A learning programme for the children of the Bateq tribe aims to resolve the inequities faced by the community.
The words “education is empowering” might read like a banal tagline to many, but the phrase is a sacred tenet to RYTHM Foundation. With access to and the quality of literacy uneven across the world, the Foundation actively seeks to ensure inclusive, equitable, accessible, and quality education for all underserved communities.
The push by RYTHM, the social impact arm of the QI Group, to provide much-needed academic support to the marginalised does not disregard remotely-placed populations as well, including the often-overlooked indigenous communities.
From funding scholarships and school programmes to now helping develop learning modules, RYTHM considers education a game-changer that tries to break the defeatist link between poverty and literacy.
Pivotal ventures in this vein include Project Insaniah, which coaches students in core academic subjects and life skills; IMPACT (I Made a Pact to Change), vocational training for at-risk teen boys; Maharani Learning Lab, an after-school skills and knowledge venture for girls, and the support of financially-strapped vernacular preschools.
The Malaysian government has recognised the issue of education inequality among the country’s indigenous, known as the Orang Asli, with various policies and programmes. However, gaps persist and remain mainly unresolved to any meaningful degree.
On almost every social indicator – including literacy – Orang Asli groups lag behind other Malaysians. For example, according to the Malaysian Education Blueprint, “Only 30% of Orang Asli students complete secondary school, less than half the national average of 72%.”
As reported by the Education Ministry, several economic, geographic, and cultural factors contribute to Orang Asli students’ poor school performance. Higher poverty rates and living in remote locations mean that many Orang Asli children do not attend preschool and start from a low literacy and numeracy base in Year One.
Language barriers also significantly hinder Orang Asli children from attaining an education. Most teachers cannot speak or understand the various Orang Asli dialects. Conversely, the children struggle to understand mainstream instruction languages, leading to substantial disparities.
The recent launch of a learning programme for the children of the Bateq tribe in the east coast state of Pahang strives to resolve these inequities.
The ‘Sekulah Bateq’ (Bateq School) project is RYTHM’s first philanthropic foray into the state through a Community Adoption Programme (CAP) with the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Malaysia (ECOMY), an NGO dedicated to reconnecting people to the natural world. The tribe dwells in the remote Kampung Kuala Atok village along the Tembeling river in Kuala Tahan. The village is only reachable by a 50-minute boat ride from Kuala Tahan.
The majority of the community’s children are non-literate, which ‘Sekulah Bateq’ hopes to change.
A Tribe’s Rough Ride to Recognition
RYTHM Head Santhi Periasamy described Sekulah Bateq’s inauguration as a momentous occasion for the Foundation. “Today marks the beginning of a special connection between Kampung Kuala Atok and RYTHM. With Sekulah Bateq, we have adopted this village under our Community Adoption Programme, the second such initiative after our recent undertaking in the East Malaysian state of Sabah,” she said in her speech.
“When ECOMY approached us about creating a school for the Bateq community, we jumped at the opportunity to work with the society to make the programme a reality.
“Sekulah Bateq reflects our deep conviction that education is essential in transforming communities and that every child deserves a fair chance to gain knowledge and unearth their potential,” Santhi noted.
The makeshift school aims to address the education gaps in the community through a curated programme replicable for other local indigenous tribes in the future.
The Bateq, like most Orang Asli communities, have faced many barriers to education. These range from poor location access, internet connectivity and infrastructure to a lack of financial resources, education materials, and identification documentation that prevents their enrolment in national schools.
Sekulah Bateq seeks to help overcome some of these hurdles with classes for 30 preschoolers and lower primary pupils. Several mainstream teachers with knowledge of Orang Asli culture – including one of Orang Asli descent – will conduct the classes.
Village head Hussin Dayak (above right) has actively campaigned for a school for the Bateq children to improve his tribe members’ lives.
A Community Pursuing Positive Social Change
While perceptions of the Orang Asli have painted them as helpless, nomadic, and even resistant to change, the Bateq of Kampung Kuala Atok has actively sought community support and eagerly welcomed the help.
The village’s Tok Batin (head), Hussin Dayak, has been at the fore of wanting a school for his tribe’s children and positive social change for the isolated community he leads.
“Educating our children increases the chances of our people securing much-needed jobs outside our village. Therefore, I asked for a school in our village in the hopes of improving our future,” he said.
“Before this, there was no opportunity to send our children to school. Finally, they will receive a proper education for the first time, and I would like to thank your organisations for the willingness to educate our children.”
Hussin also made an impassioned appeal for assistance in securing official documentation for the villagers.
“Most of my people do not have birth certificates or other legal identification. I would like them to get documentation to improve their lives. With birth certificates, we could qualify for financial aid and other government support,” he explained.
The request for educational assistance by Hussin was one ECOMY could not refuse, its founder and president, Andrew Sebastian, said. “Without access to proper education, the Bateq and many other indigenous groups would stay trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and struggle to be self-sustainable.
“Some of the Orang Asli we have worked with survive on a lowly RM300 (US$68) a month, making them the hardcore poor of the nation. So, we must start doing something to help them, especially when they take the initiative to seek growth and development,” Andrew added.
Sekulah Bateq in Pahang is RYTHM’s second Community Adoption Programme after a similar initiative in Sabah.
Santhi echoed Andrew’s sentiments. “We must kick off these timely efforts to improve education access for Malaysia’s indigenous children. Data by the UNDP and World Bank, for example, show that poverty indicators among these groups are significantly worse than the average.
“In addition, a UNICEF-commissioned report in 2017 found that a head of a household with education is likelier to see a higher household income. If a child can complete at least secondary schooling, their income prospects would be much better,” Santhi explained.
“We have seen wonderful achievements through our ongoing programme in Sabah,” she said about the initiative delivering academic support and youth empowerment to three villages. “We hope to reproduce the same success in Pahang to bring us closer to a world with equal access to quality education for all children from Malaysia’s culturally diverse makeup.”