Economic advancement and poverty eradication among the aborigines in Malaysia

Lim Hin Fui 1


Malaysia has made great achievements in terms of implementing poverty eradication programmes in both the rural and urban sectors. By 1999, the incidence of poverty had declined to 7.5% among its population of 22 million. Concerted efforts are also being made to eradicate poverty among the forest-dwelling aborigines (totaling about 117000 in 2002), who depend heavily on forest resources for their daily livelihoods.

The traditional forms of forest utilization (farming, gathering and hunting), however, do not help much in poverty eradication among the aborigines. Through regroupment and land development programmes, aborigines responding to this new form of agricultural development have benefited in many ways. Other than enjoying the basic facilities (roads, schools, clinics, water and electricity supplies), they also experience better living standards. Modern agricultural development (especially rubber and oil palm) generates higher and regular incomes than the traditional agricultural activities. Average monthly household income was higher while incidence of poverty was lower for aborigines participating in the development schemes compared to those who did not. Better education, income and interaction with members of society at large have also resulted in this group of aborigines becoming more confident and less dependent. Nevertheless, modernization and development on the other hand has reduced the degree of forest dependence. Aborigines who participated in the land scheme now depend more on modern commercial crops and non-forest goods and services for their daily livelihoods. This has subsequently resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge and sociocultural practices related to forest resource utilization. With the loosening of their ties with the forest, a new identity has emerged for the regrouped and settled aborigines.

1.0 Introduction

Forest resources are important to the indigenous peoples2 in Malaysia, especially the aborigines (known locally as Orang Asli) in Peninsular Malaysia3 and some of the natives in East Malaysia4 (comprising Sabah and Sarawak). Traditionally, the aborigines and the natives depended on the forest land and its resources to sustain their daily livelihood through hill padi cultivation, vegetable cultivation, hunting, gathering and fishing. Their whole socio-economic and cultural livelihood was related and affected by the forest environment. The forest ecosystem provided practically all the necessary resources to sustain their daily livelihood, from food, building materials, medicines to religious practices. Economically, these forest dependent communities are regarded poor compared to other ethnic groups (such as Malays, Chinese and Indians) in the country.

It is the government's development goal to uplift the living standard of the aborigines and natives through economic advancement and hence reducing the incidence of poverty. This paper examines the nature of forest resource utilization and the impacts of development projects on the socio-economic livelihood of the aborigines in Peninsular Malaysia. The discussion is necessary because the Orang Asli community has been identified as one of the poorest groups in Malaysia (Government of Malaysia 1981, 2001). In 1999, the incidence of poverty and hardcore poverty among the Orang Asli was 50.9% and 15.4% respectively compared to that of the national figures of 7.5% and 1.4% respectively (Government of Malaysia 2001).

2.0 Some Socio-Economic Conditions

The population of the aborigines has increased over the years, from 43,890 (1960) to 54,033 (1969) to 83,453 (1990) to 92,529 (1994) to about 117,000 (2002). The annual population growth rate was between 2 to 2.6%. The increase is mainly due to the better medical facilities available to the Orang Asli, thus resulting in the decline in infant and child mortality rates (Nicholas & Williams-Hunt 1996).

The Orang Asli as a community is heterogeneous, comprising 18 sub-ethnic groups living in various parts of peninsular Malaysia. The heterogeneous population consists of three main groups, 3% Negrito, 54% Senoi and 43% Proto-Malays. These main groups are divided into 18 sub-groups living in various parts of the peninsula.

Officially, the Orang Asli villages are categorized into three types: easily-accessed villages, forest-fringed villages and remote villages. About 35% of the 774 Orang Asli villages were considered remote, 49% forest-fringed and 16% easily-accessed (Lim 1997).

Generally, the Orang Asli community is regarded as a forest-dependent community. Before mid-19th century, the Orang Asli were the main collectors and suppliers of non-timber forest products such as rattan, resins, gums and sap (Dunn 1975, Lamb 1964). Trading of non-timber forest produce was mainly in the form of barter (Dunn 1957) and transaction for cash income was not important in their socio-economic livelihood. After Malayan Independence, with government development programs to integrate the Orang Asli into the main stream of national economy, they are now more exposed to cash economy (Gomes 1986) and wage earning has become more important (Lim 1997). The main economic activities of Orang Asli are shown in Table 1.

