Being Human: For buy-in, separate education from politics

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 25, 2019 - March 31, 2019.
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Of all the reforms that have been made possible by the change of government in the 14th general election, the overhaul of the education system may perhaps have the greatest influence on the country’s future.

This is simply because we now have a chance to mould a new generation of Malaysians that is free of the baggage of the past and who can make their mark on the world as the citizens of a great nation.

So, it is timely for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to announce that a task force has been reviewing the full range of education policies from the preschool to tertiary levels over the past 10 months, with the aim of “making national schools great again”.

From Mahathir’s comments, which he made last week at the Invest Malaysia 2019 event, we can expect the reform to address fundamental issues that have constrained the educational system. Three main outcomes that will be pursued are a fresh emphasis on values in education, ensuring quality throughout the system and enhancing autonomy and accountability.

The task force is due to complete its work next month, so we should have a more detailed picture of the revamp soon.

Much will depend on whether we can fix a seriously flawed education system, so it is worth dwelling on the root problems that are causing it to be dysfunctional. This is because the outcomes of an underperforming educational process are being felt in the stunting of youths’ potential and of the nation’s growth.

Few things are as inspiring as the opening of the mind when the light of understanding dawns on it. Teaching is known as one of the noble professions because the transmission of understanding that occurs between teacher and student creates a connection between generations that defies the march of time.

How sad is it, therefore, for our young people to be subject to a soulless, regimented system of instruction during the best years of their lives that robs them of curiosity, a sense of adventure, thirst for knowledge and confidence in their potential to make the world a better place?

Surely, we can do better.

Secondly, education rightly applied, ought to make us empathetic, open, connected, cooperative and grounded individuals. How have our schools fared in this area?

Then, there is the question of national identity and the role that schools play in shaping our sense of purpose as a society. This is an area where the Malaysian education system is in a state of arrested development, or some would say, has been sliding badly for a long time.

At the root of the problem is the political foundation of our nation, which is defined by racial and religious identity. Unfortunately, the power-sharing formula among the Malays, Chinese and Indians that formed the basis of our compact of independence with the colonial British government has become a straitjacket for social and economic policymaking.

Our insecurities over the potential loss of our cultural identities have spilled over into our education system, giving birth to a hybrid animal that is pulling in different directions.

After six decades of increasing polarisation, the time is long past due for all members of the Malaysian family, who have increased in number since 1963 to include the cultural diversity of Sabah and Sarawak, to take a fresh look at envisioning a national education system that will serve the nation’s best interests for the long-term future.

For this discussion to be possible, the people must first agree to separate education from politics. They must also come to the table in a spirit of fellowship rather than suspicion, cooperation rather than competition and be ready for compromise and accommodation.

In the current political environment of growing intolerance and hate speech, such a spirit of goodwill may seem elusive. However, the choice of making a fresh start is ever-present, as shown by the remarkable awakening that occurred at the polls last May that took us into the era of a New Malaysia.

It may well be found that a major change of direction to keep racial and religious parameters separate from education policy would meet with strong public resistance, despite adequate provisions for vulnerable groups and ample support for training in moral values in the new education framework.

This can only be expected because of the many decades of identity politics that have shaped the nation’s narrative.

However, a start must be made somewhere to address this national challenge. Often, initiatives by public-spirited groups, individuals and business leaders to chalk a forward-looking path in the face of daunting challenges can provide the inspiration for a new approach to what may seem like intractable problems.

The Teach for Malaysia movement, for example, serves as a model for mobilising resources across all sectors to bring the benefits of mentoring and guidance to high-need schools. No trace of identity politics here.

Where the normal channels of educational delivery fail to serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Teach for Malaysia initiative harnesses the best qualities of bright young leaders to give two years of their lives to the service of less fortunate students.

The common motivator for people who sign up for its programme is a strong belief that everyone deserves a chance to get a decent education, no matter what their background may be.

It is this spirit that must fuel the current effort to rescue the national education system. The task force will no doubt recommend some radical changes to revitalise the quality of teaching and create an inclusive, wholesome and productive environment in our schools.

This reform will by no means be easy to achieve, as the resource constraints, institutional culture and resistance to change will prove to be formidable challenges.

The people who have been tasked with achieving this transformation will need to draw on all their resourcefulness to develop creative solutions to the entrenched problems in the education sector.

They must also be determined to translate lofty ideals and grand plans, of which there have been no shortage, into demonstrable progress at the ground level.

At this hour of the nation’s need, all stakeholders must come forward and pull together to create an education system that is fit for the 21st century.

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

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