EMPOWERING ORANG ASLI: More firms must help equip them with skills, education
WHEN was the last time you visited an Orang Asli village? Okay, I rephrase the question: have you ever been to an Orang Asli village? If you can spare some time, please go to one and see for yourself their way of life and the changes taking place.
Some friends and I went to Kampung Semelor in the Royal Belum rainforest a few days ago. We brought along some reading materials, clothes, and tobacco and cigarettes for the old folk. Kampung Semelor can be reached by boat and logging tracks using a 4x4 vehicle.
If it rains, then it is better to go by boat because the logging tracks can be treacherous. If going by road, one can see electric fences to prevent wild elephants from entering the Orang Asli villages. The electric shock will not kill the elephants, but are strong enough to stun them and make them go elsewhere.
I met several Orang Asli ladies in Kampung Semelor. They were making plastic bags and small pencil holders. Under the guidance of the Human Resources Ministry, vendors are assigned specific tasks to help the Orang Asli community acquire skills.
I met Ita, a 26-year-old mother of a baby girl. She had acquired the new skill of sewing plastic bags, taught by one of the vendors. Ita can also sew simple clothes that would find their way into the open market.
Ita is from the Temiang tribe, which has been staying in Kampung Semelor for many years. Tok Batin Samad is very proud of Ita and the other ladies because they have helped break one big perception among the community: that they are lazy, unmotivated and reject new ideas, including acquiring new skills.
"Kalau saya jahit banyak barang, saya dapat banyak duit (If I sew many things, I get a lot of money)," Ita said, when taking a short break.
She and eight ladies from the village had just been taught to make file holders and pencil boxes. She gets 50 sen for every file holder sewn. Depending on the amount of work and degree of difficulty of the tasks at hand, Ita can earn between RM300 and RM400 per month.
"Dia orang kuat kerja. Diorang rajin belajar (They are hardworking. They are good learners)," said Tok Batin Samad.
But, Kampung Semelor is not an ordinary kampung. Yes, it is located deep in the 138-million-year-old Royal Belum rainforest. The Orang Asli are generally nomadic, moving from one location to another, as they stick to the slash-and-burn lifestyle. Sometimes, the whole village would move to another location when there were deaths in the village.
But, it does not look that way in Kampung Semelor. The villagers are proud of their clean village, with well-manicured lawns and general hygiene. Tok Batin Samad uses a big biscuit tin as an ashtray and he is quick to tell visitors where to throw their cigarette butts.
The village has a toy library-cum-kindergarten, courtesy of Yayasan Emkay. Two Orang Asli girls have been given proper training to teach infants, using toys as tools. The village folk would send their children there in the morning to learn basic preschool stuff.
The parents would often volunteer to help out, thus, making the village even more close-knit. Shila, one of the teachers, said school hours were flexible with one guiding principle -- as long as the children came to the toy library, they would be accepted and given lessons.
Yayasan Emkay has spent a considerable amount of money to get the library started. Two other Orang Asli villages deep in the Royal Belum rainforest are also equipped with their own kindergartens and have different levels of success.
Prime Minster Datuk Seri Najib Razak, commenting on these initiatives when he paid a two-day visit to Royal Belum, including a visit to an Orang Asli village, had this to say on Friday: "I (would) like more companies to be involved in helping the Orang Asli community. Make these initiatives sustainable. Everyone can see that an initiative, like the ones I see here, is most beneficial. Do more, please."
Orang Asli children after finishing their classes in Kampung Semelor.
Ahmad A. Talib | firstname.lastname@example.org | AhmadT@aatpahitmanis New Straits Times Columnist 11 May 2014