Reforming Education: Futility of the Exercise
M. Bakri Musa
Last of Six Parts
Earlier I reviewed the challenges faced by three groups of students who happen to be mostly if not exclusively Malays: kampong students, those in residential schools, and those in academic limbo following their Form Five.
There is another group, this time also exclusively Malays, being poorly served by our system of education: students in Islamic schools. These schools see their mission as primarily producing ulamas and religious functionaries; they are more seminaries, with indoctrination masquerading as education. They are more like Pakistan’s madrasahs and Indonesia’s pesantrens.
I would prefer that they be more like America’s faith-based schools which regularly outperform public ones. They are also cheaper and produce their share of America’s future scientists, engineers and executives. Religion is only one subject in these schools, not the all-consuming curriculum. Thus they attract many non-Christians. Contrast that to Islamic schools in Malaysia.
If Malaysia were to serve the aforementioned four groups of students well, that would go a long way in ameliorating the “Malay problem.” It would certainly be much more effective than squandering billions on GLCs, greedily hogging our constitutionally-guaranteed special privileges, or incessantly spouting Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony). The converse is even truer. If we ignore these students, then it would not matter how much resources we devote to GLCs, how jealously we guard our quotas of public goodies, or how loudly we proclaim our superiority, those would all be for naught. Worse, if we do not serve these students well, that would be bad not only for them but also for Malays and Malaysia. What is also self evident is that we do not need yet another commission or a blue ribbon committee to start immediately addressing the pressing problems.
It is a uniquely Malaysian obsession to reform our education policies with every political season. Every new Minister of Education feels compelled to do it, perhaps to show off his political manhood or display his take-charge talent.
I wish the old wisdom – the more things change the more they remain the same – were true. At least then we could be comforted that the system would maintain its old quality and standards. Instead, each reform brings with it a new low. For Malaysian education, the more things change, the more they change … for the worse!
We need a stable predictable education policy. Changes brought on today would not begin to produce their results until decades or even generations later. We are only now bearing the follies of the “reforms” instituted in the 1970s. Predictability and stability of policies would encourage investments in the system. Textbook writers and publishers for example, are more likely to invest their intellectual and financial resources if they are assured that the medium of instruction of our schools would not be changed on a whim. Likewise, investors would be encouraged to set up private schools and colleges if they were assured that the government would not change polices regarding enrollment, curriculum, or language of instruction with every election season.
We have far too many of these reforms, reviews, blueprints, White Papers, and royal commissions. Yet now in our 65th year of merdeka, only Education Minister Muhyyiddin is smugly satisfied with the results, declaring at the recent National Higher Education Carnival that our young are receiving better education than those in America, Britain and Germany. Wow!
There was not even a hint of embarrassment on his part when he asserted that. Then with unconcealed smugness he added, “For those who have come to me complaining about our education system, it seems the [World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness] Report contradicts their claims.”
“Carnival” accurately describes the event where he spoke, for that is exactly what Malaysian education is, with Muhyyiddin the carnival barker. He obviously missed the part of the Report that read, “… Malaysia will need to improve its performance in … higher education and training (38th), improving access … in light of low enrollment rates of 69 percent (101st) and 36 percent (66th) for secondary and tertiary education, respectively.” Those figures are national averages. If you were to dissect further, specifically with respect to Malay vis a vis non-Malay performance, the statistics would be even uglier.
Muhyyiddin is beginning to believe his own propaganda. However, who or what he believes is not my concern except that our young (especially Malays) are bearing the heavy burden of his folly. He promised, or more accurately threatened, Malaysians with yet another “comprehensive” reform aimed at “transforming” our schools. Do not expect much; after all we are already the best. Such hubris!
This “comprehensive” review will once again consume the attention of the minister and his officers, distracting them from their day-to-day responsibilities. Resources will again be diverted to the hiring of expensive foreign consultants. Routine matters will now be ignored and pressing problems deferred until the “comprehensive” review. Meaning, they will once again be left to fester.
I do not expect much with this planned review for another reason. The education establishment, like the civil service generally, is highly insular and in-bred. There is little, in fact no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels, apart from recycled ones from quasi private and other governmental entities. Those currently at the top, having been brought up under the present system, would find it difficult to fault it. That would be tantamount to criticizing themselves. I do not expect them to raise fundamental questions or challenge basic assumptions; they are more prone to “group think.”
