My friends and I belong to a group of volunteers who have been visiting the interior of Pahang to provide basic healthcare and medical assistance to the Orang Asli over the last six years wherever we can. What we have seen and heard was heartbreaking.
Technically, health clinics have been set up across the country, including the state of Pahang, to provide healthcare services and basic medical assistance to the Orang Asli. In truth, however, most of these clinics have long been abandoned or are unmanned. The reason being, medical officers who have been assigned to these clinics never turn up for work at these clinics. At the same time, these same medical officers continue to claim payments and salaries for services which they have not rendered at these health clinics.
I remember an incident where a pregnant Orang Asli woman had to walk to a trunk road from her village at the edge of a forest to seek medical help. She was going into labour and there was no one in her village who was able to help her.
The 'tok batin' (title of the head of an Orang Asli village) told us, later on, that the health clinic at their village had been abandoned for a number of years because the medical officers assigned to the clinic had refused to turn up for work. As a result, this pregnant Orang Asli woman died on her way to the trunk road. This incident took place a few days before our arrival.
In our dialogues at a number of Orang Asli villages over the years, we were told that medical officers routinely refused to treat or work with the Orang Asli because they are of the opinion that the Orang Asli are a 'dirty' and 'filthy' people and therefore are not worthy of any help or assistance.
On another incident, we took an Orang Asli to a government hospital in a town in Pahang for treatment for problems related to hypertension and nearly had his medications thrown at his face. This doctor was unaware that my friend, who is a medical specialist from a hospital in KL, and I were waiting outside the consultation room. When we were told of the rude incident, my friend and I decided to confront this doctor for an explanation. Only then was the Orang Asli man given proper information about his prescription.
During a recent monsoon season where flood waters had nearly devastated an Orang Asli village, no one turned up to provide any form of relief or assistance to the villagers. Eventually, a small consignment of rice was sent to the village by the state government.
The rice was left at the home of the 'tok batin' who refused to distribute the rice to the rest of the villagers. The 'tok batin' claimed to be an Umno member, therefore, he was untouchable and could do as he pleased. Some villagers told us later on that the rice was never distributed and were sold to a third party.
Our team managed to transport about two dozen bags of rice to be distributed to the villagers. One of the villagers, a widow already weakened by hunger, succumbed to a fatal asthmatic attack while taking a bag of rice back to her hut. At her funeral that evening, our team was overwhelmed by a deep sense of desperation. Till today, a number of us in the team are still haunted by this tragic event.
Tragic incidences like these are just the tip of an iceberg. Land belonging to the Orang Asli, especially those in the lowland, are often leased out to oil palm plantation companies. In return, each Orang Asli household gets a small 'rental income' of up to RM500 per month on an average. Here again, this is at the discretion of the 'tok batin'. This 'income' is sometimes withheld from households that are widowed or orphaned. Largely illiterate, these widows and orphans have no legal recourse to claim their entitlement and are left to fend for themselves.
Furthermore, oil palm plantations sometimes destroy the Orang Asli home ground by allowing excessive fertilisers and pesticides to pollute the environment and to destroy nearby rivers. These are the same oil palm plantations which made promises of employment to the Orang Asli before the first planting but which usually reneged on their promises.
Indonesian workers are favoured over the Orang Asli. The main reason stated by oil palm plantation owners is that Indonesian workers are more reliable as the Orang Asli have a problem with alcoholism and do not turn up for work when required. Interestingly, some Orang Asli have found it easier to get jobs in Singapore than back home in Malaysia.
Alcoholism and drug addiction among the Orang Asli are serious social problems among the younger Orang Asli. Aids/HIV is next. Marginalised by much of society and government policies, many young Orang Asli turn to drugs and alcohol to vent their anger and frustration. Most of the Orang Asli drop out of school by the time they reached Form 2.
While some hostels are provided at some secondary schools for the Orang Asli, the Orang Asli students are often told that they must convert to Islam if they want to pursue further education at the schools. Caught between a rock and a hard place, some Orang Asli students comply while others just slip through the cracks. The Orang Asli are basically animistic in their religious beliefs. Any other religion is a hard sell with the Orang Asli.
Concerning the Orang Asli Affairs Department, the JHEOA, itis becoming more like an extended Islamic affairs department than an Orang Asli affairs department. The unwritten policy of the JHEOA seems to be to proselyte and convert the Orang Asli to Islam. For example, if an Orang Asli village needs to build a community hall but is lacking the resources to do so, they can approach the JHEOA.
However, the Orang Asli must provide an undertaking that the community hall must double-up as a 'surau' before any approval is given. I have been told personally by two 'tok batins' that they will be paid RM100 to RM200 as a reward for every Orang Asli converted to Islam in their respective villages.
I have seen more 4WDs in the Klang Valley with the JHEOA logo painted on their doors in the than in the state of Pahang over the last isx years. Can someone in the JHEOA enlighten me on this? To me, the JHEOA had long outlived its purpose.
Finally, the problems facing the Orang Asli must be dealt with quickly and in a humane manner. Sweeping the dirt under the carpet is not going to make it all go away. The denial mentality among our politicians must be arrested. The Orang Asli are facing the real risk of extinction as a people. To deny otherwise is nothing more than a systematic act of genocide.