Monday, March 09, 2009

Thoughts of Wisdom from Fikri

I first 'met' Fikri though the education blog. I found that he left pretty interesting comments and emailed him because of this. I found out that he's doing his Masters degree in film studies in Korea under a Korean government / university scholarship. Fikri tells me that there are approximately 300 JPA students studying engineering in Korea, He has a couple of colleagues who are doing their Bachelor's in Directing and Cinematography respectively and he tells me that a number of other Malaysians got the same scholarship to study Dance, Fine Arts, Graphic Design and Multimedia in Korea. Fikri also spent some time during his high school days in the UK while his parents were living / studying there. Below are some of his thoughts on the education system in Malaysia which reflects his experience growing up. I think they warrant some discussion.

Fly To The Sky

I believe that the quality of one's education is the key factor in one's ability to reach for the sky. That seems obvious enough, once written down on paper. Of course, other factors come into play as well, but it is the quality of the schooling we receive that determines, to a large extent, the kind of opportunities we receive later in life. Thus, in writing this, I should make it clear that while I have done a fair amount of research on the subject of education in Malaysia (through my own personal initiatives and when I was working a Malaysian education magazine), my experience with the local schools system is limited. Somehow, I ended up doing things in a very roundabout way, and the ideas I will postulate here is largely based on that experience. It is by no means perfect, merely a very personal opinion aimed to spark something more, and to somehow improve upon a very public issue.

Generally speaking, there's plenty that can be improved within the Malaysian primary and secondary education system. Within a single sentence, its objective is to produce people who are capable, well-rounded, multi-cultural, confident, and able to make a significant difference in Malaysia (and beyond). Someone who is, first and foremost, a Malaysian, rather than a Malay, Chinese, Indian or Other. Of course, these are still vague notions, to be honest (How capable? And in what way?). It does, however, provide something to aim for in this particular post.

Let's go one step further than that, though. Let's imagine for the moment that I am the Education Minister of Malaysia, and have the power to set the tone for the schools in Malaysia. What would I do? I aim to change a couple of things, and make sure that there's a little bit more room for people to negotiate with. To that end, there are two main things that I will do:

1. Integration

By this I mean have a single school system that does not demarcate our students and schools into different streams based on race and religion (the public/private debate will probably be left for another time). Let's face it, it's not exactly something that will win me plenty of brownie points. Mukhriz Mahathir didn't get much either, when he suggested a similar ideal at the tail end of last year.

It is a form of political suicide in Malaysia, but perhaps it is a necessary sacrifice, and a suicide worth taking, for it shouldn't really be a political issue. One one level, I'll stick my head on the line and say that it is not a bad idea. I do not believe for a moment that all the national schools are in an absolutely terrible shape; some schools are good, others not so. Some succeed due to good implementation of good ideas and effective teaching, others fall by the wayside due to things like politics and money. History have shown in other countries that it can be done properly; France jumps to mind in this case.

Then again, France didn't quite have the same history as we do. It is history and politics that plays a big role here, and I do not believe for a second that schools should be swayed by political intent. For example, some schools do not receive the same sort of allocation According to my sisters, who attended Convent Bukit Nenas (both primary and secondary), the school did not receive enough financial support from the government for many years due to its Christian origins. “But it's a sekolah kebangsaan, no?” I asked, somewhat naively at the time. I am not entirely sure whether this is the official policy, but nevertheless, under one single system, it would be easier to remove one layer of excuse from the cake. I believe that every school deserves a fair bite at the cake, Every single one of them deserve to get money, whether it is to bring on board new teachers or even for something as simple as ensuring that there are enough tables in classes. It won't cut out the dross away completelyl there will be schools who get more money compared to others, but at the very least, I believe that a single school system will be a step forward in this regard. How big a step is another question.

It is not just politics and money that interests me when it comes to this, it is also politics and race. Some say that in Malaysia, the two are forever locked in an intertwined marriage. In this case, the existence of vernacular schools are, in part, a move to appease the minorities in Malaysia that their rights, culture, and history will be preserved. Such a move to integrate schools into a single system, then, will not be accepted lightly, if at all. The main issue that will rankle with people is the perception that such a move will spell the death for their own race and culture within the Malaysian hegemony. While this may be not be unfounded, I believe that each of the respective cultures are strong enough to not roll over and die just because we have a single school system. There are plenty of other factors involved in that potent mix, and people still work hard to ensure that their race and religion is kept alive even outside of the schools. The family and society plays a very powerful role in ensuring that this doesn't happen. While I have my own critiques of the family institute (which I will explore further before the end of this post), I applaud those who do make efforts to keep this alive.

Furthermore, all is not lost, because I am actually not suggesting that we integrate into the current national system...

