Orang Asli & education: Jenita’s story

When working with indigenous peoples in Hulu Langat, the MCCHR has collaborated with and learnt from other civil society organisations. Among the people who have been a valuable resource for UndiMsia! Orang Asli project are Colin Nicholas and Jenita Engi from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC). At our Adopt the Street Project closing meeting recently, Jenita shared her observations and experiences, especially on education for Orang Asli. After the meeting, we got to sit down and have a long chat with her, to learn more from and about her.

Jenita joined COAC in 2007 as assistant co-ordinator, after interning with the organisation for six months. COAC, according to her, used to focus more on organising advocacy training for Orang Asli activists, including communication skills and human rights awareness. The COAC’s role has evolved over the years. Jenita explains , “Now that the Orang Asli know how to voice out, they know how to fight for their own rights, [COAC] has become more of a resource centre for Orang Asli who need reference materials like books, research papers and archived works. This is because, a lot of them are now taking land disputes to court. So, they need these resources for evidence gathering.”

Through COAC, Jenita is also involved with other indigenous advocacy groups such as JOAS or Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Indigenous Peoples’ Network). Indigenous peoples in Malaysia are known by several names. Orang Asal, according to Jenita, include all indigenous peoples in Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. She says, “Orang Asal is basically Malay for indigenous peoples. Among Orang Asal, they are divided into three groups: Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia, Anak Negeri in Sabah and Orang Ulu in Sarawak.

Connecting with Orang Asli

To empower the indigenous Malaysians, Jenita believes that the civil society must connect with them through their local issues such as land grab, logging, and intrusion. She believes that “from there they can learn how activism works. And they will try as much as possible to find the people who they can refer to develop their skills.

“Another way is through education at all different levels, not only small children and young adults, but also people in leadership roles like the custom board members and village headmen.”

Providing education for the indigenous communities, however, is not an easy task. From her observations, Jenita finds the curriculum taught in schools to be the biggest challenge for Orang Asli. The Malaysian curriculum, for the most part, is too Klang Valley-centric. Jenita asks, “When I don’t know about KL, I don’t even know about the world outside my village, how am I going to describe about going to KLCC, taking KTM train?”

The situation is made worse by the fact that most Orang Asli villages are not connected to the nation’s power grid or the internet. The Orang Asli children do not get the exposure that their peers in other rural areas do from watching TV and surfing the Internet. Orang Asli children also faced language barriers when they learn in school. The teachers that are sent to schools with Orang Asli students are largely untrained in their local language.

“The student-teacher exchange is just not there.” Jenita observes, “The children need time to learn the medium of learning, but at the same time, the teacher need to learn their language.”

In the midst of our conversation, Jenita answers her mobile phone at least a couple of times. She is very busy, indeed. One of the callers is a new volunteer joining her community project in Kampung Tual, near Raub, Pahang. These days, she splits her time between COAC base in Subang Jaya and her project site.

Cenwey Penani

At Kampung Tual, Jenita—alongside her Anak Negeri project partner, Iwok—is working on building a community learning centre for the Semai people there. Iwok named the centre ‘cenwey penani’ (shoots of ingenuity) in their native tongue. What unique about the learning centre is that the children there are taught the national school curriculum using materials from their own surroundings. Jenita says that the project is not only designed to get the Semai children interested in learning, but also to “revive the culture, customs and lifestyle of the community there.”

She adds, “We teach the subjects they teach in school by integrating the local culture. For example, they have crafts like these baskets made from natural sources. We use them to teach the children what they are called in Malay, in English. We use the baskets to set up arithmetic questions and in other subjects.

“The main thing about our centre is that we get parents involved, especially in teaching the children their traditions and forest skills. For instance, the parents will pass on valuable skills like how to make hog and bird snares. We document these things and incorporate them in the teaching and learning modules.”

The cenwey penani project, which was started in January, had been progressing pretty slowly due to financial constraints. Nevertheless, the villagers at Kampung Tual are enthusiastic about building a dedicated learning space for the Semai children there. The villagers have already formed a committee to oversee the project and organised themselves to gather materials for the centre. At the moment, they are still working on sourcing power tools and other hardware supplies before they can start the construction.

The idea for cenwey penani partly came from Colin—who had set up a similar community-run learning centre elsewhere—and also Iwok, a graduate of National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) who has been a tutor at Kampung Tual. Jenita also drew lot of inspiration from her Diploma in Early Childhood Education programme that she undertook before working on the project.

Jenita argues that “children’s early education should revolve around the same environment they grow up in. But the system of education in Malaysia is different. Everything is about IQ and exams. Children need to feel the pleasure and joy of learning. ”

A destined path

Jenita reveals that before joining COAC, she used to be a midwife-nurse in Johor Bahru. She could not get along well with her boss at that time because she always found herself being blamed for other people’s mistakes. Being the only Orang Asli nurse there, she had to stand up for herself. Eventually, she quit nursing.

She left also partly because of the void she was feeling being away from the nature for so long. Jenita says, “I like the forests very much. When I touch wild flowers, I smell them, I feel like I am connecting with my ancestral spirits. When I enter a forest, I immediately feel the connection with other living beings in there.”

Advocacy seems like a destined life path for Jenita. She developed a great sense of right and wrong from an early age.

“In my time, my siblings and I were the first group of Orang Asli to go to the national primary school.” Jenita tells us that other Temuan children from Kampung Parit Gong in Negri Sembilan, where she grew up, were sent to a special school dedicated for Orang Asli. She adds, “I don’t like bullies. I don’t like discrimination at school. When other kids got into a fight, I would try to defend the kids who got bullied.”

She remembers an incident, when she was about 13 years old, that made her realise the prejudice some people have towards her.

“Someone brought food to the classroom—because Orang Asli pupils were all in the school meal programme—and I got up to get mine. The teacher, who I still remember his name, said to me in front of the entire classroom, ‘makan saja kamu tahu, belajar kamu bodoh (all you know is to eat, [but] when studying, you’re stupid)’,” tells Jenita. “I lost respect from him. I was humiliated.”

Jenita attributes her courage, self-confidence and work ethic to her “strict upbringing”. Came school holidays, she and her four siblings would help their parents at the farm. Sometimes, she would help out at the nearby rubber plantations to earn 50 sen a day. “My father used to say, if you want money you have to work,” she adds.

She mentions her parents as her “biggest inspiration.” She says, “These days, I try as much as I can to talk to them and most importantly, to listen to them. They continue to impart on me some much valuable wisdom that I truly appreciate today.” Her mentor, Colin, is also an inspiration for Jenita. When she wanted to pursue her diploma, Colin talked it through with her. Now, she has taken on the role as a mentor to two Orang Asli girls from Kampung Tual.

“I feel very lucky because my nenek moyang (ancestors) have pointed me to the right people and opportunities in my life. I hope the cenwey penani community learning centre will succeed and can be replicated in other villages in the future,” Jenita tells us. After setting up the community learning centre, she plans to further her education in New Zealand.



Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) is a non-profit based in Kuala Lumpur with the mission of promoting active democratic participation and human rights awareness.

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