Educating our children - elitism vs egalitarianism - Abdullah Ahmad

1 June 1997

What triggered me to write this article was the decision by a senior Malaysian diplomat here to withdraw his two girls from a much sought after United Nations International School in favour of a public school run by the New York City Board of Education.

Government or public schools in New York are severely crowded and teachers strain to teach, maintain discipline and absorb pupils, most of whom are the children of immigrants. In 1990, New York City was 63% white but in three years' time it is projected to be just 35% white.

I must say I used to dislike New York because it was a "fear city". Now it has changed for the better despite a gruesome murder at the Central Park last week. The last Park murder before last week's took place in 1995. The 843-acre Central Park is an oasis of green amid the skyscrapers. It has always been a place for many civic celebrations, a pleasant environment for a stroll as well as a source of urban paranoia.

I shall not go into the reason or reasons why my colleague did what he did, not in this article in any event. Nor shall I attempt - after years of deriding New York City - why my view of the Big Apple has changed. Suffice to say this: Money and a massive infusion of highly- motivated immigrants have caused the city's renaissance and invigoration.

When I was in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, where traffic problems are horrendous, I was often asked about the parking privileges of diplomats in the Big Apple. My general reaction was that I had no problem. I do not get excited about parking nor about UN reforms.

My colleague, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, should be applauded for his efforts and enthusiasm to reform the Security Council and the United Nations Secretariat which, like the UN itself, have yet to rationalise their functions post Cold War. However, nothing much will happen because of the structural problems within the UN's decision-making process which affect the reform efforts.

The process is just "too deliberative" and made worse by the general reluctance of member states, which must after all approve the changes, and they are dragging their feet!

It was good to be away from the UN for three weeks on official business in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Whether in New York, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Washington D.C. or London, every one loves his parking perks. New Yorkers love their parking perks much as diplomats love theirs. New Yorkers have a plethora of special licence plates which bestow one or another privilege on scores of judges, journalists, doctors, city officials and well-connected people, all of whom escape minor parking tickets. So what's the problem?

Now, parents know why their sons and daughters want to be VVIPs, VIPs or, at least, politicians, or marry those who can escape minor traffic offences!

Are you worried about something? Well, President Bill Clinton is. He is preoccupied about his place in history, what with wondering how future historians will compare him with some of his famous predecessors. He had better be. An interim study by an eminent American jury ranked him very low along with the likes of William Taft and George Bush - the man he defeated. For Clinton, this is like adding insult to an injury.

Clinton is given a mere grade C! Abraham Lincoln was a grade A president. George Washington was graded B. He may even get a D now that Paula Jones has won a Supreme Court battle. The Supreme Court unanimously voted last week that a sitting president has no constitutional immunity from civil law suits while in office, clearing the way for Paula Jones to pursue a sexual harassment case against Clinton. The president might just have to grin and bare (correct) it.

Are you worried about your children's or grandchildren's education? Is it the worry about the rising cost of quality education or the general deterioration of educational standards all over the world?

As I said I was in Indonesia three weeks ago. Changes in Indonesia and also at home are always a critical test of my personal capacity to respond positively to any shift in these essentially Bahasa Melayu speaking nations. Before their independence in 1945, Dutch was the language of the Indonesian elite, now it is English. In our case, English remains the language of the ruling class with Bahasa Malaysia.

An Indonesian mother, wife of a merchant - once she knew I was from Kuala Lumpur - politely asked if the Tuanku Jaafar College in Seremban were a good boarding school. She wants her children to be educated in an English-medium school. An expatriate friend in Ampang Hilir is sending his children to a boarding school in England because it seems that none of the international schools in the federal capital meets his demanding standards. His detractor claims that none of his children can cope with either the Alice Smith School or the International School.

In any event education and educating our children have become a bit complicated. Choosing schools is torturous. Sending a child closer to home should be considerably cheaper but is it in the long run?

Thank God I had an easy time choosing schools for my children. I risk being accused as an Anglophile if I said that Britain is fortunate in having two great systems of education. Notwithstanding what the labour government's policy towards public schools may be, one of the blessings of being British is that they can choose where their children should be educated, either at a public school or state school which exist side by side.

The state schools have been in existence for more than 160 years and the system ensures that every British child or any child living in Britain can receive free schooling up to a certain level and age.

The public schools numbering some 2,300, are run by the private or independent sector.

Although the public school is a primarily English institution, there are such schools in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, United States, Canada, Pakistan, Egypt, India and Thailand. Old boys and girls of these schools, whether Indian, Egyptian or Thai, have a unique tradition, and the old school network is robust and unparalleled, and the envy of old pupils of other schools.