Some people who read my last newsletter piece “Seeing the writing on the wall” have responded with much scepticism.
They ask me if change can ever happen, considering how fractured and damaged Malaysia is today.
I can understand their desperation in such dark, uncertain times, more than anyone else.
Of course, we all have that part of our brain that evaluates a situation, rationalises and then decides on ‘action’ or ‘inaction’. Your brain must have done the maths and turned you back to stare into the headlights.
If that was you, this is my story to help you understand why I think the way I do.
Years ago, when I was offered a promotion as principal of a rural school almost 75km away from Sandakan (where I was based), my immediate impulse was to decline the offer. As a parent of a teenage daughter in an exam class, I had other personal priorities.
The school was not an inducement either. It was in a small fishing village, dilapidated and suffering from gross neglect and mismanagement.
Still, it was a ‘grade A’ school with a massive student enrolment. It included a student hostel, staff flats, artisan quarters, Form Six classes, a vocational class, science and religious studies streams, and special education to boot.
Many candidates before me had already declined the offer. I was just one of the candidates in a long list of possibilities that the Education Department was ticking off one by one.
No one in their right mind, with little experience in a school leadership role, would accept such an insane offer. It demanded too much, and I felt I did not have the energy or the experience to run it. As a deer looking into the headlights, I should have bolted.
I knew what accepting the post would entail. Schools in Sabah start at 6.45am. I would have to wake up at half past four, leave at half past five, drive using headlights along part of the narrow but busy trunk road between Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu.
Negotiating winding roads, passing timber lorries and palm oil tankers along the way would be part of my challenge. Rebuilding the school and, more importantly, rebuilding its morale from its metaphorical embers, would be the other.
I was about to decline the offer when my husband reminded me of my calling and responsibility as an educator. He told me if anyone could do anything for the school, it was me.
Whatever I did, even if it was a little thing, would only make the school a little better, he said. It did not matter how much better. A little better was still a good thing.
As for my 15-year-old daughter, he said she was old enough and disciplined to manage her own academic progress. She would not want me breathing down her neck.
Finally, he said that, as a father of two girls, he wanted me to show them what a woman was capable of. Girls, he reminded me, needed such female role models.
I have never been so blown away by his insights.
We set up support structures at home and off I went to the fishing village driving 150km every day.
It has been one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made. The road ahead was never easy, but it gave me a larger sense of purpose to contribute to my country. I have never regretted my decision.
I know that in the nine years I led the school, it only got better and better. At first it was just my heart in the right place, and then everything slowly fell into place. I found so much support from the teachers in the school, to whom I will always be indebted.
It was never me alone. We all worked together. The students we served taught me the value of a purpose and mission. It became a fine school by the time I left.
You will see that rebuilding a school or a country can have many parallels. We each have a calling as citizens. And we all have choices. We are all constantly making choices based on our personal priorities.
Yet sometimes, acting on a different priority may lead us to the same outcome. What you do today for a larger world may affect your own personal space and life in the future.
Rebuilding a school (or a country) will always begin with ‘one’. It will always begin with ‘you’. You will never know where it can go until you try. In the end, it is about your strategies and your ability to bring people together. No one does anything like change, alone.
And so, this is my message to you about my optimism, which many of you may feel is grossly misplaced. Your effort may or may not work. We do not know. Nobody knows. We can only negotiate the obstacles we come across with care, commitment, intelligence, strategy and foresight.
Let’s not mind the heavy traffic, the long hauls or the long hours. Don’t think too much about the big picture. Just plan as you go, as long as you are responsible. Just do it, even if you do not know where the next milestone is going to be. The general direction is good enough.
I have always loved the Nike slogan – ‘Just do it!’ Just do whatever you can. If everyone did something meaningful everyday, then, yes, magic can happen. This is the secret of my positive thinking. People tend to overthink and give up too easily. If nobody tries anything, then we will all definitely fail.
So, what can you do? Do anything to persuade another to see the writing on the wall. One little drop can become an ocean … or it may not. One will never know.
You can create special think tank chat groups and start planning something. You can join a civil society group or NGO or contribute your expertise or create a small discussion group to educate yourself and others.
Or you could become a candidate in the coming general election.
Just do not say “I give up” even before you have started your journey.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
16 April 2022