Interview with two parents on limiting SPM subjects

June 2nd, 2009 by poobalan | View blog reactions Leave a reply »
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From the NST:
CrossTalk: Open sesame for scholarships
The children’s studies are what matter, say Ahmad Ikmal Ismail (left) and Dr S. Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi. — NST picture by Abdullah Yusof
The children’s studies are what matter, say Ahmad Ikmal Ismail (left) and Dr S. Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi. — NST picture by Abdullah Yusof

Parents Dr Ravigadevi Sambanthamurthi and Ahmad Ikmal Ismail, with KOH LAY CHIN sitting in, have an illuminating discussion over limiting the numbers of subjects that a student can sit for in the SPM

Ikmal: Your son got 11 As two years ago?

Ravigadevi: Yes, I have three children, my eldest child, she finished her SPM in 2004 with 14 1As and was immediately called by Bank Negara. She didn’t even have to go for an interview.

Obviously the number of subjects were her decision. I’m kind of against this 20 As development, I think it’s ridiculous.

Ikmal: It’s crazy.
Ravigadevi: But I think if it’s 15 or 16 subjects and if a child wants to do it, it’s okay.

Ikmal: But in the first place, why did you allow your daughter to take 14 subjects?

Ravigadevi: Why? I think because most of the children did 10, right? It was different from my time, when an A was very difficult to get.

Now it’s much easier. So to me, you cannot differentiate between a mugger and a really outstanding student.

I’ve seen a lot of them during my daughter’s time, those who mug and mug, have no co-curricular activities, and boy, can they get all 1As.

So you can’t differentiate between that and the really outstanding students because everyone gets the 10 1As.

Ikmal: Okay, but what do you think about the public university entrance criteria for example, where it’s 90 plus 10, where 90 per cent is academic and 10 per cent is about co-curricular activities.

Ravigadevi: I think we should give 15 per cent for co-curricular activities. That would take care of those muggers who just do nothing, are anti-social, and can’t string a sentence together.

So I think I’m actually disappointed with 10 per cent, it should be more.

Ikmal: We have a lot of people saying it should be on merit, the academic.

Ravigadevi: I absolutely disagree. I went with my son to the Australian education fair over the weekend and I was shocked that every counter said that what was required was merit.

And what is merit? Only your grades. How about co-curricular activities? They said no, all they want are grades. And my son told me, “I don’t want to go to Australia!”

Ikmal: I think they take it for granted, especially Australian students, because on the co-curricular side, they are very much outgoing and spend a lot of time outdoors.

So they stress more on academic achievement, whereas on our side, it’s the other way round. Right now we have to move away from the academic and more towards soft skills.

Ravigadevi: Yes, we have got some very boring kids out there, you know.

My daughter had said she didn’t want to go overseas just yet because she wanted to do her pre-University here and get over the culture shock, so that she could get into her dream school, which is the MIT.

But I think for (2004 top student Nur) Amalina (Che Bakri), there was this whole system, peer pressure and people glorifying her so much. I felt a little sorry for her.

As for Anushree and David (Leong), because they were all top three, the two got basically ignored, and it was all Amalina, Amalina.

Ikmal: Do you know there are 108 subjects that students can choose from? Seriously.

Ravigadevi: Menyusu bayi (feeding the infant), repairing air-con, I’ve seen the list. (Laughs)

Ikmal: Vocational, technical, academic and all those things. So they want to limit the number of subjects the students can take for SPM. Having said that, to me, 21 is crazy, 19 is crazy.

Ravigadevi: I think 18 subjects is also crazy. I’m talking from a personal perspective and what my daughter went through.

She’s a person who is very calm, very cool and collected, she’s not one of those who gets upset about exams. And I could see it getting to her during the exams.

Not during the study period, but during the exams. Day after day.

I said, never again. She wanted to do it, but I wouldn’t let my other kids do it. But having said that, I think 10 is not fair. I think you can’t differentiate the outstanding.

Ikmal: I was pretty disappointed when they announced 10 subjects yesterday. I personally thought Bahasa Malaysia, English are core subjects and we should have modern mathematics, additional maths, the three science subjects definitely, and EST (English for Science and Technology), for whatever it’s worth. And you probably should have three optional subjects, so you should have about 12 or 13 maximum subjects.

