I think I may just have set a world record – even for myself. Though I am currently cruising at 500 mph from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, having just officiated the groundbreaking of a new building for Beaconhouse-Newlands Kuala Lumpur (http://goo.gl/I9BKEb), I may as well have written my blog 8 months ago (last entry) and put it on a donkey tasked to circumnavigate the globe before personally delivering it to the editing team of TBT. Indeed, as Mr Bilawal Bhutto Zardari recently declared, if the UK can have the Royal Ascot and the Arabs can have their camel races, why can’t Pakistan launch the Donkey Derby – as part of the proposed Sindh Festival? Perhaps I will request young Bilawal to follow up on this gem so that my future blogs may reach TBT a little sooner. (For those who are confused by all this talk of Bilawal and donkeys: this was an elaborate apology to all TBT readers who have had to suffer the ‘CE’s Blog’ advertisement for the greater part of 2013.)
In other news: each time I visit Malaysia – which too I may hold some kind of secret record for – I cannot help but marvel at the progress that the country has made since it gained independence in August 1957 – exactly ten years after Pakistan. We have all heard stories of the eager government delegation from Malaysia that visited Pakistan in the 1960s to learn how Pakistan, then a fledgling country, had made so much progress since its inception. Older Pakistanis recall that Malay nobility and would-be kings, lacking solid schooling opportunities in their own country, used to study at boarding schools in Pakistan in the ‘60s and ‘70s. (I have heard more than once from a certain uncle how he shared a classroom with a future Malay king at Aitchison College – though this is sadly not such a huge claim to fame since nine of Malaysia’s thirteen states have sultans – and they get 5-year stints at being king.) So then what happened? Why is it that today, Malaysia is one of Asia’s most sought-after destinations (‘Malaysia, Truly Asia!’) while Pakistan struggles to pay its foreign debt and is home to the TTP? Why is Malaysian currency sitting pretty at 3.25 ringgits to a dollar while the PKR is falling down a spiral faster than finance minister Ishaq Dar can issue idiotic new promises? Why does Malaysia share the top spot (with Dubai) for Pakistanis wishing to invest abroad or live abroad? (Let’s not even talk of Dubai which, at the time of Pakistan’s independence in 1947, was an obscure fishing village…)
The answer to all the ‘whys’ above is somewhat complex (though in some ways may be summed up by one word – leadership), but here is a small message of hope: how is it that a Pakistan-origin school network like Beaconhouse has made so much progress in Malaysia with 12 successful schools and preschools educating over 3,000 Malaysians? There is but one simple answer: the private education sector in Pakistan is more vibrant than it is in Malaysia, even today. It is more competitive, more progressive, more student-centered and better aligned with emerging international practice in K-12 education. Admittedly, this buoyancy is partially explained by the vacuum created by the failure of state sector schools in Pakistan, but to attribute it entirely to this phenomenon would be unfair because many other developing countries also have mediocre or poor state schools but few can boast the kind of private sector engagement in education that we see in Pakistan. Case in point: the largest independent school network in Bangladesh, a country of comparable population and demographics, boasts about 6,000 students. Beaconhouse and its associate schools alone educate over a quarter of a million young people.
But what are we doing in Pakistan to celebrate this success? Successive governments, having failed to improve the ‘state of state schools’ (despite some interesting claims from the Punjab government and their foreign consultants), have now decided to target independent schools. Certain sections of media and ‘civil society’ are not far behind. A popular talk show host (best known for his inflammatory shows) has recently vowed to do a series of shows “exposing” independent schools – including the one where his child studies (which makes one wonder why he doesn’t withdraw his child from that school if he is so disenchanted with it….but then this is the million-dollar question that defines these love-hate relationships between independent schools and their patrons who, despite their many grievances, will happily entrust their most precious asset – their children – to such schools).
So how did we get from the globetrotting donkey to here?
My point is that despite Malaysia’s many successes, there may be something that Pakistan is slightly better at. Most expatriate Pakistani doctors, bankers and entrepreneurs, for instance, have benefited from private education in this country – whether from the missionary schools established by our former colonial masters or the many independent/private schools set up after partition or post-1978. Indeed, most of our politicians have attended independent schools – from the top leadership of the PPP to the PML(N) to the PTI (does Aitchison College ring a bell? Did it not afford a certain Captain the opportunities that led him to attend Oxford or famously win the World Cup?)
So, as we approach the end of 2013, my one hope is that people may start to understand (if not fully appreciate) the many contributions of the independent education sector in Pakistan. Yes, we charge money because good teachers are not cheap – nor do they offer their services free of cost; equally oddly, nobody seems willing to offer accommodation, electricity, and other essentials to independent schools at zero cost.
Anyway, here’s to a great 2014 – in Malaysia, Pakistan, and elsewhere – and may the Pakistan People’s Party’s Donkey Derby live up to our full expectations! Perhaps this will compel the PML(N) to launch their own Gadha Games?