Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nine Years, Five Schools, One Broken Education System

Written by johnleemk on 11:04:31 pm Dec 26, 2008.
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I have joined the MP for Petaling Jaya Utara, Tony Pua, and political scientist Ong Kian Ming in blogging at Education in Malaysia. From time to time, I will archive postings of interest on this website, but I encourage you to follow the Education in Malaysia blog as well for all of my postings there, and also the thoughts of Tony and Kian Ming. The following is my first post, introducing myself to the readers of Education in Malaysia. A belated Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Thanks for the introduction, Kian Ming! I think a lot of you might have stumbled across my personal website, Infernal Ramblings in the past, or perhaps read one of the weekly columns I write for The Malaysian Insider. Although I am of course interested in political affairs, I would just like to emphasise that I remain politically unaffiliated, and that I think a vigorous debate about education in Malaysia should be encouraged, because fewer things can be more important than the future of our country and our people. For my first post, I thought I would introduce my educational background and give you a better idea of where I am coming from, and why I care so much about education.

My parents are both graduate degree-holders, and actually met when they were pursuing their Masters degrees. I was born in Japan while my dad finished his post-doctoral work, and then moved to Singapore, where my father taught at Nanyang Technological University for about six years; two of my siblings were born there. My family moved back to Malaysia when I was six, just before the economic crisis. In 1997, I started primary school at SRJK(C) Damansara, and my youngest sister was born.

Damansara was where my love-hate affair with education probably began. I had not attended kindergarten, so I was probably less prepared than many of my peers for primary school, especially in a Chinese-medium setting. I had been a prolific reader as a child, and had actually read some of my father's old secondary school textbooks by the time I was seven, so it was not for a lack of smarts that I had a hard time. I think I found it difficult to cope with the adjustment, and the new languages - Malay and Chinese - I was being exposed to.

So, halfway through the school year, my parents transferred me to Sekolah Sri Kuala Lumpur, a private school in Subang Jaya. I was not happy there either. Although I did well in my classes, I was picked on by my classmates, and spent most of my free time reading books I borrowed from the well-stocked school library; I would borrow a book during the first recess period, read it between classes, and return it and borrow another during lunch period. Two of my clearest memories from this time are the librarian's frequent shock that I could read books so quickly, and how happy I was every time we had library period on Thursdays. I also remember my intense exposure to Malay during this time - the school enforced a strict policy of speaking in Malay during classes, and so I was forced to pick up the language quickly. Ultimately, because I could not relate well with my mainly upper-class and expatriate classmates, and because my parents could not afford the tuition, I transferred again to a public school, SK Bandar Utama Damansara, at the end of primary two.

Of all the schools I have attended, I can confidently say that SKBUD was the best, without question. I made some of the best friends of my life there, and enjoyed the attention from some of the most dedicated teachers I have ever encountered. The headmistress, Datin Fatimah, ran the school with what some might call an iron fist. Unlike many other SKs, the student body was by and large disciplined, and the school made an effort to treat all students fairly, regardless of race.

I was rather surprised when I left the school and found that other schools stream students into classes based not only on academic performance but also race, and that all delegations for interschool competitions had to be "racially balanced"; in SKBUD, you sunk or swam based on your performance, and nothing else. Our school was never the best on any objective scale; most of our students came from poor families and it was considered a stunning success if more than two classes in any year had a 100% pass rate for all subjects. But looking back, I can easily say that my formative years in SKBUD are what made me the idealist I am today about education, and what made me believe that we can do so much more for our students.

I began my secondary schooling in SMK Tropicana. The Tropicana student body was an odd one; I think there were few students from middle class backgrounds. Most students were either from the low-income Kampung Cempaka, or the very high-income suburbs surrounding the school. The teachers, although very nice people, did not always seem dedicated. A lot of them often seemed to be unavailable because of training, and there was a high turnover rate, with teachers frequently joining and leaving the faculty. The main bright spot of my time at Tropicana was my involvement in scouting; I joined the scout troop there, and enjoyed it thoroughly. But ultimately, my parents transferred me yet again; the roads leading to the school were poorly planned and constantly jammed at rush hour; it was just too stressful to drive me to and from school.

The last school I attended, and the one I am most attached to after SKBUD, was SMK Bandar Utama (3). Unfortunately, it made a rather opposite effect on my perception of education: if SKBUD made me see the promise education holds, SMKBU3 made me see how terrible a school system can be if things do not go the right way. The teachers - again, all really nice people - often seemed uninterested in students and more interested in doing whatever suited them. Teachers often only went through the motions of teaching classes, and I think most of us who understood what was going on only did so because we learned from tuition or the textbooks. More than one teacher remarked to us that they were hardly needed since most of us just went to tuition classes anyway. While I had some good teachers - Puan Rozita made moral education, one of the most stupid and worthless subjects ever, worth our time - I had a lot of horrid ones too. One science teacher marked me down as wrong for citing the white fur of polar bears as an example of adaptation, because it was not the answer given in the book. She left the school soon after, and the temporary teacher who replaced her marked me down for describing white blood cells as part of the immune system, because in her words, "red blood cells protect from sick."

