Politics in Education

April 26, 2011

Education and Politics in Malaysia

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.

Creeping Discrimination

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?

Biro Tata Negara

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.


30 thoughts on “Politics in Education

  1. New policy not the way to improve English


    Saturday January 1, 2011

    IN 2012, all schools will be subject to the new education policy devised by the Education Department with the new syllabus as per the Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris (MBMMBI) policy.

    Many people have commented on this policy and its syllabus and the way the Department is going to implement it. Most of the comments are negative.

    I agree. The MBMMBI syllabus is a half-baked syllabus.

    I think even after 10 years Malaysian students who go through the new syllabus will not master English the way our students who went through their education before the KBSR/KBSM syllabus were introduced mastered it.

    We had one of the best education systems for primary and secondary schools and the universities in the world before but the authorities chose to make it inferior by changing it.

    As a result, we have been producing many sub-standard graduates due to their poor English hence they are unable to compete for jobs offered by multi-nationals even in our own country.

    At last count about seven hundred graduates are still unemployed, some for over three years since graduating, mainly due to their very poor skills in spoken and written English.

    A generation of our people have suffered because of this.

    Let’s stop the rot and revert to the old, proven, established and superior education policies and syllabus we used before.

    Bring back English-medium schools!


  2. Perils of an English Language handicap

    MOHD Solihan Badri, director, Corporate Communications Unit of the Education Ministry, in his replies to many of my letters published in the mainstream English newspapers last year, spoke passionately of our education policy and how amendments and improvements since the introduction of the KBSR/KBSM syllabus in the seventies had benefited our students and people. It has now been perfected even more with the introduction of the “Memartabatkan Bahasa Mal-aysia dan Memperkukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris” (Upholding the Malay Language, Strengthening Command of English – MBMMBI) syllabus which will be implemented in the 2012 school term.

    According to him, the original Razak Report on education that formed the basis of our present education policy – which was followed by two amendments over a period of thirty years, culminating in the introduction of the MBMMBI syllabus – has resulted in a vast improvement in the use of our national language, and in an almost total loss of interest in other languages such as English, Mandarin, other local dialects and foreign languages, which meets the aim of the education policy squarely. The popular Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI) syllabus was also found to be unsuitable after being used successfully for almost eight years and has since been scrapped. The use of only one language by all, regardless of race or religion, is also designed to be the catalyst to make the 1Malaysia concept fully acceptable to all.

    I agree with him on all counts.

    However, considering the handicap of our people being proficient in only one language, our ability to communicate with people outside the country will be affected and perhaps even rendered impossible. If the situation is not checked, in future, many of us may not be as equipped as our hearing and speech impaired citizens. We will only be able to speak and write in Bahasa Malaysia, a language which only Malaysians will use; but the hearing and speech impaired would at least still be able communicate with their counterparts worldwide as many people use sign language. Therefore, it can be easily translated into various world languages for use by people who are not hearing or speech impaired.

    Since the government is stubbornly adamant about putting aside English Language in order to make our national primary and secondary school students and our people proficient in only one language, and relegating all other languages to an abyss, I urge my fellow Malaysians to learn sign language to remain in communication with people outside the country. When the need arises, I believe we shall have more than enough people to teach us.

    There are many interpreters who can comfortably translate sign lang-uage into various world languages, but few who can do the same for

    Bahasa Malaysia. In order to do business globally and to enable our diplomats, trade representatives and company representatives, communications remain extremely important.

    Our country has vast economic potential, and with our abundant natural resources and having more and more talented people in future, we cannot allow our limitations (inability to communicate normally) to thwart the country’s development; and with sign language, albeit a little slower, will allow us to communicate in order to continue and increase the sales of our products and services overseas. It will also enable us to continue our diplomatic ties and do business as usual.

    Our country can also be the world’s future hub and leader in the use of sign language.

    Hussaini Abdul Karim
    Shah Alam

  3. True, everything in Malaysia is politicized and race institutionalized like education, economy, administration, science and technology ……How can people and nation advance under such conditions?

  4. We know what works and what doesn’t work. Why is the government trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole? Malaysia is left behind because we have workers who are not proficient in English. Why are India and the Philippines the capitals of outsourcing? The Malaysian government doesn’t learn even after the “lost generation” fiasco.

  5. Thanks HAK for your views. You have been consistent and forthright regarding the flaws in the Malaysian education system.

