April 26, 2011
by David C.E. Tneh
One can perceive that the word “politics” is, in fact, a very dirty word in Malaysia. Mention it and the look of disdain would be etched on most people’s faces. Mention it to your parents that you are interested to be a politician and I would guarantee that there would not be any family hugs and tears of happiness flowing nor would there be any joss sticks placed at the altar for thanksgiving.
The reality in Malaysia is that politics and politicians are very much frowned upon. But the irony is that the leader of our country has to be one or at least belong to a governing political party of affiliated with the ruling coalition. One cannot be in a position of power in the government without being involved in politics.
Politics in Public Administration
To be fair, there are plenty of civil servants who are not involved in this arena but try as one may, there are a lot of political lines being drawn in government departments, institutions, and government-linked corporations that one cannot appear to be apolitical at all. All civil servants receive their orders from the top, and the top ranked civil servants receive their orders from the respective ministries whose head/minister is always a politician.
In one way or another, the political aspiration from the ruling administration in the form of policies and guidelines will trickle down the hierarchy from federal level and implemented at state level. This is the norm in all countries worldwide and is part and parcel and by product of the age old parliamentary democracy system.
The only difference between us and other democracies is that ours seem to be so inhibited by race, religion, and the political divide between the government and the opposition.
A Victim of Politics: Teaching of Maths and Science
In the Malaysian education system, politics seem to play a dominant influence in shaping the education policies of the country. When it comes to structural policy implementation, the difference between Malaysia and other developed countries is that the needs and interest of the Malaysian politicians seems to be catered first, and the students, last. The case of the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI) is a classic example of the interference of politics on education.
Educationist at large breathed a sigh of relief when a glimmer of hope was seen in the introduction of English in the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English in 2002 but the policy was scrapped in 2009 and both critical subjects will be taught in Bahasa Malaysia in 2012. What was alarming was that pressure from political extremist groups and language purists and NGO’s from both sides of the divide was successful in influencing the government in disbanding this policy. It is disheartening is that these groups seem to know more about language policies than educationists and reformists in the field.
And now we have the reversal of the outcome with the proposal that selected schools might be allowed to continue teaching the two subjects in English. Being on the back burner and sidelined since 1970 (National Language Act), Malaysia has lost almost a generation of competent speakers of the language. That aside, why the flip-flop on this issue now? And what about innocent students who have their minds and lives messed up with continual policy changes in education?
Retrospectively, the dismal performance of the National Front in the 2008 Malaysian general elections was also another reason for the government to bow to such demands from such pressure groups and as such only proves that the long dirty arm of politics is never far from a benevolent and esteemed knowledge institutions like schools and universities where students are given a holistic education that would ultimately make them into better individuals capable of making better choices (in the words of Jefferson) in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While political influence is rarely seen at primary education level, for obvious reasons, we see its creeping influence in secondary schools with history textbooks and their facts being manipulated, how certain religious societies/clubs are not encouraged to being formed, the removal of school crucifixes’, the discrimination of missionary schools in Malaysia from receiving federal funding for repairs, how school administrators used racist slurs/taunts on students, the politically-motivated idea of making History as a compulsory subject for students to pass, and now the issue of the “Interlok” novel and its content being debated due to its alleged derogatory portrayal of certain races in pre-independence Malaysia. And what the effects on students themselves, and how many times have we heard of how national unity/integration was so much better in the past(in schools) than the present?
Among civil servants, the Biro Tata Negara is another programme that is constantly being criticized for allegedly disseminating government propaganda among newly recruited civil servants in Malaysia. It is also worthy to note that school administrators, public university staff, and government department heads must attend this compulsory initiation course. At the tertiary level, especially in Malaysian public universities, things are more pronounced with local varsity elections turning into political battle grounds between the government and opposition. The latest fracas at two public universities is another example of how political influences flex their muscles on local campus grounds. What is perhaps needed is a healthier political maturity and culture among undergraduates which is essentially non-existent given the political scenario of our country and its system.
What is terribly ironic is that the education system in Malaysia was far better in the past than it is today in the 21st century. Remember the time when the SPM students were graded according to Grade One, Two and Three achievers? And the scoring system was A1, A2, C3, C4 till P8? And the SPM Bahasa Malaysia was a “killer paper”, and the glory days of English 1119 paper (which was graded in the UK!), and the STPM which consists of a minimum 5 subjects? And if an SPM student could achieve 6A’s, our local newspapers would take up the story? (Now we have students scoring between 17 to 20A’s! in the SPM!)
This is the dilemma that is affecting the public/government schooling system in Malaysia, what is good and workable is removed, and there have been too many policy changes in lower and upper secondary schooling system. As a result, the Malaysian education system has become very muddled and fragmented, and this could also be due to Malaysia having national and national type schools, a relic of the colonial era. Whilst Singapore has done away with national type schools, our then government’s decision to retain this legacy has very much to do with the politics of appeasement of ethnic community leaders from the days of pre-independence Malaya to the present predicament where Chinese school associations such as Dong Jiao Zong, political parties such as MIC, MCA, and culture, race, religion, and language-based NGO’s continue to be vocal and strive for communal education matters in the Malaysian education landscape.
On a personal note, I have chanced upon a Form Two Bahasa Malaysia workbook with an essay question that left me exasperated at the extent of politicking in Malaysia at the extent of its influence. Translated in English, the essay question sounds like this: “Recently a state in Malaysia has translated its major road signs into three languages. Write an essay on the weaknesses/drawbacks of such a move and its impact on national harmony.”
Politics and education matters do not mix, is more of a means to an end for politicians as well as political parties/NGO’s to be involved in it. Until Malaysians (including its politicians and people) are capable enough to be more politically mature, and until Malaysian politics move away from the politics of hate, race, religion, opposition versus government mentality, then Malaysia will be nowhere near its goal of being a developed country with progressive society that has in its core, a knowledge based productive workforce that is creative, critical, competent, and a civic-minded society with a moral and spiritual focus. After all, the whole purpose of education is to make us into educated and better individuals who eventually make better decisions in life that would benefit the individual, or society as a whole. From the looks of it, Malaysia still has a long way to go before any positive change could happen.