Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Tuition Wastes Time

Written by johnleemk on 11:40:39 am Feb 16, 2007.
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The widespread nature of tuition in Malaysia is a phenomenon that surprisingly has not had much critical thought given to it. People always seem to take tuition as a given, as the only way to succeed academically. When I told some people I would be taking the O Levels as a private candidate, they immediately assumed I would be taking tuition for it instead of studying.

In most societies, tuition is something you take if you are deficient in a particular subject to the point that you need assistance going beyond the scope of that available in school. It is not regarded as something that you must take by default, whether or not you can follow your school lessons.

Oddly enough, in Malaysia, it appears that both statements hold true. That is to say that tuition is taken by those who are deficient in a particular subject, and that it is something people take by default. It is far more easier to find someone who has taken tuition regularly than someone who hasn't; certainly, it is probably impossible to find someone who has never taken tuition. (I myself took tuition to catch up with Malay in primary one, and then to prepare for the PTS — which I failed — in primary three.) Even the most intelligent people I've known at least took tuition in secondary school.

It seems tuition is necessary for academic success in the Malaysian education system. (Some of my friends might point to me as a counter-example, but I was a terrible student — relative to other students of similar or slightly lesser aptitude — when I was in the local schools. My PMR results would be considered mediocre by most — 4As and 3Bs.) Some people, like my mother, think it's fit to blame obsessed parents alone for the problem.

I think the problem goes beyond them, though. Certainly, parents obsessing over grades are a major contributing factor, and it is a definite fact that the benefits of tuition are overhyped. (My sister, who is of normal ability, does well in her studies without requiring tuition, for example.) However, I think many counter-examples are simply those of people who were raised in an environment that is conducive to self-study. My family's upbringing has been described by others as quite liberal compared to most Malaysian families — we were exposed to a wide range of books, fiction and non-fiction, as children, and our parents were never the type to use discipline in an attempt to make us focus on our studies or intellectual pursuits.

I suppose you could say that the problem goes back, again, to obsessive parents, since they are the ones who determine children's upbringing. But I also think that the failure of the education system itself may have something to do with the prevalence of tuition. Our education system is really an examination system. The only purpose of going to school is to sit for a constant battery of tests and examinations.

Now, this might not be a bad thing if our examinations were any good — but they aren't. Instead of examining students for independent thought or for the ability to reason and argue critically, they just examine how many pages of the textbook you can memorise and how disciplined you are in answering canned questions. Those who can afford to buy and complete all the available workbooks on the market will almost certainly do very well in their exams — and incidentally, this is what quite a few of my friends have done.

So, why the need for tuition? If most teachers were able and well-trained, perhaps tuition would not be the booming industry that it is. However, I doubt it would not be around at all. School hours are just not long enough to prepare students for examinations which test them on how well they can trot out spoonfed answers. For the UPSR, primary six students must prepare for five to seven subjects (depending on whether they attend a national or vernacular school). For the PMR, they need to be prepared for at least seven subjects, though I think a lot of students have at least eight (there are a few electives available — Islam is mandatory for Muslims, and I think a lot of Chinese would be sitting for the Chinese elective paper). And as for the SPM? The minimum, if I'm not mistaken, is nine or ten subjects.

How can educators possibly cram all the requisite material for these subjects into the five or six hours of classes they have everyday? In Chinese schools, to prepare students for the UPSR, students are forced to attend extra classes held outside school hours. Even in my primary school, a national school, we would have one or two hours of kelas tambahan for three or four days a week in standard six. It's just not physically possible, given the constraints of an examination system that demands so much of human memory. You can't cram people's minds with so much information in such a short period of time. So, what do parents resort to when they find their children are falling behind? Tuition, naturally.

To make matters worse, although in a few fortunate schools the teachers are dedicated and able, in the vast majority, they are simply disgruntled paper-pushers. I don't blame them, since that's essentially their job — to be disgruntled and push paper. I remember how much my teachers in school would complain about having to deal with administrative issues and red tape — inputting exam scores into the computer system, for example. I always wondered how come the office clerks couldn't handle these tasks, but apparently it's government policy to make teachers work as part-time bureaucrats.

And as for being disgruntled, who wouldn't be a tad unhappy when they are forced to do a job they didn't sign up for? It's bad enough that instead of teaching, they're pushing paper, but even worse, they are sometimes made to teach subjects they are not trained to. This is especially prevalent in typical secondary schools. Teachers who hold physics degrees are teaching biology, while an information technology teacher may end up in a history class. With this kind of shit going on, it's not surprising that our education system is so dysfunctional.

Parents must thus turn to tuition to fill the void left by incompetent teachers and time constraints. The result, then, is that our children can spend as much as eight to ten hours a day not pursuing their own interests but memorising spoonfed material meant to be regurgitated for examinations. Factor in all the extra activities that a typical parent would foist on their children, like swimming and piano classes, and you end up with people who are too exhausted to do anything but sit down and watch the idiot box or play meaningless video games. Then we have the gall to wonder why we are producing cohorts of students without any drive, without any spark, without any innovative ability, without any interests beyond typical shallow pursuits!

