I saw the movie, A Yank at Oxford, for the first time when I was at Malay College Kuala Kangsar. I knew then that I wanted to further my studies either in Oxford or Cambridge. But as fate would have it, I was told to complete my graduate studies at the University of Malaya in Singapore, and to start serving the country immediately.
A newly-independent country needed as many graduates as possible, to serve as soon as possible, I was told. So how can anyone say no to the call to national service?
From this little vignette of history, I have often wondered how my life would be like if I had been an Oxbridge alumni. Perhaps I might not have ended up in the police force after all and may have become a professor of history.
But that is what life is all about. Today we have so many universities, at home and abroad, and young people are spoilt for choices. In a way, they have too many options. And sometimes, even after all these years, education issues become a source of tension among the races.
At times like these, I often reflect on what education is about. As a student of history, I believe there are useful lessons from the past that can help us deal with the problems of the present.
All of us from the Merdeka era knew even back then that the primary thrust of our educational system was national unity. And I think we did pretty well in that aspect.
We were also concerned with quality education and we made sure that the best and the brightest, from whatever race, were given the opportunity to shine and be of service to the nation.
As a young man, although my last few years of education was in a completely Malay environment at the MCKK, I had a very good multi-racial grounding in the Anglo Chinese School in Teluk Intan.
There were no racial problems at all. We were very close to each other, with a multi-racial teaching staff as well.
When we were at MCKK, we did not have inferiority feelings vis-à-vis the Europeans or other races.
So this is why although only 10% of the population of the university in Singapore were Malays, we were in there not by virtue of any quota or special treatment but by virtue of having passed our exams. And we didn’t feel that we were out of place.
We walked with our chests out. We walked like anybody else. We didn’t ask for any quarter; we didn’t feel that we needed any quarter. We were all there being prepared to serve the nation, and we looked at everybody else as compatriots.
It was that kind of feeling back then. We felt that a common education, a common bonding over the years, would really lead to complete trust and a complete identity with one another.
If you look at the education policy, what does it say? What is the most important objective, that we should be a nation of science and technology? No, the first purpose of education is national unity. And those days it was understood what that meant.
It meant that every teacher look at every student as being equal, the same – their wards, created equally. They had to say the right things to bring about national unity. They could not force their personal views of a particular race on anyone. But I think somewhere along the line, this has been lost.
Teachers in those days did not go directly into the topic they had to teach. They would start by drawing our attention to some developments about life.
For example, I remember a teacher coming to class with a newspaper and asking us, “Did you see the newspaper this morning about the rich man being charged? Not enough ah, he was greedy. Don’t be greedy?”
So we grew up getting such lessons on ethics.
Our teachers made it very clear they looked upon all their students as equal – in the way they patted you on the back, the way they talked to you, even when they scolded you.
I believe that this is the way it should be. After all these years, people should not be overly sensitive and we should not introduce the racial factor into issues.
For example, in the controversy over the proposed de-recognition of medical degrees from the Crimea State Medical University, we should not look at it through racial eyes.
What we should be concerned about is the quality and if that is compromised, then the rules of natural justice must also be applied if the status quo over the initial recognition is changed.
Having said that, there is certainly room for improvement in the way the authorities handled important issues like this.
The clarification by Health Minister Datuk Chua Soi Lek after the Cabinet meeting last Wednesday is welcomed. It has reassured those who are there that they can proceed and, at the same time, served warning to intending students not to proceed.
While the initial reason given was on the unsatisfactory student-to-lecturer ratio, the minister also revealed that the decision was taken only after the university authorities had failed to respond to the Malaysian Medical Council’s queries.
But, in all these, timing and proper communication of the facts are crucial so that our students do not suffer from unnecessary stress and anxiety.