Educating to think, not only to listen

JAN 22 — If you’ve been through school under the government system, you’re familiar with this situation. If you’ve watched “Forum Suara Mahasiswa Part 4” on YouTube, you’re familiar with this situation. Whether it was those who cheered on for her rhetoric about animals with 99 problems or her proclivity for the word “Listen”, it reminded me of the first time I spoke up in school.

I was in Kajian Tempatan class in Standard 4, armed with the experience of three trips to Singapore. The class was doing some sort of Malaysia appreciation thing, citing things like diversity and amazing food. I, being my usual contrarian self (I was the instigator of the class), decided to play devil’s advocate and change the flow of the debate.

In retrospect, maybe I should’ve recognised the strange silence that permeated the classroom, and the malicious expression on my teacher’s face as I spoke. I began pointing out the differences between our little Southeast Asian utopia and our neighbours across the Causeway — clean streets, road signs in English, and little to no political mudslinging. (Albeit due to the dominance of the city-state by the iron grip of the Lee family.)

I cited the NEWater desalination plant and she attacked.

“The Singaporeans drink their own urine,” to laughter and clapping from the entire class.

“You’re not in Singapore, you’re in Malaysia,” she said, despite my attempts to interject, evoking further laughter.

“You’re too young to understand. Clearly, our history class hasn’t worked well enough for you. If you think Singapore’s really better than Malaysia, you can get out of the country now,” she said, and I was sent to the principal’s office.

“Too young.” Huh.

Watching Sharifah Zohra’s ageist tirade subsume the arguments of a well-read girl, I felt a sad anger as all the 2,300 students in the auditorium were receiving the same education I had as a 10-year-old — ideas shot down, ridiculed for having thoughts of our own.

I can only hope that Sharifah Zohra (with all due respect for her advanced age) and her friends do not represent the face of public education in Malaysia. 

In a forum that allegedly promoted debate and free discussion, I found no diversification of the ecosystem of ideas, only vain attempts to package the minds of students within the confines of a proverbial, one-size-fits-all ideological box. I found a parochial, mudslinging power game where an authority figure abused her position, insulting rather than edifying the intelligence of the students.

This is not what the university experience should be like.

University is a place for the broadening of horizons, not for the preservation of outmoded models of thought. It is a birthplace and not an executioner of ideas, where academic inquiry and academic freedoms should be inherently apolitical, and where students evaluate propositions and ideas rationally.

I like to think that in a debate, we are equals, demarcated not by seniority or rank, but only the saliency and relevance of our ideas. Opinions exist in a spectrum, whether or not people like Sharifah Zohra choose to acknowledge this. I think it’s okay to support Barisan and Bersih, and to argue for Barisan policies, provided discussions are carried out rationally. Call Ambiga a hero or an anarchist, if you will, as long as you learn something. This, I assume, was Bawani’s desired course of action. This is what debate is: you’re not obliged to reach a uniform conclusion, but what matters is the ideas that you come to integrate into your worldview. That’s what makes us different from one another.

Universities are meant to facilitate and provide choice, not to confine and govern. That’s why people get degrees, because they seek to learn to be better people and contribute to society. They seek qualifications and definition to make their way through the mire of uncertainty that constitutes life, not be bound in ideological chains that prevent them from thinking what they want to think.

Perhaps all of this is but opinion and conjecture, but I think we can agree that Sharifah Zohra’s unreservedly arrogant declaration of superiority on the basis of her degree does NOT belong in the pantheon of intellectual discussion. She has undermined the ethos of academic debate and intellectual exchange that universities should promote.

On behalf of Malaysia, and on behalf of civil society, thank you, Bawani, for standing up for what you believe in. In people like you, I see a wanton hope and the promise of better days for our country. People like you are the people Malaysia needs to support and nurture if it is to create an educated populace that understands its rights. And yours, no matter what Sharifah Zohra might have said, is the excellent education that universities in this country were born to provide.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.



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