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[June H.L. Wong] When words don’t mean a thing in a competitive world

Ah Ho, 81, has never read a book in her life. Or a magazine or newspaper or a letter; not even a postcard.

It’s not because she’s indifferent to the written word, she simply can’t. She is, by official definition, illiterate.

UNESCO defines a literate person as “One who has reading ability or can read,” or “One who has formal education and at least some form of informal education.”

The World Bank’s definition is one “who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

It also includes “numeracy” which is the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations.

Ah Ho never went to school. Her childhood was one of collecting firewood, caring for her younger siblings and as the eldest daughter, she started cooking for the family at the age of 8.

On her own, she picked up many Chinese dialects, colloquial Malay and even an odd word or two of Tamil.

She can recognize some Chinese characters and manage a very simple conversation in English, but it is quite trying to understand her pronunciation.

At 18, because of her fluency in many Chinese dialects, she worked as an interpreter in Johor for the police during interrogations of captured communists. And that was how she met her husband, a young Special Branch inspector.

The couple are such a contrast: she was and still is feisty, sociable and opinionated while he was and still is reserved and stoic.

He was a prefect at a mission school in Singapore. He went on to study in the University of Hong Kong but dropped out because of financial difficulties.

Reading was second nature to him and his children grew up surrounded by books, encyclopedias and magazines.

He was also a gifted writer in English and his command of the language was well-known in the police force.

Sadly, this love for reading and writing was something he could never share with Ah Ho.

A chasm also existed between Ah Ho and her children. Because they belonged to the generation that was educated in the English language, that became the family’s lingua franca and Ah Ho often found herself isolated and left out in many conversations.

None of this means Ah Ho is stupid. Far from it. She is very smart and shrewd and has great people skills.

I should know: Ah Ho is my mother.

The deep irony is her mom, my poh-poh, was an educated woman. Grandma was an orphan raised by nuns in Kuala Lumpur who taught her to read and write beautifully in English.

She was married into a very conservative family with a dragon of a mother-in-law who forbade her to educate her daughters.

Only my youngest aunt, born late in grandma’s life and the same age as my eldest sister, went to school and subsequently to England to train as a nurse.

With mom, giving her written or even verbal instructions that require her to decipher words be it road signs, billboards, or shop names, is impossible.

Sometimes we resort to drawing simple pictures like a bird to show that a tin contains chicken luncheon meat and not pork, or a sun and crescent moon to indicate which of her medicines are for morning and night.

In restaurants, she relies on us to describe the dishes available.

Out of pride, she sometimes pretends to peruse the menus and then tell the waiter the words are too small for her to see so she would leave the ordering to the rest of us.

Her behavior is understandable because in this day and age, we automatically assume everyone can read and write.

UNESCO 2011 statistics show that 93 percent of Malaysian adults 15 years and older and 98 percent of Malaysian youth 15-24 years are deemed literate. So mom is a bit of a rarity.

Despite that “handicap,” mom has lived a reasonably secure and comfortable life because she has dad who has always protected and provided for her.

Yet, there is no denying she has also been completely dependent on him.

If dad was not the good man he is, mom could have led quite a miserable life.

Mom will be remembered as a wife, mother and an accomplished cook.

That’s not to be sneezed at but I have always believed she could have achieved much more if she had gone to school.

She could have been a teacher, a celebrity chef or even a politician because she has a flair for connecting with people.

An education would have nurtured her natural intelligence and curiosity and enabled her to enjoy her life and the world much more. She has missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures — reading — and has never penned down her thoughts and experiences.

That’s why being literate is not a privilege but a human right that must be fiercely defended.

As former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annamn said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society.

For everyone, everywhere, literacy is the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

So yes, we can be proud that Malaysia has such high literacy rates, but here’s the rub: While just knowing the 3Rs might have been adequate for mom’s generation, these are only the first tools to realizing one’s potential in today’s uber-competitive world that is flooded with information and misinformation.

We need an education system that nurtures world-class minds by teaching our people to think, to question and to empathize. Without that, it’s sham literacy.

By June H.L. Wong

June H.L. Wong is the chief operating officer of content development at the Star. — Ed.

(The Star/Asia News Network)