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Every so often, heartwarming stories emerge of educators and students alike overcoming hurdles in order for learning to continue, whether that’s a teacher travelling over 100 kilometres daily to reach students in rural areas, or a student who spent the night in a tree for better internet connection to sit for her exams. Stories like these tend to take off on social media because they represent a sense of triumph over adversity. But on the flip side, they also represent a societal failure to ensure access to education for all—a problem that has only been made worse by COVID-19. 

In Malaysia, students have mostly been learning online since the onset of the pandemic and online learning seems likely to continue through August before a gradual reopening of schools. For many students without regular internet access, this has meant falling behind with their lessons. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2020 with almost 900,000 student respondents suggests that 37% do not have appropriate devices for home learning—and those who do may have to share with others in their household. So while remote learning may be an inconvenience to some, it is a true barrier to education for many, especially those from low-income families. 

On this episode, Dayana Mustak speaks to Mazliza Mahmood, a teacher, and Chan Soon Seng, CEO of Teach for Malaysia. They talk about the educational alternatives available when a pandemic means in-person learning could put lives at risk and what help has been given to support students in need during this time.

For more information on how you can help Mazliza’s students, you can send an enquiry to taniazae@rocketmail.com.

Minor edits have been made to the following transcript for clarity.

Dayana 0:00
Hi everyone, I’m Dayana Mustak, a freelance journalist from Kuala Lumpur. Now, every so often heartwarming stories emerge of educators and students alike overcoming hurdles in order for learning to continue. Whether that’s a teacher travelling over 100 kilometres daily to reach students in rural areas, or a student who spent the night in a tree for a better internet connection to sit for her exams. Stories like these tend to take off on social media, because they represent a sense of triumph over adversity. But on the flip side, they also represent a societal failure to ensure access to education for all, a problem that has only been made worse by COVID-19.

In Malaysia, students have mostly been learning online since the onset of the pandemic, and online learning seems likely to continue through August before a gradual reopening of schools. For many students without access to online classes, this has meant falling behind in lessons. A survey by the Ministry of Education, with almost 900,000 student respondents, suggests that 37% of students do not have devices for home learning, and even those that do may have to share with others in the home. So while online learning may be an inconvenience to some, it is a true barrier to education for many, especially those who come from low income families. On this episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches I speak to Mazliza Mahmood, a teacher, and Chan Soon Seng, the CEO of Teach for Malaysia. We talk about the other alternatives available when a pandemic means in person learning could put lives at risk and what help has been given to support students in need during this time. If you enjoy what we’re doing, please do support New Naratif’s work by becoming a member of New Naratif at newnaratif.com/join. Memberships start at just 52 US dollars a year. That’s just $1 a week. Or you can donate at newnaratif.com/donate. And check out our website at newnaratif.com for more stories from Southeast Asia. Now here’s the interview.

Good morning. Thanks so much to you both for joining us today. Perhaps let’s start with you, Mazliza. Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where do you teach and maybe a little bit about what your role is at the school?

Mazliza 2:22
Hi, good morning. I’m Mazliza. I’m an English language teacher here in a public secondary school. I have been teaching English for 28 years. I’m in a school right in central KL.

Dayana 2:38
So that kind of leads in nicely to my next question, which is that, I think a lot of times when we think about students who need support for online learning, we think about this as a problem for students and families who are in more rural areas. But like you said, you work right here in KL and students at your school have needed considerable support in getting access to the internet. So could you describe the demographics of your school students?

Mazliza 3:06
Okay, even though I’m right in the middle of KL, and the address is quite an exclusive address, only about 50% of the students here come from the, not the middle class, because they live in the government quarters around this area. And the other, maybe like 40% come from the lower income bracket. And only about 10% come from the affluent neighbourhood of this area.

Dayana 3:35
Right. So, it’s sort of considered to be like a posh area. But it also serves a lot of communities that people don’t really think of.

Mazliza 3:42
Yeah, the school is situated in a very posh area. But the students who come to this school are mainly like, children of government servants. And these are the government servants, who are from the administration group, you know, the clerks and so forth. They stay in the (inaudible) around the area, and then we have more than 40% actually come from the squatters, the immigrants. Those are the ones who have problems, I suppose, learning online.

Dayana 4:12
So, I mean, we’ve been doing online learning for a while now, right? But when did you first realise that many of your students needed more support to do online learning? What was the first indicator for you?

