From Wards to Citizens: Indigenous Rights and Citizenship in Malaysia



In recent years, indigenous peoples in Malaysia have begun to pursue a new strategy in claiming property rights: they are turning to the legal system, using lawsuits to make their claims. In this article, I suggest that this changed approach marks an important turning point in the Orang Asli-Malaysian state relationship. The legal arena reframes the narrative of struggle from one of “development failure” to one of rights and entitlement. I explore a landmark case, Sagong Tasi and Ors. v. State of Selangor and Ors., in which Orang Asli plaintiffs argued for their rights based on their position as wards of the state, as citizens of the nation, and as indigenous people with worldwide recognition. While the explicit focus of this court case (and others like it) is on property rights, the process involved has raised important questions concerning Orang Asli citizenship rights. In drawing on multiple kinds of positioning and demanding that the state fulfill an obligation to them, the Orang Asli are using the legal space to reconfigure and redefine their relationship to the Malaysian State.