KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — The recent extension of the Food Bank Malaysia programme at several public universities has resurrected debate on the extent of the government’s role in education — does it go as far as ensuring no student goes hungry?
With the country’s high debt pile, some are of the opinion that the government has other priorities and that university students are old enough to handle feeding themselves, including finding part-time jobs to fund their own meals if necessary.
Malay Mail went to the University of Malaya campus, which straddles the high-cost cities of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, to ask several undergraduates their views. Their answers were quite telling about the thinking of Malaysia’s future generation of movers and shakers.
Priority number one
At 26, Naim Marzuki was the oldest undergraduate Malay Mail interviewed and one who believed that students who work stand to benefit greatly by developing their self-confidence, network and skills.
Naim related that he started working several years ago as he needed the extra cash when he got married and to start a new family, even though children are not on his horizon yet.
“Most students grades will suffer when they work because they can’t balance both. In my case I realised I had to find work to supplement my income and so I decided to be proactive about it,” said Naim who owns his own video and photography production company.
While Naim felt that students who were truly starving should also adopt a proactive attitude and look for ways to earn money and feed themselves, he understood that everyone’s circumstances were different.
“The ideal situation, in my opinion is to not work and focus solely on studies as that’s always priority number one,” he said.
First-year Chemical Engineering major Farhan Fakrullah felt that attempting to juggle both work and studies at the same time would be akin to committing career suicide for a freshman or sophomore when they are still adjusting to classes at university after at least 11 years of a fixed timetable.
“It’s almost impossible to go out and try to find a job because the chances of keeping it are very slim, plus you don’t want to fail and repeat subjects,” he said.
Still, Farhan said he might look for a part-time job to supplement his food bill if he were desperate and he is able to maintain good grades in his second year.
His friend and fellow course major Danish Ziyad concurred, but said it was just as hard for students to concentrate on learning when their stomachs were growling with hunger.
Both Danish and Farhan said they came from low-income households but counted themselves fortunate to have never gone hungry to class, unlike some of their peers.
“We feel very kesian seeing them go hungry so on days they have no money we will belanja them to a meal,” said Danish.
“We’re not exactly well off either, but it’s hard to see a friend hungry. So it’s not an issue to buy or share a meal with them once in awhile,” he added.
Myths and reality
Public Relations major Chong Jui Hia was not beyond temping as a student, but found it a challenge to fit the jobs available around her classes. Some employers, she noted, were not very flexible towards part-timers.
“I tried finding promoter jobs but most of them wanted me to work on Friday as well. I don’t drive so my job scope’s already limited. Then to find one and they won’t compromise on working Fridays is frustrating,” said the 23-year-old Seremban native.
Electrical Engineering undergraduate Choong Jin Shen also believes that combining work and studies is not a problem, though he admitted that students will have to persevere to find a suitable job that fits their schedule.
He also rejected the view that undergraduates who faced food problems were lazy or over-reliant on the government to feed them.
“People say the poorer kids are lazy and not doing what they should in order to survive, but this is a half-truth.
“While I agree some are lazy, the rest are having a hard time coping with classes just like the rest of us,” the third-year Electrical Engineering student said.
Choong’s concern was that the food bank programme would be open to abuse by unscrupulous students.
“My concern is does the free food go to the right people or are there freeloaders jumping in? Usually there are always a few freeloaders who abuse the system,” he said.
At the same time, he feels that students must also show themselves to be more proactive and adaptable if their circumstances ever turn dire and work to feed themselves.
“Not wait for someone with a hand out,” he said.
Maria Lim told Malay Mail she did not believe the government should provide meals for free through the food bank programme.
Instead, the final year Civil Engineering student suggested that students who needed the meals could work in return for food to prevent possible abuse.
“We can subsidise the meals with a little bit of work for example a gotong-royong to clean up a particular place. That way not only will both parties benefit but the students will appreciate the food even more.
“The next step will be to help the poor students find jobs. Some students are nervous and scared of the big city and need a little push and guidance in the right direction.
“It’s like that saying ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’,” she said.