“Doing School” In Malaysia – Part II: What Can We Do?

In the first part, “”Doing School” In Malaysia – Part I: What’s The Problem?”, I talked about some factors that represent the dire need for a change in attitude towards the Malaysian education system.

This change of attitude needs to come from all places – students, teachers, parents, schools, the government, communities, media, the general public. Everyone can do something to bring back education in Malaysia back to what it should be about: learning, giving back to the community, and being engaged – not trying to play games.

Part II: What Can We Do?

1. Expect the unexpected – Not everything is really going to go according to plan. Perhaps you won’t get the grades you were hoping, or the course you want is unavailable, or an unexpected family event happens that takes up your time.

It’s not necessarily a matter of “I’m a good person, he’s a bad person”. As the saying goes, bad things happen to good people. (And besides, in some viewpoints good & bad are rather subjective.) Anything can happen to anyone.

Life seems to have a funny way of acting up when we don’t want it to. But that’s just how life is sometimes. The trick is to not let this get you down. Accept that things happen. Sure, there’s no harm in appealing your position or asking for a second opinion or whatever…but don’t let that paralyze you from moving on!

Often – at least in my experience – such things end up being blessings in disguise; a better offer might come up, or your lost chance might end up being not all that. Look for that blessing, appreciate it, and take is as it comes.

2. Lose the “special little snowflake” mentality – What do I mean by that? It’s described rather succinctly (if very crudely) by Mr T in this Ask Metafilter post about things you wish you knew at age 20:


The “special little snowflake” mentality is basically an entitlement complex – the idea that certain things should fall into your lap due to certain other factors. “I got straight As! I must get into Harvard!” “I got a top degree! I must have the best job in the world!” “I got a million degrees! I must be richer than Bill Gates!”

Straight As don’t guarantee you anything. Having a top degree doesn’t guarantee you anything. Nothing is a guarantee. Jobs or degrees or prestidge or whatever aren’t going to fall on your lap – you still need to work, to have passion, to show dedication, to actually learn and understand.

Heck, we have real-life examples now – how many of the complaints coming through about lost uni places and lost scholarships are on the lines of “Well he got less As than me, how come he got it when I didn’t?!” And hey, Bill Gates was a dropout. So were many others.

If you really want something, be prepared to really work hard for it. Especially when you don’t get it the first time -it’s situations like those that really test your dedication and passion. If you’re willing to spend years mourning over the loss of a scholarship, instead of actually looking for other opportunities for funding…did you really want that scholarship?

3. Make education more like the real world – right now there is quite a gap between how school works and how the real world works. Education here has often been referred to as the menara gading – “ivory tower”. While it’s seen as a model of achievement here, the “ivory tower” term isn’t actually meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s a reflection of how academics become a barrier between someone and the real world; while they’re all caught up in books, they can’t survive outside the tower.

The curriculum could use some updates – if not in the actual content, at least in its presentation. It’s been shown that people learn better when there is a personal connection to the material – so use that to your advantage. Connect Maths formulas to real-life problems. Talk about Science in relation to current affairs (the designer baby debate is a good one). Examine Literature and its messages with the state of the world. The possibilities are endless!

You could even connect different subjects to one another. Do some scientific research that involves mathematics and logic, connect the implications of such research with historical precedents, learn about societies that would benefit from such research, write an essay on the research – and perhaps an illustrative story. You don’t even need to wait for the schools or teachers to do this; while studying, see how each subject interrelates to each other (or make the connections yourself!).

Exams could use a makeover. Denise Pope describes perfectly, in her Stanford lecture, what the problem is:

How many of us at our own workplaces are told, “you are in a very high-stakes situation – in fact a promotion, or your job, depends on it. We’re gonna give you something that you fill out with a paper and pencil. You are NOT allowed to use ANY of the resources that you normally have available to you. Guess what? It’s gonna be timed. Guess what? I’m the one that makes the decision and you have NO recourse over this. You have to do it ALONE – and it’s all gonna happen on Tuesday.”

Make use of more practical assessments (not just exams, but homework too) – project work, group work, long-term projects, field studies. Create assessments that reflect how the knowledge can be used in the real world (even if somewhat indirectly).

And if the exams still happen – design better questions. Create situational questions. Encourage use of creativity and critical thinking. Don’t get stuck into dogmatic marking schemes – allow for different points of view, and look for people who understand why their answers are what they are. This would make a big difference already.

Note: there isn’t anything inherently wrong with academics. However, it can be dangerous to be completely immersed in one world while ignoring how to survive and thrive in other situations. Living requires skills of all kinds.

