Sunday, January 08, 2012

I've decided to start a new blog somewhere else.


Bye bye Blogspot!


Friday, December 16, 2011

Dear readers (if there are any of you left),

As you can see, this blog has been inactive for almost a year now. Unfortunately, I have been quite caught up with other projects (and my life, in general) over the past year. Initially I switched the settings of this blog to allow only me to view it, but apparently, there are still some of you out there who are interested in some of the old entries that I may have posted some time ago here. So I've reversed those settings and this blog will remain public.

However, I'd just like to announce that I will not be updating this blog any longer. I am still contemplating whether I should get off to a fresh start and set up a new one, but ultimately, that depends on whether I feel I can find the time to commit myself to writing regularly online. In any case, to those of you who still come here, however (in)frequently, I thank you for the attention and support you've given to my writings, even if you've done so in silence.

For now, feel free to check out my cartoon blog at which I update pretty regularly, where I share short snippets of my views on little things in life, told with the visual aid of a fat penguin. :)

Thank you all again!

Zhi Wei

my take on vernacular education in Malaysia.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Note: This article was written for CEKU, the United Kingdom & Eire Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC) magazine, due to be published later this month.

The debate on vernacular schools in Malaysia is often misleading, unconstructive and damaging. I say this because much discourse and opinions about vernacular schools have a dangerous tendency to suffer from oversimplification; you are either for the vernacular school, or you are for its abolition. This is little more than politicized banter – on one hand, it preaches to the choir; but on the other, it unnecessarily stirs up divisive communal frustrations. We must acknowledge that this recurring controversy is deeply-rooted in the convoluted web that is the fabric of Malaysian society – some of which our own doing, others an indirect result of British colonialism. Either way, its complexity demands greater attention and certainly, deeper analysis.

To be clear, this article will advocate no position for or against the vernacular school; rather, it aims to highlight three key issues that matter – culture, nation-building and general quality of education – and to finally assess what they mean for the vernacular school (and indeed, its counterpart: the national school) in the future of the Malaysian educational landscape.

When discussing any Malaysian affairs with ethnic undertones, we must keep in mind one key thing: as much as an idealist would like to believe otherwise, the current Malaysian society does not yet view itself as a collective; rather, we identify ourselves – both consciously and unconsciously – as distinct entities which make up a whole. As such, our perspectives on issues that affect us are often viewed through communal lenses, depending on which entity we believe we belong to and our communal upbringing. This context rings strongly for the issue of vernacular schools, which is why culture should be at the crux of any discussion regarding its condition.

In particular, the survival of the vernacular school is often strongly associated with the survival of the minorities’ culture; in this case the Chinese and Indians. Traditionalists, especially those from previous generations, are usually quick to defend the vernacular school with the idea that it represents their identity as a people. The use of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction is seen to keep the young connected to their cultural roots, and the lessons culturally enriching through history, literature and ethics, all of which are believed to be exclusive to the vernacular system. As such, an attack on the vernacular school is held to be tantamount to an attack on culture.

There are two dimensions to this association. The first one is politically and emotionally charged. Passionate defenders of the vernacular school will not hesitate to express their fears that without vernacular education, the younger generation will slowly forget their own culture and thus their identity. Coming from a national school, I can see where such fears come from: after all, when I compare myself to my peers who underwent vernacular education, they are clearly superior in their cultural awareness. The combination of passion, pride and fear creates an incredibly fragile atmosphere. It necessitates discourse that rises above the aforementioned for-and-against positioning; it calls for empathy and acknowledgement of these cultural insecurities. Put simply, taking this into account, an outright advocacy for abolition is politically unfeasible and counterproductive to the national cause, as it will exacerbate social discord.

The second dimension is more moderate and encompasses both cultural and quality concerns: some segments of the minorities associate the survival of culture with the survival of the vernacular school simply because they lack faith in the state’s ability to effectively protect (let alone execute) the education of culture through the national school system. When juxtaposed against the firmly established and time-tested machinery of the vernacular institutions, some are unconvinced that the national schools can even compete on the grounds of cultural education, let alone provide a superior option. To add further detriment, proponents of vernacular schools are quick to point out that the general quality of education in vernacular schools is simply higher, as evidenced by better results.

While traditionalists and the older generation are concerned with cultural politics, the second dimension is much more reflective of most parents today – they demand a quality, wholesome education for their children, and their children will be sent to institutions that meet that demand. The current status quo – with 90% of Chinese children and 60% of Tamil children attending vernacular schools – suggests that the vernacular school offers just that. Being a student from a national school and a firm believer in nation building, this is personally disappointing but the fact of the matter is, I have little reason to dispute the decisions of the parents.

