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Education of Orang Asli Children
by Dr. Suria Angit

(A) Introduction


Slamad yehyah. My name is Suria Selasih Angit. I am one of the advocates for this Women’s Tribunal. I am from the Orang Asli (OA) Temiar community from Gua Musang, Kelantan. I completed my PhD in Education at The University of Melbourne, Australia, and I specialise in education for indigenous students, particularly OA students. At the moment, I work as an assistant professor at a university in Malaysia. My OA background qualifies me as an insider in OA communities, and my experiences of spending time outside the community pursuing education in mainstream schools has, to some extent, made me an outsider as well. As both an insider and an outsider, I am able to view the struggles of my people from both perspectives — internally and externally.


(B) Setting the Stage


(1) Background Information

Before I start sharing my expert views on this issue, please allow me to share some background information about the OA of Malaysia. I believe this background information is important because not much about the struggles of OA communities are known to the non-OA communities. Because of this unfamiliarity, many issues surrounding the OA’s well-being have been underplayed in many discussions. This background information will highlight the often-underplayed socio-historical and economic contexts that bring us, the OA of Malaysia, to where we are today — which is largely at the margin of the wider Malaysian population, or ‘Malaysian family’, if I may use the buzz term here. I hope with this background information, we can all start thinking about how complex the issues really are. I hope we can all keep an open mind and treat this as a constructive conversation aimed at bridging the gap in, and reframing, our understanding of OA issues.


Let’s begin with the term ‘Orang Asli’ itself. To those who speak Bahasa Malaysia, it is obvious that this term literally means ‘Original People’. What many people (including the young generations of OA) do not know is that the term ‘Orang Asli’ is actually a collective term introduced by the British colonial government in the 1960s for administrative purposes.


Prior to this, we were not collectively known as OA. We were known as different indigenous groups that had their own cultural beliefs and languages.


According to the 2018 data published by the Department of Orang Asli Development, OA make up 0.55% of the population in Malaysia. Most people mistakenly think that we are all from the same group, but we come from 18 different subgroups. Allow me to list the names of these subgroups, as I strongly believe that all of us deserve to be mentioned today. We deserve to be mentioned here because most of us are either unknown or forgotten, as the collective term ‘Orang Asli’ has, to some extent, diluted the richness of our unique indigenous identities and backgrounds. We, the OA of Malaysia come from the subgroups known as:

(a) Semai;

(b) Temiar;

(c) Semoq Beri;

(d) Jah Hut;

(e) Mah Meri;

(f) Orang Kuala;

(g) Orang Kanaq;

(h) Orang Seletar;

(i) Jakun;

(j) Semelai;

(k) Temuan;

(l) Kensiu;

(m) Kintak;

(n) Lanoh;

(o) Jahai;

(p) Che Wong;

(q) Mendriq; and

(r) Batek.


I would like to draw your attention to a more concerning part of our OA background — which is the continuous struggle that many of us have to endure on a daily basis. The 18 subgroups of OA have historically suffered, to varying degrees, oppression, subjugation, marginalisation, and discrimination. As highlighted by both international and local scholars, the enslavement of OA communities by the Malays only came to an end in the early 20th century. The enslavement of OA was a gruesome experience that is never mentioned in our history books.


During the Emergency period, OA communities were resettled into closely guarded camps outside their jungles. The extremely poor conditions at these camps caused many OA to die of disease, malnutrition, and demoralisation. After the Emergency, the Assimilation Policy was introduced in 1961. Later, the resettlement schemes (Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula, RPS) took place. Under this scheme, OA communities were resettled in artificial villages located in some of the logged parts of their traditional territories. In theory, these resettlement schemes were intended to provide OA communities with a better quality of life, but numerous studies have found that the schemes in general failed to lift residents out of poverty. Instead, the communities then became even more dependent on Government aid as they had been removed from their traditional settings. Personally, I have seen many family members struggling to really flourish in the resettlement areas.


(2) Socio-Economic Struggles: Land Rights, Poverty and Education


Fast forward to today’s Malaysia, where there are numerous socio-economic struggles that OA communities have to face on a daily basis. In this statement, I would like to focus on three major struggles that have been hindering OA from flourishing as the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia: the issues of land rights, poverty, and education. As I explore each of the issues in more detail, we will see how all these three struggles are interwoven — making the situation more complex than what many people think.   


First, the lack of land rights. According to the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954, OA are considered as wards of the State, with no clear provision for their land rights. We are only ‘tenants-at-will’ in our own customary land, with no legal rights to defend our ownership of the land. This also means that we are subject to relocation or eviction. We may get some compensation when the land is needed for development projects, but no price can rightfully justify the loss of land rights.


Second, extreme poverty. In a report by the Malaysia Economic Planning Unit (2015), the poverty rate amongst OA communities was reported at 30.4%, which was much higher than other ethnic groups. Having previously been described as the poorest of the poor, OA communities now generally fall into the country’s ‘Bottom 40%’ (B40) household income group. Here, I should highlight that the lack of land rights amongst OA communities was found to be one of the major factors that led them to poverty. Due to the lack of security in terms of land ownership, many OA communities were reluctant to develop their traditional land as they risked being resettled into another area as a result of land encroachment.


Here, to provide a better perspective, I would like to highlight a recent study conducted by local researchers on the Semai communities in the state of Pahang. The study found that the household incomes of the research participants were below RM300 a month. To put things in perspective, in 2017, a household with a monthly income that was below RM760 was considered ‘absolute poor’, and one that earned below RM460 was categorised as ‘extreme poor’. This means that these OA communities fell into the extreme poverty category. Living in extreme poverty, the OA communities in this study reported that they were aware of the importance of education, but their poor financial situation and living conditions had sometimes left them with no other option but to sacrifice their children’s schooling. In other words, despite having the awareness and desire to pursue education, the extreme poverty that the communities were experiencing hindered them from moving forward in education.  


The story of the Semai communities brings us to the third struggle, which is also our main focus for today: education. Based on the statistics published by the Ministry of Education, a total of 40,124 OA students were recorded to have been in the formal school system as of 31 March 2018. At the primary level, OA students have the options to either attend OA national primary schools (SKOA) or the mainstream national-type primary schools (SK), where they learn alongside students from other ethnic groups. As they move on to secondary level, most OA students will continue their education in mainstream national secondary schools. Alternatively, OA students may also attend the Comprehensive Special Model Schools (also known as K9 schools) from Year One to Form Three (or Year Nine) before they move to a mainstream school to finish their remaining secondary education. As of 2018, there are seven K9 schools available nationwide, with five of these schools specifically catering for OA students. At school, OA students face two major struggles: high dropout rates and low levels of academic attainment.


According to the Ministry of Education, the dropout rate for 2017 remained as high as 26% for OA students despite the Ministry’s target to reduce OA dropout rate to 8%. By comparison, the national average dropout rate in 2017 was only 3.4%. The much higher dropout percentage for OA students (compared to the national average) in fact highlights the seriousness of this issue amongst OA students. In terms of educational attainment, as reported by the Ministry of Education in 2017, the passing rate for OA schools was 20.2% compared to the national average of 68.1%.

In the literature, various economic, geographic, and cultural factors have been cited as the obstacles that hinder OA students from getting access to quality education. Another reason is the use of a national curriculum that does not meet the needs of OA students.

Here, I must also highlight the various Government interventions that are aimed at improving educational outcomes for OA students. One of the Government’s key policies for OA education that is worth mentioning is the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2012-2025 (Malaysia Ministry of Education, 2012). An action plan for OA students was launched to improve the existing programmes. Some of the initiatives geared towards improving access and equity for OA students included the following:

(a) Expanding the K9 schools from two to six schools;

(b) Upgrading the infrastructure of existing schools;

(c) Updating the contextualised Curriculum for Asli and Penan (Kurikulum Bersepadu Orang Asli / Penan, KAP) to align with the principles and framework used in the standard national syllabus (Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah, KSSR);

(d) Establishing a research centre to develop curriculum and pedagogy specifically tailored to OA and other minority groups; and

(e) Improving teacher recruitment for OA schools.


In terms of the effectiveness of these initiatives, the 2017 report of Malaysia Education Blueprint 2012-2025 published by the Ministry of Education Malaysia (2018) mentions that the attendance rates of OA students increased steadily, from 76.7% in 2013 to 87.3% in 2017. However, despite the increase in attendance rates, students’ transition from primary level to secondary level has seen a more unpredictable pattern. In 2017, the transition rate decreased to 74% compared to 83% in the previous year. In other words, while student attendance has improved, the dropout issue remains unsolved.