4. Be adaptable – adaptability is the one skill most needed but least acquired by Malaysian students. When changes happen, or the unexpected becomes reality, students feel trapped; they think “Oh no! My life is over!” and act like it is so. For them, everything hinges on that grade or uni spot or scholarship: one misstep, and it’s all gone.

It need not be that way. As mentioned earlier, things happen; sometimes not the way we like it to. But there’s really no point in waiting for others to change while we bemoan our fate. We create our destiny.

Plan A doesn’t work? Go for Plan B. No Plan B? Make one. There’s no need to lock yourself in so early anyway – there’s plenty of time, and people & situations do change. If you have to take a break because you can’t get into uni now…accept that, and make the best use of that break (you most likely need it!). If you need to work to earn money, then do honest work. Don’t let sudden changes block you, paralyze you.

And if you do decide to change your mind – different course, academic life not for you, whatever – then make the change. You are allowed to change your mind.

5. Work for it – If you really want something, go all out for it – and prepare to sacrifice.

Oprah Winfrey once mentioned an anecdote on her show about how her acting coach told her that she (Oprah) didn’t actually want to be an actor, but that she wanted to be a star. She said that if Oprah really wanted to be an actor, she would be willing to quit everything and wait tables while waiting for those acting jobs. She’d put in the hard work – because acting jobs aren’t going to fall on her lap just like that.

It’s still true, even outside showbiz. Some people are lucky in that things happen without much effort. If that’s the case for you, great! However, you still need the dedication and motivation to keep at it. There’s no point being lazy about it.

There will be times when it’s hard and you’re feeling unmotivated. That’s fine; perfectly normal. But again, don’t let it paralyze you. Seek help, take a break, do something else…let yourself recharge. Then go back with a new sense of perspective and see if it helps. And if it really feels like a dead end…well, there is no shame in change.

6. Lose all illusions of prestidge – people here tend to be really hung up on prestidge. Go to the “top schools” – premier schools, Ivies, Oxbridge, whatever. Get prestidgious degrees. Earn top money in top jobs. Nothing but the top.

There is a difference between what is prestidgious and what is the best. Prestidge is a matter of opinion, of hype and the status quo. It’s what people say is best. What’s really th e best is a highly individual matter – what’s best for someone is different from what is best for someone else.

Harvard has this reputation for being the “best university ever” but for many people it’s a bad choice – it’s not the place to go if you’re really artsy, for example. Science subjects are touted as the “smart student’s subjects”, and Arts and Humanities are left for the “backwards students” – but what makes a Science student any smarter than an Arts student? And do you really want to be a doctor to help people – or because it apparently has more glamour?

As Denise Pope constantly mentions, college should be a match, not a trophy. Basing decisions based on how prestidgious it is is living on someone else’s terms; the only terms you should live by is your own. What’s right for you may be a completely unknown name in the middle of nowhere. What you excel in may not be a well-known job. That’s fine. If it fits you best, that’s the way to go.

10 universities do not hold a monopoly on providing the world’s best education. 3 career paths do not hold a monopoly on being the best jobs. What makes a place good or not is how you make of the experience; prestidge is largely useless if you can’t make the best out of it. In the end, it’s you that matters, not some silly ranking system.

7. Be open to possibilities – and make them – Education does not only consist of school, tuition, and exams. There are SO MANY options out there! They can be taken anytime, in any order, and any pace.

You don’t have to rush to enter uni before the SPM results are out; feel free to take a year off. You can work for a while between studies. You can take more esoteric subjects. You can drop the issue entirely. It’s all up to you.

This goes in well with expecting the unexpecting and being adaptable – we have plenty of opportunities out there. Not all are conventional, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s up t us to find those opportunities, recognize them, and take advantage of it.

Hey, we could even make our own opportunities! Companies can sponsor students on study-abroad trips. More programs can be developed. Charter schools, as suggested by M. Bakri Musa, can be set up to make primary and secondary education more flexible. Some of these ideas can even be synthesized – Kathy Sierra suggests “learning designers” in her post “College Matters…Sometimes” (a followup to her equally amazing post, “Does College Matter?”:

Maybe there should be third-party “learning designers” who you pay to plan and choose the best options and put together a perfectly tailored custom program from a variety of learning vendors (instead of throwing all your learning eggs into one school basket) that still includes some general education, but in the way that makes the most sense for that particular student, and uses both online, distance, and *some* face-to-face learning. If a parent (and more importantly, the student) thinks that leaving home is important, that can be a component as well (although I’m still voting for the crash-course with a backpack and a rail pass thing). The students could go to a kind of “advanced learning camp” that could be anything from an off-campus dorm (complete with cafeteria), or something more primitive.

