The victory for Barisan Nasional (BN) in the by-election in the Cameron Highlands demonstrated the way in which Orang Asli voting patterns have only slowly shifted toward the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, continuing the tendency to vote for BN that was on display in GE14.
With Orang Asli making up 21.74 percent of voters, the by-election marked an important test for Orang Asli preferences. In the nine voting districts with the strongest Orang Asli majority (more than 90 percent), BN won around 95 percent of the votes in GE14, which dropped down to 75.57 percent during the by-election. Considering the attention given to the campaign, with prominent leaders on the ground, this was not a fundamental shift. While the PH campaign seems to have learned from some prior mistakes, the campaigns have been mired with squabbling, controversial practices, and missteps on both sides. The combination of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and BN seemed difficult for PH to counter.
Despite that, the by-election marks a historic juncture in Malaysian politics, as it is the first time an Orang Asli candidate has been elected into parliament. Ramli Mohd Nor, the candidate for BN, was voted in with 12,038 votes, beating PH candidate M. Manogaran. Ramli had previously served as assistant commissioner of police, making him the highest-ranking Orang Asli police official before his retirement last year, and had no real political background.
This could have a significant impact on representation for the Orang Asli. Their communities have been woefully under-represented in the past, and there has been a strong perception that they are left behind, or in practice not even full citizens of Malaysia. Issues concerning critical areas such as land tenure have been going on for decades, and Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA — Department of Orang Asli Development) has been perceived as serving state interests, increasing Orang Asli marginalization. Quite often promises made during elections to garner votes are quickly abandoned, and the Orang Asli forgotten.
There are, of course, similar concerns surrounding this result, despite Ramli’s ethnicity. There have been concerns that BN’s choice of Ramli was made based on political expediency. Due to his lack of political experience he may also be relatively constrained by the party – especially as he is outnumbered by those that are increasingly reliant on a “Malay” first narrative for political legitimacy. This was reflected in the campaign, where he was criticized for being particularly quiet and under the radar, avoiding media engagements while prominent UMNO party members took center stage. He also did not attend a debate that the other three candidates took part in. As BN, for the most part, failed the Orang Asli community in the past during their long and only recently interrupted rule, such concerns are valid.
There is, however, a sense of optimism on the ground. During GE14 I followed some of the political campaigns in Pahang to Orang Asli villages in order to see how they engaged and interacted with these communities, and had in-depth discussions with many villagers, including Tok Batin (the heads of villages). I have maintained contact with many of the people I engaged with during the election, and there is an overwhelming sense of pride and cautious optimism about the future of their communities now that there is an Orang Asli member of parliament. Discussions have centered around the fact that this will mean their voices will be heard in parliament for the first time, and that there will be, at last, pressure from someone who now holds political power to begin making good on promises made in the past. Many have not before been sure about who they could rely on to care, and while there are concerns Ramli will be co-opted by party interests, there is primarily an encouraged feeling that they now have someone to go to.
Villagers outside of the Cameron Highlands constituency also exude positivity, acknowledging that while he is not their representative it may result in greater awareness of the problems they face, and a hope that he can persuade their representatives to take these issues seriously. Even those that served as volunteers for PH within Cameron Highlands are less bitter about this loss than they were during GE14. They feel relatively positive about this victory in the sense that it served as a victory for the Orang Asli as a whole. In their eyes Ramli holds a greater obligation to put forth the issues their communities face without being restrained by party loyalty.
Whether this positivity is substantiated remains to be seen, but the election campaign itself had overall positive implications despite some worrying indicators. The by-election was declared due to vote buying and threats made during GE14. The by-election does not seem to have been much cleaner, and raises concerns that PH has co-opted the same systems of control, domination, and patronage that BN used to mobilize and keep the Orang Asli on side in the past. Comments concerning loss of development if the government loses, Tok Batin salaries being paid by the government, and land being a state issue were all received as threats and were reminiscent of how BN leveraged control over these communities in the past. There was a suggestion that Lim Kit Siang would host a conference on Orang Asli issues only if they won the by-election, and distribution of fuel money and the branding of development projects with PH’s logo served as a reminder of the old days of promised patronage, rather than meaningful engagement. None of this served to reassure the communities of sincerity.
Despite this, with the vote being a by-election with no other campaigns occurring at the same time, it served as a significant platform for the awareness of Orang Asli issues. During a general election national leadership and media focus are spread thin across constituencies that are seen as being most significant for that election. As this by-election did not need to compete with others, it meant that while much of the media coverage focused on squabbling, allegations, and criticisms, there was still more meaningful coverage of issues that the Orang Asli face. There were national features that covered how some Orang Asli villages deal with pollution, do not have cell tower coverage, and how the roads were in a terrible state. There were articles concerning land tenure, which questioned why it is the Orang Asli have been, for the most part, ignored in the past. This has provided a platform therefore for awareness of these issues to be spread to the wider population.
Prominent politicians not only assisted in raising attention, as both campaigns tried to position themselves as the voice of the Orang Asli, but they have linked their visits to a greater understanding of what needs to be done, which seems to go beyond mere political expediency. Leaders such as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Minister of Defense Mat Sabu, Minister of Finance Lim Guan Eng, and presumed prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim all visited, while others such as PH heavyweight Lim Kit Siang and former Prime Minister Najib Razak were prominent on the ground.
Whether this will serve to result in a tangible change for the Orang Asli remains to be seen, but there is a sense of optimism that finally all the ingredients for change are there. The Cameron Highlands by-election not only assisted in raising sustained attention to the issues Orang Asli face, but also led to an engagement with these issues by the top political cohort in Malaysia, meaning it was an opportunity that had not been presented in the past. The result of having an Orang Asli MP serves to validate some of this optimism moving forward. As this runs parallel to Attorney General Tommy Thomas’ announcement that they will be suing the Kelantan state government due to encroachments on Orang Asli land, and Chief Justice of Malaysia Tan Sri Malanjum’s comments that Malaysian laws on indigenous people should be audited to check if they are in line with requirements under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There is a sense that change is coming and the by-election has acted as an impetus for this to gain momentum.
Scott Edwards is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham.