The News Item: On January 2, 2020, the first day of school, following a private meeting with Prime Minister Mahathir, Education Minister Maszlee submitted his surprised resignation to be effective the very next day. He did so on the advice of “Ayahanda” (father-figure) Mahathir. In his nearly 20 minutes press conference, surrounded by his top officials, Maszlee blamed the media for focusing on controversial issues like pupils’ shoe color and the introduction of jawi while ignoring what he thought were his spectacular successes, as repairing dilapidated schools and providing free breakfasts in rural schools. Foremost he highlighted his Ministry’ Annual Report, the first Ministry to do so. And his was released even before the year ended! It was clear, at least to him, that he had done a super job. Being magnanimous, he is returning the “gift” of being Minister of Education back to his father figure. Early in his tenure Maszlee took time off for Hajj, presumably to thank Allah for that gift.]
The challenges facing Malaysian schools and universities are as monumental as they are obvious. The new Minister of Education should not try to be a hero in attempting to tackle all at once. It would be wiser as well as more prudent, and more likely to succeed, if he or she were to focus on the more fundamental and pressing issues. Defer the peripheral and distracting ones like students’ shoe color. Likewise, assessment of UEC (Chinese School Certificate), holistic or otherwise, should not be your top priority, nor the introduction of jawi.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is the biggest and most expensive. Beyond that, its policies and pronouncements impact the nation far more than any other portfolio, and for generations to come. Malaysia today still reels from educational policies instituted way back in the 1970s. MOE is also the most prestigious, as reflected by the fact that all Malaysian Prime Ministers had once been Ministers of Education. No wonder Maszlee thought that he had been granted a special “gift” bestowed upon a rising political star.
The first challenge relates to the very management of the Ministry. The other pertains to its policies. Both are interrelated. Failure to address the first would doom your second. Both would exhaust your time, talent, and energy. There would be little time to undertake a Hajj or umrah during your tenure, more so very early on. Besides, you should think first about the salvation of young Malaysians, not yours.
If you lack executive experience or management talent, entice someone to assist you on that crucial front. Be humble. Don’t consider yourself innately multitalented or a hitherto hidden gem.
Management problem is not unique to MOE. The entire civil service is blighted with this onerous burden of intractable bloat. It’s more than a burden. The massive bureaucracy impedes effective policy execution, and at times works against it – the self-interested entrenched “deep state.”
Delegate power and authority to the periphery, and you would not need a huge bureaucracy at head office. Grant the universities their autonomy. Then all you would need would be a clerk to prepare the checks for you to sign every month or quarter for those campuses. That one initiative would rid MOE of its Director-General for Higher Education, his deputies, and their assorted highly paid support staff. Let the universities choose their own Vice-Chancellors, Deans, and Professors, or what color of drapes for their faculty lounge. The Minister’s control and influence should only be through such macro levers as the funding mechanism and his appointees to the governing boards.
Peruse MOE’s organizational chart, replete with such bureaus as the Islamic Education Unit, Institute of Translation, and Institute of Language and Culture. Get rid of them. Private publishers do a far superior job of publishing and translating, and at no cost to the government.
The new Minister’s focused vision and MOE’s sole aspiration should be to prepare young Malaysians to be competitive for the new global realities so they could contribute. And only that. Heed the wisdom schoolteachers Pak Harfan and Bu Mus drummed into the handful of precious young minds entrusted to their care, in Andrea Hirata’s bestselling novel Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops): “. . . [B]ahwa hiduplah mu untuk memberi sebanyak-banyaknya, bukan untuk menerima sebanyak-banyaknya.”
To paraphrase, be a proud contributor to society, not its dependent. That is the best and most succinct encapsulation of the purpose of education.
Help young Malaysians achieve that goal by ensuring that they are fluent in Malay and English, as well as be science literate and competent in mathematics. Teach those four subjects daily, at all levels, and in all schools, including religious ones. Fictional Pak Harfan and Bu Mus taught their pupils English, STEM subjects, and music in their very modest Muhammadiyah pondok school.
Malaysia is in desperate need of competent teachers of English. Yet not a single public university has a Department of English, and there are no English-medium Teachers’ Colleges. This jarring anomaly, obvious to all, is missed by those in MOE, as well as the personnel they select to run the universities.
Leverage the funding mechanism to make every public university have a dedicated Department of English. Make a pass in MUET (Malaysian University English Test) mandatory. Quadruple the number of scholarships for those pursuing English and STEM. That would be a good start. Discontinue scholarships for Malay Studies as well as Islamic Studies. The country already has a glut of those graduates.
Make MUET mandatory for all teachers and MOE personnel. Their promotions and continued employment should depend on it. That one initiative would be far more effective and consequential than all the endless exhortations of leaders and educators on the importance of English.
With mathematics, if Malaysians were to have some elementary competency in it, they would not dismiss Vietnam’s impressive six percent economic growth rate versus Malaysia’s meager four as “that country growing at only two percent faster.” Vietnam is growing 50 percent faster! If Malaysia’s rate were to drop to three, then Vietnam is growing at 100 percent more, or twice as fast.
Make 13 years of schooling the new standard. Modify the last two years (Sixth Form) for those not academically inclined to focus on vocational subjects. By reinstituting Sixth Form, the Ministry could dispense with its massive matrikulasi division. You would also be spared its quota controversy. The universities too could then dispense with their resource-wasting “foundation” and matrikulasi courses. Universities should focus on doing what other institutions could not, that is, education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels, as well as undertaking research. Again, use the funding lever as well as your appointees to the universities’ governing boards to achieve those ends without having MOE micromanage those campuses.
Teach the young critical thinking. Dispense with regurgitation. Pak Harfan asked his students to pen essays describing Heaven as they envision it. That demands both critical as well as creative thinking.
In a plural society like Malaysia, education should go beyond. It must be a major if not the instrument to integrate her young. When young Malaysians learn and play together at school, the nation would be that much better. Diversity in the classrooms also enhances the learning process.
Today, Malaysian schools are dangerously segregated along racial and religious lines. Getting rid of religion from national schools would go a long way in making those schools attractive to non-Malays.
Most of all, the one attribute the new Education Minister must have and instill in his officers, is the mindset that he and his Ministry does not have the exclusive wisdom and insight on what’s best for Malaysian education. The Ministry should be a resource center, not a command and control one.
The writer is the author of An Education System Worthy Of Malaysia (2003). The issues he raised then are even more relevant today.