Mazliza 4:27
Okay, the problem is, we have a set timetable. So, and then the education department requires the school to make sure you comply with how many hours of learning a day. So my principal, she’s a stickler when it comes to rules and regulations. We had to stick to that, you know, how many hours of online learning. And you get students by the third session or fourth session, they just don’t turn up. Because we have, we key in the attendance for every class that comes in so you can compare it. ‘ Oh how come he was in my class, but he’s not in this person’s class’, and so forth. And when you ask around, you get students saying that by the end of the day, their data would have finished, or they would have to pass their gadget to their other siblings who also wanted to join class and all that. So yeah, that’s when I realised, not everybody can sit from eight, it’s literally from (8am to 12pm) of Google Meet. And that’s a lot of data required.

Dayana 5:27
Right. So they would have to share devices with siblings and things like that. And so what was your or your school’s first response? How did you step in to help?

Mazliza 5:39
Actually, the teachers have been forking out their own money to help the students who really needed help. But ultimately, we had offline work given as well. So we tell them, it’s okay, you know, if you can’t, then we will post work on the WhatsApp group, on the Google Classroom and so forth. And for those who really, really can’t afford and who have been struggling, we actually produce the hardcopy work, the modules and they can collect it from the school.

Dayana 6:13
And when when you see the teachers forks out their own money, what kind of support were they usually giving?

Mazliza 6:20
Oh, just to buy extra data for the kids because most of them use prepaid. They don’t have (postpaid) of course, or Wi-Fi for that matter. So you know, the teachers will buy the prepaid credits for them.

Dayana 6:32
Right. Okay, so now turning to you Soon Seng. You work at Teach for Malaysia, an organisation that aims to empower young children through education. In your opinion, how widespread is this digital divide problem that Mazliza is describing throughout Malaysia?

Soon Seng 6:50
Yeah, I mean, Mazliza has just given us a picture of what it’s like in urban Malaysia right, in the heart of KL. And you can imagine that that becomes even more challenging as you go out across the country. So the Ministry of Education did a survey last year, that at the time of this survey indicated something like, 37% of students not having access to a device or connectivity. And if you calculate that against almost 5 million students in Malaysia, that’s more than 1.5 million students. But I heard more recently that the number looks closer to something like 3.2 million students without access to a device or connectivity. And as you can imagine, in rural areas in Malaysia, you only connect to a 4G connection, about 44% of the time that you’re connected. So that means you may be able to like move around and find a 4G connection, but it would be very unstable. So you can imagine for students who are in rural parts of the country, even if they had a device, they would not be able to connect to the internet, or the type or the strength of the internet connection that they would be able to connect to would be very, very weak. So they would not be able to access video conferencing platforms like Google Meet, for example, on a stable basis.

Dayana 8:11
Yeah. And the other thing, which Mazliza alluded to, was the fact that people were sharing devices and things like that. But also, a lot of students have home environments. I mean, the school is kind of like a sacred space in that way, where when you are in the school, it’s a dedicated environment for you to learn. But at home, you know, you might have other responsibilities, or just a home environment that’s not conducive to learning. How widespread is that problem?

Soon Seng 8:41
Yeah, I think that what was seen across last year at least, was that the domestic violence rates at home were increasing. And I think that you can imagine that if families are stuck at home, there’s the potential for further social issues to arise within the home. And school, obviously, you know, school serves primarily the function to help kids learn, but it does so much more than just serve kids’ learning needs. And I think that the role of the teacher, often in many Malaysian schools, goes way beyond just teaching kids ABCs, or academic knowledge, but sometimes the only positive adult influence in the lives of the child. And so schools serve a much, much, much broader social function beyond just the learning needs of kids. Schools provide a place where kids can interact with friends and have healthy relationships. The more healthy relationships that you have, the more that supports a child’s development, mental health and well-being. And being taken away out of the school environment just significantly reduces the amount of positive relationships that you may have access to whether that is your peers or whether that is other adults that you may have a positive relationship with. And I think that that then accounts for many other challenges, whether it’s around the social, emotional needs that a student may have, that get limited through being just stuck at home, other mental health and well-being needs, as well as just some basic safety needs, if you are a child that is in an environment where there is domestic violence at home. So the longer that schools are closed, the more prolonged these challenges become, and the more difficult it is for families to manage at home. And for students to be able to, to keep up not just with their learning needs, but with a whole host of other social, emotional mental health needs as well.

