Ethnicity, Indigeneity and Indigenous Rights: The ‘Orang Asli’ Experience

  • Yogeswaran Subramaniam Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies, University of Malaya Committee on Orang Asli Rights, Malaysian Bar Council

Abstract

Orang Asli, the Indigenous minority of Peninsular Malaysia, continue to face formidable challenges in realizing their rights as distinct Indigenous peoples despite being ascribed a measure of constitutional and statutory protection. With reference the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and various international definitions of ‘Indigenous peoples’, this paper examines the impact of the term ‘Orang Asli’ on the Orang Asli struggle for the recognition of their rights as Indigenous Peoples. The term ‘Orang Asli’, an officially-constructed term to describe heterogeneous groups of people considered to be ‘aboriginal’, has since gained acceptance by the people categorized as such and has been used to advocate their rights as Indigenous peoples with relative success. However, the term carries legal implications which continue to place Orang Asli ethnicity and identity under the protection and equally, the control of the state. The extensive legal powers possessed by the state are arguably inconsistent of international norms on Indigenos rights and can additionally function as a tool to deny Orang Asli their attendant rights as Indigenous peoples. More importantly, the continued existence of these powers potentially functions to reinforce existing domestic challenges that Orang Asli face in finding their rightful place as distinct Indigenous peoples in the light of: (1) competing notions of Indigeneity vis-à-vis ethnic Malays; (2) historical discrimination against Orang Asli that continues to persist; and (3) Indigenous rights being construed as a possible hindrance to national economic prosperity. A possible starting point for the reconciliation of these matters may be to legally clarify the term ‘Orang Asli’ in a manner that sustains and respects the Orang Asli community as distinct Indigenous peoples while not threatening the existing special constitutional position afforded to ethnic Malays.