School in Malaysia: Brainless, toxic marching as a mandatory extracurricular activity

Recently, I was woken up by my own voice in cold sweat at 5am. I was late for an extracurricular activity, specifically “(boy) scouts” and was ranting to my family as they drove me to school on how I was going to get punished for being late, guaranteed. Part of that rant spilled out of my dream and out of my mouth in real life; which woke me up. At age 30, I still get nightmares about school life in Malaysia at least once a year, and I’m here to tell you about one: the power-trippers and marching obsession (yes, the same kind you see in national day parades and such) in Malaysian schools.

The thing I didn’t like, and still don’t, about the education system in Malaysia is how they teach you to obey – after growing up and living in a few places internationally, I’ve come to find most people have the same to say about their own country. We’ll go in depth on that theme and more another time. It’s not just about teachers (since in my experience going to school in Malaysia, they slack off half the time): a pecking order manifests and you get to see power-tripping personalities and activities in students who want other people to “obey”.

Extracurricular activities in Malaysian schools

Many (all?) public schools in Malaysia mandate all students to participate in 3 categories of extracurricular activities from ages 10 to when they finish secondary school at 17 – one of them being a “uniformed club activity” (the standard being boy scouts, girl scouts, red crescent society (red cross)… and a few others, depending on school). Throughout my schooling life in Malaysia, I was part of the “boy scouts” activity (known as scouts, from here on). This was somewhat because I had committed to purchasing the uniform in primary school, and mostly because each uniformed club has its associated (racial) demographic and the choices available are mostly an illusion.

While the brochure may tell you that extracurricular activities are necessary to enhance the skills of students beyond just books and academics and give them a broad range of experience, even 12-year-old me saw the truth behind this veil of bullshit.

  • It’s merely a bureaucratic fulfillment by teachers and schools, and a way to keep students and teachers alike busy.
  • According to school rules and the announcement, attendance is mandatory. In reality, many teachers simply couldn’t give a shit because these activities are held between 1pm to 6pm, and they wanted to get off work at 1pm!
  • As these would involve the entire school, that meant the average extracurricular activity has way more students than the average classroom size of 30-40. And they’re running about the school. Most teachers would just sit in one spot for the entire duration, waiting to sign individual attendance cards. Many don’t care if one kid brings a few cards to sign (“my friends are on the other side of school where there’s space for badminton!”) or brings them the next day during normal school hours (“forgot to bring my card yesterday’ or “couldn’t find you at the last minute”).
  • It’s box-ticking busywork with a side of enabling control freaks to express their tendencies. Somehow there’s a positive correlation between control freaks and the teachers who are strict with attendance for the “uniformed club” category.

Marching obsession in Malaysian schools

This sets the stage for what I’m about to tell you. Scouts were hell for me and mostly about marching, which young me already felt was a ridiculous waste of time. It wasn’t so bad in primary school, but as soon as I was in secondary school, people were going about the need to “become more disciplined as a young adult” (REEEEE!) and scouts pretty much became a full-time marching activity.

In fact, I can hardly remember any time in my entire schooling life where there WASN’T any marching to be had during scouts. Disclaimer: I didn’t go for any camping sessions, which were outside of the mandated 2 hours, once a week session and hence optional (thankfully), so I’m unable to verify if and how much marching was had during those times.

  • Typically, the teacher supervising the activity will sit in the shade some distance away or disappear for some time (to secretly have a wank or smoke in their office – not kidding or joking). They’ll leave the students, having self-organized, at the command of a student leader (usually a more senior student in Form 4 or 5) and his crony friends (varying ages Form 1 thru 5).
  • Marching is seen as a way to build a disciplined mindset and train students to become fit. I thought back then and still do now that it’s really a way for power-tripping students to get a kick and inflate their ego – there are many indicators of this being the case.
  • To build discipline, marching is done under the morning (Saturday) or afternoon (weekday) sun. Yup, there were years they did uniformed club on Saturday mornings and it was obnoxious. Keep in mind that Malaysia’s weather is mostly sunny, over 30 Celcius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) and extremely humid year-round. Marching could continue or pause under the rain (depending on the leader’s mood), and would only be called off completely with a thunderstorm.
  • Marching is basically the leader (or one of his cronies) barking orders and expecting everyone to obey them, all at the same time. “Move forwards, turn left, turn right, ‘stand ready’ position, look left, look right!” All a bunch of crap to me, both then and now.
  • Any non-compliance or noticeably delayed reaction by an individual (very often, me) will result in the leader yelling at the person with a bunch of profanities and “I’m oh so macho and the alpha male, and you will do as I say” themed statements. Usually this is supplemented with a command for them to drop and do a bunch of pushups as punishment (if not, something more stupid like running across the field and back multiple times).
  • Any non-synchronous movement of the marching group usually causes the leader to command everyone to ‘rewind’ back a few steps and repeat the actions of his previous commands.

Strangely, there are a bunch of students who enjoy all of this (these folks usually get “promoted” to join the leadership team of cronies after some time), and also quite a number of parents who would agree (!) that it bUiLdS dIsCiPLiNe.

This isn’t only limited to scouts – other uniformed associations in school also include a significant amount of brainless marching as part of their weekly activity (under the guise of “preparing for the annual school sports day parade” where there’s an entire segment dedicated to various extracurricular associations and sports houses showing off their epic marching skills!)

What marching is to me is a massive crock of shit that’s a waste of time, led by a bunch of egoistic, extremely toxic people (makes me wonder if they got touched by an uncle when they were younger). Make no mistake, there’s only one lesson to be learned here (and that’s the lesson they intend to teach you) – that is to always obey the commands of your superior.

My Singaporean girlfriend, whom I recently met, had me watch a bunch of Singaporean movies with her – many of which seem to be centered around the theme of National Service in Singapore. I didn’t have the heart to tell her, but that triggered me and my PTSD because the countless “marching and discipline” scenes in them are precisely what “uniformed clubs” in extracurricular activities of Malaysian schools try to emulate.

In fact, Malaysia also attempted to introduce its own national service program for some time in the past decade so those oh-so-macho alpha males can continue getting their egos stoked for another year upon completing secondary school (high school).

Closing words

This is part of what going to public school was and, from how my younger siblings describe it, continues to be in Malaysia. What’s more disappointing than the toxic marching culture is the fact that people who are obviously negatively affected by that and more never come out with their complaints and how much it sucks. The ones singing praises about their positive experiences are a very vocal minority.

If there was a way to sue people for harassment and bullying as a minor, I would have done so under the age of 10. Even today, some 15 years after leaving high school, I still suffer occasionally from the mental trauma that was inflicted on me by the students, teachers and general Malaysian public schooling system.

Side note on coronavirus from the days of SARS

On a somewhat related side note, that’s relevant to the recent news about the novel coronavirus COVID-19, I was in secondary school in Malaysia during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 and the number of times I was called “gay” and “sissy” by bullies in the school (particularly the ones also in scouts) for using hand sanitizer frequently was shockingly high. Yup, I’m very sure the mentality has stayed with both those people and the new generation of school kids today with COVID-19. A big middle finger goes out to those people.

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