The possibilities are all out there! Make use of it! Don’t get stuck in a narrow-track minded; open it up a little.

8. Take care of yourself – students are harming themselves by not eating or resting in the name of studying. Schools aren’t helping; many ignore health issues (especially mental health) just for the sake of perfect records or attendence (how many of us were told that we still had to come to school despite being sick?). Pressure mounts, and many students blow up – their health plumments, their emotions go haywire, they get exhausted and fall into anxiety and depression. All sadly too common.

Our body, mind, and soul has boundaries; let’s respect them. Have some proper rest – don’t burn the midnight oil out too long. Eat a balanced diet. Stay away from “superdrugs”; they just really mess you up. See a doctor if things go back (or even for a checkup – really handy). Don’t just sit there reading books; take a walk or two.

Also, don’t pile on the pressure. There’s already so much going on in life as it is. Allow students to breathe and be themselves. They will not be a failure if they aren’t perfect; no one is! The suicide rate for youths in this region is already too high; let’s not make it higher.

9. Get a life – It’s not meant to be rude. Rather, students nowadays tend to focus so much on textbooks that they forget who they are. This doesn’t mean “drop everything and go shopping” (though if that helps you, great) – it means exploring other facets of yourself and letting that show through.

Perhaps you have a creative side. Perhaps you like performing. Perhaps you’re curious and want to see how things work. Perhaps you have an idea for something never before seen. Perhaps you have a strong passion in something they don’t teach in school. Pursue those! Even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. It provides a welcome mental break, and it helps the person holistically – instead of being super-concentrated on one aspect, they are balanced on almost all aspects of themselves.

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you – you don’t have to be Ian Thorpe to enjoy swimming, and you don’t have to be Harry Potter to cast a little magic here and there.

10. Honour youths with unusual interests – the youths we glorify here tend to have conventional attributes. Straight As, Ivy acceptance, Nicole David. There isn’t much room for flexibility.

However, there are so many young people out there doing amazing things that are out of the ordinary. Photography, writing, presenting, science, performance, crafts, manufacturing, management…so much! They could use a lot more encouragement and support.

Feature these youths in the media. Provide assistant and sponsorships for their projects. Provide an ability for these youths to network and collaborate on projects. (TakingITGlobal is a great international resource for this, but we need a more Malaysian-specific one.)

When youths see that there are young people who are happy and content and sucsessful at doing various other things besides studies and sports, they’d be motivated to pursue their own passion. Not having straight As won’t bother them or hinder them; they’ll know that they can make it no matter what. And that’s a valuable lesson we can impart on them; that they are capable of doing anything they set their mind to.

11. Rely on yourself – every year the Blame Game is played: “the Government is conspiring to keep worthy people out of scholarships or university! There is something wrong with them! They hate us!”

Sure, the system needs a LOT of work. But we should already know by then that we can’t rely 100% on them – or any outside person. In the end, we can only rely on ourselves; we need to be responsible for our own achievement, for our own goals, for our own wishes. We can’t afford to be needy, begging for handouts.

Playing the Blame Game and continuously whining year after year about how “life is unfair” gets us nowhere. Yes it’s unfair. And while they fix themselves up, let’s be resillient and adaptable and look for our own options. This is our life; we need to take it into our own hands.

There are plenty of ideas about how to bring positive change to the Malaysian educational system – much more than the 11 I have here. What other ideas do you have? Are they being implemented now? How can we implement them? Even the smallest idea helps.

Links in Post:


“Doing School” In Malaysia – Part I: What’s The Problem?

Our education system is in dire need for change.

Education, especially in Malaysia, has ceased to be about learning, experiencing, engaging, and exploring what the world has to offer. Instead, it has become nothing more than an excuse for materialistic gains, stress, and heavily skewed priorities on life.

Instead of “I’m going to school because I love to learn and it enriches my life”, it’s “I’m going to school because I need straight As otherwise my life is over”. Instead of “I’m going to school to learn how to give back to my community”, it’s “I’m going to school so that I can be in the top universities and get a high-paying job and get that condo and BMW”.

Denise Clark Pope, who is a lecturer in the School of Education in Stanford University in the United States, has also done plenty of research on this issue. While on a mission to find examples of engagement in schools – where students are truly enthusiastic and focused on the learning process, perhaps due to a great teacher or interesting classes or any other factor – she found students that were, in their own words, “playing the game”.

