There’s a certain pleasure in coming in first. The first one who wins the race gets to have the grandest trophy. The first honor of the graduating class tends to have the most attention and expectation. The first ones to make history take the reward to be remembered throughout the course of time. Take the case of people who discovered the next big thing for humanity: Alexander Fleming on penicillin that heralded the dawn of antibiotic age, Alexander Graham Bell for the telecommunications breakthrough: the telephone, and Cristopher Columbus with no idea at all that the rock pile he had explored would turn out to be the world’s superpower country known from generation to generation, plus a long line of people who made it in the history books not to mention the ones who are still on the hot pursuit of making it till today. The first ones really matter, especially the first ones who settled in the nations that formed the very roots of them. In the Philippines, people take pride in the varying cultures each region has to offer, celebrate diversity, inculcate in the younger generation a sense of respect towards the pluralistic society, and they currently devise ways on how to take one step at a time towards social progress. Most countries also across the world do the same way only not all. Not all countries see it, just like the Philippines’ neighboring state, Malaysia which has a situation of their own.
Despite Malaysia’s booming economy they still, in fact, have something to resolve on their own, specifically on its ethnic minority group, the Orang Asli. Orang Asli is a collective term for some eighteen ethnic groups of less than one hundred and fifty thousand in total who are widely regarded as comprising peninsular Malaysia’s original inhabitants. The term also is translated as “original people” which pertains to them as the original settlers of the said state. Orang Asli – translated as “Indigenous People”, The Son of the Soil, The First People to occupy the Peninsular Malaysia or Local People – have now become like refugees and illegal immigrants in their own country. Among the core problems are land ownership, culture, identity, and the loss of rights as the Son of the Soil (Orang Asli) was left out in the field of education and development. Most of the non-Orang Asli in Malaysia refer to the Orang Asli as a barbaric and backward community. Hence, there are many who say that the Orang Asli is a community that is too lazy to work hard to develop themselves and their race. They also accuse the Orang Asli of “preferring to ask other parties to change their fate”. Plus, there is no space for the Orang Asli to speak out about their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of the government policy towards them. The strict control and the neck-logging by the government and/by the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) (The Department of Orang Asli Affairs) resulted in the Orang Asli community being unaware that they actually have rights to claim and can speak out about the biased treatment they have received in every government development plan. But as for this article, the writers would like to deal with the labor trespasses that pair up with the human trafficking issues of these people.
The textile industry of Malaysia has declined in recent years because of the successful industrialization and movement of wealth into the nation’s market. Additionally, there has been a migration of the large manufacturers to areas of Asia where cheap labor is less regulated by the government and readily available. Although a portion of the textile industry has left Malaysia, many textile factories still exist and provide meager wages for the poorest people of the country. Among the people working in the remaining textile factories and living in poor conditions is the Orang Asli. Although only a small portion of the total population of Malaysia, 80.8% of them live below the poverty line. Because of their extreme poverty, there has recently been a movement of the jobs Orang Asli into the more urban areas of Malaysia supplying labor to the textile industry.
A part of this textile industry is said to be Puma, a large shoe and apparel manufacturing company that has no centralized headquarters but smaller decentralized headquarters located in the United States, Germany, and Hong Kong to oversee distribution and marketing aspects for global markets. Non-governmental organizations such as Global Unions, Clean Clothes Campaign, and Oxfam are accusing Puma of violating rights to their labors in order to increase their revenues. Puma, on the other hand, joined the Fair Labour Association in January of 2004 and has been making strides to commit to abiding by decent labor laws, yet activists continue to persist that significant abuse of labor is still taking place at Puma’s factories. Abuse reported by the Clean Clothes Campaign such as excessive working hours and compulsory overtime: one hundred twenty and one hundred eighty hours of overtime per month in the peak season, without being paid overtime premiums as required by law. There have been also excessive production targets, which workers are forced to be meet by working unpaid overtime, in addition to women working to the point of exhaustion, which in some cases we were told, led them to suffer from miscarriages.
But further labor disruptions among the Orang Asli took place a long time ago and have made their people today clutch their hearts whenever they are remembered. Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were not an uncommon feature in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slave-raiders were mainly Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as ‘kafirs’, ‘non-humans’, ‘savages’ and ‘jungle-beasts.’ The modus operandi was basically to swoop down on a settlement and kill off all the adult men. Women and children were preferred as they were less likely to run away and were ‘easier to tame.’ The Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favor. From then on, it was hard to imagine what was made of them. A considerable trade in slaves thus soon developed – and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. In fact, the derogatory term Sakai used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of this century meant slave or dependent. Many elders still remember this sad period of their history, and all Orang Asli detest being called Sakai.
Later on, the coming of the British administrators led to some outcry against the slavery of the Orang Asli, but there were no efforts to promote their welfare. Because of their ‘primitiveness’ and their ‘uncivilized culture’, Orang Asli were regarded as excellent subjects for anthropological research. The Orang Asli were shown to researchers and examined, so it can be gleaned from this fact that the earliest official act directed towards the Orang Asli was the setting up of the Perak Museum in Taiping, from where research into Orang Asli demography and ethnography was to be carried out. They were watched at that time as if they were monkeys and lab rats to be objects of research and nothing else. No sufficient aid after this research done to the people of Orang Asli was recorded.
In every nation, there are groups that are excluded in order that social order can sustain itself. There is a political price some segments of the country must pay so that everyone else can go about their ordinary lives. In Malaysia, as in many other developing countries, these would include the poor, the indigenous people (or Orang Asli), and the foreign workers. The Orang Asli, along with other Malaysian immigrants which include the Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Burmese, and Indonesian workers, are said to occupy the lowest among the blue collared jobs that most Malaysians refuse to accept. Altogether, among these jobs include the vacuuming of cars, sweeping of cinema floors, guarding of nurseries, and laying the bricks to add to Malaysia’s cloud scrapers. What is more deteriorating on the part of these workers is the fact that they live on the margins of the Malaysian society, earn very meager salaries, and as for the Orang Asli people, it is their government that pushes them to work in the city.
The first became the last. The Orang Asli are the first settlers of Malaysia however they are now renounced in their own land. They live in the suburbs of the city or in the most rural of areas. It brought them no pleasure to be outcasts. It brought them no good even to be pushed to the sides economically. Despite the Aboriginal People’s Act of Malaysia’s existence, the law doesn’t seem to have teeth of its own to reach out to these people. Today, the Orang Asli live as they have always lived with no way of knowing if there will ever be a change of stance in this.