The 12 paradoxes of Malaysian education

JULY 29 — About half a dozen years ago, I published an article on 10 paradoxes in our education system.

In light of the upcoming PT3 and SPM examinations, I thought I would revise, update and add to them.

Here we go:

1. In school, 90 per cent of the “top” students join the Science stream, but afterwards 90 per cent of school-leavers go into Business and 120 per cent of them want to do nothing but make money.

Early on, school kids dream of being, say, a pilot or doctor or lawyer or Iron Man and so on. But when they grow up? They only want to be rich. Don’t care how.

2. In school, 90 per cent of the material is delivered in Malay, but 90 per cent of professional life is communicated in English.

So not only will you have thousands of grads talking like they need to include subtitles beneath their conversations, this system will also directly contribute to our unemployment rate (for fresh grads) rivalling our inflation rate.

3. In school, Maths and Science are deemed critical; these are more or less the subjects which send tuition class owners grinning all the way to Maybank.

But, alas after school the only Biology we care about is what Angelina Jolie eats for lunch, the only Physics attempted is calculating when the lights will turn amber then red; the only Chemistry performed is when we need to shake the ketchup bottle; and the only Maths done is when a huge group of people go Dutch at the cafe.

4. In school, PE, Moral Education and Arts are not considered important; at best side-orders, at worst “pariah” subjects for kids who can’t excel at other things.

But when we grow up, everybody spends gazillions on fitness and health-tech (and everyone is an expert at dieting), people scream racism and sexism on Twitter every other day, and even Malaysians are starting to spend time in art galleries, especially since “Cultured” is the new Sexy.

5. In school, using the Internet for teaching and learning is (shockingly) still considered “innovative” but upon completing school (or just about any time other than at school), the Web is as optional as water.

In school (and even universities), online assessment remains taboo or non-serious and many parents freak out at the mention of any kind of exams not written on real paper and within three hours inside a large ass hall.

In real life, everything is, well, the other way round. You live, eat and breathe social media all day, examinations happen on the fly and all our hand-writing has gone to hell for lack of, uh, writing any more.

6. In school — not unlike walking into Mordor — one does not simply challenge the teacher.

In fact, one is liable to get one's hiney smacked if one tries. Maybe that's why in Malaysian organisations we get many folks who believe that doing nothing but their job is good enough?

Maybe that’s why the 100 per cent guaranteed way to “stand out” in any Malaysian organisation is to, duh, criticise dumb decisions?

Cos this would mean the critic has attended some other kind of school than 99 per cent of the people?

7. In school, everybody is encouraged to read and listen; at work, nobody reads anything other than emails and as for listening... well, most people certainly pretend to.

This paradox is doubly interesting because in school and university Listening Skills is seen as a joke class which only losers pay attention to.

But in the corporate world, you can immediately tell who’s a good listener and who just wants to butt in and say his piece.

8. In school, children are restricted from discussing politics and religion in class. In the bleedin’ country, people talk about nothing else.

In school, there is not a hint of Political Science 101; after schooling age, every Malaysian is a bona fide political expert.

9. In school, few parents care about their children’s success in drama and acting classes before paying loads of money to watch people perform on the big screen or on stage. Go figure.

These same parents would’ve probably known immediately after getting their first job (or, most likely, even before that) that in the office people are not always who they seem i.e. everybody acts, and one of the key skills to “making it” up the corporate ladder is the ability to brilliantly play the right part at the right time.

10. In school, homework — lots and lots of it — is a measure of the seriousness or rigour of a child’s education.

Asian parents tend to worry if their kids appear “too free”. Out of school, everybody googles the latest life-hacks, discusses Marie Kondo (wait, you didn’t really think that minimalism shouldn’t apply to after-class work too, did you?), worries about too much stress in life and, most noteworthy of all, preaches about studying smart.

11. In school, rote-learning remains the best way to grab all those As, especially given the nature of the exam questions.

This not only ensures that many post-secondary school kids end up hating school, but also ill-prepares them for a career where learning is anything but rote.

In fact, in the office the ability to get along with others and play well as a team far exceeds the ability to churn out detailed essays on esoteric topics.

Of course, everybody knows this but for some strange reason (which the Finnish would probably shake their heads at), learning how to co-operate is NOT a key module in school. Go figure.

12. In school, exams are where we get locked in a room for three hours and made to write about 300 pages of stuff we hate (and won't need) to remember the very moment the exam is over.

At business conferences, we love to repeat — over and over again — just how terribly outdated and “exam-oriented” our education system is, whilst going home to force our kids to study and do well... for their exams.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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