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postcard from leon fulcher

From Sarawak, East Malaysia

Salamat Datang and Gid’aye from the Island of Borneo. Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching — the city of cats — was the first stop on our journey back to the northern hemisphere after leaving the winter rain and flooding in New Zealand. Located scarcely 100 km from the equator, the steamy warm climate of Kuching required dramatic changes to both wardrobe and lifestyle requiring adjustment from temperatures of 5 degrees C (42 F) to 32 degrees C (96 F). This was not a holiday break as the focus of our activities was directed towards the challenges facing child and youth care services in this the largest of Malaysia’s thirteen states.

The new Kuching Children’s Home waiting to open

Our first stop involved a meeting with the new Minister for Social Development and Urbanisation, along with his Permanent Secretary and the Director of Social Welfare to discuss future directions for this Ministry in the months ahead. We were next invited to visit the new facilities for Sekolah Tunas Bakti Kuching, the Boys’ Approved School first established after WW II. The new facilities built over the past three years offer dramatic improvements over the original facility and the Deputy Director offered a very informative guided tour of the premises. Concerns were highlighted around conditions in the remand facility where 22 young men were being held awaiting court appearances or for infringement of school rules. Western child and youth care workers would be challenged when finding scarcely more than 30 staff – including security staff and gardeners – working with nearly a hundred young men aged 14 to 18. The new 2001 Child Act still provides for 3-year mandatory sentences in a residential institution for young people convicted of offences, including so-called "minor offences". By contrast, Western youths are almost always referred to community-based diversionary programmes for all but the most serious offences.

Children playing at Rumah Kanak Kanak Sri Aman

Next we were taken to visit two Rumah Kanak Kanak or Children’s Homes. The first was a brand new facility built in the suburbs of Kuching where it will be expected to cater for up to 100 pre-school children and school-age girls. This new centre has yet to open and it was interesting to learn that nearly 3000 applications had been received for roughly 30 positions. This highlights the way that state service employment is held in very high regard, even though the positions were likely to be filled by people without relevant qualifications in child or youth care, social work or social care. This is because government appointments still do not require relevant qualifications in this specialist area of professional activity. It is expected that degree holders will receive specialist in-service training after taking up employment.

Father and children enjoying their boat ride on the Kuching River

The second Children’s Home at Rumah Kanak Kanak Datuk Ajibah Abol Sri Aman is a centre I have visited on several occasions over the past 3-4 years. As we stopped in front of the administration building and got out of the car, I immediately recognised Hari, a boy I had spent time with during previous visits who had been the focus of care and treatment planning. This lad’s face brightened into a smile and during the entire visit, he held my hand and became my shadow, everywhere we went. Hari has no language, but is one of those kids whose eyes and face spoke volumes. At age 14, Hari has never attended school and his future prospects are severely limited in a part of the world where special education or even the most basic specialist professional assistance is severely limited. It made me think how child and youth care workers might be easily tempted into taking specialist support services for granted.

In many parts of the world, there are only the personal commitment and good intentions of a small number of workers, struggling to do their best in the face of overwhelming odds. Be sure and thank a ‘special ed’ teacher or psychologist this week!