Educating our children - elitism vs egalitarianism - Abdullah Ahmad

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In Malaysia, we too have public schools such as the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) and its sister college, Tunku Kurshiah in Seremban and the Royal Military College (RMC) but they are owned and run by the government. The Tuanku Jaafar school and the Saad Foundation School in Malacca are run by the private sector. The Saad Foundation School was started by an old Malay collegian, Tan Sri Halim Saad, the Chief Executive Officer of Renong Corporation. Halim is an active member of the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA). His executive office suite is just one floor below the MCOBA penthouse at Jalan Syed Putra, Kuala Lumpur.

My old school, MCKK, was founded in 1905 by the British for the children of the Malay ruling class along the lines of Eton College. It is a new institution compared to Eton which was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. MCKK has since been democratised and, as a result, its students today are made up from every stream of bumiputra society.

Anxious old boys are worried about their alma mater because it is just one of the many residential schools in the country although it still remains the premier one. There are today nearly 50 state-funded and privately-run boarding institutions. The old boys want MCKK privatised but the government has said that it cannot be privatised because it is a national treasure and heritage.

The government, so it seems, has given a RM 50 million grant to refurbish the school, but the old boys argued that it was too little as there were no provisions for the maintenance of the refurbished buildings and the new additions. The old boys insisted that if MCKK were a national treasure then the government should treat it as such and provide enough money to make it different from other schools as it once was.

The change of status from a federal institution to a state school took place in the sixties through a deliberately misguided policy of an education minister with a personal latent agenda. This particular minister succeeded in changing the name of the Malay Girls' College (then in Damansara) to Tunku Kurshiah and had the college moved to Seremban.

However, he failed in his attempt to change the name of MCKK following a strong protest from MCOBA and the personal intervention of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Razak, himself a former headboy of MCKK.

Eton College in Windsor, Berkshire is arguably the best public school in the world and is the most sought after by all parents around the world. Razak sent three of his five sons - Nizam, Nadzim and Nazir - to Oundle in Northamptonshire. Oundle was founded in 1556 by William Laxton. My two sons, Addha and Fuad also attended Oundle.

Razak's two eldest boys Najib, now the Minister of Education, and Johari, a wealthy businessman and lawyer, went to Malvern College. Before Malvern, Johari studied at MCKK making him the third generation of his family to have studied there. His grandfather Dato' Hussein, his father's father, was one of the early students of MCKK

Generally, every boy or girl leaving a public school or a boarding school should be independent, an all rounder, well-equipped educationally and socially to meet the challenges of the world.

The big question being asked everywhere now is whether poor proficiency in English is a hurdle to achieving a higher academic goal?

I believe, in the borderless global village, those who can communicate effectively and in impeccable English will have an edge over those whose English is limited. I would like to hear what readers think about this.

Public schools smack of elitism. What is wrong with elitism anyway? In any event, elitism is giving ground to egalitarianism everywhere, even at the bastion of privileges, Eton. How I wish the MCKK, Victoria Institution, Penang Free School, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Sultan Abu Bakar College and Sultan Ismail College and the likes of these schools could reintroduce teaching in English simultaneously with Bahasa.

We are about to lose our proficiency in the English language and when that happens, how are we to be different from other Asians and Aseans?

Old boys from MCKK, RMC and VI should insist on standing out by using English but at the same time, they should acquire an education which is steeped in Malaysian culture and history. The British did teach Razak, Tuanku Jaafar (the present Yang di-Pertuan Agong), Sultan of Perak, Raja Azlan Shah and the Sultan of Pahang, Tuanku Ahmad Shah and thousands of others both the English and Malay languages with great success at MCKK. It was the same at the Malay Girls' College (before the school changed its name in the sixties).

None of us have forgotten our Bahasa and Agama. Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim is a good example as is his wife Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah, who is an old girl of Tunku Kurshiah. So is Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, another old Kurshiahan and many others.

MCKK can trace its origins to the modern Malay ruling class. It is the genesis of modern Malay nationalism. Dato' Onn bin Jaafar, the founding president of Umno was an old boy, as was the one-time leader of the left-leaning Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), Datuk Ishak Mohamad (or better known as Pak Sako).

The MNP, like the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), was banned by the British when the Emergency broke out in June 1948.

Dato' Onn's grandson, Hishamuddin' Hussein (Parliamentary Secretary and Deputy Head of Umno Youth) is also an old boy. But not his father, Tun Hussein, the third Prime Minister. However, two of his uncles studied at MCKK, Major- General (R) Jaafar Onn, three years my senior and Gharib, Jaafar's kid brother.

A grateful nation should make sure that a national heritage such as the MCKK continues to flourish in the style it was accustomed to. Whether one likes it or not, MCKK has its special character and individual quality which has not changed in 92 years, and unlikely to change for another century even if it were left to languish in poverty!

No one can wish it away.

MCKK is a national asset which must not only be preserved but enhanced: its celebrated past should be recalled and valued, its present recognized and appreciated, and its future protected and assured.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of SUN )