Malaysia’s educational reform: can the yellow states lead the way?

by Azly Rahman
[email protected]

“To evolve into wiser individuals with enquiring minds, we must ask questions and reflect upon the answers suggested to us. If we are afraid to ask questions, our mind and consciousness will be owned and manipulated by those who think they have the right answers, or by those who wants to use force to tell us what the right answers shall be.”
– My thoughts on the nature of learning

“I currently firmly believe that education should first be a dialectical and dialogical tool to mediate and resolve the contradictions between Existentialism and Cyberneticism, and of Cultures of Disabilities, …and next be a Deconstructive-Reconstructivist tool and social force to engineer personal and social revolutions and progress towards the realisation of a personal republic of virtue, ethics, multiculturalism, and metaphysics; so that human beings endowed with the Natural Rights to be free may collectively become educated to rise above hegemony, domination, and oppression and in the final analysis, journey towards a Pastoral and Natural self .”
– my personal philosophy of teaching

Let’s take a break from thinking about Malaysian politics. Justice will take its natural course, the natural “way”, like how Lao Tzu would philosophize.

Let us talk about the possiblities in education.

I have some ideas on how we can evolve out of this current political quagmire and focus our attention to an ever-pressing national question: how best to educate the children of our nation.

We need to have the states governed by Pakatan Rakyat to experiment with a new paradigm of educational reform. To showcase what “human capital revolution”, “education across the life span” and “education for creative and critical consciousness” means.

Not only to showcase one but to have a continuous improvement plan that uses data-driven and sociologically reflective techniques to engineer, nurture, and sustain such changes until education becomes the only means to educate the child to become a thinking, feeling, and reflecting human being skilled to live in harmony with people of different races and consistently exploring the power to transform the self.

In other words, we need to interrogate our educational practices and see if indeed the one that is engineered by the current regime of Barisan Nasional is effective.

We can embark upon a longitudinal comparative study – which states will progress better with a different set of idea of what education ought to be. The Yellow states of Pakatan Rakyat and the Blue states of Barisan Nasional can each be given five years to showcase improvement. We need to give them only these concepts to work on: “nature of the human beings”, “nature of the human mind”, “nature of learning and teaching”, “nature of change”, “nature of intellectual freedom”, “nurture of human intelligence”, “nurture of multiculturalism”, and “nurture of class consciousness”.

Game on

Let educational philosophers and planners and practitioners form each camp design their long-term strategies and pull together their experts and their resources.

The ultimate goal after five years is to do this: which states will have the least drop-outs, least at-risk youths, least youths incarcerated, most globally-minded, most employable graduates, and more intelligent, more world-wise, and more emphatic leaders in society.

Which states would have the best teachers with the best teaching skills and strategies, most engaged students, most creative classroom, most frequent integration of project-based learning strategies, most innovative assessment strategies, most inquisitive students, happiest learners, most-mentally resilient and gung-ho graduates, and most internationally-recognized awards?

Which states would still have the most unmotivated teachers, most vandalised schools, most neglected students, most number of daily truancy cases, most absent teachers, most stratified schools districts, most wasted class periods, most under-funded schools, most number of tuition classes, most frequent interference of politicians who do not have any business interrupting schools, most mentally lethargic learners, and most unmotivated and unskilled graduates who still need to be coached during job interviews?

That would be a good experiment in human and social transformation.

We need an independent body of researchers to report on the state of educational improvement in these two set of states – the Yellow and the Blue states. The winner of the game will get to take over the entire operation of the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Higher Education.

The winner will get to set up another ministry – The Ministry of Human Intelligence, fashioned after Venezuela’s many years ago, to look into education in the most comprehensive sense of its definition. We need benchmarks of success; those that would reflect national and international standards of excellence, equity, and empathy in education.

These standards need to be met cumulatively and progressively, pegged meaningfully and authentically to SMART national and international standards.


The current state of education in Malaysia, after fifty years of independence, lacks the excellence and the rigour, the political will to recognise equity and equal opportunity, and lack of empathy in looking at the class divisions forming in the process of schooling. It is slow in restructuring society based on the alleviation of poverty regardless of race.

It has failed in its commitment to instill the spirit of Muhibbah; a concept the current government had asked children to sing to in the early 1970s. It is in fact using more sophisticated ways to divide and rule society so that the hegemony of race-based politics will continue to become a status quo.

We are at a critical stage of “point-of-no-return” in education; our conveyor belt of nationalistic-tribalistic education philosophy guised under the name of “educational progress”, is going haywire, sending our batch-processed children off tangent in this Rostowian ideology of educational progress. What a waste of talent and human capital. Instead of turning them into lotuses of learners that bloom, we are making them bricks in the wall.

But first things first, as Steven Covey would say.

Let us first commission a new study of drop-out/keciciran, using good qualitative and quantitative data next and find strategies to deal with it. Our nation is actually in danger of a major human development crisis, compounded by the current oil and food crisis.

The revolution of March 8 needs a new means to sustain a good idea for human development and social change. It has the potential of political, cultural, and educational renewal. We Malaysians must all rise beyond the current pre-September 16 national-political crisis that is imploding and exploding multi-directionally against the backdrop of a world that is perpetually in crisis.

Winning children

But this proposed game of Yellow-Blue educational reform is not about creating and projecting an image alone. It is about our fear for our children’s future. It is about our passion in education and how one can learn from educational practices worldwide.

I believe talents are wasted.

There are solutions that this current regime has not yet discovered. Our goal is to see children of ALL races progress. That’s what any religion and humanistic philosophy teaches. Whatever success one’s own children have achieved, that success formula MUST be applied to the children of others, especially of the poor.

That’s what a good philosophy of education should mean to us. We cannot discriminate any child; at all levels of his/her development. The mind is too precious to be under the control of the ignorant, the arrogant, and the xenophobic.

Perhaps the state of Selangor as the most progressive state can show us the way forward in education; and the fruits of success shared with others. It can even be a hub for top notch and quality education that will link its institutions with top notch programs, institutes, and colleges worldwide.

Perhaps this state can be spearhead the radical reform and see an intellectually sustainable culture emerging. Perhaps Selangor’s state university UNISEL (Universiti Industri Selangor) can be the impetus for change; spearheading comprehensive reforms at all levels. This will be followed by other state-owned and private universities until we see a parallel paradigm running; each documenting and reporting successes and rooms for improvement based on a “child-centered” curriculum that guarantees success for all.

The Barisan Nasional government has its own idea of what Malaysian education should look like; an idea closely tied to communal/race-based politics and the obsession with mind-control, obedience, and the lessening of critical thinking. It has its own competent Vice Chancellors that are working hard to have their institutions reach world-class status.

But looking at things from a collaborative point of view, perhaps these two ideologies in education (the yellow-blue ideological-dichotomy) can one day be dissolved when the experiment’s over. Ultimately bi-partisan thinking should govern educational change. Ultimately in education, philosophy will triumph over politics.

When must we then embark upon this game of education – the race for excellence, equity, and empathy in education? It must be a game in which every child must come out a winner.

  1. #1 by sybreon on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 7:37 am

    Nice essay, but isn’t education under the purview of the federal government? So, I’m not quite sure how much the PR can change in the “yellow” states. Fixing things that are within the power of the state legislatures should be a priority. Where are the local council elections?

  2. #2 by Godfather on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 7:55 am

    This is a typical theoretician talking. As though the den of thieves will allow fair and transparent competition between PR states and BN states. As though PR could decide by themselves if a meritocratic programme should be implemented in their states.

    Stop dreaming, Azly. Go do something more practical.

  3. #3 by trublumsian on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 8:27 am

    5 years to prove if a system works?? that is too much time spent to prove BN’s way does not work. We’ve got the last 50 years, so time’s up. Just take the best ones around the world, consider the social makeup for parallelism, start applying it, and you’ll see results in a few years. Heck, just do it like Singapore. Give the backward-evolved ones (seen the movie Wall-e??) some time to adjust, soon everyone will do just fine in a merits-based system.

