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I was staring at the family picture from my makeshift bed (the coach). It was taken when my eldest brother graduated – so I wondered when the next one will be taken. And realised, very eeriely, that my graduation picture would be taken a couple of months in advance of my younger brother, who started his law degree at the same age I started my degree.

And suddenly, I began reevaluating my graduation plans – more on that later. And another realization hits me: I will be graduating three months shy of my 25th birthday. This isn’t graduate school or a professional degree. It is a useless-ish bachelors degree in unmarketable majors – and I’m embarking into the working world while my age peers in most of the world had 2-3 years of a head start.

I went through all of the Malaysian primary and secondary education system (and kinda wish, don’t tell anyone, that I went through for the entirety). I wasted six months waiting for Form Six to start. I wasted another 8-9 months waiting for university to start. And I can safely say you could knock a year or two out of my secondary education without having a negative impact on my educational outcome.

I could have, as so many of my peers, jump off the public system after Form 5 (i.e. after the compulsory point) and pursued a private pre-university course. I could have done some one-year program like South Australian Matriculation. After that, I could have enrolled in some twinning programme with some second-rate British university and finish my degree in 2.5-3 years. Instead, I compounded my problems by opting for an “American” degree at SMU – a full, 4-year whammy.

I compounded it further by taking a term off. My preferred option after which was to graduate in December 2010 where my commencement will be in July 2011. My other option was to squeeze everything in, try to maintain my sanity and finish it in April 2010. Yet another option is to cancel my travel plans mid-next year (a painful, unimaginable thing) and spread out the horror using summer classes – and yes, I’m heavily regretting taking the term off.

The truth is it could be worse. I could have been Singaporean – lopped off a year from secondary school and add two years of National Service. It seems painfully stupid in countries where secondary/pre-university education extends so long into youth that university degrees should take four years. In Scotland, it make sense – kids there start university at 17 (about time when Singaporean kids start the A-level madness). In the United States, it still makes sense – kids there start university at 18.

And I can scarcely see how a English degree, which took 3 years of a boy’s life, is any less valuable than a four-year degree from the States. But at least there is a choice there, and I picked horribly.

My secondary education is less forgivable. With the combination of a terminal examination, heavy centralization and the inefficiencies that result from it, more than a year is wasted waiting for results and waiting for the next phase of education to start. Moreover, Malaysia is the only system that is based on the old English model to keep secondary education 5 years. For English, its four years to the GSCE. For Singaporeans, most of them skip a year and the N-Levels. In New South Wales, the School Certificate comes after four years and the Higher School Certificate in another two years.

Several Education Ministers have said they want to abolish PMR (and cut one year off secondary school). Then a new minister comes along and its forgotten. It’s sad though – if I went through a saner education system, I probably be one year into the working world. Oh, but student life is fun! Except if you’re in SMU. Then, tough luck.

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