The International Seminar on Indigenous People, Kuala Lumpur, 29 November 1993
We are happy to participate in commemorating the proclamation of 1993 by the United Nations as the International Year for the World's Indigenous People. The fact that this comes right after the 500th anniversary, just a year ago, of Columbus' crossing of the Atlantic makes us all the more conscious of the significance of this initiative by the world body. For the indigenous people, not only of the entire American continent but also of the rest of the non-Western world, the Columbian enterprise that initiated the age of Atlantic hegemony, invoked a sense of great tragedy, and of the irreplaceable loss and desolation of entire ancient civilizations.
This tragedy was made vivid for us in the eye-witness account of Bartolome de lass Casas, who participated in 1502 in the Spanish conquest of Cuba, and saw the complete massacre of an indigenous community. Writing 40 years later he said: "... we know for sure that our fellow countrymen have, through their cruelty and wickednessm, depopulated and laid waste an area which once boasted more than ten kingdoms, each of them larger in area than the Iberian peninsula." Las Casas estimated that over the 50 years after Columbus' historic journey, his compatriots had been responsible for the totally unwarranted deaths of almost 15 million indigenous souls, including women and children.
What Las Casas witnessed was perhaps the worst but by no means the last. Even today in North America and some countries in the Pacific, the dominant population have not quite reconciled themselves with their indigenous people. Thus it is an irony to witness the appearance of a global movement for the indigenous people mostly directed towards, not the indigenous in places where they had suffered the worst atrocities, but those living in developing societies, particularly the tribes inhabiting the tropical rainforests, which most of the time have peacefully coexisted with the larger population.
While we ourselves are committed to justice and fairness, we cannot help but view with suspicion the altruism of others towards our society or towards some communities within our society. Historical evidence and recent histories are replete with examples of vested interests masquerading as altruism and humanitarian concern. It is hardly 50 years since most developing countries liberated themselves from the yoke of colonialism that was carried out in the name of a civilizing mission. Even if those were genuinely altruistic, they could not liberate themselves from arrogance. John Stuart Mill, whose book "On Liberty" provided the intellectual foundation for the struggle for freedom, considered non-Western societies in a stateof infancy, and thus had no right to liberty.
In comparison with the brutalities inflicted by the colonial powers on the indigenous population elsewhere, British rule in Malaya was relatively humane. But that so-called humane policy also contributed to the continuing socio-economic disparity along ethnic lines. In the name of protection the Malaya were confined to the rural areas for rice production. This policy was created and sustained by the colonial ideology based on the myth of "the lazy native." At the same time, colonial policy on Malaya's Orang Asli was formulated, not for the sake of ensuring their progress, but solely in order to enlist their support against communist insurgents.
In Malaysia, we believe that the best course for the indigenous people is to accelerate their integration into the global society. This must necessarily mean a readiness towards change on their part. Of course, this runs counter to the notion, promoted by a handful of internationla elites and organizations, that they would be better off left in isolation from the rest of the world. However, that option is no longer realistic. We have to deal with people and communities that are no longer blissfully unaware of the larger world beyond their idyllic paradise. That awareness and knowledge had brought on a sense of insecurity and apprehension, the fear of being overwhelmed by forces that are, at one and the same, alluring and menacing.
The advocates of a policy of isolation and benign neglect towards indigenous peoples must take a close and honest look at the state of indigenous communities within the advanced countries, particularly in North America and Australasia. Despite the geographical distance, they seem to suffer from a set of similar problems, such as alcoholism, family breakdowns and general social malaise. We believe this state of affairs is characteristic of people who are demoralized and feel an utter sense of despair. Their aspirations to be treated as equals with the rest of society are treated with condescension, if not outright derision and contempt. It seems to us the root of the problem does not lie with the indigenous community but squarely on the dominant society. They have refused to acknowledge the equal humanity of the indigenous, to concede to them equal status as citizens and true partners in the political, economic and social process. Whether they realize it or not, the fullest meaning and implication of a policy of isolation is the refusal on the part of the dominant society to even contemplate a situation where the indigenous people could emerge as equals and as partners, or even as neighbours and workmates.
