Education for all, aliens included

If they can’t go to school, the school goes to them

From the time they are born, they live on the oil palm plantation which becomes their entire world. Without schooling, many of these children end up as child workers. The Humana Child Aid Society Sabah wants to change this.

Text and photo by Carolyn Hong

From within, oil palm plantations can seem like a different world. Hidden within the neat rows of lucrative oil palm trees, there are often whole villages built to house the estate workers.

Some villages are better than the others.

Now, in Sabah, the Humana Child Aid Society Sabah is working to improve all the plantation villages by building a school or learning centre in each of them to educate the children of these migrant workers.

It has already built more than 100 such schools for 13,500 migrant children but there’s still a long way to go. There are an estimated 30,000 such children in Sabah, whose families had come from Indonesia or the Philippines to work in the plantations.

Many of these children live their entire childhood in these isolated plantations, cut off from the rest of the world. They don’t get to attend school as non-Malaysians aren’t allowed to attend government schools. Many end up as child workers, with their lack of education destroying all hope for a better future.

Humana, a non-profit organisation, hopes to break this cycle of poverty by providing primary education to these children who may then have the option of returning to their home countries for secondary and further education.

It found that if they can’t attend school, more than half the children will follow their parents to work in the fields but if there’s an option for schooling, almost all will opt for school.

Humana has been setting up these learning centres in Sabah plantations since 1991. These centres have since been approved by the Malaysian Ministry of Education.

Its story began in 1990 when a Danish school teacher arrived in Sabah to explore a cocoa venture. But his plan evaporated a year later when prices plummeted. However, in the course of visiting plantations, he noticed many children working instead of attending school. Teaming up with another Dane, they set up a learning centre for some of these children.

“That was the beginning of Humana,” said John Madsen, a Dane who is the current chairman of the board.

Also the honorary Danish Consul in Malaysia, Madsen is a Malaysian permanent resident who has lived here for decades after arriving as the managing director of the Carlsberg brewery, and later the East Asiatic Company.

Today, Madsen is the only Dane left on the Humana board.

From one school, the venture grew, albeit slowly at first. It boomed from 2009 when a three-year grant of around 500,000 euros from the European Union allowed for a rapid expansion.

Today, about 70 per cent of its funding comes from large plantation companies such as Sime Darby, Wilmar, Genting, IJM, Teck Guan and Hap Seng which pay for schools in their plantations.

“Today, practically all the large plantation owners in Sabah are giving funding for these schools,” said Madsen. “We have told them that they have to contribute more, and to do their part.”

Other donors have included the EU, Unicef, Embassy of Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, and private companies and individuals.

Humana aims to set up a school in every plantation, especially the smaller ones. It costs about RM3,000 a month to run a centre for 50 children, or RM60 per child. This covers salaries, transport, school material, books, and administration costs.

Most of its 350 teachers are Indonesian as since 2006, Indonesia has begun posting its teachers here to teach the children of Indonesian plantation workers.

The wooden learning centres are basic but cheerful, and equipped with the basic facilities needed for teaching and learning. The children learn the subjects usually taught in primary school, as well as take part in sports activities.

More than half of its students have gone on to secondary schools in the countries of their parents’ origin, after they completed Grade 6.

But the journey hasn’t been a smooth one, especially of late. Humana went through some bad press recently over its 2010 accounts when queries were raised over a large sum of money which was transferred to the personal account of a director who has since left the board.

Madsen said it was Humana’s practice at that time to disburse funds for salaries and other expenses, through a personal account. These were backed up by vouchers and receipts.

But it stopped this practice when he took over as chairman in 2011, as it was not in accordance with proper governance standards. The current board had also appointed Ernst and Young as auditors to bring its accounting practices up to international standards, and have since cleaned up its messy practices.

It was a lesson learnt, the painful way.

But Madsen said it remains committed to the cause because they feel a deep sense of responsibility towards the children.

“We reckon that there are still another 15,000 children whom we see as our responsibility to take care of them, and to take them into our centres,” he said.

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