‘Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!’
The lyrics above, taken from the song ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ of Les Misérables captured the predicament of the Orang Asli (loosely translated as the “Original Peoples”), a collective term for the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia, hereinafter referred to as ‘OA’.
The song, a perfect tribute to the universal suffering of the oppressed, namely the proletariat, is not so removed from what the OA are suffering on a daily basis. The title of the article, taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, also astutely portrays the systematic neglect of this minority group. They are left in stagnant state of poverty and under-development due to the lack of awareness and empowerment of their rights.
Perhaps a little background on the OA would help the readers understand some of the challenges faced by them. The Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) created by the Aboriginal People’s Act 1954 remains the biggest stakeholder in deciding the fate of the OA. Originally used as a tool to protect the OA from communist ideas, the Act places the OA as guardians of the state with little say over their land and rights (Rusaslina 2010). As such, the OA remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty as a result of the lack of access to quality education and being vulnerable to land grabbing perpetrated by big corporations, amongst other things.
Hence the idea of spreading the gospel of democracy and activism to the OA came forth at the 57th IdolaDemokrasi: OA Special Edition. The gameshop was organised by the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) to train identified OA leaders to conduct the gameshop within their own community.
Taking into account the experimental nature of this gameshop, feedbacks were obtained from the OA leaders after each section to ensure that the message was conveyed effectively.
Read on and be prepared to be dazzled by the concept of participatory and direct democracy.
A series of contentious statements were posed in this module. Participants would then respond by choosing to stand in three different spots representing ‘Yes, I agree’, ‘No, I do not agree’ and “I am not sure”.
The facilitator stated that the government has provided sufficient education opportunities for the OA. Representatives from the OA community unanimously answered no. An example given was that insufficient scholarships are allocated to the OA despite some OA students obtaining excellent results. This is peculiar since 10% of government scholarships are explicitly allocated to their counterparts in East Malaysia. The OA representatives further lamented that the teachers posted to the schools in their villages are incompetent.
According to one participant, although there are certain laudable government policies such as the exemption of school fees in national schools, parents are still haunted by miscellaneous expenses such as payments to the Parents-Teacher Association, which can be likened to daylight robbery, given their social-economic status. The size of the family also contributed to their burden. Based on the author’s observation, many families have at least four children with close age gap. It remains to be seen whether the RM100 payable to all students under the Budget 2014 at the beginning of each academic term has any real impact in shifting the parents’ burden, given the rise in living cost, especially necessities such as uniforms and stationeries. The OA also talked about claiming the said expenses from JAKOA, but due to lack of information and bureaucracy, many are left uninformed, especially the single mothers who are one of the most vulnerable low-income groups.
The next statement posed was that the high drop-out rate among the OA is caused by the lack of parental encouragement. All four OA representatives unanimously agreed with the statement. According to them, most of the parents are uneducated, therefore unaware of the long-term benefit of education. This further confirmed the author’s observation made during her last trip to Kampung Genting Peres, where kids were seen loitering around the village when they could be cultivating knowledge. This can perhaps be changed by first changing the mind-sets of the parents; convincing them the values and benefits of education. Their present circumstances demand that the children should help their parents to gather products from the forest rather than sitting on benches in a classroom.
In this module, the participants were asked to list five items that they would bring to a new planet upon the destruction of the current one. Common answers given by the OA representatives included seeds and domestic animals.
This module showcased the high regard the OA place on their roots. When the world is falling, they still hold on to the culture that is dear to their hearts. They can hardly hide the anguish on their faces as deep down their hearts, they are aware that their culture might not survive the wave of development. They lost their lands to fraud in the transfer of land titles; bulldozers are seen around their native customary land, lurking and waiting for the perfect chance to perform their mission, shutting their ears to the cries of OA.
The Action Pyramid is made up of several layers: Target, Objective, Strategy, Action and Tactics. Participants were then required to fill in each layer of the Action Pyramid. The module strives to channel non-violent actions into the different layers of the pyramid, especially when the formal powerholders have failed to execute their duties to the people.
The two OA from the author’s group expressed their anger towards the incompetency of JAKOA (the “Target”). According to them, JAKOA has failed to meet the needs and expectations of the OA and they wish to see its end by replacing it with the State Office of OA Affairs under the direct leadership of OAs themselves. They showed no hesitation in suggesting that the preferred channel to highlight the issues faced (“Tactics”) is via mass street demonstration.
A great deal remains to be done in empowering the OA and remove the blanket of oppression over them. The time is now. However, if the current government continues to triumph over their rights, the song of angry men may continue to run for eternity.