Calls for improvements to the national education system have never been louder than in the wake of the change of government last May.
Various views have been put forth – some call for the decentralisation of the education system by giving more power to teachers, some believe that early tracking is necessary for the development of children, and others say inequality is what hinders educational reforms.
We have been looking for inspiration from without and within, as any nation would in the pursuit of successful educational reforms. But I believe the answer to our woes lies in equipping our teachers with a comparative perspective.
We need to reimagine our national education system instead of merely seeing it as a system that socialises students into the reproduction of normative behaviour, values and beliefs.
We need to take a critical look at race relations in Malaysia. Despite all the political rhetoric of a united Malaysia, it took us 61 years to finally move away from race-based politics in the May 9 polls. But even then, the current set of ruling parties still somewhat represent race-based politics in action.
This percolates into the education system, which is only natural as an education institution is representative of the wider society. The bitter reality is, we are still fragmented by race, religion and colour.
Adding to the mix is the inherent geographical diversity in Malaysia. The east coast is largely homogenous while the west coast is relatively heterogeneous. The multiple colourful layers that make up Borneo further add to the diversity. On a superficial level we claim we are a united nation, but ever since independence, we have been growing further apart, never truly capitalising on our inherent diversity.
We need to reimagine the national education system as a living organism because doing so will allow us a different approach to it. Not just a system, but an organism that can either flourish or wither. Nations around the world approach their education systems by wandering at their own whim and fancy, like a kid strolling through a garden. We pick a flower from one plant and maybe some leaves from another and expect that if we stick what we gathered in our soil at home, we will have a living plant.
This results in artificial and dangerous policymaking. The kind of policymaking that might only represent and benefit a certain demographic while the rest are excluded. Sadly, the ones who benefit are the ones who are already economically established and who have the loudest voices, regardless of race and assumed privilege.
To tackle this, we simply need to understand the complexities of Malaysia, and the answer lies in our teachers. Our teacher training programmes should have a comparative education element which allows an understanding of geographical differences, urban versus rural population, and the variety of ideologies in the world.
Malaysian society actually differs to some extent, and comparisons might always be meaningful. This could ultimately lead to unnecessary classifications. Nonetheless, we need to come to terms with the fact that ideologies work best when they are hidden. Equipping our teachers with a comparative perspective will unearth these ideologies and lead us to a better understanding.
Malaysia also needs intra-country comparative research. We need our teachers who are pursuing postgraduate studies to conduct more comparative studies. Universities should streamline their efforts and connect with each other on teacher education, providing a platform for them to conduct more comparative research. Not only will this strengthen cross-cultural research, it will also strengthen the relationship between Malaysian universities.
We are now at a point of transition. Every piece of comparative research on the education system is vital for future policy planning. We need to encourage teachers to share their best practices comparatively, not just through peer coaching and professional learning communities in their own districts, but through the digital world as well.
Comparative education research should not be viewed as a panacea but as a significant turn we need to embrace in our complex education system. Our lack of foresight and cynicism have cost us millions of ringgit, simply because there was no comparative research to back our educational reforms.
Pravindharan Balakrishnan is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.