20 June 2005

Wednesday June 15, 2005
The real Malaysia

Sometimes life is like a movie script. Let me tell a little story about Malaysia that should really make it onto celluloid.

The other day a young Indian fellow called Mike, who happens to work for me, finally got married to his girlfriend Zai, a Malay girl. The wedding reception took place in a suburb of KL at Zai’s parents’ home.

Or rather, as is normal in our city, on Zai’s street. The whole street had been cut off for the wedding, decorated with arches and tents, turning it into a street party that Sunday.

Despite the heat, the entire neighbourhood seemed to have turned up for it as well as many of Mike and Zai’s friends and colleagues.

Pink was the theme colour, ranging from what the bride and groom wore, the matching outfits that the bride’s family could be identified by and the yards of pink satin that swagged the pelamin, the windows of the modest single storey terrace house, and the bridal lunch table.

A local band entertained with the latest Malay pop songs while everyone tucked into the nasi minyak buffet.

What was fascinating was the fact that the wedding was really a microcosm of urban Malaysia.

Here was Mike, who is Indian, marrying his Malay girlfriend after a long courtship. Their friends and neighbours were of all races who came and went as is customary, helping themselves to the food and adding to the pile of presents for the newlyweds.

When Mike, resplendent in pink songket, accompanied by his sari-clad mother arrived, they were greeted by the requisite kompang and a short silat demonstration.

Despite the humble setting, Mike and Zai’s wedding lacked for nothing in terms of all the essential elements.

When they sat on the pelamin, Mike’s mother began the merenjis ceremony with a little Indian tradition.

She gave Mike a gold chain to put around Zai’s slender neck and then she herself placed another gold necklace on her new daughter-in-law who responded with a respectful kiss of her hands.

Then everyone followed suit in the usual manner, sprinkling scented water on the couple in the traditional blessing.

What makes this a particularly quirky slice of Malaysia is the fact that Mike happens also to be a champion bodybuilder (he is the bantamweight Mr Malaysia).

His fellow bodybuilders, of course, also came and we were treated to the sight of a good number of crew-cut guys with very impressive muscles and tiny waists.

And just to prove that Malaysians can be disciplined when they want to be, all these guys sat together and ate only grilled fish because they have a competition coming up!

(The groom himself didn’t take a day off from his strict diet just because it was his wedding either.)

Observing Mike and Zai’s wedding, aside from thinking it would make a great movie (an interracial romance between a bodybuilder and a Siti Norhaliza look-alike; how’s that for an original premise?), it made me wonder what the real Malaysia is. Is it the Malaysia as envisioned by some of our public figures, divided by ethnicity and religion, full of territorial claims? Or is it this simple portrait of neighbours and friends brought together by a wedding, that reliable social unifier?

When people make hateful claims about the superiority of one way of thinking or belief over another, I wonder what it means to families like Mike’s and Zai’s where people of different beliefs have become related? I remember listening to a Christian woman once talking about her Muslim son and grandchildren and wondered how could she possibly be unmoved by laws that affect them.

In Malaysia, we are not as homogenous as we like to portray ourselves and many of us do have relatives and close friends who come from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Our kinship ties are forged by marriage and shared interests and these can be strong. To try and differentiate us through state policy would be akin to trying to cut through a piece of silk cloth, so beautiful in one piece, ruined when torn.

Maybe if we started making movies that did reflect real life, we would have a more realistic approach to social harmony. If it wasn’t completely true, nobody could make up Mike and Zai out of their imaginations. We keep thinking, through our movies and through our approaches to governance, that Malaysia is a uniform and obedient society that conforms to some politician’s or bureaucrat’s dull black and white dreams.

In fact, it’s far better and more colourful than that.

What we need is to always ensure that it is these simple portraits of real life that are constantly polished and shined. Otherwise life in Malaysia would be very drab indeed.

07 June 2005

Wednesday June 1, 2005
More things not to do

Some people may recall a column of mine which gained some infamy because I talked about how while Malaysians are misinterpreting what Malaysia Boleh means, they are also not paying attention to what they tak boleh. I gave examples of Malaysians running around trying to make the biggest this or the longest that, none of which enhances anybody’s life, while at the same time ignoring the very many things we cannot do, mostly think and speak.

