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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.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Opening Minds Through Education

Now that we have a new Minister of Education in the person of Dr. Maszlee Malik, I re-post below my Q&A sessions at the three Alif Ba Ta Conferences organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in 2008, 2009 and 2011. At first glance I would be the last person to be invited to such a gathering. That reflects the open mindedness of those students.

Q1: How can we use our schools specifically and education system generally to open up Malaysian minds? Malaysians today are better educated than ever, and some of our leaders have impressive degrees from the best universities, but their mindset is still kampung or underneath the coconut shell.

MBM: That is a profound question and observation. I will respond by stating some simple and obvious facts. First, schooling does not equal learning. If you were to ask the many who dropped out why they did so, invariably their answer would be that they were not learning anything at school.

Second, the classroom is not the only place where you can learn. The boy who helps his father at his warung kopi is learning many things, like customer relations, cash flow, and inventory control. He may not know them by such terms but he is still absorbing the essence of those concepts. If he had stayed in a Malaysian school he probably still could not balance his checkbook.

There was a study many years ago of kampung girls working in the factories of multinational companies–the Minah Karan (Hot girls!). Most had attended only primary school, hence the derogatory label. Yet after only a few years of working there, those girls had social profiles associated more with those who had completed secondary schooling. Meaning, they married late, saved more, and had fewer children. Obviously working in a factory taught them many useful lessons such as punctuality, to value time and money, and be independent. Those are useful lessons of life, and they would have never learned them at schools, at least not Malaysian schools. Working in those factories made them escape their kampungmindset far more effectively than had they completed their local schooling or even attended local universities.

As for opening up Malaysian minds, you would automatically achieve that by not intentionally closing them. What goes on in our schools today, especially religious schools, is nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education. We are intent on closing minds. Children are by nature curious; they have an innate desire to explore. All we have to do is leave them alone; they would of course go further if we equip them with the necessary tools.

One such tool is language skills. I would like Malay students be fluently bilingual for reasons discussed earlier. The two natural languages would be Malay and English. Then we should ensure that they have the necessary quantitative skills so they could think with some degree of precision and not merely agak agak (wild guesses). Meaning, emphasize mathematics. Additionally, our students must be familiar with modern science and the scientific method so they could understand better the universe around and within them as well as be armed with a tool to solve their problems effectively, that is, go beyond speculating and philosophizing.

Lastly, I would encourage critical thinking through literature, even our simple folklores. Consider my favorite childhood story, Batu Belah, Batu Melangkup. You know, the story of the mother who sulked and ran away to disappear into a cave because her children had eaten all the food leaving her with nothing.

After reading that story in class, imagine if the teacher were to ask the girls to picture themselves as the mother. She is now in the cave alone and a jinn would appear to grant her one final wish:  to deliver her last letter to her children. Then ask those girls to write that letter. For the boys, imagine that you, being the eldest and now responsible for your siblings, the jinn too had appeared and gave you a similar wish. Now write that one last letter to your mother.

Imagine the different responses! That is the sort of assignment that would encourage students to think creatively and explore their inner world. There are no “right” answers or “prep” essays to download! Such an exercise would challenge and bring out the students’ intelligence and creativity.

Literature is exciting; among other things it helps develop powers of critical thinking but only if we go beyond the “who said what and to whom,” and, if I may add, on what page!

Our education system today succeeds only in creating an obsession with paper qualifications–credentialism. I am stunned at how many chief ministers and corporate chiefs who unabashedly display their “doctorates” from degree mills. They are not even embarrassed. Worse, nobody in the media exposes their fraud.

Next week:  How can we unite Malaysians when we have these separate school systems?

From my book Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.


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