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Schooling vs. Education, Hidden vs. Overt Curricula

Ways of Thinking about Schools, Economic Development, and Putting the Children of the Poor to Work—a West Malaysian Example
Instruction et éducation, curriculums officiels et officieux. Comment penser l’école, le développement économique et l’avenir professionnel des enfants des pauvres. Un exemple en Malaysia péninsulaire
Robert Knox Dentan et Juli Edo
p. 3-34


L’éducation dans les pays capitalistes avancés prépare les enfants à leur vie dans un monde complexe. L’instruction leur enseigne la soumission et les compétences nécessaires à l’accomplissement de tâches subalternes. L’éducation est pour les enfants des riches, l’instruction pour ceux des pauvres. L’instruction en Malaysia dissimule d’autres intentions, par exemple, l’islamisation. Malgré leur désir d’apprendre, les enfants semai éprouvent des difficultés à l’école parce qu’ils ont fait l’expérience, à la maison, de la liberté et du respect mutuel, deux vertus peu mises en valeur à l’école. Cet article décrit ces processus et leurs résultats et suggère des formes alternatives d’éducation.

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  • 1 Thanks to Alice Nah, Colin Nicholas, Bah Sudeew, and Sudee’s cnòò’ Wa’ Ruby and Bah Tony (Anthony W (...)

A genuine materialism then would not simply privilege a “material” sphere over an ideal one. It would begin by acknowledging that no such ideal sphere actually exists. This, in turn, would make it possible to stop focusing so obsessively on the production of material—discrete, self-identical things that one can own—and start the more difficult work of trying to understand the (equally material) processes by which people create and shape one another. (Graeber 2007: 96.)

1Like slavery, Graeber argues (2007: 102), capitalist economic development rests on a “separation of the place of social (re)production of the labor force, and the place where that labor-power is realized in production.” But to develop individual workers, the separation between home and workplace begins quite early, in school.

Children all over the ‘advanced’ world, that is, the industrially and commercially ‘civilized’ world, have been subjected to a massive and increasingly intensive pacification program in recent centuries […]. (Keil 2003: 17.)

2Unfortunately for students of this process, the usefulness of the primordial inequality between adults and children as a metaphor to justify the power of the powerful and the powerlessness of subordinates shrouds the material realities of school in rationalization and mystification.

3Dominant cliques assign themselves adult characteristics: rationality, knowledge, tidiness. They claim to be fully human beings. Subordinates, by this analogy, are childish: emotional, ignorant, disorderly, “wild,” in some sense incomplete. This “natural symbolism,” as Mary Douglas (1970) might call it, cloaks unequal human relations almost everywhere. Conversely, therefore, examining how particular regimes treat children can provide insights into how the powerful think and feel about the proper exercise of power.

4Hypocrisy is essential to domination and childrearing. Few adults admit or even recognize that they occasionally enjoy beating children or watching them cry, for example. Children “need discipline,” adults say, “deserve” punishment. It is “for their own good.” The grown-ups are saving them from their own unruly impulses. Kids, say adults, want that. Under such regimes, the kids themselves may eventually agree, by the same psychological process, “identification with the oppressor,” that makes terrorist hostages adopt the ideologies of their captors.

5Expecting complete honesty from adults or children would be foolish. Alongside the adults’ overt desire to help and protect children—and we are not suggesting that these socially acceptable expressions of piety are insincere—lie less admirable desires, often not fully conscious and often subverting the more amiable attitudes (e.g., Miller 1987). So ethnographers examining schools should distinguish between what educationists tell the students and their parents is happening, and what actually seems to be going on. It is standard ethnographic procedure.

6Take for example the United Nations “Education for All” initiative. Overtly, it is to help poor kids get an education so that they can better their lot in life. Judith Ennew (pers. com., 3 May 2006) says that it is

aiming at five years of poor-quality elementary education, which at best produces lapsed literates with no marketable skills all ready for the child labour market [...]. It is also hop[e]lessly out of date, being one of the many initiatives intended to meet its targets by the millen[n]ium. Instead it then became one of the ‘millen[n]ium goals’ and within 12 months it was announced that it would not meet the new target—set for 2015 (which is the new UN annus mirabilis) [...]. (Ennew 2006).

7The focus of the MDGs on “headline-capturing big numbers has [a negative] impact on indigenous peoples—both in terms of their international visibility, and in fund allocation […]. The MDGs could be achieved even if indigenous peoples disappear [...]” (Loyn 2006). The highfalutin goals divert attention from the particular needs of the indigenous peoples like the Orang Asli we will describe, who do not fit the typical demographic or cultural outline of poor kids needing help (Jomo 2006).

8Malaysian practice is better than the UN mandates that Ennew critiques. But it still is clearly schooling rather than education. The JHEOA (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli), the government department that rules Orang Asli lives,

provides support to the Orang Asli up to the high school level. However, the JHEOA offers little to help them advance to university. In university education, the [“]positive discrimination[”] policy that favors Islamic converts is applied in […] scholarship selection […]. A non-Muslim Orang Asli student cannot obtain a government scholarship and, due to economical constraints, often gives up higher education. (Nobuta 2008: 194.)

  • 2 As Graeber (2007) argues, from an entirely different theoretical perspective. For indigenous people (...)

9How should ethnographers interpret this disjunction between expressed piety and performance? “Failure” is not the right word. As Adam Smith (1976 [1776]) points out in his classic study of globalization, the coercive transmutation of free people into servants of states and corporations is essential to “modernization,” whatever the specifics of religion or nationality involved.2 This subordination may involve concomitant professions of altruism and the sincere desire to “uplift” native populations:

In new colonies, the interest of the […] superior orders obliges them to treat the inferior one with more generosity and humanity; at least where that inferior one is not in a state of slavery. (Smith 1976, II: 76-77.)

10(Who says that Smith was not an ironist?) Since the transmutation normally generates some resistance among both populations, cloaking the less kindly praxis with the more kindly altruism minimizes conflict and makes everyone comfortable, except perhaps the objects of the exercise, who are powerless to change the rules.

  • 3 The most articulate and accessible exponent of this notion is John Taylor Gatto, all of whose writi (...)

11“Hidden curriculum” is educationist jargon for the things schools teach children that are not part of explicit lesson plans. If, after their first day of school, you ask American kindergarteners “What did you learn in school today, honey?”, you are likely to get as a reply something about “standing in line” and “holding up my hand before I talk.” Schools teach a lot more than math and language.3

  • 4 The notion resembles Marxist and neomarxist notions of “reproduction,” as in the work of Adorno or (...)

12The hidden curriculum in capitalist societies includes inculcating habits of servility in the children of the poor.4 Capitalist economic development everywhere has meant enriching the rich, in the early twentieth century United States and in the Asian Pacific region today. The phrase “unequal economic development” is redundant (Storper 2001: 93-99). If a few people are going to become or remain really rich, the great mass of people must be readied to perform menial unrewarding tasks for their superiors without becoming restive or uppity. For the poor, schooling constitutes that preparation. This sort of schooling, opined the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, speaking of British colonial education:

[…] is also a colonization of the minds and the psychological make-up of the people colonized. When such colonization is accompanied by active discrimination against the subject people, with their exclusion from the development of knowledge and skills […] the damage inflicted is much more severe. When this type of colonization persists for decades [...] the culture and whole psyche of the people become terribly weakened. (Mahathir Mohamed, quoted in Pandian 2004/05: 61.)

13This weakening is part of the hidden curriculum. For economic development requires increasing the number of schooled people without educating them to the point that they become restive. Five years of slapdash schooling may be just right. And poor people can benefit from it economically too, though not nearly as much as those who consume their labor, if they acquire the skills that they need and are willing to abandon their former homes and freedom in order to enrich other people. Calling such schooling “inferior” refers to its educational quality, its overt curriculum. That can be bad at the same time that its other function, subordinating the children of the poor, is humming right along.

14The founders of modern education were clear about the curriculum that now lies hidden (Gatto 2006). They felt, they said, that they had enough lawyers, doctors, professors. Education was to integrate the children of immigrant workers into the society without training them to aspire above their station in life. The obfuscation came later. So the Malaysian educational system that is the focus of this paper is not unique, certainly not uniquely evil.

15Take, for example, educating Sengoi Semai children. Semai are Orang Asli, indigenous peninsular Malaysians who preceded Malays as the dominant people there. Of Mon-Khmer stock, they numbered over 43,500 at the beginning of 2005. This paper is a preliminary look at the interface between (1) how Semai adults and children interact with each other and with schooling; and (2) how other adults and children interact with Semai parents and kids in school. Semai children are ready and eager for “education,” in the sense of learning the arts and sciences that they need to become full members of Malaysian society, even from outsiders who are usually objects of fear—as a glance at the two photos that accompany this paper shows (see Fig. 1 & 2). But the “hidden curriculum” of Malaysian schooling is deeply alienating for them. Since “hidden curricula” by definition are not fully conscious, we conclude (1) by asking how deep the commitment of the Malaysian educational establishment is to its ostensible goal of educating Orang Asli and how deep it is to the covert institutional goal of inculcating servility and intellectual timidity; and (2) by suggesting some alternative ways of educating the children of the poor.

Fig. 1: A day at ...Fig. 1: A day at the office

Fig. 1: A day at the office

The administration of the Anthropology department at the University at Buffalo wanted to title this photo: “Dentan observing Semai children;” but clearly the reverse is true. Without urging by adults, Semai children, if interested, will turn any place into a schoolroom and any occasion into an opportunity for learning. Teiw R’eiis, Perak foothills, Spring 1992.

Photo: Leta B. Dentan

Fig. 2: Tradition...Fig. 2: Traditional Semai education at work on current educational issues

Fig. 2: Traditional Semai education at work on current educational issues

Semai children spontaneously grill a visitor about English usage. For details, see Note 18. Cang Kuaa’, upland Perak, February 2006

Photo: courtesy of Colin Nicholas and the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns

Nonviolent Childrearing (Semai)


  • 5 Malays and Westerners often assume that these practices are like Malay pantang larang, “taboos” or (...)

