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Perfect academia, perfect chaos

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The Insane Optimist reflects on an annual event that does not show up in the ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ tourist calendar – the spectacle of failed university applicants with perfect or near perfect pre-U academic scores.

Checking in at 'heartbreak hotel'
Checking in at ‘heartbreak hotel’

The month of July for Malaysians is typically marked by hot and dry sunny spells. It also manifests itself by the temporary mass migration of Middle-Eastern nationals into our cities, seeking reprieve from an even more oppressing mid-summer heat of the deserts in their homeland.

However there is one event that does not show up in our Malaysia Truly Asia tourist calendar. Those who are not well-versed with this country will understandably be baffled with this annual phenomenon when they read the local papers in July. The remarkable evidence that the month of July has well and truly arrived in the year is the incessant news splash of failed university applications following release of placement results by the local public universities.

We are not talking about just any other applicants. Every year without fail, within months of being over the moon with near-perfect CGPA 3.96 to perfect CGPA 4.0 results, a few dozen hardworking and determined youth would be brought down to earth with a rude awakening. Public universities would soon inform them sometime in the month of July that they are either not good enough for tertiary education or it is in their best interest to major in disciplines they have little or no interest in.

So how does one convince a rationale mind that a perfect score or near-perfect score does not mean much at all in a system that assesses them in the first place? If it was so important that language and social skills are required to match academic performance to gain entry into tertiary education, then by all means put into place a system that develops these skills to prepare them as part of the assessment in the public examination. Do not however leave out this part of the development, proceed to give perfect or near-perfect scores and then inform these people, “Oops we do not agree with the public examination that grades you, albeit it was prepared by us”.

Guide them, prepare them and provide them opportunities to develop these skills in the universities. Do something except shut the door to their dreams. They have mostly been in government schools all their lives and now the government does not want to accept the results of their own doing? The government created a system that defines the required standard of achievement and consistently grades students against those key performance indicators, which are largely academic in nature. This goes on for years in a student’s life and by the time he or she completes what is equivalent to the A-Levels, two thirds of a student’s lives have been assessed on that basis alone.

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Now if that is not entrapment then I do not know what is – pulling out a joker at the end of the card game and changing the rules. Students have been led down a garden path and consistently assured that they are on the right track only to be told quite abruptly that CGPAs are no more important than yesterday’s promotion of Happy Meals in McDonalds.

An adult would hardly be able to accept such a harsh decision, let alone a teenager. These are teenagers who have invested endless hours perfecting their performance based on rules that have been set for them in order to earn the reward they sought. If nothing, this type of discipline alone at least in some ways demonstrates their single-mindedness and strength in character.

Are we saying that whatever perceived inadequacies in their language and social skills are so profound and irreversible that they cannot be overcome or retrained by other equally compelling positive attributes they possess? If at all it is true that they lack the required language and social skills, who has encouraged them to be so inadequate in the first place if not for the government’s emphasis on paper achievement for the past 13 years of their lives?

If language and social skills were so important, why has the Ministry of Education not imposed a threshold for their accomplishment before students are allowed to promote to the next year in their secondary schooling years? The Ministry of Education did nothing and gave students no tools to help themselves except to continue aiding and abetting in the stagnancy of such skills until entry into tertiary education. Has the Ministry not equally contributed to the circumstances it now says are unacceptable to qualify these students as undergraduates to a discipline of their choice or even to qualify as undergraduates at all?

Their dreams shattered into a million tiny pieces, this group of individuals are left in an absolutely impossible situation. With little or no opportunity for appeal, is it a wonder that there is a brain-drain in the country? These young Malaysian citizens certified as the crème de la crème of our nation by our own public examination are getting a message from our government that is almost unimaginable to most reasonable people in the world. Across the causeway, a neighbouring and far more successful country has always been eager to persuade, court and welcome our “rejected” students with more than open arms. Who is the actual loser here?

