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KACAMATA KU: Lessons Learned In The Teaching Of English Voluntarily To The Marginalised!

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

The English Language issue has flared up yet again.

This time instead of the same tired old arguments, it took a geopolitical spin involving people in high places.

A “three-minute expert” was singled out for wrongly criticising the issue in social media, namely, the purported “import” of English teachers to serve Malaysian pupils. The idea is not a novel one for Malaysia had tried it before, no less from the UK itself as native speakers, so to speak.

The result is still wanting.

It was controversial then as it is now, and the reason is plain to see.

There are still many good English teachers locally, and some are raring to go – as “good” teachers always take pride in their self-motivation without any incentive if at all there is. However, this is not the case, although it is not a novel idea either!

This time the grand scheme seems to involve “volunteers” from a neighboring country to render their services in the states of Sabah and Sarawak – the urban poor centres, but for sure in the rural areas where they are much needed.

The exporting country may pay them ample salaries, so much for “volunteerism,” in addition to promoting “diplomacy” which is also mentioned.

Education has always been an excellent platform for “diplomatic gestures” which could also act as “soft power” (read: colonisation, if not subtle indoctrination) for the younger, more vulnerable mindsets.

This explains why so-called “donor” countries are happy to spend millions to “educate” our best and brightest!

In the education sector, there is no free lunch as well!

So being invited to “volunteer” can be as magnanimous as the Trojan horse strategy, especially in a kiasu world!

But it is not a zero-sum game since Malaysians are inborn empathic lots who are themselves keen “volunteers” operating through the various civil society organisations. Perhaps the teaching of English may be a little too specific, but it is not rocket science, especially for the lower educational levels.

This writer is sure of this because during the student days at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – some four decades ago – “volunteerism” was already the “lifeline” then.

Known as “perkhidmatan masyarakat”, it was fashionable to volunteer given that Penang is a globally recognised hub of activism ranging from issues on consumerism to environmental ethics, where education is key in all cultures and languages with Bahasa Melayu and English as a national priority.

So, students of USM were drawn to volunteer where they became “educated” when liberated from the scheme of (mis)education imposed by the colonial masters. Let alone the subtle indoctrination still abounds in our curriculum, and pedagogy, if not prevailing in the entire ecosystem.

Beyond that, the USM Students Union (PMUSM) created their own “tuition brigades” offering weekend courses in key subjects like Mathematics, Science, and English to those in need, especially in the rural areas as far as Balik Pulau, and the surrounding areas of Gelugor, Relau and Sungai Dua closer to the Universiti.

There was no formal recognition from whatever authorities – be it the institutional or ministerial levels in the likes of Bakti Siswa or more lately, the acronym SULAM, yet it persisted.

It is largely an initiative of the students, supported by the academic and administrative staff, as well as the University management!

The soft skills then include: how to tame guard dogs, especially in Chinese villages, talk to the village folks convincingly without any letters from the authorities as such, and build makeshift tuition centres once an agreement was obtained as a sign of true collaboration and partnership.

Over time the modus operandi turned into a cumulative one, where students at the various makeshift centres were brought to USM main campus in the hundreds over the weekend. The campus morphed into a “giant” tuition center, where classes were conducted in the lecture halls handled by student volunteers and helpers.

This is an unforgettable experience for all parties participating.

The epitome of what volunteerism can be, without involving another country or people in high places.

Suffice to hone on student creativity, enthusiasm, and empathy as a passionate catalyst!

Provided they are well-trusted and entrusted with the true meaning of what is the purpose of education as deemed by the Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan.

More specifically, what it is tended for.

Currently, in the International Islamic University Malaysia, this has been transformed as the “Usrah in Action” programme over the last five years where volunteerism is recognised as core experiential learning with close engagement with the community.

Thus far, it has benefited more than 6000 individuals in more than 300 locations nationwide through more than 400 projects involving vulnerable communities. Thus, going beyond just about the use of English languages per se. It is best to intertwine it with education holistically making it more impactful as it is in the real world!

While speaking any language fluently is commendable, but the context (hence, the teachers-cum-volunteers) is more important to make the person truly educated in realising a peaceful and harmonious world!

  • The writer is the Rector, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)

BacalahMalaysia Team

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