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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Elena Cooke Education Fund


A GOOD education steeped in values is key if you want to ensure high corporate governance, with all the transparency, accountability and discipline that it entails.

Recently, we have the pleasure of being part of a journey not just to promote education, but to preserve the legacy of someone who did so.

An education fund, the Elena Cooke Education Fund (ECEF) has been set up in honour of Elena Maud Cooke (pic), who was the principal of the premier Bukit Bintang Girls' School (better known as BBGS) from 1958 to 1977. Not only was Cooke the longest-serving headmistress of this premier school, she was also the only person to have spent half a century in it as a student, teacher and then principal.

BBGS itself no longer exists, but hundreds of its alumni are celebrating what would have been its 120th anniversary this Saturday (June 22).

The ECEF is the brainchild of BBGS' former students, and was established four years ago to provide scholarships for underprivileged children to study at tertiary level. The already daunting task of selecting the scholarship holders well is even weightier because the inspiration behind the fund, namely Elena, was famous for maintaining very high standards in educational excellence.

Under Cooke's watchful eye, BBGS girls were taught lessons for life that could not be easily found anywhere else in the world. Her focus was on ethics, punctuality, sportsmanship and good old-fashioned hard work. Any BBGS alumna can tell you how upholding school discipline meant physically having to wash the school toilets every week, not rocking our chairs, ensuring we wore only extremely white shoes and taking care never to be scruffy in any way. Comic books were banned because they would take the focus off correct and appropriate language. Above all, BBGS teachers drummed into us how important integrity, honesty and doing one's utmost best at all times were. Elena was determined that each and every one of her girls would behave well, regardless of their personal circumstances.

In doing so, she has left behind a great legacy that all her students now pass on to their children, and their children's children.

Despite not having advertised the launch of the ECEF in a large way, its selection committee received more than 60 applications from all over Malaysia.

The committee has since selected three candidates for the scholarship, all of whom happen to be women not by choice, but by sheer ability.

The selection process is very transparent and all shortlisted candidates had to turn up for an interview by the committee. The interview weeded out those candidates who were just “fishing” for money to study, and were not even bothered to come prepared for the interview. This was evident when they did not know enough about the courses they wanted to study. There were also many candidates who had picked their courses based on advice from their parents, relatives and teachers, but not because of their own passion and interest for the course, which are vital for success.

The committee required candidates to have at least a specified number of academic credits, participated in extra-curricular activities, and be within a pre-determined band of financial constraints. And, of course, the candidate had to be a Malaysian citizen.

The committee's three chosen candidates for the scholarship this year have stories that would make all Malaysians proud. They are determined, focused and have a clear vision of what they want to do with their lives. This includes living without frills.

One of the candidates was so driven that she attended the scholarship interview after just having her appendix removed. She had not wanted to risk losing the scholarship just because she did not turn up for the interview.

As one of the members of the selection committee put it, “Although our candidates do not have top-notch results, they come through as young people of good, strong character despite having disadvantaged backgrounds. Overall, all our candidates have shown resilience, determination, courage in adversity as well as the spirit of giving back to society.”

The chair of the ECEF is Moey Yoke Lai, who is a well-known educationist. The fund is happy to receive any donations in cash or in kind, including scholarships from tertiary institutions. The committee will continue to match deserving applicants with a course they are passionate about at the donor tertiary institution or with tuition fees.

One may wonder why a fund like this was started. Well, it is from the will to take Elena's brilliance and passion forward, and this stems from the driven determination of a board of directors of the BBGS Alumni Bhd (, the administrators of the fund, who have benefited from the wise lessons and best practices of a really splendid Malaysian, who believed that education is the best answer to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty.

Let us all seek to empower the marginalised by giving them quality education. l Datuk Shireen Muhiudeen is managing director of Corston-Smith Asset Management in Malaysia, a fund management company that makes investment decisions based on corporate governance.

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