Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia


Orang Asli (lit. “original people”, “natural people” or “aboriginal people” in Malay) are the indigenous people and the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia. Officially, there are 18 Orang Asli tribes, categorised under three main groups according to their different languages and customs:

  • Semang (or Negrito), generally confined to the northern portion of the peninsula.
  • Senoi, residing in the central region.
  • Proto-Malay (or Aboriginal Malay), in the southern region.

The Semang and Senoi groups, being Austroasiatic-speaking, are the autochthonous peoples of the Malay Peninsula. The Proto-Malays, who speak Austronesian languages, migrated to the area between 2500 and 1500 BC.

There is an Orang Asli museum in Melaka, and also in Gombak, about 25 km north of Kuala Lumpur.

The division of Orang Asli into three categories is not due to linguistic differences but is merely sociological: linguistically they divide into two groups.

The first group speak Aslian languages, which form part of the Austroasiatic language family. These are further divided into the Jahaic languages (North Aslian), Senoic languages, Semelaic languages (South Aslian), and Jah Hut. The languages which fall under the Jahaic language sub-group are the Cheq Wong, Jahai, Bateq, Kensiu, Kintaq, and Mendriq languages. The Lanoh language, Temiar language, and Semai language fall into the Senoic language sub-group. Languages that fall into the Semelaic sub-group include the Semelai language, Semoq Beri language, and Besisi language (language spoken by the Mah Meri people).

The second group speak Aboriginal Malay languages, which form part of the Austronesian language family. These include the Jakun and Temuan languages among others.

Besides these, most Orang Aslis are fluent in the Malay language, the official language of Malaysia.


The indigenous people of Sarawak are varied, with the largest ethnic populations being the Dayaks, the Iban, the Bidayuh, and Orang Ulu. The Iban form Sarawak’s largest ethnic group, with over 30% of the state’s population claiming heritage to this tribe. Historically, they are considered to have been a fearsome warrior race, known for headhunting and piracy. In contrast, the Bidayuh have a peace-loving reputation, yet still with a history of headhunting.

“Dayak” translates as upstream or inland, and the members of this tribe typically live in traditional community homes known as longhouses. The Orang Ulu are also upriver tribes, regarded for their artistic inclinations. Their longhouses are often ornately decorated while aristocratic ladies cover their body with finely detailed tattoos.

Sabah is home to many more indigenous groups than Sarawak, including the Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, and Murut, which are the three largest ethnic populations in the state. The Kadazan-Dusun comprise of 30% of the population, cementing their status as the largest ethnic group, although this group is actually two separate tribes. The Kadazan and Dusun were grouped together because they share the same language and culture.

Tribal tattoosDayak storyteller in Borneodayak-storyteller-261x3482x

A common practice amongst many indigenous groups in Borneo is the painting of tribal tattoos, although the specific designs and cultural associations vary from group to group. On men, these tattoos are seen as a symbol of bravery, while women see them as a beauty enhancer.

The tattooing process is a rather intricate one, with designs carved on a block of wood that is smeared with ink and then printed onto the body. Once a design is in place, the skin is punctured with needles dipped in ink (made from sugar, water, and soot).

Women often have the most impressive tattoos, and it is not uncommon to see the headman’s daughter with her arms, hands and legs completely covered in fine tattoos.

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