March 25th, 2012

Proud to be a teacher

THE article “Making a difference in life, one person at a time” by columnist Soo Ewe Jin (Sunday Star, March 18) suddenly got me moving energetically again.

Time and again, friends have asked me: “Is it tough or difficult being a teacher nowadays?

“Have you ever met parents who declare ‘Touch my child’s hair and I’ll see you in court’?”

Yes, it is indeed tough being a teacher these days.

You see, early in the year, when it’s time to collect fees, I become an accountant.

When a small fall happens in school, I am the doctor on call. When it’s near the exams, I become a motivator; time for class decoration, I am an artist; during Teacher’s Day, I am a stage performer.

A broken chair? At once I become a carpenter, not forgetting being a cleaner when a pupil vomits in the class.

When things go missing and they cry, I become a detective and investigate; during an argument, I am the judge; when pupils fall sick and in cases of emergency, I am the ambulance driver.

When they are sad, I become the circus entertainer; early in the morning before the school assembly, I am the guard and the traffic warden making sure they cross the road and enter the school safely.

The list can go on.

On top of these, being an English teacher in a semi urban school may seem like a daunting and uphill task in getting the pupils to love and speak the language.

However, the thought of making a difference in one student’s life at a time, keeps me going.

No point complaining or lamenting about the lack of parents’ support or the pupils’ lackadaisical attitude.

I will do my part because I care for them.

I believe the aura of the children keeps me young in my heart at least, and the joy in seeing their innocent faces makes my day.

To all the educators out there, do not feel defeated, upset or disheartened when the road we’re trudging seems long and winding.

Someday, somewhere out there, a pupil is bound to appreciate us for just that little thing that we had done for him or her.

I have experienced that. A few months back, a former pupil from my college practicum days (25 years ago) came all the way from Britain to visit me.

I take pride in my job and am loving it, too.

OOI MEI GEK, Johor Baru.

The STAR Home News Opinion Sunday March 25, 2012

Kelantan at the crossroads

There is much discussion over whether the closing of the era of PAS giant Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat will coincide with an opening of the doors to Umno in the general election.

LIFE as a wakil rakyat in Kelantan often revolves around weddings, funerals and natural disasters.

But it was one of the happier options for State opposition leader Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad a few weeks ago when he attended a wedding kendurinear his house. What made him extra happy that day was the fact that a staunch PAS supporter whom he knows as Dollah and who used to snub him, came up to him at the gathering and chatted away like they were old friends and even adjusted the buttons on Alwi’s baju Melayu.

Alwi, who is Kok Lanas assemblyman, went home happy that a foe had become a friend. A few days later, Alwi’s eyes almost popped out when he spotted Dollah on the front row at an Umno ceramah, soaking in everything that was being said.

“His kampung is next to mine but he used to turn his face the other way whenever we passed on the road. But a miracle has happened, and I can only thank the Almighty,” said Alwi.

Actually, Alwi might also want to thank Datuk Dr Hasan Ali, the Selangor assemblyman and orator whom PAS sacked a couple of months ago. The change in political behaviour of his foe-turned-friend Dollah began after the latter attended a ceramah by Dr Hasan.

Dr Hasan, as everyone knows, was sacked from PAS after the Selangor Government complained about his over-zealous Islamic agenda. He is currently on a nationwide roadshow or as the man himself put it, “every district has been calling me to come, come, come.”

His roadshow has drawn limited interest in urban areas but Kelantanese flocked to his ceramah in Kota Baru, causing a massive traffic jam in town.

Dr Hasan is a dazzling orator and there were claims that people were in tears after hearing him talk of “parasites and leaders blinded by power” and how he “became a victim because he wanted to protect the faith.”

Many of them were stunned that this man who had fought for Islamic policies in Selangor was sacked by a party claiming to represent Islam. PAS’ sacking of this ultra voice has hurt the party and Umno politicians are hoping that Dr Hasan will make more visits before the general election rolls around.

But even without Dr Hasan, the sense among many politicians, be they from PAS or Umno, is that this election will spring surprises for both sides.

