Dumbing down our education system via politicians and theocrats

It has certainly served the politicians well to create a functioning but compliant population.

(FMT) – The World Bank recently issued a report on global education that wasn’t very flattering to Malaysia. I’ll spare you the details – the World Bank is your bank, too, so feel free to dive deeper into it if you want.

The summary of the report is that Malaysia isn’t doing well in educating our young, and has fallen behind some of our regional economic rivals, such as Vietnam.

Vietnam? Seriously, it wasn’t that long ago they were dodging bullets and bombs, with much of their schools and almost everything else lying in ruins!

Yes, that Vietnam. Their recovery has been almost miraculous, echoing that of Japan and Germany from the ashes of World War II. Vietnam is also profiting nicely from the opportunities created by the current US-China rivalry.

To be fair, we aren’t doing too badly out of that rivalry either, given our historical lead in some critical areas such as semi conductors and manufacturing.

But this success is the result of the hard work of previous generations. The current generation doesn’t appear equipped to continue it, according to the report, and according to a few other international reports and rankings too.

Why are we in this situation when decades ago we were ahead of the class in the region? Don’t we boast about our education budget being bigger than our defence budget, actually something very rare among nations?

Extreme politicking

Clearly resources aren’t the problem. Extreme politicking is. All educational systems anywhere in the world are inevitably subject to the vagaries of politics. When the politicians do get it right, as in the much-vaunted Finnish education system, such success can lift the whole country.

But when you get it wrong, as many people – the World Bank included – seem to feel we have, the whole country suffers, and we pay a big economic price for it.

Some nations, such as the US, minimise such risks by letting smaller political entities such as city, county or state governments decide on the critical education factors – curriculum, accreditation, funding etc.

Local interests, if given the power, tend to take more accountability in making sure their young get a good education. That’s also part of the American bias against having a powerful central government deciding on such critical matters for everybody.

Not in Malaysia though. Here, things are highly centralised. We prefer to have some political operatives – politicians, as well as all manners of politicised bureaucracy, theocracy and business tycoons in the capital deciding things for us.

We started as a nation with a two-pillar school system, the vernacular and the national schools. However, this caused our collective resources, even if plentiful, to be spread thin, and on top of those we added a third pillar – Islamic religious education.

Islamic bureaucracy

We won’t argue about the importance of inculcating good morals in our school-going children, but creating an Islamic bureaucracy to deliver it isn’t the answer.

When I started schooling in the 1960s, we had religious teachers in schools, too. They then tended to be respected members of the schools and the local communities.

They’re certainly respected now, too, but perhaps too much. But on the other hand, outside of schools they aren’t seen as important members of the community any more.

Lost opportunities

However, the increasingly politicised national education system, which started with efforts to replace the colonial education structure especially with regards to the use of English as a medium of instruction, has other issues too.

Replacing English with Malay by itself isn’t necessarily bad. There’s no reason why a good education system can’t be based on our own national language, even if that would require a lot of hard work.

Where it turned bad was in de-emphasising English as a strong second language. We threw away the opportunity to build a dual-language education system that produces citizens proficient in Malay and English, plus proficiency in Chinese, Tamil and Arabic too.

Rise of religion

This also led to the Islamic curriculum becoming more prominent and having increased classroom time allocated to it. Schools become a political battleground run as much by the education bureaucrats as they are by the theocrats.

And the religious side keeps winning.

My daughters were miserable in their national primary and secondary schools, often coming home in tears because of bullying by their religious teachers. One even stopped going to school on certain days because of that.

That experience luckily didn’t harm them permanently because we believed educating our kids is primarily our responsibility, with schools being just one of the resources available to us. I eschewed private and international schools as a matter of principle, and have no regret about it.

Islam as political weapon

The more nationalistic of our politicians found that Islam is a powerful political weapon, and used it to give themselves a lot of political power, both over the Malays as well as non-Malay Malaysians.

There’s been a gradual dumbing down of our educational system. While it may not have been anybody’s sinister masterplan, it certainly has served the politicians well to create a functioning but compliant population. Having an increasing number of voters not properly educated about their rights and responsibilities is certainly convenient, and profitable, too, for many politicians.

Teachers have always been a critical factor in our politics, with many of the old political leaders being from the respected teaching profession, but today’s teachers are seen more as a vote bank by politicians.

‘Makan gaji’ factor

Gone are the days when those teaching the young were some of the most committed and respected members of our society. Today’s focus instead is on quantity rather than quality, on “makan gaji” public servants rather than true educators.

The focus on religion in schools didn’t mean that other parts of the school curricula were sidelined. It does mean however they have to compete fiercely for finite resources in the system, and end up falling behind the ever-changing needs of today’s world, as the World Bank report shows.

We now have a parallel pillar of religious education that starts at preschool and kindergarten and extends to primary, secondary and increasingly tertiary education too.

Islamic everything

There seems to be Islamic twins for almost everything, whether medicine or management or finance or even science. How do you explain that we have a Universiti Sains Malaysia AND also a Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia?

Our best students are as good as any other nation’s best, but where it matters – our average – ours aren’t up to it. Ultimately it’s the average – as tracked in rankings and reports – that determine our success as a society. A few isolated Harvard or Cambridge success stories won’t matter much.

I spent decades as the recipient of the end-products of various educational systems, especially Malaysia’s own. I noticed a gradual decline of quality over the years. My experience, while anecdotal, was broad enough covering tens of thousands of people for me to feel confident in making this generalisation.

It wasn’t easy for me to put my children into local schools because I had other options. I did that in spite of some misgivings because I didn’t want them to grow up to be privileged, entitled “elites” who’d feel detached from the “ordinary” real Malaysians.

They all have done well in their own ways, so local education didn’t harm them. But I certainly won’t credit where they are now to the Malaysian education system!

To be continued