Recalling his childhood days, Deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon says once he set his sights on changing his life for the better, he never looked back.
AS a boy, Chong Sin Woon delivered newspapers to supplement his family’s income.
Born to rubber tapper parents, he is the youngest among seven siblings.
Chong would wake up at 4am every day in the family home in Nilai, Negri Sembilan, to collect the newspapers from Seremban and deliver them in Nilai before going to school.
The job became Chong’s window to the outside world.
Little did he know that one day he would be making the headlines in those very newspapers.
Appointed the Deputy Education Minister last month, Chong, 41, is also a senator and MCA national youth chairman.
Recalling his childhood days, he says, “Life was hard and I kept reminding myself that the only way out (of poverty) was to study hard and enter university.”
Chong did just that, graduating with a degree in economics from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1999.
Like many children from poor families, it was a dream come true for him to be accepted in the university.
Only he and a sister made it to tertiary education, he says.
Three of his siblings went overseas to work – a trend in the 1980s when the economy was bad.
While the chances to pursue a tertiary education are relatively better nowadays, Chong is concerned about the dropout rate in schools.
Some teenagers opt to work before even completing secondary school.
Earning money at a young age can easily induce children – from poor families in particular – to give up schooling, Chong says.
While Chong did it himself – apart from delivering newspapers, he also took on part-time jobs during school holidays – it was out of necessity then.
Chong says his parents, Chong Fatt Yuen and Leaw Moi (aged 83 and 76 now), had to work hard to supplement their family income.
“We also operated a stall in front of a cinema selling titbits and snacks, and everyone in the family had to chip in and help with everything from preparing the food to manning the stall,” he recalls.
His advice to young people is to opt for education and gain as much knowledge as possible to help secure a better future.
Despite the importance of formal education, Chong, a father of two boys aged six and two, makes it clear that students should not be “exam machines”.
“Education is definitely about more than scoring straight As,” he says.
Chong says he has come across straight A students who do not know how to articulate their aspirations or ambitions.
Some parents are adamant that their children be given scholarships to do medicine, for instance, just because they scored straight As, he says.
Chong points out that straight As should not be the sole criteria to determine or qualify a student for much sought-after disciplines like medicine as some top scorers might not possess a nature suitable for the profession.
Instead, he says, children should be nurtured from young to be confident and have high self-esteem to prepare them to face the many challenges in life, including charting their career.
“It is more about good character development, values and the passion to learn, and not academic excellence per se.”
All children are born different.
“A child must not be belittled or made to feel bad or guilty just because he or she does not know how to answer a question.
“Parents and educators alike must never erode a child’s confidence and self-esteem as this will impair the learning process.”
Chong says parents play a vital role in their children’s development and education.
A good foundation way before a child starts schooling will give the child a head start.
“It is certainly not about memorising the times table or knowing how to add huge sums before entering Year One,” he says.
In developed countries, he says learning about nature and the environment and field work is part of early education and not just mathematics.
While Asian countries may still emphasise on subjects like Mathematics, rote learning and examinations in school, he says there is an emerging trend to focus on areas like the environment, for instance.
Having said that, Chong says he and his wife, Chai Yoke Shyuan, 34, are well aware of the competitive, if not downright stressful, study environment their children will be subjected to.
“Both of us always discuss to make sure our children have a balanced upbringing, including a happy childhood.”
Chong says a good foundation in education would also include learning one’s mother tongue.
He says his eldest son, who is six now, is bilingual, speaking Chinese and English. JL will start at a Chinese primary school next year after completing three years of preschool in English.
Like the majority of Chinese parents in Malaysia, he says he wants his son to learn and master Chinese, English, and Bahasa Malaysia.
Chong himself is trilingual and considers himself lucky to be so; his primary education began in SJKC Kuo Min and he went on to spend eight years in SM Dato Mohd Said in Nilai, starting in remove class and going on to complete Upper Six.
Upon graduation in 1999 and joining MCA two years later, Chong worked in the private and public sectors until he went full time into politics last year.
He won the MCA national youth chief’s post in 2013 and was made a senator last year.
On his take on education in his capacity as a parent, he feels that many young parents nowadays have increasingly high expectations on the quality of education and the learning environment.
This, he adds, has resulted in many of them sending their children to international and private schools if they can afford to do so.
He says almost half of his peers sent their children to international and private schools, which ranked first and second in their choice of schools for their children.
Chinese schools, he adds, is the third choice.
Chong says many parents want their children to master English and Chinese because the two languages are widely used all over the world.
On private tuition, which takes up much of a child’s life these days, Chong says this is more evident in urban areas.
Instead of private tuition on academic subjects, Chong says it would be better for children to take up something like music, sports or art, for example.
“Learning is a process and there are endless ways to do so – anywhere and anytime,” he says.
The deputy education minister is also concerned that shopping malls appear to be a favourite weekend and holiday spot for family outings.
While the hot and humid weather may be a reason to escape to the air-conditioned malls, Chong says family outings to the rural areas and small towns are equally cool, if not refreshing.
The children could also learn more about places and life outside the city.
He says many children from rural areas and small towns may have had a hard life, especially in the olden days, or even during his time, but they were free to explore their surroundings, to mix with their peers, and enjoy the rustic life.
Life may have been tough for this small town boy but he never looked back after he set his sights on changing his life for the better.