The Malaysian education system is flawed. Those of us who’ve been through it are never short of grievances and complaints.
Some think our teachers aren’t qualified enough. Some feel our textbooks need to be rewritten. Time and time again, we’ve all exhausted our opinions on the topic.
But to complain shows we care.
Despite our school’s many shortcomings, what they did succeed at is cultivating in us a sense of understanding for the value of education. We are upset with our schooling system because we’ve come to realise how much it matters.
We do this not realising we are the privileged few in a broken system.
Outside the big cities, in areas like FELDA, students rarely possess the privilege to understand why our education upsets us so much.
In Malaysia, FELDA lands function as a resettlement area for the rural poor to organise smallholder farms to grow cash crops. There are only two requirements for a person to be a FELDA settler (peneroka); first, that they have to be married, and second, that they possess the physical capabilities to work hard. While the initial intention of FELDA was to help those in rural areas by providing them with jobs and to develop the country’s production of rubber and palm oil, the initiative has created an unanticipated issue: the development of a society that matures failing to recognise the importance of education.
While students across the country aspire for exam slips with straight As and work hard to get accepted into universities of their choice, the people of FELDA hope for mere passes in their exams so they can obtain the necessary certificate they need to apply for jobs in factories.
A piece by Anomalist Production, written by Khairi Anwar, IQ.Rock is a story of students grounded in a system they don’t know how to escape.
Its title is a play on the word ‘Iqra’, an Arabic word meaning ‘read’.
The value of books and reading is among the prevailing themes in IQ.Rock, as it is his love for the hobby that separates our main character, Azim (Fimie Don), from the rest of his classmates.
A Form 5 student at SMK Seri Serting in Negeri Sembilan, Azim was born to parents both illiterate and who possess only the skills necessary for rubber tapping. He is forced to divide his time between focusing on schoolwork and helping his parents make ends meet, doing things like accompanying his father (Maza Maamor) to rubber tap in the early mornings and helping his mother (Tharwa Karina) read letters at home.
When he does have free time, Azim reads. Through picking up a new book from time to time, we watch Azim grow to educate himself on the world outside of FELDA and free himself from the sheltered lifestyle him and his family have had for years.
Fimie Don portrays Azim as an almost immediately lovable character. We see him as the gracious and obedient son, determined to help his parents in any way he can, but also as the young and jovial schoolboy who’s charm and quick wit wins the affection of all those around him.
What I loved the most about IQ.Rock was the time it took with its character development. It introduces us to each new face gradually and refuses to rush its plot. The audience is given time to connect and understand the motives of each character, which allows us to feel for them even long after the play has ended.
The character we see the most development in is perhaps Shahar (Megat Adli), Azim’s best friend in school, who is also the audience’s much-needed comic relief.
Shahar starts out as a delinquent, both disrespectful and and oftentimes racist. We see him frequently throwing fits and causing trouble in school, perfectly epitomizing the bad boy persona. But by the time we reach Act Two, Shahar evolves into a matured young adult, while still maintaining hints of his former childlike sense of humour. Megat executes his character exceptionally and was undeniably a crowd favourite.
We also see Shamnirul in the role of the stern Cikgu Leman, the school’s head teacher who’s stringent with his demands and always equipped with a long ruler in hand. Reminiscent of the scary discipline teachers we’ve all had to deal with, he brings heart to the role and makes us feel for a man many of us were taught to fear.
Cikgu Leman works with the other teachers to ensure the school continues to produce results that meet satisfactory quotas. To Leman, all that is important is that his students pass their exams. Whether or not they learn anything along the way is of little concern to him and any of the other teachers.
All of this changes, however, when Mary (Ranessa Theyakaraja), an old teacher who’s spent her entire career teacher teaching at elite cluster and boarding schools, comes waltzing into the grounds of Seri Serting confident that she can make a difference.
Mary’s scenes where provides commentary on the Malaysian education system is perhaps among the play’s most insightful moments.
She criticizes the way our country has begun to segregate students into the ones that have potential and don’t; opposing mostly how students in the elite schools are provided with the most adept teachers while those who in regular public schools get mediocre ones.
Meanwhile, the rich and powerful — or as Mary puts it, the higher-ups who fine-tuned our current system — send their children to private or international schools, segregating them from the very environment they created.
Ranessa Theyakaraja’s delivery is powerful. We see the anger in her eyes and feel the exasperation with her voice. Her laments demonstrate the outrage of a woman who has wanted to make a change for years. She delivers her lines with such passion that you really do begin to hear the voice of an upset teacher.
Praise should also be given to Artistic Director Christopher Ling for the play’s clever use of props — the most-used of which were little wooden chairs, just like the kinds most secondary school classrooms are used to having. The chairs were deftly repurposed over and over the again in several scenes, even being used as a motorcycle at one point. The creativity was charming and served each scene well.
One thing that did catch me by surprise in IQ.Rock, was its choice of music. For a play set in a rural estate and performed mostly in Malay, I was somewhat taken aback hearing tracks by punk rock bands like Green Day and The All American Rejects. But the rebellious nature of the tracks were perhaps fitting for the play’s overarching message and themes, perfecting the overall score.
All who watch IQ.Rock will likely leave the theater in tears. With its various underlying themes, the story has a way of tugging on heartstrings.
It sneaks up onto you. I wasn’t expecting to feel as much as I did when I first entered the hall. But by the end of Act One, I was almost in tears. And by Act Two, I was reaching for tissues.
I commend the writing of Khairi Anwar and work of all the cast and crew. IQ.Rock places the failings of our education system at its forefront and executes its characters and subjects excellently. It is a solid and remarkable piece of theatre all who’ve been through the current system will come to resonate with.