Posted on July 31, 2011, Sunday
by Doreena Naeg.
A Rumah Arau (hostel) was set up to encourage Penan children to attend pre-school, prevent drop-outs and with the hope of producing the desired sustainability in their attendance rate.
OBLIVIOUS: Penan children enjoying a cool bath in Long Urun oblivious to the on-going debate about their future.
FOR every rung they climb up the education ladder, they fall two rungs back. That is the sad scenario prevailing among many Penan students.
To buck the trend, positive steps – no matter how small – taken to bring education to the tribal community are, indeed, giant steps towards promoting literacy among their young.
As an educationist puts it, the situation should be viewed with optimism – like the glass being half full, not half empty. A positive outlook is imperative.
Young Penans have proven worthy of early education.
Those living in Belaga District in one of the state’s remotest areas, are eager to study and remain in school.
The district has a total of 15 pre-schools, recording, between them, an impressive 94.15 percentage of children entering primary one.
The figure is impressive compared to Sebuah (78.31) and Baram (74.34) – and it is all the more so, considering the often hostile terrain of Belaga which is about three hours’ drive on logging track from the nearest town, Bintulu.
Another six hours’ ride through treacherous landscape is needed to reach Long Urun, a remote Penan resettlement village in the District.
The SK Long Urun pre-school in Belaga has enrolled a maximum number of students (25) for this year.
The figure indicates Penan children have access to education – at least, the initial part.
There are many reasons for the impressive attendance rate and one of the most obvious is the setting up of the Rumah Arau (hostel) of SK Long Urun near the pre-school.
Explained Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department, Datin Fatimah Abdullah:
“The Rumah Arau allows the parents, especially mothers, to stay close to the children while the latter attend school. This is mutually beneficial as both can draw comfort from one another’s presence. The bond between child and mother will remain strong.”
The setting up of the Rumah Arau exemplifies the respect and understanding of the government for the Penan’s complex culture.
“Penan people are close-knit – they need to be physically close to their families. The Rumah Arau allows this,” Fatimah said.
The hostel is set up solely for the purpose of encouraging Penan children to attend pre-school and prevent drop-outs. It is hoped this will produce the desired sustainability in their attendance rate.
Mothers can stay in the Rumah Arau while their children attend school and during weekends, both can return home if they so wish. Parents – in this case mothers – can stay in the hostel for free but it’s out of bounds to fathers.
The number of Penan children attending pre-school and primary school may be encouraging but their attendance does show a lack of sustainability.
There seems to be a high drop-out rate towards the later part of their primary school years. What is worrisome is that the trend appears persistent.
Another cause for concern is “exam phobia” among Penan students, resulting in a lot of them opting out of their final primary school year public exam.
In 2007, a total of 17 Penan students were registered for UPSR but only three actually sat for it. The following year, 19 were registered but only three took the test. In 2009, six out of 20 registered sat for the test and last year, 28 enrolled with only seven takers.
“That is indeed worrying. The whole object is to get them to sit for the exam so they can go further. Clearly, there is still plenty to be done,” Fatimah noted.
Among the reasons given for Penan students skipping school are illness, their parents failing to send them to school, poverty, transport breakdown, family members taken ill or having passed away, the children following their father to work and failure to receive their allowance.
It appears Penan parents are mostly to blame. They fail to see the importance of education and are suspicious of others taking care of their children.
And these, together with their dependence on subsidy, offer them not much help in guiding their children through their schooling years.
Moreover, the parents also fail to understand the concept of KWAPM (Kumpulan Wang Amanah Pelajar Miskin) and e-kasih programmes.
The parents’ lukewarm attitude towards their children’s education is variously attributed to not being receptive to change, the dependency syndrome, refusal to adopt farming as a form of livelihood and clinging to their ancestral ways of depending on the jungle for food.
Of course, it will take time – perhaps a little longer than expected – for the Penans to adapt to the changing educational and socio-economic environment in the state but with patience, care, understanding and opportunity, this tribal community, despite their deeply ingrained culture and shy nature, will slowly but surely find their way into mainstream Malaysian society on their own terms.
Fatimah, refusing to see it as a lost cause, stressed: “I strongly believe we can achieve what we set out to do with respect to their culture and lifestyle if we persevere in our endeavour.”