    But I do like the idea of letting the PR states run their own program. I bet Penang will kick association!

  4. #4 by Elwin Heng on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 8:49 am

    Will ‘blue’ easily site-seeing ‘YELLOW’ be success?
    Groups of evil-devil in dynasty-blue(LA) nowadays, sacrificed us to benefit itself became rich-to-richest! Most of them are qualified as millionaire or billionaire!

    Don’t talk about education, [email protected] funds of tourism~development, direct/indirectly must required own selected person on-handing allocated funds! Why must they do so? Are they mindset thinking being outdated or initially showing us `Selain daripada badan kami, orang lain tak boleh, hanya kami boleh! Semakin makan semakin gemuk!`

    No matter who-or-whom, should I/we classify or categorize ‘who are you / which party you support?’, then only taking care about us? Share with you, since failure of 308, blue started ‘punish’ those living @elected federal PR MPs’ territories. Not only publicity hate ~petrol price hiked, high daily expenses, also newly setup parking system trying to 2x++ burden us!

    Eye-seeing ‘blue’ so called contribution ~understanding ~heart loving, are they deserve you-&-me continue alongside and vote for them? You know the answer, don’t you! However, foreseeing PR 5 states governed, satisfy and sense or feeling their sincerity and honesty upon public contribution!

    I/we confident no doubt there must be facing certain difficulties without funds allocation by federal-blue; in believe if I/we stay-&-work together, hand-by-hand, bright lights will alongside dynasty-PR. With guards of us, PR warriors continue fighting and must destroy evil-devil`blue till mission accomplished!

    Warmest regards.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 9:04 am

    The real reason why UMNOist want to get rid of vernacular education is because it is better. UMNOist is not interested in better education just for education asked as its not interested in Islamization just for Islam or unity for unity sake. Its interested in all these things as tools for their own self-interest first. It want better education for UMNO control and exploitation, to account to their own constituent i.e., the Malays and whatever else that is convenient.

    Otherwise, it would not have taken some 30 years before and independent TAR university. Otherwise it would do everything it can to stem the growth of vernacular education and think nothing of burdening Chinese primary schools with English in Math & Science when its counterproductive.

    No UMNO is not interested in better education that can make it look bad. It just don’t care for reality otherwise it would face the biggest reality which is that NEP has cost this country opportunities that is as much as 10 times what we have had.

  6. #6 by anna brella on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 9:09 am

    Sorry, education is too important in my view to be used as a competitive political football in and between the states.

    High quality education should be freely available to all right across the national spectrum and not be some sort of a lottery one wins depending on where one is born or where one happens to live.

    But some great innovative and ground-breaking ideas there though for reforming education as a whole at the national level.

    However, on the suggestion by Godfather to stop dreaming and to go do something practical, may I respectfully counter-suggest that you, Azly Rahman, continue dreaming on dynamically and not be side-tracked into being mundanely practical like perhaps that Luca Brasi who sleeps with the fishes.

    “Imagine Power To The People” John Lennon

  7. #7 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 9:25 am

    Online Internet-based courses via distant learning are a possibility. Not only these courses are cheap but they are also suitable for adults who need to work in the day and only have time to surf the net in the evening.

  8. #8 by yhsiew on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:10 am

    Online Internet-based education would probably not cause any race to be marginalized as opposed to traditional classroom type of education.

  9. #9 by limkamput on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:21 am

    Justice will take its natural course, the natural “way”, like how Lao Tzu would philosophize. Azly Rahman

    You really think so? I don’t think so. Ultimately may be, but by then we are all dead. Just like short run and long run in Economics. In the long run, we are all dead – John M Keynes. We want justice now, not let it take its natural course. We waited long enough already.

    Your ideas are very good, Azly Rahman. But first we need to amend the Federal Constitution and take education out of the federal list. Otherwise, how we do we experiment with the different methodologies, motivation of teachers, and embarking on the new frontiers etc.

