JANUARY 21 — As rites of passage go, in Malaysia generally it is Form 5 in school. Most of us, and those before us, had their schooling experience defined by what’s usually our last year in uniform.
Obvious events have left that experience in tatters for the class of 2020. If not cruel enough, for them 2020 persists in 2021. The exams are not done, yet.
For the uninitiated, SPM and equivalent exams for last year’s batch begin on February 22, with public schools opened yesterday specifically for them to prepare.
May I add, there’s almost an iron-clad guarantee more surprises will manifest between now and the completion of the examination. Tighten those seatbelts!
Expectedly, there’s outrage. From parents, teachers, schools and centrally, students.
When the dust settles, who bears the blame?
While Covid-19 has enforced demands on all of us, those born in 2003 cannot help but ask, “Must it be during our year?”
The usual fifth former begins the year as school seniors.
To enjoy it first before settling into examination mode.
They barely got out of second gear when lockdown started on March 18, 2020.
Their lives turned upside down, thereafter.
No Sports Day, no Speech Day, no chance to win a district sports title or plan to fail in love with the girl from the tuition centre by the KK Mart.
It’s been mostly studying by looking into a screen, and back in school for short spurts before further restrictions ensued. A syllabus may have been somewhat covered, but it is no school year.
And SPM loomed large.
If not them, who?
Humanity, as a whole, has been scarred by Covid-19, and therefore special dispensations for 17-year-old Malaysians seem unnatural. Harsh, but true.
However, let’s consider their plight, the weight on their shoulders.
The burden which led candidate Sally Nur Dinie Lim from Selangor’s Puchong to initiate #SuaraPelajar, which various leaders from youth political party MUDA took to, not the least its president and former minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.
Lim wants the ministry to address the stress, uncertainties and fears confronted by students as exam countdown continues. Asking the ministry not to ignore their collective hurt.
MUDA quite happily stands behind Lim and the 40,000 plus who’ve signed a petition to consider alternative options.
Other education groups lent their opinions to the situation, including PAGE (Parent Action Group for Education).
Broad suggestions — to delay the examination, to allow students to opt for August dates when repeat papers are administered, render trial examination results as SPM results and online examinations among others — are discussed online.
How much is enough, what precedence exists?
Sapura founder Samsuddin Kadir, for instance, started Form One as a 19-year-old. Japanese Occupation did not include study from home, and he was in his twenties when he finished secondary school. So did many others who lost schooling years, thanks to the Second World War. That was the 1940s.
Otherwise, no other experiences to rely on for the education ministry to decide.
The education ministry, all their weaknesses apparent, does want the SPM examination to conclude. Too much is tied to this one examination, like 400,000 plus candidates.
The results dictate entries into matriculation, A-Levels, STPM, foundation year, polytechnic, community college or the workforce.
They cannot be left in limbo.
Yet, many suggestions are impossible. To delay the SPM also means the cohorts of 2021 overlap with 2020. Even without Covid-19, classrooms and teachers would be inadequate.
Further, the pandemic’s medium-term requirements of “social-distanced” classes would render an extension impossible.
Look deeper and options can be shallow. Collapsing trial examinations and SPM proper into one looks OK, until the potential results are factored. Public education involves large numbers and diverse interests, any monumental shifts would result in equally troubling backlashes.
Online examinations are non-starters. Already boarding schools and tuition students leverage special tips or forecast questions to their benefit and the institutionalised attitude to “use all means possible” to score means wholesale cheating would be the norm by those who can.
Every solution is linked to teachers.
The assumption teachers can do all and flexibly alter course indefinitely, again fails to recognise the nature of mass education public education is.
Start school, stop school, teach from the living room with your own children fighting for life space in the two-room apartment, manage social distancing inside classrooms, spray sanitisers into teenage palms when the school toilets have no soap and at times no water, and manage two SPM years concurrently. In short, immense burdens. In extension, their exhaustion transfers to the students.
Which is why solutions have to be mindful of effects on teachers.
The education ministry is faultless about the pandemic’s arrival but the poor custody of public education over decades turned the situation impossible. That, they are at fault for.
The current imbroglio if anything proves wide scale reform is necessary in our education system when the pandemic ends.
But that does not solve the problem for the students.
It does, however, explain that the outcome, or what will be asked of them, will upset them. It is a matter of how much it does. Upset them.
They should also take any efforts by those interceding on their behalf like MUDA with some caution.
MUDA, and other Opposition parties, can profit from Perikatan Nasional’s handling of SPM 2020.
If Pakatan was still in charge, it would have struggled too. The indecision and the inability to lead in times of turmoil is a virus our established political players have been long infected with before 2020.
Why do the politicians want this action?
Everybody wants to be with cohort 2020, that’s 400,000 voters if automatically registered in 2021.
If not now, when?
The examinations must conclude, soon.
Life must go on.
The better off say let’s do it right, and are tempted to allow months to pass so the disease ebbs and treats the wait as a gap year. A good SPM result decides so much.
At the same time, they must consider the others, the B40s, for whom — whether pursue further education or move directly to the workforce — time is precious. It also drains family resources.
And even if they don’t care, and there’s no consensus, this imperfect crossing has to be taken soon.
It’s better to brace for it than to buy time. The device was detonated last year, now is about recovery not denial.
Ultimately, the SPM students are to bite the bullet and it’s unfair from any direction.
To have a marathon Form Five, attend classes and examinations with trepidation over Covid-19 at every corner. Mental resolve is central to exam success, however it is difficult to focus when distracted.
But worse than the pain, is the potential indecisiveness can drag this even longer with even more inconclusive outcomes. If any outbreak occurs in several schools by middle-February, our fearful politicians may become edgy.
It’s time for all of us to come together and support SPM 2020 to end their journey. Tell them, at least they can always claim at reunions in the future it was surreal.
The situation lacks leadership. Covid-19 inflicted injury and continues to do so. SPM 2020 is a victim of the crime. The way forward is to adapt, adjust and move on.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.