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A day at 'school' with the Mah Meri Orang Asli children

With school dropouts a concern among the villagers, efforts are being made to encourage as many children as possible to continue their education.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Orang Asli children play an educational version of musical chairs with students from Universiti Teknologi Mara.
Orang Asli children play an educational version of musical chairs with students from Universiti Teknologi Mara.

Laughter rings out from a small wooden building in Pulau Carey, Selangor, where a group of Orang Asli children have gathered for the day. 

Most of the time, the Orang Asli craft centre is quiet, unless members of the Mah Meri tribe are holding a programme with tourists, students or government agencies.

Today, it is the second group that has gathered with the children for an afternoon of English lessons. 

Sitting in a circle, the students from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) play games with the children, miming activities for their young pupils to guess. 

There are about 30 UiTM students in all who have come with their lecturer to hold the Mah Meri's English Getaway programme with the children. 

And while English lessons can sometimes smack of rote learning and tedium, today's class is anything but. 


"I'm learning how to guess what the different parts of the body are called," 10-year-old Abrisam Mohd Hasmadi says, beaming.   

"We have to answer in English. It's a lot of fun learning with friends like this." 

Abrisam's remarks are music to the ears of the village leaders, who fear that their children will be left behind in their studies, especially after two years of pandemic-induced closures. 

But at Pulau Carey, dropouts have always been a concern, with a number of children reluctant to move on to secondary school after completing their primary education. 

At 10, Abrisam and many of his friends have yet to master the construction of sentences, and their English vocabulary is limited to simple questions like "What is your name?"

Azman Sap, the chairman of the Sungai Bumbun Orang Asli village security committee, said the community always welcomed the holding of educational programmes for students at both the primary and secondary levels. 

"They encourage these students to continue going to school and learning," he said to MalaysiaNow. 

While the dropout rate has not yet reached an alarming level, the tendency of students to leave school at an early age is discouraging, he added. 

"Perhaps the parents themselves do not place enough emphasis on the importance of a good education," he said. 

"They normally prefer their children to learn certain skill sets instead." 


There are about 500 Orang Asli at Kampung Sungai Bumbun, where two primary schools cater to the needs of the younger children. 

Azman believes that peer pressure also plays a role in determining whether or not students continue with their studies.

"If they are friends with children who do not go to school, they will want to follow suit," he said. 

"For the most part, they will stop going to school after Form Three. The hard part is getting them to transition from primary to secondary school."

Azman and several others in the community have tried to encourage those who no longer wish to attend school, but there is little they can do if the students are fixed in their decisions. 

Programmes such as the Mah Meri's English Getaway go a long way in helping them stay in school. 

For one thing, the informal setting and fun approach to learning catch the children's attention much more quickly than traditional classroom activities. 

This is something of which the university students are well aware. 

Mohammad Syurizan Husni, the project leader, said they normally hold three interactive activities with the children: "Sumpit it Right", a guessing game for the names of animals, and a version of musical chairs.

"We make it easy for the children to understand," he said. 

"Here and there, we slip in advice for them to continue going to school when we learn of any who aren't interested in this anymore." 

Syurizan said they chose to work with the Orang Asli community to raise awareness about the importance of English in rural areas where the language is used minimally, if at all. 

"From what we have observed, their knowledge of English is at a very basic level," he said. 

"So we're focusing on how to structure proper sentences." 

Among the Orang Asli communities, he said, not many had a strong grasp of English.

"It would be good if we could find a way to help them master the language," he said. 

"Not just the schoolchildren, but the adults as well."