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Giving an early boost to the next generation of Malaysia’s ‘original people’

© UNICEF/2007/Nettleton
Teacher Simah Asir leads students in a lesson at a preschool for indigenous children in a remote village near Gerik, Malaysia.

By Steve Nettleton

GERIK, Malaysia, 28 March 2007 – Simah Asir holds a job that many of her neighbours feel is unnecessary. She is a preschool teacher in a small village two hours by jeep from the nearest sizeable town, at the end of a rugged road snaking through rubber and palm oil plantations.

On this day, she is teaching her impatient students to tear and fold plant leaves into shapes of animals. Simah works slowly around the circle, helping each child work on his or her design. They may not know it, but the children are getting something most of their parents never had: a formal education.

The students are mostly from the Temiar ethnic group, one of 18 groups in Malaysia called Orang Asli, or ‘original people’. They are the indigenous people of Malaysia, distinct from the Malays, Chinese and Indians who predominate there.

Need for early education

The Orang Asli have long lived in isolated communities with little access to proper schools and health care. Their geographical remoteness has reinforced a sense by many indigenous communities that there is little point in sending children to school. Accordingly, some 80 per cent of Orang Asli children never complete their secondary education.

© UNICEF/2007/Nettleton
Indigenous children receive lunch at a preschool near Gerik, Malaysia. Proper nutrition is a key element in Malaysia's early childhood development programme.

“Generally, indigenous parents are still not very interested in education,” said Ms. Asir. “They see this preschool as a place to send their children to play and eat. But when they see people from outside the community showing interest in their children, they grow more conscious of the need for education. But it’s hard. We need to do this regularly.”

Ms. Asir is part of an initiative to change this situation. She has received special training in a programme supported by UNICEF and the Community Development Department of the Ministry of Regional and Rural Development, known by its Malay acronym, KEMAS. The cement school where she works – built by KEMAS and painted with images of animals, flowers and the Malaysian national flag – stands out in this village of wooden houses, serving as a magnet for community activities.

Improving chances later in life

Overall, UNICEF and KEMAS are working to train some 300 preschool teachers and supervisors, and to reach out to more than 18,000 parents and guardians in rural areas. The organizations run workshops for Orang Asli communities, stressing the importance of boosting early childhood development and offering tips on learning activities, nutrition and child psychology.

“We’ve noticed that parents in these communities have very little parenting skills,” said Noor Hayati Bt Husin, a preschool supervisor for KEMAS. “They are feeding their children extremely unhealthy food and the children are not doing well in terms of development. So we try to teach them why children need an education, why the children need to learn to read and write. Because it really improves their chances later on in life.”

Their effort is in line with Malaysia’s national plan to reduce disparities between rural and urban areas, and between less developed and more developed regions. For Ms. Asir and her class, it’s a matter of planting skills for a new generation of Orang Asli, so they can craft their own choices for the future.




February 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on efforts to bring formal early childhood education to an indigenous community in Malaysia.
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