Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 5 Aug 2019

Ever since he was appointed, the Education Minister has consistently failed to bring about the promised education reforms that Pakatan Harapan promised in their GE14 manifesto. Is he in the grip of the ineluctable “Deep State” that explains his series of diversionary “new” policies?

The latest diversion to introduce khat calligraphy in our primary school curriculum has led to an uproar in the non-Muslim communities even before the UEC controversy has been settled. Is this an attempt by Pakatan Harapan to win Muslim votes for the future elections? Alas, they seem to be taking their non-Muslim support at GE14 for granted…

Who does not know that there are no bounds in education? Who does not know that art and calligraphy are essential part of education and culture? We even had Nature Study and Music in our primary school curriculum at Independence and these were spot on but they were not any particular form of art or music. And these subjects were within the same medium of instruction. It is a different matter when we consider the load our “tortoise-shell” primary school kids in the Chinese and Tamil schools already have to bear. 

The design of the school curriculum is obviously not the forte of some of our ageing politicians who are praising the introduction of khat calligraphy in the primary school curriculum. Mazlee needs to ignore these amateur politicians and think outside the separate subject boxes as proposed by educationist Ken Robinson:

“School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines… which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary”.

1.       Focus on Secular Education

One of the reasons often quoted by observers for the unattractiveness of national schools is their increasingly religious slant. Incidentally, the Council of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism has also opposed this proposal to introduce khat calligraphy in the primary school curriculum because of its Islamic undertones.

The stated aim of inclusiveness in our education system should not simply be a phrase for appeasing Malaysian minorities; it embodies the important principle that for our education system to be on par with the best in the world by 2025, it must be secular in philosophy and practice. Thus, a progressive school system would respect all pupils equally and teach in a neutral, objective way about the different faiths that people have.

The role of Malaysian schools is to bring diverse children together and teach them subjects that have a basis in scientific fact, like mathematics, languages, geography, history and critical thinking. These provide the knowledge and skills that are vital to their performance in the global achievement indices, TIMSS and PISA that the blueprint benchmarks.

For this to happen, teachers need the autonomy to teach their subjects freely without any interference regarding their religious affiliations, or lifestyle choices, and be free to answer questions of ethics, beliefs, etc. in an objective way. Progressive education is about character building which is more meaningful through literature and music rather than through didactic moral education and encroaching religious forms.

2.       Focus on Fair and Democratic Education

The Education Blueprint drafted by the Najib regime neglected democracy. It failed to reinstate our Independence heirloom of an elected local government which involves a decentralised education system engaged with and responsive to the needs of the local community. Many have forgotten that local education authorities were part and parcel of elected local councils, as was the case before these elections were abolished in 1965. The new Education Minister should thus make the return of elected local government part of his to-do list.

Decentralising education can serve to make the education system more efficient as well as more democratic. Decentralising power away from the ministry of education and dispersing it to elected councils creates the conditions for better public services and a more robust society. Local councils are then responsible for the fair distribution and monitoring of funding for the different language streamed schools built according to need, rather than political preference. They are responsible for the co-ordination of admissions and allocation of places available at each school. They are the direct employers of all staff in schools and have a responsibility for the educational achievement of school children.

There should be a greater commitment by both the government and the Chinese and Tamil school lobbies to create such activities that promote closer integration. It would be the responsibility of local education authorities to provide state-of-the-art-facilities for the common use of schools of the different language streams in an education precinct. These should include libraries, IT centres, and stadiums, concert halls and common activities organised to include all the different school streams in a precinct.

There is a glaring contradiction in the blueprint’s commitment toward promoting unity and inclusiveness for it hardly considers the development and growth of the SRJK schools and Independent schools within the national education system. The Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary Schools are merely listed as one of the categories of private education in the country.

Considering Chinese and Tamil schools were part and parcel of the national education system at Independence more than sixty years ago, there is no reason why sustaining them today, in our much more developed state should be a problem. There is also no reason why the Malaysian education system cannot accommodate some English-language streams for those children whose mother tongue is English, when we have had so much experience handling English-language education since colonial times.

Although the education minister keeps insisting that the government has no intention to do away with Chinese and Tamil education, the reality shows that these schools have been treated like step children in the national education system all these years and government leaders continue to denigrate these schools as being obstacles to integration.

The Chinese and Tamil schools that were established before the 1996 Act – practically all of them- exist only at the pleasure of the minister. They have not actually been formally exempted by the minister from using Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction. And how many “national-type schools” have been established by the minister under section 28 as suggested in the 1996 Act? Clearly, component parties in the PH coalition have to make good their criticisms of the BN component parties for years over the undemocratic nature of the Education Act.

The fact remains that whilst the population of the Chinese and Tamil Malaysians today has doubled since Independence, their mother tongue schools have decreased in absolute numbers – from 1350 to 1285 Chinese schools, from 880 to 550 Tamil schools. The scandal of overcrowding in these schools makes a mockery of the lofty aspirations in the blueprint. The BN government’s claim of achievement during the GE13 was allowing ONE secondary school to be built by the Chinese community in Kuantan. That is the sad reality of section 28 of the 1996 Education Act.

The gross discrimination in financial allocation to the Chinese and Tamil schools (less than 5% of total allocation to all schools) through the years further demonstrate the lack of commitment by the government to mother tongue education of the non-Malays as a cornerstone of inclusiveness.

To meet the egalitarian goal of leaving no child behind, tertiary education needs to be totally free for the less privileged (say monthly household incomes of RM10,000 and below). To have a progressive and sustainable system, those from more privileged background (say, household income RM20,000 or more a month) should pay full cost tuition fees. Otherwise, the middle class who dominate tertiary institutions will be subsidized by the working class. Those from households between RM10,000 and RM20,000 a month could pay on a sliding scale that is means tested. This will better ensure equal opportunities for all with no racial discrimination in enrolment into tertiary educational institutions.

The principle of free primary and secondary education for all should extend to the 60 Independent Chinese Secondary Schools in the country because they have been maintained all this while by the Chinese community since 1961 and their Unified Examination Certificate is now recognized by the PH Government.

3.       Focus on our deteriorating education standards

The Malaysian Education Blueprint acknowledges that education standards in the country have deteriorated so seriously that we have fallen into the bottom third amongst countries in the global indices that measure achievements in maths, science and other such basic competencies. Our achievements have even fallen below that of Thailand!

Education has been a contentious issue in Malaysia ever since Independence. If we are to progress as a truly “developed” nation, we need a thorough-going reformulation of our education system founded on egalitarian principles both in terms of opportunities and in institutional practice.  Tangible educational policy must focus on nurturing ALL Malaysians regardless of social class or ethnicity to foster a nation of mature, critical and creative thinking individuals and that bridges the huge differential between manual and intellectual labour in Malaysian society. Above all, meritocracy must never be sacrificed in our attempts at forging an egalitarian society.

To this end, Malaysians deserve quality holistic education that encourages the learning of the arts and humanities as well as scientific and technological knowledge required for research & development and vocational skills. At the same time, education must be secular and free of political and religious interference. Let academic freedom, students’ self-government and campus autonomy be the new environment in our tertiary institutions.

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