Months have passed since my last trip to Japan but the memory of experiencing the country’s natural beauty and world-class facilities stay with me. I remember the initial surprise of seeing a school of Koi fish swimming casually in the drain of Kinosaki streets, where the stream originates from spring rainwater and not polluted by other waste water. It was a thought provoking experience, where the flashes of radiant red and orange in clear water, continues to inhibit my mind long after my return.
I managed to do a quick research on the matter to learn more about it and found an interesting blog post by a Malaysian engineer who spent years living in Japan. While living in Japan, he had to adapt to the society’s pristine cleanliness habit and household ethics. This includes the practice of ensuring that household wastewater is strained as much as possible to ensure that no large waste particles pollute the sewerage system. The Japanese, he said, would install a triangle shape mesh in the drain of their kitchen sink that strain large to medium-size food waste (I was told that the strainer also works as an insect repellant). In addition, they put in another set of mesh inside the kitchen pipe, so smaller and finer food waste can be trapped, put in a dry plastic bag and then thrown into the garbage. This ensures that the wastewater remains free of debris and for the household garbage bin to be completely dry. The wastewater then flows directly into the sewerage system to be treated and reused. Having a drainage system so clean that fishes can live in it is not coincidental nor is it a mere magical swift of fate. It is the combination of comprehensive strategy initiation and efficient execution, where problems are tackled from the root instead of the symptoms. Instead of focusing on the drains, the Japanese immediately recognised that clean household wastewater will keep the drain water clear from rubbish and kitchen waste.
When addressing a problem, those responsible must strive to find the root cause instead of being swayed by the symptoms that are often more visible. The best example of this problem can be observed from our education system. As an educator, the quality of education and the plight of students will always be my main concern. When I was in the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), I did a passionate presentation on the issues affecting our national education system. I remember saying, “The heart of the problem of education in this country is the problem of the heart. The heart of education is the students and somehow we, the educators, have lost our grasp on the heart and instead spent our time, effort and money on addressing the symptoms of the problem”. It is a saying I believe and hold till this day.
We have created a rat race for schools where schools compete to become exemplary or ‘excellent’ schools and pressure educators to focus only on high-performing students while those who struggle are left behind. Students unable to match their peers knowledge and skills are shooed aside and made to take practical courses instead. We organise as many additional classes as possible so that overburdened students will finally learn how to juggle a string of A’s and redeem the school’s rating in the national list. We invest in gadgets, trainings for teachers and state of the art facilities yet there are still students who lag behind the rest every year with none of the problems addressed. Our school going children graduate without the necessary and complementary skills that can nurture them into a wholesome human being, capable of contributing greatly to the society and the people around them. When we become too exam-oriented, we lost the opportunity to shape our future leaders and policymakers to have the right skill set and awareness to craft a better world for them.
This vicious cycle continues to run its own mill for many years and the symptoms—the declining quality of teachers, the lack of life-skills among students, oversupply and under supply of students and graduates in various sectors— continue to dominate conversations. Apparent efforts to address the problem—in this case the symptoms—involve costly consultants and blueprints after blueprints that carry the same problem and strategies that has never been implemented properly. When it comes to implementation, we are never meticulous and instead measure our success by the production of the blueprint instead of how it is implemented. This cycle reminds me of our nature as humans; when we have a headache, we will take ‘Panadol’ to end the agony, or when we suffer indigestion, we will go to the doctor to get medication or self-medicate, without knowing that they might be symptoms to a heart problem. In the end, we do not solve the problem and instead continue to apply temporary solutions, patches that only serve as temporary masks, while the cancer continues to infiltrate our system. The Japanese takes a much longer time to come up with a plan and policy, what more a blueprint, but once the implementation stage kicks off, the action takes place systematically due to the extensive planning prior to it. There is indeed a long way for us to go when it comes to addressing the problems in our education system and in any sector for that matter. But every successful step, as the Japanese has thoughtfully practice, begins with addressing the root cause of the problem.