Well, guess what? In the time since then (not that long ago), not only have people stopped trying to paint the biggest batik sarong or sew the longest selendang, which is a blessed relief, but the list of things that we cannot do has expanded. Now we possibly cannot go to the movies with male relatives or friends unless we put up with them sitting separately from us; we have to freeze every time the call to prayer is heard; we can barely watch any live entertainment at all; there are more and more states where some of us cannot get married unless we submit to a test that we don’t understand and will bring us any amount of grief. The list, as I said, is only getting longer.

What happened? Did we take our eyes off the ball for a second and someone swatted it away? Or did we purposely choose to ignore what was happening, or just chose not to say anything? We’ll pay dearly for it some day.

We have to be aware that the country which we love is changing, and not in a good way. There are more and more un-elected people making policies in this country, few of which are any good to most of us, and we are letting them do it. Why then do we have elections every five years?

I recall that in the last elections, most of us chose a government that promised us more tolerance, more openness and more freedom. We gave a clear mandate to them to do all that they promised because we wanted to be able to express ourselves more, have more opportunities in life, which necessitates more openness and choices.

But we are not getting it. Or at least some of us are getting choked even more while the rest of us are simply ignored. The lovely multiethnic, multicultural Malaysia that is our pride and joy is simply crumbling because, and I have heard some people openly say it, there are people who would like to make it mono-ethnic, monocultural and mono-religious. That’s not the Malaysia I grew up in, not the Malaysia I want my children to live in. Not the Malaysia I love.

What is next? Is there absolutely nothing that cannot be thought of entirely in terms of religion, morals and sex? (As I’ve said before, people who are so obsessed with sex can’t be getting much of it, or have too much of the wrong kind. We should ask for public audits of politicians’ sex lives. That might explain some of the idiocies). Next, we have to have separate compartments in public transport facilities. Airlines will be obliged to have curtained off separate seating for male and female passengers. Or there has to be male-only and female-only buses and train carriages. (I can see them nodding in agreement). Or how about Muslim-only and non-Muslim-only transport?

Since everyone likes to fuss about entertainment, what about sports? What about football? With large crowds of people getting highly emotional about men in shorts, surely this is cause for concern. How about making footballers wear trackpants? How about banning women from going to watch football? But that would mean all-male crowds that may also lead to bad things. How about banning football altogether?

People may say I’m getting hysterical about this. But what’s the difference between these examples and all those people who said that those who don’t believe the state should interfere in our private lives are asking for people to parade in bikinis in Parliament? (If you ask me, the mostly male MPs would love it.) Why is it that only some people are allowed to make giant logistical leaps? At least my leaps in logic are a lot more feasible.

Wake up everybody! If we don’t watch out, this country that we have given so much to, and which has given us so much, will be gone. We have a democracy and we have to hold on to it. Let’s stop allowing people we did not elect make the rules that govern our lives.
Wednesday May 18, 2005
Be bold

LAST Sunday (May 15) was International AIDS Memorial Day (IAMD), the day we take time off to remember the millions of people who have died of AIDS. These people were not strangers to us; they were fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children and friends, people who left us because of a disease that they did not wish to have.

On IAMD, as usual every year, Malaysians Living with HIV/AIDS get together to not only remember those who have gone, but to meet with one another, network and share stories, both joyful and sad. It is a day to remember that they are not alone. In fact, with over 60,000 people having been infected in our country, they are becoming less and less alone.

What is the lot of Malaysians Living with HIV/AIDS today? On the one hand, they could not have a better chance of survival. Treatment for those with the virus has become so much cheaper, from RM2,000 a month five years ago to less than a hundred today.

For those who cannot afford even that, the Government has said that it will provide free medicines for up to 7,000 people with HIV/AIDS, a highly commendable move. This was to be achieved through the importation of generic drugs from India that are far cheaper than the originals from the United States. But recently the Indian parliament passed the Patents Act that effectively made the manufacture of generics an impossibility. What does this mean to our noble efforts to help our fellow citizens survive?