Dayana 10:49
Yeah. And Mazliza teaches secondary school students, but this is true for all age groups, right? Primary (and) secondary?

Soon Seng 10:58
Absolutely, absolutely.

Dayana 11:00
Alright. So, Mazliza, we’ve seen the impact that COVID-19 has had on the education sector. I mean, Malaysian schools have remained mostly shut with the exceptions for those taking major examinations, national level examinations. And these COVID measures have led to students relying mostly on online learning, but how has the pandemic exacerbated or impacted the overall education experience for students in these low-income communities?

Mazliza 11:32
It’s true what Mr. Soon said just now, you know, I mean, school is a lot more than just a place where they go and study, because more often than not actually teachers have become like, their counsellors as well. You know, we’re not official counsellors, not formally, but the students will come up to us and I don’t know, they just have a lot to tell about their family and why they’re not doing well. I had so many students who are like, troubled kids, in school. But when you call them up, you just call them to your room, just have like a conversation, one to one conversation. Even the toughest boy would break down and cry. Seriously, they’ll just cry and tell you why they behave like that. So can you imagine being cooped up in a, you know, I mean, that we are fortunate to live in, like, for me, in a double storey house. We can move up and down. But if you’re cooped up in a small flat with like, seven other people, so you can imagine. Just the other day, I received an email from one of my students. It was a task where they had to write an email to me. And some of them wrote what they learned. One girl wrote something [that] was quite troubling and I actually contacted her, because she said something like, ‘I hate being at home, I hate my father’. So I’m like, oh, oops. Calmly, I called her and I spoke to her and I asked her what was wrong. And she said her father was scolding her, so it happens. And also, I also have problems with kids working. Working as in earning, because they have to, [because their] parents are no longer working. So they have taken the responsibility, and most of them become Grab riders, Food Panda. That was also our problem because they leave very early, like 10 o’clock. When I say, ‘hey, where are you?’ ‘Oh, teacher, I have to go to work.’ Whereas if they’re in school, they have no choice, right? They go to school. We don’t have that much of a problem when they have to work actually during school. It is just this time, you know? Yeah. So that’s a big problem as well.

Dayana 13:27
And these are problems that are kind of, you know, people like you and me, you were saying that we live in two storey houses where, because of the pandemic, we might have to do everything online, but we don’t have to work. And you don’t still actually learn online at home, but for students of low-income families, yeah.

Mazliza 13:48
And also some students they actually enjoy going to school not to study, okay, but it’s to be with friends to get out of the house. You know, I had a student from a previous school, who would come to school, would just have so much fun in school, [but] wouldn’t study. When I spoke to him, he said at home, he has to get out of the house. He can’t stay in a small flat, and he even sleeps downstairs. So I thought downstairs, what do you mean by downstairs? ‘Downstairs’ meaning the ground floor, you know, the parking area, they push the tables together and they sleep there because in their flats, there’s no room. Yeah, everybody sleeps outside. So that when he wants some private space, he’ll just sleep downstairs in the basement, wherever. He’s very sad.

Dayana 14:32
So school was always like a refuge for these children.

Mazliza 14:35
Yes, definitely. Yeah

Dayana 14:38
Alright. Soon Seng, there’s been a lot of talk of getting government aid to support students in need during this pandemic. And I’ll list a few initiatives. For example, in the National Budget 2021, the government promised to deliver 150,000 laptops to students in need. But there have been reports that as of June, an estimated 9% have actually been delivered. In the PEMULIH stimulus plan, the prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, announced the extension of free one gigabytes of daily data for existing subscribers of the five major telco companies until the end of the year. Then there’s also My Digital, which seems to be part of a broader, not really COVID specific plan, with a timeline of 2021 to 2025. And this aims to narrow the digital divide by providing equipment and data to students in need. So I guess, what’s your view on these policies, the main gaps, perhaps, in your view?

