FANCY going back in time to the halcyon days of secondary school, when the Cambridge O-Level and A-Level education assessment system was in place, and reliving those wonderful times once again?
Yes Minister, those were the days when the quality of education and English were the pride of the nation and the envy of many member states across the British Commonwealth.
Even in a 1960s report on Commonwealth universities, Malaysia’s premier university, Universiti Malaya (UM) was ranked highly and placed in the same league as University of London, University of Aberdeen and University of Manchester.
The UM, founded in 1965, was modelled after Cambridge’s centuries-old traditions. For many years, even after Independence, it held the distinction of being a university of international acclaim that produced doctors, engineers, and a wide range of professional graduates who were in high demand throughout the Commonwealth.
That was then. The narrative has changed. The quality has gradually declined, and despite appearing to provide an impressive front, the increase in quantity will never be able to make up for it. Away from the bulwark of excellence it was set on, nationalism, patriotism, and hegemonic politics took centrestage and soon set a new direction and path for education.
The once-high standards for education and English quality have been compromised, and in some cases, even sacrificed.
Yes, Minister. An educational system brought on by politics and policy changes over the years, with hiccups along the way, has cost the nation three generations.
They were denied access to high-quality educational opportunities like the O-Level and A-Level Cambridge-based programmes that many people from my generation still value today.
However, students whose parents could afford it would attend private schools with high tuition and preparation programmes for continuing their education at reputable foreign universities.
And I know, Mr Minister, that you would lament over the pall of uncertainty that hangs over the future of education for the younger generation as you grew up in the 1960s and early 70s and benefited from the quality education of the period. As politics would dictate, you would rather stay in abeyance until the state government of Sarawak adopts a courageous and unified stance on issues affecting the state’s education policies.
However, not everything is lost just yet. Earlier this month, Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg called for Sarawak to have autonomy over its education policies, bringing to light the safety net that Sarawak has at its disposal. Despite being a brave and bold stance, it was not without historical and documentary support and evidence.
Yes Minister, kudos to the Premier!
Yes Minister, the Premier must not be left alone to champion the educational crusade.
Other political and civil service leaders must join the chorus and lend support to the voice of the Premier on education autonomy. The wait-and-see attitude waiting to be told and led must be discarded.
The Premier’s claim is consistent with Paragraph 17 of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) Report, which states that the country’s education policy should involve consultation with Sarawak. Although the IGC must be read and understood in the context of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), there is a lack of adherence to this specific provision.
Provision on education in IGC Report
Paragraph 17(a) on Education of the IGC Report states clearly: Although Education (Item 13[a]of the Federal List in the Ninth Schedule) will be a federal subject, the recent policy and system of administration of education in North Borneo and Sarawak (including their present ordinances) should be undisturbed and remain under the control of the Government of the State until that government otherwise agrees.
- the present policy in the Borneo States regarding the use of English should continue;
- knowledge of the Malay language should not be required as a qualification for any educational opportunity until such time as the State Government concerned considers that sufficient provision has been made to teach Malay in all schools in the State;
- there should be no application to the Borneo States of any Federal requirements regarding religious education;
- state provision for the special position of the indigenous peoples should continue to apply;
- the Directors of Education in the Borneo States, who would be officer serving in Federal post and responsible to the Federal Minister of Education through the Ministry of Education, should carry out much the same duties as they do at present in consultation with the State Government concerned;
- to enable local wishes to be fully consulted and taken into account as far as possible, the Directors of Education of the Borneo States should continue to be advised by the existing Boards of Education and the local Committees, and;
- in the case of Sarawak, the local authorities should continue to be used as agents for primary school.
In light of the above, Abang Johari is adamant that the Director of Education in Sarawak, as the foremost official conduit of the Federal Ministry of Education, must first consult the state if the federal government wishes to impose any policies on education.
Unfortunately, this has not been adhered to, resulting in what Abang Johari describes as ‘policies that may not dovetail well with the education needs of the present and future generations of Sarawakians’.
The flip-flop policies of the federal government on education are not helping either.
However, after more than 60 years of independence, there is a growing lack of confidence in the direction and organisational structure of education, which poses a threat to its credibility and acceptability.
Where did the fault lie?
Who was responsible for shifting the gravy train’s track after many years of travel?
Was ethnic hegemony a factor that entered the picture and altered the once-diverse tapestry of education?
Has flip-flopping policy in education been affected by power politics that plays to the gallery?
These and many more are the questions that we need to ask and seek comprehensive answers to, even as we take comfort in the knowledge that Abang Johari’s leadership will pave the way for Sarawak to secure the autonomy on education as provided for under the IGC.
But most of the answers to the aforesaid questions are embedded in a social and cultural context that is, by definition, Malayan and marked by social quirks that may be alien to Sarawakians.
They are the majority. The majority decides and dictates and impose, with Sarawakians at the receiving end and at their mercy.
Centrality of English
Sarawak is concerned about this as well as the ongoing issue of finding teachers who can meet the requirements for serving in Sarawak. Abang Johari is correct when he says that Sarawak is aware of the standards it demands of its teachers.
With this in place, English will have its proper place in the Sarawak educational system and will serve as one the official languages of the Sarawak civil service, allowing Sarawak to move forward with more vigour and a more skilled workforce to meet the demands of the new wave of development.
Yes Minister, Sarawak is already making headway in the implementation of English as the medium of instruction in the recently-established five private international schools – two in Kuching and one each in Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri. They will be run by Sanjung Sdn Bhd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Yayasan Sarawak.
Cambridge-style private schools
The establishment of these private international schools in Sarawak complies with the standards of the Federal Ministry of Education (MoE) as well as national regulations. It emphasises Sarawak’s commitment and responsibility of protecting the state’s educational rights, as stated in Paragraph 17(a) of the Inter-Governmental Committee Report, 1962 (IGC Report).
These private secondary schools offer Cambridge-based syllabus and the pathway for eligible students to pursue their tertiary studies in reputable universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, University of Singapore and University of Melbourne. As mentioned by Abang Johari, these schools will provide high-potential students, especially from the rural areas, with the opportunity to realise their full potential by giving access to international standard education.
Yes Minister, the state government of Sarawak is devoted to providing educational resources and opportunities for young Sarawakians, particularly in terms of improving their English language abilities. By placing English on a high pedestal as an official language of communication in the Sarawak civil service and a medium of instruction in government-instituted private schools, Sarawak is confident of moving forward ahead of many of many states in the country.
Even before Sarawak secures its legitimate autonomy over education, all of this is already taking place.
* Toman Mamora (PhD Nottingham, UK) is a communication and research consultant. He comments on contemporary social and political issues and seeks to raise public opinion on subjects of societal value.