Living on the Periphery: Development and Islamization among the Orang Asli in Malaysia examines the impact of state-led development projects and Islamization on Orang Asli society, and the Orang Asli’s reactions to these forces. The Orang Asli are believed to be descendants of the first settlers on the Malay Peninsula. They are believed to have settled there earlier than the Malays, who are the core of the Bumiputra (meaning original settlers, literally “sons of the earth”). The Malays claim political supremacy over the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia because of their earlier arrival in the country. Yet such claims conflict with the position they have taken with regard to the earlier settlers, the Orang Asli. The question of where to position the Orang Asli in respect to national unity is of prime importance for the Malaysian government’s Orang Asli policy. The government considers the most appropriate path to take is to classify them as Bumiputra in preparation for their eventual assimilation with the Malays.
The Orang Asli are marginal dwellers when seen from the central position of the nation-state. On the periphery, they have formed their own world and have existed relatively independently of the nation-state. The government in the center has been deploying various measures to integrate those people living on its margins. In this context, the development projects and the Islamization policy intended for the Orang Asli have become firmly entrenched as the mechanism for their integration into the nation-state. This book discusses the development projects and the Islamization policy directed towards the Orang Asli. The issue of Islamization runs through the entire volume, along with issues arising from development projects. This book does not deal directly with the development projects aimed at the Orang Asli, but in discussing the socioeconomic state of a village we need to consider the aspect of development.
In the insular Southeast Asian countries, development policies targeting the marginal areas have been extensive. The objective has been to integrate the marginal regions into the respective nation-states. The policies have brought about drastic social changes to marginal areas, increasingly integrating them socioeconomically and politically into the system of the nation-state. In this book the author describes various incidents that have taken place in response to the development projects in Malaysian villages, noting, in particular, that these alter not only economic conditions but also people’s consciousness and even identity. Kampung Durian Tawar (pseudonym), the village where the author carried out the research, has become stratified along socioeconomic lines as a result of the development projects. The author stresses this because, in Kampung Durian Tawar, the social order established in response to the introduction of the state-led development projects in the 1970s has in turn been reorganized due to the impact of Islamization since the late 1990s.
The lower economic segment of the village population has been targeted for Islamic conversion. The upper economic segment of the population has opposed Islamization in order to protect the social order established as a result of the development projects. It is important to note that both the development projects and Islamization, though implemented in different decades, have been imposed by a nation-state keen to see the Orang Asli integrated. Those who have accepted the development projects criticize those who attain value from their traditional livelihoods (i.e. hunting and gathering, and day laboring). Conversely, those who have not accepted the development projects envy the economic affluence enjoyed by those who have accepted them. There are cases of anti-development people who have converted to Islam (even though this is linked to the development), and pro-development people who have refused conversion (a situation not anticipated by the government).
The response of the Orang Asli to Islamization under these circumstances is either to accept conversion to a world religion, or to refuse it. Of course, there are a myriad of options between these two. First, the Orang Asli may convert to Islam. While some genuinely convert, others do so only nominally. Second, going against the tide of Islamization, conversion to Christianity or another world religion is possible, and they do not need to convert to Islam. Here, too, the conversion can be genuine or just for the sake of convenience. Third, some convert to Islam for personal reasons, such as marrying a Muslim (“Marrying a Muslim but remaining non-Muslim” is not an option according to the national law of Malaysia, nor to Islamic law). Refusing Islamic conversion, and therefore resisting Islamization, may seem difficult to understand for the proponents of Islamization. To resist Islam, the state religion, is seen as an act of defiance against the nation-state, and is politically very dangerous. The alternative—converting to Islam—opens the door to receiving government assistance and becoming part of the dominant ethnic group of the Malays. In these circumstances, it appears unwise not to convert to Islam and unreasonable to resist Islamization