(My column in The Edge Financial Daily published on 21 September 2010. The actual article in the print could contain some editorial changes)
School years represent the best part of my memory up until now. Once, I used to complain to a teacher who was very close to me (one Miss Liew Lai Chun) that I couldn’t wait to leave school. I didn’t believe her then when she said most people would miss their school days as they grow older, but she was proven right about 10 years later.
The experience at school usually leaves a permanent mark on our worldview because it takes place during our most formative years. Therefore the people we encounter, the lessons we take to our hearts, the memories we keep from our experience in schools play a pivotal role in shaping our outlook.
I suppose many people recognise this, hence the never ending debate on the impact of different types of schools in our education system on national unity. I do not want to dwell on this now (perhaps at a later time), yet most people can agree that schools have a special place in our society when it comes to forging the right understanding and mutual respect among the various communities.
It was with this in mind that my jaw dropped and my eyes bulged when I read news reports on alleged racist behaviours of certain school heads that shocked the nation recently.
No matter what was the background that led to the incidents, there can be no excuse for it. I am fully aware of the warped sympathy that some quarters may extend to the school heads especially when it was viewed from a racial perspective, yet it was an act most condemnable of anyone from a teaching profession.
In my case, the disgust also stems from my experience growing up in a fully residential school for Malay boys in Kuala Kangsar (some said that it is a taboo to fully spell out Malay College Kuala Kangsar, but what the heck). At a first glance, a school like MCKK has all the ingredients to produce bigots and racists in the country if one considers that the students do not have multi-racial encounters with other fellow students.
But that is where sometimes I think the debate on the role of schools in forging national unity get skewed a bit, because too much focus has been given on the need to provide multi-racial encounters among fellow students as a prerequisite to cement trust and mutual understanding. Looking back, perhaps the policy makers should also consider that much of the multi-racial experience encountered in yesteryears in schools was actually provided by the teaching faculty.
I do not have a data to support this, but I feel teachers are more effective and in a better position to inculcate the sense of togetherness, mutual understanding and respect that each student should have for each other. Good teachers always inspire their students and their good deeds will be remembered for many years to come – growing up with a band of teachers from different races who had held our hands in our most formative years, should do more to prepare any Malaysian child to have a non-racist worldview as they enter adulthood; better than the practice of forcing the sharing of sports facilities to encourage encounters among multi-racial students (as tested with Vision School concept). It is certainly better and more effective than any kind of sloganeering that the top public relations firm can conjure up (wink wink).
That is why anyone in their right mind should feel outraged with the alleged incidents and the authorities must have the moral courage to send a clear signal. Teaching profession is noble and teachers are our hope for the future, especially in accomplishing a task as challenging as forging national unity. It is bad enough that perhaps there is no concerted effort to do this at school nowadays (teachers are too busy with paper works and various examinations to conduct!); it is unforgivable when it is the school head who brings racism to school when he/she should be the one cultivating multi-culturalism.
I attribute much of my current worldview to the good multi-racial teachers I have in Kuala Kangsar. At the earlier part of the 90s, the non-Malay teachers formed a significant portion of the faculty. The school headmaster (Datuk Rashdi Ramlan, his last position was Deputy Director for Education) took the conscious effort to make sure that the teaching faculty had the right racial and gender mix.
So it became very normal that our non-Malay teachers treated us for buka puasa or Chinese New Year, or we sent cards to our Indian teachers during festivities. We spent a lot of days and weeks at tournaments with teachers of different backgrounds. For so many decades, the best of the best teachers that Malay College old boys would remember and include in our gatherings are representative of the rich variety in Malaysia – students would remember Dr Esther Danial, or Miss Liew Lai Chun, or Mr Tan Gim Hoe, or Dr Syed Azhan or En Shamsuddin, or Miss Grace Manikam in the same breath without any thought of the different race backgrounds.
Apart from providing a multi-cultural experience that builds the trust of other communities among us, we also learnt of the different work ethics and style from our teachers of the different races. Some were more meticulous than others, some were more casual and some played the facilitator roles all the time – it was this variety in work ethics and style that allowed us to pick the best of best from our teachers and understand that in a multi-cultural society, differences should be celebrated because they complement each other.
For the past few years, I spent time managing MCKK hockey team with my ex-teachers, Mr Thaman Singh and Mr N Jeyapala. It strengthens my conviction that our multi-culturalism is the best asset that we have to survive in this century, because looking at these two 60-year old teachers spending retirement money and time for a bunch of Malay boys whom they never know, is a testimony of how this country back then was built on that foundation of multi-culturalism.
We may have strayed a bit over the last 3 decades, but if we can begin building the trust all over again it will not be long before we get back to our foundation. That process must begin in school and every single teacher and parent has a big role to play to mould the right worldview for our children.
There is no place for racist teachers in our schools, if we ever want to achieve this.