A conversation at the hospital – Zairil Khir Johari

7 December, 2011

The most noticeable difference in experience between a private and a public hospital is the fact that in the former, the waiting room is air-conditioned. Other than that, the unavailability of parking lots, infinitesimal queue numbers and staff members adept at ignoring your eye contact are all characteristic of Malaysian hospitals, no matter how much you pay.

“Sometimes I wonder why we pay more for such service?”

I turned towards the source of the unsolicited comment. He was middle-aged, middle-class and probably undergoing a mid-life crisis judging from the way his hair was carefully combed to cover a bald patch. I smiled.

“My wife is here for a check-up,” he said, glancing in the direction of a neatly-dressed lady with an exasperated expression that said there he goes again.

I nodded politely. “Apa khabar, Auntie?”

“Baik, Alhamdulillah,” came her polite response.

“We’ve been coming to this hospital for thirty years. Our three children were all born here,” continued the man as if he was never interrupted.

“That’s a really long time,” I remarked. “Are you originally from KL?”

“No, no. I’m from a small kampong in Perak.”

“Ah, is that so? Your English is very fluent for someone from a small kampong.”

“Well, of course! I went to Anderson. At the very least, our teachers made sure that we could speak well.” Somehow the mention of schools got him a little excited. “My parents were poor, but I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to continue my secondary education at Anderson in Ipoh.”

Now that his interest had been piqued, I decided to press on. “Do you think that it made a difference, the fact that you went to an English school?”

He looked at me like I was from another planet. “Of course, young man. We are shaped by our education. Some of my best friends until today are from my schooling days. We had friends from all races then. It was never an issue like it is today.”

“But is it because of the language, or just the current education system?”

He shrugged. “I guess it’s both. Schools today are worlds apart from what they used to be. For a kampong boy like me, to be able to advance my studies in America, that was really something. And that would not have been possible if my education did not prepare me for it.”

“Which part of the States were you at?”

“California. San Francisco. Beautiful place. I even had an American girlfriend for a while.” He chuckled, throwing a quick glance at his wife. “But it really opened my eyes. You know when I first went there, hardly anyone knew where Malaysia was. I was a novelty, and people there were really impressed that I could speak English so well. It was very easy for me to fit in.”

“So mastering English definitely made a difference?”

“Completely. It’s a shame how it is today though. My batch was the last to undergo the English stream. This was in the seventies. The politicians then decided to abolish English schools. You-know-who had of course just taken over the ministry of education.”

I nodded. “The grand old man himself.”

“And then today he regrets that Malaysians are unable to keep up with the rest of the world. The fact is, we have lost at least two generations of Malaysians. And it’s not just about English. Everything went downhill from then on.

To give you an example, my eldest daughter, who recently graduated from UiTM, recently got herself a job with a starting pay of RM2,000. Believe it or not, that was about how much my starting pay was 30 years ago after I came back from the States!”

I shook my head. “That’s what I call income stagnation.”

“Opportunity for them is now very limited, and the education system is not preparing them for the real world. Sometimes I really worry for my kids. They all went to national schools, and I can tell you schools today are not even half the standards they were during my day. As I said, it’s not just the level of English that is declining, but the overall quality of education. Have you looked at the history syllabus today? At least you can’t say they’re not good at writing fiction.”

I nodded in agreement. Even in the last decade, the content of our history textbooks have evolved so much that I would probably think I was reading the history of a different country. “So what’s your take on the whole PPSMI issue?”

“Teaching of mathematics and science in English? I think PPSMI is symptomatic of a larger problem. The fact that it was even introduced in the first place is proof that something is already terribly wrong. But to me, it’s too little too late. As I said, we have lost two generations because of unnecessary politicking.

The whole world has not only caught up, but is leaving us behind. Even in China, English has become mandatory in primary schools. This was a comparative advantage that we had a long time ago. And what did we do? We allowed politicians to experiment with our future. The PPSMI flip-flop is the best example of arbitrary political decision-making.”

I threw a glance at the number on display and looked at the ticket I had in my hand. Like the Malaysian education system, I still had a long way to go. I returned my attention to the conversation.

“And so you feel that there is too much political interference in our education system? Is that the main problem?”

“Look, let’s put it this way. Becoming education minister automatically gives you control over millions of Malaysians, both teachers and students. This kind of power is double-edged, and if used irresponsibly, can result in disaster.

Unfortunately, most people in those shoes would immediately utilise it to advance their own political agenda. That’s why ever since the seventies, education ministers always assume the mantle of nationalist champions, at the expense of our kids.”

“So perhaps a solution is to reduce the power of politicians in education policymaking? What about separating the education department from the ministry, or at the very least disengaging the examinations board, the inspectors board and the syllabus regime from the purview of the minister?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, it’s not my job to come up with answers. But I think that it would be a step in the right direction. Although if I were education minister, I think my priority would be to bring back English schools.”

I weighed that for a moment. “Do you really think that would solve anything?”

“You can’t solve everything, but as far as improving English and increasing the attractiveness of national schools is concerned, then bringing back the English stream would be able to address both.

Think about it. It’s not a coincidence that all the great Malaysian schools were English schools, and that all the great Malay leaders were products of those schools. MCKK, STAR, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Victoria Institution, English College Johor Bahru and so on.”

As he finished his sentence, his wife began gesturing impatiently. “Ah, our number’s up. Finally. Anyway, it was nice talking to you.”

“Likewise.” I shook his hand. “Take care.”

“You too, and think seriously about it. Bring back the English stream. After all, it’s what your father would do.”

I froze, totally caught by surprise.

He grinned as he got up. “Old people like me read The Malaysian Insider too, you know.” –The Rocket

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