Notes from the Field

In Remote Sabah, Books Can Help Reduce Isolation

September 5, 2012

I recently took a trip into the heart of Malaysian Borneo to visit some of the most remote schools that The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia serves. Borneo is a large island located north of Java, Indonesia. In the spring of 2011, we started a partnership with PACOS Trust, a local organization that works with indigenous communities, to reach schools deep in Sabah’s rainforests, mountains, and coastal plains. Although Malaysia is a middle-income country with the third largest economy in Southeast Asia, a large disparity exists between peninsular Malaysia and the country’s eastern provinces, like Sabah. Sabah is the country’s poorest state with 20 percent of its people living on less than $1 compared to a poverty rate of 4 percent for the rest of the country. Sabah’s literacy rate is 79 percent while the country’s overall rate is 91 percent.

The journey from Kota Kinabalu, the coastal capital of the state of Sabah, to Kampong Minusoh took all day, and the last 43 kilometers were over a muddy, bumpy dirt road. At some point, the power lines ended and palm oil plantations stretched out on both sides of the road. Massive spools of electrical wire dotted the road every few kilometers. I later found out that these spools had been sitting by the side of the road for years despite repeated promises to bring electricity to the adjacent villages.

The journey from Kota Kinabalu

The journey from Kota Kinabalu, the coastal capital of the state of Sabah, to Kampong Minusoh. Photo by Amir Shariff.

When we finally reached Kampong Minusoh, I noticed satellite dishes attached to a fair number of the homes. The village has no electricity but those who can afford them run generators at night to light their homes and power TVs and computers.

Frustration over the lack of infrastructure was a constant refrain during discussions I had with the villagers. Many told me that while they are eager to keep their communities and traditional way of life intact, they still want and need basic modern amenities like electricity.

“I’d like to see this village prosper,” Wilsten Lawrence, the village chief and our host, told me. “If the level of education in his village improves, the people would be better able to negotiate with the government for the infrastructure and jobs that are desperately needed,” he said. In addition to lobbying for infrastructure, indigenous Sabahans have been fighting for rights over their ancestral land, which puts them in conflict with agricultural companies that have set up vast palm oil plantations in the area.

Wilsten Lawrence

Wilsten Lawrence (left) with community members at Kampong Minusoh, a village of approximately 800 people. “I’d like to see this village prosper,” he said. Photo by Amir Shariff.

Only two students from the village have gone to university; most become subsistence farmers after graduating high school. Lawrence estimates that in Kampong Minusoh, the literacy rate in Bahasa Melayu, the national language, is 90 percent while in English it is just 10 percent. He added that acquiring better English-language skills is critical for working to improve their village. “English is an international language so to have a profession like a doctor or lawyer you need to know English.”

Education in villages like Minusoh is confined and limited by the poor infrastructure. Students whose families cannot afford a generator are not able to study at night. Due to their isolation, rural Sabahans do not have access to many books. The budgets of school libraries – often the only source of books in the villages – are very small and their selection is limited to a book list provided by the government.

Children in Malaysian Borneo

Due to their isolation, students in rural Sabah do not have as much access to books as other parts of Malaysia. Photo by Amir Shariff.

Anne Lasimbang, executive director of PACOS Trust, cites this as one of the reasons her organization partnered with The Asia Foundation to distribute books to the most remote sections of Sabah. “Our children need to be exposed to books,” she told me; beautifully illustrated books, in particular. She said she has witnessed children’s curiosity come alive when reading a picture book with a teacher. Even if the child can’t read the words, it prompts him or her to ask, “What is this?” she said.

Last year, Books for Asia sent about 13,000 books donated by Pearson Education to isolated schools in Sabah. Cut off from the rest of their country and hamstrung by the lack of educational resources, these communities are the very ones Books for Asia strives to reach.

Read more about Books for Asia.

Wendy Rockett is Books for Asia’s communications and outreach program officer and Amir Amir Shariff is a senior program officer in Malaysia. They can be reached at wrockett@asiafound.org and amir@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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