Integration and Modernization of the Orang Asli: THE IMPACT ON CULTURE AND IDENTITY

Published: 04 July 2005


Integration and Modernization of the Orang Asli:



The following represents a handout taken largely from pages 46 to 51 of The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources. It was meant to accompany a power-point presentation that dwelt more on the conference theme of "Survival of Modern Living" (sic), the main speaking points of which are appended below.

My participation in the conference was due to a very last-minute invitation from the organizers to fill a panel slot vacated at a late date. For the record, it should be said that the photocopies of this handout given to the organisers were NOT distributed to the participants.

Also, after the presentation, at least one member of the audience took offence at the way the presentation "abused" the opportunity of the "international" conference to 'hantam' (hit/slam/attack) the government. To the credit of the chairperson, the questioner was asked to withdraw the term 'hantam'.

However, this did not stop the organiser of the conference to later repeat the same sentiment to me, eventhough she was not present during the presentation and had not read the handout. So here are both the handouts and the speaking notes from the powerpoint presentation for you to make your own assessment.

Colin Nicholas

Paper presented at the Ist International Conference on the Indigenous People with the theme "The Indigenous Population: Survival of Modern Living" (sic). Jointly organized by the Centre for Malaysian Pribumi Studies, University of Malaya, Ministry of Culture, Arts & Heritage, Department of Museums & Antiquities, and the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, 4-5 July 2005, Kuala Lumpur

The paradigm adopted by the Malaysian government – at least in its treatment of the Orang Asli – remains largely of the modernization model (1).  Even in the resolution of the Orang Asli problem, the cultural-assimilationist approach (developed along the lines of western colonial expansionism) is adopted. Here, the overriding prescription for developing the Orang Asli lies in their ‘cultural transformation’ to a politically-defined ‘mainstream’.

Social change is thus perceived as a natural and uniform process (which in fact is a process of deculturation) with ‘modernization’ as its final goal. Inadvertently, political, economic and cultural confrontations are concealed in the process (Devalle 1992: 38-9).

These confrontations come about when the state regards the lifestyles of the Orang Asli, and the attachment they have to their territories, as archaic impediments to the progress of modernization. The antagonism is further intensified if the state perceives that it cannot modernize effectively if it were to tolerate indigenous minority cultures in its midst.

The fear of not being able to exploit the resources that lie within the territories of the Orang Asli, if access to them is impeded by indigenous minority groups living there, is also of concern to the state (Maybury-Lewis 1996: 39). Invariably, dispossession of indigenous minority peoples from their traditional homelands becomes a project of the state, often under the guise of the altruistic goal of incorporation or assimilation into the national economy and dominant culture.

For the Orang Asli inhabitants of the natural resource areas, capitalism and colonial style exploitation (made presentable as development projects) seek to erode their resource base, forcing them to move out of their traditional homelands and threatening their cultural identity and economic stability and self-reliance. The political system increasingly treats them either in law and order terms or as ethnics and aliens with whom some kind of territorial arrangements must be worked out (Kothari 1989: 34).

Arguments of ‘primitiveness’ vs. ‘development’ and ‘traditional society’ vs. ‘progress’, further serve to justify the exploitation of natural resources on Orang Asli territories (Devalle 1992: 99). But, as Eder (1993: 3) points out, incorrect stereotypes of tribal societies are scarcely a recent phenomenon in anthropology; those associated with the victims-of-progress model reflect its characteristic preoccupation with the alleged contrast between tribal societies and modern industrial societies.

Thus it is often said that tribal cultures are anti-materialistic (2). This is simply not true about all tribal societies. The traditional societies of the Tolai (Epstein 1968; Salisbury 1970) and the Iban (Sutlive 1978), for example, are said to have fostered such personal traits as individualism and achievement orientation. Predictably, such traits powerfully influenced the respective responses of these peoples to the opportunities for participation in wider socio-economic systems.

However, quite apart from the economic opportunities gained when relating with the wider society, the increased exposure, and vulnerability, of the indigenous community to the overriding interests of the centre means that indigenous communities have more to contend with than they can bargain for. Michael Banton (cited in Armitage 1995: 185-186) distinguishes six orders of race relations, which exist after initial contact. They are:

  1.   Institutionalized contact, which occurs when two peoples first meet
        and establish some trading relationships between each other;

  2.   Acculturation, which occurs when two peoples intermarry and develop
        institutions with roots in both societies;

  3.   Domination, which occurs when one society takes control of the other;

  4.   Paternalism, which occurs when one society governs the other in what
        it views as being the other’s best interest;

  5.   Integration, which occurs when single institutions are developed and 
        racial or ethnic origin ceases to be recognized; and

  6.   Pluralism, which occurs when more than one ethnic group is recognized
        as having a right to continued recognition.

