Tak kenal maka tak cinta. Jom Kenali Universiti Awam (UA) Malaysia.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Nomadic Student

Posted by Celine Wan

A typical Malaysian would have gone to an average number of 4 to 5 schools from kindergarten up till Pre University. I, however, had been to 9: 1 kindergarten, 4 primary schools, 3 secondary schools, and 1 pre U college.
This write up is just a personal recount of my time in unsaid schools, emphasizing a lot on how they differ from one another.

Disclaimer: My point of view might not necessarily be applicable to every student in the schools that I have been to.  Times have also changed, so the experiences that the current students are facing might not even be similar to the experiences I faced when I was a student. Reasons for shifting schools shall not be disclosed and all schools shall be kept anonymous where required.

Primary Schools

All 4 primary schools that I had been to are the Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) type. It was only very recently when I have realized how that’s a rarity amongst the Chinese, because statistically, about 92% of the Malaysian Chinese would have gone to a Chinese school for their primary schooling years.

Although all of the same type (SK), there was almost nothing similar in the primary schools that I had been to, except maybe being treated condescendingly by the Chinese community I live in. Reason being is the difference in workload and level of strictness in Chinese schools, whereby the more “disciplined” you were taught and raised, the better student you are.

“What? So little homework? Aiyo my son has this and that number of homework everyday. I bet you cannot beat that amount of work,” the Ah Mas in kopitiam said.

“My daughter ah, everyday also come back home at 9pm. She later has to study for school tomorrow. The punishment she would get very severe one. You cannot compare,” friends of my mother would say.

“You complain about how difficult your life in a SK school is? You won’t survive in a Chinese school,” my tuition teachers would say.

“Your relatives ah, everyday also study study study in a very disciplined school. Your life is too easy in a Malay government school. You need to be trained even more,” my grandparents would say.

And the list goes on.

I believe there is an element of sadism there but as a little girl, I kept my head down and wordlessly acknowledge that I haven’t been working “harder” or lived my life “tougher” than the students in Chinese schools. The allusion that the SK schools paled in comparison with the SJKC ones never went away for as long as I can remember. Whatever it was, the students who went SJKC schools have won my respect.

The first primary school that I had been to was a Malay government school near my area of residence. I was in afternoon session. As I was very young then, my memories were very vague. The only few things that I can recall were classrooms were shared with the more senior students in the morning session, and in every classroom, there will be a mentally disabled student at the back of the class. Floods in school were common too.

The second primary school that I studied in was in Kelantan. This school was not racially diverse for I was literally one out of the 2 Chinese in a shared moral classroom. In fact, I can confidently say that there were only less than 10 of us in the shared “Moral Education” class. In retrospect, being a minority didn’t really bug me for I had nothing to compare my experience with.

The third primary school was probably the longest I’ve settled in. It was a very old school in Selangor and definitely not the most pleasant place to study in. In brutal honesty, I would gladly fly back to Kelantan because despite being an outcast, the schools were cleaner and the teachers were so much friendlier to their students.

In my first week of school, I found someone defecating on the toilet floor, nearby the sink area. It didn’t take me long to realize that this school was a joint school for the mentally disabled children. I could distinctively remember when a boy probably about the age of 15 ran in to our classroom and tailed some students. Although I sympathize such students, I cannot deny that I was afraid. As such, the little children would discriminate the disabled students by avoiding them in every possible manner, even to the point of not wanting to eat on the same table.

Although a very old school, what I disliked most about this place was how we were used to do free labour work. It was common for us 9 and10 year olds to carry the wooden tables and chairs and transfer them to other classrooms/storerooms every year. My worst experience was when I used half a day to be forced to transfer said tables and chairs from classrooms on a higher floor to the grassy fields outside, where the field was scorching hot during noon. Things can get worse than that, because the fields are really muddy and filled with strayed dogs’ poo. The discipline teachers were there to ensure that we were doing our “duty” and not wandering off. In retrospect, I can never understand why there were no complaints filed about this abuse, because if we were caught, then we would be caned, which was oh-so-common I am yet to count the number of times I was caned.

I was never a bright kid throughout my primary schooling years. Actually, I was the exact reverse, to the point of being sent to extra classes for “students who require extra help.” But the truth was, I was neither motivated nor inspired. Despite numerous times of being punished to complete my homework on the floor outside the classroom, or how my teachers would yell my name and fling my book out the door before they caned me, I never learned my “lesson.” Even in kindergarten when I was supposed to slap my face in front of the class during Chinese classes for every grade lost, I am still a banana—only with really pink and fat cheeks due to adaptation! Not only am I naturally weak in linguistics, I hated Chinese education because of my bitter experience and even at the age of 20 do I still remember my kindergarten teacher’s name. Lo and behold— I never bothered. So if all these cruelty during childhood which-was-not-as-torturous-as-SJKC-and-I-will-never-survive-there was supposed to teach me, it definitely didn’t work because it had come to the point where I was used to it.

