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To school, to school… if only it were in Singapore.

October 14, 2008

From The Straits Times

It is 5.30am. The towering 100m Shwe Dagon Pagoda is draped in morning mist. Inside the temple complex is a hive of activity. Prayers swirl through the air. Monks swathed in burgundy robes chant the sutras, and knots of Myanmar nationals, in their traditional longyi dress, sit cross-legged, eyes closed, mouthing earnest prayers.

Under a banyan sits Mr Khaw Myint, 45, a father of three. He glances occasionally at his watch but does not hurry. He has come to Yangon’s most sacred shrine to offer thanks for his 16-year-old son passing the all-important Myanmar high school matriculation examinations.

His son now stands to gain a place at one of Yangon’s universities. The father hopes, however, that with his new side-business selling wood carvings, he will be able to scrabble together 10 million kyats (S$12,300) to send his son to Singapore to take up tourism.

He makes ‘a few hundred US dollars a month’ from his job as an engineer and his business, and he considers himself ‘blessed by Buddha’.

His eyes welling up, he says: ‘My wife and I don’t have much; just a small home and a new business that will hopefully grow. We will sell our home and work for the rest of our lives, if we have to, to send our children to Singapore.’

He prays fervently that his son will do well in Singapore and land a well-paying job, then help support his two younger sisters aged 11 and 13 to further their education in Singapore.

He gushes about his colleague’s son, who studied tourism at Temasek Polytechnic and now works at Raffles Hotel. ‘I hear hotels pay a starting salary of about $2,000 if you have a poly diploma. It may not be much for a Singaporean, but that’s like striking gold for a Myanmar worker. I hope my son goes to Singapore and strikes gold.’

‘It is easier to control an uneducated population.’

ACROSS Myanmar, especially in Yangon and Mandalay, thousands of middle class parents are praying, working and saving to send their children to a better education and future in Singapore.

Those with some savings or assets – be it a 20-year-old Toyota Corolla worth US$30,000 (S$44,000) in Myanmar, or a small apartment – are scrambling to trade them in, so they can enroll their young ones in expensive international schools and tuition centres offering the Singapore curriculum.

Many are professionals: engineers and architects, or merchants running small businesses. They tend to be graduates of local universities who have lost faith in Myanmar’s education system, ravaged by four decades of military rule.

Those who attended university in the 1980s recall how, after the 1988 student uprising, Rangoon University was splintered into different campuses to make sure Yangon’s students could never mass up in the city again. Some of the campuses were located two hours by bus out of town, beyond heavily guarded bridges that could be cut off at short notice.

Younger parents, who went to university in the mid-1990s, had their education truncated when the military government suspended learning after a second student uprising in 1996.

A 45-year-old accountant, whose child recently qualified for the top-flight Yangon University of Medicine but will head to a Singapore polytechnic soon, says he knows of medical students who take up private tuition from university professors on the side to learn something.

‘Even in top universities, there are no proper laboratories or equipment. Professors are underpaid, so they give tuition outside to make extra money.’

He alleges that the junta has a deliberate policy to keep its people uneducated. ‘It is easier to control an uneducated population.’

As such, a shadow education system has evolved at practically every school level. Because experienced high school teachers are paid only US$50 a month, many ‘hold back’ on teaching during curriculum time, so that the students will have to attend and pay for their tuition classes.

School is officially from 9am to 3pm. After that, the real learning begins. Most parents who can afford it send their children for extra tuition in English, mathematics and science, often taught by their own school teachers, from 4pm to 9pm.

A peek into one of these tuition centres in central Yangon found some 30 teens crammed in the living room of their mathematics school teacher’s apartment. These lessons, which cost from US$10 to US$30 per month, go on for a solid three hours, but their attention seldom wavers.

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