Wednesday, May 18, 2011


My Days at the Specialist Teachers College in Cheras

I thoroughly enjoyed my initial period at STTI. I was asked to come with a guitar program and modules for the trainee teachers – both for the basic course as well as the specialist teachers’ programs. I became more exposed to the music scene in Kuala Lumpur too and had the experience of performing with illustrious Malaysian musicians like Tony Soliano, Ahmad Wan Yet and Rudy Beltran at prominent 5 star hotels and prestigious clubs like the Lake Club. My musical compositions too won at national level compositional contests organized by RTM.

In my characteristic style I left no stones unturned in my efforts to pass on my experience and whatever knowledge I had to my students. Many of them have become professional musicians, key personnel, lecturers, professors and Heads of Music Departments and Faculties. Dr. Mohd. Hassan is one such person and is now the Dean of the Music Faculty at the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI). Another illustrious ex-student of mine is Dato’ Mokhzani Ismail who is the Director of Music at the Radio Television Malaysia and is a highly regarded musician in the country.

The quality of teacher trainee input was good till about 1984. This was about the time when I left for USA on a governmental scholarship. Perhaps there were lesser opportunities then and the student teachers came from the upper half of the graduating Form Fivers. In later years I had lamented the lack of quality input even to the Director of the Teacher Training Division who simply replied that it was a policy matter and that I was to just do my best to make them good teachers which I certainly tried my level best to do.

At Institut Perguruan Ilmu Khas (IPIK) I trained the choir and the college combo band which was often called upon to entertain our bosses at the Ministry and perform at national and international events. Thus, I never disappointed Mr. Victor Gopal who had also recommended my application for further studies in the United States. When I was awarded the scholarship it made some colleagues envious and a flying letter was sent to the Ministry stating that I was moonlighting as a musician at night. The standing General Orders meant for all government servants does not allow moonlighting although many people do this sort of thing to fulfill their hobbies or merely to add on some extra income, even today. Some teachers gave private tuition and some sold reference books or insurance to supplement their incomes to combat inflatory trends. I nearly lost the much revered scholarship but none other than the God-sent Chief Minister of Negeri Sembilan Tan Sri Isa Abd. Samad and the then Ruler of Negeri Sembilan (D.Y.M.M Tuanku Jaafar) personally intervened and saved the day and averted any possible professional injustice to me. Thus I left hurriedly for the United States with the reinstated scholarship on January 4th 1985 to study at the University of Iowa, a highly ranked and competitive university in USA.

At Iowa, it was an overwhelming experience just studying under the highly regarded professors there. Whereas I had a structured mindset based on my English education from colonial times I was introduced to the American system through my own experiences and that of my children’s. It was a completely different approach where one is taught how to think in many ways. If the English system of old was mostly convergent, the American system encouraged divergent and analytical thinking skills. Research was a must before one writes. Your own opinions and conclusions that are supported by research and facts are more valued than merely regurgitating facts learnt by heart or rote learning. Critical, creative and analytical thinking supported by research was the order of the day. I studied hard like there was no tomorrow. The reason was simple enough. My scholarship was for three years with a mission to obtain both the undergraduate and master's degrees. I averaged a Grade Point Average of 3.56 which was indeed very good and at a top American university at that. In four semesters I had earned enough credits for my bachelor’s degree. Another three semesters and I was done with my master’s degree by the summer session of August 1987.

I could have stayed on for the fall semester and applied for graduation only in December and just whiled away my time by actually doing nothing but enjoying the American way of life there – something many contemporaries of mine did at the time. But I decided to return home as my children’s education was being affected especially for my eldest girl Julina who left while in Form One and returned to Form Four having lost nearly three years of Malaysian education. However, she managed to catch up and do well enough in her secondary school education to earn a Petronas scholarship to do “A” levels and her medical degree in Scotland. She went on to graduate as a doctor from the University of Dundee in Scotland after eight years in UK. She is an anesthetist now at the Tuanku Jaafar Hospital in Seremban.

