- A few historical reports exist on the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the Malay Peninsula.1 Several focus on the Orang Asli before British rule began in the mid-19th century or after Malaya’s independence in 1957. Reports focusing on the colonial period tend to concentrate on official policies, the Communist insurgency after 1945, or the expropriation of forest resources. In contrast, here I discuss the social and cultural contacts—and conflicts—of the British and Orang Asli.2 Some colonialists were well-informed about Malaya and pursued scholarly studies there, although most of them had difficulty in looking at Malaya’s indigenous people without prejudice. Yet others were notably unprejudiced, even empathetic.
The British economic, political, and military goals in Malaya influenced their writings on Orang Asli, and these writings in turn influence social issues today.3 However, the British clearly distinguished the Orang Asli from the Malays, the majority group. Indeed, much of the discussion of Orientalism, about European perceptions of large groups in Asian colonies, does not readily apply to Orang Asli or other small indigenous groups. While the British Empire had “natives” in every colony, aborigines were a rare lot. If the British stereotyped Malays as “lazy natives,” they certainly did not consider Orang Asli as lazy, or natives, or lazy natives.4 Since the Orang Asli were not Malays—not Moslem and lacking rajas or sultans with whom the British could palaver—they were deemed insignificant or, at times, quaint museum specimens.
That is, Orang Asli were the ultimate strangers (and vice versa), in a long line of strangers. Since the minority Orang Asli were not an impediment to self-serving colonial goals—they fled instead of fought—the British could view them with some detachment. Although British rule relentlessly robbed Orang Asli of land and autonomy, British writers tended to applaud Orang Asli ecological knowledge, as well as their traits of independence, honesty, and tolerance. The trade-offs between “civilization” and the humane relations in these small subsistence communities were clear to some writers. Observing Orang Asli was sometimes liberating.