This article was first published here in The Malay Mail on 16 June 2010.
THE UN Millennium Development Goals call on all member States to provide universal education by 2015.
If the world collectively declares that education is key to eradicating poverty and ensuring gender equality, how then do we reassure the Orang Asli that their identity and values will not be compromised if they fully partake in our national education system? (Bear in mind that there are others we have met who do want their children to be educated but complain that education facilities have not been adequately provided to them by the authorities.)
The Philippines may have the answer to this social conundrum.
In 2005, the Asian Council for People’s Culture assisted different indigenous tribes in that country by setting up the Schools for Indigenous Knowledge and Traditions (SIKAT). This programme envisions a system at par with mainstream education but founded on the ways of life, traditions and culture of indigenous people (see: www.unescobkk.org).
What is most interesting about SIKAT is that the idea originated from the indigenous people themselves. Therefore, they own the concept and results of its implementation.
Important decisions are made by the SIKAT Council of Elders, consisting of 15 elected members of different tribes in the Philippines.
The programme has been successful despite various obstacles such as the lack of funding from the government, obtaining recognition from the Department of Education and in trying to develop a suitable and balanced curriculum.
This is perhaps something that our own government and civil society should look into. However, there is a need to ensure that while every possible option is being explored to help preserve the Orang Asli’s way of life, it is necessary to ensure that they feel part of the collective Malaysia.
It is unreasonable to expect them to integrate fully into mainstream society but it is equally erroneous to treat them as “foreign” or “exotic” groups of people. We should be careful not to regard them as part of Malaysia’s unique wildlife.
At the moment, there is simply insufficient information about the indigenous people (Orang Asli or OA) that can easily be accessed by the public. What we see or know of them is largely from our beautifully produced and expensive tourism advertisements and brochures and they are far from reality.
Since there is little opportunity for interaction with the OA, we often view them as “marginalised” people who are in need of our charity. It is not far from the truth as the only time we do actually interact with the OA is when we visit them with the intention of “giving” something.
My trip on May 22 to Kampung Bertang Lama, home to a Semai community in Pahang, allowed me to examine myself more closely. I saw myself in others when I was working in all those under-developed countries.
We entered the village having full confidence that we were doing something good. We treated the community with much caution and sensitivity that we were afraid of offending them or making them feel as if we were treating them differently.
At the same time, by doing so, we did not realise that we were actually magnifying the differences. We were telling them that we are not “equals”, that they are weaker and more fragile. I remember telling my friend that they are not porcelain dolls. They’re just like us.
We told them that they have rights. We played with their children. We smiled and fussed over how cute the children are when there’s really nothing cute about scabies, malnutrition or illiteracy. We took photos of them as if they are rare finds or a disguised way of announcing to others the good deeds we had done over the weekend.
Yet, we could not name the faces on the photos. We could embrace the endorphin triggered from the trip so easily because once we were out of the village, we were no longer confronted by the ugliness whereas the ugliness does not end the moment we left. It continues.
We left feeling good just as I had left Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia feeling good and convinced that I had done something good. The only difference is that the OA are Malaysians. I can never leave them behind but only return to them.
I finally realised that unless we leave behind something sustainable, everything else is only temporary like the endorphin.
Article 8 of our Federal Constitution states that all persons are equal before the law but my experience tells me otherwise. The Chinese believe that the outcome of a person’s life is determined by his/her destiny but my father has proven this theory wrong.
In the end, what really makes one person different from another? Noam Chomsky said that freedom without opportunities is the Devil’s gift. If the mouse that was born in the sewer was given an opportunity to find its way out or given access to rice, do you think it would have a chance at living a better life?
My father is who he is today because he embraced all the opportunities he has been given in life. Above all, he did not have to worry about feeding his family when he was a boy. He also did not have to walk for 20 kilometres every day just to have an education or wait for weeks before he could get a wound treated.
Poverty, illiteracy and fear are all debilitating diseases. They are devastating and ugly. But it is how we forgive our leaders or authorities (who are supposed to assist all Malaysians), whereas these Malaysians are paying for it, that makes it a crime.
We are all guilty of that crime and will continue to be until the day we no longer consider the OA cause as “charity-driven cause”, or treat them as a “species threatened with extinction”.
* LIM KA EA is the executive officer of the Constitutional Law Committee (ConstiLC) of Bar Council Malaysia (www.malaysianbar.org.my/constitutional_ law_committee).
The views expressed in this article are personal to the writer and may not necessarily represent the position of the Bar Council.
The ConstiLC is running a two-year nationwide MyConstitution campaign launched in November last year. The campaign was born of the collective desire of the ConstiLC’s membership of more than 150 members made up of lawyers, academics, students, media persons and activists to increase awareness of the Federal Constitution among all Malaysians – “Untuk Merakyatkan Perlembagaan”.
A unique, first-of-its-kind “The Enlightened Rakyat Workshop”, jointly organised by ConstiLC and Leaderonomics, will be conducted on July 10 (9am-6pm) at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya, as a means of enabling Malaysians to learn about themselves — the choices you are able to make, the impact you can have over Malaysia and the skills you have as a leader. Youths are especially encouraged to sign up, and space is limited to 50 participants only.
Visit http://www.perlembagaanku.com/2010/06/the-enlightened-rakyatworkshop/ to register and go to Facebook pagewww.facebook.com/MyConstitution for more information, or Twitter at www.twitter.com/MyConsti.