Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

How I Got an Education

Written by johnleemk on 11:39:16 am May 20, 2005.

In Malaysian schools, a strong emphasis is placed on your memorisation skills. There's a big industry in prepping students for tests through memorisation and mindless practice. These methods even work; some top scorers I know haven't even read the literature they're questioned on. But is this real education?

As most of my classmates know, my grades in school are nothing to shout about; besides the mandatory As in mathematics and English (I'd probably be on the verge of suicide if I ever got less than an A in either subject), my scores for most subjects fluctuate between Bs and As. Most of my classmates also know I never ever study for tests.

Why? Because I figured out the Malaysian system a long time ago — and realised it doesn't educate. Even in primary school, I never saw the point in memorising facts and figures I was uninterested in. I was always more concerned with obtaining answers through critical thinking, usually involving deduction based on plain common sense.

Of course, I am aware that to get a real education, you need to study. No doubt about that. But in Malaysia, there's no point in studying. Why force yourself to study and practice on a subject you despise and have no passion for? Why bother memorising facts and figures that have little bearing on the real world? In Malaysian schools, it's always about memorising details and prepping for tests. There's little to no discussion or thinking involved in any aspect of education.

A fine example is moral education. The definitions for each moral value are set in stone. If you do not memorise them word for word and miss out just one word on the final exam, your marks are gone. Often in moral tests, there is no thinking involved. There are no hard choices, even in subjective questions. Instead of focusing on how students evaluate choices and pick one, the emphasis is always placed on the final, canned answer. Who in his or her right mind would give an ethically wrong answer on a moral education test?

Instead, we should be seeing tougher questions like "You see two robbers on a motorbike snatch a woman's handbag. Suddenly, the motorbike gets a punctured tire, and one of the men falls off. The other gets off and starts to run. The woman begins hitting the thief who fell with the steering wheel lock of her car. What would you do: stop the woman from killing the thief, or chase down the other thief?" Moral education should be about handling ethical dilemmas. In real life, there are no black and white situations like when your mother gives you ten bucks to buy groceries for her and then you face the choice of spending it on groceries or an hour at the cybercafe. Yes, some of us face such situations, but anybody can see that stealing the money is wrong. It is far harder to decide whether to retrieve a handbag that could potentially be used for identity theft or save a criminal's life.

Returning the original topic, the examination-oriented education system of Malaysia has taken its toll on students' minds. Hardly any of the top scorers are interested in critical thinking. Some of them are smart, and could learn to think, but because of the "education" here, most of them never have. How examination-crazy are we? Last year, when a classmate of mine asked the history teacher who the Dutch were, her response was, "It's not going to be on the test, so you don't need to know."

Nonetheless, there's also the chance of going on information overload. One of my science teachers, for example, loves to teach us advanced biology, and test us on it. The problem is, few of us want to become doctors. Save specialisation for where it will have the most effect. But refusing to answer a general knowledge question? I'm speechless. It wasn't even that hard.

Discussion in class is also frequently taboo. I'm not talking about gossiping or chitchatting during lessons, I'm talking about actual discussion on the subject being studied. I have never come across a history teacher in all my 15 years of life that asks the class thought-provoking questions or encourages discussion of the what, when, why, where and how of the chapter being studied. Likewise with geography. I've only found one moral education teacher in my whole life who actually engages in discussion with the class and encourages the sharing of ideas.

This really bothers me, as teacher-class discussion is a real thought stimulator. Nothing can set the brain juices flowing better than a question like "What if Singapore had not seceded from Malaysia?" or "Why do we use the cartesian xy coordinate system insetad of something else?"

A bigger problem besides the examination-oriented system and boring teachers is the syllabus itself. This stymies good teachers because the answers to everything are spoonfed. In science, we don't need to do experiments because the results are in the book. In history, we don't need to infer the motives of colonialists; it's in the book. In moral education, we're not allowed to have our own individual definitions of moral values; they're set by the book. And so on.

