By P Gunasegaram
DEAR Dr M,
When it comes to talking about education, it’s pretty difficult to know where to start – you will know that pretty well because in 1974 you became education minister, one of the most meteoric rises of any politician in Umno, in your first ministerial position.
You had been expelled in 1969 by Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman after you strongly advocated Malay rights and called for him to step down in the aftermath of the May 13 racial riots that year.
Tunku’s successor, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (your predecessor Najib’s father) not only reinstated you into Umno but gave you a seat to contest in 1974, which you won. Following that Razak gave you the post of education minister.
Now, your education minister, Dr Mazslee Malik – a first-time MP and a first-time education minister rivalling your own illustrious early career – is fumbling, bungling and is totally at sea in terms of what to do about education. He has decreed black shoes, khat, allowed Islamic missionaries in schools, is making breakfast for schoolchildren, doing everything but not improving the basic educational system.
Dear Dr M, how long do you intend to keep this totally inept person in education and give him the rope to make more and more mistakes? By the time he hangs himself, he may have done so much damage it will be difficult for someone else to make amends easily.
Come on, Dr M, do we really need this khat controversy? Is this the time to use valuable school time to force students to write or paint beautiful letters of a language they don’t even understand?
Is our school system in dire need of Islamic missionaries who will be, according to those in authority, only preaching to the converted? Already, creeping Islamisation in schools is moving at a much faster pace – do you think non-Muslims will be rushing to send their children to government schools? Imagine the further polarisation that will take place in already severely polarised schools.
Why, even Muslim parents can be repulsed by a system which forces Islamic religious education on those children whose parents prefer that they guide their children’s religious views, not the state.
If you doubt that is taking place, please read the article in Malaysiakini entitled “New Government Old Ways” by Fa Abdul about how difficult it was for a Malay parent to stop her son from attending an Islamic leadership course. (https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/505046)
Make education more relevant
Dear Dr M, the problem with the Malaysian education system right now is not that it is lacking Islamic elements. The opposite is true. The system needs to be made more relevant so that the basics of education such as reading, writing and arithmetic are fixed at the most basic level. If Mazslee has done anything about it, none of us has heard of it.
At the higher levels, it is about ensuring the kind of education that is important to earn a living, getting employed and obtaining further relevant education. It’s about communicating, thinking, reasoning, learning technical skills. In fact, it is also about how to learn, embracing knowledge and skills.
Even higher than that, we must ensure that our colleges and universities are not diploma or degree mills merely churning out hundreds of thousands of unemployable graduates. Instead, they must produce useful people who are likely to contribute towards a productive, adaptable and capable workforce.
It’s about being proficient in English, too, the language of much of the private sector and even in government, the language which promotes the assimilation of knowledge because much of what constitutes knowledge and skills is written in English.
You realised that much too late, Dr M. Almost three decades after you first became education minister in 1974, you decreed in 2003 when you were prime minister the last time that science and maths should be taught in English for precisely that reason. But in 2009, it was overturned by your current home minister and ally Muhyiddin Yassin when he was education minister under Najib Razak.
More than one and a half years after you came back to power in May 2018, science and maths is still not taught in English in all schools and there is no plan on the table to increase the English Language proficiency of students in government schools.
The stark reality after more than 18 months of you as prime minister and Mazslee as education minister is that religion and language considerations have not been rolled back at all to help the necessary reform in education.
Get on with educational reform
Really, Dr M, you of all people should know that the current controversy over khat, the organisation first of a conference and then its cancellation by edict of the court are all distractions to the important work that the education minister should be doing towards improving our educational system.
So, let’s get on with educational reform. The first step would be to make it secular. Religious education can only be an adjunct to education, not its totality. The body of knowledge in education anywhere cannot be dictated by religion but be scrupulously kept areligious.
Similarly, education must be strictly apolitical – the meddling fingers of politicians must be kept out of education. History must be correct, not convenient. The course of education must always be decided by a body of competent professionals based on academic rigour and a genuine desire to equip our children with the knowledge and tools to do well in the world.
We need to ensure that our history is told accurately and that what is taught as fact is verifiable as such in as much as that is possible. We cannot twist science and history to conform to the tenets of our religious leaders and our politicians.
You need to get these basics right first before you can fix the education system. Even if you got this right, it’s a long, arduous, painstaking haul that lies ahead. But if you don’t get this right, even heaven won’t be able to help us.
P Gunasegaram, editor-in-chief of Focus Malaysia, started working life as a science and maths teacher in 1977