Lecturer becomes first Orang Asli woman to receive prestigious Merdeka Award Grant


Masni Mat Dong dons her tribal headdress. Photo: Masni Mat Dong

Growing up as an Orang Asli from the Jakun tribe in a small kampung, Masni Mat Dong understood, from an early age, the troubles that her people went through.

“My father was a waste collector and we weren’t well-off. There were seven of us siblings at home in Kampung Orang Asli Bukit Bangkong Sg Lembing in Pahang. My parents couldn’t afford to raise me and I was given up for adoption when I was six months old,” says Masni.

“I was raised by my aunt and uncle who were farmers in Kampung Sg Soi Kuantan, Pahang,” she says.

“Even though we were poor, my growing years were full of joy. I saw how hard my aunt and uncle worked to raise me up even though they weren’t well-to-do,” she adds.

Masni at four years old, holding a crab. Photo: Masni Mat DongMasni at four years old, holding a crab. Photo: Masni Mat Dong“Despite limited resources, I had a burning desire to pursue my higher education. From young, I wanted to do my PhD. This wasn’t my dream alone, but the aspiration was fueled by both my biological and adoptive parents,” she shares.

“I’m happy to say that my dream has come true. I passed my PhD a month ago and by end September, I’ll be able to use the official Dr title,” she beams happily.

Masni’s biological and adoptive parents emphasised the importance of a good education.

“My aunt and uncle would bring me to visit my parents twice a month, and they would always tell me: ‘the only way to escape poverty and hardship is through a good education’,” she says.

Masni adds that her adoptive and biological parents also taught her the importance of humility.

“They would advise me: “Never forget your roots and where you came from. Never be afraid to be who you are and be the best that you can be.”

Masni standing tall after her Masters Degree graduation ceremony. Photo: Masni Mat DongMasni standing tall after her Masters Degree graduation ceremony. Photo: Masni Mat DongThe 33-year-old lecturer at Tunku Abdul Rahman University of Management and Technology, is also the first and only female Orang Asli to receive the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment.

This is a key programme by the Merdeka Award Trust. It offers Malaysians the opportunity to engage in collaborative projects and programmes with international institutions as well as foster growth in various disciplines.

Since it was introduced in 2012, 29 grantees have gone on to top-ranked host institutions in more than 30 countries in diverse fields such as education, arts, sports, community, social work, environment, health, science and technology.

“The award isn’t just a grant or recognition, but it embodies the very essence of all I strive for in my work and life. It is an acknowledgement of the challenges faced by the Orang Asli which I’m deeply committed to address,” says Masni who is married, and has eight cats and a puppy.

It’s my hope that through this, Orang Asli issues will gain attention and importance, and the community will have the rights that they deserve, she says.

“The award will provide the platform for me to collaborate, learn and grow because from the international attachments, I can gain a global perspective, collaborate with industry experts, and bring back the knowledge to benefit Malaysia and the Orang Asli,” she adds.

Masni Mat Dong (second from left) pictured with her husband  Loh Voon Shin (first from left) and her family. Photo: Masni Mat DongMasni Mat Dong (second from left) pictured with her husband Loh Voon Shin (first from left) and her family. Photo: Masni Mat Dong

More attention needed

One of the issues that the Orang Asli face is the low enrollment rate and lack of interest in school and the high dropout rate of those who do enroll, says Masni.

“Children and teenagers lack the motivation to go to school or continue their studies because they see limited benefits (of schooling) in their immediate surroundings.

“When I returned to my village to study the situation, I noticed that the environment doesn’t really give children any motivation to study. They look at their parents who aren’t educated, and then come to the conclusion that they can live reasonably well without going to school,” she explains.

“I see them foraging and collecting natural resources for sustenance and to sell, and their environment doesn’t really emphasise the importance of education.

“Living in that kind of environment leads to high dropout rates from school, and social issues. Children and teenagers also often choose to stay at home as it means they won’t be bullied because they’re Orang Asli,” she adds.

In her fieldwork, Masni focused on the marginalisation of the Orang Asli who continue to live in poverty. Photo: Masni Mat DongIn her fieldwork, Masni focused on the marginalisation of the Orang Asli who continue to live in poverty. Photo: Masni Mat Dong

Masni says that she was bullied as a child for this reason.

