WRITINGS about Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik tend to be quite polarised – some strongly negative, and some strongly positive or defensive.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. As with all leaders and politicians, our assessment should be objective, crediting good work, and offering constructive criticism for potential missteps.
Those with a somewhat one-sided view of Maszlee, but are still open minded, may find a recent interview he did to be insightful.
The interview in no way suggests that he is perfect or flawless, but the man does come across as someone who has the right attitude towards criticism, and whose passion for improving education is genuine.
Given this combination, all that is left is choosing the right strategy and executing it properly.
To this end, perhaps the more we discuss concrete ideas about education – rather than engage in political polemics – the more we can help bring about the type of education the nation needs.
With this in mind, we can take a look at the latest developments in the STPM-matriculation debate.
The most interesting proposal on the table seems to be the one to merge both STPM and matriculation syllabi. In principle, this seems to be a step in the right direction.
This view is informed by the idea that there should be some standardisation and streamlining of the primary government-run route/s into public universities.
Having a single syllabus and set of standards will in principle level the playing field, and ensure a good level of consistency with regard to the requirements for entry into public university.
Such fairness is a significant and important step towards the meritocracy that so many understandably crave.
The STPM has long been known for having extremely high academic standards (though some say it is focused too much on rote learning). Even since my own school days half a lifetime ago, it had the reputation of being much harder than comparable international programmes such as the British A-Levels.
The perception seemed to be that the STPM was the route taken most often by very smart students who could not afford private pre-university education, which in turn allowed easier access to an expensive private or overseas tertiary education.
Many of us were in awe of those who could do well in the STPM, even as most of them who achieved high scores but could not get some sort of scholarship ended up attending universities that were sometimes not considered as prestigious as overseas ones.
It is an open question as to whether the STPM needs to be as academically challenging as it is.
There is of course some sentimental value as to knowing that Malaysia’s public pre-university course has extremely high academic standards.
That said, some streamlining towards the standards of more established international educational systems would appear to be practical. After all, there seems little sense in a course being difficult merely for the sake of being difficult.
If the STPM and matriculation are merged, the new course should obviously not be too easy. Students must be fully prepared for the rigorousness of a proper tertiary education. The target should be a reasonable, well thought out medium, in line with contemporary international standards.
Maszlee also spoke of addressing the inequality of matriculation admissions, which is of course what started this entire debate.
Needless to say, having a 90% quota reserved for one ethnic group is highly controversial, and understandably so.
Moving forward, the oft repeated suggestion that any quota (if indeed one is necessary) should be based on financial need rather than on an ethnic basis, should be taken strongly into consideration.
I think if it turns out that not just 90% but 99% of students who end up qualifying under this quota based on financial need end up being from a single ethnic group, it would still feel more just than an ethnic based quota.
The most well thought out and nuanced piece I’ve read on the subject of designing (potentially segmented) quotas based on fair principles thus far was written by scholar Lee Hwok Aun.
His article details a number of different possible approaches, anchored on “principles of fairness and justice”, without being informed unduly by ethnopolitical concerns.
Maszlee – known for his willingness to engage his critics – recently extended an invitation to Umno vice president Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin, who had (predictably) criticised Mazlee for being influenced by DAP Perak Youth chief Howard Lee.
Maszlee’s praise for the latter is of course well intentioned, but perhaps needn’t have been so public, as some people will politicise everything.
Again, Maszlee’s willingness to engage directly with critics like Khaled is in principle praiseworthy. It speaks to a brand of politics that is more open minded and dignified than what we’ve generally come to expect.
That said, this process of engagement must also be strategic. For one, it might not be best to hint that the best way to get a private invite to see the Education Minister (who should be a very busy man), is to write a scathing article about him in the press.
There’s nothing wrong with scathing articles and engaging with their authors, but one does not need to spend too much resources re-emphasising time and again that one is a magnanimous fellow who is open to talking to critics.
For one thing, given limited time and resources, this may detract from meetings with other people who are more eager to engage positively and have more constructive suggestions.
It is worth noting that Lee and Khaled are both politicians. Again, there’s nothing wrong with engaging with them – especially if one has all the time in the world.
But if one does not, it may help Maslzee’s cause to show how he is also meeting with actual experts, educationists and stakeholders – people who may otherwise feel like they are being ignored and thrown around like a football in a field full of politicians whose interests are less in education, and more in making political hay.
I believe Maszlee has the right intentions. Realising those intentions will likely become easier the more he visibly shows that he is focusing on the truly substantial questions with regards to Malaysian education.
This, in turn, could be the fastest route to regain public confidence.
NATHANIEL TAN is director of media and communications at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.