Educating our children – elitism vs egalitarianism

By Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad


What triggered me to write this article was the decision by a senior Malaysian diplomat here to withdraw his two girls from a much sought after United Nations International School in favour of a public school run by the New York City Board of Education.

Government or public schools in New York are severely crowded and teachers strain to teach, maintain discipline and absorb pupils, most of whom are the children of immigrants. In 1990, New York City was 63% white but in three years’ time it is projected to be just 35% white.

I must say I used to dislike New York because it was a “fear city”. Now it has changed for the better despite a gruesome murder at the Central Park last week. The last Park murder before last week’s took place in 1995. The 843-acre Central Park is an oasis of green amid the skyscrapers. It has always been a place for many civic celebrations, a pleasant environment for a stroll as well as a source of urban paranoia.

I shall not go into the reason or reasons why my colleague did what he did, not in this article in any event. Nor shall I attempt – after years of deriding New York City – why my view of the Big Apple has changed. Suffice to say this: Money and a massive infusion of highly- motivated immigrants have caused the city’s renaissance and invigoration.

When I was in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, where traffic problems are horrendous, I was often asked about the parking privileges of diplomats in the Big Apple. My general reaction was that I had no problem. I do not get excited about parking nor about UN reforms.

My colleague, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, should be applauded for his efforts and enthusiasm to reform the Security Council and the United Nations Secretariat which, like the UN itself, have yet to rationalise their functions post Cold War. However, nothing much will happen because of the structural problems within the UN’s decision-making process which affect the reform efforts.

The process is just “too deliberative” and made worse by the general reluctance of member states, which must after all approve the changes, and they are dragging their feet!

It was good to be away from the UN for three weeks on official business in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Whether in New York, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Washington D.C. or London, every one loves his parking perks. New Yorkers love their parking perks much as diplomats love theirs. New Yorkers have a plethora of special licence plates which bestow one or another privilege on scores of judges, journalists, doctors, city officials and well-connected people, all of whom escape minor parking tickets. So what’s the problem?

Now, parents know why their sons and daughters want to be VVIPs, VIPs or, at least, politicians, or marry those who can escape minor traffic offences!

Eton College: Founded in 1440 by King Henry VI and is arguably the best public school in the world today.

Are you worried about something? Well, President Bill Clinton is. He is preoccupied about his place in history, what with wondering how future historians will compare him with some of his famous predecessors. He had better be. An interim study by an eminent American jury ranked him very low along with the likes of William Taft and George Bush – the man he defeated. For Clinton, this is like adding insult to an injury.

Clinton is given a mere grade C! Abraham Lincoln was a grade A president. George Washington was graded B. He may even get a D now that Paula Jones has won a Supreme Court battle. The Supreme Court unanimously voted last week that a sitting president has no constitutional immunity from civil law suits while in office, clearing the way for Paula Jones to pursue a sexual harassment case against Clinton. The president might just have to grin and bare (correct) it.

Are you worried about your children’s or grandchildren’s education? Is it the worry about the rising cost of quality education or the general deterioration of educational standards all over the world?

As I said I was in Indonesia three weeks ago. Changes in Indonesia and also at home are always a critical test of my personal capacity to respond positively to any shift in these essentially Bahasa Melayu speaking nations. Before their independence in 1945, Dutch was the language of the Indonesian elite, now it is English. In our case, English remains the language of the ruling class with Bahasa Malaysia.

An Indonesian mother, wife of a merchant – once she knew I was from Kuala Lumpur – politely asked if the Tuanku Jaafar College in Seremban were a good boarding school. She wants her children to be educated in an English-medium school. An expatriate friend in Ampang Hilir is sending his children to a boarding school in England because it seems that none of the international schools in the federal capital meets his demanding standards. His detractor claims that none of his children can cope with either the Alice Smith School or the International School.

In any event education and educating our children have become a bit complicated. Choosing schools is torturous. Sending a child closer to home should be considerably cheaper but is it in the long run?

Thank God I had an easy time choosing schools for my children. I risk being accused as an Anglophile if I said that Britain is fortunate in having two great systems of education. Notwithstanding what the labour government’s policy towards public schools may be, one of the blessings of being British is that they can choose where their children should be educated, either at a public school or state school which exist side by side.

The state schools have been in existence for more than 160 years and the system ensures that every British child or any child living in Britain can receive free schooling up to a certain level and age.

The public schools numbering some 2,300, are run by the private or independent sector.

Although the public school is a primarily English institution, there are such schools in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, United States, Canada, Pakistan, Egypt, India and Thailand. Old boys and girls of these schools, whether Indian, Egyptian or Thai, have a unique tradition, and the old school network is robust and unparalleled, and the envy of old pupils of other schools.

In Malaysia, we too have public schools such as the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) and its sister college, Tunku Kurshiah in Seremban and the Royal Military College (RMC) but they are owned and run by the government. The Tuanku Jaafar school and the Saad Foundation School in Malacca are run by the private sector. The Saad Foundation School was started by an old Malay collegian, Tan Sri Halim Saad, the Chief Executive Officer of Renong Corporation. Halim is an active member of the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA). His executive office suite is just one floor below the MCOBA Penthouse at Jalan Syed Putra, Kuala Lumpur.

My old school, MCKK, was founded in 1905 by the British for the children of the Malay ruling class along the lines of Eton College. It is a new institution compared to Eton which was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. MCKK has since been democratised and, as a result, its students today are made up from every stream of bumiputra society.

Anxious old boys are worried about their alma mater because it is just one of the many residential schools in the country although it still remains the premier one. There are today nearly 50 state-funded and privately-run boarding institutions. The old boys want MCKK privatised but the government has said that it cannot be privatised because it is a national treasure and heritage.

The government, so it seems, has given a RM 50 million grant to refurbish the school, but the old boys argued that it was too little as there were no provisions for the maintenance of the refurbished buildings and the new additions. The old boys insisted that if MCKK were a national treasure then the government should treat it as such and provide enough money to make it different from other schools as it once was.

The change of status from a federal institution to a state school took place in the sixties through a deliberately misguided policy of an education minister with a personal latent agenda. This particular minister succeeded in changing the name of the Malay Girls’ College (then in Damansara) to Tunku Kurshiah and had the college moved to Seremban.

However, he failed in his attempt to change the name of MCKK following a strong protest from MCOBA and the personal intervention of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Razak, himself a former headboy of MCKK.

Eton College in Windsor, Berkshire is arguably the best public school in the world and is the most sought after by all parents around the world. Razak sent three of his five sons – Nizam, Nadzim and Nazir – to Oundle in Northamptonshire. Oundle was founded in 1556 by William Laxton. My two sons, Addha and Fuad also attended Oundle.

Razak’s two eldest boys Najib, now the Minister of Education, and Johari, a wealthy businessman and lawyer, went to Malvern College. Before Malvern, Johari studied at MCKK making him the third generation of his family to have studied there. His grandfather Dato’ Hussein, his father’s father, was one of the early students of MCKK.

Generally, every boy or girl leaving a public school or a boarding school should be independent, an all rounder, well-equipped educationally and socially to meet the challenges of the world.

The big question being asked everywhere now is whether poor proficiency in English is a hurdle to achieving a higher academic goal?

I believe, in the borderless global village, those who can communicate effectively and in impeccable English will have an edge over those whose English is limited. I would like to hear what readers think about this.

Public schools smack of elitism. What is wrong with elitism anyway? In any event, elitism is giving ground to egalitarianism everywhere, even at the bastion of privileges, Eton. How I wish the MCKK, Victoria Institution, Penang Free School, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Sultan Abu Bakar College and Sultan Ismail College and the likes of these schools could reintroduce teaching in English simultaneously with Bahasa.

We are about to lose our proficiency in the English language and when that happens, how are we to be different from other Asians and Aseans?

Old boys from MCKK, RMC and VI should insist on standing out by using English but at the same time, they should acquire an education which is steeped in Malaysian culture and history. The British did teach Razak, Tuanku Jaafar (the present Yang di-Pertuan Agong), Sultan of Perak, Raja Azlan Shah and the Sultan of Pahang, Tuanku Ahmad Shah and thousands of others both the English and Malay languages with great success at MCKK. It was the same at the Malay Girls’ College (before the school changed its name in the sixties).

None of us have forgotten our Bahasa and Agama. Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim is a good example as is his wife Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah, who is an old girl of Tunku Kurshiah. So is Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, another old Kurshiahan and many others.

MCKK can trace its origins to the modern Malay ruling class. It is the genesis of modern Malay nationalism. Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar, the founding president of Umno was an old boy, as was the one-time leader of the left-leaning Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), Datuk Ishak Mohamad (or better known as Pak Sako).

The MNP, like the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), was banned by the British when the Emergency broke out in June 1948.

Dato’ Onn’s grandson, Hishamuddin’ Hussein (Parliamentary Secretary and Deputy Head of Umno Youth) is also an old boy. But not his father, Tun Hussein, the third Prime Minister. However, two of his uncles studied at MCKK, Major- General (R) Jaafar Onn, three years my senior and Gharib, Jaafar’s kid brother.

A grateful nation should make sure that a national heritage such as the MCKK continues to flourish in the style it was accustomed to. Whether one likes it or not, MCKK has its special character and individual quality which has not changed in 92 years, and unlikely to change for another century even if it were left to languish in poverty!

No one can wish it away.

MCKK is a national asset which must not only be preserved but enhanced: its celebrated past should be recalled and valued, its present recognised and appreciated, and its future protected and assured.

Dato’ Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations


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