Oh My English!

Screenshot 2017-11-18 07.26.10

The above picture is a screenshot of my facebook status regarding the recent viralled article from The Star in which a worried Malaysian (presumably a parent) had implored the Ministry of Education (MOE) not to penalize the 2017 SPM candidates who had misinterpreted the question of their English essay exam.

Screenshot 2017-11-18 07.32.40

The article in The Star was an open letter titled ‘Error in Reading Exam Question’ in which someone using the pseudonym ‘A Worried Malaysian’ was saying that only a maximum of 3 marks should be deducted from the whole essay if a student had misinterpreted the question as asking them regarding moving to another part of the world, as opposed to another part of Malaysia. (Hmmm…. what is it about ‘another part of Malaysia’ did SPM candidates get confused about, I have no idea. The question is so precise to me! There is no room for confusion, I think.)

Below is a screenshot of the whole article from The Star. I am sorry it is a bit small but you can try to google it yourself.

Screenshot 2017-11-18 07.34.18

Basically, we could sum up the whole article by the first few sentences of her writing which says, and I quote:

THE English SPM 2017 Paper 1 was conducted on Tuesday. In the continuous writing section, which is worth 50 precious points, students were given five options to choose from. The first option reads: “If you had the opportunity to move to another part of Malaysia, where would you choose to live? Explain your choice.”

As an adult who read this question for the first time, I did not realise it was asking about a place to live within Malaysia. Likewise, many excellent SPM 2017 students who sat for this paper didn’t realise an inclusion criterion set by the question. Some wrote about living in Korea, Britain, Bali, Switzerland, Mecca, Madina, and etc.

SPM is an important examination for students in our country as it will decide the paths they will follow. For excellent kids who wrote about living outside of Malaysia, they have made a mistake in one of the most important examinations in their lives.

These kids have been in turmoil since they realised this horrendous mistake. Those who were aiming for an A+ in English are in extreme shock about this.

I think, it is a sad day indeed for English teachers all over Malaysia when their SPM candidates can misinterpret ‘another part of Malaysia’ with ‘another part of the world’. I cannot understand how such error could have occurred.

Even if (and it is a BIG if) the question is misleading or tricky (Gosh, it is not!!) , if I were the SPM candidate this year, I would have chosen another essay option to answer if I could not be sure whether this question was asking about ‘another part of Malaysia’ or ‘another part of the world’. (The more I write ‘another part of Malaysia’ and ‘another part of the world’, the more puzzled I become at how anyone can confuse these two! I mean seriously! Repeat it to yourself! Another part of Malaysia, another part of the world, another part of Malaysia, another part of the world…. say these over and over again and you will find yourself in a state of incredulity at how anyone can be confused of these two different meanings).

I thought it was absurd when the Worried Malaysian had said that ‘excellent’ students were the ones who had made an error in understanding the question. In my experience with my excellent friends back when I was doing my SPM, ‘excellent’ students usually don’t make simple errors. They only make complicated errors, and only when they are drunk, drugged or in a state of panic.

Excellent students are usually hypercritical at how they look at questions, and if they doubt their judgment, they would change the course of their strategy and choose another essay to answer.

So when I had said in my FB status, that if I were the English teacher, I would straightaway give the students grade B or below, I was not doing it out of cruelty or lack of compassion. If excellent students who would never have made such a simple error deserve an A, then these students deserve a B or below, right? You cannot give similar grade between those who make this error and those who don’t!

It won’t be fair, right?

***

 For those who don’t know, English essay is marked based on:

  1. -Content  – 20 marks
  2. -Language – 20 marks
  3. -Organisation (coherence)  – 10 marks

At least, that is what I was told by my fellow friends who are English teachers.

To me, who is a psychiatry doctor, content is very important. It forms part of our Mental State Examination that we perform on our patients. Based on your speech (in how you answer our question), we put a remark on whether the patient’s speech is relevant or is it circumstantial or tangential etc etc. (I won’t bore you with the technicalities of my daily work). In short, we psychiatry doctors really ponder your answers and we give them our own version of grading. (Not unlike English teachers, Lol.)

As a psychiatry doctor, your answer and your thought content are so important to me. That might explain why my knee jerk reaction to SPM candidates who don’t answer the question properly would be to straightaway give her a B or below (But I have known other people who are so good in English that they were even more strict regarding understanding simple phrase of ‘another part of Malaysia’ and these people simply wanna give these students 25 marks; half the full mark of 50. Lagi kejam dari aku kan? Haha. But it reflects how much people were disappointed that you can misinterpret something like this!) 

But I guess, to be really fair, we should mark the essay according to the marking scheme above; based on content, language and organisation.