After moving home, I switched to a primary school where it was just about 5 years old. This was where I spent my 2 years and eventually graduated. The classes were really small and there were only 2 classes in my cohort. The Year 6 students were the first batch and only consisted of one class.

I said goodbye to ghost stories relating to the communist era and said hello to empty classrooms. There were fewer footprints on the wall; very abandoned; very empty and very quiet.

Secondary Schools

The first secondary school I went was the school right next to the primary school I previously attended. Thus, it was reasonably new with empty classrooms as well. The teaching quality was average and I generally have no qualms about my time spent there. However, rote learning was rampant. Punishments such as duck walking around the block or caning still continued, but this time, we would be punished if we did not meet a certain grade. The school was very grade incentive till academic streaming was used at a very young age: names of every student would be placed on the notice board, disclosing your final year examination percentiles and thus allocating students into classrooms according to their percentiles. Even the names of each student in the classroom were arranged in order of percentiles.

Remember how I used to say that I was perpetually punished for not finishing my homework and not meeting my grades? I was miraculously placed in the “best class.” However, I was ranked 35th out of 40 students in the “first class.” By Secondary Two, I had realized the importance of academics, but not education. In other words, I found that high academic achievement could be used to gain respect and win over friends. Reflecting on how I was the underdog and had trouble to find friends because “I was an embarrassment,” I’ve worked my way and phenomenally topped the school in one examination sitting. Ever since then, I’ve embraced the rote-learning system and only used examination grades as a tool for respect and admiration. The bullying had stopped too.

In my second Secondary School, things have become very interesting. This school was probably ranked as one of the worst possible schools in Kuala Lumpur and was featured to have the top 10 dirtiest toilets in the State. It was a joint Malay and Chinese school and many school dropouts were placed in this school. If seeing gangsters besieging the school after schooling hours was quite a rarity in my previous schools, this one was quite common. I had a shock of my life because never before have I ever been to a school where the Malaysian Chinese was a majority. I realized that it was so much harder to communicate with them too because students tend to stick to their own cliques, and the main mode of communication in the school is Chinese. I wondered to myself, “I thought I was Malay educated, am I really in a Chinese school?” Since I was a very quiet student for not being able to communicate in Chinese, my schoolmates often mistook me as an arrogant kid. The situation was exacerbated when I preferred to speak English, which was considered to be a pretentious language. It was not surprising since English was often spoken in this manner: “Eh, later eat what?”

The school was in such a deplorable state. Since students who play truant would often climb over the school fence, barbed wires were placed, making the school look like a jail. What were once windows were now holes, making it look like a half wall extending throughout the classroom (I am yet to figure out why we were required to lock our classroom doors when I can easily climb into the classroom despite wearing a pinafore). I sat at the back of the class and had to think twice about pushing my chair backwards because there was a gaping hole inches away from my chair.

Academic streaming was also very common there and I was placed in the “first class.” Funnily enough, even the students from my class could be featured in newspapers for disciplinary problems. This first class was also a joint class with students who come from SJKC schools. 95% of the students wore spectacles and majority of them were very Chinese educated (I probably caught the syndrome because that was when I first started wearing spectacles). This time, my inability to communicate in Chinese became exaggeratingly apparent. I might have strike as pompous at first but now I was considered a laughing stock.
The Nomadic Student
Since the new students were often dropouts from other schools, I was treated like a societal problem. The discipline teacher baselessly yelled at me for breaking these real school rules: wearing ear studs, you are supposed to use transparent sticks; wearing sling bags, that’s very “gangster;” using key chains, because key chains are not allowed in school. It is ironic because in retrospect, the more strict the schools are, the more notorious the students are as well.

Studying for nearly two years at that school, these are just some of the problems I’ve encountered: -
  1. There were rape cases and students can easily become parents and be married already.
  2. Electricity would be cut at certain hours in order to “save electricity.” Thank God for the nonexistent windows.
  3. Toilet is not a safe place, especially after school. Construction workers had reported that there were couples in there so you get the drill.
  4. There was an empty apartment next to my muddy school field. That’s a rendezvous point for student couples. Again, you get the drill.
  5. Don’t ever use the kitchen utensils from the cafeteria. The students would put the forks, spoons, bowl, and plates in the drain and we were still served with the same utensils.
Of course, things are not all as bad as it seems. Although being slightly well off than the rest of the students there felt like a sin, there are cases whereby I’ve admired the humility of such students and really pity the state of some children. Some of my friends could not afford to buy cafeteria food and I was taught that we could literally suck the nectars of our school’s flowers. Tape boxes would be used as pencil casing and I was reprimanded for slathering my glue at the sides of papers. Apparently, UHU glues are expensive and I was supposed to stamp the glue at each corner of the paper to prevent wastage.

