After completing his bachelor's degree in 2011, Samuel hoped to serve in an elite urban school with the best facilities and environment – somewhere he could implement his educational ideas and start a great career. However, he was deployed to a rural primary school for indigenous children, where, on his first day, another teacher told him: “Samuel, you don’t have to do much, they’re just Orang Asli [indigenous children]”. This was an attitude that Samuel would spend years fighting against.
The Orang Asli (indigenous) community has struggled with poverty, assimilation into society, and losing a grip on their own identity and culture due to others’ disregard of it. Samuel saw that the main obstacle in teaching these children was the perception on the part of many teachers that the indigenous children were not worth their efforts. It was thought that whatever was taught would make no difference because of the children’s ethnicity, so nobody bothered to try. The children themselves ended up believing these stigmas, often doubting what they can achieve. Teachers skipped or slept in classes, teaching often consisted of lacklustre rote learning, and little effort was made to create a congenial learning environment. Consequently, the school was one of the worst-performing in the district.
Samuel bonded with his indigenous students and embraced their culture, leading him to see their potential. However, he also came to see that they did not have equal opportunities compared to urban schools, due to the lack of facilities. So he set up a crowdfunding project to create a fully equipped 21st-century English classroom with tablets and computers. The Orang Asli children now embrace technology and experience English language learning on a par with urban schools. Samuel has also launched other projects to accelerate his students’ English learning, including an e-mail exchange project where they communicate in English with volunteers all over Malaysia and overseas.
Consequently, the students have improved in national standardized examinations, from a pass rate of 30% in English (2008-2012) to an average of 80% (2013-2017). These efforts have resulted in a paradigm shift of what indigenous children are considered capable of academically.
Samuel has been rewarded with the Best Teacher Award at the ASEAN-ELT Conference (2018), Best Innovative Teacher (2018, presented by the Prime Minister of Malaysia), the Star Golden Hearts Award (2019) and the National Hero Teacher Award (2019). If awarded the Global Teacher Prize, he would use the funds to upgrade the school’s musical instruments, get better tech and create more 21st-century learning classrooms. He also hopes to empower other indigenous communities in Malaysia by collaborating with like-minded teachers on his methods.