Her book, Doing School: How We’re Creating A Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students chronicles the daily school life of 5 students in a top public school in California that she shadowed for a whole year:

  • Kevin, the son of a Berkeley-educated engineer who wants him to be the same; he carries around a calculator and obsessively checks his GPA (both normal and weighted) everytime he gets a test back
  • Eve, who takes every AP class in existence and is a member of every club – because she believes that’s the only way to get to Harvard
  • Theresa, who has to work after school in order to support her family
  • Michelle, who is more enthusiastic about her drama activities but takes easy classes as a tradeoff
  • Roberto, who aims to be the first person in his family to go to college; he differed from the rest in that he wasn’t willing to “play the game”

According to her book, as well as her recent lecture on “Doing School” (available on Stanford’s podcasts), these students risk their health, sanity, social life, and aspirations for the sole purpose of good grades. She quotes Kevin:

Look, people don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high-paying job, which brings them to happiness – or so they think.

I’ve yet to read the book, but her lecture was definitely a wake-up call, and it is definitely REQUIRED LISTENING for everyone in Malaysia. I’m currently awaiting permission from her to post up the transcript and/or the MP3 file, but contact me and I’ll see what I can do.

“But that is America,” you might say. “Malaysia is different.” Perhaps so. But the similarities are shocking. It’s not just a “Western” problem; stress over achievement is hitting close to home.

TIME Magazine Asia‘s cover story on March 27 2006 was about “Asia’s Over-Scheduled Kids”, which describes the perils of pushing Asia’s youths too hard in the name of success and education. From “E-MBA” programs which teaches communications and business to children as young as 3 and as old as 6; boarding schools for kindergardens, with playtime trimmed to make more time for study; prep tests for elementary/primary school…it goes on.

Newsweek also points out what’s going on in the standardized examinations; their cover story that same week, “The Perfect Score”, asks: “Is rampant cheating undermining our schools?” Under the pressure to succeed, students feel forced to cheat, and in myriad ways – not just copying people’s papers or looking at notes during exams, but going as far as taking drugs to focus on exams.

It doesn’t help that the exams themselves are not foolproof; the US College Board, which administers the SATs, had a snafu last October when 4000 scores were miscalculated – causing much anguish amongst high school seniors whose SAT scores could make the difference between going to college or not.

Part I: What’s The Problem?

1. Cheating – as mentioned earlier, cheating has taken many forms and is getting more prevalent. Surprisingly, it’s the higher-level students that cheat more. According to Pope, almost all the students she shadowed went to all means possible to get up on their grades – using facilities open only to staff, buttering up the teacher for higher grades, copying homework, creating treaties with teachers (Michelle and her Math teacher worked out a plan: Michelle only has to come for exams.).

Many of them do not see them as cheating – only par for the course. Those that do aren’t proud of it, but they say that they are forced to do it; if they don’t cheat, they will suffer in exams, and there goes their grade (and their life).

Sadly, they may be right to an extent – Roberto didn’t cheat, he was very adamant on that; and because he didn’t cheat, he didn’t get good enough grades to get into his dream university.

We do it here too. How many of us got our parents to sew up that tissue-box cover for Kemahiran Hidup? (I admit I did.) How many of us copy homework when we haven’t finished it? How many of us go fishing for “tips” from school teachers and tuition teachers so we know what will show up in the exams?

And yet sometimes not cheating gets you in trouble; in my ex-college, 50 of the top students (myself included) were falsely accused of plagiarism, without any proof; the people that did plagiarize got away scott free. So much for originality.

2. Skewed priorities – students aren’t in school to learn. They’re in school to get ahead. For them, all that matters in life is status; lots of money, top jobs, more authority. “Naik pangkat”. Nothing about whether you actually learntor understood anything.

Even being “productive members of society” falls by the wayside. How many people getting As in Moral Studies or Islamic Students actually understand the underlying values behind the lessons – and how many just memorized by rote? The Interact club in my former secondary school did maybe one community service project a year – most of the time and money went into organizing get-togethers. Eve started volunteering at a local hospital not because she wanted to help people, but because she needed something to stand out from the rest of her friends who also want to go to Harvard. (Her main reason for Harvard? Money.)

Just look at the yearly influx of people trying to get scholarships for medicine: how many of them really want to help people by healing, and how many of them, like Eve, are just in it for the status/money?

