AUGUST 9 — The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) observes August 9 as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which is complemented by the observance of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations.
Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons”.
Of the 137 living languages spoken in Malaysia, more than 100 constitute Indigenous Languages, or Orang Asli/Asal Languages, each associated with unique cultures and traditions. The preservation of these languages rely on the continued use and transmission from generation to generation, which in turn is determined by the preservation of indigenous communities and their culture. Although Orang Asal Languages in Sabah and Sarawak continue to thrive, some of them, particularly those of smaller indigenous groups, and those spoken by some 100,000 Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia are in danger of extinction.
Language plays a crucial role in the daily lives of all people and is pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, peace building and sustainable development, through ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. Orang Asli/Asal languages in particular are significant as they are a cornerstone of indigenous identity and are involved in a wide range of other indigenous issues, notably education, scientific and technological development, biosphere and the environment, freedom of expression, employment and social inclusion.
In Peninsular Malaysia, a frequent challenge experienced by Orang Asli children would be the language barrier, as the language that they are raised with differs from that which is taught in school. This directly impacts their ability to participate in the education system and to excel in their studies. Understandably, this constrains the ability of Orang Asli to live life to their full trajectories due to this educational limitation. Unesco promotes mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education, which is an important factor for inclusion and quality in education. Research shows this has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.
In the past two decades, there has been some efforts to recognise various indigenous languages in a formal and educational capacity, such as the recognition of the Iban language as a school subject in Sarawak in the early 1990s and the reintroduction of the Kadazandusun language in schools in Sabah in 1997.
In the Peninsula, the Semai language teaching programme was implemented in 1998 in Semai schools. This programme was made possible through the efforts of the Semai indigenous Orang Asli community who engaged with relevant government authorities, particularly the Curriculum Development Division of the Ministry of Education.
Suhakam supports these efforts and hopes that this formal education recognition can be extended to other indigenous communities in Malaysia. Suhakam will continue to advocate, promote and continue organising various programmes to uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia particularly to bridge the gap and to provide an enabling environment towards ensuring equal access to quality education for Indigenous children, which is also instrumental to the empowerment of the Indigenous community.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.