Long before the arrival of the first wave of exploratory Indian migrants, who swept from their homeland over almost the entirety of the Southeast Asian region, a loose mix of indigenous tribal societies had inhabited peninsular Malaysia for many millennia.

Now collectively referred to in modern Malaysia as Orang Asli (original peoples), little is known of their early history, which was largely nomadic. Many of the groups linguistically share distinct similarities to the peoples of Indo-China, while others appear to be related to the Indonesian peoples.

The Malaysian government administratively classify the Orang Asli as belonging to three groups, the Semang, who occupy areas of the northern peninsula, the central Senoi peoples and the southern Aboriginal Malays.

Despite this somewhat arbitrary definition, there are eighteen tribes of Orang Asli, each with their own language and cultural nuances, and each historically preserves distinction from each other, variously traditionally occupying both coastal and interior areas of what has become peninsula Malaysia.

Like all indigenous peoples overcome by the mass influx of alien culture, the Orang Asli have had a difficult time in preserving their individual cultures, especially since the rise of Islam from the twelfth century, which regarded them as ‘Kaffir’ or ‘sub human’.

During the eighteenth century, their societies were regularly plundered for use as slaves, with women and children being the preferred choice, while the menfolk were often ruthlessly slaughtered. For those who had not already accepted Islam, ever-deeper retreat into the interior was the only escape.

The arrival of the British in the nineteenth century in some measure diminished the practice of slavery. Once themselves arch exponents of the slave trade, the British had begun to turn against the practice, which was eventually abolished by their parliament in 1833. Despite this, however, the abuse of the Orang Alsi as a supply of slaves continued even into the early twentieth century.

If the British in some measure alleviated the pressures from slavery, they nevertheless brought with them the predictable cultural onslaught of zealous Christian missionaries who, like the Hindus and Muslims before them, sought to 'rescue' them from their ‘primitive’ natural beliefs.

By the end of the Second World War, the British were no longer able to sustain their once mighty empire, and had begun the process of political motion towards Malaysian independence, which was however stalled by the communist uprising known to history as the Malayan Emergency.

During this time, the previously denigrated Orang Asli earned much respect for their considerable help in defeating the uprising. In the aftermath, the fledgling Malay government began the process of creating a legal framework to protect their cultural identities, though the resulting Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954 conferred little in the way of actual rights, especially over their lands.

Since achieving full independence in 1957, and the creation of the wider Malaysian Federation in 1963, the country began to evolve economically, and by the 1970’s business was beginning to boom. An unfortunate consequence for the Orang Asli was the ever-increasing encroachment of commercial interests into many of their remaining lands.

In the modern era, the Orang Asli have rejected their previous reluctant compliance with the whims of the Malaysian government and business interests, and established a political voice in the form of the Peninsula Malaysia Orang Asli Association (POASM), to fight for their cause in the courts. The group have an active presence online, though their struggle against the usurpation of their lands sadly continues.

Many Orang Asli have integrated more widely into Malaysian society, though often plagued by impoverishment and lack of opportunity. Some groups still retain their original forest lifestyles, which are only fully practiced in the remote forest reserves of the national parks, where visitors can still visit their communities and learn the about their beliefs and the art of the blowpipe.