Getting to school can be difficult when you have to travel for hours by boat.

TELANG Usan state assemblyman Dennis Ngau is worried that the number of indigenous students in most of the primary schools in middle and upper Baram, Sarawak, is dropping – especially among the Penans.

That’s why rural education will be a top priority among proposals for the 11th Malaysia Plan. Local Barisan Nasional representatives are asking for up to RM2bil from the Federal Government to meet social and infrastructure development needs for the next five years in the Baram Parliamentary constituency, which is as big as the state of Pahang. That would include centralised schools, boarding facilities, basic infrastructure such as roads, and basic amenities including water and electricity.

Ngau’s state constituency in northern Sarawak, which is the size of the state of Johor, is populated mainly by the Orang Ulus, made up of the minority ethnic groups of Kayans and Kenyahs, and the Penans, who are the original settlers of Sarawak. (Marudi is the other state constituency under the Baram seat.)

Ngau, who is the BN youth chief for Baram, lists several reasons for the dwindling numbers: “Firstly, some native families in the interior settlements are still too ‘relaxed’ about matters pertaining to education, and they feel that it is all right if their children do not go to school, since they are able to survive in the rural setting.”

SK Lusong Laku in upper Belaga in Kapit Division, central Sarawak, is a rural school with the most basic of facilities. Photos: STEPHEN THEN/The Star

Penan students, especially, usually drop out after a few years in primary school, he adds. And those who continue to secondary school often have poor results because they are not consistent in their efforts.

“Some Penan pupils study at their boarding school for three or four months and then they leave and they will come back only after a few months,” Ngau explains. “They go home to work on the farms.”

Transport is also a major hurdle for students in the interior. Some settlements don’t have road links to schools, and the only way to reach the nearest school is to use rivers.

“We have to use boats to send our children to school,” says Sukong Gau, 36, a Penan mother of five children, who used to live in Long Ikang. “Using land is difficult because we have to use the timber roads, and we have no vehicles.”

Travelling by longboats to these schools can be dangerous, as the rivers can turn very turbulent during the landas (wet) season, between November and February.

In early January, two primary school children of SK Long Panai died along with their aunt in a boat accident on the Baram River.

State Assemblyman for Telang Usan, Dennis Ngau, visiting Penan students at SK Long Moh in Baram, northern Sarawak. He’s calling for more ‘centralised’ schools to tackle the high drop-out rate. Photo: DENNIS NGAU

Indigenous families are also leaving their rural longhouses en masse for the towns. But even in town, some children are missing out on an education.

Sukong’s three school-aged children have stayed at home since they moved to Miri three years ago, due to work and financial problems. The family has also been moving around, living in rented rooms.

“When they cannot settle down, their children will not attend school,” says Ngau, who visited them recently. “Without education, these kids will continue the poverty cycle when they grow up.”

The 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP) aimed to expand the sekolah model khas (special model schools) to tackle the high drop-out rates among both the bumiputra in Sabah and Sarawak and orang asli in the peninsula, combining primary and secondary education up to Form Three under the same school management, and providing more boarding facilities for secondary schools.

Ngau is asking for more of these “centralised” schools for his constituency under the 11MP. There is already one such school in Long Bedian with kindergarten, primary school classes from Year 1 to 6, and secondary classes from Form 1 to 3 located within the same compound.

“The drop-out rate there is not serious,” the state assemblyman points out. “This shows that if we can arrange for schools that can provide a holistic range of classes from kindergarten all the way to at least Form 3, then the rural kids will be encouraged to stay for the long-haul.”

Under the 10MP, road-links were improved to more rural primary and secondary schools, with more stretches of rural roads leading from longhouses to schools now sealed with tar.

Ngau recently visited Long Moh to officially open a sports meet involving pupils from SK Long Moh, SK Long Tungan, and SK Lio Mato.

He also held discussions with the teachers and headmasters, and pupils and residents. SK Long Moh headmaster, Dickson Juan, called on the government to build a new bridge to link the place, which is about eight hours from Miri City by timber road, to the outside world.

The headmaster also pointed out that the teachers’ quarters need to be repaired urgently as they are dilapidated, with the toilets and rooms in bad condition.

Ngau and his fellow representatives’ proposals for the 11MP will include improvement of school buildings, boarding quarters for students, teaching facilities, and teachers’ quarters. The state assemblyman hopes for higher allocations for his Telang Usan constituency, where the needs are massive, especially for rural education.

“Without a good education, it will be very difficult to face the increasing challenges brought about by advancement in society, as it will be difficult to get jobs that can offer decent and steady income,” he stresses.

“The natives will always remain in the grip of poverty and the vicious cycle will continue generation after generation.”