After 22 years of PAS, there is a sense that an era is coming to an end. It does not necessarily mean that the PAS administration is about to fall but after more than two decades in power, PAS has been put on the defensive about its governance of Kelantan.

Its first decade in Government was seen as some form of jihad against Umno and the Barisan Nasional and people were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. By its second decade, the locals expected more and the outcome of two by-elections in Kelantan since 2008 are an indication that people are starting to question the State Government’s performance and delivery record.

PAS won Galas in the 2008 general election but lost it in last year’s by-election. In the Manik Urai by-election, PAS which had won the seat by more than 1,500 votes in 2008, retained it with a majority of only 65 votes. It was a big blow to the party’s prestige as the incumbent and the party in power.

It is definitely not going to be another easy win for PAS.

A major issue in the coming election is the Mentri Besar factor. This is arguably the first time that both PAS and Umno have Mentri Besar candidates who are acceptable to the common people. Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat has been the glue holding everything together for PAS through its ups and downs in Kelantan and is still much loved and respected.

But he will be 81 this year and very few genuine democracies have octogenarians as leaders. It is quite embarrassing for the party although Nik Aziz is not power crazy. He wants to devote his remaining years to religious pursuits but his party is terrified to face the polls without him. They need him around and the understanding is that he will lead the party through the polls and step down mid-term.

On the Umno side, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed has emerged as a credible Mentri Besar candidate. And this is where the unique part of Kelantan sentiments come into play. The Jeli MP and International Trade and Industry Minister is a technocrat who walks the talk. But his appeal among Kelantanese is not because he is a high-flying minister or that he has a first class in economics from a top Australian university.

The locals are more impressed with his down-to-earth ways. He cycles to the mosque when he is home in Jeli where his house is as modest as that of most other villagers. He is too serious to be interesting but they do not mind because he is their kampung boy.

Alwi recalled a curious incident several years ago at the Kota Baru airport. He was catching the 6.45am flight to Kuala Lumpur when he noticed a three-wheeled motorcycle driven by a handicapped man racing into the airport grounds with Mustapa riding pillion. Mustapa or Tok Pa, the acronym by which he is known, later explained that his driver was late and the motorcyclist had offered him a ride to the airport.

Leader without airs

Alwi often says at ceramah that this is the kind of Mentri Besar people want – a man without airs. The handicapped motorcyclist is probably telling people the same story.

Umno’s downfall in the State has often been attributed to its politicians’ taste for grandeur and wealth - fancy cars, big houses and women trouble. PAS politicians have generally been able to avoid these “sins” although they have had their share of women trouble.

Nik Aziz on his part has been exemplary in leading the simple life. His plain attire and rustic kampung house is a powerful part of his old world political image. The Umno side is hoping that the Kelantanese will give Mustapa a chance, knowing that Nik Aziz does not plan to go a full term if he wins. The tagline being used is “Acu Test Sepenggal” (try it for one term).

Speaking to a gathering in Kelantan recently, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said: “If you support me, you must support Tok Pa. He is my representative in Kelantan.”

When asked if Mustapa was his choice for Mentri Besar, the Prime Minister said the matter had to be discussed. Then, turning to Mustapa, he said: “But if Tok Pa wants the job, I don’t have any problems.”

Najib has been quite strategic when dealing with the Malay heartland. His recent apology to Kedah folk for any hurt that his coalition may have caused, was noted not only in Kedah; it was a talking point among Malays in Kelantan. It has taken Umno a long time to learn that humility goes a long way and many people were shocked when the Penang Chief Minister asked voters to deliver telur or zero seats to the Barisan. It was equated with absolute power and came across as arrogant.

But Nik Aziz’s popularity aside, PAS’ problem is that elections in Kelantan are often about local issues that affect everyday life. They are used to entertaining the crowd with attacks against Umno. This time around, they also have to talk about what they have done to deserve a sixth term in power.

Asked to name three key achievements of PAS, Kota Baru assemblyman Datuk Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah said Kelantan has eliminated the “sinful practice of gambling”.

“We are the only State to do it. Tok Guru has said that whoever votes for PAS is blessed,” said Rahim who was the former State Legislative Assembly Speaker.

