Vocational Studies Can Revive Traditional Trades and Heritage Gems

By Bernard Loke

January 2023 FEATURE
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Photo by: Bernard Loke.

MALAYSIAN FAMILIES are typically accustomed to thinking that vocational studies are designed for students who do not excel in a classroom setting – and the classroom-based academic approach which predominates Malaysian education does not help. This social stigma continues to widen the disconnect between academic and vocational education.

Vocational training is typically geared towards fields such as construction, automation, fashion design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and cosmetology, and is, in truth, an integral component in the education system. It is a learning option that focuses on imparting the knowledge, skills and know-how of a specific occupation through practical training and comprehensive hands-on learning.

Now, what if our vocational syllabus gets catapulted to greater heights by leveraging our abundant cultural heritage?

Malaysia’s cultural economy suffered a staggering loss of RM85mil from Covid-19. Among those carrying the brunt are the traditional bearers and practitioners of heritage assets, who have also long lamented the lack of apprentices and appreciation of their trade, especially among the young. At this juncture, Malaysia’s heritage treasures and legacies run a high chance of extinction.

Lee Teik Chye: The Last Man Standing

 Respected by many for his delicate skills and finesse in wood carving, 65-year-old Lee Teik Chye has dedicated more than half of his life to his craft; so much so that his collection of timber and masterpieces have packed his pre-war shophouse in George Town to the brim, leaving him with only a narrow pathway for access.

Lee continues to carve wood with his bare hands, sweating buckets and risking dislocating his thumb in the process. According to him, he is the last and only craftsman in Penang to do so; others have opted for a hybrid production method involving machines in the early stages of the carving process.

His workshop, nestled in Lebuh Acheh, is a common pit stop in George Town. The sight and sound of him working catch the eye of passers-by who typically slow their pace to stand in awe of his one-of-a-kind expertise. However, behind the admiration he gets, Lee strives to make ends meet, in steep competition with automation and machines. His position is made all the more difficult due to the fact that there is no one to inherit his knack for wood carving and furniture restoration.

Photo by: Bernard Loke.

“Everyone is fascinated by this skill, but no one is willing to come forward to learn. To learn wood carving, one needs to have the whole package – patience, determination and perseverance,” he says.

In the past, Lee harboured high hopes that search announcements for an apprentice would manoeuvre him out of this plight. Despite scoring some headlines in newspapers, his quest came to no avail; he has received only one enquiry to date, and that was later dismissed due to mismatch in the wishes from both sides: “My skills and knowledge are all self-taught by observing my forefathers. I do not have a proper copy or documentation that spells out all the do's and don’ts.” 

Nonetheless, Lee believes that vocational education can be a game changer in safeguarding cultural heritage and local identity; education is a powerful tool in raising awareness, awakening passion and unearthing hidden potential.

Goh Hooi Ling: Safeguarding Her Family Treasure

Born to a family of talented puppeteers and Teochew Opera performers, Goh Hooi Ling is a fourth-generation Penangite who discovered her passion and love for this art form when she was seven years old. She recalls her young self, drawing inspiration from her mother and shadowing her to plays and performances, before making a name for herself in the industry.

Widely known as Ling Goh, the 41-year-old is currently a household name and the go-to performer for occasions ranging from ritual shows to international cultural showcases. To better preserve her family’s identity that she is so staunchly passionate about, this busy bee established the Teochew Puppet and Opera House at Lebuh Armenian, allowing the splendours of Teochew Opera to be paraded right at the heart of the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo by: Goh Hooi Ling.

She has also actively championed cultural continuity through lessons, workshops, courses and showcases in all kinds of settings, including schools, to accentuate Teochew Opera to the public.

According to Goh, inheriting cultural heritage should be done both internally and externally. On the one hand, one learns from the inner circle, such as immediate family members and relatives, and on the other, one can absorb knowledge from the general public, and from interest groups and cultural enthusiasts.

Her awakening to safeguard this dying trade was inspired by her personal observations. She saw signs of decline and lukewarm participation among practitioners and enthusiasts, mainly due to age and changes in life commitment.

“The younger generation can and must be a beacon of hope. They must clothe themselves with the responsibility to pass our heritage down to our future generations. People think there is no market for these skills. They think there is no demand. But the reason why there is no demand is because there is no supply. The market cannot demand for something that is so deprived of supply.” She explains that there is always a market for heritage trades.

Goh favours culture-based vocational training, although she thinks the adoption of such a syllabus in Malaysia will be an uphill battle and an exhausting process.

Ling Goh teaching the younger generation the basics of Teochew Opera.

Benefits of Culture-based Vocational Training

While the longstanding Malaysian education landscape may have sidelined vocational training, it is not impossible for authorities to reform, restructure or even enhance the ecosystem. Juxtaposing traditional trades against the innovative ideas of the younger generation should inspire creative and out-of-the-box outcomes, giving a new lease of life to traditional trades.

It is safe to conclude that introducing culture-based vocational training will increase the visibility of the heritage trades; normalise and popularise their usage; promote appreciation for craftsmen and their trade; and allow youths access to heritage trades.

After speaking to these tradespeople and even hunting down others who seemed to have “given up” hope for the continuation of their heritage professions, I see a dire need to introduce culture- and heritage-based vocational training. It will not only mark a new chapter in Malaysia’s education reform but will also be an important step forward in safeguarding the cultural diversity and ancestral identities that underlie Malaysia’s social fabric.  

Bernard Loke

recently ventured into the oil and gas industry after an eventful tenure as a Special Officer for government officials. With a forte in communications, he emcees, writes and is passionate about the creative economy and Taekwondo, earning his black belt at the tender age of 12.