It is almost noon and the searing heat of the sun can be felt even inside the traditional Orang Asli hut with bamboo walls and thatched roof in the wilderness of Pos Simpor, about 98km from Gua Musang.
Here, said to be one of the most remote Orang Asli settlements in the peninsula, about 30 Orang Asli, mostly men from the Temiar clan, have gathered to talk, mainly about the education of their children.
They speak animatedly until a middle-aged man begins talking.
Ayel Ajib, 55, seems calm but soon chokes up. Tears well up in his eyes as he recalls the tragedy that made him stop sending his children to school.
He is the father of Ika Ayel, a nine-year-old child who was among seven Orang Asli children aged between seven and 12 who ran away from their hostel at SK Tohoi, Gua Musang, on Aug 23, 2015, fearing they would be reprimanded by their teachers for sneaking out for a swim without permission.
Missing for nearly 50 days in the thick jungles of Pos Tohoi, only two of the children survived the ordeal. The remains of Ika and three others, all from Pos Simpor, were found by a search and rescue team.
To date, the remains of the seventh child have yet to be found.
"It happened eight years ago but the trauma remains until today," Ayel said.
"I received my child’s body (skeletal remains) in a box… it didn’t look like what a body should look like."
After that, the grieving father-of-five decided to pull his three other children out of school. All three – Reney who was then in Standard Five, Jurey (Standard Four) and Magroy (Standard One) – were also pupils of SK Tohoi.
Ayel never sent his youngest child Iswan to school. The boy would have been in Form One today had he gone to school when he turned seven.
Like Ayel, many parents in Pos Simpor refused to send their children to school after the tragedy as they believed the school authorities had not been taking care of their children.
The deficit of trust in the school institution and not-so-cordial relations between the parents and teachers are not restricted to SK Tohoi. They also exist in schools located in Orang Asli settlements in other parts of the peninsula.
Not against education
The relatively high dropout rate at SK Tohoi – which at 50km away is the nearest school for the Orang Asli children in Pos Simpor – is nothing new.
Even before the tragedy, attendance stood at around 75% to 80%.
The education ministry and other agencies are trying to persuade parents to send their children to school but have met with little success due to longstanding issues that have yet to be resolved.
Ayel said he was not against education but hoped the government would build a school closer to their settlement so that their young children need not stay at a hostel.
"Yes, I’m still traumatised by my child’s death (eight years ago). My other children want to go to school as they have many friends there. But please, build a school close to our kampung to make it easier for us to send our children to school.
"Now, even children as young as six years old have to stay at a hostel if they are sent to school."
The Orang Asli children at SK Tohoi are forced to stay at the hostel as daily trips to and fro would take about five hours by motorcycle and up to 10 hours in rainy weather.
Pos Simpor, which has a population of over 900, is made up of 12 villages: Kampung Penad, Kg Sedal, Kg Sumbang, Kg Ceranok, Kg Dandut, Kg Jader Lama, Kg Pahoj, Kg Kledang, Kg Pos Simpor, Kg Halak, Kg Rekom and Kg Tihok.
Can't read or write
Pos Simpor acting headman Mohd Syafiq Dendi Abdullah, 30, told Bernama that many parents feared their children would meet the same fate if they were sent to school.
He said the two children who were found alive after the 2015 incident, Norieen and Miksudiar, are now 17 and 18 and cannot find jobs as they do not have any educational qualification.
"They dropped out of school (after the incident). They have no qualifications and are scared to meet outsiders. They are still traumatised as they saw their friends dying in front of their own eyes.
"According to them, some of the children were eaten by monitor lizards but they (survivors) couldn’t do anything to save them because they themselves were weak from hunger," said Syafiq Dendi.
He added that the teachers had succeeded in persuading some of the other parents to allow their children to resume attending SK Tohoi.
Currently, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or SPM is the highest qualification attained by the children of Pos Simpor villagers who manage to complete their secondary education.
