By Carolyn Hong
Dona was five years old, her red dress damp. She had walked for an hour with her elder sister from their home in Kampung Tiku to the school in Kampung Buayan of Sabah.
Shy on her first day of school when I met her in January this year, she soon warmed up to the kindergarten teacher Irene. Her sister is in primary school. They live close enough to walk to school daily but some of their classmates from villages two hours or more away have to live in Buayan in order to attend school. Some of them are just seven years old.
Buayan and its neighbouring villages are deep in Sabah’s Crocker Range, and, until last November, they could only be reached on foot. An earth road has now reached Buayan but villagers still use the old jungle path between the villages as they do not own vehicles.
In remote parts of Malaysia, children are often separated from their parents from as young as seven to attend school in a nearby village. By the time they are 13, they would be living miles away in town for their secondary education. Other than holidays, they may never return to live with their parents in the village again.
This has posed a serious challenge to raising educational achievement in remote areas, mostly in Sabah and Sarawak, even as the government pours in funds to upgrade the infrastructure and equip the schools with better amenities.
The early separation from their parents can be emotionally traumatic for the children, says Baru Bian, a state assemblyman for the remote constituency of Ba Kelalan in Sarawak. It has contributed to problems like a high dropout rate, poor academic results and disciplinary issues, he said.
He, too, had lived in a boarding school since he was nine and only went home once a year as his village was several days’ walk away. Baru was from the Long Semadoh village which is today reachable by a logging road. He said that, even up to 17 when he was in Form Five, he used to cry when he arrived back in school after the long holidays as he missed home. He said the school’s strong Christian network had helped them cope, and they were also fortunate that social problems were less common at that time.
“I’m dealing with this issue right now because many parents have voiced fears of social problems when the supervision of their children is left just to the teachers,” he said.
He said that, in his last two visits to the interior, his constituents spoke about problems with drugs and discipline. The parents also feared that their children may not get adequate spiritual guidance.
It can also be difficult for young kids to adjust to life in the town, and some get bullied. Oswald Michael, a forklift driver who grew up in Kampung Tiku, said some of his schoolmates returned to the village because they could not cope. He finished his Form Five before going to work.
Baru said more secondary schools should be built in the remote villages, if the government could afford it, so that the children can stay nearer to home until they are at least 15 and less impressionable.
The government has already upgraded a handful of remote primary schools throughout Malaysia to enable them to provide classes up to Form Three. This year, it plans to similarly upgrade at least another eight schools in Sabah and Sarawak.
This is under the Sabah and Sarawak Interior Schools Education Transformation programme to close the gap between urban and rural schools. Other measures include improving amenities including hostels and additional training for teachers.
Having a school nearer home could encourage people like Sagen Aden, a farmer and guide whom I met in Kampung Semban in Sarawak, to continue his education. He regretted dropping out to work after standard six even though he had done well in school. He said he could have asked for government financial aid but felt embarrassed. Besides, he did not want to leave his village which is, up to today, still a four-hour walk from the nearest road.