My Say: National education, racial politics and class economics

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 26, 2019 - September 01, 2019.
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If the Ministry of Education had wanted to reform the school system, it could have chosen an issue that is impactful to the reform effort as well as one that would obtain a broad consensus across all stakeholders. It could choose, as an example, to improve the teaching of languages in our schools. It could also choose to improve the teaching of mathematics and perhaps introduce programming language in schools.

Any one of these would likely obtain a consensus among most stakeholders, and either one would have formed the first steps towards reform. Improving the teaching of languages or mathematics, key subjects in any system that emphasises the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), will lead to the improvement of teaching in the other subjects as well. Literacy and numeracy form the foundation of any learning enterprise.

This would be a possible outcome if the MoE, from its political leadership to its professional staff, were to look at education as purely educational. Alas, this is not the case in Malaysia. It has never been the case since we decided to live together and govern ourselves.

As mind-boggling as it is to understand why the ministry decided to make introducing Arabic calligraphy in Malay classes in Chinese and Tamil schools a key policy initiative, such a decision, unfortunately, fits a long-established pattern of not looking at education as just education. Both the supply and demand sides of the educational equation have never been just about education. The policy prescription and the reaction towards it are therefore not unexpected.

Education has always been looked at through the prism of politics and since politics in this country is largely race-based, education comes with the colours and odours of race and, therefore, religion. Neither the means nor the ends of education are just about education. It has never been “just” about developing the mind and exploring the true potential of a child for them to be good and productive citizens of this country. Therefore, it has also never been about consensus building — it is divisive and fragmenting. Education, a tool for national development and unity, becomes divisive and mediocre as a result.

Racial politics has made our educational institutions less about education and more about furthering our own racial prejudices and religious beliefs. We do not only separate our children, we imbue in them the sense of differences, not in the sense that there is diversity in this life but that anything different is somehow less, worse, or to be feared and avoided.

The Pakatan Harapan government would do well to start deracialising education and pivot the economic development agenda around this educational reform, but evidence thus far has been disappointing. And at the root of this inertia against change is racial politics, the proposition that the interests of a community are best preserved by members of the community themselves. A corollary to that proposition is that the furtherance of a community’s welfare must be at the expense of another’s. It is, therefore, not difficult to see why leadership that does not rise above this will simply lead the country down the path to perdition.

The ruling coalition from the time of Merdeka has been a coalition of race-based parties, although the origins of nationalism in Malaya — be they the more rural Malays or urban Chinese — were left-leaning, class-based rather than race-based. The radical Malay left got associated with Indonesian nationalism, which was republican, and the labour-based Chinese urban politics was associated with socialism and more damagingly with the communists. Neither the spectre of Indonesia Raya (greater Indonesia, which would include Malaya) or the threat of the Domino Theory (communism) were palatable to the British and the path towards self-rule in Malaya became a union of distinct entities defined by race instead of the politics of class.

Such a union was a convenient platform towards independence and government during the early days but it contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Nationally, this racially defined logic and dynamic also became incongruous with the somewhat different dynamics of Sabah and Sarawak, which were more reminiscent of pre-World War II Malaya. The challenge of Malaysia remains a fundamental one — how we see ourselves as distinct individual identities in the context of who we are as Malaysians. How do we locate ourselves, not as individuals but as groups within this imagined construct we call Malaysia?

The race-based politics that dominates and colours public discourse and policies tends to divide rather than unite. Over time, the political division of labour by race sharpens the racial divide rather than create a larger common denominator within a coalition. The imagined construct of Malaysia gets dominated or is relegated to the periphery and, increasingly, the reality that is lived is one that is defined by identity and race, which tends to lessen one’s appreciation of diversity, hence its tolerance — a vicious and insidious cycle.

So, when opportunities arise to solve national problems, from education to entrepreneurship and social ills, the problem gets defined in such parochial terms and not for what it is as phenomenon to be resolved.

If calligraphy were introduced as an art form in arts class — a graphical representation of letters and, therefore, of words and phrases of different kinds of alphabets, then it would have made sense from an educational perspective. Introducing the jawi script, effectively the Arabic script, for the study of Malay literature, too, would have been normal given that classical Malay literature was written in Jawi. But to introduce Arabic calligraphy in a Malay language class for non-native speakers is silly and, given the racially charged environment, the reactions to such a decision were equally silly. So, things get blown up, divisions get amplified and the education system is no better.

I am now inclined to believe that policy debates on education and on the economy, too, would have been much more productive if the debates around these issues were based on class politics instead of race. Although I am personally and professionally averse to the economics underlying class politics — for I am basically a market-oriented economist — there are more positive aspects to the normative prescriptions of class economics compared to identity-based politics. There is economics to households and communities but there is no economics to race. Economics can, however, explain the sub-optimality of outcomes in a racially segregated community.

An obvious consequence of segregation is that the factor markets in such a community are also fragmented, which suggests a production structure that is equally fragmented catering for a demand side that is also fragmented. A racially fragmented economy is the sum of its distinct parts and therefore a sub-optimal economy.

As an example, there are various public policy interventions in entrepreneur development programmes but these are understood to mean bumiputera entrepreneur development programmes, which can still be argued as a legitimate policy objective given the lack of such entrepreneurs, but the racial framing of the problem and the pervasiveness of racial considerations made the solution to this national problem a sub-optimal one.

The participants in and the managers of the programmes will then be almost exclusively bumiputera and they will design and implement programmes with bumiputera product concepts catering for the bumiputera market using bumiputera channels. This approach contains the seeds of its own failing for it lost sight of the main objective of a business to sustainably make profits by offering the market — the broadest possible market — what it wants and can afford to pay. But we continue with the same approach despite the negative results because we cannot get away from the racial perspective. The political market that decides these things is held hostage by race and identity and national problems continue to be solved by compartmentally applying a segregated perspective.

There are many such examples of important developmental agendas that could have obtained much better outcomes if they were conceptualised and implemented to solve problems for what they are as the departure point.

Leadership should rise above these narrow, parochial interests and be more inspirational. If leaders are unable to lead then the people must lead, as they do in any class struggle. They must be made to realise that while the rhetoric of race used by leaders may be appealing to the heart, the majority are not made better off as a consequence. The policy prescriptions and programmes derived from such rhetoric are ineffective to improve the welfare of the general population and only serve the narrow interests of the political elites. Maybe this ruinous politics of race can be moderated by appealing to class arguments. Perhaps this is something to ponder on this Merdeka month.

Dr Nungsari A Radhi is an economist and the views expressed here are not related to any of his organisational affiliations

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