2. Revolutionise

...I am suggesting that we modify the current national curriculum. Not every school should blindly ape the national agenda, though. Each should still be given some space in order for it to shape its curriculum depending on various circumstances. Nevertheless, I would like to see a bigger variety of subjects and/or themes being touched upon by the curriculum. Mohd Prasad Hanif, a member of the PAS party, wrote about this previously here, and it is an extensive article worth reading.

I would personal place bigger emphasis on humanities subjects like languages, international studies or even cultural studies. In addition to giving our children an extra string to the bow, it's also likely that these subjects can be fun. No, not French or German, but more of, say, Mandarin and Tamil. Perhaps what can be included is a compulsory Modern Languages subject. People bang on about having to speak English well in order to survive in the 21st century. I'd say that being able to speak Hindi or various Chinese dialects just as well would also open up plenty of opportunities for people to work in other Asian countries. Let's face it: knowing more than just two languages (English and Malay), which is what most Malay students are fluent in, is an advantage, and I think it is an advantage that more should be given the chance of obtaining. From a political point of view, although it is not my priority, it would go some way towards convincing people that I'm not trying to stamp out their culture

I would also introduce Drama as a subject. I previously did this in secondary school for three years, and did not drop it lightly when I had to choose the two electives for my final exams (I eventually plumped for Media Studies and Information Technology, but continued taking drama lessons outside of school). What was done in the class was plenty of the things that would jump up off the top of your head. A fair amount of acting, a fair amount of script reading, a fair amount of improvisation. There's also the element of teamwork, where you had to coordinate with other people what to do (there's only so much space in the limelight, after all). Far more importantly, what all this amounted to was a fair amount of actually doing things in front of people. Ever had that fear of standing up and speaking in front of people? It was absolutely terrifying to begin with, and of course, your classmates didn't really help with their constant sniggering as you're trying to remember the Shakespeare line you were given. Nevertheless, over time, I got used to it. You probably won't become actors, singers, or dancers, but that's not really the main point at this level. Let's put it this way: doing drama will improve how you deal with people. There's not point being a straight A student if the confidence to get your ideas across is lacking. It will improve your communication skills, and it will improve your confidence. Once again, conducted properly, it could also be fun, making for a nice break from other, more monotonous subjects.

Something that's probably a lot less fun for you to hear is also the most controversial of my ideas. I would call for the abolishment of Islamic Studies and Moral Education. Fear not, for in its place will be one single subject that does exactly what it says on the tin: Religious Education (RE). One incredibly big issue I have with religion and morals in Malaysia it is seemingly stuffed down my throat at almost every corner I turn. It was an experience I had back when I was in primary school, and truth be told, I absolutely hated it. Perhaps it was just the way my teacher taught it at the time. Nevertheless, I believe that morals and religious piety shouldn't be forced. This is an education that perhaps should take its cue more from the family rather than from the school. Through my own research, study, and experience of having religion forced upon me (of my own religion and of others; I count five occasions on which people have tried to convert me), I am even more convinced that a heavy handed approach like this will do more to turn people away from religion rather than towards it. This, of course, is largely dependent on how you teach the subjects, and there are other factors that come into play, but ultimately, I believe that such subjects should be integrated into the one, single RE subject.

Through this subject, we will hopefully have a better chance of learning about the relevant religions in Malaysia in a more theoretical way. The aim is not to convert, but to better understand the various religions, and also the various denominations within these religions. It strikes me as interesting that in a country where religion is such a big factor, and where there are so many religions around, there's still a lot of people who rarely venture beyond their own religious, racial and cultural borders. I am still surprised by the number of Malaysians who do not know the difference between me not being able to eat pork and not being able to eat non-halal food. “You can eat the chicken, got no pork wan,” said a friend who was trying to convince me to eat in a Chinese restaurant in Ipoh recently (a Malay guy seeking for halal non-mamak food in Ipoh town on early Saturday morning: I might as well have been looking for the Holy Grail). Neither do I subscribe to the notion that studying the Torah pushes you towards Judaism, reading Mere Christianity pulls you towards the church, or that learning a bit more about Lord Krishna makes you more of a Hindu. If anything, it provides a very good chance for people to come together and better understand each other. These classes should not aim to inspire piety, but knowledge. We could even have a system whereby we'll learn different religions, before specialising in a few for the SPMs. Hopefully in this way, we will suffer less from ignorance. Should parents still feel the need for the children to learn more about their own religion, then they should chip in and pull their weight as well, because...