Parents also have a part to play in this. Like Kevin’s father, many parents have certain aspirations of their children and force their children to reach their parents’ goals – regardless of what the child itself wants to do. As Dr.Aruna Broota, clinical psychologist at the University of Delhi, notes in the TIME article:

Many parents want to show off their children. They want to say, “My son is the best performer in his class” or “he will go to Harvard”. The child understands that what’s important is not his education but that he is a status symbol for his parents.

3. Too much emphasis on prestidge – people keep going on and on about getting into the best universities, the best jobs. “Go to the Ivy League!” “You must enter a prestigious school!” “College is important for your resume!”.

What people fail to realize is that not everyone is the same. A so-called “prestigious” school isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone. As Pope notes in her lecture:

College is a match, not a trophy.

Sometimes school itself isn’t the best option for everyone. Not everyone thrives in a traditional educational environment – but that doesn’t mean they’re doomed if they don’t go to school or college.

Forbes recently came out with a series of reports on whether college matters for success, and they found that it doesn’t always matter: students who were accepted into top colleges but opted for someplace else did just as well – or better – than their Ivy counterparts. Indeed, it is possible to be more succesfull without college – if you invest all that money instead!

The point Forbes, Pope, and people like them were making is that (in Pope’s words) it’s the kid, not the school. Thriving and being sucessful depends more on the individual than on their job or college degree.

4. Sacrificing of health and sanity – “burning the midnight oil” isn’t really good for anyone. In the rush to get all As/a 4.0/whatever, students would sacrifice sleep, proper diets, and exercise so that they can study, study, study. Eve didn’t have time for lunch; her only school meal was a box of cereal. Theresa fell sick so often that she kept missing school. And how many exam-year students do we know that stayed up all night cramming for tests?

It has been proven that lack of rest and an off-balance diet leads to many things – a suppressed immune system (making you more suspectible to colds, flus, and the like), lethargy, lack of focus and concentration, and so on. Some students resort to inappropiate/illegal drugs and weird concuctions just to keep themselves alert – but sometimes those cause more harm than good.

Not only their physical health suffers. Mental health conditions amongst the school-age bracket is on the rise. Panic disorders, stress disorders, hysteria, anxiety, and depression are on the rise, largely due to the increased stress and pressure on students to succeed in school.

Yet they’re not quite as acknowledged, or even respected.. In my school, quite a number of people (including myself) were going through panic disorders and hysteria, but teachers would dismiss them as “something inside your head”. A classmate ended up transferring to another school due to hysteria; my Malay Language teacher’s response? “I hope she doesn’t take her SPM here – she’d just bring down our perfect record.”.

Every year there are suicides and attempted suicides because of a missing A or a lack of scholarship (remember this girl?). Do we want this to keep happening?

5. Lack of a “life” outside school – Students are so focused on academics – so much so that they develop one-track minds about it. Friendships aren’t built on other things anymore; now it’s become a competition, “whose scores are higher”. Eve competed very strongly with her friends – she persuaded Pope not to tell anyone else about her volunteering at a local hospital so that she had something different on her record.

Jealousy stems over test results. People are ostrazied for doing poorly…or for doing better than the rest.

People aren’t going out to have fun anymore. After school, it’s tuition. Then homework. Then study. Then school again. Whatever happened to just spending time for yourself? With your family? Either that, or they indulge in a million extracurricular projects – but not for any actual interest. Like academics, they consider certain activities to be status symbols, and partake in them just for the resume filler. How focused and dedicated can you really be when you’re doing a million things at once?

And yet, if you dare suggest you watch TV for a while, or go outside for a walk, or whatever, you’re seen as “lazy”, an “underacheiver” – a “failure”.

6. Lack of acknowledgement for alternatives – Michelle and Kevin were frustrated that the activities that they were really engaged in – drama and community service – couldn’t be counted for academic credit. In her drama work, Michelle would read up other plays by the playwright, research the historial period of the play, the costumes…and yet she couldn’t get any credit for English and History because it wasn’t in the syllabus. Kevin hung a newspaper article about his collection efforts on top of his bed, reminding him that he can do good – but in his school, only the GPA matters.

Our curriculum doesn’t really makes itself open for flexibility. First of all, it’s largely outdated. When I was studying Commerce, in 2001/2001, our 1991-era textbooks had giant cordless phones as the “latest in technology”. I understand that there has been recent updates, but how recent are they? And how relevant is it to today’s world?

The curriculum also doesn’t allow for outside learning – for instance, I could do all the research possible on Egyptian history, but most of it won’t come in handy for the History paper. I can’t even use an outside text for analysis on the Literature component in Malay and English. Even subjects like Science and Art have “certain ways” of being answered – hence all the “How To Answer Such & Such A Paper” seminars.

