ON Aug 23, three years ago, seven Orang Asli children were reported to have run away from a boarding school in Gua Musang, Kelantan. The nation was shocked and saddened with the news that of the seven children, five died tragically. There was much speculation and opinion — then and even now — of what went wrong and who was at fault, and what measures could have been taken to prevent such a tragedy from recurring.
But what remains unacceptable is how children as young as 7 years old could fear school that much to have decided to escape, and afterwards be too scared to be discovered.
A school is not just the building and the facilities it houses. For Orang Asli children, who come from a background that features less, what would “school” mean? This is the question that needs to be explored if education for Orang Asli and other marginalised minority students in Malaysia were to improve.
Orang Asli, just like other indigenous communities, have only recently made the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one. Thus, they come from a tradition that many of us conveniently or even ignorantly categorise as illiterate.
Education is important and development literature discusses how education is the answer to uplift poverty and improve the quality of life, especially for the marginalised, minority communities such as Orang Asli. However, an important question is, from whose perspectives or worldview is education presented for Orang Asli? How do Orang Asli children experience schooling?
We are all shaped by our worldviews, and indigenous communities’ worldviews can differ considerably from the cultural worldviews of dominant societies. Therefore, schools accommodating indigenous children must be aware that mainstream educational practices and approaches may not suit indigenous children.
For the majority of Orang Asli children, school is a place where they experience many things for the first time. In fact, research has shown that it is only when Orang Asli children attend school that they experience the sense of being different. For many of these children, school is the first place they encounter outsiders — their non-Orang Asli teachers. It can also be the first time they are spoken to in the Malay language.
Unlike the norm, where they are usually outside of their houses most of the time, the children have to endure being confined in a classroom for their lessons. Many children learn to sit on chairs and write on desks because home has few furniture.
Children experience new kind of fear when they encounter physical punishment or face abusive language for not answering the teacher correctly. It is in schools where Orang Asli children learn to function in a time-regulated, competitive and enclosed classroom environment. Such experiences for these children can outweigh what they learn in school.
In schools, most teachers work hard to ensure that Orang Asli children are able to “fit” into the education system rather than exploring how the present education system can accommodate their needs.
Simple expectations, such as the need for children to remain seated and pay attention to lessons, know how to follow instructions, understand the importance of completing homework on time, and even to remember what has been taught in lessons, are some of the challenges faced by teachers in Orang Asli schools. Often, practices that are valued in school may not be understood by Orang Asli children, who are accustomed to being independent and free.
There have been several significant initiatives from the Education Ministry to address literacy and educational issues among Orang Asli children, for example, through special rehabilitation and integrated curriculum initiatives. But it is crucial to understand that successful educational initiatives must move from adopting notions of “cultural inferiority” as the underpinning philosophy for Orang Asli educational programmes.
We need to embrace a “cultural difference” pedagogical approach that emphasises a shift in power relations from “teaching children’”to “learning with children, parents and community members” and celebrate the differences that exist. What is needed is creating space where practices at home are valued and celebrated and, at the same time, creating curiosity and desire for formal education that can help these Orang Asli children learn to only be literate and knowledgeable, but also be confident in mainstream practices.
DR SUMATHI RENGANATHAN
Department of Management and
Humanities, Universiti Teknologi Petronas