Education in multicultural Malaysia

by Azly Rahman
Mar 9, 11

Q: Being a multicultural society that Malaysia is, how should our education system be designed? Or, should it be designed at all?

A: Education is a deliberate attempt to construct human beings who will participate in society as productive citizens. The question whether our education system should be designed or not is quite irrelevant when education, schooling, training, indoctrination, and the spectrum of ways by which the child is “schooled” are all based on intentional design.

Schooling is the most contested terrain in any society; it is a battlefield or a conveyor belt for the creation of human beings. We go back one step before the question of design. In a multicultural society, who should be entrusted to design schooling – politicians or philosophers of education trained in the study of political economy and anthropology and alternative historicising?

Are those designing our schooling system equipped with the varieties of philosophical perspectives in education? We have essentialism, progressivism, romanticism, cultural rejuvenation, social reconstructionism, spiritual capitalism, technicism… or even cultural revolution.

These philosophies call for a different perspective of what a human being is and how to draw out the potentials in each and every human being. Hence the Latin word “educare”, from which education comes from, meaning “drawing out”.

My question for all of you: What philosophy of education will be suitable for a multicultural society such as Malaysia? And how do we translate such a philosophy into praxis (Paulo Freire, “Cultural action for freedom”).

Q: The current design has created an eco-system wherein parents can choose between national schools, vernacular schools or Islamic schools. Is this healthy for nation building? The older model of primary education was with the strategic intent of laying the foundation for nation-building. Is that agenda now being sacrificed?

A: Choices emanate from how society has evolved, in this case Malaysia as a capitalist society with choices in education and schooling. We must consider what “nation-building” means in the context of schooling. Nation means one people, from the French scholar Ernst Renan. The kind of nation we want to create depends upon the schools we build.

How does one build an “American” school? It depends on the people’s understanding and degree of the embodiment of the constitution of the United States and how America sees itself as a nation of immigrants, wherein schooling that separates religion and the state complicates less the process of “nation-building”.

“All men are created equal, endowed by the Creator the inalienable rights …”, says the preamble to the US constitution. Every morning one hears these words in unison, across America in all classrooms, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic unto which it stands as one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all…”

The meaning of 1Malaysia

What does 1Malaysia mean, not as an evolving concept that has undergone some kind of dialectical materialistic treatment and the cyclical theory of knowledge (thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis) but a branding, sloganising, hollow-fying concept of forced “oneness” pushed into public discourse and into public sphere?

What does a truly Malaysian school mean? Herein lies the evolution of ideological apartheid, especially in our public school system. Where is the locus of control? How are race-based ideological battles fought in this terrain? Herein lies the separate schools Malaysians build.

Q: But, should schools be seen as a tool for nation building at all? Isn’t it the “nation-building” agenda that has created a divided society that we have now? Can nation-building not be simply the of sharing national values of some universal form that prepares student for a globalised world?

A: On schooling and nation-building; this is a question of the post-70s era in which the debates on nationalism, pluralism, socialism, national-socialism or even cosmopolitanism or millennialism rage.

Countries or states were jumping onto the bandwagon of perceiving education from a post-colonial or neo-colonialist lens, arguing for the maintaining the race and ethnicity dimension of social and economic progress.

The creation of the precursor to the BN in the form of the Alliance Party in 1955 and subsequently, the dominance and hegemony of this race-based coalition party has enabled the creation of an education system based on race consideration.

Q: If given a choice, would parents choose schools based on the medium of instruction or would they choose quality? In other words, if choice is given in a multicultural society, would that cause society to break down further?

A: Multiculturalism is not an option, radical multiculturalism as an educational philosophy is even not an option. I may sound like Plato, Kung Fu Tze, Jean Jacques Rousseau or Marx – as “deterministic” – but there is a sense with phenomenological evidence in this country that this society is breaking down and we must seek solutions through education.

Consider these issues as I conclude: The protest over the selected reading Interlok, the rise of NGOs promoting dangerous ultra-nationalism, the suppression of free speech on campuses, the proliferation of indoctrination on campuses through the work of governmental outfits such as Biro Tata Negara, and the list goes on …

But what is multiculturalism? Broader than what many of us here have conceived: “Many cultures”, “many world views”, “multiple perspectives”, “multiple ways of knowing” – and to bring human beings from a variety of cultures of ability and disability to enable them to reach their fullest potential – the children of all races, physically, emotionally, technologically, emotionally challenged, the culturally deficient, and many more – all these to be brought into the process of being “educated through schooling” so that each may learn, prosper and grow as critical, creative, ethical human beings who will use their knowledge and power to transform others and not to plunder and oppress.

We need to embark on a long-term project of radical education transformation based on radical multiculturalism as our philosophy.

DR AZLY RAHMAN, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Bahru, holds a Columbia University (New York) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters’ degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has taught more than 40 courses in six different departments and has written more than 300 analyses on Malaysia. His teaching experience spans Malaysia and the United States, over a wide range of subjects from elementary to graduate education. He currently resides in the United States.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 8:06 am

    Medical students overseas have to pass the Licensing Examination, only then they are qualified to be registered with the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) and practise in Malaysia.

    Waakaakkaakaa…. so overseas medical students will now have to pass the equivalent of the lawyers’ CLP exam. This will take them years, with those from local universities are laughing all the way to the bank.

    Next, overseas engineering, accounting, science, arts, you-name-it students, all will have to pass exams on coming back to the country.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 9:33 am

    Political ideology should never be incorporated into education design as that is tantamount to indoctrinating innocent school children.

  3. #3 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 10:10 am

    /// Q: Being a multicultural society that Malaysia is, how should our education system be designed? Or, should it be designed at all?

    A: Education is a deliberate attempt to construct human beings who will participate in society as productive citizens. ///

    Don’t have to look far for the answer and solution. Just look south to the little red dot.

    Singapore is also a multicultural society. To its credit, it did not make Mandarin as the teaching medium, although three-quarter of the population are Chinese. Instead, it uses English as the medium of instruction – a neutral language that does not confer any intrinsic advantage to the Indians, Malays or Chinese.

    The use of English as the teaching medium also support your answer to your own question – education as a means to producing productive citizens. In a world where English is the lingua franca of business, commerce, internet and multilateral agencies, it does not make sense to shoot ourselves in the foot by using a minor language that is economically unimportant.

    Why reinvent the wheel? Or are we too proud to learn from the little red dot? The reason that Singapore punches above its weight is due to its facility with English.

  4. #4 by Loh on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 9:50 pm

    ///My question for all of you: What philosophy of education will be suitable for a multicultural society such as Malaysia? And how do we translate such a philosophy into praxis (Paulo Freire, “Cultural action for freedom”).///Azly Rahman

    A multicultural society exists because people of different culture live in the country for a considerable length of time. The restriction applied to immigration in Malaysia is older than the advent of modern transport technologies. That means that ‘pendatangs’ came to Malaysia over a long period of time much earlier than any immigration rule was imposed. Over time pendatangs originating from different regions and coming in over different periods in history have grown used to seeing people practicing different cultures, and some even became close neighbours. The British had not upset the close rapport of the people living as neighbours even when they applied the divide and rule policy in the country. It is the acceptance of each other as fellow human being that enable leaders of the three communities to join hands to seek independence from the British in 1957.

    The philosophy of education existed before independence where the people of different races respect their roots and want their culture including the languages of the forefathers taught and carry on did not create disturbances to the society. English language was recognized as a language for the communication for science and technology and later commerce. Before independence Malays were the medium of exchange of the rural people whereas English was used mainly in town and with the government. There were no conflicts caused by gaps of communication between the people. After independence Malay language was introduced in vernacular schools. Malaysians of all races have improved on the level of language skills and they were able to communicate better in the language of their mutual choice.

    Language and the gap in communication was not the cause of May 13.

    After May 13 the government chose to re-engineer the society including the abolition of the English school. The number of non-Malay students in national school decreased. On the other the number of Malay and Indian students in Chinese schools increased. It is incorrect to say that vernacular schools caused segregation of students of different races since Malay and Indian parents do send their children to Chinese medium schools. They have done it because they had misgivings about the running of the national schools.

    The people in the country are polarized more so because government policies create distinction between the races on purpose. It is a fact that university students of different races do not mixed with one another in the local universities. This is not because they could not find a common language to communicate. It is more because they do not find a suitable topic of common interest to talk about, outside the class work. That is caused by the polarisation in all aspect of live. Thus, whether or not the students had gone through the school together while they are young will not change how they interact with one another in the university. It could be true that having spent the same number of 11 years in the same school, students might find friends of different races playing the same sports. But how good are there interacting with others outside the game is anybody’s guess.

