Many people are bracing themselves for the worst with the announcement of the first Budget under Anwar Ibrahim’s “unity’ government” today, 24 February.
Despite the gloom, many others, particularly those in the lowest-income groups – having suffered the most from the ravages of the Covid pandemic and now finding it hard to get back on their feet – are hoping for some respite in Budget 2023.
Different sectors of the Malaysian economy, equally, are looking for signs of recovery and reform with the announcement of the unity government’s Budget.
This Budget, then, could be seen as the roadmap that Anwar Ibrahim’s government will be using to navigate the country out of the mess the pandemic and two short-lived and ineffective regimes have created for the country and its many sectors.
One of the major sectors, of course, is education and, in this regard, Gerak, the Malaysian academics movement, proposes a wishlist for the education sector.
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This proposal is based on the awareness that the Budget isn’t just about the government’s plans and projections for the use of the country’s resources for the year to come but is also about a fairly clear sign where the government plans to take the country and its people.
This being the case, Gerak’s list incorporates proposals at both the particular and the structural or policy levels.
First, of course, we propose an increase in the Budget allocation for education, for use in various sectors at the different levels – certainly from primary to tertiary – which we stipulate here.
Indeed, second, based on the many ongoing concerns and criticisms of contemporary education in Malaysia, Gerak believes that an allocation for a thorough – and honest – independent study on the state of Malaysian education (from play school to tertiary education) must be made in Budget 2023.
Its announcement would be with an eye towards revamping and reforming our education system.
In this regard, a royal commission of inquiry would be ideal, although any thorough and independent study would suffice as an alternative.
Next, Budget 2023 should also announce the beginning of a revamp of teacher training and a revision of teachers’ salaries and benefits.
We need to start attracting high quality candidates into the teaching profession to help address and stop the rot that has set in. The buck really must stop here.
And to do that, we must make teaching the profession of choice rather than something to fall back on as a last resort. Teaching is a noble profession and not the job of those who can’t do anything else.
Fourth, as far as funding is concerned, Budget 2023 must address an urgent need to increase funding for special needs education.
We cannot simply and inhumanely treat special children as an inconvenient group in mainstream society.
We owe these children the responsibility of providing them with the best education possible, with highly trained teachers and not just temporary volunteers or those with little training in special needs education.
And this provision needs to be made throughout the country and not just in the central states.
Fifth, it is evident to most of us that while counselling services are more widely available in our schools now, they really need to be improved upon and not wrongly treated as just another inconvenience.
Gangsterism, bullying, vandalism in schools all have sociological and psychological origins. These need to be teased out and assessed.
As part of the community and serving that wider community, schools, through proper funding from the government, must contribute towards playing that role. Professionally trained counsellors must be made available.
In this regard, sexual health awareness and safety education must begin from primary school.
Sixth, and certainly crucial given recent developments, funds should be channelled towards a reorganisation of state-owned and run Islamic religious schools.
The government needs to make them more inclusive in substance to counter the hateful, racist narratives of many of the current ones.
What is clear is that during last year’s general election and after, social media was used effectively to put across divisive, hateful, racist and bigoted messages.
This, for many analysts, ‘worked’ because the targeted, mainly youth, population had been fed for a long time a divisive diet of misinformation and dubious ‘knowledge’, pitting one majority ethno-religious group (Malay-Muslim) against other minority ones.
We cannot fight this narrative simply through censorship laws and heavy-handed actions.
We need to put across a higher-level narrative that espouses diversity, love, respect, understanding and inclusion – all based on the teachings of Islam and other loved religions. This must happen in a planned and concerted manner in formal environments like play schools, schools, colleges and universities.
But it needs to go beyond this to the state-run religious schools, suraus and mosques, led by trained progressive preachers working for a civilised Malaysia based on respect and even love – all also following the prime minister’s notion of Madani (a civil nation).
Hence, there is a need for leaders – in this case, religious – to walk the talk. And funds need to be channelled in that direction.
Finally, seventh, Budget 2023 should make it clear that Rancangan Makanan Tambahan (RMT) or universal free school meals will be provided for all primary schoolchildren, irrespective of parents’ income level.
In this regard, the government, to be fair, must refund money to children who were under the RMT but were not fed during the two years of school closure (affecting about 500,000 primary schoolchildren). The budget of almost RM300m was approved during the Budget presentations in 2019 and 2020.
It was irresponsible of the government then to conveniently disregard this allocation. Other countries provided cash transfers, food rations and hot meals to children who were on curfew then. We didn’t.
These than are our proposals for the education sector under Budget 2023 and for a reformist and inclusive unity government to seriously consider.
Dr Andrew Aeria, Prof Wan Manan Wan Muda and Prof Zaharom Nain are senior Gerak executive members