Reforming Malaysian education can be affordable and simple – if we put our minds to it.
THIS piece was prompted by a very interesting exchange during a “townhall” dialogue session with the Education Minister at the Malaysian High Commission in London last month. In the said townhall, the Minister had reportedly alluded that “70% of education budget is spent on salaries, hence the remaining 30% is not sufficient to radically revolutionise and reform our education agenda”.
This reminded me of an open letter by the Perlis Mufti, Datuk Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, to the Prime Minister and Education Minister on Dec 22 last year.
Now I am not prone to quoting muftis and ulamaks, but when one makes sense, I will acknowledge it. This letter makes so much rational and economic sense that it is amazing that it has been basically ignored by the government and the mainstream media.
The Mufti lamented the breakdown of social harmony between the various races, attributing it towards an education system that is – from Year One – “by habit” (“secara tabiat”) exclusive in character to a specific race or religion, be it Malay-Islam, Chinese or Indian.
He even conceded that we could not deny that our national school (Sekolah Kebangsaan) environment has become Malay-Islam dominant.
In a nutshell, here are the Mufti’s proposals:
1. One school system for all, being the national schools, must be truly Malaysian in character, which would allow all race and religions to learn in comfort.
2. Eliminate all religious elements that tend to produce unconducive learning environment for all races in the schools.
3. Carry out Islamic education outside of the normal school session, not during the hours where children of all races and religions are learning.
4. Revamp the Islamic education content such that it is enhanced and improved, and it does not disturb the character of the national schools, which is the domain of all races and religions.
5. All costs for Islamic education should be borne only by Muslims from zakat and/or the respective Islamic state departments. The same should be for other religions, borne by their respective communities.
6. All Islamic schools, Chinese and Tamil primary schools can carry on as supplement to the national schools as an evening session after the main school sessions are over.
Tell me now, is that not one of the most progressive and impactful ideas forwarded by anyone in a long, long time with respect to Islamic education and its possible impact on our school system, children and society?
We need our Government to take these ideas seriously. It is consistent with our Constitution’s requirements that funding for religious activities should only in principle be from that community itself.
There is, however, one issue that needs to be thought about when implementing these suggestions. The Chinese national-type schools have today became a refuge for students from all races wanting to have a more secular and challenging learning environment compared to our national schools. In fact, even the Tamil schools are becoming more credible primary learning institutions compared to before. They are no longer a place where parents seek ethnic identity but more a place where the parents feel more assured of its standard of education than the national schools.
In fact, the educational standards at the national schools has eroded so much that Chinese national-type schools are the school of choice for demanding parents who cannot afford international private education. Therefore, while the aspirations for a single-school system devoid of religious classes and environment are laudable, we need to also address:
1. A transitional strategy to convert Chinese national-type schools into a single-school system without losing their high standards.
2. Strategies and plans on how to raise the standards at national schools.
We cannot do one without the other. In fact, the second need is more important and critical and must be achieved first, i.e. that the standards at national schools be raised first such that a single-school system would be of high standards overall.
To do that, we need a revamp of the school curriculum. A secular and scientific school curriculum and learning content will achieve such objectives. Recall that prior to the 80s, that was the emphasis of our primary and secondary schooling.
We need to remember that primary and secondary educations are basic education. A time to learn the fundamentals of thinking and basic methodology and principles of the different disciplines – through subjects like mathematics, science, biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography, art and language (or literature). Our students completed their O-Levels or SPM in those days and had no trouble being accepted in tertiary institutions all over the world. It is not that hard. We just need to return to the old fundamentals of education, the way we did it in the 70s. Specialised knowledge and skills are for tertiary education – vocational, colleges and universities.
This then takes us back to the Education Minister’s claim that since 70% of his budget is for salaries, therefore the remaining 30% is insufficient to revamp and revolutionise our education system. This cannot be further from the truth.
If we were to implement the proposal put forward by the Perlis Mufti – to remove Islamic classes and any other religious influence activities from national schools – no additional cost would be incurred; in fact the budget would be reduced. This would allow us to allocate the freed cost to increase other classes that would raise the standard of national schools – mathematics and science related ones, especially.
We would be able to enhance our curriculum for even primary students to encompass a more in-depth learning in the sciences such as in history of science, evolutionary biology and genetics, astronomy and cosmology, and modern technology that would perk their interests going into their secondary schooling.
And as suggested by the mufti, the religious classes provided as an option in the evening or outside the formal educational curriculum or session for the national schools will be financed by the religious bodies, including funds from zakat.
I would like to point out another aspect to our primary and secondary national education, which in my opinion is excessively unnecessary. We put our children through too many hours of Bahasa Melayu and English. There is no necessity for that. Language is learned primarily by practice, not by attending classes. Reading is the biggest contributor to learning a language. The next one, will be listening and practising. That should be the emphasis in the learning of Bahasa Melayu and English.
We can again halve the hours spent in language classes and beef up our other core curriculum that would increase the standard of our education at no additional cost overall.
My 70s and 80s Malaysian education served me well then and so did it for my friends, who took up very difficult disciplines in science, medicine, engineering, business and many other challenging vocations.
Malaysian primary and secondary education needs to return to its fundamental roots, curriculum and teaching. It needs to rid itself of all the fanciful non-productive elements of religion and those associated with it. It needs to focus on what is real knowledge and preparing our children with the thinking methodology and skills needed for them to survive and progress and be competitive as world citizens in the 21st century.
Go back to basics.