Single stream schooling: The bad and ugly side

The BTN as an indoctrinating institution was conceived by ‘intellectuals’ who themselves are trapped in their own cocoon or glass coconut shell of wrongly-defined Malay-ness and in a paradigm that teaches a poor understanding of Malaysian history.


Azly Rahman

Edited by Helen Ang
for Center for Policy Initiatives

‘Ideas move nations but indoctrinations remove intelligence’.

According to government figures, only 7 percent of students in national schools are non-Malays. Parents fear sending their children from their past experience of the government indoctrinating young minds in the guise of an educational setting. Inciting racial sentiments in the classroom and boot camps (BTN, National Service, 1Malaysia) is in fact a big business nowadays.

Language issues come to mind as we speak about identity formation, befitting the notion of “language as culture,” and “culture as the habits we acquire and the tools we use in a house we inhabit in order to create our realties.”

This notion of language runs deeper than merely the need to ‘teach language’ in schools; it is to preserve and transmit culture for the continuing survival of the essential values of the peoples of the same language.

Language, perceived from the social/linguistic anthropological point of view then becomes a political subject and a matter of concern. With this also comes the idea of education that is described by an American educationist Lawrence Cremin as – a “deliberate process of transmitting knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values”.

As society progresses, tensions arise between the new and the old. In the case of Malaysia, the new consciousness signified by the idea of multiculturalism is seemingly in conflict with the idea that ethnocentrism still needs to be championed.

Ironically the current Minster of Education [Editor’s note: This article was written when Hishamuddin Hussein held the post] is also the Chief of the Umno Youth which brings us to the question of value neutrality in policy-making. Can one separate the institution, the individual, and the ideology?

The Minister of Higher Education too is appointed based on his loyalty to the ideology of Malay dominance.

Unless radical changes are made to the governance of the country – and this will also mean a dramatic shift in policies relating to race relations, education, and cultural identity – we will still live with the reality of schooling in Malaysia as being “separate and unequal”.

The task of bringing about an educational ideology that will pave the way for racial integration and genuine intercultural understanding continues to be daunting. The more the demands for racial equality and equal opportunity are made, the more the resistance to these will surface and the more violence – structural, symbolic, or real – may be the outcome.

The fear is that Malaysia will see the Balkanization of its people in the emergence of ‘postmodern tribes’ that will fight for their own rights in an environment that may not be resolvable through dialogue. Education for multiculturalism could offer some hope for reconciliation.

Not given the right info

In an article first published in my blog ‘A Republic of Virtue’ in Malaysia Today (April 24, 2008) titled ‘Thumbs up or thumbs down for Biro Tata Negara?’, I argued for the need to look into the philosophy of the bureau and the dangers of indoctrination.

Flaws in the arguments of the BTN supporters concern the nature of history and the structure of propaganda and mass indoctrination disguised as ‘patriotism’.

I agree we must give credit to those, like BTN, working hard to improve the mental wellness of Malays. This is important. This is a noble act. The question is: in doing so, do we want to plant the seeds of cooperation and trust or racial discrimination and deep hatred? Herein lies the difference between indoctrination and education.

Over decades, many millions of Malays and non-Malays have not been getting the right information on our nation’s history, political-economy, and race relations. History that is being shoved to us or filter-funneled down the labyrinth of our consciousness is one that is already packaged, biased, and propagandized by our historians that became text-books writers.

History need not be ‘Malay-centric’. Special rights for all Malaysians should be the goal of distributive and regulative justice of this nation, not the “special rights of a few Malays”.

History must be presented as the history of the marginalized, the oppressed, and the dispossessed – of all races.

We toil for this nation, as the humanist Paramoedya Ananta Toer would say, by virtue of our existence as “anak semua bangsa … di bumi manusia”. Malaysia is a land of immigrants. No one particular race should stake claim to Malaysia. That is an idea from the old school of thought, fast being abandoned.

Each citizen is born, bred, and brought to school to become a good law-abiding and productive Malaysian citizen is accorded the fullest rights and privileges and will carry his/her responsibility as a good citizen. That is what “surrendering one’s natural rights to the State” means. One must read Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, and Jefferson to understand this philosophy. A bad government will not honour this.

