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Entry #2: What is “Home”?


By Amanda Cheong

Children arriving at school on the plantation in the morning. Picture by Amanda Cheong

Children arriving at school on the plantation in the morning. Picture by Amanda Cheong

For the past few weeks, I have been based at a learning centre for children of labourers on an oil palm plantation in Sabah. The vast majority of these labourers are from Indonesia, and form a sizable community on the estate. They not only work but also live here, and raise families in the settlements provided by the company.

Though many of these children were born and have spent most (if not all) of their time in Malaysia, their status as non-nationals renders them ineligible to attend government schools. This legal impediment, compounded with the remote nature of plantation life, renders education difficult to access for this group.

Fortunately, as a result of a collaborative effort between the company, a children’s education NGO, and the Indonesian government, learning centres have been set up to provide basic education to non-Malaysian children living on the plantation. The term “learning centre” is used in lieu of “school” because, while children are taught according to the Malaysian curriculum, the education they receive is not officially recognized by the government. Nevertheless, these centres are arguably a favourable alternative to not receiving any education—formal or informal.

Boxes of goodies brought by the schoolchildren to celebrate Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Picture by Amanda Cheong

Boxes of goodies brought by the schoolchildren to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Picture by Amanda Cheong

As I conducted interviews with youth aged 11 to 19 at this learning centre, a noticeable trend emerged: While—as mentioned earlier—these children had predominantly grown up in Malaysia, most of them strongly identified as being Indonesian, and expressed a desire to return “home” to Indonesia after graduating from the learning centre.

This prompted me to ask, what does “home” mean to these children? And from where do they derive these ideas of Indonesia as “home,” and Indonesian as constituting a defining aspect of their identity?

From the short time I have spent with this population, I can speculate that there are at least two factors at play: (1) a transnational network of influences that aid these children in maintaining ties to their ancestral homeland, and (2) an exclusionary force exerted by the Malaysian state that discourages them from developing ties to Malaysia.

1)  The maintenance of transnational ties to Indonesia inside the household and at school:

When asked about what Indonesia meant to them, many children pieced together notions of their homeland using first-hand recollections of trips back home, as well as ideas instilled in them by their family members. Unsurprisingly, such notions were almost always idealized, with children recalling positive memories of past vacations, or reiterating ideas taught to them by their parents. Some words used to describe Indonesia include: beautiful, peaceful, prosperous, green, happy, safe, and loving.

“Indonesia is a rich country. It is green and prosperous.”

– 11 year old boy, born on the plantation

 The Indonesian government actually plays an active role in encouraging these diasporic Indonesian children to develop a sense of national pride and identity. Since 2005, teachers from Indonesia have been sponsored by the government to come and work at the Malaysian learning centres for 2-year contracts.

Though they are required to abide by the Malaysian curriculum, they additionally incorporate lessons about Indonesian language, history, and culture. Indonesian songs and dances are performed in the classroom, and children even sometimes get to watch Indonesian movies as a Friday treat.

As well, recently, a delegation from the Indonesian embassy visited the plantation and the school to check on their foreign nationals. Dressed in traditional costumes and waving national flags, the children performed various Indonesian songs and dances, to the apparent enjoyment of the ambassadors. Such gestures by the Indonesian state communicate to the Indonesians abroad—including plantation children—the message that being Indonesian does not end at the physical border.

2)  The legal denial of membership to the Malaysian nation:

At the same time, children are constantly reminded that they do not belong in Malaysia. As Malaysia does not automatically grant citizenship by birth, children are marked as foreigners from the very beginning of their lives. Though the situation of these children is unique in that they lead relatively insulated lives surrounded by fellow countrymen on the plantation, they still develop a sense of displacement as a result of their legal statuses.

“I want to go back to Indonesia because Indonesia is my country. It is where my ancestors were born. In Indonesia, I can be a student. I can learn a lot in Indonesia.”

– 13 year old girl, born in Lahad Datu.

The most immediate repercussion is that they are educationally segregated from Malaysian children, and must instead attend these informal learning centres. Many of them expressed the desire to return “home” to continue their studies, as the learning centres can only provide them with the most basic knowledge and skills.

Furthermore, their documents explicitly state that they do not have a claim to being in Malaysia. Children expressed feeling anxious at the periodic police checks that occur on the plantation to verify their parents’ legality as foreign workers. Following their parents having to renew their work visas every five years also leaves the impression that they are meant to be here only temporarily—though many families have been based on the plantation for several years.


So, in addition to asking, “Where is home?” we must thus also ask, “What is home?” The answer is that home is an idea, constantly in flux, and shaped by various forces acting on individual, family, community, and national levels. For the children of Indonesian workers living on plantations, “home” is at once immediate and far away.

Questions/Comments? Email me at

Also read Entry #1 Who is Anak Malaysia?


Amanda Cheong began her internship with VoC in September 2012. Born in Vancouver, Canada, she holds a B.A. Honours in Sociology from the University of British Columbia, and will be beginning her PhD in Sociology in September 2013. Her research interests include migration, nation-building, citizenship, race/ethnicity, and statelessness in Southeast Asia. Her senior honours thesis drew upon oral histories with stateless Chinese-Bruneian immigrants in Vancouver to investigate their changing understandings of citizenship and civic participation through the migration process. At VoC, Amanda is investigating how racialized public discourses surrounding who is a rightful “Malaysian” contribute to the marginalization of undocumented and stateless children in Sabah, and affect their own understandings of national identity and belonging. She can be contacted at


This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Voice of the Children. Youth Voices is a safe space for youth to engage constructively and discuss social issues.

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