Wednesday, January 22

Pre-school classes in longhouses


A MUNDANE subject for a Christmas Day! May I be forgiven?

The media played it up

Almost two years ago, news about introducing kindergartens in the longhouses in Sarawak caught the imagination of many readers.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin had landed in Bintulu with good news: lots of money for rural schools and a proposal to start kindergarten in every longhouse.

The erstwhile Eastern Times in its report of Jan 25, 2010 screamed ‘STU supports setting up of preschools in longhouses’.

Sarawak Teachers’ Union secretary-general Thomas Huo said then: “This is a very good move by the government. The rural children will have access to education at an earlier age.”

He added, “Present UPSR (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah) public examination results in the rural areas, in general, are not as good as those from the urban schools.”

A columnist of the same paper, Adeline Liong, wrote at length, “with education identified by world leaders as the key to eradicating poverty, the move by the Education Ministry is a move in the right direction”.

In the context of the longhouse classes, she wrote: “If there are preschools at the their doorsteps, rural parents do not have an excuse any more not to send their young children to school. Poor parents are also spared the burden of looking for money to pay for the school transport.”

The venerable The Borneo Post in its editorial entitled echoed ‘Money for education is money well spent’ quoted an undertaking by the federal government to increase financial allocations for rural schools in Sarawak and Sabah, the previous allocation was insufficient.

The politicians lapped it up

The then Assistant Minister of Housing and Urban Development Abdul Wahab Aziz joined in the chorus with the truism that “preschool was an important platform for children in the rural areas to excel”, promising that “the modern longhouses will be allocated with facilities such as sports fields, church and community hall”. (See The Borneo Post report ‘30- to 50- door longhouses will have preschool’ on April 14, 2010.)

This was clear support from the state government – a manifest expression of political will.

From the sidelines I had earlier pitched in, in thesundaypost of Jan 31, 2010 – ‘The sapling is so bent so shall the tree grow’.

My first reaction to the news was positive. But I was not sure if it was only for the longhouses. What about the villages?

There are a few thousand longhouses and I couldn’t believe my ears! Literally every longhouse would have a kindergarten! Not that I would object; it would be wonderful; it would be ideal. At the back of my mind, however, it would be more practical to start nursery schools in half of the that number of longhouses over a period of time, and we must make a good job of those with adequate funds, personnel and equipment.

Before implementation, this sort of programme would require a thorough study as to the number of preschool boys and girls in the longhouses, related facilities available, number of teachers and the training of those teachers, the funds required, and the political will (to sustain that programme).

The plans must involve participation of the locals, as teachers and minders. The Ini (grannies) and the Aki (granddads) are a rich source of customs and norms, not to mention the superstitions, but the good values such as honesty, volunteerism, caring and sharing, mutual help, respect for elders, respect teachers, for visitors or strangers are teachable – all these are not written but handed down by word of mouth by the elders of the longhouses to their children and grandchildren from generation to generation. If these values are inculcated in the children of that age, chances are they will adapt happily when they are in the primary schools.

It is important that the children of parents with certain religious upbringing should be imbued with their respective religious values. For instance, the Christian parents may like their children to study the Bible. Let them do so. Likewise, with other beliefs. Hence the importance of recruiting local teachers with similar background, tradition-wise or religion-wise.

Water under the bridge

Now after two years, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the good tidings were brought to Bintulu.

May we politely ask if a study has been made as to the feasibility of having those kindies in the longhouses? The media people would be happy to write reports about pilot projects in the longhouses selected.

All this while, I have been looking forward to writing about this great plan. Or was I dreaming or forgotten that when this news took the media by the storm, Sarawak was on the eve of its state elections. Understandable. Everybody was busy politicking up and down the countryside, leaving the planning for the longhouse classes on the back burner to be revisited  another day. After the elections, if funds were available!

But we are about to be busy again, soon: elections around the corner. Still we are looking forward to the results of the study and the implementation of the programme. The chance of  our children in the longhouses having a head start in education lies in the success of this programme. Here also lies the credibility of the promises made and amplified manifolds by the media two years ago should the programme not materialise.

Many people in the media belong to no political party except to the mythical Fourth Estate and many among them have a memory like that of an elephant’s.

They keep the news cuttings in a file and other means for future reference. In the past, they had been accused, unfairly, of misquoting statements by interviewees; now they have sophisticated gadgets to ‘put’ words into the horse’s mouth.

They will ask questions again and again – part of their daily rice bowl.

We hope that those who have made solemn promises will walk the talk, otherwise there will be a gap called credibility. The press has it own credibility to keep too.

In a week from now, we will welcome a new year. Possibly, within a few months we may hold the parliamentary elections, during which more promises will be made.

Those with the elephantine memories will ask many more questions. You bet.

For now let fs celebrate the festive occasion.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.