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Published: Thursday April 9, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday April 9, 2015 MYT 7:49:20 AM

Diversity begins at school

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world.

OCCASIONALLY I get nostalgic about my school days and how different things were then. When I was growing up in a small town, my parents sent me to the local mission school because it was known for its high academic standards. The school was run by Catholic nuns and not many Muslim girls went there because some parents were concerned that their daughters might be “influenced”.

They were partially right, though not in the way they expected. As far as I know, all the Malay girls who went to the convent school remained devout Muslims. But we did absorb enough of Christianity to not fear it.

To this day I know the Lord’s Prayer but I don’t find it superior to the Alfatihah, just different. When I did my A-levels in History and studied the Reformation, I already knew enough about Christian history to know what they were reforming from. Most of all, the nuns drilled in us a strict discipline in behaviour, according to our motto, “Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty.”

I then continued my secondary education in an all-girls boarding school. The school was an elite one, all of its students creamed off from various schools around the country through an entrance exam.

Superficially all the students were racially homogenous. In reality, I had never come across so much diversity despite having come from a more heterogenous school in my hometown.

In my old school, everyone spoke the same way and knew the same things in our limited small-town experience. But at boarding school I came across girls who not only came from very different circumstances than I but also spoke with accents so different that sometimes I could not understand them.

There were all sorts of characters, from the natural leaders to the shy ones to the sporty and the musically talented. They were all academically smart or they would not have been there.

But what was new to me was to meet girls who were super-smart, with multiple distinctions in a time when 7As really meant something. I was also used to a certain sort of face, darker perhaps with traces of the subcontinent. But at boarding school I met some real beauties and a vast array of faces denoting ancestral origins from continents far different from mine.

It was there that I learnt that while we may be outwardly the same because of race and religion, in fact each individual had a different story to tell. My history was similar but also dissimilar from all the other girls’.

The school gave us many opportunities to bond with one another despite our different stories, through healthy competition in academics, sports, music and theatre and many of us stayed connected over the years through alumni get-togethers. Whatever our origins became immaterial.

One thing I recall, that is worth remarking on because it is rare these days, is how mixed our teachers were. The whole spectrum of peninsular Malaysia was represented in our teachers.

There was a Mr Tan who taught us Physics, Miss Aru who taught us English, Cik Khairiah who taught us Bahasa Malaysia and Mr Yan for Mathematics. What was more, there were also foreign teachers who were placed in the school.

Miss Bryers, from the United States, had the bluest eyes and wore the sarong kebaya very fetchingly. Miss Ida came from the United Kingdom and Mr Alcock from Australia taught us to play softball. And a music teacher came every week to train our national prize-winning choir.

Thus besides academics, my schoolmates and I benefited from being exposed to all sorts of different people, both from among ourselves and among our teachers. We accepted that diversity as given, because that was what it took to turn out many generations of high-achieving girls ready to take on the world. And indeed many of my chums went on to excel in their careers.

I don’t know what it is like nowadays in that school. But I do know that in terms of exposure to difference and diversity, our schoolchildren’s experiences are far more limited today.

Not only do they mostly know others within their own ethnicity but also within their own social class. Those who can afford it have left for schools they considered more academically rigorous, whether vernacular, private or international. The national schools have become depleted of diversity.

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world. Little prepares them for a life where different races, religions, classes and creeds mix. Unsurprisingly, this lack of preparation coupled with the stereo­typing born of unfamiliarity, is a recipe for potential conflict.

Reversing this trend today, more than ever, has become an urgent imperative.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Marina Mahathir, columnist

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