We have been negligent in addressing the issues faced by the Orang Asli of Malaysia. We rob them of their ancestral lands and encroach on their way of life.
Living in inaccessible and remote villages, dotted on the jungle fringes, Orang Asli children have physical barriers which impede their journey to school. Most of us take for granted our school buses and tarred roads; Orang Asli children have bridges, muddy paths and bloated rivers to navigate.
The lucky ones who attend boarding schools have an added threat; they face the possibility of physical and mental trauma from religiously dogmatic teachers, who aspire to rob these children of their chosen faith.
After their parents, teachers are perhaps the other most important people in a child’s life. Most people would say that teaching is a noble profession but one teacher who was based at the SK Bihai, a school which caters to the Orang Asli and which is located close to the Kelantan-Perak border, has brought shame on the profession. This teacher allegedly slapped four Orang Asli children for failing to recite their doa (prayers) after lunch.
First. No teacher should use physical violence to discipline children. The actions of this teacher could be construed as assault, which is punishable under section 323 of the Penal Code.
Second. The children were non-Muslim. Section 17 of the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 states that no Orang Asli child should be obliged to receive religious teachings, without prior consent from the parents.
The slapping incident occurred on October 23 and three fathers from Pos Bihai made a three-hour journey to lodge a police report against the teacher who had allegedly slapped their four 12-year-old daughters.
Instead of ordering an investigation into the incident, the Rural and Regional Minister Shafie Apdal denied that the children had been slapped. What was the reaction of the Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin?
Reporters investigating the incident have revealed further problems faced by Orang Asli children. Arom Asir, the unofficial spokesman complained about the standard and quality of teaching at the SK Bihai, which accommodates around 200 pupils.
He said, “The teachers only come in on Sunday and therefore cannot teach, so they teach from Monday to Wednesday, and by Thursday noon, they are already preparing to go back home. The students are asked to return to their hostels”.
Arom, who is also the SK Bihai Parent-Teachers Association deputy chairman claimed that the 12 school teachers all returned to their hometowns in Kelantan during the weekend. He also complained about teachers who concentrated on teaching religion rather than focusing on more important subjects. He said that none of the children were Muslim.
Hassan Achoi, the father of a girl who had been slapped, said that his daughter had run out of the school after being slapped. “They cried all the way home, and when we found out that the teacher had slapped our children, the villagers went to the school. I was angry, and there was a lot of shouting,” said Hassan.
One child’s father Atar Pedik said that despite an apology from the teacher, the parents at the school were undecided about the follow-up action they should adopt to prevent a recurrence and for an appropriate punishment for the teacher.
Arom said, “We want such irresponsible teachers to be moved out. We only want true educators, so that our children can become smart and go to university. “But now, many of our Year Six pupils sent to the secondary school in town still cannot read and write. This causes the teachers there to say the Orang Asli are stupid, but the fact is that they are not properly taught here.”
He listed other parental grouses such as teachers not attending classrooms and not preparing end of term reports, for the parents. Many parents believe that “problem teachers” have been sent to teach at schools in the interior, a charge denied by the Education Department.
The parents said: “We have complained about the teaching being provided for only three days a week on many occasions, but the answer from the school is always that it will be looked into. But nothing happens.” Other parents said that they had contacted the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (Jakoa) to discuss various issues, but have yet to receive a reply.
The slapping incident is only the tip of the iceberg. Other problems, which the Education Ministry has yet to address, is schooling for six and seven year old children, who are too young to be housed in a hostel, on their own.
Perhaps, the worst nightmare for the Orang Asli is the study done by the NGO, Child Rights Coalition Malaysia, which found that around 45,000 children, most of them from the Orang Asli community, do not go to school. These children were not receiving any education because their citizenship was not recognised.