“After I finished SPM, I didn’t want to continue studying. Instead, I wanted to work, to earn my own money, and to be independent. I left my village and worked in many places and in many states, but my heart eventually brought me home. I wanted to help the people in my village and to bring them towards the future — and I would do it through education. I want them to become role models for the next generation, and for our people. So it’s up to us now to be the foundation and to prepare a stable situation for our children. They are like young trees who can grow bigger and become stronger. They will become the pioneers and leaders for the Orang Asli community, so that we can all progress even further. Whether it’s our children or the other teachers in Empowered2Teach, I want all of them to be as good as the other races in Malaysia.”

Dinah

Orang Asli teacher

Illustration by Jean Lynn

Jean Lynn is a freelance painter and illustrator by trade. She takes pride in every piece that she creates, imparting a little bit of herself in every colorful stroke that she leaves behind. Her murals can be found at Kl, Rawang and Muar. 

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Dinah is a teacher and trainer with the Empowered2Teach initiative, which works towards providing Orang Asli communities with greater access to education. This project empowers Orang Asli young people to start pre-school classes within their villages. It achieves this by training and mentoring them, as well as providing financial resources, lesson plans and educational tools. 

QUESTION: Hello! It’s nice to meet you. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
DINAH: Hi! I’m Dinah. I’m from Kampung Sungai Poh. It’s quite near Gopeng in Perak. I joined the Empowered2Teach programme at the end of 2013. I currently have 11 students in my pre-school. I got married in 2011. I met my husband when I went to Kuala Lumpur to work. I have two sons now. One is six years old, and the other is almost two years old.

Q: You must be a busy lady, having to handle two boys! But what were you like when you were their age?
D: I remember that I was a very naughty child! I’m the youngest of 12 siblings, so I was also very spoiled and very pampered! I liked to play and to have fun a lot. I also liked to tease people and joke around.

Q: So what were your parents like? How did they treat such a pampered youngest daughter like you?
D: My family members are all very close, and my father was a very good role model to all of us. Before I was even born, my family was Christian. My dad is a pastor. He explained the values of love and kindness to all of us. So, for us, whether times are good or difficult, we will all go through it together.

Q: Were you scared of your dad?
D: No – I really respected my beloved father when I was growing up. He’s a very wise man, whether it’s leading his family and taking care of us, or when he meets and talks to people who aren’t from our village. Although he doesn’t have degrees or certifications, he has skills, talents and abilities that are all very impressive. I wanted to be like him.

Q: Did you have other role models in your childhood, besides your father?
D: I also respected my school teachers a lot. I don’t have many memories of primary school — because all I did was play around and have fun a lot! — but I remember one of my class teachers in secondary school. You must understand, that when us Orang Asli leave our village and mix with others, we feel very shy and very insecure. So when there’s a teacher — like him — who gives you extra attention, you will feel very attached to him. I remember this teacher and how he taught us, talked to us and respected us. He was almost like a father to us. So that’s why I want to repeat what he did with the children in my pre-school.

Q: Before we ask you about your role in Empowered2Teach, we’re curious: What was your childhood ambition?
D: I don’t really remember, but I remember this: I wanted to be free after SPM! I could have gone to form six, but I didn’t want to. I just felt like I was stuck in school for 11 years, so I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I wanted to be free like a bird! I also received offers to study as a nurse or as a teacher, but I declined them also. Sigh, I wasn’t very mature back then…

Q: Haha! But what were your reasons for declining all of these offers?
D: I wanted to work. I wanted to be earn my own money, I wanted to go shopping, I wanted to go on holidays, I wanted to be pretty! Haha! You see, I’ve never had a lot of money. I’ve never really been free. So to be able to work and to earn my own money and to be independent, those were big reasons for me.

Q: So where did you work after you finished SPM?
D: I worked in a lot of places. I was in an electronics factory for a couple of years. I helped out in my family business — selling clothes in Slim River, Perak. When that business didn’t go so well, I moved to Kuala Lumpur to work. I was in clothes shops, handbag shops, supermarkets. Then I joined a nursery, and after that, a kindergarten — and that’s what eventually led me to joining Empowered2Teach.

Q: Tell us more about that.
D: I remember during the years I was working in the kindergarten that I was praying to God for an opportunity to help my own people. I wanted to, but I didn’t have the materials or the resources to start a kindergarten in my village. I knew it wasn’t easy. Then, one day, a friend of my relative introduced me to the founder of Empowered2Teach. He told me about it, and I knew I wanted to join. Although I knew I would earn more money working in KL, this role as a teacher in Empowered2Teach would enable me to help and to serve the people of my village. So that’s what motivated me to join this programme.

