The Chewong, Batek, Semai, and other Orang Asli (Original People) of Malaysia realize that their lack of education causes them some difficulties, but the reasons for the problem are debatable. The Malaysia Star on Sunday published an analysis of the issue.

The statistics of Orang Asli successes in education are unimpressive—large numbers of students drop out of school before they enter Form One, and many of the ones who do get that far do not make it to Form Five. An official for the State of Pahang’s Health, Social Welfare and Orang Asli Affairs Committee cited a study that attributed their failure to complete school to laziness and boredom.

But Dr. Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, disagrees. Instead of blaming the parents for not placing a high enough value on their children gaining an education, he argues that, “the authorities should realise that the odds are stacked against Orang Asli children from the start and work towards creating a level playing field.”

An official in the Education Ministry, Azizah Abd Gani, agrees with Nicholas. She says that making generalizations about the Orang Asli not valuing education is wrong. “They tell us they want to learn the alphabet and technical skills and that their children like to go to school,” she maintains. The newspaper article cites villagers who feel cheated by outsiders because of their lack of an education. One villager, talking about sending children away to school, told The Star, “it is hard to see my kids go away from the village, but no matter how heart-wrenching it is, it’s necessary for them to leave.”

The paper focuses on why, if the Orang Asli favor schooling so much, they are falling far behind other Malaysians in getting educated. The answers differ. Dr. Nicholas believes the reasons can be found in the level of poverty of the Orang Asli communities. They do not have the same access to facilities as other Malaysians, he argues; some of the villages do not yet have electricity. Dr. Juli Edo, a Semai by birth and an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the Universiti Malaya, agrees with Nicholas. The rural poverty of the Orang Asli communities prevents them from gaining access to good educational support.

However, Jaafar Jantan, an official of JHEOA, the Malaysian Department of Orang Asli Affairs, disagrees about poverty being an issue. Raising that possibility is implicitly a criticism of his department. Instead, he argues, “a lot of other factors come into play, such as the location of settlements, attitudes toward education, and lifestyle.” He describes for the reporter the financial assistance his department provides for students, and while he admits there have been problems with some payments in the past, he says his agency is addressing those issues.

While the experts and officials may differ over the role of poverty in hindering an education for the Orang Asli children, they agree that cultural differences are a major issue. Nicholas maintains that the most important concern for the Orang Asli is retaining their cultural identity in the context of the educational system. “Orang Asli culture has a philosophy that upholds co-responsibility and communal interest, whereby the community takes precedence over the individual,” he told the paper.

Azizah, from the Education Ministry, adds that the Orang Asli children are more sensitive than the other Malaysian youngsters. “You can’t discipline them in the same way as other students,” she says. “Scold them and they may run away from school.”

One problem, according to Juli, is that the children can have a hard time with alien contexts that other Malaysian youngsters already understand. For instance, how can the Orang Asli children comprehend stories or pictures about a picnic by a beach when they have been raised in a forest and have never seen a seashore? Linguistic and pedagogical differences can make it difficult for the aboriginal children to keep up with the others in school.

Azizah maintains that her agency is sensitive to the problems of the Orang Asli communities. Her ministry is constantly trying to employ teachers who have expertise in the indigenous cultures and languages. “We understand the sensitivities of the Orang Asli community,” she says. Jaafar, from the JHEOA, also maintains that his agency is constantly striving to find ways to help the Orang Asli people.