Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Being Soft Is Not So Hard

My little sister, visiting me from Penang during her school holidays, told me that she has to attend tuition during the holidays. Calling my mother later that night, I tried to reason with her. “I want her to continue her tuition,” she replied. “I don't want her to lose momentum.”

It the same momentum, I suspect, that many parents is trying to imbue their children with. All in the effort of getting that extra A that would make all the difference in their lives. Or will it?

Lest I be seen as belittling the effort of people who want better for their kids, getting good tuition can definitely help you along. Just like everything else, however, it has to also be put into context. And within the social context, I think there is an unhealthy reliance on the tuition institutions get the future generations to where they want to go.

But where will they go? All roads should lead to a full scholarship, a good university education, and a good job at the end of it all. But is constant, intensive tuition the vehicle to ride the way in? Perhaps we should look at another way to get there.

Look at the fuss made in the media about the number of unemployed graduates. One of the reasons identified for this is the lack of soft skills, referring to skills such as presentation skills, speaking skills, and even the level of confidence a person has.

Looking around, however, I see little being done about this. What I do see are even more kids getting even more tuition, re-re-learning the things that they learn during the day. I see kids going to tuition centres after school, before the exams, during the exams, and, in my little sister's case, after the exams and during holidays.

While there are merits to consistent tuition, variety is the spice of life. Allowing kids to discover what they like to do might do them worlds of good. Who knows, maybe they can bend it like Beckham, or whack it like Nicol. The country is crying out for more sports stars, while Michelle Yeoh remains the only Malaysian actor who makes a lasting impression on the international stage. In between maths and science, the school curriculum doesn't allow much room for this exploration. Too much emphasis is placed on the academics and books.

As an alternative to this, why not consider drama class instead of constant tuition? Drama students perrform constantly in front of others, which builds confidence. Many might think that acting classes are only for people who want to be actors. While this might be true for some, what you get is an improved confidence level, a better speaking technique, and more awareness about your body language (regardless of how successful your acting career is). The same goes for public speaking and debates during the later school and university years.

This might also increases the chance that the kids find something they could be passionate about. In most discussions, people constantly disregard the 'fun' factor in education. After all, passion is always an important ingredient in the recipe of success. Check out any high achiever in any field. Look at why, after so many years, awards, wins, championships and trophies, they keep on doing it. Up until his recent retirement, Michael Schumacher certainly didn't need to race every other weekend for the money.

Having said that, I'm not saying that every other student should be stuck into a race car at the next possible opportunity. The point that I am trying to make is that perhaps alternative activities, in addition to tuition, can make all the difference. A balanced approach can lead to the future generation having the soft skills so desired by the industry.

After all, to paraphrase a song, too much of something can be bad indeed.

*An unpublished opinion piece written for the magazine, Education Quarterly, sometime in 2007. And yes, I actually paraphrased a Spice Girls song. :)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Well Begun...

After six mirror sites, a blog, two online newspapers, updates from a former lecturer and housemate, I declare myself pleasantly surprised with five states. Though it can be considered a victory, let's not get too carried away. After all, this man is still in charge.

Well begun is only half done.

Nevertheless...well done, Malaysia, the land where my blood will spill. I stayed up until the wee hour of the morning, but it was worth every angst-ridden minute.

Hidup, Malaysia!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Good Luck, Malaysia

Choose wisely.

But no matter what happens, we'll live to fight another day.

And fight for that day, we will.

* Picture taken by Alex Lim.

Friday, March 07, 2008


I am finally where I want to be.

Surrounded by other people of the same ilk. The people who have the same dreams and desires, the people who are selected, primed and propered. These are the people who are at the top of the game, ready to unleash their creativity on this generation and the next.

I am lucky, too, to be here. Once again, the youngest, once again, the outside. As ever, the 'other', coming from outside of the box, and outside of the country. And I'm here, on a scholarship, selected from various applicants across the continent.

I'm in dreamland.