In terms of student achievement, not much data is available to provide a comprehensive view of the current state and the introduction of the initiatives mentioned earlier. As stated in the 2017 report, some improvements had been recorded in the K9 schools. However, the cumulative grade point achieved by the K9 schools in 2017 (2.89) was still far below the national average (4.1).

What I would like to highlight here is the fact that there is still a lot of work needed in order to improve the educational outcomes for OA students. Behind all these worrying figures and statistics lie many complex factors that make schooling very challenging for OA students. As I proceed with my statement, we will see how the mentioned struggles translate into the actual lived experiences of four OA girls. 


(C) Education for OA Girls: Key Points from Witness Testimonies

In the statements given by the four OA girls — Rosita, Siti Fida, Noraini @ Chipang and Yaliyana — we can see how they recall their excitement about their schooling experiences where they talked about being a star athlete, reading story books in the library, and making new friends. However, these heart-warming stories are often tainted by words such as “buli”, “ejek”, “hina”, “tidak mampu”, “hilang minat” — which capture their struggles in school.


Rosita said her peers verbally bullied her by throwing remarks at her, like: “Hey Orang Asli, kamu hodoh.” She said she became demotivated because of the constant bullying.


In primary school, Siti Fida had to protect herself from a bully by hiding in a toilet. She said: “Saya terus berlari menuju ke dalam tandas, dan hampir setengah jam saya menunggu di dalam tandas tersebut … Sejak kejadian itu, saya menjadi benci kepada pembuli tersebut.”


Because of the bullying, Noraini @ Chipang lost her interest in schooling. She said: “… saya tidak berminat terus untuk bersekolah. Pembuli itu suka sembunyikan barang sekolah saya. Saya juga pernah dipukul oleh rakan sekelas saya walaupun saya tidak berbuat salah terhadap mereka.”


It is important for us to pay attention to these recurring words as they highlight a pattern or a shared experience that these girls have gone through. Apart from those recurring words, we can also see that most of these girls share similar experiences growing up in school hostels away from their families. This is common for OA children. In fact, some OA girls have to leave home at the age of seven to stay in school hostels, as their homes are too far from the local schools. This means that for many OA girls, they grow up in schools with their teachers being their guardians. They spend more time with their teachers and schoolmates — within an environment that is not always sensitive to their needs — than being with their own mothers, fathers, and families. This is also why in all the statements, one common main character mentioned by all witnesses is the teacher — “cikgu”. We heard how Rosita highly appreciated the intervention by her teacher, Cikgu Kartini. We also heard about the lack of intervention by Teacher X who did nothing to help the affected OA student. We even heard how Teacher X said: “Saya ajar monyet lagi pandai dari kau orang” to the OA student, and later apologised to her and the other students.


In my previous studies with OA girls and mothers, the importance of teachers’ roles was constantly highlighted in every conversation we had about our OA children’s schooling experiences. Mothers whom I spoke to still recalled stories about a well-respected Malay teacher long after his passing. He was highly appreciated because he cared about his students. What I want to highlight here is the fact that even the smallest action, or inaction, of teachers means something to the students. This means that teachers have the capacity to help make schools safer and more inclusive for OA students if they truly understand the struggle that these OA students are facing.


While physical bullying usually gets more attention, verbal bullying is often downplayed. This verbal bullying is a form of symbolic violence. In many cases when OA students are being verbally bullied by their peers, they are asked to toughen up, defend themselves, or ignore the bullies. This advice does not only come from the teachers, but also from the family members as well. If the children fail to be ‘tough’, to defend themselves, or to ignore the bullies, they will be blamed for not being strong enough. They are labelled as ‘weak’. In fact, one of the witnesses claimed that she regretted not being tough enough in school, and advised the younger OA generations to toughen up to survive bullying. This is victim blaming. It should be stopped. We should not shift this burden of guilt to the victims.


Apart from these negative experiences, I would also like to highlight the strengths of our OA girls that are very often overlooked. A lot of people, including teachers, claim that OA students are not that motivated or interested in schooling, but in all the statements given by the witnesses, they are clearly excited about going to school. In my previous work with OA communities, I also found the same enthusiasm amongst other OA children. They, too, want to do well in school and achieve great things. All OA mothers whom I have spoken to, despite some not being literate themselves, have high hopes for their children to succeed in school. However, they are also worried about the school environment that is not always supportive of their home cultures and beliefs.

