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Marginalised and misunderstood: Orang Asli education inequality persists

  • Orang Asli continue to be neglected and face lack of access to quality social services, economic and social marginalisation and poverty

By Vaisnavi Mogan Rao

Malaysia has been glorified for celebrating the differences of its multi-ethnic people. However, despite learning about the cultures and practices of Malays, Indians and Chinese throughout our primary education, as Malaysians our understanding of the Orang Asli community is incredibly shallow. The lack of representation of Orang Asli in our literature, politics and society in general has persisted for decades.

They continue to be neglected and face lack of access to quality social services, economic and social marginalisation and poverty. This has led to lack of care in their health, education and essential needs such as proper clothing and infrastructure. As a country that constantly celebrates the diversity and multiculturalism of its people, the continued neglect and marginalisation of the Orang Asli community is appalling.

As a nation that espouses the fundamental values of a constitutional democracy, the persistent education inequality faced by the Orang Asli community is a clear shortcoming of Malaysia in protecting their equal right to education as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. The right to education is universal and does not allow for any form of exclusion and discrimination. By providing individuals with access to quality education, we can empower them with the opportunity to participate in decision making regarding their life, future and community. Currently, this is not the case for the Orang Asli.

So, what is the current status of Orang Asli access to quality education? According to the latest statistics released by the government, the overall transition rate of Orang Asli students from primary education to lower secondary education in 2017 was 83%, with only 30% of Orang Asli students completing secondary school compared to a national average of 72%. Moreover, 28.7% of Orang Asli children that graduated as Year 6 students in 2009 did not enrol at secondary schools the following year. However, this number further declined to 17% in 2018. These statistics justifies the growing concern that despite a near-universal youth literacy rate of 99%, Orang Asli students are still confronted with persistent education inequality and the relevant government policies in the status quo may not be addressing the right problems.

But why are Orang Asli dropout rates so high? Findings from the ‘Giving Voice to the Poor’ nationwide survey on education by IDEAS that covered 1,200 respondents indicated that a lack of interest was the main reason for secondary school students to drop out of school. It was also revealed that education-related expenses such as private tuition fees are still a burden to low-income families. These findings are similar to the findings of research on Orang Asli education inequality conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia; the most striking parallel between the problems faced by students from low-income Malaysian households and students from Orang Asli households are the lack of interest and socio-economic factors that play a role in motivating students to drop out of the education system before completion.

A young Orang Asli artist, Shaq Koyok, has pointed out that while factors such as low socio-economic status and long distance of travel to school may affect access to education, the high dropout rates can be attributed to an education system that is unrelated to their way of life. He also stated that they often feel “colonised and ignored” as what is taught in schools seems irrelevant to them.

Lack of cultural sensitisation policies within schools has also led to an increase in the cases of bullying of Orang Asli children in the schools. A book called Kami Pun Ada Hak Bersekolah: Wanita Orang Asli Bersuara was published earlier this year and includes stories from 18 Orang Asli women’s experiences of bullying and discrimination while at school. One student wrote that her disinterest in going to school was due to constant bullying and discrimination from other students and worse, teachers. Discrimination of this marginalised community continues to exist to this day, affecting their trust in the education system and motivation to stay in formal education to enhance their learning. Non-Orang Asli children are still growing up with misconceptions of Orang Asli culture, ethnicity and world view. The Orang Asli children struggle to find a sense of belonging amongst their peers and persistent feelings of inferiority naturally reduces their interest in attending schools.

The lack of recognition and understanding of their culture and identity has affected their ability to integrate into the education system in a manner that is beneficial to their learning and well-being. This was further highlighted when the heart-wrenching 2015 incident of seven missing (two later found, five dead) Orang Asli students in Kelantan shed light on the actual needs of the indigenous children. One must wonder about the conditions of a school that would drive these children to run away, and the lack of long-term solutions following this tragic incident suggest a sheer lack of will within the government to address this issue.

Orang Asli are a unique community that values the preservation of traditional systems and beliefs within all aspects of their life. This is reflected in how they view learning as a process to become a good person rather than a competition for awards and achievements. This is juxtaposed to the structure of the current national education structure that requires children to learn within the confinement of the school through fixed curriculum and examinations.

The new Pakatan Harapan government is very much aware of the plight of the Orang Asli children. Their manifesto clearly stated that the government will allocate more resources to improve the infrastructure and logistical access to education. Within the schools, facilities will be improved and a curriculum that factors in their sociology will be implemented. Despite an increase in budget allocation in 2019, no concrete policies addressing the inequality of education for Orang Asli have been implemented.

The current policies may be well intentioned with the aim of providing the Orang Asli children access to equal education as non-Orang Asli children – however the necessary outcomes of education to improve one’s quality of life is not being achieved. On the contrary, children are being treated in ways that are detrimental to their well-being, violating their basic human rights. The equal treatment of unequal people only further widens social and economic inequality – this is especially true regarding education for marginalised societies.

The Orang Asli community is different, and their education needs to be tailored to recognise and respect these differences and most importantly empower them. It is time for the new government to start acting on their promises and fulfil their right to quality education. As a nation, we need to start recognising Orang Asli as equal members of society instead of reducing them to a check box of “others”.

(Vaisnavi Mogan Rao is researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS)


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