Anthropologist decries bigoted attitude towards Orang Asli

Alberto-Gomes-orang-asli-1PETALING JAYA: An anthropologist has condemned what he says is the mindset of bigotry among Malaysians, saying this is the reason for their negative attitude towards the Orang Asli.

Alberto Gomes, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, said Malaysians’ obsession with race had caused them to look down on the country’s original people.

The obsession, he added, was reinforced by the racist rhetoric of politicians.

“Being conscious of, and even celebrating, one’s ethnic identity is fine, but discriminating against someone on the basis of colour, creed, and culture is racist,” he said in response to an article that FMT published last Thursday.

Gomes, who has spent 40 years studying the Orang Asli, lamented the lack of interest among Malaysians to learn about the animistic beliefs of the indigenous tribes, saying some even thought that they practised no religion.

“It is only anthropologists who have studied and written about Orang Asli religions,” he told FMT. “What is marvellous about Orang Asli religions is that they are intimately linked to the natural environment.”

On Thursday, FMT highlighted remarks made by an Orang Asli from Perak during a conference on cultural rights that was held in Petaling Jaya. The man, who identified himself as Rahman, was speaking during a question-and-answer session. He spoke of frustrations that he said he had held for a long time.

“In schools, students and even teachers call us dirty,” he said. “They call us pigs, they call us dogs.”

The Orang Asli were made fun of even at some religious talks, he added.

Asked if this could be due to Malaysians’ preoccupation with the materialistic life, Gomes said the Orang Asli tended to have fewer possessions than the average Malaysian and this was viewed by others as a sign of poverty.

“That is frugality, not poverty,” he said. “They are impoverished because of being treated unequally and lacking access and rights to resources and opportunities.”

However, he said the name-calling stemmed from people’s poor knowledge of the Orang Asli and their lack of respect and compassion for them.

He said he was pleased that an Orang Asli had spoken openly about the ridicule and discrimination that his people faced.

“Instead of recognising, acknowledging, and valuing the wonderful aspects about and wisdom of the Orang Asli in relation to their respect for nature, peacefulness, non-violence and non-aggression, Malaysians generally view their country’s first people with disdain,” he added.

He recommended dialogues and called for more willingness among Malaysians to listen to the grievances of the Orang Asli.

“What is missing is any empathetic engagement with the Orang Asli. Change the mindset about the Orang Asli. Open your hearts to their plight. Work on improving their lives, but in consultation with them.”

Gomes also said he believed schools could do more to remove misconceived and outdated conceptions about the Orang Asli.

He said it was a combination of ignorance and arrogance that had caused Malaysians to think of the Orang Asli as inferior to them.

He urged the education ministry to invite Orang Asli to teach in schools and organise meetings and dialogues between the Orang Asli and school children and other Malaysians.

He also suggested that Malaysians learn from Indonesians, who, he said, had learned to value the cultures of their marginalised indigenous communities.

He noted that Indonesians referred to indigenous peoples as “masyarakat adat (traditional people)”, which he said indicated an attitude of respect.