Upon my return I was supposed to be posted to Penang because the music head in STTI at the time, En. Nazri ahmad, did not prefer me to be at MPIK for reasons best known to him. I refused the posting and managed to pull a few strings with people who were sympathetic towards me and got posted to MPIK again. Soon Nazri Ahmad left for ITM and a new head, Puan Shamsiah (now Puan Sri, took over as head. She liked me at first as she was in the opposite camp of Nazri – this sort of feudal politics began to rear its ugly head around by now and can be said to have become common these days in both the Malaysian public and private sectors. This sort of thing needs a little explanation and I beg leave to digress a bit.

In the early days of Malaysia between 1957 and 1980, meritocracy was viewed as an important factor at the workplace. It was perhaps a legacy that the British left behind and one in which they could afford to be impartial to the "natives" as foreigners. If you were good at your work even a superior who might not exactly like you would give you due merit and recognition. This continued until 1980 or so. My own appointment as a lecturer was based on this type of meritocracy by our administrators like Mr. Victor Gopal. After the 1980’s there was a slow change that brought in what I call feudal styled work ethics that slowly replaced the older order of meritocracy. It was also fueled by blind nationalism and Malay chauvinistic spirit which also favored the Malays who hitherto had been left behind in almost all areas except perhaps the civil service, the military and the police. This feudal style simply meant that one had to please his/her own superior(s) first at the expense of those under one’s care and trust. Thus a lecturer would prefer to please his/her boss rather than truly champion the interests of those under him/her. This inverted order of boot licking became so pervasive that teachers started to ignore the interests of his/her students rather than go against the thinking or wishes of his/her immediate superior. Thus teachers, lecturers, headmasters, organizers, directors and all the way up to the minister sought to appease their superiors rather than their wards irrespective of right or wrong. This is what I mean by the feudal mentality which, to me, is an outdated way of doing things that I am also not accustomed to. It’s an inverted pyramid.

I do not favor such an approach to work and needless to say, I became a misfit of sorts as I never speak to anyone from a “kneeling position”. Interestingly, it is also about this period in the 1980’s that the word “boss” started becoming prevalent and widespread in use. This word actually comes from the language of the Chicago styled Mafia gangsters in America who just did anything as they were told without question or risked getting their heads blown off without question by their leader. It is my opinion that this system/culture has become worse and pervasive in all governmental and even non-governmental agencies today. Armed with my American social and educational experience I began teaching again with much fervor to be an agent of change. There were others who had already studied in USA before me such as Nazri and Khalili but I did not see any innovation or change in the teaching and curriculur content from them at teacher colleges. I envisaged progressive changes after my exposure to music education in the USA. I wanted to change all that and got the opportunity soon.

My former teacher cum colleague Nazri was not too happy with me for reasons best known to him. Even during my student days he did not like me or for that matter many other of his students with musical talent like Hamid Khan, Wazata Zain and Murat Hamid. Perhaps he envied us as he was more of a tutored musician. He was heading the Music Department before I left and also upon my return. At the end of 1987 Nazri applied for and obtained a teaching post at Institut Teknologi MARA much to the relief of many at STTI. Before he left, he had lobbied strongly for his brother Khalili to head the music department but Shamsiah managed to get the post. She was initially good to me as I was seen as a friend simply because of Nazri’s animosity toward me.

However, I began to fall from Pn. Shamsiah’s grace following a teacher training curriculum review workshop that was held in Frazier’s Hill in February 1988. It was organized by the Teacher Training Division of the Ministry of Education and was also attended by lecturers from other teacher education colleges which, by then, also had music in their curriculum. I was quite a popular person at the workshop because of my reputation in the music scene in Malaysia which had grown much by then bolstered further by my studies in USA. The new curriculum that we came up with at this seminar much displeased Pn. Shamsiah and her cronies in the college who were not familiar with many of the new areas and concepts in contemporary music education that were proposed. These ideas, thank God, are now fully entrenched in Malaysian music education as it was an inevitable wave of innovation and progress in music education which we had initiated in February 1988.

I had been bustling with ideas to improve music education in Malaysia based on what I had learned in USA. It was for that very purpose that the government sent us there in the first place. This innovative workshop in 1988 thus became a benchmark event with with “new” courses and approaches such as pedagogy, music appreciation and keyboard skills for all student teachers. This immensely displeased Shamsiah and her sidekicks who, like her, also felt insecure with the new syllabus and curriculum. I even quoted the noted music pedagogist Emilr Jacques Dalcroze who had said “People would have nothing to do with change so long as old ideas contributed to their satisfaction.” I had become an agent of change.

Although the new ideas went through eventually and is now history, I was discriminated against in many ways even by the principals of the college that made my life miserable at STTI till my optional retirement in 1996. I was labeled a “kaki lawan” which loosely translates as a very obstinate and quarrelsome person. Indeed I was one. I even walked off from a workshop organized by the Curriculum Development Centre at Frasier’s Hill after a tiff with one CDC officer named Fatimah as she had been rude to me and had treated me like a greenhorn. I had to go against many such persons to improve music education. They were from the old school and who did not have the kind of experiences that I had had in the USA. Unlike many of them, I had actually taught music in the rural schools and was not merely rambling off from the clouds. Moreover, I was also equally well-known musician and was the Hon. Secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Malaysia (MUM) at the time.

By the time I retired, many who had studied at USA had already returned. Many such people saw and understood what I was trying to do and supported me. However, the best of times in my whole teaching career was always when I was in the classroom itself with my students– at the primary level up to the college level. Till today, I am inclined to think that my love and respect for my students was reciprocal based on my recent encounters with so many of them who are now all working “out there”. Many of them have themselves moved on to the higher echelons of the Malaysian education system and society as well as to much more humble ones.

In my characteristic Aquarian style I often spoke with brutal harshness and was very critical of many things. I spoke without fear or favor. It was no surprise that I was bypassed for promotions. I was given poor annual appraisals by my heads. I watched undeserving people getting salary raises and promotions with good appraisals. One day I walked into the STTI Principal’s office in 1994 and asked Dr. Azmi’s bluntly what else was there I could do to impress him. I told him that I was there to seek his advice as he was my official head of department. I told him that my students and colleagues thought highly of my knowledge and experiences including the way I taught and conducted choirs. Surprisingly, he told me that he did admire my work.

I told him that I had written a book on music and published by Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka titled “Pendidikan Muzik Semasa” (translates as Contemporary Music Education) in Malay for tertiary level students. It remains the only one in Malay to date as far as I know and used as a standard reference by students pursuing university degrees locally even as I write this now. The 2nd edition was published in 2010. I spoke about my articles published in foreign journals, something usually in the domain of college professors. I also told him that all my students enjoyed my choirs much and say that I teach very well. He got my drift and personally assured me that he would look into the matter. The next year I had a salary raise with an excellent appraisal from him directly.

But by then, I had decided to put in my optional retirement papers mainly due to frustration and the daily negative vibes that I have had to bear. I just wanted to walk away from all this negativity in my life. My application was approved in March 1996 for retirement in December 31st 1996. In June that year I was asked to head the department and the Vice Principal, one Dr. Rubiah, asked me whether I would reconsider my retirement as I was now the head. I told her that I was just too glad to leave with full pension and gratuity and thanked her for her concern. My reasoning was that even if I retire I would get half my salary in pension and I was free to earn the other half whichever way I wanted – even selling nasi lemak or hot dogs would be more fun than the drudgery that my job had become.

My order of thinking till today is to always help the underdogs. This orientation of mine made me join the National Union of Teachers in 1965's and we fought for among others, equal pay for women, governmental housing loans and free medical care and also equal pay for DTC trained teachers way back in the mid-1960’s itself. I was the school representative for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for many years and went on to be a state committee member in 1970’s. In the 1980’s Freddie Fernandez, a noted music industry figure, asked me to join the Musicians’ Union of Malaysia to help local professional musicians. I agreed and after some time as a committee member, rose to become Hon. Secretary General and worked closely with many industry leaders of the time and fought for the rights of local performing musicians. Today, I am a life member of Persatuan Karyawan Malaysia, Akademi Industri Muzik Malaysia, Music Authors Copyright Protection and also a member of the National Music Council of Malaysia in this continuing struggle for music and musicians.

Thus I left teaching on 31st December 1996 after some 36 years in the teaching profession. I had to get up at 5.45 a.m. daily and leave Seremban at 6.30 a.m. to be in time to clock in at STTI since 1980. Now I can get up whenever I want and am freed at last from life as a teacher. Onwards then I have moved to newer things and a different phase in my life.

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