Associate professor Dr. Rueban Balasubramaniam is exactly the kind of Malaysian that government agency Talentcorp would have been keen to entice to come home.
An expert in law, a distinguished academician at Canada’s Carleton University and founder of education startup EssayJack, Dr. Rueben ticks all the boxes of a highly skilled Malaysian diaspora that the agency has been tasked with wooing back.
Except that Dr. Rueban is no longer a diaspora. After spending over two decades abroad, the 44-year-old has returned to Malaysia to put his skills and experience to good use. The decision, he assures, was not swayed by the results of the 14th General Elections, but says the electoral outcome was a ‘bonus’.
“We made the decision to come back five years ago,”says Dr Rueban from his flat in Ukay Heights, barely a full week since he left Canada for Malaysia.
“I think there is a lot of excitement but there’s also a sense of cautiousness,” he says of GE14.
The Paradox of Malaysia
Dr Rueban and his wife Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, an award winning educator, founded EssayJack, an online platform to help students write better.
Having taught pre-schoolers to undergraduates in Malaysia, Australia and Canada, Dr. Rueban observed that not having the skills to write properly is a global problem. So, the pair, armed with their own savings, developed a writing software that provides pre-structures and frameworks for essay writing.
“The idea came about in 2013 when I was on a sabbatical in Malaysia. I was walking through a friend’s scaffolding company and I thought, why can’t we build a scaffolding for writing? A support system that gives you the structure for writing,” says Dr. Rueban.
Launched in 2015, EssayJack now has 12,000 active users, predominantly from North America, driven by its partnership with with Canada’s leading educational publisher Nelson.
Dr. Rueban expects user numbers to grow significantly via its partnership with British Council, one of the three distribution deals it signed since 2016.
EssayJack, he says, will be used in part of the British Council’s practice platform for the international English Language Testing System (IELTS). The program will be rolled out in Malaysia first.
“What we have now is proof of concept as a business, a growing user base and that the business is legitimate from an education standpoint.” EssayJack was Finalist for Best Higher Education Solution at the 2017 Tech Edvocate Awards.
“We expect the partnership with British Council to be global in over three years. They have 69 million users,” Rueban explains.
The startup also recently secured USD1.5 million dollars in funding from angel investor Datuk Michael Tang; this is on top of half a million dollars from an earlier round of funding EssayJack had secured.
“EssayJack is more than a writing tool; it is a critical thinking tool. It gives students and teachers the kind of support they need if they want to seriously empower democratic citizens. I believe the timing is perfect, especially after GE14,” say Rueban.
Not Just Formal Changes, Please
The traditional education system in Malaysia, he says, has not been designed to facilitate critical thinking.
As new Malaysian leaders get to work, institutional reforms being top of its agenda, Dr. Rueban says this a golden opportunity for Malaysia to get things right, starting with education.
What we really need to do is to undertake a conscious effort to build a democratic society. That has to happen from the bottom up
“What we really need to do is to undertake a conscious effort to build a democratic society. That has to happen from the bottom up. This is where the education system has to be explicitly designed around some understanding of what it means to be a democratic citizen.”
“There needs to be classes on politics and philosophy, where students are taught to think about questions of value, to think about equality, freedom. (Änd to question) what does it mean to engage in social cooperation with people we deeply disagree with, in a multicultural and pluralistic state,” he adds.
Intellectual conservatism and the tendency to be deferential to authority are not problems unique to Malaysia, says Rueban. “These problems exist everywhere, even in the West.”
“The real change has to be cultural - a change in people’s ideas, beliefs and pattern of thoughts,” he adds.
Spend More on Training Teachers
Dr. Rueban is enthusiastic that Malaysia is given an opportunity to ‘rebuild’ and realise its potential. “The electoral results of GE14 is exceptional. In fact, people around the world are excited about this results. It restores our faith in democracy”, noting that Malaysia’s success in achieving a peaceful transition of power against a backdrop of growing right-wing nationalism in North America and Europe has been lauded.
It is good to be back, but there’s a lot of work to be done
Nonetheless, he puts in a word of caution. “If you don’t take this opportunity to make real, lasting change, things could get worse.”
“You can think of South Africa. The country is better than it was during the apartheid era but the basic dynamics that underlie apartheid haven’t been eradicated. There are some very serious problems.
“I think it's exciting but the risk of getting it wrong is also high,”says Dr. Rueban.
“So, it is good to be back, but there’s a lot of work to be done."
Podcast of the interview: