It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, wrote Dickens in his Tale of Two Cities. Somehow, the phrase seems apt in this tale of two schools.
IT looks like a million bucks. Well, 4.7 million bucks to be precise.
The sprawling grey-and-cream concrete and glass building is pretty impressive. And imposing stairs lead to the upper floor where a breathtaking conference centre yawns – large enough to host maybe a 1,000- strong party.
It could be a major hotel. It’s not. It’s a school. A Tamil primary school.
Welcome to the Midland Tamil School in Shah Alam.
It’s almost one of a kind. The high-roofed classrooms are cool, and the office and conference centre are state-of-the-art. It’s nothing like any of the schools nearby.
And the spanking new college-like buildings dwarf the two rows of ugly, single-storey buildings that once housed the school.
The school administration staff are still working in those buildings – but they can’t wait for the day they move into the new buildings.
“We have worked in very difficult conditions – hot, stuffy and cramped. So, it will be great when we move,” said one employee.
The teachers are even happier. They have already moved.
“We rushed over to the new block the first chance we could,” said a teacher. “This is the fourth or fifth site that the school has moved to. And all were bad. Now, at last, we have a school that we can be proud of. The children have a lot of space,” she beamed.
They will have more when the two old buildings are replaced with a field.
Things just could not be better.
Or could they?
Like in so many things Malaysian, the politicians are in play and, as usual, they are not happy.
Some claim that the land on which the school stands, given by the state government, is only a fraction of the cost of the land originally allocated to the school.
That piece of real estate, they say, lies across the road, and is worth much more. The state, they claim, sold the land for a huge profit and gave the school the new land and a grant of RM3mil – the school had to raise the other RM1.7mil – to erect their building.
And they want to know where all that excess money from the land sale went.
It’s an all-too-familiar story.
Another Tamil school also has been in the news over a purported land grab.
The Effingham Tamil school lies not too far away, nestled in a gated housing area in Bandar Utama.
Here, it is claimed, the developers of the housing area had given the school six acres of land but for some reason, the school got only three acres. The other three went to the MIC.
The school’s three acres now house a three-storey building, a pre-school, a canteen and a field.
It’s all pretty cramped, says headmistress Datin S. Jayam, a charming lady with a pleasant, ever-present smile.
But she has more pressing matters than trying to get hold of those other three acres.
She can leave that to the politically-inclined. Already, there have been protests outside the school, candle-light vigils in Brickfields to raise awareness about the school’s land woes and even a five-day hunger strike.
The MIC, on its part, is promising a hostel for poor Indian students, also with a conference centre, on the disputed land.
“We have been promised access to the facilities,” said Jayam.
The awareness has helped. Already, the MIC president has given the school RM50,000 to build a new computer lab. Work is now ongoing. And another organisation has agreed to provide 40 computers for the children to use.
Things are indeed looking up, even without the absent three acres.
Jayam is getting help, too, in having a new building. It will sit where the canteen now stands, rising several storeys high.
“The canteen will occupy the ground floor and the children can have their classes in the upper floors,” she says. “We really do need space for classrooms. Our classrooms are pretty small.”
“It’s just as well, too,” she adds. Smaller classes mean more attention for the children.
While protesters wave their flags, her needs are more mundane.
“We need to pay the bills,” she says.
The school gets help with the electricity and water bills “but my phone bills are high, too,” she laments.
It seems the school keeps in touch with all the parents and calling them regularly on their handphones can run up a hefty bill.
Help is forthcoming. But, as always, it is the politicians at play.
Being in a school where the state government is at odds with the federal government is a bit like caught between a rock and a hard place.
“When one side helps, the other gets offended,” says the headmistresses.
And we all know of cases where one side bars the other from entering a school, even for aid or sports activities.
But Jayam needs and should take all the help she can get. The pupils are her priorities.
And maybe those guys should just leave their political badges at the gates of the school and join hands to help in any way.
It just isn’t right, playing politics with our children’s education.
The writer visited a third Tamil school, the translocated Seaport school in Kampung Lindungan, PJ. It’s a sorry sight. Maybe the politicians should go have a look there.