However, the cause of national schools is all but lost. Merit must be given to national schools because they are potentially superior for nation building purposes. Nation building is a desirable goal because it lays down the appropriate social, cultural and political foundations upon which a country can effectively and efficiently utilize its resources. While the extent to which education systems can be relied upon as the state’s instrument to shape society is a debate in its own right; what is certain, though, is that education systems are a strong reinforcing agent of values and perspectives. In the pursuit of nation building, the kind of values and perspectives we should seek to reinforce in schools should be those which celebrate diversity and recognize each ethnic community’s cultural complexities and nuances. In other words, our schools should be a microcosm of the real Malaysian society.

This idea of nationhood goes beyond sentimental patriotism; from a practical standpoint, the inability of a nation’s own citizens to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of shared destiny can lead (and in Malaysia, has led) to an outflow of human capital. In the domestic economy, lack of a ‘collective’ view can be an impediment to fulfilling our full economic potential as we allow diverging communal interests to constantly act as a destabilizing force – this is becoming increasingly relevant in Malaysia.

With these values and perspectives in mind, the national school is clearly superior. Albeit all its imperfections, the main positive of the national school, as it stands, – from both a national and parental viewpoint – is that it serves as a much better platform for a child to grasp the idea of the Malaysian society; that is, the racially and culturally diverse Malaysia. If we accept that the environment is very capable of influencing the beliefs and behaviour of children, then we must accept that children who grow up in national schools are less likely to grow up in ignorance of their ethnically distinct peers. Consequently, with cross-cultural experiences, they are more likely to develop crucial skills in effectively engaging and communicating with a wider mix of people.

Based on experience of my own and my peers, this is a compelling argument which goes beyond rhetoric, especially when we look at less urbanized parts of Malaysia, where physical communal separation is relatively significant. Again, returning to the idea of schools as a reinforcing agent of values and perspectives, an arguably more ‘Malaysian’ environment is primarily absent in vernacular schools. As a result, those who come from communities with a more monolithic cultural background (a highly common phenomenon in less developed areas) and go to vernacular schools are more likely to reinforce the biased cultural lenses through which they view the world.

Drawing upon these two fundamental elements of culture and nation building, there are important practical considerations for both national and vernacular schools. As national schools are essentially under the aegis of the state, their responsibility cannot be excluded from this discussion. The first step for Malaysian politicians and educationists is cease thinking about what to do with vernacular schools; rather, they should worry more about what to do with the national schools. Even if a one-school system, presumably under national schools, is the final goal, staunch opposition is not constructive.

Instead, a market-oriented view must be adopted; in layman’s terms, since parents dictate the terms of what they demand from the education system, the state must be responsive to these demands. If the state can rise up to the challenge, then surely, on a behavioral level, parents will be incentivized to send their children to national schools. As it stands, there are two primary demands from parents: one, they want cultural education; two, they want quality education. The state must seek to incorporate effective teaching of Mandarin and Tamil alongside the national language, and perhaps even compel every student to master all three languages from a primary level. It cannot afford to attempt to relegate cultural education to the household and assume that it will be sufficient; parents are clearly sending a different signal. In fact, instead of viewing vernacular schools with hostility, the state can be proactive and see how things are done differently in vernacular schools; surely, there are valuable lessons to be learnt by the national school system.

With regards to improving the general quality of education, the state needs to go beyond the idea that more spending is better; in fact, a reconsideration of the way funds are allocated and managed is required. There are two reasons for this.

The first is political; given the delicate state of affairs and the relatively low funding for vernacular schools, pumping more money into the national schools may serve only to galvanize the convictions of proponents of vernacular schools – particularly pro-vernacular parents – that the government cares little for their respective communities. What matters is not whether these claims are real, what matters is that they exist and that they are very legitimate in the minds of pro-vernacular parents, a formidable interest group in its own right. And because of that, the ignorance of these conditions – by increasing spending on national schools while starving vernacular schools of funding – will only widen the wedge between communal and national perspectives. The state’s aim of nation building that strives for a society that is able to view Malaysia as a collective whole will fall on deaf ears if the state itself will not listen to these political fears.

The second involves the systemic problems of our national schools. The state needs to deal with a multitude of things: various incentive problems within the teaching profession, the selection and training of our teachers, national schools which don’t really seem ‘nationalized’ – the list goes on. These problems reflect much wider concerns about the implementation of our educational policies and can only be effectively elaborated in an article of its own (perhaps even that would not suffice). The truth is, many of the less traditional-minded parents would send their children to national schools – if only it would not compromise their children’s quality of education.

As for the vernacular schools, they are clearly in a better standing at the moment. Despite the little funding that they receive from the government, they continue to thrive and attract new students. This displays remarkable resilience on the part of the vernacular schools; their strengths as well as their unique educational culture are valid calls for preservation. Assuming that national schools do rise up to the occasion and eventually provide enviable standards of education, it still does not mean that vernacular schools will become an anachronism in Malaysia.

