Blind spots in the Malaysian education blueprint – Dr Kua Kia Soong
Like the other blueprints of the past, including “Vision 2020”, this latest effort is full of the language of educational correctness – “improving access to education, raising standards (quality), closing achievement gaps (equity), promoting unity amongst students, and maximising system efficiency.”
Sounds good... but can it deliver? Allow me to allude to some blind spots and contradictions that I have noticed in the blueprint. These have impeded Malaysian education and national unity for many years and unless remedied, we will surely not achieve the noble aims of the blueprint.
One of the reasons often quoted by observers for the unattractiveness of national schools is their increasingly religious slant: “The dominance of religion within the national school system is why non-Malays are increasingly removing their children from the environment,” said former Umno minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim.
Malaysia’s Education Philosophy was formulated in 1988 when the country was in the grip of the terror of “Operation Lalang” and many dissidents were at Kamunting detention camp:
“Education in Malaysia is an ongoing effort towards further developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in and devotion to God.”
To begin with, such a formulation contradicts the stated aim of inclusiveness in the blueprint for it excludes all devotees of pantheistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as those who practise ancestor worship, including many Chinese, Orang Asli and other indigenous people. Under international human rights law, parents have a right to have their children educated in a way that is consistent with their religious or philosophical beliefs.
This means that schools are obliged by international law to provide a safe respectful space for students to come together in their diversity of faith. By honouring such an inclusive aim in practice, there would be no implicit or explicit attempt to indoctrinate children with religious beliefs that conflict with those of their parents. The recent case of Orang Asli children who were slapped for not reciting the doa (prayer) provides stark evidence of a reality that is the polar opposite of the stated aim of inclusiveness. And, as we have seen in the recent “canteen” school case, we should also bear in mind that children have rights over and above those of their parents.
The stated aim of inclusiveness is not simply a phrase for appeasing Malaysian minorities. It embodies the important principle for our education system to be on par with the best in the world by 2025 and it must be secular in philosophy and practice. Thus, a progressive school system would respect all pupils equally and teach in a neutral, objective way about the different faiths that people have.
The role of Malaysian schools is to bring diverse children together and teach them subjects that have a basis in scientific fact, like mathematics, languages, geography, history and critical thinking. These provide the knowledge and skills that are vital to their performance in the global achievement indices, TIMSS and PISA that the blueprint benchmarks.
For this to happen, teachers need the autonomy to teach their subject(s) freely without any interference regarding their religious affiliations, or lifestyle choices, and be free to answer questions of ethics, beliefs, etc, in an objective way. Progressive education is about character building which is more meaningful through literature and music rather than through didactic moral education.
The blueprint has neglected democracy. It has failed to reinstate our Independence heirloom of an elected local government, which involves a decentralised education system engaged with and responsive to the needs of the local community. Many have forgotten that local education authorities were part and parcel of elected local councils, as was the case before these elections were abolished in 1965.
Decentralising education can serve to make the education system more efficient as well as more democratic. Decentralising power away from the Ministry of Education and dispersing it to elected councils creates the conditions for better public services and a more robust society. Local councils are then responsible for the fair distribution and monitoring of funding for the different language-streamed schools built according to need, rather than political preference. They are responsible for the coordination of admissions and allocation of places available at each school. They are the direct employers of all staff in schools and have a responsibility for the educational achievement of school children.
Although the blueprint espouses objectives to encourage creative and independent-thinking students, it lacks the concrete programmes and other activities needed to enable students’ self-governance and exercise their assertiveness, at least at upper secondary level.
There is a glaring contradiction in the blueprint’s commitment toward promoting unity and inclusiveness for it hardly considers the development and growth of the SRJK schools and Independent schools within the national education system. Considering Chinese and Tamil schools were part and parcel of the national education system at Independence 56 years ago, there is no reason why sustaining them today in our much more developed state should be a problem. There is also no reason why the Malaysian education system cannot accommodate some English-language streams for those children whose mother tongue is English, when we have had so much experience handling English-language education since colonial times.
Although the education minister keeps insisting that the government has no intention to do away with Chinese and Tamil education, the reality shows that these schools have been treated like stepchildren in the national education system all these years and government leaders continue to denigrate these schools as being obstacles to integration.
Under Section 17.11 of the Education Act 1996, all schools in the National Education System have to use Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction:
“17. (1) The national language shall be the main medium of instruction in all educational institutions in the National Education System except a national-type school established under section 28 or any other educational institution exempted by the Minister from this subsection.”
The Education Minister has just said that the existence of the vernacular schools has been guaranteed under section 28:
“28. Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Minister may establish national schools and national-type schools and shall maintain such schools.”
