IN the last few weeks there has been an unusual flurry of press statements drawing attention to the orang asli community. They include the announcement of a national conference to be held on Jan 11 to discuss proactive proposals to resolve the issues faced by the 200,000 orang asli in the country.
The conference – which seems to have been aborted – was to have been preceded by a roundtable discussion on Jan 6 to identify the primary issues faced by the community, including rights to land, infrastructure access, education, the digital gap and youth empowerment.
Simultaneously, Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, during a visit to Cameron Highlands, declared that the government was studying the need to create a comprehensive development plan in line with that of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which encourages governments to involve indigenous people in development projects and provides guidance on the protection of tribal people.
Observers may be forgiven if they have linked these announcements to the coming Cameron Highlands by-election. orang asli votes comprise over 20% of the estimated 32,000 voters for this parliamentary constituency and are perceived to be a key swing factor in the much watched election taking place on Jan 26.
Another Ditched Pakatan Harapan Promise?
But perhaps the orang asli voters and the larger community in the country may want to give the benefit of the doubt to the new government in view of the promises contained in the Pakatan manifesto on the preservation of orang asli customary land rights and concern for their welfare and development.
Will this be one key election promise made by Pakatan that can be realised without too much delay and controversy?
After all, examination of the economic and socio-cultural indicators available including infant and child mortality, life expectancy, educational levels, income levels, etc. – and there can be no dispute over them with respect to those of this minority community – point to the shameful reality that 60 years after independence, the orang asli community – indisputably the first peoples in the Malay Peninsular – remain the poorest, the most marginalised and the most dispossessed of home, land, means of subsistence, history, language, culture and identity.
To expedite the process of reintegration of orang asli into mainstream society, it is imperative that the old template for resolution of the community’s problems be discarded and a new starting point of reference be established to restore the rights and status of our first peoples.
New Starting Point to Correct Past and Present Wrongs
Here are three suggestions for the Pakatan government (and for whoever wins the Cameron by-election) to consider:
0 One, ratify ILO convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples in place of ILO convention 106 which was introduced more than 60 years ago. The newer convention 169, which came into force in 1991 but which Malaysia has yet to sign on, has been found necessary in view of the worsening developments in the situation of indigenous and tribal peoples in all regions of the world. This has made it appropriate for countries to adopt new international standards and to remove the assimilationist orientation of the earlier convention.
ILO Convention 169: “Convention No. 169 represents a consensus on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples within the nation-States where they live and the responsibilities of governments to protect these rights. It is based on respect for the cultures and ways of life of indigenous peoples and recognizes their right to land and natural resources and to define their own priorities for development. The Convention aims at overcoming discriminatory practices affecting these peoples and enabling them to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.”
0 Two, resolve the land problems of the orang asli communities by recognising their ownership right to customary and ancestral lands and providing them with permanent titles. This can begin with analysis of land office, survey, mapping, forestry and other archival records of British colonial rule as well as the records of the post-colonial government which can establish the boundaries of areas where the orang asli have had their traditional settlements and hunting-gathering territories; and which, during the colonial period, were demarcated and regarded as orang asli territories.
0 Three, honour the orang asli by recognising their rightful place in this country through a national apology or a similar declaration from the highest level of government expressing regret for the historical injustices done to the community; pledging to right past wrongs committed during the colonial and post-colonial era; and promising action to build a sustainable and meaningful future for the community.
To date national political apologies or official expressions of remorse have taken place in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, US, Norway and Sweden. Similar expressions have also been recently made by political leaders in some Latin American countries with indigenous communities.
A declaration to this effect would comprise a significant first for Malaysia in the Asean community while we would be the second nation after Taiwan in Asia to provide such a political initiative.
This move has been seen by scholars researching the topic of apologies to indigenous peoples in comparative perspective as having the merit of putting things on record and as a prelude to reconciliation and correction of ethical flaws in the state political culture.
More importantly to me, an official expression would demonstrate the nation’s commitment to respecting human rights, and upholding justice, equality and non-discrimination.
Lim Teck Ghee’s ‘Another Take’ is aimed at demystifying status quo orthodoxy. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org