Restructuring education:
Battling polarisation, fostering democracy
Sunday Tribune - Sun, 16 February 2003

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JUST months after the numerous problems pertaining to the use of English language in the teaching of Science and Mathematics in Primary 1 and Form 1 have been resolved through multi-party consensus, the Government has decided to embark on a new plan of action to restructure the entire national school
system.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who disclosed the latest reform strategy for the education sector this week with former Education director-general Tan Sri Murad Mohd Nor empowered to head the special task committee, is bent on correcting the misperception that non-Bumiputera parents have of national schools and discouraging Malays from resorting to People's Religious Schools (Sekolah Agama Rakyat or SAR).

It is a bold move that strikes deep at the very chord of polarisation in the school system and seeks to create an expanded education base that transcends racial and religious divide.

The question at issue that prompted the Government to embark on such an extensive overhaul exercise of the school system is one that has it roots in, and draws it sustenance from, political and cultural parochialism and it therefore entails a review of a broader spectre involving the influence of social and political forces which imminently shape the character and mind of the Malaysian student.

A case in point is the deviation in the teaching of religious studies in Sekolah Agama Rakyat where students have been reportedly taught to hate the government and were conditioned into isolating themselves from the secular world.

There are reasons to believe that such a sad state of affairs that are impregnating the young impressionable mind has been the work of political groups who are bent on using the religious front as part of their long-term strategy to defray the ruling party's political hold at the expense of the younger generation. Obviously, overemphasis on religious teaching and denial of the importance of science-based disciplines, said to be secular, by SAR adds to the existing suspicion among non-Muslims and further deepens the racial divide among the younger generation.

Such social divide deprives the younger generation of shared opportunities in the development of characteristically Malaysian attitudes, values, belief and knowledge, for which the school system must be restructured in ways so that it can be counted on to provide the foundation for the germination of these egalitarian ideals.

If the operation of the present school system, which has yet to rid completely the numerous racial undertones, remains unchecked, conscious social parallelism will rule and parents look at education for their children along distinct racial and religious lines.

If depolarisation and the creation of an expanded non-racial education base is germane to the restructuring of the existing school system, then the relevant authorities may be forced to consider how education can best promote democracy. More specifically, questions will have to be raised as to what attitudes, values, beliefs and knowledge Malaysians need in order to sustain a vibrant democracy, and what role education can play to facilitate their transmission.

True democracy extends beyond the confines of a constitution, election and the rule of law. It involves the widespread acceptance of a social contract that entails responsible actions, good citizenship and a belief that no Malaysian is above the law. It also calls for empathy and respect for others, irrespective of their race and religion, and a deep-rooted conviction that partisan actions by racially or religiously-defined political groups will often carry communal consequences. Indeed, cooperation and a willingness to look at education issues from perspectives other than one's own race or religion constitute democracy's life forces.

Ultimately, the longevity of the Malaysian democracy will depend largely on citizens who strive to create a shared destiny that transcends differences of race, culture, religion and political creed.

Against such a backdrop of democracy, the education system in the country must reinvent itself in order to be able to produce citizens who are imbued with a constellation of beliefs, values, knowledge and skills, which are conducive to the maintenance of our democratic life.

But far more can be accomplished by the task force, assigned to undertake the restructuring of the school system, if it adopts a holistic approach to examining the education enterprise in the widest possible contexts. This brings to bear the need to re-examine the role and responsibilities of schools, ministry of education, households, teacher training colleges, and community-based groups concerned with education.

And for schools, whether primary or secondary, to be, able to function more effectively in the development of attitudes and values, they may find it necessary to seriously form closer partnerships with parents, adopt more innovative methods or systems to aid active learning, and even develop techniques to minimise conflict between the manifest and hidden education agenda that have direct bearing on democratic values and attitudes.

So much water has passed under the bridge since the days when the Government first set it eyes on reforming the education system but few of the measures taken seem to have lasted longer than the effects they have created. The experience has been a series of experiments where the quality of education in recent, times has become questionable.

In retrospect, it is a far cry from the relatively more stable school system of the 60s and 70s where consistency in the curricula and assessment for public examinations such as the Senior Cambridge and Cambridge Higher School Certificate has resulted in the production of many present-day leaders in the government and industry who were schooled in the highest order of traditional scholarship.

It is hoped that efforts to restructure the present Malaysian School system will help to revive our past glory and restore the Malaysian pride on the world education map.