by M. Bakri Musa
The Minister of Education will soon decide whether to continue the teaching of science and mathematics in English in our schools. That decision will not materially change the continuing decline in educational achievements of Malays.
This harsh reality is the consequence of our national schools – the default choice for most Malays – being abysmal failures. Most non-Malays as well as affluent Malays are fully aware of this and thus have long ago abandoned the system. Observe the steady stream of school buses and private cars full of young non-Malays heading south on the causeway every school-day morning. As for affluent Malays, ask where Najib Razak and Hishammuddin Hussein send their children for their education!
In today’s economy, the most advantaged are those with high science literacy and mathematical skills, as well as being fluent in more than one language, with one of those languages being English, the language of commerce and science. Fluency in English is no panacea of course; a visit to India and the Philippines will quickly disabuse us of that assumption.
The next most advantaged will be those fluent only in English. The least advantaged would be those literate in only one language, and that language is other than English. This unfortunately is the fate of Malays today.
While one could attain high levels of science literacy and mathematical skills without knowing English, that is true only if one’s primary language is Japanese, German, or any of the other already developed languages. It is not true for Swahili or Urdu. It is definitely not true for Malay, no matter how passionately our language nationalists assert to the contrary. Even with those Germans and Japanese, the crucial point often overlooked is that they are also literate in English. Japanese children for example, learn English right from kindergarten.
These educational deficiencies of Malays are long standing; they cannot be solved through expensive investments in facilities and personnel alone.
The problem is most critical, and equally most difficult to overcome, with rural Malays. The cultural, intellectual, language and other ambience at home and in the community are not conducive to these children lifting themselves out of their trapped environment. They need help desperately. To effectively do so, our leaders must be daring and exceptionally innovative; resorting to pat answers would not do our students justice.
English Schools in Rural Areas
In my earlier books I proposed setting up English schools in the kampongs. It makes sense to begin there as those Malays are the ones with the lowest proficiency in English, and thus would benefit most from such an initiative. With their already high usage of Malay at home and in the community, these pupils would not likely “forget” their native tongue if they were to attend these exclusively-English schools.
This is not a novel or risky social experiment, rather the resurrecting and improving of an old successful one. That was how Malays of my and earlier generations received our education. And as Tun Mahathir noted, we have not become any less Malay for the experience. Nor have we degenerated into “brown Mat Sallehs,” the expressed mortal fear of the nationalists. Indeed that was how those ardent defenders of Malay language as Nik Safiah and Hussein Ismail received their education and enhanced their intellectual development. Now they want to deny today’s young Malays – their grandchildren – the very same opportunities that they had enjoyed and benefited from.
While my proposal would be an improvement over the present system, there are problems with its implementation. Politically, there could be similar demands for such schools to be set up elsewhere, especially in areas where the background level of Malay in the community is low. Then we could potentially end up with situation akin to the bad colonial days where students would be fluent in English but at the expense of their proficiency in Malay. That would be unacceptable as Malay is now our national language. Further, it would divert resources and personnel away from rural areas, where the need is most desperate.
Then there is the ire of the nationalists. They would go ballistic seeing those village children heartily singing Baa Baa Black Sheep instead of Nyet Nyet Semut, fearing the cultural and other “polluting” influences on our young. Telling them that those children would continue singing our melodious Malay lullabies at home would not reassure these nationalists.
A more practical problem would be in getting good teachers to serve in rural areas, although this could be alleviated through generous incentives like higher bonuses and providing living quarters. Not readily surmountable would be that such schools would necessarily be small; hence their academic offerings would be limited.
English-language Islamic Schools
To bypass these problems, I propose setting up English-medium Islamic schools. Again I am not suggesting anything radical here, merely extending an already successful experiment. I am simply proposing that the successful formula of the International Islamic University (IIU) be extended down to the school level.
Like IIU, these Islamic schools would use English as the medium of instruction, be open to all, and teach religious as well as “secular” subjects. These schools could be set up anywhere, not just in rural areas. Consequently they could be in major towns and thus be of sufficient size to offer a varied and rich curriculum.
In fact IIU already has its Islamic School, also using English as the medium of instruction. Unfortunately its curriculum and pedagogical philosophy are more madrasah-like, the antithesis of a modern educational institution even though the school prepares its students for the GCE “A” examination. The emphasis at that school is on students learning the rituals of Islam and memorizing the Quran. I would prefer that those be done outside the classroom.
