Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The University of Hard Knocks may not be a bad place

READING the success story of 57-year-old Madenjit Singh in this portal last week was inspiring.
Madenjit, who founded SOLS 24/7 (or Science of Life Studies 24/7), an NGO that offers a free two-year boarding and educational programme providing life skills for disadvantaged youths, has been shortlisted as one of the 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize in Dubai on March 16.
Not only has he overcome the initial setbacks in early life, including having allegedly failed his Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) twice, but also has moved on to innovate teaching methodologies to benefit some 15,000 disadvantaged students in 185 schools in five countries.
If he wins the Global Teacher Prize, he will be the first Malaysian to earn that international recognition and be a motivation to educators to follow in his footsteps.
Those who were studying in secondary schools in the 1970s would remember with dread the fifth year at school, for that was the year of reckoning for many of us.
It was the year for MCE (or the Malaysian Certificate of Education) which later became the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia at the turn of that decade.
It marked the final chapter of the 11 years of one’s school education and unless one passed the MCE, and later the Higher School Certificate (HSC), there was no short-cut to get to the university for higher education.
At a time when higher education options were few or were not within easy reach, and overseas education only reserved for those with deep pockets, those who considered themselves “average students” would pray hard as they tried to cram in as much as their brains allowed to pass the MCE.
Good revision books were few and the best ones, like those published by Preston, although expensive, were snapped up like hot cakes even at the start of the fifth year at school.
Only those who paid attention in class right from the start of Fourth Form and did their homework as assigned stood a chance at the MCE. Co-curriculum was never considered important, except sports and it was only for those who knew that they wanted to make a living as sportsmen or women.
The rest, who treated Form Four as “Honeymoon Year” would eventually pay the price at the start of Form Five.
By the time the trial exams were held, the wheat would have been separated from the chaff. Those who knew they were not going to do well to get past the Fifth Form hurdle would switch to their Plan Bs.
Some teachers were also not too kind to those whose passion was not books. I knew of instances when some of my school mates were told the fact that if they failed their MCE, it would be the end.
They would have to go get menial jobs and earn mediocre pay. Although the emotional threats were done in good faith, it did little to ease the tension and mounting guilt many were already shouldering.
Fortunately for me and my classmates, we had very good teachers. One of them, I recall, while giving us last minute advice in the run-up to the MCE, said that we should do what we could and leave the rest to fate.
Not the best advice today but it sounded most logical at the time. Burning midnight oil to make up for neglected time that should have been spent on revision was rarely effective.
“Even if you did not get into sixth form or a university,” she had said, “it is not the end of the world. You can always take up a course and work your way up from there.”
She also opened our eyes to the various options such as taking up courses. Those days, private colleges like Goon’s and Stamford’s were among the famous ones offering accountancy and banking courses while the Federal Institute of Technology and Institut Teknologi Jaya offered engineering and architecture programmes.
Our teacher also spoke of the professional examinations by foreign trade bodies for which one could sit for locally and get accreditation from. If we were hardworking enough to take up the challenge, said the teacher, such professional qualifications would put us on par with university graduates, if not higher, when applying for a job later.
While most of us wanted to score a strings of As, that talk made many of us realise that for all the lessons we missed and the homework we skipped, we would eventually pay the price. So a handful of us did what we could and tried not to fail in any subject so that we could at least get a full certificate.
And as soon as the MCE results were released in March, a new beginning stared at us in the face. Like we had already known, an elite few passed with flying colours — some were even offered places in local varsities. Those who did not make it and who opted to go overseas had PA-MA scholarship, funded by their parents.
However, a small group of my friends, instead of looking for colleges, looked for jobs instead. They figured that by trying to earn a living first, they would be killing two birds with one stone — they would be able to keep themselves financially afloat as they decided what they really wanted to do in life.
Years later, when we met in an informal reunion again, the group who had taken the path less travelled had arrived at admirable levels of success in their lives. One who went to work for the stock broking house had become a successful stock trader.
Another who went to work for his uncle at a construction site now heads a prominent engineering firm. The fellow who joined a petroleum surveying company as a stock-taker ended up as a partner in a quantity surveying firm. One chap who joined a signage company as a shop assistant is today a prominent artist.
Some of my friends worked during the day and studied at night to gain whatever accreditation they needed in the pursuit of their goals. Others learned all the skills and tools required in their trade on-the-job and beat the path to their own chosen career successfully. The latter, I noted, were more streetwise and mature in their outlook.
Looking back at all of them today, there is little difference in the lives of those who had gone to varsities and those who did not if wealth and quality of life are the benchmark for comparison.
Paper qualification was as important at the time as it is today, but only as a key to open doors. Those who were deprived of higher education, either due to the lack of money or opportunity, have proven to me that they could get through life and achieve a reasonable amount of success through honesty, hard work, diligence and persistence.
They treated the working life as an open-university, one which many self-made millionaires called the University of Hard Knocks and where Life dishes its lessons unreservedly to those keen to learn and strong in spirit. The only fees you pay are an insatiable appetite for knowledge, desire to learn, humility to accept guidance, and penchant for hard work.
And I believe if you can cultivate all those qualities as well as an open mind to succeed, chances are that you will find opportunities knocking at your door. Even if they do not, you will have built enough courage, initiative and determination to go looking for them to make a success of your life.