Saturday, January 28

High Orang Asli dropout rate due to lack of monitoring, evaluation of aid programmes

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Orang Asli preschoolers are seen at work at SK Tohoi, Gua Musang. — Bernama photo

KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 1): Susherrie Suki, the first Orang Asli to graduate with first-class honours from the renowned University College London (UCL) in the United Kingdom, has proven to all and sundry that the indigenous people too can succeed in their studies.

The 23-year-old Orang Asli woman from the Semai clan in Perak, who received her Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning and Real Estate from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning in September this year, joins the list of icons who can inspire Orang Asli children to reach for the stars in their educational endeavours.

Several individuals from this minority group have made a name for themselves in various fields such as public service, academic, cultural, business, corporate and sports. To date, seven Orang Asli have been appointed as senators to represent the community. There were also two more senators, one appointed through the Pahang State Legislative Assembly and the other a political party appointee.

At a glance, the community’s achievements may seem laudable but the reality is something else. This is because their children are still backward in terms of education due to abject poverty and other factors.

Bernama had earlier revealed that 42.29 percent of Orang Asli students failed to complete their schooling up to Form Five in 2021. This is a worrying trend because ever since the nation attained independence, government and private agencies have been making an effort to encourage the Orang Asli to prioritise education for their children.

As former senator for the Orang Asli Datuk Isa Abdul Hamid succinctly said, data shows there are some 206,777 Orang Asli living in Peninsular Malaysia but only two percent of their children have succeeded in completing tertiary education.

“It’s clear that there is a huge gap between those who succeed (in education) and those who drop out (of school),” he told Bernama in an exclusive interview.

Assessment, monitoring lacking

Pointing out that the school dropout issue has worsened following the Covid-19 pandemic, Isa said the government under the leadership of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim bears the responsibility of looking into this matter which is weighing down the minority community.

To improve the Orang Asli children’s access to education, the previous governments implemented various programmes including the Orang Asli Transformation Plan 2013-2018 under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025; setting up of K9 and K11 Comprehensive Special Model Schools; providing financial aid; and conducting classes for Orang Asli parents.

But how far have these initiatives succeeded?  Isa acknowledged that they have to a certain extent succeeded in improving access to education but what he found lacking was the implementation and monitoring of the aid given out.

“As a result of (the aid programmes) not being evaluated regularly and upgraded accordingly, the Orang Asli continues to lag behind other races in various sectors,” he said.

Most social experts and academics Bernama spoke to concurred with Isa, saying that the agency or ministry concerned had failed to carry out regular monitoring and evaluation of the programmes.

Said Isa: “There’s nothing wrong with the programmes and aid. In fact, the Orang Asli have received a lot of aid and are not marginalised but the issue here is how they (programmes) were implemented and distributed, as well as monitored and assessed.”

Citing the transportation aid for Orang Asli schoolchildren in remote settlements as an example, he said the four-wheel drive vehicles provided to transport the children to school usually carry passengers in excess of their capacity, thus endangering the lives of the children.

“Obviously, the transport service providers who were given the tender by JAKOA (Department for Orang Asli Development) are trying to make a profit and they are not being monitored by the agency,” he claimed.

Increase aid

Isa also urged the government to review and increase the financial aid given to Orang Asli parents for the purpose of buying stationery and other items for their school-going children.

He said the amount currently given to them is insufficient to meet their needs in view of the higher cost of living.

Currently, the parents are given RM80 and RM120 a year for each child in primary and secondary school respectively. They also receive financial aid of RM150 (increased recently from RM100) at the beginning of each school year.

As for uniforms, JAKOA currently only provides free uniforms to Orang Asli schoolchildren in Year One and Form 1. Isa said he has received complaints from parents that the uniforms given to their children don’t fit them, thus forcing them to buy new ones.

“The financial aid given to them is not enough as some of them need to spend over RM200 to buy all the things their children need for school,” Isa said, adding that not having enough money is one of the main reasons many parents don’t send their children to school.

Most Orang Asli families earn less than RM500 a month, with their incomes plummeting whenever their crops are destroyed by wild animals or during the rainy season, particularly in the case of rubber tappers. Their hand-to-mouth existence forces them to give priority to putting food on the table over sending their children to school.

According to Isa, following the pandemic, more than 90 percent of Orang Asli are stuck in poverty.

He feels the financial aid for schoolchildren should come in the form of a monthly scholarship that can be given to their parents with the cooperation of the school authorities.

Isa also called for a review of the monthly food allowance of RM150 given to Orang Asli students studying in private institutions of higher learning.

“Based on studies that have been carried out, the amount is not sufficient for those who didn’t receive study loans from PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation).

“We know their academic qualifications are rather low but we must support the Orang Asli students’ willingness to study and improve their quality of life by providing them with better financial incentives. After all, there are fewer than 500 of them (studying in private institutions of higher learning),” he said.

Adult Class for Orang Asli and Penan Parents (Kedap) programme participants are taught by experienced teachers at SK Tohoi in Gua Musang. — Bernama photo

Improve road access

Isa said where their children’s education is concerned, the Orang Asli community, notably those living in remote areas, will continue to be dependent on government aid.