Soon Seng 15:41
Yeah. I think that the reality now is that it’s unrealistic to expect that the digital divide is going to be closed in the short term. We’re not going to be able to close it within the span of the year. We’re not going to be able to get enough laptops or devices out to kids or build the infrastructure necessary to ensure that there is connectivity for every kid across the country. And I think that there needs to be more done to support safe reopening of schools, as well as other offline solutions for students to have access to learning during this period of time. But I think just thinking about a longer term picture, I think that’s what’s going to be important is for us to keep our sights on closing the digital divide in the long term. And the government has announced that the Cerdik Programme, which is supposed to roll 150,000 laptops out this year, that’s supposed to be a pilot programme. Meaning that based on the learnings from this programme, that’s then supposed to be extended, to eventually ensure that kids get access to a device, and that digital learning is something that is a long-term thing that is embedded into the education system. So it’s going to be important that the government continues to keep committed to those things. Even once the immediate demands of the pandemic are no longer in place, let’s say a year down the road. It’s going to take multiple years for us to reach that stage. So I think that’s a key thing to continue to invest in this, even beyond the immediate effects of the pandemic. I think that some of the provisions are helpful, for example, the one gigabyte of daily data, but you know, we know that a single video conference call could take up to one gigabyte of data. And like what Mazliza was sharing is that schools are supposed to work on a timetable that takes you multiple hours across the day. And if you’re expecting students to connect for that entire period of time, then that’s that’s not likely going to help significantly. If you’re going to help students have a full experience of full school learning timetable, then I think that to Mazliza’s points, the biggest thing that is impacted at this point in time is loss of income. And so if we can’t get parents back onto jobs as quickly as possible, all of the challenges that surround it will continue to remain. So we can’t just look at a government intervention just at the student level or at the learning level. It needs to be a holistic look at it. But I think the key thing is really thinking about supporting students offline learning during this period of time. And what Mazliza was describing many schools have now started operating on the basis where they create modules to be sent to students. And typically parents can come to schools and pick those things up. But what we’ve seen or some of our teachers have seen is that especially in areas where there are lockdowns, it may be even difficult for parents to come to school and pick those up. So out of their own costs, we’ve seen teachers use delivery services, and will send these packets, or these modules, one by one, to the students’ homes. That can be an extremely expensive thing to do on a sustained basis. And thinking about alternative ways to use the existing resource that is available, existing logistics and supply chains or even just giving permissions for teachers to be able to distribute obviously, in a safe way, where possible. Ultimately, UNICEF and UNESCO released a statement saying that, you know, schools need to be considered as a top priority. And their statement was that schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen in times of a pandemic, and that governments need to invest in ways to ensure that schools are the essential services, right?

Mazliza 19:54
Yeah. When school reopened the first time around, after the first MCO, we also had problems whereby parents were very worried to send their kids and so the attendance rate was really poor as well, despite the very strict SOP that we followed, and we want to make sure the students followed. And also because of the SOPs as well, students were not enjoying school so much. They were not allowed to go out and play. They were not allowed to even go to the school canteen for the break, everything was in class. And after a while, they just got fed up. They didn’t want to come to school, you know, and then of course, there were lots of parents (inaudible) couldn’t take any action. Usually, if the students don’t turn up for three days in a row, we issue letters and all that. But during the pandemic, nothing was issued, because we understood. But yeah, there was a problem as well. Parents were very scared to send the kids.

Soon Seng 20:47
Yeah, absolutely. This is another piece around like, how do we provide? I’m very cognisant that we have a teacher in this call. Cognisant of not suggesting things that are going to add more to the crazy workload at this time that teachers experience, right? But how do we provide options that could make, for example, hybrid schooling work, right. So for example, options where parents who are afraid to send their kids to school during this time, could and let’s say you have children at home, maybe your family is in a position where they can learn effectively from home, because there are families that do have the relevant equipment or environment. So can those families stay at home and learn from home and that would also reduce the number of students overall in school, so that you can more effectively allow for physical distancing in school. So, I think that the challenge with Malaysia’s reopening is that we haven’t had enough modes to tackle the reopening. And typically what’s happened is that we’ve, you know, we open the examination years, and then eventually we just bring everybody back in. But when we bring everybody back in, you don’t create enough space in certain schools, especially overcrowded schools for physical distancing to happen. That’s when you see the SOPs begin to fall apart. I think Mazliza is absolutely right in that, you know, even once schools reopen, students with all of the restrictions and the SOPs, it’s a very restrictive schooling experience, and students don’t prefer that. But you will still see in the overall, more students will be accessing learning if we’re able to reopen schools.

