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The Inaugural Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Lecture


Education and Excellence – Challenges for the 21st Century

We stepped into the air-conditioned complex (blithely ignoring the fact that the emission of chlorine gasses contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer) and were greeted by the sweet strains of Can’t You Feel The Love Tonight from The Lion King, courtesy of the school band.

Thus, the stage was set for the Inaugural Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Lecture at Dewan Bosch, Kompleks Masyarakat Penyayang. The lecture was jointly organized by the Penang Free School Foundation (which explained the ubiquitous blue and white striped ties), Universiti Sains Malaysia and Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) and sponsored by www.eSchoolPlus.com.

A little after 2.30 p.m., the emcees, Mr. Ooi Eng Lye and Pn. Noorbaini introduced our distinguished guests who will be taking centre-stage (literally). YBhg Dato’ Haji Mohd Zain Yusuf, Chairman of the Penang Free School Foundation then gave his welcoming speech and presented awards to two Frees who have done the nation proud – Cheryl Therese David (squash) and Jonathan Chuah (chess).

Next, YBhg Dato’ (Dr) Anwar Fazal, the Chairperson of the Organising Committee introduced our illustrious speaker, YBhg Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam, Malaysia’s fifth Deputy Prime Minister. Admittedly, we expected the speech to be nothing more than a sleeping pill, but Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam proved to be an erudite speaker for he captured our attention with his two-hour speech on Education and Excellence – Challenges for the 21st Century.

Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam spoke on racial integration and commended Free School for her good racial mix, which resulted in confident young people. His remarks drew thunderous applause from the audience which comprised approximately 70% Frees.

He acknowledged the fast-growing knowledge gap that unfortunately, follows the fault-line of racial divide in the country and admitted that education-wise, bumiputras have been given special privileges. This situation could either be branded as racial discrimination, or regarded as affirmative action, but has caused a great deal of resentment among the non-bumis, thus further aggravating the racial divide.

Hence, Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam urged the government to set up a national commission of inquiry into the state of education in Malaysia. According to him, in-depth interaction, probing questions and frank exchange of views are needed to surmount our problems. More importantly, these should be conducted in a conducive environment free from playing to the political gallery.

The ensuing question and answer session saw DAP and BN representatives voicing their opinions. I had a hazy suspicion that this intellectual discourse was insidiously gearing towards a political rally. Imagine, then, my relief, when Mia Fazreen, a Free, took to the podium to question the logic of top scorers failing to obtain places in universities, thus demoralising students. No straightforward answer could be given, only that since the quota system was implemented, the demands for education have rocketed sky-high.

Tan Sri Dato’ Musa Hitam continued to be bombarded with queries from Free School teachers and students, on topics ranging from brain-drain to discipline to the issue of meritocracy versus discrimination. The flow of questions seemed to be ceaseless, but finally, the day ended with YB Dato’ Dr Toh Kin Woon, Chairperson of SERI and State Executive Councillor for Education, Economic Planning and Information officiating the closing ceremony.

Ong Ee Cheng


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