Except that I can't understand the damn language.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Damned Lies and Statistics

* 95% of government contracts are given to malays

* 100% all business licensees are controlled by malay government e.g. Approved Permits, Taxi Permits, etc

* 80% of the Chinese rice millers in Kedah had to be sold to malay controlled Bernas in 1980s. Otherwise, life is make difficult for Chinese rice millers

* 100 big companies set up, managed and owned by Chinese Malaysians were taken over by government, and later managed by malays since 1970s e.g. MISC, UMBC, UTC, etc

The above statistics are just some that I picked out from a variety of forwarded messages that I've received. It is not uncommon for us to get spam such as this, but with elections just around the corner, the regularity of such efforts have increased tenfolds.

It's understandable, given that many would like to do all they can to ensure that their view is put forth the strongest. People would give their all to ensure that everyone knows whatever it takes to vote for the party they believe in.

I do object, however, to the irresponsible advancement of emails such as these. I say irresponsible, as I refer to the blatant (mis)representation of facts to sway things. In essence, the repeat of lies that, over time, become the accepted 'truth' in the minds of many.

I don't necessarily refer to the ones above, but I do know that it feeds into the desires of many. The disgruntled, a big amount of which includes the minorities in Malaysia such as the Indians and the Chinese, would lap these things up, taking them as affirmation of the discrimination that they have had to suffer at the hands of the Malays.

I don't deny that that is the case, but I do disagree with the unconditional acceptance of such emails as facts. Even more so, I disagree with the distribution of the emails as facts. Like everything else in life, we ourselves have to check to ensure that the 'facts' bandied around are indeed true.

At least this is one thing that I can agree with (slightly) with the government. On the issue of bloggers, the establishment have always blasted the bloggers as being faceless, irresponsible liars. I don't believe that is the case across the board, but the potential, certainly, to be a lawless frontier is an incredible one.

So all I ask you to consider is the validity of such claims. People can say what they want, but ultimately, we have to be responsible for the words we say, the claims we make, and the actions that we take. To lay that choice at the hands of others is as ignorant and irresponsible an act that you could possibly make.

Oh, and another statistic in that email:

* 5% - 15% discount for a malay to buy a house, regardless whether the malay is poor or rich

Yeah, discount on a house that no one I know (including my Malay family and friends) can afford to buy. Nobody else talks about it, but the New Economic Policy is as much about class discrimination as it is about race discrimination.

Of course, class is not as sensational as race is, now, is it?

And it's Malay with a capital 'M', idiot.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Villain of the Day: Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman/ The Electoral Commission of Malaysia

Ladies and gentleman, I give you...the leader of the Electoral Commission, the great institution that will conduct free and fair elections that is quite possibly the most important in the history of Malaysia.

This is the man that has worked so hard to ensure that the elections will be as fair as possible, having already implemented such new wonder solutions like transparent boxes and even going to the amount of spending RM2.4 million on indelible ink, which was supposed to be used to avoid multiple votes from the same person.

Unfortunately, there are some evil groups out there who had puchased the same ink, which means that now they can be used falsely mark people, thus denying them the right to vote. Shame on them!

So now he has no choice but to get rid of the ink through barter trade, effectively flushing down RM2.4 million. He could have asked the police to actually do their job, but we know that now is not a good time to ask the police. After all, they're all busy preparing for the elections. We can't distract them from the duty of ensuring that the freest and fairest of all the elections will be held.

So how? No choice lah.

It's also not his fault that he overlooked the fact that indelible ink is not legal for elections. Never he had half a year to check on that small fact; after all, if it's illegal, shouldn't the opposition have spotted it before? They have their team of crack lawyers (and some lawyers on crack), so they should have spotted it before, innit?

And here's a brilliant link to a brilliant interview of the great Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman. Woo!

*Of course, I'm being sarcastic. Forming my opinion from the facts that I know, and including what I know of the man and what he has said, men like Rashid is flushing my country down the drain and getting away with daylight robbery. I welcome the chance to enlighten myself, and so if anyone has anything to prove me wrong...just bring it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Corrupters

Few books are as candid in their titling, nor as straightforward in their actual delivery. Many are grandiosely titled, almost as if the hype makes the book more important than they actually are. Even fewer lack the objectivity required to force home practical suggestions.