Currently, Orang Asli are no longer associated merely with forest produce gathering and hunting. Rattan harvesting was an important source of income in the 1980s and early 1990s when the resources were plenty (Itam Wali 1993). Over the years, due to forestry development activities, the non-timber forest produce resources are depleting. The Orang Asli community has adapted to this change. With government's assistance to development land schemes, some of them have engaged in modern agricultural activities and the modern manufacturing sector. Wage earning has become more important.

Table 1: Main economic activities of Orang Asli

Economic activity

Orang Asli

Semi-nomadic (i.e. move from place to place in the forest in search of food and non-timber forest produce for sale)

Jahai & Lanoh

Permanent agriculture (rubber, oil palm, cocoa & fruit trees)

Temuan, Jakun, Semai

Swiddening, hunting and gathering, trading durian, petai and rattan

40% of Semai, Temiar, Che' Wong, Jahut, Semelai, Semaq Beri

Coastal fishing

Orang Laut, Orang Seletar, Mah Meri

Source: Nicholas (1991, 1996) cited in Lim (1997) and field data.

The Malaysian government's efforts to development could be observed from various 5-year development plans for the country. This is in line with the government development policy of restructuring society and eradicating poverty to narrow the socio-economic gap between the various ethnic groups in the country. During the previous Seventh Malaysia Plan period (1996-2000), the Government implemented specific development programs for the Orang Asli, including economic and social programs that improved their standard of living. The income-generating activities implemented comprised land development, vegetable farming and livestock rearing as well as retail business and handicraft industries. The implementation of new land development and resettlement projects involving a total land area of about 19,800 hectares benefited 8,100 Orang Asli families. Furthermore, the Orang Asli community also benefited from a special allocation of RM100 million (USD26.3 million) for the ASB-PPRT5 scheme. A total of RM79 million (USD20.8 million) was disbursed by the end of 1999, benefiting 15,820 Orang Asli households.

3.0 Land Development Schemes

An important means to uplift the living standard of the Orang Asli is by establishing land development scheme. The main agency responsible this is the JHEOA (Department of Orang Asli Affairs), established under the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954. The government adopted a policy in 1961 to integrate Orang Asli with the wider Malaysian society (Government of Malaysia 1961, Jimin 1983). Programs implemented to uplift the living standard of the Orang Asli community involve in-situ development, regroupment scheme and settlement in Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) scheme.

3.1 In-situ development

This form of development aims at:

3.2 Regroupement

Development of Orang Asli community through regroupment is based on the Felda model. Felda was set up in 1956 to assist the various government departments in solving the problem of rural landlessness and poverty. Forest areas were opened up and released by the Forestry Department for land development schemes. The land schemes are transformed into settlements, rubber and oil palm plantations. In these schemes, the rural poor and the landless are able to own land and enjoy the social and community benefits.

Regroupment schemes are development schemes established within or in the vicinity of the traditional Orang Asli villages. The regroupment project, which began in the late 1970s, involves the grouping of scattered Orang Asli settlements located near the main range of Peninsular Malaysia into nearby areas selected by JHEOA (JPBD 1988). Equipped with modern and planned agricultural activities, this project is based on the Felda/Felcra (Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority) model whereby the participants are provided with houses, infrastructure and other basic facilities (such as administration, security, health and education) and agricultural land.

By 1996, a total of 17 regroupment areas were established benefiting 3,006 households in an area covering 32,954 ha (Lim 1997). In these areas, crops such as rubber, oil palm, fruit trees and vegetables have been planted and totaled 4,979 ha by 1996. Various facilities (such houses, clinic, school, JHOEA administration center, playground, Muslim prayer place and agricultural land) are provided at the regroupment schemes.

3.3 Settlement in Felda scheme

Other than regroupment schemes, a minority of the Orang Asli are settled in Felda land schemes. This form of development involves the moving of the Orang Asli out of their traditional villages. Settlement of Orang Asli takes place in existing Felda schemes where the Orang Asli live and mix with other ethnic groups (the majority are Malays). In the Felda schemes, the Orang Asli enjoy the benefits from 4 ha of rubber and/or oil palm. By 1993, of the 117,153 Felda settlers in Malaysia, 58 were Orang Asli located in the state of Pahang (Lim, 1997).

