It is a daily dilemma for the orang asli children of Kg Ulu Tual as the lack of an efficient transport system prevents them from going to classes on time.
EVERY day before the crack of dawn, 12-year old Esah together with her sister 10-year old Franttey and their friends scuttle to secure a place on the back of two four-wheel drive vehicles for an hour-long journey across dusty jungle tracks to get to SK Senderut, a remote school located in Kg Ulu Tual, near Kuala Lipis, Pahang.
She and her friends from the orang asli community in the village are ready by as early as 4am to board the vehicles.
However, it can be quite disconcerting for the children and their parents as not all of them can make it to school on the vehicles, says Esah’s father, Simggol Oleh.
Each vehicle can take about 30 children – which is way above its maximum passenger capacity. Even with the two vehicles, only up to 60 children can be ferried to school, he adds.
On any morning, there will be children who will have to be turned away.
“We are upset with the transport situation. To make matters worse, one of the two vehicles isn't in a roadworthy condition ... it often breaks down,” adds Simggol, 39.
This means many children are missing school, a situation that is not acceptable to Simggol or the other villagers
“We have asked the department to provide more vehicles. Our children are really keen to go to school. No one should be left behind,” says Simggol.
He says the department had said that the allocation provided to the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) wasn’t enough which is why they can’t provide additional vehicles to ferry the children.
There have also been complaints that children are sometimes injured after falling off the vehicles.
“Obviously there will be accidents considering how overloaded the vehicles are but we have no choice,” he adds.
Still, the injuries have not been severe and the children have so far escaped with minor bruises and cuts.
If it rains, children can’t go to school because it is impossible for the vehicles to take the route.
“As a parent, I want my children to go to school ... I want my children to achieve more. My studies stopped at Form Five, I want my children to go to university. They must move up,” says Simggol.
“For me, education is the driving force for change and success. Many orang asli are still illiterate and live in rural villages, but they should not continue living in darkness,” adds the former pastor.
“There are opportunities everywhere and being a rural community all we ask is for a ‘lift’ up.
“We must have access to education just like what children in urban national schools get ... we must not be treated otherwise,” says Simggol.
He adds that building a school in Kg Ulu Tual may perhaps be a good idea as there are already over 100 school-going children in the village.
Village chief Harun Siden agrees saying that a school in the village would be the best solution.
The lack of a good transport system has frustrated the children and many of them are not keen to study.
“In fact, the number of children going to school is slowly dwindling and if nothing is done soon, we might have an entire village of dropouts,” says Harun.
“There are far too many pupils in SK Senderut, it is ‘overflowing’. Why can’t our village have its own school?” he asks.
Jenita Engi, the coordinator of the Cenwaey Penaney, a learning centre at the village is baffled at the authorities for their lack of interest in the community and its children.
“Pos Betau, a neighbouring village has a primary school with hostels for its pupils, so I am shocked that this village (Kg Ulu Tual which comes under the parliamentary constituency of Cameron Highlands), has been deprived considering the large number of school-going children here.”
Almost 50% of the village children have stopped going to school in recent months because of transport problems, she adds.
Jenita is confident that the children will do well, if they are in school every week day.
Even with limited resources at the learning cente, she shares that the pupils are able to grasp Mathematics and Science quite easily.
Datuk S.K. Devamany, who was the former Member of Parliament for the area says the department should step in considering the urgency of the problem.
“Immediate measures should be taken to improve the tranpsort system. It is a crime if children are not sent to school.”
It won’t be right to penalise parents when the department has not done its part in ensuring that adequate transport is provided to ferry the pupils to school and back, adds Devamany.
The department’s director Hasnan Hassan, while admitting that one of the vehicles is not as roadworthy, says “the department is looking for a reliable transport operator who will be hired in the immediate future”.
“We will ensure that the roads connecting Kampung Ulu Tual and other villages to Senderut will be upgraded so that more bus and van operators can serve the surrounding villages and ply that stretch,” adds Hasnan.
For now, the children of Kg Ulu Tual and their parents will have to make do with what they have.