The history of civilizations provides enough examples of devastation and genocide as a consequence of violent claims to the right of this or that land based upon some idea of ‘imagined communities.’

Back to BTN.

BTN brainwashing students

Courses devoid of critical treatment and sensibility, and ones that retard student thinking such as ‘Kenegaraan’ in our universities, are designed to tell our mind to live in an imagined past.

BTN is playing this dangerous game of blind nationalism, still passing down packaged information that do not take into consideration the complexities of globalization and the promise of multiculturalism. We need to offer courses such as ‘Multiethnic Malaysia’ that will have students aspire to think like multiculturalists and help this nation evolve better.

The ministries of education and higher education combined have hundreds of experts – many overseas trained and have tasted the ‘spirit of multiculturalism’ and the “beauty of intellectual freedom” in their classrooms abroad – who ought to have engineered a paradigm shift to help dismantle indoctrination agencies such as Biro Tata Negara.

One-dimensional thinking prevails: the thinking that does not allow diversity of ideas and failed to develop cross-cultural perspectives. Ideas move nations but indoctrinations remove intelligence. Political masters, however corrupt to the core they are, dictate the work of our academicians.

Whoever writes history and turns that into, say BTN propaganda controls the future (or at least they think they do). We must question what is taught during the sessions or during any history lesson.

The BTN as an indoctrinating institution was conceived by ‘intellectuals’ who themselves are trapped in their own cocoon or glass coconut shell of wrongly-defined Malay-ness and in a paradigm that teaches a poor understanding of Malaysian history. These intellectuals are running around in our public universities promoting a more sophisticated and pseudo-intellectual version of racism.

Inciting racial sentiments in classroom and boot camps is big business nowadays – profits made in the name of patriotism. But who’s monitoring the trainers?

What Malay students are taught

The mission statement of BTN reads: “Wawasan: Menjadi sebuah organisasi awam yang unggul dalam memupuk semangat patriotisme serta menjadikan rakyat setia kepada Kerajaan.” (Vision: To become the preeminent public organization that will foster the patriotic spirit as well as [train] citizens to be loyal to the Government.)

My response is based on my personal experience in undergoing the indoctrination programme in the mid-1980s. Over the decades, perhaps millions of Malay students like me were taught the dangerous propaganda song, ‘Warisan’.

One verse concerns the power of the Malays:

Kini kita cuma tinggal kuasa

yang akan menentukan bangsa

Other lyrics include:

Hasil mengalir, ke tangan yang lain

pribumi merintih sendiri

My loose translation:

Political power is what we are only left with

one that will determine the fate of our nation

Wealth of this nation flows into the hands of others

sons and daughters of the soil suffer in solitude

This song composed by BTN is one based on racist intents. The training programmes that encapsulate the theme of this song are meant to instill fear in the Malays, not of others but of themselves, and to project hatred onto other ethnic groups without realising who the enemies of the Malays really are.


Anak kecil main api
Terbakar hatinya yang sepi
Airmata darah bercampur keringat
Bumi dipijak milik orang

Nenek moyang kaya raya
Tergadai seluruh harta benda
Akibat sengketa sesamalah kita
Cita lenyap di arus zaman

Indahnya bumi kita ini
Warisan berkurun lamanya
Hasil mengalir ke tangan yang lain
Pribumi merintih sendiri

Masa depan sungguh kelam
Kan lenyap peristiwa semalam
Tertutuplah hati terkunci mati
Maruah peribadi dah hilang

Kini kita cuma tinggal kuasa
Yang akan menentukan bangsa
Bersatulah hati bersama berbakti
Pulih kembali harga diri

Kita sudah tiada masa
Majulah dengan maha perkasa
Janganlah terlalai teruskan usaha
Melayu kan gagah di Nusantara (3x)


Azly Rahman is a fellow with the Centre for Policy Initiatives. The above article is condensed from an introduction penned by Dr Azly for the chapter ‘Education, Culture and Identity’ in the recently launched book ‘Multiethnic Malaysia – Past, Present and Future

‘, and from his own essay in the volume on the work of Biro Tata Negara.


While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.