• Indigenous peoples in Malaysia

    Indigenous peoples in Malaysia

    The peoples of the Orang Asli, the Orang Ulu, and the Anak Negeri groups together constitute the indigenous population of Malaysia. Although Malaysia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous population is facing a number of challenges, especially in terms of land rights.
  • Peoples

    13.8 per cent of the 31,660,700 million Malaysian population are indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    2007: Malaysia adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Challenges

    Although Malaysia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous population is facing a number of challenges, especially in terms of land rights.

The Indigenous World 2021: Malaysia

As of 2017, the Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia were estimated to account for around 13.8% of the 31,660,700 million national population. They are collectively known as Orang Asal. The Orang Asli are the Indigenous Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. The 18 Orang Asli subgroups within the Negrito (Semang), Senoi and Aboriginal-Malay groups account for 0.7% of the population of Peninsular Malaysia (31,950,000). In Sarawak, the Indigenous Peoples are collectively known as natives (Dayak and/or Orang Ulu). They include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Lunbawang, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan, Kejaman, Ukit, Sekapan, Melanau and Penan. They constitute around 1,932,600 or 70.5% of Sarawak’s population of 2,707,600 people. In Sabah, the 39 different Indigenous ethnic groups are known as natives or Anak Negeri and make up some 2,233,100 or 58.6% of Sabah’s population of 3,813,200. The main groups are the Dusun, Murut, Paitan and Bajau groups. While the Malays are also Indigenous to Malaysia, they are not categorised as Indigenous Peoples because they constitute the majority and are politically, economically and socially dominant.

In Sarawak and Sabah, laws introduced by the British during their colonial rule recognising the customary land rights and customary law of the Indigenous Peoples are still in place. However, they are not properly implemented, and are even outright ignored by the government, which gives priority to large-scale resource extraction and the plantations of private companies and state agencies over the rights and interests of the Indigenous communities. In Peninsular Malaysia, while there is a clear lack of reference to Orang Asli customary land rights in the National Land Code, Orang Asli customary tenure is recognised under common law. The principal act that governs Orang Asli administration, including occupation of the land, is the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954.

Malaysia has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and endorsed the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples but has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Two major “tragedies”, both impacting on Indigenous lives and futures, hit Malaysia in 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic did not spare Malaysia, causing much social and economic upheaval in the lives of many Malaysians, the Orang Asal notwithstanding. Following closely in the wake of the health and medical crisis in March 2020, the country was then thrown into political turmoil at the national level, and later at the level of some states.

Locked down and lost out

The first Movement Control Order (MCO), Malaysia’s version of the lockdown to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus transmission, began on 18 March 2020. Almost immediately, many Orang Asal communities began barricading their villages, effectively isolating themselves from outsiders and not allowing any of their own people to leave their settlements. Many of those who were living on the forest fringe chose to retreat further into the forest, not just to self-isolate but also to secure subsistence food. For the Orang Asli community in Peninsular Malaysia, this strategy was effective as the number of cases in the community was low (less than a half dozen), with all reported cases being contracted at the victim’s workplace in the towns.[1]

For those Orang Asal who depend on daily work and wages, or who are rubber and oil palm smallholders, as well as those who depend on the cash economy to sell their products,[2] the food security situation was dire in the early weeks.[3] Food needs were then supplemented with food aid from the government and other social bodies. It should be noted, however, that in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, in particular, the Orang Asal were at the forefront of organising the collection and distribution of food aid to their communities.

As the pandemic dragged on throughout the year, schools and colleges remained closed and classes migrated to online lessons. The lack of good Internet connectivity, or even any connectivity at all, plus the lack of access to digital equipment such as laptops, tablets, mobile phones and even printers meant that the majority of Orang Asal children were unable to follow the online lessons, or could not follow them fully. Some students literally had to trek to make-shift huts on hillocks just to get an Internet connection.[4] The digital divide between the Orang Asal students and those of mainstream society was clearly evident. A significant number of students found it difficult to access the online classes, making it difficult for them to keep up with the other more tech-equipped students.[5] As such, the disproportionately high pre-pandemic dropout rates among Orang Asli students, for example, are likely to worsen when schools reopen in the coming year.[6]

Logging is an essential activity

The day after the Movement Control Order was enforced, and with the endorsement of the National Security Council, the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities decreed that logging activities could continue as usual.[7] The rationale: logging is regarded as an essential activity. Hence while Orang Asal communities were in self-imposed quarantine, their lands continued to be plundered by loggers.[8]

This was particularly so in the Gerik district of Perak. The state government had called a halt to all logging activities in the Air Chepam Forest Reserve on 1 August 2019.[9] This was in response to the blockades mounted by the Orang Asli and the outpouring of public support for the Orang Asli when the blockades were repeatedly demolished by the state and a number of Orang Asli arrested and detained. Even so, the loggers never really stopped their work. They merely went to the neighbouring forest reserve and continued their “essential” activity during the COVID-19 lockdown. When the logs in that area ran out, they returned to the Air Chepam Forest Reserve in November 2020 and continued as usual despite the protests and blockades the Orang Asli had put up.[10] And despite no notice being issued that the halt on logging activities in that forest reserve had been lifted.

Logging activities continued throughout the year despite the COVID-19 restrictions on the operation of businesses and movement of people. The middle and end of 2020 also saw severe flooding in many areas of the peninsula and Sabah.[11] No-one disputed the link between deforestation and the floods. Orang Asli livelihoods were affected as the floods damaged their crops, destroyed bridges and made road conditions impassable.[12] For those communities affected, securing enough food was always a major concern.

Federal government falls

The Pakatan Harapan (“Alliance of Hope”) government – which achieved an unprecedented victory in the 2018 general election and replaced the ruling coalition that had governed Malaysia uninterruptedly since Independence in 1957 – was ousted in a political coup in March 2020.[13] The Pakatan Harapan government was seen as relatively Indigenous-friendly, having specifically outlined in its Election Manifesto its intention to support Orang Asal rights to their customary lands and to adopt the principles of the UNDRIP.[14]

During its 22-month stint in power, the Pakatan Harapan government worked towards establishing working relationships with the Orang Asal groups and on restoring rights to the Orang Asal. Among other actions taken were the establishment of an Institutional Reforms Committee, which heard representations for Orang Asli reforms,[15] the organising of a National Convention on Orang Asli Development with more than 700 Orang Asli leaders participating,[16] and the appointment of an Orang Asli anthropologist as Director-General of the Department for Orang Asli.[17]

While the pace towards formally recognising Indigenous rights was slow, with very little achieved legally or institutionally, at least the movement was in the right direction. Perhaps the most significant pro-Orang Asal action taken by the Pakatan Harapan government was the commencement of a civil suit by the federal government against the (then opposition-controlled) State Government of Kelantan (and others) for recognition of the land rights of the Temiar in the Pos Simpor region. This was a case where loggers and durian[18] plantation owners had encroached onto Orang Asli customary lands, leading to protests and blockades that were summarily demolished by the authorities. Notably, this was the first time the Malaysian Federal Government, or perhaps any federal government, had taken proactive action on behalf of its Indigenous Peoples.[19]

The new Perikatan Negara (National Alliance) party tends to be more pro-Malay in its direction and policies.[20] Orang Asal interests do not feature highly in its political priorities. This was evident in November 2020, for example, when they presented the Budget for the coming year. A total of RM 158 million (USD 39 million) was allocated for the 215,000 Orang Asli in 853 villages. This works out to RM 738.00 (USD 183.00) per Orang Asli per year. Or RM 61.50 (USD 15.00) per Orang Asli per month. Compare this to the allocation of RM 190 million (USD 47 million) in the same budget for just one Quranic village meant for Muslims.[21]

Malaysia: Land of the Malays?

