Based on information from the Orang Asli and Orang Asli activists familiar with the issues facing the education of Orang Asli children, it appears that the tragic incident of the 7 Temiar schoolchildren who went missing on 23 August 2015 has its roots in the sad situation some Orang Asli schools and hostels (asramas) are in, and in the caliber and character of the people assigned to run them.
The school in Pos Tohoi in Gua Musang, where the 7 children were being schooled and boarded, was in a lamentable condition, sometimes with no water in the hostels, forcing the children to use the river. Broken and unmaintained fences allow easy access out the hostel grounds.
No Orang Asli teachers
There was no headmaster assigned to the school at the time of the incident. A new headmaster was posted there just the day before the visit of the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi on 28 September. The eight teachers are all male and none of them are Orang Asli. There are four wardens, only one of whom is a female. But the majority of the students are female.
School enrolment down
The school enrolment as at 23 August 2015 was 170 students, with 70 students staying in the hostel. Today, after the incident, there are 103 students enrolled, with only 12 staying in the hostel. The drastic drop on the enrolment and number of hostelites says a lot about the trust the Orang Asli parents have in the ability of the school to provide their children with a safe and conducive environment.
MoE new effort
The Ministry of Education has said Friday that it will immediately establish a special committee to look into various aspects involving Orang Asli children who stayed in hostels. It would also organize training sessions on the culture and way of life of the Orang Asli in stages to teachers in Orang Asli schools. This includes the appropriate “engagement methods to win over their thinking towards developments in education”.
It is most tragic that such a proactive approach of the Education Ministry had not come earlier before the Pos Tohoi tragedy. Such a basic requirement as ‘organizing training sessions on the culture and way of life of the Orang Asli to teachers’ should have been in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) in the past five decades for all teachers who are assigned to Orang Asli schools.
However, there is something wrong with language about “engagement methods to win over their thinking towards developments in education” which sounds like we are going back to the Emergency years.
Community Learning Centres
The DAP has sponsored 8 units of toilets and baths for a community learning centre in Kampung Ulu Tual in Pos Sinderut, Pahang in what is perhaps a model for what collaborative education for Orang Asli children should be all about.
Called the Pusat Didikan Komuniti Cenwaey Penaney (Smart Start Community Learning Centre): in their own area, with community involvement and management, with their own teachers, and with a curriculum that takes into account both mainstream and community/traditional needs.
Locally-based lower primary schools
Failing this, the Ministry of Education should consider going back to the earlier practice of siting lower Primary Schools (Std 1-3) within or close to village centers, which will not require very young children to be away from their families and villages for long stretches of time, just to get a basic education.
This system worked well in the past, and is now even more likely to have greater enrolment numbers in the early schooling years of the Orang Asli.
In order to fully understand what happened in SK Pos Tohoi that drove 7 young children to run away from school and stay away for long at the cost of lives lost, a fully independent inquiry must be conducted to know what really happened and to learn how we can learn from this tragic experience.
On a macro scale, the Ministry should undertake a more holistic Inquiry, with a wider scope than the committee it plans to establish. The Inquiry should look into the issues the Pos Tohoi tragedy has exposed.
Amongst other things, the Inquiry should look the training of more Orang Asli teachers to teach in Orang Asli schools, developing appropriate curricula and modules for Orang Asli schools, more inclusive and participatory involvement of Orang Asli parents and leaders, and a general rethink of what the philosophical pedagogy should be for Orang Asli schools.
I hope the new Minister of Education, Datuk Mahdzir Khalid, his Deputy Education Ministers and top Education Ministry officials will set the example of taking personal interest in the upgrading of Orang Asli education in the country.