How many of us Sabahans feel annoyed at the sight of migrant children walking around the city? If you live in Kota Kinabalu, you might have sighted a few of them here and there. At first thought, you might be thinking – ‘Look at these PTI(pendatang tanpa izin) kids walking here and there. Don’t know what kind of mischief they’re going to do next.’ Well, let me tell you one thing about these kids. Most children of migrants from Phillipines and Indonesia are actually born in Malaysia which means they have never ‘migrated’. They have even adopted the Sabahan Malay accent and refused to speak Indonesian when the teachers in the local Indonesian school have instructed them to do so (Allerton, 2017). I would like to argue that these children have the rights to education because education can reduce their risk of facing daily exposure to criminality, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, and even terrorism.
2002 was the year when access to public education was only limited to Malaysian citizens which means that undocumented children of migrant workers have no rights to education even if they have been born in Malaysia. This violates the UNCRC’s Article 7 that states all births should be registered regardless of nationality (Lumayag, 2017). The rights to education is also reflected in international law in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Allerton (2017) did some fieldwork regarding statelessness and had interviewed several Florenese migrants. Many of them wanted their children to get basic edcuation in Malaysia but couldn’t. What results from this is that most of them will be subjected to being called as ‘street children’ which is a term used to stigmatize them to mark them as a disruption to public menace (Allerton, 2017). It’s been almost 20 years that the government’s education policy has restricted their access to public education, which is the reason for us seeing all these ‘street children’ roaming around the city. If we let them go to public school, at least they spend more of their time doing beneficial things.
Many Sabahans have the mentality that if we give them free access to education, there is a possibility that their ‘kind’ will rule Sabah and the locals here will be the ‘peasants’ in their own birth land. I would like to contend that this kind of mentality is a result of a xenophobic attitude. Xenophobia is defined by Hesnard (cited in Tafira 2011), is the fear and revulsion toward an object or anything that is considered foreign outside the individual. This fear is centred around what has been called as project IC, the granting of citizenship to Muslim immigrants for political reasons during Mahathir’s first stint as Prime Minister (Frank, 2006). It is evident that Sabah’s demographic has changed when Project IC had begun in the state. It has the purpose of changing the majority Christan state to a majority Muslim state for the sake of political gain. Ever since project IC, majority local Sabahans are repulsed by the thought of giving any basic rights to the migrants as they’re not a part of this country. This demonization of migrants by the local people and political elites is perpetuating a society that has a large illiterate population (Lumayag, 2017). When it comes to giving free access to education, regardless of nationality and religion, it is a basic right that every children should have.
When public education isn’t a viable platform for these undocumented children, there is an option for private education. However, since most private education in Sabah are expensive, having parents who are only paid by the hour, they could not afford to pay for private schooling. Sabah has a few learning centres that cater to the children’s educational needs and they’re free. These are built based on community-based initiatives. The curriculum is based on the Philippines’ school curriculum and is a part of the Philippines government policy to reduce illiteracy among the Filipinos with the support of the Phillipines Embassy. They are The Humana Learning Centre (HLC), Stairway to Hope Learning Centre, Stairway to Success Learning Centre, and Persatuan Kebajikan Pendidikan Kanak-kanak Miskin. Most children of the Filipinos go to these schools as their parents are aware of the importance of getting educated. Although such learning centres have been set up, there is a question whether there is a resistance from the Malaysian government for the establishment of these schools. Some were not given a permit and license. These learning institutions have been set up by the Filipino community and should not have met with any resistance as they are under the purview of the Phillipine government, not the Malaysian government. Therefore, they do not pose a threat to the development of Sabah and Malaysia. If there is a restriction for them to enter government schools, surely these initiatives from the Filipino Sabahan community should be welcomed because it meets the basic rights of these children.
A few of the studies (Allerton, 2019; Lumayag, 2016) conducted have interviewed the children of migrant workers. Many have expressed their desire for schooling. Some did not want to work but choose to go to school instead. Parents of these migrants have expressed their desires for their children to get basic education. Some have been sent back to Indonesia but wanted to come back as they’re met with judgmental family members when what all these children want is to go to school. This gives them a sense of abandonment and an experience not shared with those who have the opportunity to go to schools.
I understand that this is a sensitive issue for Sabahans to digest especially in regards to migrant workers and their children. But let us have a little empathy towards these children as they’re humans who are still developing and getting an education will help them fend for themselves in the future. This article aims to make us aware that these children mean no harm. But our prejudices and discriminatory government education policies are the elements that perpetuate the harm that will have the potential to be committed by these children as they’ve not been educated on how to behave civilly within a society.
Allerton, C. (2017). Contested Statelessness in Sabah, Malaysia: Irregularity and the Politics of Recognition. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 15(3), 250-268. doi:10.1080/15562948.2017.1283457
Allerton, C. (2017). Impossible children: Illegality and excluded belonging among children of migrants in Sabah, East Malaysia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(7), 1081-1097. doi:10.1080/1369183x.2017.1357464
Allerton, C. (2019). Stuck in the Short Term: Immobility and Temporalities of Care among Florenese Migrants in Sabah, Malaysia. Ethnos, 1-16. doi:10.1080/00141844.2018.1543338
Frank, S. (2006). Project Mahathir: ‘Extraordinary’ Population Growth in Sabah, by Sina Frank. Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://ideas.repec.org/a/gig/soaktu/v25y2006i5p71-80.html
Lumayag, L. A. (2016). A Question of Access: Education Needs of Undocumented Children in Malaysia. Asian Studies Review, 40(2), 192-210. doi:10.1080/10357823.2016.1158238
Tafira, H. K. (2017). Is Xenophobia Racism? Xenophobia in South Africa, 15-33. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-67714-9_2