3. Family

...despite all the harping on that many parties have done about the good, the bad, and the weird of our education system, I believe that the family plays a far more important role. Within the modern day, especially, with both parents holding down jobs, I am nevertheless surprised at the lack of supervision and guidance that a lot of children receive from their parents. They should take charge (as many are wont to do these days, to be fair) in ensuring that children gets more of what they (the family) wants. For example, my parents used to arrange for an ustaz come over to spend time with me and my siblings. He led us one by one in reading the Qur'an, before we'd have a more general discussion on related issues. This would usually be rounded up with all of us praying together, before he'd motor on to another house down the street to do the same. Going back even further, when I was around still in primary school, me and my friends going together to a nearby ustazah, who would teach us how to read the Qur'an. These sessions were actually far more enjoyable and informative than any of the ones I received in school, and it was during this period of time that I felt a lot closer to God. Funnily enough, taking the RE classes at school didn't do the same, which convinces me even more that desire for religion should be cultivated from within, rather than be totally forced. Even in these days, a lot of my Christian friends are constantly meeting up every week for regular discussions at Church. This can be prayer meetings, Bible studies, or even organising Christmas plays. I believe that this is the way to go if truly understanding religion is the aim. It might even be rather fun (there's that word again!). I do not really see as much of the same things happening with children from other religions. Then again, I suppose telling people that you're part of an Islamic 'cell' group is probably not the best of ideas either. The point I am trying to make here is not to marginalise religion in any way, only that it is probably best taught and explored outside of the school rather than within.

All these ideas put forth are not perfect, as I have mentioned before. To begin with, class timetables are already jam-packed with other subjects. In introducing new ones like religion education and drama, I am not in any way trying to suggest things like history or geography should be shafted off the table. There are also other ways to inspire the same benefits as well; introducing debating as a compulsory after school activity, or even classifying drama as an co-curricular activity (as some schools have done already done; my little sister's school, St George's, have already done this), could also be other ways to inspire the same sort of confidence I was talking about. We could also argue for the inclusion of other subjects, like cultural and international studies. I didn't mention it here, because it wasn't something I had done before at that level. And no matter how many RE classes one may take, it won't completely wipe out racial discrimination and polarisation; if someone really wants to call you “a f*ck*ng Paki”, then I suppose there's nothing to stop them from doing so. Furthermore, no matter how great the plan is, it won't do much good if the execution of the plan is bungled. That much is as obvious as the importance of other institutes like family and friends. After all, statistically speaking, kids spend more time at home than they do at school; despite all the hard work that me and ministry(!) would put in to change the system, the advantages would be wiped out if kids come home to an atmosphere of “Don't trust the Chinese so much,” “Jangan beli nasi lemak dari India tu!” or “Fikri, no matter must marry a Malay girl.” While the sentiments behind it may be sincere in people wanting to further protect their own 'turf', I don't think it really helps as much if increased tolerance and understanding of others is what we're aiming for.

Malaysian education being the complex animal that it is (I haven't even touched on teaching Science and Maths in English yet), this post will not really move us forward that much unless they're actually implemented. And they won't. You and I know that unless there are absolutely drastic changes not only to the education system, but also to Malaysia itself, I don't think most of the ideas I've put forth here would even be seriously considered by those in charge in a million years. Perhaps some will scoff, others will huff and puff their chests out, wield their keris and promises to fight for their race till their last drop of blood. Maybe some of you might nod along quietly to some of the ideas I've put forth here.

Nevertheless, I dare to dream of a day when people will truly be Malaysians first and foremost, when race and religion will truly fade away into the background. I dare to dream of a day when our future generations will no longer be the political toys that I sometimes feel it is.

I dare to dream of the day when we can all reach out for and actually touch that sky.


Anonymous said...

the same old mumbling again..
we malaysians had heard enough of all this for long time..but no action taken..
talk about this but acted opposition. always practice double standard. we all malaysians had felt tired of all these stories.
One final word, RACIAL IN malaysia can only be overcome when assimiliation among all the races begin. Example in Thailand, where chinese no longer call themselves chinese but Thais.
Lady Ganga had predicted that asians and europeans will completely mixed into one race in year 2170.
So why still want to be racial?

Anonymous said...

strongly disagree. integration should be based on mutual respect but not eradication of the roots of the minority.

Anonymous said...

You are only half right.
Integration should be based on mutual respect and assimilation. Both aspect must be equally measures.
Post assimilation in Thailand, all the Thais PM are from chinese origin.

Shawn Tan said...

Fikri for Minister of Education!!! (Not that it's ever going to happen anytime soon). I personally think that he has got the right ideas (I'm biased). Seriously, his ideas are good but are going to be shot down by the racial politics that we have in our country.

tired malaysian: you think that assimilation is a bad thing. However, assimilation happens all the time, whether you like it or not. It's a natural process that happens when one person encounters another person.

Anonymous said...

Ya, why no action yet? Yo can talk till the cows come home but its still useless if you don't walk it. Deeds, not words please.

Anonymous said...

bla bla bla...

boringgg.. we can talk as much as we want.. but will there be any actions?