Wednesday, July 3, 2019

University Teacher


This post is dedicated to my graduating students. Congratulations!




I never seriously wanted to be a teacher. Never. I know myself. I am too impatient for the job requirement. When I used to tutor my high school friends, I would get easily frustrated when, for example, they couldn’t understand calculations for trigonometry or calculus just because Add Math came naturally to me. If I could understand it, why couldn’t they? I was hot-headed. My friends used to joke that they wanted to put my picture on their table during exam because they feared my angry face.

In college, I had friends who actually wanted to be lecturers. They talked about their dream to sit in front of a class full of students to share their wisdom and philosophy. I would just listen to those dreams. That was not my dream.

My dream? I wanted to work in the field. During my scholarship interview with JPA, I said that I wanted to be a political analyst, not really understanding what it means. I just wanted to work whether it be in a political party, or an NGO, or a think-tank, or perhaps as a special officer. But I never seriously thought of pursuing a master’s degree, much less a doctorate. I remember being an undergraduate and thinking I have spent ALL my life being studious, I REFUSED to continue my study. I thought I was sick of studying.

But then, life gets in the way and God has his plan for me. Just for the heck of it, like most of my current students, I applied to a few universities to do my master’s degree. I got accepted to all three of my dream universities: Columbia in New York, Georgetown in DC (with a personal email by the professor congratulating me on my acceptance), and the LSE in London. As someone who is quasi-superstitious, I felt God was giving me a huge nudge to do it. So, instead of applying for jobs, I spent my final semester and the following summer break applying for a scholarship. 

But the old Syaza returned following my graduation from the LSE. I WANTED TO WORK. No PhD! Even though by then I had two personal invitations by faculty members at IIUM and UM to do my PhD and become a lecturer, I said, “nope, nuh-uh”. Enough studying. Time to work. So, I did. For a year I tried working and it turns out…I HATE working as an executive. Sitting behind a desk with a manager breathing down my neck was NOT for me.

Leaving behind a steady paycheck, I went back to IIUM, accepted their offer to fund my doctorate and the rest is history.

So, now, how do I feel about teaching? I. Love. It.

I thought I would hate teaching. I used to tell myself that when I joined IIUM I would dedicate myself to research, and teaching would be secondary. Thus, I surprised myself very much when I accepted a part-time teaching position at a private college knowing that teaching would take me away from doing research. But guess what? I’ve loved every minute of it.

Why do I love teaching? Because it gave me hope. When I talk to my students, I realize that there is a glimmer of hope for Malaysia. Our youth are not as hopeless as the media makes them out to be. They just need guidance and some support. When I allow them to talk freely, a discourse materializes in class on issues that are close to my heart, namely the role of religion in politics. Coming from the US and the UK, I was pessimistic on how serious Malaysian students are to understand the separation between the private and public spheres. To my surprise, they understand. Not all of them agree with me, which is fine, but at least they are willing to listen and discuss. That gives me joy. And that is all the motivation I need to continue teaching.

So, the moral of my story is, you never know where life is going to lead you. I know it is scary graduating with a political science degree; it’s not medicine or engineering, so what should you do for a living? I’ll tell you; the sky is the limit. Seriously. Because with a political science degree, you don’t have to be boxed into a specific profession. I’ll just end with what I always say to my first- and second-year students: it does not matter what is your major as long as you do your BEST at it, because if you are good, people will come knocking at YOUR door.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Use Us

Since I am still officially on maternity leave, I have somewhat been isolated from the outside world for the last two and a half months. But a few days ago, I started my routine again of listening to news on the radio and I heard—for the thousandth time--a news item, which should no longer be newsworthy by now, about how our local graduates are not equipped with the right skills to face the challenges of working today. Probably yes, probably no; but as a college professor, I can only speak of what I know.

And this is what I know.

Yes, besides the science and technical fields such as medicine and engineering, we college professors do not really teach specific ‘skills’. But like I’ve rambled in front of my students before, do not underestimate the knowledge and other life skills gained in class regardless of a student's major, whether it be political science or Quran and Sunnah.

The most important skill one learns in university, in my opinion, is the ability to write convincingly. Most people I know does not appreciate the importance of a good writing skill. Writing is not about language proficiency. Instead, writing is related to our thought processes. I always tell my students not to write long winding sentences. It only shows that a person's mind lacks focus. But if someone can write coherent sentences that result in a coherent paper, it shows that the mind is trained in such a way to think analytically and in a structured manner. If a paper lacks coherence in terms of argument, points made, and conclusion, it shows that a person has not really thought an issue through. If a student has not even ‘thought’ about something, how can he or she be expected to ‘explain’ it well.

Analytical skill has always been touted as what’s missing among our graduates. I say, instead of sending them to do two years internship for them to get lost in the machinery, that time is better spent sharpening their ability to analytically think through a problem and to provide the necessary solution in writing form. A person does not need much to be able to do that besides the skill of thinking. And trust me, even in Industry 4.0, that skill will never be outdated.

