Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Extracurricular Activities Are Worthless in Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 1:23:50 pm Apr 2, 2007.

Worthless, that is, unless you're a member of the lucky elite who can attend a private school or top public school. Otherwise, as a general rule, the extracurricular activities you're involved in don't count for much in the big scheme of things.

You might wonder why extracurricular activities are so important in the first place. Truth be told, such activities (as rigidly defined by most schools here) aren't important at all. I remember being extremely frustrated in primary school by the activities I saw as meaningless.

Many worthwhile activities often don't fall under the umbrella of extracurricular activities as normally defined. In primary school, I was involved in public speaking, but nobody considered it an extracurricular activity because we didn't have an official public speaking club. I represented my school in a mathematics quiz, but this wasn't an activity either because it wasn't done under the auspices of the maths and science society.

The Education Ministry would have you believe that the activities most public schools have are important because your university admissions rely on them. What they don't really tell you, though, is that gaming this system is pretty easy. All you have to do is snag the right position in a few clubs, become a prefect, do some other impressive-looking but really meaningless things, and you'll satisfy the requirements for universities here.

Their points system is really farcically transparent, since they even issue report cards for involvement in extracurricular activities. As usual, these cards only take into account certain activities — and in the normal public school, these activities are the kind that don't count for much.

What is the purpose of involving yourself in extracurricular activities? It's to make you a more well-rounded individual. It's to allow you to pursue your interests. It's to help you develop real-world "soft skills" such as leadership and organisational ability. Scoring points on your report card is an incidental thing.

The sad fact is, most people join activities in secondary school not because of these things, but because they want to produce an impressive curriculum vitae for their university applications. The only exception might be sports, because most people can find at least one sport they enjoy playing, but even then, I have friends who joined a sport they're not really interested in just so they can say they represented the school at the district level.

This gaming of the system works great for university admissions in Malaysia. But it makes extracurricular activities essentially meaningless to university admissions outside the country. Countries that don't evaluate your achievements on an arbitrary points system will look at you and just think, "Well, we get thousands of applications from people who joined the committees of the Ping Pong Club, Mathematics Society, and the Red Crescent. Maybe this guy's a head prefect, but we have a hundred head prefects applying. What makes this chap so special?"

This is especially so for admissions to American universities — and even more so for the cream of American universities such as the Ivy League. You might think you're doing quite well as the head prefect of your school, editor of the school magazine, and scoring straight As for your examinations. You play the piano and you've been taking tennis classes since you were six, courtesy of your kiasu parents who hoped you could be the next Michael Chang cum Beethoven. Think you have a shot at Harvard?

Think again. Harvard will look at your application and probably piss all over it. There are literally hundreds of straight A students in Malaysia alone. There are also literally hundreds of head prefects and hundreds of school magazine editors. There are thousands of mediocre tennis players and above average piano performers. Why are you so unique? Why do you deserve to go to Harvard?

Harvard doesn't want someone who did well at the school level — especially when the average school in Malaysia is so lousy. They want someone who kicks ass at the state, national or international levels.

So what makes the extracurricular activities of a typical Malaysian public school so worthless? The simple fact that most of them are vehicles for university admission rather than vehicles for expression of actual passion. The simple fact that many teachers enjoy lording it over their students rather than serving as "teacher advisors". The simple fact that the interests of most students are curtailed in the first place by red tape and overinterfering school administrations.

After all, it's pretty damn standard for every school to have a society for each major academic subject. But what do these societies actually do? Their members simply go for meetings and almost literally bum around for an hour. Then when they finish their school career, they proudly proclaim their membership of the science society committee — as if that means anything.

Then there's the problem of teachers and bureaucrats who dare not allow any form of actual individual thought or expression. Propose a new club or society, and they take forever to approve it (assuming they do). Then they show up for meetings and glare at you if you deviate from their own approved agenda. I once toyed with the idea of forming a debating club in secondary school, but junked the plan because of this.

Even the leadership of clubs with potential is often hampered because their leaders are elected on the basis of who is the teacher's pet and/or who is the student body's pet. Candidates aren't allowed to say what they plan to do for the organisation, or what they hope to achieve. It's no wonder then that most such societies are utterly listless. Organisations where the leaders are selected on merit, such as uniformed bodies or sports clubs, are often the most active in school — and it's not hard to see why.

The cumulative effect of these stifling things is that if you have talent, you will be frustrated. You will find it almost impossible to accomplish anything meaningful at the school level, and let's not even talk about going to the national level.

It doesn't have to be this way. Every organisation I have seen with leaders who are passionate about what they do has been successful. It may not be that great in absolute terms, but it certainly does well relative to other societies in its school. The opportunities in our schools for involvement in meaningful extracurricular activities could easily be exponentially increased, if only our schools let people follow their passions.

But thanks to the straitjackets they place on students, the most talented unsurprisingly take their talents elsewhere, to schools where they will be appreciated. As a result, only elite schools can provide an extracurricular experience worth talking about — and the other schools use this as an excuse to blame their student body, and refuse to open up and allow passionate students to bloom.

There are passionate students in the average school. I know, because I was one of them. But by the time you reach the end of the road, at form five (the average school does not have sixth form, after all), there's hardly any talent left. Where did I end up? I got so frustrated that I dropped out of school altogether. Another bright classmate of mine migrated. My former secondary school classmates now in form five are all generally automatons when it comes to extracurricular activities — pursuing them for the sake of pursuing them, rather than for the sake of interest.

Even then, my school was probably atypical in that the innovative and talented students were all rich enough to find other ways of expressing their passion. The typical school probably has a number of students with the requisite talent and passion, stuck in the grind of the bureaucratic process.

Worse still, this bureaucratic process is often capable of killing passion. Just as lousy teachers destroy passion for learning, so do lousy teachers destroy a passion for public speaking, singing, Scouting, or what have you. (It should come as no surprise to everyone that the most successful organisations in any school are those where the instructors and advisors are sourced from beyond the teaching staff of the school.)

I'm quite confident that the typical person reading this probably can't relate with what I'm saying. Odds are you're the kind of person who was educated in a school that bears little resemblance to the average Malaysian public school. When you send your children to school, if you want them to pursue their passions, avoid a normal public school at all costs.

I can't say much about schools outside the Klang Valley, but at the really high end, schools like the Victoria Institute, St. John's, La Salle, and Assunta are reportedly quite good (according to one of my friends at VI, the only things that make it different from a normal school are better teachers and many more extracurricular activities). In lieu of those, schools like SMK Damansara Utama and SMK Damansara Jaya are also acceptable (although I'm only really acquainted with their Scout troops, so I can't completely vouch for them). If you have money, almost any private school will do. But at all costs, avoid the normal public school, and especially the new ones. (If it's under ten years old, I can assure you that, in teenage parlance, it sucks donkey dick in all aspects, academic or extracurricular.)

It's really sad that only the elite can afford a half-decent education in Malaysia (and by education I refer to both the academic and non-academic aspects of learning). It's especially depressing that this problem is really avoidable — all that's necessary is a bit of money (and our government is swimming in it), and a lot of willpower to shake up our stodgy education system. But until this is done, just like all other parts of a typical public school education in this country, your extracurricular activities in a normal school will be worthless.

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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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