Most of them now work as rubber tappers, while those who left their settlements are lorry drivers or factory workers.
While many parents in the area are aware that only education can help their children escape the grip of poverty, the Covid-19 pandemic and movement restrictions in 2020 and 2021 only reduced their access to this.
Not just Pos Simpor
Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa) director-general Sapiah Mohd Nor said her department had identified several factors for the fairly high dropout rate among Orang Asli children.
"In general, among the factors that influence the percentage of pupils leaving the watch of Jakoa or the education ministry are the school ecosystem itself and the lack of presence of an icon for the pupils, who also lack the support and encouragement of their parents.
"Other factors include the failure of the Orang Asli to adapt to other races and the attitude of the parents.
"From the geographical perspective, most Orang Asli villages are scattered in remote areas, thus lowering their degree of accessibility to education," she said.
In October this year, former rural development minister Mahdzir Khalid reportedly said that over 10% of Orang Asli children had dropped out of school due to various factors including logistics and their parents’ negative attitude towards education.
In November 2021, the education ministry was quoted as saying that 42.29% of Orang Asli students had not completed their schooling up to Form Five in 2021 compared to 58.62% in 2020.
The dropout issue was also acknowledged in the October 2020 report of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), titled "Education Policies in Overcoming Barriers Faced by Orang Asli Children: Education for All".
According to the report, "education gaps continue to persist between Orang Asli children and non-indigenous children till the present day despite continuous efforts and investments over the years".
It said that based on data on the primary to secondary school dropout rates among Orang Asli and national students from the education ministry from 2016 to 2018, while dropout rate among Orang Asli students after Standard Six was on the decline, it was still high in comparison to the national rate which was consistently below 4%.
The Orang Asli students dropout rate was above 17% and increased significantly to 26% in 2017.
At the state level, the incidence of dropping out of school among Orang Asli students was more prevalent in Kelantan and Terengganu and less prevalent in Perak, Kedah and Johor.
In 2018, the dropout rates after Standard Six were the highest in Kelantan and Terengganu at 41%, followed by Selangor and the federal territories (27%), Negeri Sembilan and Melaka (22%), and Pahang (19%).
The three states with the lowest dropout rates were Johor (1%), and Perak and Kedah (3% each).
The IDEAS report said the disparities in the dropout rates "could be due to state-level governance of schools, in which guidance and support provided at state- and district-level varies among the states".
"It could also be due to the different level of involvement of the civil society and NGOs in supporting the educational programmes at community level."
No complete data
The report, however, said the dropout rates after Standard Six did not reflect the actual overall situation as data on children who never attended school or dropped out while in primary school were not included in the statistics.
Universiti Malaya Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences senior lecturer Rusaslina Idrus said the data clearly indicated that the high dropout rates among Orang Asli students were a cause for concern.
She also expressed concern over the lack of complete data on the Orang Asli education issue.
"Currently, we only have data on those who drop out of school (after Standard Six)… they went to school but didn’t complete their education or dropped out.
"But our country doesn’t have data on, for instance, (Orang Asli) children aged six or seven who have never been to school," she said.
Rusaslina, who has conducted various studies on Orang Asli matters, said it was important to have such data, including on the factors hindering them from attending school.
The issue of children not being able to attend school due to a lack of basic facilities is serious as it contravenes the provisions under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It also goes against the Education Act 1996 which was amended to make it compulsory for all Malaysian children aged between six and 12 to go to school.
In this regard, said Rusaslina, it is important for Jakoa to collect data and information on Orang Asli children who have never attended school. This is to enable the education ministry to draw up the necessary intervention plans so that no children from indigenous groups are marginalised in terms of education.
"The (2015) incident involving the pupils of SK Tohoi affected their trust in our schools. Based on our research, other (Orang Asli) villages were also impacted, with many parents feeling that schools are not safe places.
"Even though many have recovered from that trauma, other issues contributing to children dropping out of school still persist. These issues must be looked into considering that education is a basic right of all Malaysian citizens."