ON Tuesday, the government created history with the passing of the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. For the first time in our nation, a constitutional amendment was unanimously passed by 211 MPs from all political divisions.
During the debate over the amendment to Article 119 and Article 47, one key recurring theme in speeches and remarks was citizenship education and how it must be implemented.
The resounding narrative from the government to the youth is to take up the challenge to share responsibility in nation building. Citizenship education is the next step in empowering the youth so that they acquire an understanding of institutions, political process and national issues.
Citizenship education is key in helping to develop the values and understanding to become participatory, active and responsible citizens. Beyond that, it could potentially play a role in empowering the youth, in particular, to understand their civil and political rights. It is therefore a powerful weapon for the empowerment of our society.
In multicultural Malaysia, there is a real need for our civic education to include elements of mutual respect and understanding of other cultures. With the often divisive rhetoric, there is an undeniable need for Civics and Citizenship Education (CCE) to seize the narrative away from politicians and establish its role in promoting an inclusive national narrative.
To enhance inclusivity in citizenship education, we could look to Canada where multicultural diversity is a prominent theme used to create inclusive awareness of other cultures and emphasises and accommodates the different socio-economic backgrounds of its people.
In Japan, citizenship education develops a student into a citizen who promotes a democratic and peaceful society. Students are challenged to contribute to national development.
Citizenship education has the potential to empower by providing an avenue for citizens to understand issues affecting them and to develop skills to meet these challenges.
We also need citizenship education to address some of the concerns of the youth for example in areas such as unemployment, cost of education and student loans, and the environment. This is because citizenship education has the potential to equip young people with critical thinking skills.
There are many different approaches and models that can and have been used around the world. This includes the more conservative approach that focuses on national narratives, existing social structures, historical facts and the role of government institutions. This more traditional method highlights the role of representative democracy in which the right to vote is taken as the most important expression of citizenship participation.
The problem is that simply arming citizens with information is no longer enough, and does nothing more than create passive citizens who are informed but lack the critical thinking skills and responsible attitude we desperately need.
It is clear that simply sending a child to school might not be enough to address their needs in the future. We must look at a 21st century model for citizenship education to truly bring about positive change.
In contrast, the more progressive approach to citizenship education aims to highlight societal transformation and justice, while encouraging citizens to develop critical analytical skills, political engagement and an understanding of cultural values.
This develops active citizens who engage in more than just voluntary work but will fully participate to enhance our democratic institutions and influence the political system.
The progressive approach is more appealing and will benefit Malaysia in the long term as it would enable the development of active and critical citizens who can engage in topics such as the democratic governance, gender, human rights, social justice, poverty, environmental and developmental justice.
I am not saying that the reintroduction of CCE in schools proposed by the Ministry of Education is not good enough. After all, it does fix a critical need in the education system. But if done right, I believe that it can do more than just inform children about their rights and duties. It has the potential to become a catalyst that propels youth to actively take part in the development of a mature democracy.
I would also like to point out that we cannot solely depend on schools to promote citizenship education especially if it is going to be something for all Malaysians.
We need to look at citizenship education outside classrooms as it is difficult to immediately transform all sectors of society especially older citizens.
We need our other institutions and government agencies to work together at the federal, state, local and community levels to bring citizenship education to museums, libraries, cultural centres, social clubs, the media and the politicians.
This is also where our residents’ associations and neighbourhood watches (Rukun Tetangga) can play a major role in the development and promotion of citizenship education. Government agencies should be willing to provide training and work with these groups.
Meanwhile, the use of technology also allows us unprecedented access to a more direct, open and interactive method of engaging with citizens.
Citizenship education has been a key pillar in the practice of democratic principles and institutions and is important in helping citizens understand their obligations under the law. However, by taking a more progressive approach, we can nurture citizens who are critical, engaged and active to preserve and protect our democratic space.