There's more to learning

THE educational gap between the country’s indigenous and non-indigenous schoolchildren will be addressed over the next three years.

A problem that has plagued Malaysia’s education system for far too long, the lack of access to quality teaching and learning that has prevented Orang Asli children from achieving their full potential is finally being addressed as the Education Ministry focuses on strengthening the quality of education for these students.

The six key areas that have been identified in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 under the Orang Asli and Indigenous Students Education Transformation initiative are:

> identifying Orang Asli children who are not in school;

> providing guidance and motivation to Orang Asli communities;

> encouraging and motivating Orang Asli children to instil a reading culture and interest in schooling;

> providing learning materials for Orang Asli children;

> encouraging children to attend school by providing food assistance, stationery and other learning materials; and

> engaging with stakeholders such as the ministry and the Orang Asli Development Department.

The Orang Asli and Indigenous Students Education Transformation initiative is in the final stages of implementation, the ministry told StarEdu.

“The initiative was implemented to ensure equal access to education for indigenous students, along with mainstream education, can be achieved.

“These six areas are among our primary focus in working together with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enhance Orang Asli education.

“Some of the key areas identified have been implemented. We are working on implementing the remaining ones.

“We are continuously planning and implementing various programmes and initiatives with governmental agencies and NGOs to ensure Orang Asli students remain relevant in mainstream education,” the ministry said.

These plans were discussed between the ministry, NGOs and stakeholders during a recent roundtable organised by Ideas.

Held last month, the roundtable was part of an Orang Asli Project in collaboration with the ministry and The Fourth Media.

Access to education for Orang Asli students is a contentious issue, Ideas chief executive officer Tricia Yeoh noted, explaining why critical discussions and impact analysis of previous efforts, and the ways to improve existing initiatives, are important.

The roundtable, she said, was aimed at stimulating conversations and discussing efforts that had been made.

“We wanted to create a platform where stakeholders could engage, provide more critical insights and explore collaboration opportunities,” she shared.

Quality teachers and effective school leaders also play a role in impacting students’ morale.

A special service training for school leaders in Orang Asli schools, known as the Accelerated School Leaders Initiative (ASLI), was launched on April 7 by Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon.

The programme, he said during the launch, will train school administrators in providing them with new ideas and support to bridge the learning gap for indigenous children. It is a collaborative effort between the ministry, Pemimpin GSL - an NGO - and the Perak state education department.

Quality over accessibility

While these initiatives and discussions are a way forward to improve the standard of education for Orang Asli students, Ideas emphasised that focusing on the quality of education, instead of access to education, is crucial.

In a paper it published last December titled “Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children”, the authors argued that quality, rather than access, matters more as it would ensure the specific needs of Orang Asli students are addressed.

This is because access to education, they said, does not naturally translate into learning. The paper, which is the second installation to a two-part study by Ideas, also highlighted policy recommendations to reduce and eradicate the education inequality faced by Orang Asli students (see infographic).

StarEdu highlighted the first paper in 2020, which focused on the disparity in access to quality education for indigenous schoolchildren, particularly Orang Asli students.

Wan Ya Shin, who is one of the authors and former Ideas acting research director, said she hopes the policy recommendations outlined in the paper can be used to support and strengthen the ministry’s Orang Asli and Indigenous Students Education Transformation initiative.

“Our policy recommendations are based on interview findings, focus group discussions and recommendations from Orang Asli parents,” she said, adding that all stakeholders must come together to work with the ministry if the educational gap is to be narrowed.

Wan and co-author Dr Rusaslina Idrus, who is a social anthropologist from Universiti Malaya, examined the need for effective implementation, and relevant and high quality education for Orang Asli students in their paper.

“In the ministry’s 2020 annual report, the general focus seemed to be on increasing attendance and improving (pupils’) transition from Year Six to Form One.

“The focus on achieving a minimum standard for the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) has shifted to prioritising access to school because the Year Six examinations were abolished in 2020.

“Although examinations and standardised tests are not the best indicator of learning and have flaws, they are still a method to test whether pupils are learning in class.

“With the removal of the UPSR examinations, there is a need for other means of identifying if pupils are learning in schools,” they wrote.

Not having a means to monitor pupils’ learning progress could lead to their weak mastery of basic literacy and numeracy skills. This, they stressed, would be too late to fix once the pupils enter secondary school.

According to the paper, only 29.9% of Orang Asli pupils achieved the minimum standard for UPSR in 2019 but there has been some progress since.

In November last year, the ministry revealed that while 42.29% of Orang Asli students did not complete their Form Five education, it was an improvement from the 58.62% in 2020. Despite this positive development, the authors noted that there is still much work to be done in providing quality education for Orang Asli students.

“The issue of education inequality faced by Orang Asli children has been recognised by the Malaysian government, with various policies and programmes implemented to address the challenges.

“Despite some progress, this education gap remains unresolved,” the Ideas authors wrote.


“Many Orang Asli families know the importance of obtaining an education but most of them only start at the age of seven, compared to the mainstream community that starts their educational journey at an earlier age. It’s crucial for indigenous parents to change their perceptions of education and motivate their children to go to school.

The community is inundated with many challenges, including social issues, which hinder their progress in studies.

As an Orang Asli and a teacher who educates Orang Asli children, I have noticed alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancy and teen marriages; these affect enrolment in schools and education attainment levels.

It is heartbreaking as an educator to see your pupils fall in this social cycle.

If it is not addressed, it will be passed through generations, similar to situations where young parents who are financially unstable will not be able to provide a secure future for their children and parents who lack educational awareness will allow their children to skip school.

Therefore, social problems must be addressed to instil motivation among the Orang Asli youth to pursue their studies.

Our hope is that they break this cycle through their children, which requires effort from the community.”

Former Orang Asli school SK Segamat Kecil, Johor, teacher Jasli Jamil

“Among the biggest challenges I faced as a teacher in Orang Asli schools was battling the general doubt the community and even teachers themselves had about Orang Asli students’ capabilities.

And unfortunately, many students believe this perception that they can’t achieve something. This is a huge obstacle.

Additionally, the general idea of going to school, learning and studying for exams is not meaningful to Orang Asli children. It also does not relate to their livelihood and culture.

Research suggests that the indigenous community views learning as a collaborative process rather than a competitive one, which is very different from how our schools are.

Our system is very much exam-oriented. As such, many in the community can’t relate to this type of an education system and when this happens, they disengage.

We must therefore seriously look at how our curriculum can be adapted to suit their needs.

When I look back at my nine-year journey in the school, I learnt that it’s all about understanding the community and the needs of the children, and informing them in the decision-making, which made whatever it was we delivered to them a co-creation.One of the challenges I noticed was that their voices and views were rarely existent in the system.

This needs to happen more frequently for the students to embrace a sense of autonomy in their learning.”

Former Orang Asli school SK Runchang, Pahang, teacher and Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2020 Top 50 finalist Samuel Isaiah

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