I was beginning to appreciate my condition and my standard of living when compared with others. Not long after though, I was sent to a private school. This stemmed from cumulative reasons:
  • I wasn’t eating properly and was in a severe anemic condition. That culminated to me fainting in school. ( it took me about a year to recover with a lot of “giddy” episodes along the way. I felt like a sick kid.)
  • My brother was kicked by his peers in school. Why? For topping the school in Maths. 
  • The head of a bunch of thugs claimed to like me. Whenever my teachers were not around, these gangsters would besiege my classroom. These experiences have traumatised me greatly.

Private Schools

Gone are the days where students would sit on the tar road during assemblies. Gone are the days also for sitting on muddy grasses during Sports Day. There was a complete transformation in the school I had been to the point of me telling my mother “I understood every passerby’s conversation. Never have I been to a land where people would willingly speak English!” The teachers were really passionate in teaching and students in the class would join in the learning conversation. It was no longer the teachers but the students who became tyrants of the school too.

From hawker stall owner’s children to tycoon’s children. From run down flats as my friends’ houses to posh bungalows. From walking on two legs to drivers waiting for them in a BMW. From overused Bata shoes to Niki shoes. From going on “trips” to Mid Valley or Cameron Highlands to going on trips to America or England. Some students can even take some time off from schooling hours just to go on a trip to Australia! You name it; the insignificant differences have been rather significant in my opinion.

Despite the less stringent rules and more freedom, the students were by far way more disciplined than the schools with stricter rules. The worse case was when a private school student was caught smoking, when back in government school, I could even remember catching my teachers secretly smoking in the empty classrooms. Moreover, a schoolmate of mines was once almost raped when she stayed late at school. Despite this, the students in a private school were way more opened and “westernized,” so superficially, a private school may seem to have more notorious students when compared with the more conservative local school students. Some things I was rather upset in this private school were how some students can be really unappreciative with what they have. I kept silent when I hear students ranting about the quality of our cafeteria food, when in my opinion I was fed rather regularly and without stale food for that matter (in one of my old schools, everyone had an upset stomach from eating overnight chicken rice. Please don’t ask about the toilet’s condition). I even got to know that dietitians planned our meals.

What got me laughing was when I discovered their ignorance on how they were envied and hated for their alleged pomposity. When people were told that I come from a private school, some random questions I have received looks something like this: “Have you ever sat and ate by the roadside before?”

Here are just fun facts. In one of my English classes, we were supposed to make a newsletter. One column was this question “What do you think of insert private school’s name?” Some of the answers we got from local government school students were: -
  1. I would not say that the students are spoilt. They are exposed enough to know education is important. They just don’t realize the opportunities they are given.
  2. Very demanding and bossy, like rich kids
  3. They are nice and friendly. People think because they are rich, they are spoilt and stuck up.
  4. Bunch of spoilt brats who speak in their fake British accent because they are insecure of their wealth. Arrogance often comes with the package.
  5. Some are spoilt. Some are stuck up. Some are nice. It is like any other school, just for rich kids.
Speaking of English, the standard of English have went on a complete transformation. From getting As or 90s like a piece of cake, I’ve almost failed my first English test!

Pre University

Finally, the final school I’ve been to date. This is a private college and the students all come from various backgrounds. In the A levels course, I was under the impression that top students around Malaysia or the state come to gather in this college. With all the non-human abilities, it was no surprise that most of my classmates were initially top students in their respective schools. Hence no matter how much of an overachiever you are, there’s always someone better. As time progresses, my mindset of studying to gain respect has entirely evolved to become a person who is genuinely passionate in learning— even if the results would not be apparent in examination grades.

In a place filled with ambitious people, even I too, have set my targets high. By seeing how many students are genuinely interested in what they do, and how Universities such as the Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge become something of a real target instead of something you’ll only see in movies, I’ve come to appreciate the importance to inspire and be inspired.


Having experienced my schooling life in all sorts of points of views: from rural to urban; bad school to good school; and government school to private school, types of schools does play a significant role in your education life. Since I have been to so many schools, I've never really settled in one place and create long lasting friendships. In fact, my nomadic schooling life has made me unsuitable in every place I study in-- as you have read-- since I'm too different in each school. For example, I'm too Malay-educated to mingle with the Chinese, but too Chinese-educated to mingle with the Malay. The states of both the government and private schools also scares me by how different they can be-- is there any place where I can be entirely satisfied in? The dichotomy of it all is, with such short experiences in each school, I am probably the most adaptable student there is: to be abnormal is absolutely normal to me.

Lastly, to teach children through humiliation and whatnot definitely doesn't alleviate the situation, but it only makes matters worse. My big change for the better definitely has nothing to do with all the punishments I once had but the reverse of it-- motivation, admiration, and inspiration. The only silver lining to all the shame and pain is probably to be very appreciative in whatever that is given to me and that I'm easily impressed by simply anything under the sky.
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  1. Thank you for sharing. After all the experience, which school will you pick for your child's education?

    1. my best experience was obviously the private school but that would cost a lot.


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