Having said that, the vernacular schools – as part of our nation’s education services – still have a responsibility in nation building as well. In the collective interest of the country, vernacular schools should detach themselves from their perceived role as the stalwarts of Chinese and Indian identity. Vernacular schools should not be on the defensive; they enjoy success and are very reputable academically – they should exploit this. To be more precise, they should thus actively pursue a wider demographic mix that is more reflective of the national population. Increasingly, more Malay parents are beginning to send their children to vernacular schools – vernacular schools should welcome this.

This strategy projects an important idea: that vernacular schools – contrary to popular belief – are not exclusive to those of a particular ethnic origin. This is important because it would represent a significant paradigm shift: no longer will vernacular schools be viewed as institutions that propagate and defend culture. Rather, they become institutions that are inclusive and offer a unique educational experience.

Ultimately, with regards to the issue of vernacular schools in Malaysia, the onus lies on the national schools (and thus the state) to prove itself as a better option to the general public. The idea of forcibly imposing one-school system under the name of nation building is out of the question, at least until the immense popularity of vernacular schools diminishes – and that is extremely unlikely. Thus, the government today has a clear ultimatum: it can either rebuild the good reputation that our national schools used to carry proudly; or, it can choose to allow that to remain as a forgotten relic of the past. For our country’s sake, I pray it does the former.

prophecy - an entry for the new year.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It is always easier to be retrospective than to look forward. Although the multitude of details from past events and experiences converge into a blur in hindsight, the life lessons that they provide become much clearer. With a little introspection, things make sense. In an almost fatalistic fashion, you are able to understand and accept where and who you are today and the reasons that got you there.

But looking forward is a completely different thing; the long term is an overwhelming idea.

I've always been big on having a plan and knowing what the bigger picture is. That has often made me a victim of carrying expectations which are too heavy for my own shoulders. When I think about things that I've planned and how they've turned out, I can conclude that almost nothing has ever worked out the way I planned it. 2010 has been a testament to that.

My first year in university was supposed to be an exciting new beginning in London: meeting new people, getting gigs, being actively involved in things. Instead, I spent the year having little motivation for anything except maybe gym sessions. I was detached from the vast social opportunities in the LSE, and even more so from my education. And then summer came. I planned to get some working experience, but that didn't work out either; instead, I spent my summer travelling and mentally getting myself out of the hole I had dug for myself in the first year.

Halfway out of that hole, I decided that a corporate internship may not be what I want for summer next year. I made up my mind to intern with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh next summer, only to realise a couple of months ago that while I had thought of everything else, I'd forgotten to consider the flight costs: I could not afford it, having spent a lot of my savings on the travels during summer. It was another blow, but fiscal responsibility is a part of my long-term goals. So I had to exercise the discipline to say no, and keep a more open open mind about opportunities that I had otherwise put out of my mind.

The icing on the cake, of course, is that, due to all the last minute hiccups, I might just end up being unemployed for yet another summer! But you never know, really, given the way my plans have (not) been working out.

Ergo, I reiterate, the long term is an overwhelming idea. Some things about me don't change; as 2011 begins, I find myself engaging in a familiar exercise. However, at the same time, so much seems so different. Looking for some sense of order amidst the big mess was, for the most part of my previous years, akin to trying to peer into the future through a massive pile of indiscernible tea leaves. Today they appear more unique. Arranged, even, albeit in a less meticulous and methodical fashion. But at all times, they exude the organic, natural richness of a sturdy, growing tree - each leaf, root and twig a distinct piece of the greater puzzle that is the future.

Maturity. Self-development. Growth. Perhaps it is this that I am going through; but I am sure there is much more to be learned, of course. As I came home to my small hometown of Batu Pahat, most of the things I knew were still there, unchanged despite having been away for almost one and a half years. I recalled a conversation with a friend, who in the midst of voicing his lack of intention to return to Malaysia, had said: "So much has changed; yet so much is still the same." I recalled this because when I returned home this winter, I felt the complete opposite way. So much was still the same, yet I saw a lot of things so differently.

In a way, I was almost grateful for the lack of change, because the time I had been away was used to be able to appreciate the greater depth that existed in my surroundings which I had previously taken for granted. Sometimes I feel that there are so many exogenous changes to our world and it compels us to exert incredible efforts at coping with it. It is almost a superficial effort, for it makes us forget to look within, to grow internally.

I welcome the new year not with excitement, but with a quiet and nervous anticipation. Experience, whatever little I have of it, has taught me that there is only so much that you can plan for. The important thing is your principles, your goals and your dreams. On a personal level, I've never felt clearer on those three things - that is not to say I have lent my current views and aspirations total legitimacy, only that my belief that they are legitimate has grown tremendously.