16Semai ideology is skeptical, pragmatic, and empirical. People may entertain several theories at once, and are delighted to hear a new one. Outsiders find the luxuriation of explanation confusing and baroque. What such outsiders see as “magic” comprises practices and tentative beliefs that alleviate the stress that results from unfamiliarity with a situation.5 As long as nothing bad happens to participants, as situations become more familiar, magic drops off.

  • 6 Kin-Sima of Mncaak, a Semai settlement just south of Kampar in Perak, 10 March 2006. Most evenings, (...)
  • 7 In Semai biotaxonomy the smaller of two related species in a clade is the “elder sibling” of the la (...)

17First pregnancies and childbirths, for instance, are the riskiest. Older women may say of pregnancy and postpartum taboos: “No, I don’t act that way, -buat bujeh, any more, [because] I haven’t had any problems.” Likewise, eldest children are the riskiest and most at risk: In olden times, for example,6 during the magically dangerous atmospheric condition called nyamp, when the setting sun turns the wet air yellowish-green, it was the eldest child, birth-order name Long, at whom you should throw warming ashes and over whom you should pray. Similarly, parents worry least about the health and welfare of their youngest kid, Iluic or Luic, supposedly bigger and stronger than their eldest.7

18Young children, for Semai adults, are generically at risk. They have “tender” bodies and “tender” souls, both easily injured. And they have always been the preferred targets of slavers and kidnappers. To deal with the risks that children face, Semai childrearing involves inculcating a package of mutually complementary skills and attitudes: autonomy, in-group solidarity, and xenophobia.

Autonomy: Freedom and Equality

Qui nescit obedire, nescit imperare (quoted in Miller 1987: 12)

  • 8 The rhetorical question is from Ebòng Kin-Kuup, fortyish, from Jnteer on the upper Teiw Tluup in 19 (...)

19“If you don’t understand how to obey,” the Roman proverb says, “you don’t understand how to order people around.” Obedience is not a salient virtue for Semai. In most Semai homes, if you tell a child to do something, and the child says -nye’, “Don’wanna,” you usually forget about it, though you might nag, -lu’eec, “be inquisitive in a persistent and irritating way” (Anthony Williams-Hunt, pers. com., 5 June 2008). But coercion, especially physical coercion, is bad for children. Punishment frightens off their tender head-souls, leaving the disciplined children pallid, listless, and vulnerable to disease. “Suppose you hit your kid, and it DIED?” Refusal to boss children around is part of an elaborate and pervasive set of tactics Semai use to avoid adding to other people’s stress (e.g., Dentan 2004, 2006a, 2006b). You can issue orders, ‘-òòr, or complain bitterly about someone’s behavior, -lees; but your audience can always ignore you, sometimes tugging an ear and saying, “I’m not listening.” Children raised in this context can be autonomous.8 Their resultant dislike of coercion works against the subordination schooling requires, and against even the subtler pressures Muslim proselytizers use outside school (Nobuta 2008: 244).

Insecurity and Solidarity

  • 9 This interpretation rests on several observations like the following from Mncaak on 23 February 200 (...)

20Semai men and women indulge babies, cooing, oohing and aahing over them, constantly holding them or carrying them around coiled up in a shoulder-slung sarong. Parents keep a sharp eye out for developmental abnormalities and signs of disease. But as the child gets older, and especially as it learns to speak, adults take less interest in it. The child is increasingly on its own. Often a new baby supplants it as the focus of parental interest. The caretaker, if any, is often the next oldest child, who sometimes seems to be nursing a resentment for its own felt displacement.9 Children at this point sometimes throw screaming tantrums, -liiclaac, screaming and crying, but without anyone paying much attention.

21One reason for this discontinuity in parental/adult behavior is that the children have learned to talk. Since physical coercion is ineffective and leaves what Semai call “psychological traumas,” lukaa’ sngii’, Semai rely heavily on talking, discussion and persuasion, to organize to get things done. Children are not good at talking, adults say: they are “dumb” in both senses. You speak to them when they are doing something silly, saying, e.g., “Cut, cut,” when a toddler plays with a sharp machete. But, after that, since the child has heard and ignored you, you let it keep playing. Children, in the Semai view, are choosing individuals. Their choices may be “dumb,” but there is no way to coerce choice without doing harm. Thus, for kids, autonomy and self-reliance become necessities as well as privileges.

  • 10 Children start intervening when they are still young. At Mncaak, 10 March 2006, Bah Euzan, 6, haras (...)

22Although children can approach adults at any time, to -cdoon, lean against them or sit on an available lap, adults rarely actively intervene in children’s lives unless a child has completely lost self-control and attacks others, in which case an adult or two, usually teenagers of either sex, will stand between the angry kid and its target; or snatch up the aggressor by the armpits and haul him or her home.10 Adults tell stories in the evening, and children are usually the bulk of the audience, again by their choice. These are often cautionary tales in which the protagonist, sometimes given the name of the child on the narrator’s lap, suffers abandonment and hardship, rejection by loved ones (Dentan 2001b). The child learns what it is like not to have support from kin and community.

23And from transformation tales they learn that nothing is what it seems: lovers are actually pythons, wives may be frogs, any stranger can be a tiger. Say the wrong thing, violate the rules of respect, and you unleash the threats that always lurk in the guise of the friendly and familiar. Strangers, say the adults, are particularly dangerous. The first three Semai phrases that my daughter Wa’ Lisbet learned at the age of five in 1991 were “head choppers,” “heart slicers,” and “eye gougers.” Strangers lure children off and do terrible things to them. If kids, hearing these stories, weep in terror, why, that is a Good Thing. It means that they have got the idea, that they will be cautious and safe.

  • 11 Chinese readers may notice the resemblance between traditional Semai life and that of the ancient p (...)

24One of the benefits of this pattern of childrearing is the complex but eminently practical pattern of mutual loyalty and consideration which Dentan (2004, 2006a, 2006b) has outlined elsewhere.11 Unfortunately, the system is too sophisticated and complex to describe here.

Results of nonviolent childrearing


[…] they’re egalitarian because they respect the individual so much, right? And you can’t respect other people’s individuality in a kind of abstract, isolated way. The point is that you are an individual inasmuch as you exist in a social matrix of others who respect your individuality and your right to make choices. That’s concrete individuality: an individuality that recognizes that it owes its existence to a kind of communal respect on the part of all the other individualities, and that it had better respect them similarly.
So an abstract individual […] [forgets] that he or she is part of a larger unit, and owes respect to all other
choosing individuals (Miéville 2003: 63 [Miéville’s italics].)

  • 12 Stima d/o Itam Blvvk of Mncaak, 48, 28 March 2006.

25Semai kids have to get to know you, and like you, before they will p-rvv’, come near you. The only safe place, they know, is with people you know and love, who know and love you in return. When strangers, maay, arrive in a settlement, the kids will decamp, in more remote areas scattering like little birds. But once you are in their social field, they show the same remarkable capacity for affection that Semai adults do (again, see Fig. 1 & 2). Unlike children from other groups, they never ask for handouts, just as the adults never become beggars.12 They know that the adults they trust will look after them; asking for more than adults want to give would be fruitless.

  • 13 Dentan (2000). This pattern is old among Orang Asli: “Hervey was told by the Madek group that long (...)

26And, the discontinuity between infancy and childhood teaches, these new bonds are fragile, a lesson that the cautionary tales reinforce. Semai rehearse anticipated losses: “O, we’ll miss you when you’re gone.” Missing people and being homesick seem to be far more painful for Semai than for most other peoples. They use a variant of the Sanskrit word viraha—desperate obsessive yearning, depression, and despair—to describe it. There seem to be many cases in which loss of a loved person makes people suicidal or drives them mad with hopeless yearning.13 The Semai talent for love has its costs.


  • 14 When a Mncaak toddler exposed her vulva in the 1970s, for example, her mom would put her hand over (...)

27Many Semai words denoting psychological conditions refer to both an act and its consequences. Slniil occurs after social disengagement, refusal or inability to engage in efforts that benefit others. The consequences are a possible retaliatory break-off of social ties and the feelings (-sl-siil) of fear of social isolation that rift produces. The closest English equivalent term is “shame” or “embarrassment.”14 The appropriate cure for slniil is to re-engage, as a friend.

  • 15 In some areas the pronunciation is slneel or slniil. The verb is –siil, –seel or –seil. The paraphr (...)

28When you have done something that you feel deserves condemnation by your friends and neighbors, you -siil. Your need for their friendship makes you want to mend rifts with your friends. No one needs to discipline or coerce you. As a teenaged boy on the Teiw Tluup in Pahang explained in 1962, “The only authority here is slniil.”15 Embarrassment does not prepare you to rule.

Inappropriate Education


We can observe the hierarchical chain of discrimination where the stronger people discriminate against and oppress the weaker […] everywhere surrounding the Orang Asli. To alter this one can try various measures: religious conversion, economic improvement through development projects, improvement of education […]. Indeed, these are exactly the measures suggested and implemented by government bodies […] [to] assimilate the weaker with the stronger. For one reason or another, including resistance by the weaker ones, the measures have evolved into something completely unrecognizable from the original [overt] intention. (Nobuta 2008: 243-244.)

Infrastructural Problems

  • 16 Thanks to Alice Nah for supplying Yit’s notes (pers. com., 22 July 2006).

