DATUK Ajis Sitin, 56, is on a mission to get the indigenous kids back in school. Jakoa’s first Orang Asli director-general is a Semai tribesman from Ulu Jerai, Kuala Lipis, Pahang. A civil engineer by training, he doesn’t think his previous role is that different from his current responsibilities.
“It’s important to go back to the basics. As an engineer, I’m well-versed in financial, project, and people management. These are the same skills needed to help improve the welfare of the Orang Asli. I understand their issues because I am from the community.
“I’ve lived in the jungle, trapped squirrels and fished in the river. Now, I’m sitting in an office facing the majestic Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of KL,” said the father-of-nine.
We’ve come a long way
Recalling how he and his two brothers were among the country’s first generation of Orang Asli children to go to school, Ajis said it wasn’t easy although his school was only a kilometre away from the village.
“Today, some 90% of Orang Asli parents have been to school and can read. In the 70s, our parents couldn’t even say the alphabet.
“My father would always ask us boys to help our mother tap rubber. While he never encouraged us to study, neither did he stop us from going to school. It was up to us. So we relied on our own initiative.”
Determined to make something of himself, Ajis went to a Jakoa-run school in the village. At the time, Orang Asli schools were run by the department and the teachers were Jakoa staff.
“Some of our teachers only had Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP) qualification but they were dedicated and did their best. These Jakoa schools were only meant to teach us the basics.
“Orang Asli kids in the villages would study in such schools from Years One to Three before moving to a proper mainstream school in the district.”
Now Orang Asli education is under the ministry. It was something Jakoa pushed hard for.
“Things are much better now. When I was a student, there was discrimination. Some called us stupid. Some teachers gave up on us just because we were Orang Asli.
“I was poor and I wasn’t a looker. But I was smart. And I always made sure my clothes were clean. Though I felt different, I was friendly to everyone.”
Why they’re dropping out
The high dropout rate among Orang Asli students is among Jakoa’s challenge, he admits.
Villages in the town and city fringes have been catered for. All the infrastructure is there. The ‘hardcore’ areas that need urgent attention are Ulu Kelantan, Ulu Pahang, and Ulu Perak.
The location, and ecosystem of schools, the lack of peers to look up to, the absence of parental support, and low motivation and literacy among the students themselves, are why students generally dropout.
At preschool, the lack of parental encouragement, and the wrong teaching approach result in children not wanting to go to kindergarten. Mastery of reading, writing, and counting (3M) skills are not a priority for some at primary level. These pupils have low self esteem, and are not confident of their ability to learn. For secondary students, social, disciplinary and personality issues are the cause. They’re easily influenced by their friends to dropout, and have problems interacting with those from other ethnic groups.
In most cases, Orang Asli kids dropout because they cannot cope, Ajis thinks.
There are some 78 hostels in the peninsula for school-going Orang Asli kids who live in far-flung villages.
“These kids are very young. They struggle to cope when they’re separated from their parents. We can’t expect kids aged seven or eight to care for themselves. Only the really driven, resilient ones will stay on.”
Keeping them in school
Ajis said keeping them in school means making sure that they’re comfortable.
Hostels for Orang Asli kids should have chaperones from the different villages. With a familiar face around, the kids won’t feel lost and alone.
“The Orang Asli community is a very close knit family. It’s like that in every village,” he said, adding that another pressing issue is to take care of their basic needs.
To ensure that these kids are not left out of mainstream education, we have to make sure that every child has shoes and uniforms, transport, scholarships, and pocket money, for school.
“It’s the bare minimum. Without these necessities, they won’t go to school.”
Jakoa conducts initiatives like the Education Exposure, Let’s Go to School, and 3M Mastery, programmes. These are aimed at preschoolers and primary pupils to ensure their successful integration into mainstream education. Motivational programmes for parents are also conducted. The department, which looks after the welfare of the Orang Asli community, works closely with the Education Ministry to encourage dropouts to go back to school. Several working committees have been set up to carry out mindset transformation, parent and community involvement (PIBK), camps and special orientation, and mentor-mentee programmes, at grassroot level to bring and promote mainstream education in Orang Asli communities. “Everywhere I go, I tell these families that education is crucial if you want success. But we must be realistic and address their needs first.”
Everyone has a role
Ajis welcomes experts and non-governmental organisations keen on assisting the community in education, to approach Jakoa. With the help of volunteers, more intervention programmes can be carried out to narrow the performance gap between schools in different locations, and with varying needs.Many varsities and private companies have already gone into the villages to help.
The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and CIMB project in Pos Gob has really made a difference, he said.
“The dropouts were invited to join a community school in the village and today, these kids have managed to get back into the mainstream education system and are coping well.”