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Orang Asli (lit. "original people", "natural people" or "aboriginal people" in Malay) are the indigenous people and the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.[1] Officially, there are 18 Orang Asli tribes, categorised under three main groups according to their different languages and customs:

  • Semang (or Negrito), generally confined to the northern portion of the peninsula.
  • Senoi, residing in the central region.
  • Proto-Malay (or Aboriginal Malay), in the southern region.

The Semang and Senoi groups, being Austroasiatic-speaking, are the autochthonous peoples of the Malay Peninsula. The Proto-Malays, who speak Austronesian languages, migrated to the area between 2500 and 1500 BC.

There is an Orang Asli museum in Melaka, and also in Gombak, about 25 km north of Kuala Lumpur.


File:Orang Asli in Malaysia.jpg

Orang Asli near Cameron Highlands playing a nose flute.

The Orang Asli kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in the first millennium CE.[2] Living in the interior, they bartered inland products like resins, incense woods, and feathers for salt, cloth, and iron tools.

The rise of historical pre-Islamic Malay kingdoms and later Islamic sultanates assimilated and Malayalised most of the historical Orang Asli people into their community, thus becoming the ancient ancestors of many present-day Malay people. Other Orang Asli groups opted to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders. The arrival of British colonists brought further inroads into the lives of the Orang Asli. They were targeted by Christian missionaries and became subjects of anthropological research.[3]

Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were common in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli to be 'kafirs', 'non-humans', 'savages', and 'jungle-beasts'. Raiders would invade a settlement and kill off all the adult men before capturing the women and children who were considered 'easier to tame.' The captive Orang Asli were sold or given to local rulers to gain favor. The slave trade continued into the 20th century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The Orang Asli were previously referred to by the derogatory term Sakai which meant "slave" or "dependent".[4][5]

During the Malayan Emergency of 1948 to 1960, the Orang Asli became a vital component of national security, as their help enabled the Malayan army to defeat the Communist insurgents. Two administrative initiatives were introduced to highlight the importance of the Orang Asli, as well to protect their identity. The Department of Aborigines was established in 1950, and the Aboriginal Peoples Ordinance was enacted in 1954. After independence, development of the Orang Asli became a prime objective of the government, and in 1961 a policy was adopted to integrate the Orang Asli into the wider Malaysian society.[3]

In the 1970s and 1980s, Malaysia experienced a period of sustained growth characterised by modernisation, industrialisation, and land development, which resulted in encroachments on Orang Asli land. In response to this encroachment, the Orang Asli mobilised and formed the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), which has given them a stronger voice and greater visibility. The Orang Asli are now known as "Orang Kita" ('our people') following the introduction of the "One Malaysia" concept by Najib Razak.[3]


Orang Asli living in remote forest areas engaged in some trading with the Malays, with jungle produce being exchanged for salt, knives and metal axe-heads. There was also evidence of trade in blowpipes and blowpipe-bamboo among certain tribes. It has also been shown that the Orang Asli have played a significant role in the Malay Peninsula's economic history as collectors and primary traders as early as the 5th Century A.D. An early 19th century report also tells of Negritos providing forest products as tribute to the Malay chiefs of the river basins they resided in.[4]



Location of Orang Asli groups, and the evolution of settlers on the Malay Peninsula.

In 2000, the Orang Asli constitute only 0.5% of the total population in Malaysia.[2] Their population is approximately 148,000.[6] The largest group are the Senois, constituting about 54% of the total Orang Asli population. The Proto-Malays form 43%, and the Semang forming 3%.[6]

The poverty rate among Orang Asli is 76.9%.[7] In addition to this high rate, the Statistics Department of Malaysia has classified 35.2% of the population as being "very poor". The majority of Orang Asli live in rural areas, while a minority have moved into urban areas. In 1991, the literacy rate for the Orang Asli was 43% compared to the national rate of 86% at that time.[7] They have an average life expectancy of 53 years (52 for male and 54 for female). A high infant mortality rate is also evident with 51.7 deaths per 1000 births.[8]

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Excluding those living in designated Orang Asli settlements which would amount to about 20,000 more people.
Orang Asli population by groups and subgroups (2000)[9]
Negrito Senoi Proto Malay
Bateq (1,519) Chewong (234) Jakun (21,484)
Jahai (1,244) Jah Hut (2,594) Orang Kanaq (73)
Kensiu (254) Mah Meri (3,503) Orang Kuala (3,221)
Kintaq (150) Semai (34,248) Orang Seletar (1,037)
Lanoh (173) Semaq Beri (2,348) Semelai (5,026)
Mendriq (167) Temiar (17,706) Temuan (18,560)
3,507 60,633 49,401
Total: 113,541



File:Indigenous people of Malaysia, Orang Asli.jpg

An Orang Asli woman and a child indoors.

The division of Orang Asli into three categories is not due to linguistic differences but is merely sociological: linguistically they divide into two groups.

The first group speak Aslian languages, which form part of the Austroasiatic language family. These are further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut.[10] The languages which fall under the Jahaic language sub-group are the Cheq Wong, Jahai, Bateq, Kensiu, Kintaq, and Mendriq languages. The Lanoh language, Temiar language, and Semai language fall into the Senoic language sub-group. Languages that fall into the Semelaic sub-group include the Semelai language, Semoq Beri language, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri people).

The second group speak Aboriginal Malay languages, which form part of the Austronesian language family. These include the Jakun and Temuan languages among others.[11]

Besides these, most Orang Aslis are fluent in the Malay language, the official language of Malaysia.

