Orang Asli activists fighting for the community's rights have lauded the appointment of Sapiah Mohd Nor as the Orang Asli Development Department's (Jakoa) new director-general.
Speaking to Malaysiakini, they also expressed high hopes for Sapiah (above), who herself is an Orang Asli from the Semai tribe, and the first woman to head the department.
Zurdi Baharu, who is Negeri Sembilan Orang Asli villages network deputy chairperson, regarded Putrajaya's decision to appoint Sapiah as the right move.
"I welcome the appointment. It has created history where the government for the first time recognises the role of Orang Asal women and gives them the opportunity to lead," he said.
Putrajaya yesterday announced that Sapiah, who entered the civil service in 1991, has been chosen to fill the post following the retirement of her predecessor Juli Edo in April.
Sapiah holds a Bachelor's Degree in business administration and a Master’s Degree in business law from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Prior to the appointment, she was a section head at the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry's enforcement division.
For the record, Sapiah is the younger sister of Cameron Highlands MP Ramli Mohd Nor. It was learnt that Sapiah and Ramli are also related to former Jakoa director-general Ajis Sitin, who served from 2017 to 2019. Ajis was appointed as a senator last month.
Zurdi reminded Sapiah that the task will not be an easy one, especially when demands from Orang Asli NGOs continue to be ignored and not recognised by the government.
He urged Jakoa to heed the 14 recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) based on its national inquiry on Orang Asli's Rights to Customary Land.
"I also hope that she would continue the openness practised by the former director-general who worked closely with Orang Asli NGOs.
"Before this, Jakoa had always seen Orang Asli NGOs as an enemy, and this had led to continuous fighting," Zurdi said.
'Solve the issue of land gazettement'
Artist Shahar Koyok, or better known as Shaq Koyok, also had similar hope that the new Jakoa chief would help Orang Asli settle the issue of customary land.
Saying that he was proud to see an Orang Asli woman appointed to the post, Shahar said Sapiah is hoped to be the kind of director-general who puts Orang Asli's interests first.
"The first thing I want from the new director-general is for her to solve the issues regarding gazettement of Orang Asli land.
"Despite being the first to make this land our home, we (Orang Asli) still do not have land titles. We are the ones who should hold the right to determine our land, not outsiders.
"We feel that justice is not being done as there are many new settlements in Malaysia which have obtained their land titles, but us Orang Asli have yet to get ours.
"Solve the issue of Orang Asli land gazettement. Do not delay this any further, or our land would be trespassed by irresponsible parties," said the man, who is a Temuan.
Semai tribe activist Amani Williams-Hunts Abdullah, or better known as Bah Tony, hoped that Sapiah would use her experience in civil service and business studies knowledge to turn around Orang Asli's economic situation.
"I believe that with her knowledge and experience, Sapiah would be able to understand Orang Asli issues rather more easily, and plan strategies to develop Orang Asli from every aspect, including economic and social.
"As an Orang Asli, I believe Orang Asli issues are close to her heart and would be committed to addressing our issues including issues that are faced by Orang Asli women."
He said Sapiah's success story would also inspire other Orang Asli women that they too can reach the top in their career when given the opportunity.