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Sunday September 9, 2012

Opening minds to new experiences

Ahead of the unveiling of the National Education Blueprint on Tuesday, our columnist shares why an education steeped in the humanities is needed to produce open-minded and competitive citizens.

I attended the UiTM School of Mass Communications 40th anniversary last weekend. I was among the pioneer batch of students, blazing the trail for the country’s first batch of academically trained journalists, advertising, public relations and broadcasting professionals.

As hundreds of us gathered amidst hugs and shrieks of joy, what many of us most reminisced about was the incredible education we got in a nurturing environment that enabled us to learn, think, imagine and rebel. For us among the first few batches of students, much was owed to Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, the pioneering educationist who led ITM’s exponential growth, who provided us the space and the opportunity to realise our full potential.

Long before private-public sectors partnerships and twinning programmes were de rigueur, Arshad was already thinking out of the box, passionate in ensuring his young charges got the best education.

He brought top Malaysian professionals from the private and public sectors to teach us and university professors, local and abroad, to provide us additional academic rigour.

This was 1972, long before all kinds of insecurities, imagined fears and threats against our identities as Malays, as Muslims, got the better of us. We were pioneers, hungry for knowledge from anywhere, anyone, hungry to be the best.

And it was education leaders like Arshad and our first Head of School, Marina Samad, who stopped at nothing to give us the best in order to bring out the best in us.

In those early days of educating Malays to enter the professions, there seemed to be a clear vision and philosophy that only an education steeped in the arts and humanities would produce the open-minded Malays needed to be productive and competitive citizens, able to embrace change and bring about change to their community and society. What more to produce communications specialists.

It was a time when lecturers were totally dedicated to opening up our minds to new ideas and new experiences.

There was my English and Literature lecturer, Pritam Singh Sekhon, who brought his portable record player to class to get us to listen to classical music. He introduced us to Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin.

He brought us by bus to see every single play at the Experimental Theatre in Universiti Malaya. We hung out with the directors and student actors and actresses before and after the play, whetting our appetite to do our own productions – which we did.

There was Maznah Noordin, a young English teacher and stage actress, who taught us speech and drama. I remember how she asked us, one by one, to stand in front of the class, imagine we were in a lift which did not stop at the top floor, but went up and up. We had to act out what we would say and do and how we would feel. She taught us to loosen our body and let go.

There was Bruce Ross Larson who taught us Literature in Translation, introducing us to European classics such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Kafka’s The Castle. Thus began my love for any­thing depressing in art, literature and film!

Paddy Schubert (now Bowie), the pioneering public relations specialist, taught us Principles of Public Relations and the importance of eloquence.

And when some of us wanted to spend a month at the Outward Bound School in Lumut, she indulged us by getting her company to sponsor us.

Samad Ismail, the legendary New Straits Times editor, took us under his wings and sent his top writers and editors to teach us to write, in English and Bahasa Malaysia, year after year. We spent all our vacations as interns in the newspapers, advertising and public relations agencies in Kuala Lumpur and in the studios of RTM.

In our second year, we wanted to produce a weekly campus paper – professionally, we demanded. I don’t know how or where Arshad and Marina found the money to purchase a small printing press for us! And not only that, they found an American lecturer, Larry Study, who was a layout and production expert to teach us to run the machine and produce a real newspaper.

We started the weekly Berita ITM, sleeping at 4am to put the paper to press and up again by 8am every Monday to get ready to sell the paper for 10 sen a copy to the students at breakfast and on their way to lectures.

And of course, those were the days of student demonstrations when we marched into Kuala Lumpur against poverty and injustice, when we occupied Arshad’s office, when we had the space and courage to demand that classes should not begin before 9am, that courses taught by bad lecturers should be made optional rather than compulsory or else we would boycott the class. And we got our way because we made a good case for our demands.

Maybe it was the pioneering spirit of ITM then, the vision and vigour of an educationist such as Arshad, a taskmaster who loved his students, who believed in producing not just technically competent professionals but open-minded Malays willing to embrace and lead change, that gave me and my friends that confidence and courage to be different and to embrace diversity and differences.

Today, too many CEOs and retired senior civil servants lament about the closing of the Malay mind. The graduates they are getting lack confidence, the ability to communicate and to think critically, they complain.

The ability to talk, think, imagine, get along with people who are different from you, debate and see another point of view come from a liberal education. Reading novels, interpreting poetry, debating censorship, producing a play, and listening to music enable the imagination to soar as you place yourself in the place of the other or recognise yourself, your feelings and your thinking in the exposure to a different other. That my friends and I got this opportunity to excel through the local public education system is testimony to what good leadership in schools and universities can do.

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