This article appears in The Borneo Post today (22nd October 2006) running as the fifth in the series of articles of Malaysians abroad making a difference in the community they live in… I have named this column “Pass It On”.
In this article, I remember and talked to an old classmate of secondary days…
She changed my perception
Related to many qualities of our teachers are these adjectives: dedicated, passionate, caring, understanding, compassionate…the list just goes on.
Wong Leh Chuo showed such qualities when I was her classmates in secondary school. She had made an impact on her classmates during our school days.
I remember Leh Chuo as a classmate who was good in drawing. She could draw sketches of classmates in minutes. She amazed me. I had often wished she could draw one sketch for me, but short of the beautiful face features and long silky hair, I could never gather up enough courage to ask her to do one for me.
However, one day in an art class where we were made to go outside to draw nature’s scenery, Leh Chuo changed my perception forever.
While I saw the sky as just blue, the tree trunks as brown, leaves as green, Leh Chuo coloured them yellow, grey and green, with splashes of gold and white. I stared at the sky, it was just blue and white; I walked near the tree and scrutinised it, and it was just brown; I walked around the tree, the leaves were just green. There were no other colours. I looked at her work again and suddenly I caught a speckled beauty in the brilliance of the sunshine that she had created.
Her picture grasped the teachable moment in me. Even though I did not learn to draw, from that day on, the sky is not just blue and white, and the tree trunks no longer just brown. I never see things the same way again.
I learn the power of words, just like Leh Chuo who knows the power of paint.
Indeed, Leh Chuo is the richer for it. She became a teacher in September 1984 after graduating from the National Taiwan Normal University with a bachelor degree in Chinese language studies.
She came to teach at Citizen Middle School in Sibu for a year then joined Chung Hwa High School in Muar, Johor Bahru, where she taught for five years. And then it was on to Chung Hua Middle School in Brunei where she taught for seven years. At the end of that period she left the sultanate for White Sands Primary School, Singapore where she is now.
Leh Chuo teaches Chinese language in White Sands Primary School, it is thus natural for me to want to know how the learning of Chinese language in Singapore is.
Elite (jing-ying) Vs Essence (jing-hua)
I was in Singapore last August where I heard its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech for National Day Rally. The island republic’s number one politician said that a new generation has emerged in Singapore. According to him, the new generation is not only bilingual, but, in his own words, “understands Chinese Culture”.
Lee quoted Jack Neo, a celebrity in Singapore, saying that only the English educated are the elite (in Chinese, Jing-Ying) because they master English, while the Chinese educated are the true essence (in Chinese, Jing-Hua) of the country, because they master Chinese. However, similarity of thoughts apparently came only to that point, as Lee disagreed with Jack in saying that this group of ‘essence’ is one that was disappearing. To the premier, this group of ‘essence’ has just emerged, and that they are the first of the best shows in a long-running serial.
I, therefore, asked Leh Chuo about the learning of Chinese language among her students.
“In recent years, Singapore government has put in a lot of effort in promoting the learning of Chinese language. The education ministry, besides making a lot of changes in the teaching of the language, also employed many teachers from China. They also employed many Chinese language teachers from Malaysia. I heard that they even went to my former university, the National Taiwan Normal University, to head-hunt Malaysians to teach in Singapore upon their graduation,” Leh Chuo said.
Leh Chua added that teachers in Singapore are being frequently sent to attend various courses related to Chinese language learning and teaching in order to keep them updated and competitive.
“However, despite that, learning of Chinese language seems to remain as if it is there for the sake of examination only. Singapore parents do not see the importance of learning Chinese,” Leh Chuo lamented.
“I have one student who looks exactly like a Chinese, however, he keeps on saying that he is not Chinese. He has a Spanish name, creates a lot of trouble in my Chinese lesson class,” she said.
According to Leh Chuo, Singapore parents communicate with their children in English. “This may be part of the reasons why the standard of Chinese is comparatively low.”
Besides that, students also communicate among themselves using English, Leh Chuo observed, adding that there were not many chances for the students to use Chinese language.
“Probably, it would be only through the Chinese drama in TV that they are exposed to Mandarin. Chinese is their second language.”
Leh Chuo observed too that despite the fact that Chinese is the second language, it is encouraging to note that Singaporeans are actually speaking good Mandarin. Their ascent is good and they also express themselves well using Mandarin.
