ONE school I keep returning to is SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin, partly due to its connection with the family – Tunku Besar Burhanuddin Yamtuan Antah is my great-grandfather – and partly because it is located next door to Istana Besar Seri Menanti.
I have seen its students excel at many things, including playing constantly-improving squash, building and programming robots to alleviate household tasks, performing the caklempong beautifully at royal investitures, and writing rather exquisite poetry. In its unglamorous corridors and classrooms, dedicated teachers have excelled in their duty, not only transmitting knowledge but nurturing a lifelong love of learning, sparking inspiration to find success far and wide.
Of course, many other schools can lay claim to similar superb qualities, and another that comes to mind due to a recent visit is SMK Bandar Baru Sri Sendayan (also in Negeri Sembilan), where the Genovasi Foundation, of which I am a trustee, has introduced innovative teaching methods as part of a pilot programme to strengthen pedagogy within the government school system. It is amazing to witness the infectious energy of a teacher who is eager to try (and being properly resourced to execute) new strategies, particularly when the evidence of more engaged learning and better classroom results begins to emerge.
I could easily mention something special about every school I’ve ever been invited to, but that would fill an entire book. Visiting any educational institution is an education in itself: there are aspects that are instantly familiar and yet there is always a unique character that eventually emerges, despite the fact that physically, colours and materials and even entire layouts are standardised.
Amidst the complexity of overlapping categories that one can place any given school: national or vernacular, rural or urban, residential or non-, high performance or non-, historic or new, not to mention an equally wide variety among private schools – and we haven’t even considered institutions of higher learning – it is dangerous to make blanket assumptions.
Occasionally an incident or exposé will highlight a deficiency common to many schools, like racially-charged bullying or shockingly bad history lessons. Alas, I often find a tendency (certainly in online discussions) to condemn without pausing to consider the many good people in the system are trying to make things better. (A useful analogy to bear in mind when trying to make progress with this new government: it is probably more fruitful to identify and empower those trying to achieve reforms, rather than alienate them through making blanket assumptions.)
At SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin I feel especially honoured because for four years now, at their SPM graduation ceremony, they have given out an award to their best student – not only in terms of academic achievement but also taking into account the candidate’s extracurricular activities – and they have named it after me. Ironically, I would never have won such a thing when I was at school, and yet, the prestige with which it is regarded by the students encourages me to be worthy of the Tunku Zain Award. The 2016 recipient is herself becoming an educator with an interest in linguistic studies; the 2017 recipient is pursuing halal management at university; and the 2018 recipient is becoming a lawyer. The latest recipient has an interest in engineering.
There was no minister of education on the day the SPM results came out. Yet, it remains my hope that all these students will continue their educational journeys in an education system that builds on the very best qualities that they have already been exposed to. The split (again) between education and higher education portfolios – perhaps an accidental result of a desire to keep different factions happy by expanding the size of the cabinet – will hopefully enable more focus at a time when, more than ever, the next generation needs to comprise competitive and globally-minded citizens leading a democratic and enlightened Malaysia.
Thus, my first request of the new ministers is to seriously upgrade civic education. I had conversations with various ministers in the previous government on this (besides the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat, the Chief Justice, the Election Chairman and others who remain in post), but ultimately it ought to be in schools that children are first taught why we have the institutions we have; the historical reasons for their existence; the laws that govern them (especially the Federal Constitution); and how those laws might be changed.
With the right degree of autonomy, a school like SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin could invoke historical figures like Yamtuan Antah to provide a wonderfully rich local context, too.
Both the new ministers have commendable qualities: but whether they are worthy of the Tunku Zain Award remains to be seen.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas.