OCTOBER 19 — Education is the easiest to lie about. Show people buildings where youths walk in and walk out for a considerable number of days in a year and parade exam results which year on year rise and government propagandists can come up with infographics and talk-shows to glorify the government in power.
The drop in confidence among informed parents about our public schools is the better indicator. The unending boom of private schools — independent, international, home school and religious — and their enrolment, is the truer indicator.
Eleven years of public education — primary and secondary — is where the government can do the most good for the most number of Malaysians. Give them a future.
Unfortunately, in the present it’s bleak. Government is letting us down.
Of course, there are exceptions among the schools, and technocrats tend to oversell those institutions despite them being exceptions.
How about average government schools?
Parents typically consider them as gambles. If the throw of dice determines which public school their children attend, they are better off working two jobs each to give their children private education, and a future.
That’s how low the bar has gone. Our average public school, primary and secondary, are daycare centres. A place for young people to be when parents are at work. Their tenders are more supervisors than teachers.
Again, listen, it’s the average.
For primary schools, select suburban and almost all right-sized Chinese schools offer standard education. For secondary, boarding and legacy schools are dependable.
However, the larger student population receives sub-par education in public institutions. It was the case 10 years ago, except now it is even more depressing.
In 2024, the government intends to spend RM58 billion or 15 per cent of its budget on primary (including early) and secondary education. That’s a large amount, on the surface.
When divided to up to approximately three million students it translates to around RM19,000 per student per annum. When dived into further, it deflates optimism.
The Anwar Ibrahim administration certainly misses the boat. It fails to reverse or at least confront the key pillar which dilutes both the quantum and efficacy.
Anwar had the chance to take on education ministry technocrats but he prefers working with them to reproduce the same with a different spin.
There is no change in operations. It’s the same old education ministry. On how it’s run and split into interests rather than a central education philosophy.
Yes, this is about the multiple mediums and types of public schools. The continuation of vernacular schools post-independence — a problem on its own — emboldened others to increase the number of streams as it was OK to have parallels inside the system.
Almost four-fifths of the education budget is emolument, or staff salaries, and they are spread across the streams. Eighty sen of every ringgit to pay people to be in the ministry and its outposts, granted most of them teachers.
Then the cost of taking care of facilities and building new facilities which eventually burden further the overall system takes centre-stage.
And in time the season of giving grants to tahfiz, Chinese and Tamil schools will kick in.
Give the money to interests and give it bit by bit till the year ends, and repeat the cycle.
The recipients deal with the situation differently.
Chinese schools take the teachers and building funds from the government, and augment it with their own traditional, communal and parental support. Raise more and maximise all.
Tahfiz schools mushroom as they like and shame the government to help them survive. The schools are often disorganised, ad hoc and on survival mode perpetually.
Boarding schools have much higher cost per student, taking ringgit out of the pockets of ordinary secondary schools. Their successes are built upon squeezing the regular public school student.
Overall, every interest is cared for, they differ on degrees of support which is based on history and political weight of each cause.
Everybody gets something, everybody is disappointed somewhat.
Stop and count
The column suggests the reshaping of resource grounded on needs and based on a national interest rather than from minimum respect for all interests.
To begin by counting.
Count how many are actually in public schools, their numbers to institutions available.
Demographic shifts have been considerable. In terms of urban-rural migration, factor heavily ethnicity, and public to private/alternative/new age schools.
The first means towns which have decimated Chinese populations but still with that Chinese school with a great history and track-record but not enough students today.
The second being urban middle class, preferring private — even the cheapest like home schools — over the SMK (national secondary schools).
The single biggest challenge for the government is to consolidate student numbers and institutions to provide maximum value in the public system.
As it stands, this is not how we do it.
Deputy Education Minister Lim Hui Ying this month visited Sarawak and asked a Chinese school to up early education for four- and five-year-olds as a way to reduce the under capacity gap.
Translated, there are not enough sign-ups for the government Chinese school in Sarikei. A shrinking Chinese population half explains, and the other explanation is migration to private schools (fully Chinese, international and home school among others). Solution, offer more years to compete with the private sector. Which is ill-advised.
Obviously, a DAP MP born to DAP founder Lim Kit Siang would rather talk about racial dynamics and sustaining yet another Chinese medium school inside the government system regardless of student numbers.
Her answer unremarkably is to spend more on early education to get more students for primary school enrolment.
I have nothing against Ms Lim, but this is a simple example on how the Anwar administration prefers what was explained earlier, the “continue and correct what’s possible” approach rather than a “count, consolidate and charge forward” approach.
One is minimalist and addresses all concerns and stakeholders, tries to keep everyone happy. It is status quo, certainly not going to cure the national education ailment.
The other is colder but provides new ways forward. It likely will upset a lot of people, since most people see politics and not education, and frequently mistake one for the other.
For example, counting Chinese schools (numbers, ratios to private institution enrolment, access and other bits) means counting, and thereafter naturally calls come asking a consolidation of other schools like religious, colonial, boarding and special interest.
Then a whole can of worms opens up.
It may be RM19,000 per student average, but many depending on where they fall in this unconsolidated landscape receive a vast degree below or above the average.
Simply put, if success is the function of financial investment, the average student in SMK Taman Melati probably ends up as a Food Panda rider than a petrochemical engineer. Is that cruel to say?
Not if the government boarding school student gets far more attention and resources compared to the urban working-class populated school. Follow the money.
Presently, expenses and returns on investments are not explained objectively by this government, and without a doubt, not by previous governments.
The prime minister must exhibit a willingness to count and consolidate, as there are too many moving parts.
If the present “continue and correct” approach goes on, the quality and actual outcomes will only drop further. Anwar must dare to count and consolidate with a comprehensive view of national education and not merely about interests.
He should not unilaterally decide. It would be impractical and doomed to fail.
But maybe he can turn to his forte, bring opposing factions — the various interests — to a national forum, and bring their attention to a national education agenda. These are educationists after all, and they do want a better future for the Malaysians they represent at least.
This may mean more forums and meetings. Not a one off.
To shift the discussion from minimalism borne from fear to consolidation inspired by nationalism.
That is Anwar’s success in Pakatan Harapan which then transferred to the present unity government. Forcing some life-long political enemies to set aside differences for the country.
There is no country without education. Perhaps Anwar should use that line to draw interests from the leaders from 19 parties inside his grand coalition who have considerable sway on educationists.
Anwar has a chance to bring dynamism for change to our public school system.
No one in recent history has tried. But then again no one has tried a unity government before. Anwar has, successfully.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.