Not only do Mara Junior Science Colleges have increased autonomy but maths, science and apparently school notices are resolutely in English.
IN Penang again last week, I made a series of discoveries propelled by my packed itinerary.
First was an evening speech to participants of the Tun Azizan Zainul Abidin Integrity Circles for Young Professionals (Tazaic) organised by the Malaysian Institute of Integrity and Petronas Leadership Centre, followed the next morning by a dialogue session with the brightest Form Five students of MRSM schools nationwide.
Both took place at MRSM Kepala Batas on the mainland part of Penang. I had never been to an MRSM — Junior Science Colleges (Maktab Rendah Sains) run by Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) — whose mandate since its formation in 1966 was to help create bumiputras literate in business and entrepreneurship.
The first MRSM was established in Seremban in 1972 and until today it has a reputation for taking in the cleverest kids from rural areas.
As I later discovered, there are some important differences in these schools compared to the majority of usual government-run schools, enabled by their increased autonomy.
For instance, maths, science and apparently school notices are resolutely in English.
The text of my speech should be available online soon, but the dialogue session was the toughest I had ever agreed to. The teenagers asked a wide variety of difficult questions about the role and relevance of royalty, the status of the Malays, the competence of our politicians and whether or not I have a girlfriend.
They were supremely confident, unafraid of controversy and spoke excellent English. One student told me that he really wanted to go to the Malay College Kuala Kangsar as a child, but now was exceedingly happy to be in the MRSM system: “we learn so many soft skills,” he claimed.
Incidentally, I went to MCKK this week, but I’ll write about that in the next piece.
Next on the itinerary was a better look at Seri Tanjung Pinang (the E&O development on reclaimed land where Straits Quay is located).
I knew already that it — like the E&O Hotel and the elegantly refurbished Lone Pine at Batu Ferringhi — was sumptuous, but now I know that property prices have already appreciated by staggering amounts, and that much of the demand comes from Penangites themselves, with Malaysians from other states and expatriates buying and renting units as well.
I was briefed on plans for future development and I was reassured that, for the time being at least, Penang will become an even more attractive place to live, particularly if the traffic situation is alleviated quickly.
The final part of the itinerary was attending the book launch of The Battle of Penang by Dr John Robertson.
This former Royal Navy doctor exhibited maps, pictures of old ships and crisply-dressed sailors in a packed out suite at the E&O Hotel where, on Oct 28, 1914, the commander of the Russian cruiser Zhemtchug (pearl in Russian) was staying as his ship was torpedoed by the German cruiser Emden disguised as a French warship.
If you’ve forgotten your World War I: Russia, France, Britain and Japan were on the same side, while the Germans were allied with Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The Dutch (then administering what is now Indonesia) were neutral.
At the launch was the Chief Minister of Penang and the Ambassadors of Russia, Germany and France (whose government had recently appointed the Sultan of Selangor — also the Captain-in-Chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy — a Commander of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour), and the discussion afterwards shed a lot of light on the relationships that the diplomatic corps have with the state governments.
After the sinking of the Zhemtchug, Penangites helped to rescue survivors and recover the bodies of the deceased, who were mostly buried at the Western Road cemetery on Penang island, with a smaller graveyard on Pulau Jerejak, where twice a year the Russian embassy leads a delegation to commemorate these heroes of theirs.
It so happened that they were going that very afternoon and Her Excellency, seeing my obvious curiosity, very kindly invited me to accompany them.
The journey to the cemetery provided more learning experiences as I witnessed the homes of the local fishing community and surveyed what is thought to be the partial ruins of a hospital that once stood on Pulau Jerejak.
Learning of cemeteries of Russian sailors killed in the World War I Battle of Penang was quite a lot to take in already.
To see their compatriots pay respects to them nearly a hundred years later was a humbling lesson in patriotism and loyalty, apart from the profound lesson in history and naval warfare — and I haven’t even finished reading the book!
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas Malaysia