People seem to assume that tuition has to be good for children. To take things a bit further, I would venture to say that parents assume that anything they want for their children has to be good for them. Rarely, if ever, are the opinions of the students taken into account. They go for tuition and tennis classes and swimming classes and art classes simply because they are told to — not because they want to. Perhaps parents have forgotten what it's like to be coerced into doing things you don't want to do, but I can assure you that it's not very nice.

Parents argue that these things are necessities. For tuition, I suppose that may be true — but if your child has sufficient self-discipline, I think that would obviate the need for tuition, even in this rigid rote memory-based examination system. Speaking from personal experience, succeeding in examinations, especially memory-based ones, is simply a matter of practice. If you have the discipline to practice on your own, why do you need a tutor looking over your shoulder as you work? The only reason you would need tuition is if you really don't understand the work. Otherwise, if you have any questions about a particular topic, textbooks and reference books are widely available — and it's not unlikely that you'd be able to find a teacher who could answer your questions. (They're unhappy paper-pushers, but they aren't complete idiots.) Why should you need a tutor if you have the discipline to study?

Although not directly related to tuition, I believe the extracurricular activities a lot of parents force their children into joining also are unnecessary. If children are not interested in a particular activity, they will only grudgingly participate. I know parents would like to raise the next Mozart, Beethoven, Picasso or Einstein, but tell me — do you think any of these men were forced to play the piano, paint, or think about the speed of light? Mozart may have been heavily guided and managed by his father, but he loved his work — which is a lot more than can be said about some people who only do something because their parents told them to. If parents love their children, they will leave them free to pursue their own interests.

I know this is a controversial dictum, because parents have this idea that children are undisciplined rascals who will become lepaking Mat Rempits if left to their own devices, but my line of reasoning goes like this — if children are free to discover their own interests, they will be able to better realise their own potential. Even if, let's say, I could be a brilliant mathematician but a second-rate writer, I doubt I would be able to ever realise my potential as a mathematician if I hated doing maths. I could force myself to do it, but being in a negative state of mind about your work only encourages burnout. I might not be so successful if I took up writing instead, but I'd probably be happier, and I'd probably be able to be the best writer I could possibly be. It may seem like a waste of talent, but just ask yourself — could my mathematical talent be applied and have its full potential realised if I didn't want to do mathematics? Having to choose between being unhappy and a second-rate mathematician, or happy and a second-rate writer, and I know what I'd want to do.

Our youth are often maligned for their malaise and apathy, but I think that they would probably be a lot less inclined to the lepak culture if they were free from tuition and all these nonsensical activities they aren't interested in. There will always be some inclination amongst the young towards time-wasting activities like video games. The question is whether they will have any time left over for meaningful activities. When children are shipped off to tuition and music classes and the like, where will they ever have the time to find out what they want to do and who they want to be?

Being free from tuition, etc. during my school days, I had a lot of free time. A substantial amount went into trivial pursuits like video gaming, of course, but I also had a lot of time to think and reflect and explore new opportunities for spending my time. The result is, just to name a few examples, several featured articles on Wikipedia, a draft book on the Malaysian education system, and, of course, this site itself. I would never have had the time to realise I enjoyed doing this things, let alone actually the time to pursue them, if I were constantly busied by tuition and harried by unwanted activities. At the end of a long day, the last thing I'd want to do is log on to Wikipedia or program a new web application — I'd load up a first-person shooter and expend my frustrations on shooting animated men.

You might argue that I'm the exception, perhaps because I'm just too much of a smartass. But the rest of my family was brought up with a similar amount of freedom. We all waste our time on meaningless things, but we also spend a bit of time on more worthwhile activities. Instead of going to tuition, my sister has the time to watch Japanese anime, play with our cats, and still go for Chinese language classes, piano classes, art classes, etc. — and not because our parents forced her to, but because she asked them if she could go. When children have the time to explore what they want to be, you'd be surprised at the things they can accomplish with their time. (Oh yeah, and for the record, my sister isn't doing badly in school either — she's not a top scorer, but she's certainly near the top of the heap.)

If you want a larger sample, I'd refer you to a serious Scout troop. Speaking from personal experience, Scouts are often given a lot of freedom and autonomy by Scoutmasters. The Scoutmasters often see themselves as facilitators and advisors, not as bosses. The result is that Scouts often have a lot of freedom to run things. It is not the Scoutmasters who set the agenda, but the troop's leaders (who thus actually heva something meaningful to do, unlike the puppet leaders who run the typical uniformed body). You might think that this would result in choas, or at least serious underactivity, since the Scouts could choose to slack off. But instead, they work harder, because they are doing something they love. I have rarely seen the passion and dedication demonstrated by Scouts in other uniformed bodies such as the Cadet Corps, and I think this has something to do with the decentralised hierarchy and structured freedom to be found in the Scouts.

The deleterious effects of tuition, etc. hopefully being clear, I don't expect tuition to wither away any time soon. It's not going to happen, given the terrible education system in this country. Tuition is a necessity for almost anyone in a rote memory-based education system (or, at least, for anyone who wants to score straight As — even if those As are practically meaningless since anyone can score them, given enough work and discipline). I would like to see some real change and revamping of our education system, because it's one thing to churn out straight A students and first-class graduates. It's another to churn out Nobel Prize-winning physicists and poet laureates.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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