PETALING JAYA: Alcoholism has become so common among the Orang Asli in Malaysia that there are fears the problem may lead to drug abuse, a leader for the indigenous community said.
Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (JOAS) president Yusri Ahon said he had no statistics, but the situation was worrying enough.
“Now they are addicted to alcohol but they may move on to drugs. We have never done surveys but we know the situation.
“There are already cases of drug abuse among Orang Asli communities in some places. We need to tackle this problem,” he told FMT.
Pressures of life and displacement
Yusri said pressures of daily life and unhealthy influences from others had driven some Orang Asli to drink.
Many were struggling to cope with stress from losing their traditional rights, land and livelihood, and other social and economic troubles, he said.
“They can’t go into the jungles to earn a living like in the old days anymore. Like everyone else, the Orang Asli people also face rising cost of living,” Yusri, a Jahut Orang Asli from Pahang, said.
He also said some Orang Asli people did not know how to manage their finances, ending up with money problems that have led to their alcoholism.
“Take some of the Orang Asli people in Selangor’s Bukit Lanjan and Bukit Kemandol for example.
“Years ago, they got some money when the government compensated their loss of land. They suddenly had money but they didn’t know how to manage it.
“Some became lazy. Some spent it on alcohol. They received houses from the government but some could not pay the rates, like the ‘cukai pintu’ (assessment) because they had no income,” he said.
Yusri also said some Orang Asli faced problems when they could not get used to their surroundings.
“Those who can adapt to their new places and mingle with other people will find work easier,” he said.
Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas said problems of alcoholism and substance abuse affect indigenous people all over the world.
He also said these problems, namely alcoholism in Orang Asli communities in Malaysia, had cropped up after they were removed from their original areas.
“You won’t find these problems in Orang Asli communities still living in the jungle,” he said.
Nicholas said if Orang Asli communities were forced to leave their original homes and were unprepared to move to places like rural-urban fringe areas, or find modernisation closing in on them, they would be badly affected by the change.
“To the Orang Asli people, autonomy is important. When they are forced to resettle elsewhere or are put into some government scheme, they lose that autonomy to control their own lives,” he said.
In the last 10 to 15 years, there had also been a rise in mental health problems among the Orang Asli, especially those who could not handle the stress, he said.
Too easy to buy
The easy availability of cheap alcohol has also contributed to the Orang Asli’s addiction, with shops selling alcohol illegally, Nicholas said.
It is well-known that the Orang Asli can easily buy alcohol from places like sundry shops near their villages, despite these retailers not having the requisite liquor licence.
Some Orang Asli get their supply from individuals who go into the Orang Asli villages to sell the alcohol.
“This happens even though there is a specific law under the Aboriginal People’s Act which clearly states that it is illegal to bring alcohol into Orang Asli villages,” Nicholas said.
Last week, the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) highlighted the alcoholism and glue-sniffing problems in the Kensiu Orang Asli village in Kampung Lalang, Baling in Kedah.
The community’s leader Razali Kulim said about half the village’s population of some 300 – women and children included – were hooked on alcohol and glue, and counselling had failed to solve the problems.
Nicholas said glue-sniffing was uncommon among the Orang Asli but in the Kensiu case, it might be because they had easy access to the glue.
Sniffing glue – a worrying trend affecting children and youths – is not illegal although it can cause damage to the organs and brain, among other health issues. Glue is easier to get than drugs, being sold openly in hardware and regular sundry shops. A tin of glue costs a few ringgit.
Government help needed
To prevent Orang Asli youths from getting hooked on alcohol and drugs, Yusri said JOAS has been holding programmes to keep the young people in their communities occupied.
“We don’t have anti-alcohol or anti-drugs events. We are just doing activities that can keep them busy, so they don’t go looking for other ways to amuse themselves.
“We also hope parents will watch their kids and keep them out of trouble. To me, the choice is up to the Orang Asli and what we want for ourselves,” he said.
He said JOAS – an umbrella body of some 100 member groups representing indigenous peoples across Peninsula Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah – faced limitations to how much it could do, and needed the government to help.
“To fight social problems like alcoholism and drugs, we need the related government agencies to work together with us to find a way to help the Orang Asli.
“If counselling doesn’t work, we need to study and find other ways,” he said.
Nicholas also said the government must ask the Orang Asli for their views on development matters, social issues and how to implement policies that impact the community.
With the Orang Asli lacking education and awareness on substance abuse dangers, he said those with the know-how needed to reach out to the people.
“We need people who know about substance abuse to help the Orang Asli,” he said.
Nicholas said the Indian community in the estates had a huge problem with drinking years ago, and it took government agencies, consumer groups and other parties of interest to work together before the problem was controlled.
“If we don’t do the same for the Orang Asli community, substance abuse among its people can grow into a bigger social problem that will be harder to address,” he said.
Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) director-general Mohd Jamalludin Kasbi said the department was aware of the longstanding alcohol and glue-sniffing problems in the Orang Asli community.
He said the main reason some Orang Asli youths were getting hooked was their own parents and community elders’ addictions to the substances.
“The problems are also hard to tackle because the substances are easily available and sold cheaply to the Orang Asli by other locals,” he said in a statement responding to FMT’s request for comments.
On the problem highlighted by the Kensiu in Baling, Jamalludin said some in the community began drinking after they were hired for “alcohol-related jobs”.
“To end this problem, Jakoa has been holding awareness campaigns with the help of other agencies like the police, National Anti-Drugs Agency, Baling district council and Kedah religious department,” he said.
Jamalludin also said Jakoa was thankful to NGOs that had given help, advice, welfare aid and education services to the Orang Asli communities nationwide.