Our education system has not moved much from the period of British colonisation and the strategy of divide and rule. Dating back from the beginning of our education system, each race had their own vernacular education, with Malay, pondok, Chinese and Tamil schools.
The prestigious English schools catered for the children of elite families as well as those meant to be trained for the civil service. The Malays who went to primary vernacular schools would have to adapt to English schools for their secondary education, but many failed to get beyond primary education. It was thought that their livelihoods were predominantly agriculture-based, and hence, they did not need education beyond basic schooling.
It was the British system of divide and rule, by design: Keep the Malays at the bottom of the pile with little or no schooling while the British exploited the country’s wealth of natural resources without stirring a revolt.
At the time of independence, it was evident that the Malays and the indigenous people had been left behind. Their schooling, if any, did not give them any opportunity for higher education or professional careers.
After independence, the education policy envisioned and driven by the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, ensured that the poor would have the same opportunities to climb the ladder of success with the children of the rich and those in high places. The policy was also a harmonious solution to ensure goodwill and peace among the country’s diverse population, as everyone places a high priority on good education.
The Tunku was adamant that in order to achieve the highest level of education, English must be the language for higher learning. In essence, English is a tool to gain knowledge for disadvantaged groups, so that they can better themselves and not be left behind because of poverty or lack of opportunities.
This would enable them to aspire to achieve their highest ambitions and grant them a ticket to the best universities in the world. His policy of education was intended for the underprivileged to gain upward economic mobility, and this policy was also good enough for his family.
The Tunku’s English policy by no means placed less importance on the national language. In fact, he advocated that everyone should learn it and be fluent in it, and that it must be developed further for it is the national identity that binds the different races together. Many agreed with him.
He stood firm on his education policy, which made him unpopular within his own party, Umno.
When Tun Abdul Razak took over as the country’s second prime minister, the language of learning was switched to the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, and this continues until today.
The fourth prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, realised a bit too late, at the tail end of his premiership, that English should be used for the study of science and mathematics. This was because it was evident that half a century after independence, the effects of the short-sighted, politically expedient national education policy had become fully evident, and resulted in the overall deterioration of the quality of our national education system.
The switch to fully using the national language gave scant attention to the study of English, and teachers were unable to achieve the proficiency needed to conduct classes in English, despite the fact that the majority of science and mathematics teachers graduate with a minor in English.
For more than 10 years, the Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, or PAGE, has been consistently advocating that science and mathematics be taught in English for those who wish for such a policy, and many parents agree with us. But there seems to be no change or improvement in the capability of teachers in general for this to be done even though the Dual Language programme has been up and running since 2016, and, before that, the infamous PPSMI, or the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English policy.
The rot in education is deep-rooted due to years of directionless, substandard education. Our first prime minister foresaw this and warned us to be on our guard. No one took heed then, and now, it seems, trying to improve the standard of our education is a futile attempt due to politicising and the disruption of sensible education policies by certain ultra nationalist groups.
It is apparent that the prime mover of any education policy is the person at the top, none other than the prime minister, for only he has the power to put resources where they are needed.
If only all prime ministers were able to develop and implement education policies under their watch that were good enough for their families and everyone else. Sadly, we have seen that that is not the case.
Somehow, the class system hasn’t changed much since the British times.
Current statistics show that we are stuck in the middle-income trap and that our graduates are not able to find jobs partly because their English proficiency is not good enough. Whether we like it or not, we need English to become breadwinners. We simply cannot feed the family based on emotions and sentiments.
Therefore, the standard of teaching, teachers and the whole civil service must be improved. Being proficient in both the national language and English should be expected of them.
But if we keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, it is just not going to work. Our children’s futures must not be exploited for selfish political gain.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia