On hiatus, as you’ve probably noticed

Edit: Life shifts again! I’ve now moved from Brisbane to San Francisco Bay Area, USA (and may move again once my MFA is up in may 2014, depending on visas). I’m still surprised at how many people find this blog over the years. Follow me at http://creatrixtiara.com 🙂

As you’ve probably realised, this blog hasn’t been updated in a while. It’s mainly because I’m on a hiatus from anything to do with alternative education & youth activism. I’m currently building a base in Brisbane and I’m concentrating on performance and creative production, which I’m passionate about and gives me great joy.

It’s been hard to maintain the energy needed to sustain EducateDeviate when I haven’t really been in Malaysia since mid 2006. Also, various events over 2008 have temporarily turned me off social enterprise and world-changing – I needed a break.

I was working on renovating EducateDeviate, turning it into a self-sustaining resource website (mainly because I keep getting comments from people thinking I’m some sort of Education DemiGod with all sorts of information at my fingertips). But life got crazy, and the project never took off.

I’m still interested in hearing about your projects, interesting alternative programs, your views on education. I just feel that the blog has run its course as it is, and for it to be really effective it’ll need to change in form – a change I’m not willing to expend energy on right now.

Feel free to get in touch. You can keep up with me at http://tiarashafiq.com (if I do post there!).

Thanks everyone!

Stupidest idea for suicide prevention ever.

The Malaysian police is planning to criminalise suicide by arresting those who attempt suicide. According to their twisted logic, jail is enough of a deterrent and besides, they can be counselled in jail anyway.

STUPIDEST. IDEA. EVER.

Mental health, depression, and suicide are issues that touch me deeply. I have lived with depression and anxiety for about half my life now, and I have attempted suicide before. Thankfully I have found Skincare Rejuvenation’s review and people that were able to reach out to me with compassion and kindness, and now I’m living a full happy life while managing my mental health.

I could hardly get anyone to respect me, or others with mental health issues, in school. We were all brushed off with “oh it’s just in your head” and “don’t do your exams here, you’ll just bring the pass rate down” (for what it’s worth, our school had a 100% pass rate on the SPM, even with at least 2 confirmed mental health cases taking the exam). The emails that I receive nowadays through EducateDeviate show that nothing much has changed. I still get people asking me for help, despairing that their dilemmas over university choices and their families not accepting their dreams are enough to push them over the edge.

Here are some things about depression:

  • Depression can be caused by a number of things: malfunctioning neurons and hormones, stressful situations, genetics – or some other links that are currently being researched. It’s both biological and environmental.
  • There are currently a lot of therapies, both conventional and alternative, that help with depression – medication, psychology, naturopathy, massage, acupuncture, colour therapy, sports, other things. Different things help for different people.
  • People who attempt or commit suicide usually feel like they’ve run out of options, or that they’re crying out for help. When you’re suicidal or depressed it’s extremely hard to think about other people’s reactions because you’re stuck in the brainwave of “no one cares about me anyway, I’m useless”. Jail is not a deterrent.

Here’s what helped me through my many years of ups and downs with depression:

  • Helplines like The Befrienders, who I absolutely recommend. Give them a call or email if you’re depressed and need an ear. sam@befrienders.org.my, 03 7956 8144/5.
  • The company of supportive and caring friends and family, who didn’t hold my depression against me and treated me with patience and compassion.
  • Being involved in fun, fulfilling projects that fitted my interests (a lot of my depression had to do with feeling “trapped” in situations I wasn’t fond of but felt obligated to do).
  • Medication and psychological therapy – it’s great to talk to experts about practical ways to manage the depression.
  • Breathing, meditation, flexible sports like yoga, dance, or circus – it takes your mind off the depression for the moment as you concentrate on your moves.
  • Self-care like massage, good books, a filling meal – this is something we absolutely suck in as a country, and which I’m still working on. Our culture doesn’t encourage taking care of ourselves – and yet it’s absolutely necessary for survival.

I read this article on suicide in South Korea and it saddened and worried me. So many of the factors mentioned in the article – the pressure to succeed, saving face, honour in death – are also evident in Malaysia. Yet our mental health services are almost non-existent, particularly for young people who may not have enough independence to seek out their own psychiatrist or counsellor. School counsellors may not be of much help too, if they follow the line of “suicide is a sin!” – yeah, as if that’ll help anybody.

How else can we create awareness and compassion for mental health in Malaysia? How do we help those trapped in the web of suicide and depression?

Some other pertinent links:

The suicidal need support, not punishment (Letter from T. Maniam, National rep of the International Association for Suicide Prevention)
Suicide a cry for help (letter from The Befrienders)
Hostile reception pushes Bostwanian students to the brink of suicide (hooray racism!)
Suicide rate high among ethnic Indians in Malaysia
Excerpt from “Suicide Prevention” about suicide rates in ethnic Indian communities in Malaysia

Now What?

