In Nov 2001, I finally put my 3 years of debate and struggle into action. I moved my family back to my old hometown, Sungai Petani from my adoptive home, Singapore. My late father, God blesses his soul, thought I had lost my mind. I tried to explain but to no avail and chagrined I gave up. I had my reasons I kept explaining to him. My confidence was granite firm, decision crystal clear and plan rock solid however uncertain and fragile the future may behold. I was thorough and conservative, not reckless nor rash, in my thoughts and hope that my plan will pan out and come to pass smoothly. I was fervent and hopeful in my pleas that God will not turn a deaf ear but turn his countenance upon to me and find favor in my prayers. I waded in and plough on despite torrents of disagreement. I did struggle against intermittent doubts which seeped through my conviction. However, I pressed on, remained steadfast and stayed the course.
Admittedly, one of the main reasons for the drastic move was my boys’ education. I had my 3 boys’ future in my hands, a heavy decision and weighty responsibility. Undeniably, Singapore’s education even back then was first class, world class, unparalleled in both hardware and software. Teachers were well trained and motivated to encourage and inspire educational learning experience. Schools were uncongested and well equipped with state of the art facilities and equipment to provide environment conducive to learning. Syllabi and programs were current and first rate to promote enriching learning experience and development. I was making a conscious decision, though difficult and many thought rash even reckless but I must aver it was a well informed well thought through decision, though contrarian when I took them out of Singapore’s system into the much less desired Malaysian one.
Lacking natural resources, Singapore has no other choice but to place much resources and emphasis on human resources education and training. It is imperative, a matter of necessity from the lack, for Singapore to develop the only resource of her very own. The whole education pathway from birth to grave for every citizen and resident of the country is well mapped out to ensure relevant opportunity at appropriate level for optimized learning experience based on meritocracy.
After 1-2 years of pre-schooling or kindergarten, students will be “sieved and channeled” into the most appropriate level and stream of study at predetermined year. However, the only fly in the education system is that the streaming was essentially based academic excellence which tends to favor and create elitism amongst the smarter ones while leaving behind cohorts of late or slow developers.
Attempts were made to flatten the playing field but there could only be so much equality amongst the equals. Balloting akin to lottery for places in Primary 1 was one of such attempts. Failure to secure a place in popular schools will be allotted a place in the nearest neighborhood school. Every child will have equal opportunity to education. And I was reminded of the “Animal Farm”.
Despite Ministry of Education’s vehemence that standards of education at all schools were equally the same, it was an open secret that some are more equal than the others. Beginning of each academic year, parents would walk the extreme miles, even schemed and scammed, to secure a place in Primary 1 in the more popular schools for their child.
My eldest was born in the year of the Golden Goat and he did not even make it to the ballot boxes. Our apartment which was located outside the 1km radius of the popular Henry Park Primary and Fairfield Methodist Primary schools sealed my son’s fate. He was destined for the nearest neighborhood school, Ghim Moh Primary, to be followed by his younger siblings.
At Primary 3, all students would sit for an examination for a chance to be selected for transfer to a SAP/Gifted school. I was told years later that my eldest was actually chosen with a handful of his classmates but they decided not to take up the offer. At Primary 4, students would sit for EM1, 2 and 3 streaming. At Primary 6, students would sit for the PSLE examination. They would then progress to secondary schools, technical institutes or extended Primary 7-8. At Secondary 4, they would sit for “O” level examination before progressing into polytechnics or Junior Colleges. Those in Junior Colleges would then sit for “A” level examination before progressing to University.
Asean scholarships were offered to entice top overseas students into continuing their education in Singapore, to remain and work in the country upon graduation and hopefully to take up the citizenship of the country. Many scholarships were offered to those pursuing tertiary education in Singapore. Only the bright ones who had excelled in the home country were selected and offered the opportunity to finish the final leg of education before joining the workforce. This strategy actually drained “top brain” from the surrounding countries at a minimal cost to the country, very clever indeed of Singapore.
Instead of meritocracy, Malaysia sadly chose the route of mediocrity. The country’s education system and agenda were hijacked, impaired and messed up by politicians, patronage and pandering through the misguided interpretation of special positions as special rights. Misplaced nationalistic fervor replaced English, the main and global language of education, with the parochial national language overnight, and the slide down the slippery slope of rot began. The command of spoken and written English embarrassingly plunged to sub-standard levels. The standards of teaching and learning Mathematics and Sciences too were ruined.
