Starry eyes over Japanese, Finnish education system not enough

From the US to Paraguay, Hong Kong to Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates to India, the Finnish education system is all the rage. Similarly, Japanese schools are admired for the values that their students are taught from a very young age. These values include generosity, compassion, politeness, grit, self-control, a sense of shame and humility – all of which are part of the schools’ curriculum.

In Malaysia, we respect and are even starry-eyed over both the Finnish and Japanese systems. Just this week, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in Tokyo to receive the highest decorated award by Japan – the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers – at the Imperial Palace, in a ceremony attended by Emperor Akihito. Education Minister Maszlee Malik was also present, because top on the agenda of Mahathir’s second official visit was to encourage Japanese universities to set up branch campuses in Malaysia.

When he established the first Look East Policy in 1981 (LEP 1.0), Mahathir was hoping Malaysians would adopt the disciplined work ethic and educational values of the Japanese. During Najib Razak’s tenure, the policy (LEP 2.0) continued, albeit with more focus on technology transfers, management input and high-tech, low-carbon industries. LEP 3.0 resurrected the attention on education, and Mahathir has gone a step further in suggesting that Japan set up branch campuses in Malaysia.

As far as Finland goes, there is less tangible evidence. Our local press reported at the end of 2017 that “it will soon be easier than ever for Malaysians to study in Finland”. The Finnish government announced then that it would be accepting 150,000 international students into the country by 2020. So far, though, there has been no follow-up on this issue in Malaysia. BFM Edge and Yayasan Hasanah organised a conference in 2017, showcasing the Finnish education model. Relevant and critical questions were debated, such as whether a model based on a homogenous Finnish society could achieve similar success stories in our diverse, heterogenous society.

For many Malaysians, though, frustration abounds. Only sporadic references to both the Japanese and Finnish education systems flash in and out of our print, online and social media, let alone statements made and official positions taken by our policymakers. At best, we have superficially addressed our education woes with sophisticated cut-and-paste techniques. Let me elaborate.

Days after Maszlee was appointed as education minister, he said one of the first things he would look into was the reform of our education policy. Predictably, he raved about the Finnish system. Of course he is right, and his voice is joined by many educationists and policymakers worldwide. This chorus of praise is justified, although in Malaysia serious attempts to study its adoption have yet to be made. Furthermore, I doubt any in-depth government analysis on the extent and relevance of the Finnish system’s versatility with respect to Malaysia has been seriously considered. We are not even empirically well versed with all the facts and figures of the secrets of the Finnish educational success.

For instance, three months ago, Maszlee was quoted in a daily newspaper as saying “in some countries, such as Finland for instance, it is a crime for teachers to even conduct exams from Primary to Form Three”. Firstly, I have yet to find evidence of the “criminal” aspect of conducting exams in Finland. Secondly, yes, there are no mandated standardised tests in Finland and no national assessment exams (like Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examination or our UPSR); there is only one nation-wide exam when students are 16 years of age, to determine their entry into university. Testing is practised, but solely at the teacher’s prerogative.

My point here is that whether the government considers adopting (or adapting to) the Japanese or Finnish education models, it’s about time the public is made aware of their genuine efforts. The public, too, must not let our leaders get away with media statements and headlines without rigorous follow-up. For instance, many social media users and bloggers waste a lot of time on the “socks and shoes” aspect of Maszlee’s reform, yet are silent on Mahathir and Maszlee’s comments on the Japanese and Finnish models.

Unless members of the public take our leaders to task for the official statements they make, there will be a tiresome recycling of “sexy” and sensational issues with minimum impact on future reform. Without a doubt, Malaysians are concerned about the abysmal quality of our education, but too much will be jeopardised if we give this issue a superficial cat’s lick.

Over the decades, disruptive phenomena have characterised our public school and university systems. The following highlights only some of the critical areas: how teachers and academics get their positions; politically motivated appointments of school principals/headmasters and key university administrative positions; negative racial and religious innuendos uttered by classroom teachers that go unchecked; the laissez-faire attitude towards teaching; the lack of academic rigour in assessing under-graduate and post-graduate theses; the lack of professionalism in the grading process in schools and universities; the absence of discipline among our teachers and academics… the list goes on. To my mind, we will never progress unless we start from scratch. The following might serve as the foundation of our education policy reform.

