Of School Exams, Honesty and Integrity

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The Facts

It is currently Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (better known as ‘the SPM’) trials and with that comes the annual, common-as-dirt-and-happening-nationwide phenomenon: leaked questions and cheating students.

Some people tend to stereotype and associate dishonesty and bad behaviour with low-quality schools or classes; while to an extent this may be true, it is indisputable that virtually every school, regardless of reputation or ranking, has its own share of disciplinary issues. For fear of a defamation lawsuit against me, I dare not mention the actual name of my school; however a little of my background will not help: firstly, I am in a national school; secondly, it is one of the best ranked schools in the country at the moment; thirdly, it is a Cluster School; fourthly, I am in the top form 5 class of my school.

While I commend my close friends for joining me in my seemingly lone anti-cheating-and-leaked-questions campaign, most, if not all, of the rest of the class have obtained leaked questions from various sources (usually from their respective tuition centers), giving them a significant upper hand during exams – knowing exactly what topics to read beforehand and what the questions are.

So despite the fact that the guilty (or rather, shameless not-guilty) cheaters in my class have an established reputation for being kiasu and child prodigies, they still resort to underhanded methods of obtaining their desired grades (in this case, anything less than an A is unacceptable). There could be a myriad of reasons for this, not least of which includes undue pressure from parents and schoolteachers, the fear of having their ‘reputation’ for being ‘smart’ destroyed, or the pressure to do well in order to net that scholarship for A-levels.

But we’re not here to talk about that – there’s enough material for another article entirely if we’re going to discuss reasons that students use to justify being dishonest.

But life isn’t fair!

At this point you’re probably asking, ‘Why are you making such a big deal out of this?’ or ‘You jelly?’ or the titular ‘U mad?’ (And for the record, yes, I mad). When I voice out my discontent about the cheating classmates with my mother, or my friends, more often than not I am greeted with the magical sentences that people seem to love using to justify underhandedness: ‘Life isn’t fair. Deal with it.’

Of course life isn’t fair. Despite the sheer fame of quotes such as ‘All men (*ahem* AND women) are created equal’ and ‘All people are given equal opportunities’, the fact of the matter is that no, we are not created equal. And contrary to my school principal’s belief, we are not granted the same brains. Some of us will be better at math, some of us will rock the English essays, some of us are biology nuts. Some of us are born rich. Some of us are born even richer. And some of us are born in poverty.

So yes, the world is one huge ball of suck and unfairness and we should accept that integrity is now a forgotten principle that nobody bothers with anymore. Old-fashioned idealists and dreamers who still subscribe to this forgotten principle (like me) are often told to stop thinking wishy-washy thoughts and move on with the rest of the world and accept that the world is one huge rat race and sometimes you need to elbow the other contestants out of the way. So cheating is the new integrity.

Why should it matter?

But why is integrity so important? More specifically, why is integrity and honesty within the context of school examinations even significant? Is there any real harm to allowing students to obtain leaked questions and cheat during trial exams so long as they are unable to do so during the real thing? (namely the actual SPM).

Though skeptics and realists will say otherwise, an ideal world depends on a high level of integrity and honesty. Corruption, theft, bribery, barefaced lies, all underhand methods to come out on top are examples of actions committed by those who fail to see the necessity of integrity. Like the Malay proverb says, “Siakap senohong, gelama ikan duri, bercakap bohong, lama-lama mencuri,” the practice of maintaining a high level of integrity and developing a good conscience against acts of dishonesty and corruption begins with the simple code of honesty.

Dishonesty and corruption is usually driven by the ‘it’s okay’ mentality. So long as the goal is achieved, why should it matter how you went about doing it? The idea is that dishonesty is justified in the face of fulfilling personal goal, and that there is ‘no harm done’.

This is the mindset adopted by students who cheat during school exams. Cheating is drug-like in effect. It becomes accepted especially when many others succumb to it. When that happens it becomes normal to cheat and soon ceases to feel like something wrong.

