Reinvent or collapse on: The Malaysian public school system debacle

DECEMBER 10 — The path to a better future goes directly through our public schools.

Howard Dean, former Vermont governor and presidential hopeful, says it plain.

However, for the past year, nothing much went to, let alone through, our public schools.

At least half of B40 students — the dominant segment— had a Covid-19 enforced gap year.

How much of their future’s compromised, only time will tell.

Our ministry technocrats will likely hide their incompetency using the adjusted bell curve, to insist all is well; however it’s the most vulnerable who pay the price.

While schools worldwide were challenged, and everyone lost a degree of quality by their adjustments, here in Malaysia where public schools in urban poor and rural localities already suffer due to a steady divide growth, it was calamitous.

When our schools shut down to fight Covid-19, the adjustments were subpar.

To expect public schools and their teachers to have the capacity to teach, supervise and monitor online; and the students with the assistance of their parents or community to absorb, consult and test well, without a large injection of resource was always problematic.

A portion of schools, teachers and students managed. The rest have sunk more than swam.

The pandemic is not creating new problems, it only bares naked the failings of our present arrangement, its seams long torn.

But these months should have emboldened policy makers to choose the future rather than be held hostage by the past. Unfortunately, being brave for the right thing is often a career-ender in Malaysia.

At the heart of the problem is our public education philosophy, primarily the absence of one.

Our accursed public school system is so multi-layered-purposed, half its effort is to appease interests — race, religion and institutional entitlement win medals, effective education for most does not make it to the podium. The other half is to defend the right to have a “unique” structure contrary to all successful public school systems elsewhere.

To surmise, the perceived pseudo-philosophy of Malaysian education is to give something to all segments (never enough), not upset anyone too much and carry on (leaving all discontented).

Naturally, when resources are stretched to pay for varying interests, the vulnerable are further marginalised.

Certain quarters argue since all people are taxed, then education should cover all interests.

However, our national primary and secondary education budget cannot be taken and divided by the total number of students to arrive at what each student deserves.

The rich pay substantial taxes which also pays for public buses and trains they do not ride. That’s not an argument for them to begrudge public transportation or to request for separate golden carriages commensurate to their tax burden.

As US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes clarified: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilised society.”

Different students from different places would need different resources in order to achieve the minimum level for their grade. Some more, some less, but spend we must to ensure all students have the chance to reach the minimum.

Surely kids trekking through forests for hours for WiFi zones, falling from bridges and camping out solo to just learn must have tugged at the heartstrings of Malaysians.

Helping all public school students reach the minimum is near impossible when the annual budget struggles to keep up with inflation and student intake, while contending with specific needs of the multi-tiers.

Cinderella’s sisters

For instance, Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) is a prep school pretending to be a public school, with students from across the country. The school requires more funding per student than the average student at the sekolah kebangsaan. This explains the long waiting queues for entry

It comes from the same funding pool set up for the rural schools. Why should rural schools which can’t afford computers and working Internet connectivity, struggle for those essentials when another school stays aloof and separate from the local population paid for by taxpayers in order to continue a tradition? [This is not to say MCKK is receiving adequate funding to match its own aspirations, which tells a lot about education frustrations everywhere.]

They dip into the same pot.

This is not to argue against MCKK’s existence, but to say, it’s not fair to other public schools operating under extreme resource constraints.

The late ISIS (Institute of Strategic and International Studies) chairman Nordin Sopiee spoke about the need to turn mature schools into fee-paying institutions 20 years ago. He saw the coming storm, that uncoupling autonomous schools to balance cost was central to a healthy public school system.

If MCKK, Victoria Institution, Tunku Kurshiah College, MARA science colleges and the rest were turned fee-paying — removing payroll and maintenance costs from taxpayers — there’d be more to spend on the sekolah kebangsaan.

The same for national type schools and religious schools.

Public schools are successful when they offer standard education with minimum variance. Students can move from one public school to another without feeling shortchanged.

They are also better when maximising scale. If public education funding was run as a business, the executive running the numbers would be double-quick to point out excessive facilities being bad for the basic goal to have maximum standard products.

Ex-governor Dean’s exposition refers that:

I have nothing against private schools, parochial schools and home schooling, and I think that parents with the means and inclination should choose whatever they believe is best for their children. But those choices cannot compete, and cannot come at the expense of what has been — and what must always be — the great equaliser in our society, a free and equal public education.

A free and equal public education. In Malaysia, it’s reasonable to claim basic education is free, but hardly equal.

Putrajaya, we have a problem

Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 accounts the ordeal of a crew stuck in space after an explosion, finding a way home and the army of technicians in Houston seeking a solution. It actually happened even if Hollywood took some liberties.

They had to alter the lunar module to function as a return craft to earth using the items left undamaged in the various space modules. 1970, fifty years ago, computer technology was ancient by today’s standard. The cheap Poco smartphone today has stronger processing power.

But they found a way. They got the crew home alive.

Malaysia’s education organically grew, as did British rule across the land. Sekolah pondok, Chinese community schools, estate huts to assist plantation workers mark the salary ledger, British schools to prepare civil servants and churches seeking new faithful via the gratitude of education.

It shifted the illiterate masses to readers of letters. Revolutionary.

But since independence, we’ve just been defensive. Give what we can but want to control all of education, as power is linked to how the people are educated. That’s when public education began to slip.

So, our educationists of all backgrounds when asked to cobble together a craft, to bring Malaysia’s “Apollo 13” together from the shambles of history they had no control over, but to realise a solution nevertheless, they went out for tea to bitch about the past.

Instead of recognising the challenges and making hard decisions to achieve the key objectives for long-term prosperity, they opted to stick “Perpetual delay” to the problem.

Covid-19 is a stark reminder of how flimsy our public school system is, and further reminders may not be forthcoming. It’s time to change, to use our public schools to bring Malaysia home.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles