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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Orang Asli Child Malnutrition Epidemic

Written by: Jennifer Lewis

Life is difficult for your average aboriginal Malaysian. Despite being the original inhabitants of the land, they are now a socio-economically deprived minority group. The effects of this transition have been devastating. Their self-esteem has been sapped as a result, with social problems such as teenage pregnancy increasing and ill health taking hold. One of the groups that has suffered significantly in recent times is the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. They have been identified as one of the poorest groups in the nation, which the percentage of their population classed as living in ‘hardcore poverty’ being twice that of the general population. Disturbingly, a report published in Tribes and Tribals suggests that they have particularly poorly nourished children, which could be putting infants’ lives at risk.

The Extent of the Problem

The rate of childhood malnutrition amongst the Orang Asli is considerably higher than that of other rural Malaysian communities. Up to a third of Orang Asli infants are thought to be stunted or underweight. This shocking degree of malnutrition is not only witnessed in less accessible locations; it is also present in communities that are found near to towns. A study cited by Tribes and Tribals indicates that half of Orang Asli children have iron, calcium and energy levels that are less than sixty-six percent of the recommended levels. Why is this the case? Research suggests that it is due to a plurality of different factors.

Lack of Dietary Knowledge

"Tribes and Tribals states that lack of knowledge about nutrition is partly responsible for the levels of childhood malnutrition that exist within the Orang Asli population. This figures, as forty-three percent of Orang Asli men and thirty-five percent of Orang Asli women have received no formal education. Without access to medical textbooks and lessons about following a balanced diet, many of these people will be left oblivious to the need for certain nutrients within their children’s meals. Medical literature cited in Tribes and Tribals states that helminithic infestations are also widespread in Orang Asli infants. In a study of Orang Asli children between the ages of two and five, sixty-two percent were found to be infested with ascariasis, ninety-eight percent had trichuriasis and thirty-seven percent had hookworm infestations. This is likely to have led to malnutrition in many cases and again, one of the causes is a lack of education. The Orang Asli need to be taught how to effectively ward off these parasites in order to protect the health of their children."

The Effects of Resettlement

Another contributing factor is resettlement. A study of three hundred and five Temiar families who were resettled concluded that their nutritional status and dietary habits had deteriorated significantly as a result of the move. A report published by the International Institute for Asian Studies has criticized attempts by the Malaysian government to resettle and modernize the Orang Asli. Attempting to alter their traditional way of life despite the fact that they were the original inhabitants of the region must surely have had a negative effect upon their collective state of mind and consequently impaired their ability to adhere to a healthy diet.


The main reason for the Orang Asli’s high levels of childhood malnutrition is obvious though: it is a result of the poverty that blights their communities. The US State Department Human Rights Report indicates that fifty percent of Orang Asli exist below the poverty line. With such a large percentage of the population lacking enough money to get by, it is little wonder their children are failing to get the correct levels of nourishment. Until the disparity between the living conditions of the Orang Asli and the rest of the Malaysian population are addressed, their young will continue to suffer from shocking levels of malnutrition. It is a symptom of their treatment at the hands of the authorities ever since other people came to their land and has been made worse by the fact that they are now socio-economically deprived. The lack of education that exists is also partly due to poverty. Alleviate these social problems and perhaps the next generation of Orang Asli children will be healthy and grow up in an environment where they will not face as many obstacles that they need to overcome in order to progress.
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