In keeping with the pro-Malay disposition of the new Perikatan Negara, a member of that government arrogantly declared in Parliament that Malaysia is the land of the Malays and that their rights as the “original people” of Malaysia should not be questioned.[22]

This claim naturally incensed the Orang Asal, especially those on the islands of Sabah and Sarawak that have an Indigenous population of 58.6% and 70.5% respectively. The then Sabah Deputy Chief Minister, Wilfred Madius Tangau, pointed out that the Sabah and Sarawak islands in Malaysian-Borneo together make up 60% of the land mass of Malaysia. He added that such an inaccurate mindset was dangerous as it ignored the presence of Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners in the federation. It would also lead to the two regions, the majority of whose people are Indigenous Orang Asal, being sidelined and marginalised.[23]

Sabah government falls

In July 2020, the former Chief Minister of Sabah, Musa Aman, declared that he had obtained sufficient support from state assembly members to form a new state government in the state. To pre-empt this from happening, the Sabah Chief Minister, Shapie Apdal, announced the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly, paving the way for a snap election.[24] The incumbent Warisan coalition government lost in the closely-contested fight and a new coalition party formed the new state government on 26 September 2020.[25]

The change in government, to one that is perceived as less sympathetic to Indigenous issues and priorities, effectively puts the proactive initiatives of the previous government in jeopardy. This includes the setting up of a Native Court Judiciary Department under the (State) Ministry of Law and Native Affairs, a programme to end under-age marriages in the state, and the move to enact the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) into law.[26] In fact, the Ministry of Law and Native Affairs was subsequently abolished by the new state government.[27]

Marrying young and marrying out

The incidence of child marriage – a child being defined as one who is under the age of 18 – is still rampant among the Indigenous communities, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.[28] In Sabah, the 2018 statistics show that many child marriages occur in cities. In Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, it was reported that 130 pregnant girls aged 10-19 years had opted to marry compared to 64 who opted to be single mothers or give their child up for adoption. In another Indigenous-dominated town, Keningau, 82 had opted to marry, while 19 did not.[29] With the change in the state government, it is unclear whether the initiatives of the previous government to adopt a 10-year “Action Plan on Ending Marriage Under 18 Years” and corresponding measures to amend the Native Court Amendment 1992 (to take child marriage into account) will be continued.[30]

In Peninsular Malaysia, in the highland vegetable-farming region of Lojing, it has been reported that some 50 Orang Asli women have been abandoned by their foreign husbands.[31] They married foreign workers, bore their children and now find themselves all alone when their husbands go back to their home countries never to return. These women do not receive any support from their foreign husbands, and many find themselves unable to raise the children on their own. According to village heads there, the Orang Asli girls were always a target for the foreigners working on vegetable farms. Such marriages or unions are frowned upon by the community, even to the extent that the women concerned are expelled from the community.[32] In such cases, couples tend to elope and not register their marriages. When this happens, the children born of such unions may not be documented and, as such, may be regarded as stateless.[33] Some measures aimed at educating the community on such issues are about the only means being taken to address the matter.

Sarawak gives and takes native customary lands

In the wake of the Federal Court’s negative decision in the TR Sandah case, the ability of the Sarawak natives to claim native customary rights (NCR) to their land has become increasingly more difficult and pessimistic.[34]

The dismal state of the non-recognition of NCR rights is best illustrated by two incidences reported in the media in October 2020. In one, the Deputy Chief Minister, James Masing, said that he was “almost brought to tears” while witnessing the granting of land titles to 479 hectares for landowners in Sungai Majau in Baleh, which is his state constituency.[35]

Yet, in the same month, 173 longhouse natives in Tanjung Manis who had filed a suit against the state government and the Land and Survey Department to obtain a declaration of NCR land and their land title lost the case in the High Court at Sibu and therefore lost their claim to 15,000 hectares of NCR land.[36] It was not reported as such but you can be sure they were certainly shedding real tears then.


