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Most of the Malay population is settled in the lowland areas, and particularly on the wide coastal plains in the west. Only 1% of the total population lives in the central highlands. The aboriginal groups live mostly in the forests of the peninsula's mountainous hinterland.

Population of the Malay Federation as a whole :

- Bumiputera (Malay and Orang Asli) : 61,4%, mostly farmers

1,2% being Orang Asli, 'the original people', according to the 1991 census.

- Chinese : 30%, very important socio-economically

- Indians : 8,1%

- others : 0;5%

The 19 aboriginal Orang Asli tribes are classified by the administration in three groups with marked differences in social organization, economic activities, habitat, and integration in the wider Malay society.

- the Negritos or Semang in the north, 2000 in 1975, Northern Asian language (Mon-Khmer group), hunter-gatherer nomads.

- the Senoi, in the central regions, about 37 000, Central Asian language, predominantly swidden cultivators.

- the Proto-Malay, in the south, about 25 000, Malayo-Polynesian language (or Austronesian); they live in isolated villages scattered over the southern half of the peninsula. Most of them are horticulturalists and forest gatherers ; some also rely on sea products (ENDICOTT, 1987).

The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia

The forest has three vital functions for these populations :

1) It is the source of their subsistence (subsistence activities being hunting, fishing and collecting).

2) It is the source of exportable products that nowadays provide cash revenues.

3) It is the link between their cultural heritage and identity, the locus of cultural identity for all these populations. The forest was used for a long time as a hiding-place protecting them from the slave raids, but, more importantly, it is the depository of their beliefs and religious practices.

Today only a few groups of Negritos rely solely on the exploitation of wild resources for their subsistence, but virtually all Orang Asli still do some hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild resources, both for their subsistence requirements and to trade for cash returns[30].

Most Orang Asli are dependent on swidden agriculture for their subsistence. Swiddening involves clearing and burning a patch of forest, planting one or two crops on it, and then letting the forest take over the fallow.

[30] in RAMBO, 1979 a : 49, 50

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