Thursday, August 23, 2007

Education's Rocky Path to National Unity

Education's Rocky Path to National Unity

To the sceptics, the Education Development Master Plan (PIPP) is just another plan but these are no ordinary times. The government is banking its hopes on the plan to boost the quality of the education system, and in particular, national schools, to make them the preferred choice for the nation.

Schools are no longer the neutral grounds they were in the 60s, 70s and even 80s, where children of different backgrounds come together to study and play, share tit-bits and cold drinks, discuss the latest toys, chase each other on muddy school fields, and of course, copy each other's homework.

Actually, our children still do many of these things, but they congregate in different schools depending on their race. National primary schools, especially in rural areas, are no different from vernacular schools: overwhelmingly single race. No longer are schools the neutral platform for racial integration.

Despite having a common curriculum, common examinations and a common medium of instruction, to create a common Malaysian identity, Malaysia seems to be running on a treadmill - expending a lot of energy going nowhere.

National unity is a product of complex processes, structures and content, not all of which were created for the purpose of fostering national unity. Education is just one platform to integrate the people, albeit a very important one.

Ironically, education was labelled as "the single biggest force of division and disunity in the country" by Lim Kit Siang in Parliament 30 years ago. Despite this, it was only in 2002 - 45 years after independence - that the Education Ministry set up a committee to look into allegations of racial segregation in schools.

What the committee revealed was shocking. Only 2.1% of the pupils in national primary schools were Chinese when the Chinese made up 26% of the population (based on the 2000 Population and Housing Census figures). The Indians (7.7% of the national population) made up 4.3% while the other races made up 2.78%.

On hindsight, it is amazing how we could have allowed the situation to deteriorate that far, but some would say it was a deliberate scheme of divide-and-rule.

It is moot to ask now how attractive vernacular schools would be today if mother tongue languages were offered in more serious quantity and quality in national schools, if the government ensured that schools remained as secular institutions, and if these schools attracted better teachers.

Many issues are now being addressed in the master plan via a multi-pronged approach that covers curriculum review to teacher training and new methods of assessment. But one major discontent - the Islamisation of schools - is still glossed over by the plan.

The tragedy is education sits high on the nation's priority, and the government does try. The most overlooked fact is school education is almost free. Textbooks are also free for most. Some 97% of the five million primary and secondary pupils in Malaysia today are on the textbook loan scheme, implemented since 1975.

For the poor, there is also free food and milk, although the milk programme has since been suspended following several food poisoning cases.

There have also been various efforts to improve the quality of schools, the latest being experiments with Smart Schools (1999) and now Cluster Schools (2007). The Smart Schools pilot (1999-2002) was rolled out to 87 schools at RM300 million, although the exact impact is not known.

Moving forward, with private schools mushrooming in the last two years, there are now new issues to contend with where nation-building is concerned. It used to be that princes and paupers alike attended public schools. This will not be so for much longer.

A new type of segregation is slowly emerging in urban areas. For the financially able, it may no longer be national schools or vernacular schools, but private schools (with local curriculum) or private international schools.

Education and national unity do not function in isolation. Why should the education ministries alone be blamed for racial polarisation?

Schools are a microcosm of society. Racial segregation is just as obvious in other aspects of Malaysian life. Look at the Malaysian civil service (including the education ministry and departments), the police and the army, for instance.

The education system is a subset of Malaysian institutionalised racial and oftentimes, racist, politics. Any serious attempt to deal with national unity should start with breaking that down.

As former education director-general Tan Sri Murad Mohammed Noor said in an interview with a local daily in May, "The Malays say they don't want to give up their privileges. But the Chinese say: 'With these privileges, your children can go to university, you don't have to worry. I've got to sell my house to send my child to university. But I am a citizen like you. I pay taxes like youÉWhat integration are you talking about?' That's the Chinese view. The Malays say, 'This is in our constitution, before we got our independence. This is what we agreed on.' My question is why are we still at this stage?"

Why, indeed?

Source:Ann Teoh, The Sun, Thursday, August 23, 2007
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Related link: Plagiarism in Universiti Putra Malaysia


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