NB: This article was originally published in issue 02.11 of the Penang Economic Monthly.

There is one particular issue in this country that never fails to incite fierce debate, with passionate arguments – and the occasional flying brick – from all sides of the divide. This has been the case for a very long time, and its history is one that runs parallel to our nation’s own. To chronicle its story would be to journey through the annals of our own ethno-political experience, from early immigrant settlements to colonial dominance and finally to the many compromises that have been effected since political independence was achieved. Today, the story is by no means over; it is one that is constantly evolving (and tormenting) our socio-political structure.

And what is this matter that is as naturally fundamental as it is exasperatingly sensitive? Why, it is this little matter called education.

Few would dispute the contention that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education system in our country, but polemics abound when solutions are proffered or undertaken. Take, for example, the recent remonstrations surrounding the reversal of the PPSMI (teaching of mathematics and science in English) or the sudden announcement that history will be made a mandatory SPM pass subject from 2013. Or better yet, consider also the replacement of the PMR by a school-based assessment programme. Initially reported to take place in 2016 in order to provide sufficient time for a transition that would not burden the affected students, it has now been abruptly brought forward to 2014. And then there are the really thorny issues, such as the question of vernacular education and its place in our national polity, or the standard of our national school model and curriculum, viewed by many as tools of political indoctrination and partisan propaganda.

No doubt most of the issues faced today are legacy problems, the result of a colourful history peppered by missionary zeal, colonial policies, nationalist fervour and political compromise over decades if not centuries.

So how do we even begin to approach such a complex matter?

Actions and solutions taken thus far have been symptomatic fixes. Yet as one symptom is alleviated another appears, for the root cause remains untouched. This article thus contends that the only way out of this befuddling quagmire is to produce a solution that is innovative in approach, holistic in scope, and one that would correctly address the core of the problem.

A Political Problem or a Problem with Politics?

A quick glance at the problems aforementioned would reveal one common feature that reverberates throughout, and that is the distinctive presence of the political hand. The structure of our education system is such that all departments, bodies and boards that are related to the planning, implementation and monitoring of education are entirely encompassed within the Ministry of Education. Hence, it is then not far-fetched to say that the system in its entirety, from the curriculum, the syllabus, the examinations, the teachers, all the way to the funding and auditing, are under the direct patronage and behest of the Minister of Education, and as such extremely susceptible to political influence. Thus, it is not surprising that we constantly see arbitrary decisions to abolish this or to implement that, decisions that seem to be made with lesser reference to true societal and educational needs than they are to gratify the political flavour of the day.

In short, our national education system has been far too politicised.

The teaching body, for example, appears to be beholden to the political order of the day. As a case in point, take the directive from the Ministry that effectively disallows national schools in Penang and Selangor from inviting elected representatives to their school events simply due to their political affiliation, even when the representatives are members of the state governments in question! On the other hand, representatives of the federal government face no such problems and are constantly attending these events. The underlying message here is clear and obviously partisan and political in nature.

The current system, politicised as it is, has resulted in a severe crisis of faith, leaving a disenchanted Malaysian populace that is far from convinced not only of the quality of education, but also its impartiality. Hence, are we really surprised by the recent shocking and clearly seditious remarks made by two national school principals in Johor and Kedah? To compound the incredulity, no disciplinary action has since been taken!*

Separation of Power

This article now proposes that in order to create a world class education system, then the one pervading impediment needs to be resolved. In other words, the political element has to be removed.

This can be done by transferring authority over certain key areas away from the Ministry of Education to a new, independent commission that consists of stakeholders representing all interested groups such as academics, teachers, parents, civil society, religious groups, vernacular educationists, sports bodies, institutions of higher learning and of course representatives from the Ministry. Crucially, the political executive, i.e. the ministerial office, must have no direct influence over the commission except via its representatives.

Key areas under the direct purview of this commission should be control over the curriculum, school syllabus, examinations, monitoring activities such as audits and inspections, and very importantly, the teachers. This is to say that under the proposed system, the entire teaching faculty all the way to the Director-General of Education will report directly to the commission instead of to the Ministry, and by extension, the Minister.

Currently, the Education Ministry is a dichotomy of an administrative division headed by the Secretary-General, and an education division headed by the Director-General of Education, a post that is subordinate to the Secretary-General. In the proposed systemic reform, the Ministry will continue to oversee the administrative aspects of education, such as streamlining, financial operations and implementation of policies and infrastructure, while the teaching faculty will be directed by an independent and transparent commission that is responsible directly to the public.

A comprehensive and inclusive syllabus can then be devised for the approval of the commission. This is important, as not only will the commission’s views reflect the collective consensus of all interested parties, it will also very importantly be free from undue political influence. Only then can we achieve an education system that is effective, fair and objective. Teachers that espouse racialist jingoism will no longer be conveniently rescued by their political masters. The potential repercussions from this are immensely positive, and would effectively trigger a snowball effect that would increase the quality and attraction of national schools, a trend that has been suffering a downward spiral for the last three decades.

In short, there needs to be a clear delineation of power separating the education system from political abuse. At the same time, this proposal cannot on its own, result in a reformed and ‘world class’ education system. It must also be complemented by other measures to improve the quality of teaching. As the common adage goes, there are no bad students, only bad teachers. Thus, it is equally as important to find ways to expand the talent pool of our teachers.

That being said, the buck doesn’t stop with primary and secondary education. Tertiary education needs also discover its independence in order to recapture its lost glories. As long as our universities adhere to the status quo, we will never achieve our ambitions of developed nationhood. However, that is a story for another day.

*At the time of writing.