Isolated and short of supplies, Malaysia's indigenous groups depend on aid to ride out movement control order
KUALA LUMPUR: Hajemie Din’s day started early, as he purchased several sacks of rice and other daily necessities such as onions, eggs and soy sauce at one of the few sundry shops open near his village.
He then drove back to Kampung Lubuk Perah, an Orang Asli settlement in Pahang state to distribute the supplies to households in need.
The village chief took pictures as he distributed the supplies to the families, as a record to be forwarded to the civil society group which had sponsored the food.
Although his village did obtain some food aid from the government via the federal Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) and from the local Member of Parliament (MP) at the initial stages of the movement control order (MCO), supplies ran out when the lockdown was extended.
He then reached out to NGOs for assistance so that his village would not starve.
Malaysia's indigenous communities have been hard hit by the MCO. Isolated, short of cash and fearful of COVID-19 infection, they have been trying to make ends meet with aid from the government and civil society.
In an interview with CNA, Hajemie said there are around 100 households in the kampung, but each household only received 5kg of rice from JAKOA and the local MP.
"Some households actually have two or even three generations living under one roof. How are they going to stretch that till the end of the MCO?"
Even purchasing food can be quite an effort, with tightened security and roadblocks, he said.
“I had purchased everything in bulk from the sundry shop and they sent a pick-up truck filled with goods. The police stopped the truck because they thought the driver was selling the goods. Luckily the driver managed to call me, and I had to explain that he was just transporting the food after I had bought them,” he recounted.
With nearly 600 mouths to feed in the village and the MCO now being extended to Apr 28, residents were weighing the risks of heading out to find food against that of being detained or getting infected.
The village had worked with the adjacent oil palm plantation to seal itself off after the MCO came into effect.
“Usually, we depend on selling rubber and oil palm, but the towkay (middleman or wholesaler) is not going to come now. And if we can’t sell our products, we can’t get money. How are we going to buy food?” the village chief said.
CIVIL SOCIETY STEPS IN
After Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Mar 25 that Malaysia would extend its original MCO to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, three NGOs launched a fund to help the indigenous Orang Asli community, who have been hard hit by the loss of income and restriction of movement.
Within two weeks, the initiative, named the “COVID-19 Orang Asli Fund”, raised RM293,100.78 (US$67,535). All but RM30,000 has been disbursed to nearly 5,000 Orang Asli households.
A web page operated by Raleigh International Kuala Lumpur, one of the participating NGOs, is updated in real-time with donors' names, donation amounts, how much funds were disbursed, and which villages or families were given aid.
Ho Chung Shin, the current president for Raleigh International Kuala Lumpur, said the idea for the fund had come up after he had a conversation with Colin Nicholas, who heads the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) and another participating NGO in the fundraiser.
According to Ho, Raleigh and Impian Malaysia another rural development NGO, handles the fundraising aspects of the exercise, while COAC leverages its long-time contacts within the Orang Asli population to deliver aid to those who need it on the ground.
The first few days after the fund was officially launched saw a steady stream of donations flowing in and out to communities hard hit by the MCO.
The fundraising was originally supposed to run until the end of the MCO’s second phase and terminate on Apr 15, but with the MCO extended for the second time until Apr 28, the donation drive has also been extended.
“The donations are slowing down now, but it’s also understandable, especially when the government extended the MCO into the third phase and people need to stretch their finances too,” said Ho.
As the MCO began to have a more telling effect on incomes and wages, Raleigh was also seeking corporate donors who can afford to extend a helping hand.
Nicholas added that the slowdown in donations was understandable, as not just Orang Asli, but other communities were also in need of aid and people had to choose who they wanted to help.
Nicholas said the fund covers villages and families affected by the MCO in both rural and urban areas.
"The MCO doesn’t affect only just those in the interior. It mostly affects people who are wage earners and those dependent on a daily wage if you’re living in a town or near one."
“Or if you are in a rural area and dependent on the proceeds from selling your rubber, oil palm, forest or farm produce, you would have lost your income,” the long-time activist said.
In a way, he added, those living in the true interior, and not just in rural locales, may actually be better off.
“Those who have retreated back into the forest, they can still survive, they can still find food especially if the forest is intact,” said Nicholas.
Local coordinators like Hajemie liaise with volunteers such as Lili Li, who take calls from villages in need of aid and help walk them through the application process.
“At first it is people on the ground who we know, because of the work COAC has been doing. Then we also get, or find local coordinators who are new, because the different communities also share information among each other on their own social media groups,” said Lili, who hails from the Semaq Beri group.
She added: “We also have to look for people who are responsible, and reliable. Not just to handle the money, but also to make sure they maintain personal hygiene and safety to make sure they are safe from potentially spreading the virus to their community."
At times, Lili said, the back-end people handling the inquiries may have to take calls at night.
“I transferred the money that same night, and the next morning, they could head out and draw the money to buy the supplies.”
HAS GOVERNMENT AID BEEN SUFFICIENT?
Malaysian Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said previously during a press briefing on Apr 9, that JAKOA had distributed food aid to the Orang Asli community since the beginning of the MCO.
He explained that the first phase of the distribution, which ran from Apr 2 till 10, saw 49,670 head of households in 853 villages receive aid valued at RM5 million.
The second phase, which began on Apr 10, would see increased distribution, in stages, to 55,000 households with an allocation of RM6 million.
Juli Edo, JAKOA's director-general, was quoted as saying by Malaysian media on Apr 7 that his department faced manpower and transport difficulties in delivering aid.
Travelling into areas in the peninsula’s interior, such as Gua Musang, Kelantan, Kuala Lipis in Pahang, or Grik and Banding in Perak, took up time due to roads and the weather, Juli was quoted as saying.
Nicholas of COAC has questioned whether the Orang Asli were getting the necessary nutrition via government aid.
“They claim to have given out food aid to 50,000 families, but that’s not true. We definitely know there are several villages that have no received any help at all. And even if they are getting aid, not every family receives it,” he said.
The activist pointed to a case in Kampung Ulu Tual in the Cameron Highlands, where there are 135 families living in the remote locale. However, aid has only been disbursed to 65 households.
Moreover, the stated value of the aid packages handed out did not tally with the prices of the individual items, he added.
“The food package is supposedly worth RM100, with hand sanitiser and face mask. But as far as we know, no family has received the sanitiser and masks. Many Orang Asli have complained on their own messaging groups.”
“They took pictures of the components of the food package, and tallied the costs, it is never RM100,” the activist noted.