The Struggle for Land Rights in Malaysia

By Gabby O’Leary


Oral traditions are used among Orang Asli communities to share the traditional knowledge of their people as well as the land. There is an oral tradition that is told so the Orang Asli can learn the names of all the rivers in their communities. According to one such tradition, a man meets a tiger that makes the man follow him to all the rivers in the community[i] As a result the man learned all of the names and shared them with others. The Orang Asli believe tradition is an important element in defending their land and indigeneity. If this tradition is not continually told to younger generations the Orang Asli names of the rivers will cease to exist. All that will be left will be the Malay names erasing evidence of the Orang Asli names, erasing a part of Orang Asli culture. This oral tradition illustrates the importance of land to the Orang Asli who have struggled with land rights for decades. The Orang Asli are not granted the same land rights as other indigenous groups in Malaysia due to various social factors rather than the facts.

The Orang Asli, the primary indigenous group, have been seen as lesser peoples to the Malaysian government over the superior indigenous group, the Malays, due to the Malay ethnic majority in Malaysia.  The Orang Asli are seen as inferior even though they actually provided the Malays with resources and played a role in the government up through the beginning of the 20th century. The Orang Asli provided for the Malays by being their primary source of “forest products such as rattan, resin, gutta percha and sandalwood for international trade”[ii] The Orang Asli had a say in the government by holding important leadership roles and at times overseeing Malay subjects[iii] The knowledge of the land and resources provided the Orang Asli with an upper hand over the Malays. Although the Orang Asli provided the Malays with necessary resources, they were seen as inferior because they lived in primitive, non-western ways, which was seen as wrong by the Malaysian government

In the early 20th century anthropologists became interested in Orang Asli and their land rights. Their interest played a part in the development of the Perak Aborigines Enactment of 1939. This enactment provided Orang Asli with rights to self-determination in relation to issues of preserving their culture and gaining access to land. They were being recognized for their knowledge about the land.

The Aboriginal Act of 1954 provided a definitive way for the Orang Asli to describe their land rights, but it still had some faults. It came about shortly after the Perak Aborigines Enactment to more clearly define the relationship between the Orang Asli and the State and to protect the Orang Asli land. It was said to be “an Act to provide for the protection, well-being and advancement of the aboriginal peoples of Peninsular Malaysia” [iv]It provided Orang Asli areas and reserves, but within these areas Orang Asli did not have many rights. The State Authority of Malaysia was allowed “to revoke wholly or in part any declaration of an aboriginal reserve”[v] The State Authority can also require any Aboriginal community to leave and stay out of certain areas.[vi] The move would not benefit the Orang Asli but rather hurt the Orang Asli by making them leave their homes. The Director General, a member of the Malaysian government, was mainly in charge of land designation.  He had the authority to decide whether the aboriginals could “transfer, lease, charge, sell, convey, assign, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any land except with the consent of the Director General”[vii] This act was created to protect and give land to the Orang Asli, but they still did not have control over their land. Instead of preserving their traditional way of life and giving them autonomy, it threatened their way of life and limited autonomy.

Today a specific Orang Asli community in the state of Petrak in Malaysia is being forced to move by the Malaysian government. The Petrak are “similar to 85% of the 667 Orang Asli villages that are not seen as Orang Asli Areas or Reserves” [viii]because they have no rights to their land. They have to live in concrete buildings rather than the wooden buildings they traditionally live in. The government promised the land they are leaving would still be kept for them to plant rubber trees and oil palm, which are used to support the Orang Asli community.  Although the government promised the land to them, it is highly unlikely they will be able to use the land because the government will use it instead. Being forced to move is causing the Orang Asli to lose not only their land but their traditions too. Their previous homes and lands are being destroyed to make room for factories, so future generations will not be aware of their traditions and how they use their land to support themselves[ix]

In recent decades the knowledge of the land, specifically forests among the Orang Asli has declined due to their land being taken away or destroyed. They see the forests as a source of livelihood and something that shapes their customs and cultures. It also provides them with a source of identity. There is evidence that suggests in “the first millennium AD the Orang Asli were the primary suppliers of forest products such as bamboo and ivory to countries like China, India, and the Middle East”[x] but in recent decades the Malays have been credited due to their ethnic majority in Malaysia. A study was recently done in April 2014 to see how much knowledge the Orang Asli had of the forests they live in. The participants knew most about forests, lakes, and rivers at 64.8% and farming, gardening, and hunting while participants knew least about traditional medicine at 17.4%.[xi] Participants knowing more about their resources and how to access them and retrieve them more than medicine makes sense because the average person probably does not have to deal medicine on a daily basis. Finding ways to continue increasing the knowledge about forests is important because it’s “beneficial for their lives and advantageous for the sustainability of natural resources” [xii]Their most popular resources include honey, which can be used for many medical purposes in other countries.

Orang Asli use their land and plants to provide medical support for their people, which could benefit other countries. Since “150,000 Orang Asli or 60% of their population lives in the rain forest”[xiii], it makes sense they use the resources to benefit themselves. A study done in “2008 provided results that showed they use around 62 plants most of which grow naturally in their communities for medical purposes”[xiv] They are crucial in traditional medicine of the Orang Asli, so the importance of preserving them and the knowledge of them is very important. Many countries and groups could benefit from the plants and their curing abilities. Their plants and medical techniques could solve health problems that affect groups other than the Orang Asli. Taking away their land takes away the plants and the knowledge of the plants.

The Orang Asli have struggled with land rights for decades due to various social factors. The communities have used the land to live, work, and support their well-beings for centuries. Their knowledge of the land and their resources are important to the continuation of their population as well as the rest of the world.



[i] Colin Nicholas. "Stories of a People: Asserting Place and Presence via Orang Asli Oral Tradition." Keene State College. September 8, 2004. Accessed November 16, 2014.

[ii] Rusalina Idrus, "THE DISCOURSE OF PROTECTION AND THE ORANG ASLI IN MALAYSIA." 11 January 2011, < Vol. 29 Supp. 1 - Art. 4 - (Rusaslina Idrus).pdf> (16 November 2014).

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Malaysian Government. Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. Laws of Malaysia, 1 January 1954, < 134-Oboriginal Peoples Act.pdf> (16 November 2014).

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Colin Nicholas, Orang Asli. Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 1 January 1997, <> (16 November 2014).

[ix] Bea Yates. Displaced Indigenous Malaysians Face Uncertain Future - Our World, 4 May 2011,< > (16 November 2014).

[x] Kardooni, Roozbeh, Fatimah Binti Kari, Siti Rohani Binti Yahaya, and Siti Hajar Yusup, Traditional Knowledge of Orang Asli on Forests in Peninsular Malaysia." NISCAIR Online Periodicals Repository, 11 November 2013, < 13(2) 283-291.pdf> (16 November 2014).

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Samuel JSJ Ansbu. Ethnomedical Survey of Plants Used by the Orang Asli in Kampung Bawong, Perak, West Malaysia."Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 7 February 2010,<> (16 November 2014).

[xiv] Ibid