The forest means many things to the Orang Asli, but first and foremost it is home. For timber merchants and greedy politicians, on the other hand, the jungle is just another money making machine, to be used until all reserves are exhausted.
When all useful timber, including trees which are hundreds of years old, with tree trunks that would take several grown men to encircle, are cut, the politicians and their cronies move in again. The rape of the land continues in this second phase of economic creativity.
The land is flattened for oil palm cultivation. The Orang Asli along with the plants and wildlife which depend on the jungle for survival are driven out, or starve to death because their food sources are depleted.
It is therefore disingenuous of Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu to scold the Orang Asli community and tell them to improve themselves before seeking aid from the government.
“The government is ready to help, but we are asking them to forget about the culture of expecting outsiders to provide items and help them,” Faizal said.
This is a true measure of the double standards espoused by the government. The ICERD will not be signed because its implementation would stop the aid for certain segments of society.
Is Faizal aware that the so-called progressive, modern men who live in towns and cities invaded Orang Asli territory and displaced them? They forced the Orang Asli into resettlement camps far from their hunting grounds, where the soil is poor and unsuitable for cultivation, and where water sources are inadequate. The Orang Asli did not invade the villages. The town people encroached onto Orang Asli land.
The Orang Asli are one of the most independent communities in Malaysia. They do not need supermarkets like you and I. They hunt for their food and take only what they need. They know which herbs and plants are medicinal, and have no use for pharmacies. There is very little waste.
Townies meanwhile are dependent on plastic which pollutes the environment. The Orang Asli are not. They use large leaves or hollow bamboo to store their food, or weave baskets to carry items. They do not pollute the air, water or land. If they practise slash-and-burn to clear sections of the forest for cultivation, they do not destroy vast acreages like some palm oil plantation operators.
The Orang Asli do not disturb anyone and they have great respect for the forest, which gives them life. The jungle has supported the Orang Asli for centuries. Certain parts mark their graves or other significant aspects of their lives.
Faizal cannot know much about the Orang Asli. He needs to change his adviser to gain better insight into their lives, and to meet them on their own turf instead of speaking to village elders in his office in Ipoh.
Had he visited any Orang Asli villagers, talked to the people, asked the children and the teenagers about their aspirations, or addressed their concerns before making public statements?
Is he aware that schools do not cater to the needs of the Orang Asli children? Some children have to walk for hours to reach their schools, or cross rickety bridges over rivers. Did he read about the children who got lost and died in the jungle at Pos Tohoi in 2016?
The relocation of the Orang Asli communities has resulted in a people struggling to maintain their cultural and economic survival. Their physical and mental health alike are affected. Meanwhile, businessmen in cahoots with VVIPs and politicians vie for the treasures of the jungle.
Faizal also said: “If they feel their village has potential to be a tourist attraction, then I suggest that they improve their settlements first, then we might consider approving the help they require.”
A few months ago, the Perak menteri besar wanted to convert the official menteri besar’s residence into a tourist attraction and charge people to take selfies there and admire ugly blocks of concrete, paving stones and tiles.
Today, he wants to do the same for the Orang Asli, yet he moved out of the menteri besar’s residence because he felt that his privacy would be spoilt by the neighbouring skyscrapers at one end of Brewster Road, near the Ipoh fountain. He decided to sell the official residence and moved into an old government building in another part of town.
He is practising double standards. He suggested that the Orang Asli make their settlements into tourist attractions and allow hordes of people to gawp and stare at them, but he will not entertain any invasion of his own privacy.
With a vote of no confidence brewing thanks to questions over his competence as menteri besar, this latest outburst has weakened his position even further. He has put on full display his arrogance and complete lack of empathy for the Orang Asli. This is especially sad as his own constituency of Chenderiang encompasses around 45 villages, which is 24% of the Orang Asli population.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.