Educators and philanthropists alike are getting the word out to underprivileged children in Malaysia that being able to read English is not just important, but fun.
In a classroom right beneath a low-cost housing flat in an obscure neighbourhood in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, eight-year-old students huddle together reading a 10-page storybook.
“Dash the Unicorn can fly,” little Ms Alia Iman said in English at the top of her lungs while lifting her arms with flying gestures, drawing laughter and smiles from her classmates and teachers taking part in The Reading Bus Club.
The club is not a government initiative but the brainchild of husband-and- wife team, Mr Cheli Nadarajah, 54 and Kong Lai Mei, 53, English teachers themselves. They have been running the non-profit mobile library in parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Cambodia since 2009.
While the vehicle they operate from is actually a van, instead of a bus, Mr Cheli and Ms Kong fill it with toolboxes, planks and boxes of books and hit the road every weekend headed for schools on Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts or villages outside the city.
There, the couple and several volunteers stack expandable shelves with books to create a mobile library that can accommodate as many as 400 books for children to borrow, and set up mini libraries - a colourful shelf filled with new English story books for children ages five to 12 - at the back of classrooms. Each mini library - funded by sponsors that are sometimes volunteers as well - costs around RM200, while books are donated by publisher friends passionate about their cause.
In the heart of the city, Ms Quek Sue Yian, a director of conglomerate Hong Leong's charity foundation and daughter of Malaysian tycoon Quek Leng Chan, is doing her part too. She has mobilised children’s authors to publish books for underprivileged youngsters and plans to raise hundreds of thousands of ringgit to be channelled to setting up community libraries across the country.
The bubbly 39-year-old started her personal project just a year and half ago and has already published 10 children books - mostly by Malaysian authors writing in English - and helped opened three community libraries at shelters around the city and Rompin, Pahang. Her goal is to set up 100 community libraries in the country eventually.
Ms Quek also has a 12-hour reading program called The Wisdom Club coming up. Volunteers will teach children about lessons on universal values from various books.
These Malaysians’ mission is to encourage school children to read in English as the country’s educational system grapples with falling standards. They are also trying to buck the trend of dying reading habits among children, as their interest in books has given way to computer games and other online diversions.
Ms Quek says that reigniting children’s fondness for reading books helps them to improve their attention span and gather thoughts quietly- a quality she finds disappearing as kids have turned to learning from television programmes and Ipads.
“Once a child learns to read for pleasure, it opens up minds and the world is at the child’s feet,” she says in an interview with the Straits Times.
Over the years, Malaysia has shown a poor track record In reading, although more than 90 per cent of its population are literate. A 2010 government survey conducted every five years showed that Malaysians read half as much as people in developed countries such as Britain and Japan that read an average of 20 books a year.
Last year, a survey done by two Universiti Teknologi Mara researchers revealed that more than 80 per cent of university students read only about two hours daily, mainly newspapers and magazines- and in Malay.
Educationists said English standards have fallen since Malay became the medium instruction in schools from the 1970s, so many students are reluctant to read in English. What’s more, with the growing number of subjects at schools, students have hardly any time to read story books.
There are more than 12,000 libraries in the country but parents like Ms Janet Lai, 44, said her four children, ranging in age from 4 to 13 have never been to one.
She said: “We prefer to go to bookstores in shopping malls because the books there are more up-to-date.”
Not all children have easy access to books though, or can afford them, especially those in rural areas where English books are even harder to come by.
All these have contributed to students’ poor performance in reading.
According to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment- a global education benchmark for 15-year-olds from 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries including Singapore, Malaysian students, already below average in reading, plummeted futher to 398. The average score was 496.
Mr Cheli said by giving children access to English story books, it would help children cope with the language in a fun manner.
“Children deserve the right to have good reading materials and so, we are doing our bit to meet the needs,” he says in an interview with The Straits Times.“That way, we help reduce young people from being marginalised later in life because they cannot read in English.”