The Orang Asli are an indigenous group of people found in Malaysia. Known to be the oldest group of inhabitants on Malaysia’s Peninsula, they comprise people from different tribes and ethnicities such as the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah and many more.
In the past, many Orang Asli lived nomadic lifestyles and were self-sufficient hunter-gatherers. Many of their needs, such as food and shelter, were sourced from the forests. Some tribes, like the Temiar tribe, still practise this lifestyle. However, many have recognised that the world around them is quickly developing and they have taken measures to change their way of living. Many tribes are no longer nomadic and are operating with the modern Malaysian society. Unfortunately, the rate of development is rapid and makes it hard for Orang Asli communities who lack resources or knowledge to keep up with it.
As a marginalised group, many of the problems are hidden from the mainstream discourse, which includes education. The most worrying issue is the dropout rates among the Orang Asli, which stand at a high rate of 26% compared to the national rate of 4%. In this article, we shed light on the education obstacles that Orang Asli students face.
Most Orang Asli communities are situated in remote villages and sometimes even jungles such as the Batek people in Kuala Koh. The remoteness of these communities places them far away from schools, especially schools in cities. The long distance makes the commute the commute difficult, with many students having to either rely on vans to traverse the roads or walk to school. Such a commute takes up a lot of time and energy and contributes to the rising dropout rates.
In some villages, there are community schools. Unfortunately, these rural schools lag behind as they suffer from financial constraints. This could result in poor infrastructure, less-qualified teachers and fewer learning resources for the students. This robs students of the opportunity to obtain a quality education as their peers in other schools and puts them at a disadvantage.
At the Women Tribunal Malaysia virtual event, numerous Orang Asli children recounted stories concerning racial discrimination that they had experienced at their schools. They said that most complaints to teachers resulted in no action. As a result, some of them dropped out before completing secondary school.
Many Orang Asli students felt the need to hide their identity in order to blend in. This creates an unsafe space for them. On top of their schoolwork stress, they have to deal with the stress of bullies. Sometimes, this racial discrimination may also escalate and put their physical and mental health at risk. This pushes many of them to drop out of school. Thus, it is important to make sure that teachers are trained to on how to handle racial bias and make learning spaces safer for Orang Asli students.
Though the Orang Asli have been making changes, they are still at a disadvantaged because of the systemic structures in place. The government did not design the education system with the Orang Asli communities’ concerns in mind. While pursuing an education, Orang Asli students have to fit into a system that differs from the community they grew up in. In many Orang Asli communities, the concept of a school is foreign, as most children inherit skills through their families. Additionally, it was found that Orang Asli children preferred learning more about their own community compared to other school subjects.
The exam-oriented education system does not suit the learning styles or content that Orang Asli students are comfortable with. As a result, many Orang Asli children, stop going to school as they could not cope or fit in.
Another difficulty that Orang Asli students may face is the inability of parents to help their children. Many older generations of Orang Asli are illiterate because of a lack of opportunities to attend school. The parents cannot aid their children if they face difficulties in schoolwork.
Now that you know the plight of Orang Asli students, you may wonder why should you care? Education is a human right that should be granted equally to all. Though educational opportunities are being granted to the Orang Asli students, they are limited and do not reach all of them. There is still much work and help to be given to these students.
The situation is much more complex than we know. Therefore we need to learn and understand the historical context and the plight of Indigenous people before coming up with solutions. Educating ourselves about what is happening from credible news sources such as BBC, Times, Channel News Asia and Al Jazeera, would be beneficial.
Raising awareness is the second step to educating yourself. Armed with knowledge of the Orang Asli’s situations, share with your friends or family so that more know about the issues they face. By raising awareness, we can bring more attention to this situation.
We can all help in our own ways, in our own spaces.
If you have the means, you can also consider donating to organisations that aim to provide education to the Orang Asli. A little money can go a long way in providing resources such as textbooks, transportation or uniforms to students.
Who are the Patatas?
Here at the Patatas, we are also concerned about tackling education inequality in Southeast Asia. We are a social enterprise that has worked with schools in the Philippines such as our CaseStudy project with Tiwala Kids and Communities and have several exciting upcoming projects! We are currently exploring innovative ways to give opportunities to the communities without power or internet to make education accessible to them through technology. If you are interested in working with us, reach out to us!
If you have found this article helpful, feel free to share this article with the people you know.