Originally published here, Roshan laments the state of affairs common to most schools today.

More than 30 years ago, I entered into MBS Primary school and was thrust into a class where I sat next to a kid by the name of Edmund Bon who I thought was a lunatic. Within minutes after meeting me, he tried to pick a fight with me. My parents taught me not to get into fights, so I tried to pretend I didn’t hear him. He challenged me again. This time he used words I don’t recall ever understanding. I looked away. Then, he started shoving me, and my ‘survival’ instincts triggered and soon I was beating the crap out of this kid. He started crying and after school ran to his mother complaining about me. As I tried to run away after school, his mother grabbed me and waited to complain about me to my mother.

As luck would have it, my mother and his mother met up and they forgot about us. Apparently, they were the best of friends from their teaching days. And as time went on, Edmund and I became best friends, doing practically everything together. Together with a gang of students, we went through primary school at MBS, inspired to ‘change the world’. We were cub scouts at MBS. We stayed and slept overnight at Primary school. We dreamt about how we would ‘change the world’.

Every year, at the end of the school term, we looked forward to the end of the holidays and the time we could get back to MBS and be together.  MBS was a special place for us. It was at MBS Primary where the foundation was laid and we learnt what it meant to ‘change the world’.

A few weeks ago, part of our gang got together and we took a stroll down memory lane. As we walked past the primary school, we couldn’t help but wonder why the ‘spirit of MBS’ which we felt so strongly in our past years in MBS didn’t seem so evident today. Where we the hundreds of kids chatting and dreaming about ‘changing the world’?  The school seemed so empty. In fact, we later found out that there were only 52 students for Standard 1 this year. What happened to the 6-7 classes of almost 50 students each when we were studying? We were alarmed.

And as we walked over to the canteen, our conversations started to drift towards our kids. Except for me, not a single other parent wanted to send their kids to MBS Primary. They didn’t mind sending them to MBS Secondary – but not to the primary school.

I started to get worked up and question the reluctance to send ‘our’ kids to our primary school after the wonderful experience we all went through. There were a myriad of excuses from the primary school location being too far, to Chinese schools being better to the unquantifiable ‘it is just not the same now’.

But almost all of us agreed that Chinese schools were also not good for our kids. Most of the kids at Chinese schools became highly oriented academically and spent hours on school work with little time for play. We all laughed as we knew the secret to success had almost nothing to do with the academia as was evident in our lives, yet these kids were stuck in the same. And currently the most admired CEO, Steve Jobs of Apple, was a dropout. And so was Richard Branson, CEO of the Virgin Group. Obviously, academic success played little part in life’s future successes.

Worse still, many of ‘these’ schools had no football field, which meant no football and outdoor sports for many of them. More alarming, in most Chinese schools, 90% of the students are Chinese. In MBS Primary, they have in total 374 kids with 136 Malays, 120 Chinese and 104 Indian. There could never be a more equally balanced, diverse school in the country. Yet, the majority of MBS Alumni said they preferred to send their kids to Chinese schools; which then brought us to the real reason why some cringed at sending their kids to MBS Primary – the fear of the ‘rotten’ quality of education at a kebangsaan school. (MBS Primary is a kebangsaan school!)

Many of my friends expressed fear that their kids would be ‘Islam-ised’ with only 3 out of the 28 teachers being non-Malays (currently, principal Susie Khor Siew Lee, Senior Assistant Thamotharan Govindasamy and teacher Loy See Min). And they were worried that the kids would grow up not speaking proper English (although they did agree that the quality of English at Chinese schools is debatable too!)

But the biggest grouse was that of the quality of the teachers at a kebangsaan school. They believed that the teachers at most kebangsaan schools, MBS Primary included, were not good enough to educate their kids. And they quickly pointed to the results of the UPSR (Standard 6 exams) in Chinese schools which far ‘exceeded’ those of the kebangsaan school as proof of the quality of teachers. Yet, surprisingly in most years, according to the new school principal, Susie Khoo, more than 20% of its students score full 5As for UPSR desspite its kebangsaan teachers.

Interestingly, as I look back at my primary days and start to pin-point the ‘great’ teachers that I had back then, I could possibly pick out maybe one or two really inspiring ones. The majority of primary teachers we had were either trainees or rather ordinary teachers. Yet, we all somehow managed to end up OK. So, what’s the difference? Where does the fault lie?

Most would fault our education system. True, the kebangsaan system has its apparent flaws but it is a direct result of the efforts of our government which Malaysians voted in at every general election. Something we can’t change till the next election.

Others fault the administrators of the primary school. After speaking with Susie Khoo, the principal, you will realise that the team she has at MBS is working round the clock to ensure MBS keeps growing and developing. According to her:

There is much upgrading of the school that we are working on. Renovation works are on-going right now funded under the Pakej Rangsangan Ekonomi Ke-2.

Susie, who took over the role from Lo Kwai Sim in Feb 2009, spent the past 2 years re-organising and re-building MBS’s infrastructure. She adds:

This year we are embarking on another up-grading project. We would like to change our wooden canteen tables and benches to more colorful fiberglass ones. We are also looking into up-grading our audio system in the Dewan and fixing water coolers for the boys. We would love to have the MBS Alumni help through Karnival 2011 scheduled for 08 Oct 2011.

The school is now introducing special needs classes for ‘special’ students by hiring a retired special education teacher. In sports, the school excels in chess but Susie and her team are working tirelessly to achieve volleyball and hockey excellence. They are also looking to get the MBS Alumni’s support to upgrade the library as they want to continue to have a world-class school with world-class infrastructure.

Apparently, the PIBG is also doing their part at MBS Primary. The PIBG, under the former YDP, Ee Guan Soon, has done much in upgrading the infrastructure of the primary school together with the MBS Alumni who helped make possible the construction of Dewan Puan Sri Datin Seri Lee Kim Hua. The present YDP – James Poh in his second term – with his AJK and the MBS Alumni collected enough funds to install an air-conditioner in the Dewan and renovated a classroom to be a meeting room called Anjung Bestari.

So, if the school principal and the teachers are working tirelessly and the PIBG is working hard to upgrade the school with the MBS Alumni, why is there a lack of students queuing up to sign up for education at MBS Primary?

I can come to a simple conclusion.

The sad state of MBS Primary is primarily the fault of the alumni. It’s all our fault. The entire school has less than 400 students, averaging 62 students per standard. And the reason this has happened is that we have stopped the flow of kids into MBS Primary.

WE, in our great wisdom, ignore the fact that MBS Primary has achieved well in academia, has a great headmistress in place trying to re-build the school, and ignore the great MBS heritage we were all part of. Instead, we pack our kids off to the supposedly better private and Chinese schools.

Yes, teachers can make a difference but the big reason why our MBS experience was great was because we were surrounded by other students who pushed each other to greatness. There were poor students who benefited from the rich. There were smart students who pushed the less-academically gifted. There were talented ones, whose talent rubbed off. And then there were the bullies, like Edmund Bon, who learnt about love, care and justice and evolved to become a human rights advocate. These boys fulfilled their potential to become the men they were meant to be not because the quality of the teachers were better but because of the rub-off effects from their classmates and their parents who became their role-models at MBS.

The bigger school population with kids of varying backgrounds enabled MBS students to learn from each other. Today there are only 374 kids in the whole school. We need to return to the days where MBS Primary had at least 1200 students. This means we need at least 200 kids per standard, an increase of 140 kids per standard. And we need to have your kids – the middle income and upper families who will push their kids and the school forward, taking the poor and under-privileged kids along the journey. Today, the majority of the school’s composition is not equally balanced as before.

Students, from good families, will automatically enhance our primary school as their parents will care enough to push the teachers, the principal and the infrastructure to greater heights, and this will inspire the less privileged kids as their role models. This pressure will result in a better school.

How do we fix this? Simple. Good students = good results = good school. So, all we need to ‘fix’ MBS Primary is to get every single MBS Alumni to go on a massive campaign to convince their spouses and other parents to send their kids to MBS. The better the quality of the students coming in, the better the school becomes. If we can get 200 kids to register for Standard 1 next year, the higher the likelihood that the quality improves, especially if these kids come from good homes.

