This collection of the writer’s commentaries traces the continuing decline of Malaysian education at all levels. The rot has been going on for decades, with the slope becoming distressingly steep despite successive Administrations professing to reverse the trend and transform the system. Today the challenges are as monumental as they are obvious while the remedies offered are nothing but repeated assurances and earnest statements, coupled with endless Blueprints and White Papers.
Notwithstanding the widespread anxiety, one cannot help but conclude this outcome is precisely what Malaysian leaders (or to be more specific, Malay leaders) seek. This sorry state cannot be the result of neglect or incompetence, rather a willful decision to let the system rot. An educated citizen capable of critical and independent thinking would be anathema to these leaders as that would mean the end of the current feudal system, and with that, the current power structure and brand of leadership. In short, a threat to the establishment and existing order.
Malaysian parents have long ago abandoned the national stream, at least those who could afford it. In the past they were mostly non-Malays, leading Malay chauvinists to label them as unpatriotic or even traitors. To non-Malays in Johore, Malaysian education is irrelevant as they could opt for the far superior schools in Singapore.
Today an increasing number of Malays too are fleeing the system. That is the greatest indictment of the system, much to the chagrin of Malay leaders. The rich opt for international schools, which are mushrooming. The poor (and not so poor) Malays opt for Chinese schools, to the embarrassment of Malay leaders and nationalists who themselves have opted for international schools. This hypocrisy, obvious to all, escapes them.
Malaysia does not need comparative data like scores on TIMMS and PISA to show how rotten is the current system. Malaysia expends considerable resources to participate in those studies but is not learning, or more correctly refuses to learn from them.
The result is that Malaysians are now rare on elite campuses. Meanwhile Malaysian employers shun local graduates, and the teaching profession no longer attracts the best.
The Ministry of Education, the largest and with ever-increasing allocations, is blighted by inept management and bloated bureaucracy intent on pursuing narrow nationalistic and Islamist agendas. Worse, each successive Minister is consumed with exploiting the prestige (what little there is left) of the office to further his personal and political agenda.
Even when the rare enlightened policies were instituted, as with opening up higher education to the private sector in the mid 1990s by then Education Minister Najib Razak, the process was exploited to become lucrative conduits for corruption. Najib granted nearly 600 permits in a space of just two years! No wonder he had no difficulty funding his campaign to be UMNO Youth President at the time. More than half of those new institutions went out of business within a few years, stranding their students and crushing their dreams, quite apart from literally robbing them and their parents.
The 2018 elections saw a new government with a Minster of Education who for the first time was not from the dominant United Malay National Organization (UMNO) party. An Islamic Studies graduate from a Middle Eastern university but with a British doctorate, his first order of business was to change the color of school children’s shoes from white to black! The only saving grace was that he was canned just over a year after taking office. Now (January 2020) the Ministry is back under Mahathir who in addition is also the Prime Minister. By February Mahathir too was out, finally outwitted by his own endless political scheming.
As an unnecessary reminder, it was Mahathir who as Minister of Education back in the 1970s who initiated the rot. It was Mahathir who, to endear himself to the nationalists and jihadists, squandered instead of building on what was then the nation’s most precious asset, the high English fluency and literacy of her students. Now Mahathir blames Malays for refusing to recognize the importance of English. And he does so without even a hint of regret or embarrassment!
Today Malaysian education at all levels has been taken over by the language nationalists and religious jihadists intent on making Malaysia “Malay” and “Islamic.” The nationalists add their chauvinistic and very “un-Islamic” Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) aspirations to the mix. As such schools’ curriculum is now heavy on mindless ritualistic religion and strident language nationalism. Indoctrination now masquerades as education. The situation is no better at universities.
This glaring disconnect between the Ministry’s agenda and reality is obvious to all but those bureaucrats, policymakers, and educators. Consider that while Malaysia is in desperate need of teachers of English, the national university does not have a dedicated Department of English. Likewise, while everyone clamors for young Malaysians to think critically, not one Malaysian university has a Department of Philosophy.
The need to emphasize the basics in Malaysian schools is never more acute than now. The four core subjects of Malay, English, science, and mathematics should be taught daily at all levels and in all schools. Recognizing the establishment’s inertia, the writer advocates liberalizing the system at all levels by opening it up to the private sector via the voucher system a la Chile and encouraging charter schools as per America.
Malaysian schools must once again prepare her young for the modern interconnected and increasingly competitive world as well as be the pivotal instrument for integrating them.
As per the wisdom of our great Munshi Abdullah, the minds of our young should be regarded as parang to be sharpened, and not as the current classroom philosophy would have it, dustbins to be filled with dogmas. The most you would get from the latter is what you put in, minus what’s stuck to the bottom.
On the other hand there are no limits to what one could do with a sharp parang. At the very least you could hack yourself out when lost in the jungle. To a surgeon, a sharp scalpel (a sophisticated parang if you will) is an instrument to cure cancer; to an artist, to create exquisite works of art. To a thug a parang is but a lethal weapon. That is where values or moral aspects (religion if you like) of education come in. Unfortunately in Malaysia, Islamic instructions are consumed with rituals, that is when those religious instructors are not obsessed with how many virgins the pious would get in the Hereafter.
Malaysian schools should prepare her young for the modern globalized world and be the pivotal instrument for integrating her young. Any other objectives would only degrade those two central missions