My time at SMKBU3 was also marked by a lot of harebrained schemes that can only be described as petty corruption. The school attempted to force all students into taking additional tuition classes and computer classes, and duly charged parents for this. Only official school tracksuits, socks and labcoats could be worn - again, parents were charged for the privilege, at prices much higher than those outside. The year after I left the school, a minor scandal erupted when some teachers attempted to appropriate funds raised for a charity. Of course, the teachers didn't just abuse parents and charities; students got their share too. That same year, a student hit his head against a pole while playing football after school hours; the impact was such that you could actually see the bone of his skull. Although teachers were still on campus, for some reason (possibly legal issues) they refused to take him to the hospital; a student ended up driving him instead.

To top it all off, I have to say that SMKBU3 was one of the most racially polarised schools I have ever seen. The Chinese-dominated administration and faculty often emphasised Chinese interests and issues; the student body followed suit. My classmates who had attended other SKs for primary school, who were and are not some of the most openminded people in the world, even remarked on how racist many of our Chinese-educated classmates seemed, and often made an effort to distance themselves from them. I did not encounter this when I was in Tropicana, not to the same extent; some of my best friends when I was in form one there had been Chinese-educated, and no such barriers seemed to exist. Meanwhile at SMKBU3, those from other racial backgrounds retaliated; one Malay teacher infamously told her students that non-Malays were hopelessly disloyal and could never be trusted to defend the country. As far as I know, she was never disciplined and the incident was hushed up, because we never heard of the matter again.

Now, these were all reasons why I decided to drop out of school rather than transfer yet again, but the main impetus, really, was this: I had had enough of the system. We hear a lot of complaints about rote learning in our schools; about incompetent or lazy teachers; about racial polarisation; about the lack of emphasis on extracurriculars; about how exam-oriented our schools are; so on and so forth. These are all problems with the system; I do not blame my teachers for the way they have acted because as far as I am concerned, they are products of a school system that does not respect them either. (I always thought it was ridiculous that besides teaching, teachers have to worry about filling out menial paperwork and angry parents, all for an insanely low salary; of course they would rather devote their time to creating other streams of income and avoiding work as much as possible.) I could have transferred to a less horrid school, but to what end? I might have marginally better teachers, possibly more active extracurricular groups to join, but I would be working from the same syllabus and curriculum from within the same system - a system that I saw and still see as horribly broken.

When I was in form three, I decided I wanted out. I did not know where to begin in getting out, though, and neither did my parents. My father knew, however, that American universities rely on the SAT to gauge the abilities of prospective entrants; he suggested I take it. When the results came back, I was near the top percentile in every category. So, we began to look around, and asked local colleges what it would take to accept me for a diploma or pre-university program of some sort; all required the SPM or equivalent. The equivalent, then, was the GCE O-levels. I took seven subjects for my O-levels, and studied by myself for the next four or five months, sitting for the O-levels around the same times as my PMR.

After I got my results back, I registered for the A-levels at KDU College. My experience at KDU was something altogether different, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As a college student, you have a lot more freedom and independence than you would ever have in form six or secondary school. My lecturers were dedicated and friendly with their students, and although I do have some complaints (I would not recommend KDU as your ideal option), it was a breath of fresh air after all those years in the school system. I finished my A-levels almost two years ago, and left shortly afterwards for Dartmouth College, where I am presently majoring in economics.

There is fortunately not a lot to say about my university life so far, except that I am enjoying it, and that I enjoy the greater freedom the American liberal arts philosophy gives to students. I have taken classes in English, Chinese (my Chinese has a rather pronounced Beijing accent as a result), history, and political science; I even have the option of majoring in any of these subjects, if I really want to. Dartmouth has provided me with financial aid allowing me to attend even though my family cannot afford the high tuition fees and other living costs. This is why I am a strong advocate of American education for anyone interested in pursuing their studies overseas; I think it is something not enough Malaysians consider as a choice.

So, now that we've come to the end of my life story (as far as education is concerned), I hope you have a better idea of why it is I think the way that I do. A lot of the things I have written about education on my own website and in my column for the Malaysian Insider have proven controversial, and that is because I am coming from a rather controversial and unique background. I have explored almost every kind of education possible; I have been to a Chinese school, a private school, an SK, two SMKs, and I have even been homeschooled if you count those four months I spent teaching myself for the O-levels. I have had friends who went to Chinese independent schools, missionary schools, and MRSMs. I believe any and all of these paths are viable ones to take, but at the same time, through my experiences and those of others, I have also found that they all have their imperfections and deep flaws.

My hope is that through dialogue and debate, especially on this blog, we can delve further into the successes and failures of the different educational streams and choices in this country; that we can figure out how to fix what is rotten and retain what is excellent. I believe that at a very fundamental level, our national public school system is failing our students, and that there are ways to fix it; I also believe that at a very fundamental level, many of our alternatives to the public school system have been succeeding, and that there are ways to learn from them in rehabilitating and repairing our public school system.

My future posts will usually not be this long, but I hope you've been able to bear with my recounting of the experiences which have shaped how I see our education system today. Although you and I may (indeed, probably) disagree about the best way to reform our school system, I look forward to having a productive dialogue about the successes and failures of the different streams of education in our country, and how to learn from them.


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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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