Education Malaysia 2020: Bakri Musa’s Advice For The Minister of Education

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Yup, I am still on the topic of Education in Malaysia – this probably would be my last 2 posts on the topic before I move on to some other topics. I actually had something else in my mind when I read this excellent post on Dr Bakri Musa’s blog titled “Unsolicited Advice For The Next Minister of Education”. Image source: Free Malaysia Today

By the way, for those of you who may not be familiar with Dr Bakri Musa, he is a Malaysian-born and Canadian-trained surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He is also a well known speaker and writer related to current issues. The full detail of his bio-data is listed here.

Anyway back to his blog post, one needs to read his some of the interesting & very thoughtful snippets which we need to seriously take note (or rather the next Education Minister should take note).

The challenges facing Malaysian schools and universities are as monumental as they are obvious. The new Minister of Education should not try to be a hero in attempting to tackle all at once. It would be wiser as well as more prudent and more likely to succeed, if he or she were to focus on the more fundamental and pressing issues. Defer the peripheral and distracting ones like students’ shoe colour. Likewise, assessment of UEC (Chinese School Certificate), holistic or otherwise, should not be your top priority, nor the introduction of Jawi.

The first challenge relates to the very management of the Ministry. The other pertains to its policies. Both are interrelated. Failure to address the first would doom your second. Both would exhaust your time, talent, and energy. Management problem is not unique to MOE. Delegate power and authority to the periphery, and you would not need a huge bureaucracy at head office. Grant the universities their autonomy.

That one initiative would rid MOE of its Director-General for Higher Education, his deputies, and their assorted highly paid support staff. Let the universities choose their own Vice-Chancellors, Deans, and Professors, or what colour of drapes for their faculty lounge. The Minister’s control and influence should only be through such macro levers as the funding mechanism and his appointees to the governing boards.

Peruse MOE’s organizational chart, replete with such bureaus as the Islamic Education Unit, Institute of Translation, and Institute of Language and Culture. Get rid of them. Private publishers do a far superior job of publishing and translating, and at no cost to the government.

The new Minister’s focused vision and MOE’s sole aspiration should be to prepare young Malaysians to be competitive for the new global realities so they could contribute. And only that.

Help young Malaysians achieve that goal by ensuring that they are fluent in Malay and English, as well as be science literate and competent in mathematics. Teach those four subjects daily, at all levels, and in all schools, including religious ones.

Malaysia is in desperate need of competent teachers of English. Yet not a single public university has a Department of English, and there are no English-medium Teachers’ Colleges. This jarring anomaly, obvious to all, is missed by those in MOE, as well as the personnel they select to run the universities.

Leverage the funding mechanism to make every public university have a dedicated Department of English. Make a pass in MUET (Malaysian University English Test) mandatory. Quadruple the number of scholarships for those pursuing English and STEM. Discontinue scholarships for Malay Studies as well as Islamic Studies. The country already has a glut of those graduates.

Make MUET mandatory for all teachers and MOE personnel. Their promotions and continued employment should depend on it. That one initiative would be far more effective and consequential than all the endless exhortations of leaders and educators on the importance of English.

Make 13 years of schooling the new standard. Modify the last two years (Sixth Form) for those not academically inclined to focus on vocational subjects. By reinstituting Sixth Form, the Ministry could dispense with its massive matrikulasi division. You would also be spared its quota controversy. The universities too could then dispense with their resource-wasting “foundation” and matrikulasi courses.

Universities should focus on doing what other institutions could not, that is, education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels, as well as undertaking research. Again, use the funding lever as well as your appointees to the universities’ governing boards to achieve those ends without having MOE micromanage those campuses.

Teach the young critical thinking. Dispense with regurgitation. Pak Harfan asked his students to pen essays describing Heaven as they envision it. That demands both critical as well as creative thinking.
In a plural society like Malaysia, education should go beyond. It must be a major if not the instrument to integrate her young. When young Malaysians learn and play together at school, the nation would be that much better. Diversity in the classrooms also enhances the learning process.

Today, Malaysian schools are dangerously segregated along racial and religious lines. Getting rid of religion from national schools would go a long way in making those schools attractive to non-Malays.

Most of all, the one attribute the new Education Minister must have and instill in his officers, is the mindset that he and his Ministry does not have the exclusive wisdom and insight on what’s best for Malaysian education. The Ministry should be a resource center, not a command and control one.

By the way, interestingly similar advise was given to Dr Maszlee Malik when he came onboard as the Education Minister in August 2018.

Back in the 1980s, the majority of us went to national schools and we did not have any of the nonsense. We even had classes for cursive writing – which explains why we have a very beautiful handwriting although sadly as adults, we are using the keyboard more often than the pen. There was a Chinese and Tamil primary schools within the vicinity but bulk of us opted for national schools instead.

But now why there are so many issues with national schools and the Education system in the country?

What Dr Bakri Musa is saying in his blog post is exactly what we all have been saying to the politicians for years and whoever heading the various policy making departments in the Government, at the end of the day, they need to focus on what is what is important.

Get rid of race and religion segregations, focus on teaching Science & Mathematics in English, ensure all teachers well verse in English and get more real-life lessons in national schools. Of course, this requires a massive shift of paradigm at all levels – from the Government, policy-makers, education experts, teachers, parents and students as well.

We need to set the bar higher – long gone the days when we can be proud as champions at national levels but not be enough for us to compete globally.

And speaking of the vernacular schools, what makes it so different that parents claim that it is better than the national schools? Why after all these years, we cannot have one school system where all students, irrespective race, religion and cultural background goes to the same school system? The Government need to address the question why many parents prefer vernacular schools to national schools?

Is it due to issue of better quality of education, higher demanding environment for learning, preservation of the Chinese or Tamil language & culture, lack of religion elements in their syllabus, etc? Is it because these schools have better facilities and funding for the students? Or this is just a matter of perception? I went to national school, so did my siblings and friends. My kids go to national school as well despite the initial pressure to put them in the Chinese school nearby. Good thing we stick to our decision to maintain them in national school.

What about others?

If the national schools are made as attractive and of as good as any vernacular or international schools out there, then it will be easier to one day to merge all schools into the national schools which promotes greater unity among Malaysians & infuse higher quality into the country’s education system that will prepare the students for the harsh reality.

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