I had this conversation with a classmate of mine after a particularly tough Biology exam :

“How was the exam for you?”

“Fine, fine.”

“Did you cheat?”


“I mean, did you get leaked questions?”

Everyone got leaked questions.”

We need to consider the implications of this. Plainly, it encourages school students to think that it’s okay to be dishonest as long as it fulfills their aims. This might sound like an overblown problem to you; but you and I, and your neighbours, and friends often wish for more transparency and honesty in people for good reason. We want more honest lawyers, more honest teachers, more honest policemen, etc. We need honest people who carry out their duties honourably and refuse to resort to questionable methods that often lead to trouble.

And we definitely know what dishonesty brings, and it’s hardly ever anything good. So if you think school kids don’t need to be taught to play fair, well – think again.

Within the context of school and the education system, as statistics are based on student exam results to gauge their academic standard and determine where they stand, and what their strengths and weaknesses are, the act of cheating will provide a skewed statistic. More importantly, it defeats the very purpose of the exams in the first place, which is to assess students’ academic capabilities. Exams stops becoming a question of ‘who studied the hardest/smartest’ and turns into ‘who got the most tip-offs’. This also has the potential to skew systems of meritocracy where students receive grades they didn’t actually work for.

Similarly, such habits of cheating and obtaining leaked questions have the potential to fool the students themselves. Not only is this a dangerous habit if they receive tip-offs from unreliable sources, effective cheating that leads to higher marks being awarded may cause students to feel undeservedly complacent and overconfident with their apparent academic ability. Being a regular cheat will give themselves a skewed assessment of their abilities and impede their ability to detect their weak areas that require improvement.

If they cheat and get leaked questions and get all A’s, that’s cool. Good.

But should they be comfortable with the fact that they didn’t really earn it?

So… what now?

Where does that leave us, then? Well cheating is tough to end. Students get quite creative with their cheating methods in their desperation to perform well in their exams. Tightening exam regulations could help curb cheating – such as not allowing pencil cases to be brought into the exam hall, or restricting the use of the toilets during exams. Excusing themselves to ‘use the toilet’ is one of the easiest and most common tactics of cheating employed by students, they hide notes in their pockets or leave reference books at toilets for them to pick up and refer to.

The inflow of leaked questions is even harder to curb. Leaked questions mainly originate from tuition centers. They in turn receive information from external sources about what’s coming out. Their reasons for doing so are not difficult to figure out – they improve the student’ performance by providing them with ‘tips’. Successful students boost their credibility and reputation thus bringing in more business and more money. I once had a very brief one-class stint with a chemistry tutor (this was just before mid-term exams) who claimed that his tuition classes produced ‘excellent results’ – but he himself (at least, in my opinion) was a sub-par teacher.  I was disgusted to find that he was handing out exam questions to the class like free candy. Needless to say I stopped attending his classes.

Tuition centers have almost nothing to lose by providing leaked questions although their reputations could be tainted in the eyes of those with high integrity. And there is almost nothing we can do stop this from.

Then what can we do?

What we can do is to educate the youngsters – as young as possible –  that it’s not okay to cheat; that being dishonest is not the way to do things. We need to have it deeply rooted in their conscience that it is important to be fair, honest and always maintain a high level of integrity.

We have nothing to lose by telling the young that they must avoid dishonesty as much as possible. But we have everything to lose if we allow our integrity, and the integrity of our young to deteriorate to the point of non-existence. In order to birth a nation that maintains strict adherence to morality and ethics, we have to start small and start young – and that begins with teaching kids that cheating is wrong.

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Kamilia Khairul Anuar is a mad blogger, a romantic scholar, a humanist, feminist, an idealistic individual, and still in high school. She is often said to have grown up too fast and everyone around her thinks she's weird for ranting about current events, but she loves to do it anyway. She strives to advocate unity and better application of human rights in Malaysia, as well as to promote awareness of ongoing issues.

Posted on 15 September 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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