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And so what is the message that we are trying to give these young and bright people of the nation? Are we trying to tell them, “life sucks but just take a deep breath and get on with it?” or “down with meritocracy, mediocrity triumphs”. We are supposed to be living in a more civilised and progressive era championing equality and human rights but we do not appear to be affirming that when we deprive our hardworking youths of their hard-earned rewards.

Squashing the dreams of tenacious youths who have proven their ability in the manner they have been asked to is a shame that bears on this nation as a whole. Surely the mission of TalentCorp would have been far easier and less costly if it starts here for these young people. But like most things in this country, common sense does not prevail and continues not to prevail.

Thus these individuals who may have had their dreams extinguished for the time being will leave the limelight of the press sometime in August, when it will be conclusive that the government will not change its decision. No doubt this trauma will deeply affect them and would shape their lives profoundly. However they would embark on Plan B and completely disappear from the newspapers in time to come.

In any event our short-attention span will then temporarily be distracted with other incredulous news for the next 11 months before the next annual July heart-break once again hogs the national papers. Do we ever wonder what happens to these potentially great individuals?

If ever TalentCorp were to carry out some due diligence, it would not be a surprise that some individuals that have been provided incentives to return home as repatriated professionals in contributing to our soon-to-be knowledge-based economy may have faced similar, if not the exact, circumstances 15 to 20 years ago. They could have been individuals who swallowed their bitter pills two decades ago, stopped feeling sorry for themselves, faced the adversity and somehow turned their fortune around. Who do you think will have the last laugh in 15 to 20 years’ time? I bet my last penny that it is not going to be TalentCorp, assuming it is still in existence then.

So there, if there is a moral to the story here, I guess it must be this – no good thing ever dies (Shawshank Redemption). Good work will be rewarded; do not ever think otherwise. One just needs to find a place in this world that supports this principle. It may not be here or it may not be now but when one finds it, perhaps that is how one knows what it is like to be truly home – a place that upholds a basic human right.

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And what is that basic human right? It is none other than a right to be the best one can be when perseverance and determination are supported by truly democratic processes that enshrine such a right.

Therefore hush now you young men and ladies who have fallen down from the stars; don’t you cry yet. Your journey has just begun and the true winners will emerge, just not now. Adversity has its virtues and so has patience. Show the world that the good ones will always prevail in the end no matter how great the impediments.

Until we as a nation fully appreciate what it means to reward the deserving lot, a high-income knowledge-based economy will unfortunately continue to be a delusion for this country whose people are sometimes desperate enough to buy any manifesto on sale.

In the meantime and in the interest of transparency, would TalentCorp mind disclosing what is the percentage of the returning expatriates actually staying over five years? No? Official secret? Fine, go on now, continue your good work and continue spending large amount of public expenditure in doing so. If TalentCorp could actually connect the dots or understand how Newton’s Third Law works, it would probably be more effective.

But obviously “taking the bull by the horns” does not conjure any meaningful expression to this organisation or any public organisation here for that matter. We have always to do everything in a laughable way…. why? Because a great degree of humour is necessary to endure this tragic annual July affair.

Unravelling the logic behind this “tertiary education enrolment” in Malaysia may be the next biggest thing after the revelation of the Theory of Relativity. Of course not everything we do is wrong; we must be doing something right too as it has been reported that Malaysia has become an education hub with many foreigners flocking to our shores on student visas. If only they would attend classes …

The Insane Optimist is the pseudonym of someone who thinks that Malaysia is a stage for a tragedy worthy of an Italian opera and unbearable humour of the absurd but nonetheless harbours hope for this beautiful country to eventually play out its finest performance when all its people finally come to their senses and identify themselves as Malaysians and no other.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Ed G
Ed G
31 Jul 2013 6.00pm

No wonder the Form 6 education in government schools is so unpopular nowadays. Why opt to struggle in the Form 6 if there is another easier (and more guaranteed) route into a public university in the form of matriculation. In fact, it is already a common practice for those with financial resources to go straight into a private college without even bordering to consider the Form 6, very much like going to a private hospital over a government-run one.

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