Colin Nicholas is the Founder and Coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), which is an associate member of the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS), the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Based on information privy to the Center for Orang Asli Concerns and corroborated with field workers and the Orang Asli Hospital in Gombak. See COAC’s reports on the first few cases available at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/409915093350141/ and https://www.facebook.com/notes/380405766424082/

[2] For example, Orang Asal women in Sarawak who are dependent on the market economy experienced severe hardship during this period. There were no walk-in customers and they could not go to town to sell their farm produce. Some who ran community homestays had to close their businesses for the duration of the pandemic. Nevertheless, many took up the challenge and adapted. Some got their children to set up an online business platform for their produce. Others changed their crops from perishable vegetables to more “hardy” crops such as pumpkins. (Personal communication with Niloh Anson of SADIA, Sarawak Dayak Iban Association).

[3] The Star. “Orang Asli in dire need of food supplies.”28 March 2020. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/03/28/orang-asli-in-dire-need-of-food-supplies

[4] Dzafri, Dzamira. “More students in Malaysia are climbing trees for online classes due to poor internet connection.” SoyaCincau, 19 November 2020. https://www.soyacincau.com/2020/11/19/more-students-in-malaysia-are-climbing-trees-for-online-classes-due-to-poor-internet-connection/

[5] Achariam, Noel. “Orang Asli pupils will be left behind when schools reopen, say activists.” Malaysian Insight, 28 June 2020. https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/257169

[6] The dropout rates of Orang Asli students after Year 6 were high in comparison to the national rates. From 2016 to 2018, the national dropout rates were consistently below 4%, while the Orang Asli students’ dropout rates were above 17% and it increased significantly to 26% in 2017. See Wan, Ya Shin. “Education policies in overcoming barriers faced by Orang Asli children: Education for all.” Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), October 2020, p. 13. https://www.ideas.org.my/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/P_66_OA_V4.pdf

[7] Aziz, Adam. “Limited oil palm, rubber, logging activities to continue during MCO.” TheEdge Markets, 19 March 2020. https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/limited-oil-palm-rubber-logging-activities-continue-during-mco

[8] Mahavera, Sheridan. “Loggers plunder jungles while attention focused on Covid-19.” The Malaysian Insight, 4 April 2020. https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/234742

[9] The Malaysian Insight, “Perak orders logging to stop on customary Orang Asli land.” 1 August 2019. https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/172576

[10] Chung, Nicholas. “Orang Asli set up blockades as loggers return.” Free Malaysia Today, 18 June 2020. https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2020/06/18/orang-asli-set-up-blockades-as-loggers-return/

[11] Hakim, Akmal. “Over 7,000 Orang Asli In Kelantan Cut-Off From Civilization Due To Floods.” The Rakyat Post, 20 July 2020. https://www.therakyatpost.com/2020/07/20/over-7000-orang-asli-in-kelantan-cut-off-from-civilization-due-to-floods/

[12] Bernama. “Damaged roads leave Gua Musang Orang Asli stranded.” Malaysiakini, 2 January 2020. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/505709

[13] Chin, James. “Malaysia: the 2020 putsch for Malay Islam supremacy.” The Round Table:

The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. 109 (2020): 288-297. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00358533.2020.1760495?journalCode=ctrt20

[14] Nicholas, Colin. “Malaysia.” In The Indigenous World 2019, edited by David Nathaniel Berger, 276-277. IWGIA, 2019. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/IndigenousWorld2019_UK.pdf

[15] The Institutional Reform Committee was established by the Council of Eminent Persons, which was tasked specifically to look into the reforms needed to move the country forward. The recommendations presented by the Center for Orang Asli Concerns to this committee are available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1l5t8DxcUuw_EKf7kbvdTEh5Ydf_Gi3Sv/view

[16] Malay Mail. “Customary land rights main resolution for Orang Asli community.” 14 January 2020. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/01/14/customary-land-rights-main-resolution-for-orang-asli-community/1827996

[17] See The Star interview with the Direct-General of Jakoa on video:

The Star. 2019. “Exclusive: Jakoa DG shares plans for Orang Asli development.” Uploaded on 4 August 2019. YouTube video, 5:23 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJ_Ncs4KM8g

[18] Durian is the spiny oval tropical fruit of a large tree of the same name. Its creamy pulp, despite its fetid smell, is highly valued for its flavour and, in recent years, prices for fruit have skyrocketed due to an increase in demand from durian lovers in China.

