Robbing the People’s Bank: The plight of the Orang Asli at Tasik Chini, Pahang Malaysia

Robbing the People’s Bank: The plight of the Orang Asli at Tasik Chini, Pahang Malaysia

Jonathan Parker and Sara Ashencaen Crabtree (University of Bournemouth)


Malaysia’s drive to become a ‘developed nation’ by 2020 is unwittingly devastating the traditional lives of the indigeneous peoples of Tasik (Lake) Chini, one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Malaysia and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Our recent ethnographic study with the Jakun, Orang Asli, the indigeneous people, of Tasik Chini explored the impact of environmental damage caused by commercial exploitation in the name of development, alongside government policies aimed at integration. Here we consider the impact of social and economic development social policy on the community at Tasik Chini. We found evidence of a slow, inevitable community death as the traditional knowledge and lifestyles of these people have been strangled in the name of progress. In the face of these conclusions, the stories of the people living around Tasik Chini demonstrate resilience, strength, adaptation but also the pathos associated with cultural demise against a backdrop of hegemonistic, unquestioned policies and powers which are systematically ‘robbing the people’s bank’ by reducing and commercially exploiting traditional if unrecognised ‘native’ lands.

A grant for study leave from Bournemouth University followed an invitation by the National University – Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Tasik Chini Research Centre, an environmental science research group. Our brief was to add a social science perspective to their work with the Orang Asli. Our work concerned observing and exploring the ways in which their lives had changed and especially how they had been affected by ecological and environmental change over recent decades.

The focus of our study concerned the impact of serious ecological degradation of the local environment of the lake and forests of Tasik Chini. Heavy mining around the hills surrounding the lake has resulted in seepage of toxins and silts into the lake, where pollution has been further aggravated by the ill-conceived building of a dam in the mid-1990s between the lake and the tributary river of Sungei (river) Chini. The dam prevented the flow of monsoon floodwaters into the great Sungei Pahang, which was critical for the ecological health of the lake’s once rich biodiversity. Additionally, deforestation through logging has been rife, where wide-scale monoculture palm oil plantations have replaced forests (Parker, forthcoming). The disruptions caused to the livelihoods of the local communities through these measures have been severe and act as a grievous assault upon the community’s cultural and spiritual connections to the land (Ashencaen Crabtree, forthcoming).

There are many constituent elements of this situation, some harking back to colonial times in which the Orang Asli’s connection to the land, whist tacitly acknowledged, was not assumed to be of great importance because of the semi-nomadic, swidden ‘slash and burn’ lifestyles of the communities. Whilst forest lifestyles were accepted, the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960, initially led the British colonial authorities, through the Department for Aboriginal Affairs, to remove the Orang Asli from their traditional areas placing them, disastrously and often fatally, in ‘safe’ areas in order to prevent them supporting the communist insurgents. Following Independence however, the historical political prerogatives of the Malay aristocracy (historical migrants from primarily Indonesia) were enshrined as constitutional privileges for Malays, as ‘bumiputra’ (sons of the soil), based on the assumption of indigeneity, from which other settlers, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians were excluded. However, this also served to obscure the authentic indigeneous status of the ‘natives’ of the Peninsular: the Orang Asli; although the indigeneous Dayaks of East Malaysia were able to negotiate more favourable terms in acquiring bumiputra status (Hew & Ashencaen Crabtree, 2012).

Malaysian social and economic policies often enacted through the Jabatan Had Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) (the Department for Orang Asli Affairs, therefore, necessitates the integration, or rather assimilation, of the Orang Asli into mainstream society. This effectively means the adoption of a Malay identity via conversion to Islam and the embracing the ideology of the mainstream market economy. Thus removing implicit contradictions represented by the unique Orang Asli identity to enable Malay people to be fully legitimised as the indigeneous peoples of the new Malaysia.

Through many seemingly positive or at least benign developments the new government sought to help and support the Orang Asli communities. Yet this continued assistance is double-edged and demands giving up further land claims for smaller fixed plots in the new oil palm plantations, and being provided with houses and support to start small businesses.

The attempt by the State of Pahang, the most cash-strapped of all the Malaysian States, to profit from eco-tourism, resulted in the infamous dam designed to transport tourists more easily by raising the water level of the lake. This has resulted in the stagnation of the lake, the collapse of the eco-system, the stunting of indigeneous communities and – ironies abound – a sharp resultant decrease in tourists.

Big business has entered the area by invitation of the State, which controls the land and so traditional forest areas. Unlicensed native lands have been given for oil palm plantation, mining for iron ore and for logging, alongside illegal activities. The local people informed us that receive no profit from these activities and have been denied access to those areas where once they used to collect forest produce, while the territories where they could once roam have been much reduced and fragmented.

Even well-meaning agencies and authorities have added to this displacement. Non-Governmental Organisations have sought to help the Orang Asli improve their growing yields of forest produce and to turn to new products to sell on a commercial basis. At Tasik Chini there is a locally run Tongkat Ali factory. Tongkat Ali refers to a tree whose root, which once ground and dried, is formed into pills deemed to increase male virility, and so commercially popular. The factory is run by an extremely resourceful individual who employs other people from the kampung. Whilst providing a good income to many from the kampung it has also generated conflict as the village moves from a cooperative approach to a capitalist venture, sharply at odds with local, indigeneous, communal values.

The environmental damage caused to the area by deforestation, mining and the subsequent silting and pollution of the lake has also made fishing less viable as a means of collecting food and selling on surplus, washing in the lake and having clean drinking water. As a result of the impending ecological disaster the research centre at UKM initiated an application for UNESCO recognition as a biosphere reserve, successfully granted in 2009. Unfortunately, this has not halted the exploitation of the area nor has it given back the Orang Asli rights to their traditional lands. Also, whilst helpful the university itself was given lands, spiritually important to the Orang Asli, on which to build their research centre.

The stories of the people, themselves, are profoundly moving and often wise. Nubi, a quiet and dignified middle-aged man exemplified the people.  He told us of his daily trips into the forest with his wife to collect rattan, herbs and aromatic woods that may on a good day realise RM 30 (about £6) but often less, whilst his son, Rashid, described fishing in the polluted lake for smaller, sometimes unpalatable and diseased fish. Nubi described the commercial exploitation of the forest and lake as ‘robbing our banks (forest), and polluting our supermarket (lake)’. Increasingly, neither the forest nor lake can yield the resources required to sustainably support the communities, and thus the clarion call to abandon these traditional lifestyles in favour of pursuing education and the market economy clamours loudly, although still resisted.

Our research evinced tension between traditional knowledge and lifestyles and the power of received and legitimised state and federal policies. Whilst we hope for a synthesis of these tensions creating something new, we fear that traditional knowledges may be lost and usurped by unquestioned state priorities. The Orang Asli people, an ascription only accepted and adopted since the 1960s, are like all peoples constantly adapting and evolving to their environment and their circumstances. The dilemmas of choosing a more settled lifestyle as movement and land rights become more restricted or via changing commercial practices from the cooperative to the private represents these harsh dilemmas.

So we may think that the current turn towards education, private ownership and capital represents only another such shift. However, when considered alongside official policies of integration and assimilation into Islamic Malay society, disruption and denial of traditional forest lifestyles, assistance and development projects being offered by government bodies responsible for the welfare of the Orang Asli the future seems bleaker.

Our research has illuminated some of the elements of the homogenisation of culture and society and lifestyle in official global practice and the obliteration of diverse forms of lifestyle that do not fit. In future research, we hope to explore the understandings and meanings of traditional animist religions in these people’s lives alongside an official Islamification policy from JHEOA and, at times, a turn to Christianity as resistance, as the people are marched into urban, settled kampung lifestyles.



Ashencaen Crabtree, S. (forthcoming) Development as eradication: The pillage of the Jakun ‘peple’s bank’ of Tasik Chini, Pahang. In A. Alias & Salleh, H. (eds) The Orang Asli and Traditional Knowledge, Bangi, Selangor: UKM Press.

Hew Cheng Sim & Ashencaen Crabtree, S., 2012. The Islamic resurgence in Malaysia and the implications for multiculturalism. In: Ashencaen Crabtree, S., Parker, J. &

Azman, A., eds., The Cup, The Gun and the Crescent: Social Welfare and Civil Unrest in Muslim Societies. London: Whiting & Birch

Parker, J. (forthcoming) ‘Behaving like a Jakun!’ A case study of conflict, ‘othering’ and indigenous knowledge in the Orang Asli of Tasik Chini, Pahang, Malaysia. In A. Alias & Salleh, H. (eds) The Orang Asli and Traditional Knowledge, Bangi, Selangor: UKM Press.


Jonathan Parker is Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Work, Sociology and Social Policy at Bournemouth University, and Visiting Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. He was Chair of the Association of Teachers in Social Work Education until 2005, Vice Chair of the UK higher education representative body, the Joint University Council for Social Work Education from 2005- 2010, and is an Academician with the Academy of Social Sciences. He has published widely on, disadvantage, marginalisation, violence, social work education and theory for practice. Sara Ashencaen Crabtree is Head of Sociology at Bournemouth University and Visiting Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. She has worked extensively overseas in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and the Middle East and is widely published in areas of discrimination and disadvantage, cross-cultural issues and belief. She is the author of the first European book on Islam and Social Work. She is currently engaged in research concerning women’s relationships with religions, and a study of nurse missionaries in Kenya and Madras, India.