Dismantle our apartheid education system

Malaysia needs not only a new educational direction, detouring from the road of further “apartheid-isation of education” it is happily traversing but also a new breed of cosmopolitanistic-thinking educational policymakers and practitioners.


Dr Azly Rahman

In an attempt to engineer what seems to be a successful system of failure in a hyper-modernising state that prides itself in the slogan of “human capital” and “education for all”, Malaysians seem to live with these oxymorons. In the words of George Orwell in his prophetic novel of a dystopic society of Oceania in the classic work called 1984, this means “doublespeak”, in which contradictions abound in the inner-workings of the conveyor belt called education

While the world continue to talk about the teaching of tolerance, global education, preparing students to become world-wise citizens, the cultivating of cosmopolitanism in human consciousness, the Malaysian public education system is still taking pride in its system of apartheid and the sustaining of educational ideology, practice, and reproduction of separateness and unequalness.

Either ignored or plainly blindsided by her educational policymakers, multiculturalism and the infusion of the practices of multicultural education is absent, even though it is clear that politics and education cannot be taken as separate disciplines in order to understand the nature and future of national development.

Malaysia’s survival as a nation depends primarily on the re-crafting of an education system philosophically, systemically, and pedagogically sound enough to bridge the gaps between the socio-economic and cultural deficiencies brought about by the legacy of Mahathirism; one based on the use of race ideology to sustain control and to design hegemony of the Malay-Muslim race.

Education as the only means for personal, social, cultural, and even spiritual and ecumenical progress can only be achieved if one goes back to the its philosophical foundations and re-look at the conception of human nature itself.

In Malaysia, a legacy of British colonial policy and its tool of social reproduction, i.e. schooling, has paved the way for Malaysia’s neo-colonialist strategy of a hidden system of apartheid, to ensure that the races are still separated in an unequal way.

Issues and institutions in such a scenario reflect the ideology of dominance – of one race over others or the rest – blinding educationalists and policy-makers to see beyond race and religion in making sure that the “gentle profession” and “humanistic enterprise” called education is driven fundamentally by the almost ideologically-bankrupt United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno’s) idea of education and nation-building.

Pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and even universities take the nature of “racial educational exclusivity”.

Shinning examples of this apartheid-isation of education are any all-racial schools, Mara Junior Science Colleges, and the Universiti Teknologi Mara system – all these in addition to the already apartheid-ised Malaysian Civil Service, albeit de facto in nature, whose existence is shackled by the ideology of an endangered ruling class of Malay-dominated politicians, in all its ignorance of the meaning of education, claimed superior knowledge to what that enterprise solely means.

New breed of educational policymakers needed

Malaysia needs not only a new educational direction, detouring from the road of further “apartheid-isation of education” it is happily traversing but also a new breed of cosmopolitanistic-thinking educational policymakers and practitioners.

Beyond these, Malaysia needs most logically a regime change in toto – to allow a new political will to an educational hope for the nation; anything short of these, will bring Malaysia to a pariah or a failed state educationally and economically in an increasingly predatorily globalised state. What then must Malaysians do?

Some time ago in a forum on multiculturalism and the future of Malaysian education I was asked this question: Being a multicultural society that Malaysia is, how should our education system be designed? Or, should it be designed at all?

My answer was this: Education is a deliberate attempt to construct human beings that 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? – Essentialism, Progressivism, Romanticism, Cultural Rejuvenation, Social Reconstructionism, Spiritual Capitalism, Technicism or even Cultural Revolution – these philosophies calls 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…”

‘Educated through schooling’

But what is multiculturalism? Broader than what many of us here have conceived it connotes “many cultures” , “many worldviews” “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 and 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 upon a long-term project of radical education transformation based on Radical Multiculturalism as philosophy. Can we see the emergence of truly multicultural educational institutions when our policy-makers are more interested in maintaining a system of apartheid in virtually all aspects of nation-building and especially in education?

What then must Malaysians do to provide a future safe enough for their children not to experience another May 13, 1969 when all hell broke loose – because of miseducation?


DR AZLY RAHMAN, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Baru, holds a Columbia University (New York) doctorate in International Education Development and Master’s 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.