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Arts & Letters Daily



A school in Sabah, Malaysia

Tenom School

You have just been introduced to the town of Tenom located in the Interior Division of Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo, home of a majestic rain forest. Tenom is located in the heart of an agricultural area which produces rubber trees, coco, palm oil, soy beans, and coffee. This sounds like a prosperous region which produces products in demand around the world. But, as in so many other countries, the local farmers barely make enough money to look after the basic needs of their families. International markets keep the price for these products so low that farmers do not receive fair market value for their produce.

A typical village family income is $250 to $600 Ringgits (Malaysian currency) which equals $90 to $200 Canadian per month. A two bedroom apartment rents for $150 to $500 Ringgits. Hence most village families, which average 4 – 6 children, build their own homes as best they can. All children have to help out in the family vegetable plant or rice field after school. Typically students help their parents on Sunday selling vegetables in the town open market square. The local government provides the children with new uniforms and some time shoes as well. The parents have to pay for the school supplies.

The local government sponsors some high school students each year by paying for their school supplies and room and board. Students who speak and write English get to the top of the sponsorship list. To learn to speak and write English well, students need private English tutors which parents cannot afford.

Most students do not acquire an adequate command of English to succeed in high school or university even though English is a compulsory subject in all schools because they hear and speak Murut, Chinese, Malay, or Kadazan Dusun at home. Again, they need English tutors. High school and university graduates need a good command of oral and written English to leave the marginal farms and get jobs in the cities.

Room to Think and Write Team

Philip Tham, Theresa Tham, Edward Tham