities their respective languages.
Education is also a problem among indigenous children, many of whom drop out of school. The national education system should be flexible enough to accommodate the educational and cultural needs of the indigenous school kids by exposing them – as well as other kids – to, for example, the various plants in the forest that have medicinal value.
In this way, children from various backgrounds can be taught to appreciate and respect Mother Nature, while education is made more relevant, particularly to indigenous children.
More needs to be done for the wellbeing of indigenous communities, and that requires efforts that go beyond polling day.