Disappointedly, world history was covered in broad strokes one or two sentences without in depth inquiry. Local ancient and diverse history was white washed with over emphasis on specificity and parochialism and glossed over with bias racial and religious pandering in the exclusion of other civilizations and religions. Instead of pride, some felt slighted to be reminded of their diverse ancestry. Instead of embracing diversity, some crowed the supremacy of specificity. The once united multi ethnic population fragmented along racial and religious fissure into narrow minded citizenry with myopic worldview like the proverbial frog below the coconut shell.
Examinations were no longer the process for selection and streaming of students into the appropriate level or stream of study but mere going through the motion exercise. Passing examination grades were driven by statistics rather than quality. Entries into public Universities were based on quotas, less so merits. Preferential treatments, quotas and scholastic handouts were the tools employed to fulfill statistics of academic achievement, self aggrandizement based on numbers, regardless of skill, competency and employability. Today, even the once reputable University Malaya has sadly disappeared from the radar of renown.
Fortunately for the country, the Chinese community consciously and resolutely fended off encroachment of mediocrity by the Ministry all these years. Against all odds, they were able to maintain uncompromising high standards of education in vernacular schools. Further, when numerous were unfairly deprived of places at public universities, the community prevailed again to avail tertiary education opportunities by setting up many privately funded institutions of higher learning. Today, equally as many have even outshone their public counterparts in academic excellence and market recognition.
And you are still wondering why I took the drastic step of uprooting my boys from first class Singapore’s into third class Malaysia’s? My answer is simply gradualism and emigration.
Singapore’s education is without doubt one of the world’s finest. However, on its darker side, the system could be quite ruthless and very relentless, and definitely unforgiving and utterly uncompromising particularly to academic laggards, dawdlers and late bloomers. It is just like one must hit ground running from day 1 or one must play like a Division 1 player in a Division 1 play off, otherwise off to the dugout or bench and enjoy the game. I have 3 boys.
Do I want to wager that all three are intellectually smart enough to sail blissfully through the strong winds and none will sink by the wayside? Do I want to risk impairing their learning experience by subjecting them through a rather pressurizing system? Do I want to gamble ruining their wholesome childhood in order to surpass societal norm and parental expectations? Or do I want to give them more time to study and defer their decision for further studies till much later?
Unquestionably, the Malaysian education system has been blighted by flip-flops policies, mistreatment along racial quota and self aggrandizement through manipulated statistics. However, despite its warts and all, the system has somehow inadvertently provided a safety net for slower students who can defer their decisions on which field of study to pursue till they are more mature or decided. Further, headwinds from impediments and abuses merely galvanized students’ resolve to not just rise but excel above adversity. They are forced to survive or perish, training them to perform well under whatever the circumstances, sort of teaching them to be street smart and equipping with survival instinct. Singapore’s inculcates academic excellence and efficiency for a sterile, honest and utopian environment. Lastly, Singapore’s tertiary has limited places while Malaysia’s has a plethora.
On migration, from my personal experience, it was often easier to emigrate to a more develop country and less likely the other way around. Hundreds if not thousands of us left Malaysia for Singapore and only a handful returned. My eldest was the hardest hit when I moved them back. He even penned down his tempest tossed feeling in his school’s yearbook titled “Unforgetable Experience” posted under “Bits & Pieces”. Anyway, children are more adaptable in their tender ages. So I know what I am talking about. A simple test would prove my point. Just broach to any mission neophytes that they have been called to mission field in Timbuktu, they would immediately turn sagacious and most likely need to double check with the Almighty. Suggest the USA or UK, they would instantly jump for joy and automatically confirm the will of God, you know what I mean, right.
Truthfully, my three sons’ journeys through the Malaysian education were far from fair winds. They did labor through unfair headwinds, high crests and deep troughs of flip-flop policies, deceitful promises and unfulfilled pledges of meritocracy. Thankfully, they did their best and overcome all the confusions and turbulence, and my eldest has recently returned to Singapore to begin his physician’s calling. I am euphoric, vindicated, my nagging doubt evaporated. Arguments against my contrarian decision are moot. If they had remained in Singapore, my eldest would probably not be a physician. Now I can confidently affirm that my proposed has been disposed by the Almighty according to His will and richness in glory.