This stigmatisation of OA cultures and beliefs is also another recurring theme that we can see in the statements given by the witnesses. Going deeper, within the stigmatisation, there is the issue of racial prejudices, which often leads to discrimination. For example, Yaliyana said: “Naik ke tingkatan dua, murid-murid Melayu mula membuli Orang Asli. Mereka mengatakan macam-macam seperti ‘Orang Asli suka makan babi, katak, monyet, dan lain-lain lagi.’” She also told us about her religious teacher who disliked OA. In this case we should give credit to the teacher, who managed to change her views and keep an open mind about her OA students after going through counselling. This is something that we definitely need to encourage more, as it is quite common to hear stories about teachers trying to ‘purify’ their young OA students by imposing certain religious practices that are not practised by their families at home. We urgently need constructive dialogue between OA communities and non-OA teachers about the danger of imposing these religious beliefs on OA students. I know OA parents who are worried about sending their children to schools because they are concerned about this subtle religious conversion.


In my PhD research, issues such as bullying, racial prejudices, and stigmatisation of OA languages and cultures have also been reported by my research participants. For example, a Jakun girl who took part in the research said: “When we speak, for example, with friends in Jakun, people will look at us, and I feel embarrassed … I feel embarrassed because people are looking, and I would wonder why people are looking. They might be wondering why the language sounds weird.”


In this context, a mother whom I spoke to said: “Sometimes, it is not wise to speak Temuan in public because people would stare at us and they would know that we’re OA.” She also said: “If our children speak Malay fluently, people won’t know that we’re OA. If they could hear our OA accent, they’ll know that we’re OA and they’ll cheat us.”


As someone who has gone through similar experiences, I understand how these girls must have felt. I also understand how challenging schooling was for these OA girls. I myself was told not to speak Temiar when I was young, so that people would not know that I was a Temiar, an OA. I learned English because I was told that it was a language of power that would amplify my voice. I put my indigenous identity aside, well-hidden from my peers, because when they knew I was an OA, they started calling me names and making fun of my physical appearance. I had to choose between crying at night, looking at myself as a person who was less worthy than the others because of who I was and the way I looked; or to fit in.

What is strange was that when I kept my OA identity hidden in secondary school, people stopped calling me names although I still looked the same. Same hair, same facial features, but now because that OA label had been hidden, the bullying also stopped. The shift suggests that this stigmatisation may have stemmed from racial prejudices. When my OA identity was hidden, I experienced less hostility and bullying. I was more or less given an equal opportunity to learn and flourish. But is fitting in (or in some extreme cases, assimilating with the wider community) the solution to this issue of stigmatisation of OA identities, beliefs, and cultures that our OA girls are facing at schools? Definitely not. Why do OA girls and children need to choose either their OA identities or education? Why do we have to leave our ‘Orang Asli-ness’ at home or at the school gate? Why can’t we bring our beautiful identities and cultures and be proud of them while we learn more about ourselves and the world? Why can’t we have both?


(D) Impact of Discrimination on Girls


Now, what might happen to girls who have to face these struggles?


Those who do not survive these challenging experiences will usually drop out of school. In many cases, they will go back to their family homes during the school holidays and never come back to continue their schooling, even after the school holidays end. They choose to quit school and stay at home. Some end up getting married despite their young age. Many girls, regardless of whether they survived schooling or not, will struggle with low self-esteem or lack of self-worth because of the struggle that they went through during their school years.


Some young OA women managed to go to universities and earn degrees, but struggle to get employed because they are not confident enough to compete with other graduates during job interviews. Some do not even feel good enough to apply for a job. Then they rely on the Government’s support to provide them with job opportunities. This unemployment amongst OA graduates is an issue that warrants our attention, because the young OA girls will start to have the view that they do not need to pursue education because their elder sisters are unemployed even after completing three or four years of tertiary education.


Young OA women without any qualifications will usually take up any jobs that they can, work in big towns or cities away from their family homes, and become vulnerable because of the feeling of lack of self-worth in them. To illustrate this further, I would like to share a story. About a year ago, an OA girl contacted me and asked if she could borrow RM4,000 from me. She also said: “Please don’t tell my family about this.” I was shocked. I wondered why this young woman needed that much money. I asked why she needed the money — I asked if she was in trouble. Then what she told me after that was really shocking and worrying — something that I had only read in the media. She said her boyfriend who lived somewhere abroad had sent her expensive gifts, and the gifts were then withheld somewhere. She had to pay RM4,000 to receive the gifts. When I heard that, I instantly knew that this was a lie, a scam that had been widely reported in the media. I tried to explain this to her but she would not believe me. She said: “All my life I was just an ugly non-deserving OA girl. This guy came to my life and made me feel so special. Nobody has appreciated me the way he does. If I let him go, I will not find anyone else who will be willing to love me.”


