EDU Nation: The right kind of education is a necessity for the nation

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IT has been 45 years since Tunku Abdul Rahman stepped down as the prime minister of Malaysia. However, he will always be remembered and honoured as the architect of this nation. To him, what was most important was the happiness of the people and peace in the country.

Since he passed away in 1990, we reminisce about him every year, not once but twice of late — on Merdeka day and his birthday on Feb 8. It is indeed gratifying to see that the people are the ones who are keeping his spirit alive and that his wisdom has become a beacon of the nation’s conscience.

Special appreciation goes to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs for honouring him every year on his birthday and sparking discussions of his ideals, principles and vision of this great nation.

To me, he was my grandfather, an elderly person I looked up to. I was 18 when he passed away and was too naïve to understand and realise the impact he had made on the country and that every other person in this country also looked up to him. It was only much later in life that I realised the influence he had had on my life and my view of certain issues.

Like him, I feel that a good education is the most important thing for a person to acquire. We can accomplish so many great things if we are aware and have the know-how to do it well. I wish I could have had a meaningful discussion with him on this issue that I feel so strongly about. Thankfully, he had the foresight to pen his thoughts for the benefit of later generations.

It is important to understand his thoughts on educating a diverse group of people, of a new post-colonised nation he helped create, so we can all live happily and prosper together. There is no country like Malaysia anywhere else in the world that can be used as an example, but one that would be a worthy model is possibly based on the Constitution of Medina, where people of various tribes and religions lived harmoniously together.

Tunku had spent a great deal of time talking about the right kind of education for the people. Here are some of his views:

“In a country like Malaysia with its multiracial population there is all the reason why people of different racial origins should make every effort to understand and respect one another and to look to Malaysia as our home and the sole object of our loyalty.”

“The education policy of any country should reflect the composition and characteristics of the country and its people. This would augur well for a nation with people of diverse racial origins and religions as we have here.”

“The standard of education must be kept high. Only with education can young men appreciate the true value of life and give their undivided loyalty to the country of their birth. This helps to ensure goodwill and peace among the people.”

“For this reason, I am always cautious about any attempt to change our education policy and system.”

“While I appreciate that a nation like Malaysia must have a national language of its own for official use and also to serve as a unifying factor, the language for higher education must, in the main, remain English. Once that standard drops, then the rot begins to set in and trouble will start.”

“We cannot follow other countries blindly because what is good for us may be poison for another. No two countries are alike. Malaysia, in particular, is in a special position because of the nature and composition of its population. The constitution guarantees that each race in this country is free to pursue its own education, provided that it conforms to national policy. It was on this understanding that all races agreed to support Malaya’s independence.”

“At this stage of our development we cannot afford to do away with the core of higher education; to which every parent or studious boy and girl aspire. So whether we like it or not, the study of science and mathematics should be continued in English for a long time — perhaps for many, many years to come.”

“It is education which helps to build a nation, and if the future of this country is to be safeguarded, then we must depend on the intellectuals to give their support.”

 But almost every education minister who steps into the job has other plans and fiddles with the system. They create something new as if to make a mark for themselves for having done something for the education system.

Many experiments in and attempts at the creation of new programmes or new breeds of branded schools have fallen short of expectations and done even more damage. Many of these programmes do not fix the underlying problems at their core or are done by avoiding the problems in the first place. Furthermore, when the minister steps down, the programmes step down with them.

The Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) had the opportunity to meet the Education Minister 2 and like his predecessors, he too has a new programme in the pipeline. It seems, at face value, a good school transformation programme, but whether it has the capability to continue after the creator steps down is an answer we already know based on statistics of school reforms in the country.

This new school transformation does what it can, given the resources at hand, but it still conforms to certain restrictions and avoids certain sensitive issues, which show its weaknesses. As long as there is no will to address the problem areas at their core, we will always see a constantly changing education system in the future. Whether these changes are positive or not, it is evident that the numerous school reforms we have been subject to thus far have not borne encouraging results.

Isn’t it time to press the reset button and go back to basics, to the foundations of this nation? But who will be able to drive this and has the guts to stand up and do the right thing for the right kind of education we need? Is there political will to do so, given that politicians’ decisions have factionalist tendencies?

Let’s celebrate this coming Chinese New Year with some optimism and boldness and let’s not be sheepish about it.

Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia. PAGE is an educational lobby 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 February 16 - 22, 2014.