Of SPM Results and Our Degree of Self-Worth

The trouble with rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. (Lily Tomlin)

Let’s go back to roughly the same date as today, five years ago. I, who already started my IB studies at Sri KDU in January that year went back to Bintulu to check my SPM result. I walked my way to SMK Kidurong and went straight to catch a peek at the announcement board, where the results were displayed. A few seconds later I couldn’t feel better. Needless to say I did well, very well, indeed. I felt a sense of pride, bordering on that kind of ‘schmaltzy’, emotional pride.

Let’s face it; performing well in an examination is a good boost to one’s view of self-worth. Especially when you live in a society that gauges their perception on you by looking at things that are tangible- it’s all in the way you dress, the car you drive, the manner you speak, and of course, the number of A1s (or as for now, A+) that you’ve bagged. Hence the obsession with getting the best results that you can in all examinations; underperform you may but be ready to have the society view you as a person of less worth, a person of little potential and less-bright future prospect. Ask any parents in Malaysia and you will see that one of the most ubiquitous types of conversations that they have when bumping into each other actually revolves around how their children fare in the examinations. Children who scored straight As in UPSR are the hallmark of good upbringing. Children who do badly in the examinations are perceived to have been less well-bred, a manifestation that something has gone really wrong with the way their parents have raised them. Parents do get a lot of flak, whether they like it or not. Being fully aware of this, they spend a fortune putting their kids through a lot of tuition classes (they’re normally very effective, I have to say) on top of the additional classes that the schools, which are also very competitive, provide.

Call this a competitive society you may. In fact, there’s even a unique term that we, and our neighbor down south have invented to describe the special drive we all have to win: ‘kiasu’. Try to look anywhere in the dictionary, and it’s difficult to find another word that perfectly encapsulates the very meaning of ‘kiasu’. ‘Kiasu’, like the widely-used term ‘Amok’ are two of the contributions that Malaysians have presented to English.

While it’s easy to decry the Malaysian society for being competitive, often unhealthily so, it is very unfair to blame us for being so. A society too content with mediocrity is not what we need. After all, the country wouldn’t have progressed as much as it has, economically, had the people been less competitive and totally content to be in their comfort zone. As much as many Malaysians think of the current government as incompetent and, to an extent, corrupt, it is important to know that Malaysia actually showed one of the best economic track records in the world since its inception. Our 7% growth through the 70s, 80s and 90s was an envy of the developing world. We did better than all but South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Botswana. We did well. Notice the inclusion of Singapore there? The Asian culture of being competitive, peppered with a degree of kiasuness must have been partly responsible of this good feat, I believe.

Yes, folks. People who have a passion in ‘winning’, people who work extra hard, have a higher propensity of winning in the long run. This is beyond repudiation- this is fact.

However, what I don’t particularly fancy is this: Yes, exams are bloody important, but why do we have to totally rule students who underperform out? Why must we think that some students have a potential as limited as their 7D in Biology suggests? To be completely honest, I believe that SPM is a good measure of one’s level of academic understanding, but it doesn’t at all cover one’s ability to think of unconventional ideas or gain knowledge independently. People who don’t have a knack in remembering the different types of blood veins are not necessarily dumb. They might not be very proficient with the arts using mnemonic devices to remember stuff, for example, but who knows if they can actually paint better than any of us? I bet that Salman Rushdie, a literary genius, doesn’t know how the human body actually works as well as an average doctor of our neighborhood does. Needless to say that the former earns millions annually, much more than the doctor does in his lifetime, perhaps.

That’s why the distinction of science side = smartie pants, and arts side = dumbzania is not only wrong, it is damaging. Imagine the low level of confidence some students suffer from their perceived academic underachievement and the Ds dotting their transcripts. This will indelibly affect them for a long time to come.
Having ranted pretty extensively on the matter, I still think it apt to congratulate all good achievers who found joy in their results. Your joy is not unconfounded, believe me, and as far as your own well-being goes, scoring straight As in SPM is great. It opens the doors to many possibilities – you can apply for a good scholarship and study at a good university (make sure you put Melbourne University, that awesome uni with quirky buildings like The Spot and ancient elevators that make you think that you’re in ‘Grease’, as your first choice) and a little boost of ego is never a bad thing. While many people in their twenties often say that SPM doesn’t matter much and you shouldn’t be too happy for the many A+s you bagged, let’s remember that they, my generation, actually valued SPM highly too when we were your age. They should definitely cut you all some slack- nobody should tell you not to rejoice to see that the many hours you spent at the learning center and the efforts that you, your parents and your teachers made actually paid off. Congratulations, and welcome to the real world, how cruel or how exciting it turns out to be depends on the way you live your life. One thing for sure: Uni life is FUN. Really.

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