I began a diary project during the movement control order period and recently extended it with children aged seven to 14 at Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.
They talked about what they wanted to be – a doctor, a fireman, a soldier, a nurse, an architect, a teacher – all while calling me “Teacher Dilla” just for the joy of it. The joy of having the opportunity to learn from a teacher (even though, in my case, I felt like I didn’t have much to offer to these children), the pride of wearing a school uniform even though they didn’t need to, the sense of normalcy doing what other children are doing.
What broke my heart is the fact that these children can only dream.
Stateless children, through no fault of their own, are born into a world in which they will face a lifetime of entrenched discrimination, disappointment, and rejection.
While there are NGOs who have created a number of safe spaces for these children to learn maths, languages, music, geography, arts and science in many different ways, most doors are still tightly shut and there’s no way for them to fulfil their dreams for the future.
To our system, these children are invisible, they are no one and they belong nowhere, they will remain to be ghosts wandering around the country. Since they and their parents are undocumented, they are not allowed to sit for any of Malaysia’s public exams to recognise their attainments.
But these children exist. We need to start recognising them, by name and their potential. We need to start listening to their stories, their ambitions, their dreams, just like we would listen to our own flesh and blood.
These children grow up and begin to understand how messed up the world is. As they grow into adulthood, their opportunities will be limited, and they will continue to be trapped in an unending cycle of statelessness and poverty, passing the broken wings on to the next generation.
That is a massive loss to us. Think about it: Whether we like it or not, these children are also the future of this blessed country. Recognising them means investing in the country’s future. They should have the same opportunities that my children and your children would have. Why would we keep denying this?
Their case is not new. Many selfless individuals have fought really hard for each and every one of these children. I am not sure what went wrong, what stopped the system from doing the right thing – or maybe our system has simply gone deaf and blind, growing more and more oblivious to the pain.
This is why I believe that academics and intellectuals (the heart of higher education institutions) in Malaysia have a critical role to play in upholding the right of every child to have access to education, including these stateless, invisible children.
We are approaching the end of 2020 in a few months, and if each and every one of us recognise our responsibility in realising Goal 4 in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDG4), we must also recognise our tendency to practice selective inclusion if we continue to marginalise these stateless children from our agenda.
If we want to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, these children should not be forgotten in our discussions on how to implement and drive sustainable development educational initiatives through our institutional policies and practices. The targets which focus on the issues of equity and cover the need for access to university-level education as well as vocational training must also consider these undocumented children on board.
For a start, as a continuation of the informal education initiatives provided by various NGOs for stateless children below 18, our universities should begin opening entrance exams to these stateless candidates too. These candidates need to have fulfilled all admission requirements for the academic programme corresponding to the university programme they wish to enrol in.
Remember, un/intentional selective inclusion is simply a euphemism for exclusion. The system may tie our hands, but they can never imprison our minds. I believe that if academics take this seriously, we are more than capable of breaking down walls for these stateless children and, hence, orchestrate change from the bottom up.
DR NADILLA JAMIL
Note: The letter writer is an assistant professor in Critical Discourse Studies (Linguistics), Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia.
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