[19] Reuters. “In unprecedented move, federal gov't sues Kelantan over Orang Asli land rights.” New Straits Times, 18 January 2019. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2019/01/452021/unprecedented-move-federal-govt-sues-kelantan-over-orang-asli-land-rights

[20] Zahiid, Syed Jaymal. “At pro-government convention, Hadi says uniting Muslims is Perikatan’s feat.” Malay Mail, 1 September 2020. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/09/01/at-pro-government-convention-hadi-says-uniting-muslims-is-perikatans-feat/1899172

[21] Farid, Aminah. “Even a billion ringgit won’t solve Orang Asli woes if rights are ignored, say activists.” Malaysian Insight, 21 November 2020. https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/285874 and https://www.facebook.com/centerfororangasliconcerns/photos/a.571592796213080/3594470713925258/

[22] Azis Khan, Oleh. “Suka atau tidak Malaysia adalah Tanah Melayu, kata pemimpin UMNO.” [Like it or not Malaysia is the Land of the Malays, says UMNO leader] Borneo Today, 20 July 2020. https://www.borneotoday.net/suka-atau-tidak-malaysia-adalah-tanah-melayu-kata-pemimpin-umno/; Tham, Jia Vern. “"This Is A Malay Land" - Pasir Salak MP argues after alaiming DAP is unfair to Malaysians.” Says, 25 July 2018. https://says.com/my/news/this-is-malay-land-pasir-salak-mp-accuses-dap-of-being-unfair-to-all-races

[23] Wahid, Ramieza. “Malaysia is not 'Tanah Melayu', Sabah DCM refutes Tajuddin.” Malaysiakini, 22 July 2020. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/535566

[24] Lee, Poh Onn, and Kevin Zhang.“The collapse of the state government in Sabah: Back to the drawing board.” South East Asia Globe, 4 August 2020. https://southeastasiaglobe.com/sabah-state-assembly-dissolution/

[25] New Straits Times. “Sabah 2020: Official results.” 26 September 2020. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/09/627517/sabah-2020-official-results

[26] Nicholas, Colin. “Malaysia.” In The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 287-288. IWGIA, 2020. https://iwgia.org/images/yearbook/2020/IWGIA_The_Indigenous_World_2020.pdf

[27] Roseni, Shalina. “Two ministries not wasteful – CM.” The Borneo Post, 8 September 2020. https://www.theborneopost.com/2020/09/08/two-ministries-not-wasteful-cm/

[28] Vanar, Muguntan. “NGO calls for more awareness campaigns against child marriages in Sabah.” The Star, 24 November 2020. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2020/11/24/ngo-calls-for-more-awareness-campaigns-against-child-marriages-in-sabah

[29] Jannie Lasimbang. 2020. “Press statement by Jannie Lasimbang (State Assemblyman Kapayan) and Anne Lasimbang (Executive Director of Pacos Trust).” Facebook, 25 November 2020. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=1829454817367332&story_fbid=2700908383555300

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibrahim, Ramli. “Orang Asli women taken for a ride.” New Straits Times, 3 August 2020. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/08/613720/orang-asli-women-taken-ride

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Nicholas, Colin. “Malaysia.” In The Indigenous World 2019, edited by David Nathaniel Berger, 278. IWGIA, 2019. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/IndigenousWorld2019_UK.pdf

[35] Malay Mail. “Don’t sell your land, Sarawak deputy CM tells longhouse folk.” 26 October 2020. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/10/26/dont-sell-your-land-sarawak-deputy-cm-tells-longhouse-folk/1916258

[36] Moh, Jane. “Court rules against longhouse folk in Tanjung Manis seeking NCR status for 15,000 ha.” Borneo Post, 21 October 2020. https://www.theborneopost.com/2020/10/21/court-rules-against-longhouse-folk-in-tanjung-manis-seeking-ncr-status-for-15000ha/



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

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