Dayana 22:39
I want to come back to sorry, were you going to say something?

Mazliza 22:43
I mean, we also have problems with connectivity in schools, not all schools are equipped with strong Wi-Fi. And so for the teachers to come back to school and then do online classes with the say, for example, like half the class in school, the other half will stay at home, right, as you suggested? For the teachers to do that in schools is also very, it’s going to be very tough as well.

Dayana 23:06
Right. And I want to come back to talk about the reopening of schools shortly. But, I wanted to circle back to something you said earlier, Soon Seng, which is that it’s hard to tackle all of these digital divide issues in the short term. So, to follow up on that, do you think these measures like the 150,000 free laptops, have legs as long term solutions that are sustainable beyond the pandemic?

Soon Seng 23:30
Yeah, I mean, I think that’s why it’s going to be important for us to continue to advocate for bridging the digital connectivity divide in the long term. I mean, I think that the government’s stated intent has been that, for example, the CERDIK Programme, the laptop, the device programme for students, is something that they want to extend. And eventually, will be something that does roll out for all students. And the aim in the long term is that, you know, we reach a situation where all students have access to a device in school. And the question is whether we will have the political will to sustain that in the long term, because we understand sort of how things shift with the political tide. And so I think that as the public, that’s something that we need to continue to advocate for. I think that what’s been helpful to see is that, you know, there have been a series of delays with the rollout of these laptops, and for many, many, many reasons, whether that’s the global shortage on devices, whether that’s the logistical, bureaucratic challenges of rolling out devices through the MoE. But what’s been helpful to see is how vocal the public has been in demanding that these laptops reach students sooner. And I think that if we can continue to maintain that level of public accountability in the long term, then that would be something that’s going to be important for us to actually really tide that over.

Dayana 25:01
Right. Now, Mazliza, we’re talking about different forms of public aid, such as, you know, free one gigabytes of data, free laptops. But did your school receive any public aid from the government for students online learning?

Mazliza 25:15
No. But I did tell my students to look up the websites for these different telcos, they offered like this package deal. But some of our students got back to me and said, it was only eligible for those [with a] household income less than RM 300, or something like that, which is ridiculous. So they couldn’t, you know, couldn’t access that either. So I think also telcos should play a role here. And offer, you know, offer good deals, affordable deals for students. But in terms of the government, we haven’t received anything. Yeah, we did receive some tablets, but it was given by a private company.

Dayana 25:55
So there’s really no avenue for you to appeal to, a sort of channel, [or] money for students, or anything like that. It’s mostly relying on private donations and such, you’re saying?

Mazliza 26:06
Yes, yes. We do have allocation by the government. But all these years, the money, the budget, the money that comes to schools, were used to buy books. We only buy concrete things like that for the students. But being at home now, books are not quite the thing people use these days. And then, you know, typical of any procedure of government, how it works, we have to get like three quotations, and this and all that. So that is really difficult. There is money, you know, in the school account, but we can’t use it for just anything, that’s a problem. And, unfortunately, buying credit data and all that, it doesn’t come under the list of things you can use the money for. So it’s still there, we just have to wait for school to be open. And then the teachers can start using that to like print materials and so forth. But that’s it.

Dayana 26:57
And the reason I wanted to speak with you is because it came to a point where your family took matters into your own hands, right? Your own children basically fundraised for your students to get access to online learning. Could you tell us a little bit about that effort?

Mazliza 27:14
Yeah. Because I come back with all sorts of sob stories, you see. So my children empathised with the kids. So they asked how they could help. And I said, The problem now is buying, you know, topping up credit. I’ve been buying for them and all that. So, my kids rallied and got the friends to donate some money. And so I’ve been using that actually. I got a list of students who I made them fill up a form. I did a survey (on) who can afford and who needed help. And then so I just told them about, I’m helping about 50 kids at the moment. Yeah. So like, every week, I just top up data for them. I don’t have enough money to buy them gadgets. So it’s the least we could do. But some parents have kind of called and thanked me. So that means they really needed the help.

Dayana 28:04
And while students have been staying at home, you mentioned that books are maybe not quite the most useful thing. But the Malaysian government has also brought back school lessons on TV, have you or your students found this helpful?

