A different kind of freedom to fight for

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I am scribbling the draft of what you are now reading on a piece of scrap paper at the back of a dark, stuffy classroom, where I teach my Form 1 students. It’s their second English Diagnostic test this year, the reason for the unusual calm that has befallen what would otherwise be a raucous group of pubescent boys and girls.

A kid comes up to me with his test paper in his hand - “ Sir, ini betul kah? ” His sentence re-arrangement attempt reads like this: “after she saw, a running cat mouse”. I don’t help him because it’s his assessment, but I try to remind him of the countless Subject-Verb Agreement lessons we’ve had over the past year.

This is but one example of the reality of the English proficiency outside our urban-middle-class- comfort-bubbles. Many of my secondary school students read at kindergarten level, and many are around eight years behind academically.

In five years, these Form 1 students will leave their school, but they won’t have the grades to qualify for university admissions or even government funded scholarships - unless some intervention is done. In 10 years, these students will add to the ever increasing number of unemployed persons in our country, giving birth to children who have a 60 percent likelihood of continuing on the same life trajectory and cycle of poverty ( 1 ).

Meanwhile, over in the cities, we, the urban and educated, are becoming increasingly paranoid with the ever rising instances of snatch thefts, assault, murder and rape. The blame game seems to shift between the police force, the government and the fashion choices of the woman on the street. But these crimes are simply symptoms of a deeper problem - the education level in our country.

It was Victor Hugo who said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”. Bodies of research point to the relationship between education and crime; in the US it was found that correctional populations (criminals) report a lower educational attainment, with an estimated 40 percent of state prison inmates having not completed high school or its equivalent, while only 18 percent of the general population failed to attain high school graduation ( 2 ).

I believe that the lack of education is our modern day enemy-of-the-state. But there is a greater problem than even the lack of a quality education: our apathy and ignorance of this problem.

A couple of days ago, a dear colleague of mine, who like me, chose to teach in a high-needs school for two years was asked, “Why are you doing what any of us can so easily do (teach)?” In her friend’s mind, a graduate from one of the top universities in the world who decided to teach Mathematics to some underprivileged children is simply wasting her talent and qualifications.

This made me ponder about how we, as the educated, urban middle-class of Malaysia perpetuate the problem that now threatens the very fabric of our society - by contributing to the misallocation of resources and talent in our country.  

Teaching taken up by society’s leftovers

There is a mismatch between what we know to be true, and how we behave towards it as far as education is concerned. We know that education is the best way forward for the advancement of our country and the development of its citizens, but we so often treat the teaching profession with contempt - relegating it to a job taken up by society’s leftovers.

We lament the state of our country’s education system, but we leave the teaching of our next generation of citizens to ‘other people’ - people who in our minds have less going on for them than us. As a result, a corporate consultancy job is deemed more desirable than that of a teacher’s. And so we get what we pay for.

This Saturday, our beloved country celebrates her 56th anniversary. There will be fireworks, grand speeches on both sides of the political spectrum, and stories of our forefathers achieving our country’s Independence told and retold through song, rhetoric and prose. We will remember once again, our national foes of old and perhaps re-enact the old battles.

But instead of killing enemies long dead, should we not turn our eyes to a very real, living problem we face?

Hence, I write to my generation this Merdeka, to possibly the most educated and equipped generation of our country’s history; to a generation who has neither seen the British and Japanese occupant, nor cowered at home for safety during that one dark May in 1969.

We have a different national duty to preserve our hard-fought Independence: and it is to teach someone, whether it be in a refugee school, a religious class, a tuition centre or in a hall of university students.

Teach, because no other endeavour develops one’s leadership and character than the endeavour to impart into, mentor, encourage, correct and guide another human being. Teach, because we have a different kind of freedom to fight for in our modern-day Malaysia - the freedom from education inequity. Teach, because nation-building begins in thousands of dark, stuffy Form 1 classrooms, just like this one.

1 Malaysia Economic Monitor: Inclusive Growth, World Bank, 2010.

2 BJS, Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1997 and 1991; BJS, Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, 1996 and 1989; BJS, Survey of Adults on Probation, 1995; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, March supplement, 1997.

ABEL CHEAH is an English teacher in Negri Sembilan and is a double-degree graduate from Monash University.

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