Thursday, 23 September 2010

Malaysia Day Focus: Land, autonomy and empowerment for the Orang Asal

Written by Chua Sue-Ann
Wednesday, 15 September 2010 14:22

FOR Sabah indigenous rights activist Adrian Lasimbang, the key to his community’s well-being is the protection of their rights to the land. Lasimbang, who heads the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia or Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (JOAS), explains that the Orang Asal’s consuming battle for rights to their land leaves little time to focus on the other issues that matter.

Adrian Lasimbang giving a speech during the world Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Selangor this year

In an email interview with The Edge Financial Daily, Lasimbang describes the marginalisation East Malaysian indigenous peoples often feel, despite having entered into “an equal partnership” to form Malaysia 47 years ago.

Lasimbang, who grew up in a farming village in Penampang near Kota Kinabalu, says he was exposed to community activism at a very young age and felt the calling to help.

“We have a huge role to play to help the rural poor to enjoy development that meets their aspirations. My contribution is merely to assist them to have better options and make informed decisions,” he said.

TEFD: Do you think the East Malaysian indigenous people feel that they are part of Malaysia or is there still a palpable East/West Malaysia divide?

Lasimbang: Generally, the Orang Asal in East Malaysia still feel marginalised. Their needs and aspirations are not given due attention.

Development plans continue to be dominated by West Malaysian models which are not really applicable in East Malaysia. The federal civil service’s top ranks are still dominated by West Malaysians who may not necessarily understand the social dynamics of East Malaysia.

(Decisions are often) made based on race — the ‘Melayu, India, Cina’ thinking. We can now see that type of thinking seeping into our society here and it is not good for anyone.

The New Economic Policy does not mean anything to the Orang Asal as we feel that we are second-class bumiputeras.

In Sabah’s case, the new ‘citizens’ under the Project IC (who are classed as bumiputera) have more rights and opportunities than the Orang Asal living in the interior.

(Project IC refers to the alleged granting of citizenship to immigrants by issuing them identity cards.)

The economic gap between West and East Malaysia also makes us feel marginalised.

What can be done to bridge East and West Malaysia?

Ensure equal opportunity and the Borneonisation of the civil service. That way, we can feel that we are an important part of the administration of our beloved country.

Bring more downstream industries to East Malaysia to create more quality jobs for us, not just back-breaking labour work.

What needs to be done to bring more of the necessary socio-economic development to East Malaysia?

Sabah and Sarawak should get a better deal in the oil and gas agreements because 5% (of oil and gas revenue) is nothing considering the vastness of the land. We want some autonomy to decide what kind of projects are suitable for development in Sabah and Sarawak.

We’d also like autonomy in deciding how to help our poor. Most of the federal government’s programmes for eliminating poverty have failed and are open to abuse and corruption.

What needs to be in place for indigenous people to live their lives?

Land rights is the most important. Without land, the Orang Asal will not survive. Land is the lifeline. If you take that away, you will kill the Orang Asal.

If you secure their rights to land, there will be a sense of security and communities can focus on other issues like health, infrastructure and education.

The Orang Asal are fighting for their land, day in, day out. They have no time to think about other things. You really can see the difference in communities with secured land rights. They are more prosperous and advanced.

What is your hope for indigenous East Malaysians? What is your outlook for the younger / future generations of Malaysia?

We hope the gap between the West and East can be reduced. East Malaysians would then be more empowered to contribute to the country and decide their own fate.

I hope the younger generations will continue to preserve their rich cultural heritage. I just hope that racial politics will not destroy our country.

We should learn to respect our differences because that is what makes us Malaysians. We are united in diversity. (This is) not a place where one race dominates while the others follow!

In terms of your East Malaysian heritage, what are you most proud of?

I am proud of our cultural diversity. Sabah has 39 ethnic groups and Sarawak has 25 — that’s 64 ethnic groups living in one place. If these 64 groups can live in harmony, why can’t the three dominant groups in West Malaysia live happily together?

I am also proud of the history of Borneo which unfortunately remains untold in our history books in schools. I am proud of our land and environment that we live in. We have the highest mountains, the biggest caves, the oldest rainforest and the cleanest rivers.

What lessons do you think can be gleaned from Malaysia Day?

Unity is a precondition to a strong nation. Let us be reminded that the formation of Malaysia is based on equal partnership between Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak with high mutual respect envisioned by our founding fathers and mothers.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, September 15, 2010.

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