I wish there would be a moratorium on these highly distracting and resource-exhausting reviews. There are already stacks of reports gathering dust in the ministry’s archives. Their authors are merely recipe writers; they consider their job done with the writing. They are not interested in finding out the fate of their recommendations or whether those ministry officials have even read them!
A vast universe separates a fancy recipe from a delicious morsel. Whether our students remain starved, flabby, or well nourished depends less on the glossy pages of the recipe book, more on the ingenuity and skills of the chefs. They will determine if or when our students get fed, and whether with junk food or nutritious meals.
I would prefer that our educational chefs – the minister, his officers and policymakers – focus on a few recipes at a time instead of trying to remodel the entire kitchen. Study the issues thoroughly, learn from the experience of others, and then try them on small portions. Monitor the details of the ingredients and the cooking, carefully sample the results, and then once successful with the kinks straightened out, adopt the recipe for national use.
A good recipe begins with fresh crisp ingredients; thus I would begin with getting solid reliable data. I have difficulty getting such simple statistics as how many students at MCKK could bear the costs, how many would be the first to enter university, or how many come from families where no one could speak English. Those are important details if we are contemplating the changes I am recommending here. Similarly, there is no solid data on what Malay students do in the six-month hiatus following their Form Five. That problem cries for attention.
Consider the abysmal level of English among Malay students. I have yet to come across a study on the challenges and obstacles they face in learning the language. There is no survey for example, assessing the English fluency of their teachers. If you do not know the problem, you are not likely to solve it. Worse, you would then think that you have already solved your problem, tempting you to brag and thus bring embarrassment to yourself.
With Malaysia in desperate need of English teachers, there is not a single all-English teachers’ college, and few of our universities have dedicated Departments of English. The government for its part awards far too few scholarships to pursue a degree in English. That is our “diligence” in “solving” the problem of English fluency among our students. Again, our policymakers do not see any problem there!
It is precisely this paucity of good data, rigorous analyses and plain rational thinking that prompts our officials to make ad hoc decisions and carry out their usual seat-of-the-pants solutions. It is also this mindset that leads our minister to make such outrageous claims as our schools being the best. The worse part is that they believe it!
Even if that minister’s preposterous claim were true, there would be very little pride if our students in the kampongs, residential as well as religious schools, and those left in limbo after their Form Five – all essentially Malays – were to remain trapped as they are now.
The purpose of my exercise is not to pontificate on the issues or belittle those charged with solving them. It is also not my intention to imperiously diagnose the malady and then dogmatically impose my prescription. My intent is to ignite a much-needed debate. Only then could we appreciate the issues in all their varying facets and full complexities. That is the only basis upon which to craft a sensible and workable solution.
To that extent I am appreciative of those who have engaged me. They have highlighted facets that I am not fully aware of and brought forth aspects that I have not considered. For example, an American scholar suggests that I am underestimating the fear of Malay language nationalists (and Malays generally) to any prominence given to English. That the fear is irrational makes it all the more real and formidable.
To a suggestion in my earlier book that Chinese schools should be identified less with race and more with its medium of instruction, meaning, a school using Mandarin instead of one appealing to a particular race, an activist with the Chinese school movement responded that it would be too much of an emotional burden, bordering on being irrational, for them to do that.
Significantly, there is one group that surprised me for its lack of engagement, those in the public sector of education. I do get the occasional response, invariably from those who have retired! Recently someone very important in the government kindly forwarded my essays to senior officials in the Ministry of Education. They responded by duly thanking me for my “interesting” ideas. Nothing beyond!
In the 1980s the Ministry of Education sent many of its senior officers on a culup (quickie) summer management course at Stanford. I managed to interest a few of them to visit the area’s best private and public schools. A few hours before the appointed time however, they called to cancel as they were going shopping instead! Then apparently mistaking my reason for the meeting, one of them assured me should I have a nephew or niece applying for a residential school back home, to let him know as he could “facilitate” it!
Trying to engage our public officials is like dropping smooth pebbles into a lake; there is hardly any ripple.
Today with the digital revolution, Malaysians are better informed; hence the derision that greeted the minister’ pronouncement on the supposed superiority of our schools. Malaysia has a long way to go, Muhyyiddin! In trying to delude us, you succeed only in deluding yourself.