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The question of politics in education

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The focus on education reform in our country should be about increasing the level of democracy within it, says Nicholas Chan.


I remembered when the results of Pisa 2012 first came out, a friend and I embarked on a fast thought process on how we fared so badly even compared to our regional neighbours, notably Vietnam (which has since see its glamour dulled by analysis that points towards unequal sampling in a country with an exclusive elite education). And both of us came to the same conclusion, the degree of politicisation in Malaysia’s education is too high.

Although further dissection also revealed the structural entrapment we experienced as a result of a highly centralised education system, the message had struck and kept its rhyme lingering. Politics is bad for education – but is that so?

Education has been inextricable from Malaysia’s politics because our unique nation formation “package” (if we may call it that) involves education. As the different communities came together as a nation under the “elite consensus” plotted by our founding fathers, education was heralded as a negotiation piece of great importance. Mother tongue education was guaranteed its post-independence survival while article 153 specifically mentioned quotas in scholarships as one of the special privileges to be given to the Bumiputeras.

And as we ventured on in our infantile journey to become an ethnocratic nation-state, linguistic dominance became the centrepiece of our education policy to inculcate a top-down, parochially righteous national identity.

This of course does not bode well for the social contract that was hatched in the spirit of diversity and communal retention of identity and way of life. Hence, inter-ethnic tension was understandably flared by education policies.

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Education is, since the beginning of the story of Malaya/Malaysia, more than a vehicle for humanistic development. It is political mileage for the politicians on both sides of the divide that is to be seized and championed. Except for the Tunku, all our Prime Ministers once held the education portfolio before rising to premiership. Success in education is more than a measure of life chances. It is also a demonstration of political hegemony.

All of this is, conceivably, bad for Malaysia’s education system. This is because it steers the core focus of education away from its greater goals – which, among them, is to enable the socioeconomic advancement and intellectual transcendence of our children – into cul-de-sacs with fanatical obsession over one-dimensional ethno-religious rhetoric.

The prevalent discourse always undercuts other pertinent issues in education, like the cultivation of independent, critical thinking and science technology, engineering and mathematics proficiency, which is vital for capitalisation of the knowledge economy.

As education was seen as the easy route for scoring political brownie points, politicians would be tempted to demand the lowering of standards to boast achievement points for their careers.
Privileges, opportunities and support are given to those of advantaged backgrounds instead of disadvantaged ones, and chances for market-based solutions would be abused by cronies of the political elite.

As politics seems to be a great hindrance to salvage our education standards, shall we then label it as a taboo for the field? Or can we?

One of the greatest complaints of our education system is that it lacks transparency and accountability, as well as access points for the participation of various stakeholders and ideas for improving it. In other words, we need democratisation of our education system.

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But democratisation also means freedom to voice, to participate and to petition, which requires a lot of political manoeuvring. The stifling of politics within education, as seen in the recent clampdown on teachers voicing dissent over school-based assessments, is itself an undemocratic political move to subjugate a political movement.

The dream of having an education system free of politicians and administered and governed by experts without political affiliations (or at least power-based affiliations) sounds akin to Plato’s vision of the Philosopher king.

But I fear this insular, elitist power structure is only Utopian in nature. For we are mortals with limitations, biases and room for corruption and self interest. Without any check and balance apparatus present, the Philosopher king might as well be a dictatorial king.

In order for any intervention to successfully occur, politics is needed, as it is the only way to convince, influence and galvanise support for ideas to be realised into policies. This also forms the basis of democracies. Ones that enable fluid and, at most times, complex tussles for influence and legitimacy for ideals and the people who represent them.

Democratic politics is good, but any politics without democracy is bad. That is precisely the problem with politics in Malaysia’s education; it lacks significant democratic space and freedom. As our political structure and process are geared towards establishing hegemony, it is natural that our policies (all of them, not just education), suffered from autocratic asphyxiation.

That said, the discourse of education reforms should rightfully be fitted in the greater picture of democratisation; not one that enables multi-million lobbyist groups to seize the central agenda, but one that allows for and rewards innovation and contextualised solutions while also punishing unsavoury practises.

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Professionalism of teachers, for instance, can’t be realised without the opening up of democratic space and the dismantling of a top-down heavy power structure that is infused by partisan interests and allegiances. Without democratic space, interested parties especially parents would tend to vote with their feet and leave the country in search of an education that their children deserve, leading to a brain drain.

Whether we like it or not, politics is inevitable, a ubiquitous product of human societies to cater for, mediate and resolve our differences at all levels of life. Having bad politicians doesn’t necessarily mean politics is bad. Office politics, the negative aspects of which may be annoying to many, is still needed to maintain corporate order and productivity.

The focus on education reform in our country should be about increasing the level of democracy within it. As democracy benefits from the product of education which is knowledge; education must by itself be democratic.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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najib manaukau
27 Mar 2014 8.32am

Now everyone in Malaysia is aware why he standard of education is getting from bad to worse and still falling. One cannot expect anything else except the standard from declining when for example when egregious Mahathir lowered the standard of entrance to the medical school in the country just so more Malay students can be accepted into the medical school. That was despite being warned by the British medical council that politics should not involved in it. The council even warned him that by doing that the medical degree would not be recognised outside of Malaysia. But he couldn’t care less and even said that he is only interested to have more Malay doctors trained locally for Malaysia, regardless of their recognition outside Malaysia. And this policy extended to all the other faculties and thus the beginning of the drop of Malaysia’s standard of education and it is getting worse when he was responsible to have more medical schools set up in the country than all the medical schools added up in England before he ‘retired’. Now you know why so many Malaysian trained doctors are… Read more »

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