I feel confident enough to allow them to take root as the foundations upon which I will attempt to design my future. I have no idea ultimately what it will look like, and whether it will live up to my ideals. But I'm okay with that. That, I think, is one of the biggest things I truly learned and internalized last year, that a little perspective goes a long way. You can plan all you want, but in the end, that is the one thing you truly have control of - and it changes everything.

on being 21 and the summer.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

There's something inexplicably heavy about growing older. As children, it's common to want to quickly be done with our childhood, for it is the older who have the luxury of exercising what we see as our natural right of greater freedom, of greater control of our own lives. And as we grow older, we are slowly granted that right, only to finally and sometimes painfully understand that while that right doesn't necessarily have to be earned, its exercise requires us to shoulder the great weight of responsibility.

I turned 21 on the 4th of September earlier this month. It was a very uneventful day - most of my friends still weren't back in London yet, and my friend and housemate had fallen ver ill. Consequently, in lieu of celebration, I had to take care of him and do some household chores! So it didn't really hit me then that I had completed one of the unofficial rites of passage of growing up; I was now legally an adult. I'm not really sure what that means, but I was reminded of part of what I think it does mean last night when I met up with a good friend from college.

I need to briefly introduce her here. Meet Tian Huey, the school captain (or head girl, if you like, I just think the former sounds a lot cooler haha) in KTJ for my year and future Cambridge graduate (first class, I would bet!). TTH (one of the many abbreviations we use to call her) is a peculiar character, but in a good way - it's very hard to put a label on her and she's always been full of surprises. Apart from her tendency to burst out into a slew of lame and sometimes awkward jokes, there is a comfortingly moderate and objective air about the way she carries herself, and there were more than a few instances during my less happy times in KTJ when having her to talk to did a lot to help me gain some perspective.

The last time I met her was last year before I left for the UK, so there was a lot of catching up to do when we met up last night. Among the many random things we talked about, she started to recount stories about how I apparently used to be, and how I projected myself when I first went to KTJ.

I've been told before that on first impression, I (used to) reek of the stench of arrogance, ruthless competitiveness and intimidation. I don't think I've ever truly understood that until last night when she recounted some examples of the things I had said, things I have clearly forgotten. It was quite embarrassing to know that I had used to say those things and for awhile, I thought that I must have been a really terrible person. If I had said such unpleasant things to such a nice person like TTH, I must have unknowingly uttered and done some pretty cruel things to others as well throughout my college life.

I don't know if that was who I really was, or whether it was a facade I had constructed because I wanted to avoid seeming vulnerable, but the point is I can't imagine I was really that bad.

Thankfully, TTH says that I've changed a lot for the better since those days. I was very aware that certain things about me - such as my political beliefs - are no longer the same; some had evolved and others may have changed almost completely. But I guess as a person too, I've steadily grown and matured through a bigger transformation than I even realised. And I guess that's an integral part of growing up.

When you're younger, you have the luxury of being irresponsible, of making mistakes, but the margin for error shrinks over time. But somehow it doesn't seem that way because the wealth of experience, if employed well, should be more than sufficient to point you in the right direction.

And so now I'm 21 years old. I feel like a new phase of my life is starting very soon. The summer is pretty much over now in London, and as I look back on how I spent it, I don't think I have that many regrets, really. It didn't turn out in any way that I had planned it. Before summer started, I had this idea that I might be interning somewhere, gaining 'work experience' and meeting more people. None of those ideas translated into reality. Instead, I ended up unemployed, gained experience in housework and spent most of my time on my own, and the rest with people I already know.

When I ask friends and acquaintances who did the things I was planning to do, most of them either hated it, said it was boring, or unenthusiastically said it was alright and then, almost defensively, add that it was a 'good learning experience'. It doesn't sound exactly like the green stuff that envy is made of. But then again, perhaps this is me giving myself excuses not to regret my decision not to go back to Malaysia.

One of the pictures from my short vacation in Bath a few days ago. View more photos here.

All said and done, I think I've had a fruitful summer. I did some reading, spent time alone to do some soul-searching, wrote and travelled to quite a few places (Venice, Milan, Oxford, Istanbul and recently Bath). None of these add anything to my CV or my social network, but on a deeper, personal level, I think I've discovered a few things about myself that I otherwise wouldn't have.

So maybe this summer of quiet solitude was the perfect build-up for my 21st birthday, for being 21 means you're moving on to a new stage in your life. And that's about getting a deeper understanding of who you are, of what moves and inspires you, what makes you smile and what leaves you vulnerable. It is being able to see beyond the flesh to see the ugly flaws and yet feel completely comfortable in your own skin, because you know the story behind each scar.

And in knowing yourself and who you have become, you feel a freedom much more superior to the one that you had wished for as a child, because you realise that there really is so much life left to be lived.

Happy 21st birthday to me. :)