MARCH 17 — The obvious starting point for Orang Asli empowerment would be their exercise of control over their customary lands, says Yogeswaran Subramaniam.
The recent policy granting land titles to the Orang Asli has far-reaching consequences for the 150,000-strong Orang Asli community. It appears to be limited in economic utility and, more importantly, in flat contradiction of the 1Malaysia concept.
In short, the proposed policy involves the granting of two to six acres of plantation lands and up to a quarter of an acre for housing to each Orang Asli head of household. The policy is subject to two main qualifications that impact upon its economic utility.
First, land forming part of this policy is subject to availability. This means that the land is not available as of right and depends on state discretion. If past records are anything to go by, the states’ performance for gazetting Orang Asli reserves has been nothing short of dismal.
Second, Orang Asli households would have to reimburse the appointed developer for all costs in relation to the development of the land from proceeds gained from the plantation. Other than the obvious room for abuse in the development process itself, Orang Asli would additionally have to start their ‘new’ life in the market economy under the burden of debt.
Sources also indicate that the estimated 50,000 hectares allocated under the proposed policy is well short of the 140,000 hectares of customary land currently occupied by the Orang Asli. Have we not taken enough of their land?
The policy does not recognise Orang Asli customary lands. To compound matters, Orang Asli who accept the deal will not be able to bring any claims to the courts for customary lands or loss of such lands.
Subject to further elaboration of the amending law, Orang Asli are left to either accept the policy where they lose their customary lands or chance their arm in court for recognition of their customary lands. If the latter course of action is taken, Orang Asli can expect the governments (except maybe for Selangor state) to contest such claims to the hilt.
The Orang Asli community is unique compared to other ethnic groups in Malaysia. Unlike other communities, Orang Asli culture, identity and nationhood is inextricably linked to their customary lands. Land is central to the identity of an Orang Asli person, providing, physical, cultural, economic and spiritual nourishment.
Top-down policies that change the face of Orang Asli land into plantations are devastating and traumatic to Orang Asli culture and identity. Ironically, the 1Malaysia concept regards ethnic diversity as an asset and explicitly rejects the concept of assimilation where ethnic identity vanishes.
If we can accept perceived outlandishness of cultures and practices of the three main ethnic groups in Peninsular Malaysia, it should not to be too difficult to ‘tolerate’ the unique relationship between Orang Asli and their lands. 1Malaysia demands that we do so.
It is thus puzzling that the proposed land policy disregards Orang Asli customary lands. Whilst it is true that economic independence is vital to Orang Asli well-being, it should not be toyed with at the expense of their identity.
The answer lies in empowerment, where Orang Asli, with technical assistance from all parties concerned, are empowered to determine their own priorities in their cultural, social, political and development. Experiences in Australia, Canada and United States have shown that there is a direct link between enabling an Aboriginal community to exercise control over its own affairs and improved social and economic outcomes.
The obvious starting point for such empowerment would be the exercise of control over Orang Asli customary lands. Unfortunately, this is not at all apparent from the proposed land policy. If diversity of culture is to be celebrated as an asset, it is time for the government to rethink the land policy. — www.aliran.com
* Yogeswaran Subramaniam, an Aliran member, is pursing a doctoral thesis in the Reform of Orang Asli Land rights at the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or the newspaper. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.