The authorities have to find a way to close the education gap between indigenous young Malaysians and their non-indigenous counterparts so they can become part of the solution to the challenges of the 21st Century. And it begins with the education of indigenous children. The tragic incident of the missing Orang Asli children from SK Pos Tohoi in Gua Musang, Kelantan, highlighted the need to address the weaknesses of indigenous education. Many Orang Asli children remain illiterate as they have no access to schools near their homes, as the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia notes. The Commission found that many Orang Asli children have no access to education because there are no primary schools or teachers where they live. The nearest functioning school is several hours away in most villages. What was the Education Ministry thinking when it decided to shut down a number of primary schools in a few Orang Asli villages which were built within close range of several villages? These schools ensured that young Orang Asli would not have to be physically removed from their families and their communities and placed in residential schools. But the ministry closed them, apparently convinced that they were “not economically feasible”.
Local researchers have studied the issue of indigenous education and the findings consistently revealed disadvantage with respect to early childhood education, educational attainment and employment outcomes. Education is critical to improving the social and economic strength of the indigenous communities to a level enjoyed by other Malaysians, but why is this not happening? The Commission insists on more allocation of resources to ensure that underserved populations, such as the Orang Asli children, have an equal access to education. This includes erecting schools nearby and assigning teachers who are able to appreciate, understand and respect Orang Asli culture and beliefs. Teaching children from indigenous communities requires sensitivity for their special needs and knowledge about their cultural protocols. Successful teachers relate content to real life and work around indigenous parents’ concerns. To be fair, teachers posted to Orang Asli schools face a host of challenges. These include getting to know the young learners and their families and travelling long distances to school. Little wonder that new teachers find the whole experience both mentally and physically exhausting. Convincing the Orang Asli of the value of education is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Orang Asli parents are afraid of losing their children to the outside world which may result in their loved ones discarding their identity and culture. But reform is necessary and it must be done properly.
The Education Ministry and its partners might find it useful to work with researchers from local universities and elders from the indigenous communities to gain important insights into indigenous culture. We hope the current state of indigenous education is not a reflection of a disturbing view that the Orang Asli and other indigenous communities do not deserve support. The purpose of government is to provide a safety net for the vulnerable and enhance their opportunities of economic participation. Indigenous young Malaysians are worth the investment because they want to survive so that they can thrive and contribute.