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24 Apr 2000

Cnet Asia – Every school needs a champion


Published in CNET Asia, Apr 24, 2000
by Anita Devasahayam
Every school needs a champion
Date: Friday, November 24 @ 20:45:19 MYT
Topic: Smart Schools

Three weeks ago, three friends from Sun Microsystems and I visited Malaysia’s most happening school–SMJK Dindings. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere amid an oil palm estate and a fishing village, SMJK Dindings is probably the most wired public school in the country today.

The story behind this is worthwhile recounting.

School principal Tiong Ting Ming spent his first seven years there raising RM500,000 for a new school block complete with underground trunking. He lobbied and secured sponsorship in kind from U.S. power company Thomas & Betts, networking giant 3Com Corp and local conglomerate Sapura Holdings. He recruited his former students, who ran MyDirectory Sdn Bhd, to help out with troubleshooting and maintenance. Many more good souls, touched by Tiong’s quest and impressed by his perseverance, sent money. Even his 15-year-old son, a student there, was roped in to be systems administrator.

For the next two years, Tiong and his students kept plugging on, single-handedly refurbishing computers for a local area network, porting over applications, and setting up servers for specific functions.

News of this cyber school soon spread within its vicinity, and before long the student population had grown from 320 to 800-plus. Today, SMJK’s population of teenagers are more comfortable reading Linux, Macromedia Flash, Ethernet Gigabyte and other computer-related manuals than fiction. Most of the students harbor dreams of running their own IT startups or joining the industry as COOs, system engineers, technicians, analysts and Web designers.

And all because one man dared to dream.

A one-man crusade

The first time I visited the school in July 1998, I was skeptical about Tiong’s ability to pull off this grand vision. As a seasoned journalist, I had seen enough failure in school computer laboratories and met even more headmasters too caught up with administrative matters to push the technology envelope.

Cost was another prohibitive factor. The majority of 8,000-plus schools in Malaysia survive on a stipend from the Government. Year in year out, these schools concentrate their efforts on raising funds either to build a new school wing, buy furniture, pay the electricity bills, or on repainting. Ironically, these schools are located not in the boondocks, as one would think, but within city centers.

Tiong, like his town counterparts, faced similar problems. Raising funds for a new building was a nightmare. It took him five years to find the money for a new three-storey block before he could consider equipping the school with second-hand computers and getting them networked. After all, obsolete machines have little value unless they are linked to a powerful server.

His bait to hook the students’ interest in technology was to provide them unfettered access to the school computers and the Internet. He gave each an email address and Web space to design their personal homepages. Naturally, he does not condone roaming into restricted parts of the Net and has a proxy server tracking the movements of students online.

Having incorporated IT as part of classroom learning, the students are now clamoring for more hours on the PC.

Tiong’s peers have traveled across the country to see for themselves SMJK’s remarkable achievements. What these school principals fail to consider is that Tiong started out from ground zero. Like his students, he had to learn everything on the go. But his single-minded pursuit to create a tech culture in his school and his belief that equipping students with the practical IT skills that have provided the conduit for the project’s success.

Leap of faith

Last year, Tiong had an opportunity to deliver a presentation to a group of Singaporean school teachers. The majority of Singapore schools, unlike Malaysian ones, are wired. The Singapore Government is perhaps more diligent than its Asian counterparts in ensuring that all schools are properly equipped with computers and the right infrastructure to ensure they are groomed for the knowledge-based economy.

Singapore students are also more fortunate in that each school has a dedicated staff in charge of IT development. This person sees to the needs of the students in harnessing IT and ensures that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support this exercise. The Government’s aim is to create thinking schools in order to breed a learning nation. A new syllabus has been developed that comprises three new skills–entrepreneurship, thought and creativity.

So when Tiong stood up at the podium, the last in the series of speakers that evening, the audience were prepared to leave. How could a single principal from some backyard school impart what the Singapore teachers already knew or had in their schools?

Unfazed, Tiong pulled out his Powerbook and loaded a CD-ROM created by a group of his students. Its contents showcased the early beginnings of SMJK Dindings and the achievements in the last seven years. In his not-so-fluent English, Tiong won the audience over with his sincerity and dogged belief that it only takes one person to make the difference.

My friends at Sun were also equally impressed after touring the school premises, and like their 3Com counterparts who had signed the school under the company’s Netprep program, the Sun respresentatives expressed an equal desire to contribute to the school.

What they didn’t realize was that 3Com hadn’t found Tiong. Tiong had found them.

As this visionary says of his continuing quest to bring his students into the future: “I teach the students to plant paddy, not merely to eat from their rice bowl.”

Published in CNET Asia, Apr 24, 2000
by Anita Devasahayam

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