The issue of Orang Asli schoolchildren dropping out of school has been a longstanding one despite efforts taken by government and private agencies and NGOs to encourage them to complete their education.
In this second of a five-part article dissecting the root causes of this issue, Bernama looks into claims that the lack of safe transportation and deplorable state of their logging roads are preventing Orang Asli children from going to school.
GUA MUSANG (POS SIMPOR) (Bernama) – It is 6 am and Rokiah Pandak, an Orang Asli from the Temiar clan, is already busy preparing food for her 11-year-old daughter Asunia Mok Wa Tong who is all set to return to her school hostel and resume schooling.
The girl’s school Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Tohoi is located about 50 kilometres from Pos Simpor here where they live but it takes an arduous four-hour journey over a dirt road to get to the school.
Rokiah, 47, packs her daughter’s bag with a heavy heart as she will only be able to see her in two weeks’ time. Arrangements have been made by the Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) for a four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle to pick up Asunia at 10 am.
“She has to be ready by then as the driver also has to go to many other (Orang Asli) villages to pick up children from there,” Rokiah told Bernama.
Many parents in Pos Simpor are forced to part from their children so that they can get an education like others in mainstream society.
In the case of the children here, they have been given permission by their school to return home once every fortnight. This was agreed on by the parents and school authorities following the tragic incident in 2015 involving seven children from Pos Simpor aged between seven and 12 who ran away from their hostel at SK Tohoi.
After going missing for about 50 days, two children were found alive while four died. The remains of the seventh child have yet to be found.
The Pos Simpor Orang Asli community is still haunted by memories of the incident and fear for the safety of their children staying in the school hostel.
“The (2015) incident occurred long ago and we’re trying to forget it. We want to send our children to school as we want them to have a good job when they grow up.
“But we’re worried about their safety. Even the vehicle used to transport them to school is not safe and the road is in poor condition… it worsens during the rainy weather at the end of the year,” said Rokiah.
PACKED LIKE SARDINES
Pos Simpor, located about 98km from Gua Musang, is one of the most remote Orang Asli settlements in Peninsular Malaysia. It is so remote that it cannot even be found on Google Maps and is only accessible via a dirt or logging road or by air.
Currently, 109 children from 12 villages in Pos Simpor, namely Kampung Penad, Kg Sedal, Kg Sumbang, Kg Ceranok, Kg Dandut, Kg Jader Lama, Kg Pahoj, Kg Kledang, Kg Pos Simpor, Kg Halak, Kg Rekom and Kg Tihok, are schooling at SK Tohoi.
Due to the poor condition of the potholed dirt road and long journey to the school from their villages, the pupils are required to stay at the school hostel, with transport providers appointed by JAKOA providing 4WD vehicles, such as the Hilux pick-up truck, to pick them up from their homes and send them to the hostel and vice versa.
With the availability of transportation, the children have access to education. But things are not as fine and dandy as it seems – this is because the authorities seem to pay scant regard to the safety aspect of the transport service, according to the Pos Simpor villagers Bernama spoke to.
Due to the shortage of vehicles, each time a trip is made, 20 to 30 children are packed like sardines into the pick-up truck, with some of them forced to stand in the rear section of the vehicle throughout the journey.
As the rear portion is uncovered, the children are exposed to the elements and even risk falling off the vehicle.
“It’s not only uncomfortable for them but dangerous too,” observed Friends of Nature Activists Society (Persatuan Aktivis Sahabat Alam or KUASA) chairman Hafizudin Nasarudin.
“I’ve come across these pick-up trucks many times and they are usually packed with some 30 or so schoolchildren each. This issue of transportation for school kids also exists in many other remote Orang Asli villages.”
KUASA, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), is currently involved in Orang Asli development projects in Gua Musang.
DICING WITH DANGER
Pos Simpor women emergency team chief Senourei Johari, 26, told Bernama overcrowding in the vehicles transporting the children is one of the reasons the people are hesitant to send them to school.
“We’re worried about the safety of the young kids. Nothing has changed since my school days. Even then, the Hilux vehicle taking us to school was packed.
“There was one occasion when we were standing at the back of the pick-up truck and a friend’s forehead accidentally got struck by a cangkul (hoe) the driver had kept there. My friend suffered severe bleeding,” she said.
Not surprisingly, some parents are reluctant to send their children to school during the rainy season when the road conditions worsen as there is no guarantee for their safety.
Kg Sedal (a village in Pos Simpor) resident Limat Lias, 45, said the villagers themselves do not know how many pick-up trucks have been allotted to the Gua Musang Orang Asli children.
“The vehicles are always full to the brim. This is not only happening in Pos Simpor but in other (Orang Asli) areas in Gua Musang as well.
“Sometimes two, sometimes three (vehicles) come but all of them are packed (with children). When it rains, the logging road here becomes muddy and slippery. Things can get dangerous as the driver usually speeds. I’ve seen drivers speeding over potholes as if there are no passengers at the back,” said Limat who has nine children, two of them still schooling.
According to her, in the past, there had been a case of a child falling off a pick-up truck. The incident caused much concern among the parents due to the presence of perilous ravines in certain parts of the road.
One of the drivers there, who only wanted to be known as Along, admitted that the route from SK Tohoi to Pos Simpor, particularly at Bukit Penad and Bukit Lerdor, can be hazardous, adding that those without any experience in handling 4WD vehicles are discouraged from driving on that particular road.
“Outsiders will not know where the ravines are situated as they are hidden by thick bushes. I’m from this area so I’m familiar with the route.
“But most of the pick-up drivers here who drive children to school are outsiders. Even I don’t know them,” he said, pointing to Bukit Penad as one of the dangerous spots.
“This spot is especially dangerous on the return journey (from the school to Pos Simpor) as we have to drive up a very steep incline… the road here becomes even more challenging when it rains daily.”
In fact, recently a pick-up truck belonging to a plantation company overturned just after passing the steep incline at Bukit Penad.
To prevent his vehicle from turning turtle, Along usually tells the children travelling in his vehicle to walk up the 100-metre incline before getting back into the truck.
But then, this “safety measure” exposes them to possible attacks by wild animals especially elephants, according to Pos Simpor acting headman Nur Mohd Syafiq Dendi Abdullah, 30.
He claimed that the clearing of forests flanking the road leading to Pos Simpor for various projects including musang king durian plantations has deprived wildlife such as elephants and tigers of their natural habitat.
“So when our children are forced to walk in the thick forest, they may be attacked by a tiger or elephant. Outsiders don’t see the sacrifices we make just to get our young children educated.
“We are in a situation where we can’t send them to school ourselves and are forced to depend on the vehicles provided by JAKOA but they don’t pay heed to our children’s safety,” he complained.
Nur Mohd Syafiq Dendi said since 2013 he and the headman of Pos Simpor had submitted numerous petitions to JAKOA to highlight the transportation issue as well as improve the road conditions. He claimed that to date, no action has been taken by the agency.
The father-of-three also questioned the reliability of the transport operator who won the tender to provide transportation services to the Orang Asli schoolchildren here, saying that the company concerned disregarded the safety aspect and also had some drivers on their payroll who, he believed, used prohibited substances.
“We don’t know who JAKOA had appointed as the transport operator. When they came here (to pick up our children) there was no logo of JAKOA on their trucks and the drivers were not wearing a uniform.
“We parents are understandably worried as our children are still small and are travelling in a truck with a person they don’t know,” he said, adding that he also received complaints that some of the drivers are drug users.
“This is very dangerous as they are putting our children’s lives at risk should they drive while they are ‘high’.”
He added that JAKOA should monitor the transport services as well as check the backgrounds of the drivers hired by the transport service provider.
Nur Mohd Syafiq Dendi also suggested that JAKOA resurrect its transportation unit to facilitate the monitoring and management of transport services for Orang Asli schoolchildren living in remote areas.
He added it is more economical for the agency to manage its own transportation services rather than outsource them.
“We’re not happy (with the transport operator) because they are not serious about the safety aspect. We also found that they are using the same trucks that are used to transport oil palm,” he said.
“If we could, we would prefer to send our children to school on our motorcycles. But the road here is so bad our bikes always get damaged.”
SK Tohoi teacher Nik Rozman Nik Yaacob knows only too well the challenges faced by his pupils’ parents just to ensure they get at least a basic education.
He said attendance is badly affected during the rainy season, with over 50 percent of the pupils not attending school.
“The school is not at all involved in the transportation issue. We only receive the children when they arrive at the school gate,” he said, hoping that the authorities will step in to improve the safety of the roads and vehicles used to ferry Orang Asli children to school.
Commenting on this, Universiti Malaya Faculty of Arts and Social Science senior lecturer Dr Rusaslina Idrus said transportation woes have been identified as the main reason the majority of Orang Asli children in Peninsular Malaysia are not able to go to school.
This was among the findings of a nine-month study she carried out in 2021 with fellow researcher Wan Ya Shin, titled ‘Contextualising Education Policy to Empower Orang Asli Children’. The study, done under the auspices of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), covered the five states of Selangor, Johor, Perak, Kelantan and Pahang,
Rusaslina said in some Orang Asli settlements, particularly the newer ones, children do not get to go to school as they have no access at all to transportation.
“The transportation issue is the cause of the school dropout problem among Orang Asli children. As such, JAKOA must constantly monitor and provide more vehicles to meet the needs of the pupils. It must also evaluate the operators given the tender to provide transport services (to Orang Asli schoolchildren),” she added.
JAKOA director-general Sapiah Mohd Nor, meanwhile, informed Bernama in a written answer that her department regularly monitors the conditions of roads in Orang Asli villages as well as the vehicles used to transport children to school.
She said in 2022, JAKOA allocated RM36.9 million as transportation fare involving 627 routes in 37 districts and 271 transport providers and benefitting a total of 41,511 Orang Asli schoolchildren.
“In every transport service quotation, JAKOA mandates the safety aspect which the transport service operators must comply with. (Under the safety aspect) the vehicles must have barriers installed and have to be covered. The operators are also not allowed to carry passengers in excess of the capacity of each vehicle,” she said.
Sapiah also said the transportation services are implemented on a contractual basis by the state JAKOA, adding that the commitment shown by the agency and transport operators has resulted in schoolchildren in remote areas “not experiencing any problem in terms of school accessibility”.
Translated by Rema Nambiar