I think if the content does not fulfil the requirement of the essay question, I would probably give 5 marks only. A nicer English teacher might give a 10 (half the full marks for content).

So basically, only marks from the content component would be deducted. If the student’s command in the English language is good, then hopefully other components (language and organisation) would make up for it.

I do feel sorry for any of the SPM candidates who had made such an error in reading the exam question, but I do disagree with the spirit in which the article by Worried Malaysian was written…. as though the students should only be lightly penalized for their mistake.

Penalty should be given according to the marking scheme; in this case the marks for the content component must reflect their poor comprehension of the essay question.

My worry is, some over-involved parents want to shield and protect their kids from various bumps in the road of life and the MOE then breaks under the pressure.

***

It would be a shame if the MOE decides to break under the pressure of many worried parents and decides to only ‘lightly’ penalize these ‘confused but excellent’ students. Our standard for getting an A in SPM English is already so low, that lowering it further would place our examination system at the realm of a hilarious joke.

Seriously!

When I was an SPM student, nothing made me more annoyed at seeing how other students whose command in English was not that good had obtained an A too.

But then, there were also people like Miss A (whose command in the English language is not only good, but almost Shakespearean in its literary!!) who might also be annoyed that I got an A. Hahha.

So I learned to be okay with that aspect of exam; that people of the same grade do not always have similar level of excellence, but at least, well enough to get an A.

But I am here to tell you, that the standard for getting an A is very low already.

I will give you an example of many different standards of  introductions to an essay and how all of them can get an A so easily.

  •  When I first met Rania in my first day of residential school, I knew she would be my best friend for the rest of my schooling days. There was an air of sophistication in the way she walked and talked that I couldn’t help myself from being utterly enthralled in her presence. I wanted to know more about her and emulate her style. When she told me that she was from Kuala Lumpur, I knew immediately that if I were to gain her level of confidence, poise and ‘worldliness’, I must become a city girl too, just like her. Since then, I have wanted to make my home in KL, far away from the charming rustication of Alor Star.  (I think this is good enough. Maybe this intro deserves an A minus. But certainly not an A plus! This girl is a kampung girl from Alor Star who is fascinated by her new friend and this girl thinks that she might become like her friend if she lives in the same place as her friend. Maybe, you can develop the story into how this girl later finds out that certain traits have nothing to do with where you were born or where you live. That certain traits you develop through experience or travel or through books that improve your mind. That the secret to her friend’s sophistication is her wisdom, and nothing else. Depending on the candidate’s creativity, this can develop into a good story. During my SPM year… this sort of intro is considered great and I got A1. But Miss A was even better than me, but she too got A1. I wonder if like me, she was upset by the ridiculousness of the marking system… But such is the exam standard in our country.)
  • Once upon a time, when I was a 10 year old child, my father brought my whole family to Pulau Langkawi for a delightful vacation where we spent almost 2 weeks in a chalet of Pantai Chenang. As a busy executive in the hectic city of Kuala Lumpur, there are times when I wish that I could be transported to an island like Pulau Langkawi, where the atmosphere is that of serene calmness. I think, I would be happy in a rural area. (I think, this is grade B. Well, B for boring.  This girl is a city girl, and she remembers her old vacation when she was a child and she wants to go back there while dealing with a hectic executive life in an urban area. Boring, kan? There is no hidden story; no layers to the obvious. But this is also at the level of A1 during my SPM.)
  •  “A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimension.” It was the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of  the US,  who had said that piece of elevated wisdom. And now more than ever, I found the quote reverberated deep within my heart. What is it about being human that we can never be still and satisfied? The soul wants to wander and the mind wants to rebel at anything mundane and repetitive. Now as a Judge myself at the ancient age of 60, after presiding over thousands of various criminal cases and making life-altering judgments and verdicts, I had to make the most important decision of my life. Where shall I spend these lonely years of retirement? Did I even have that long to live? My last heart attack was last week, and it began to dawn on me that I needed a place where my old, broken soul who had seen so much hatred and atrocities in life could heal once again. (Can you see how different this intro is from the rest? This candidate begins the intro with a quote… showing that this candidate is a person who reads a lot and actually memorize quotes. From the very first sentence of her essay, this candidate is already impressive to the examiner! Her very first sentence is already impactful, you see! The protagonist in  this essay is described as being elderly, and is thinking about moving somewhere else for his retirement. It makes the important decision of where to move very critical for him who has just suffered from a heart attack and might not have long to live. He is philosophical when he talks about the soul wanting to wander and not easily satisfied. We as the reader would also wonder why his soul is broken and needs healing and we want to continue reading to understand the reason! What I mean is … there are layers upon layers to the story. It is not a simple story of “I simply want to move somewhere because that is the essay question I am supposed to answer in this question”. Hahha. In short, this candidate is successful in grabbing the examiner’s attention. This candidate is an essayist par excellence! This is the level of Miss A, my friend in MRSM Langkawi who really deserves A+++ if other less impressive essays are given A+. ) 
  • If I can choose where to live in Malaysia, I would definitely choose to live in Kota Kinabalu. I have been there once before, and it was love at first sight.  (Straighforward. No layers! Nothing extraordinary. Grammatically correct because the sentence is a simple sentence, anyway. But yup… these kind of essays also got an A just as long as the language was good enough, not to have made some crazy errors. See how different all of them are but yet all 4 essays do get the same damn A! Sheesh) 

In order to write well, you have to read well. And the average Malaysians don’t read non-academic material! So we do not know how to set a proper standard when marking English essays. We think simple introduction to an essay should get an A already.

Well, it shouldn’t.

Essays should reflect your language sophistication! Because if you cannot be good in your writing (when you have the time to ponder about what to write) then how can you be good at your speech (when you have little time to ponder and simply need to think on your feet and respond)?

Language is not simply making sure other people get what we mean. When it is an essay, it is about getting your message across in the most beautiful way possible. Content is the core; but language and organization make it excellent.

***

And to the Worried Malaysian who thinks that SPM is very important, well… yes, it is. But it is not the be all and end all of everything.

Fair, is fair, is fair.

Everyone has to pay when they make mistakes in exams. Even for a careless mistake, we have to pay for it. In fact, most exams are all about catching you with your carelessness and stressing you with your lack of time management and tricking you with your comprehension of the questions etc etc. Exams ARE designed to trick you and stress you out! So, should everyone then be given compassion for any of those mistakes? Come on!

And in this particular context, what makes this mistake even worse is…. it was not even a trick question! So think logically; should they not be given marks accordingly, with compassion not being made an issue?

How are they going to learn if they never pay for their mistakes? Stop trying to shield your children from life’s disappointments.

Looking back, I am so glad that I was brought up in an era where tough parenting was the norm. No one mollycoddled us or packed us in a cotton wool away from harm and disappointment. We dealt with stuff!

Resilience is developed by dealing with stuff. By not running away from problems but facing them head on! Confidence is developed when you knew you had faced many challenges before and yet, here you are, having come this far! It reminds you that whatever current challenge you are facing now is just like other past challenges you had faced…. that they too will pass with the passage of time!

In my growing up years, my father was very strict but his strictness made sense. He ran the household almost in a military-like style. I had a schedule for every single hour of my days. Even during weekends and school holidays, I had a revision schedule. There were rest periods, of course, but only after I earned them by performing my academic tasks properly. (Rest periods are also scheduled! Haha)

Even my life as a student at a boarding school was not as rigorous as my life as a student in my own home. (To be honest, my life as a student in MRSM Langkawi was not tough in the sense of being a student, but tough in the sense of having to deal with the lack of privacy and the excessive noise and the intrusive friends.)

Just like any kiasu Asian parents (haha), my father too placed a lot of emphasis on academic performance. When we were children, he told us about how difficult it was for him to convince my grandfather to let him continue his education until the STPM level. He kept saying “Waktu ayah dulu, tok wan tak pernah ambil tau ayah punya pelajaran. Ayah nak kena tolong tok wan memotong getah lagi bila cuti sekolah. Nak sambung universiti pun tak boleh, sebab tak ada duit. Lepas dah kerja, baru boleh sambung belajar. Ayah dapat degree lepas umur dah  30 lebih. Sekarang kerja Kak Long dan Kak Ngah belajar saja. Takkan itu pun tak boleh? Kalau ada pelajaran yang lemah, usaha sampai boleh. Kalau tak usaha, sampai bila-bila pun takkan boleh.”

But despite his insistence that we do well in our exams, he would never shield us from the consequences of our own carelessness in exams. He was not that kiasu, see? He would never have written something like the Worried Malaysian had written. He would say, “Lain kali baca soalan elok-elok. Kalau dah silap, memang salah kita…nak buat macam mana. Kena hadap sajalah. Belajar daripada kesilapan. Silap sekarang tak apa lagi. Jangan silap waktu UPSR/PMR/SPM.”

When I discovered the horror of Add Maths as a 16 year old, I told my father that I would never be good in Add Maths. I was afraid that I would not get straight As this time. What made it worse was I could not even attend any outside tuition because I was studying in a residential school. So during the school holiday at the end of my Form 4, my father hired a private tutor for me to help with my Add Maths. For that one month of school holiday, it was NOT a holiday!

But then, when the school open for the new semester of Form 5, my Add Maths result showed a dramatic improvement that impressed my friends. And my SPM result showed the string of straight As I had always wanted for the very last of my National Level Exam.

I  think, our mother sometimes felt sorry for us because we only had one hour of play time per day. The time when my father was outstation was the best time in our childhood. All of us ‘raya hindu’ playing non-stop. My mother would turn a blind eye but would remind us that my father would expect to see our tasks properly done by the time he came home.

Whenever my sister and I came back home later than 7.00 pm after one hour of outside play, we would get a stroke of rattan because we broke the rules. (Afterwards, my Kak Long and I would enter our room and started the game of blaming each other for not minding the time… but after awhile, we simply laughed about it.) If you compare my life to the other kids in the neighbourhood back then, you might say that I didn’t get the same amount of play time like they had. And the other kids kind of pitied me for it. But then, they also didn’t get the same kind of academic results that I got. And I kind of pitied them back. Haha.

So, life is actually quite fair, don’t you think? Not totally fair; not absolutely fair. But QUITE fair.

Because every action has a reaction! Every action has its own consequence and following its own law.

Sebab semua perkara ada sunnahtullahnya. Usaha tu ada sunnahtullah dia. Disiplin tu ada sunnahtullah dia. Banyak main pun ada sunnahtullah dia. Buat silap pun ada sunnahtullah dia. (I should repeat these sentences to myself every day. If only I can get back my level of discipline in studying when I was a kid…I would not have to face the horror of my life while preparing for my Part B exam. My discipline had disappeared by the time I finished high school as my father no longer cared about what I did with my time. Haha)

So, when you make your decision, remember the sunnahtullah of your decision. MOE must remember that if they decide to NOT penalize this mistake properly, then it would open a Pandora box for every mistake not being penalized. Everything can then be argued on the basis of compassion rather than fairness. And everyone then forgets that this is a big national exam we are talking about! NATIONAL LEVEL Exam! National Level Exam should follow strict rules and regulations!

Otherwise, don’t organize an exam! It would be a waste of everyone’s time.

P/S: How are we ever going to get our education system respected and recognized if we always give leeways in the system in order to ‘help’ our candidates. I am sure everyone still remembers the ‘Soalan bocor UPSR 2014’ as one of the worst scandal in the MOE back then. Even at the level of UPSR, our integrity has much to be desired. 

Up to the level of master among professional doctors, leaked questions are common and this is like an open secret! Everybody knows it! And we are talking about professional doctors whom we should be able to trust as having the best level of moral and integrity in the society. But sadly, even at that level, we are just like naughty school kids who would grab whatever leeways or ‘help’ we can find. I have friends in other specialties as well who are doing Masters, and THEY too admit that they got hold of leaked questions.

We all know the credibility of ANY exam is non-existent if leaked question and ‘leeways’  and ‘help’ are not just possible, but very highly probable. No matter how good your system is, when it is not trustworthy, it loses all credibility. 

SPM exam was the last exam that I took using the Malaysian Education system. My IB diploma, medical degree and specialist exams are all International and I prefer it that way. Nowadays, we should think globally! 

So when anyone dares to question my MRCPsych credibility or the credibility of any of the external pathway (MRCP, MRCPCH, etc) to my face, as though I am taking shortcuts in my training, I will just smirk and say in my heart “At least, my exam is world-recognized and meets the rigorous standard of examination that is set by an organization that is recognized everywhere. And I have never heard of any leaked questions that would destroy the credibility of the exam system. Unlike yours!” Once upon a time, I would have said those rebuttal sentences back to their faces, instead of just in my heart. But nowadays, I take refuge in the Malay saying that “Bukit tak runtuh dengan anjing yang menyalak.”

I am not the sort of person who would go around belittling others. My self-esteem doesn’t require me putting other people down or making my unwelcome criticism known in order to hurt other people’s feelings (unless I was feeling provoked), the way some people had done towards me when they talked about MRCPsych as though it is not as good as the Master pathway. It is my principle to support anyone pursuing their education in whatever way they prefer, because that is better than simply sitting on your bottom, not progressing. But in the past, I did give people a counter attack when they tried to condemn my decision to pursue my study via the external pathway. In the past, I paid back taunt for taunt. I was quite fierce in my retaliation, too.

However, nowadays, it might be a sign of maturity that I can ignore people who have a need to belittle other people’s qualification when their own qualification is very, very questionable! With the existence of leaked questions that does not fulfil the moral requirement of integrity, that kind of exam system would NEVER be recognized. So now,  I can ignore their noise and regard it as the hallmark of a jealous and insecure person… and I move on. Yeay, mature me!

Glad INTJ argues

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