By Alvin Ung
One evening, near Sekolah Kebangsaan Lemoi, I sat on the rock that drove a teacher nearly mad.
It was a gorgeous evening in the interior jungles of Cameron Highlands with the sunset lighting up the scudding clouds blown by a light breeze. Up on this rock overlooking the primary school for Orang Asli children, I was far, far away from the toxic haze blanketing swathes of Selangor, Johor and Singapore.
And yet in this slice of paradise, on this rock, sat a young teacher who had been posted here. Day after day, for hours on end, he sat here and talked to himself until the headmaster, Omardani, transferred him back to the city. “He couldn’t take the life here,” Omardani told me.
What was this teacher thinking as he talked to himself? What were the dark thoughts billowing through his mind that crippled his ability to teach?
Maybe he was thinking what I was thinking. Which is…why bother? Why bother working so hard in an obscure place where you’re bound to fail?
After decades, the Orang Asli remain a small and somewhat forgotten community. Most of the villagers in Pos Lemoi do not have a permanent job. They farm, fish and hunt for their own consumption, so they aren’t able to accumulate savings. Their houses are made of bamboo. Most do not have electrical supply; at night the village is pitch-black. Nearly 8 out of 10 people are poor, while 35% have been classified as “hardcore poor,” according to government statistics.
At best, it seems to me, there will be well-intended folks trying to do something for the Orang Asli without really listening to their needs or seeking their feedback. Just this month, the government is proposing to amend the Aborigines Act 1954 in Parliament, purportedly to improve the protection, culture, health, poverty and education of the Orang Asli. And the Orang Asli have not been consulted. “We object because no copy of the amendment was given to us,” said Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Villages Coalition (JKOASM) coordinator Tijah Yok Chopil earlier in July. For decades, Orang Asli land has been coveted for its timber and minerals, and converted into oil palm or rubber plantations, and sometimes golf courses.
At worst, it puzzles me that the public – including a few (though not all) officers in the Ministry of Education – still view the Orang Asli as stupid, backward or mentally slow. There was a time when the British colonials viewed the Malays in that light, and now we are doing the same to the Orang Asli.
There is little acknowledgment that the learning methods of the Orang Asli children – who grew up singing, story-telling and acquiring rituals – has to be different from urban kids. Researchers have shown that the rigid curriculum in the national school system has impeded rather than aided the children’s advancement. The biggest problem is language. The kids here speak Semai. Without any exposure to Bahasa Malaysia or English, the Year 1 curriculum poses a huge barrier. And yet an education official also told me that government efforts to produce a different standardized curriculum for Orang Asli has further marginalized them. So: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
I admire the principal and teachers here at SK Lemoi. Omardani’s goal is to ensure that no Orang Asli child in his school gets left behind. But I do wonder: Why bother working so hard to help the Orang Asli children achieve the necessary grades to pass the Year Six UPSR exam?
Even if a few hardworking kids make it to secondary school, the process of integrating into an urban school is so confusing and intimidating that the children return to their villages, their confidence shattered. So how will this education help them break out of the cycle of poverty?
“Write about winter in the summer,” Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard once wrote. Here, in this beautiful place, I ended up thinking dark thoughts, as I typed on my iPad, perched on the rock.
Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw four children peering at me from behind a few rocks. I waved them over. Soon I was surrounded by a dozen boys and girls.
So I handed my iPad to shy girl. Her name is Julia. She touched the screen with a finger. Her eyes bulged with wonder when a digital keyboard popped out. Like magic. I asked her to write down her name, age and where she came from.
“My name is Julia. I am ten years old. I come from Kampung Terlimau,” she wrote painstakingly, as she hunted for the right letter, amid cheers from her friends. Her eyes glowed with delight when she finished.
The other children who were crowding over me – in front and behind me, under my armpit, and across my shoulder – clamored for their turn.
“My name is Norsyakira. I am eleven years old. I come from Cenan Cerah,” wrote another bright-eyed girl. More screams. Me! Me! My turn!
“My name is Emadora. I am eleven years old. I come from Cenan Cerah.”
“My name is….” And on and on they went.
Some parents have complained to me that their kids, even in Year Six, can’t read the alphabet or spell. That wasn’t true. Other teachers and education officers have said that the Orang Asli kids were slow learners. That wasn’t true either.
My spirits lifted in the presence of the children.
Then they started singing. I recorded their songs in Semai, and played it back to them on the iPad. Howls of laughter ensued. I was being smothered by a thicket of arms, legs and unidentified limbs. To get them off me, I suggested that we take photos. They posed on the rock.
By now it was dusk. The makcik, the canteen operator, who was watching the children with a big smile, shushed them and asked them to return to their hostel. The children promptly left – laughing all the way back.
As I gazed on the rock where I sat, I realized that my bleak mood had lifted. I felt a lightness of being.
Why does Omardani and his teachers keep on persevering in the work they are doing? Why bother?
Finally, the answer is simple: because we care. In my book Barefoot Leadership, I discovered that a number of the leaders I interviewed – ordinary people who achieved extraordinary results with surprisingly few resources – fell into depression when they looked at the macro landscape and the challenges besetting Malaysia. It was paralyzing. But when they chose to do something, no matter how small, they started to create something beautiful.
As I ask myself this question – weeks later – I pull out my iPad and look at what the children wrote: their names, their age, where they’re from. That is the essence of who they are. That list of names, for me, is something sacred.
The answer to that question does not come through intellectual reasoning. It comes through the physical presence of the children.
It can be dangerous to sit on a rock and think big thoughts. The truth is that we all need human contact. Children help us get in touch with our true inner selves. They show us possibilities. And we owe it to them to create possibilities for them.