Land and freedom at issue
Malaysia. Lisah Che Mat was the first person from her tribal group, the Orang Asli, to qualify as a lawyer. And while she is being used as a shining example to others who live in the Malaysian rainforest, some elders fear their traditional way of life will be lost by integration into the national state education system.
Educating the Orang Asli is a contentious issue in Malaysia. Most issues to do with these aboriginal inhabitants of the Malay peninsula are politically sensitive.The difficulties originate with the land rights claimed by the forest dwellers who regard large areas of the interior as their ancestral grounds but, of course, have no paper work to establish their claims. Modern logging and clearing have made the Orang Asli's concerns urgent as they see development challenging their traditional ways of life.
Today many of them still live in tribal groupings, the majority deep in the jungle interior of the country. Traditionally, they are nomadic farmers and hunters, often using blowpipes to kill their prey. Many of their remote communities are only accessible after long river journeys and extensive trekking.
The Malaysian government is anxious to integrate the Orang Asli concerned that they are not sharing in the benefits of a fast-developing society. Education is seen as a key element of this process. In the interior, however, there is often a reluctance to attend school because neither the children nor their parents are convinced of the benefits.
Other Orang Asli groups live closer to the towns and villages of rural Malaysia. Lisah Che Mat's family is one.
Towards the end of last year she became the first of her people to qualify as a lawyer. In a remarkable double, her sister also qualified as a Royal Malaysian Navy logistics officer.
Lisah's family lives on an oil palm estate four miles from the nearest town. Their home, a basic building with no electricity, is a two-mile walk from the nearest road. Lisah is one of nine children whose parents were determined to secure an education for them. Their remarkable success is now being held up by the Malaysian press as an example for other Orang Asli families.
Education for the Orang Asli remains problematic and Lisah's story is instructive, not least because her success highlights the difficulties faced by other Orang Asli children who have not been so successful.
Unlike the majority of those who live in the interior, for whom the Government has established special Orang Asli schools, Lisah was educated in the normal state system. From the age of seven she was mixing with children of other races and getting a grounding in Bahasa Malaysian, the official language of the country and the medium of instruction in government schools. While her parents do speak some Bahasa, their first language is the language of their tribe, Semai.
For many Orang Asli children, the language alone poses an almost insuperable problem. When they arrive at school they understand little of what is going on and many leave. Even Lisah says that she found it difficult to catch up and had to rely on the help of her friends.
Although the desire to see an improvement in the lot of the Orang Asli seems sincere enough at senior government level, some commentators are sceptical that enough is happening on the ground. Speaking in the Dewan Rakyat, the Malaysian parliament, during a debate on the Pounds 900,000 budget for the department of Orang Asli affairs, the MP for Jelebu, Yunus Rahmat, said: "There is no point pouring money into buying books, tables and chairs or even building schools for Orang Asli children when the importance of education is not even acknowledged by the community elders."
Direct responsibility for Orang Asli schools was transferred last year to the ministry of education. It is too early yet to tell what difference this will make, but it does at least have the advantage of bringing education for the Orang Asli into the mainstream. This in turn may solve some of the main problems, one of the biggest of which is the shortage of teachers.
The anthropologist Dr Hud Salleh is more blunt about the problems, claiming that there are few qualified teachers in interior schools and arguing that the Orang Asli deserve better. He argues that the best teachers would have an Orang Asli background, but feels that at the moment there is not enough incentive or training for this to happen. "Many of the Orang Asli do see education as important, they want development and they want progress. They accept the need for and the benefits of discipline for their children," he said.
Discipline is seen as another problem. Orang Asli children are used to the freedoms of the forest, are not physically disciplined by their parents and tend to react badly when smacked by teachers. The children may stop going to school and in some cases parents have made official complaints and demanded formal apologies and cash compensation.
Some Orang Asli activists also argue that the curriculum is not sensitive to their culture. Lisah is critical of those who argue that a mainstream education will inevitably bring conflict with traditional customs and practices.
"Just because you achieve a certain level of education, it doesn't mean that your traditions die out. We can still preserve our traditional way of life and improve the way we live," she said.
Orang Asli communities are close-knit. Parents do not want to be separated from their children. But many of the schools in more remote areas are some way from the tribal villages and offer only basic hostel accommodation. Unsurprisingly, parents are reluctant to send their seven- and eight-year-old children to school for terms which can be three months long. Add to this the need for children to help their parents with the harvest and the high dropout rate becomes more understandable.
Even those who remain within the system are economically stretched and precluded from further education unless they can attract support from outside bodies.
But the news is not all bad. Since the ministry of education took over schooling for the Orang Asli, complaints have been fewer. Important modifications to the curriculum are now being considered, including the inclusion of the Semai language as an option in the national curriculum. And 47 Orang Asli from Pahang have just graduated from institutes of higher learning, including six from teacher training colleges. Although the number is small, it is a positive sign.