The Backpack: Why Every Child Deserves One

Lita Osman, CEO, Yayasan PETRONAS shares about how a simple backpack, can be an instrument to fuel greater potential and make a lasting difference.

I remember my son’s first backpack. It was a bright Minion-yellow, often filled to the brim with his favourite things, making an appearance on weekend outings as well as he lugged extra clothes, toys and snacks – and of course, school necessities in it. The backpack was retired after almost two years, but boy did it hold memories of love letters, crinkled snack and candy wrappers, spilled lunches, and so much more!

It is the one items that follows the child from home to school and sports practice, carrying all they need to get them through, day after day. Dusty and frayed at the edges, and certainly not as “bling” as a laptop, yet it was still an instrument for greater potential.

But not all children have this seemingly simple pleasure and privilege. 

Some months ago, I visited a village school where several kids turned up with books in plastic bags. For them, school backpacks had to be forgone by the need to have food on the table first by their families. 

Today, the average cost of school supplies, a pair of shoes and uniforms for each child is estimated at RM200. With a household income of less than RM3,500 a month, the burden of supporting two or three school-going children can easily make up more than an entire month’s food bills. No surprise then, that most children from the Bottom 40 per cent (B40) income group would continue wearing the same uniform across several years – even if these no longer fit. 

Unfortunately, kids are often judged by what they wear and bring to school. It’s not uncommon that the kid with tattered shoes and an undersized shirt gets bullied, shunned and left out in group projects, sports or extra-curricular activities. 

Too often, too soon, the emotional stress and academic gap grow, and they find reasons to leave the cohort of students. Sadly, what happens next is the rhetoric of where the cycle of poverty continues.

More Children At School, Staying Longer Through School
The school dropout rates in Malaysia have declined slightly from 0.34% to 0.29% between 2014 and 2017, with the Ministry of Education aiming to further reduce this, especially amongst the B40 income group where school dropout is prevalent.

One way to do this is to encourage and equip students with basic needs for back to school preparation.

The backpack may pale in comparison to a laptop as a school supply starter, but it serves as one of the needed items that can help more children stay at school and stay longer through school. 

One report points out that students from the B40 community are bright – with more than 70% of the country’s top students are from poor households. So, discounting these children from participating in school at a young age due to their family’s socio-economic status, could mean we’re missing out on a potential “Einstein”. 

Admittedly, there are those amongst us who are late bloomers, and if these children are marginalised from an early age, the country could be missing out on some of our brightest talents yet.

Rather, by corralling more students through the education process, Malaysia can have a larger labour supply, increase its productivity and reduce future economic burdens arising from social ills, including crime. 

So, this year, Yayasan PETRONAS’ will be expanding its annual Back to School programme – going further to benefit more children. 

With the help of volunteers, 21,000 children nationwide will be getting backpacks and stationery, school uniforms, socks and shoes to start another academic year. 

By giving students one less reason to stay out from school, we hope more children will be able to access education and increase their chances for a brighter future. Every child should be given a chance to pursue quality education as it presents the best route out of poverty and better their future.

These children can one day improve their lives and that of their communities, as they break away from the chains of poverty – to be effective contributors to our economy. 

Education leads to inclusive social-economic progress – this is what keeps us going – in our mission to contribute to the well-being of society. 

So, the next time you look at a backpack – remember that it can help someone alter their life course – and that, it can go a long way.