August 23, 2007

Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

I PRESSED the button for my queue number and out came the tiny printout. On it, the
large bold numbers read – “1444”.

Great, I thought. The whole process is doomed from the start. No matter how you add these numbers up, its literal meaning in Chinese still refers to an impending doom.

“Chinese?” The guy behind the counter asked when my turn came.
That was usually visually quite obvious but credit must be given to him for not making assumptions.

“Eh, Malaysian lah!” I tried to joke with him but he didn’t find it funny. I nodded.

“Religion?” he asked. I attempted to form an answer precise enough for the purpose,
while my mind worked in parallel trying to find real reasons as to why this information was needed. In between my mumblings and him asking if I was “Buddha”, my faith was sealed. Well, on my voter registration form, that is.

“What’s the point of voting?” a friend asked me on my way to the post office to register myself. “The outcome’s always the same anyway,” he said. “The problem of ‘phantom voters’ never quite goes away. And haven’t you heard how voting district boundaries keep changing?” Wow, really? What a system! So resourceful and flexible, who says our country works like anything but that?

Is this whole voting process really doomed from the start, or at least a “pointless”
exercise? The mechanisms/laws just aren’t strong enough to keep democracy healthy. What our media can or cannot say can be determined by the powers that be. Oh yes, and there’s the fear. Just recently a blogger was arrested. It’s enough to strike fear in all moderate and good thinking Malaysians who had something to say in the interest of nation building. It’s quite a neat package we have here really; a well-oiled system to perpetuate the current state. At least until our oil money runs out.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

What’s most annoying are Malaysians who bemoan the problems in our country while vehemently believing that nothing can be done. That is as good as saying “everything is fine, at least for me”. Or, if they’re working and living abroad, “Our country’s
heading downhill, but you can continue to rot back there”. Well, if everyone thinks like that then surely our country will be like what it says on my post office queue number printout – 1444.

But that’s just a lazy way to go about things. Everyone knows how to complain and everyone’s a critic. In the spirit of Chinese numerology, you can call these people
5354 (neither here nor there). If only everyone does something about it instead of only complaining. I don’t know about you, but I’d really like to see our tax money being used wisely. And I’d like to support leaders who envision an equal society and who work on realising it, not by giving bold press statements that are meaningless given that our media lacks bite.

Even so, whatever is reported in the mainstream papers can be a worrying reflection of the kind of governance we have. Take the case of the recently victorious Broga
residents against the incinerator project. The government’s decision as reported inthe media to cancel the project was due to high costs involved, and not because of any protest. No mention of how and why it was approved in the first place. It’s patronising as well disregards the people’s concerns. Sometimes we forget it is our tax money that is being used, 1.5 billion of it. I would want to know how it is being used.

Voting is not the only thing we can do, but it is something we can and must do to have our say. Don’t be too bothered by 5354 people who see only 1444, but exercise
whatever means we have in our control to create a better country.

The purpose of education

"So what is your project about?' I asked the boy 'interviewing' me for his school project. He became really busy noting my details down while asking his friends to tend to my query. There was some confusion amongst them and they finally concluded that they had no idea what it was about. One boy commented that even their teacher did not know what it was about.

These kids, smelling of a day's sweat, were obviously collecting data simply because they were told to, without knowing what it was for. Allowing them to embark on a project without knowing what it was really about was a worrying sign. They left me in disbelief until I recalled how I never knew what my high school project was about and how I don't remember my teacher trying to explain it to us. Perhaps our big class of 40 had something to do with it. School was about being obedient and quiet in class. A teacher's attempt to encourage us to speak up in later years were no match to our years of serious training to blend in; it was a culture whereby those voluntarily speaking out were branded 'gila glamour' (glamour seeker/crazy) or something to that effect.

My conclusion was that I didn't learn much during my school days here. Fortunately I (and many others I hope) did at later years that led to my development of mind-set and world-views. I was left wondering what the purpose of education is in our malaysian context, and if our current education system is succeeding in achieving them?

We often talk about education in terms of literary statistics but the reality is that in many countries its purpose ends up being to feed the capitalist machinery. Is education merely the teaching of certain specific knowledge and skills to create a stable workforce? If so, a workforce for whom and towards what? Or, should education also be for something less tangible but to empower individuals to be a force for positive social change? Aside from earning a living, I am inclined to include the latter definition as to the real purpose of education. According to this purpose and definition, an 'educated person' will not be a scientist from who uses science to perpetuate sexism, and certainly not an oxford graduate who speaks in a racially divisive manner. Perhaps an educated person should include her or him as one who is able to perceive and treat others to be equal to itself. Most of us would fall short by that standards, but it is nevertheless an ideal we should strive for.

No one denies that our education system plays a major role in shaping Malaysia's future. Apart from what seems like a system to churn out an obedient and unquestioning workforce, our education policies seem to be reactionary to different demands from different groups in our society, rather than what should be a cohesive plan towards nation building.

As much as our education system produces the minds that shapes our society, it is in itself a reflection of our society. So how do we push for changes in our education system? Do we have a say on how things are run? Does our media reflect the real concerns of our people? How do we present our concerns to those who can make those changes? Perhaps it all starts in the actions of each and everyone of us to influence each other and our decision makers.