It is in this regard that our fellow indigenous people, be they the Semai, the Temiars, the Senois or the Penans, will never be "protected" and designated to particular confined area, similar to the reservations for the indigenous in some industrial societies. They are full citizens of this country, although they may need the instruments of affirmative action to smoothen their passage to full participation. Decades of development programmes for the Orang Asli and otehr tribal indigenous communities have provided overwhelming evidence that they appreciate education, modern health care and other basic amenities. Since independence the population of the Orang Asli has increased by four times, an indication of declining infant mortality, improving life expectancy and better health conditions. Some 90 per cent of the Orang Asli children are enrolled in basic primary education, while the number completing secondary and tertiary education continues to rise. The poorest of them participated in the share ownership scheme for the hard core poor, thus we can proudly say that we are about the only indigenous people who, through participation in unit trust schemes, own substantial amounts of stock in public companies.
Undoubtedly, as elsewhere, there are pockets of resistance to change. But to interpret this resistance as preference for the mythical paradisal state conjured by the romantic intellectuals and self-appointed spokesmen of the indigenous, is certainly absurd. Time and again, the indigenous who have attained success have shown that the community also have desire and ambition. And in Malaysia, not only will there be no artificial barrier to their achieving success, their path will also be facilitated by the government through specific affirmative action policies.
The rhetoric on indigenous people without serious attention to the real problems of development and the environment is of benefit to no one. Equally futile, or even harmful, would be to foster separateness from the mainstream by exaggerating one's unique cultural identity. I suppose this is understandable in situations where indigenous people have been thoroughly subjected to oppression and humiliation, and treated as outcasts despite their desire to be recognized as fellow human beings. Under such circumstances, there is the need to restore pride and confidence in ourselves, and to preserve our dignity. But here in Malaysia, where pluralism and multiculturalism is the norm, the issue of a trade-off between identity and integration does not arise. One can be wholly integrated into the national mainstream, yet fully possessed of one's cultural specificity.
I would like to conclude by recounting a well-known legendary tale among us. It is the story of Si Tenggang, who had been kidnapped, as a young boy, from his home in the rainforest by traders who meant him for the slave market. However, by his intelligence and talents, he became not only a freeman but a man of wealth and influence among the people who captured him. In time, no one was left who knew of his origins. Even he himself, had only a vague memory of his parents and childhood friends. The whole story might have ended, as in most fairy tales, happily every after, that is after he eventually married the beautiful daughter of the King. But fate intervened, and one day, while on board one of his many ships on a pleasure cruise with his wife and her courtly entourage, a fierce storm caused the ship to take shelter close to his childhood home. He was recognized, and his parents came out to greet their long lost son. But he was deeply ashamed of his indigenous past. He disowned his parentage, and spurned his own mother's profession of undying love and affection. As the story goes, the heart- broken mother prayed that the gods punish this ungrateful son. Her tearful prayer was answered and Si Tenggang, and his magnificent party, were promptly turned to stone.
The legend of Si Tenggang underlines our culture's abhorrence for those who would deny their identity for whatever reason. Thus our efforts to integrate indigenous people must not result in any loss of sense of identity. Tenggang would not have been confronted by such a tragic situation if the so-called mainstream culture had treated the indigenous as equals, at least in terms of humanity and dignity. As it was, our hero risked, upon discovery of his humble origins, an immediate loss of status and respectability.
In commemorating the International Year of the Indigenous People, we have to search within ourselves our own prejudices and false sense of supremacy in regard to our fellow humans of different cultures and ways of life. We have to reexamine, I believe, our so-called altruism, whether it is truly so, or a mere projection of past guilts. We have to seriously question, whether we would seek to isolate the indigenous, because we genuinely believe that that would be the best for them, or because we simply could not accept them as neighbours or partners in our midst.
On that note, I declare this seminar officially opened.