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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, July 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #25

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System

Apart from neglecting those not in the academic stream, the system also fails the thousands now in religious schools. The whole philosophy of these schools is misguided. They are not concerned with education rather with indoctrination. These madrasahs and religious schools are not so much schools as seminaries. Their obsession is with preparing children for the hereafter, forgetting that these children would first have to live the present life.

The Malaysian model of religious education is patterned after those of backward Muslim countries. There is no Muslim country with superior education system that is worthy of our emulation. The obsession of these religious schools focuses on aping the Arabs rather than propagating the message of Islam. On the one hand Malays have a phobia about being colonized by the West, but they have no compulsion of being mentally and culturally colonized by the Bedouins. Malay students go out of their way to blindly ape the Arabs, never mind that those thick flowing robes and huge turbans are totally inappropriate for tropical Malaysia. Male teachers sport unshaven face and collect multiple wives, as if piety resides in those external manifestations. It is pathetic that of the many sterling qualities of our holy prophet (peace be upon him), these are the only attributes modern Muslims feel compelled to emulate. Pity them! It is the students who suffer from their particularly myopic interpretation of Islam. Students are not taught to think, rather how to memorize and parrot what had been said before.

Students in the religious stream are exclusively Malays, and those who are not academically inclined are also mostly Malays. Thus we have the supreme irony of an education system designed and controlled by and purportedly to help Malays failing to meet the needs of a significant number of them.

Malaysian schools remain dangerously segregated racially. The goal that national schools are for all is but a dream; today they are essentially for Malays, having failed to attract non-Malays. Increasingly Malays too are abandoning the national stream for the religious one.

Apart from their other failures, our schools have also utterly failed in their basic mission of uniting the young. This is not just my opinion, it is also shared by no less than Prime Minister Mahathir. Our schools are nothing but cookie-cutter versions of one another not only physically but also in their academic offerings. They all use the same textbooks and offer the same subjects. There is little attempt at differentiation. There are no schools that emphasize foreign languages or the performing arts. About the only specialized ones are the science residential schools. I venture that the school bells are also timed to ring at the same time throughout the country.

Teachers are allowed little room to display their initiative and creativity. Every school minute has been planned for or programmed by the bureaucrats. Just follow the script. Headmasters have little power; they do not get to choose the teachers, the ministry does that. When it assigns a science teacher when the school needs an English teacher, well, that is just too bad. That teacher will just have to teach English rather than science. No surprise then than many are unhappy and quit early in their career.

I asked one headmaster his annual budget to run his school, and he could not even venture a guess. He had no clue; the teachers were paid directly by ministry, and the books and supplies were shipped from headquarters. The headmaster is merely an administrative functionary, and not surprisingly, the post attracts not superior teachers rather administrative types. They look upon the promotion as an escape from the classroom. Headmasterships are rarely terminal appointments; headmasters are transferred as part of their promotion exercise. When you ask these headmasters their legacy at their former school, they would be dumbfounded. They have none.

Visit any school and chances are the headmaster is away off campus. One study by the teachers’ union showed that headmasters spend less than 20 percent of their time on campus! At one school, despite my making a prior appointment, I still could not meet the headmaster. On the morning we were supposed to meet, he was off to a district meeting concerning, of all things, rural development. I met him briefly at noon on campus while he was on his way out again to another meeting, this time for an upcoming Qur’an reading contest. He was busy with everything except his primary responsibility – running his school.

While the government is supposedly emphasizing the sciences, very few headmasters have that background, which is a curious way to encourage the subject. It is the unstated policy of MOE that only Malays be appointed to senior positions like headmasterships. And since most Malays have degrees in soft subjects like Malay Studies and rarely in the sciences, not surprisingly they do not understand the technical needs of science teachers and therefore rarely support the science program.

The weaknesses of our schools extend from their physical structures and management to the curriculum and teachers. All these elements will have to be reformed.

Next: Residential schools and Matrikulasi


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