  10. #10 by limkamput on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:22 am

    Education in Malaysia has always been a race-based ultra nationalistic indoctrination machine. First, we must have a national syllabus; it does not matter what garbage they put in there. They changed history and make students study one particular aspect of history. They throw meritocracy out of the window and replace it with some ill-conceived social justice objectives. They promote incompetent teachers and administrators to breed even more incompetent school system and students. They teach value system that is essentially feudalistic and submissive. They harp and harp on the importance of BM as if it is the one and only unity determining factor in this country, and conveniently forget all the divisive polices being practised everyday in our life.

    Azly, many are not philosophical men and women who can think and write like you. But I think most of us know what a good education system is and ought to be. Education is this country is destroyed by parochialism, bigotry and racism. It is about trying to make all future generations to think and act like them – never mind that they are a group of hopelessly outdated cavemen. Your idea is fantastic; we need a paradigm shift. Piecemeal and incremental do not work anymore because the reactionary forces and dead wood are just too overwhelming.

  11. #11 by Samuel Goh Kim Eng on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:28 am

    What’s the use of wearing uniforms
    Without uniform intakes and opportunities
    With frequent talks only of reforms
    Without freedom for educational creativities?

    (C) Samuel Goh Kim Eng – 290708
    Tue. 29th July 2008.

  12. #12 by oknyua on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:46 am

    I have news for you Dr Azly.

    My sister is a teacher posted to Sarawak. According to her observation, of which she was clearly alarmed, the school HeadMasters in Primary and Secondary schools are slowly being changed by Malays from W Malaysia. They have done that in Sabah and now moving to Sarawak.

    In the Yellow States, UMNO/Malay agenda in schools had been on track for the past 50 years. To change, it would have started with the federal government. Then, change the syllabus and HMs. Dr Azly, PR has been in office less than 6 months. PR has no control over the fedeal policies. Write similar article after 2012 G/Election.

  13. #13 by Anba on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:02 am

    Dear Azly,
    Hi there. You seem to have sound ideas and yet it’s difficult for common people or an average educated person to understand your arguement. You use words like ‘Existentialism’, ‘ Cyberneticism’,
    ‘Deconstructive-Reconstructivist’, ‘hegemony’, and other words thats quite difficult to understand. It seems like you may be posting some of your lecture notes here ( I’m assuing that you’re teaching). Are you teaching in a local or universities overseas? Quite likely that you could be teaching in overseas. If you’re teaching locally, I’m not sure how your dean and fellow associates would deal with you. I’m hoping that in your future articles, you would be easy on the english, to allow for more people to understand what you’re trying to say. I mean this sincerely.

    As far as I see it, 5 years for each Yellow and blue states may be a long time to experiment. Whats needed is simply to abolish the NEP and all the discrimination that comes with it. When students are allowed to compete with their own merit, we will atomatically produce a competent work force and also a competent teaching faculty in the local universities. It’s this simple. My philosophy in education is this: The highest function of education is to create awareness in each learner to be a whole human being. As a whole human being, he/she will be aware enough to discover their vocation ( with the help of dedicated teachers). When students find their vocation ( the word vocation is rooted in the Latin for ‘voice’) or find their calling, they will fit into this world in a manner that will produce talent and creativity. Such a student will not be greedy and driven by an economic driven world but will follow his/her heart and do what they truly love to do, in short they will be doing work based on their natural talent. Can we find such educators to bring about such transformation?

    Any takers? Azly, ready for the challenge?

    May truth and justice set us free.
    God bless.

  14. #14 by i_love_malaysia on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:22 am

    BN – There’s no problem with our educational system. The low ranking given to our universities by other countries was bias. Our system is the best in the world, we produced graduates that are employable all over the world, we made billions of ringgit in foreign currencies from our people who are working overseas. Our people are well equipped to migrate to overseas anytime. We produced astronaut, we have the tallest buildings not long ago, we have Proton, submarines, latest fighter jets etc. and nuclear power plants soon.
    Who said our educational system has problems and needs be to changed???

  15. #15 by Anba on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:38 am

    Dear I_love_malaysia,
    Hi ther. It’s either you’re sleeping or pretending to sleep.
    1. We did not produce astronauts, the person who went to space was a visitor, using our tax payers money.
    2. Our twin tower was outsourced to foreign company with foreign technology.
    3. Proton oly designed the body of the car, the engine belongs to technology from Japan.

    I do not want to go further. Either your article ridicules Azly’s article or you realy need to go and see a psychologist.

    God bless.

  16. #16 by bumi-non-malay on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:38 am

    Ideology and Aspiration …. how they battle.

    Just spend time tutoring, mentoring your children and after Form 5, see if they can do a one-two unit course from a reputable On line UNI from Australia, USA, Britain, Canada….etc. All this assume one have some cash($3000 ringgit per unit at least for business, IT, science units). need 16-24 to get a degree depending on uni…So save now. Get any basic degree….then get a job then upgrade degree. Don’t waste money on tuition under Form 3. …or start a business…

    Every child is born intelligent, its the systems that RESTRICT their FREEDOM, CREATIVITY and what God intended them to be. Give them skills that are marketable in USA, Canada, Britain, Australia….stuff Malaysia. It could be Plumber, bricklayer, hair dresser, electrician…there is no shame as they earn more than some Doctors in Malaysia….. Money is all relative!!

    The education systems in Malaysia is Stuffed. What the hell one needs to do Maths/Science in English and in Mother toungue when one has decided to go the mother tongue route.

    Once you have given your child an opportunity to see the world via migration, then your job have been a success as an educator.

    After that give the current UMNO-BN Sham Elected Government Hell. Even in Old age you can still Obliterate the UMNO-BN from Malaysia forever. Your child is Free and your are free from the UMNO-BN made burden on your life!! Don’t let the Racist UMNO-BN continue to set the agenda for another 50 years.

    If the first 50, have not OPEN YOUR EYES of WHAT a FAILED STATE Malaysia IS, then perhaps its YOU(Malaysian) who need more education, paradigm shift!! Perhaps spend some money seeing a Psychologist!!

    Malaysian are weak into thinking by being busy(doing homework, tuition, more home work) a child will be SMART! Then you should stay in Malaysia and keep working under the current Racist UMNO-BN systems to keep UMNO-BN in Power with their Sham Democracy.

    Keep working to earn a diminishing value in your Ringgit everyday or learn to think differently!!….see how effective the brain washing has been all these years. Be a responsible parent and learn to work around and OUTSIDE the Racist bigot UMNO-BN failed education systems!! To keep supporting it means you agree with the failed education systems yet did nothing….Boycott

    AirAsia, petronas, local banks!!….in credit crunch time, you $$$$ is King and powerful!!

    Traitor PAS..Don’t wear Songkok, Wear Black on Merdeka 2008

  17. #17 by greenacre on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:43 am

    the pakatan government cant even approach the schools as they come under the federalist. In Penangthey had been trying. It will be a pipe dream until the whole government machinery is taken over.

    Our national schools were never national then or ever. Indeed it is a misnomer to call it national schools. They have plastered religion all over the buildings and trying to plaster it on the small minds.

  18. #18 by i_love_malaysia on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 12:10 pm

    First thing first, let us go back to the basics of education and ask ourselves, what is education in the first place??? why we need education??? why we need to study so many subjects, are these subjects and materials still relevant in today’s society???

    Education is very simple in nature, but it was misused by many countries e.g. to teach communism to students and emphasized on there’s no Creator and everything just happened by itself!!! China has produced many competent graduates but poor in moral because they will do anything as long as they are not caught!!!

    Education in its simplest form is to impart knowledge and skills that are useful for humankind to progress continuously into the future. Take for e.g., in order for every one to communicate effectively in Malaysia, we need to learn BM first by ABC and then followed by vocabulary and sentence, essay etc etc. . We also need to learn Maths first by 123 and then followed by plus and minus etc etc. All these basics are required so that we may be able to learn things that are more complicated later in secondary, pre-U and University. After graduation, we should be able to apply immediately to the society what we have learnt and continue to learn on things that are relevant to our trades or outside of our trade etc i.e. life long learning in order to stay relevant to the society that we are living in!!!

