EDU Nation: Law versus politics in education

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THE Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia was invited to speak at the recent ILKAP (Institut Latihan Kehakiman dan Perundangan) National Law Conference 2014.  The objective of the conference was to analyse the challenges faced by the nation in the wake of globalisation, from a legal standpoint.

It started with a keynote speech by Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail. Among other things, he spoke about education and the national language, pertaining to Article 152 of the Federal Constitution and the Education Act 1996. He mentioned that we all need to read and understand the preambles and sections of the laws carefully before making any comments.

As for the Razak Report 1956, he said the goal of the education policy was to unite multiracial schoolchildren, prepare a workforce for Malaysia’s economic requirements and establish a national education system acceptable to the people as a whole that would satisfy their needs.

But what if the national education system does not satisfy the people’s needs? Can the law play a part in ensuring that Malaysians get the education they aspire for? And what about making schools multiracial?

There seems to be more disintegration among the races and in the social strata now as an increasing number of affluent parents choose private and international schools, which have proliferated, over national schools. Many parents who do not have the means feel that they do not have a choice or any say in the provision of education. Many parents want to be engaged in matters of education, in the hope of raising the overall standard for the sake of their children.

The preamble to the Education Act 1996 states that pupils are to be educated in accordance to the wishes of the parents, if it is within reasonable expenditure.

One way of ensuring that our children are prepared for the workforce and economic requirements in the wake of globalisation is to re-establish English medium schools. Although the Education Act 1996 stipulates that the national language be the main medium of instruction in national schools under Section 17, it gives leeway for the establishment of national-type schools and other educational institutions.  Section 28, however, states that the national language must be taught as a compulsory subject.

Malaysians must read, write and converse well in the national language. We want our children to succeed in the national language and understand what makes us Malaysians, regardless of the type of schools they end up in. There is no threat to the national language as it is safeguarded under Article 152. The national language and English must not be allowed to deteriorate at the expense of the other. Both languages must strike the right balance in importance and proficiency.

In matters of education, language of instruction is not a zero- sum game. That is evident from Paragraph 71 of the Razak Report, which states that “no secondary school pupil shall be at a disadvantage in the matter either of employment or of higher education in Malaya or overseas as long as it is necessary to use the English language for these purposes”.  Paragraph 72 says, “We see no educational objection to the learning of three languages in secondary schools or to the use of more than one language in the same school as the medium of instruction.”

The abolition of English-medium schools in the 1970s opened up a passage for education decisions to be made along racial lines by political parties that represent specific ethnic groups according to the type of schools. The consequences of such political interference have hindered not only the quality of overall education, but also worsened social integration, while English language proficiency has suffered. This political agenda in the name of Article 152 and so-called mother tongue education is against the principles of the national education policy and has caused a setback in the nation’s progress.

We cannot afford to be left behind in this day and age. The continuous improvements in science and technology require us to be at par with the rest of the world. Collaborative works in these fields are mainly done in the lingua franca of science and technology, which is English.

If English-medium schools cannot be accommodated at this juncture, at least let the option of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) be given to designated schools. PPSMI doesn’t contravene the Education Act.

PAGE’s panel session at the National Law Conference was entitled, “Social Integration through Education and Housing Development and Planning: Can law play a part?” Our session was oddly combined with that of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Although the Ministry of Education was invited as a panel speaker, its seat was vacant.

We recommended that schools be the anchor attraction in a given housing area. Let the school draw people of various ethnic groups and stature with the purpose of planning and re-engineering social integration.

The Minister of Education is able to provide for the development of hybrid English medium schools utilising the Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) curriculum. If such schools are set up, the schools should be government-aided, and charge reasonable fees.

Let those who cannot afford full-price International schools be given the opportunity to have a choice of English-medium education. International education cannot be the monopoly of only the affluent. The private education providers running the international schools should be encouraged to set up such schools for the masses in the housing area.

The law is on the parents’ side and provisions can be made to cater for different dynamics of schools to reflect the needs and areas of focus. We would like to see bolder and genuine decisions in bringing together a more cohesive, inspired and progressive Malaysia, moving forward together to build a high-income nation. But will education ever be free of politicisation?

Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 24 - 30, 2014.