Reforming Education Part Two: Fixing Kampong Schools

M. Bakri Musa
Second of Six Parts: The Challenge of Providing Teachers

In Part One I discussed measures to increase the English fluency of kampong pupils, key to enhancing their employability and self-confidence. These include increasing the hours for English instruction, introducing immersion classes as with our earlier Special Malay and Remove Classes, and even bringing back colonial-era English schools to the kampongs. This section focuses on the special challenges of attracting teachers, specifically to teach English, and on improving kampong schools.

Attracting Teachers

Malaysia has a deep reservoir of English-speaking teachers trained under the old all-English system. They are now all retired, but given sufficient incentives they could be readily enticed to teach in our rural schools. Right now there are only half-hearted attempts at attracting them, with the efforts left to local headmasters. These headmasters, brought up under the existing system, are only too aware of their own limitations in English. They are not about to be welcoming of or risk having their own inadequacies exposed by these hitherto senior English-fluent teachers; hence the failure of the current policy.

To overcome this entrenched resistance you would have to impress upon the headmasters that their ability to recruit these retired teachers would be a major factor in their (headmasters’) promotions or bonus payments. We should also insist that future candidates for headmasterships, as well as other promotions within the ministry, be based on demonstrated competence in English. That is a very effective way of conveying the message on the importance of English. For those retired teachers, a call back to teach would be an opportunity to not only augment their pension income but also re-ignite their intellectual and professional challenges.

Another source of teachers would be born English-speaking spouses of Malaysians and expatriates. Again, we have plenty of them. The issue of working visas is administrative, and should be readily solvable. They may not be trained teachers, but given a brief training as we did with earlier “normal-trained” teachers, they would be able to handle their classes. Their limited teaching skills would be more than compensated by their enthusiasm and English fluency. They would also bring much-needed attitudinal and cultural changes to the class. They would expose our kampong pupils to a very different way of learning as well as speaking English. You can be certain these teachers would not be indulging in “Manglish” or “rojak” English, not to mention their improving our students’ accent. These teachers with their different cultural and personal experience would open up the world of our kampong kids. That would be reason enough to recruit these teachers.

For spouses of expatriates especially but also for those foreign spouses of Malaysians, this would also be a splendid and quick opportunity for them to learn and adapt to local culture and society.

The last and most expensive recourse would be to import teachers from English-speaking countries. The least expensive (in fact cheaper than hiring locals) would be to recruit from India and the Philippines. Some of my best and most inspiring teachers in high school were from India. That was then, however. Today I am uncertain whether bringing in teachers from those countries would serve our students well.

Another source, though not as cheap, would be Eastern Europe, specifically Poland. They may not be born English speakers but thanks to their superior education system they have acquired near-native fluency in that language.

Japan imports thousands of young Americans under its JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program; likewise China, Thailand and South Korea. Malaysia cannot match what the Japanese and Koreans are offering, about US$45K annually, but then living costs in Malaysia are considerably cheaper. Thailand has no difficulty getting foreign teachers for about 30K bhat (RM3K) per month. Malaysia could easily better the Thai pay. Foreigners, especially Americans and Brits, would have minimal difficulty adjusting to our roman script as well as other aspects of our society.

Thailand attracts essentially two groups of teachers: one, fresh graduates on a year or two hiatus before entering graduate or professional school; and two, seasoned mid-career teachers. Again, America provides a deep reservoir of both. Many Americans, especially those bound for graduate and professional schools (and thus among the brighter ones), take time off after graduation. These are the students who sign up for such programs as the Peace Corp and Teach For America. Malaysia obviously cannot match what Teach for America could offer in terms of salary, but can more than compensate for that deficiency with the adventure, experience and exoticness.

As for mid-career teachers, there are plenty of them who have become disillusioned with the highly bureaucratized and increasingly alienating and violence-plagued American public schools. With their pensions vested and their children now grown up, a Thai or Malaysian pay would nicely supplement their pension income, especially if we also provide them with living quarters. In my view these are the teachers we should actively recruit; they will transform our students and schools.

Many rural schools have teachers’ quarters. Most however are occupied by religious teachers. Well, we have a glut of them so we do not need to attract or cuddle them by providing them with houses. Reserve those quarters for foreign teachers and those teaching science and mathematics.

Currently Malaysia brings in scores of American “teaching assistants” under the Fulbright Exchange Program, a government-to-government initiative. I fail to see why Malaysia cannot recruit American teachers directly and independent of the US government, unless of course those Fulbright “teaching assistants” are funded by the Americans.

When we bring in these foreign teachers, we should not assign them individually rather as a group, preferably three to five to a school. If they were to be alone at a school, their influence would be minimal and be diluted; it would be difficult for them to make an impact. We need a critical mass of such teachers to effect changes in attitude and culture, quite apart from reducing the “foreignness” they would feel.

I had one such wonderful Canadian math teacher at Malay College, Mr. Neil Brown. He was taking a year off before pursuing his doctoral work at Cambridge. He was highly effective; our class set a national record for the number of As in calculus, but his impact outside the classroom was minimal. The local teachers dismissed him as a “hitchhiker.” If Malay College had a few more such teachers at the time, they would have triggered a cultural change among both teachers and students. More importantly, the local teachers would not be so disparaging of their foreign colleagues; the locals might even learn a tip or two from them.

This incidentally is what China is doing today. On a recent trip to Beijing I was surprised that the plane was full of teachers, lecturers or professors on their way to teach at various levels in China. I recently read the memoir of one such teacher where she related how touched (and scared!) she was in that her students would more readily confide their problems to her instead of the local teachers. She soon found out why. Those students did not trust their local teachers as they were seen as agents of the party or state.

A similar sentiment and mindset exist among our students. When I addressed Malaysians here in America, I was always conscious, as were the students, that there were representatives of the state, or more specifically UMNO (they are the same anyway), in the audience keeping an eye over the students. Not that it bothered me, but it certainly did some of the students. Incidentally there were also representatives from the religious department, more for policing than spiritual guidance!

The intimidating effect remains the same, and it affects not just the students. A British educator posted in Malaysia once confided to me that his local colleagues and superiors were none too pleased with him when he included some of my essays for his students’ reading assignment! It is such instances, more than anything else, that poison the learning atmosphere of Malaysian classrooms.

In recruiting these foreign teachers, I would look for additional skills they would bring, as for example their ability in drama, music and fine arts generally, as well as in sports so they could coach their students.

Improving our rural schools must begin with the teachers. Knowing the inadequacies of the education system generally and our teacher training program specifically, we would have to wait a very long while before we could get better trained local teachers. In the interim we have to adopt the measures suggested here.

It reflects our national priorities that we have a cabinet level decision-making mechanism to import maids but not to bring in skilled teachers.

Next: Part Three: Extending the School Day and Year

  1. #1 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 1:26 pm

    ///I fail to see why Malaysia cannot recruit American teachers directly and independent of the US government, unless of course those Fulbright “teaching assistants” are funded by the Americans. ///

    Let me guess the real reason why. You see. How much do we pay those teachers. 10,000 ringgit a month? 15,000, enough? Maybe 20,000. Well lets way, 15,000 ringgit a month. And shat about the teacher’s family members? Oh well lets not talk about that. Just assume that they are all single, unamarried and childless and young. Ok. Now going by umno’s world renown kickback formula, umno would have to up a teacher salary by wot? 40 times. That means umno would have to pay one teacher something like 400,000 ringgit a month or 4.8m ringgit a yr. And how many teachers do we need? 1,000? That means umno would have to allocate a yearly budget of 4.8b ringgit. Could umno afford this considering the fact jib has been ho ho ho santaclausing up and down the country?

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 1:44 pm

    With ‘leaders’ such as those shown below, the rakyat will end up as cows

  3. #3 by cintanegara on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 2:38 pm

    Cara-cara memupuk SEMANGAT PERPADUAN ialah dengan anak-anak dari PELBAGAI BANGSA bercampur gaul tanpa MENGIRA BANGSA dan WARNA KULIT….Mereka perlu belajar DI BAWAH SATU SEKOLAH dan ini hanya dapat dijayakan menerusi SEKOLAH WAWASAN…


    Golongan ini mencabar TPM untuk menistiharkan bahawa dia adalah “Malaysian First Malay Second”…..hahahha..tapi GOLONGAN yang mencabar TPM ini tidak mahu ANAK-ANAK MEREKA bercampur gaul dengan ANAK-ANAK DARI BANGSA LAIN demi perpaduan NEGARA….

    Kesimpulannya mereka adalah GOLONGAN YG CAKAP TAK SERUPA BIKIN….

  4. #4 by sotong on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 5:27 pm

    National schools before the 80’s were great place for unity…….now, after decades of damaging politics of race and religion, it is unattractive to many people for many reasons.

  5. #5 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 5:54 pm

    Go to isetan in lot 10 and see for yourself ppl. Go there to find out one crucial fact. Sales person (male and female) – a large number of them are burmese. And why are burmese being employed to do sales? Hint: there are a lot of tourist in BB/Imbi area.

  6. #6 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 11:28 pm

    There is no necessity to bring in Orang Puteh to teach English, the slightly older Malaysian teachers could have done it. It is the screwed-up policy manged by selected goons who screwed up the education system! Yes Cintanegara likes to blame parents who opted for national type primary schools which in many instances are manged by half-past six wanna-be “missionaries” spending their time preaching instead of teaching! That is the problem! If you are really interested in the REAL Quality of teachers, do camp around some of the schools for a couple of days. To the more fortunately choldren with enlightened parents, they will be placed at better advantage when their parents take the trouble to travel tens of miles to send them to schools where they some faith!

  7. #7 by rockdaboat on Monday, 2 April 2012 - 11:54 pm

    No need to reform lah, our brilliant DPM already said that our education system is better than those in US and Great Britain!

    Oh banyak shiok nya, shiok sendiri that is!

  8. #8 by B33Rhipp0 on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 2:48 am

    Hi just want to comment that I have been told the Fulbright program is actually funded by both the Malaysian n American govt. With most of the teachers being young graduates who can’t really get a job in the states hence most of them would jump at the chance to get such a valuable experience to teach here. Looks good on their cv’s too for future jobs. Also they don’t exactly get paid 5 figures (rm)/mth. As a Malaysian I think this is a fantastic program for boosting our education levels. As for how much the organizers get out of this I don’t know… just so u get the drift, rm15k/mth = usd5k/mth in the states. Its almost impossible to get that kind of pay as an average freshie. The only concern I have is that some of them are southerners and their accent is something that may be a stumbling block for our students.

  9. #9 by k1980 on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 6:48 am

    //our education system is better than those in US and Great Britain!//

    The Nobel Prize for Farting goes to Mr Moo

  10. #10 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 8:52 am

    Stupid umno. Bodoh punya cintanegara. Sejenis sekolah! Oh yes. Umno tu kerajaan. Umno memang boleh kalau nak paksa semua warganegara belajar satu bahasa sahaja iaitu BM dan di bawah satu jenis sekolah iaitu SK. Apa akan berlaku? Ini isu besar.

    The rest of us nons can still go on and be successful and sadly malay kids (due to neglect by umno) will surely continue to languish somewhere at the back! Paham tak?

  11. #11 by Cinapek on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 9:34 am

    Dr Bakri, your suggestion to re-employ retired local English teachers has merits. Whether there are sufficient numbers of them is open to question. Furthermore, being locals, they are more aware of the rural conditions and will more likely be able to accept and adapt to those conditions.

    However, I would not encourage foreign teachers especially from the West to try too hard to teach the western ways to the students besides the English classes. Their good intentions will be twisted by the likes of the Johor Education Dept who recently organised that seminar to brainwash the religious teachers in Johor schools against an imaginary Christianisation threat. These teachers could be accused of proselytizing and even physically harmed.

    And take away the quarters from the rural religious teachers and give them to the foreign teachers?!! Dr Bakri, you must havelost touch with what is happening in Malaysia. Do that and you can expect Perkasa and the Johor Education Dept type extremists screaming from the treetops. Chasing the religious dept teachers out and giving their quarters to foreign English language teachers?? Even Najib won’t dare to do this.

    And no sireee!! Two or three foreign teachers in one school and teaching the kids western ways besides English classes will send Perkasa ballistics?!!

    As long as education is politicised and a Govt that is looking after their vote bank rather than the future of this country, the only hope is either to find sufficient retirees or Brits or people from other English speaking countries with Pakistani or other Islamic ancestry.

  12. #12 by cseng on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 10:45 am

    Doesn’t matter if Kampong or Bandar schools, the diffrent is kampong school less A, bandar school more A.

    Other than numbers of As, we still stuck in deep shit (Kuli calls it captive mind, by the way is he tuan or kuli?). Corruption is rampant, accountability is zero, you can proselytize, I can’t proselytize you….

    Nothing to do with As, nothing to do with Kampong or Bandar schools, it has to do with fundamental of education.

  13. #13 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 11:19 am

    The days when English subject teachers speak the Queen’s English are gone. This generation of this 21st century speak Manglish that is a rojak of all the different languages found in Malaysia plus English and Manglish is understandable. Oh ya ! You speak good English. And Malay youths have auditory tendency and brain registration to American English cause the social media is full of it. Now when you go to the longhouse where everyone speaks Iban or the kampung where everyone speaks Malay, English is a foreign thing. Plus the political part, then it is unacceptable. Therefore you should send an Iban teacher fluent in English to teach English. And a Malay teacher fluent in English to teach English. And an Orang Asli fluent in English to teach English. It has something to do with sociology. It is no longer the Queen’s English or American English or Aussie English or whatever English, it is the typical Malaysian English. Which means the standard has to be different. But it is still not wrong. Dig ?

  14. #14 by k1980 on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 12:44 pm

    //people from other English speaking countries with Pakistani or other Islamic ancestry.//

    Our rural kids will be experts in making bombs in 6 months. After that they will become expert suicide bombers as happened last week in Patani

  15. #15 by rockdaboat on Tuesday, 3 April 2012 - 10:11 pm

    Our DPM said our education system is better than those of US and Great Britain!!!

    Our Deputy IGP said our public security is better than Singapore and Hong Kong, only second to Japan!!!

    Our MACC claimed that it is more efficient than similar Commission of Singapore and Hong Kong!!!

    Ha ha ha, K1980 #8, soon Malaysia will have plenty of Nobel Prize winners!

  16. #16 by monsterball on Thursday, 5 April 2012 - 3:34 am

    There you see…Cintanegara is promoting Bahasa …discouraging Malaysians to master the English language.
    It makes him feel good that his rambutan tree will bear fruits again.

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