The Islamic school I have in mind would be modeled after the many excellent Christian – in particular Catholic – schools in America. Their academic standing is such that they are the first choice for many non-Christians, including Muslims. These schools are first and foremost academic institutions, concerned primarily with education. They are interested in making their students better citizens, not on producing future priests or on proselytizing.
These schools regularly matriculate their students to highly competitive universities to become engineers and doctors. Only a tiny fraction, if any, would end up in the clergy. Likewise, my version of Islamic schools would produce Malaysia’s future scientists and scholars. These schools are not meant to produce converts to Islam or turn students into ulama.
There are now many such Islamic schools in America, and their number is rapidly growing such that the University of California, Irvine, currently offers a teachers’ credentialing certificate in Islamic Education. Ultimately these schools would lead to the establishment of an English-medium Islamic University modeled after and of the caliber of Georgetown. Meaning, they would offer solid liberal education in a rigorous academic environment but with an Islamic ambience, akin to the Catholicism of Georgetown.
A more local but historical model of my Islamic school would be our old missionary schools. They did a credible job in educating many Malaysians, including our present Minister of Education Hishammuddin. Just substitute their Christianity for Islam.
English-medium Islamic schools in Malaysia would overcome many of the problems associated with my earlier suggestion of having English schools in rural areas. For one, such schools could be set up in urban areas and thus be of sufficient size to offer a rich and varied curriculum. There would also be fewer difficulties in recruiting teachers.
While English would be the medium of instruction, Arabic (and with it jawi) would be taught as a second language. Islamic Studies would be taught in English, but the emphasis there should be on teaching it as an academic subject, not as theology.
In a typical seven-period day, one period would be devoted to Arabic and another to Islamic Studies. The remaining five would be for regular or “secular” subjects, including English, science, and mathematics. Science and mathematics would be taught as per the current understanding, and not as some presumed “Islamic” variant. The curriculum must include the performing arts, and the extracurricular programs robust and varied to include sports.
The emphasis should be on solid liberal education and critical thinking. Literature for example would be taught not only as a means of learning the language but also to develop the students’ critical faculties, as per Louise Rosenblatt’s “Literature as Exploration” philosophy. Students would be discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets as well as Rumi’s rhymes.
Using English would go a long way in disabusing Malays of the negative psychological connotation associated with learning that language. We would no longer view English as the language of colonials and infidels but as a necessary intellectual tool. For another, such schools would truly educate their students, teaching them to think critically as well as imparting to them modern skills and knowledge. Far too often what goes on in existing Islamic schools is nothing more than indoctrination – masquerading as education.
Properly executed, these schools would attract students from abroad, especially the Middle East. These schools could be viable business investments as well as contribute to making Malaysia an educational hub.
Since these schools are open to all, they should get state support. There is precedent for this; the old Christian missionary schools also received governmental funding. Additionally such schools should get a generous slice of the huge zakat and wakaf endowments. I would also impose a surcharge of RM100 for every Hajj and umrah ticket towards funding these schools.
As can be readily seen, my version of the Islamic school is very different from the current Sekolah Kebangsaan Agama (SKA). Apart from differences in admission policy and language of instruction (SKA admits only Muslims and uses Malay), there would also be profound differences in mission and teaching philosophy. SKA aspires to nurture future pendakwah (missionaries), and like IIU’s version, is more madrasah than a modern educational institution.
My proposal transcends politics; it is also be a splendid way to initiate conversations between Malay leaders in the various parties for the betterment of our people. This dialogue is desperately needed as our leaders are determined to go their separate and divisive ways. They seem intent on erasing any commonality of objectives in the relentless pursuit of their political goals.
English-medium Islamic schools may prove to be the effective avenue to propel Malays up the educational ladder. The Islamic imprimatur always sells. Our language nationalists would not dare oppose such schools even if English were to be the medium of instruction. We should capitalize on this. These schools could be the salvation for Malays, just as Catholic schools were for impoverished and marginalized Irish immigrants in America at the turn of the last century.
These are the issues I expect Hishammuddin and his senior officers at the Ministry of Education to deliberate on, not flip flopping on major policies. That they are not doing so is a gross dereliction of duty. Unfortunately it is our young who bear the terrible burden of this negligence.