Skill numero dos: speaking. Again, the same complaint we hear every year. Our graduates can’t speak to save their lives. Similar to writing, when we talk about ‘speaking’, we don’t mean language proficiency. Although being proficient in English would be helpful as it boosts one’s clarity in speaking, more importantly, the ability to speak in front of an audience is related to the confidence that one gains to speak one’s mind. Where do we learn this? During class discussion. During class presentation. If students cannot even speak up in class, what makes them think they would be able to speak up in a meeting in the real world? To convince their bosses to give their proposal a chance? Brush up on that skill at university first; no where else will one get the opportunity to focus on learning to stand one's ground, to argue with facts, and to know when to concede defeat.

Which brings me to my next point. Communication skill is also about respecting another’s opinion. In other words, the skill of listening. It is in university that you learn no one has all the right answers, all the time. We college professors argue over the smallest to the biggest points. That is how we evolve as human beings. Where else would you be lumped with people from different walks of life, with nothing to do but to ponder and debate on important issues, if not in university?

Some of my students have also made mention that they would love to have technical-based courses included in their program. In my humble opinion, those courses they mentioned (software-based, mostly) can either be self-taught or requires a weekend or two to learn. But what you get in a traditional class setting is something that cannot be taught in one weekend. I guess there's a reason this method of passing on knowledge has been ongoing for centuries.

What other skills do they always mention as important? Working in a group. Done. In class, there will always be projects that need more than three people involved.

The point I am making is to stop chastising the university system. There is nothing wrong with putting people through four more years of formal tertiary education. It is never about the facts learned in class (which most of us would forget anyway after graduation), but the development of an important set of skills including patience, perseverance, and dedication. All other technical skills can be obtained later in life. But as young adults, they need to learn to speak their mind, to provide solutions to unique problems, and the ability to think as mature adults.

A university is a place to produce thinkers. It is not a factory line producing employees. Good employees are basically good people who can think on their feet. Let’s focus on producing good people first. The rest will fall into place.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Babe In Total Control of Herself

Ten years ago, as a student, when my good friend Zaim asked me if I was a feminist, my answer was a playful "no". I remember the conversation until today. I justified it by saying that men and women are different, period (pun intended). But after getting married and especially after becoming a mom--a working mom--I am now a STAUNCH feminist. I even feel like God trusts me with three daughters because I am the right person to make them strong and independent feminists.

My initial foray into feminism started when I first got interested in equal pay. Like most lay person, I did not believe that there is a pay gap between males and females. It doesn't make sense to a young professional because when we first started, of course, we were all paid the same. But what happened after a certain period? So, I did little research on the subject and found that there is a real pay gap between males and females across the world, across professions, and across positions. Women are paid less in general because most women work in low-paying jobs, and women are also paid less compared to men with the same job title. Why? Apparently because males are more valuable to a company. Why? Because someone has to be home for the children. Even if a couple doesn't have children, someone has to clean and cook, and guess who has to carry that burden?

Don't read this as a scathing write-up against my husband or men in general. I have massive love and respect for my husband, father and brother. But society...man, society... When are we going to move away from patriarchal thinking. Society rewards men who stay at work until midnight, but society expects women to go home at 5 for the kids. While her male colleagues are brushing up on their work, the females are at home brushing the kids' teeth. Some may say that is how it has always been. Men bring in the dough, women are the caregivers. But my God how many times have I heard male speakers try to drill in our heads that we need two incomes to live comfortably. Women have to help their husbands financially as a sign of love. Don't husbands have to show love to their wives? Don't children deserve two parents to grow up well?

So, what's the solution? I don't believe anything will change until society decides to change. Stop punishing men (financially) who choose to go home early to be with his family. Stop expecting women to drop everything to be home when the kids are unwell. I have seen it around me. Female colleagues taking days off because the kids are unwell, the kids have to go to science camp, the kids have to... Almost every time I wanted to scream "Where's the dad?!" Working mothers have ambitions too, but she still has clothes to dry, dishes to wash, etc. Many times I've heard bosses/managers told their female subordinates that they can't do a job because they have to be home early. In my head I am sarcastically asking "And the men don't have to be home, why? Aren't the kids his as well? Isn't the home his too?"

I love it when I read stories of people like Mark Zuckerberg who took months-long paternity leave. This would allow for a more level playing field. I am not blaming 'men'; I am blaming society. How are men expected to take long paternity leave if his employer only allows 3-7 days leave? Some women take as long as 6 months to 1 year off to care for her baby because it is difficult to find trusted help. And when she starts working again, she would be behind her other colleagues. And that's only the beginning of how gender pay gap happens.

I am not just expressing my dissatisfaction here. I am currently involved in a research that is studying inequality at the workplace. It happens. But most of us are too used to it that we don't even see it happening in front of us. We women have been too kind for so long, accepting whatever is offered as if our service is worthless because it worths less. May I remind these women that they make up a majority of students in universities; they make up the majority of honor graduates. Demand your right. Believe me, the world suffers without strong women, not just to be behind strong men, but to be the leaders that we are. Remember the famous quote: "You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation."

