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Education for All: Indigenous People of Peninsular Malaysia

In Malaysia, the government places an important priority on the role of education in shaping a great future generation. A systematic education institution will produce an innovative and skillful population. However, the distribution of opportunity and lack of awareness to include all ethnic groups create an unequal sentiment in the development programs. One of the groups which are consisted to be a minority population is the Orang Asli or indigenous people in Peninsular Malaysia. The Orang Asli reflects a common experience where they are viewed as poor, backward, and gives constant rejection towards development to be taking place. However, there are many other factors that lead to such assumptions, especially in regards of land ownership claims and striving for better education. The paper will examine the overview of the surrounding condition for Indigenous People and the cultural and social stigma that arise in relation to the acceptance of development programs.

Defining the Problem The term Orang Asli is referred to different aboriginal groups in the peninsular Malaysia who “speaks different language and observe different cultural practices” (Nah 2006: 286). Their identity as a tribal community entitled them to be governed under the national-­state policy. The government therefore, has the rights over their customary lands and power over their cultural heritage. According to Department of Orang Asli Affairs or JHEQA, these small groups consist of only 0.6 percent of the national population in the 2006 (Kamaruddin 2008;; 86). Even though the number representation shows little or no significant contribution to Malaysia as a whole, but their cultural heritage is worth preserving, therefore it is crucial to ensure that the future generations of indigenous people can keep up with the development programs planned for them. The main problematic areas regarding the indigenous people in Malaysia do not entirely revolve around development and rejection to modernity progress. It is the unequal benefits received by both sides of the key stakeholders;; the government and Orang Asli as a whole community. Many children of the indigenous people in Malaysia suffered from lack of education opportunity due to the poor basic infrastructure and economic projects development in the rural village (Kamaruddin 2008: 94). By gaining the status of bumiputra, Orang Asli should not be denied the access to education, claiming rights of land should not be a problem and they should be granted freedom in exercising their cultural beliefs. Thus, I found that it is crucial to study the incentives given by the government to the indigenous people in exchange to constantly penetrate their cultural barriers.

Identify the Current Needs First of all, it is important to note here that to deny one’s universal right such as access to education and healthy living lifestyle violate the Declaration of Human Rights as projected by the United Nations. We must therefore recognize the penetration done by government into the cultural and social practices of Orang Asli should not be with the intention to disturb or alter their belief. Moreover, the act continues to place emphasis on the failures of Orang Asli themselves, rather than placing the blames on the government itself. Looking at the three major problems faced by the community;; lack of land rights, limited access to mainstream education, and high rate of poverty, the problems do not centrally lie in the attitude of indigenous people only (Idrus 2010: 96). The government often cited that the reason behind high rates of dropout among Orang Asli children is because of the unsupportive mind-­set of elderly generation and rejection to modernity (Aiken and Leigh 2011: 475 – 476). Thus, as an anthropologist, this is where I see the tension occurs between the two stakeholders. It is important to consider both sides of the arguments and provide critical solution to benefit both parties.

The gaps in education access between majority groups in Malaysia, with indigenous people as one of the minority ethnic arises because of the education system itself. The educational environment did not take into account the Orang Asli culture into consideration, as well as lack of suitable and conditional school infrastructure in remote areas such as in the Orang Asli settlement villages (Idrus 2010: 96). The schools were built a distant away from the village, and sometimes it requires the children to walk as far as two hours to school. The classroom facilities were often not complete, due to the stigma that these children were not interested in pursuing studies, so the institution in charge did not bother to improve the condition (Means 1985:646). Because of these disparities in education access as stated above, it makes the effort to pursue formal education in institutions provided by government seems not worth it by the elder generation of indigenous people. Therefore, the refusal of modernity is not to be blamed on one side only, as there are many other factors that contributed to this rejection.

Recommendations Providing a solution to a never-­ending issue such as education access is a difficult task to handle. I will therefore take into consideration of the social indicators that I had identified throughout the discussion above. These included demographic areas, social matter, and economic policy implemented by government. JAKOA has strategically outlined several proposal in order to make sure the needs of these Orang Asli are met, and one of the striking ways is “to foster the development of aboriginal Non-­Governmental Organization or NGO’s and socio-­economy institutions via an empowering and participative program” (JAKOA 2012). I believe that the participatory-­model approach is one of the ideal short term solutions in gaining trust from the indigenous community. Programs such as tutoring sessions by undergraduate students in Anthropology, for example may foster the bond between indigenous communities with the outsiders of their cultural groups.

Not only that, having volunteers to come into their village and together with the help from the indigenous people to construct a new, improved learning facilities can also provide a great participatory action program. Next step that will encourage Orang Asli children to accept the development proposal by the government is by taking them to field trips and exposing them to the outside world. The integration is important to ensure mutual understanding from both parties. Malaysian government also has launched its policy towards the community which has provided opportunities for “equal footing, integration with advanced section of population” and the assimilation programs should not be done outside the traditional areas to preserve their own cultural beliefs (Kamaruddin 2008: 87). Sudden introduction to outside culture will not bring any good to the assimilation process.

Besides the short term solution, the need for long term efforts are also necessary in order to ensure the problems will not arise in the near future. Integration of Orang Asli culture in the education syllabus is also in great demand, particularly as a way to demolish negative perceptions towards this community by the majority of citizens in Malaysia. It is important, however to note that education system is not shaped to ruined the traditional belief among the Orang Asli, neither to define their ways of life as it is now to be backward nor lower mentality than the modern community. It is just that education is a necessary tool for individual development and it may be the biggest contribution in the process of dismantling inequalities systems in the society. With adequate education, future generation of indigenous people in Malaysia can negotiate the rights and demands for equality in citizenship status, land ownerships and many other issues related. Thus, I believe that every group should be given equal opportunity to voice out their concerns and these concerns should not to be neglected in the process of modernization.

_ Farah Syazwani Hayrol Aziz (Cabaran Penulisan Artikel – Kategori Terbuka)

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