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Seven deadly sins of Malaysia’s approach to education

From neglecting critical thinking to the obsession with rankings, our education policy has been transformed to reflect the gradual obsession with wealth among ministries and certain departments

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We have known for decades that universities in Malaysia are in trouble.

In fact, the country’s public higher education sector is in crisis because education has become collateral damage of a widespread systemic crisis facing the country.

A key aspect of this crisis concerns how education and development are conceptualised. Since the 1980s, education has been packaged as a ‘tool’ for economic growth. This is wrong and retrogressive.

‘Systemic’ refers to the component parts of our society, namely, the people, culture, material products, political and economic institutions and social organisations. The systemic crisis referred to above emerges when all these components fail to integrate into an organised and productive dynamic.

It is wrong to link education solely to economic development because society needs more than just economic activity to thrive. A human being is more than the sum of his or her economic activities.

What does development mean?

The problems in Malaysia’s education sector are due to the absence of a broader conception of development. This error can be addressed, depending on how committed the country’s leadership is and how genuine our politicians are in mobilising the nation’s resources.

A corrupt and uncaring government will insist on the status quo. An efficient, people-centred and ethical government would mobilise for reform.

In any national system, there is typically a “hierarchy of goods”, delivered by the government to its people, with the goal of maintaining a happy and contented population, nurtured by national stability.

An honest and selfless government also maintains a healthy consultation with the private sector and civil society, as part of its holistic strategy to modernise the nation and keep up with global developments.

Additionally, an education system that reassures the meaning of life, or condemns the imbalances of science and technology, and the destruction of our ecology, must be placed high on this list of ‘goods’ for the people.

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Greed and corruption

If our leaders focus only on the economic dimension, greed and corruption are likely to set in. When there is tunnel vision of what a good life is, human relations become impersonal through this process of unhealthy competition and spiritual alienation.

An added tragedy in Malaysia is that politicians regularly invoke race and religion to reinforce this tunnel vision.

Thankfully though, Malaysia is not (yet) a failed state, because the country’s security, law enforcement structures, legal institutions and economic fundamentals are still functioning.

To a large extent, the public still has confidence in the governance of the country, although this, too, is being challenged ever since a former prime minister was incarcerated.

Seven sins

The crisis in Malaysia’s public higher education can be summed up as follows:

  • A neglect of critical thinking, ie there is a declining number of scholars who theorise about the purpose of life and society and relate this to the reality on the ground. Most of these so-called scholars cannot link theory to reality
  • The vision of higher education is too narrow, ie obsessing over the link between education and economic growth
  • There is a vulgar politicisation of our top university management and university boards
  • Universities are obsessed with policy-relevant research, often for political legitimation, which reinforces the absence of critical thinking
  • There is a shameless obsession with global university rankings.
  • Academic dishonesty and plagiarism thrive
  • There is a profound misconception that education is for ‘livelihood’ rather than ‘for life’. This indicates a misunderstanding between development and modernity

These seven issues collectively highlight the fundamental problems in our society.

These are a culmination of how society has conceptualised development and what it means to be successful in life. This conceptualisation was started as a top-down idea in the early 1980s and 1990s, under Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister.

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The focus on ‘growth’

Since then, Malaysia’s leaders embarked on massive growth-centric and market-driven policies to resolve economic and racial disparities in society. This also included robust state intervention policies involving government-business compacts which focused on expediting industrialisation, cultivating more bumiputra entrepreneurs and reducing poverty.

Over the decades, education policy has been transformed to reflect the gradual obsession with wealth, among certain ministries and civil service departments, through intricate relations of government-business patronage.

Are Malaysia’s ethical and philosophical fundamentals able to reverse these developments?

Ancient Greek philosophy goes back as far as the 7th Century BC. Up to the beginning of the Roman Empire, there were five great philosophical traditions: the Platonist, the Aristotelian, the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Sceptic.

Greek philosopher Plato wrote that education is a means to achieve justice. Attaining justice means achieving excellence in one’s political, social and spiritual being.

Education and Islam

The message of the Quran has always been part of education in Islam.

Ever since the Quran was revealed, Muslims have had to read, recite, and understand it as part of being a Muslim. Muslims therefore define education as the reading, teaching, learning, and assimilation of knowledge.

Inherent in the idea of ‘being’ a Muslim is the need to read, debate, and be knowledgeable. Knowledge is part of faith and is obligatory. (Alatas SF, 2006).

Therefore, an understanding of the philosophy of education in Islam is linked to how Muslims conceptualise knowledge. The Islamic philosophical view is to acquire knowledge, in order to live within a social and cultural system.

Human beings need education to understand both human and non-human life forms, because the two are integrated and in perpetual interaction. In Islam, to be knowledgeable about this interaction means to be knowledgeable of the Universe.

Therefore, the Islamic worldview of education is holistic. It ensures the spiritual, moral, psychological and intellectual development of personality, by integrating civic consciousness, social solidarity, justice and excellence, to be part of our overall personality and physical being. All this is prescribed within a consciousness of a larger cosmic order.

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Malaysia’s inadequate philosophy

Malaysia’s national philosophy of education embodies aspects of both the Greek and the Islamic ideas, and is stated in the Ministry of Education’s portal. It comprises two very long sentences. (in both English and Malay).

It reads:

Education in Malaysia is a continuous effort towards further developing individual potential in a comprehensive and integrated way to create a balanced and harmonious person intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically, based on faith and obedience to God. This effort is to produce Malaysian citizens with knowledge, skills, noble character, responsibility and the ability to achieve personal well-being, as well as contribute to the harmony and prosperity of the family, society and country.

However, despite its length, the above is inadequate. The conceptualisation of any guiding principle such as a nation’s education philosophy, is not meant to be a superficial statement for society to parrot. It is meant to remind us of a goal to achieve, to improve the lives of a nation’s citizens.

If we look at Malaysia’s education philosophy, it is supposed to nurture the best minds and voices in our society and to reflect the diverse views and concerns of all segments of the population. The aim is to problem-solve, to improve the living conditions of society and to provide hope for the future.

This is what I understand when I read those two very long sentences. However, there is room for one more sentence, which must highlight the need for some form of knowledge democracy. This will be highlighted in part two of this three-part analysis. – Free Malaysia Today

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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Subashchandra PM
Subashchandra PM
19 Nov 2023 9.03am

Well accounted article of what a wholesome Education encompasses. It clearly defines, in measurable terms, expectations for what one needs to know and be able to do to succeed first in school then in life.

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