opinion : Alwyn Lau

Malaysia’s England very ‘char kway teow’? #SPM2017

Alwyn Lau

NOVEMBER 12 — By now everyone from Alor Setar to Alpha Centauri has read about last week’s SPM English question which created a brain-freeze in a million students:

“If you had the opportunity to move to another part of Malaysia, where would you choose to live? Explain your choice.”

It seems many exam-takers misinterpreted this question and answered Japan, Sweden, Bali, Balitong and so on.

Netizens all over Malaysia are wondering what in the name of Mind Your Language are students being taught, such that they could misunderstand the question. 

How much clearer should the question have been? Is it possible that Malaysian English has reached the point where we’re confused between “another part of” and “outside of”? Maybe the question should have been rephrased to: 

“If you had the opportunity to move to another part of Malaysia, where would you choose to live? Look, it’s another part of Malaysia, okay? That means within this same country! I’m NOT asking if you prefer to live in Melbourne, because there’s only one correct answer to THAT question, obviously! Now, discuss.”


Has our Form 5 English sunk so low? This would be a tragedy but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise.

If you hang around schools and colleges within Malaysia (not “other than Malaysia”, okay!?) how often do you hear good English spoken? 

Notice how when our kids speak in their native tongue (i.e. Malay, Chinese and Tamil), they speak like UN interpreters — but when they speak English, they sound like Jackie Chan reading Shakespeare to his cat.

And wasn’t it JobStreet which reported that one of the top three reasons fresh grads have trouble getting employed is because whenever they start speaking English at job interviews, the interviewer wonders if he’s listening to Nyonya rap? Bottom line: Malaysia’s England very char kway teow.

The columnist says the whole fiasco with the SPM question suggests how stressful government exams really are. ― Bernama picThe columnist says the whole fiasco with the SPM question suggests how stressful government exams really are. ― Bernama picStress-induced alternate reality?

However, having said the above, I suspect it’s not the level of English (and/or linguistic comprehension) which caused students to screw up that particular question. 

I think that most students who do well in the SPM paper, should they be asked a similar question under normal circumstances, will have no problem replying correctly.

The whole fiasco with the SPM question, in fact, suggests how damn bloody stressful government exams are. It was this way in the past, and it’ll continue being this way in the future.

C’mon lah. Our youths are reminded since childbirth that if they don’t become Successful Persons then they’ll be a bleedin’ disappointment to god, country and family. 

Day in day out, youths are bombarded with a Scarcity Mentality which declares that if you don’t fight to be an all-star champion and super-high achiever, you could end up penniless on the streets. 

Week in week out, they live in high-pressure communes (known as schools and families) where comparison with people better than you is the norm. And every year, their school puts up ominous-looking signs like, “100 DAYS UNTIL SPM”

Then, lo and behold, in Form 3 and Form 5 they finally face the very symbol of Everything Important & Worth Striving For In Life (DRUMROLL!!!): Government examinations. 

OMG, it all boils down to this! Your self-esteem, your future, your status, your street-cred, your parents’ and peers’ approval plus how much shit or worship you’re gonna get. You have one chance. Either do it, die tryin’ or be a low-class loser!

Is it any wonder that thousands of students lose their minds during exam time? Are we entirely surprised that temporary psychosis sets in such that kids experience an alternate reality, causing them to misunderstand something as simple as “another part of Malaysia”?

The point I’m making is that the misreading of the English question could be a symptom of something terribly messed up with our national psyche. 

We are driving our youths (quite literally) insane. When life becomes a matter of grabbing academic points, then our nation has lost the plot and our students the meaning.

Please. We’re Malaysians; don’t let us become like Singaporeans for whom the only alternative to winning is dying. With such a mentality, 99.9 per cent of folks will always feel like losers. Kia-bleeding-Su.

We Asians gotta be wary about how we glory in our education stress, lest we fall into the American 2nd Amendment trap i.e. guns are good, so let’s have more of them even though our people are being shot every day. 

Same logic with Asian government exams: Education is good, so let’s keep obsessing over it even if our youths go crazy.

Instead, for the good of everybody, let’s encourage our stuents to pursue the subjects they love first. Let them soak and swim and dance in the reverie and pleasure of learning something for which they need no encouragement (whatever it is, English, Maths, DOTA algorithms, etc.). 

Let them allow these subjects to gradually expand their learning because ­— newflash! — love for any skill or topic will push kids to creative ways to deepen their understanding

Then imagine adapting their self-discovered learning techniques towards academic as a whole.

No guarantee of “success” here but the bottomline is we parents and teachers need to relax more. 

We gotta set our kids free and not push them to excel because “that’s what the system demands.” That’s a recipe for disaster. Even if they win (i.e. get good grades), they still lose because the love of learning isn’t there.

So now we know. The most important question in education is really the following:

“If you had the opportunity to learn anything you want, what would it be? Explain your choice. Now, go rock the world.”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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