Schools are not places to glorify politicians or massage their egos, writes Adrian Lee.
The recent debates about whether opposition politicians should be allowed into schools made me reminisce about when politicians graced events during my school days. Put simply, those were visits by politicians from only the ruling coalition.
The media debates brought back memories of the excitement and energy (or was it fear and tension) felt by teaching and administrative staff alike.
For students, the visit seemed to be an event where we were
forced herded like cattle told to attend as it was deemed the respectful thing to do. Growing up in Malaysia, we were never allowed to question the purpose of the visit, who was coming, how the visit would benefit us or why we had to be there.
Most of the time, we wouldn’t know who the visiting politician was, of whether it was the menteri besar, education minister or some pengarah from a district or state education office. All we had to do was to fill up the hall or field so that the school authorities wouldn’t look ‘malu’ due to low attendance.
During these speeches, our attention would drift elsewhere into a world of fantasy, games and the anticipation of the recess bell. Surely, somewhere within those deep thoughts was a desire to complete my homework and an eagerness for the next lessons. Surely.
Sometimes, we held conversations and played games in stealth, for fear of catching the eye of a teacher. The braver ones would break out in loud chatter and others would follow suit. Eventually, no one (maybe except those seated in the front rows) was paying attention to the speeches.
Looking back, I’m still unsure why the presence of these so-called political ‘VIPs’ was required to grace our educational events and sports days or to just give us a “motivational talk”. I am pretty sure that I had sat through a good number of speeches, none of which I have any vague recollection.
Much debate has taken place about why politics and education shouldn’t mix. If politicians still insist on visiting schools, perhaps they could use these visits as a teaching moment for the students. During such visits, politicians could propagate leadership values, for instance – seeing that school children, in their formative years, would look up to these ‘leaders’ on how to act and behave.
Well, here are some lessons that our politicians could impart:
Firstly, politicians need to set an example about respecting time and being punctual. As our prime minister looks East once again, the emphasis about being on time and respecting the time of others should be at the forefront.
Surely, there is a reason why our prime minister emphasises the importance of being on time. Perhaps it could be due to his observations about functions involving politicians or VIPs that almost never start on time.
With this in mind, politicians arriving not only on time for school functions but in fact early would set the best example of respecting time. Imagine how it feels to be waiting for hours, sometimes more than two, just for a politician to turn up.
Without spending time sitting around anxiously for a politician who might in the end only send a representative, time could be better spent in the classroom or perhaps even on the field working up a sweat.
When our students are able to witness how important time is; they would be better able to grasp the notion that “masa really is emas” (time really is golden). They would learn how to respect as well as appreciate time.
We might even dare to dream of a new generation that doesn’t follow Malaysian time. Imagine a Malaysia with a punctual public transport system and meetings and wedding dinners that start on time.
The second lesson that a politician can teach during their visits is the need for frugality. Politicians could impart into young minds the importance of simplicity and perhaps show what humility looks like.
Functions that feature politicians are often held lavishly. The welcome ceremony often involves a kompang performance, lion dance or bunga mangga procession. A must would be the customary huge banner, unnecessarily bearing the faces of the visiting politicians, at times lining the roads towards the school.
For the entertainment of the politician, dances and performances are held. To put on a good show, schoolchildren would’ve practised for hours, at times, staying back after school hours and worse, skipping classes to practise.
Politicians could use these visits to exemplify frugality and humility. They could drive themselves, without a chauffeur or police escorts, and reject feasts fit for a king, as the money could be better spent on feeding the school children.
Finally, after all the preparations are made, many politicians just ‘grace’ the events only briefly, often leaving abruptly for another event deemed more important.
If our politicians are able to blur the lines by not highlighting the fact of who a “VIP” is and who the masses are, our children could learn an invaluable lesson about how respect is to be earned and not demanded.
If meals must be served, the politician should sit and eat with the children. They are after all, the politician’s constituents. Perhaps they too have something to say about their education system and what they actually want to learn.
Lastly, lessons about inclusiveness and empathy can be taught during such visits. Politicians could actually pay a visit to difficult-to-access schools in the most rural of areas instead of constantly visiting urban schools in their luxury vehicles.
We know of students in rural areas who walk for miles to school. Now, imagine a politician who would literally walk a mile in the shoes of these schoolchildren. What a lesson it could be about leadership by example?
Politicians should also ‘get their hands dirty’ by participating in the building of schools or gotong royong events, instead of just posing for a photo op while holding a cangkul and being unnecessarily equipped with hardhats and reflector vests.
If our politicianscould learn about the difficult and hazardous daily commute of children who don’t enjoy the luxury of being chauffeured by parents who park as close as possible to the school gate while blocking entire roads, they would realise that they haven’t been doing their job of providing basic infrastructure.
Instead of bickering about whether opposition politicians are allowed to visit schools, time should be better spent on improving Malaysian education standards.
If politicians feel they need to gain political mileage, do it in Parliament where education reforms that actually benefit students can be formed. It is time to look beyond shoe colours and the weight of school bags and speak about promoting academic freedom, implementing academic reform that works and re-empowering teachers.
Thus far, proper policies or guidelines about improving the thinking capabilities of children have not been seriously discussed at the school or university levels. The focus should be about the most important actor in schools, the child.
As schools provide the foundation for a child’s future during their formative years, education reforms need to begin at the school and not university level. Skills should be taught, nurtured and polished during a child’s formative years in school.
The university is not a magical wonderland, which automatically churns out busloads of graduates with excellent thinking, oratory, language and management skills.
Schools and universities are where students can learn about the importance of how a great education can propel them to a better future and how they can contribute to society. Schools are not places to glorify politicians or massage their egos.