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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #2

Chapter 1

A Preemptive Strike

There is considerable anxiety among Malaysians over the state of their schools and universities. This angst is manifested in many ways, from the thousands of children who cross the causeway daily to escape Malaysian schools, to well-to-do parents like the daughter of Prime Minister Mahathir who pack their young to boarding schools abroad.

On a more general level, foreign investments in the county are fast drying up; the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor and Biotechnology Valley schemes are stalling; and the nation’s competitiveness has declined precipitously. There are many other contributing factors for these phenomena, but there is no disagreement that the failure of the education system looms large in all.

To top it, the government is threatening to use the repressive Internal Security Act to browbeat citizens into accepting its brand of education reform. To be sure, education has always been a divisive issue in racially sensitive Malaysia. While it is the aspiration of its leaders right from the very beginning that education should serve to unite the nation, perversely today matters of education remain highly volatile and disruptive.

A look at the current headlines reveals how divisive educational issues are. Today the crisis revolves on the teaching of science and mathematics in English. While the goal is laudatory and agreed upon by most, many strenuously resist or are overtly hostile to the move.

The only redeeming aspect to this controversy is that at least it is not along racial lines, meaning many Malays as well as non-Malays oppose the scheme. But this being Malaysia, unless this issue is resolved soon it too will quickly degenerate along the racial divide.

In a plural society, education should mean more than just educating the young. It must be a force for fostering mutual understanding and respect, and thus encouraging greater integration. Failure to do so would result in a society that is highly educated and literate yet remains divided–another Northern Ireland.

The challenge for policy makers is to have an education system that would prepare citizens for the highly competitive world of globalization and simultaneously foster national unity while respecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. The present highly centralized system with its rigid controls and top-down command fails miserably on both counts. Parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education their young are getting, and today’s schools and colleges are even more segregated than they were during British rule.

My thesis is that Malaysia can have an education system that would serve her well for the K-(Knowledge) economy and at the same time bring Malaysians together. A diverse curriculum and school system but with a minimal core of commonality would simultaneously meet the needs of the various communities as well as foster greater integration.

Such a diverse system would also encourage innovations and competition, to the benefit of all. The commonalities are few and simple; they pertain to the curriculum and enrollment. One, these schools must teach Malay (the national language); English (the language of a globalized world); science; and mathematics. Two, the student body must reflect society at large.

Between these two broad parameters, schools and other educational institutions would be free to chart their own course. If they could attract Malaysians from all communities then they would be doing something right, and thus be deserving of state support. Unity is best achieved not through forcing down uniformity or unanimity, rather through encouraging diversity and flexibility.

Accepting this simple concept requires changing the mindset of our leaders and educators. The present Soviet-style Ministry of Education (MOE), with its tight command and control operations, would have to give way to a more decentralized and democratic system, with decisions shifted to the level closest to the community. The ministry’s function would change from a controlling mode to that of monitoring and encouraging innovation. Ministry officials would become enablers and coaches instead of controllers and manipulators. Also implicit in my proposal is that teaching and other educational wisdoms are not the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats and politicians.

The major defect of the current system is that it is trying to force national unity through a rigid common curriculum and school system.

The result is that while Malaysians may be learning the same thing, they are not doing it together. When the young do not learn with each other, they do not learn from one another. Malaysians today remain further apart than ever before because they are not given the chance to come together. After nearly half a century of independence, national unity still eludes the nation.

If the system has a common core and allows for variations at the periphery, we would find that there are common elements among the citizens that transcend race and culture. Academically-inclined Malays would have much in common with similar non-Malays. By building on such natural affinities, Malaysians then would have less reason for self-imposed segregation and instead would more likely develop these common bonds. We can reinforce this unity theme by rewarding those schools and universities that successfully attract students from all races and classes. Such positive reinforcements would bring the nation closer towards its vision of a united Bangsa Malaysia better than with punitive and coercive methods.

The present system of national, national-type, and religious schools aggravates and perpetuates existing racial divide. National schools are perceived (rightly) as only Malay schools (that is, schools for Malays), and national-type Chinese schools as Chinese. As for religious schools, well, no infidels need apply. My proposed changes would result in these schools being viewed differently. National schools would be seen more as truly national (that is they attract all Malaysians) that happen to use Malay as the language of instruction. Meanwhile national-type Chinese school would also be viewed more as a national school that uses Mandarin as the medium of instruction rather than its present characterization of “Chinese,” meaning, catering primarily to Chinese pupils. Religious schools would be integrated into the national stream and their students exposed to those from different faith.

The crux of my proposal is to encourage schools and other institutions attract all Malaysians regardless of the medium of instruction, curriculum, or label. Conceivably the nation could have a national-type Swahili school were there to be sufficient demand by a broad spectrum of citizens.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am stongly agree with your view about our Malaysian eduaction system today.it fails to play their part to promote unity.As the matter of fact, the system itself is the one that divides the nations.could be because of in malaysia we have different types of school that contibutes to the segregration in the society.

12:04 AM  

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