Nation-building starts with education. A failed education system will lead to a failed nation. Children come to school to do things and live in a shared community which would give them real, guided experiences which would foster their capacity to contribute to society.
To build a nation in a pluralistic populace, they should not be goaded into seclusion due to race or religion. The promotion of virtues in schools must come through integration and universal values.
The country has come up with numerous blueprints and committees since independence on how to improve the education system.
Unfortunately, those who had pushed for these blueprints and committees were politicians who had no ideas on how to build a progressive education system for the country.
If truth be told, it has been more of an image management stunt by politicians to convince the voters that they are doing their job. More often than not, we see our education system being tinkered with politics right from the primary to tertiary levels.
In the process of engaging the so-called educational consultants, millions of ringgit in taxpayers’ money have been spent. Many among them had no practical knowledge of education. Some were mere armchair consultants who are only good at churning out concepts and theories found in the textbooks, which do not work in real life.
Politicians, on their part, are more concerned about race and religion, for fear that they will lose votes in elections. Some religious figures, on the other hand, are obsessed with their jingoistic virtues.
After 62 years’ of independence, the country is still groping in the dark as to what should be the solution to improve the education system and to have only one type of school for all Malaysians.
Education in the country has become a divisive force and not an integrative course towards nation-building. It has caused more and more social divergence than convergence in society.
Not all Muslim Bumiputeras send their children to national schools. Some prefer religious-based schools, such the tahfiz and sekolah agama or pondok schools.
The rich, from all races, prefer private and international schools as they have the perception that national schools are only for the underprivileged students. Quite a majority among the Chinese and Indians send their children to vernacular schools.
The recent khat (Malay-Arabic calligraphy) controversy has distorted even more the people’s perception of national schools. Making it part of the Malay language syllabus is perceived by many as a subtle form of religious indoctrination.
This will further erode their faith in national schools. And some politicians are quick to get into the fray to gain some political mileage while putting up a false front when talking about racial integration in the country. Isn’t this hypocrisy in the name of education?
The Singapore example
We have a prosperous neighbour down south that many of us envy. The leaders of the nation in 1965 were more farsighted. Pragmatism and progressivism were their approach to education.
They were then looking beyond the 20th century in implementing an education policy and did not want to digress into the backwardness of the dark ages. They did not suck up to race or any religious doctrines to build up their strength in their education system.
Although the nation’s population has a Chinese majority, Mandarin was not chosen to become the medium of instruction in their national schools. They only allowed mother tongue languages to be taught as subjects.
They did not start off by abolishing independent vernacular schools. They arose gradually by making national schools the schools of choice. The nation used English as the medium of instruction in all its national schools. No private or international schools were allowed to operate. The vernacular schools, on their own, became obsolete.
They robustly worked towards making their national schools better than any vernacular, private or international schools. They solely depended on local talents to develop a viable education policy for all and they have succeeded.
The nation today has one of the best education systems in the world. Their universities are among the best in the world. Just interact with their citizens and we will see how adept they are with English and their mother tongue languages.
Human resources have become a national asset. They are devoid of natural resources but yet they have become one of the richest countries in the world.
None of their general school textbooks carry any elements that would religiously indoctrinate their citizens. Their textbooks instil the value of patriotism – the love for the country.
Religion is considered a private matter. Despite all that, their citizens are allowed to practise their own faith without coercion. The nation has united its people through a progressive education system.
Malaysia does not need highly-paid consultants to come up with blueprints on how to make our education system outstanding. The ordinary citizens out there can give the government better ideas than some of these overrated consultants and ill-informed politicians.
Just adopt a few real-world measures in national schools that can draw more students and make them schools of choice for all.
English is used as the medium of teaching in almost all higher institutions in the country, including UiTM – an institution meant for the Bumiputeras.
Making English the medium of teaching in all schools may not be accepted by the majority race in the country at the moment. This will be turned into a political issue. What more, over 90% of the teachers are not ready for it because their command of the English language is poor.
Nevertheless, every national school should be made to implement the Dual Language Programme (DLP) and the parents must be allowed to choose the medium they prefer their children to be in to study Maths, Science and the IT subjects – in English or Malay.
Children should not be forced to learn these subjects in English. For a start, give them a choice.
The nationalists and the vernacular schools may be against this idea. Just leave the vernacular schools with their mother tongue approach in teaching these subjects if they prefer to do so.
Time will make them realise that the DLP programme in national schools will give an added advantage to their children in the long run. Seeing the success of the DLP programme, parents may not hesitate to send their children to national schools.
The government has to recruit more non-Malays to become teachers to reflect the country’s population and this will be a pull factor for all parents.
Make it compulsory for mother tongue languages to be taught in national schools to woo more parents to enrol their children. These schools should not be turned into “religious schools”.
Religious teachers should not dictate school policies to school principals. The government must have the will to ensure that national schools are neutral when it comes to religion.
Priority should be given to national schools when it comes to funding allocations so as to equip them with state-of-the-art facilities. The country has about 50% Muslim Bumiputeras, 20% non-Muslim Bumiputeras, 20% Chinese and 10% Indians, plus others.
All schools and colleges have to be opened to them fairly, irrespective of their ethnic background, in a collective educational ecosystem.
Education is a progressive process and not a regressive course that goes back to the ideals of the past centuries. Instead of squabbling over the khat issue, national schools should keep up with the latest developments in education, especially in the IT segment.
Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia are keeping abreast with this development and are now very much ahead of Malaysia in this segment.
They do not spat over trivial matters by invoking race and religion in their education policies.
Just work towards making the national schools the schools of choice for all Malaysians.
Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.