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Malaysian education’s biggest failure

“GAMIS (Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam Se-Malaysia): Do not allow repeat of May 13 because of Dong Zong.”

This is a troubling headline, concerning a threat by a Muslim Youth group on a Chinese educationist group that opposed further attempt by the Ministry of Education to force schoolchildren to learn the old Malay script borrowed from the Arabic The non-Malays and non-Muslims are fearing the creeping of the influence of radical Islam in Malaysia, one that began as early as the 1980s with the “Islamization project” and now threatening the peace and multicultural fabric of the country. 

Today the situation is tense as the country ushers into 2020. Invoking “May 13, 1969” is considered a serious terroristic threat, should the laws against hate speech be applied. These are the kinds of statements we get from those who went through our education system, especially when Dr Mahathir Mohamad took over as Minister of Education, back in the late 70s. 

Let me narrate what Malaysia is going through, educationally. 

It has been 50 years after May 13, 1969 (the worst racial riots in Malaysian history) , and we’re still reading about Muslim youth invoking that semiotic of racial violence. The word ‘Islam’ made synonymous with racial violence. These young people were not even born then. I have written about my experience as a child learning about race relations and the bloody episode of our history.

I was recently asked by a Facebook commentator of my column piece on Malaysia’s soulless education: how do we get non-Malays and Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims to respect one another in the process of learning and living. This is in relation to how a teacher can forge an environment of respect, so that learning can happen most effectively.

We have failed to forge respect between the major races. We are still ready to fight one another, with the internet making hate speech viral.

Respect is earned – through appreciating what each other has to offer, what each one believes, and how dialogue on understanding each other can continually be forged. It also involves understanding each other’s history, culture, needs, and most importantly, to know that we are all living in a limited physical time on this earth, so that we should not only look to avoid conflict, but also see people’s anguish and suffering as an opportunity to help.

‘How an education minister should think’

As an educator for the last 33 years, I see all who sit in my classroom as individuals who can not only teach me about their cultures, but also who can be developed to the fullest potential to become good citizens and workers and spiritual-cultural beings.

Teaching in Malaysia, I have had students from all states and all ethnic groups, and I reward hard work and dedication and the passion the student has in the subject he/she is learning. There is no colour of the skin nor race in considering the grades they earn. There is only what I see produced in the process of learning. There is a set of guidelines/rubric that informs my evaluation and assessment.

Teaching in the United States, thousands of students have come my way, from all over the world, from Afghanistan to Israel, from Jamaica to Switzerland and Somalia. I see them as cultural resources and organic intelligent beings waiting to be infused with critical, creative and global thinking. There is no bell curve type of grading I administer. You work hard for the grade.

Even if you are a star basketball player, or you are of this and that race claiming superiority, you are not judged by your personality nor potential, but by your performance and the artefacts of learning you produce.

Every educator must think this way

It is, therefore, important for a Minister of Education to think as such too, because policies he/she makes will affect not only millions, but also create a future for the child. This kind of thinking requires a deep, broad-based understanding of education, teaching, learning, schooling, human development across cultures, wisdom, political-economy, and the development of nations.

Most importantly, he/she must be equipped with a humanistic philosophy, which simply means looking beyond race, religion, colour, creed, class, since these are mere constructs and can be shattered if they prove to be disabling human progress

What we have now is a Malaysian minister of education merely carrying out a political agenda. Understandably, as the party dictates. A party that is interested in rebranding an old ideology. There seems to be no sincerity in respecting and developing our country as a multicultural polity. The votes gained were merely for the sake of winning this nation’s political lottery.

‘Why countries fail’

In the long run, this nation will fail.

In my study over the years of failing and successful states, many of those in dire states of development, a.k.a failing states, are the ones that have failed in all aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, and Venezuela.

Racial and religious violence predominate, as the political-economic-social structure collapses. Many of these countries have groups fighting for an “Islamic State”, the destabilising forces aligning themselves with terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Al Shaabab, and the ISIS.

On the other hand, liberal democratic capitalist-socialist hybrids such as Iceland, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, South Korea and even Singapore – those that to some degree practice pragmatism in politics and adhere as close as possible to instruments of UN human rights, gauged by the UN SDGs, and constantly evolve as workable democracies – are successful nation-states.

Their outlook is global, their respect for human rights is admirable, and their practice of education sustainable. In other words, they think global.

Socrates said: “I am not a citizen of Athens. I am a citizen of the world.” Our world within must harmonize with the world outside. In the case of Malaysia, never turn a school into a “medan dakwah.” (arena for proselytizing.)

Because a school is a place where democracy and respect must be taught, by living it as a daily practice of democratic ideals, especially crafted from a homegrown Malaysian multicultural way of knowing, seeing, and doing things. Each child is a cultural and cognitive being to be respected and nurtured.

How do we institutionalise such respect in education? How do we not leave any child behind in the educational world of possibilities?

Malaysia’s Vision 2020, framed in the 1980s as a guideline for a sound and sane national development roadmap, has failed us. Because it is a mere slogan that masked the reality of a total loss of respect between races. And this, unfortunately, will continue. Because that’s what politics is about and how it may continue to be if we do not address it deep-rootedly.


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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.


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