School provision[s] such as clothes, shoe[s], books, stationeries [sic], bags, transportation […] matters [sic] a lot to children[.] (I know of many [Semai] children who skipped school because they have no shoes to wear or their only pair of school uniform is wet). Books and stationeries are often inadequate […]. Some children have to walk miles to get to school […] [T]ransportation is also another major […] barrier. Some children stopped schooling because they get sick traveling in a jeep over the bumpy rural terrains. (Yit 2002: 2.)16

29Poverty and infrastructural inadequacies make attending school difficult for all poor Malaysian kids (e.g., Khoo 2006). Though, as Figure 3 shows, Orang Asli school enrolments are increasing, “high numbers of Orang Asli children [...] have never enrolled in school” (Ministry 2005: 12); in 2008, UNICEF puts the proportion at 14% (UNICEF 2008). Most Semai and other Orang Asli are termiskin, officially the poorest of the poor. Many Semai parents must go deeply into debt to further their children’s education (Juli 2003). And, like impoverished indigenous people everywhere, they get the poorest service from the government (Dentan 1994, 2001a; Dentan et al. 1997; Nicholas 2000: 24-27, 127-128). Moreover, says Yit, who has studied Semai schooling in Perak state, the kids’ personal goals

reflect common role models that they might have been exposed to—such as pastors, teachers, etc. Rarely do they think about being an engineer, scientist, or any other urban-oriented / technology-oriented occupation. (Yit 2002: 1.)

30Exposed to such role models, Semai kids are willing and able to emulate them. Thus Dr. Juli Edo became an anthropologist after hearing from an anthropologist that anthropology might help him find out why, all over the world, indigenous peoples were always the poorest and least powerful.

31Semai drop-out rates from primary school have been falling fairly steadily from 94.4% in 1971 to 48% in 1995 to about a third today (Hasan Mat Noor 1997, Lim 1997: 49), though they remain high (Nobuta 2008: 194; see Fig. 3). Malaysian authorities blame Orang Asli, though they acknowledge that the children “are equally intelligent and have the same potential as others.” They blame the “low self-esteem” which, they contend, also keeps Orang Asli poor” (Ministry 2005: 12).

32Like their parents, many Semai primary school children tend to be enthusiastic enough about education in general and their own schools in particular to overcome the physical and economic barriers that poverty imposes on their attendance.

Fig. 3 : Enrollment of Orang Asli Students, 1997-2004





































Source: Ministry of Rural and Regional Development Malaysai 2005: 9

  • 17 Thanks to the following primary school children who were at Mncaak for the harvest festival, 24-26 (...)
  • 18 Thanks to Colin Nicholas and Reita Farida Rahim for letting Dentan tag along on their trip to Cang (...)

33In 2006, for example, kids at Mncaak in central Perak would follow Dentan around in little gangs yelling “’Atoo’!’Atoo’! [Grampa! Grampa!] Show us the book you brought!”17 Kids at Cang Kuak on the upper reaches of the Waar River spoke highly of their school at Batu 7 on the Tapah Road, even though it is so far away that getting there is a constant problem, especially in rainy season, when the “all-weather road” is subject to landslips.18 Writes a student who surveyed Semai children about their desire to learn:

I have also met many children who are frustrated with their own writing and reading abilities […]. I have known many adolescents who exhibited strong motivation to learn how to read and write and speak at least the national language fluently. (Yit 2002: 1.)

34Leta Dentan ran a free voluntary “school” in math and English at the behest of Semai kids at ‘Icek in 1992, with the support of their parents. Attendance was voluntary—and good, as it had been at her “school” among Btsisi’, another Orang Asli people, in the mid-1970s.

35In other words, Semai children and their parents, whatever their supposed problems with self-esteem, are eager for the knowledge that they know schools could supply, and are willing to undergo considerable hardship to get it.

Problems with Teachers

  • 19 Alice Nah reports “Acehnese would use the term ‘sekolahkan,’ “schooling,” to refer to being taught (...)
  • 20 Risaaw s/o Jambu, around 40, a father from Jnteer on the upper Teiw Tluup in 1962.

36At least for traditional Semai, the Malay term ajar, “teach,” connotes physical punishment.19 “Malays ajar their children: Hit hit hit. We don’t hit our children. That’s why our [Semai] children are strong and healthy, and Malay children are like baby rats.”20 Similarly, thirty years later, a Chinese-Semai man who beat his wife explained that he only hit her when he needed to ajar her (Dentan 2008).

37Most non-Asli peoples of Malaysia advocate corporal punishment (Dentan et al. 1997). There is a strong association between colonialism, hierarchy, patriarchal religions (Christianity as well as Islam), and beating children (see Note 19; and Ember & Ember 2005, Pearl & Pearl 1997, Dentan 2006c). It would be facile, however, to blame only the religions, or the “cultures,” although religion and culture are involved.

  • 21 Alice Nah raised this point in connection with a discussion of education in Singapore (Gopinathan 2 (...)

38Often teachers in such circumstances beat children even when parents disapprove (see, e.g., Sadeq & Sudabah 2006). Schools are part-time “total institutions,” in which the authorities control all aspects of life; and physical violence easily becomes routine under such circumstances (Goffman 1961). The point is important: When discipline meets the interests and desires of neither the children nor their parents, a reasonable inference is that its continued occurrence serves the needs of teachers and/or their employer, the state.21

  • 22 Kesatuan Perkhidmatan Perguruan Kebangsaan Malaysia. The government responded that it had conducted (...)

39Aside from routinely hitting children with sticks and rattan whips, over 9,000 teachers told researchers from the National Union of the Teaching Profession of Malaysia22 in 2005 that job pressure, tekan, made it natural for them to go overboard in disciplining and humiliating students: slapping their faces; making them sniff smelly shoes; locking them in cupboards; forcing them to eat weeds in the playground; making them stand out in the rain for hours, looking up (Kosmo! 2006: 4). When a teacher beat a ten-year-old girl about the head and shoulders with a hammer, he was “going overboard;” he “usually used a wooden ruler or a cane to hit pupils who failed to finish their homework on the knuckles. Fearing the pain, she [had] refused to put her hands on the table.” After the beating, the teacher ordered the weeping girl to her seat, where she stayed until school let out three hours later (New Straits Times 2006a: 15).

40The “Arabization” of Malay Islam further mystifies and justifies the use of violence and humiliation against pupils. Some school officials interpret the new Prime Minister’s policy of Islam Hadhari as requiring Arab-Islamic observances so reactionary and divisive as to prompt complaints even from Muslim parents (Abdul Ghani Said 2006; Navaratnam, quoted in Ng & Sonia 2006; Nor 2006).

  • 23 For cross-cultural confirmation of this general rule, see Smith 2004: 100, and, more generally, Olw (...)

In our schools today we see guru ugama [religion teachers] walk around the school with a cane in hand ready to punish school children. Ustazah [Islamic schoolmistresses] in primary schools pick up their dress and expose their legs just to kick primary school children for some misdemeanor. Other ustazah threaten kindergarten children […]. [One] guru ugama […] was arrested and jailed for beating his student and almost fracturing his head […]. Religion is dished out accompanied with large doses of violence, shouting and threats. All this will ultimately lead to violence. (Syed Akbar Ali 2005: 267.)23

41Violence is alien to traditionally autonomous Semai kids, who fear beatings, and to their parents, who often object to the school principal, despite their uneasiness about complaining to contemptuous and indifferent authority. And, of course, violence tends to lower the self-esteem of its victims (Macmillan et al. 1999), thus exacerbating the alleged problem with Semai children, a construct which relieves educators of responsibility for the “failure” of their education.

Problems with Racism

That [minority] constituencies [like Semai] […] could feel left out and marginalized was ironic […] for the simple reason that the story of a multiracial Malaysia we constantly tell ourselves has become the national narrative which binds our community together […]. However, upon closer examination one cannot help but notice the subtle and not-too-subtle inconsistencies and unstated biases that lurk within this national discourse. (Noor 2002: 28.)

  • 24 Prof. Tengku Datuk Shamsul Bahrin (quoted in Ng & Sonia 2006).

42A principal stated goal of Malaysian primary education is to “promote mutual understanding and integration within a multiracial society” (memupuk perfahaman dan perpaduan di kalangan masyarakat berbilang kaum, Juli 2003: 1). But many Malaysians nowadays suspect that the system is failing, and that schools may be to blame. On 19 February, 2006, The New Straits Times headlined an assertion by the eminent Malaysian historian Datuk Dr. Khoo Kay Kim that communalizing the schools was leading to increasingly “fragile” relations between “the races.” The President of the Malaysian Association of Colleges and Universities retorted that “[t]he school system is the same as the pre-independence one, not worse or better.”24 In those colonial times, schools were part of a divide-and-rule strategy

that kept the different ethnic groupings isolated along vertical cleavages of group-loyalty […]. All of this helped only to perpetuate the divisions of ethnicity, religion and race between the different communities, something that continues to haunt Malaysian society today. (Noor 2002: 41.)

43Today “the country’s diverse system of national, national-type, and religious schools [still] sets students apart at an early age” (Chow 2006b: 14). After the controversy in early 2006, the government mandated college classes on ethnic relations. But the problem is so ingrained that the newly written text for the resulting class at Putra University placed the entire blame for the two most serious ethnic clashes in the history of the Peninsula on non-Malay minorities and on a mostly Chinese opposition party. Embarrassed officials withdrew the text (Hong 2006).

44As members of the most despised race in the country, Semai kids bear the brunt of racial discrimination. While the authorities assert that the children “are equally intelligent and have the same potential as others” (Ministry 2005: 12), Barbara Nowak (1984: 11) noted that Malay teachers discriminate and are biased against Orang Asli children, and that many of them regard the minority children as intellectually less capable (see also Nobuta 2008: 194).


Desperate to regain grounds lost to its opponents—most notably the Islamic party, PAS—the Malaysian government has even begun to intensify its efforts to Islamicise the country from above, and by doing so upped the stakes in the Islamicisation race all over again. (Noor 2002: 111.)

  • 25 Nah (2006) leaves her source anonymous, but Dentan heard the same story from a Semai urban professi (...)

