By: Dr. Linda Lumayag
The recent call for a review of our education policy on refugee children by Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negri Sembilan Tuanku Muhriz Ibni Almarhum Tuanku Munawir (Bernama, 12 December 2022; The Star, 12 December 2022) is timely and forward-looking, as we embark on a new chapter in our country’s political history. This call in regard to access to education must not just be on refugee children, but also the undocumented, stateless and asylum seekers whose right to access education has been hampered by the existing policy. To actually know the population of undocumented children is a difficult task although interested international, national and local entities have their own estimates.
To provide a context, in the early 1990s, discussions, newspaper reporting, and fieldwork research on the undocumented population in Borneo were either unpopular or invisible in the public space. That has changed since, when, in 2002/2003, Malaysia’s Education Act 1996/2003 was amended to the effect that children without documentation, stateless, and children of migrant workers holding unskilled category of work pass were not allowed to register in national schools. This, in effect, placed children in those categories in a very precarious situation. As a response to this predicament, local communities, non-government organisations, and faith-based groups create a platform called alternative learning centres (ALCs) to provide basic reading, writing, and mathematics, including living skills such as sewing, cooking and handicrafts. At present, cursory observation shows less than twenty ALCs in Kota Kinabalu alone provide informal education, though there are more when you travel down to Sandakan and Semporna. Right here in west Malaysia, most ALCs cater to refugee children. In Sarawak, the scarce presence of ALCs is observed, too.
All this while, we think of ALC -a type of informal schooling-, as a viable stop-gap measure against lack of access to primary education.
My contention is that ALCs should not be seen as a substitute for formal school. There are many fundamental problems that ALCs face: lack of trained teachers, lack of building infrastructure, sports and cultural facilities, and lack of funding and curriculum monitoring. That is why the call to review our learning policy towards children without documentation and nationality must be done as soon as possible in tandem with the current challenges that ALCS are facing. So then, all children must be accorded the same right to access primary education.
When I first studied the phenomenon of ALCs in 2006-2008, I was left with many questions that remain unanswered. Why put a division between those with legal identity and those without, especially when exercising the fundamental right to education? What constrains the integration of noncitizen children in our national schools? What is the purpose of international covenants that Malaysia has signed and how relevant is this on the global stage? Several international covenants, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Declaration on Human Rights, for which Malaysia is a signatory, reflect the need to have these agreements respected by all.
I witnessed a ‘low-key’ graduation and recognition day of an ALC called Stairway to Hope where 49 students from kindergarten to secondary level received their ‘certificates’ from the school principal, during my recent visit to Kota Kinabalu (see photo). This occasion reminds us to rethink that only citizens and documented children have the right to education to a belief that noncitizen children, too, are part of the nation we build. Most ALCs are dependent on the generosity of public, private individuals and business entities through crowdsourcing. Teachers-cum-facilitators are volunteers and received low allowance, and teacher training is free provided funds are available. School premises are often in nondescript locations to avoid public attention. As funding is limited, the quality of ALCs classrooms and the availability of amenities are left to be desired.
The recent installation of Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government should usher in a new perspective on children’s future regardless of race, nationality, immigration status, or gender. The review must also be expressed along the line of examining the need to educate the children living in Malaysia in the belief that children are the future economic and political actors of the country, and providing them a proper platform to acquire knowledge and skills is primarily the responsibility of the government.
Across the states in west Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah, there is evidence of child poverty best demonstrated in the lack of access to formal education. Based on the number of noncitizen children in the country, it is safe to say that poverty characterises the life of these children. Once children do not have the academic credential to enter the labour market, their survival from hunger is a concern. How do we enshrine the UN SDG theme ‘No one should be left behind’ in our national policy, especially in education? How else do we embody the ideals of inclusive and ‘unity’ government especially when other sectors of society are on the brink of hunger and destitution.
Access to primary education, in this particular setting, remains a critical approach for survival. Instead of promoting ALCs as substitutes, children, regardless of citizenship (or lack of), must be integrated into our national school system. We have done that before. There is no reason we cannot do it again. Since access to primary education is a universal human right, let Malaysia’s earlier normative practice be revived i.e. providing an inclusive education for all. We all know that education is an equaliser. It mitigates vulnerability and precarity in all aspects of the child’s life.
In closing, local communities should be lauded for creating spaces for undocumented and noncitisen children despite the challenges. Under the new leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia has all it takes to push the UN agenda of an inclusive education free from layers of ill-conceived policy approaches. In the end, one index of a successful nation is reflected in the way we treat the vulnerable and the underprivileged.
The author is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya