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  • Writer's pictureOlivia and Jordi

The Art of Shaq Koyok: Advocating for Orang Asli Rights in Malaysia

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

“For the indigenous people everything we do is art. Building houses, weaving, and finding food is art. We live day by day making art. It is the way of life for us,” Shaq Koyok illuminates about his people. The indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asli, which translates to Original People, are a unique group that have a beautiful relationship with nature and reject many of the normalities of the modern world. This minority, which consists of less than 20% of the population have been struggling for equality. They are nomadic and use only the goods the jungle produces to create the villages in which many reside. Shaq Koyok, an Orang Asli contemporary artist, has spent his life fighting for his people through activism and art.

He grew up a part of the Temuan tribe of Selangor in the Pulau Kempas Village living off the jungle until he was thirteen. He then had the opportunity to go to boarding school where he faced bullying, as many Orang Asli children do. Although there is diversity in Malaysia with the prevalent Indian and Chinese population, people still see Orang Asli children as inferior because their values differ. There is nothing taught about the Orang Asli in school, so only stereotypes stir through the air.

The Orang Asli are animistic, meaning they believe that there are spirits in everything. Shaq explained that we can be reincarnated as an animal, a tree, a mountain or as another person. This belief gives them a very special connection to nature because it is their family. When they need to use a part of the jungle, they must ask permission from the spirits in a language that only the Shaman knows. The connectivity and authenticity of the Orang Asli people is seen through their lack of the word “love” or “thank you” in their language because if you mean it, you show it. “Nature is a part of us. Without it we are nothing. We don't have food. We don't have anything,” Shaq said in absolution. Their kinship with Mother Nature only make the massive deforestation in Malaysia more disheartening.

Deforestation, land rights, religious conversion and inequality are some of the issues the Orang Asli face today. Logging is a issue that is affecting all of Malaysia, but more directly to the communities that use the forest for all of their goods. When the rainy season comes, for the places devastated by deforestation the lack of trees means flooding will occur without them to combat erosion. This causes the lakes to become dirty, which then in turn affects the drinking water. Not only is the drinking water polluted, but the biodiversity becomes an issue when solitary crops such as palm oil are planted. By destroying forests and creating a field with only one type of plant, it creates habitat degradation and climate change. “Hentikan Pembalakan”, which means Stop Logging is a movement that Shaq is helping with, which sells shirts to give money to raise funds for a blockade against loggers.

As nomadic people, the Orang Asli have recognized territory, but no official land title. Since they were the first people on the land with values of community and a respect for nature, the need for land rights were not prevalent. Unfortunately, now corporations are taking advantage of this because of their constant greed for expansion. They offer free housing for 99 years, but then after that time, they must pay to live on their own land which cost them nothing before the intrusion of corporations.

The Department for Indigenous People was set up by the British to combat Communists that were trying to rid Malaysia of colonial control. They used this department to control the indigenous people by making sure they had no contact with the “so called Communists.” Shockingly, only 30% of the department consists of indigenous people and none in positions of power. The government also attempts to control the religion of the Orang Asli by creating incentives for them to become Muslim. A payment of 300RM/month (about $74) is offered for those who will convert and become a missionary to the cause.

The issues that the Orang Asli face is overwhelming, which is why Shaq always wanted to become an artist to ensure that the story of his people was told. “Instead of singing or writing or shouting, I paint,” he tells us. Shaq’s work consists mainly of Orang Asli portraits surrounded by nature with clear commentary on issues faced by the community.

His earlier work displayed the people in an array of colors to portray that color has no stance in society. Because of the tint of his skin, many people have mistaken him for Indian even though his features couldn’t be any more different. Having the portraits in a multitude of colors takes away from the judgement people naturally produce. More recently he has started working with pandanous leaves that he brings back from his village with the people displayed in grey scale. It is a shift to a more somber tone to create a sense of urgency concerning these issues. Shaq Koyok’s artwork is breathtaking with his ability to capture the issues that face his people, while simultaneously creating a story about the person and the traditions of the Orang Asli in a way that leaves you intrigued and with a full heart.

The visual language that art creates is a powerful way to start a conversation, open people's eyes and to begin a movement. The goal that Shaq strives to accomplish is the equality of the Orang Asli along with the preservation of their lands and culture. He urges people to have respect and to see that we are all human living on one planet we must share. The history and traditions of the Orang Asli should be taught in schools so that awareness can be spread and cause the inequality towards them to diminish.

The importance of indigenous people in the process of building a societal identity is to make us remember our history and roots, while simultaneously teaching us how to live in consonance with Mother nature. In these modern times, where globalization not only connect us around the world, but build walls between cultures and helps to create standard societes by killing the diversity and creativity, supporting artists like Shaq we are going to arrive to a better understanding of how to create a better tomorrow all together.

If you would like to support Shaq Koyok, please visit his website: And yes, he does ship internationally!

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