    All other information that are outdated should be removed from syllabus and latest information that need to be learnt should be incorporated immediately!!! Research and development of ways and methods to impart knowledge and skills in an effective, efficient and quick ways should be encouraged and employed!!!

    Other than IQ, we should also emphasized on EQ etc in order for our society to live harmoniously etc. .

    All of the above will work only when those in authority have the will and wisdom to implement what education should be in its pure and uncorrupted form.

  19. #19 by i_love_malaysia on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 12:22 pm


    I did not ridicule Azly’s article. I’m just playing devil advocate and putting across some of the BN’s opinion and see what all of you will say!!! Seemed like it is very effective to invoke fire from hell!!!

  20. #20 by limkamput on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 12:41 pm

    Ask Tony Phua whether he get invitation to any of the PJ school’s PTA or other functions. It is still Chew “My Fun”. Check it out. We have a long way to go.

    What about PR MPs and ADUNs, have you fellows got any plan to get yourself into schools and other associations. Are you still waiting to get invitations. I can tell you it is not going to happen. So get your a**es moving.

  21. #21 by Adolf_Napoleon on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 1:58 pm

    We are wasting our time. Untill today we are still so stubborn or self denial. From bottom to top and from top to bottom, everything is just Race_Based.

    The majority in this country need another 50 years to understand what is pure merit based.

  22. #22 by Kathy on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 2:48 pm

    I wish we can all make the changes to the education system that is not only outdated in teaching methods, it has too many subjects that I would deem to be not important to the primary school children. We should concentrate on the basics – language(s), maths, science and moral/civic.

    I am hoping that each State Education Department has the power and authority to make the necessary changes to suit the growing needs of the future generation. At least we should try different methods of evaluating students – not all the subjects taught in school should be examination based. Moral / Civic is one such subject – they can score As for you but none of them have a moral fiber in them. Just ask any BN members.

  23. #23 by i_love_malaysia on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 3:54 pm


    Well said. Too bad that whatever ideas that the people below in MOE who genuinely wanted to change, need to get the green light from above who always say “Saya Pantang Dicabar!!!” , so they only hope for their pencen to be intact when they reached retirement age or go for early retirement!!!

  24. #24 by AhPek on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 4:03 pm

    Sorry Dr.Azly Rahman, don’t you think your article is well ahead of its time, come back perhaps in the year 2012 as suggested by oknyua.Nobody today will give a damn to what you have to say about education.Tough luck!

  25. #25 by zak_hammaad on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 4:57 pm

    The biggest mistake Malaysia made was not following S’pores lead in Education. There are many ingredients in the success of Singapore’s education system. First and foremost is the efficiency, dedication and work of their education ministry. They are the ones who produced the framework for their education system and syllabi.

    Their education ministry updates its syllabi regularly to ensure they remain relevant in the ever changing global economy. Hence, the old editions of the Singapore books are obsolete because they are based on the old syllabi

    The competitive environment in Singapore is also a major important contributing factor. Children are assessed many times each year and are streamed into various classes according to their academic ability, which is highly dependent on their grades. Singapore schools are ranked according to the national exam grades that their students received each year. Meritocracy rules.

  26. #26 by Loh on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 7:50 pm

    ///There are solutions that this current regime has not yet discovered. Our goal is to see children of ALL races progress. That’s what any religion and humanistic philosophy teaches. Whatever success one’s own children have achieved, that success formula MUST be applied to the children of others, especially of the poor.///–Azly Rahman

    UMNO leaders now or in the past know this very well. But the education policies especially since the advent of NEP aim particualrly to go against the above ideas. The infamous 30% target of Malay participation in the economy is still being used with the aid of statistics (the damn lies) to make non-Malays non-competitive. One wonders what influence religious teachings have on UMNO leaders.

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