While we can be pretty cheerful about treatment, on all other scores, Malaysians with HIV have never had it so bad. While they suffer from the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV, there are moves to increase this suffering by among other things, suggestions to isolate them on islands and to criminalise those who allegedly knowingly infect others (would this include men who refuse to wear condoms to protect their wives?).

While other countries including China and Vietnam are enacting anti-discrimination laws, we are moving the other way, each day finding ways to ensure that our fellow citizens are hounded even more. We shed tears for children infected with HIV but we do nothing to ensure that when they reach adulthood they do not suffer from discrimination on the basis of their HIV status. (Do we have laws to protect HIV+ children from discrimination in schools?) Is that because we think that these innocent children will never reach adulthood anyway? And that adults with HIV deserve the suffering?

In my 12 years working in this field, I have never been so despondent. While other countries have gained knowledge on how to deal effectively with HIV, we have only moved backwards. To have someone in 2005 talk about isolating people with HIV, an approach that was discredited very early on in the epidemic, is something we should be ashamed of. Yet there are so many people who take pride in their ignorance, not to mention their lack of compassion.

I have just been in a meeting of delegates from the Non-Aligned Movement on HIV. One of the strongest messages from the African countries that have so much experience in HIV/AIDS is that demystifying and de-stigmatising HIV/AIDS is crucial to effective prevention. As long as people remain ignorant of the facts about the virus and its modes of transmission, we will never contain it.

As long as people are unclear as to how the virus can and cannot be transmitted, they will have doubts. And it is these doubts, fuelled by misleading statements by public figures and sensational stories in the media, that leads to stigma. A recently published study of four countries on HIV-related stigma done by the International Centre for Research on Women shows that we are not alone in doing this. The roots of stigma in all countries are the same, and the effects are just the same; it causes the spread of the disease.

One of the most disastrous effects of calls to isolate people is that any programme we have to get people to be tested for HIV will fail. Why should anyone get tested if they know that if they are found HIV+, they will be put away? It is simple human psychology; you can never get people to do things that they know will bring a detrimental outcome. (People who are addicted to drugs do not think of it as detrimental because it is pleasurable.) Yet without getting people to voluntarily go for testing, we cannot counsel them for prevention of infection to others. Nor can we provide them with the early treatment so crucial to survival.

We need to ask why HIV should be singled out for this sort of treatment when other infectious diseases, such as Hepatitis, are not? Is it because it is incurable? Neither is diabetes or even the common cold. Is it because it is associated with death? So is cancer, yet we have so much sympathy for cancer patients.

Is it because we link it with immorality? Yet there are 40 million people all over the world with the virus. Are we saying that they are all immoral people? And since 95% of them come from developing countries, are we then saying that there is more immorality in the developing world than the West? Why is it that the West has less HIV, not more, than the poorer countries?

Political leadership is the single most important deciding factor in any successful HIV response. Every country that has managed to reduce its infection rates has been the ones where political leadership has been strong.

In Uganda, where infections went from 16% of adults to 6%, the President heads the National AIDS Task Force.

In Senegal, a Muslim country that has maintained its infection rates at just 1.5% by early education for its people as well as the distribution of 10 million free condoms, the AIDS prevention programme has the support of its political and religious leaders.

Even Iran is taking concrete steps with a strategic plan placed directly under the President which, among other things, allows for needle exchange programmes for drug users and the distribution of condoms among prisoners.

We have a choice at this juncture. We can continue as we are, refusing to do much more than superficial attempts at prevention while at the same time allowing non-experts to usurp the role of those who should have the expertise. Or we can be bold and take steps that we already know work. We must challenge the prevailing excuses for not doing the right things. In the end the numbers will tell. One day we will wake up to find we have a very serious epidemic on our hands. Then there will be no one to blame but ourselves for our complacency.
Wednesday May 4, 2005
Laws that promote good

The other day I watched in fascinated horror as a man crossed a busy road while sms-ing. Completely oblivious to the cars passing by him, his confidence that they would avoid him was something to behold. If any of them had hit him, and God forbid, killed him, there would have been much anger thrown at the “careless” driver and mourning over the loss of a human life. But it was a human being who was pretty careless with his life nevertheless.

