Siti Kasim is a high-profile Human Rights defender and Lawyer in Malaysia who speaks inconvenient truths. As a liberal Malay muslim, she is very critical of the Wahhabism interpretation of Islam. She is an active defender of Women’s Rights and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as all marginalised identities including the diverse indigenous Orang Asli people, the Rohingya refugees, or missing Christian pastors.
Siti is co-deputy chair of the Bar Council committee on Orang Asli rights, also frequently champions for the indigenous community on land issues. The activist, who describes herself as more of an “on the ground person”, visits the Orang Asli community in Kelantan once a month to find out about their concerns and to get lawyers to represent them. For the first time in history, the Malaysian federal government is taking a local State to court, to protect the rights of the Orang Asli people. Her humour and generosity make Siti Kasim a true inspiration to people around the world.
Siti Kasim, Nordic By Nature Podcast Transcript.
My name is Siti Kasim. I’m a lawyer by profession in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. You see, I used to do a lot of human rights cases, children rights, the refugees, but then I discovered that I can’t be saving the world, you know. I must focus on one or two issues.
So, I actually take my work with the indigenous people in the peninsula of Malaysia. I can expand my knowledge about the law to the Orang Asli community. So, I go into the interior a lot, into the jungle to the villagers and to their settlements, and I told them that they do have rights, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to stand up and you know, take up that right.
Of course, they have their own activists as well. The Orang Asli activists. I don’t charge this kind of thing.
They are the eco warriors, indigenous people. They are the front line of our nature conservation. We should recognise that because the way they preserve the balance of the ecosystem is the way they live.
For example, they have their ‘Pantang’, meaning that they can do certain things in their culture. It’s been going down for generations. But there is a reason for it is actually to preserve the balance of the ecosystem.
So these are their rule.
The Tamaya tribe… They told me that they will never touch the tiger because to them the tiger is very powerful, powerful in the sense of spirit-wise. They revere the tiger very much.
In the olden days. Of course, nowadays no more because of the settlement built by the government — They plant their rice and everything for your own sustenance. And after a while they will shift –rotating. That’s the word. Yeah, so it’s a rotating thing and so it’s how they preserve it! And people don’t understand that it’s beneficial to the earth.
Generally, Malaysia’s people support that we help our indigenous people, but when it comes to religion, they become much more possessive. They don’t like the truth, you know, people hate to hear the truth. With me nothing is too sensitive. Ha ha!
But we still must keep on pushing the boundary. Otherwise we are never going to improve. That’s what I believe anyway.
I mean human rights is something that it was not ‘given.’ It’s already born with us. We are born with rights as a human being.
Our country is unique you know, Malaysia, because we have so many cultures so many races and it all have different ways. I know I have many, many supporters I know, I know I have very, very good people around me. I think I’m blessed with a strong constitution by God that I don’t really care about what people see online because I know myself. I’m very confident about who I am and what I am. I think, women, we evolve better than men. Haha!
I notice from my fifty-five. Coming up the 56 years old I noticed that the more religious a person, the more closed their mind would be, they are limiting their minds to the barriers that build up or walls that they build up for themselves based on their faith or their beliefs.
I just think that religion should not be imposed on anyone.
Even the indigenous people in Malaysia right they do not have a religion. But of course, these people that do go into the interior you know where a majority of them live, trying to spread the faith. What we call a Datwa, missionary. Islam and Christians usually do this. They go into the jungle where the Orang Asli reside and then be tried to get as many as possible of the indigenous people. What we call them as Orang Asli here to convert to the faith either Christian or Islam.
The problem with our Indigenous people, the Orang Asli, in Malaysia, they are also determined by law who can be an Orang Asli. You are only an Orang Asli, An Indigenous person, If one of your parents is Orang Asli and you are practicing your culture, and the 3rd one that you must be able to speak the language of your tribe.
And so these three things– if you don’t practice one you are no longer Orang Asli. Like for Malay, Once you are a Malay, you’re a Muslim automatically. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, there’s method by on people as you are.
But with the Orang Asli, so once they convert to Islam or Christianity then they are being taught not to practice a certain aspect of their culture, because it is not accepted that in your new faith.
In fact, it has been used by government before.
When we took matters to court on behalf of the Orang Asli, pro bono of course, they become smarter and smarter government lawyers. They question us: Are these litigants really Orang Asli, it is really crazy.
If you go and see these or ask leave the interior and you meet the older generation, those who knew the British during their governance, they only have good things to say about the British.
The older Orang Asli always say that the British looked after them very well. Their health was taken care of and in fact until now Even if you’re white you go into the interior, they look up very highly towards white people because they still have these remnants of memories on how the British treated them.
They always said that the British treated them better than the government of Malaysia. They probably felt they were much more better off because there was no palm oil being opened up on their land, they were not forced to move out from their villages. They were not forced to do anything they didn’t want to. With the new government, obviously I think that intention is probably noble.
They want to try and help to improve the life of the Orang Asli by bringing them out and even amongst others who integrate to assimilate they want to try and assimilate the Orang Asli to become Malays.
Just take out these jungle people and help them. This is what they think. What I see even now the majority of people do not try to understand the psyche of the Orang Asli the indigenous people.
People don’t understand. There is no way you can actually expect them to live like us. Why don’t you ask them? When you see them sleeping and resting? How many days were you in the jungle to try and find their sustenance?
It’s not easy. Just couple of hours you go into the jungle. You know how hard it is. But when they go into the jungle they go for a couple of days. Can do that as a town person?
To be honest I would say ninety-nine-point nine percent of the logging– they are all legal. They are all legal. This is the problem. People think that there are many illegal loggings in Malaysia. No, no, it’s not even illegal.
They do get the license from the State Government. They do get the licence from our forestry department. They are supported by our politician and the State Government. This is where the problem lies because a lot of corruption going on they don’t care about the well-being of the forest.
They don’t understand the forest is related to us leaving in pounds you know they cannot relate to that. Even one of our ministers– not the current government yet because they are only about not even one year. I’m talking about the previous government, one minister actually said that the palm oil they consider as forests. You are a minister you must find out what is really the international world consider as forest.
They say they planted that the palm oil tree. So, it’s a tree. You know ha! It’s really hard when people are making decisions without understanding the nature of our Orang Asli. They use poisonous things you know pesticides. But what they don’t understand is that all these pesticides seep into the ground and go into the water and into the river where the Orang Asli use for the drinking water when they leave amongst the palm oil plantation. A lot of the Orang Asli
Actually they have a lot of problems you know with skin disease and generally not healthy if they lice actually in and around the plantation. Yes, I know the current Malaysian government are pretty upset with the European Union because they say they’re not going to buy any more palm oil from Malaysia. I support that the EU action.
But of course the government is worried because they have to maintain the economy right. Why don’t the government actually insure no more forest being cut down?
Recently the opening Durian King (aka Kind of the Fruits) because Durian King now commands more value than the palm oi! Some state governments now allow allowing these companies that want to plant durian in the middle of the jungle!
This is the fight right now that we have with the Kelantan government. They have given this company M7 a ten thousand hectare to plant more sun king durian at the expense of the Orang Asli.
…Even right now they have already trampled on the Orang Asli graveyard. You know a lot of things, so this makes them very upset of course, but M7 is quite rich. They do everything they can not to abide by the noise made by NGOs as well as the public we have a federal government and then we have the state government.
And then the federal government cannot decide on land, when it comes to land. Only the State Government can decide. Power within the state government. When it comes to issues of land– so the federal government cannot tell for example Kelantan, Why don’t you just give these indigenous people the land be one not not because you want to destroy it. They want to make sure that all the things they need for their nobody wants to give up. No way. Because the land where the Orang Asli actually live or seek is so valuable.
This government is trying to do something to help in which I’m very proud of. It is a first action. Which our federal governments. They can suing the state government for taking the rights of the Orang Asli on your land. So this is the first case maybe perhaps in the world that a federal government suing a state government under the law.
The Orang Asli comes under federal law. You see ,they have the fiduciary duty to make sure that Orang Asli lives are not affected by so-called modernization. But after so many, many years the Orang Asli in Kelantan have done so many blocking. Even fighting contractors, who use weapons as well. You know trying to scare the Orang Asli kids. They persevere.
This is the first case that our federal government sued the companies as well as the State Government. This is the first case now. We are very excited about it actually.
All this while is with us the lawyers the lawyers are the one would think methods to court on behalf of the audacity of course pro bono. I can tell you one hand only the same lawyers will be doing the same. He says while we Indigenous people despite all the cases in support of the rights of the Orang Asli history, our governments before never, never make a policy out of those cases because as you know cases are actually laws.
But they don’t. They don’t care. In respect they do respect at all. The case not actually started yet….
Yes, there are a lot of other application made by the companies and the state governments. So they are asking for a stay on this, on and even if the xxx application just like Najiv case they keep on these two delay matters.
There used to be about 18 tribes, OK, or what used to be 18 tribes, in the peninsula of Malaysia. ….And some tribes have totally wiped out. Basically.
For example, right now no more- no more. Only by name only. Right now, we only have very few of the Bateks. OK. And also the Jahai, these are most shy people, very shy and they are from the ‘negrito’ line. And these are the people. Yes. They are very, very, very, shy. You know during the big flood back in 2016?. I remember now the big flood in Kelantan. I heard story about where the Jahai people live behind the Malay Kampung, you come home Malay couple Malay village and I don’t actually leave behind further behind.
So, when the food aid came people just dropped at the first Malay village. Yeah and the food never being passed on to the Jahai village at the back. They always stop these cars from going further. And these Jahai people will not even come out– they don’t come out to demand their rights to take the food. No they won’t. You will not fight. You will not argue with you. Yeah. This is not just not them. So a very few left.
And what I am also worried for our Indigenous people that soon you know will be no more. So, the whole of Malaysia the population is about 35 million. But for the indigenous people Orang Asli, in the peninsula, there are about 200 to 250 thousand. That’s all.
They are only a drop in the ocean. There be no more of Orang Asli in Malaysia. In Sabah Sarawak there are many, many more. Mostly there –mostly in Sabah Sarawak. Only a few tribes left but they considered themselves to be different. They prefer to be on your own if they can.
I hope to see something just serious dangers in another year’s time hopefully. Otherwise I think we have to think about a third force.
We must keep on fighting in what we believe!