Thank God, then, for “Corrupt Schools, Corrupt Universities: What can be done?” Commissioned by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Institute for Education Planning, it is a six year odyssey that does exactly what it says on the tin. It looks at how money in education has been spent, and whether they trickle down accordingly to those for whom its meant for: the children.

I want to put corruption on the agenda in a positive way,” said Jacques Hallak, one of the two authors of the report, “not to point the fingers but not to sweep it under the carpet either. The book offers constructive help to fight this perennial problem.”

Corruption influences both access and quality in education,” he continues, “because it affects the availability and quality of educational goods and services. At the same time, corruption in the education sector contradicts one of the major purposes of education, namely, to transmit values and promote principled behaviour.”

Definition wise, corruption in the education sector is “the systematic use of public office for private benefit, whose impact is significant on the availability and quality of educational goods and services, and, as a consequence on access, quality or equity in education.” What this means is more than the distortion of marks or the pocketing of government subsidies for personal benefits.

In fact, it covers almost every breadth of the spectrum: finance, allowance allocation, construction of schools, maintenance and repairs, equipment distribution, writing of textbooks, teacher appointments, teacher behaviours, examinations...the list goes on and on. If corruption is to be found where humans are, then you'll find it in every nook and corner of the education sector.

Neither is it limited to countries with backwater African shacks as schools, either. “Six years of research and the experience of over 60 countries have shown that no country has a monopoly non corruption in education,” said the co-author, Muriel Poisson. “The media have uncovered scandals everywhere, from countries with poor governance and low paid staff to affluent Western democracies.”

One such democracy is Australia, recently ranked the 11th most transparent country in the world by Transparency International. With the Australian education sector worth around AUS$2 billion, little wonder, then, that they feel the need to cover up plagiarism cases (see box).

The book itself is a comprehensive one, a mammoth 300 page tome that gets to the roots of its problems, instead of just sugarcoating the top. One of the main problems issues identified in the book is that of private tuition. In Mauritius, at least, parents and students see it as a necessary step forward, in order to gain a march on the competition. Knowing this, teachers put in less and less effort into teaching the pupils in the classroom themselves. Over time, this became an indictment of sorts against the underprivileged kids, those who are unable to pay for the tuition in their own time. And why isn't it changed now? Cos the teachers conducting the tuition gets to take home extra unpaid pay, that is.

Then there are loopholes in the examination systems themselves. Good things come to those who wait, and also those who have the money: Italians can receive oral exam questions in advance for up $3,000, while in China, you can hire people to sit exams for you, with fees ranging from US$200 to US$1,200.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. The book is also littered with examples and suggestions as to how corruption can be tackled. One only need to look at Uganda to know that it can be done. “A decade ago in Uganda, only 13 percent of the annual grant per student actually made it to the schools,” said Professor Hallak. “Today, the figure is around 85 percent, thanks to campaigns that informed local communities where the money was actually going.”

At the same time, however, the authors also note that the most important thing to consider when it comes to considering the possible solutions for corruption in education, the different factors in the different countries. What worked in Albania may not work in Argentina, for example.

Of course, these are just some of the issues and solutions highlighted in the book. Ultimately, it serves as a guide for us. It not only tells us of the corruption deeds of yesteryears, but in remembering, it helps us to remember that it can also be fought. Just as corruption is possible wherever human beings are, the solution also lies in the human beings themselves. For this to take place, it has to be a collective effort.

Old habits do not die overnight,” said the president of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus, whose country is active in their efforts to reduce education corruption. “We have to create laws, which have to be brought into practice through the institutions. This will probably take a decade, but when the new generation is brought up and used to the new concepts, this will be part of their personality.”

*An published article written for Education Quarterly mid 2007.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The O.C.

No, not for Orange County, or anything even remotely connected to California or the tv show itself.

More of a recent comment claiming that I am overconfident, and that it should not really be practiced.

To be fair, I do believe firmly in a lot of things that I do say. This is to say, before actually taking a major stand on an issue, I do make sure that it is grounded in realities that would emphasise the point. My opinions, certainly on race, religion, politics and a lot of other things, are mainly based on my first hand experience that I...err, experience. Where possible, I tend to research and to find out more. When I do research, I approach from the position of, "How can I be wrong?" That is to say, I become my own troubleshooter.

Or at least try to.

When we're in the position of being us, and of believing in us, sometimes we...I do get blinded. I do get facts and figures wrong. I do get refuted big time, knocked down by opposing views and realities. I'm reminded a lot of John Milton Keynes, the economist that I had studied so much of (and hated a fair amount as well) at college. It was he who bravely and infamously (take your pick) changed his mind on a particular economic model. "When the facts change, I change my mind," he spoke out under the heavy weather of criticism. "What about you, sir?"

I'd like to think that, in the face of credible evidence, I, too, am able to change. After all, we're human beings; the ability to change and evolve into better people involves the passage rite of being wrong.

But until then, I do stick firmly to what I believe in, to the solutions that I believe can change things, and to the hypothesis that, ultimately, we can all do things in our own respective ways to improve all the aspects of the world; in religion, in politics, in race, and in culture.

In that, I have full confidence in. Or maybe it's over-confidence speaking.

Anybody know where to draw the line?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Church

The thought, expression of that thought, dominates the minds of many. It saturates the media, runs the rule through the planes of realities that exist.

Muslims are terrorists.

Or, at the very least, extremists.

I won't sit here and deny that there are a few idiots out there. More than a few, it has to be said, armed with AK-47s and what have you. These are the idiots that are so good at doing blow jobs (see what I did here) that they do it on everything from buildings, cars, embassies, even themselves.

These people are idiots. Looking at it another way, I suppose being driven to the edge of sanity and existence would make a man do anything. After all, for the most part, it is a reaction to the social structure that surrounds them, so to generalise by calling them idiots may not be that great an idea either.

But they're stupid, darn idiots who misuse religion to further their own ends.

Unfortunately, there are those of the same ilk, people who aren't idiots, who gets tagged along for the ride. Muslims that are fair minded and rational gets tagged along as extremists, as freedom fighters, as terrorists, as whatever, courtesy of the media, and even people on the ground.

But why aren't Christians tagged along the same way?

Granted, I've yet to hear of Christians blowing up embassies in the name of Jesus Christ. But on the ground level, on an everyday basis, I see far more examples Christians who take their ideologies to an extreme. I have read of people who have had difficulties converting out of Islam, and even more commentaries about how inflexible Islam can be.

But if you're talking about converts, I personally know of how much more active Christians can be in trying to convert others. Trust me, I've had Christians trying to convert me at least three times in my life (once while I was even filming a short film, believe it or not). They offer incentives and money along with salvation and a few dollops of the holy water on my forehead.

Of course, each time, I politely refuse. And each time, I walk away feeling amazed that that is not considered extreme by others. "A few blown embassies, and I'm a terrorist," I thought to myself as the two old Korean men walked further into the distance, leaving me and my camera behind. "This shit goes on, and no one bats an eyelid. Is this not as extreme, trying to twist others into your own religion with money?"

And then there is God. Or, in Christian terms, "God has spoken to me." Christians pray, and believe, and have the faith, and that's actually great. I do see a stronger hold on religion amongst some of my Christian friends. I myself should not be lecturing others on the hold on religion, since my own isn't a particularly strong one.

But really...I do think the line should be drawn somewhere before you talk to God and then break up with your girlfriend. "Because God told me to." (A true case, by the way. I couldn't believe it when my friend told me about it.)

It does reach ridiculous proportions, but there are other examples that I've heard of, but couldn't really corroborate. I couldn't find the truth, the evidence, the samples or the anecdotes that would, in my mind, validate them. I suppose it's still the Communication student in me, wanting to validate everything.

But these are the things that I know, for a fact, that do go on. Christians, as much as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jews, amongst others, can be just as stupid. Just as extreme, just as idiotic.

So when they do become idiots, let's call them for what it's worth. Let's call the idiots idiots, and leave the rest out of it.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Speech! Speech! Speech!

"Hi everyone. I just want to thank you so much. This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we're standing here tonight, the fact that we're able to hold this, it's just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don't give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are. And so thank you so much, who helped us along way. Thank you."

Marketa Irglova, singer-songwriter and Oscar winner.