ABRSM business is booming in Malaysia – and there's every sign that exams are continuing to grow in popularity as Paul Cutts discovers. There is only one place where all the colours, flavours, sounds and sights of Asia come together. No other county is as “Truly Asia” as Malaysia. It was with this slogan that the Malaysian tourism department began shifting global perceptions about the country, in a marketing campaign that has helped boost visitor numbers from 5.5m in 1998 to almost 25m in 2010. Part of a national political strategy known as Wawasan (or ‘Vision’) 2020, it has put this ambitious South East Asian nation firmly in the global spotlight. The broader social, educational – and commercial – benefits of all this are something that ABRSM has witnessed first hand, thanks to its surprisingly long history in the region. As a part of the British Empire from the 18th century until 1957, Malaysia has been a significant country for ABRSM for decades. Exams started in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in 1948 and today the country is the organisation’s third largest international market, gaining ground on leaders Hong Kong and Singapore. In order to meet the growing local demand, a full-time ABRSM Malaysian National Coordinator role was created in January 2011 – a job that Jamie Smith has occupied since March this year. Jamie has a track record in international music teaching. A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, he continued his studies at the National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in the then-Russian (now Ukrainian capital) city of Kiev. It was there that Jamie gained his first significant teaching experience and, bitten by the travel and music pedagogy bug, he went on to teach piano performance in Guangdong, China, as well as working for the British Council in Poland. Immediately before joining ABRSM, he was a music lecturer at the Sultan Idris Education University in Tanjung Malim, a small town in the Perak area of Malaysia regarded as the best teacher-training university in the country. Now officially based in Kuala Lumpur, Jamie has spent most of his time in post on trains, planes and automobiles, getting to grips with the sheer scale of ABRSM operations in Malaysia and the geographical challenges the country represents. Over one three-month session (from June to August), ABRSM examines in each of the 13 states and three federal territories that make up Malaysia. There is also a smaller session in April. ‘I’ve been travelling during the exam season,’ he tells me, ‘and nothing really prepares you for the distances you have to cover. It’s a very spread-out country and everywhere is so different – one reason it’s such an interesting place to be.’ Working closely with London staff and local education departments, it’s Jamie’s role to ensure efficiency and quality in the administration of ABRSM exams and to provide support for instrumental and singing teachers across the country. He’s optimistic about what he sees. ‘Despite the fact that Western Classical music still seems relatively new for a lot of Malaysians, it is starting to come to the foreground as a serious subject for study in its own right,’ says Jamie. ‘That’s thanks, partly, to native pianists such as former ABRSM scholar Bobby Chen who’ve brought Western Classical music so much exposure.’ Whilst almost every instrument has been represented in Malaysian exams, the piano (as in many other eastern territories) is by far the dominant instrument, accounting for around 90% of Malaysian exams. However, there is also a growing interest in jazz exams, whilst Theory entries are the largest outside the UK. Some 85% of Malaysians apply online. Indeed entry for the April practical sessions is online only, which has given tutors more flexibility and a greater choice of exam dates for their students. Much of ABRSM’s ongoing success in Malaysia can be put down to the special status it enjoys in government circles: the organisation is represented locally by the Malaysian Ministry of Education (Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia). The department that oversees arrangements for ABRSM exams is the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate and comprises an external and professional exams unit in every state. Each state department has been assigned ABRSM staff who are responsible for local exam arrangements. Although they don’t arrange detailed practical timetables, they do look after rescheduling appointments locally, as well as appoint and train stewards. It’s a system, says Jamie, ‘that works very well’. ABRSM’s International Operations Director, Tim Arnold, agrees that ‘working through the ministry of education gives us a kudos that no other exam body has’. But he is also quick to refute suggestions that ABRSM’s presence is some form of new cultural colonialism. ‘We’re not in Malaysia to promote a specific form of music at the expense of indigenous musical traditions,’ he states emphatically. ‘We’re catering for an interest that is already there. We really have no right to examine music of a particular country when we lack a tradition in that music. Our strength is in the upholding of excellence – and time and time again we realise the only way we can do that effectively is by working with local teachers and our examiners together. There’s been a massive shift away from ABRSM being distant and aloof to being far more willing to listen and talk, and learn how we can work most effectively with local teachers to help raise musical standards.’ ‘The role of ABRSM is to promote music as much as possible and inspire and motivate people of all ages to participate no matter what the style is,’ Jamie agrees. ‘I don’t see why Malaysian traditional music can’t work alongside Western Classical. It’s the joy of music making that ABRSM can really help encourage here.’ As the man on the ground, Jamie sees delivering teacher training as a critical part of his role – and one that offers ‘huge potential for expansion’. ‘A lot of the people I taught when I was at Tanjung Malim found it hard to get a job in music teaching because it’s not fully integrated into the school system at secondary level,’ he points out. ‘Unlike the UK, we don’t have many peripatetic teachers here – it’s all very private and personal. Music exams are extra curricular although some universities are now requiring them as a prerequisite for training. It’s an area where we can work really effectively with the ministry to add it as part of a child’s mainstream education. ‘We have been holding High Scorers’ Concerts in Malaysia for a number of years and are planning to hold more in the future,’ he adds. ‘There are a huge number of talented young musicians out there scoring very high marks but they don’t have the opportunity to develop. It’s an area that has the scope for real growth and impact.’ ‘We cater extensively for privately taught music students in Malaysia,’ Tim points out, ‘but there is a lot of potential for us to examine candidates in the state sector, which we’re not doing at the moment. Being able to develop closer partnerships with schools, thanks to our relationship with the ministry, is a very exciting prospect for the future.’ For Jamie, providing more music-making seminars for teachers outside Kuala Lumpur will be critical. Whilst ABRSM runs a series of successful professional development events across South East Asia every year, Jamie sees the chance ‘to do much more through professional development programmes to support Malaysian teachers, broaden their repertoire and give them the opportunity to network’. ‘That can really give teachers more confidence,’ he says. ‘As a result we’ve seen an increasing interest in instruments other than piano, notably upper strings. There’s more awareness and we’re gradually introducing more on the lower strings because we’re able to give teachers the necessary support. ‘There’s a huge amount that can be done,’ Jamie concludes. ‘Already, most of the teaching workshops I’ve taken part in are very well attended. It’s a joy to deliver them because you always see a great deal of enthusiasm, such willingness to learn and you get more ideas. It’s one of the things I love most about working here.’
This article was originally featured in the September 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.