4.0 Some Important Impacts of Development Schemes

An indicator of success is the average monthly household income level of various type of Orang Asli villages and settlements. Table 2 shows that in the economy where subsistence farming predominates (Kampung Musuh), the level of monthly household income was very much lower and the incidence of poverty much higher than settlements engaging in modern agricultural economy (Bukit Serok and Felda Keratong 3).

Household members in land schemes had also attained higher education. In Bukit Serok and Keratong, only 30% and 17% of the villagers did not attain formal education compared to 48% in Musuh. A total of 2% of villagers in Bukit Serok and 2% settlers Felda Keratong 3 had attained tertiary education while none in Musuh belonged to this category (Lim 1997).

Table 1 Characteristics of three Orang Asli villages studied


No. of households

Main economic activity

Average monthly household income (RM)

Incidence of poverty in 1992

Remote village (Musuh)


Subsistence farming, collection of forest produce

RM139 (USD37) in 1992


Regroupment Scheme (Bukit Serok)


Oil palm cultivation, wage earning, collection of forest produce

RM530 (USD140) in 1992


Resettlement Scheme (Felda Keratong 3)


Oil palm cultivation, wage earning

RM661 (USD174) in 1992


Rural Malaysia


Mainly agriculture

RM1,167 (USD307)* in 1990

22% in 1990

Source: Lim (1997). *Figure for Malaysia.

Not all development schemes, however, show high degree of success. The following cases (Tables 2-4) illustrate the reasons for varying extent of success of the development schemes. In the more successful schemes such as Bukit Serok and Felda Keratong 3, the Orang Asli are also more confident and independent after participating in the land development schemes.

Table 2 A less successful Orang Asli regroupment scheme

Regroupment scheme

Air Banun (1978)

Reason for regroupment

To make way for the construction of Temengor dam and to cut ties with the communists at he Malaysian-Thai border.

Population involved

216 Jahai and Temiar families or 778 people (1982).

Willingness to regroup

Persuaded by the government

New regroupment scheme

1,584 ha of forest area released by the Perak State Forestry Department but yet to be gazetted for the Orang Asli community.

Facilities provided by the government

Infrastructure such as school, road, generator for electricity generation, clinic, civic hall and play ground.

Degree of success

Less successful. Households cultivate hill padi and vegetable for subsistence needs. A few planted rubber to generate cash income. To meet household needs, some members revert to their former life of fishing, hunting and gathering for subsistence and cash needs. Some households moved away in search for new economic opportunities.

Reasons for less successful

(a) Projects for Orang Asli came too late. In the first few years, attention focused on development of housing for JHEOA staff.
(b) Orang Asli had to gather rattan and other forest produce to meet their daily expenses. Cultivation of agricultural crops was neglected.
(c) The hilly land area allocated is not suitable for agricultural production, especially commercial crops (such as oil palm and rubber) for cash income generation.
(d) Commercial agricultural project could not be implemented by other government agencies as land issue is not resolved.
(e) Lack of other sources of wage earning opportunities.

Sources: JPBD (1983) and field data gathered in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Table 3 A more successful Orang Asli regroupment scheme

Regroupment scheme

Bukit Serok (1986)

Reason for regroupment

To uplift living standard

Population involved

141 Jakun families

Willingness to regroup

92% willing to move while 8% persuaded by the government

New regroupment scheme

798 ha land area

Facilities provided by the government

Infrastructure such as school, roads and clinic.

Degree of success

High degree of success. 97% have adapted to new livelihood. 88% did not want to return to original homes.

Reasons for success

(a)Orang Asli participate in the scheme on own accord.
(b) Better housing and basic facilities.
(c) Income from permanent agriculture and wage earning.
(d) Continue to collect forest produce.

Other impacts

More confident and independent than before.

Sources: Lim (1997).

Table 4 A more successful Orang Asli Felda settlement scheme

Felda scheme

Keratong 3 (1973)

Reason for participating

To uplift living standard by shifting in 1989

Population involved

27 Jakun families

Willingness to regroup

100% applied to participate

New Felda scheme

Each family given 4-ha of agricultural land planted with oil palm

Facilities provided by the government

Infrastructure such as school, roads and clinic.

Degree of success

High degree of success. 100% have adapted to new livelihood. 100% did not want to return to original homes.

Reasons for success

(a) Orang Asli moved on own accord.
(b) Better housing and basic facilities.
(c) Income from permanent agriculture (oil palm) and wage earning.

Other impacts

More confident and independent than before.

Sources: Lim (1997).

The extent of success of the government land development schemes depends on three factors. Firstly, when the Orang Asli were willing to move and live in a new settlement environment, the chance of success is high. This is the case at Bukit Serok and Keratong 3. On the other hand, the Orang Asli at Air Banum was in a way "persuaded' to be resettled, hence the degree of success is low. Secondly, there must be permanent sources of income for the settled Orang Asli. In Bukit Serok and Keratong 3, both located in lowland area, oil palm plantation development by respectively Felcra and Felda provides this basic source of income. On the other hand, at Air Banun, the hilly location was not suitable for the development of commercial agricultural crops. Generally, the regroupment is located in a high area, between 255 meter and 690 meters (JPBD 1983). In total, of the 1,584 ha of land released by the Perak State Forestry Department, only 651 ha (41%) is categorized as area suitable for development, i.e. less than 200 in slope.

An obvious impact of regroupment and settlement of Orang Asli is that of loosening of linkage between the community and the natural forest environment. Once regrouped/settled in the new modern agricultural environment and becoming more integrated with the modern market economy, the Orang Asli's ties with the forests are weakened. Instead of utilizing forest resources to meet household needs (such as rice, vegetable, fish and household utensils), they are relying these from the market economy. Their contact with the forest is now greatly reduced, confined mainly to gathering of non-timber forest products to meet cash need. The knowledge on traditional medicinal practices and cultural-religious practiced related to land cultivation have gradually disappeared. The relocation has transformed the Orang Asli's livelihood, advanced economically at the expense of socio-cultural connection with the forest.

5.0 Conclusion

The development of the aboriginal communities in Malaysia provides specific lessons that could be expected from regroupment and settlement of forest-dwelling communities. Firstly, modernization and development has resulted in socio-economic advancement and lower incidence of poverty among the settlers. It also resulted in Orang Asli becoming more confident when interacting with others. Land development scheme is thus an important tool to uplift their living standard.

Secondly, not all land development showed the same degree of success. Land development schemes must be planned and implemented with care. Site selection is important and the involvement of potential participants in decision making is essential. It is important to ensure that suitable land is available for commercial agricultural crop (especially oil palm and rubber) development.

Thirdly, it also is important to note that the Orang Asli do not want to participate in Felda schemes (where the majority is non-Orang Asli participants) for fear of losing their identity. Given a choice, they prefer land development schemes involving mainly the Orang Asli communities. This implies that any social development program to be developed for the Orang Asli must consider their willingness to participate, which subsequently affects the degree of success of the development schemes.

Finally, land development scheme for the aborigines has resulted in the loosening of their ties with the natural forest. Modern agricultural farming has brought the consequence of lesser dependence on forest resources to sustain their daily socio-economic, cultural and religious livelihood. The over all impact is socio-economic advancement at the cost of loosing traditional practices related to the forests. While their connection with the forest are not totally cut, a new identity has emerged for the regrouped and settled aborigines.


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1 Sociologist, Forest Research Institute Malaysia, [email protected]

2 The indigenous people in Malaysia include the Malays, aborigines, Thai descendants and the natives in Sabah (such as Kadazan, Murut and Bajau) and Sarawak (such as Melanau, Iban, Bidayuh and Penan).

3 Known as Malaya when achieved independence in 1957.

4 Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore formed Malaysia in 1963. Singapore left and became independent in 1965.

5 During the 1996-2000 Plan period, the Government reviewed the ASB (Amanah Saham Bumiputera) -PPRT (Development Program for the Hardcore Poor or Program Pembangunan Rakyat Termiskin) scheme by introducing a four-year grace period for the RM5,000 interest-free loans, which allowed the hardcore poor to receive the full amount of annual dividends and bonuses.