Lifestyle and religion[]

File:Orang Asli.jpg

An Orang Asli man and a boy, indoors.

Orang Asli are traditionally animists, where they believe in the presence of spirits in various objects.[12] However, in the 21st century, many of them have embraced monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity[12] following some active state-sponsored dakwah by Muslims, and evangelism by Christian missionaries.[13]

In June 2007, an Orang Asli church was allegedly torn down by the state government in Gua Musang, Kelantan. As of 2008, a suit has been filed against the Kelantan state authorities. The affected Orang Asli also sought a declaration under Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia that they have the right to practice the religion of their choice and to build their own prayer house.[14]

Negritos of Peninsular Malaysia[]

Main article: Semang

According to the Encyclopedia of Malaysia, the Negritos, who number approximately 2,000, are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They are of Australo-Melanesian affinity and probably descend from the people of Hoabinhian cultural period, with many of their burials found dating back 10,000 years ago. They speak the Aslian languages which is part of the Austroasiatic language family, as do their Senoi agriculturalist neighbours. Negritos belong to various subgroups, namely the Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq and Bateq. Those from Perak, Kedah and Pahang are also known as Sakai, the meaning of "Sakai" is debt slaves, while those from Kelantan and Terengganu were called Pangan, the forest peoples. The Senoi and Proto-Malay arrived much later probably during the Neolithic period.

Social and legal status[]


An Orang Asli in Taman Negara starting fire using traditional method.

The government agency entrusted to oversee the affairs of the Orang Asli is the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (Department of Orang Asli Affairs) (JHEOA). This body is under the Malaysian Ministry of Rural Development, and it was first set up in 1954.[15] Among its stated objectives are to eradicate poverty among the Orang Asli, improving their health, promoting education, and improving their general livelihood. There is a high incidence of poverty among the Orang Asli. In 1997, 80% of all Orang Asli lived below the poverty line. This ratio is extremely high compared to the national poverty rate of 8.5% at that time.[16]

Some legislations which concerns Orang Asli are the National Land Code 1965, Land Conservation Act 1960, Protection of Wildlife Act 1972, National Parks Act 1980, and most importantly the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli Reserve Land. However, the Act also includes the power accorded to the Director-General of the JHEOA to order Orang Asli out of such reserved land at its discretion, and award compensation to affected people, also at its discretion.[17] A landmark case on this matter is in the 2002 case of Sagong bin Tasi & Ors v Kerajaan Negeri Selangor. The case was concerned with the state using its powers conferred under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favour of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and this decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal.[17]

File:Korbu Asli Village.JPG

A typical Orang Asli house in Ulu Kinta, Perak.

The Orang Asli are classified as Bumiputras,[13] a status signifying indigenity to Malaysia which carries certain social, economic, and political rights, along with the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. However, this status is generally not mentioned in the constitution.[13]

The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, made controversial remarks regarding the Orang Asli, saying that Orang Asli were not entitled more rights than Malays even though they were natives to the land, he posted on his blog comparing the Orang Asli in Malaysia to Native Americans in the US, Maoris in New Zealand, and Aboriginals in Australia. He was criticised by spokespeople and advocates for the Orang Asli who said that the Orang Asli desired to be recognised as the true natives of Malaysia and that his statement would expose their land to businessmen and loggers.[18][19]

A major scandal involving the deaths of several escapee Orang Asli students led to a discussion over the role of religious indoctrination in schools.[20]

MUIP filed new Muslim converts from the Orang Asli.[21] The Kelantan state government was sued due to a dispute over land by Orang Asli.[22]

Notable Orang Aslis[]

  • Amani Williams Hunt Abdullah, Orang Asli politician and Orang Asli activist, born to an English father and a Semai mother.

See also[]


  • Aborigines Museum
  • Department of Orang Asli Development


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Further reading[]

  • Orang Asli Now: The Orang Asli in the Malaysian Political World, Roy Jumper (ISBN 0-7618-1441-8).
  • Power and Politics: The Story of Malaysia's Orang Asli, Roy Jumper (ISBN 0-7618-0700-4).
  • 1: Malaysia and the Original People, p. 21. Robert Denton, Kirk Endicott, Alberto Gomes, M.B. Hooker. (ISBN 0-205-19817-1).
  • Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Vol. 4: Early History, p. 46. Edited by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (ISBN 981-3018-42-9).
  • Abdul Rashid, M. R. b. H., Jamal Jaafar, & Tan, C. B. (1973). Three studies on the Orang Asli in Ulu Perak. Pulau Pinang: Perpustakaan Universiti Sains Malaysia.
  • Lim, Chan-Ing. (2010). "The Sociocultural Significance of Semaq Beri Food Classification." Unpublished Master Thesis. Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya.
  • Lim, Chan-Ing. (2011). "An Anthropologist in the Rainforest: Notes from a Semaq Beri Village" (雨林中的人类学家). Kuala Lumpur: Mentor publishing(ISBN 978-983-3941-88-9).
  • Mirante, Edith (2014) "The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia's 'Negrito' Indigenous Peoples" Bangkok, Orchid Press.
  • Pogadaev, V. "Aborigeni v Malayzii: Integratsiya ili Assimilyatsiya?" (Orang Asli in Malaysia: Integration or Assimilation?). - "Aziya i Afrika Segodnya" (Asia and Afrika Today). Moscow: Russian Academy of Science, N 2, 2008, p. 36-40. ISSN 0321-5075.

External links[]