Khat out the diversions, focus on reforms

EVER since he was appointed, the Education Minister has consistently failed to bring about the promised education reforms that Pakatan Harapan promised in their GE14 manifesto.

The latest diversion to introduce khat (Arabic calligraphy) in our primary school curriculum has led to an uproar.

Who does not know that there are no bounds in education? Who does not know that art and calligraphy are essential part of education and culture? We even had Nature Study and Music in our primary school curriculum at Merdeka and these were spot on but they were not any particular form of art or music. And these subjects were within the same medium of instruction. It is a different matter when we consider the load our “tortoise-shell” primary school kids in the Chinese and Tamil schools already have to bear.

The design of the school curriculum is obviously not the forte of some of our ageing politicians who are praising the introduction of khat in the primary school curriculum. Dr Mazlee Malik needs to ignore these amateur politicians and think outside the separate subject boxes as proposed by educationist Ken Robinson: “School systems should base their curriculum not on the idea of separate subjects, but on the much more fertile idea of disciplines... which makes possible a fluid and dynamic curriculum that is interdisciplinary”.

The stated aim of inclusiveness in our education system should not simply be a phrase for appeasing Malaysian minorities; it embodies the important principle that for our education system to be on par with the best in the world by 2025, 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 subjects freely without any interference 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 and encroaching religious forms.

The Education Blueprint drafted by the the previous regime neglected democracy. It 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. The new Education Minister should thus make the return of elected local government part of his to-do list.

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.

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 Merdeka more than 60 years ago, there is no reason why sustaining them today, in our much more developed state should be a problem.

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 step children in the national education system all these years.

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 1350 to 1285 Chinese schools, from 880 to 550 Tamil schools.

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.

To meet the egalitarian goal of leaving no child behind, tertiary education needs to be totally free for the less privileged. To have a progressive and sustainable system, those from more privileged background should pay full cost tuition fees. Otherwise, the middle class who dominate tertiary institutions will be subsidised by the working class. Those from households between RM10, 000 and RM20, 000 a month could pay on a sliding scale that is means tested. This will better ensure equal opportunities for all with no racial discrimination in enrolment into tertiary educational institutions.

The principle of free primary and secondary education for all should extend to the 60 Independent Chinese Secondary Schools in the country because they have been maintained all this while by the Chinese community since 1961 and their Unified Examination Certificate is now recognised by the PH Government.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint acknowledges that education standards in the country have deteriorated so seriously that we have fallen into the bottom third among countries in the global indices that measure achievements in maths, science and other such basic competencies. Our achievements have even fallen below that of Thailand!

Education has been a contentious issue in Malaysia ever since Merdeka. If we are to progress as a truly “developed” nation, we need a thorough-going reformulation of our education system founded on egalitarian principles both in terms of opportunities and in institutional practice.

Tangible educational policy must focus on nurturing all Malaysians regardless of social class or ethnicity to foster a nation of mature, critical and creative thinking individuals and that bridges the huge differential between manual and intellectual labour in Malaysian society. Above all, meritocracy must never be sacrificed in our attempts at forging an egalitarian society.

To this end, Malaysians deserve quality holistic education that encourages the learning of the arts and humanities as well as scientific and technological knowledge required for research & development and vocational skills. At the same time, education must be secular and free of political and religious interference.

Let academic freedom, students’ self-government and campus autonomy be the new environment in our tertiary institutions.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of human rights NGO Suaram. The views expressed here are his own.


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