Hundreds if not thousands of rural-based native children have dropped out of school because they do not possess proper identification papers.
The latest is the plight of nine-year-old Lun Bawang Jenny Liana Ating who was not allowed to attend school even though her father is a Malaysian and she was born in Sarawak.
Both Jenny’s father and mother were born in Sarawak but because the couple only registered their marriage in 2006, they encountered problems.
Father of six, Ating reportedly told the Borneo Post: “We had problems in registering our marriage through Adat Lun Bawang and the National Registration Department (NRD).”
When NRD gave the couple permission to register their marriage in 2016, five of his children, including Jenny, were deemed to be non-citizens!
Five of her older siblings were allowed to attend secondary school except for Jenny.
Government red tape, especially involving the NRD, is often the cause of this injustice that has rendered poor rural folk “stateless”.
I have been writing about this issue for more than 40 years and I do empathise with Jenny’s plight.
It’s an irony when you consider that of the 3.9 million population in Sabah, 1.2 million are foreigners who have Malaysian identification documents.
And yet, genuine natives born in Sarawak have to prove they are not illegals.
In 1992, I accompanied Datuk Seri Najib tun Razak when he was deputy prime minister and minister of penan affairs Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg to Long Kevok — to visit the first Penan Service Centre.
Seventeen years later in 2009, I joined Najib, home affairs minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and deputy home minister Datuk Jelaing Mersat on a second visit to Long Kevok and promises of hope were uttered.
During that time, the NRD found that the problem of Penan registration in Baram had grown; from 16,281 Penan interviewed, only 3,098 had Malaysian identification papers.
On top of that, 6,958 didn’t have either identity cards (ICs) or birth certificates (BCs).
Apparently, due to Baram’s remoteness, not all Penan family members were able to turn up for the registration exercise. And if they did attend the then exercise, most could not fulfil the criteria required — that both parents must be present as proof they are parents of the child.
To speed up the process of providing the community with identification papers, the government launched the first phase of the “Reaching Out to the Penan” project.
More than 1,000 Penan attended the “reach out” project at Long Kevok.
Among the invited guests were proponents of the anti-logging crusaders, including Long Sayan headmen Ajang Kiew and Alah Beling from Long Beluk, who organised the first anti-logging blockades in Baram in 1987.
Also present was Juwing Lihan, the deputy president of the Sarawak Penan Association (SAPA) who had attended the anti-logging tour of Yokohama in November 1990.
At Long Kevok, the home affairs minister joked: “When I first arrived, I didn’t see many smiling faces. Maybe they thought that since I was the minister in charge of the police, I had come to arrest the Penan.”
“But when I told them I came here as a friend to help them solve their IC problems, I could see their joy. I want to make sure that none of the Penan are left out and that they become part of the one Malaysian community,” he said.
Jeliang said the NRD was given two years to solve the IC and BC problem starting in 2010.
“By 2011, we will expand our exercise to register both those who do not have ICs as well as BCs.
“We will have to systematically co-ordinate the exercise well together with the local state government agencies to be effective.” But Jelaing’s hopes were dashed — he was replaced as the MP for Saratok and another deputy home minister took his place.
Ten years have passed but the plight of the Penan remains unchanged.
I first met Gerawat Megud in 1986 while he led a nomadic life and convinced him we had a caring government.
However, when I met him at Long Seridan, who now lives among settled Kelabit, a dejected Gerawat said the authorities told him his children were not Malaysians.
“It’s ironical because all my children were born in Sarawak and have birth certificates from the NRD, to prove it. But they are not considered as Malaysians,” he said.
In the early 1990s, there were 11 regions comprising a population of 9,786 Penan, including Ulu Baram (19 villages), Selungo (four), Akah (nine), Patah (seven), Pelutan (two), Tinjar (10), Apoh-Tutoh (12), Tutoh-Magot (14), Selaan (four), Silat (four) and Batang Baram (two).
Today, there are about 20,000 Penan living in more than 100 villages in the Baram — half of whom are school-going children.
Sadly, not all will be able to attend secondary school in the preceding years.
The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.