45The increasing Arabization of Malay Islam further polarizes the Malaysian people (Syed Akbar Ali 2005). “Now, national schools are more like Malay schools,” says Jit Murad, a Malay TV personality whose father is a former Director-General with the Ministry of Education. “Let’s make them truly national” (quoted in Chow 2006a: 22). The sense among Malays that Semai are a dependent people destined to become Muslims and thus Malays makes the continuing refusal of Semai children and their parents seem stubborn and disobedient. In fact, the commitment that Semai parents say that proselytizers require is minimal. All that adults have to do is repeat the Muslim statement of faith, once. No food taboos, no fasting, no circumcision, no mandatory attendance at mosques. “The government doesn’t care about us [adults]—it’s the next generation they want.”25

46A conservative ethno-nationalist Malay, Syed Akbar Ali, writes (2005: 313):

[…] the guru agama [religion teachers] are teaching Malay school children religion-based prejudices that is [sic] contributing to a renewed religious polarisation in our country. School children are even being told that reading English books may lead them to ‘jadi Kristian’ [become Christians]. In my son’s primary school an ustazah [Islamic schoolmistress] would bring cakes to the class for Teacher’s Day and hand feed them to all her charges except to the non-Muslim children.

47A cartoon in The New Straits Times (28 Feb. 2005) captures the feeling when one character asks another: “Don’t you think that it’s strange that back in our school days the ustaz and ustazah seemed closer to pupils of all races?”

  • 26 The Utusan Melayu reporter says that most Orang Asli belum menangut sebarang pegangan agama, “do no (...)

48And, since Malaysian historiography construes Islam as the source of Malay civilization, refusal to convert seems like a rejection of economic and political development, a deliberate choice of poverty and savagery over the benefits of civilized life (Dentan et al. 1997), Orang Asli claims to the contrary notwithstanding (Zawawi 1996a, 1996b: 103-104 [571-572]). The complex Semai religion, with ties to ancient Hinduism and Buddhism (Dentan 2002a, 2002b; Juli 2001), the teachers and their Malay pupils see as “no religion” and the Semai kids therefore as “incomplete” humans (Juli & Fadzil 2002/03: 134; Utusan Melayu 1984).26 Imposition of Malay dress codes, particularly on Semai girls, is sporadic and unapproved, but not uncommon (SUARAM 2003: 170). Shamed for being “without religion,” Orang Asli children may convert (Mathur 1986: 177-178). No wonder some parents refuse to subject their children to schooling for “fear that they might convert to Islam” (Nobuta 2008: 194, 213).


[…] in several conversations with primary school teachers and field officers […] I was told that probably the only way to make [Semai schoolchildren] interested and successful in schooling would be to take them out of their community[,] because the community did not encourage them to go to school. In general, many are of the opinion that Orang Aslis [west Malaysian indigenes like Semai] are anti-development, and if nothing else that they are lazy […] that because they have no religion, they are somewhat incomplete. (Juli & Fadzil 2002/03: 134; e.g., Ministry 2005: 12-13.)

49Many teachers therefore stereotype Semai as country bumpkins. A particularly egregious example occurred during the awards ceremony at a Cameron Highlands primary school in December 2003. Because Semai in the area, which includes the settlements of Iròk and Brtak, tend (like most Orang Asli throughout Malaysia) to be termiskin, the poorest of the poor, the speaker assumed that the government was providing lunch to Semai kids as it does for termiskin children in other remote areas. Indeed, government officials say, most of the government allocation of RM12 million to be spent in 2006 (up from RM 11.2 million in 2005) is spent transporting Orang Asli kids from such areas to asramas (boarding schools) and feeding them there (Loh 2006). Taking the children away from their homes is a preliminary to the eventual isolation from one’s home that capitalist development, like slavery, requires (Graeber 2007).

  • 27 Brtak people, like Cameron Highlanders in general, have a reputation among Semai for being more ass (...)

50So the awards ceremony speaker, a Malay, said to the assembled parents and students, including four Semai students on the awards list, in effect: “Be good students. Don’t be like Orang Asli kids who only come to school for food and tobacco, who do not work hard and do not learn anything.” Subsequently, the local Committee for Peace and Progress lodged a formal complaint with the state Education Officer.27 Normally, however, such gratuitous, ignorant, and abusive slurs go unreported by the parents and students, whom they hurt. Remember that feelings of unworthiness, slniil, are particularly painful for Semai, and that the Ministry in charge blames Semai poverty and high drop-out rate on the low-self esteem that such gaffes and the underlying stereotypes inculcate. Both parents and students wept that day (Juli 2003).

51With teachers like this, it is not surprising that even Orang Asli kids who score high on their exams report that some other students look down on them—or that the newspapers that report their achievements think it newsworthy that Orang Asli communities are pleased when their kids do well in school (Loh 2006), although such pleasure is common (Nobuta 2008: 240). The newsworthiness stems from the stereotype that Orang Asli parents and students do not care about education.

52The stereotype made Kyah Grcaang’s mother angry. In 1993 she was living on the Teiw R’eiis, near Sahom, but she comes from the Cameron Highlands, where people have a reputation for speaking their minds. She told me about the problems her kids had with school. It made her ––lees, chew people out, she said:

If the kids don’t go to school, if [my husband] doesn’t take them [to school on his motorbike, since it’s a mile to the Sahom terminus of Malay settlement and bus service], if he doesn’t chew them out, I’ll -lees him. They get in trouble if they don’t go to school.

53Stereotypes like these help explain the fact that, after decades of demonstrated incompetence by the JHEOA in the area of education (Dentan et al. 1997), the Ministry’s attempts, beginning in 1996, to reform the most alienating aspects of Semai ran aground on other demeaning stereotypes of Semai “culture” and authoritarian teachers’ inability to imagine how Semai maintain discipline without physical coercion. The program was to focus on basic education. The kids would get breakfast and lunch and lots of time for sports, “as well as shorter study periods. Students are not admonished for tardiness, poor performance or indiscipline[d] behavior. It was not uncommon to see students walk out of classrooms. It was also the same with teachers […]. As one said, ‘Hey, we have to follow their culture, like sleeping and getting up late’” (Juli & Fadzil 2004/05: 109 n). The idleness that the teachers’ stereotype rationalizes, justifies, and mystifies is not in effect much different from what Dentan observed on Carey Island in 1975, where the Malay teacher would appear between 10 and 11 AM, read his paper for an hour, and then go back to Port Klang, leaving the Mah Meri children to fend for themselves; or those teachers unwilling to live in government housing near a predominantly Semai school at Pos Gedong, a few miles from Bidor in southern Perak, reachable only by an unpaved and ill-maintained road. The teachers are therefore usually late to school and, in rainy season, often simply do not show up (Colin Nicholas, pers. com., 18 Jan. 2006).

  • 28 Such boarding houses appear to have become fairly common among Semai who live near schools. The COA (...)

54Yet, as far back as the late 1950s, a group of about half-a-dozen men and women from the little settlement of Mncaak, just south of Kampar in central Perak, formed a kongsi, association, for the purpose of educating their children. The adults agreed that they and the pupils would survive on rice gruel in order to buy clothing and school supplies so that a few kids could attend the Chinese school in Kampar. They got moral support, in the form of stories about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, from the Misi Sengoi, the Semai-led Methodist mission in Kampar, but no money, as far as I know. By 1963 the kongsi was supporting several primary school children, half a dozen from out of town, in a house that the kongsi had built as a residence for them. The kids lived without a lot of supervision, like most Semai kids, eating with their neighbors and, when spooked by night noises, going to a neighbor’s house and curling up together on the floor, wrapped head-to-toe in their sarongs like a bunch of kid-sized chrysalises.28

Results of inappropriate education

[I]f the questioner has the patience to listen, he will come to realize that we love with horror and hate with an inexplicable love whatever caused us our greatest pain and difficulty” (Erika Burkart, quoted in Miller 1987: 3).

Debilitating Conformity

55For many of the people who control Semai education, the main thrust of schooling is to transform kafirs (unbelievers, pagans) into Muslims whose children will be Malays. We do not suggest that this transformation is a conscious conspiratorial goal or that its advocates are hypocrites. Many feel that “engagement with people who are more culturally advanced” will render Semai more “rational” (Ruangan Rabo, quoted in Nah 2004: 6).

56Even for Malay pupils the brutal authoritarian structure of the classroom combines, according to a Malay critic, with

[…] the debilitating “segan” concept […] [that] starts at home where whenever a child does something wrong he is threatened with a “I will tell your father” or “I will tell your mother”—meaning he will suffer some punishment […]. Then later in school it becomes “I will tell your teacher. ” All this is designed to make the child constantly fear something or someone. It is constantly drummed into the child’s mind that all his actions must be approved by someone else […]. (Syed Akbar Ali 2005: 115.)

  • 29 Mudah diternak, boleh diperkakaskan, sang[g]up diperkudakan (Shahnon 2001: 97). Segan and slniil ar (...)

57The Malay word segan can translate as shy, reluctant, lazy, slow, diffident, unwilling to do something, but it also connotes deference to the opinion of others. Syed Akbar Ali suggests that this orientation involves low self-esteem, low achievement, and subordination. A Malay proverb recognizes its ill effects: segan bertanya sesat jalan, “[people] reluctant to ask [questions soon] lose their way.” The result, says a Malay critic from the Islamic extreme, is that Malays are like dogs, “easy to breed, usable as tools, prone to being exploited.”29

58The Malay idea of segan and the Semai idea of slniil obviously overlap. Here, however, let me stress the differences. You can say, in Malay or Semai, that you segan doing something: meaning you don’t want to, don’t feel like it, etc. If you sl-siil, you may want to avoid doing something offensive, but you are equally likely to feel that you need to take positive action to heal the rift between yourself and your peers. Unlike the Malay who segan, you fear no other punishment.


59Semai schoolchildren have a limited number of options in face of the violence that they so often face in school. The traditional one is flight. Don’t go to school, and you won’t get hurt. Many Semai parents dislike pressuring children to go where they are made to understand that no one wants them and where they will be ridiculed and harmed. Schoolmasters typically misread this response in terms that fit their stereotype of Semai students: “Orang Asli kids/parents don’t understand the value of education.”

