by Bakri Musa
17th September 2012
First of Five Parts: Education Blueprint – Transparent, But Not Bold Or Comprehensive
Education reform is inflicted upon Malaysians with the regularity of the monsoon. Like the storm, the havoc these “reforms” create lingers long after they have passed through.
In this five-part commentary I will critique the latest reform effort contained in Preliminary Report: Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 released on September 11, 2012. The first three essays will address the Blueprint’s findings and recommendations; the fourth, its omissions, and the last, the flaws in the process with this particular reform effort.
The Blueprint clearly identifies the main problems and challenges at both the system and individual levels, but fails to analyze why or how they came about and why they have been let to fester. Consequently the recommendations are based more on conjecture rather than solid data; more towards generalities and the stating of goals rather than on specifics and how to achieve those goals. On the positive side, the goals and milestones (at least some of them) are clearly stated in quantifiable terms, so we would know whether they have been achieved going forward.
Despite extensive public participation and the inclusion of many luminaries (including foreign ones) on the panel, the report has many glaring omissions. It fails to address the particular challenges facing Islamic and rural national schools. This is surprising considering that the constituents in both streams are Malays, a politically powerful group. Even more pertinent, those schools regularly perform at the bottom quartile; they drag down the whole system. Improving them would go a long way in enhancing the entire system. Yet another omission is the failure to analyze and thus learn from earlier reform efforts.
This Blueprint does not live up to Najib Razak’s assertion of being “bold, comprehensive and transparent.” Transparent perhaps, but not bold or comprehensive! That is not surprising as the panel is dominated by civil servants. They have been part of the problem for so long that it would be too much to expect them now to magically be part of the solution.
Predictability of Education Reform
It is a particularly Malaysian obsession to reform its educational policy with the political season. Every new minister feels compelled to do it, as if to demonstrate his political manhood. Now it is Muhyiddin’s turn.
Five years ago under Hishamuddin there was Langkah Langkah Ke Arah Cemerlangan (Steps Towards Excellence). Five years before that under Musa Mohamad was Pembangunan Pendidikan 2001-2010: Rancangan Bersepadu Penjana Cemerlangan Pendidikan (Education Development 2010-2011. Plan for Unity Through Educational Excellence). Notice the long pretentious titles and frequent use of the word “excellence.”
In the meantime generations of young Malaysians, especially Malays, continue to pay the price for the follies of previous reforms, in particular the one in the 1970s that did away with English schools. Someone finally wizened up and brought back the teaching of English, albeit only in science and mathematics. Then just as we were adjusting to and recovering from that reversal, a new leader who thought himself smarter changed back the system!
This latest reform released on September 11, 2012, will prove to be the 9-11 of Malaysian education. The destruction may not be as dramatic visually and physically as the other 9-11, but the wreckage will be real and massive, with the havoc remaining long after to haunt current and future generations. The damage will be extensive, cumulative, and compounding.
As in the past, this time we are again being promised that this storm of a reform will wash away the thick polluted haze that has been hovering over our schools. Yes, the air will be clearer and fresher after a storm, and the birds will sing. Meanwhile however, we have to deal with ripped roofs, flood debris, and destructive landslides.
In compiling this Blueprint the government has commendably sought wide public participation and at great expense. The public in turn responded massively and enthusiastically, reflecting the angst over our education system. The panel however, did not sufficiently discern the difference between quantity and quality, and duly gave equal time to the bombasts as well as the wise.
The Challenge of Quality
This Blueprint, like earlier ones, is already getting rave reviews from the usual quarters. Just as predictably, a year or two from now even before any of the recommendations have been fully implemented, “scholars” from our public universities will declare through their “research” that the reforms have already produced the anticipated improvements!
We saw this when the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English was rescinded. Barely a year into the program and “scholars” from our public universities were already trumpeting the “remarkable” improvement in the science and mathematics scores especially among rural Malay students. With all those great improvements one wonders why we need another reform!
This new Blueprint was barely released when Muhyyiddin announced a new history curriculum, meaning, one written by UMNO hired hands. So much for the weight given to this reform and its objective of creating students capable of critical and independent thinking!