First, inner motivation. Both the Japanese and Finnish systems consider motivation the key ingredient of their success stories. It is ironic that Finnish students actually “don’t like school” as much when compared with other OECD countries. Yet the paradox of non-motivated high performers is mainly related to low teacher-student ratios and a moderate amount of homework. In both countries, educators are expected by students and administrators to be the reason for the hours they spend in school and university. This brings me to the next factor: teacher education.

In any culture or society, qualified and educated teachers are admired and looked up to. In Malaysia, it is no secret that school teachers and university academics are the brunt of snide remarks, unkind jokes and ridicule. The teaching profession here commands absolutely no respect. But can we be faulted for this reaction? Malaysian teachers and academics need to constantly update and improve themselves, and feel ashamed of their lack of competence. In Finland, most teachers have a Masters of Education degree. There is a rigorous entrance requirement for teacher training colleges, after which only the finest candidates are selected as prospective teachers. During training there is strict discipline. Because the idea of the teacher as “a model, motivational citizen” is held close to every Finnish citizen’s heart, even going to a disco or smoking during their free time is frowned upon. The Finnish performance in education is directly related to the notion that teachers are “forces of enlightenment” and motivation for the entire nation. This is definitely not the case in Malaysia.

In Japan, the teaching profession is popular and considered prestigious. In Malaysia, though, it is regarded as the “drop-out” career path. Prospective Japanese teachers must graduate from teacher education programmes at universities. Unlike Finland, though, both bachelors and masters degrees in education serve as tickets into the teaching profession. As in Finland, Japanese teachers and academics are highly respected and paid better than other civil servants. In Japan, teacher supply exceeds demand; this says a lot about the high regard for pedagogues in Japanese society. A 2014 global survey on readers concluded that India and China lead the world in terms of hours of reading per week per person. It is no wonder that both India and China are rapidly becoming geopolitical and economic world powers.

Third, Finland and Japan put a high premium on the value of reading and scholarly inquisitiveness. Finland is ranked the most literate nation in the world, 16 places ahead of the UK. By literate, I mean “literate behaviour”, not just the ability to read. A society that promotes such behaviour would channel investments towards reading and writing skills. For a small nation of less than six million, Finland boasts a substantial number of academic, public and school libraries, newspapers, and a high availability of computers.

In an age where fewer teens are reading books (“Books smell like old people!” one student told me), “manga” – Japanese comics – constitute the most popular kind of reading material among the youth in Japan. Research has proven that manga readers are considered engaged readers, highly motivated and have developed a range of strategies to help them understand texts. Another novel characteristic of the Japanese reading habit is that there are “mobile” public libraries all over Japan. In Malaysia, my masters and PhD-level students hardly read, let alone pre-schoolers, primary and secondary students!

Last but not least, the perception of the teaching profession in Malaysia has to be corrected before our education reform agenda can be expected to show positive results. In this case, perception is very much based on reality. For example, values such as punctuality, efficiency and discipline – highly regarded in Finnish and Japanese culture – are lacking in our schools and universities. Students and educators find the concepts of urgency and shame very alien to their lifestyle. Despite the speed and ease of communication and information sharing, work-related texts and emails are often left unattended for days, even weeks. How can we expect students to admire teachers and lecturers who saunter into class 20 minutes late on a regular basis?

Mahathir is well-known for his visceral attacks on students and educators who feel no shame over failures. He has also attacked loan defaulters who are happy-go-lucky about repaying their student loans. It is well known that our public universities close an eye to tardiness, a laid-back approach towards work and that famous “tidak apa” attitude. This is so alien in the Finnish and Japanese contexts.

The cut-and-paste rhetoric about Malaysia’s education revamp has to stop. Deeper human aspects of character-building must find a primary spot in the sea of our education reform discourse. Some progress has been made, but not enough.

As far back as 2008 and even before, Lim Kit Siang featured in his blog the position of education in Malaysia’s five-year development plans, as well as the high quality of teachers in Nordic countries, particularly Finland. In 2016, Aliran highlighted the distinctive features of Finland’s education system and how Malaysia should learn from the country.

Since May this year, Mahathir has visited Japan twice. He has mentioned on several occasions the positive work ethic and high sense of shame among the Japanese. In June, Gerak submitted a 10-point proposal for reforms which Maszlee assured he would implement, albeit gradually.

The time has arrived to implement a sense of urgency in our society rather than continuing to spew rhetorical speech on “revamping” and “reforming” the system.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.