Kasihan bapak ibu

by Khoo Choon Yen

It’s high time we stop labelling migrants’ children as ‘failures’ when they drop out of school.

Nisa’s father works in Brunei as a construction worker. In between scaffolding the yet-formed shapes of buildings in Brunei, he has also spent years using his remittances to build Nisa’s dreams of becoming a nurse.

Nisa is one of many children in Ponorogo, Indonesia, who is able to afford higher education in a private vocational school because of her father’s labour migration. As in Nisa’s case, parents’ remittances in Ponorogo are often directed towards financing higher education for their children – this is one of the key reasons why parents make the emotionally difficult decision to leave their young children behind to work overseas.

Nisa is in a nursing course at a private vocational school in Indonesia.

However, the route to upward social mobility can be a circuitous one, and may, in turn, lead migrants’ children far from home. Nisa’s private vocational school prepares their students to learn new languages on top of obtaining professional healthcare diplomas in order to ease their graduates through the school-to-work transition, where overseas skilled labour migration becomes a possible pathway forward. If children like Nisa migrate overseas for work in order to continue building the rainbow for the family, they will be doing so as skilled labour migrants.

Against the backdrop of a heavily-criticised Domestic Worker Roadmap, there is a general desire amongst people in Ponorogo for the Indonesian government to seriously consider the positive impacts of labour outmigration and to develop policies sensitive to the aspirations of poorer households, who rely on labour migration as a pathway towards attaining the good life for themselves and their families.

On the flip side, while we often celebrate the achievements of migrant families who are able to reap the benefits of productive investments in their children’s education, there is also a tendency to characterise some migrants as having ‘failed’. Many parents migrate because they want to fund their children’s education. Yet when their children decide to drop out of school (often after graduating from junior high school), both the migrant parent(s) and child(ren) are seen as ‘failures’.

Nisa takes her brother’s blood pressure as practice.

These cases buttress cautionary tales of the negative effects of parental migration where children ‘lack supervision’. As one mother in our latest research project recounts, “I worked so hard overseas so my child could have education. When he did not want to study anymore, I thought, what for should I continue my migration? … So I came back.”

The idea of ‘failure’ often features in the local community’s perspectives of these youth school dropouts. Their parents are seen as ‘failures’ because migration did not yield positive investments in educational attainment; their parents have ‘failed’ in providing quality care to their left-behind children; young people have also ‘failed’ their parents for not wanting to attend school anymore because they are ‘lazy’ or ‘immature’, traits associated with the lack of parental supervision.

Yet such negative labelling (‘failure’ and ‘lazy’) do not accurately reflect the realities of these households. Young people often pity their aged parents (kasihan bapak ibu) who are toiling overseas to fund their education. As they pine for their parents’ return, over time as they become older they feel the desire to reduce their parents’ financial burden.

Hence many youths from poorer households are keen to (or have decided to) stop schooling – often ‘for the time being’ (but it remains unclear how many of them return to school eventually) – and start working so that they can share the breadwinning responsibilities with their aged parents. Nisa is contemplating working immediately after obtaining her nursing diploma (instead of going to university) as her father is getting old too.

Nisa contemplates working instead of pursuing higher studies in order to support her ageing parents.

Instead of casting these youths and their migrant parents/households in a negative light, we – together with the Indonesian government and local communities – should ask how poorer households can be supported to work towards their aspirations across generations. Today in Indonesia, one in six persons is between the ages 15 – 24 years old. As the then-Minister for Youth and Sports His Excellency Roy Suryo Notodiprodjo said, the ‘youth bulge… represents a surge in the potential for social and economic benefit – but we must ensure that this potential is leveraged wisely’.

For a start, children from poorer (migrant) households can be encouraged to remain in school so that they can be better educated and skilled. One way to do this is to expand and increase the accessibility of current government assistance such as the Indonesia Smart Card (Kartu Indonesia Pintar), so that children from poor households do not feel that they are adding onto their parents’ financial burdens by continuing their educational pursuits. Hopefully, like Nisa, these children can then obtain useful skills and knowledge, and become competent workers and/or skilled migrants who will give themselves and their families better lives in the long term.

We are currently going on school tours to screen a film titled ‘Small Town, Big Dreams’ (Mimpi Anak Desa), which features Nisa’s tale as well as the stories of youth aspirations in migrant-sending villages in Indonesia, together with two other migrant work-centered films commissioned by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. Please write to our Communications Officer, Kellynn Wee (kellynn.wee@nus.edu.sg) if you are keen to screen the film(s) in your school for your students. A public release is scheduled at the end of the year.

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