Food For Thought - An Insight Into An Overseas EducationTAN-LOH JOASH, ex-Head Prefect of SMJK Poi Lam ( 2005 ) and a JPA scholarcurrently studying Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.He completed his studies in May, 2014. and returned to Malaysia working as a doctor in the local hospital.

I had a blissful life in Poi Lam. Life was simple and easy. Go to school, go for a couple of tuition classes, attend music lessons and finish my homework. Things were straightforward, the key to success was simple: do as you are told, listen to what the elders say, and everything will be fine. Indeed, those were the days of my life as a schoolboy in Malaysia!

In the beginning, college and university life was quite a shock for me. Things were different. No one was there to tell me what to do. I had all the free time in the world. Now that I am overseas completing the final part of my medical course, the trend here is attendance for classes will not be taken, lecturers barely remember anyone's name, and quite often one could get away sleeping in or doing other stuff instead of being in class. Well, you might say this is freedom, but then again it is freedom which comes at a price i.e. freedom that comes with the responsibility to learn how to be an independent learner. This is simply because we are expected to spend most of our precious time researching on ideas and policies. Our assignments contain questions, the answers of which are often not available online or in books. We are often asked 'Why do you think this happens' and 'What solutions do you have?' This is a little 'jumpstart' from my previously dull and complacent mind.
There are key differences between developing countries and developed countries when it comes to performances and productivity. Developing countries, in many ways still largely industrial, are perfectly capable of mass production. Gadgets, electronic and electrical components and palm oil are among the many proud exports of those countries, Malaysia included. Societies in developed countries export ideas. They create solutions to both simple and complex problems that we may encounter on a daily basis. Multinational companies, universities and even government agencies compete and collaborate to discover new ways or technologies that may one day revolutionize the way we work or live.

Why is there this difference? There is nothing wrong in being told what to do, being advised on what is best. I believe wholeheartedly that there is so much a young mind can learn from our elders. Our elders’ invaluable experiences in life and their wisdom may help save us from various troubles. But following blindly isn't enough as far as broad based education in a progressive society is concerned. As a matter of fact, blindly following orders and instructions makes the mind grow lazy. We will end up not spending time to think about the learning or work processes and may even forget the purpose or cause of our actions.

The biggest cultural shock I experienced since stepping into the United Kingdom was how frank, honest and forthright the whites or ‘ang mohs’ can be. They are lovely people, polite and friendly, but they are never afraid to challenge your ideas and engage in a lively discussion with you or anyone else for that matter. These discussions can range from topics relating to our studies or this morning's lecture right to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Colleagues encourage discussions and welcome questions. Lecturers embrace challenges and difficult questions from students in public, a practice not often seen in a typical Asian academic setting.

Yes, it takes discipline and hard work to excel. No one can master mathematics or science without diligently studying and committing principles to memory. For that, I owe my teachers a great deal of gratitude, but then again, discipline alone will not take us far. Not especially in this day and age where problems and challenges demand more than just simplistic solutions. While my Western friends admire the discipline we Asian students have when it comes to studying and practising, I am often amazed at their creativity and courage. We can learn a thing or two from them, like how as children they are encouraged to participate in stage plays and song writing, or how they invest time and money into social arts and museums. They enrich their minds and lives with literature, films, and paintings.

When people are willing to listen and share, when ideas are thrown in not only to be wholly accepted but to be challenged and debated by the best and brightest minds through and through, when people are able to respectfully and courteously point out errors and flaws within a working system and are prepared to make amends, society progresses. Simply said, society improves when we start to value ideas rather than materials. I suppose this is the best part of an overseas education which I am fortunate and privileged enough to experience, all made possible and thanks to my JPA scholarship!

The mind is a very powerful tool. Nourish it with ideas and it can accomplish great wonders. Train it to think and analyse, and it will show you fresh perspectives which others may not see. Dull it however, and it will never be able to think out of the box. Deprive it of ideas, and it will be as good as any other organ in the body: repetitive, monotonous, boring. The heart maintains the life but the mind is where the soul resides.
So try this: the next time someone says "Such is a great idea" or "This is what happens", take a step back, think about why or what they might be saying and explore the source of those ideas. Keep reading, keep learning, and above all, enjoy what you are doing. Remember, school is not all about graduating with a string of A's, it is about learning to master this beautiful game called life.