“They have no other choice as they earn so little,” he said. “Because they live in the interior of thick jungles with inferior roads, the middlemen they deal with buy their rubber, fruits, petai and other produce at low rates.”

Hoping that the new government will improve access to remote Orang Asli settlements, Isa said the improvements in rural infrastructure in some areas have led to the progress of some Orang Asli villages, one of them being Pos Kuala Mu in Perak which became a popular ecotourism destination following the construction of a proper road leading to the village.

“Other (Orang Asli) villages with good road access have enabled the people there to sell their oil palm and rubber products, durian, petai and other produce at higher prices. For example, before the roads were built, they could sell their bananas to the middlemen at only RM1 a kilogramme but now they sell them for RM3 per kg.

“With the good roads, the villagers are also able to go to the nearest town to buy essential goods at reasonable prices, unlike the people in Pos Simpor (in Gua Musang, Kelantan) who are forced to pay RM50 for a gas tank while the market price is around RM30,” he said.

Having proper road access also enables the Orang Asli villagers concerned to send their children to school regularly.

Isa, meanwhile, added that there is also a need to increase the number of Year 9 and Year 11 Comprehensive Special Model Schools (K9 and K11) that are meant for Orang Asli schoolchildren.

Under the K9 model, the children are required to complete nine years of their education in the same school, that is, from Year One to Form Three, with a hostel provided for those living far away from the school.

The K11 model, also with hostel facilities, requires the children to complete their primary and secondary education (Year One to Form Five) in the same school.

Currently, there are nine K9 schools and two K11 schools in the peninsula.

The K9 and K11 initiatives have succeeded in reducing the dropout rate among students transitioning from Year Six to Form One. Before the opening of these schools, there was a tendency for the Orang Asli children to leave school after completing Year Six as the secondary schools were usually located far away from their settlements.

Attitude problem

Isa also sees an urgent need to set up more Orang Asli Students’ Intellectual Centres to groom them for attaining excellence in education.

“Currently there are only two such centres, one in Pahang and the other in Terengganu, and they have proven to be successful in improving the educational achievements of the Orang Asli community,” he said.

He said the quota for Orang Asli students in the Tengku Ampuan Afzan Teachers Training Institute in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, should also be increased as it is the only campus in the country that has special intakes for Orang Asli trainee teachers who are given the training to equip them with the necessary skills to teach indigenous children.

“Right now, it produces only 20 to 25 Orang Asli teachers a year,” he said.

Even though the trainees concerned are from the Orang Asli community, it is important to provide them with the necessary teaching skills as each of the three Orang Asli ethnic groups – Senoi, Proto-Malay and Negrito – has its own culture.

This was supported by the findings of the latest study carried out by Universiti Malaya Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences senior lecturer Dr Rusaslina Idrus, together with another researcher Wan Ya Shin.

Their nine-month study, titled ‘Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children’, was done in 2021 under the auspices of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and covered the states of Selangor, Johor, Perak, Kelantan and Pahang.

Based on their findings, the researchers made 12 proposals for the government to take into consideration to stem the high dropout rate among Orang Asli schoolchildren. One of the proposals involved equipping the teachers with the special skills they would need to teach the indigenous children.

“We also saw the importance of providing quality preschool education. The children will be left behind if they enter Year One without any exposure to basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Moreover, Bahasa Melayu is not their mother tongue (so they need to learn the language),” said Rusaslina.

The researchers also suggested indigenous cultures and history be integrated into the mainstream curriculum, adding that trust and collaboration between schools and Orang Asli communities need to be built. They also said that Orang Asli communities should be empowered to be their own agents of change and participate in the Orang Asli-related policymaking process.

Head of the Department of Community Science and Development at Universiti Putra Malaysia Dr Mohd Roslan Rosnon, meanwhile, pointed to the importance of raising the level of awareness on the importance of education among the Orang Asli community.

“The poverty they endure has imposed limitations on their lives, causing them to think differently when it comes to their priorities including in the aspect of education.

“We often give them a fish instead of teaching them to fish. Their dependency (on the government) is worrying, hence they have to change their way of thinking. The stakeholder approach also needs to change … it must switch to fostering community efforts to make them more self-reliant, along with changes in their attitudes and way of thinking,” he said.

He said substantial financial allocations are also necessary to develop their human capital and enhance the capacity of their community. This can be done via education and training which will add more value to their human and social capital.

Mohd Roslan also hoped that his proposal to establish an Orang Asli Consultative Group or Higher Education Consortium through the National Orang Asli Education Committee will be given due consideration.

He said many countries with indigenous communities have established the education consortium which is accredited by the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC).

WINHEC’s aim is to bring professionals from indigenous groups together to achieve common goals through higher education.

Mohd Roslan also sees a need to review all documents concerning Orang Asli education and implement them in a comprehensive and integrated manner.

“This is because everyone has the right to quality education regardless of race. The gap (in education between the Orang Asli and mainstream society) must be addressed immediately,” he added. — Bernama