Suddenly, almost everybody with someone in school is talking about shoes. Some without anyone in school are also talking about shoes.
New Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik set the scene when he said students would be allowed to wear black shoes to school from next year.
The decision, he said, was made following complaints from parents, especially mothers, that white shoes required very frequent washing and blancoing.
I suppose most parents will be happy as they do not have to scream at their children to wash and whiten their shoes; or do it themselves. Parents who feel that getting children to wash and whiten the shoes teaches them discipline will be disappointed. Those who have maids to do all the cleaning and washing will not be bothered either way.
School children will be pleased, though. Now they can rough it up more on the field, or elsewhere, and the dirt won’t show.
I was talking to Mohaideen Mohamed, the president of the Old Edwardians Association of Malaysia about his school days. He is 78, and a grandfather. He recalls using “kapor” (chalk) to polish his white shoes every day.
“My father also made me wash my school uniform, saying it was my responsibility to care for my things.”
Mohamed Ishack, like most fathers before the 1970s, was scrupulously strict.
“I would come home hungry from school but my father would insist that I take a bath and say my prayers first before putting my hand to my meal. He would sit opposite me at the table and if even one grain of rice were to fall onto the table, I would get a whack on my head.
“He would insist that I only put on my plate what I could eat. If I was unable to eat anything that I had put on my plate, I would get another whack. So I learned not to waste food or spill food.”
Till today, Mohaideen, who is also the president of the Masjid India Taiping, takes care not to spill or waste food. He says his father’s strict methods have helped him become a disciplined person and that he cannot understand why any parent would complain about getting their children to wash their school shoes.
Some people have criticised the minister for giving importance to the colour of shoes when the most glaring problem is an education system that has failed.
Let’s cut Maszlee some slack. Why don’t we see it this way: The minister is starting his overhaul of the education system from the bottom – the shoe. Older readers would remember the Bata shoes slogan: “First to Bata, then to school”. So, let’s consider Maszlee’s move as “First the shoes, then the system.”
Remember, he told Parliament on July 18 that his ministry would form a committee to review the national education policy and that this committee would revisit the education system’s philosophy and policies.
Two important areas the minister and the committee need to revisit are discipline and inculcating a sense of brotherhood (or sisterhood) among students regardless of race and religion.
Mohaideen can tell tale upon tale about how the students of King Edward VII (primary and secondary) School were colour-blind and religion-blind in earlier days.
“Unlike today, race and religion were never barriers in student unity. You were a student and I was a student; that was all. Teachers in those days set the example by treating everyone the same.
“At King Edward’s we were all of one spirit – the Tiger spirit. The tiger is the school symbol. Till today, the Tiger spirit keeps us all together. We call ourselves Tigers. When a Malay student meets a Chinese student or an Indian student, he only sees a fellow Tiger, not a Chinese or Indian. That’s what matters.”
To inculcate this spirit of togetherness in schools, I would suggest to the education minister that he move from shoe to “shu”.
To introduce “shu” to our schools we have to look to Confucius. Once, one of the great master’s disciples by the name of Tsu-kung asked him: “Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?”
Confucius replied: “It is perhaps the word shu: do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
Yes, the golden rule.
The minister need not worry that some fringe groups or opportunistic politicians will protest that he is trying to “Confucianise” or introduce Chinese philosophy into the mainstream education system.
Variations of the golden rule are mentioned in several verses in the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. For instance, the Prophet says: “The most righteous person is the one who consents for other people what he consents for himself, and who dislikes for them what he dislikes for himself.”
In fact, the golden rule flows through every religion and culture. Here are some examples:
“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” – Buddhism.
“This is the sum of all duties: do not do to others what will cause you pain if done to you.” – Hinduism.
“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this sums up the Law and the prophets.” – Christianity.
“I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.” – Sikhism.
“Regard your neighbour’s gain as your gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” – Taoism.
“Why should man, who has experience of the pain of injury, cause harm to other beings?”- Tirukkural (a Tamil book of wisdom).
No Malaysian will object to “shu” or the golden rule being made a mainstay of the education process and the central guide for all Malaysians.
Can I suggest that the ministry compile a list of the sayings regarding the golden rule, print it out and instruct every school in the country – national, Chinese, Tamil and international – to paste it prominently in every classroom? Also, teachers should, whenever they get the opportunity, introduce the golden rule into their lessons and their chats with students.
In addition, every teacher and student, by way of the golden rule, should be encouraged to place himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. If each one of us is willing to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we will become better persons and the nation will become more peaceful.
Do this, Mr Minister, and you will indubitably help build a more united Malaysia.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT.
The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.