Evolution of the Malaysian educational system – A scenario of uncertainty and turmoil

OUR educational system has undergone many changes from the pre-colonial era informal Arabic based madrasah system of education. It later evolved into the Malay education system that incorporated elements of Islamic religious education, featuring the Koran as the focal point of learning with the Jawi script as the main written form.

With the advent of the colonial era, the British introduced the English school system that ran parallel with the existing Malay and Arabic schools. Later the Malay schools were integrated into the English school system through the special Malay classes exclusively for students from the Malay schools in transit for two years before being absorbed into the English medium stream.

These English medium schools were established and spearheaded by missionaries as in the case of Penang Free School, Saint Xavier's Institution, the Convent schools, La Salle schools, Methodist schools, St George's School together with government English schools such as The Victoria Institution, Johor English School, Malay College Kuala Kangsar, the Military College, Anderson Schools, among others, which formed the backbone of the pre- and post-war Malayan educational system. They continued to dominate and set the standards of Malayan education even after independence and the formation of Malaysia right up to end of the 1960s.

The Razak Educational Report set up the blueprint for the post-independence National Educational System. It proposed a single stream education system with Bahasa Melayu as the main medium of instruction and vernacular schools at the primary level. In addition, it also proposed for the existence of English schools at the secondary level. The Raman Talib Report, which was incorporated into the Education Act of 1961, stressed the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, the development of a Malayan curriculum, academic and vocational streams.

The two reports articulate the basic tenets of a national educational system stressing Malay as the main medium of Instruction with English as a second language and vernacular schools confined to the primary level. At that juncture, vernacular schools were more of feeder schools in nature that integrated into the national school system.

But then vernacular schools, Chinese and Tamil Schools, began to mushroom especially when Malay became the main medium of instruction in the national schools which were regarded by the other races as being exclusively Malay oriented.

This point marked the fracture of our educational system, which progressively became worse because of the lack of political will and professional policymakers and politicians to solidify, unify and integrate the educational system. Political leaders sacrificed national unity and integration for political expediency and vested interests so as to maintain power.

Our fractured educational system led to the polarisation of the races; Malays go to national schools while many Chinese and Indians go to vernacular schools. In the end, such a situation negates the national aspiration of integrating the young through education.

Besides this dissonance, our education system suffers from a perpetual state of experimentation in respect of curriculum, teaching methodology, evaluation and the medium of instruction. We experimented with using English for science and mathematics, then after two years reverted to Malay, the original language of teaching these two subjects.

There is a vocal segment of society who have been rooting for the return of English medium schools. They feel that Malay schools have limited capacity in exposing students to the larger spectrum and breadth of knowledge compared to English medium schools.

Even after 60 years of Independence we are unable to settle the language issue even though Malay is constitutionally sanctioned national language. The existence of the vernacular school's system and the demand for the return of English medium schools undermine our national language policy.

A number of Malaysians claim the National Language is not a viable commercial or academic language. Our universities require lecturers to send their articles to high impact journals, which are exclusively in English. They frown on articles in Malay for local journals, which are not considered in the ranking exercise.

Thus, the education ministries have failed to encourage and instil love and respect for the Malay language. Worse still, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, which is supposed to be the custodian of the sanctity of the Malay language is impotent in carrying out its responsibilities. It is merely a ceremonial white elephant, unable to enforce the use of Bahasa Melayu.

This reflect the dilemma of our education system that seems to be going nowhere, forever living in a world of academic pretence, more concerned with form rather than substance, revelling in numerical positioning rather than the quality of teaching and students' performance. This is confounded by the fact that every minister, rightly or wrongly, wants to leave his imprint and legacy on the educational system prompting changes in the curriculum, method of assessment and other pedagogical aspects.

Currently, the ministry has embarked on a slew of fundamental changes. One is the replacing of local English text books with books from England in line with the move to implement the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages developed to gauge foreign language proficiency. It is too early to pass judgment on its effectiveness but various interested teaching and learning organisations, including the Johor Language Teaching Association, have expressed caution in implementing this move, which may adversely affect Malaysia students especially rural students who find difficulty with foreign content.

Another significant change is the move from the exam-oriented evaluation of year 6 UPSR pupils to a holistic approach called the Primary School Assessment Report that incorporates additional elements of sports, physical and curricular activities and psychometric assessments.

The ministry has de-emphasised the long-standing criteria of academic achievements that is reflected in the number of As that a student achieves. It has lowered the academic requirements to achieve at least a D in the exams. With this change students may no longer be motivated to pursue academic excellence.

Teachers would be further burdened to execute the new criteria of evaluation, which they may not be familiar with. The ministry may have to retool these teachers to effectively carry out the assessments objectively and professionally.

The effectiveness of this new evaluative process is yet to be seen for it will take a host of factors and time to ascertain the viability of this experiment.
But the standard measure of scholastic achievement is the academic performance, which should be given its due weightage in this new evaluative process. The other variables of psychometric, sports and co-curricular activities should be an addendum to reflect the holistic character and personality of the pupils.

Yet another element that influences the minds of policymakers is the 4.0 Industrial Revolution, prompting politicians, corporate figures and academics to embrace this so-called revolution into their sectors without actually knowing the nature and implication of such action.

The latest exhortation came from the deputy minister of international trade and industry, urging education ministries to embrace this revolution and change their curriculum accordingly. This mantra is echoed by Datuk Dr John Anthony Xavier, who recommended that the curriculum of schools and universities be redesigned to incorporate creative and design thinking.

Quite so often there is a disconnect between policy changes and the implementation on the ground, which may not be ready for it. The most important interface is the transfer of knowledge by the teachers who may not be equipped to affect that transfer. And students from varying background must be phased in before they become receptive to new content and modes of transfer.

Another element that reflects the fractious nature of our education system is the examination certificate issue between the government examinations and those conducted by vernacular schools. The mainstay has been the government examinations, but the Chinese Dong Zuang Group is demanding that the government recognises their own Unified Examination Certificate that is based on Taiwan's education syllabus for entry into universities or as a qualification to apply for government jobs.

The national education system is in a state of uncertainty and turmoil with so many unresolved issues that tend to rend it apart. And the authorities are in a quandary to develop a cohesive and stable education system because of conflicting interests. And these issues will not iron out by themselves without professional guidance and a firm political will towards achieving an excellent education system based on the national ethos, aspirations and innovation.

Professor emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com