60“[P]ublic and official views equate poor progress to lack of interest, disdain or even detesting a particular program, like education” (Juli & Fadzil 2002/03: 145; e.g., Ministry 2005: 12; see Tijah & Joseph 2003: 1).

  • 30 Nobuta 2008: 194. That Semai kids get picked on more than other kids is not surprising. In Britain, (...)

61To get through the abuse at the core of the hidden curriculum, however, Semai children have to learn to -trhang nyii’ sngii’, withstand psychological trauma, as well as the physical pain that accompanies teacherly “discipline” and bullying, especially by Malay kids.30

They laugh. They think OA [Orang Asli] are below the Malays […]. They always make fun. They say OA are ‘sakai’ [derogatory term for Orang Asli, with much the same emotional impact as “nigger” in the United States], meaning we are slaves. They say we eat pigs, monkeys, mice, and so on. They say OA are stupid. Even when I did well at school, they said I used black magic […], because OA cannot be smart. Every day, OA get disturbed [sc. harassed]. If they don’t know how to reply, they just stay quiet. It makes me angry when they make fun of us. I say to them ‘is this what your religion teaches you to do?’ I challenge them. The feeling of shame is one of the reasons why OA children drop out of school. (Educated Orang Asli, quoted in Nah 2004: 119-120.)

62The Semai anthropologist Juli Edo recalls his schooldays:

Not a penny in your pocket, and every day ‘Anak sakai! Anak sakai!’ [You have to ignore it] […] Like a turtle, you know? you give your back to those who attack you.

63Juli supports government efforts to educate Semai, giving hortatory speeches to Semai parents. But he has on occasion refused to urge people to send their children to a school where the kids were being bullied unmercifully. Telling people how to resist the hidden curriculum, he enacts his turtle simile, folding his arms and turning his back.

64In schools where there are enough Semai or other Orang Asli students, they may ally with each other against gangs who pick on them, refuse to let them sit down on the school bus, call them anak sakai, or pinch their noses in an elaborate show of childish disgust when a Semai kid comes near. Semai parents urge their kids to steer clear of the children who pick on them, not to fight back. To quote Kyah Grcaang’s mother again:

  • 31 Kyah Kin-Grcaang of ‘Icek on the Teiw R’eiis, 1992.

If the kids pick fights with their friends, I tell them, “Don’t mess with your friends, be good to your friends. [If you don’t], you’ll be sorry. If you’re a bad friend, people won’t like you”. I -lees about the Malay school kids in Sahom. They bully Semai kids all the time. They hit them, they take their books and papers. “Malay kids are bad,” I say. “They’ll pick fights with you, don’t you hit them back, you’ll just get in trouble”.31

65But banding together to fight back comes at a cost (see Dentan 1995, 2001a):

I was always fighting at school. Between Form 1 to [sic] Form 3 there were not many OA in my school. The majority were Malays. I didn’t like them—they liked to tease (ejek) me, look down on me, I felt challenged and I couldn’t concentrate when I was trying to study. (Educated Orang Asli, quoted in Nah 2004: 118-119.)

I did fight a lot when I was in school. We formed our own clique to oppose those who made fun of us. The majority of us were Orang Asli and yes, even when I was friends with other races, I trusted them [Orang Asli] more than others. I used to fight a lot. (Educated Orang Asli, quoted in Nah 2004: 118.)

66So the hidden curriculum successfully transforms peaceable cheerful Semai children willing to make friends with other peoples who treat them well and eager to learn about the wider world into unhappy, aggressive, cliquish kids under so much stress that it is hard to do their homework, and with such low self-esteem that it becomes an enormous task for them to attempt accomplishing anything.

Other Scars

Hilang luka, tinggal parut, Wounds disappear, but scars remain (Malay proverb).

  • 32 According to Ngah Hari Mni-Dol, Dentan’s longtime mentor, in 1976, when Dentan asked why school kid (...)

67Victims of bullying everywhere experience depression and low self-esteem, as well as the effects of chronic stress that Semai ethnosociology recognized long before Western social psychologists did, and which Semai “magic” seeks to avoid or alleviate (Dentan 2004, 2006a, 2006b). These responses show up even in the interviews that Nah (2004; see also Nah 2003) conducted with successful, well-educated Orang Asli. Some graduates have learned to deny being Semai and not to speak their language, which they see as ngroo’ maay miskin, as some primary school kids did in Mncaak in 1992-93, a language for impoverished and pathetic people.32

  • 33 On 1 February 2006, Dentan had lunch with Wa’ Ruby, her brother and her uncle, Sudeew, a close frie (...)

68Even successful students pay a high cost, as Nah’s interviews (in 2002) demonstrate. For example, Wa’ Ruby, a college student, remains shy with strangers, giggling and covering her mouth when urged to speak, although she is fluent in Semai, Malay, and English. After sitting through a meal during which the older people present talked about the problem of bullying in Semai education, she finally said that “Malay kids” picked on her all the time at school, making her “insecure” and unwilling to speak her own language when Malays were around. She does not think, as some of her schoolmates did when she was also a schoolgirl, that Semai was “a language for poor and pathetic people.”33 But still, “even now, when my friends and I are talking together, we drift into Malay when Malays are there.” To be educated, Semai must suffer the hidden curriculum and its effects: Kòp hi-pluuh, runs the punning ‘Iròk proverb, Gòp haroo’ hi-ha-bvvh? “Lime, we sweat off; Malays, what’re we gonna do?”

Solutions of a Sort

Inside Malaysia

Ours is a society propped up by the institutions and norms of Patriarchy, where children are taught from an early age to have blind respect and obedience to their parents. We still have not evolved a discourse of rights and entitlements that endow our children a sense of identity, dignity, autonomy and rights. Is it a surprise, then, that when children are abused by their elders they feel they have no right to speak up for themselves and defend their rights and their bodies? (Noor 2002: 265.)

69The first step in addressing this situation would be to recognize that Semai and their “culture” are not the problem. Indeed, their “culture” could offer a securely indigenous and non-Western vantage point from which to address the problems that stem from the unreflective Middle-Eastern patriarchal values that obfuscate the hidden curriculum. That hidden curriculum in many ways does a disservice to the personal interests of all students and even in some ways to the state. That it meshes in particularly counterproductive ways with traditional Semai childrearing is the focus of this paper but should not be the focus of reforms.

70Like many profit-oriented nations, Malaysia tends to see education as a technical problem. Students are recalcitrant raw materials to be, sometimes literally, pounded into shape and filled with useful knowledge and values that will enhance hierarchical state order, the whole package wrapped in the “anti-intellectualism and philistinism […] and technocrat-speak” for which Malaysian ruling circles are “well-known” (Noor 2002: 110-111). But, to repeat, Malay culture and Islam are not the problem either. The problem is schooling, and that problem will endure at least as long as the hidden curriculum remains hidden and intact.

  • 34 Professor Datuk Dulkifli Abd. Razak (quoted in Ng & Sonia 2006).

71It is that people, including educated Malays, do not recognize how deplorable the results of the hidden curriculum are, as this paper has shown: servility, violence, and intellectual timidity are not values that most people endorse in the abstract. A number of thoughtful Malay intellectuals, of whom I have already quoted several, recognize the problem, and are trying to bring it into the open. For instance, the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia urges: “If you want to learn about interaction and the larger missions of life, then the platform is humanities and the social sciences.”34 The brilliant Farish A. Noor addresses the problem in his typically straightforward way (2002: 202):

Malay civilization, like all civilizations, is a hybrid amalgam of many civilizations. We were Hindus and Buddhists before, and before that we were pagan […]. The coming of the great religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—and the arrival of new modernist schools of thought should not be seen as distinct episodes that keep our histories apart. Instead they should be seen as layers of civilisational acculturation that have added depth to our collective sense of identity, who we were, who we are, and who we want to be in the future […]. We would be able to face the future with much greater confidence if we could admit our own internal heterogeneity and complexity, rather than continually trying to deny the past and to homogenise the present into one flat, monolithic discourse of sameness.

72The problem, thus, is not ignorance, but social and political indifference and inertia.

  • 35 As Bah Tony says happened to his sisters (Anthony Williams-Hunt @ Amani, 23 Feb. 2006).
  • 36 Eliminating bullying helps both bullies and their victims enjoy school more (Katz et al. 2001).

73If the goal of bringing Semai “into the mainstream” is mere sweet talk obscuring coercive intellectual and cultural assimilation based largely on fear and physical force, then the hidden curriculum works pretty well, although resistance continues. Such assimilation would work better, now that Malaysian textbooks are beginning to acknowledge the existence of a pre-Malay, pre-Islamic past, if curricula acknowledged the special ties Semai have with the Hindu-Buddhist civilizations on the peninsula, with the Khmer and, especially, the Mon influences that have also affected Malay culture in many ways (Benjamin 1987, 1997; Dentan 2002a, 2002b). As long as Islamic/Malay triumphalism remains the only story there is, with no role for Orang Asli or, indeed, for anyone else except the British (Noor 2002: 28), Malay culture itself becomes just a two-dimensional shadow show, and Malay teachers will present Orang Asli, as one did, by making little Semai girls stand up in front of the whole class so that he could point out the physical features that made them look different from Malays.35 Otherwise, Semai are invisible, as appropriate for “submerged” people, not “mainstreamed” but rhetorically annihilated. If the goal is to “bring them in,” then the educational system must let them in—and see them when they get there, so that they are not harassed or beaten.36

Education is ... Social Control

74The story is similar elsewhere in Malaysia. John Postill writes (, 13 July 2006):

My own research among Iban in Sarawak in 1996-98 confirmed Seymour’s (1974) early experience of Iban rural schools as labour sorting offices where a handful of kids considered to be “bright” (pandai) went on to complete their secondary education but many others were seen as “thick” (beli) and stayed behind. The result is the making of a Sarawakian Malaysian underclass that ends up taking up jobs that better educated/trained and connected groups won’t take […]. The kinds of choices that education bestows are generally speaking […] selfish choices, at most choices relating to advantages for one's very immediate family. They don’t make people feel good at a profound level. Yes, some individuals do use education to “do good” for others; but these are a minority […] [E]ducation is much more than a way of learning about the world. It is also a process one has to go through to get a diploma and to be “certified” to go forward in the modern world, where the content of what one learns is arguably less important than the process itself. Another function of education is of course social control. Educated individuals have been taught how to “fit in” to a world with certain rules. This contributes to “certifying” them to be accepted by that world, to get jobs, etc. In this context in relation to “tribal” peoples in Sarawak, “education” very much means “leading them out” of the “darkness” in which they are seen to have been living before. And this is a value judgment which is both bad and sad.