Mazliza 28:18
Again, it’s the problem of sharing. Yeah, because this programmes are shown like simultaneous or whatever, and you have kids of different age groups in the household. But there’s some good programmes that I have come across. So we have a list of these programmes sent to us. So we will forward the programmes and the schedules and all that to the students and then many teachers, I think, they have been using that as well. And then for our follow-up lessons, students get to talk and discuss. That has been quite good, actually. But again, how many TVs are there in one house for some people, right?

Dayana 28:53
Yeah. And so I wanted to go back to the reopening of schools. I mean, everything that we’ve talked about so far, the digital divide is going to remain an issue as long as schools are closed for the pandemic. And the government recently announced that schools are likely to reopen in stages after September 1st, taking into account the current vaccination rates. It’s the 21st of July today. So that’s more than a month away from now. Until then, these inequities of online learning are going to be an issue that’s going to continue to disproportionately affect low income students. So what kind of short term solutions do you think the government should undertake until schools start to reopen?

Mazliza 29:37
Oh, I don’t know. Too short a period for them to do anything, actually. But if only they would just relax a little bit on the on how we can use the money that is given to us for schools. But other than that, I don’t see anything can be done within this month, actually.

Soon Seng 29:58
Yeah, I really agree with that. I think the key thing at this point in time, if you’re going to make any significant differences, is how are we resourcing teachers, knowing that teachers are the ones who are closest to the challenges and to the needs of their students? How do we resource teachers, decentralise some of the decision making and allow teachers to just have the resources that they need to address their students’ needs. Resourcing teachers at this point in time, I think can be the most, one of the most powerful things that can be done to really, really make a difference in the short term.

Dayana 30:33
Mazliza, so after schools start to reopen, do you have a wish list for what kind of initiatives you’d like to see for the students?

Mazliza 30:45
Well, I think we should open up schools. And we should have staggered in the sense that this week, this group of students, [and] next week [the other group], you know. So at least they do come at least two weeks in a month. You know, that’s better than nothing, right? At least they have this like physical contact with the teachers, and during that two weeks we go all out and teach them. And then two weeks is [for] online class. But other than that, no, because we cannot, we can’t loosen the SOP. So that’s a big problem. We can’t. You know, they still have to follow. If anything were to happen, if there’s a school cluster, it’ll get back to us, you see.

Dayana 31:20
Right. And I also wonder if you have any thoughts about how, you know, people have been talking about the students as a kind of like so-called lost generation, because they have missed out on so many years of crucial education. So once we do go back to normal, for lack of a better word, how do we make up for those years?

Mazliza 31:43
How do we make up for this? Yes. Oh, my God, I don’t know how we make up for these years. How do we make up this? They just have to, they, the students themselves, they just have to want to do it, you know, there’s nothing much we can do on our part. Because if they missed a lot, it’s their own responsibility really, right? I really don’t, I don’t have the answer to that.

Dayana 32:08
Yeah, I’m not sure. I’m not sure there really is an answer. Soon seng, do you have any insights? I don’t know if you’ve had any discussions around this. Because, you know, this loss of opportunity can compound and in that’s a more severe effect on people of low income families. So do you have any thoughts on how students and families can make up for these years?

Soon Seng 32:30
Yeah, I mean, I think that it is a challenging thing, right? To think about, number one, what the loss is even going to be and then how do you even address that, right? And so the World Bank is estimating something like a $10 trillion lifetime loss for the students who have been affected by the pandemic, right. And so I think that there are certain aspects that you know, are just non-negotiable, like basic literacy. So can you read and write? Can you do basic math, those are things that, you know, there’s going to be an obvious (inaudible) that you have to make up for. But I think, when we think about what learning looks like, during this time, it’s going to be unrealistic to expect students to come back from this time and expect them to 100% be able to catch up to the curriculum. And so, I think that to have to place that expectation on students and you see this, especially with the students sitting for SPM, how much pressure they experience at this point in time, because of the expectation that they need to like cram or catch up for all the lost time, it’s not going to be realistic for that to have. And it’s going to be even more difficult for the students who are sitting for SPM this year, because they’ve spent even more time out of school, right? So it’s going to be unrealistic, I think, for us to expect that all students are going to be able to catch up. And I really do think that one thing that we can look into is how do we actually redefine the expected curriculum outcomes for students during this period of time? And there needs to be a relaxing of some of the curriculum expectations.

Mazliza 34:13
Definitely just throw away some subjects for that matter. Seriously, like, concentrate on the basic ones they need to survive. Like, there are some, I think, ridiculous subjects that they can do without for the moment. And also the syllabus cut down, they should really look into the syllabus of the education system in other countries, you know?

Soon Seng 34:37
Yes. I mean, Malaysia already has a very overloaded curriculum. And we can identify to Mazliza’s point, like, for example, in the Finnish system, they have very, very few requirements, curriculum requirements at a national level, and then it’s up to the school to be able to determine, okay, what’s going to make the most sense for our students? And I think really thinking about how we stripped the curriculum down to the core for this period of time empowers schools and teachers to be able to support their students based on on their needs, because they will be the ones the teachers, especially, will be the ones who will know where their students are at. And really stripped down to the core. So first, I think, [[is] curriculum relaxation. I think a second thing, the UK is investing over a billion pounds in a tutoring scheme, which basically allows schools to have access to tutors or to tutoring services for their students. And it’s a recognition that it’s not going to be realistic to expect teachers to meet the needs of all of their students at this point in time, and teachers will need additional support during this time to make up for that difference.

Mazliza 35:46
Are they qualified tutors?

Soon Seng 35:48
Yeah, so what they’re doing in the UK is they’re basically working with tutoring services. But typically, these tutors, they obviously provide tutoring for kids who can afford. And so what they do is they provide subsidies to schools, for them to be able to pay for their students to have access to tutoring, or they also have a scheme where they send trained tutors, to schools. So then let’s say, if you have a group of students in your class, who may need more basic literacy, remedial support, then they can pull them out of the teacher’s class and provide that direct support. While the teacher is then able to teach the rest of the class, according to the level that the rest of the class is at.

Mazliza 36:28
I think that’s what the minister announced the other day, the Education Minister, he said something about people can start applying for this teaching job, even without an education degree. So, anyone with a basic degree can apply nowadays. So I think that’s almost like that, where they’re just getting as many people, you know, to join the teaching forces as possible.

Soon Seng 36:47
Yeah, so they’re currently trying to make up for an apparent teacher shortage of 18,000 teachers. I think that if done well, that can be effective. What will be really, really important is to prioritise the training and support that this batch of teachers receives before and while they’re in school, because none of these people would have been trained specifically for the pandemic. And they also wouldn’t have been trained to also meet the needs of the difference of students coming out of the pandemic. And so just, you know, putting these teachers in school without the relevant training would pose as a challenge. And so I think it can be helpful that we’re going to get all of this additional manpower in, but ensuring that they have the training and support. So for students learning, I think relaxation of the curriculum, ensuring that we have enough teachers and potentially additional support for students at this point in time above and beyond the teaching force. And then I think the third thing is really like, how do we support and equip teachers during this time? There’s going to be so many challenges that come out of the pandemic, especially when kids return to school. Do teachers have access to the training and the resources that they’re going to need to be able to meet the needs of students? And we’re not going to be able to predict them all, at this point, right. And so how do we continuously support teachers, whether that’s through resource, whether that’s through training, to be able to make up for all of the challenges that we’re going to experience once schools do reopen?

Dayana 38:28
Right. And Mazliza I have one final question. And that is what can people listening in do to help students?

Mazliza 38:37
Wow, volunteer, I suppose. If we have volunteers to teach, that will wonderful as well, you know. So the thing is, it always comes back to money, whatever it is, you know. The government doesn’t have enough to go around giving. So, we have volunteers among the parents, you know, that will be great as well. There might be some parents who have teaching experience and all that. And also, at the moment it’s just that we need money. We need money as well to help if we have to buy gadgets for the students. We have top up data for them. We have to provide other materials. It all boils down to having extra money.

Dayana 39:17
Well, that’s all the time we have today. Thank you so much to Mazliza and Soon Seng for joining us on this week’s episode of Southeast Asia dispatches. Next week, be sure to tune in to New Naratif’s Political Agenda, New Naratif’s podcast series on current affairs in Singapore. This is Dayana wishing all our listeners a great week ahead, jumpa lagi.

Dayana Mustak

Dayana Mustak is a journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has four years of experience in audio storytelling from BFM Radio, WAMU and National Public Radio. Dayana also graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in psychology.