    In my view, it is time that our government set up an independent commission to review our education policies and make appropriate recommendations on the Way Forward. I remember the Razak Report of yesteryears which was implemented in 1960s and produced generations of English educated Malaysians who are also proficient in Bahasa Malaysia, our national language.

    The more languages we learn the better it is for us. We have entered a globalised world and with a mastery of major languages like French, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi/Tamil, Korean, Russian and Arabic, Malaysians can do business with these countries. We will also learn and understand their history and culture as we study their languages.–Din Merican

  6. Like I have been saying all along… bring back our old education system and within a couple of decades or so, we shall give back to future generations what we have taken from the present one.

    The future of our country depends on this.

  7. Din : There is absolutely no need for more commissions and recommendations which will take years to even get going. What we need is staring us in the face, so what is there for commissions to recommend?

  8. Well, HAK has said it all as far as i’m concerned.
    As for the archaic UUCAct – begone! Our kids, no matter how retarded, need to fight it out in campus in ‘tongues’ or whatever they lingo they speak nowadays.
    Bemoan all you guys want, nothing’s gonna change unless you change the gomen.
    Here’s my small contribution in Latin: “In Vino Veritas”,

  9. Why hasn’t Mandarin been made a compulsory language in our schools today?? Americans are competing and falling over one another to learn Mandarin and we have to politicise language? Haven’t we politicised language and education long enough? After some five decades of independence we cannot string two sentences in English without making a grammatical and spelling error. What does that say about us?

    Our politicians crafted together an education system fit only for the kampong folks and folks in the new villages and rubber estates and then send their offsprings to study at foreign institutions at tax payer expense. Talk about leadership by example. The Minister of Education (and all Cabinet Ministers) should send his children to study at local schools. Has he no confidence in the system he helped to build?

    On the subject of education, our institutions are not really providing education but training. These are not institutions of higher learning by any stretch of the imagination but vocational schools. Think about it. They are nothing but one massive conveyer belt churning out office and factory workers who are good at reading work manuals, who cannot think for themselves — fodder for Malaysian Inc. the criminal enterprise that runs the country.

  10. Just had a second look at the title of this. “Politics in Education”.

    Cannot help thinking that perhaps we should start by educating the politicians.

  11. Which school do you send your kid to Matsab? My SRK didn’t have those kind of offerings. I wouldn’t know any other languages except for BM and English had my dad not been transferred to the Netherlands.

  12. By the way do we have sex education in our schools? In the U.K. when I was living there some years back, vending machines were just being introduced in some schools that dispensed prophylactics.

  13. Our education system has been tempered with by the politician, who are not qualified in the field. They are only good in playing politics, and nothing else. A form five students of yesteryears are able to speak reasonable english, but today’s form five students can hardly open their mouth to speak a word of English, unless the parents speaks to them at home or sent them for English tuition classes. If we continued with our sub-standard education system, then Malaysia will be flooded with graduates who can not function properly, then the older generation will not need to retire, and can work for as long as they want to, Malaysia Boleh.
    No wonder our country is now facing a shortage of professionals, as the younger graduates are not proficient in their own field, not able to speak or write “reasonable” English, and the few that are capable are all grabbed up by the multinational.
    Can we go back to our old days the 60’s and 70’s, where we let the educationist run the education, with government playing the supportive role, rather than the government making decision for something they don’t know, and come out with all the half baked system/students.

  14. Yes, we can turn the clock, concerned citizen.

    But first we need to pass new legislation requiring all our Ministers not send their sons and daughters overseas for their education. My message to them is: now that you have made your bed, it is time you lie in it.

  15. the education system in Bolehland is like a pot of
    Nasi Goreng or better Nazi Goreng. every Tom & Dick,
    Hans & Franz and Harry have dipped their hands into it.
    now it is spoilt; the only way is to throw out the whole pot and start anew.
    i.e., throw out the present government who are solely responsible for this decay.
    no amount of tinkering is going to help. our pupils/students are’nt guinea-pigs.
    malaysia should not try to invent the education system. it is out there laughing at you! you still have competent people, give them a chance, don’t look at their skin colour, political affiliation and religion.

  16. malaysia should not try to invent the education system – dian

    It is UMNO-led majority who invented the current education system. They are very proud of it and want recognition of qualifications from other countries. Shame to Malaysia and Malaysian!