This little incident illustrated a rather typical attitude of my fellow citizens, something I call the abrogation of responsibility. If there is something that necessarily endangers our lives, we expect others to take responsibility to ensure that we are not endangered, rather than taking our own responsibility to prevent such a danger to ourselves.

Like the man crossing the street, we expect others to avoid harming us and we will blame them if they do, denying our own responsibilities in contributing towards that harm. Similarly, if we as drivers run red lights and then get into an accident, we rarely blame ourselves for breaking traffic rules. Rather, we blame the other person for not looking out for us.

This attitude carries over many different situations. To give an example from a field I know too well, one of the main reasons why many people want to know who is HIV-positive is so that those people can be blamed if we become infected. We need to put them away, some people say, so that the rest of us will be protected. Even though the fact is that it is our own behaviour that determines whether we get infected or not. If it is other people’s fault when we become infected, how is it that so many people, including doctors and nurses, can mingle with those who are HIV-positive and stay perfectly healthy? Surely it is because they take their own responsibility not to become so? The odd thing of course is that if other people become infected, it is always their own fault. Whereas, if we ourselves were to become infected, we expect people to understand that we are not to be faulted. Such is our logic of denial.

Not too long ago, a local newspaper asked the public if they knew of harsh penalties that could be imposed on them for trespassing so-called moral laws. Most did not know but, whether truthfully or not, said that these laws were needed because otherwise they themselves would go wrong. I find it odd that people who do not see themselves as particularly immoral should feel that they needed such laws to control their lives, laws that they did not even know existed just a minute before. Do we really need laws to ensure we behave ourselves? Or do we behave ourselves because our own values tell us that certain behaviours are unacceptable? Which comes first? Putting the entire responsibility on the law to control our behaviour suggests that we are all essentially bad people who would be completely wild if we did not fear punishment.

I don’t steal because I think stealing is inherently wrong. I also think most people think so too, although we need the law to take care of the few people who decide to steal anyway. Similarly with lying, cheating, driving dangerously and any number of things that, because they would harm others and myself, I simply would never do. But as far as things that I think about or do privately which does not affect others, I don’t think there needs to be laws to make sure I do or don’t do them. It’s a bit like those metal detectors at airports these days. They may be able to detect weapons, but even if a person walks through them clean, what the machines cannot do is detect an evil heart.

What we need are laws that do promote goodness in the best sense of the word. Laws that promote care and compassion, that send a message out that goodness gets rewarded, rather than bad behaviour gets punished. We could have laws that prevent discrimination against people with HIV for instance, or that ensure that disabled people have equal access to opportunities and facilities just like able-bodied people, just because non-discrimination is an ethic that is right. Or ensure that the poor are not left behind in our development. We need a well-intentioned and tolerant environment that enables good behaviour, rather than having an environment that simply tries to limit bad behaviour. If someone pushes that tolerance to the limit with unsociable behaviour, then punitive action needs to take place. But the point is whether it harms others or not immediately, not speculatively in some future time.

We need to enable everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Most of it is done through education. It can be done; all it takes is the will and the patience. Considering that patience is a virtue, it also seems odd that some people have totally lost faith in education, and believe that punishment is the only way to get people in line. Are we therefore saying that the only way to get other people to be virtuous is for us to put virtue aside? Now that’s really abrogating the responsibility of being good role models, no?
Wednesday April 6, 2005
The late Puan Sri Naimah, a pillar of strength

Sometimes people come into your life and you can’t foresee what impact they are going to make. Last week many of my colleagues and I mourned the death of Puan Sri Naimah Hasbi after a long illness. In the newspapers, she was recognised only as the wife of the former Minister Tan Sri Sulaiman Daud. In fact she was much, much more.

Puan Sri Naimah Hasbi in her younger days. Her compassion and helpfulness are an inspiration to many.
I can’t remember when I first met Puan Sri Naimah but in 1993 she welcomed me to a dinner that ended with my being made the Chair of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. Puan Sri was a founding Trustee and remained so until her death on March 26.