I started EducateDeviate three years ago because I was inspired by my recent Up with People trip and remembered that many of my friends and peers wanted to do the same but didn’t know how. It started with a musing about how the year will be – and has grown into a fledgling resource on self-education, youth programs, interesting people, gripes about education, all sorts of things.

In the three years I’ve moved to a different country, became a conference junkie, dived fully into volunteering, explored subcultures I’d barely heard of before. I received plenty of emails from other young people around the world who found a kindred voice in me, and I sought out other youths who served as my inspiration.

Education in Malaysia hasn’t necessarily changed much – the biggest change would be the Government’s plan to not announce the name of the top scorers and limit the number of SPM papers one can take, to halt the trend of “get as many As as possible”. Even with a drastically changed government, there doesn’t seem to be too many dramatic upheavals education-wise. The Malaysian public are becoming more autonomous, though, with new ventures and projects popping up by the minute.

In a couple of months I officially graduate, and I return to Malaysia possibly indefinitely. Since I’ve been in Brisbane I’ve been immersed in Australian culture and current events; to be frank, I probably know a lot more about Brisbane than I do about Johor Bahru. I’ve hardly been able to keep up with what’s going on in Malaysia, replying on the assistance of my friends. I got to hear different viewpoints about local education, see how young people have deep respect here – but at the same time I’m not totally sure I could contribute to their causes.

EducateDeviate has served its purpose quite well, though there is room for improvement. However, there’s only so much talking I can do. For EducateDeviate to stay relevant – and for me to be more useful – we need to move into action.

What should EducateDeviate do?

I’m at a crosswords. My interests are melding and changing. There’s a faint possibility of being less hands-on with EducateDeviate to pursue other goals. (I’m reluctant to do this, as the last time I let go of a project and handed it over to someone else ended in disaster and lost friendships.) We could transform EducateDeviate from being just a blog to being a working organisation for youth and social change in education. Or we could do something else.

What should we do?

Tell me: now what?

The Secret to Career Success

From XKCD:

And the ten minutes striking up a conversation with that strange kid in homeroom sometimes matters more than every other part of high school combined.

And the ten minutes striking up a conversation with that strange kid in homeroom sometimes matters more than every other part of high school combined.

It’s not too far off from the truth.

Racist brainwashing by Biro Tatanegara – GRR

Biro Tatanegara (rough translation: Civics Bureau) is a Government-run agency that organises mandatory “citizenship” workshops for students that have received Government scholarships for tertiary education. Under the guise of “education” and “building a multicultural Malaysian culture”, these workshops are hubs of anti-Chinese/Indian/etc racism and anti-Semitism, shaming non-Malays while claiming Malaysia to be a Malay-only nation.

Education in Malaysia has been compiling stories from students and observers of these workshops. Here’s an excerpt of their experiences:

Jew-blaming:

…Malaysiakini reported that first-year students of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) were told at a seminar organised by BTN that foreign elements which want to see chaos in Malaysia were funding certain student groups. The speakers drew a link between these local student groups, ASA and the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit organisation which they said was sponsored by American and Jewish elements.

Indians, blogs, and Christians are evil:

He even said, “Kalau ular dengan India depan mata, ketuk India dulu.” (If a snake and an Indian are in front of you, hit the Indian first.) … He said so many atrocious things that I will list them down in point form.

-Explained how the Malays aren’t racist but others are racist towards us.
-Bangsa Malaysia (The Malaysian race) does not exist, neither does Malaysian Chinese and Indians, only in the strict Malay, Chinese and Indians. (Interestingly, behind a booklet provided to us, one of the objectives of the programme is to produce a -“Bangsa Malaysia”. Obviously, he was ignorant).
-Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language) does not exist, it is Bahasa Melayu (Malay language).
-Nothing wrong with waving the Keris (A traditional ceremonial Malay dagger which some politicians have waved in anti-non-Malay sentiment).
-Bumiputra (Malays and indigenous people) hanya 55% di Malaysia, give birth more people!
-The University and Colleges Act was partly made to ensure a Malay Vice-Chancellor in Universities which should be the way.
-Blogs are “berdosa” or sinful.
-Christians will not like Muslims.

Even the Malays reacted badly:

The instructors blatantly told them that they should not question the rights and privileges of the Malays as the non-Malays should be thankful that they were given citizenship status and a place to stay on their soil. My daughter together with the other non-Malay students was shocked and went back to their dormitories depressed. And to the Malay students, the instructors told them to be aware of this fact and not to mix too freely with the non-Malays.

A Malay friend of my daughter came back crying to the dormitory saying that she could not take the racist position taken by the government authority. My daughter then began questioning the bumiputra policy and was disgusted with such blatant indoctrination. This incident has also made the students harbour anger and resentment. Their fear for the authorities and losing their scholarships made them keep their cool.