You have those core subjects, which you should be graded upon critically, and you should be allowed to actually pursue things that you like.

Whether it’s music or vocational subjects, whatever. I think 12 is the magical figure for me.

Ravigadevi: For me it’s 13. I think it makes you visible. Look at the kids, my daughter. These days A2 suddenly is not acceptable. That’s what is so annoying. The goal posts keep changing.

My daughter is in MIT. I know another kid with 13 1As and she is in Yale doing very well. So for that reason, I think for those who can do it, it gives them a chance to shine. Because now I think with 10, you really cannot tell the difference.

Ikmal: I would like to suggest two things. First, as you rightly said, there are so many students getting straight As, thousands. One year there were 4,000 students who got straight As all the way, and there were only 2,000 scholarships. So we need to differentiate the A, is it a quality A?

A plus, or A minus? Secondly, the criteria for scholarship, must include the co-curricular activities. I know it’s pretty contentious but I also want to see performance during interviews. I’ve seen some students not being able to speak in interviews.

When they come out they say, “Oh, I performed brilliantly”. Why?

“He asked me and I answered yes, no and I agree. So, I have answered well.”

Excuse me? You don’t have the soft skills.

You might not agree with me on this because you are from the urban area, but I want to see more rural students given the chance. If we don’t assist them, how are we going to take them and their families out of this poverty cycle they are in?

Ravigadevi: I have absolutely no quarrels with that. But I think what should happen is that we must also have two scholarships.

We must be able to differentiate between scholarships and financial aid. Two different things.

Ikmal: These are actually good students, straight As, just like everyone else.

Ravigadevi: Fair enough. But it’s also unfair to penalise the urban students.

Ikmal: No, no, you should not penalise.

Ravigadevi: Yes, so give them all! I think we really should have more chances for the rural students, of course.

Ikmal: Maybe we should take 10 per cent of the scholarships in future years and allocate them specifically for rural kids. It could have its own criteria but still be on merit.

Ravigadevi: Correct, and I think it is also very important to see if they can adjust. You don’t want them to get cultural shock.

You suddenly throw them into London, what is going to happen to them?

Ikmal: But I can understand JPA (Public Service Department). They are confined to only certain criteria they are used to. It is up to the powers that be to break from these barriers.

Ravigadevi: And they should be transparent. There are a lot of angry kids out there, and you can’t blame them. They work so hard. It’s very easy to say it’s a privilege, but tell that to an 18-year-old.

Ikmal: Yes, they were burning the midnight oil and suddenly it’s “hey you didn’t get the scholarship”. At least say why they didn’t get it, like, your grading during the interview was much lower because you didn’t perform.

Ravigadevi: And tell us the percentage. If the interview is only five per cent, it also does not make sense then.

Ikmal: Yes, it should be more. We are talking about not being academic based all the way. It should easily be soft skills 15 to 20 per cent. Probably 70 academic, 10 or 15 co-curriculum activities, then the rest on the interview.

Ravigadevi: Look at the US top schools. They say when they actually interview you or shortlist you, then everybody is at that level. It is assumed they all have excellent grades. Now, let’s see what extra qualities you have.

Ikmal: The X-factor.

Ravigadevi: There are going to be very angry parents with this announcement.

Ikmal: They are angry because? Do they feel that the extra subjects are ways to let their children stand out?

Ravigadevi: No, they feel it’s being done on purpose to prevent them from getting the scholarships.

Ikmal: That’s not right. It’s actually levelling the playing field.

Ravigadevi: Because the comment from the ministry was that the way to solve this is to prevent them from taking so many subjects.

Ikmal: Well I actually think what they wanted to do was to level the playing field. To them whether you are from a day school, MRSM or science-based school, etc, you can only take 10 subjects and nothing more.

For example, when Amalina got 17 As, immediately she was given the scholarship because she took 17 subjects. When Azali took 21 subjects, he stood out.

Now, we want to level it, everyone takes 10 subjects, and that’s it, nothing more.

Ravigadevi: Yes, but how is that levelling it?

Ikmal: Right now, do you know what is happening? I’ve spoken to many students, and they say, “I want to take more subjects because if I can score As all the way, I’ll be given the scholarship.” And that’s a wrong attitude to have!

