“They Do Not Like to Be Confined and Told What to Do”: Schooling Malaysian Indigenes

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This chapter concerns how Malaysian state-run schooling “disciplines the work force,” a euphemism popular among advocates of “globalization.” We draw parallels between how kidnappers treat kidnappees and how state agents treat children of Orang Asli, a Malaysian population occupying a status like that of U.S. Natives. They are the indigenous peoples of the Malaysian peninsula. Like U.S. Natives, they make up less than 1 percent of the current population. And, like U.S. Natives, they have lost or are losing most of their traditional territories; unlike U.S. Natives, they lack treaty rights or sovereignty.

     The Malaysian state rests on “ethnicity.” Malays rule because, the story goes, they are the indigenous people of Malaysia. That puts Orang Asli in an odd position, because they are the “indigenous people” according to the consensus of both ethnographers and the bureaucrats of international powers like the World Bank and the UN General Assembly, which the Malaysian government ostensibly supports (JOAS 2008). Indeed, Orang Asli is Malay for “indigenous people” (Dentan et al. 1997). Two authors of this paper are Semai, members of the famously peaceable and largest subcategory of Orang Asli.

     Language is vital to this paper. Educatorspeak in any language obscures as much as it clarifies. We talk about “hidden curriculum” (knowledge and behavior schools inculcate without overt discussion, as in obedience and keeping still) and “schooling” (enforcing hidden curriculum) as well as “education” (widening people’s horizons and giving them personally beneficial skills). Because children are the easiest people to victimize in any society (Office for Victims of Crime 2002:810), and because children encounter the state mostly in schools, observing how a particular state (in this case Malaysia) schools its poorest children (in this case Malaysian indigenes or Orang Asli) helps one evaluate the character of that state.

     Compulsory education is a kind of kidnapping, a term we use instead of less vivid words such as “disembedding” (Boulanger 2008). The idea is to segregate impoverished kids from their unsatisfactory parents and supposedly retrograde “culture.” We stress that no matter how attractive the kidnappers’ blandishments, the consequences of refusing are dire. Force is the ultima ratio regum, the final argument of rulers. We agree that, in both criminal and legal kidnapping, kidnappers’ motives may be lofty, kidnappees may go willingly with their abductors, and close emotional ties often develop between the two (by a process called “identification with the oppressor” [Dentan 2008]).     Kidnapping is central to maintaining globalized modernity—i.e., industrial capi�talism, commercial slavery, or state-run education (Graeber 2007; Tilaar 2005). Rulers take subordinates to be from their homes, where the kidnapped have learned the complex skills needed to survive without alienating friends and neighbors (Macdonald 2008), and subject them to an ostensibly rationalized, simplistic, and universalistic meritocracy in which they must master the relatively simple skills needed to serve their new masters efficiently (Sukarman 2005; Dentan 2010, forthcoming). They go from rustic complexity into forests of buildings and rivers of concrete where other men and women missed the stars at night and tended small plants on windowsills and kept tiny dogs and took them for walks along corridors in the endless procession of boxes and intersections and lights; where they rented space in other people’s property so they had somewhere to sleep so they could get up and perform profit-�related tasks they neither understood nor cared about, simply so they would be given tokens of exchange they needed in order to rent the space in which they slept and snarled and watched television, a society that was itself trapped in fracture and betrayal and despair; a culture turning into a Christmas bauble, gaudy beauty wrapped around an emptiness coalescing faster and faster into parking lots and malls and waiting areas and virtual chat rooms—non-�places where nobody knew anything about anybody anymore. (Marshall 2002:284–85).

     There, some quondam kidnappees, like Dr. Piyan (one of three current Orang Asli who hold PhDs), do well by the simple standards to which they have been assimilated enough to squelch the love of freedom to which �Piyan referred in the phrase used in this chapter’s title. Piyan’s parents “learnt that education was the ticket to a better life from mixing with other people and estate officials” (New Straits Times 2007). Many Orang Asli now want schooling for their kids so that they can deal with non-Aslians without getting cheated and oppressed. The money isn’t bad, either. State ideologies construct state kidnappees as less competent and less complete than the people they are to serve: simple, ignorant, immature, thoughtless—“childish,” in a word (Dentan and Juli 2008). The new rules obscure abductees’ diversity and disrupt the skills that their “home” lives foster (Graeber 2007; Hickson 2010; Macdonald 2008). The process teaches Orang Asli abductees that they are inferior, so that, as Piyan says, “They do not have self-worth. They think that they are ugly and poor” (New Straits Times 2007).

     There are dangers to watch out for in this discussion. First, if you’re not Malaysian, don’t feel superior. What compulsory Malaysian schooling involves goes on in compulsory schooling around the world (Gatto 2006). Despite local peculiarities, the basic pattern is pretty much the same. Also, in a short chapter, it is easy to get lost in abstractions. This paper is about kids much like other kids. So let’s start by introducing you to Bah Rmpent (Dentan 2001).

 

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