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Education – Ever the political victim

The painful history of education policy shifts tells us that the power of the Ministry of Education must be drastically cut.

Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every time a crisis engulfs the country’s leadership.

The impact of such shake-ups is usually most apparent in the economy. Positive changes will of course raise confidence levels, while destabilising manoeuvres usually result in declining investor confidence, capital flight and a general bear effect. Hence, it is no surprise that even Bank Negara has attributed the continuing slide of the ringgit – 40% down on the US dollar and the worst performing currency in Asia this year – to, inter alia, the Prime Minister’s current political misfortunes.

But it is not just the economy that suffers. With polemics that more often than not revolve around the question of language and identity rather than quality and efficiency, our education policies are interminably caught in the sticky web of partisan politics. Consequently, abrupt political changes almost always result in abrupt changes in education policies – especially when the ministerial post changes hands.


The politicisation of education

Since the country is divided into two contesting narratives about identity – one advocating an ethno-religious nationalist Malay-Islamic state that favours one community over others, the other a plural Malaysian nation with equal constitutional protections – it naturally follows that this divide would manifest itself in the realm of education as well.

The country has had a plural school system differentiated by medium of instruction long before Malaysia, and before that Malaya, was even conceived. In pre-war Malaya, government-funded schools consisted primarily of English-medium schools in urban areas and Malay vernacular schools in rural areas. Meanwhile, Chinese and Tamil-medium schools got along with some government assistance, though mostly in a laissez-faire environment with minimal state involvement.

Udey Ismail

Sekolah Pondok, or "hut school" , where Islamic religious education is taught.

It was only after the war that the colonial government began consolidating the education system into a more centralised structure, following the establishment of the Central Advisory Committee on Education (CACE) in 1948. Subsequent high-level education reports, such as the Holgate Report in 1950, the Barnes Report in 1951 and the Fenn-Wu Committee Report in 1951, clearly advocated the amalgamation of the various school streams.

Naturally, unification proposals were fiercely contested. Chinese and Tamil educationists believed them to be a threat to their cultural identity, while Malay nationalists felt that English was accorded more prominence as the primary language of knowledge at the expense of Malay. This emotional and dichotomous polemic would set the tone for what would be known as the politics of language in the education system.

Eventually, a compromise was secured in 1956 with the Razak Report, which accommodated elements from both the Malay-centric Barnes Report and the Fenn-Wu Report favoured by the Chinese and Indians. This entailed the integration of all vernacular primary schools into the national school system through the creation of “national” and “national-type” schools, as well as the universal adoption of the national school syllabus.


May 13 and the end of English-medium education

Despite the compromises, there was little respite. Malay nationalists continued to begrudge the dominant role of Englishmedium education while vernacular language advocates bemoaned the fact that the Rahman Talib Report, enacted in the form of the Education Act 1961, effectively halted the progress of Chinese and Tamil-medium education by allowing only Malay-medium national schools and English-medium national-type schools to exist at the secondary level.

Thus, dissatisfaction between (and within) communal interest groups continued to fester throughout the decade before finally coming to a boil as racial sentiments heated up in the months leading up to the 1969 General Election. Following the bloody racial riots in the Klang Valley on May 13, 1969, nationwide Emergency Rule was declared and parliamentary democracy was suspended.

With Parliament on hiatus, full executive control of the country was assumed by the National Operations Council (NOC), established on May 16, 1969 with Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak as its head. While Tunku Abdul Rahman would continue to remain as Prime Minister until September 1970, his position post-May 16 was merely nominal, as all executive powers had been abdicated to the NOC.

Irrespective of whether or not one regards the events of May 1969, from polling day on May 10 to the rioting on May 13 to the usurpation of power on May 16, as part of a premeditated coup d’état, it is undeniable that the resultant outcome – with Razak appointed to head the NOC and then officially taking over as Prime Minister more than a year later – achieved the same effect.

Hence, with a new leader and faction in power, the stage was set for a fundamental policy shift. Social re-engineering measures such as the New Economic Policy (NEP) were introduced to address what was deemed to be the cause of social conflict – the stark socioeconomic disparity between the largely urban Chinese and the rural Malays. However, while much has been discussed about the successes and failures of the NEP’s socioeconomic programmes, little attention has been paid to the fundamental changes made to the education system.

Archives New Zealand

Then Deputy Minister Tun Abdul Razak greeting New Zealand Prime Minister Walter Nas in 1960. On the right i Abdul Rahman bin Haji Talib, Minister of Education from 1960-1962 and author of the Rahman Talib Report.