Of these, domination, paternalism, and integration all occur within the general framework of assimilation.

Domination and paternalism has in fact been the consequence of policies – based on ‘integration’ – advocated for Orang Asli development. However, like most other minority groups, the Orang Asli need and want to have their cultural identity protected against the encroachment of the predominant culture, and not to be assimilated or integrated into it.

Hence, the ability of the Orang Asli to preserve its cultural identity will depend on its ability to define, defend and advocate its form and content. This may include the (re)possession of unusual collective rights and powers and the corresponding restriction of certain individual rights of non-members – communal resolve – within the Orang Asli’s traditional territory (cf. Kymlicka 1989, cited in Okin 1991: 126-7).

Indigenous minority cultures – the distinctive way of life of a given people – often form the corner stone of any indigenous political or cultural action. These are what are regularly threatened, even when their lives are not at risk. And it is to their cultures that indigenous minorities often cling, in order to give meaning and dignity to their lives.

The point to remember, then, is that indigenous cultures are not extinguished by natural laws but by political processes that are susceptible to human control. Indigenous peoples, then, are victims of the convenient use of power against the relatively powerless (Maybury-Lewis 1996: 8-9, 38).

Political processes do not merely subjugate vulnerable groups such as the Orang Asli. The process by which discrete small-scale societies are incorporated as marginal components of a larger universe is usually also the process by which class formation is started (Swift 1978: 13-14).

The commercialization of previously subsistence economies leads to the emergence of new and more permanent economic and social inequalities; the new institutions and roles that are created to mediate between the small society and the larger often become the institutions of a new class system. As a result, the problem of a marginal society begins to become a problem of class as much as ethnic or cultural identity, although it may continue to be perceived and formulated solely as the latter.

When appealing to their collective historico-cultural identity, the new classes express their concerns and views on issues of culture and deculturation, self-respect, self-determination, the right to linguistic specificity, and on the unequal nature of existing socio-economic politics.

This participation is often sought outside existing structures through a process of redefinition of the contents of politics. They take a stand against the inequalities present in their society, against the abuses of the state, and against the hegemonic claims of the ruling sectors (Devalle 1992: 239). Nevertheless, it remains to be examined if such motivations are not merely machinations for more individualistic projects.

Here, it would seem pertinent to focus on the wellsprings of individual behaviour as well. The failure to focus clearly on individuals in situations of change – on their wants and needs, on the demands placed on them – in part explains, as Eder (1993: 6-7) contends, why a large anthropological literature on the impact of modernization on tribal societies, however valuable it is for documentary purposes, has contributed relatively little toward the construction of a more adequate theory of human adaptation and culture change.

Orang Asli development, therefore, has to be studied from a number of contexts: historical, political, and socio-cultural, at the very least. Since the Orang Asli have not developed in isolation, their political and economic relations historically, and their response to interventions into their lives today, are prerequisites for understanding the problem of development of their society.

Because the Orang Asli are now incorporated into a modern nation state, their development must also be seen in the context of the goals of the state, especially as they pertain to the control and exploitation of natural resources, and if follows, the control of the Orang Asli as well.


1.  Jimin (1983: 55-6, 113-4) revealed that the government was pursuing Rostow’s ‘stages of growth’ theory in respect of its attempts to ‘modernize’ the Orang Asli. Mohd. Tap (1990: 501) maintains that this is still the policy of the government. This is sustained by recent official pronunciations in the press and in JHEOA programme summaries.

2.   See Bodley 1982: 10-11 for a discussion on this perception.


References cited:

Armitage, Andrew (1995). Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada and New Zealand. UBC Press, Vancouver.

Bodley, J.H. (1982). Victims of Progress. Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., Phillipines.

Devalle, Susana B. C. (1992). Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkand. Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Eder, James F. (1993). On The Road To Tribal Extinction: Depopulation, Deculturation and Adaptive Well-being Among the Batak of the Philippines. New Day Publishers, Quezon City.

