TODAY, Harry Tan, 58, will take some time off his busy schedule to celebrate Mother’s Day with Siah Ah Poh, 81.
It was only last week that she had the chance to visit the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general ’s office since he took on the responsibility of representing some 230,000 teachers in July 2017.
The eldest of three, Tan never wanted to be a teacher. Choking up, Siah recalls how the family could not afford tertiary education so he ended up at what’s now known as the Institute of Teacher Education (IPG). She shares how he had wanted to go to university but was worried about his younger sisters and their future.
“He’s very close to his siblings and they listen to him. As a teenager, he would do whatever he could – including doing construction work until his hands became rough with blisters – to earn a little bit extra for the family. When he was posted to Sarawak as a teacher, he only got about RM600 but would send us more than half of his monthly earnings. He is a very filial son. We are blessed. I’m very proud of all that he has achieved. But he works too hard. He thinks of others but never takes care of himself,” she says, in a distinctive southern Hokkien dialect.
Tan, who still lives in Melaka, is up at 4am every day. He drives to the NUTP headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and is in the office by 6am. His day ends only around midnight when gets home. In conjunction with Teachers Day this Thursday, StarEdu talks to the father-of-two about his family, his passion, and his battles.
You never wanted to be a teacher yet here you are now. Do you ever think what if you had taken a different route?
I grew up in a middle-lower income family. My father was a state education department clerk. We had a little car and a small house. I gave free swimming lessons so I could swim, as we didn’t have a pool.
It wasn’t much but we were still better off compared to many others. For pocket money, I did clerical work, was a bus conductor and did odd jobs at construction sites. I earned the most as a construction worker but my mother was very much against it because she knew I could study. After Form Six, to please my parents, I filled up the teacher training application form brought back by my father. My first posting was in Sarawak.
I learned about different needs, priorities and agendas, but it was tough. I missed home and it was then that my parents decided to sell our low-cost unit so that I could further my studies. But at the time, my youngest sister had gotten into university to study economics. Where would we live if I allowed my parents to sell our home? Who would pay for her studies if I had used the money to further mine? If I didn’t end up a teacher, I’d have probably studied to be a lawyer or an accountant. But I don’t have any regrets.
When did you realise that teaching was your calling?I grew to love teaching when I was posted to SMK Infant Jesus Convent in Melaka.
I was at the school from 1998 until 2017 when I became NUTP secretary-general. There, I met students from broken homes and saw that I could make a difference. I remember an Iban girl who did not have an identity card because her army father did not register her birth.
I approached a reporter from The Star and we managed to help her. As an English teacher, I wanted to make sure that they could speak and use the language to improve their lives. And as I grew in seniority, I found that I could do more. I became the maintenance man who would fix the toilets.
Imagine, the girls didn’t drink water just so they wouldn’t have to use the loo. I discovered the power of Facebook and managed to raise funds for whatever the school needed.
From fixing the school song which had been sung wrongly for years, to repairing the chapel, tracing the proud history of the school’s band, and getting tables and chairs for the canteen, the alumni and students stepped up whenever we needed help.
At one point, the girls were sitting on the porch floor to eat because the canteen was ill-equipped.
When I retire, I’d like to help build a new library for the school. A former student who’s in Australia now designed it for free but we’ll need some RM200,000 to realise the dream.
What has been the most gratifying thing for you as a teacher?
Former students coming up to thank me. The fact that they still recognise me and come up to hug and say thank you means a lot.
You’ve been active in the NUTP since 1991. What drives you?
My mother was the eldest of 11. She wanted to study but never got to go to school because she had to take care of her siblings and help at the rubber plantation since she was eight. So I always felt a need to stand up for those discriminated against whether it’s because of gender, disability or simply because they’re the minority.
What’s a day like for you?
The first thing I do in the morning is check the phone for messages. Usually, there are problems to solve. I will think about what to do and how to settle issues during the two-hour drive up to KL. The secretary-general’s job is not to be a chief clerk doing paperwork for the union. It’s to provide solutions.
Tell us your vision for the union.
There are some 450,000 teachers nationwide so I’d like to increase our membership to 300,000. Teachers must be more professional. And, we need to get into research and development. We need data to get things done.
You’re one of the most vocal and passionate leaders the NUTP has seen. You’ve championed everything from deaf education to Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET), code of ethics on parent-teacher relations, and less workload for teachers. What has been your biggest win?
There have been small wins but nothing big yet. We’ve still not gone back to the business of teaching. We still face infrastructure problems, the lack of English teachers and poor planning, especially in TVET. I’m just carrying on the work of my predecessors. And work never gets done. It’s an ongoing process.
What’s NUTP’s biggest challenge?
The ministry is detached from teachers. Many decision-makers have not taught in schools for a long time. They don’t know the realities on the ground.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an optimist. I look for job satisfaction and happiness. My late father’s style of dealing with problems has rubbed off on me. He’d come home and tell us about teachers going to him with issues and he would always refer to official documents to solve them. That’s what I do. When teachers come to me with a case, I always go back to the circulars and work from there. I make sure I have facts to back my teachers up.
What are your priorities?
ometimes I don’t see my wife for long stretches because I’m travelling. I have to make more of an effort to spend time with my family because before I can help others, I must make sure that those closest to me are not neglected.
In many countries, youngsters aren’t interested in becoming teachers. Is that true here?
Malaysian teachers are paid well, so attracting talents is not a problem. But retaining seniors is a different story. Experienced teachers are fed up with the system as they’re forced to do things unrelated to teaching. For example, they’re made to run school programmes, go for courses that are irrelevant to their skills and teach subjects they’re not trained in.
What’s your hope for the profession?
I want us to return to the glory days of teaching – a time when everyone looked up to teachers. If we can achieve that, the rest will fall into place.