ATHENS, Georgia — Malaysia is home to more than 31 million people of various different ethnic groups, including Indigenous peoples. About 0.7% of the Peninsular Malaysian population belongs to the Orang Asli, a collection of 18 native subgroups. Despite these Indigenous groups’ historic presence in the country, the national government often brushes aside their land rights and the Orang Asli people struggle with institutionalized poverty. However, civil and state entities are providing aid to the Orang Asli, especially in the wake of growing economic and health concerns.
The History of Poverty Among the Orang Asli
Orang Asli people are marginalized and impoverished — roughly a third live in “hard-core poverty,” according to the latest available statistics. Despite these high poverty rates, the Indigenous peoples have subsisted throughout history by engaging in farming and making use of natural resources. The primary concerns regarding their quality of life are the increasing encroachments from private sectors into their land and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former challenges their access to basic rights. Logging and palm oil industries increasingly take up and pollute the land where Indigenous people have historically lived. The lack of government recognition and political aid to the Orang Asli exacerbates and creates poverty as it jeopardizes Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional sources of food, water and shelter.
Once COVID-19 spread to Malaysia, it affected everyday life for all citizens. Some Indigenous people, including residents of the Orang Asli settlement Kampung Lubuk Perah, isolated themselves to reduce the chance of spreading the virus. However, this cut them off from their sources of income, making poverty almost inescapable and forcing them to rely on assistance from the state or humanitarian organizations.
Additionally, nationwide school shutdowns and the transition to online learning worsened the quality of education for Orang Asli children who have limited access to updated technology or internet services. As such, COVID-19 reinforced the Orang Asli population problems with preexisting resource scarcity and the cycle of poverty.
COVID-19 Relief Efforts
Both government and non-government organizations rallied to provide aid to the Orang Asli during the pandemic as did the overall public. Major fundraising attempts proved largely successful as people donated their money to various funds.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, Raleigh International Kuala Lumpur hosted the Tabung COVID-19 Orang Asli Fund alongside fellow NGOs Center for Orang Asli Concerns and Impian Malaysia in March 2020. Throughout its campaign, the organization helped 34,637 Orang Asli individuals by May 14, 2020, and raised close to $90,870. This fundraiser addressed concerns over food insecurity for thousands of households and the organization hosting it also assisted Orang Asli individuals in enrolling for the government’s stimulus package.
Another significant fundraiser was the COVID-19 Collective for Orang Asli, which raised around $37,600 and managed to assist more than 56,000 families. This collective also delivered 1,816 food baskets and 2,762 hygiene kits as part of its goal to create a “publish dashboard for all Orang Asli relief efforts.”
Several smaller fundraisers sought to help these Indigenous populations as did the government and non-government initiatives. For example, Malaysia’s Department of Indigenous People (Orang Asli) Development worked with the Department of Health and local education and forestry departments to spread medical information and encourage Indigenous peoples to get COVID-19 vaccinations. As part of this ongoing effort, Malaysia’s Gua Musang Health Department also vaccinated thousands of Indigenous peoples in remote settlements, including “75% adult members of Indigenous tribes.” On top of that, as of Nov. 5, 2021, “7,542 adults had received a single dose of the CanSino vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.”
These humanitarian efforts rallied mass support to help a marginalized portion of Malaysian society. Although the COVID-19 pandemic still continues, more and more people are receiving vaccinations thanks to growing national efforts.
Additionally, though these may not be all-encompassing solutions to poverty, NGOs and their public fundraisers provide much-needed access to basic necessities to ensure a greater quality of life for thousands of families and individuals.
Of course, these NGOs must continue to tackle issues like land rights and political marginalization to properly fight poverty among the Orang Asli, but the wide reach of public humanitarian efforts has undeniably helped an extremely impoverished community circumvent some of the largest concerns regarding food and medical security.
– Lauren Sung