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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.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Ministers Do Not Have All The Answers

Ministers Do Not Have All The Answers
M. Bakri Musa

Soon young Malaysians will return to or begin school. Seeing them full of hope and promises, it would be criminal if their leaders were to fail them. Yet for far too many, more so for Malays, that sorry reality awaits these youngsters.

That is because Malaysia has been blighted with Ministers of Education and others responsible for the system with the conceit that they know what’s best for the students. That’s not necessarily bad except that Malaysians have let those politicians and bureaucrats get away with their arrogance and ignorance, to the detriment of the nation and her young.

Already there are talks of yet another reform, this time to address the sorry state of English and STEM in, as well as the increasing “Islamization” of national schools. I predict that “reform” would last until the next Minister of Education.

Meaningful reform can only begin by first disabusing these ministers of their misplaced assumptions and unwarranted confidence. Reform should be premised on the principle that parents–not the Minister of Education–know a child best. Th minister’s job is to ensure that these youngsters be given all the opportunities to achieve their aspirations.

It would be presumptuous for a Minister to know the dreams of a child from Ulu Kelantan versus that from Bukit Tunku, much less that of an athletic Ahmad versus a studious Su-Ling. The government’s responsibility is to provide schools that would attract them all so our young would have some shared experiences growing up. That would ensure harmony in a plural society.

If a school does not attract a broad spectrum of the young, then the fault lies not with them but with the school. If freedom were to mean anything, it is that you should be able to choose your children’s school. That would also include home schooling.

The core element of any reform begins with parental choice. Then make national schools so attractive that they become the school of choice to all. The two are complementary.

Opening up the system would achieve the first. Any entity, foreign or local, religious or secular, could set up a school. The only proviso being that Malay be a core subject, taught every school day. If the students collectively do not perform up to a certain level, then that school would lose its license. It would be a great shame were a child to attend a school in Malaysia but does not learn any Malay.

These schools must also post financial bonds. Should they close down then their students would be protected from financial loss. Being private, such schools, would not receive any state support and they would have to pay corporate and other taxes. They would be free to charge fees, restrict their enrolment, and choose the medium of instruction.

The second approach would be to make national schools flexible, with room for local adaptations and innovations such that a school on a rubber estate in Johor would be different from that in a fishing village in Kelantan. The only requirement and commonality would be that such schools teach four core subjects–Malay, English, science, and mathematics. Beyond that each school would be free to innovate, as with teaching science and mathematics (or any other subject) in English, Malay, or any language based on local needs.

To address the chronic deficiency of English proficiency among kampung students, I would have special English immersion classes from K-3, reminiscent of the old Special Malay Classes of the colonial era and the Remove Classes of the immediate post-independent years.

I would have a third hybrid stream–charter schools. These would be private schools that have attracted a broad spectrum of Malaysians such that their domestic student population reflects the local community. They would receive grants in the amount equal to what it would have cost to educate those Malaysians in a national school. That would encourage other private schools to follow in their path. If those schools could attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians, then those schools must be doing something right and thus be worthy of state support. Conceivably there could be a charter school using Swahili as the language of instruction if there were to be sufficient local demand.

The current national-type Tamil and Chinese schools would lose their state support unless their student population reflected the Malaysian community, at which time they would get the same full support as national schools; likewise with religious schools.

National-type Chinese schools today attract increasing number of Malays. If those schools were to do more, as with having their canteens be halal and teach Islamic Studies in Mandarin, as they do in China, that would attract even more Malays. At which point these schools should receive full state funding. In short, make Chinese schools less as one catering to a particular ethnicity, as at present, but more as one using Mandarin as the medium of instruction.

Tun Razak initiated the first reform back in 1956. What was not noted of his much-lauded Razak Report was that the man himself had little confidence in it. He spared his children by sending them all to Britain. Today we have Prime Minister Mahathir lamenting the decline of national schools. He should be reminded that he started the rot back when he was Minister of Education in the 1970s.

Reform begins with disabusing the Minister of his arrogance that he has all the answers. He should first heed and then learn to respond to the aspirations of our young.

Updated excerpt from the author’s book, An Education System Worthy Of Malaysia(2003).


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