You are heading up the summit of Everest. You have spent years getting all the funding and training for the climb. You fly to Nepal. You endure weeks of cold, bad food and exhausting practice climbs and you are ready. You set off from base camp. You survive the icefall. You survive the Lhotse face. You suffer a sleepless night on the South Col. You set off for the summit with your oxygen cylinders. You’re just a couple of hundred metres from the top when a teammate gets into trouble and badly needs your oxygen. Will you abort your own summit bid and save his life? Or will you leave him alone, proceed to claim your glory and pray that he makes it? Will you sleep well knowing that you could have saved him? It’s a really tough question to answer. You may think that a saviour under such circumstances will need to possess the magnanimity of the Buddha himself or the nobility of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are ordinary human beings who have acted selflessly and heroically, not just abandoning their own summit bid but actually risking their lives to mount rescues on Everest.
Almost a year ago on 5th June 2015 on Mt Kinabalu in Sabah, a magnitude 6 earthquake sent granite boulders tumbling down the steep mountain slopes. 19 people died on the mountain, killed by rockfall. Not so widely reported, was that over 100 climbers were stranded on the summit plateau after the normal route of descent was destroyed. A helicopter rescue was promised, but that did not materialise even though the weather was clear from about 3.00pm to 4.30pm. The stranded climbers faced the prospect of spending the night at 4,000m. With hypothermia and hypoxia setting in, some would not have survived. Australian climber Mrs Vee Jin Dumlao took the lead to find their own way down the mountain. With support from the mountain guides, they beat their own path from the summit plateau amid the falling rocks and on a mountain that was still trembling from aftershocks.
These folks, together with local guides who rushed up the shaking mountain to help the injured get down, were the true heroes of the day.
Of course, these are extreme examples, but having just descended from the summit of Mt Kinabalu after a memorable post-earthquake climb (I’ve climbed the mountain 4 times before the earthquake), this was the first analogy that came to mind after reading an article in Today.
About seven in ten respondents (71%) said they support the idea of inclusive education and believe in the benefits of inclusive education (69%). But only half said they are comfortable with their child seated next to a classmate with special needs, and about 53 per cent said they are comfortable with their child being classmates with someone with special needs.
These folks would support the rescue on the mountain. They would salute the heroes. They may even donate some money, but don’t get them within 100 miles from the dangerous mountain. It’s so easy to like a post on Facebook. It’s so easy to retweet something. It’s also relatively effortless to sign an online petition. Who wouldn’t be afraid of mounting a rescue on a shaking mountain? It takes extraordinary guts. Accommodating autistic people need not put your life in danger, but alas, what has been done for people with special needs? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but if only talk, walks, parades and a few public performances graced by politicians can bring about the much needed awareness and inclusiveness, then we wouldn’t even have a problem at all. Inclusive education? Yao mo gao chor ah? We see them everywhere – parents who are apprehensive about their Standard kids mixing around with Foundation kids, their Express kids mixing around with Normal kids and now you’re talking about immersing special needs kids in one of the many “good schools” in Singapore? Which “good school” in particular does MOE have in mind? Shall we start with schools with the highest numbers of parent volunteers?
To be fair to our concerned parents, our Asian heritage may have something to do with the failure of inclusion. The great Chinese philosopher (second only to Confucius) Mencius 孟子 (372-289 BC) lost his father at the age of 3. His mother was instrumental in his good upbringing and his success in life. The story of how his mother gave him the most conducive environment for his early education has been told over and over again.
Mencius’ first home was located next to a cemetery. His mother didn’t want to expose him to the reality of death at such a young age, so she moved. The second home was located near a butcher’s shop. She felt that her son was not ready for scenes of slaughtering and butchering, so she moved again. This time, their home was near a trading post. The young Mencius started playing with money and his mother again felt that he was too young to be exposed to that environment. So she moved again. Finally she moved next to a school. The young Mencius then developed an interest in studying, becoming the great philosopher for which he is so well-remembered.
Some people have jokingly asked: “What would Mencius’ mother have done to his mobile phone?”
Well, what would she have done about her son studying in a school with autistic children? If she could consider funerals, butcher shops and trading posts as bad influence, what would she have thought about having her son seated next to an autistic child who keeps to himself, says inappropriate things, doesn’t laugh at jokes, laughs inappropriately and doesn’t respond well to instructions? Would she have seen that as bad influence? I bet she would and political correctness aside, the vast majority of Singaporean parents would probably feel the same way too.
Let’s face it. To mount a rescue on a mountain requires guts and sacrifice. If you were one of the off-duty mountain guides, snuggling in the warmth and safety of your bed, would you volunteer to climb up to rescue your comrades and their clients? Having autistic or disabled children in a class means that the rest of the class will be inconvenienced from time to time. Running counter to the rationale of streaming and getting ahead of everyone else through private tuition, the class may be slowed down. Deserving students may miss out on awards. Are parents ready to accept all that? Would you let your child volunteer to share the burden of looking after the classmate with special needs? What if your civic-minded child gets a B instead of an A after attending to those special needs? Which parent would allow that when volunteers and caregivers are not only not rewarded or commended by the system for making the sacrifice, they are actually mocked for it?
Getting back to Mt Kinabalu:
Guide Rizuan risked his life to rescue a Singaporean boy injured during the earthquake, carrying him off the mountain on his back. Would we do the same for our Malaysian friends? Would we be willing to make a tiny fraction of that sacrifice and share the burden of looking after our own people with special needs?