A for effort

FIRSTLY, let’s congratulate the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) candidates who bagged straight As for their subjects, because this has been a difficult examination with so many uncertainties and disruptions.

Despite the many obstacles, including school closures, the 9,000-odd students have managed to grab the maximum number of distinctions.

The same plaudits go to those who did equally well, despite not getting straight As.

These top achievers certainly deserve to celebrate because they’ve been rewarded for their hard work and persistence. Their parents must surely be proud of them.

Last week, Senior Education Minister Datuk Dr Mohd Radzi Jidin announced that a total of 9,411 SPM candidates obtained straight As for 2020. This reflects improvement from the results in the 2019 SPM, when 8,876 candidates obtained straight As.

The number of candidates obtaining at least distinctions also improved by 0.84%, from 77,038 students in 2019 to 78,731 in 2020. Dr Radzi also said more candidates obtained at least a pass in their 2020 SPM, with 38.35% compared to 37.93% in 2019.

But I hope they tamper their exuberance soon with a dose of reality. Having been the pride of their parents, schools and community, they would want to do well in their next step – to sign up for the best courses in universities.

The most sought-after course must be medicine, with engineering likely a second option in the pecking order. Architecture, business, accountancy and computer science are favourites, too.

But medicine is the promised land because everyone thinks that by being a doctor, one is set for life. It’s not only a Malaysian dream, but more an Asian one because we’re still very conventional and traditional in our thinking.

Law used to be up there, but that has dramatically changed since students and parents realised that with lawyers, supply is exceeding demand.

TV shows about doctors such as Grey’s Anatomy enjoy better ratings than series about lawyers, unlike how it was in the 1980s.

Frontliners are hailed as heroes while lawyers/politicians are treated, well, differently now. Journalists probably rank just as poorly on the trust scale.

Our straight A achievers must accept that while they deserve a chance for their academic performance, there’s no such thing as entitlement to receive a spot at the medical faculty.

In the past few days, I’ve been asked by well-meaning uncles to help their nephews and nieces get places. My apologies, for “I have no jalan.”

Many politicians are also in a predicament because their constituents and party members would run to them for help to expedite applications.

Interestingly, the SPM results have been greeted cynically on social media. Many netizens, including teachers and university lecturers, have questioned the results being the best in the past five years.

Malay language social media is filled with comments and videos dismissing the strong performance, saying it was hard to believe when there were school closures, a lack of computers and Internet connectivity, especially in the rural areas.

It hasn’t helped that some students who were interviewed by the media said they were surprised at receiving distinctions for certain subjects.

Former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali expressed dismay over the country “becoming A-crazy” and that schools were ranked on grade achievements.

“We are missing the true purpose of schooling,” he wrote in his post, saying he was disturbed by Dr Radzi saluting top achievers as “this is a false signal.”

Prof Noor Azlan said he isn’t questioning the grading and scoring methods since they are technical in nature, but “my concern rests on the system.”

Honestly, without wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, I’m also concerned about the high number of straight A candidates each year.

I’m old school, I guess, because in my days of the Lower Certificate Education (LCE) and Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE), it was hard to get straight As, and there was no talk of compromise in grading.

The maximum number of As for LCE, or the Form 3 exam, was five distinctions, and if you fail, you get kicked out of school. Well, one could get 9As in the MCE, or equivalent of SPM, then.

But there was no sense of false achievements, or entitlement.

Many of our present students, who scored distinctions in English, for example, have found it difficult in foreign universities, especially in Britain and the US.

A Malaysian student who did very well in her SPM exam, scoring an A in English, found out that in the UK, her level would be a C or D.

Her parents in Kuala Lumpur received an email from her teacher in London expressing concern.

Being polite, the teacher hoped that her English would improve soon if she didn’t want to be left behind and expressed her “understanding” that “English is not her first language” but “nevertheless, she has to catch up fast.”

And this is an urban, English-speaking family, where the student had wide exposure to the language. After all, she consistently earned As in English in school exams, and in the SPM.

In many countries, including the US, medicine has become a post-graduate course. Applicants are required to already possess a bachelor’s degree.

Also, many foreign universities require applicants to take an entrance exam for the medical faculty, not relying merely on public test results.

While many institutes in Britain still accept fresh high school leavers, students need to write a “personal statement” on why they want to be doctors. Interviews are conducted and they are required to do voluntary work to help the local community. That’s how they filter out brainy kids without EQ, those who should just take up physics, biology or similar subjects instead of medicine.

Although Malaysia faces a shortage of specialists, the same can’t be said for general practitioners.

Last year, the Malaysian Medical Association reported that many small clinics were struggling to stay afloat. An estimated 200 were expected to shut down because of low patient count and high rental costs.

The MMA has also said there are too many medical students graduating each year and not enough hospitals to train and provide jobs for them, adding that if the situation continues, we’ll have an unwanted stockpile of untrained graduates.

In short, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t become a doctor. There are plenty of other options in life which could be more rewarding and enjoyable.

But most importantly, don’t let your straight As go to your head – you might be worth less than you think when you’re evaluated by different standards overseas.

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Wong Chun Wai , On the Beat column

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 35 years in various capacities and roles. He is now group editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer. On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.


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