Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

A Tribute To My Primary School Headmistress

Written by johnleemk on 4:50:01 pm May 20, 2007.

Having reflected on the importance of leadership in education, I realise how influential my primary school headmistress was in making me who I am. It is not that she had any direct impact on me; it is that her policies and the culture she ingrained in our school made me believe that we can have something better than we have today.

Thinking back, it is very obvious that she was a leader — that she took the initiative. She was not afraid to be different, to challenge the status quo. (At assembly, she was often the only Malay teacher who did not greet students with "Assalamualaikum".)

When my brother attended the same primary school a few years later, his dyslexia and other learning problems made it hard for him to adapt to the new environment. My parents asked for an unconventional arrangement to let him be homeschooled and defer a year of schooling — and my former headmistress readily agreed, without the normal refrains of "But it's not in the rulebook" that almost any other principal would have chanted.

And looking back now, with a lot more perspective, I can really appreciate the leadership of my headmistress. I never noticed it at the time, but she truly bucked the trend in our national schools — despite the relatively poor academic performance of our school (most of which is attributable to the fact that the vast majority of students were from a squatter village), I believe during her tenure it was one of the best public schools in Malaysia.

I have condemned students of elite public schools before for not recognising that their educational experience is atypical. But I suppose my educational experience has been atypical as well.

In both secondary schools I attended, I hardly ever ran into teachers or headmistresses with the same kind of calibre and openmindedness as my primary school principal. In particular, problems of race and religion were rampant, despite having been almost unnoticeable in my primary school.

Oh, yes, it is true — my school was not different from many others in that the doa was read at assembly, the teachers greeted students with both "Assalamualaikum" and "selamat pagi", and that Quran verses were painted on the canteen wall.

But what made it stand out was the culture the school developed — a culture it inculcated in both its students and its teachers. The teachers often spoke to us about the need to develop the right budaya, but it is only now, over half a decade later, that I grasp the importance of what they were trying to convey.

The teachers at my primary school were some of the most dedicated I had ever seen. I have never come across teachers elsewhere who were so concerned about their students' progress, or so honest and hardworking when it came to teaching — and it cannot be that my school happened to accidentally gather some of the most effective teachers in the country.

At the same time, the culture of the students was also noticeably different from those in most other schools, national or Chinese. Unlike the stereotypical national school, there was hardly any immoral behaviour in our school.

Most importantly, a sense of harmony and unity was there that I have not seen in many other public school students, national or vernacular. To this day, my former classmates and I have no hang-ups about relating with each other or with other people, regardless of race. We don't stereotype other ethnic groups, and we don't shy away from looking past skin colour and befriending people based only on, as Martin Luther King put it, the "content of their character".

It cannot be a coincidence that all these traits were manifested in my school. Indeed, thinking back, there seem to have been conscious policies which caused these cultures to arise. I cannot say much about the influence of my headmistress on our teachers, but I know that our school stood out from others when it came to dealing with race.

In secondary school, I found that frequently students would be allocated to classes based at least partially on race, in order to establish some sort of equilibrium between different groups. In my primary school, you sank or swam based on your academic performance — that was the only streaming we had.

I also found out in secondary school that most schools have a policy of tokenism. For any contest or quiz, they send at least one unqualified Bumiputra student for the sake of sending a Bumiputra student. (Apparently this is often required by competition organisers.)

I never noticed such a policy in my school. In my sixth year, our delegation for the distrct maths quiz consisted of two Chinese and one Indian. As far as we were concerned, there was no discrimination in our society, no second-class treatment, and most importantly, no arbitrary segregation of different races or the nurturing of an artificial sense of superiority in one race or another.

Despite how messed up our educational system is, my primary school principal is a shining beacon in a sea of ignominy. I believe it is her and her leadership which made my school what it was — and I thank her for her extraordinary belief in doing the right thing and bucking the trend. Thank you, Datin Fatimah, for giving me an atypical educational experience, for because of it, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "You see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream things as they never were and ask, 'Why not?'"

Thank you for making me believe that our education system can be better. That it can go beyond the morass of red tape, segregation and propaganda which it is today, and that it can produce intelligent, thinking students who can build a nation of Malaysians, rather than one of Malays, Chinese, Indians and lain-lain. Thank you.

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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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