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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, May 17, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #18

Chapter 3: The Present System

The present system of education is based on the Razak Report of 1956. There had only been minimal modifications at the periphery since then. The core assumption of that report is that Malaysians should have a uniform system of schooling with a common curriculum so as to foster national unity.

Prior to the Razak Report, Malaysian schools were based along the British model. There were essentially two systems: English and vernacular schools. English schools were mainly in the major towns and catered mostly to urban dwellers. These happened to be mostly non-Malays at the time. Some were missionary schools, and with such names as The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus they not surprisingly did not attract many Malays. The curriculum was entirely British, right down to the choice of textbooks, with no attempt at modifying to suit local conditions.

These schools were not free; in addition to tuition fees there were other incidental expenses for sports and library for example that added up quickly. Then there were the textbooks and uniforms. Even students’ exercise books were imported, making them very expensive. Students were not allowed to use the cheap local variety. For rural children, an additional significant cost was for transportation. Not surprisingly many dropped out; their families unable to afford to keep them in school.

The British tried to accommodate rural children by having hostels attached to these schools. It also gave scholarships to promising Malay students based on need.

Malay schools were state supported and free. They were also conveniently located in the villages. There were no additional assorted fees and expenses; the pupils need not even have uniforms. Many were barefooted. Such schools were referred to as sekolah kaki ayam, schools for the chicken-footed (barefooted). The school years did not extend beyond six, most only for four – very elementary. The pupils learned only the minimum of arithmetic, reading, and writing, all in Malay.

The brighter graduates would have a chance to undergo two years of teacher training and then they were let loose to teach. My parents were two such teachers. Teaching was the only avenue of employment for the lucky few. A few more could find employment as police constables, the armed services, or as petty clerks in the civil service. The vast majority would continue with their village life as before; nothing would have changed for them. As Roff noted, from the point of view of utility alone, many Malays saw little advantage in vernacular education.

In 1903, of the 2,900 boys who passed Malay schools in Perak, 24 became domestic or office servants, ten schoolteachers, one a clerk, and another a policeman. That pattern persisted throughout the entire British rule.

Tamil schools were just as sorry. Chinese schools were much better as they were better funded by their community. They also provided education up to the upper secondary levels. They essentially used the textbooks available in China. Because these schools emphasized mathematics, their students were able to transfer their skills readily to the marketplace.

These vernacular schools were left entirely to their own devices, the colonial version of benign neglect. Consequently they developed along divergent paths. Students in Chinese schools learned more about China and Mao Zedong than about Malaysia and Malaysian heroes. Students in Tamil schools were more concerned with events in India and knew more about the Indian independence movement than Malaysia’s own history.

The country’s first Minister of Education, Tun Razak, quickly grasped the potential danger to the new nation with the young being educated separately. His bold plan called for the setting up of national schools, a fully integrated system with a common curriculum and language, Malay.

Chinese educationists strenuously opposed Razak’s plan. During the first few years following its adoption of the plan, Chinese schools were hotbeds of protests and student radicalism. These groups appeared at times to hold the government and the nation hostage. Only the resolve and firm handling by Razak prevented the issue from tearing the young nation apart. Today nearly five decades later, all acknowledge the wisdom of Razak’s premise and approach.

Next: Malaysian Schools Today

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