AS acting Minister of Education entrusted with a narrow time frame to make impactful reforms, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed needs to prioritise a few key areas which will have the biggest and longest-lasting changes for the benefit of the nation as a whole.
The Prime Minister’s cap he wears will reassure the rakyat that his proposals are constitutionally fair, just and non-discriminatory like his repeated calls to uphold the rule of law.
Finance, Economic Development and Education are the most challenging portfolios for any government, more so for Malaysia and its heterogeneous society.
In an instant the minister in charge can be accused of ethnic bias or worse, of marginalizing groups and communities.
Principles of equitability and egalitarianism must be starkly visible in any policy reform and its implementation up to scratch.
Education has always been mired in controversies as it serves to satisfy the needs of a whole array of stakeholders with diverse interests.
Even the former education minister’s practical suggestion for students to wear black shoes invited brickbats and criticism.
A change which should have been applauded became the subject of derision.
His call for four values - love, happiness, mutual respect, responsibilty - to form the core of the education philosophy was thought to be soppy by some.
Tun Dr Mahathir has to take the bull by the horns and turn to more contentious matters which only he as Prime Minister cum Minister of Education has the clout to reform.
That is, if he dares to lose the political support of some factions to gain the support of right thinking Malaysians.
First, he must address the vernacular school system which is at the root of polarization among the school community.
Paradoxically, the constitutional interethnic bargaining which resulted in giving Chinese and Indian Malaysians their own vernacular schools has worsened Malaysia’s interethnic relations.
Sixty years on, the national education system poised to produce knowledgeable, well-informed and socio-culturally enlightened citizens contributing fully to the nation’s development is instead churning out narrow-minded bigots and chauvinists winging in their own silos.
The self-professed progressive group, on the other hand, is calling for a single school system with English as the medium of instruction - a proposal which even the far-sighted Tun Mahathir would not be naïve enough to undertake.
The workable solution lies in standardizing the composition, structure, curriculum, methodology, syllabus and training of the three national school types, i.e. Sekolah Kebangsaan, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina and Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil to make each the school of choice.
National integration should follow as an important outcome.
The following recommendations are proposed:
• Make the school population truly interethnic by introducing a 50/25/25 quota for each school type e.g. 50% Chinese, 25% Malays and 25% Indians in Chinese schools.
• Regulate the curriculum and syllabus by allocating the same number of hours for the subjects across all school types
• Allocate the same number of hours for teaching the national language Bahasa Malaysia and the second language English.
• Use the vernacular language to teach the same academic and co-curricular subjects.
• Standardize teaching methodologies and methods for subjects across all schools
• Standardize teacher training
Second, Tun Dr Mahathir’s call to bring back PPSMI, that is the teaching of Maths and Science in English can be positioned as a pragmatic compromise to alleviate all schools and students to a higher educational level in English where all school types will teach Maths and Science in English.
To this, add the teaching of History in English where the neutral universal language has the potential of developing the right sentiments through a standard History syllabus and reference list.
Third, remove religious education from the core curriculum and reinstate it as a subject to be taught after school hours. Instead, consolidate the Moral Studies curriculum by making it compulsory for all students.
Inject into it the component of World Religions and highlight common moral values across all religions.
To make Islamic Religious Education truly relevant and beneficial for the development of modern-day Malay-Muslim students, revamp the curriculum and syllabus by focusing on the key precepts and moral values of Islam.
Enhance students’ understanding and interests by highlighting not only the deeds of Prophet Muhammad and his sahabah but also of modern day role models among Muslim thinkers and leaders.
Leave the teaching of the religious rites and rituals and the correct reading and pronunciation of religious verses to the Tafiz schools to be regulated at federal rather than state level.
In this, schools can collaborate with mosques in the vicinity to take on the role of teaching Islam to students and the ummah in a more structured way.
Parents should seriously take on the responsibility of religious education for their children.
Even if they are not schooled in the formal teachings of the religion, they can read up on its general teachings to pass on its value system.
Admittedly, Tun Dr Mahathir has the unenviable position of righting the wrongs (perceived or real) of the country’s education system. We hope and pray he will succeed in reforming some key areas.
* Datuk Halimah Mohd Said is the President of Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE).
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.