75But, to repeat yet again: The Malaysian educational system is not unique, let alone uniquely evil. Louise Tokarsky-Unda (pers. com., 2006), an anthropologist and schoolteacher who works with Mexican migrant workers and their families in the United States and Mexico, writes:

The parallels between Malaysian and American schools are HUGE. I was particularly interested in the quote you gave (from a Semai student) explaining why he formed a clique with other Orang Aslis and became violent. I see that here all the time. It happens with a lot of children of migrant workers, too: English-speaking students and teachers dismiss migrant children as stupid and backwards because they don’t speak English (when they first come), they live on a farm, they are poor, etc. In short, just like the Malay see the Semai, those children are not “complete people” unless they speak English, live in a “real” house, do the things that “typical American kids” (whatever that means) do, etc. Migrant children, when they first come here, are pleasant, non-aggressive, and excited about learning things. As you described, […] they eventually become violent and stick together. They stop using Spanish. When they play together in the migrant camps, they use English to communicate. Sometimes they even make fun of their parents, applying American stereotypes to them, and laughing because their parents don’t understand what their own kids are saying (this behavior is typical of boys more than girls).


In our efforts to develop the education for orang asli [sic], we must do away with the old style. The approach […] now is to make adjustments according to their culture and needs because their requirements are different from other communities. (Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, quoted in Roslina 2007.)

76This sort of two-tiered schooling may be normal in stratified societies, but it is not inevitable. In the United States, where almost a third of high school students drop out (almost half of minority kids), about twenty per cent of students go to schools that actually encourage intellectual activity and prepare students for the best jobs: best in terms of pay, best in terms of freedom, best in terms of fostering creativity. Robert Reich, formerly US Secretary of the Treasury, describes this system in a useful book, The Work of Nations. He believes that the United States could keep its head start in technology if the education available in rich liberal suburbs were available to more American children. It could be available everywhere.

  • 37 The last Minister of Education supported teaching introductory classes in Semai (see Tijah & Joseph (...)

77If education were the goal instead of subordination and assimilation, a separate system of education might work better, particularly for Semai in the interior, one that treats their culture with respect rather than as an absence of other people’s (patriarchal) culture. Teachers would speak Semai, preferably the local dialect, though Malay would be a required subject, as in schools served by the Semai NGO Sinui Pai Nanek Sengik (Tijah & Joseph 2003). The Ministry, with help from UNICEF, is experimentally using traditional folktales in Orang Asli special classes (UNICEF 2008).37 Both programs remain tentative and underfunded. Some other changes might help. Instead of ordering children to perform tasks, teachers would ask them if they knew how to. Instead of modeling sloth, anger, and violence, teachers would show up on time and expect their students to perform, expressing disappointment rather than rage when they did not.

78That way one could draw on the children’s strengths, their intellectual alertness, their anxiousness to please adults who pay attention to them, their desire to be worthy of love and acceptance. We know that learning strategies form very early in children’s lives and that later educational attainments build on earlier ones (Heckman 2006: 1900). Instead of forcing children to learn news ways of learning (in a new language as well!), why not build on their old, humane ways of learning? The two photos accompanying this paper indicate what a class might look like: springy all-purpose floors, not rows of desks with a big desk in front; large familiar rooms with parents and peers present, rather than unfamiliar surroundings dominated by alien images and blackboards; teachers and students in the same posture and on a level.

  • 38 Dato’ Dr. Mohd. Tap Salleh, Secretary General of the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development. Hi (...)

79This would be a very risky strategy, since it is unlikely that the schools would receive adequate and consistent funding or autonomy. The Secretary General of the Ministry in charge38 already gives speeches expressing the political feeling (which we have heard from other educated Malays) that people are tired of wasting money on Orang Asli programs, but does not suggest that changing the programs might help. Still, the current system causes so much supererogatory suffering, and is so inefficient at the educational part of its task, that some alternative seems morally necessary.

  • 39 I am on the Board of Directors of MUSE. For more details on the program, please contact: Suzanne Ha (...)

80And it is possible to bring into schools a program like MUSE, described by its founder in the article that provides the epigraph for this paper (Keil 2003).39 This program stresses integrating movement and music into the standard curriculum, rather than forcing children to remain seated and passive. Working with a Montessori school, MUSE managed to get mostly impoverished primary schoolers, none of whom spoke Italian, to collaborate with their compeers in an Italian school to write and perform an opera about Galileo in Italian, featuring arias about freedom of scientific inquiry, the special characteristics of the number seven, the similarities between Galileo and Martin Luther King, etc. Researchers reported at the Asia-Pacific Childhoods Conference held at the National University of Singapore that Indonesian school kids, who learned math by singing, learned it better than Singaporean students did.

81In September, 2007, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the opening of a new school in Bandar Dua Puluh Hinai, specifically designed to meet the needs of Orang Asli. Primary and secondary grades will all be under one roof, with an adjacent hostel, presumably like the one described in Note 29. Along with computers, Eastman Chemical Malaysia is providing “tuition classes and motivational talks.” There were 62 students, of whom 22, almost a third, were Orang Asli (Roslina 2007). But until states and corporations decide that educating impoverished indigenes is useful, the old American educationist adage holds: “enrichment for the rich, discipline for the poor.” The system is working just fine. Too bad for the kids.

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1 Thanks to Alice Nah, Colin Nicholas, Bah Sudeew, and Sudee’s cnòò’ Wa’ Ruby and Bah Tony (Anthony Williams-Hunt) for their generous help with this paper; to Geoffrey Benjamin and Vivienne Wee for allowing Dentan to invade their house, devour their family feasts, and immerse himself in their library; and to Douglas Fry and Peter K. Smith for their assistance with issues of bullying and its consequences. Thanks also to Judith Ennew and Roxana Waterson for inviting us to deliver a short version of this paper as a keynote address to the Asia-Pacific Childhoods Conference, National University of Singapore, 17-20 July 2006. And, as always, for the patience of Bernard Sellato, the editor.

2 As Graeber (2007) argues, from an entirely different theoretical perspective. For indigenous peoples and colonial powers, the most Smithian relevant passage is this: “The colony of a civilized nation which takes possession either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited, that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society” (Smith 1976, II: 75).

3 The most articulate and accessible exponent of this notion is John Taylor Gatto, all of whose writings are available for free on his website <>. He popularized the phrase “dumbing down” in his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. But probably the best starting place is the short speech he gave on receiving the New York State Teacher of the Year Award, after being named New York City Teacher of the Year three years in a row. The speech, titled “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher,” makes explicit what he feels he was required to teach students as part of the hidden curriculum. After giving the speech, and winning the prize, he quit.

4 The notion resembles Marxist and neomarxist notions of “reproduction,” as in the work of Adorno or Bourdieu (e.g., Bourdieu & Passeron 1990, Graeber 2007), but is more empirical and less theoretical. Gatto, for example, seems to be a libertarian, an outré American political stance that you could call reactionary anarchism. Before dismissing as radical fantasy the idea that the hidden curriculum of schools is, to choose a word, servility, one needs to read what the founders of “modern” education had to say about their goals. The founders are quite clear: schooling is NOT to provide intellectual stimulation or tools for upward social mobility. It is to provide subordinates with the skills and discipline they need to perform the tasks that their “betters” assign them. We already have enough professors, doctors, lawyers and artists, they say; we don’t need, or want, more.

5 Malays and Westerners often assume that these practices are like Malay pantang larang, “taboos” or rules that interfere with rational development rather than adaptively variable techniques to reduce the stress that impedes effective action. See, e.g., Berita Harian (1984; quoted in Nah 2004: 6).

6 Kin-Sima of Mncaak, a Semai settlement just south of Kampar in Perak, 10 March 2006. Most evenings, says Kin-Sima, now in her 60s, it’s enough for women, after they wash, to spit water ahead, then left, then right; any disease spirits present will devour the water instead of the children’s souls. Semai nyamp is the equivalent of Malay mambang kuning, which, by sympathetic magic, can produce jaundice (Danaraj 1964: 29, 78; Dentan 1979: 20-21).

7 In Semai biotaxonomy the smaller of two related species in a clade is the “elder sibling” of the larger.

8 The rhetorical question is from Ebòng Kin-Kuup, fortyish, from Jnteer on the upper Teiw Tluup in 1962. Not only would Semai suffer the horror anyone would feel under such circumstances, they interpret the subsequent nightmares in which the abused or neglected child appears as manifesting the desire of the shadow of the child, its ghost, still bound by the ties of love, to return to its family and devour them. You can hear such children, said Jnteer people, in the thickets where tailorbirds nest, calling softly “Mommy! Mommy!” You leave them a present or a bit of food, a token of love to ease the pain of their wounded consciousness, their nyii’ sngii’, knowing that if you come close they will attack you.Of course there are personal and local variations in practice. People in the Cameron Highlands, who say that children are like dogs, always snapping at each other, sometimes beat their children; as noted below, other Semai say that adults from this area tend to be more assertive and aggressive than most Semai. Christian and Muslim converts are more likely to hit their children.Dentan has seen a few cases in which partly Chinese fathers have beaten their kids (and wives) regularly; Juli knows of parents at ‘Iròk who hit their kids, which may connect with the fact that, just before World War II scrambled the local demography, the settlement on the lower Teiw ‘Iròk was “predominantly hybrid,” Chinese men with Semai women. “The difference between this form of miscegenation and that affecting Malays and Senoi, is that the offspring become members of the mother’s group and are accepted as such” (Noone 1939b: 201).Moreover, Semai drunks, like drunks everywhere, are likely to abuse kids. But still, when we were trying to translate the verb “bully” into Semai, the closest we could get was -kcoo’ (‘Iròk dialect), referring to parents’ attempts to get small children to perform tasks the kids don’t want to do: “Maybe we don’t have a word because we don’t bully anyone.” Parents generally get a kick out of their kids, said Arif Embing, a Mah Meri (= Btsisi’) entrepreneur in 2006.

9 This interpretation rests on several observations like the following from Mncaak on 23 February 2006. “In a room empty of Semai adults, Wa’ Panda’, 6-7 years old, grabs the ears of little Wa’ Ngah, 2-3, at first gently and then harder and harder until the little girl protests, faintly. Panda’ lets go, plops her sister down on the couch, grasps her feet and begins to pump her legs back and forth, at first making Ngah laugh; but the pumping continues, harder and harder, until Ngah cries “-nye’!” Panda’ releases Ngah’s feet and picks the little girl up, provoking a loud wail, throws her back down on the couch, provoking a LOUD “-nye’!”and a couple of ineffective blows. Panda’ seems skilled at getting Ngah to the point of -liiclaac, losing self-control and throwing a tantrum, without ever getting to the tantrum itself.” This sort of surreptitious harassment presumably makes the painful transition from pampered “little child” to ignored “child” still more traumatic. (The names in this paragraph are pseudonyms).

10 Children start intervening when they are still young. At Mncaak, 10 March 2006, Bah Euzan, 6, harassed a girl, 4, by grabbing her head. She retreated to a corner and sulked, an appropriate passive response called kra’dii’. Before Euzan could pursue her, Bah Jepizen, 8, grabbed Euzan’s head and pretended to hurt him, all the time looking at the girl until she seemed cheered. Then the boys continued good-naturedly roughhousing. Parental caretaking is quiet and physical, like this instance (fieldnotes, 14 Feb. 2006): “Coming back from school, encountering a maay byeek [European] stranger, both [boys] at once focused gravely/expressionlessly on the TV. Mom told Mpeent, 6, to wash up, which he did, getting water in his ear, which made him weep bitterly. Mom cuddled him for several minutes, to no avail. Dad came back from shopping, held Mpeent on his lap for a while, till the weeping subsided. Mpeent then rejoined Iluuj in front of the TV, bringing his school books as his dad told him to.” Parents generally seem to enjoy their kids. The aforementioned Arif Embing, e.g., doesn’t scrub the kid scribbles off his walls: “I kind of like it,” he says.

11 Chinese readers may notice the resemblance between traditional Semai life and that of the ancient peoples described in old Chinese classics like the Daode Jing (Dentan 2004).

12 Stima d/o Itam Blvvk of Mncaak, 48, 28 March 2006.

13 Dentan (2000). This pattern is old among Orang Asli: “Hervey was told by the Madek group that long ago, the Jakun women became so desolated by the death of their children or husbands, that they used to tie cloths round their necks, and frequently strangled themselves to death! In Harvey’s [sic] day the men asserted that they had to prevent their women from strangling themselves by sheer force. No such extreme reaction to death is to be observed nowadays, but the Batin told me that, for at least a week after her husband’s death, the bereaved widow must not be allowed to be alone for a moment, and two or three relatives must accompany her even when she goes ‘down to the river’ [to urinate or defecate] (Noone 1939a: 185-186).

14 When a Mncaak toddler exposed her vulva in the 1970s, for example, her mom would put her hand over it, saying gently, “Siil! Siil!”. On the Tluup in the early 1990s: Calling a disease [by name] both startles and shames it, after which it retreats. The idea behind a spell is to render a spirit powerless and submissive by stating its name […] (Kroes 2002: 30 n 47). The same rule applies in hunting. Naming your prey is a warning that you’re engaged in a completely antisocial violence, and the prey will flee or retaliate.

15 In some areas the pronunciation is slneel or slniil. The verb is –siil, –seel or –seil. The paraphrase is of a remark Bah Còk, 15, of Jnteer on the upper Teiw Tluup in northwest Pahang state, made in 1962 about kuasa, a Sanskrit-Malay word meaning something like “power,” “might,” “authority,” or “influence.”

16 Thanks to Alice Nah for supplying Yit’s notes (pers. com., 22 July 2006).

17 Thanks to the following primary school children who were at Mncaak for the harvest festival, 24-26 February, 2006, or the wedding, 10-12 March, 2006: Addykiti, Bah Agustin, Wa’ Asmi (6), Wa’ Asmaradana, Wa’ Asri, Bah Daniel (11), Bah Dino, Wa’ Ejessti (11), Bah Elmi (10), Enten (son of Juli, 6), Bah Epien, Bah Euzan (6), Bah Faezul, Hazarma, Bah Haluuy, Bah Jepizen (=Jesfizen, 8), Bah Jimi, Wa’ Kuna, Bah Lohaidi (8), Bah Mohd Sofian, Wa’ Moliz, Wa’ Nabila, Wa’ Nita, Wa’ Norabhana (=Nurabhana), Bah Peli, Ruwhy Lujch (Iluij, s/o Juli, 12) , Bah Sapain, Bah Sarari, Wa’ Suwan, Bah Tasti, Bah Tembe, Bah William David (10), and Bah Yasra.Besides pestering me to look at the book I brought along, some Semai kids drew pictures for me, e.g., William David’s recognizable portrait of Spiderman, titled “Spider.” Others volunteered to demonstrate their academic skills by writing essays, e.g., “one –two-three-four-five XXX XXX six seven eight nine ten XXX eleven XXXXX XX twoyal threeteen XXXXX Fourt een.” “I would like to dress skirt and blouse. I like to play football and chess. My best friend ejesti. Okey bye bye” or Ejesti’s Semai “ean engemar main badminton ean cok puk ru ais krim,” which she translated into English “I like to play badminton and I like eat chicken rice and ice–cream.” Other kids, many visitors, including a few from East Malaysia, joined in the play/school, although the non-Asli seemed more reluctant.Of course when the joget started, most of the little boys took off, to crash the dance, giggling with delight at their own daring and mocking the adults’ dances and gestures. It’s the main way Semai kids learn to dance—and, in olden days, to go into trance. The young adults, laughing and primping, pay the kids no mind, the men preparing to salsa by turning up their shirt collars, unbuttoning at least a few shirt buttons and tying their shirt tails together in front. The only occasion on which the adults shooed the kids away (-halaaw) was to clear the target area for the blowpipe contest at the harvest festival.Just for the flavor of interacting with Semai kids, an excerpt from slightly edited fieldnotes: [M, 6, & his elder brother, 12, had politely and gravely ignored me during my visit. As all of us headed for the car] M gravely offered me his limp hand to shake. We exchanged formal departure courtesies. I asked him gravely whether he understood ‘ileek, tickling. He stood up straight, grinning faintly, awaiting the ‘ileek, which broadened his grin to a full smile, but without unseemly loss of self-control.

[On the ride] silence from the back seat of the car (where the two boys were) until dad had to make a stop to buy something. Then over the back of the seat M’s schoolbook comes flying for the foreigner to quiz M on. M fills in the blanks, big brother chiming in, both first in flawless Malay, then in flawless Semai. No hesitation at all. We played school till dad returned and then the boys demonstrated their academic prowess by reading billboards: M: “Xtreme!”; RD: “Ice cream?”; Boys: “Xtreme! Xtreme!! XTREME!!!”; M: “Kenny Rogers Roast Chicken!” And so on…

18 Thanks to Colin Nicholas and Reita Farida Rahim for letting Dentan tag along on their trip to Cang Kuak on 18-19 February, 2006. And thanks to Wa’ Anja (11), Bah Cemcum (12), Bah Kutak (7), Bah Mina (11); and especially the brilliant and serious Wa’ Nani (12), for sharing their enthusiasm about learning English and about their school at Batu 7 on the Tapah-Cameron Highlands Road. The principal, opined Colin Nicholas, has managed to keep Malay-Semai relations from deteriorating, and the kids denied, in chorus, that there was any discrimination against them. For Wa’ Nani’s considerable skills, see her drawing in Juli et al. (2009), Ang (2002), Saari & Ang (2005).One reason why the kids had fun with learning English is that, as in most poor rural schools (Ridzuan 2006), the Batu 7 school has difficulty attracting competent English teachers. A conservative Malay author (Syed Akbar Ali 2005: 115) alleges that The Sun newspaper carried a report (The Sun, 21 March 2005) quoting a former Director General of Education saying that many Malay teachers, especially in rural areas, “are reluctant to speak English because they may be labeled ‘show offs’ by their colleagues and neighbors […]. The teachers end up not speaking English to their students”. “Never mind if the next generation of Malay [or Semai] kids still cannot speak English,” he adds.Still, although “in some schools the ustaz and ustazah [teachers of Islam] tell the Malay kids Western books must not be read or you will ‘jadi Kristian’ [...],” become a Christian (Syed Akbar Ali 2005: 282), we encountered no case of Semai kids being discouraged from studying English.The question of dis-education in traditional knowledge as a result of mainstream-schooling is beyond the scope of this paper (see, e.g., Dentan 1994, 2001a). But Nani did not know what Semai call the abundant and salient Saraca trees in the area, whose branches, laden with bright yellow-orange flowers, give the settlement its name; a couple of older girls knew the Malay term kuak; but apparently no one knew the old Semai term glpaap, which was already obsolete in lowland Perak a quarter of a century ago.Cemcum’s remark that he had no idea what the harvest ceremony he witnessed the night before was about may reflect his temperament as much as his (dis-)education. Cum is an amiable and physically active extrovert, given more to boyish mischief than to Nani’s sort of intellectual awareness. Still, one would have felt better had they known.