No one would argue with the Blueprint’s objectives of improving access, quality, equity, unity, and efficiency. Consider quality; it is uppermost in everyone’s mind. The government proudly parades the success rates at its national examinations, as with the accelerating number of A’s scored. Yet when assessed by such external yardsticks as TIMSS and PISA, our students scored poorly. As the report acknowledges, they are at least two to three grades behind their counterparts in South Korea, and declining.
The panel glosses over this glaring anomaly and thus fails to draw the only and important conclusion: Obviously what we teach and how we test are substandard; worse, we are doing both wrong!
If your home thermometer says you do not have a temperature but at the hospital you register a high fever, then you should get rid of your thermometer lest you would be dangerously misled in the future. If we wish our students to be in the top third in PISA and TIMSS, then we should first dispense with the current curriculum and testing as they do not correlate (in fact inversely correlated) with those international measurements.
Consider another objective, to have our students be bilingual in Malay and English. I agree with that; the problem is how to achieve it. The panel addresses the issue generally, but the kampong boy in Ulu Kelantan faces a vastly different problem in learning English vis-a-vis the diplomat’s son in Bukit Tunku; likewise a Tamil girl on an estate school in Ulu Tiram learning Malay to a penghulu’s daughter at a national school in Ulu Trengganu.
It would be wiser to focus first on the problem areas, as with improving the Malay proficiency of students in vernacular schools and the English skills of Malays in national schools. Correct both and you would go a long way in improving the system’s overall performance, and in the process satisfy many.
As the challenges are very different; the solutions too must necessarily be different. For vernacular schools especially in areas where Malay is not widely spoken, devoting more hours to Malay and having bilingual (Malay and the vernacular language) teachers would be the more appropriate solution.
In the kampongs however, not only is English not widely used, there is also active antagonism to using and learning it. Again this is not a problem unique to the kampongs. In Western Canada there is similar resentment towards learning French despite it being Canada’s second official language. To overcome this and compensate for the low level of French usage in the community, some schools have total immersion classes where pupils would spend their first three or more years in classes conducted entirely in French. As the program is entirely voluntary, it is politically and socially palatable. As parents discover the many advantages, the enrollment soars.
A similar solution could be employed in the kampongs. Have English immersion classes for the first few or better yet, throughout the entire primary school years. Introduce Malay only at Form One. Go beyond that and have secondary schools that would teach half the subjects in Malay and the other half in English. Science and mathematics would be the ideal subjects to teach in English. Such a school would produce fluently bilingual graduates.
Aware of the political sensitivities Malays have towards learning English, I would make the program entirely voluntary, like those French immersion classes in Western Canada. Kampong Malays are as rational as those Anglophone Western Canadians. Once those Malays see the advantages of being proficient in English, they will flock to enroll their children in those immersion classes.
Such schools could be the innovation worthy of emulation by other nations who similarly aspire to have their students be bilingual. Such Malay-English bilingual schools are much easier to set up than Arabic-English or Mandarin-English ones as Malay and English share the same roman script. I would restrict such schools to only those who already have (or can demonstrate) near-native fluency in Malay so that those students would not “forget” how to speak Malay.
In practical terms, this was how my contemporaries and I learned English back in the 1950s. English usage was even much lower then, in fact nonexistent, at my home and community. I advocate bringing back those English schools, but site them only in areas with low level of English and high Malay usage, as in the kampongs.
If we were to bring back the old English schools (as the parent-group PAGE is advocating) and locate them in the cities where the usage of Malay is low, then we would only resurrect the old problem where students would ignore Malay.
Similarly, such Malay immersion classes could be used to enhance the proficiency of non-Malay students, especially in communities where the usage of Malay is low.
The panel highlights the many islands of excellence in our school system. Yes there certainly are, as with the missionary and independent Chinese schools. As they are already doing a superb job there is little need to reform them. Instead the government should support them so they could enhance and replicate their successes. Others (including and especially the government) would then be inspired to emulate them. I would impose only one condition for that generous public support and that is the enrollment must reflect the general Malaysian society. Such a policy would also further one of the stated goals of the Blueprint: to enhance unity among our young.
Next: Part Two: Quality Schools Begin with Quality Teachers