The ashes of our education


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  • Sunday, 29 Dec 2019

THERE are three portfolios, outside of the Prime Ministership, in the Cabinet that I consider the most important:

* Finance Minister

* Economic Affairs Minister

* Education Minister.

If the Prime Minister is essentially the Executive Chairman of Malaysia, the Finance Minister is basically the custodian of our Treasury and practically the Chief Financial Officer of the nation.

I have written about the Economic Affairs portfolio before when I touched on economics – the Minister is for all intents and purpose hold a very powerful position with respect to the business of the nation, while not having a reporting function for the executive cabinet members. He is essentially the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the country.

The business and well-being of the economy, the growth and (business) development of the economy leads and runs through the CEO. He is accountable for the bottom-line. And I have already made my opinion known on the state and the rudderless situation of this portfolio, which has not been performing since its inception to this date.

Now I have written more than a few times about education, but today I shall return to it from a different perspective.

The education portfolio is nothing short of the Chief Human Resource (HR) Officer.

The so-called HR function is easily understood but in a nation this role is even more powerful than in a corporation. This is due to the portfolio not only develops but IMPLICITLY allocates the most valuable resource the nation has – its youth – into every sector of the economy, private and public.

Not too long ago, a photo of a widely smiling Education director-general Datuk Dr Amin Senin, holding up the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was published. He proclaimed that its ranking showed Malaysia has improved significantly for all three categories of Science, Mathematics and Reading literacies. Smiling with pride, he announced that the ranking put us in the middle one-third of countries participating in the international assessment, from being in the bottom one-third in previous cycles.

Based on results released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Malaysia scored 440 in Mathematics, 415 in Reading and 438 in Scientific literacy in PISA 2018. Amin said that our country is thus above other Asean countries, except Singapore.

For the DG to tout a six-point drop in Maths and a five-point increase in Science as “Overall, Malaysia's achievement showed significant increase”, just takes the cake. (The 2015 PISA is 446 for Mathematics and 443 for Science).

Really, ladies and gentlemen, this is what the Education Ministry is proud of?

It seems that this PH Government after almost one and a half year in power has not been able to shed the old habits of the BN Government of sweeping the rubbish under the rug and putting lipstick on pigs.

Dear citizens of Malaysia, please see the chart given by OECD in their PISA result and how we stand and what it really means.

What is so difficult about calling a spade a spade, being honest about the state of affairs, having the integrity and courage to admit the problems and the issues; and then having the leadership and vision to lay out the exact remedy, strategy and plan to execute the corrective measures, improvement and development?

What is so politically difficult about that?

Is it because you lack spine, or you lack the brains and capability to come up with the solution and the strategy to implement them?

I have just two words to describe the Malaysian education system as reported by the PISA 2018 result – a FAILURE and PATHETIC.

Then we have the widely celebrated Education Minister making the proud announcement of making free education available to Malaysians. Please tell me, what is the use of being given a free car if that car is a 30-year old clunker that will break down right inside the Sempah Tunnel before it can even get up to Genting Highlands.

If memory serves me right, when I first started school, my year was the first year all subjects were taught in Bahasa Malaysia (except English, of course) and SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) was first-time all-in Bahasa in 1980. I still recall the strength of our SPM curriculum, which was equivalent to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in England.

Our lessons were practically unchanged from the days of MCE (Malaysian Certificate of Education) in English the year before, the teachers we had were superb, even though some were struggling to adjust to Bahasa Malaysia. Also, unlike today, the science laboratories were available and fully stocked. The sciences were subjects I looked forward to in-spite of my not being a strong science student.

A good friend of mine who went to do engineering in one of the top universities overseas told me he practically did not need to go to class in his first semester because our standards were so high in Form Five that he already knew the things taught in the Basic 101 physics, chemistry and maths courses – which he practically aced, by the way.

That was 40 years ago. Looking at the PISA results, I doubt that we would still be at the same level today if a proper review was done. Look at where we stand in relation to Great Britain: a 67-point difference in science and a 62-point difference in maths. For goodness sakes, we are 40 to 50 points below the average for maths and science.

Singapore used to be the same level as us but within 40 years they are more than 100 points ahead in each of those categories. This is a complete embarrassment and a damning indictment of our education policy, system, administrators, teachers and schools. Not to mention the governance of our society.

By the way, should any one one dare to point out that Singapore is a small country and easier to manage and centralise their education etc. I would point to China.

