Restore Orang Asli rights first, conversion can come later, say parties

The priority for the Orang Asli should be to restore their constitutionally guaranteed indigenous rights to their lands and natural resources, says USM’s Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid.

PETALING JAYA: A political scientist said the PAS-led Kelantan government should prioritise restoring the rights of the Orang Asli instead of converting them to Islam.

“If PAS is now thinking of dakwah (preaching) to the Orang Asli, the priority should be to restore their constitutionally guaranteed indigenous rights to their lands and natural resources,” Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) said.

“It is dakwah bil-hal, or dakwah by example, not by pontificating to the Orang Asli and treating them in a paternalistic way,” he told FMT.

It was reported that the Kelantan Islamic Affairs and Malay Customs Council (MAIK) aims to convert all the Orang Asli in the state to Islam within 30 years.

Utusan Malaysia quoted the council’s deputy president, Nik Mohd Azlan Abd Hadi, as saying that some 5,000 of the 16,000 Orang Asli in the state are now Muslims.

Azlan said there were more than 100 MAIK missionaries and community workers under the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim) tasked with looking after the welfare of Orang Asli and giving them an education.

“Our planning is if we have 500 people a year, we can evangelise and, God-willing, in 30 years all Orang Asli in the state will be converted,” he said.

Fauzi noted that the PAS-led Kelantan government did not have the best track record when it came to dealing with the Orang Asli.

He said the state government’s continued denial of Orang Asli customary land rights in favour of logging companies in areas such as Gua Musang had damaged PAS’ credibility in the eyes of the aboriginal population in Kelantan.

“To generations of Orang Asli, the image of the Malays as ‘colonisers’ persists in their minds.

“The Kelantan government’s past mishandling of the land rights issue only served to extend the Orang Asli’s suspicions of Islam since PAS had always claimed to represent the religion,” he said, adding that this was a disservice to Islam, which was inclusive by nature.

Meanwhile, Orang Asli activist Tijah Yok Chopil, who chairs Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjug Malaysia, said the state government should allow freedom of religion as stated in the Federal Constitution.

She said forced religious conversion or assimilation or hardcore preaching activities towards an individual or a group was morally and ethically wrong in terms of human rights.

Colin Nicholas.

Tijah said that in the context of the Batek aboriginal community in Kelantan, it was clear that they were converted even though they did not fully understand or practise the religious teachings.

“For example, they still practice burial ceremonies according to Batek rituals,” she said.

She said the council’s plan would add to negative perceptions towards the Batek people, adding that it showed that those responsible for their conversion were not actually guiding them.

Tijah said the priority should not be on religious conversion but on tackling the lack of infrastructure for the Orang Asli’s basic needs, education and self-development.

“Religion can come later, after everything else is secure and adequate.

“Right now, the Orang Asli need their customary land rights, without interference, so that they may build their economy and preserve their culture, traditional knowledge, history and ancestry and live in peace, health and safety,” she said.

Tijah said the deaths and cases of illnesses among the Orang Asli at Kampung Kuala Koh in Gua Musang showed the authorities were not fully aware of what needed to be done for the welfare of the community.

“What has happened is a result of their weaknesses in providing good infrastructure to the Orang Asli and the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) there,” she said.

Colin Nicholas, executive director of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, cautioned that conversion to a certain religion did not mean their lives would be better off.

“Kampung Kuala Koh is a classic example,” Nicholas said.

He said conversion should be a personal choice and it was not right to “force it” on the people.