He claimed that when the State Government decided to bank with Bank Islam, other banks had expressed concern and that it was Nik Aziz who advised them to also go for Islamic banking. Rahim claimed that PAS has also brought peace and racial harmony to the State.

“We have the biggest Sleeping Buddha and the only Chinese-style mosque in the country,” he said.

The presence of mosques is a major measure of progress in the State but recently, Nik Aziz admitted that PAS had built only one mosque since coming to power, namely the Chinese-style mosque in Rantau Panjang; the other mosques were apparently built during Umno’s time.

PAS does not deny that it wants to implement hudud law but Nik Aziz often deflects fears about Islam by telling the ceramah crowd: “Show me one Chinese who has been forced to convert to Islam in Kelantan.”

It is simplistic yet shrewd and it works well with the kampung folk.

Religion is of utmost importance to Kelantanese but money also talks going by the surge of goodwill generated by the BR1M payments and according to Alwi, almost 80% of Kelantan households qualify for it.

Land abuse

Land is important to the Malays and Umno has been highlighting issues of land abuse under the PAS Government. Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, a blogger better known as Kickdefella, has exposed how a land scheme initiated by PAS had benefited largely party cronies and enriched selected businessmen. Kickdefella has written a book titled, Ladang Rakyat, Air Mata Rakyat (People’s Plantations, People’s Tears), on this controversial land scheme.

“The issue almost brought the Government down in 2004,” he said.

Kelantan is a State where there is very little middleground. The voters have clear-cut sentiments about who they prefer and both sides have almost equal support with PAS having the edge.

In 2004 when Barisan took 21 State seats against 24 seats by PAS, their share of the popular vote was almost 50:50. In 2008 Barisan won only six State seats against 38 seats by PAS and PKR; yet Umno had 44% of the popular vote against 56% by the other side.

“It does not take a big swing of votes for seats to change hands but I don’t see any signs of a shift as yet,” said Kelantanese restaurateur Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.

But even with Nik Aziz as a vote magnet, PAS will have to watch out because after 22 years, people are no longer wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Nik Aziz also has to indicate who his successor will be or he will risk a certain loss of confidence about the future. According to State exco member Datuk Nik Amar Nik Abdullah, this question will be collectively decided by the central leadership but he was unable to say whether it would take place before or after the election.

Almost every election in Kelantan since 1990 has revolved around the personality of Nik Aziz. Will Nik Aziz’s impending retirement be a boost for the party or will it cause votes to run over to Tok Pa? Will the closing of the Nik Aziz era coincide with an opening of the doors to Umno? Depending on who one speaks to, the answer is yes, maybe, no.

“That’s why the State is so interesting to watch,” said Juhaidi.

Insight By Joceline Tan 

Source: The STAR Home News Opinion Sunday March 25, 2012

Thinking out of the box ~ An Old Phrase

Examiners should allow students to think and answer questions in an unconventional way instead of expecting them to stick to techniques that they have deemed correct.

ALTHOUGH Dilla never fails to reassure me of her inherent non-confrontational, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ approach to life, over the years, I have learnt that nothing could be further from the truth at least as far as Dilla’s so-called ‘peace-loving’ attributes are concerned.

So when she called last week asking if she could come over to discuss some “exam” related stuff, my internal radar picked up weird, crackling signals, which in retrospect I really should have paid more attention to.

I had hardly finished mumbling a faint “Yes, well ... see you”, when she was at the doorstep with a folder-bag bulging with bundles of students’ examination scripts.

After informing me that my living room curtains didn’t match my cushion covers, she settled down comfortably on my sofa and whipped out a creased and crumpled sheet of paper scattered with red ink marks.

“In the Midst of Hardship,” she said in true Academy Award announcement fashion. “ Latiff Mohidin”

“Is this where I applaud?” I asked her, but Dilla was not amused.

I knew she was referring to the poem In the Midst of Hardship, by Latiff Mohidin which was part of the literature component of the English language subject for Malaysian upper secondary school students.

The poem was about villagers returning home after an arduous but unsuccessful all day-all night search for a missing buffalo. It portrayed also their acceptance of life’s adversities with equanimity and a spirit of stoicism. The following are the first few lines of the poem:

At dawn they returned home

their soaky clothes torn

and approached the stove

“Section C, question 1,” said Dilla, clearing her throat. “And do take note of the correct answer in the marking scheme. Why did the people in the poem approach the stove?”

I must have appeared a little doubtful, so she thrust the paper into my hands.

“Here read it yourself. This is a “one mark” question. Defined as lower-order question. Ever heard of Bloom? Lower order, higher order thinking skills?”

“Ok,” I said, trying very hard to recall what I could of the different thinking skills in the taxonomy.

At that moment Bloom seemed to me very far away in another country.

“So they approached the stove,” Dilla went on, in a serious tone.

“They were drenched in flood water, wet, cold, hungry, probably disappointed even if they didn’t show it, and a whole host of things. So why did they approach the stove?”

“ To dry off?” I ventured.

“To get close to a fire because they were probably cold ... and hungry.

When you are soaked to the skin and famished, what do you do first? Eat or get out of your wet clothes first ... but then what if you did not have a change of clothes? Maybe they just wanted to get dry first …Yes, I’ll stick to my first answer, though I wouldn’t say the second or third were wrong.

“Gee! Dilla, tough question seeing I’ve never had to wade through flood waters to rescue my son’s albino buffalo. I don’t even have a son, let alone albino buffalo. There are so many possibilities. Are there any wrong or right answers anyway?”

Different interpretations

I saw a gleam in Dilla’s eye. “Possibilities, she said, Ah possibilities, there is hope yet for you my friend. It’s all about possibilities ... she trailed off almost wistfully.

It turned out that she had had a spat with one of her colleagues about this question.

While Dilla was open to different interpretations, the other teacher who prided himself in being an authority on all things related to exam questions, answers and techniques, and who served in question formulation committees, insisted that for a “low-order” single mark question, only one answer (his) was acceptable.

And as usual, whenever the all-powerful public examination marking style was mentioned, there was general acquiescence and almost meek submission among teachers.

But Dilla wasn’t that easily suppressed. And I could actually see where she was coming from.

Looking back, I knew the issue here had to do with the creative and critical thinking skills that are so frequently mentioned in education circles.

These thinking skills had been incorporated into the Malaysian school curriculum for some time now in an effort to encourage not only logical thinking and reasoning, but also other skills like flexibility, originality, imagery, and metaphorical thinking.

Apart from that, the aim of creative thinking is to stimulate curiosity and promote divergence.

So the point that Dilla was trying to make was clear.

While so many claims are made about the incorporation of thinking skills in the curriculum and the continual emphasis on encouraging students to become independent and creative thinkers who are also capable of deductive and inductive reasoning, at the same time certain elements in the system seem to negate these efforts.

They seem to be merely doing so by demanding that students think in a certain prescribed way, so that they would not miss out on whatever “rewards” there may be.

What is sometimes, almost grievous, is the way creativity and the sheer joy of learning is stifled and almost choked out of the student by the over-emphasis on examination answering techniques.

Very often, the whole wonder of education, the spontaneity, the opportunity to explore, discover, grow, create and learn, is side-stepped, pushed aside and trampled upon, in the frenzy to get the “correct” examination answering techniques.

We are even guilty at times of dictating how “creative” responses should be. This is the way you should think. This is the formula you should use. Think any differently, and you will be penalised.

Granted that the role of the public examination is pivotal in determining the direction of a student’s future, correctexam-answering techniques become crucial to their performance and subsequent grades.

This is an almost inescapable fact at present.

While it is not entirely possible or even desirable to downplay the importance of mastering answering techniques, perhaps the questions themselves should allow room for greater subjectivity and unconventional or novel ways of thinking.

Those directly involved with formulating these questions may be quick to point out that questions requiring students to “think out of the box” are indeed always included in every examination.

This may be true and in order to realise the objectives of these questions that require “critical and creative” thinking skills, we may have to make sure that students don’t simply think out of one box only to fall into another.


Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday March 25, 2012