Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Reflecting on Society at a Dinner

Written by johnleemk on 3:24:28 pm Apr 14, 2007.

Today was my 17th birthday — an occasion I accordingly celebrated by being irritatingly woken up from much-needed sleep four times. The last time, it was to attend a party attended by several hundred people. Unfortunately, it was not a party in my honour.

Apparently, HELP University College was founded on April Fool's Day 1986, and so they decided to hold their "21st birthday bash" on my 17th birthday. Either way, yours truly, a humble A-Levels student at KDU College, was invited to gatecrash.

More precisely, I showed up and was seated at a table paid for by my aunt — so of course thanks goes to her for giving me a rather interesting evening. There are always interesting observations to be made about a society when you attend a large event, and this dinner was no exception.

The first thing that struck me, of course, was the emcees. At almost every social function I've attended where the main language is English, the emcees have been Indian. This night's masters of ceremonies (somehow this got shortened to MCs, and later re-expanded into the term "emcees") were naturally no exception.

Maybe it's just me, but as a Chinese, I have had it with this discrimination. I demand that the government implement a New Emcees Policy which will set quotas to ensure proportional representation of all Malaysians in the emceeing industry.

Oh, to be sure, the functions I've attended with Malay and Chinese emcees were rather dull, and weren't helped by the emcees' stiffness and poor English. But that's not the point. The point is, I have my rights, and it is discrimination to have the emcee industry monopolised by these Indians! I want my NEP!

That tongue in cheek aside, on the note of public speaking, I found the speech by HELP's co-founded and President, Paul Chan, rather interesting. The speech vacillated between portions of mind-numbing boredom, and portions of insightful wit that grabbed the audience's attention.

The thing about public speaking is that subject matters as much as style. If your subject is something boring — something everybody feels they already know, or don't need to know, then you can bet your audience will be bored out of their minds.

Not many people were paying attention when Chan mentioned something about "quality assurance", because damn it, everyone knows you think you're the finest university college around, and that you have great quality. (Otherwise, you wouldn't have lasted 21 years.)

On the other hand, people definitely were listening when he recounted anecdotes of experiences with students and teaching. People come to listen to something unique, something different — something only you can tell them. If you haven't got great flair for oratory, as many people do, you are going to have to rely more on substance — so you'd better have some compelling material to present.

This is a point apparently lost on most Malaysian educators, because as any Malaysian student can tell you, the vast majority of speeches made by educators are boring to the point of death. This holds true from primary school right through college, and probably beyond. People who can speak about something other than homilies to "good education" and "strong discipline", as Chan did for about a third of his speech, are people who will hold an audience's attention — and so HELP at least shows it might be a notch above other institutions in this regard.

Later, just as dinner was about to be served, there was a rather sudden interruption when one of the emcees announced the arrival of the guest of honour, the Deputy Tourism Minister. I've forgotten his name already, but I do remember how jarring it was — who the hell sets up these things?

Why is the Deputy Tourism Minister speaking at the 21st anniversary of a university college? Couldn't they have gotten the Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education, or someone who could at least speak on something related to education? As it was, the guy was reduced to mumbling about how foreign students come to Malaysia to study hotel management.

Making matters worse, of course, is that he just had to make a grand entrance with a kompang troupe, and a demand that the audience stand. I honestly didn't realise how fed up I am with the kind of crap pulled by our government — with its flair for flaunting the appearance of importance, while not actually doing anything important — until I blurted out, "Do we really have to stand up for this idiot?" Nobody at our table stood.

It was also painful to watch the emcees pronouncing the Deputy Minister's full name complete with title, again and again. Apparently Malaysians egoes' are so big that it is unbearably rude to refer to someone by their surname, or by "Datuk [Name]".

That aside, the entertainment was surprisingly excellent — most of the entertainers who perform at events held by colleges are duds. They certainly made up for the nightmare of a speech made by the Deputy Tourism Minister.

As I was leaving, I stumbled on a thought I found rather relevant to the theme of education. In the carpark, as we were about to leave, I began to wonder how, with all the exhaust put out by cars, we were not dying of asphyxiation. The ventilation system must be impressive, I thought, and wondered where it could be, since I didn't spy any vents in the walls of the carpark.

It later occurred to me that this same question — or anything like it in terms of curiosity about our world — probably never entered the heads of most of the night's guests. At the end of the day, even if you are among the top universities in the world — as Chan's stated goal for HELP is — even if you have the best faculty and facilities, if your students don't have this kind of curiosity, this kind of thinking, you are not going to produce world-class researchers and intellectuals.

All progress comes from people who have looked at something and wondered "Why?" A society that has a deficit of such individuals is an intellectually bankrupt society.

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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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