Full text of the talk presented at the 2nd TEDxMerdekaSquare #TEDxMS, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on 5 November 2012 – kindly check against delivery. Powerpoint slides accompaning the talk are here and on YouTube here. Credit for the slides and images (lifted from UndiMsia!’s #DIYToolkit) to Ellina Amin and Fazrul Reza (both of BLAM), Sahabat Alam Malaysia, SAVE Rivers, Colin Nicholas and Center for Orang Asli Concerns.
Powering The Orang Asal Voice In A Democracy Of The Minority. This is a call to action. Our call of action.
It is also a postulation resting on two premises. One, that the Orang Asal have been and are disenfranchised, dispossessed and disempowered and two, that our democracy is governed by the minority. The first will probably not surprise you. The second may.
Some of us have over the course of the year since the inception of UndiMsia! in September 2011 asked ourselves a series of questions that I would like us to ask ourselves tonight.
I start by stating that of all the different communities in Malaysia, the Federal Constitution provides the greatest protection for the Orang Asal. Articles 8, 153 and 161A even sanctions affirmative action for the Orang Asal:
Understandable because the Orang Asal is the first peoples of our nation.
Understandable because the Orang Asal’s way of life is so tied in with their identity, custom, culture, tradition and land much different from other communities.
Understandable too because there was the fear in 1957 when the Constitution was conceived that despite the Orang Asal’s close attachment to their ancestral land, the Orang Asal would be too nice and too giving to resist bullying and inducements to part with their land.
Yet, the irony today is that in spite of these special constitutional protections, the Orang Asal as a community is the most marginalised in society:
The Orang Asal are fast losing their ancestral land.
Their identity, custom, culture and tradition are beginning to disappear in the face of policies and practices to ‘assimilate’ them.
The poverty rate of the Orang Asal community hovers between 50-60% and more than a third of the Orang Asal fall in the ‘hardcore poor’ category.
We then ask: why do we increasingly see more and more Orang Asal communities taking non-violent direct action and resorting to protests, demonstrations and blockades in defence of their homes and land demanding a ‘better life’?
Is there a co-relation between the communities’ loss of identity, custom, culture, tradition and land with the communities’ poverty level layered with a recognition of a non-existent voice in our democracy that has forced them to take direct action?
Hold that thought for a second. Democracy? Let us now take my second premise – that we are in a democracy governed by the minority – and to do so, we need to map the #BigPicture of our country.
Like many other nations, Malaysia practises a system of ‘representative democracy’ to choose our leaders to govern us. We choose 222 MPs once every 4 or 5 years.
Democracy is usually described in a negative way as a ‘tyranny of the majority’. Is that true? Look around us.
What is our population? 28 million. 91% are citizens.
How are Malaysians identified: Ethnicity? Gender? Religion? Age?
How many of us in this room tonight come from a household that collectively earns less than RM1500? You are part of the low income class of 21.6%
How many of us come from a household that collectively earns RM15,000 and more? You are part of the high income class of 2.3%
What are the official and formal sources of power and influence in our country?
Yang di-Pertuan Agang
We can go on and on. Many of these sources are established in law by the Constitution.
What then are the informal sources of power and influence in our country?
New Media and Old Media
Religions and Beliefs
Draw these images together and you see a #BigPicture of our nation. We often miss this picture and we should try not to.
Then we ask, do these sources influence us and impact us every day of our lives? To what extent and how?
Next question: how do we influence and impact these sources, and to what extent? Where is our voice? Some say by the ballot. We vote the 222 MPs once every 4 or 5 years? Others say otherwise.
Then ask who controls the formal sources? Do they come from the bottom 21.6% earning less than RM1500? Or from the top 2.3%?
Who owns and controls the new and old media outlets, educational institutions and businesses?
After MPs are elected, how is the Cabinet chosen? How are judges chosen? Do we have an effective and meaningful separation of powers in practice?
Remember we are a representative democracy.
How many women MPs are there compared to the population (48.6%)?
How many MPs are below 35 years of age when 65% of Malaysians are below 35?
How many MPs are Orang Asal?
Do you feel your views are adequately represented by your MP?
Has your MP consulted you on the way he or she voted or the position he or she adopted in Parliament?
Is this fair?
Is this a democracy?
Is this representative of us?
This does not only apply to Malaysia but to every other nation that practises the same system.
Imagine putting yourselves in the shoes of the Orang Asal. Where is their voice?
If we who are slightly better-off are unable to access the system effectively and meaningfully (if we are bothered to), imagine the Orang Asal’s position where:
the Orang Asal who do not own land;
the Orang Asal do not have reserved seats in Parliament;
the Orang Asal who have little if any formal clout in Parliament and the Cabinet; and,
where the Courts demand that the Orang Asal must ‘prove’ by way of substantial evidence they had stayed on their native lands before being able to succeed in any dispute showing they had rights to the same.
If we are unable to say how we are able to positively influence the institutions, how do we see the Orang Asal doing it themselves?
And then I ask again why do we see increasing non-violent direct action by the Orang Asal communities today?
There you have it: these 15 or so odd formal and informal sources influence us. And impact us. Every day of our lives.
Imagine influencing and impacting the Orang Asal.
Let us frame the question to find an answer: how do we give the Orang Asal a more formal, official and binding voice for direct access to the system?
We need to work towards greater involvement of the Orang Asal in the political process. We need to create a safe space for the indigenous. We need to include the Orang Asal more directly, more formally and more officially in our political process.
We need to affirmatively power their voice to enable the communities to:
reclaim their identity;
protect their identity, custom, culture, tradition and ancestral lands and territories;
self-determine and self-govern their own development and future; and
access and manage their own natural resources.
At the core of it, the Orang Asal requires a voice of their own.
What are the possible solutions? Many. Complementing our system of representative democracy, we can start by looking at reserved seats in Parliament and the Cabinet for the Orang Asal, proportional representation, binding town hall meetings, binding Orang Asal assemblies and this rather new creature known as ‘the Citizen Initiative’.
Let us call it ‘the Orang Asal Initiative’. You must have signed thousands of online or on-the-ground petitions. Some may have worked, some not. Well, it is something like that. And this is very much based on how the Orang Asal in their own ways through the process of bicaraq make decisions. The focus is on the collective well-being of the community, not on solely the individual. This process involves long, long meetings with the whole community in discussion and arguing various points of view (some wholly irrelevant) in coming to a decision for the community (Nicholas, 2000). In many ways, a process of consensus-building.
Translate this model and reform our legislative system to give the Orang Asal communities direct access to the powerholders on issues and problems that they face.
For example, as a result of the bicaraq in a land encroachment case, the community writes or petitions directly to Parliament and/or the Cabinet after getting a requisite number of signatures from Malaysians; and Parliament and/or the Cabinet MUST (not may) then hear the community and make a decision or craft a response to the same. Remedies for failure to comply should be available. It is a form of participatory or direct democracy in action. It may sound simple but requires political will as well as amendments to the Constitution. How this can or should work in practice is the subject for another TED talk.
I am sorry if I am attempting to speak for the Orang Asal and I may be way off the park. I do not profess to speak for the Orang Asal or to be an expert in Orang Asal issues. But if you asked the Orang Asal about this suggestion: ‘would you think that this is a good idea?’, I could imagine the answer being: ‘well, it can only be better than what it is now’.
Throughout the course of our work at UndiMsia!, I have heard and seen why we should move towards looking at installing a system that gives more direct access for the Orang Asal. Here are two.
In one Orang Asal protest some years back, some of the protestors – during the protest – stumbled upon a MyConstitution Rakyat Guide booklet and read it. They read that they were citizens of Malaysia and had rights. They were overjoyed and told their friends about it: that they were citizens of Malaysia, rakyat Malaysia with rights.
Recently, as part of our on-going empowerment work, we went to a Tapah settlement and ran a series of games using a varied #IdolaDemokrasi module. We wanted to see how the children viewed themselves and each other, and so we asked them to stick pieces of A4 paper on each other’s backs. Our instructions were to go up to anyone and write what you thought about the person. Because it was done that way, no one would be able to know who wrote what.
After the game, we plastered the wall with all the sheets of paper. Rajin. Jujur. Peramah. Hensem Boy. Senyum. Pandai Melukis. Pandai Membaca. Comel. Cantik. Kiut. Clever Boy.
The children then kept reading and staring at their own pieces of paper what others wrote about them: they were just mesmerised! We were not able to peel them off for the next session. And I asked why. They said that no one has ever said those nice things about them.
Powering The Orang Asal Voice In A Democracy Of The Minority. The most protected. The most entitled to receive constitutionally sanctioned affirmative action. Yet the most marginalised. The most dispossessed and disempowered. In a democracy not of theirs, but of a high-income, elite minority group.
1. ‘A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia: An Independent Fact-Finding Mission Report by the Penan Support Group’, FORUM-ASIA and Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (2010, SUARAM Kommunikasi)
2. ‘Orang Asli Women and the Forest: The Impact of Resource Depletion on Gender Relations Among the Semai’ by Colin Nicholas, Tijah Yok Chopil and Tiah Sabak (2003, Center for Orang Asli Concerns)
3. ‘The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia’ by Colin Nicholas (2000, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs)
4. ‘The European Citizens’ Initiative Pocket Guide’ by Bruno Kaufmann (2012, Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and the Green European Foundation)
5. ‘Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook’ by Virginia Beramendi et al. (2008, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)