Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Extracurricular Activities and Subpar Academic Performance

Written by johnleemk on 11:00:57 pm Apr 5, 2007.
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I've suggested that Extracurricular Activities Are Worthless in Malaysia, but of course there will be those who don't agree. joshvinder is one of them:

I don't totally agree with you. Your points seem to be biased and one-sided. No offence, but you are actually only the 'average' student in a national school who don't get chosen for prominent extra curicular activities, and get mediocre results. School does not suck, It's probably your mentality that made your school life suck. I'm not sure about the year you took PMR, but based on your results, 4A's and 3B's is definitly below average. I have seen below average friends in my class who, after putting in considerable amount of effort getting 5A- 8A's easily. As you said, the A-mark is low, but you did not even get all that cheap A's. Your articles could only be more credible if you are the top-performer in National Public School, and then you find your A's worthless in the real world.

Perhaps my pessimism makes me sound like an under-achiever, but in my secondary school, I wasn't exactly "average" when it came to extracurricular activities. I was Assistant Troop Leader of my school's junior Scout troop, and when I stepped down in form 3 (retirement is mandatory in examination years), I became Patrol Leader of the Semi-Senior patrol. I helped design my school's website, and on the few opportunities I've had for public speaking (mainly at assemblies during Science Week or crap like that), I like to think I impressed. (I certainly made a lot of people laugh...and hopefully with me, not at me.)

The trouble is, these are basically all the opportunities you have in a typical secondary school. If you are interested and talented, you quickly run into a solid wall of bureaucracy and uninterested teachers. My school's Scout troop is presently a shadow of its former self because the school banned troop meetings on weekends and also effectively kicked out the Scoutmasters at the same time, simply because the teacher's union would complain if our teacher adviser had to come on weekends.

As I've alluded to before, I once toyed with ideas for new clubs and societies in my school, but rejected them because I knew it would be impossible to run them with the constant interference of the school administration. Teachers often resemble bureaucrats more than educators when it comes to extracurricular activities; those societies with minimal teacher involvement are also the most active.

I remember being hectored and heckled by some other Malaysians before for using the internet as an outlet for my thoughts and frustrations. "Why not stage a play?" they asked. I'm not willing to rule out the possibility that I've just had tremendous bad luck, but I can't imagine either of the two secondary schools I attended approving of staging a play — especially one critical of the traditional education system. Even if they didn't actively disapprove of it, their passiveness in approving such ideas would all but kill it.

Most Malaysians who are educated and well off enough to surf the web and read boring websites such as this probably don't understand or relate with these problems because their education was, well, atypical. More likely than not, the kind of people who read what I write were educated in an elite public school, or at least one that is clearly above the median, such as SMK Damansara Jaya. (And even then, as one alumni of SMKDJ remarked to me, "In DJ, I had a number of good teachers. But in America I've met far more great teachers.")

It's possible that my understanding of the extracurricular experience is skewed by the fact that I've attended new schools. It's possible that with time and age, they will achieve a standard similar to that of better schools. But I doubt this. My national primary school was newly opened when I began attending it, but things have only gone downhill since I left in 2002. I have not seen much, if any, improvement in either of the public secondary schools I've attended.

joshvinder suggests that it's my mentality that made school suck. Well, of course my mentality contributed to my unhealthy experience — that's the logical conclusion, and I'm not going to deny it. But why did I have such a mentality in the first place?

In the first place, I suppose it's difficult to get excited about memorising arcane dates and dry historical events. I suppose it's difficult to be "rajin" and memorise the arbitrary definition of "kerajinan". I suppose it's difficult to get the right mindset about memorising which states have what natural resources, and what's the name of the longest river in Malaysia.

And I think not many people would be interested in science when in contradiction of their textbook, their teacher tells them "red blood cells prevent from sick", the first thing their biology teacher tells them is "I have a degree in physics", and they are marked down for suggesting that one adaptive quality of polar bears is their thick fur simply because this isn't mentioned in the text.

I'm sure there are people whose minds can get excited about these sort of things. But I'm not one of them. Of course I got 4As and 3Bs for the PMR, and of course I know it's a less than average result, relative to my classmates and my academic potential. Still, actually it is rather above average in absolute terms, considering that in most non-elite schools, e.g. all the public national schools I've attended, the second-rate classes and below regularly fail at least one subject — yet another indicator that it's probably joshvinder who has the skewed perspective, since only in elite schools is my better than average result less than average.

In the first place, why should I have put more effort into working within such a flawed and, pardon my crudeness, fucked up system? It's almost certain I could have scored straight As if, like my classmates who did get such results, I bought and completed every workbook on the market and memorised all the meaningless data we are supposed to "learn".

But in the first place, what is the point of this? You tell me — is this a real education? What do I learn by memorising the percentage of blood that is plasma, or by memorising the definition of 32 arbitrary moral values? Why should I "study" these things when it's plainly obvious that "learning" them would have no relevance to an actual education?

As for credibility, here's a thought experiment I love encouraging people to do. Imagine I've been lying to you all this while. In reality, I stayed in school through form six, consistently scoring straight As. Then I graduated with first class honours from Universiti Malaya. Everything I've been saying all this while is still the same. Is what I'm saying any more or less true, simply because of my credentials (or lack of them)?

I don't need to put myself up as an example. The examples are everywhere — how many straight A scorers have distinguished themselves by gaining entrance to the Ivy League universities or Oxbridge? How many of our present day leaders in the government and corporate sectors were distinguished students with 4.0 GPAs in their day?

The fact is, the failures of our education system in both the academic and extracurricular spheres are there for everyone to see. And the most depressing thing is that these failures are wholly unnecessary, because with the few dozen billion or so ringgit the government earns every year from Petronas alone, we could probably train and pay thousands of brilliant teachers, and revamp our education system. The only thing lacking is the will to change things — and although of course governmental incompetence is always a reason, I suspect that one cause of this lack of will is that most of our leaders themselves hail from elite schools, and thus know nothing about the realities of education in a typical Malaysian public school.


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