The main form of assessments also aren’t that flexible; projects and coursework aren’t taken as seriously. Everything is about the exams.

Youths who dare to look beyond school are not being given the respect they deserve. A common refrain I heard during the SPM/scholarship season is “The only people who say grades don’t matter are underachievers”. Way to insult all the hard-working people who dedicate their passions to something different for once! Get into Cambridge or Harvard and you get front-page news; represent Malaysia in an unusual program and you don’t even get a column in the Classifieds.

7. The entitlement complex – I’ve noticed during the scholarship season the hordes of people who go “I got straight As and was the President of every club and is a poor man’s son, but I didn’t get a scholarship! This is unfair! IT’S A CONSPIRACY!” One person even had the gall to say that her hard work has “all gone to waste” and that not granting her the scholarship amounted to an insult to her father, a teacher for nearly 30 years.

This also happens post-graduation – fresh grads expect top-tier jobs, are faced with entry-level jobs, and complain that the system is unfair to them.

Firstly: 15000 people, 8000 scholarships. Obviously not everyone will get a scholarship! Did you all really learn Maths? The same goes for jobs – there’s bound to be more demand than there are jobs; not everyone can get the top jobs. And even so, is it such a big loss that you don’t get the top job or the top scholarship?

Getting straight As doesn’t entitle you to anything. Getting a degree doesn’t entitle you to anything. You still need to work for it, perhaps even more so. And it’s not the end of the world if top colleges/scholarships/jobs aren’t forthcoming; the options are endless!

8. Passion falls by the wayside – this is the result of most of the above. In superfocusing on certain subjects and habits for a certain level of grades, students (and their parents and teachers) forget about their passions; what really engages and excites them. Like Michelle and Kevin, whatever really turns them on is tossed aside for the “holy grail” of college and grades. The heart and soul suffers.

The world needs as much diversity as possible when it comes to careers, life choices, actions, interests. Yet the current education system only produces narrow-minded robots who are forced to follow a certain path without considering if it’s the right path for them. As noted in the TIME article:

In the new economies, the real spoils will go to the creatives – the quick-witted entrepeneurs and innovators, not the compliant milksops with ambitions restricted to the traditional professions. Education reform will come about only when this is more widely recognized by parents across Asia.

Not just parents – students, teachers, governments, education practictioners…everybody.

Part II will provide some suggestions on what needs to change – in the system, in the community, with the students. Please share your ideas and thoughts.

Links in Post:

Gap Years: Taking Time off Study to Learn

A desire to travel, escape boredom, and take a much-needed break from studies. Do they sound like good reasons to take a year off from university? How about wanting an education that extends beyond the confines of the classroom, and craving for a taste of independence?

– Tan Shiow Chin, Gap Year Allure, The Star (Malaysia) Sunday 4th June 2006

Those words head off an article in The Star’s recent Education pullout about five British girls – Rachel Baum, Victoria Young, Emily Wemily-Whitefield, Lisa-Ann Goodman, and Claris Davison – who are all here in Malaysia travelling and working on various projects (working at the Taiping Zoo and doing community outreach, amongst others) as part of their gap year.

Some may wonder, what exactly is this “gap year” we speak of? Here’s a guide:

So what exactly is a gap year?
A gap year is pretty much what the name implies – a break between periods of study. Basically, gappers (a common nickname for those who take gap years) take time off between periods of schooling to do something else for a while.

When are gap years often taken?
Gap years are most commonly taken between secondary education (O-Levels/SPM or A-Levels/STPM) and tertiary education (college and university), between undergraduate and graduate/postgraduate work, or between graduation and work – though there are some that take gap years during secondary or tertiary education itself.

Where are gap years popular?
Gap years are very common in the United Kingdom (one very famous example being Prince William, who took time out after Eton to work with Raleigh International) and are gaining popularity in the United States, Europe, and Oceania, but they haven’t been quite as popular in Asia, including Malaysia.

And why is that?
There are a few prevalent beliefs amongst Asian cultures – including Malaysian ones – that discourage youths from taking gap years. Amongst them:

  • You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter
  • If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues
  • You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity
  • Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained
  • Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense
  • Gap years are a “Western” thing

Let’s tackle these beliefs one by one.

Belief 1: “You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter”
There is no law that states required age for university entry. You will not miss out on admissions chances if you take time off after your exams. Indeed, for many students in Malaysia, they won’t be able to enrol immediately anyway since they would most likely be called up for National Service, which already takes a chunk of time away.

