Attending school should be a normal part of life for children as they grow up. But for a large number of children in Sabah who are classified as stateless, getting an education is not a given. The lack of an identification document, which is the prerequisite for enrolment in school, forces them into the job market at a very young age, working odd jobs, including hard physical labour, in plantations.
Earlier this year, news of Sabah-born top scorer Arly Mai Geanga pleading for citizenship to enable her to continue her studies drew some attention to the plight of stateless children. Arly is only one of many children who are being held back by their status.
Being stateless means having no formal record of your existence, hence considered an undocumented individual. The many persons in Sabah who fall into this category are not only migrants from nearby Indonesia and the Philippines, but also some born to Malaysians who did not register the births, often due to a lack of awareness of the consequences.
While the issue of statelessness is not specific to Sabah, the state probably has the highest number of stateless individuals in the country. Official statistics on this are lacking, but it does not change the reality — that individuals and families have long borne this complicated legal status, despite having lived in the state for generations.
Alternative education centre, Me.Reka Makerspace (Me.Reka) is keen to change the education and employment prospects for this group of people. Together with the United Nations Children’s Fund Malaysia (Unicef Malaysia), it recently piloted an education project in Sabah to provide out-of-school children and youth with more opportunities for their future in this digital economy. A Me.Reka team of five called Sabah home for a few months, running the project in two schools — the School for Stateless and Marginalised Children and Matakana Beaufort by Etania Schools.
Independently run alternative learning centres such as these provide some solutions but their efforts are often hampered by a lack of funds and basic necessities. Even if some form of formal education is made available, safe passage to and from school remains a major concern as stateless and undocumented children and youth face the risk of arrest, detention and deportation.
“Unicef has been gathering data and mapping the problem in Sabah for a number of years. The next phase is to look at possible interventions. Ideally, the problem would be solved at the state level but that takes time … Something needs to be done in the meantime — these are children we are talking about and they cannot be left to suffer while the government tries to figure something out,” says Me.Reka co-founder and HR manager Zoe Victoria Tate on the partnership.
The absence of legislation to deal with the issue, and because Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations conventions on statelessness, mean that stateless individuals are not accorded basic rights to healthcare or education. Getting employment is also tough without proper documentation, leaving these individuals economically vulnerable. “Unicef noticed that since the children cannot attend school, they have to start earning at a younger age. We [Me.Reka] thought that since we cannot change much about that, the least we can do is teach them skills that can help them increase their livelihood and avoid jobs where they are easily exploited,” she adds.
Between April and June this year, the team engaged with 35 children aged 11 to 17 through a 100-hour digital literacy course.
“We wanted to teach them new skills that do not compete with the everyday informal economy but would still be relevant for them … You cannot live in this century and not use a computer and the internet,” says Me.Reka co-founder and head of R&D Gurpreet Singh Dhillon on why digital literacy was chosen. “If you can master the digital space, you can transcend statelessness. They can earn money designing logos on Fiver or writing blogs,” he says.
The team entered the community with an open mind and realised after beginning their work that the children and youth were passionate, eager and driven. “The children are just like local Sabahans. They have the same dreams and aspirations as any other children ... It is about introducing other options and opening up their world and changing their minds a little,” Tate says.
In terms of public perception, undocumented individuals often experience a lack of acceptance because the community is associated with a high prevalence of crime. “Some locals don’t understand why we work with the stateless … The stigma is very bad in Sabah but people hardly talk about it outside the state or in Peninsular Malaysia,” says Gurpreet.
Unicef noticed that since the children cannot attend school, they have to start earning at a younger age. We [Me.Reka] thought that since we cannot change much about that, the least we can do is teach them skills that can help them increase their livelihood and avoid jobs where they are easily exploited
He sees a connection between the lack of education and reduced employability that forces them down that path. “Light needs to be shed on the situation before the perception can be changed,” he adds, which Tate believes may take a long time.
This was one reason why the students in the digital literacy classes were taught about using digital media to share their life and experiences with the world. The classes included basic computer use, photography and videography as a means of telling their story as a stateless or undocumented individual. There are plans to include electrical courses, metal working, food technology as well as artisanal crafts and rapid prototyping in future lesson modules.
In line with Me.Reka’s innovative, project-based approach to learning, the final course project was unique and hands-on. The children from both schools led their own crowdfunding project to set up a solar power system that would provide electricity to the schools without as well as building a classroom and acquiring laptops and internet access to facilitate digital learning. At the time of our interview, both schools had exceeded the goal of raising RM25,000 per school (which will be matched by Actyvate Malaysia to RM75,000 per school), meaning that the crowdfunding initiative was a huge success.
That being said, the initiative does not end there. The team will return to the schools next month to build the solar energy system and digital hub, as promised. Going forward, there are plans to develop a Me.Reka Makerspace in Sabah, where the students will be the main beneficiaries with free access to the space for a year. Gurpreet says the ultimate goal is sustainability and he believes the new space will be a beacon for that while providing more employment options as well.