Michael Backman’s latest column – Malaysia bites back and industriously trades the insults – has a few very interesting observations from which I will quote and comment on in this article.
Education is the obvious answer. But not on school buildings, for it matters less in what children are educated than how. And how children are educated in Malaysia is a national disaster.
Learning is largely by rote. In an email to me last week, one Malaysian recalled her schooling as being in a system all about spoon-feeding, memory work and regurgitation.
Students are not encouraged to think for themselves and they become adults who swallow everything they’re told.
Even the existing system fails many. It has just emerged that in Sabah state, only 46 per cent of the students who had sat the UPSR — the exam that students sit before going to secondary school — had passed. One small school actually had a 100 per cent failure rate.
But does the Malaysian Government want creative, critical thinkers? Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said to the ruling party’s recent general assembly Malaysia needed to make students creative. But that means they must be questioning and thus critical; what hope is there of that when one of Abdullah’s own ministers tells Malaysians that they cannot say the things that I can and hundreds of them write to me to complain because they don’t feel that they can complain to their own Government?
The subject of creative students is something that I hold very closely to my heart. The reason for this is that I’ve seen this from two perspectives – both as somewhat a “rebel” student and as a “rebel” academician.
One of the biggest problems I used to face as a Malaysian student, was the fact that the Malaysian education system just didn’t fit my inquisitive nature. I didn’t want to just know the facts, I wanted to know why and how. I clearly remember a biology teacher who thought me in form five. The name escapes me, but I clearly remember she coming in one day and telling the whole class that just because we were boys, she would skip a whole biology chapter on the human reproductive system. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, but “You are boys, you should know. And if you don’t, just memorize it”. Then there were the many History teachers who said that the only way to get a good grade in History is the memorize the whole damn book. The whole rot learning didn’t really stop once I left the secondary school system. In University there were some lecturers who refused to see that it was their responsibility to not only make their subjects interesting but also relevant to modern times. I was dying and craving for a lecturer to push me to the limits but not telling me everything. I wanted them to open the window of the world to me, and let me explore the rest.
I think what surprised some students was the fact that I was willing to make mistakes. For one, I was extremely involved in the debating society. There were semesters where I used to spend more time debating than actually studying. But I always made it a point to attend all lectures where the lecturer was good, and where I knew I was deriving value from. The risk from concentrating on debates was the fact that if I wasn’t getting value out of it I would never hear the end of the “I-told-you-that-you-should-have-concentrated-on-your-studies” comments. While this to a certain extent worried my parents, I must say, the moment that summarised it all was when my dad told me that he was glad I did the whole debate thing once I started working. And it must be said, that I will always be thankful to the coach Praba Ganesan for the tireless afternoons and evenings he used to spend with us.
As a rebel academician, I used to find creative ways to push my kids. I used to derive great satisfaction from the fact that I used to have classes packed with students although I was the only lecturer teaching that subject with an 8 a.m. class. My reviews were great because I always believed in
- Making my classes real and relevant, often with real world examples that the kids could relate to
- Encouraging kids to question and challenge me
- Rewarding enthuthiasm
One class that I had hoped would teach the students not to follow whatever I thought blindly was to go into a class and teach the kids the wrong thing. I wanted to see how many students would pick up that I was going down the right path and that my reasoning, while sounding correct, would make no mathematical sense if you thought about it. I was a little disappointed that nobody pointed out immediately, but followed it through by scolding the class for not responding. What was interesting was that one kid came up to me later and said she knew I was wrong, but didn’t have the nerve to tell me so because the teacher is always right. And this is where Malaysian society must change. We must change because we must learn to question. The teacher is not always right.
Which is why I value the debate that hardliner Mohd Elfie Niesham Juferi a.k.a MENJ creates when he questions some of my previous writings. Mohd Elfie asks non-muslims to keep views to themselves, quoting that religion must be left to the experts and nobody else may question religion. Enter Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Dr Mohd Asri, the new Perlis mufti, argues that religious leaders can be challenged and that they must allow free debate to occur. Said Dr Mohd Asri
“The Quran often says ‘Bring forth your arguments if you are indeed truthful,’ and ‘summon your witnesses other than Allah if you are indeed truthful’,” said Asri.
