Still many unanswered
09/12/08 NST By Salleh Buang
Going by recent media reports, it would appear that the orang asli community
can expect good times beginning next year. According to Rural and Regional
Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, each orang asli
household will be given agricultural plots of between two and six acres and
another 553,820sq ft of land to build their own permanent dream home.
The move is expected to bring cheer to at least 20,000 orang asli families
in the country. The surprise icing on the cake is Muhammad's revelation that
the land would be freehold. Alienation of freehold state land to private
citizens was not common over the last several decades but seems to be the
While that's good news, bear in mind that the Cabinet has only agreed to do
it "in principle".
According to the minister, the matter has still to be referred to the
National Land Council (NLC) which is scheduled to meet next year and to be
chaired by outgoing Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
When things have not yet happened, but is only expected to happen in the
future, anything can happen.
Assuming the NLC will meet early next year (before March) and will endorse
the earlier "in principle" decision of the Cabinet, we still have to face
the fact that land is a state matter.
It is up to each state in Peninsular Malaysia to decide when and where to
give the agricultural plots and housing lots to the orang asli families
resident in the state.
The alienation exercise is also subject to a catch. The agricultural plots,
according to the minister, will be developed by a federal agency or a
private company or an orang asli cooperative entity before they can be
handed over to the orang asli families.
The handing over exercise is also expected to happen only five to seven
years down the line "when the rubber or oil palm crops mature".
Again, anything can happen in seven years. In a nutshell, the orang asli
head of the family (now ostensibly indefeasible owner of his own
agricultural plot and building lot) can only deal freely with his small
building lot. As for the agricultural plot, he can only look at it from a
distance as the entrusted entity (agency or company or cooperative) begins
the task of rubber/oil palm cultivation.
Does he have any power or choice in the selection of the entrusted entity?
What if he decides not to participate in it but cultivate the land on his
own? Will the land be taken back?
November news reports differ materially from an October report of a parallel
move by the Perak state authority to give its 10,000 orang asli families
titles to their own individual plots of land. We were then informed that
under the alienation exercise, a total of 80,400 acres of state land will be
given to these families.
Each orang asli family will get about eight acres of land, of which one
portion (0.25 acre) will be the site of their newly built homes, another
portion (two acres) to be cultivated as fruit orchards and a final portion
(six acres) for planting commercial crops.
Unlike the November news reports, there is no indication that the orang asli
families must hand over rights of cultivation of their agricultural plots to
a third party for purposes of cultivation.
Emphasising that the local orang asli population merely owns a tiny fraction
of the entire alienated land in the country (an insignificant 0.03 per
cent), Perak exco member Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham hoped this alienation exercise
will be a turning point for them.
"We are doing this to empower the orang asli and help them change their
social economic status. By giving them land, they can increase their
productivity and income levels and at the same time, we can alleviate the
number of hardcore poor in Perak," he said.
One distinction between the earlier Perak state initiative and the recent
federal initiative is the empowerment factor. It was a crucial factor in the
Perak alienation exercise but it was missing in the federal initiative.
The National Land Code, the primary land legislation in Peninsular Malaysia,
makes no distinction between Malays, Chinese, Indians and orang asli. As
long as they are Malaysian citizens, they are all eligible to apply for
state land and if they are lucky they can become indefeasible owners of
their own properties.
This right to equal treatment is enshrined in the Federal Constitution and
no one can take it away. Sadly, five decades after Merdeka, there are still
some quarters here who continue to regard the orang asli families as mere
second class citizens.
According to public literature, only 15 per cent of the 667 orang asli
villages in the country are gazetted. Not being gazetted, in practical
terms, means not protected. To aggravate the problem, some of these gazetted
lands had been degazetted without their knowledge or concurrence.
In legal terms, the orang asli community has long been denied one universal
human right � security of tenure in respect of their own land. What was once
an orang asli settlement later became land schemes, plantations, mining
concessions, highways, dams, townships, housing projects, university
campuses, airports and such like.
When orang asli settlements are not gazetted, logging concessions can be
given out. Joining these loggers will be others who poach and steal whatever
forest products are available in the area, claiming that since these are in
"no-man's land", they therefore belong to nobody and are up for grabs by
Commenting on the November news report, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns
coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas said the new plan by the federal government
will not benefit the community, adding the land policy "will actually
deprive the orang asli of their land".
Citing statistics from Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, he said 47,498 acres
have so far been gazetted as orang asli land, while another 71,068 acres
have been approved for gazetting. When these are added to another 196,977
acres (area pending approval), the total orang asli land in the country
stands at 315,543 acres.
As against that figure, assuming the recently announced land policy is fully
executed, the orang asli families will only get a total of 143,318 acres
(worked out at 20,000 land recipients x 7.1659 acres each). This means that
if the new federal initiative is executed, it will result in a shortfall of
172,224 acres for the orang asli community in the peninsula.
Putting aside the issue of land size, to my mind one major flaw of the
exercise is the absence of public engagement, a necessary element of good
My view is strengthened when Nicholas said the intended alienation exercise
"was planned without the consultation or the consent of the communities that
it would affect".
"In urban areas, three hectares (about seven acres) are a lot, but in the
rural areas it is nothing. This really shows that the government doesn't
know the orang asli," Nicholas added.