During the Golden Age of Islam, the quest for knowledge was not hampered by social engineering or nationalistic elements.
AL-Khwarizmi discovered Algebra. Al Biruni contributed greatly to many facets of the early sciences, especially astronomy. Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, is the father of modern medicine. These are some of the familiar names of the greatest Muslim scientists who lived in the Golden Age of Islam.
The era, also known as the Islamic renaissance, is the period between the eighth and the 13th century. It covered a vast geographic area, centred in the Arab peninsula and spread eastward to Persia (Iran) and westward to Spain.
The Golden Age of Islam started during the Abbasid Caliphate, two centuries after the introduction of Islam. That was a time when the value of knowledge was stressed, owing much of its influence to the Quran which encourages one to seek knowledge.
The Abbasid championed the cause of knowledge by instituting a conducive environment where knowledge could flourish and be further developed.
The Arab world became the intellectual centre of science, art, philosophy, medicine and education. Extensive efforts were made to collect and translate existing knowledge of sciences, mathematics and philosophy from the Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, and Byzantine civilisations into Arabic. The thrust of this knowledge culture inspired and attracted many Jews, Christians and Muslims to participate in this exploration for 500 years.
It was in Spain that Western science overtook Eastern science, where works of the Arabs were translated into Hebrew and Latin. When Spain was re-taken by the Christians, it inherited the wealth of knowledge of the Islamic Renaissance and advanced it further.
The Arabs contributed immensely to the science world with the most astonishing discoveries and explorations, but went into decline after the Spanish conquest and was never the same again in their scientific contributions to the world. That was the beginning of the modern science we now know.
Now, the intellectual knowledge centre of science, medicine and education is in English, where both Western and Eastern sciences converge. Thus, to conquer the knowledge, one needs to conquer English.
It was science that propelled Europe out of the Dark Ages, taking the cue from the Islamic Renaissance. Scientific discoveries will be the one to propel us forward, just like in the Golden Age of Islam and the scientific revolution in Europe where quest for knowledge was part of the scientific discoveries. Hence, if our aim is to really move forward and out of the middle income trap, and thus become a developed nation, then we must be serious about the way we acquire knowledge and embark on scientific endeavours.
To encourage this development, we need to have a meaningful education transformation and prioritise steps that will elevate us and also be mindful of the steps that may curtail this development.
Many of the plans on education transformation undertaken by the Education Ministry (MOE) in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) and the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry’s (MOSTI) 2020 Human Capital roadmap (HCR 2020) on education and sciences are not foolproof from being hijacked by politicians to fit their brand of politics.
Some of the recommendations in the MEB are overzealous on social engineering to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. Social engineering cannot be given more priority than knowledge.
The issues in point are the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English (PPSMI) for public schools, Islamic civilisation and Asian studies (Titas) for universities, and English medium schools.
There must be a way to reach a balance between knowledge acquisition and national development. Inserting too many elements of social engineering in the name of nation-building to ensure that it adheres to certain conformities seems too jaded in this day and age when creativity and diversity are more valued. Besides, the social engineering ways that we have adopted have not been proven to work.
There must be more substance to nation-building than affirmative action policies. The Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad united the Arabs and enabled the birth of the Golden Age of Islam. There was no nation-building, social engineering or patriotism to unite the people per se; at least the unity practised coincided with the teachings of the Quran.
To what extent is social engineering in our education acceptable and who decides what is acceptable?
We need to keep social engineering and nationalistic elements in check in our education system so they don’t hamper development of science and knowledge. The best education systems in the world do not use force to make learning happen. It happens naturally through experience and environment, and definitely not through rote learning. Certain things can’t be taught, it must be caught.
Students who deserve a university placement when they have earned it should be given a place. Enough space must be created for this new influx of students who want affordable tertiary education.
We need 500,000 science graduates according to HCR 2020 but we have 180,000 science undergraduate enrolment in universities. We need 278% more to graduate in sciences, assuming that all 180,000 of them pursue careers in sciences to meet the requirement of HCR 2020.
Year after year, we are faced with the same problem of limited placement for top performers.
In the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development report 2013, Malaysia is ranked 64th out of 186. Although we are in the category of high human development index, it is quite disturbing to be ranked at a tie position with war-torn countries like Libya and Serbia. Communist Cuba is better than us at 59th.
If we can spend billions for hardware, digital education and content, we must also invest with equal tenacity on human skills and give priority to training our future teachers. Investing in human skills has a ripple effect on the nation; we have experienced it in our not-so-distant past.
If we are lucky, perhaps the candidates who do not get into universities and programmes of their choice might consider becoming science and mathematics teachers and be allotted places in teacher training colleges.
Everyone must play a part in developing the Malaysia we want, and only through positive contributions can we make progress. During the Golden Age of Islam, people of different religions and races contributed to the development of knowledge equally.
Our beginnings have much influence in the convergence of the Eastern and Western culture and formula. And we must make every effort to maintain the balance of the East and West and apply the best practices to stay relevant in this global economy. Our experience and survival lie in the balancing of both worlds.
Politicians cannot be the ones making the final decisions on education. Relevant ministries apart from the MOE must have a stake in education policies as well. Ministries like MOSTI, Human Resource, Rural Development and Finance must work together and oversee the progress of education in the country.
An education commission comprising members of the relevant ministries must be set up to enable all these ministries to move at the same pace and be on the same page. More diverse backgrounds of people working in these ministries should be encouraged to bring back the diversity in our values and thinking.
We need to channel our energy to progress and rise above absurdities and pettiness. Only through good education can we achieve this.
PAGE (Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia) aims to provide a platform for parents’ feedback on educational issues and enable its transmission to the Education Ministry.