19 Alice Nah reports “Acehnese would use the term ‘sekolahkan,’ “schooling,” to refer to being taught a lesson – by the polis, or military, or prison guards – usually accompanied by physical punishment, degrading treatment, beating or torture.” Authoritarian religions foster brutal schooling and general brutality towards children, whether in Afghanistan (e.g., Sadeq & Sudabah 2006) or the United States (Dentan 2001). “There appears to be a linear association between the frequency of slapping and spanking during childhood and a lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse or dependence and externalizing problems” (Macmillan et al. 1999: 803).

20 Risaaw s/o Jambu, around 40, a father from Jnteer on the upper Teiw Tluup in 1962.

21 Alice Nah raised this point in connection with a discussion of education in Singapore (Gopinathan 2006). “I can see how well this education serves the interests of the state,” she said, in effect, during the discussion of the paper. “But how does it serve the interests of the children?”

22 Kesatuan Perkhidmatan Perguruan Kebangsaan Malaysia. The government responded that it had conducted a similar study in 2005, as the NUTP should have known, and “steps were being taken to ease teachers’ stress” (New Straits Times 2006b).

23 For cross-cultural confirmation of this general rule, see Smith 2004: 100, and, more generally, Olweus 1999.

24 Prof. Tengku Datuk Shamsul Bahrin (quoted in Ng & Sonia 2006).

25 Nah (2006) leaves her source anonymous, but Dentan heard the same story from a Semai urban professional, the father of five. In the mid-1990s Semai lived near the old sultanic capital of Kuala Kangsar, in an area so thoroughly clear-cut that even the stemless bltòp palm (Eugeissona tristis), which British colonial foresters regarded as a lowland rainforest understory weed and Semai depended on for many products in daily use, has become locally extinct – as it has in several other clear-cut Semai areas. The extinction meant that the people had no way to thatch their houses or weave the walls. They talked to the JHEOA about roofing and report that the official said, in effect: You can get houses if you convert, and you can keep your old customs. “ Semai believe that this [exemption] is merely a strategy to get them to agree to convert […] [The] children are always identified as Malay Muslims […]” (Karim 2001: 22; see Dentan 2002c).

26 The Utusan Melayu reporter says that most Orang Asli belum menangut sebarang pegangan agama, “do not have the slightest notion of religious conviction,” and therefore need Islamisasi (Nah 2004: 6; RKD translation).

27 Brtak people, like Cameron Highlanders in general, have a reputation among Semai for being more assertive than other Semai. The area is home to several Semai intellectuals, including the first Semai professor of anthropology and the first Semai novelist, so this response is not typical. The ‘Iròk [Settlement] Peace and Progress Committee is called Jawatankuasa Kemajuan dan Keselamatan Kampung Erong, and the Education Officer [for the Lowland Perak Region] is the Pegawai Pendidikan Daerah Hilir Perak. Readers may recall that parents at ‘Iròk sometimes hit their kids, a good lesson in how to be aggressive.The speaker was taken aback by the number of names on the prize list which did not follow the Malay form “A bin/binte B” (A son/daughter of B) but the pagan (Semai) form A a/l [or a/p] B” (see Nah 2006) and asked, “Who are these kids?” Apparently he did not feel that the Islamic principle that fitnah, slander, is worse than murder applies to Semai kids.

28 Such boarding houses appear to have become fairly common among Semai who live near schools. The COAC (Centre for Orang Asli Concerns), an NGO supporting Orang Asli causes, rents a bungalow in Tapah for Semai kids. Although the church does not support the house or the children, the Assemblies of God, an extremist Christian sect, did recruit the Semai man who lives there for free with his family in return for looking after the children from the perils of big city life. As a result the kids suffer a regime of hymns and prayers. The situation as of February 2006 seemed set to change (Colin Nicholas, pers. com., 18 January 2006).There is also an asrama, boarding school, in Tapah for rural kids, a lot of whom are Semai. A tall chainlink fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the buildings. A uniformed male Malay guard occupies the guardhouse by the locked gate. A placard on the gate announces, in Malay: “Asrama SMK Sri Tapah, Arr. Visit Hrs., 1. When to visit[:] Saturday and Sunday, except in cases of emergency. 2. Visiting hours: 9AM to 6:30 PM. 3. Visitors are required to check in with the security officer before they are allowed to enter. 4. Visitors allowed to meet with students [only] in the room designated for that purpose. By direction of the principal.”Nicholas argues that the impressive security apparatus protects the children from those who might do them harm. It certainly keeps Semai kids from fleeing to the homes and families for whom their yearning is more poignant than most of us “abstract individuals” can fathom. And it’s a lot different from the guest house at Mncaak.

29 Mudah diternak, boleh diperkakaskan, sang[g]up diperkudakan (Shahnon 2001: 97). Segan and slniil are kindred, painful emotions. You could gloss either in English as “shame” or “embarrassment.” But for Semai, the pain comes from feeling unworthy of the people important to you, so the appropriate response to seek reacceptance by your community, usually by making amends. Segan seems more fearful: not just of rejection, but of actual attack.

30 Nobuta 2008: 194. That Semai kids get picked on more than other kids is not surprising. In Britain, minority kids are about twice as likely as others to suffer severe abusive bullying (Katz et al. 2001). That Malay kids seem more likely to be the bullies is a more complex issue, too difficult for us to discuss here, though we have suggested some possible causes in the text: the brutal history of Semai-Malay relations, the ethnocentrism of Malay education, the Arabization of Malaysian Islam, the sense that Semai are kafir who lack any religion and are thus incomplete, the violence of traditional and official Malay culture (e.g., Noor 2002: 115-117, 263-268) and the inconsistent but harsh discipline that seems to characterize Malay socialization.

31 Kyah Kin-Grcaang of ‘Icek on the Teiw R’eiis, 1992.

32 According to Ngah Hari Mni-Dol, Dentan’s longtime mentor, in 1976, when Dentan asked why school kids were still speaking Malay after they had returned home. See also Nah (2004: 117-118).

33 On 1 February 2006, Dentan had lunch with Wa’ Ruby, her brother and her uncle, Sudeew, a close friend of Dentan’s for many years, and his wife Wa’ Gelok. For the first three hours, only the three old people talked, in a mixture of Semai, Malay, and English; Ruby, despite our nagging her in all three languages, was too overcome by slniil to speak, covering her mouth with both hands, until we were about to take her back to her school, UNITAR (Universiti Tun Abdul Razak), in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs.

34 Professor Datuk Dulkifli Abd. Razak (quoted in Ng & Sonia 2006).

35 As Bah Tony says happened to his sisters (Anthony Williams-Hunt @ Amani, 23 Feb. 2006).

36 Eliminating bullying helps both bullies and their victims enjoy school more (Katz et al. 2001).

37 The last Minister of Education supported teaching introductory classes in Semai (see Tijah & Joseph 2003). The current (2006) Minister is indifferent. There is no money for developing the curriculum, but teachers can teach it if they please. At Teiw Bipòk (Dentan 2001a, Juli 1990: 19-26) the primary school has Semai in two grades, with seven teachers, two of them Semai, the rest Malay. The preface to the curriculum guide for the course says: “This curriculum stresses the pure values of patriotic spirit and citizenship to make students aware of their role and responsibility as progressive citizens and members of an educated society. The contents of this curriculum [will] stimulate, challenge, and delight, so that students will be interested in studying and will continue studying for the rest of their lives” (Abdul Rafie Mahat 2003; RKD translation). It is a good statement of hidden and overt curricula. Still, eight-year-old Nurkafiha, a Jakun girl, says she likes the folktales “because they are funny. And I get to act and read and write” (UNICEF 2008).

38 Dato’ Dr. Mohd. Tap Salleh, Secretary General of the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development. His valuable and honest PhD thesis on the JHEOA (Mohd. Tap 1990) is the only critical document on that institution by an insider.

39 I am on the Board of Directors of MUSE. For more details on the program, please contact: Suzanne Hasselback, Development Officer, Musicians United for Superior Education, Inc., 475 Beard Ave., Buffalo, NY 14214, USA; tel.: 1-716-834-6873; fax: 1-716-834-5666; e-mail:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: A day at the office
Légende The administration of the Anthropology department at the University at Buffalo wanted to title this photo: “Dentan observing Semai children;” but clearly the reverse is true. Without urging by adults, Semai children, if interested, will turn any place into a schoolroom and any occasion into an opportunity for learning. Teiw R’eiis, Perak foothills, Spring 1992.
Crédits Photo: Leta B. Dentan
Fichier image/png, 121k
Titre Fig. 2: Traditional Semai education at work on current educational issues
Légende Semai children spontaneously grill a visitor about English usage. For details, see Note 18. Cang Kuaa’, upland Perak, February 2006
Crédits Photo: courtesy of Colin Nicholas and the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns
Fichier image/png, 413k
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Robert Knox Dentan et Juli Edo, « Schooling vs. Education, Hidden vs. Overt Curricula »Moussons, 12 | 2008, 3-34.

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Robert Knox Dentan et Juli Edo, « Schooling vs. Education, Hidden vs. Overt Curricula »Moussons [En ligne], 12 | 2008, mis en ligne le 22 mars 2013, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Knox Dentan

Robert Knox Dentan, Ph.D. (Yale University, 1965), is currently Professor emeritus, State University of New York. His main fields of academic interest are ethnology and (non)violence. He is the author of, among other important publications, The Semai, a Nonviolent People of Malaya (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2nd ed., 1979) and Overwhelming Terror: Love, Fear, Peace and Violence among the Semai (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

Juli Edo

Juli Edo graduated from the Australian National University and is Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Malaya. He is the author of Tradisi Lisan Masyarakat Semai (1990) and “Traditional Alliances: Contact between the Semais and the Malay State in Pre-Modern Perak” (2002), and co-author of “Surrender, Peacekeeping and Politics: A Neglected Episode in Malaysian History” (2009). His fields of interest include ethnography, Orang Asli, and indigenous minorities in Southeast Asia. Contact: Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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