Universities and colleges will always be around; they will wait. It is possible to get accepted and then apply for a deferment, which allows you to enrol later. In some countries (especially the United States), taking gap years may actually boost admissions chances, as it shows initiative, independance, and other skills and abilities, making you more of a complete package and an asset to the university community. Harvard University, most people’s idea of a “top university”, even encourages recent accepted students to take a gap year before enrolling.

Gap years also allow you to really reflect on your chosen path, and it’s a great opportunity to see whether the course you want to take is the one for you – better to find out that you don’t really want to be a dentist after spending a few months working in a dental clinic, than to find this out after spending at least 4 years (and thousands of dollars) in dental school!

Not everyone does return to university life after a gap year. Some just seem to take on “gap lives”. This isn’t lways a bad thing; university isn’t for everybody, and for some people, being a free spirit is better for their souls. Everyone has their own path, after all.

Belief 2: “If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues”
Here’s where the old adage “Time waits for no man” doesn’t quite apply. Life isn’t exactly age-dependent. You DON’T HAVE to graduate by 21; you DON’T HAVE to earn a million by 30; you DON’T HAVE to be married with kids by 35. Everyone has their own pace in life and you’re allowed to live by your own pace. Age doesn’t necessarily determine your success; what determines it is your dedication, passion, and determination to make it happen. Anything is possible if you set your mind to it and work for it.

There are people who graduate college in their 70s and 80s. Presidents and Prime Ministers are typically in their 60 to 80s. One of my university classmates was nearly 30; she was the oldest in a group of 18-20-year-olds.

Heck, I’ve taken plenty of time off here and there (I’ll share my story soon), and if I do graduate by the projected time (2009; I’d be about 24) I’d still be very young for a lot of things. Life is short, yes; that doesn’t always mean we have to rush. Age is but a number; it’s all in how you make of your situation.

Belief 3: “You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity”
Again, you don’t have to rush. There’s plenty of time for work. Employment rates change, and there are always job openings – you can even create your own job! Even fresh graduates who have never taken some time off aren’t always guaranteed a job, so there’s no real way to say whether having a gap year is necessarily a detriment to employability.

Gap years can also be a great resume booster. In the same way that they help university admissions, employers would be very impressed with people who have taken the initiative to explore various options and gain experience. Based on your varied skills and experiences, you would stand out over other competitors vying for the same job whose resumes are more conventional but less unique.

I personally feel that we’re focusing too much on materialistic gains. “If you don’t get a good, high-paying job, you’re a failure” – this mindset is a corollary to “If I don’t get straight As/admission into top universities/a scholarship/a degree, I’m a failure”, and is extremely destructive. Success shouldn’t be on just how much you earn or what you own; it should be about your satisfaction with life. What makes you happy? Many people take gap years just to answer that question; it’s definitely something we should think about.

Belief 4: “Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained”
Here’s where I share my story.

I was severly burnt out after my SPM exams in 2002. I had struggled through that year with stress, unpredicted and unfortunate circumstances (including the disappearance of a few dear friends), as well as panic disorder and depression. The school environment had become highly toxic for me, and I knew I couldn’t continue in similar environments – at least not immediately.

Right after the exams, I vowed to take time off for myself. I used that time to really delve myself into things I was interested in. The first couple of things I did was a radio book review show, as well as applying for a job with Xfresh. (I almost got the job; however, I lived out-of-state, which was a problem.)

2003 was a flurry of activity. I was reunited with one of my best friends, Asha Gill, after 9 months of no contact and got to meet her for the first time later that year. (She was based in Hong Kong previously.) I took hip-hop dance classes for a few months – finally, some exercise! I gained an interest in American Idol, and in the middle of the year my mum and I flew up to Washington DC, USA, to see Clay Aiken (whom I’m a big fan of) and the other contestants on their American Idol roadshow. (My aunt – my mum’s sister – lives in Virginia, which is nearby, so it was good for my mum to come along too.) That was an experience in itself – Clay Aiken’s fans are a community of their own, and we had plenty of parties and meetups; I even got filmed for the news!

I also became part of The Star’s BRATs – going to my first workshop in Lumut, Perak; writing a front-page interview (with Asha!); participating in their End-Year trip to Mabul, Sabah to work on marine conservation by making artificial reef balls. I also took part in the National Novel Writing Month, an international challenge to write 50,000 words or more of a novel in the month of November. Together with the BRATs’ End-Year trip, I closed off the year by participating in Power 98 FM Singapore‘s Radio DJ workshop, and on New Years 2004 I launched Asha’s official website AshaGill.Com, which I had been working on for much of the year before.

Ironically, I was meant to be enrolled in Limkokwing University College by mid-2003, which wasn’t really to my liking but at the time wasn’t much of a choice; other circumstances delayed this to February 2004, which really gave me my “gap year”.

I have since taken another gap year. After one and a half years in college (much of it spent on other things such as volunteering with Amnesty International, writing for BRATs, and participating in the Project-Blog Blogathon), I travelled with Up With People from August till December 2005, and (besides having the time of my life) had a major reevaluation of wht I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t return to college; instead, I visited my relatives for a while, and then worked with Channel [V] International for a few months to gain experience and save up for my trip to Denver, Colorado, for the Up With People Premiere. I also got involved with the All Women’s Action Society through a few projects and workshops. I will soon reenter university life by entering Queensland University of Technology for three years; who knows how long it really will be or what else I’ll be up to!

Those two years I spent doing out-of-the-box things (2003 and 2005-2006) were the biggest learning experiences of my life. I learnt more from all the activities I did during those times than I ever did at school. It built up my confidence, taught me so many things about myself and the world, connected me to all sorts of people, and gave me exposure to things that I would NEVER get in a school environment. Many gappers have reported that they felt the exact same way. And besides, we were too busy to loiter!

Belief 5: “Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense”
That really depends on what you aim to do in your gap year; not all gap years are the same.

There are plenty of organized programs that market themselves for gap years – from specific gap-year programs such as LeapNow and Where There Be Dragons, to programs organized by the likes of AFS, Up With People, Raleigh International, The Peace Boat, semester At Sea, and The Scholar Ship, and much much more. Prices of these programs differ; some offer financial help, some are self-funded.

Gap years need not always be organized programs. Plenty of people design their own gap years. Backpacking is especially popular, particularly with people who want to travel on a low budget. (The Art Of Travel provides excellent advice for backpacking on the cheap.) Some people take up jobs or start their own businesses, helping them earn money instead of spending it. Internships, volunteering, and job shadowing barely cost anything but can help you earn good money in the future by gaining experience. There are also people who are more spontaneous about their gap years – instead of planning in advance, they just take whatever comes their way.

Gap years can also help you save money. Many people enter university not really knowing what they want to study or do with their lives. While not everyone is going to know their life purpose in their 20s, gap years offer a great opportunity to explore interests and see what sort of things you like. You could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in university fees by enrolling to a course or university that fits your ideals more, rather than something chosen in an undetermined haze.

Belief 6: “Gap years are a “Western” thing”
While they are more common in Western parts of the world, due to their more liberal attitude on education and youths, there are plenty of people in other parts of the world that take gap years. I’m one such example. Young Singaporean men are automatically enlisted for their own National Service, which is in a way a form of a gap year (albeit a government-mandated one). Gap years are even gaining popularity in countries with traditional expectations of education, such as Japan and Korea.

Another perfect example of local people taking gap years is Suzanne Lee, who has taken time off from studying to explore and photograph the world. She has just been selected as one of the top 10 finalists for the KLue Blue Chilli Awards, which is a great way to recognize her efforts. Congrats Suzanne!

Gap years are flexible, open to possibility, and full of potential for growth, exploration, and innovation. Here are some resources:

GapYear.Com is widely regarded as the definitive guide for gap years in the UK. Transitions Abroad and GoAbroad offer plenty of ideas and articles on studying, working, travelling, and volunteering abroad. SolBeam is a young woman who took time off from her work to travel to Costa Rica – and has never stopped travelling since. Her blog contains wonderful stories about her trips and explorations, as well as some tips on travelling. Also check out the links in the “Links In Post” section below.

The Teenager’s Guide To School Outside The Box (ISBN: 0613938860) by Rebecca Greene contains plenty of ideas for those still in secondary school (and who just left), while Delaying The Real World (ISBN: 0762421894) by Colleen Kinder is geared towards college students and college graduates. Also check out Michael Landes’s The Back Door Guide To Short-Term Job Adventures: Internships, Extraordinary Experiences, Seasonal Jobs, Volunteering, Working Abroad (ISBN: 1580084494).

Whether travelling, volunteering, learning something new, or just doing something different, gap years are a great way to decompress from the pressures of school and still get amazing learning experiences. If you’re stressing over where to go to university, or what to do after graduation, take a gap year – it’ll help you clear your mind and explore your choices.

If you have any gap-year stories of your own, please feel free to share in the comments. Also feel free to ask questions, and share opinions. Discussion is fun!

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