Wanted: More help for Malay pupils in Singapore

When Mendaki staff asked parents why they did not want to enrol their children, some said their children were busy on weekends. Others said they took pity on their children, who already had a tough time in school.

By Zakir Hussain (The Straits Times)

Forty years ago, six-year-old Zuraidah Abdullah came home from school with her mid-year exam result for mathematics inked in red in her report book: 20 marks out of 100.

Fortunately, her mother, who juggled various jobs to help top up her bus driver husband’s income, knew where to get help even though she had not been to school.

She asked around for someone who could do maths, and found an older student in their Ulu Pandan kampung to help her daughter.

The young man instructed the young Zuraidah to buy a pack of peanuts and borrow a pack of playing cards.

Over several sessions, the Primary 1 pupil learnt how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and each time she answered a question right, she got a peanut.

The next semester, she aced her exam and scored 80 marks out of 100.

Fast forward 12 years, when Zuraidah was an undergraduate at the then-Nanyang Technological Institute. Her mother roped her in to tutor young neighbours and relatives in their Clementi HDB estate.

She agreed, on one condition: they had to turn up for all her sessions. Like the young Zuraidah, they too managed to pass their maths exams.

She leaves Mendaki tomorrow after serving as chief executive officer for three years with the strong conviction that having more such help on the ground will lift Malay students’ grades which have dipped, especially in mathematics.

The self-help group is working out how to encourage more people to come forward to help weaker students, on top of existing community schemes, she says.

Last week, an Education Ministry report on how different ethnic groups fared in national examinations showed that the proportion of Malay pupils who passed maths in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) dipped from 63.4 per cent in 1999 to 56.3 per cent last year. Nationally, passes average 83.1 per cent.

The downtrend was flagged earlier in the month by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

Zuraidah is under no illusion that doing well in maths takes hard work and practice. But it is also important for children to get a sound grounding in basic skills from an early age.

This, she explains, was why Mendaki introduced a programme called Tiga M in 2004 to give kindergarten-age children and their parents a head start in understanding maths concepts, like how her neighbour helped her with the cards.

But Zuraidah says the effort will take time to yield results, as only 2,000 children have participated in the past five years. Community groups are working to enrol more families.

She outlines a host of other efforts being made by Mendaki and community groups to tackle stagnating maths grades. The majority of pupils who take part in these projects have seen their grades rise.

Since 2006, a one-day seminar has been held to motivate Primary 6 pupils and introduce them to exam strategies. Over 2,700 pupils took part this year and Mendaki plans to target 5,000 next year.

Maths workshops were held for Primary 5 students from 2007, and intensive PSLE maths sessions were started last year to help a select group of weak pupils.

This is where the usually calm CEO begins to lament the attitudes of some parents.

There are some 8,000 Malay pupils in an average Primary 1 cohort, she notes, but this year only about 400 enrolled in Mendaki’s tuition scheme and another 300 attended classes where Mendaki paid part of the fees.

This low participation is barely enough to make an impact on the overall pass rate, she says with disappointment.

When Mendaki staff asked parents why they did not want to enrol their children, some said their children were busy on weekends. Others said they took pity on their children, who already had a tough time in school.

And when Mendaki invited 200 pupils who failed a pre-tuition test to join intensive maths classes for free, only 39 accepted. Out came excuses from those who turned down the offer: they felt sorry for their children, the children were tired.

“They have to prioritise,” Zuraidah says with exasperation. “They are depriving the child of opportunities!”

A similar sense of irritation was expressed by Yaacob, who is also Mendaki’s chairman, when he lamented the plight of dysfunctional families in the community earlier this month.

There are an estimated 7,500 dysfunctional families in Singapore with no skills and jobs. One parent is often absent too, and a disproportionately large number of these families are Malay.

Zuraidah says her time at the helm of Mendaki has made her more convinced that the key strategy to help troubled families lies in making sure the children stay in school and enjoy learning.

“I thought I’d seen everything,” she says, referring to her 22 years with the police. “But every time I go on the ground, I’m surprised,” she adds, referring to the occasional visits Mendaki staff and volunteers make to areas where many needy Malay-Muslim families live to make sure no one falls through the cracks.

She speaks of homes with huge television sets but the family is unable to hold down a job and the children skip school.

What gives her hope is that there are also homes where the living room is stripped of furniture but young children are doing their homework on the floor while their single parents are out at work.

She believes there is no quick fix for broken families, and persistence is key.

Zuraidah reveals that when Mendaki and various community groups came up with a system to identify troubled families and provide them with comprehensive help two years ago, she thought the families could get back on their feet within three years.

After all, volunteer befrienders would visit them to offer support, and alert family service centres should issues arise.

But social workers told her the deep- seated nature of the problems facing such families meant it would take at least four to seven years before they could get back on their feet.

“I’ve come to realise that you cannot deal with one family the same way you deal with another,” she says.

Mendaki alone cannot do everything, she stresses. “We must work with others, and we do better by working with others. This is where we leverage on national resources, work with other agencies to get families all the help they need.”

It will take time, she says. But what if the family refuses to be helped?

Then it is high time that others step in and intervene, she replies matter-of-factly.

She relates how a school principal rang her in desperation last year as she was at her wits’ end over a student who failed to turn up for classes.

For a whole month, the boy’s teacher had been going to his flat to accompany him to school. On the 31st day, he assumed the boy would know what to do. But he did not show up for class.

The teacher turned up at his door at 9.30am, and the boy’s parents were watching TV with him. They told the teacher he did not want to go to school, and they could not do anything about it.

“The teacher was disappointed, the principal threw in the towel. I said: You have already done a lot, let us try to help the family,” recalls Zuraidah.

She got two Mendaki officers to visit the boy’s home right away. They gave the parents a shelling.

“The teacher was not Malay, but because we were a self-help group, our staff lectured the parents and told them off for not doing their duty.

“The parents were bo chap (Hokkien for couldn’t care less),” she says.

Later the boy came up to the Mendaki staff and thanked them, saying he now realised his teacher just wanted him to succeed. The next day, he went to school.

That episode, Zuraidah says, shows that if parents refuse to be helped, the community has a duty to reach out to the child and empower him or her.

“If I am the neighbour or the relative, I should be the one hectoring the parents. Can we have more of that kind of pressure or persuasion?” she asks.

She also feels that the community needs to provide mentors for such children “because most of the time, the kids cannot rely on their parents”.

“They need a role model,” she says. She points to a five-year-old community programme, Youth-in-Action, in which volunteers organise activities for teenagers who are in danger of quitting school and mentor them to stay on and excel.

While many see them as youth at risk, Zuraidah prefers to call them youth on the brink of success, a term some agencies in the United States adopt.

The term makes a world of difference to the confidence of youth, she says, as they feel they are part of the community and want to make a contribution.

Mendaki is training volunteers to help youths by nurturing their strengths.

It has also started an empowerment programme to build the confidence of secondary Normal stream students by getting them to interact and even shadow Malay-Muslim women professionals.

Citing the growing pool of young professionals in the community as a plus, Zuraidah says Mendaki has invited some 80 of them from various fields to brainstorm ways to improve students’ grades and tackle the problem of dysfunctional families.

The price of inaction could not seem less stark as the police officer in her takes over: “If you don’t help them, they get in trouble with the law down the road.”