Many people of her standing sit on Boards and do little but Puan Sri was not one of those. She not only came to every single meeting of the Board and took an interest in everything that was discussed but also attended every event and function we organised during those years, if she was in town and available. If we asked her to attend something on our behalf, she always graciously obliged. She chaired for a time our Paediatric AIDS Fund committee that provided financial support to children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

It was not just Puan Sri Naimah’s commitment that inspired us all. Her attitude towards everything was an example to everyone. She was always cheerful and interested. Never one to have airs, she would come to our events, armed with her ever-present camera and mix around with everyone, including people living with HIV/AIDS, as naturally as if they were her own friends and neighbours. Perhaps she had more empathy than most with those who had problems. Unlike many, she was willing to learn, often coming to seminars to listen and to ask questions. Always she was clearly sincerely sympathetic to people with HIV/AIDS and was never one to make judgments on people.

Helping others came naturally to Puan Sri. If she felt that it would benefit someone to meet and discuss an issue with another party, she would organise it and even host it at home. If she heard that someone had arthritis and felt they would benefit from a massage, she would personally take the person to the masseuse. How she fit in all this helpfulness while managing a home and family as well as her commitments to several other organisations is a wonder to us all. But you could always count on her.

We will all remember Puan Sri Naimah for her openness and her courage in the face of her own illness. She never hid the fact that she had cancer. Often she would come to meetings and cheerily announce that she had just come from her chemotherapy treatment. Never once did she display any self-pity. Indeed she remained her perfectly dressed self, determined to not let her illness dictate her life, until almost the end.

A year ago, Tan Sri Sulaiman quietly requested us not to invite his wife to any more meetings because he did not feel she was up to it. She herself did not think so and occasionally an invitation would slip through and she would drive herself to our office, perfectly turned out as always. But it was clear then that her husband was right to worry. Puan Sri was lucky in having a caring husband and family who never left her side throughout her illness. They too are an inspiration to us all for their unending love and dedication.

Many of us working in HIV/AIDS in Malaysia will miss Puan Sri Naimah. She was like a mother to us all, gently pushing us along the difficult roads. She showed us that with care, compassion and courage, we can tackle anything.

May God bless her soul and may she rest in peace. Al-fatihah.
Wednesday April 20, 2005
Moral terrorism

Sometimes we think we are so unique in the world. But just a little reading makes us realize that there are so many parallels with other people, despite what looks like inherent differences.

This coming week, the leader of the majority Republicans in the United States, Senator Bill Frist, is participating in a telecast geared towards labeling the opposition Democrats as acting “against people of faith.” This is because the Democrats are opposing the nomination of judges with extremely conservative views. But, as columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times says, Senator Frist and his allies do not mean people of all faiths, only those of their faith.

In the US these days, politics is becoming increasingly enmeshed with religion, or, at least, one religion. The government and its supporters are determined to impose their particular beliefs onto all their citizens regardless of their own individual faiths.

This seems to go entirely against the Constitution of the United States that forbids the imposition of religious views on Americans, since people escaping religious persecution, after all, founded it.

This mixing up of religion and politics has meant that government policy is completely dictated by specific beliefs, and not necessarily evidence. Thus, for example, US funding for HIV/AIDS programmes anywhere in the world is unavailable for anything that includes sex education, condoms or harm reduction. Instead they are only available for strictly abstinence-only programmes that have never been proven to work.

People of no faith

The reason Senator Frist is so upset about any blocking of appointments of the “right” judges is because the US courts had refused to allow the government to interfere in the case of Terry Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman whose husband and doctors wanted to cease her life support system, and whose parents didn’t.

The courts decided it was a private matter. So Frist thinks that if the “right” judges had been in the courts, they could have forced Schiavo’s doctors and husband to keep her on life support, as they already have for the past 15 years even though there was no hope for her recovery.

That’s one thing. But it’s quite another thing to then label people who oppose that move as acting against people of faith. Basically he’s saying that those who disagree with him are people of no faith, godless heretics determined to destroy society. Sound familiar to you?

It’s the oldest trick in the book for people of a certain political ilk to try and gain cheap points by claiming that those who disagree with them have suspect religious credentials. They try and claim the supposed higher moral ground yet at the same time preach intolerance and discrimination.

Under a supposed halo that they give to themselves, they defame others by besmirching their reputations as loyal citizens and faithful believers and call for the harshest sanctions against them. Not exactly the type of serene actions you would expect from people who believe in the peaceful possibilities of faith.

