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And thus democracy makes cowards of us all

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Has Populist Democracy made cowards of us all when it comes to speaking about what ails our education system, wonders Farish Noor.

Photograph: wn.com

The older I get, the grumpier and more cynical I become; and as I grow more cynical by the day, nothing gets my goat more than having to watch and read about the developments in Malaysia where the lowest common denominator rules the day.

On this occasion I find myself riled once again by the popular and populist demand for vernacular education, and to maintain a multi-track education system in the country. Again and again this issue bedevils our national politics, and again and again most, if not all, of the political parties in the country fall back to their safe positions while banking upon what they regard as their natural and safe political constituencies.

In this regard both the ruling coalition and the opposition coalition seem to be equally at fault: Neither side seems prepared to take the bull by the horns and do what seems simply necessary if we are still going to entertain the notion that there is some form of nation-building at work in this country. Malaysia boasts of its uniqueness, but in this one regard it does seem to be unique indeed.

After more than half a century of independence we still cling on to the notion that an inclusive national narrative can come about through not one, but several vernacular education systems. Nowhere else in the world (or the developed world at least) can I think of an example of such an arrangement, where both the government and the opposition seem inclined to support the popular demand for vernacular-based education streaming.

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Nowhere else in the world would a plural society be made all the more alienated from itself by allowing kids to study in the company of those who are more culturally and linguistically closer to them.

We lament, as we often do, the declining levels of inter-ethnic contact in the country; and we bemoan that the so-called ‘golden years’ of Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s are long gone. And yet we maintain this inane belief that by segregating children from an early age along linguistic-cultural lines we can still forge a Malaysian nation, together. How? And upon what basis would that shared sense of national belonging be found?

We wonder how and why the religious functionaries in the country can make the pronouncements they do, but what do we expect if we allow a condition where children from the same linguistic-cultural background are kept in the company of people similar to them from primary to secondary education, and perhaps even beyond?

I have said the same thing so many times by now that I am only thankful that the internet does not incur the waste of ink and paper: Yet today, in Malaysia, it is conceivable that a child of a particular linguistic-cultural group grows up in the company of similar children up to the age of 18, without ever having to shake hands with someone of a different ethnic, linguistic or religious background. So much for diversity then – how on earth can we expect Malaysians to integrate if the educational system keeps them apart for so long?

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And while on the subject of comparisons, can we imagine a similar situation in any developed country, like the UK, Germany or France? Where would France and Germany’s minorities be if they were segregated from childhood in Arabic or Turkish schools?

How could they hope to enter the mainstream of society that is still defined and shaped by the national language of those countries? On the contrary, while I was living in Germany I came across scores of German-Arab and Turks who wanted their kids to enter and succeed in the mainstream educational system, knowing that in that country that is the only path to higher education, and possible upward social mobility as well.

Yet what it takes for this to happen in Malaysia is political courage and the will to put forward radical proposals that may not be popular, in fact downright unpopular. It takes a politician with guts to say that Malaysian kids ought to be able to meet, study, compete and succeed in a singular national educational system that mirrors the reality of Malaysia’s plural and complex society.

And it takes some courage to state that if any Malaysian parent wishes his or her child to study Mandarin or Tamil, he should be able to do so in the same singular national schooling system where these languages should also be taught as Malaysian languages — languages that have been spoken in the region for centuries.

But politicians tend to be timid in the face of democratic populism, and the will of the voter — no matter how uninstructed, how bigoted or biased — seems to hold sway over their own opinions. I have met politicians on both sides of the fence who have confided in me their fears and anxiety over where the nation-building process in Malaysia is heading, and who know that if this trend continues there will not be one Malaysia but several Malaysias, that live side by side but remain clueless about their neighbours.

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But these very same politicians seem captive to the ballot box and paralysed when it comes to doing what is necessary, albeit unpopular. They cannot speak out for fear of losing their so-called ‘natural vote bases’, that happen to be ethnic and linguistic vote bases, reflective of our fractured society. And so the charade continues, and we remain a nation that studies, and lives, apart.

Thus has Populist Democracy made cowards of us all?

Dr Farish A Noor is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Source: themalaysianinsider.com

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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9 Mar 2012 11.36pm

Forgot to mention, don’t even think of using local matriculatin as a basis for entry abroad – tak laku. While the rest of the world advances, students more prepared, whatwith wide array of study aid to churn out brighter material, the same can’t be said for M’sian student. There were record numbers of straight “A” students, last year in the UK, seeking admission to uni – to the point where board of examiners/regents of various boards are now tweaking the exams to make it more challenging. Now, contrast the above to what our MoE is doing, the future doesn’t argur well for our student population, especially local grads – there has always been a premium attached to foreign educated grads returning to M’sia when entering the job market – the difference is quite stark. In part, let me end by saying, those who want to walk – let them walk BUT those who are able to run – must be afforded the same opportunity to run. As I have stressed earlier, by default, grads with UEC in hand, are the brightest lot amongst the peers worldwide… Read more »

9 Mar 2012 11.17pm

Yes Farish, and on goes thd debate between the singular versus plural. Back in the day while society didn’t know better and our forebears comfortably bedded in the colonial yolk, there wasn’t much directive nor opportunity for all to go to school. In more simple times, with colonial rulers more interested in Malaya for our vast resource, education was a secondary consideration but educate, they did try. I gather post WWI, it was a big deal for all kids to attain some level of education, schooled in English obviously for “urban” settlers with the rest (Malay society per se) happy with whatever a “sekolah pondok” could offer (I believe Jawi was taught back then). Long story short, think Penang Free School or High School in Malacca as a timeline for guide. There was no provision by the master to provide for Chinese/*Tamil education, that was left to prominent figures in respective communities to figure out and let’s conclude, the “private sector” initiative was a success story on its own. * I plea ignorance the history/emergence of Tamil base education but Chinese education was definitely a collective… Read more »

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