OCTOBER 20 — In this election season, how to know if a Malaysian politician is the real deal? Someone who puts nation before self, or the benefits of parliamentarian office?
There’s one direct barometer.
He or she speaks about education. On how to improve it and bring Malaysia into the 21st century.
Be mindful, talking about education is also the quickest way to tank an election campaign. It is as toxic as it is complicated, thanks to decades of neglect.
Wait, let’s clear the air first.
Some might say Umno, Bersatu, DAP, PKR and every other party, harp incessantly on public education.
They do not, actually.
They speak about educational institutions and their access to funds, support and recognition.
However, they do not share their thoughts on how public education can grow the country and unite the people. The former wins votes in the selected segments, and the latter loses viewer interest due to its contextual rigour.
MCA, DAP, Sarawak’s SUPP and Sabah’s LDP would battle for the unshaking commitment to Chinese schools and the votes that come with them.
MIC, DAP, PKR and other Indian parties which have fallen from conversation — Malaysian Indian United Party (MIUP), or Makkal Sakti anyone? — want Indian schools no matter how small or isolated to continue.
Umno, Bersatu, PKR, PAS, Pejuang and the next true Malay champion want race exclusive boarding schools like Malay College and Tunku Kurshiah College to continue as is.
Same for MRSM (MARA science schools) and no one to touch MARA campuses of any hue.
No one speaks about the taboo or lose-lose-lose issue, that Malaysia is the only country of its economy and development class which has multiple public-school streams. These politicians who back the situation should be ashamed of themselves.
The pandemic has shed light on what was apparent long before: the regular folks, the working class with their basic schools get the shortest end of the stick. Their children are fodder.
Multiple streams mean our system is not scaled to provide the best possible education with the money available for all Malaysian children. And second the absence of general principles on minimums for all students.
In short, millions are left to rot.
Either they are in inferior schools by design or assigned less opportunities to science and technology or English.
It’s ridiculous the argument needs to be made. But Malaysia is polarised to a fault.
Begin with all students in the public system receiving the same care and resources. Difficult to monitor but clarity of principle assists in better delivery.
Which means all boarding schools and MRSMs either turn private or are rationalised to the equality principle.
Vernacular schools give up Chinese and Tamil as medium or go private completely. Religious schools face the same choice, an emphasis on secular education — Maths, Science and Technology — or find private funds.
This is the only way rural schools, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, get the allocations necessary to provide basic — not superior education. Presently, they are denied.
The finance ministry proposed RM55.6 billion for 2023 before an election was called. If there are five million public school students — a lowball since there were close to 900,000 students in Selangor in 2021 — it translates to RM11,000 a student per annum.
But when factoring early education, food assistance programmes, small schools with minimum expenditures and development costs, the real average would be considerably lower.
And then it leads to the question: how much is the difference of average expenditure in the preferred institutions as opposed to the normal schools?
What do elite public schools or under-occupied vernacular schools in Perlis receive at the expense of regular schools beside Sabah’s trunk roads?
Without Maths, Science and Technology, go straight to jail
The adequate teaching of modern skills accompanied by tools like science labs and Internet should be a bare minimum if the facility is to be a public school.
This is where the battle over Tahfiz schools emerges. There are hundreds of thousands of young people without any technology training, and the federal government is complicit.
They let the situation fester because giving the people “what they want” even if they disadvantage their children ad-infinitum, supplies votes.
To refuse a child modern education in 2022 is criminal. They get relegated to menial blue collar jobs, ill-fitted to compete. They get disassociated from the digital age.
Probably the easiest bit to pass, but the issue is about resolve and structural changes to achieve the goal, and not just lip service.
English comprehension and communication have never been lower in our public schools. If not for the organic transfer of English use thanks to the Internet, the level would be even lower. Ninety per cent of the students never had a chance.
Either the teachers are weak or the low emphasis on English or both over decades have resulted in a nation of non-English speakers.
The fix is in requiring a pass in English for all grade promotions. Our regional neighbours have caught up and are probably ahead by now; this includes Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Malay for all
Vernacular schools use Malay as a primary language, not as one of the many languages to learn.
Singapore cleared its language policies and went from strength to strength. Malaysia’s vernacular schools are adamant to buy time and use their political force to achieve effective apartheid.
It is not only the Malay nationalists who want to cut a portion of the rakyat away from national entitlement, there are the Chinese and Tamil chauvinists who prefer their communities cut from national identity.
Enough of the stupid anecdotes about exceptional students who speak Malay well despite being in Chinese schools. A large number of Malaysian Chinese are at sea with Malay because of the language policy in their primary education.
DAP can spin the matter all it wants, but it has no intention to let Malaysians join together in our public schools.
Just like how the Malay nationalists use culture to prevent anyone but type to win in Pengerang or Lenggong, DAP is assured of Kota Melaka and Seremban because it plays the race card built by vernacular education.
Equal and minimums
That’s public education, or the debates about them. Currently, our debates on education are rubbish. Can any country be so contrived, deluded and distracted as Malaysia when it comes to a national public schools system?
Equal access to resources and those with less need more. Not the elites get the best by hoodwinking the poor.
Minimums on technology education, English and the primacy of Malay in our national schools.
Name the politician in any of the parties willing to back that! One person in Parliament today, or in Parliament next month.
Even Muda’s Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman would campaign on populist two-holiday days for Deepavali rather than the revolution of Malaysian education.
There is no courage. This might be a fool’s errand but perhaps the country more than ever needs principles rather than expediency even if that means those who champion it stay out of power longer.
Because public education in Malaysia is drowning, and those who seek power find solace that the body count does not include their children.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.