Shout them down

Let’s not forget that people like Senator Frist supported the invasion of Iraq. In this he and his like are very much supported by various American faith-based groups, some of whom speak a language which very much appeals to the same types of politicians in our country, and in fact have made some inroads here.

Their method is simple; forget the need to have any evidence of anything, or the need to have respectful discussion and debate. Just work on people’s emotions by saying that those people don’t believe enough in their religion, if at all, fixate on outward appearances and just simply shout them down.

To organize a telecast geared towards condemning people is a pretty sophisticated form of shouting people down. I just hope this form doesn’t take root here.

But shouting and shutting down of anyone trying to present a different view is pretty standard operating procedure here. In a country where people dislike confrontation, slander and defamation is the norm.

Attack the other person’s morals first off. If the other person is a decent person, they will simply not respond because basing a discussion on individual morality goes nowhere.

So we are forced to put up with personal insults, knowing that the whole idea of the other side is to simply shut the discussion down, not advance it. I call that moral terrorism.

We could wind up like the current situation in the United States if we are not vigilant. The only difference is that in the US, there are people who have the courage to publicly denounce these acts of moral terrorism. Here there are far too few of us and it’s hard going. Moral courage, exactly what we need to combat this intolerance, is in short supply. We should shed tears of despair.
Wednesday March 23, 2005
First World appearance, Third World mentality

We pride ourselves on many things, we Malaysians. And well we should, because we just have to travel to some other developing countries to realize how advanced and easy life is in ours. We have just about everything here. We have good roads, most people have been educated (even as the education system needs reviewing), we can easily go see a doctor whenever we need to (though sometimes it can be expensive) and we have a lot of leisure activities to partake in (even though most don’t require us to do much more than sit down).

We are very First World in many ways. But it’s one thing to be ahead in appearances, yet another to be developed mentally.

Take that oft-quoted Malaysian irritation, our driving. Is it me or are our roads getting more anarchic by the day? Is going through red lights, driving while sms-ing and changing lanes without signalling now socially acceptable? Or throwing rubbish out of the car? Recently, I saw a car stop just after a toll booth, the occupants open their boot and blithely throw their junk at the side of the road. I am half-inclined to put a megaphone in my car just so that I can shout at such people: “Shame on you!” But then, considering they were doing it in full view of hundreds of other drivers, they probably have no sense of shame at all.

Or that other bugbear: ignoring RSVPs. As anyone who’s ever organised an event or wedding knows, Malaysians don’t RSVP. Or they won’t until the last minute. Or they will say they’re not coming only to change their minds at the eleventh hour. This causes enormous headaches for the hosts. And here’s another rule: the more important you are, the more likely you are to ignore RSVPs. You think that if you decide to just show up, perhaps because you can’t find a golf partner on that day, or you just realized that you might be missing the event of the year, then the hosts will smilingly accommodate you.

I once organised a private family anniversary party where three uninvited guests showed up. It was a small party with limited seats and it was hell trying to re-arrange everything so that these guests could join in. But they were simply so unembarrassed to show up, because they were so sure that they were too important to be turned away. I’ve never been able to look at them with much respect since.

Another major irritation is the way we sometimes show so little respect to guests. While we can be extravagantly hospitable, we do have some odd habits. One is talking away while someone is giving a speech or performing some music. The person giving the speech or performing isn’t deaf and can certainly hear the buzz of conversation from the audience.

Only just recently a renowned jazz pianist had to endure playing to an audience that pretty much ignored her and chatted away regardless. Small wonder she finished her set quickly and walked off the stage.

Mind you, this type of rudeness is not limited to those in front of the stage. I was once making a speech and the VIP onstage with me carried on a loud conversation with the person next to her, oblivious to the fact that the entire audience could see what she was doing. I guess it never occurred to them that anyone would ever treat them with the same disrespect because they are, after all, VIPs.

But the thing is, does becoming a VIP mean you can abandon all courtesy to those supposedly below you? Surely that only reflects on you and your upbringing. Winning elections obviously doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

How do we expect our young people to behave with respect to others when their leaders don’t? Go into any store and how many salespeople actually greet you with a smile, attend to your queries or say thank you after you’ve purchased anything? But then, whom would they learn that from?

