A local native rights NGO wants the Native Court system strengthened to empower the indigenous people to govern themselves and preserve their traditions, culture and customs.
Partners of Community Organisations in Sabah (Pacos) Trust executive director Anne Lasimbang said the Native Court system has been weakened and no longer serves its original purpose.
Lasimbang said the ultimate goal for the judiciary system under the Native Court is to allow the indigenous people to govern themselves using their own customs but so far, she has only seen a decline in the stature of the court.
“As the indigenous people of Sabah, we want the government to recognise us as a nation of people, much like what governments such as those in the United States have done.
“Allow us to govern ourselves according to our customs through the Native Court,” she told FMT yesterday.
The Native Court in Sabah, a unique feature of the Malaysian legal system, settles disputes concerning the breach of customary laws among the indigenous people in the state.
The institution received recognition from the British in 1881 and continued as an integral part of the state legal system, even after the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
It is a three-tier system which starts with a normal Native Court, followed by a Native High Court presided over by the district officers, and finally, a Native Appeals Court presided over by the chief justice of Sabah and Sarawak.
Lasimbang said the indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak and the Orang Asli in the peninsula had been subjected to assimilation programmes, first by the British and later the federal government.
She said that although the experience was not violent compared to what indigenous people in other countries were subjected to, it was “no less painful”.
As a result, she said the indigenous people found themselves losing the culture and customs which their ancestors had practised for generations.
“The problem is the programmes were so subtle, we did not notice until it was too late.
“Nobody can say it didn’t happen because, just look at us now, much of what our ancestors practised have been lost,” she said.
Lasimbang said the assimilation programmes started during British rule when indigenous children were enrolled in schools.
“It was good because we had education. But, remember, we were told to stop many of our traditions. We were called pagans. Our ancestors were not allowed to practise their indigenous customs.
“As time went by, we became Christians and we forgot all about our past.
“We no longer speak many of the words our ancestors spoke. Our lives have changed and we have lost the ancient knowledge such as healing and the ability to communicate with the ‘other world’.”
Things became worse, Lasimbang said, after the formation of Malaysia when children as young as 13 had to stay in school hostels far away from their villages.
Separated from their families, these children were soon accustomed to new surroundings that did not conform to their indigenous origins.
“We have lost so much but I think there is a growing awareness to stop this decline.
“Strengthening the Native Court system would go a long way to accomplishing this goal,” she said.