Orang Asli need help now, not conversion

Why are certain state governments intent on converting the Orang Asli instead of helping them to improve their daily lives, their children’s education, their health and well-being, and the infrastructure in their villages?

Isn’t the granting of logging permits for big businesses a blow for these indigenous peoples?

When states issue logging permits to timber tycoons, workers invade the Orang Asli ancestral lands with scant regard for their traditions and rituals.

In some cases, trees, boulders or areas which bear special significance to the Orang Asli, such as burial grounds or artefacts of cultural importance, are simply demolished.

When the dense undergrowth is destroyed, animals which live off certain fruits and vegetation migrate to other areas because they cannot find anything to eat. This deprives the community of their source of food and protein.

You and I go to the supermarket or pasar for our supply of meat, but not the Orang Asli. They hunt theirs. More importantly, they only kill what they can consume and they share any excess with other families. There is no waste; they practise a nice balance with nature.

The Orang Asli get their water from the once pristine rivers and streams. When logging companies or, worse still, mining companies – either legal or illegal – carry out their activities, they pollute the water sources, which the Orang Asli use for drinking and cooking, and to bathe and irrigate their crops.

Fish also cannot survive in the water and thus the Orang Asli are deprived of another source of protein. Also, the community is exposed to the threat of skin diseases and other illnesses.

With their water supply contaminated, how are the Orang Asli to survive? People can live without food for days, but not water.

There have been allegations that Orang Asli children who attend boarding schools return home as Muslims. Others claim that those children who cannot recite the doa are slapped. Their parents are not told about the conversions, it is alleged. If this is true, then it is against the law.

According to the allegations, those who have been converted are not allowed to return to their former way of life. Sadly, even their dialects may disappear.

Some people will argue that the Orang Asli will have better healthcare, better schools, and a better existence.

Others will say that when they are resettled in their villages, they will stop relying on their ancestral lands to carry on their way of life.

Isn’t this a novel way to allow big businesses to invade their ancestral lands, to feed their timber, wood and pulp industries? When the supply of forests has been been exhausted, the land is cleared for the next big environmental disaster – hectares upon hectares of one single crop: oil palm.

Conversion may not necessarily be for religious reasons. It can abused for power and, more importantly, control without the perception of violence. The Orang Asli have existed for thousands of years without interference from the outside world. Surely, the priority should be to improve their daily lives first.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.