He contrasted this with the strong, often angry, responses of Muslims towards any questioning of their religion.
“They are always reacting and asking, ‘What actions are we taking? This is deviant! This has gone astray!’ and so on… Whatever view does not concur with theirs, they go amok instead of presenting arguments, reasons and evidence and answering intellectually,” said Asri.
The ability to respond appropriately and effectively to the challenges the ummah (Muslim community) is faced with, ideological or otherwise, is itself the biggest challenge, said Asri.
“The biggest problem is the state of the ummah’s present sense of self,” he said.
An idea, once introduced, may be only temporarily silenced by force, but it cannot be killed off except by an idea more powerful than the first, Asri said.
“That idea will live on in the minds and thoughts of people. If we want to do away with an idea or understanding, it is not by the use of force. It is by bringing in more powerful arguments,” he added.
The phrase “It is by bringing in more powerful arguments” keeps ringing in my ears. Which is why initiatives that aim to silence groups like the Article 11 coalition through mob justice will never work. To a certain extent Dr Asri is among the few leaders who are slowly begining to realise that you cannot tell people to accept something just because you are old, sport a long beard and because you demand it. And Malaysia must learn to accept that just because Mohd Elfie’s view is different that he is not any lesser. He’s a valuable player in the Malaysian space for greater freedom of speech and debate.
But why do we need creative thinkers?
Simple, because in a flat, globalised world like ours today, if we do not empower our people we’re going to lose out to countries like India and China who are willing to do so. And even if they are not, with a population of one billion people, even a tiny fraction of 1 % will result in more smart and creative people than the population of urban Malaysia.
For that we must empower our kids with English, and we must make sure that these kids are trained from young that they must be inquisitive and creative. Learning, not studying, must be emphasied with everybody. We can close an eye on our declining education standards and keep churning out degrees, but the open markets will correct itself. Companies will not hire idiots who come waltzing in with degrees. A degree today is worth no more than an SPM certificate, unless you make it worth it.
Corporations are coming up with new and creative ways to attract talent. The talent wars are on. The only way our graduates can take advantage of they recognise that they cannot rest on their laurels anymore. Learning is no longer an option anymore. The subjects that don’t matter to immature kids like Compiler Design or Mathematics, matter because they help you build foundations that you will use when designing other more complex architectures. Sure, a computer can differentiate and you never really might need to build a new C++ compiler, but understanding how things work is critical to ensuring that you offer that little bit extra to corporations. The world is self correcting, and the lack of quality will come and bite you in the back.
And if the government thinks that it can kid itself by talking about creative students and in the same breath ban students from politics, they are in for a big surprise. It’s not really about jobs anymore. Frustrated young unemployed youths, will vote with their feet and join opposition politics because they would not want the same fate to hit their children, and their children’s children. Just like the youth of Kelantan overwhelmingly voted in Barisan National in the last elections because of frustrations, the same could very well happen the government. Everybody has a breaking point and no matter how tight a lid the authorities put on students in universities, it wouldn’t matter anymore. The world is self correcting. I personally hope we reach a breaking point soon.
The effect will be mind blowing. I remember the day I first went to the polls. I voted in the opposition parties standing in my area for two reasons:
- I was frustrated with the cheating that was going on and wanted to register a protest vote. Since spoilt votes mean nothing to Malaysians, I opted for voting the opposition.
- I wanted the authorities to know that a young Indian guy will vote for PAS to make sure that we will have an opposition voice even if I believe that PAS politics are discriminatory. Even hardline Islamic parties need a voice in Parliament.
How could a perfectly rational individual like myself vote for an opposition party that effectively was striving to curtail my rights as an ordinary citizen? Simple, I saw a bigger end game. If I could force the national front to realise that this was a gamble I was willing to take, that it was possible for other people to do the same as well. I was using the fact that the government knew, through the serial number of voting ballots, that I was a non-malay, to push my agenda that we need freer elections.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that excellence is something we cannot compromise on. If we do, we’ll continue to see monkey politicians jumping up and down and labeling “foreigners” like Michael Backman everytime they are critised. Like any eco-system it is those who adapt fastest who will succeed. We bloody hell better adapt because China, India and Vietnam are sure as hell doing it!