The Chinese and Tamil schools that were established before the 1996 Act – practically all of them – exist only at the pleasure of the minister. They have not actually been formally exempted by the minister from using Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction. And, how many “national-type schools” have been established by the minister under section 28 since 1996?
The fact remains that whilst the population of the Chinese and Tamil Malaysians today has doubled since Independence, their mother tongue schools have decreased in absolute numbers – from 1,350 to 1,285 Chinese schools, from 880 to 550 Tamil schools. The scandal of overcrowding in these schools makes a mockery of the lofty aspirations in the blueprint. The BN government’s claim of achievement during the GE13 was allowing ONE secondary school to be built by the Chinese community in Kuantan. That is the sad reality of section 28 of the 1996 Education Act.
The gross discrimination in financial allocation to the Chinese and Tamil schools (less than 5% of total allocation to all schools) through the years further demonstrate the lack of commitment by the government to mother tongue education of the non-Malays as a cornerstone of inclusiveness.
The blueprint does not make any positive statements about Chinese and Tamil schools, nor does it point out special challenges that they face and need to overcome, such as learning Bahasa Malaysia (and English) as a second language rather than sharing a common curriculum with the SK schools.
Learning second languages effectively is not simply a question of increasing the contact hours for the students. The proposed 240 minutes of BM and the same number of contact minutes of English for Chinese and Tamil schools smacks of a quantity fixation rather than quality learning of second languages. As with the previous curriculum of learning maths and science in English, the amount of curriculum time in the Chinese and Tamil schools for this, has been arrived at through political horse trading rather than the demands of effective language teaching.
Has any thought been given to the effect of all these extra hours that Chinese and Tamil primary schoolchildren will have to endure under the new curriculum?
In the UK, where second languages are taught, the standard is a one 40-minute French lesson a week. The UK may not be the best example of second language teaching and a 40-minute lesson in a foreign language is hardly enough. But by the age of 11, pupils are expected to speak the language in sentences with appropriate pronunciation, express simple ideas with clarity and write phrases and short sentences from memory. They will also be expected to understand basic grammar and be acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied.
In the rest of Europe, children begin to learn a foreign language from the age of 8-10, but elsewhere they begin earlier. Less than 10% of total teaching time is generally devoted to learning foreign languages in European primary schools, a figure which improves for secondary education.
In Singapore where English is taught as a first language, Malay, Chinese and Tamil are taught as second (mother tongue) languages. Schools adopt differentiated teaching approaches to cater to pupils from different home language backgrounds. In Singapore, Mother Tongue Languages are taught for functional purposes, with an emphasis on listening, speaking and reading skills. Nonetheless, teaching is tailored to meet the different learning needs of pupils, with more engaging and appealing teaching materials that capture pupils’ interest. Pupils take a Core Module, while those with little or no exposure to the second language may take Bridging Modules. Pupils with the interest and ability to go further can take the Enrichment Modules.
Thus, the teaching of BM and English in Chinese and Tamil primary schools should be carried out in a more thoughtful way to ensure effective learning and not to impose an even heavier curriculum on our already stressed out kids through quantitative horse trading.
The blueprint recognises that “it is imperative for students to interact with and learn from fellow students and teachers of every ethnicity, religion, culture, and socio-economic background”. However, programmes like the Student Integration Plan for Unity, or Rancangan Integrasi Murid Untuk Perpaduan (RIMUP), which fosters interaction across different school types through co-curricular activities, have floundered because “funding for RIMUP has dropped significantly, reducing the frequency and intensity of these programmes.”
There should be a greater commitment by both the government and the Chinese and Tamil school lobbies to create such activities that promote closer integration. It would be the responsibility of local education authorities to provide state-of-the-art facilities for the common use of schools of the different language streams in an education precinct. These should include libraries, IT centres, and stadiums, concert halls and common activities organised to include all the different school streams in a precinct.
The Chinese schools of Malaysia have managed to survive for nearly two centuries mainly because of community involvement in their well-being. This has included the school board, alumni association, as well as parents and teachers’ organisations. This can serve as a model to be emulated elsewhere, in the blueprint.
Such community involvement and engaged peoples’ organisations are key to the success of local government initiatives and must be encouraged rather than controlled by the whims and fancies of the Registrar of Societies.
Integration can only be achieved through a consensus that is built through an objectively constructed history and literature recognising the contributions of all the ethnic communities in our country. It will fail if school textbooks present prejudiced reconstructions by bigots who try to spread their ideology of racial dominance.
The Education Blueprint will only inspire Malaysians if it can convince us that the blind spots that have been pointed out can and will be put right. –September 8, 2013.
* Dr Kua Kia Soong is the adviser for Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).