The Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) recently convened its seventh annual general meeting. As the chairman, I commend the council, steering committee and members, as well as supporters, for sticking it out this long. While it began merely as a casual group for those with schoolgoing children advocating a single cause, we have since become a national society and, if I may add, a responsible and respected voice for parents on educational matters at every level.
While being recognised by the Ministry of Education was a given, we continue to be consulted on science education by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti). More recently, to be invited to participate in several budget talks by the Ministry of Finance was a pleasant surprise. We look forward to creating meaningful impact and pushing boundaries.
Moving forward, we have decided that while we continue to support better English education at every opportunity, we believe national unity is headed for dire straits. A growing movement is in the making.
Tan Sri Dr Omar Abdul Rahman, the former science adviser to the prime minister, has expressed his concerns through his thoughts, speech and writings. “I think we urgently need a social innovation in Malaysia because we are currently beset with a multiplicity of social needs and problems, arising out of a resurgent polarisation based on political, racial and religious differences, threats to our declared commitment to moderation and struggles to embrace modernity,” said Omar, who is chairman of the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management (CPTM) and former chairman of Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology.
Since then, a few civil society organisations, including PAGE, have come together to form a citizen’s movement, now known as the “Dialog Rakyat for National Cohesion and Unity”. The others are Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE), G25 (a group of prominent Malays), Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS ), Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship (INSaF), and Nation Building School, with the Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute (ASLI) acting as the secretariat. The National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia (NCWO) recently joined us.
The first Dialog Rakyat forum, which was held in December last year, agreed on a Code of Ethical Conduct (CEC) that sets specific guidelines of behaviour for ourselves, individually and collectively, to counter unhealthy developments. It is built upon the principles of the Smart Partnership, which was initially introduced in 1993 in the context of cooperation between the private sector and government agencies to facilitate business and trading.
“The CEC takes into consideration various areas of concern expressed during the Dialog Rakyat including an education system that promotes civic consciousness and national unity; adherence to the Federal Constitution and upholding the Rukunegara; better interfaith understanding; encouraging volunteerism; and being socially responsible for our own words and actions.”
Armed with the CEC, the Dialog Rakyat movement continues to engage individuals, youth and educational institutions, civil society organisations and residents’ associations, and through religious tolerance and interfaith understanding, to translate the CEC into actionable practices.
At every school assembly, schoolchildren memorise and regurgitate the Rukunegara. Ask them what it means and they more or less get the gist of it, even if they don’t understand it in totality. But more needs to be done. And it is definitely not by waving political party flags and singing party songs at school events, no matter how historic.
Exploit 21st century learning. Introduce and encourage interfaith understanding at Pendidikan Islam and Moral classes. Celebrate similarities in a positive manner. Classes for civics as well as history need to be conducted differently.
It should not be just about completing the syllabus in the shortest time possible, but taking a more engaging approach. Provide real-life examples that schoolchildren can relate to, be interactive, tell stories and get their attention so that they want to hear more instead wishing for the class to end quickly so they can go out and play sport, for instance.
Although sport does unite, some critics say there is discrimination even here. Games such as football are associated with Malays, basketball is a Chinese game and hockey is Indian-dominated, according to some. Nevertheless, the recent SEA Games was a major unifying factor for all Malaysians.
Unity can also be attained beyond the classroom. Emphasise other activities such as debating, the arts, Interact clubs, fitness for the less athletic (to combat obesity and teenage angst), coding (as a pillar on its own), welfare work, environmental conservation (cleaning beaches, recycling), urban farming and others, using teacher training colleges as an avenue.
It is not merely those in Dialog Rakyat who are worried about national unity. It appears to be more widespread than thought, with captains of industry expressing similar concerns publicly.
Household names Tan Sri Tony Fernandez of AirAsia and banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak have spoken of the importance of a similar citizen’s movement to embrace national cohesion and unity in our daily lives. They have vowed to continue to employ a diverse workforce in their organisations and hope other industries will do likewise.
As I was writing this column, the Malay Rulers released a media statement, which stated: “Unity among Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious people is key to ensuring the country’s ongoing stability. After 60 years of independence, we must continue to act in accordance with principles embodied within the Constitution and manifested in the spirit of the Rukun Negara.”
Every Malaysian has to ensure that unity in diversity flourishes as all of us, together, will reap its benefits in one way or another.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education, an educational lobby that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders