In different countries, the day chosen to mark Teachers Day has particular significance for the teaching profession there.
It may come as a surprise that Teachers Day — the day set aside to commemorate and honour the special work of teachers — is celebrated throughout the world on different days.
In our region, for instance, it falls on Jan 16 in Thailand; in Malaysia on May 16; in Brunei on Sept 23, in the Philippines on Oct 5; and in Singapore on the first Friday of September.
There is, of course, a World Teachers Day, which is celebrated on Oct 5. And some countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, Germany, Maldives, Myanmar, Qatar and the United Kingdom celebrate it on Oct 5.
But why is there this variation, throughout the world, concerning the day designated as Teachers Day?
Obviously, each of those days on which Teachers Day is celebrated has particular significance for the teaching profession for each of those countries.
In the different countries, the day chosen marks an important milestone in the history of education there, or the death or the birth of an important national educator.
So, why is May 16 designated as Teachers Day in Malaysia?
Quite simply, because this is the date the Razak Report was formally endorsed by the Federal Legislative Assembly of the Federation of Malaya in 1956, a year before independence.
The Report, named after Datuk Abdul Razak Hussein (later Tun), the country’s first Education Minister (and later the second Prime Minister), was pivotal in providing a framework for the education system in post-independent Malaya and later Malaysia.
One can only imagine the deliberations that may have gone on behind closed doors as members of the committee that produced the report grappled with the inherent problems of nation-building in this fledgling nation.
The country was demographically plural, with different schooling systems for its different communities, and the question that was surely at the forefront of the minds of the members of the committee then must have been “how do we lay the foundations for a united nation, from a diverse population with varied aspirations and hopes?”
This is clearly evident from the terms of reference of the report: to recommend ...establishing a national system of education acceptable to the people of the Federation as a whole, which will satisfy their needs and promote their cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation...”
Crucially, the report recognised schooling was pivotal to the processes of national integration and sought ways in which this could be achieved.
It endorsed Malay as the national language of the country and recommended that all students would be required to study the language.
The report also confronted the complexity of the processes of nation-building in a multicultural, multilingual polity and steered clear of simplistic solutions to complex problems.
Rather than opt for a single, homogeneous school system for all students, the report recommended the establishment of, at the primary level, a national stream — called in the report, Standard schools — in which Malay was the medium of instruction, and a Standard-type school stream in which Chinese or Tamil were the medium of instruction.
While students going through the standard and standard-type school streams may have had their education through different medium of instruction, the report recommended common curriculum content for the standard and standard-type schools, thus confronting the issue of unity in diversity.
As these students progressed on to secondary school, the report recommended a single system.
And these recommendations were taken up in different ways in subsequent education reports that followed the Razak Report in the last 60 years.
As we celebrate Teachers Day on May 16 and honour the individual teachers who made a difference in celebrations held in various schools throughout the length and breadth of this nation, we are also reminded of the deliberations that went into the framing of the Razak Report that recognised diversity in forging national unity.
In a sense, some of the issues that were at the forefront back then in 1956 still remain with us today.
They are a sober reminder that nation-building is a process. It is a work in progress.
Happy Teachers Day 2017!
- Dr Moses Samuel is Deputy Executive Director of the Asia-Europe Institute and Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya.