Within a week of the general election I visited four different educational institutions for equally different reasons.
The first was Cempaka Cheras, to watch their performance of Happy Days, involving primary and secondary level students from both their national- and international-curriculum private schools. As usual the quality of their production was astounding and, following an election-themed skit by Cempaka Schools founder Dato’ Freida, I told the students how important democratic institutions and active citizenship are in ensuring our country’s happy days.
The second was Sekolah Berasrama Penuh Integrasi Gombak, which was hosting the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition involving teams from three other schools also representing different types – a Maktab Rendah Sains MARA, a Sekolah Menengah Sains, and a Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan. These are just some among many that exist within the publicly-funded Malaysian education system, represented by acronyms like SJK, SMKA and SBT, or designations like Wawasan, Kluster, Bestari and Premier (some schools belong to multiple categories). But all that mattered to the children vying for the spot at the international competition in Mexico City was the success of their robots.
The third was the National University of Malaysia, where I met professors from its Law Faculty to discuss an exciting project to disseminate understanding of our federal constitution through the works of one of our country’s most impeccable legal minds, the late Raja Aziz Addruse, whose collection is housed there. If the new government is serious about restoring the independence of the judiciary, this work will be essential.
In each educational institution there was a common sense of liberation and optimism; a hope that under the new government they would be able to impart knowledge and stimulate the minds of the next generation with greater freedom than before.
At the fourth, Sunway University, to attend the first post-general election forum, there were welcome glimpses of these hopes. On the panel entitled ‘Keeping the New Government Accountable’, the newly-elected MP for Simpang Renggam spoke frankly about the need to fulfil manifesto pledges, and his willingness to speak up as a backbencher if the government ever faltered, especially on education.
His job will turn out to be quite different: for he is now the Minister of Education.
Dr Maszlee Malik’s appointment generated some controversy because of his alleged support for extremism but he was, in fact, supporting freedom of expression. Indeed, the Maszlee I know believes in a diverse and united Malaysia where everyone can thrive, and I commend others who defended him (like Ong Kian Ming) amidst public scepticism – phobia, even – based on his training in Islamic jurisprudence. I dare say Dr Maszlee is better versed in the PT3 than our new defence minister is in the PT-91M, yet Mat Sabu has received a more universally warm welcome.
It is perhaps because education is a topic that is close to the hearts of so many, and so linked with our nation’s destiny, that the level of scrutiny is microscopic.
But Dr Maszlee is an experienced educator (not just at the International Islamic University but also at IDEAS where he convened political economy courses), and from his speeches and writing he has long advocated reforms such as reducing class sizes, cutting teachers’ paperwork and ensuring university autonomy. Through his work at the IDEAS Autism Centre and other organisations he has shown his commitment to special needs and disadvantaged children. Since his appointment his statements have continued in kind, looking at ways to help fresh graduates repaying loans from the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN), reviewing Trust Schools and promising to repeal the stifling University and University Colleges Act (UUCA). The cabinet decision to abolish the National Council of Professors is also consonant with this.
Going forward, Dr Maszlee will have to juggle the concerns of parents, academicians, professionals and students themselves who passionately believe that the most important aspect of education is language, or history, or music, or drama, or sport, or STEM, or TVET, or religious content, or lack thereof… the list is endless. It is an unenviable task for any politician, so I hope this first-term MP gets all the help he can get.
In navigating this maze, I hope Dr Maszlee will be guided by our Federal Constitution, which should be inculcated into every young citizen, while introducing the best teaching methods based on international evidence. At the same time he should remember that our publicly-funded schools and universities exist to serve parents and children, and as such decentralisation and choice should be maximised so that different – but equally legitimate – visions of the perfect Malaysian child can evolve into a diverse citizenry that will chase the perfect Malaysia together.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS