Thursday, August 21, 2008

Letter to the editor: UiTM issue

Sharing an article by Oon Yeoh


This is my letter to the editor about the UiTM issue published in
Malaysiakini on Aug 19, 2008

Why do we go to university?
By Oon Yeoh

University life seems like an eternity ago and I barely remember any
of my professors or the subjects they taught me. There was, however,
one memorable lesson given by a guest lecturer whose name I cannot
recall but whose message still resonates with me until today.

In light of the controversy that followed Selangor MB Khalid Ibrahim's
suggestion that UiTM open itself to some non-Malays, I would like to
share what I learned from that guest lecturer who was invited to give
a talk in the sports journalism class I was taking.

He was a baseball expert but when he took to the podium, he told us
that he was not going to talk about America's favourite pastime.

Instead, he had a question for all of us: "Why are you all in college?"

That seemed like an easy enough question to answer. Several students
quickly put up their hands.

"So we can get a good job one day and make lots of money!" said one
student, to loud laughter.

The lecturer smiled and said, "Come on, we all know that there are
many people who never went to college and are rich beyond

"To get an education," said another student.

"You don't necessarily have to go to college to do that," the lecturer
said. "Many people get their education through the school of hard

Another student said, "To get a degree. You can't get that unless you
go to university."

To that, the lecturer replied, "That's not true. You can take
correspondence courses."

At that point, everybody seemed stumped so the lecturer finally said,
"The main reason you go to college is to learn to socialise" and he
proceeded to elaborate.

When you graduate and enter the work force, you will be surrounded by
generally like-minded people with roughly the same educational
background and social status.

If you are in banking, the people around you would have probably
studied finance. If you are in the medical field, the people you
mingle with will be fellow doctors and nurses. And if you are in
architecture, your network of friends and associates will inevitably
be those in the building and construction industry.

Unless you happen to have a very unique job that requires you to
mingle with a broad range of people, the harsh reality is that your
world will be constrained by your career choices.

College is the only time in your life when you are exposed to all
kinds of people from all walks of life and from very different
backgrounds – unless of course you go to UiTM.

While preparing to do a podcast on the controversy surrounding
Khalid's comments, my podcasting partner, Ong Kian Ming, said
something remarkably similar to what the guest lecturer had said. "The
whole idea of a university is for different people to get together and

He's spot on, just as the guest lecturer was. If you don't learn how
to deal with a myriad of people and expose yourself to different
worldviews when you are in the spring time of your life – when you are
young and carefree – how will you ever be able to do so when you enter
the "real world" and have to cope with the challenges and insecurities
of carving out a career and struggling to make ends meet every month?

As mentioned earlier, your world will naturally be constrained by the
career track that you choose. But if you've had exposure to diversity
early on, you would have a better chance of broadening your network
beyond what would normally be the case – because you learned how to do
so when you were young.

I was very lucky to have attended a cosmopolitan American university
which had students from all over the US and indeed, the world. I had
classmates from every continent. Some were rich, some poor; some were
from developed countries, some from the third world. But in college,
all of us were equals - we attended class together, we did assignments
together, we played together.

Not to denigrate the value of academic lessons – they are important,
of course – but my experiences in dealing with and socialising with
classmates who were very different from me played a bigger role in my
personal growth and development than any specific subjects I learned.

Granted, there are no universities in Malaysia that can offer the
diversity you could find in popular American universities, which make
it a point to take in students from all over the world.

But Malaysia does have a pretty diverse population. Even without the
benefit of foreign students, there's a lot that our young people can
learn from schoolmates of different ethnicity, religions and
backgrounds. What a shame if we don't give them a chance to do that.

In our most recent podcast article, Kian Ming and I asked: "Can UiTM
really aspire to be a world-class university if all the students there
are of one particular race?" The people who are protesting Khalid's
suggestion would do well to ponder upon this rhetorical question.

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