    The philosophy of education should be no different in a multi-cultural society as in any other country. There is no need to put all the students of different races in the same classroom to improve interaction. The Chinese medium schools have done well to prepare the students to become useful citizens.

  5. #5 by tak tahan on Friday, 11 March 2011 - 10:06 pm

    Governments in other countries got will power but our government gila power,tongkat ali power,towel power…Cannot la our present government.I’m quite fed up with their stupid repeated acts which seemed that they are adamant of what they plotted to do with the least care of what the harmful effect it could bring onto this nation.They’re sicko without conscience.

  6. #6 by Loh on Saturday, 12 March 2011 - 10:30 am

    ///Q: If given a choice, would parents choose schools based on the medium of instruction or would they choose quality? In other words, if choice is given in a multicultural society, would that cause society to break down further?///–Azly Rahman

    The society only breaks down when people ignore basic human values of justice and civility in society. It becomes worse when the government policies promote the opposite of civic values and religious teachings.

    UMNO promotes the idea of jealousy, and they advocate one can rob, such as through the so-called affirmative action, if one has the muscle, translated into votes during election. UMNO is careful about the form of democracy but not the substance of it. When one can be rewarded legally for not working, or rather the rewards do not commensurate the effort put into it, there is no basic justice. When immediate benefits though against religious teaching are available, and it seems possible to redeem the sins in future date to buy good life in the next, people pretend to be religious without strictly following the teachings of the religion, albeit observing some of the rituals. When religion serves as a vehicle for political gain, just like royal houses serve as scare-crows, the society breaks down.

    Interlok, when used as a school textbook, demands that the students remember and agree to the philosophy advanced in the novel. One has to believe that he is born to a race of shame. Only an arrogant Minister of Education would insist that a textbook condemned for known defects would be used as textbook, with some deletion, which the Minister had admitted should not remain. But the essence of the text remains. It is a wonder why the government would put the students of the concerned races through the torture in class when they advocate that sensitive issues should not be aired in public. Aren’t the students of the condemned races made to suffer mental anguish in class when Interlok is studied?

    The medium of instruction is the choice of schools in the country because it also identifies with quality. Mamakthir suggests to do away with vernacular schools with the single objective of seeing that Chinese will have no good quality schools to turn to. It is making sure that Chinese would go through the same national schools where the teaching staff might look at teaching as a job rather than a profession. Tens of thousands of Malays and Indian students choose to send their children to Chinese schools despite initial disadvantage. They learn to overcome their disadvantage through hard work rather than following the government policy of demanding handicap treatment, such as a lower passing mark. It is the single thought that makes the difference; work hard to catch up rather than making others to slow down.

    The society breaks down because the government applies double standards and rule by law. It is not because of the education system that allow freedom of choice.

  7. #7 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 12 March 2011 - 11:55 pm

    The current narrow-minded policy is based on the basic thought of Ketuanan. They forget that those who can survive abroad will not be bothered with what they want to do within the country. Such policy is designed by the same mentality that we are quite happy to be Jaguh Kampung. They will soon realize that the rest of the world will pass them by once Petronas stops pumping. I am just wondering what happen to our friend Cintanegara? Are you still counting your ripening rambutans? At the begining of the season, well we may have to pay rm$4 per Kg but within a week or two, it will be rm$10 for 5 kg! so keep computing with the calculator. If you convert that to S$, it is s$1.67 perkg and then drop to S$0.96 per kg! That is the strength of theirs. in reality, in the early 80s s$1=rm$0.8; today it is s$1=rm$2.4; well their dollar has gained 300% over the last 30 years. so they get much cheaper rambutans from you; 10% cheaper each year! All this came about because of what else? With all the advances in technologies, BN is still thinking they are magicians and they can let the rest of the world pass by. You will never catch up, ever! by the time we could achieve us$15K, our neighbour is projected to achieve between us$45 to 50K.
    the simple mentality has misguided them to be so ritualistic that they would send 90% Bumi students to what they considered a top school in town. Pressto, the rsult came down like ten-pin. they seem to forget that it is the students who produce the results not the chairs and tables nor the school building and for that matter certainly not today’s batch of teachers!!!
    So long that they are not awaken from current stupor; they will continue to drown themselves in their dreams of paradise based on dreams. They will go around to have Centres of Excellence in every sector notwithstanding the fact they have nothing to go by at the moment! They will shout ” Nothing is constant except Change! but they will refuse to change! And what chance do we have when the rest of the world is flying by???

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