To me, she is a wonderful girl. She is beautiful, kind, hardworking, and very polite. But in her eyes, she is “just an ugly and non-deserving OA girl”. That is heartbreaking. Even more heartbreaking is that no matter what I said to her, she would not see that she is a beautiful, kind, and lovable person. I am not saying this problem is only happening to OA girls, because we know this is happening everywhere, but after years and years of bullying that often lead to low self-worth, OA girls are vulnerable to all forms of manipulation. It is certainly unfair to downplay these girls’ schooling experiences, which might have conditioned them into believing that they are not worthy of love, respect, and recognition.


Here, I would like to reiterate that the high dropout rates and child marriages are just the symptoms. They are not the actual disease. In the context of OA girls, the disease is the culmination of the struggles that the four witnesses highlighted in their statements — bullying, racial prejudices, and discrimination. If we really want our OA girls and women to heal, why are we treating the symptoms and not the disease itself?


(E) Recommendations


So now, what can we do to help OA girls feel safer, and eventually flourish in schools? Here, I would like to put forward several recommendations. These recommendations are informed by previous studies (including my own) and policy papers published by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).


(1) Build Mutual Trust: The Role of Teachers and Training


I would like to begin with the most important element — yet it is the one that we lack the most: TRUST. We need to, first of all, build mutual trust. This mutual trust can only be formed if both parties — OA communities and non-OA communities — know each other better. To achieve this, the role of teachers is fundamental. Numerous studies and policies have recommended ‘appropriate training’ or the more specific term ‘culturally sensitive or responsive training’ for teachers. However, there needs to be a more careful exploration into what culturally sensitive or culturally responsive really means in this context. What is important is that in preparing our teachers to work with OA students, the delicate issues of power imbalance, racial prejudices, and internalised bias need to be highlighted in a constructive manner. Equipping our teachers with relevant cultural and even linguistic knowledge is only the first step. The bigger challenge is to dismantle the deficit thinking that many of us teachers are not even aware we have. These efforts should not stop at the end of the initial teacher training. Continuous professional development programmes with strong support networks are also necessary, and this training should, to some extent, also involve other key stakeholders such as school leaders, officers in the Education Departments, and policymakers.


(2) Address Mismatch Between Values and Cultures of OA Students, and the School Curriculum


Secondly, as recommended by IDEAS, the mismatch between the home values and cultures of OA students and the curriculum that is offered to them in schools should also be addressed. To achieve this, we can start by strengthening existing programmes such as the K9 school model, KAP, and Kurikulum Kelas Dewasa bagi Ibu Bapa Murid Orang Asli dan Peribumi (KEDAP). For this initiative to really work, constant monitoring and evaluation of the programmes as well as a systematic impact analysis are vital.


(3) Implement Reach-Out Initiatives to Bridge Gap between OA Communities and Schools

At the school level, there should be an action plan for reach-out initiatives that aim to bridge the gap between OA communities and schools, by fostering trusting relationships and partnerships. For this, it is essential to carefully select committed and culturally sensitive staff to spearhead the partnerships. It is recommended that communications should be done in languages that are well-understood by OA parents and families. Having teachers who know the local indigenous languages and cultures would help tremendously to establish trusting relationships with OA parents and local communities. Many schools are already doing this, but the implementation is often hampered by the imbalance of power dynamics between schools and local communities. Therefore, a mechanism that involves consultation and negotiation with local OA communities needs to be established in order to mitigate the power imbalance.


(F) Summary: Summing Up with Reframing


Access to education for OA children is a multifaceted issue. Factors like the mismatch in the formal educational system, and the imbalance of power dynamics between OA communities and mainstream society need to be looked at. For any educational programme to work, we need to first realign our thinking and approach.


All this while, we have focused too much on ‘developing’ the communities and teaching OA children about the mainstream world and how to fit in. This one-sided approach takes away their pride and identity, and does not help in bridging the gap between them and the non-indigenous world.

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