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Orang Asli Increasingly See Education As Their Saviour

Last update: 31/01/2011
News Pic
Mat Dong Batin Dagang (yellow T-shirt), with his wife Lee Dee and other family members always emphasizes on the importance of education. Pic: Melati Mohd Ariff
By Melati Mohd Ariff

This article on the life of Mat Dong bin Batin Dagang narrates how the Orang Asli community see education today, and their efforts to free themselves from the shackles of poverty and join the mainstream community.

This is the first of the two part series.

KUANTAN, Jan 31 (Bernama) -- More than three decades ago, Mat Dong bin Batin Dagang wandered deep into the jungles looking for rattan where he often came across elephants, bears, pythons or even rhinoceros.

But for Mat Dong who has schooled up to standard two only and trapped in poverty, he was left with no choice but to depend on the jungle resources to feed his family of seven children.

It was an arduous and dangerous life but Mat Dong endured to see a better fate for his children and the only way that he thought of was through education.

"I failed to study but promised myself that when I get married and have children one day, I will make sure my children will succeed in education.

"Why? My life, and my late father's life was bad, we could hardly find money, could not study any further. I did not want to see my children and grandchildren continue with the same fate," said Mat Dong to the writer recently at his home in Kampung Bukit Bangkong, along Jalan Kuantan-Sg Lembing, about 25 km from Kuantan town.

A DIFFICULT PAST

Mat Dong Batin Dagang, 53, hails from Kampung Gading, Rompin. His late father was the Tok Batin (headman) of Kampung Gading, a settlement for the Jakun tribe.

When asked on his age, he proudly said that he was born after Merdeka somewhere in November 1957. Mat Dong speaks reasonably good Malay.

"I use to take boiled tapioca and raw salted fish to school. That is something that I will never forget," said Mat Dong, the fifth of seven siblings who was life was difficult despite the fact his father was the village headman.

"At times there was no food at home, only tapioca available. Could only savour cheap rice twice or thrice a week.

"After school I will look for fish for the family. We also plant sweet potato and tapioca around the house," explained Mat Dong.

FOR THE FAMILY

After getting married with Lee Dee and the children started coming, Mat Dong realised he had to work harder to increase his income.

The jungle resources like the manau and sege rattan served as his main source of income. He could then sell up to 1,000 sticks in one go!

"But during the wet spell I could not venture into the jungles as the surrounding areas got flooded.

Mat Dong has lots to say on his trips to the jungles. Normally he goes accompanied by his friends, at least one of them and at times he was accompanied by up to five of them.

"I don't dare to go in alone. There are many fierce animals, elephant, bear, tiger...they are still there even now.

"I have come across these animals, when they run we start running too, ...equally shocked...have to save ourselves," he said laughing.

Mat Dong could count on his blessings as so far he has never been attacked by these animals.

Asked whether he observes any customs before venturing into the jungle, he quickly replied, "before entering I pray that I will be spared from any misfortune".

HARD WORK

Normally Mat Dong would spend between four and six hours in the jungle. If they cannot find sufficient amount of rattan, he and friends have to venture further that may take them weeks to return.

"If there is a lot of rattan in one area, within two hours we can collect up to 200 rattan sticks," he said recalling the days how he will spend days in the jungle to eke out a living.

When the demand for rattan dwindled, Mat Dong had to look for alternatives. He was employed as a general worker with the Kuantan Municipal Council (MPK), earning more than RM600 per month.

Mat Dong also recalled that he was a general worker for Alam Flora Sdn Bhd. and was paid about RM700 per month.

"Five years ago I had to stop work as I had to travel far to my work place. By then, the eldest had already started working and was helping. Now I'm working on my own and helping my wife on and off to manage her sundry shop," he said.

NOTHING IMPOSSIBLE

Life's adversities had thought Mat Dong and wife to appreciate education and make use of all the opportunities and the amenities provided by the government.

Though Mat Dong only had two years of schooling, now he is proud of the fact that three of his children have gone up to university.

His eldest, Mahat, is a mechanical engineer who graduated from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) while the third, Muhaini has earned a degree in business administration from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Masni, the sixth in the family is taking up accounting at UiTM Jengka.

Mahat was also chosen as the 2009 Orang Asli Icon.

"When I was in the primary school, I had a friend by the name of Long bin Jidin, he has since died. He became a Senator and a Datuk.

"When my children were growing up, I wanted to see them succeed like him," said Mat Dong.

Thus he and his wife often advise the children to study hard to change their fate.

"When Mahat was still in school, I use to take him to the jungle to look for rattan and that thought him how difficult his father had to work to eke out a living.

"I would also ask him to take the books along so that he can study. I always reminded him that his father was a poor man. When the father leads a tough life by looking for rattan, the son can't be doing the same.

"From then on he was enthusiastic to study. Moreover, looking for the manau and sege rattan is no easy work. The rattan has thorns all over that has to be removed," explained Mat Dong.

THE LIFE NOW

As a father, Mat Dong is proud with the success of his children and he no longer needs to venture into the jungle to look for income.

But the jungle is still close to his heart.

"In my heart, I want to live in the jungle, so is my wife. The jungle is part of our life and we have grown around the jungle.

"At times I go fishing with my wife and look back how we started, how the children have grown up and now that they are on their own," said Mat Dong.

However, he lamented that most of the jungle have been cut down and many of the rivers polluted. Thirty years ago, he could catch a `baung' (catfish) as big as his arm in the rivers around the village.

"When the oil palm plantations were opened, the rivers were contaminated with pesticides and insecticides. Fishes were getting less and the river water no longer safe for drinking," noted Mat Dong pointing out that most of the villagers use water from the well.

"There is piped water but we don't use it due to high calcium carbonate content. We still depend on water from well," he said.

A FATHER'S ADVICE

Mat Dong also wants to see the other children in his village succeed.

The government through the Orang Asli Affairs Department (JHEOA) now known as the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) has been providing a helping hand for the community members to seek education.

"The department provides pocket money, school uniform and others but there are many children within the community who are not schooling," he said.

However, according to Mat Dong the call to seek knowledge has to come from their heart.

"Previously we did not have much, now it is the science and technology era, we have everything. There has to be change in our life. If we don't make use of the facilities provided by the government it is a total waste.

"How long more can we be depending on the jungles. The jungles are gone, no one wants to buy the rattan anymore," said Mat Dong.

-- BERNAMA