HAVING worked in various areas of public policy for over 15 years across four countries with international programmes across a handful more, I have observed that education is universally a contentious, difficult, and politically charged area of policymaking anywhere in the world.
Education forms a key determinant of how we see the world, alongside the upbringing received at home and the religious values and cultural traditions instilled from birth. This personal attachment understandably drives intense passions, amplified when one’s own children are involved, while all patriotic citizens will feel that education policy has enormous, lasting consequences for their country.
It has been noted that thus far, every Prime Minister of Malaysia with the exception of Tunku Abdul Rahman served as Minister of Education earlier in their political career. However, adding to the many new records Tun Mahathir has set, the current Acting Minister of Education is the first to serve while also being Prime Minister. This followed the departure of Maszlee Malik, whose decisions in office attracted much commentary, particularly those involving the colour of shoes, access to swimming pools, or the teaching of khat. On the other hand, his defenders say that media manipulation meant that many good decisions such as on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (Tvet) were buried underneath sensationalist headlines.
Many are hoping for bolder education reform now that Tun Mahathir is helming the portfolio, and certainly his first big policy announcement is bold: the reintroduction of the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English (PPSMI), which was active between 2003 and 2012. Though no date has been set, even some cabinet colleagues have shown mixed enthusiasm, even confusion, and I suspect well-rehearsed arguments will resurface regarding the availability of resources, the capability of teachers to teach in English, the ability of students to learn in English, apart from the linguistic jingoism consonant with the usual racial and religious arguments that are triggered at every opportunity when reform is proposed.
In late 2011, as the government was moving to abolish PPSMI, I lent my support to PAGE and other organisations that advocated choice: so that parents who wanted maths and science to be taught in English had this option. This has now existed since 2016 through the Dual Language Programme (DLP), which theoretically enables children to learn STEM subjects in English if parents request it. The precise mechanics and effectiveness differs from school to school, but the evidence suggests that the policy is beneficial for the students who have enrolled. As such, I would be surprised by a return to a more hard-line policy of compelling all students to learn maths and science in English. The government’s election manifesto is silent on this specific topic.
To me, the principle of choice should be embedded in education policy, and I refer readers to the various research initiatives that Ideas has conducted over the years, including for the poorest and marginalised in society. Though an internationally-robust standardised curriculum should exist, we must stop seeing diversity in our education system as an automatic evil, for we need diversity in society, too. Our federal system should be taken advantage of, and we should learn from other federations that make education a state responsibility, which drives competition, innovation, and greater responsiveness to local needs with no diminishment of national pride.
I have met hundreds of non-Chinese kids in Chinese vernacular schools because their parents judge the quality of instruction to be better than in national schools, legions of parents who spend the majority of their hard-earned income to send their kids to private schools, and the concurrent opening of lower cost private schools to meet this demand, and dozens of teachers who work with parents to go the extra mile to give children the best prospects possible. In short, Malaysian parents must be trusted to make the best choices for their children. The government must let them, and not let authoritarianism and narrow political agendas get in the way.
I have been criticised in the past for commenting on this topic on the logic that I received a private education and thus have no right to comment on the public education system. Thankfully, many government teachers disagree, and I have enjoyed visits in government schools of all types – national and vernacular, urban and rural, old and new, residential and non-residential, high-performance and less high-performance – and I have only ever met children who love their country and want a brighter future in it.
This is the assumption which any Minister of Education should begin with in pursuing reform, rather than any agenda motivated by party politics, race, religion, or personal aggrandisement.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.