China’s figures are even higher than Singapore and much far ahead than us.

Think about this.

The infamous Tiananmen Square incident was in June 1989. China was in a precarious situation in the 1990s, socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was collapsing and the future of China under the Chinese Communist Party was at a breaking point. They were far behind Malaysia in terms of development and education.

Deng Xiaoping, then embraced capitalism and a scientific-driven education for his society. If you want to understand what this leader saw, remember that he left for France at the age of 16. He looked West and never looked back. And in less than 30 years, look at where they are compared to us.

What did we do instead?

Looked East for a short while before looking inward, became a more race-based, controlled economy and made our education religion-centric.

Did Deng Xiaoping embrace an increase in Taoist or Confucius “pondoks” or “madrasahs” and increase such classes in their schools?

Did they incorporate religious elements in teachings? NO. They went scientific.

They threw their youth out to the best schools in the West, most to study in the sciences and come back and rebuild their schools and universities on merit. They don’t spend wasted taxpayer funds to send their young for religious “education” nor do they tolerate teachers or universities that bring religion into education. They bring evidence-based knowledge, they bring maths and science.

We meanwhile have watered down our curriculum to make it easier to pass and handed out A’s by the bushels. Just look at the number of straight A’s per school every year when the results come out. It does not make statistical sense.

For what? “Syok sendiri” I call it, so that our teachers and school administrators can pat their backs. And our molly-coddled students can easily be admitted into universities via a disproportionate 90% racial quota. They then graduate out and start that cycle all over again by occupying positions in public administrations and GLCs that are incompetent and lose money year in and year out.

Why is this happening?

I always say one need not look any further than at the leadership. Since after Musa Hitam left the post of Education Minister in 1981, we have had a minister who was either of religious “scholar” in background or outlook in mindset. How then do we expect our education system to be world class and scientific?

We need a new scientifically- minded technocratic policymaker as Education Minister. One who is willing to dismantle the hegemony of religious influence in curriculum and racial mindset in educational opportunity.

We need a minister who understands that primary and secondary education is about imparting the basics of 21st century thinking knowledge, which can only be provided by maths and the sciences.

Someone who also understands that humanities and other types of electives are additional knowledge and skill at fundamental level that would allow our children to enter university with a more rounded evidenced-based critical knowledge.

Streaming is important because not everyone needs to learn calculus or higher-level physics or chemistry in secondary school. But those capable should be allowed to take them at the fundamental level so that they can compete at the level needed for tertiary education in the sciences.

The priorities of this education minister are so laughable that sometimes I want him to stay there forever as he is quite good comedic material, if it is not so tragic. He makes a big deal about “coding” as a subject. Coding skills are like any other skill, such as learning different languages, shop-skills, arts and the likes are all based on aptitude and interest. It’s an elective. It is not fundamental for education.

Focus on the basics.

Return our fundamental education to where it was in the 1970s and early 80s and update the curriculum to a tougher and higher level. For example, if in the 70s we taught up to Mendelian inheritance, today we should go right up to DNA structure and genetic evolutionary biology. If we stopped at Newtonian physics, then include general and special relativity now.

Put teachers who are truly interested and capable to teach these subjects, qualified at least at the master’s level and pay them what they deserve. Not having teachers and headmasters coming to school talking about religion in every other classes and having prayer gatherings.

Then let merit reign. Not everyone should go to university or be a university graduate. Those who do not merit such places can go vocational, learn the hospitality industry, obtain certificates in skills that we require for our daily economy to function at every level.

Why do you think if you go the USA there are no migrant workers at even the roadside diners? Because those who do not merit a degree are not accorded one and they pride themselves in working an honest day at decent wages. No need for migrant labour from Pakistan or Bangladesh or security guards from Nepal.

My final thought on this is: give options for other well-rounded humanistic knowledge of human civilisation, like languages of places where knowledge is today being produced – such as French, Chinese and German – world history and geography, music and the arts and... coding.

Education is not rocket science. But you need to be scientifically-minded, and therefore critical in thinking, in order to make true policy and substantive changes in our education system if we want to progress as a nation and not be left behind by the rest of the advanced world.

Note: The PISA, administered by the OECD, is a triennial survey of 15-year-old students that assesses the extent to which they have acquired key knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society. For PISA 2018,6, 111 students from 191 schools were chosen to represent Malaysia. These students were assessed and compared with students from 72 OECD and non-OECD countries.

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