Empowering Orang Asli communities to live sustainably through the ‘new normal’

The initiative of the Orang Asli communities in Malaysia during the early Movement Control Order (MCO) phase demonstrates their understanding of the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘Di Larang Masuk’ (No Entry Sings) signs were put up when they blockaded themselves, to prevent the virus from gaining access to their communities. Unfortunately, the MCO abruptly interrupted their access to jobs, opportunities for alternative avenues of income, food supplies, business opportunities, general healthcare and education. 

Orang Asli villagers taking the initiatives to isolate themselves from potential infections.

The Covid-19 pandemic is much more than a health crisis. It has magnified existing socio-economic issues such as poverty and inequalities in areas such as healthcare and education.

The Covid-19 Collective for Orang Asli was initiated in early March 2020 when requests from Orang Asli communities themselves and NGOs poured in, realising that working individually means resources are spread very thin. The Collective leverages on the Sedunia platform to manage an emergency fund and resource marketplace that can be accessed by NGOs or community champions in need. This way, the Collective can complement the aid distribution efforts by the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA) so that no villages will be left behind. Based on 2018 census and data by NGOs, there are over 50,000 Orang Asli families in Peninsular Malaysia.

Mr. Daniel Teoh of Epic, the coordinating organisation for the Collective, recalled his first impression when going on the ground, “despite being marginalised, the Orang Asli communities appreciated the severity of the pandemic and were able to organise themselves and take pre-emptive actions by closing off their villages and reaching out for assistance”. For example, he recalled Pn. Hanim from an Orang Asli community in Sg Buloh who had a logbook containing names and contact details of villagers who needed help but without any means of communications. “She helped them by reaching out to organisations such as ours and lists out types of assistance needed” Daniel added.


The reality on the ground

“My first feeling in those early days are of frustration, uncertainty and often questioning ourselves if we can pull this off” Daniel recalled.

“We were anxious at the reduced frequency of relief that can be passed on to the Orang Asli communities. Several contact details in our database were outdated and thus families that we know require help were unable to be reached. A lot of time and effort is spent on communication. We networked with our partner NGOs and other villagers who we could get hold of and asked about others who might require help. This is where assistance from resourceful people such as Pn. Hanim proved useful”.

He also found that new regulations and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are often hard to keep up with. “Therefore, working with Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA) helped us provide relief in a targeted manner and as effective as possible” added Daniel.

Ms. Ching Yee, the project manager of Epic informed that aside from food baskets and monetary aid for the purchase of groceries, hygiene kits comprised of masks, sanitisers and other related items were also provided. The effort led to the realisation that education on hygiene and healthcare is critical as well.

“Due to the lack of access to information and updated news, understanding of the virus and the pandemic is poor. Currently, we are looking at conducting education and awareness classes to address those issues through our partner NGOs” she added.

Also, access to education remains a challenge for the Orang Asli communities. There are not many areas with good mobile and internet reception. Even if it is available, not many could afford to pay for the data packages for their children to gain access to online learning opportunities.

Planning for ‘new normal’

As we move towards the recovery period, requests for food baskets have reduced. The Collective is planning to channel available funds to where it is still needed such as in Sabah and Sarawak.

Although state borders and businesses have opened, the ‘new normal’ forces everyone, especially the marginalised communities to seek alternative sources of income. Job opportunities in factories and plantations are slowly becoming available, though limited.

Nevertheless, the pandemic forces one to think about a more sustainable means of income generation.

Faced with this, the Collective is in discussions with several companies and organisations to provide long-term solutions to the current issues. “Pilot projects such as the food baskets and monetary aids are meant to be short-term solutions in response to the MCO” explained Ching Yee.

Through Epic, discussions are on-going with potential partners to provide long-term solutions, and this was enabled by a grant from Z Zurich Foundation. “We are working with them to administer these funds” added Ching Yee.

The Collective is also looking at setting up chicken farms for the Orang Asli in Selangor to manage and operate. This can address both issues of food availability in case they are isolated again, and as a means to create job opportunities in the area.

Discussions are on-going with ten other NGOs to evaluate other potential income streams for the villagers such as kick-starting domestic help business, with assistance from Pinkcollar, the first ethical recruitment agency in Malaysia.

Epic also has arranged for an employer to interview some villagers and that resulted in some successful job placements. As a result, the Collective is working on a model designed to provide job placements in a structured manner.
For the children, Teach for Malaysia is working with the Collective to evaluate the possibility of delivering learning syllabus without teachers to villages with no access to the internet, potentially using satellite access.

Investing in livelihood sustainability efforts

The Covid-19 Collective for Orang Asli would like to urge more individuals and NGOs to come forward and join them to benefit from the shared resources and knowledge.

Ching Yee added that “the public can get to know us and invest in time, effort, resources and knowledge through the Sedunia Orang Asli platform. They can register and track ongoing OA-related activities and hopefully will inspire them to invest in our programs”.

She welcomes and looks forward to new ideas and programs that can be implemented to provide sustainable livelihood for the Orang Asli communities in the country.

The Covid-19 Collective for Orang Asli aims to unite everyone who has a mission of supporting the OA community. Its role is to collate all and any data obtained by various parties involved in OA relief work, including JAKOA and organisations currently part of the Collective. By sharing data and information and making it publicly available all in one place, the Collective will be better equipped to embark on relief and recovery work where needed and to continue to develop and empower the OA community.

Website: https://www.sedunia.me/oa-collective
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