by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun 30 April 2014

ONE Friday afternoon, I took a break from my office job and went to a school just outside Kuala Lumpur to teach a bunch of pubescent kids. I had hoped that I could teach them something inspiring. But what they taught me was just as illuminating.

So there I was in a classroom for the first time in years, in the unfamiliar position of standing in front of 40 Form Two kids, in a school somewhere in Seri Kembangan, where I had been invited to participate in “Teach For Malaysia (TFM) Week”.

For those unfamiliar with TFM, this is a brilliant programme replicated all over the world where young professionals, usually in their idealistic twenties, dedicate themselves to teach in national secondary schools full-time for two years.

The students in the school were predominantly Chinese, being situated in one of the former new villages, set up in the past by the British to contain Chinese families from being influenced by the then Communist insurgency. Despite increased urbanisation and social mobility, the area remains an ethnic enclave – the reasons why it has remained so is for another column for me to explore.

TFM’s idea is to target lower-grade schools struggling to provide a decent education, usually in working class areas. So the kids in front of me were not your iPad-wielding, piano-lessons-on-weekends middle-to-upper class children. I was told that these were kids from the lower class socio-economic bracket with all the usual idiosyncrasies – many were from single-parent households; some worked with their parents, others had jobs that went on till late at night just to earn that extra pocket money. They came to school exhausted and sleep-deprived, nodding off in the middle of class.

I didn’t want them to nod off in my class, but introducing 13-to-14-year-olds to the world of public policymaking on a sweltering Friday afternoon was always going to be a challenge. So I had them standing up and moving around.

The first activity was to show in physical terms just what public policymaking is about: a cacophony of voices giving directions to move the country from Point A to Point B. So I divided the class into two groups of boys and girls, where each group chose a representative who was blindfolded, and then their group-mates had to verbally direct them from one end of the classroom to a specific spot at the other end (of course, the girls won).

Then we played some word association games. Malaysia? “Najib!” and “MH370!” were at the top of these young minds. “What about the people of Malaysia?” I asked, and they trotted out the different ethnic groups including Iban and Kadazan. Knowing the multi-ethnic face of Malaysia is one thing, but in a class that was practically mono-ethnic, I had to demonstrate “diversity” through a different method: a diversity of opinion.

In my next game, the classroom was divided into four corners: “Agree”, “Disagree”, “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree”. I would read out statements and they would move to the corner which best represented their opinion. Then I would ask them why they took that stand. So often do we hear pronouncements that “kids these days …” don’t think for themselves. But these single-parent, night-job working-class teenagers showed to me a striking level of independent thinking and robust reasoning.

I kicked it off with a light topic. “Are computer games good for you?” Most of the boys went straight for the “Strongly Agree” corner. The girls varied widely along the other corners. One “Agree” girl said, “They can be good because we can learn different languages, like English, Cantonese and others.”

After a few softballs came the heavy-hitters. “Malaysia is a united country,” I said and watched in anticipation. Most of them went to “Strongly Disagree”, with the second largest group in “Agree”. One particularly bright girl who strongly disagreed said this was because, “whenever things go wrong in the country, we don’t take responsibility for it, but blame others instead”.

There was also a group of three girls who were mature enough to see both sides of an issue, and always remained somewhat in between. To the statement above, they said “Malaysia is not always united because people are not treated fairly. Malays look down on Chinese, Chinese look down on Malays.”

I was surprised that this was a “Band Five” school, where national schools are classified into six bands in Malaysia, six being the lowest possible. Perhaps these students were performing poorly in national examinations not because they are unable to comprehend the subject content, but because of the language barrier. Many students could hardly string together a grammatically correct sentence in either English or Malay, and several answers had to be translated from Mandarin.

This is not unnatural, given their social exposure is severely limited to one ethnicity and language. But this does not mean they are unable to think critically, as the above game demonstrated.

I wondered (and worried) about their future. A good education is certainly the great game-leveller. But without the right supporting environment within which these kids could otherwise flourish – language and communication skills, equal opportunities and involved parents – would they achieve their dreams?

I shared my hopes for Malaysia with the kids, and got some of them to share their own dreams with me. They wanted to become pilots, teachers, doctors. One girl, interestingly, dreamt of becoming a newscaster. Why? “So that I can read out news that is fair.”

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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS

Image: The photo of the author with the students

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