Don't let a man call us a bitch because we like to adhere to a dateline. Don't let a man call us a bitch because we are organized. Don't let a man call us a bitch because we demand a pay rise. They have done all these the entire history of humanity. When women do the same, they are called names to a point that men fail to recognize the bitch they're calling are mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. I believe most men have one of the above.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Unity in Diversity

The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has been in the news for the typical reason of possible national unity disintegration if it were to be recognized. While it is understood that the matter is complex and can’t be discussed in a short opinion piece, there are two main issues I would like to put the spotlight on.

The first issue brought up by Malay nationalists is the need to uphold or memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu. I do agree that as Malaysians, we need to at least have a basic grasp of Bahasa Melayu. But who are we kidding when we equate Bahasa Melayu with national unity? Sure, when we go to the mamak restaurant, workshop, or night market, we can hear Bahasa Melayu is the choice of language being spoken by the different races. But among (middle-class) neighbors, colleagues, or friends, I often hear English as the chosen language. Does it erode the affability among us? I don't think so.

As I have previously argued[1], language is not the make or break of national unity. We recognize Bahasa Melayu as the official language of the country, but it doesn’t mean we have to speak Bahasa Melayu in our daily life and it does not make us any less Malaysian if we choose English or any other language as our lingua franca. In fact, as a democrat, I am truly against the idea of imposing anything on anyone. When we force people to inherit an identity-marker that they are not comfortable with, it would lead to further frustration and dissent. To me, the feeling of being unwelcomed and unwanted for your choice of language is what would lead to national disunity. On the other hand, when people feel safe and secure to be who they really are without being discriminated against, there is a higher likelihood that they would carry the national flag with pride wherever they go.

The second argument is the need to learn our history. As a history aficionado, I will always support the importance of teaching and learning history. But as any other subject taught under our national school system, it is not the name of the subject that matters, but the learning outcome. What do our kids learn from their history class? I can safely say they learned nothing. It has even become cool to say that history is boring (which makes me a bore as well, perhaps). While I use to feel sad that my peers are so uninterested in the history of their own country, I now hold less grudge against them because, to be honest, our history class taught us nothing. It asks us to memorize some names and dates but avoided addressing the more important questions of “What do we learn from this?”, “How to avoid history repeating itself?”, and “Is there another interpretation of the same event?” These questions and the answers that follow will lead to further unity, not knowing the name of someone from a hundred years ago.

This brings me to my final argument, which is that as Malaysians, we need to move beyond superficiality as a nation. Being a Malaysian should go beyond speaking a certain language, going to a certain school system, or taking a certain exam. Call me an extreme liberal, but I truly believe it is time we speak of values when we speak of being Malaysian: tolerant, kindness, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, openness, etc. 

Identity is never fixed. The Malays today are not the same as the Malays from 500 years ago. We used to be divided along ethnic lines but now we call each other, simply, Malays. So why can’t the concept of a 'Malaysian' parallel this trajectory?



  • [1] Mohamad Shukri, S. F. (2017). The Role of Ethnic Politics in Promoting Democratic Governance: A Case Study of Malaysia. Intellectual Discourse 25(2), pp. 321-339

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gloves On #PulangMengundi


This is going to be a short and sweet post.

As many Malaysians are more than aware with, we will be going to the polls on 9th May 2018, on a Wednesday. While my first reaction was frustration, my next reaction was acceptance and understanding. Since the past three years, the incumbent government has done everything in its capacity—all legal, yes, but still questionable—to ensure they would have a high possibility of winning the next election. Starting with Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment in 2015, to the gerrymandering in the recent redelineation exercise, to the dissolution of PPBM by the Registrar of Society, and finally holding the general election in the middle of the week.

The academic in me has a simple and straightforward prediction: BN will win the next general election. The numbers, the trend, the tricks, all allow BN to win, even if without a landslide. Add in all the goodies that have been announced just in the last few weeks, and you got a winning formula.

But there is an activist in me (although I have never participated in activism) that believe there is a chance that this final move of theirs would backfire. Sure, the logic of having the general election in the middle of the week is to suppress voter turnout. But let’s think this through. The BN supporters, while most of them live where they are going to cast their votes, are the complacent voters. The supporters of the federal opposition, on the other hand, are the partisans and ideologues who are mighty serious in their conviction for a need to have a better government. They are the ones who would make the trek home, rain or shine, weekend or weekday, to cast their votes. Furthermore, the supporters of the federal opposition mostly belong to the middle and upper-middle classes; it means that they are not short of resources to make the arrangement to go back to their kampongs. So, while there is no doubt that voter turnout would be low than the expected 85%, I believe there is a chance that a majority of that 85% would be made up of the opposition supporters. Therefore, I wonder if the incumbent government thought this last strategy through.  

A month from now, let’s see if the academic in me or the activist in me has the final laugh.

You can put on your gloves, so shall we.