Parents know best

THE last time I made a public stand on education, I was criticised by a group of people who said that I had no right to talk about our national education policy: because I went to “expensive private schools”, I was not qualified to talk about “ordinary schools”.

This was strange for two reasons. Firstly, some of these individuals themselves had no faith in “ordinary schools”, sending their children to “expensive private schools”. Secondly, even if they went to “ordinary schools” themselves, they enjoyed fiddling about with policies for “expensive private schools”. Sometimes policies that seriously affected all types of schools in which they had no personal experience.

In fact, if we were to extend the logic of not being qualified to talk about things due to a lack of first-hand experience, then some of our ministers would not qualify for their portfolios. Of course, the lack of a Shadow Cabinet is equally lamentable.

No. The right to talk about things must go both ways. Actually, to put it even more simply, any citizen has the right to discuss any matters of policy.

It is normal for emotions to come into play in matters of national policy, but when it comes to education, opinions are especially deeply held. Throughout the past year, as the government’s Education Blueprint has gone through various stages of formulation, we have seen some of these opinions being expressed.

Of course, one of the ways to bring the nation together in such a big policy area is through discussion and consultation. Indeed, these have happened, but judging from the ferociousness of recent online and offline protests, the nation still is far from together. Many strong arguments have been forwarded for and against vernacular schools, forcing through only one type of standard school, teaching certain subjects in English, removing the quota for local students in international schools, and whether tertiary education should be ‘free’, amongst others.

However, each and every one of these arguments has become infected by politics. So much so that politicians attending a particular open house triggers frenzy about what this means for education policy.

In the meantime, there is much more that could have been made public, such as the several reports submitted to the government in recent months, including from Unesco and independent Malaysian reviewers, or even the government’s own bank of data on the performance of Malaysian schools. Then there are the voices of the urban, semi-urban and rural poor which no consultation reached — IDEAS’ recent preliminary policy paper ‘Giving Voice to the Poor’ outlines some of their concerns.

It may be the toughest job in politics to formulate a national education policy that will please (or appease) a majority of Malaysians. In the meantime, however, one thing is certain: there are some Malaysian parents who will remain implacably opposed to a policy that other Malaysian parents want when it comes to educating their children. Indeed, this is probably the only aspect of this debate that all stakeholders can agree on.

As such, it makes sense to ask some basic questions: what is the point of the education system? Is it to enforce some sort of utopian grand design formulated by politicians, or should it be designed to accommodate the many diverse wishes of Malaysian parents? Is it for the government to reject the wishes of one couple who want their baby to learn maths and science in English, or to learn the caklempong instead of the piano?

If you believe in government for the people, then the answer is obvious. The point of the education system is to try and cater as much as possible to the preferences of Malaysian parents. We know from the experience of other countries that there are ways to cater to such preferences even within a unified national syllabus, such as further use of vouchers so we fund children rather than schools, for example. Such mechanisms beautifully remove politicians and bureaucrats from the picture and return power to the parents.

There is some cause for excitement from the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 Preliminary Report, though, in the form of decentralisation: the idea that the roles of the federal, state and local will be more clearly defined so that the latter will be able to make decisions on budgeting such as maintenance allocations for schools, and personnel decisions such as appointments of principals.

If this decentralisation materialises, that will certainly be a step towards moving more power towards parents. When the election manifestos come out in the coming days, I know many Malaysians will be turning first to the education pages to see if they will be patronised by politicians who think they know best.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.

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