Revisiting the Malaysian School Curriculum

Stephen Doss

Recently I had the good fortune of being part of a focus group on “national unity” which was formed by a local think tank which wanted to present a proposal to the Education Ministry. The proposal was to be included as part of the Ministry’s blueprint for education reform.

The focus was on what was needed to be done to foster unity though the identification of a Malaysian identity unique to all Malaysians through the school system.

The questions posed were not new, just go to any seminar, forum, workshop on unity in Malaysia and the same questions would invariably surface if not by a panelist then from someone from the floor. Why are we still having problems defining what is it that makes us Malaysians? Why are we not united beyond the surface level? Why do we still have race-based organizations? Why aren’t all Malaysians treated equally? And the list can go on and on.

But this particular focus group was a bit more focused. The think tank wanted to see what more can be done at the school level to change attitudes assuming that these problems begin from a young tender age.

It started off by asking questions about the curriculum, is there something wrong with our school syllabus that does not help foster a common identity? Does the syllabus not promote attitudes that lead students to appreciate unity among the different races? There were also question about the school environment, is the school environment not conducive to the building of harmonious relations?

According to, “Unity” is defined as ;
1. the state of being one; oneness
2. a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.
3. the state or fact of being united or combined into one, as of the parts of a whole; unification.
4. absence of diversity; unvaried or uniform character.
5. oneness of mind, feeling, etc., as among a number ofpersons; concord, harmony, or agreement.

Now assuming that it is easier to achieve unity through a state of harmony, and harmonious relations are easily achievable if we have a common identity or purpose, then the question that we should be asking is after 55 years of independence, why do we still have problems with issues regarding national identity?

According to Wikipedia, “National identity” is the person’s identity and sense of belonging to one state or to one nation, a feeling one shares with a group of people, regardless of one’s citizenship status. National identity is not an inborn trait; various studies have shown that a person’s national identity is a direct result of the presence of elements from the “common points” in people’s daily lives: national symbols, language, the nation’s history, national consciousness, blood ties, culture, music, cuisine, etc

Now let us dissect the above before we go back to our nation’s school syllabus.

National symbols, we have no shortage of these, the flag, the rukunegara, the monarchy, architecture, national car, etc.

Language, there is no dispute that Bahasa Malaysia is our official language although there are still many Malaysians who are not able to speak or write in the language.

The nation’s history, by and large we are all familiar with our nation’s history, our colonial past, and our struggle for independence although not all of us may agree with where our ancestors came from, their different contributions, who were the actual freedom fighters and who benefited what, from whose struggles.

National consciousness, we might have a problem here as we seem to have different races championing their own cultures as superior to the other, trying to agree on a common culture and placing that above individual cultural practice belonging to each ethnic group in the country still seems a mighty challenge.

Blood ties, most Malaysians are by now second if not third generation Malaysians, by right not an issue, notwithstanding that Malaysians still like to call each “pendatang” or “bangsa asing’ now and then.

Culture, as yet we still have a problem identifying a culture that is common to all of us, we seem happy accepting a mix of cultures belonging to all races, a cop out of sorts just to keep everybody happy.

Music, we’ve probably had more success here, but that is to be expected for music is a universal language.

Cuisine, to be sure this is the one thing we are all proud of to claim as our own, we have successfully incorporated unique characteristics in our cuisine that it is said that you will not find similar food anywhere else.

Looking at the list of items that are said to be part of what is required for forming a national identity, it is clear that we are far from a finished product, a nation that is still finding itself.

Do we find these ingredients in our national school syllabus? I am guessing not really and definitely not beyond scratching the surface or with any real substance. I suspect it is because the adults among us cannot yet seem to agree on most items in the list, not surprising since we cannot even agree on allowing our children the advantage of attending one school with one objective.

There was agreement among the focus group members though to be sure that our current school syllabus does not cause disunity among students, neither is it a cause for concern in the short term. Although the same could not be said of deliverers of the syllabus, most who attended were of the view that it is this aspect of the school system that we should look at, as it is these deliverers who have an impact on our impressionable children and there was real concern that what is being imparted to students is the reason why there is a perception that real unity will continue to elude us as long as these deliverers do not move beyond the superficial and away from their own racial discriminations.

An improved syllabus which incorporates national identity and promotes harmonious relations will mean little if the deliverers themselves do not believe in the project.

Stephen Doss is a social activist and political observer. He is currently the President of the International Social Media Chambers. He can be found on twitter @stephendoss