I heard recently that what we see as ridiculous can often be dangerous. A simple example is of laughing at Hitler’s ridiculous Chaplinesque toothbrush moustache. After all, how could anyone take seriously someone who looks like that? But that Chaplin-parody became one of history’s worst butchers, killing millions and causing destruction and untold misery to millions of others.
So perhaps being ridiculous doesn’t always cause mirth and fun.
Malaysia, though, is full of ridiculousness. Where should we start?
The latest episode is that of a highly-regarded school in Johor Bahru arranging special tuition classes, apparently paid for by a donor, for Malay students only and going to extraordinary lengths to keep it a secret from others.
However, the organisers didn’t factor in social media, which was how the charade was uncovered. They would surely be planning now for future secret programmes to have stronger SOPs regarding participants’ use of social media, but this episode is still Ridiculous #1.
By the way, last minute cramming doesn’t work. It may get you a slightly better exam result, but you basically remain uneducated or under-educated, and the “real world” in the future won’t be kind to you.
The education minister reportedly left the matter to the state education department to handle. While that’s technically correct, it isn’t the smartest way to handle this hot political tapioca, and she also wasted the chance to look, well, ministerial at the very least.
Lessons to be learnt
In all likelihood no letter of the law or regulations were broken. But the selfish spirit of the matter, one that says ”for us to win, others must lose” is the one that stinks. That’s Ridiculous #2.
The rationale that Malay students need extra tuition because they’re weak is likely to be true, but that is just a perpetuation of race-based rather than a needs-based way of doing things in Malaysia, with nary a lesson being learnt from the years of failure.
For the perpetrators here, how many steps away are they from changing a few test marks or sharing hints or even exam questions or perhaps padding up the transcripts, all in the name of helping race and religion? When you think God is on your side, anything is possible.
How could doing such selfish things ever make the Malays strong and respected, and open up people’s hearts to the causes of the Malays and of Islam? Did God approve of using religious studies as a cover to keep it secret? Is He looking down proudly at this display of “necessary” lies? Ridiculous #3 and #4.
But back to the real issue. The real reason it is wrong, over and above the moral issues of selfishness and deceit, is that it’s never worked and will never work and it will actually make things worse for the Malays.
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen the sad spectacle of the Malays withdrawing ever deeper inwards, cloaking themselves in the warm embrace of collective insecurity while being mollycoddled by the political system they’ve built and now control.
Starting with being economically backwards under the colonialists and behind the migrant communities, especially the Chinese, we’re perhaps in a deeper hole than we’ve ever been, despite the Vellfires and the mansions and the ostentatious wealth of the favoured, and often dishonest, few.
The occasional donations for exclusive tuition cram sessions don’t hide the fact that economically we still can’t stand on our own two feet without massive help from the government.
Overpowered by insecurity
After some years of honest affirmative action in the early days, the insecurity that envelopes much of the Malay psyche has overpowered everything.
Instead of preparing us for the increasingly competitive world, the focus instead became one of shielding us from competition. It’s like saying the Olympics are too tough – let’s do Malay-only races, and also ban the Olympics!
Lots of things, from schools to the public service, became Malay-only, either in name or in fact. Some are proudly trumpeted, such as the Malays-only universities that shout Bumiputera or Islam as a cover, while others are more indirect, such as, well, almost everything else in the public sphere.
I went to such a school decades ago, one meant for the “cream” from Malay-medium primary schools. It was literally a lottery win for many of us, if you’ll pardon the non-halal reference, and I’m forever grateful and indebted to the public money that allowed me to begin my journey out of poverty.
But just because you’re top of the class in Standard 6 doesn’t mean you’ll still be top in Form 3 (for the LCE or Lower Certificate of Education exams), with some not even able to pass the next barrier, the MCE or Malaysian Certificate of Education exams at Form 5.
A failure of education
What happened to the “elites”? True, the school has produced some well known alumni, though almost all are in politics, and as far as I know none are professors at Harvard or running large foreign multinationals or winning global awards for literature or the arts. We’ll take whatever we can get, but being big in politics is not exactly a measure of excellence.
If I were to run such schools, I’d do a few things differently. First, every year the bottom 15% would leave and go back to their kampung, and a new set of students who might perhaps be late bloomers would replace them. No “wins”, such as getting into that school, are permanent, and neither should “losses” be too.
Truth be told, had this been the case, there would have been a few years when I’d be packing my bags and “balik kampung” myself. But had that been so, then so be it. I’d have learnt some powerful lessons, and who knows, in a few years I could’ve qualified to attend the school again.
Second I’d introduce some non-Malays into the school to balance the overwhelming Malay majority which has caused the school to revert to being a Malay kampung in culture and behaviour. There isn’t much that a kampung mindset and culture can teach us when preparing young minds for the modern world. If I’d wanted to retain a kampung mentality, I’d have stayed back in the kampung.
Our public education system is failing us, unless we only care about producing students to be government servants or employed by GLCs or the religious authorities, where you won’t be concerned with much of life’s realities – competition, living in a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, having to justify your economic existence (i.e. your job) day in day out.
Syiok sendiri syndrome
Instead of producing students who’re book-smart but also able to handle real life’s challenges and competition and co-exist with people different from us, we’re doing everything possible to abolish competition by creating our own alternate world where we call the shots, ignore any inconvenient facts, and declare victory whenever we feel like it.
A world where, to use familiar Malay terms, we’re “syiok sendiri” and “khayal” all the time.
It’s not a world we should be living in. That world is for people who take hallucinogenic, addictive drugs. But given that rhetoric about race and religion are also addictive drugs, many of us are actually addicts even if we didn’t realise it.
Anyway, back to my old school. As an alumnus I could’ve had my son attend this male-only boarding school. But I chose not to go for that. I’d rather my children grow up in the real world, with all its pains and fears and struggles, but also with all its charms and beauty and possibilities.
It’s ridiculous, and dangerous, and delusional to believe you can achieve excellence by running away from competition.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.