Q: What do you remember about the first year of starting your pre-school in Kampung Sungai Poh?
D: When I first set-up the pre-school, I explained to the parents and the other villagers about my goals and intentions. I told them that early education is very important, and that if our children do not attend pre-school, they will be left behind in primary and secondary school. They have to know the basics such as holding a pencil or recognising shapes, alphabets and colours. So I did a lot of convincing with the parents — but it was very difficult. Some parents are easy to get along with, while others are suspicious. They look at you, and say you don’t have a degree. Although I’ve worked in a nursery and a kindergarten, some still didn’t trust me. They didn’t see proof.

Q: Did you give up? How did you overcome this hurdle?
D: I didn’t give up. When I was in the nursery and kindergarten in KL, I was trained properly. I gained a lot of knowledge and experience from my time working in those places. That helped to give me inner strength to keep going. And I kept working on convincing the parents. I continued explaining what the pre-school is, and what its goals are — to help their children achieve great things. Now, after three years, it’s a lot easier to convince other parents, because I have children who act as proof to them. I feel a lot less stressed now compared to my first year.

Q: Why do some of the parents give you so many problems in making the pre-school a success?
D: Firstly, they have never gone to school, so they have limited knowledge and understanding. Then, some parents also have an unhealthy habit, where they’re happy whether or not their children come to my pre-school. That’s why I always insist on discipline and commitment not only from the children but also from the parents. I always prepare extra homework for the children, because I want their parents to help them and to participate in teaching them too. I think it’s very important that parents and teachers work together, if they want the child to succeed. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best teacher ever; if the parents don’t play their role, the efforts of the teacher will be meaningless.

Q: On the other hand, do you get any good feedback from the parents?
D: Yes, of course. Every year, I schedule two meetings with the parents of the children who attend my pre-school. I will show them the results of their children’s work. And throughout the year, they will see their children’s development through the homework I assign. So the parents are very happy and very proud, because their children can do mathematics, as well as read and write in English. For example, I had three children this year who did exceptionally well and finished kindergarten. Next year, they will be in Standard One. It just proves everything I say, and all of my hard work in the pre-school. But the most important thing is that the parents see these results.

Q: You are now also a trainer for the Empowered2Teach project. Does that make it more difficult for you?
D: No, it isn’t, because I love what I do. I enjoy facing the challenges of this career. If I’m facing a huge problem and I can’t seem to solve it, I will keep on trying to think of new ideas to figure it out. For me, my role as a trainer isn’t just for the students and teachers. If I can train the teachers well, then they will be able to teach their children to the best of their abilities. Then those children will succeed and will have bright futures. My goal is to help the future of our people, and of the next generation, so that they can succeed even more. So that’s why I’ve never felt exhausted or that I want to give up. The more I do this, the more I like it!

Q: Finally, what do you hope for the children who attend your pre-school?
D: I want each of them to become somebody who has a successful career. I want them to become role models for the next generation, and for our people. So it’s up to us now to be the foundation and to prepare a stable situation for our children. They are like young trees who can grow bigger and become stronger. They will become the pioneers and leaders for the Orang Asli community, so that we can all progress even further. Whether it’s our children or the other teachers in Empowered2Teach, I want all of them to be as good as the other races in Malaysia.

Imagine placing your four year old child on a motorcycle, riding two to three hours, navigating through mud, steep slopes, rocky terrain and maybe even a river crossing just to get to school. Imagine doing this, to and fro, for 214 school days in a year, rain or shine. Now that’s what some of our Orang Asli children need to go through just to learn how to read, write and count. We have heard of some very dedicated parents who would do so consistently for the sake of their child’s education, but sadly, we are also not surprised to hear that many young kids do not attend pre-school as accessing the nearest pre-school is physically challenging.

How important is pre-school education anyways? All standard one classes assume that the students having been to pre-school  would have basic reading, writing and mathematical skills. However many Orang Asli children attend standard one hoping to learn how to hold a pencil properly, much less read, write and count. This puts them at a significant disadvantage right at day one of their primary school life. That’s why most reports show that Orang Asli children’s school drop out rate is significantly higher than urban kids.

Reports show that only 70% of Orang Asli primary school students transition to secondary school. Out of the 70% now in secondary school, only 30% complete their secondary school education. This means that out of 100% of Orang Asli children who have started primary school education, only 20% complete their secondary school education 11 years later. Some reports from NGOs show that the figure can be as low as only 6% completing their secondary school education.

SUKA Society’s Empowered2Teach project plays a long term and sustainable role in addressing this significant concern by empowering the Orang Asli communities to start their own pre-school classes. We do this by training and equipping Orang Asli teachers like Dinah who are recommended by their village leaders based on their strong desire to educate children.The teacher then receives training, supervision, financial support and teaching resources to start their own pre-school classes. Using the project as a platform to initiate improvements in her village up in Gopeng, Dinah now serves as catalysts for education and positive development in her village.

It is our hope that through this project, Orang Asli young children will be adequately prepared for primary school and will have the basic foundation needed to work towards completing their formal education.