Fighting the educational Emergency

DECEMBER 19 ― Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) Malaysia end-of-year staff lunch took place at the Ideas Autism Centre (IAC) in Taman Bukit Templer (named after the military commander who as the penultimate executive British High Commissioner in Malaya did so much to defeat the communists) in Rawang, so that the eight staff (a principal, occupational therapist, five facilitators and a caretaker) there could join the nine staff based out of the main office in Bukit Tunku (of course named after another staunch anti-communist).

The IAC is one of our two on-the-ground educational initiatives; an expression of our belief that non-governmental organisations can work together with the private sector to deliver quality care and education to children from disadvantaged communities. 

The inspiration to establish a centre for autistic children emerged from an Ideas research project, “Giving Voice to the Poor”, which found that parents from low income backgrounds with autistic children have almost no access to specialised care and therapy sessions — in particular, the early intervention care so crucial to helping them adapt to life’s daily challenges — because of the high costs of existing services.

The inability to pay for extra care means that at least one parent has to stop working to care for this autistic child, increasing the financial pressures on these families.

The IAC was established as a special project of Ideas — with two of the seven-member Board of Governors being the chief executive officer (CEO) and chief operating officer of Ideas — in Oct 2012 to provide holistic early intervention, care, therapy and education to autistic children from low income households so they will be able to attend government schools by ages seven to nine. By the end of 2013, four of the nine children being cared for were successfully channelled back into the mainstream school system. Today there are 30 students at the centre, receiving sessions in speech therapy, occupational therapy, psychiatric specialist care (involving clinical specialists from the Faculty of Medicine at the nearby Universiti Teknologi Mara Selayang campus) and applied behaviour analysis. Our supporters include the A&A Charitable Trust, ECM Libra Foundation, Yayasan Sime Darby and the Hong Leong Foundation. Further details, including archived interviews with the CEO on BFM Radio and the principal on fz.com, are available at autism.ideas.org.my.

The other on-the-ground educational project of the think-tank is the Ideas Academy in Pudu, a secondary learning centre for underprivileged youth that will focus on providing sustainable and quality secondary education for undocumented and stateless youth in Malaysia. It is a joint initiative of Ideas and Stichting Young Refugee Cause, a foundation based in the Netherlands, with each organisation providing three members to the board that oversees the highly qualified international executive committee.  

Ideas Academy is still in its infancy but already there are 23 students in our initial campus (we will move to new permanent premises in the next few months) receiving instruction in English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies in accordance with the internationally recognised Canadian Ontario curriculum. 

In addition, Ideas Academy offers learning opportunities in the areas of creativity, physical and health education, Bahasa Malaysia, world issues and life skills as well as extracurricular activities including music, sports and field trips.

Endorsed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ideas Academy has been supported by many including Cordaid Foundation, the A&A Charitable Trust and AQ Services International. 

We also enjoy partnerships with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, Taylor’s Education Group, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Monash University. More information can be found at ideasacademy.org.my.

Ideas’s usual research work and advocacy on education policy continues alongside these two special projects.

Our 15th Policy Ideas paper looked at the experience of three school voucher programmes to seek a benchmark framework for what regulations and infrastructure need to be in place in order for a similar programme to be successfully implemented in Malaysia.

Our 17th Policy Ideas paper exploring the setting up of special needs centres draws from our experience in setting up IAC. The paper mentions the bureaucratic hurdles that had to be overcome, as well as encountering arbitrary and unclear processes in applying for ministry grants. 

Other centres experienced the same issues, and the paper suggests that the government should introduce a scheme to incentivise the creation of similar centres and enable parents to afford the quality care, education and therapy that their children need.

I am encouraged by what my colleagues at Ideas have been able to achieve this year on the education front from Pudu, Taman Bukit Templer and Bukit Tunku: but there is more to do, and more that others could do if the educational communists who still believe in rigid bureaucracy and over-centralisation can be defeated.

Please do help by donating either to Ideas Autism Centre, Ideas Academy or Ideas itself at ideas.org.my.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.