“Some classmates called me derogatory names: ‘jakun’ (meaning uncouth in Malay) or ‘chawat’ (referring to the loincloth Orang Asli wear). Others asked me if I lived in a tree.

“Even though I felt annoyed and disrespected, I tried not to take it personally. It taught me to be independent and self-reliant, and I learnt everything by myself,” she says.

“They stereotyped the Orang Asli because they didn’t understand us. But we’re human just like other people.

“In a multicultural country like Malaysia, we’re a small part of the population facing struggles that are overlooked.

“We want to let people know we exist, we might look different, but we're also human, just like everyone else. At the end of the day, we’re all the same,” says Masni.

Masni (in gray and purple) during her fieldwork trip's focus group discussion, celebrating the powerful narratives of indigenous women. Photo: Masni Mat DongMasni (in gray and purple) during her fieldwork trip's focus group discussion, celebrating the powerful narratives of indigenous women. Photo: Masni Mat Dong

The Orang Asli, she says, also face issues with land rights.

“They’re not able to protect their ancestral lands and cultural heritage because it is seized for development,” she explains.

The Orang Asli depend on natural resources and it’s difficult when they lose the opportunity to go into the forest to get these natural resources,” she says.

“Additionally, the remoteness of many Orang Asli villages is an issue. It takes five to six hours to get to the nearest town.

“Basic facilities such as hospitals (access to healthcare) are far away and this makes their daily life a struggle,” she says.

Masni cites the example of a young Orang Asli woman who had the opportunity to attend a job interview but couldn’t show up because of logistics problems.

From personal experience and professional observation, it’s vital to create more public awareness about the struggles of the Orang Asli, says Masni.

“If nothing is done and they don’t take steps to move forward, then problems such as loss of cultural identity, land rights, remoteness, spatial injustice and others will continue.

“Malaysia has been independent for 66 years but the Orang Asli are still at the stage where they face issues such as poverty and land rights,” she says.

Doing her part

Masni Mat Dong (right) pictured with her husband Loh Voon Shin. Photo: Masni Mat DongMasni Mat Dong (right) pictured with her husband Loh Voon Shin. Photo: Masni Mat Dong

In her research paper, Reimagining Inclusive Development: A Spatial Justice And Multidimensional Poverty Perspective On the Orang Asli In Malaysia, she highlights that the Orang Asli have been “marginalised and subjected to poverty for generations”.

“Despite the country’s rapid economic growth, the Orang Asli continue to face challenges such as inadequate education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

“The problem of poverty is immensely severe among the Orang Asli living in remote and isolated areas,” she says.

“My research shows that poverty among the Orang Asli is influenced by factors such as limited access to education, healthcare, and basic services, as well as discrimination and inequality in accessing resources and opportunities,” she adds.

Masni has three options of host universities for her international attachment: Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford, England; Department of Sociology, University of Essex, England; and Maori and Indigenous Studies, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

“I hope that when I return, I can contribute to policy makers, stakeholders, NGOs, anyone that has anything to do with Orang Asli,” she says.

She adds that she’s helping not just the Orang Asli but also other communities in Malaysia who face poverty.

“My vision is of a future where the Orang Asli’s quality of life is significantly improved, where they are empowered, and where sustainability is ensured through continuous engagement and promotion of sustainable livelihoods, based on local resources and traditional knowledge,” she concludes.

Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment

The Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment is a key programme by the Merdeka Award Trust, established by Petronas and Shell. It offers Malaysians between the ages of 22 and 35 the opportunity to engage in short-term collaborative projects and programmes with international institutions as well as to foster growth in various disciplines.

Since it was introduced in 2012, 29 grantees have been supported in more than 30 countries in the world's top-ranked host institutions for diverse fields such as education, arts, sports, community/social work, environment, health, science and technology. They have gone on enriching learning experiences in renowned institutions in the US, England, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland and Australia.

The recipients will gain experience that enables them to enhance their expertise, refine their work and achieve more significant accomplishments, during their three-month attachment programme.

They will collaborate with distinguished scientists, academics and industry professionals, as well as acquire best practices that can be replicated in Malaysia. The Grant covers all expenses related to the attachment, including logistics, accommodation and allowances.

The selection process, which commenced in January this year, attracted over 160 high-calibre individuals across Malaysia. The finalists are chosen based on the sustainable impact of their work for the environment and in community development.


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