Learning so much more from the students

Friday June 22, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/6/22/focus/11524944&sec=focus

ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE
By TUNKU ‘ABIDIN MUHRIZ
newsdesk@thestar.com.my

The writer finds it reassuring that students uphold democratic values and peace, even when in disagreement.

STRANGELY I’ve been receiving unprecedented numbers of invites to give speeches this year, and I try to say “yes” to as many as possible.

So far, two have been in legislative buildings (the Penang State Legislative Assembly and the Dewan Negara), two in hotel ballrooms, one in the august Treaty Room of the former Wisma Putra (now the Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations), one in a hospital, and of course one at Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman.

But it is institutions of learning that provide the most opportunities for me to interact with Malaysians I might otherwise never meet.

These have included SMK Tuanku Muhammad Kuala Pilah, MRSM Kepala Batas, Cempaka Cheras, Tunku Kurshiah College, UCSI University, Inti College, Segi College, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Sunway University, SK Tunku Kurshiah, SK Kuala Pilah, Ican College, Universiti Teknologi Mara and the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

I am grateful for the incentive these opportunities provide in forcing one to become a better speechwriter and public speaker, but even more educational for me are the chats I have with students, teachers and principals afterwards.

In the end I feel that I’ve learnt so much more from them, than what I have to offer them. And the chance to visit so many different types of schools in different locations gives one the chance to piece together the convoluted landscape of education in Malaysia.

Last week, UiTM’s Faculty of Education (which trains teachers who will be sent to government schools) asked me to share what I thought would be the “ideal curriculum for the growth of future leaders in Malaysia”.

Naturally I extolled the virtues of more devolution of power to headmasters and parent-teacher associations, more setting amongst pupils while abolishing the persistent and false dichotomy between the arts and sciences, a massive increase in extra-curricular activities, and the urgent rehabilitation of the history syllabus.

Before the event I had been warned that since UiTM is a bumiputra-only university which has been the focus of some political fanfare, I might face some opposition to my ideas.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when, in the question and answer session, our future educators chorused a medley of questions so radical that I thought we might all get into trouble!

One less controversial complaint was the propensity of being posted to places they didn’t want to go to.

The usual justification for this practice is that no one would voluntarily teach in a rural school, and so they must be forced to do so — but a show of hands revealed a good dozen who said they’d love to. (Another initiative that refutes this theory is Teach for Malaysia.)

This week I spoke at MCKK’s 5th Youth Development Summit. What was particularly interesting here was the inclusion of participants from six other countries: Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines, India and Pakistan.

The topic was the role of schools in promoting world peace, and I argued that the values of democracy — respect for fellow human beings, tolerance of other beliefs, the merits of competition, the virtues of market economics — must be inculcated in schools so that students grow up to be citizens in countries that would thence veer towards becoming constitutional democracies with check and balance institutions to protect against absolutism.

In the ensuing dialogue, a young chap from Lahore’s Aitchison College (founded 19 years before MCKK) queried my faith in democracy — understandably so, given his country’s political history since independence.

Famously, many Indians too admire examples of strong, long-serving leaders able to force through a vision and agenda unhampered by too much democracy.

My reply was that relying on the so-called “benevolent dictator” (and then only for those who agree with that dictator) can be risky if they become less benevolent, or if their successors are tyrants, and check and balance institutions have been eroded, destroyed or compromised to the extent that they cannot perform their roles anymore.

The other questions revealed an impressive knowledge of world politics, but most reassuring of all, an affinity with democratic values and almost overenthusiastic statements in support of peace, even when in disagreement.

I have always preferred writing over speaking, but one challenge I find in both is including enough to be clear but omitting enough to be concise.

Unfortunately this balance is sometimes misjudged, and incorrect conclusions are drawn as a result.

As such, I try to bring compilations of my previous articles (Abiding Times and the recently-published Abiding Times 2) along when I give speeches, and I am happy to offer copies to occasional readers of this column too.

> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.

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