As described earlier, the tragic riots of May 13 led to a change of guard within the ruling regime. It was not only the Tunku who was sidelined, but also his key allies, many of whom were replaced by Razak loyalists. One such change was the removal of senior Umno minister Md Khir Johari from the education portfolio, a post that he had held for a total of nine years (though not consecutively) prior to then. In his place, a known Razak ally, Abdul Rahman Ya’kub from Sarawak, was appointed.

More than merely consolidating Razak’s political base, this move also paved the way for the Malay nationalist faction to implement education policy changes that had been long sought, especially with regards to the prickly issue of language. In this regard, Khir Johari, who was not only a product of an English-medium school but also served as a teacher in one, had always been a thorn in the Malay nationalists’ side. As Minister of Education, he was known to be sympathetic to English-medium education and strongly supported its perpetuation at the tertiary level.

Hence, with potential obstacles out of the way[1], the Razak-led NOC administration officially announced the end of English-medium education on July 10, 1969, less than two months after the May 13 riots. Through a ministerial directive, a gradual timeline was set out for the replacement of English with Malay as a medium of instruction at all levels of public education, from primary schools to universities.



Another crisis, another minister, another policy change

The current political crisis surrounding Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has seen the embattled Prime Minister resorting to harsh measures to secure his position. Amidst allegations of grand corruption and misappropriation of funds centred on the controversial 1MDB sovereign investment fund, whose advisory board is chaired by Najib himself, newspaper licences were suspended, critics and dissenters arrested, and high profile government leaders summarily dismissed in a move to quell an internal putsch. Casualties include longserving Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail and two senior ministers, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

In the ensuing Cabinet reshuffle, firebrand loyalists were placed in prominent positions, and the repercussions have been predictable – an escalation of narrow ethnonationalism and belligerent racial posturing, as exemplified by the controversial Red Shirt Rally last September 16, which saw tens of thousands of largely mono-ethnic protestors gathering in KL to assert claims of Malay superiority, with many displaying provocative, anti-Chinese slogans. Not only was the rally allowed to proceed, the presence of senior Umno leaders, including government ministers, in the racially charged demonstration indicated tacit approval by the powers above.

Predictably, the rise in Malay hegemonic sentiments was also reflected in the realm of education. Following the removal of Muhyiddin, a new Minister of Education was appointed in the form of Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid, who decided to announce his entry into the senior ranks of Malaysian politics by launching a vitriolic attack against a purported Judeo-Christian conspiracy designed to split the Malays.

And if anyone thought his narrow-minded outburst may have been an isolated incident, Mahdzir quickly took away all doubt when he followed through by singling out the existence of vernacular schools as the leading cause of national disunity, and later attempted to justify the Red Shirt Rally as a consequence of the Malays being “pushed against the wall”.

It is therefore no surprise that the first policy change by the new Minister of Education would be related to the sensitive issue of language. He quickly postponed the previous minister’s decision to make English a compulsory pass subject in the school-leaving SPM examination, due to come into force in 2016. This action drew much criticism, as many viewed the move as a reversal of a progressive reform that had been long sought by education activists.


A structural problem

Controversial language policy decisions have become something of a habit for newly appointed Ministers of Education. In fact, the previous minister Muhyiddin himself had, upon assuming the portfolio in 2009, moved to repeal the use of English as a medium of instruction for science and mathematics, a policy that had only been put in place barely seven years earlier.

John Laurie

Children coming home from school, Ulu Langat, circa 1961. The Education Act 1961 effectively halted the progress of Chinese and Tamil-medium education

As can be clearly observed, the Malaysian education system suffers from extremely arbitrary decision-making and policy flip-flops, especially when a new minister puts on the mantle. This is a serious concern, because major decisions on education policy do not merely carry cost and resource implications, they shape and affect whole generations of Malaysians.

The persistent flip-flopping over language policies is a very clear case in point. Having inherited a strong tradition of English proficiency, a characteristic that was recognised as a key strength of the Malaysian workforce in the first few decades of growth, poor English standards have now been singled out as the main contributor to the lack of competitiveness among our graduates today. And yet, while the country faces serious human resource challenges, successive Ministers of Education continue to make decisions based on emotive politics rather than empirical substance.

And therein lies the real crux of the problem.

It is not so much that insular and parochial ministers are appointed – certainly, it would help if they were not – but that there is little in the form of checks and balances or intervention points to prevent arbitrary decision-making by whoever is the Minister of Education. In other words, the underlying problem is the fact that a single person can be allowed to wield such unfettered power.

This, in essence, is a structural problem. Beginning from the Razak Report, the gradual nationalisation of education also meant the gradual centralisation of authority. From what had been in pre-war times a laissez-faire and somewhat autonomous arrangement, the education system has evolved into a highly centralised bureaucratic behemoth with decision-making concentrated in the hands of the political executive.

For example, while most advanced education systems around the world employ independent and professional bodies to govern and manage national examinations, curriculum-setting and teacher training, all of these areas come under the direct control of the ministry in Malaysia. At the same time, there is also very little schoollevel autonomy, which has resulted in an uncompetitive school environment with minimal community ownership and hardly any parental engagement. With such a high degree of concentration of administrative control over 10,000 schools, nearly 500,000 teachers and around five million students, it is little wonder that the Ministry of Education (MOE) has become a sluggish, bureaucratic behemoth.

Kwong Wah Yit Poh

Former Minister of Education Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

Furthermore, due to the very direct control of the executive and the highly politicised nature of education in general, it is unsurprising to see that schools have become tools for achieving political expedience rather than educational objectives. Not only have certain subjects been adulterated by partisan politicking, it is also not uncommon to hear of teachers being transferred due to their (wrong) political views or the occasional circular to remind schools to reduce their “interactions” with opposition politicians, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Finally, such a highly centralised power structure also invariably facilitates pork-barrelling. This is because the centralisation of decision-making also means centralisation of funding. And as education funding constitutes the largest portion of the national budget, this makes the portfolio a particularly lucrative one. Consequently, education in Malaysia has evolved into a significant political economy, sustaining a web of patronage and a crony capitalist class that is closely linked to the ruling coalition.

Take, for example, the now-defunct policy to use English as a medium of instruction for science and mathematics. Although ostensibly a language policy its implementation has been reported to have cost an exorbitant RM8bil – most of it in the form of computer hardware and software meant to aid teachers who were not proficient in English. Unfortunately, because most teachers were also not proficient in the use of computers, most of this investment ended up collecting dust in school storerooms throughout the country.

Another controversial example is the overambitious 1BestariNet project awarded to YTL Communications in 2011 to provide high-speed Internet broadband access across all 10,000 schools in the country, along with a virtual learning environment system that comprises both software and hardware, with the latter inducing additional costs. Worth a minimum of RM4.1bil over 15 years, the project has recently come under fire following a critical audit by the Auditor- General in 2013 that revealed lopsided clauses, contractual irregularities and questionable results.

Kwong Wah Yit Poh

Notwithstanding the fact that YTL did not have any experience in providing education services at the time of the project’s award, it was also not a major telecommunications provider, at the very least not compared to the other more established companies that took part in the bid. As one of the requirements of the project stipulates the erection of telecommunication towers in every school, this has led to accusations that 1BestariNet effectively facilitates the expansion of YTL’s Internet broadband network at the expense of taxpayers.


Structural rationalisation

It is clear that the perversion of our education system by politically motivated policymaking, bureaucratic inefficiency, poor educational outcomes and pork-barrelling practices, has at its root a structural cause.

Therefore, if any real education reform is to be achieved, these structural issues must first be addressed. To begin with, the Minister should not have direct oversight over technical areas such as examinations, curriculum content or even teachers, for that matter. Certainly, decisions on medium of education or examination subjects should not even be made by the Minister; instead, these should be managed by professional and independent bodies.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the MOE should have its powers drastically reduced and rationalised. Most of its current roles and functions should be ceded to independent bodies, while the ministry itself should concentrate on quality control, the administration of funding and ensuring goals and KPIs are achieved.

At the same time, decision-making should be devolved to the lowest possible layer without compromising its efficiency. Besides empowering state and local authorities, it is even more crucial to allow greater school autonomy, especially with regards to staffing and spending. Finally, parents and the local community must be directly engaged and consulted in the governance of schools.

If we truly want the Malaysian education system to graduate into the 21st century, then these hard decisions have to be made. Only then can we replace the politics of language with more progressive debates about quality and efficiency.

Until and unless these structural deficits are addressed, education will continue to be the greatest political victim in Malaysia.

  • [1]Besides Khir Johari, the MCA, a Chinese-based coalition partner in the Alliance, had also seen its influence diminish following a disastrous showing in the 1969 General Election.
Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and executive director of Penang Institute.
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