When Education in Malaysia blogger and MP Tony Pua queried Biro Tatanegara about these allegations, this was their reply, as roughly translated into English by me (it’s originally in Malay):

Biro Tatanegara is an agency that runs courses based on citizenship and patriotic spirit within the whole of Malaysian society. Participants of these courses come from various cultures and age groups.

BTN also uses information or statistics that are obtained from other government agencies such as the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), the Statistics Department, the Implementation and Adjustment(?) Unit (ICU), the Ministry of Finance, and other Ministries in presenting facts to the participants, and it is departmental policy to not allow BTN speakers to touch on anything that can disturb the feelings of any race, and if this has happened the Department will drop them from being a BTN speaker.

In relation to your query, BTN realises that it’s on the blogs on the Internet, and based on our investigations, [your] claims (the bit about the snake and the Indian) are false. It is possible that some speakers had explained a few Indian proverbs relating to Indian societal matters that were misunderstood by the listener. Investigations have been undertaken and we have found no recordings that could be used as proof to verify the allegation.

As for your second query, BTN has never received any complaints about the matters that you have mentioned, and as far as we know there has not been any airing of videos like the ones you described (anti-Semitic clips) in our courses as organised by the Department.

According to past scholars that have attended such workshops, all recording devices (including mobile phones) are confiscated upon entry and all materials are carefully counted upon return. Many have said that they are too fearful to speak out as they are threatened with the loss of their scholarship – which, considering that many recipients are from low-income backgrounds and there aren’t many other funding options available, would be a major blow.

This sickens me to the core. I’ve heard plenty of racism in school but was lucky enough to not get a Government scholarship and therefore be indoctrinated into BTN’s faulty logic. Some of those that have been to these workshops have sadly reported on their peers passing on racist messages through social networking sites and being completely influenced by these workshops. If anyone’s threatening national security, it would be these goons!

I would like to see a private scholarship fund started for these students, so that they still have funding options for higher study without being gagged and afraid to speak up. There should be a way to get recordings of these workshops, even if it means James Bond-style spy gear. This menace – which is 100% funded by taxpayer money! – needs to disappear.

(Side note to Mum: I’m sorry for scaring you again. [I participated in a rally against the Clean Feed filter in Brisbane and spoke up about censorship in Malaysia – she saw my words and video and got scared.] I take full responsibility for anything that comes out of this. But unless things are done quickly, more and more young people will be brainwashed and we’ll just have an intolerant nation.)

Malaysian royalty is surprisingly awesome.

This excerpt comes from Wikipedia but references a Bernama article, which doesn’t seem to be working at the moment:

On July 2008, Regent of Perak Raja Nazrin Shah said that getting a string of As is meaningless if students fail to understand, appreciate and practice good values, and describing that excellent results as mere pakaian luaran (external appearance), there would be uneven development of human capital if students failed to inculcate good morals. “This will lead to society and the country to suffer”. He also said that people with good moral values always hold firm to life principles especially in defending truth and justice. Students should be taught not to lie or rely on leaked examination papers just to obtain higher grades. He noted that while positions and posts could give one power, one would be judged by the people. “There are many people who obtained positions and posts but there are not many who die with a good name.”

I wish school administration officers had his common sense!

How Blogging Has Impacted My Life (contest entry)

The people at Brazen Careerist, a Gen Y-oriented career and jobs website, are giving away a free ticket (worth US$425) to SXSW Interactive, one of the world’s biggest digital media conferences. To get a shot at the ticket, they’re asking people to write a post on how blogging has impacted their life. I’m a conference geek, and I’ve heard a lot of great things about SXSW, so I thought I’d give it a shot – something different, for EducateDeviate.

I’ve been online ever since 1995, when it first came to Johor (Malaysia). I immediately latched on to it as an avenue for expressing myself and meeting people. There used to be a children’s website (possibly named KidSpot) that I was very active on – I’d write stories, find penpals, and even get books to review by post. I loved the Internet and hardly went offline (save for one year when my parents wanted me to study).

The Internet, and all the variations of blogging – starting from personal sites on Geocities to online diaries at Diaryland and Livejournal – have impacted my life in a lot of ways. I’ve gained and lost friendships (and sometimes my sanity went with them!), gained entry to events that I wouldn’t even had heard of otherwise, be able to counsel and support other people with similar or connected life stories, and help others help themselves.

Here is a story that illustrates how the Internet (and, in a bit, blogging) has made a major impact, one of those impacts being the formation of EducateDeviate:

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be an exchange student. My overprotective parents hardly let me out of their sight, and when the opportunity finally came up (at 16) by AFS Malaysia they only allowed me to apply to the Japan program because it was free. Of course, being free (it was sponsored by the Japanese Government), it was highly selective. I wasn’t too keen on Japan, but it was the closest I’ll ever be to being an exchange student, so I applied.

And was rejected.

To console myself, I decided to send a music request to By Demand, a then-new interactive music request show on Channel [V] International. The channel thought my request was pretty cool, so they had me as a caller on the show. I liked the experienced, and loved the show, so I made [my demand], a fansite for By Demand and their hosts, Adrian da Silva and Asha Gill.

This unexpectedly made me a celebrity amongst the [V] crew at the time. I was a regular caller/contributor and the crew, especially Asha, became very good friends. [V] moving and losing contact with Asha the next year became really tough personally (I was dealing with panic disorder and depression, and it was a major exam year) and I kept online journals documenting my thoughts and struggles.

In my first gap year in 2003, I used the Internet to search for opportunities and build an interesting life for myself. Asha and I got back in touch, and she got me to set up her official website. I also joined The Star-BRATS, and travelled to the US mainly for an American Idol concert (I was a major fan of Clay Aiken at the time) and received some notoreity amongst the Clay Aiken fandom – including a stint on national news! – for having travelled so far.

I entered my first university in 2004 and used the Internet to keep up with what was going on in KL, thereby starting my work in activism. My desire to be an exchange student still lingered, and I spent about a year looking up options. It was a comment on a post in Livejournal that led me to Up with People, and eventually the best experience of my life.

My Up with People trip showed me the power and joy of experiential learning, and – having talked to some of my school juniors about their experiences – knew that there was a demand for information but not enough resources. While in Dhaka (for my cousin’s wedding) I decided to start off the New Year with my thoughts on education and the year ahead. And so EducateDeviate was born.

Through EducateDeviate I’ve documented social trends in education, explained alternative education (and some of its forms), showcased opportunities unheard of by Malaysians or founded by Malaysians, and featured inspiring young people. A letter that turned into an article (and a blog post) became one of the most popular posts here. I’ve helped people close to despair and supported other young people helping their peers. There were attempts at a blog carnival and at an e-book, and a decent go at a blogathon fundraiser. There is also the push for more young people speaking at conferences – the list is still one of EducateDeviate’s most popular posts and will soon be a project with the International Young Professionals Association. And ther were always plenty of resources – what I wish I had some years ago. Because of all the young people that come together to support this site, EducateDeviate managed to gain an award – thank you everyone, it’s an awesome honour and it helps spread the word further.

I managed to get a little bit of notoriety during the UN Youth Assembly last year for my liveblogs, and spun that into some media experience with the GK3 Young Social Entrepreneurs Forum, which has led me to a whole bunch of interesting people and projects – as well as the utterly fantastic BrainStore company, which even gave me a paying research gig! There’s been other things like those too – mainly by building off one opportunity and seeing where that takes me. I’ve learnt a lot from some very inspiring bloggers, and was heartened to see that someday I could make my mark on local government with a blog as my starting point.

Sometimes I wish I was more like Gala Darling or the people at NOTCOT – the sheer popularity and influence of my blog leading to fantastic opportunities everywhere, all expenses paid! I did just get recently asked to speak at an AIESEC Malaysia conference (I can’t make it because I’m still here in Brisbane but good luck guys!) and I did get a free DVD to review, so I’m probably coming close. (All-expenses-paid trips to something like SXSW are still desired though, hint hint!) It takes luck, work, and keeping your eyes alert.

I’m already over a thousand words with this article, yet I could go on and on about how my blogging and involvement in social media (not just with EducateDeviate, but for other things) have let to an interesting and fascinating network, lots of experiences I wouldn’t have even imagined otherwise, and the propensity to give things a go even if it doesn’t look all that possible – you never know where it will take you!

I may slow down with EducateDeviate someday, or refocus – I would love to bring its work offline and do more real-world projects. However, blogging and the Internet will still be a core component of what I do and who I am.

I’ll end this with a cute little anecdote: blogging got me love. There’s a foreign exchange community on Livejournal and one of the posters used to create a comic strip about her experiences. We got to talking and she told me about International House, a university college in Brisbane. She convinced me to come stay there while I’m in Brisbane, and that was where I met my boyfriend. Two and a half years on, we’ve had our dramas and comedy, but we’re still going great. Who knows where this may lead!

Advice from Harvard ex-Dean: Slow Down

Those of you heading to Harvard, or to university in general;
those of you waiting anxiously for SPM/STPM results (have you even taken the tests yet?);
those of you putting in 24-hour days to get those “top grades” to get into something like Harvard thinking it’s the Holy Grail;
those of you pushed into the 24-hour days lifestyle for the Holy Grail by your parents, teachers, peers, the authorities;
those of you that are doing the pushing:

Please heed the words of ex-Harvard Dean Harry Lewis:

Slow Down.

(the above link leads to a .PDF – download and READ.)

Malaysian Youth Index – Absolute Rubbish

The Malaysian Youth Index is an analysis of surveys done on 4087 young people in Malaysia aged 15-40 in 2006. The idea was to get a feel for how young people in Malaysia are faring and what they get up to in their spare time.

It’s absolute RUBBISH!

The Index does not tell you anything about what young people are doing, feeling, or thinking – it’s stuck in moralising and patronising tones and is completely filled with bogus assumptions. The only good thing about it is that it reveals that most of the backlash against youth is just a big moral panic – though I’d disagree with their assertion that it’s the media’s fault and say that it’s mainly the Government pushing such anti-youth views in the first place.

Here’s what’s wrong with it specifically:

The Survey in General: Firstly, Malaysia seems to be the only country that defines youth as 15-40 years old. (there’s tons of problems with that act already but that’s worth a separate post.) The United Nations defines it as between 15-24 (with the Rights of the Child declaration going up to 18) and recommends separate analysis of teenagers and young adults. Those above 24 – or even 30 to be more permissive – have very different lifestyles; they are more likely to have worked for a while, started a family, and be more settled, whereas youth are still developing themselves and seeking their life path. This disparity is evidenced by the age range of people in the Youth sections of Malaysian political parties – most of them are closer to 40 than 14. This does not give an accurate representation of youth at all.

Also, the language use in the website is deplorable. I understand that there may have been language barriers, and that the document was most likely originally drafted in Malay. However, for a Government publication, editing and proofreading is crucial. Presentation is important, and the lack of care for the language shows a lack of care for the project overall.

The numbers and terms used in the analysis are very vague – what’s the difference between “good” and “very good”? How do you define those terms? Is a 70 “good” or “neutral”?

There is also no demographic information at all – what are the typical age ranges of the youth surveyed? Are they studying, working, having a family? What race are they? (I personally do not want this question to ever be asked, but it’s such a common thing in Malaysian research that it seems odd not to consider it.) Are they in urban, suburban, rural areas? What are their interests? Basically – who are the youth being surveyed? This would have a major impact on the results, as it could indicate a major skew in demographics.

Self Development: The terms used here are vague and open-ended. What do they mean by “Self-Esteem” and “Self-Efficacy”? Are the interviewees the best source of self-reflection? What does it mean to have “good Emotion”? Why is “Depression” on there – why not consult medical records? (Though it’s unsurprising to see a low number for that and for “no stress”). How do you measure those things anyway? It would be better to ask them in terms of activity or reaction – “if this happened, what would you do?” or “how would you react if…”?

Social Development: Why is the ONLY category here “relationship with parents”? Where are the measurements for relationships with friends, loved ones, other relatives (inc siblings), schoolmates, teachers, colleagues, mentors? What about those whose parents have divorced or separated, or who are orphans? What about those who consider other people as their parental figures? Again, how do you measure a “good relationship” – number of heart-to-heart chats? Good will? Presents bought?

Identity: Again, this just involves very vague terms and does not accurately reflect how youths really identify themselves. How about asking about their choice of clothing, associations, media? (this does get asked but in a later section.) How about their choice of friends or activities? Marketing people are usually good with this sort of thing.

The report claims that volunteerism and political activity is low – well, firstly, it’s not necessarily easy to do such work in Malaysia when it’s illegal for university students to join outside societies or political parties (the proposed amendments apparently make it easier, but there’s still a prohibition against blacklisted by the Home Minister, which could be anything) – if they did so, would they admit it in a Government survey? The demographic information would be very useful here – they may have deliberately targeted a more politically apathetic subsection (I certainly haven’t seen any open calls for youth census info). Also, many young people get involved in things that they won’t necessarily immediately associate with volunteering – such as Interact/Rotary/Kiwanis work, school clubs, or just helping a friend out. Asking specific questions about activities is crucial here.

Health: Why are they asking the youth themselves for this info – isn’t this what medical records are for? Anyway, they’re asking about really major diseases that don’t often happen amongst young people. However, this doesn’t mean that youths are necessarily healthy – it’s not diseases but habits that indicate that. Do they exercise? Do they eat well? What do they eat? How do they take care of themselves (do they)? There was a survey some time back about how artists perceive their health as being good yet reported all sorts of symptoms that could lead to moderate/major illnesses (sore muscles, headaches, low appetite, etc) – could this be happening here too?

Self Potential: Very, very vague. How do you measure entrepreneurship? Leadership? Skills? What skills? What about skills – how much do they know, how much are they willing to learn, how do they learn? This section would have been better off being measured through external evaluations and observation – people can have skewed perceptions of their own abilities.

Media Penetration: The results show what sort of media youths use, but it doesn’t reflect how much information they absorb or what they do with the media. “Computers and Internet” is unnecessarily broad – there are vast uses, from blogging to gaming to creating own works. How about alternative media? Oh wait – that’d get you arrested.

Leisure Time: The survey results imply that youths do nothing with their time. However, there’s obviously more to life than sports, exercise, or clubs! Young people hang out, they work, they meet friends, they travel, they read, they help their familiesm they indulge in their own hobbies, they do all sorts of things. Limiting it to three is not helpful, and will of course show that youth are “lazy” – when indeed they are extremely productive and have contributed heaps to the national economy. (That report, produced by a Canadian agency for the UN, is much more reflective of Malaysian youth issues.)

Deviant Behaviour: Hello moralising! With that tone, who’s going to admit they partake in “deviant behaviour”? What if they don’t find it deviant? (Don’t give me the tripe about “all religions and cultures believe the same things are deviant” – this ignores the vast diversities in Malaysian culture.) Some of these measures shouldn’t come from asking young people – they should come from medical and police records. Besides, what’s “obscene” or “loitering” specifically?

With extremely vague categories and a distinct lack of categories in some sections, lots of moralising, and generally awful methodology, it’s pretty obvious that the Ministry of Youth and Sports have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. They’re planning an International Conference on Youth Research at UKM in December – I can’t decide whether to go or not. On the one hand, I could set them straight and get proper insight; on the other hand, if this is how they do their research, it could all just be a huge mess.

Interesting changes afoot

So it seems that there are quite a number of interesting changes to the Malaysian education system, following the Ministry of Education’s blueprint:

1. A holistic, less exam-oriented primary school curriculum. I like this idea. The early childhood years are highly formative and children should be given the opportunity to explore all facets of life and learning, instead of already being indoctrinated into exams (well, no one should be indoctrinated into anything period). I like the six focus areas – communication, spiritual values, humanitarianism, ICT & science literacy, physical health, and personal development. My only worry is that a certain type of moral value or belief will be pushed through this curriculum (as has happened in the past) – but if this goes well we would definitely have more well-rounded kids who are able to adapt to life’s challenges creatively.

2. Greater focus on vocational and technical education. Vocational education gets a bad rep in Malaysia – it’s usually seen as the pathway for those who failed. However, there is a lot of value in vocational education, and a lot of skills and knowledge required to survive – mathematics, science, logistics, logic, creativity, and so on. To make this successful, we need to increase awareness and respect for vocational education, and transform it from something undesirable to something worthy of exploration – like the apprenticeships system in Australia.

3. School-based examinations instead of central examinations. This could be interesting. On the one hand, this gives greater freedom and flexibility for schools to develop their own curriculum and testing methods, and experiment with alternative teaching styles. Alternative schools systems (like Waldorf and Sudbury Valley) will also be able to thrive as they don’t have to “teach to the test”. However, some schools may not be able to adjust, or end up pushing a very non-productive method of testing. The Ministry is considering looking at more semester-based assessment and reducing exams, which to me is a good idea – instead of putting all the pressure on one week’s worth of work, let people work at a more gradual pace and relax a bit.

4. Allowing schools to administer the International Baccalaureate exams instead of the SPM. Now this is a VERY interesting development. The IB tests, which are internationally recognised, and also of a higher level than SPM (I believe they are closer to STPM), demand a stronger grasp of knowledge but also a greater sense of creativity and critical thought. This is not an exam you can teach to. Schools that administer IB tests need to adjust their teaching styles to allow for fuller, more holistic learning. Hopefully this will become the impetus for schools to stop worrying about grades, and do what they’re there for – education.

The NST also has a report on a pilot project to test career aptitudes of primary school children. The idea is that they will be tested at Years 5 and 6 to see what career paths suits them. I really DON’T like this plan. The kids are 11 and 12 – they haven’t even completely developed their capabilities yet! How can you push them towards a certain future when they’ve hardly lived their lives? As it is, asking young people to decide their entire lives by 18 is too much – people change and new opportunities come up all the time.

Kids are overtested already. There’s no need to make them decide their future now. Give them some time to experiment and get to know what they like.

Young Malaysians – how can we support you?

Hey EducateDeviate readers – especially from Malaysia – I need your help.

I’m planning to apply to the Sauve Scholars program, a one-year fellowship based in McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where you are given full support and resources to research, study, and work on a project of your choice.

I would like to use the year to come up with a project plan for resources that help young people find support for their passions and interests – mainly from a Malaysian perspective, as there’s nothing there (as you probably know) but involving research into how young people are supported in other countries. To do that, I first need to know what Malaysian youths need in terms of support. So:

Young Malaysians – how can we support you?

Do you need a space for support and advice?
Do you need more information about what’s out there in Malaysia and beyond?
Do you need more money?
Do you need changes in your school?
Do you need a mentor or a support group?
Do you need a club or society?

Whatever it is you want or need, feel free to comment below or email me. Anything from “I would like a personal counsellor to tell me what options I have” to “I would like a million dollars and stuff for my rock band” works. Anything at all.

If you’re not a young Malaysian but you still have ideas, feel free to contribute too. The more I know what to look for, the better I can be at making this project plan. And even if the Sauve Scholars thing doesn’t work out, I still have some concrete starting points to do something back home.

Please also forward this post to your friends and peers – the more ideas the better!

p.s. If you’ve done an undergrad degree, you’re under 30, and you have strong passions for any field of your choice, feel free to apply to Sauve Scholars too 🙂

Homeschooling vs Socialization

This comic strip pretty much sums up my response to “homeschoolers don’t socialize!”:

Thanks Tammy!

National Service = Racial Segregation

Ethan’s experiences at his National Service term strongly reveals just how racist the system really is – and how it’s institutionalised:

We were asked several times to line up according to race (Malays here, Chinese here, Indians here, Dan Lain-Lain here) in order to distribute the races equally when it came to sorting us into classes, companies, and dorms. There are Wakil Bangsa (race representative) members for feedback about the food we have in the canteen. We are to see our respective Wakil Bangsa if we have any comments or complaints. The basketball team has a race quota: two Malays, two Chinese, and, if I’m not mistaken, room for one Dan Lain-Lain. The week before we were due to return home for holiday, they picked a representative from each race and announced that if we had any questions regarding the traveling arrangements we could talk to our Wakil Bangsa.

A friend of mine missed roll call one night because he wasn’t well. When the head of his dorm reported it to the trainers, they didn’t even bother to inquire about what he was down with, they only wanted to know his race. The following day he was sent to the medic. He had dengue.

One trainer told us that everyone had a religion. No, he corrected himself, everyone should have a religion. If you didn’t have a religion, you might as well climb up a building and jump. What was the use of living? And so, if you had a religion, you’d better do as your religion dictated. If you’re Buddhist, go to the temple. Hindu, go to the temple. Muslim, go to the surau. Christian, go to church. We nodded. One can’t argue with such logic.

Ethan stood out as a Christian Chinese (and the sole Christian), which caused some problems when he tried to go back for the Hungry Ghost Festival:

The Hungry Ghost Festival is that time of year when Buddhists, or Taoists, or maybe just Chinese, go back home to pay respects to their ancestors. So all the Chinese in camp were given a few days off. I’ve never cared about the Hungry Ghost Festival before, and I can assure you that I had no intention of praying or doing anything for the sake of my long-gone ancestors. My fellow yellow were puzzled when they heard I was planning to take off with the rest of them.

“You’re going back?”

“Sure, if I can go back I’m going to go back.”

“But,” – cue the frown – “but you’re not Buddhist.”

“I’m Chinese. Teacher said all the Chinese could go back.”

“You can’t speak Chinese, you aren’t Buddhist. You’re not Chinese. You’re Christian.”

I had a bit of a problem explaining the difference between race and religion and, of course, no problem whatsoever explaining simple opportunism.

And this is supposed to encourage national unity?

You only get national unity when you stop caring about races and treat everyone as equal. Having “race representatives”, insisting that people follow set boxes (and have no provision for non-boxed people), and only caring about race when emergency issues come up completely go against national unity.

This is a huge reason why I am a strong opponent of National Service. I would at least be empathetic if it was truly national and not segregated.

Rites of Passage

We don’t really have all that many rites of passages in Malaysia.

Each religion and culture has their own rites, sure. But there aren’t really that many that apply to the whole country.

Take graduations, for example. In many countries (particularly Western ones) high school students are sent off with a ceremony – acknowledging their effort, celebrating their success, and having someone from their community pass on a few words of wisdom as part of the graduation speech.

In Malaysia, you do your SPM/STPM, and that’s it. Yeah sure, three months later you pick up your results, but there isn’t much of a ceremony there. There aren’t any workshops, classes, or speeches on how to live as an adult. How to manage outside the boundaries of school. How to take care of yourself. Some private schools in metro areas do have proms and graduations, but not many can afford them – and they’re often glitz and glamour.

It’s not a wonder that quite a number of Malaysian students can’t deal with failure (such as the not-perfect results sheets or not getting a scholarship), or that they don’t often take risks and explore unorthodox territory. They have not been entrusted with the skills and knowledge of moving forward, moving on.

We coddle them and spoonfeed them throughout their school years, expecting them to always bow to authority, follow rules, go on the straight and narrow. Then we thrust them into the real world with nary a Goodbye, where they have to make their own rules and authority – and they have no idea where to go.

It’s not so much that they can’t think for themselves, or that they’re not able to be independent. I feel that the larger problem is that we don’t allow them to do so – we shelter them from the myriad of challenges of the world, making them believe that the world only operates on grade scales, and so they can’t deal with its complexities. It’s so alien to the tight school environment.

I propose that we introduce a Rite of Passage in school, after SPM or STPM. Something to herald their completion of 11-13 years of formal schooling. Something to give them support for the later years.

Let’s educate our students on life after school. (I did this and it was majorly successful.) Let’s give them some time for them to stop thinking about exams and try something else instead – an arts week, or a fun excursion, something different. Let’s build up strong alumni networks that support these students no matter what. Let’s provide resources for these students to tap into once they leave school.

And when the chaos of exams is over, let’s throw them a party, a celebration to commemorate their achievements – not just academic, but also personal – and their selves. Give them time to relax. Acknowledge the greatness that lies within them. Reaffirm that no matter what the exam scores say, they will still be OK. Send them off, and wish them luck.

How can we build a Rite of Passage for our school students?

Is dropping out necessarily a bad thing?

I just saw these series of ads today and, as odd as it may seen, the sentiment portrayed here rather annoys me:

I completely agree that education is important, and as the ad says, it’s good for everyone. (After all, that’s what guided the formation of EducateDeviate.) However, what annoys me about campaigns like these is the false dichtomy that they set up – it’s either school, or nothing.

Not everyone thrives, or even survives, in a traditional school setting. Most schools around the world focus on mathematical and verbal intelligence, judging competence through written examinations. There isn’t as much respect or attention given to those who express their intellengences in other ways, such as through the arts or mechanics (see Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences). For instance, in Malaysia, vocational and trade schools, as well as business and humanities streams, are usually seen as being for “under-achievers” – those who could not score well in exams. Taking up vocations or trades (or indeed, anything that’s not the Pure Sciences) by choice is unheard of, as it does not carry the same prestige as being in the Science stream.

Why have we developed this pro-Science-anti-anything-else mentality? Life consists of all sorts of knowledge and experience, and education comes in different forms. Just because someone cannot cope in the cut-throat academic environment of traditional school, and has decided to drop out, does not mean they are automatically a failure in life.

It would be better if campaigns like the above didn’t just say “dropping out is EVIL” and actually gave you concrete options for those who can’t cope with normal schooling and feel the need to drop out. Sometimes students are facing immense social issues, such as bullying (see my last entry) and can’t concentrate on education when their peers or teachers are acting against them. Some want to learn something that their school system does not offer, or even learn best in a style not offered by their schools. Some are facing major personal and family issues, such as poverty or ill-health, and need to prioritize those above school work.

Some suggestions of those options would be:

  • Homeschooling or distance education, which would allow students to learn at their own pace (is it really such a terrible thing if they graduate high school at 20 instead of 17? At least they’re learning) and receive personal guidance, which is often missing from traditional schools
  • Alternative school systems such as Sudbury Valley/Summerhill or Waldorf-Steiner, which focus on students’ democratic rights to choose their own education, as well as a more holistic form of learning
  • Vocational or trade schools – Australia is really good with encouraging and supporting trades education, providing apprenticeships and other education+career pathways without the stigma
  • Schools like the Albert Park Flexi-School which are specifically formed for those who could not function in traditional school (for various reasons), letting them learn at their own pace while still providing structure and emotional support
  • Taking a break from school, and coming back to it later (also following the “at your own pace” idea)
  • Taking college/university classes while at school – some students feel like dropping out because they don’t find school challenging enough and get really bored
  • Providing real-world experiences with education, such as internships or projects, which get them engaged in their education
  • Providing support for student welfare to cover needs that are of a higher priority than school – for instance, nutritious food, health-care, and family support

In the same vein, campaigns that encourage high schoolers (especially those from at-risk backgrounds) to aim for college need to be carefully examined to make sure they don’t make college the only option. While those programs certainly mean well, and are needed to show that college is an option for anyone (not just for a select few), my concern is that they unnecessarily stigmatize those that can’t, or have made the choice not to attend college. Not having a college degree does not doom you to a life of failure.

Many of the above options apply at the college level – personal and alternative education, taking a break (one big reason some students don’t thrive at college is because they aren’t prepared enough and just need some transition time), getting involved in the real world. As I’ve mentioned earlier, while college is certainly a form of education, it isn’t the only one.

The macro-reason for campaigns like these is that the world has been set up so that one would find it hard to move forward without some level of formal education. But is that fair? Should people be denied employment, sustenance, or personal development just because their education and life experiences are uncertified? Doesn’t this create a stigma against non-academics who have opted to learn from experience (or are forced to by life circumstance)?

In some places of the world, valuable educational experience is set at a very high premium, causing elitism and class divides – people can’t afford university, so they can’t get the paper that would help them earn more money to help them get into higher education. It’s a vicious cycle. A better solution, then, is to widen the scope of education to include all forms of learning – academic, vocational, humanistic, holistic, and so on – and create pathways for people to get involved in life and their community, welcoming all forms of learning.

Everyone’s educated in their own way, and we all need each other. Telling them that if they opt out of one form of education, they won’t succeed in life at all, is misguided and unhelpful.