A matter of human dignity

by KJ John
Sep 17, 2013

I was touched and moved by Marina Mahathir’s excellent treatise on the value of human dignity in her most recent column in The Star. Hers related to our school system. That motivated me to share my own experience and that of my two sons in our school system.

My experience of abuse

First my own experience given that I am now already 63 years old. Yes, when I was in Form Two, in the Ibrahim Secondary School of Sungai Petani, one afternoon, my friend Gobalkrishnan and I went to play basketball in our school. We borrowed the school basketball which was kept by the canteen operator after signing our names in the book.

While we were making hoop shots a younger student in school uniform came and asked to take the basketball for his class because his teacher wanted the ball for his PE class. We said no, as we had borrowed and signed for it.

After a while the class teacher turned up with the same boy and asked for the ball; I said the same thing that we had signed up for the ball to play. He slapped me across the face and threw the ball at my friend’s head. Then they walked away with our ball!

I went home crying, mainly because of embarrassment more than anything else, since even my father had never slapped me. My father happened to be on the board of governors of the same school. He spoke to the headmaster, who was nicknamed “bulldog,” and related the incident to him, in detail.

Next morning, after school classes had started, I was called to the headmaster’s room and I saw the teacher who slapped me there.

The headmaster asked me to relate what happened. I did in the midst of crying and sobbing about it. After I finished the HM gave the teacher a chance to contradict me, but he did not and only argued that he needed the ball for the PE class. The HM asked the teacher to apologise to me, and told him not to repeat such physical abuse.

My son’s issue

In 1995, when one of my kids was in Year Six he was told by the school that he could not wear short pants to school, as he was already emplaced on the Prefectoral Board. The only problem was that my wife had already bought three pairs of shorts for him before school started. Therefore, there was an apparent conflict between the instructions received by my son and our desire for him.

I decided to take time off and went to the school next morning. I met with the deputy headmaster as the HM was not in. He explained that there was a new ustaz in the school and he had declared that all Year Six kids must wear long pants to cover their legs. I asked the deputy HM if he agreed with this new rule; and he said they were not consulted.

I asked for the complaints book, and they had none but the deputy HM was happy to open and new one and I gladly wrote my complaint and explained why my son will not be wearing long pants since we had already bought the shorts for him. We explained the situation with him and he had no problems with it. By year end, some three or four students also started wearing shorts. We had no other related problems.

Another son’s abuse

Another son was in a Chinese primary school in the Mandarin stream. One day my wife called me in the office to say that the son had called home crying that the teacher had thrown a duster at him and it had hit him, and it was hurting.

Next day, I took time off from work and went into the school to meet the headmaster. After a while we met the HM and he called for the respective teacher to come to his room and in front of us asked her to explain why she had done what was wrong. She broke down and cried in front of all of us and spoke to explain in Chinese.

The HM explained, after she left, that she was a spinster and often had some problems with her temper and attitudes. He then apologised and assured us it would never happen again. It never did to any of our other two more boys.

The matter of dignity

Every human is created in the image of God and assigned dignity by the creator. Therefore, each of us must be regarded and treated with the same dignity we rightfully deserve. Most organizations, rather unfortunately, ignore the same dignity and treat human beings as lesser mortals because of this notion that they have authority and power to do what they like.

It is all based on the roles they assume, or too often they only play. Actually roles of bosses or teachers are sacred responsibilities assigned to them for temporary stewardship of their charges.

But, most do not understand or accept this stewardship role as trustees or trusted ones, and instead use their roles to abuse their authority and power. The main thing that I found wrong with all systems is the fear most people have to speak up and for truth. Very often, wrongs are left unattended and slowly but surely the problem grows until the children are asked to eat in the toilet and not one see anything wrong with it.

Feedback is critical

The best and most effective way to deal with such issues is for parents to draw the line when their children or their colleague’s dignity is abused and give considered and good feedback without getting too emotional about the matter.

All systems can only improve when there is good and effective feedback. That is part and parcel of the meaning of a democracy. As ordinary citizens, each of us must assume important roles to ensure that all public space is conducted with honour, dignity and courtesy.

Only through feedback, like the one highlighted by Marina or by us as parents, can we hope to stop any abuse by wrong and abusive people. When and if we do not, then over time, there is a culture of abuse and we all become callous to the hurts and pains of ordinary people.

For us to become a truly developed country we must all change our attitude and regard all feedback as important to improve systems of governance, especially in our multi-ethnic environment. May God give us courage to speak up against wrong wherever it is found.


KJ JOHN was in public service for 29 years. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at [email protected] with any feedback or views.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 8:35 pm

    When I was studying Form III in an English school in 1969, I was slapped in the face by the General Science teacher (male) after I forgot to bring my laboratory book. I felt very hurt that day because the teacher did this in front of the whole class.

  2. #2 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 9:15 pm

    KJ John, can you please tell that to the PM, najib, and his kitchen cabinet.

    They were appointed servants and not lords over the people, so don’t browbeat, scold and threaten or abuse the country and its natural resources.

  3. #3 by Di Shi Jiu on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 10:26 pm

    KJ John.

    I have heard stories from the 1970s about Victoria Institute in KL which would make your hair curl.

    One story involved an argument between a teacher and a student. In those days, VI, apparently, had some budding gangsters so this student acted real tough with the teacher. The teacher simply punched the daylights out of the student.

    Another story involved a student who did not bring his swimming trunks for PE. The PE teacher threw the student, fully clothed into the pool anyway.

    Now, these were just stories I have heard and I have no idea if they are true or now.

    But those were the days when nobody really cared too much about how teachers interacted with students.

    Nowadays, we expect greater professionalism from teachers to whom we have entrusted our children.

    Instilling a sense of discipline into children from diverse backgrounds is a huge challenge for teachers.

    There are many teachers in Malaysia who do not want to be there but they really have nowhere to go. I have a suspicion their numbers are growing as we get more and more graduates from the many half-baked universities we see everywhere in Malaysia.

    It is unlikely the Minister for Education will be of much help in developing a higher sense of professionalism amongst teachers.

    The incident at SMK Sri Pristana is merely one symptom of the lack of professionalism which plagues the whole school system in Malaysia.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 11:08 pm

    In a galaxy not so long ago. I was in primary school in a small rural town. We had this wonderful female teacher who taught us English and we learnt and sang English nursery rhymes and all as part of our education.

    She was teaching us as usual one fine day. She then looked outside the classroom towards our school field where there was this huge shady tree. The sun was shining brightly and the wind was cool.

    She then said, ‘Children, let us go outside and study under that shady tree.’ There we went, sat down under that shady tree and we sang and sang with her to our hearts content. It was one of the most memorial days of my life.

    The tree is still there last I went some years ago. I sat down and reminisce of that happy day. I then looked at all the noisy children in the classrooms. If only …. they were all out here with their teachers singing their lives away.

    Thank you, Teach, wherever you are. God Bless You.

  5. #5 by Fort on Friday, 20 September 2013 - 1:29 am

    Appreciate Mr KJ John for

    sharing his personal experience on giving feedback.

    May we be courageous to speak out when it is due. Thanks, John!

  6. #6 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Friday, 20 September 2013 - 9:43 am

    Umno is the GOD of all Gods.
    Umno is the supreme grand master of the universe.
    Umno is forever right.
    Umno does not need any feedback.
    Umno knows best.
    So shadup!

    Umno on auto pilot.
    Pray hard.

  7. #7 by Sallang on Friday, 20 September 2013 - 11:21 am

    ”To Sir With Love” vs “Tanda Putra”

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