30 March 2010
THE NST 2010/02/21
His father was the headmaster of an estate school and Datuk S. K. Devamany began his career as a teacher in a similar school. The deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department tells SANTHA OORJITHAM that Tamil schools have come a long way since then I WAS born in 1957 in Yam Seng estate in Semanggol, near Taiping.
My father, S. Krishnasamy, was headmaster of the Tamil primary school there but later moved to Kamunting, where he became an ordinary teacher, so that we could go to King Edward VII school in Taiping.
My father was a very hardworking man. After school, we helped him to plant vegetables and we caught fish in the mining ponds.
We had prayers at 7pm followed by homework and revision. We had no TV until I was in Form Five because we couldn't afford it. When there was something special on TV, we would watch at a neighbour's home. And once a month, the nearby temple would screen "MGR" movies as part of its regular festivals.
After completing the Malaysian Certificate of Education (now known as Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) examination in 1975, I knew we couldn't afford fees for me to continue my studies. My older brother entered a technical school and my sister took up a tailoring course.
Twenty days later, my father took me to the organiser of the Tamil schools and got me a job as a temporary teacher at SRJK(T) Ladang Air Tawar near Sitiawan. The salary was very low -- RM180.
I had to send money home and lived on a tight budget. I shared a room with the 28-year-old headmaster, K. Periannan. I had bread and coffee for breakfast and at night, but I had a good lunch.
On my first day on the job, I had to walk the five kilometres of gravel road to the estate school. After that, the headmaster let me ride pillion on his Honda. And later still, my father gave me an old motorcycle.
I taught Bahasa Malaysia, English and Sports at the three-room school which had 52 pupils. There was no toilet. Pupils had to either go into the nearby jungle or go home to use the toilet. There was no canteen but they could buy food from a sundry shop nearby.
The second year I was there, we built a toilet together. The Public Works Department graded the sandy area. We used black oil to mark out running tracks and held our first Sports Day.
After earning a Certificate in Education, majoring in physical education (PE) and health, from the Cheras Specialist Teachers' Training Institute in 1978, I was posted as a PE and English teacher to SM Felda Lasah near Sungai Siput, Perak.
The school had its own generator, but the teachers' quarters had no electricity. I studied for the Higher School Certificate (now known as Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia) using a kerosene lamp.
In 1982, I enrolled at Universiti Malaya, where I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (honours) in Malay literature.
Dr M. Thambirajah (now Datuk) was our history lecturer. He challenged 48 of us in Dewan Kuliah E to help Indian students prepare for the STPM. Very few were taking the exam. That was Sept 24, 1982.
Thambirajah, the president of the Tamil Language Society, Thaiveegan Arumugam (now Datuk), and the rest of us prepared study notes and in 1983, the Sri Murugan Centre was launched with four branches.
I taught Bahasa Malaysia there. Today, the centre has 98 programmes in 28 towns. I still give lectures there sometimes and help to motivate teachers.
Back in Perak, I was posted to SM Batu Kurau in 1985, and as senior assistant at SM Chemor in 1990.
My rural postings helped me to understand that the community needs help. In the 1970s, absenteeism was high. Attendance was a challenge. We had to go find the students and bring them in. Doing well in exams was not a priority, but just getting them to be there.
MIC's Social Strategic Foundation, which I chair, prints books for Tamil school pupils taking Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah and gives awards to the best pupils.
I became the member of parliament for Cameron Highlands in 2004 and was appointed deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department in 2008, with a portfolio that includes policies on Indian Malaysian community issues for the Economic Planning Unit.
I am also a member of the special cabinet committee set up in 2008 to look into the welfare of Indians. Headed by the prime minister and MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, it includes Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam and Deputy Federal Territories and Urban Wellbeing Minister Datuk M. Saravanan.
The committee looks at the overall development of Tamil schools. Seventy-two schools have been redeveloped with RM72 million and another 60 will be upgraded with RM100 million.
Last year, 323 Indian students were given Public Service Department scholarships and 600 Indian teachers were trained in special courses during their school holidays last year and this year.
Having started out as a teacher in a Tamil school, it is heartening for me to be involved at this level.
During the formulation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan and in its Mid-Term Review, for example, our focal point was Tamil schools and skills training. We will make sure empowerment of Tamil schools will be an important part of the National Key Result Areas and the 10th Malaysia Plan.
But whoever is marginalised will be included, whether they are among the poor in the urban or rural areas.
Tamil schools have improved greatly since 1975. Now consciousness is high and there are role models.
I still visit SRJK(T) Ladang Air Tawar every two or three years, to give motivational programmes and to help the school get funding. Now you can reach it via a tarred road. It has six classrooms and a better learning environment, including computers. It has a sports field, a fenced compound, toilets and a small eatery where poor students are provided free meals and milk by the Education Ministry.
I still have a connection with the former pupils. One of my Standard Six pupils is now a headmistress and her son is pursuing medical studies.
But there is still a lot to be done in reaching out to all rural schools, not just Tamil schools -- improving academic performance, bringing ICT to schools, motivating parents and creating a very good environment for learning and overall development of the child.
My humble beginnings and teaching days have given me idealism and passion. It's all about change for these people.