So, as a free spirit, how do I deal with this system? The answer is, I don't. I just ignore it. I go to school and sit for the tests, but don't care about them. Instead, I study what interests me. All you really need is a primary school education and a curious mind. Then, you can school yourself in whatever interests you.

For example, even in primary school, I was exploring what interested me. I discovered I have an affinity for simulations, in particular games like SimTower and Simcity. Later, I also found out I love real history (not the fake spoonfed stuff we get in school), again through computer games; in this case, Caesar III and the Age of Empires series.

Then, through these games, I went online and searched for websites discussing them. One taught me how to hack SimTower using obscure DOS commands so I could have a jackpot of starting money. Another offered trivia on Roman history. Then, I discovered message boards.

First, I tried my hand at writing fiction; tandem stories flourished on an Age of Kings website. I soon came to the conclusion I wasn't mature enough to write a novel yet. Then I tried debating. I found it interesting; I had to practice my writing skills, and express my opinions and thoughts coherently.

At the beginning, I mostly debated religion. But slowly, my interest in it petered off; I had never been too religious in the first place, and it just didn't captivate me in the same way it does other people. Then I discovered the debating of politics and economics. This really interested me.

By the time I finished primary school, I was pretty much set for self-study. I already had a rough idea of what I liked (writing, economics, politics, computers) and experience in self-study (practically half of my whole life before I started school was spent reading my father's secondary school history and geography textbooks). So, I began to pursue my interests. I continued posting on message boards, started work on this website's coding, and checked out books from the library that I found interesting.

I was particularly fascinated by the Microsoft vs. the United States of America trial, and have read every book in the municipal library about it. (I'm an admirer of Bill Gates, but dislike Microsoft strongly.) It was a really thought-provoking issue, because I believe in a free market and reducing government intervention (especially to the level of breaking up a company), but I also knew Microsoft was becoming too strong a monopoly.

Then I discovered Wikipedia. This encyclopedia allows anybody to contribute their writings to it, in the hopes of someday creating a compendium of all human knowledge. It really inspired me, both because it has great reading material (I've learned a lot of history and politics from there) and it offers me an opportunity to write. And write I did; as of this writing, I have helped write 75% or more or 14 featured articles on Wikipedia. Three of them have been featured on the front page; one was a runner-up in a Wikipedia-wide competition.

Recently, though, I became obsessed with Malaysian politics. I have always had a lot of burning questions and issues with Malaysia and the way it is run (as well as how those buffoons in the opposition propose to "run" it), and as I began to understand more about the situation in Malaysia, the more angry and curious I became.

In 2003, my secondary school circulated a Malaysians For Peace petition asking that George W. Bush not declare war on Iraq. The problem? Signing was mandatory. No kidding, not only do they politicise schools, they make it mandatory for you to lean in one direction as well. So anyway, we all signed. I believe I was the only one who resisted, but the class monitor's ass was on the line, and since we were friends, you know, what the heck. I didn't really support the war anyway (although I know one or two who did but signed the petition).

This incident outraged me and put me on the path to strive to understand Malaysia and Malaysians. I began to borrow more books from the library on Malaysian politics, especially around the end of 2004, as it was the school holidays then. Eventually, I became so pissed, I knew what I had to do: vent my pent-up anger through this blog. And that's where we are today.

As you can see, throughout this whole saga, whatever I studied, I studied on my own, and of my own volition. I was not coerced, nor did I coerce myself to study any particular subjects. I read whatever interested me and did whatever I liked. As long as you are doing something, you are learning something, and that is what matters. Even if you're learning something that doesn't matter (how relevant is SimTower to real life? Not all of us are going to be hired as the Apprentice anyway), you're learning about yourself, and that matters. Don't let the "education" in Malaysia get to you; get yourself a real education. (And remember, I did all this without screwing my grades over too badly.)

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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.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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