Time to step up early childhood education

The Malay community has made notable achievements in various fields including arts, education and sports thus far, underlining the community’s desire to be on par with the other communities. However, there still exists a significant gap between the Malay community and the other communities, which Chairul Fahmy Hussaini believes can be narrowed by early
intervention in education.

WEEK AFTER WEEK, the Malay daily paper, Berita Harian, will not fail to report the success stories of Malay/Muslim individuals who have excelled in the fi eld of sports, arts or education. Such reports, to say the least, highlight the achievements of the Malay/Muslim community. Little by little, we are making good progress.

There is no denying that there is a noticeable fundamental change in attitude within the community – an attitude that is more progressive and future-oriented.

Today, excellence is the buzz word with many Malay/Muslim parents. They are eager to see their children attain academic excellence by ensuring that they receive quality preschool education in the belief that this will give them a strong foundation for primary school.

That, the selection of good primary and secondary schools, and not to mention the choice of top-league junior colleges and universities thereafter is another positive indicator of change that is taking place in the community. 

A friend of mine commented recently, the question asked today by many Malay parents when meeting their friends or acquaintances who have kids of the same age is not whether their kids have managed to enter university but “which university do they go to”.

This highlights an important shift and the realisation on the part of the community on the need for quality academic success – as the way forward and up the social ladder to claw out of what I can only describe as ‘social
marginality’.

A Comprehensive Review Needed

Much has been said about the ‘significant’ progress of the Malays in education over the last five decades (1959-2009).

The growing number of outstanding individuals within our community to receive top awards and international accolades for excellence in the various fields underlines our desire to be able to ‘duduk sama rendah dan berdiri sama tinggi’ (be on par) with the larger Singapore community.

One may argue that this, however, is still not enough. More must be done to ensure that many more of our students enter the ‘menara gading’ (ivory tower).

Less than 6 percent of the Malay students cohort per year make it to university today as compared to more than 10 percent and 25 percent for the Indian and Chinese communities respectively.

A fair argument, I would say, but how do we turn the number from ‘6’ today to ‘9’ in the short-term and doubling the fi gure in the long-term?

As it is, the critics are saying the Malays have not made significant gains in narrowing the educational gap with the non-Malay communities despite all that has been done since the inception of Yayasan MENDAKI in 1982.

I think it is time for us to conduct a comprehensive review of current strategies, approaches and methodologies to academic excellence. While help must still be given to students through mass-based tuition, that, however, cannot be an end to itself.

I suggest we start from ‘ground zero’, that is, providing greater support to parents – urging them to send their children to preschool, two years before starting kindergarten.

We must realise that kindergarten education today is totally different, compared to what we went through decades ago.

Kindergarten is no longer the place for kids to start learning A-B-C and 1-2-3. Today, it is a place where we begin to nurture their intellectual capabilities.

It was reported early this year that between 12 and 14 percent of the Primary One cohort each year failed to recognise the alphabet. This is worrying because, as the trend goes, there will be a large number of Malay
students among them.

I believe that our inability to produce more students to enter universities is not a result of us not doing enough. Rather, it is from not equipping them with the necessary skills at an early age – to cope with the multitude of challenges thrown to them.

We need to change our current approach. We need to provide more resources and expertise towards early childhood education, looking at the various aspects of children’s development from physical well-being to improving mental capacity and language development.

Early Intervention

It is no secret that a large number of Malay students have failed or attained unsatisfactory results in two key subjects, namely, English and Mathematics, due to their inability to understand concepts of the subjects taught.

Why so? It is my understanding that our approach until recently is still very much dependent on rote-learning. It focuses on memorisation rather than understanding of a subject or concepts.

With children having an absorbent mind from birth to the age of 6 or 7, it is critical therefore, for us to look into the possibility of refocusing our attention towards younger children for the survival of our future generation.

It is important, especially in this day and age, for our children to be introduced to the various learning processes at an early stage.

While one may argue that providing early childhood education for the whole community is a costly affair which requires massive funding, the benefits, however, can be just as enormous.

I believe, with the right strategy and approach, funding will not be a problem.

There are many success stories that can be told with regards to early intervention in childhood education.

For instance, we may take a leaf out of what is being done by Chicago Public School which introduced the Child Parent Centre (CPC).

The CPC encourages parents from low-income families to enroll their children at the age of three and provide two continuous years of education prior to kindergarten.

Its website states that “students will begin to develop basic reading, writing, and math skills” and “parents or guardians are expected to participate in parent room or classroom activities twice a month. Activities include
topics relating to child growth and development, literacy, readiness skills, parenting skills, health, safety, and nutrition”.

A good idea, isn’t it?

We have a large number of Malay students attending the Learning Support Programme (LSP) in primary schools. They were found to be weak in language and literacy skills in English and also weak in foundational numeracy skills.

This happens because our students are not equipped at the young age to understand and appreciate both subjects and more importantly, parents’ lukewarm efforts in sparking their children’s interest in learning.

The crux of the matter is this: we have a large number of young Malay children who do not have preschool education, either because the parents are poor or have misplaced priorities. We need to reverse the trend if we want to realise our vision of being a “community of excellence”.

Karyawan | AMP
January-July 2010
Volume 10 | Issue 2
Community In Review

About chairulfahmy

A writer.
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