If we keep doing this for a few years, MBS Primary will soon become a premier school, just like the secondary school. Hundreds of kids ‘fight’ each year to get into MBS Secondary from the Chinese and private schools. Somehow in Form 1, MBS is suddenly morphed into a better school even though the same issues faced by the primary school are faced by the secondary school. We need to have a similar ‘waiting list’ for the primary school. I am going to do my part. In a few years, my son will be enrolling for Standard 1. I am going to make sure he is at MBS Primary. As Gandhi said, “be the change that you want to see in the world”.

Change cannot take place unless someone takes the first step. It was great to see thousands of Malaysians on July 9th take a public step to acknowledge the need for fair and clean elections. Each of us now needs to take a step of faith and populate MBS Primary with our kids. Then we will have some skin in the game – and we will make sure that our primary school goes forward to greatness!

Go Forward MBS … yes, go forward MBS Primary – go forward!

With the help of the Alumni, the Primary school will become a force to be reckoned with in the future – but this can only happen if every single alumni works hard to build-up the population of the school. To register your kids for MBS Primary, please contact the Principal, Susie Khor at 03-20789854.

Roshan is currently CEO of a social enterprise called Leaderonomics, which aims to change the world by transforming ordinary people into great leaders in developing countries. Roshan is himself passionate...

16 replies on “Primary: End Of The Road Or A New Beginning?”

  1. who are impressed by the system and dedication of Chinese school teachers, for wanting a better path of life for their children's.who are impressed by the system and dedication of Chinese school teachers, for wanting a better path of life for their children's.

  2. While i agree there are other crucial components for "success" , the argument that academic success played little part in life’s future successes is obviously flawed and misleading. Successful enterpreneurs who were dropouts are remembered for exactly the same reason , they are rare. For every Steve Jobs, who himself is a superbly brilliant guy, there are many more successful enterpreneurs and executives who did well in schools. And I definitely wouldn't categorize professionals like doctors, lawyers, scientists , engineers and accountants etc as failure. You can fault Chinese schools for not trying hard to intergrate themselves in the context of 1malaysia, but you cannot blame the parents, who are impressed by the system and dedication of Chinese school teachers, for wanting a better path of life for their children's.

  3. My husband is a proud MBS alumnus, primary and secondary school. He didn't think twice about sending our son to his alma mater. I just wish I could have said the same for my daughter. Go forward MBS!

  4. I believe if the PPSMI is retained for the Kebangsan schools more enrolment will ensue plus retraining the science, math and english teachers would greatly help to elevate the standard of public school education in Malaysia.

  5. I share your thoughts, was at MBPS 1968 – 1969 and then to MBS Secondary. Know of a few true blue MBS students (those from Std 1 till Form 6), I guess the color of their blood is blue and yellow.

  6. Its nice to see such pride in your old school and that school has the fortune to have a strong principal etc. However, it's not just the school, it's the curriculum and the attitude of the teachers. my boys are in govt schools, in a "better" school apparently but it's not as it was when I was at school. The curriculum alone is offputting in many ways and many of the teachers … well.. they aren't in it for the love of teaching, let's put it that way. It's a hard struggle for parents. I don't agree with chinese schools and I also dont think private/international schools are necessarily better, never mind the cost of it.

    I wish you well with the campaign :)

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Yes, the curriculum is a major problem but I think we all need to collectively work this and pressure our govt (or future govt!) to make the changes necessary. the problem in our country is a politics has eroded everything including our school curriculum. Sigh.. its a fight worth fighting for though.. keep the faith

  7. Roshan, thanks for writing a very good piece. I have many thoughts on this, and have been wrestling with the issues as my children will be going to school in a few years. You may have inspired me to write something on the topic. And, oh, my children definitely won't be going to Monkey Boys' School though! (A proud VI alumni)

    1. VI is a great school too. Had some great football games against them when I was at MBS. But there is no VI primary school is there?

      1. Yup, no primary school. Anyway, thanks again for a refreshing viewpoint. I will have some interesting decisions to make for my kids in a couple of years. Already the advice (solicited and unsolicited) is pouring in — Chinese school, private school, home school, Chinese then private, Chinese then SMK… good luck to us!

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