We get disrespect from many of our leaders when we so much as query what they are doing, so that only sets the tone for our young. If questioned, just give some glib answer and carry on as if the questioner is a little irritating fly.

We will never be developed until we learn to respect other people regardless of station and until we become more considerate of others. We have to learn to think of others before ourselves, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and learn to empathise. We might complain about the so-called decadence of the developed world but then they have more facilities for the disabled and those who are needy than we do. Why is that? Perhaps because to be developed, it’s just not enough to be able to build fabulous buildings and roads, you also need to develop the humanity inherent in all of us.
Wednesday March 9, 2005
Unequal learning in our education system

As the cliché goes, kids say the darndest things. My older one, who admittedly will soon not be a kid anymore, had a particularly insightful thought the other day. “You know, Mum,” she said. “If I had stayed at school at home (in Malaysia), I would never have read half of the books I’ve read today.”

To explain, my daughter is in school in another country. I sent her away because I had begun to worry about the type of education she was getting, and the type of socialisation she was exposed to. I felt that, mentally, she was not being stretched, and that her creative instincts were being stifled, and that with some of her friends, she was becoming yet another mall-rat. So I sent her abroad to a rugged boot camp for a year and then continued her schooling in boarding school.

The thing about her little insight was that she was not saying it to feel superior to anyone. She followed this statement with another that made my heart clutch. “I feel sad,” she said, “because my friends who didn’t come over with me didn’t have this opportunity.” In that moment, my daughter, who sometimes makes me bang my head in frustration for her silliness and sheer teenage irresponsibility, displayed an understanding of the inequalities of the world far more than I ever did at her age, when I didn’t have half her privileges.

She understood, first of all, that she is lucky to have had the opportunity to study in an environment far more open than she would have had at home. She also understood that privilege costs her parents money, and it is something to be always grateful for. But she also understood that it was unfair that her friends did not have the same opportunity for whatever reason, and because of that, they may be losing out on something, and that was sad. She wanted the friends she had grown up with to move along in the world at the same pace as her, but that was not to be. I asked her if she ever discussed the books she was reading (for pleasure and as school work) with her friends at home and she said wistfully that she didn’t even try because it was so different from what they were doing. She is currently reading Dante’s Inferno, which she thinks is “pretty cool”.

When we think that education is the key to our children’s future, it seems unfair that not all children get a fair deal with it. It is one thing to give our kids the basics, it is another thing to try and unearth from them their true potential as thinking, living, breathing and creative human beings. And to do this, we have to expose them to as much of the world as possible, to allow them to assess, evaluate and judge for themselves.

But if our education system does nothing more than force-feed them what we think is right for them and leave them no room to explore ideas on their own, then all we are doing is creating a whole bunch of automatons who are not going to know how to live in this changeable globalised world. We will have people who are afraid of others, of taking risks, of things or people that are different from what they are used to. Without these types of challenges, our kids’ minds and indeed souls do not hone into the resilient mature characters we want them to be.

It is a system that only breeds inequality. If our education system leaves no room to think, and only one type of thinking is allowed, then discrimination against anything different will naturally set in. That’s the first type of inequality. Then the parents who don’t like this type of education will look for ways out of it, by firstly going to private schools within the country. This then creates another sort of separation and inequality, where our kids will then only mix with certain types of kids, and grow to believe that that’s all there is in the world.

Then the next step is for parents who can afford it (and more and more seem to be able to) to send kids abroad at earlier and earlier ages. This then creates even more separation and inequality with kids who have to remain at home, as my own daughter had pointed out. Instinctively, she had recognised that, despite the many years of friendship, soon the way she was being educated would start putting a wedge of difference with her old friends, and it would take enormous maturity and effort to not let those friendships fade. Ironically, in many ways, her current educational environment, albeit elite, stresses community service, and allows her to mix with a greater diversity of kids, and in this way does more to promote equality than her public education back home.

It’s an age-old subject, our education system. While the current discussion about too much homework is good, it still doesn’t do anything about our concept of education itself, especially that exams are still the mainstay of our system. We’ve only got one chance to get it right with our kids; how much longer are we going to blow it?