“Perhaps, the worst part is writing. There are many mistakes and the structures of the sentences are usually the direct translation from English.”
Leh Chuo went on to say that students are fearful of writing Chinese characters because of the many strokes in each word.
“Besides, they have to memorise which stroke comes first, which to them are the unnecessary pains of learning Chinese language.” she said.
But despite the not so encouraging acceptance of learning Chinese language, the Singapore education ministry is introducing interactive learning to arouse the interest of students in learning the language, according to Leh Chuo.
Interactive learning includes using multi-media in the teaching, small group learning and learning through play.
“My students in primary four are keying in their essays to the computers and print-outs. The students are also expected to search for information from the internet. They even do their homework on the net. They like this way of learning most,” Leh Chuo said.
Leh Chuo said she does have students who love to learn Chinese language and are very proactive. One of them is Leong Man Fang, Singaporean, studying in Primary Six.
Talking about Man Fang, Leh Chuo was suddenly a radiant figure. She proudly said Man Fang has been her student for three years, and showed much enthusiasm and interest in learning Chinese language.
I asked Leh Chuo how she would compare the students in Singapore with their Malaysian counterparts.
Leh Chuo laughed, “You really caught me unprepared.”
Leh Chuo said that when she was teaching in Malaysia, she taught in secondary schools with students aged 13 to 18. However in Singapore, she is teaching students who are below 12 years old. Leh Chuo felt that it was difficult to compare.
Leh Chuo said: “However, the students here in Singapore are under a lot of pressure in their studies. Take for example the Primary Leaving School Examination (PLSE), the results affect the secondary schools in the sense that parents want their children to go to the best school. That puts tremendous pressure is on their children because they don’t want to end up in the less preferred schools.”
Leh Chuo said children have endless tuition classes after school. On reaching home, they have homework from schools and tuition centres, while weekends are mostly spent in tuition centres.
“Earlier this year, some PLSE students told me that they don’t have their own time anymore with school classes extended to 3 pm in the afternoon,” said Leh Chua, clearly feeling the pressure faced by her students and showing much compassion for their tight schedule.
Leh Chuo said the syllabus of science and maths in Singapore is generally different from syllabus used in Malaysian schools in the sense that it is more difficult.
“The school starts at 7.15 am with an assembly. Class starts at 7.30 am until 1 pm with a recess of 20 minutes. Most children go to tuition centres after class, or to talent classes.” Leh Chuo said it was difficult not to feel for these young children who had little time to play.
Memories of Sarawak
That leads Leh Chuo to remember her good old days in Sarikei, the town where she was raised and brought up.
“I return to my home town in Sarikei almost every half a year. Even with such frequent visits, I can still see the great changes to our former school, Sekolah Tinggi Sarikei.” Leh Chuo said.
Leh Chuo remembers the days when she cycled to school everyday.
“I am glad that we have class reunions these few years and with the convenience of technology, many old classmates are in fact just a click away,” she said.
Indeed, lately, Leh Chuo took the initiative to compile a list of old classmates and their contacts, and many of our old classmates are connected once again! We are forming memories and sentimental links and attachments!
Wind beneath the wings
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2005 National Day Rally that the education institutions in his country would be training people to be hands-on, minds-on and hearts-on so as to develop a complete round person!
Lee Hsien Loong also said this: “We are also aiming for a mountain range, not a pinnacle. We want many routes up, many ways to succeed. If you are a ‘teh tarik’ man, you must be a good teh tarik man, pour the tea and turn around … In Chinese, they say ‘hang hang chu zhuang yuan: In every profession, there are people who are outstanding, who are world-class and I think we must be like in Singapore.”
Leh Chuo, answering her call to be a teacher, is dedicated to helping her students aim for mountain ranges, realise their full potentials, present their best and brighten up their lives to be outstanding and world-class.
She doesn’t just teach; she cares.
And from me, to a friend who has helped colour my perception of many things in life, I quote this saying: This child whose life I touch with mine is like a piece of clay. I take his gentle will in hand and shape it day by day.
I thought, IF NOT FOR MY TEACHER …… we would never been able to achieve beyond our dreams. Many students of Leh Chuo would have said that time and again.