Epstein, T.S. (1968). Capitalism, Primitive and Modern: Some Aspects of Total Economic Growth. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Jimin bin Idris, et al (1983). Planning and Administration of Development Programmes for Tribal Peoples (The Malaysian Setting). Center on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific, Kuala Lumpur.

Kothari, Rajni (1989). Ethnicity. In Kumar David and Santhisalan Kadirgamar (ed.), Ethnicity: Identity, Conflict, Crisis, pp. 15-44.

Maybury-Lewis, David (1996). Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and the State. Cultural Survival Studies in Ethnicity and Change. Allyn and Bacon, Massachusetts.

Okin, Susan Moller (1991). Review of: Will Kymlicka (1989), Liberalism, Community and Culture. Political Theory, February, pp. 123-129.

Salisbury, R.F. (1970). Vunamani. Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, London.

Sutlive, V.H., Jr. (1978). The Iban of Sarawak. AHM Publishing Corporation, Arlington Heights, Ill.

Tylor, Edward (1871), Primitive Culture. 2 vols. (7th ed., 1924), Brentano's, New York. 



Speaking Points

The Impact of Integration and Modernization


Orang Asli Culture and Identity

Legally, the Orang Asli are defined as: Any person who is a member of an aboriginal ethnic group, who speaks an aboriginal language, and habitually follows an aboriginal way of life and aboriginal customs and beliefs.

The definition of Orang Asli would include adopted non-Orang Asli children and offspring of female Orang Asli and male non-Orang Asli – provided that they satisfy the above conditions.

That is to say, an Orang Asli is defined more by cultural characteristics than by blood. Not unlike the constitutional definition for ‘Malay’.

But there is more to it than just being an Orang Asli, legally.

There are aspects unique to Orang Asli that contribute to their definition and identity as a separate people. Some of these characteristics include:
    • They trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of a territory;
    • They consider themselves distinct from the dominant culture
      and society of which they now find themselves a part of;
    • They have their own language, religion, customs and worldview
      – which they are determined to transmit to future generations; and
    • More importantly, the Orang Asli have a special relationship with
      their traditional or adat land.

It is important to appreciate that the traditional lands of the Orang Asli is very localized and site-specific. This specific ecological niche is the basis of their subsistence, spirituality, social organisation, history, identity, culture and is also the schoolhouse of their children through which all these are transmitted.

In 1871, Edward Tylor defined culture (or civilization) as “… that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man (and woman) as a member of society.”

It follows then that for a culture to be viable, it must have:

    • Enough people
    • Enough territory
    • Harmonious relations with neighbours
    • Adequate economic and material resources
    • A strong sense of identity (including language)
    • Social organization (including leadership)
    • Self-confidence and ability to cope with change

Are Orang Asli cultures today viable? Well, they have the potential to be viable. But they are also very vulnerable to the many challenges that threaten their cultures and their identity as a unique people.

The factors causing Orang Asli vulnerability can be categorized as internal and external factors. Some of the internal factors are:

    • Lack of formal education and capacity;
  • Weak organization and leadership;
  • Sense of inferiority/ timidity/dependence/fear; and
  • Unwillingness to compete/challenge.

But some Orang Asli have overcome all these challenges and yet they are still unable to seek redress.

The external factors causing Orang Asli vulnerability include:

  • Non-recognition of Orang Asli rights to their traditional lands;

    • Unkept promises of land security and tenure;
      Orang Asli demands for land seen as excessive and
    • Destruction of their subsistence base;
    • Non-Orang Asli given greater priority over Orang Asli
      traditional lands;

  • Government policy of assimilation and integration;

    • An educational system that does not reinforce Orang Asli
      culture (including language);
    • Seen as ripe targets for religious conversion;

  • Social discrimination (in health, education, access to development
    facilities, and even legally);

  • Domination (which occurs when one society takes control
    of the other);

    • Exploitation, contempt, even hostility from outsiders;
    • Modernization of Orang Asli lands via privatization;

  • Paternalism (which occurs when one society governs the other
    in what it views as being in the other’s best interest);

    • Change in social organization; and
    • Determining leadership and representivity without regard
      to Orang Asli traditions and consent.

In other words, the Orang Asli are not recognized as a distinct people with special rights accruing to them because of their indigenity. In the context of Malaysia, this means that the Orang Asli are being discriminated against.

So, can we have modernization and integration without having the Orang Asli lose their culture and identity?

Yes. But only if we begin to treat the Orang Asli ‘problem’ as one not of welfare and charity – but of justice.