Ravigadevi: Maybe they need it so badly, so what else do you do?

Ikmal: So it should be academic, co-curricular and how you actually present yourself during interviews. That should come into play.

Why do you want to stand out by taking more subjects? So beyond 10 subjects, although we agree with 12 or 13 just now, the X-factor comes into play.

Ravigadevi: I’m not sure how much emphasis PSD is placing on co-curricular activities now.

My son has fantastic co-curricular activities, he has represented Malaysia in Taiwan, has won an innovation award, he is national public speaker, he got an interview, but did not get it.

And the reason, I think? Social background.

Ikmal: Why? You’re too rich? (In jest)

Ravigadevi: I’m not rich, I’m a government servant. I’m not poor, but to send a child overseas is a lot.

Bank Negara is paying my daughter RM1 million. For any other course, it’s half a million over a four-year period.

You’re talking about RM120,000 a year, which is about RM10,000 a month.

Which civil servant, and we have more than one child, can afford that? I see nothing wrong with civil servants asking for scholarships, if a child deserves it, and I can’t afford to send my child on my salary.

I think it’s because my daughter already had a scholarship. I understand it is also only one child per family allowed PSD scholarships.

Ikmal: I don’t know about that.

Ravigadevi: Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s one per family. Which is rather unfair for the second or third child, you know?

Ikmal: That’s not fair. I think they should put even more money into education and into scholarships. Forget about buying space capsules or what not.

Ravigadevi: Yes, put more money into human capital development. Anyway, parents are still very upset.

Ikmal: Why? I’m fail to understand this, please.

Ravigadevi: We feel that the government is trying to control everything, and even the number of subjects a child wants to study. We have so many other problems. They could be doing drugs, loitering and all. However, here we have a bunch of students who want to study more subjects!

Ikmal: So where do we draw the line? Don’t you think even if they put it at 13 or 14, parents will still be angry and say the government is trying to control them? Is it “10”, or just that the government is doing it?

Ravigadevi: I think it was the speed with which it was done. You didn’t do a study or survey, you didn’t ask the parents. It’s “I’m the boss, I tell you this”. [this is what the parents feel???]

Ikmal: Well, I was involved with the ministry under Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein the last time, and there was actually a study. Even the UPSR is going to be revamped.

Ravigadevi: Okay, but I heard that when my son was in Standard Five, and he’s now in Form Four.[This is funny!]

Ikmal: They are doing it, and it is not confirmed yet, but there will be school-based assessments. So the government is trying to do that.

We want to see more soft skills, more social interaction and all those things. Do you know in MRSM they have a cap of 10 subjects, nothing more.

These students are actually handicapped. Even if they are brilliant, like your daughter, they can’t take more subjects. So I would like to see both sides balancing out.

Ravigadevi: Okay fine, but please don’t make it look like a knee-jerk reaction. That’s what it looks like. Yesterday, they said they’re studying it, and then today they say they’ve capped it.

Ikmal: Well, there were studies conducted on various issues and I believed these were all studied.

Ravigadevi: And to say it’s capped for next year is wrong, I think. Form Four students have already started subjects, like literature and accounts.

All that money and time spent, and now they say it’s 10. They should have given warnings.

Ikmal: Sometimes, the government trips over itself for nothing. Well, it means to do something right and good.

Ravigadevi: But the perception is all wrong. They should definitely ease it in. Let them know that this has been coming for some time. My perception was that it was suddenly done overnight.

Ikmal: Unless you were in the know.

Ravigadevi: Plus human capital is so important, why not double the scholarships? Or get the private agencies to fund it somehow. Encourage them.

Ikmal: I appreciate the fact that the government is brave enough to want to do something about it, but I think it should be brave enough to ask itself again whether 10 is the magical figure, or whether it should be 12 or 13.

And if the government has made a mistake, be brave enough to admit it. Even if it means easing it in, that’s fine enough. That means they are brave enough to accept it. And we need more resources put into education.

I don’t think we are doing enough when it comes to these excellent students and allowing them to flourish.

The government should also explain each and every of its actions in arriving at a decision so the public understands there was deliberation over all these things.

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