  17. The Education Minister who started it all was Tun Abdul Rahman Yaacob in the late 60’s and early 70’s. He became very popular because of that and his ceramah were received very big turnouts. The KBSR/KBSM syllabus was introduced during his time and it was followed up intensively by TDM who later had second thoughts and introduced PPSMI. DSAI, when he was Education Minister, became over-zealous about it and made some policy changes to the education system which didn’t favour our students well. Pak Lah then abolished PPSMI just to show to the people that he was in power, that’s about all as there are no valid reasons for him to do so.

    The declining standards started as early as the 70s.

    As a result the people suffer and worse affected are the young people and the future generations of Malaysia.



  18. “The KBSR/KBSM syllabus was introduced during his time and it was followed up intensively by TDM who later had second thoughts and introduced PPSMI.”

    Unfortunately, he take more than 30 years to have that second thought. And on a positive note, we outsource our tertiary education, hence parents work harder to send their kids overseas. At least in this context, everyone is pretty clear of their objective and choice.

  19. When Tun Rahman Yaakob was the Education Minister, the protagonist who led the students’ demonstration was Anwar Ibrahim (University Malaya) assisted by Ibrahim Ali (ITM). The Bahasa Melayu ‘spirit’ was burning furiously then so much so that the government expedited the policy change from English to Bahasa Malaysia for national primary and secondary schools as well as the IPTAs. Then UKM was set up. The May 13 racial riots earlier helped their cause, it was in fact, used as the catalyst for their cause.

    When Datuk Sri Najib Tun Razak succeeded Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Prime Minister on April 3, 2009, he didn’t have the balls to make any changes to the education syllabus until now.

    In spite of the numerous calls, letters, forums, seminars, etc. asking for the re-introduction of English in national schools, he did absolutely nothing.

    Some Smart Alec came up with the MBMMBI syllabus (see my comments above) and thought that they have come up with the best solution.



  20. We have lost our way and the people who are paid by the state to think are not thinking and our so-called think tanks are also not thinking. Sir Harry Lee was asked why he retained English as the official language in Singapore. His response was in the form of a question. What you want me to do what the Sri Lankan government did in 1972. Overnight swithch to Singhalese, disenfranchise the minority tamils and plunge the nation into a civil war? Making English the official language was his way of making a level playing field. The langugre was not the mother tongue of any one of the three races that made up Singapore.

    We have lost 40 language years. Now we want to train 10,000 english teachers by 2015. Bring in native speakers at great expense to the nation and so on. We had it all but we threw it away for the right policy of making Bahasa Malaysia as the official language but unfortunately it was implemented for the wrong reason.

    Political wisdon is all about doing at the beginning what you try to do unsuccessfully in the end.

  21. If Mahathir only implemented PPSMI when he decided to step down, and he never did it while he is at his peak when BN never face any threat of being defected, I would therefore have the impression that Najib ball is not that small if we truly want to compare. Nationalism, Malay centric and Islamisation is the common trend and thought of that era and we see Mahathir ride on each and everyone to the extreme to ensure his continue grasp of power, his PPSMI merely show his hypocritical and nothing else.

    I am okay with PPSMI and English school as long as the people want it. And I think it can be done by stages, start with schools which parents fully supports the policy, otherwise the rhetoric from most is again, hypocritical and politicking.

  22. Harry Lee is no difference from Mahathir, his intention is to ensure his opponent support from the base totally wiped off. He speaks with fork tongue, exactly like Mahathir.

  23. But, in term of achievements and ‘favours’ for the rakyat and the country, Harry Lee has done much more for Singaporeans and Singapore than Mahathir Mohamad did for Malaysians and Malaysia.



  24. Hua Yong,
    I do not know what else you want from Sir Harry Lee. He has taken his country from a percapita income of S$400.00 in 1963 to S$ 44,000.00 today. The rest is now up to the younger generation.

  25. It’s not complicated, thumblogic, only two.

    1) To let the world particularly Asia know dictatorial leadership is not the best path to affluent and corrupt free society.

    2) We need a chain reaction to break the interlocking of one party state in our region via a peaceful democratic process. We must find ways to influence each other to achieve that.

  26. Hua Yong
    1) To let the world particularly Asia know dictatorial leadership is not the best path to affluent and corrupt free society.

    2) We need a chain reaction to break the interlocking of one party state in our region via a peaceful democratic process. We must find ways to influence each other to achieve that.

    That’s what you want, but is that what the majority of Singaporeans want? Often times your ideals of democracy is not the best for the nation and their progress.

  27. semper fi,

    Agree. But how to we find out unless we have a relatively free environment in term of speech, press, media and political expression?

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