All things being equal, a country’s development is dependent on the quality of its people.” — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad
With this philosophy in mind, it was no wonder that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad wanted to take over the education portfolio once again but alas, that was shortlived and was not meant to be.
He met with the National Education Advisory Council in December to share his thoughts on education. Not surprisingly, he spoke about the importance of the English language, mathematics and science, and how national schools have become religious schools. In a nutshell, it was a reflection of Chapter 58: Education, in his book A Doctor In The House, which was written in 2011 and is still very relevant. I quote extensively from it below.
“To provide some historical perspective, it was in 1955 when Education Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein decided to streamline primary schools into a national system with Malay as the medium of instruction, as embodied in the Razak Education Report, but there were more important priorities at that point in time. Post independence of Malaya, the then Agriculture and Co-operatives minister in Tunku’s Cabinet, Aziz Ishak, while acting as education minister, ordered the conversion of all government primary schools to national schools where the medium of instruction is Malay. There was, of course, an upheaval and thus, as a compromise, national-type Chinese and Indian schools were permitted to exist.”
“After the 1969 general election and the ensuing race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Tun Abdul Rahman Yaacob was appointed education minister. He announced that all government secondary schools and government-aided schools would become national secondary schools where the teaching would be in Malay. Such a move made national primary and secondary schools almost exclusively Malay and thus the avenue for young Malaysians to integrate was lost. Along with the Malay exclusivity came the Islamic resurgence where “ritual observance increased, attendance at Friday prayers rose, and there was a constant demand for mosques to be built. So, the government introduced Islam as a subject, with the syllabus being determined by Pusat Islam. Unfortunately, the syllabus that was adopted neglected instruction in the Islamic way of life and its character-building values. Emphasis was instead placed largely on the proper performance of rituals. Islam was taught as a religion of rituals, of do’s and don’ts and formalistic requirements and prohibitions, not as a religion of far-reaching human and moral responsibility”.
Mahathir was education minister in 1974 to 1977 and then took over as prime minister in 1981 until he retired in 2003. His legacy in education — the policy of teaching and learning science and mathematics in English — was abruptly abolished after it had been implemented for six years. Many students benefited from it.
Fast forward to today, and in our national primary schools, Bahasa Melayu and the English language are alloted 168 hours or 15% of total hours each. Pendidikan Islam/Moral (PI/PM) gets126 hours, or 11% of total hours. If Tasmik (learning to recite Quran) is added, that is an additional 42 hours, or 15% of total hours — equal to Bahasa and English. For mathematics, primary schools are given 126 hours or 11% of total hours, and science, 84 hours or 7.5%. A sensible student once asked why PI/PM needs to be given equal emphasis to Bahasa and English when it is not a subject tested in the UPSR.
In national secondary schools, the time given for Bahasa remains at 168 hours or 12% of total hours, while that for English drops to 126 hours or 9%. For national lower secondary schools, the time given for PI/PM rises to 146 hours or 11%, while mathematics and science get 126 hours, or 9%, each. At upper secondary schools, English, PI/PM, modern mathematics, additional mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology are given 126 hours or 9% of total hours each.
Effectively, in primary schools, Bahasa, English and PI/PM are equal in terms of hours. At lower secondary level, Bahasa takes the lead with PI/PM in second place, while English, maths and science are third, and at the upper levels, BM stands in pole position, with English, PI/PM, maths and science getting equal time.
It is no wonder that the prime minister feels that way. It is also no wonder that national schools are not an attractive option for parents. Mahathir says if parents want a religious education for their children, there is still a pathway open to them. A student can still opt to take the minimum six SPM subjects plus the additional three, which are Pendidikan Al-Quran and As-Sunnah, Pendidikan Syariah Islamiah and Bahasa Arab Tinggi, for a deeper and richer understanding. Incidentally, after SPM, not all students from religious schools decide on a career of theology.
Muslims are proud of the Golden Years of the Islamic Renaissance, spanning from Spain to Central Asia, which boasted creators, inventors, scientists, doctors and engineers of incomparable knowledge, not just of religion but of other fields as well. Many yearn for that time but do not realise that when the Muslims decided to pursue no other knowledge except religion, the quest for scientific enlightenment died and was taken over by the Europeans, leaving the Muslims to stagnate. The inescapable reality is that the English language is now the lingua franca of knowledge and international commerce.
So, only when the Malaysian education system emphasises on improving the quality of teachers, enhancing English for science and providing a neutral approach to religion will there be unity and the celebration of diversity in schools, as it was before and should be once again for the sustainable prosperity of the nation.
Religion should be personal. The true teachings of Islam, when learnt diligently and openly, can be a shared responsibility between the heads of states and parents, and our beautiful mosques, suraus and pondoks should welcome the young with open arms.