By Dr Lim Teck Ghee | CPI
I call on the Government not to stampede Malaysians into approving the education blueprint recently presented to the public. This is because there are many unresolved and critical issues which need clarification and deliberation before the blueprint can be considered a satisfactory framework for responding to the deep crisis in our education system and the many challenges that we face in economy and society.
Rushing the blueprint as the final roadmap just ahead of the coming elections not only smacks of political opportunism but it will also adversely impact our students through its untimely implementation of contentious policies in key areas.
Is a new NEP part of the blueprint?
In my opinion, the draft although containing some useful recommendations for reform, has many shortcomings, including the failure to address key problem areas arising from past politicization of the educational system. This politicization associated with the implementation of the New Economic Policy in education has led to a drastic fall in standards as well as the declining quality of human resource development and a less resilient, cohesive and competitive society. It awaits a fuller discussion and analysis in the revised report.
The question of whether there is a covert new NEP agenda in the blueprint that could emerge in its later operation is of the utmost importance. It should be dealt with openly and transparently.
At the macro level too, the blueprint is especially vague on principles, strategies and policies on religious schools; poorer performing rural schools in Sabah and Sarawak as well as the National-Type Chinese and Tamil schools. It also failed to make any mention of the establishment of an English language vernacular stream among other areas of public concern.
An answer is urgently needed to the key question whether the vernacular schools will continue to be treated as stepchildren in the national school system. It is presently not forthcoming from the draft.
A finalized blueprint needs to state unequivocally that there will be no discrimination against the vernacular schools in all policies, especially in terms of resource allocation. In the absence of a specific assurance in the blueprint, the fear that it will be business as usual is totally understandable. There may be little or no departure from the traditional ways in which these schools have been marginalized and discriminated against by policymakers and implementers.
What place for Islamic and Mara schools?
The position of Islamic religious schools and its growing number of students is a potential disruptive game changer in our secular and multi-religious society. But the Sekolah Agama have not been given the importance or close examination that they deserve. The human resource potential available from these schools needs to be integrated such that they can contribute to the larger society rather than serve the interests of those bent on imposing an Islamic agenda on the country. This more positive objective needs to be spelt out and the strategies and operational steps given substance and specifics.
There is strong evidence that that the disparities in student performance that take up so much attention in the report are the outcome of NEP policies aimed at building up a Malay professional and upper class. Thus a disproportionately large quantum of resources has been deployed towards an elite group of schools that have catered for a small minority of students, mostly coming from already privileged backgrounds.
The failure of the report to be explicit and transparent on these inequitable policies and resource allocations especially for the Mara junior science colleges will result in their continuation into the future, particularly if public discussion and scrutiny are constrained or prohibited. Yet it is of national importance that alternatives to the current Mara system are presented and critically assessed in the blueprint so that all stakeholders can weigh the pros and cons of this stream and its privileged special position in the educational system.
Manipulating history education into the blueprint
At the curriculum level, the authorities need to be open and transparent as to whether the decision to make history a compulsory subject beginning at the primary school level and the new requirement that students need to have a pass in the subject for their SPM, is or is not a part of the blueprint.
The team responsible for the blueprint must surely know that the announcement on the history subject was made at the 2010 Umno general assembly. This anomaly smacks of a politicization of the school syllabus and the suspicion that policy changes were initiated by politicians (from one party) and not by educationists. They must also be aware that this issue is of concern to many parents and educationists who have campaigned for a truthful, liberal and progressive history curriculum in place of the currently religiously and racially skewed one; and who are against any decision to make history education a political football.
This issue is a litmus test as to whether the Prime Minister will honour his promise to approach education from a national viewpoint and not from partisan lines, and also of his undertaking to depoliticize education.
It is also a potential black mark staining the reputation and integrity of the officials, educationists and other individuals associated with the preparation of the blueprint if they are seen as permitting themselves to be made use of by politicians seeking to indoctrinate our young with a racially and religiously skewed version of the history of Malaysia and the world.
Can the Ministry and the education system rise above racial politics?
Finally, more than the 11 shifts listed in the report, the following shifts are necessary in the Ministry of Education and teaching profession if we are to repair the damage inflicted on our education system and transform it so that our young people emerge with the right knowledge, skills, analytical and critical thinking and creativity to participate in a modern, multi-cultural and competitive world. These shifts are:
* Learning from the past but not to be imprisoned by past paradigms,
* Ensuring that educational rights are not made a political football because of perceived racial, social or economic disparities,
* Practicing transparency, openness, fairness and integrity of governance in all aspects of education. Positive values are necessary not only as values for students but also for the Ministry of Education officials and teachers engaged in education,
* Rising above racial, religious or political agendas. Every component of our national school system must be regarded as important in our multiracial society and must be provided fair and equal treatment.