Having discussed the Constitution, rising religious extremism and corruption among other things in the previous parts of the interview, the conversation with former Treasury secretary-general Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim turns to education and racial unity in this part of the series.
More than 50 years since the nation was formed, there is a feeling that racial tensions have grown amid increasingly racial politics. Does the education system, much-lamented in terms of standards, have had a contributing factor to that? Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim shares his perspective.
What do you think about the educational standards now and then?
First, we must admit the government must be given credit for making education widely accessible. As you know education always receives one of the highest budget allocations among all other agencies. Enrolment at the primary level has become almost universal and at the secondary level it is also quite high. And that goes right up to tertiary level.
But there is a feeling that while the fast expansion has benefitted many and given education access to almost every child, the quality has reduced because first the standards of teacher training have fallen. The professionalism among the teachers has also gone down. And some say this is because there are not enough incentives and because there are also other influences coming into the teaching profession which are disruptive to the profession.
There is a lot of worry about the politicisation of education, which apparently has even gone to the extent of trying to influence how the curriculum is created, how school textbooks are sometimes written to suit particular political ideologies.
I have seen myself, for example, history textbooks which do not give proper weight for example to the ancient civilisations. It’s a fact that the Chinese civilisation, Hindu civilisation predate the Islamic civilisations. I think all these things must be… because we came from an education background where we study all these things.
For example the chapter on the World War II history is very small, just one or two small paragraphs. Yet we know the WWII shaped the world that we have today. Surely that must be properly explained in the history texts so that the students get a proper idea about world history, to take history as one example.
The old values about teaching should come back. I’m not so concerned about the education system being based on the national language; I think this is good for the country. But there is also a need to recognise the fact that English is extremely important.
Do you support using English for teaching mathematics and science?
I leave that to the professionals but I support the idea that English should be used more widely in our schools. Because I always come back to the basic principle that if the students going through the national school system are weak in English, they will be at a disadvantage compared to the students who come from rich, elite families. They go to private schools from a young age and go to universities abroad. And they come back and they get first preference for jobs especially in the private sector.
So if you’re not handling this situation properly then all the good, high-paying jobs, which are mostly in private sector, go to graduates with English-based education and the local graduations have to depend on the government for employment. And if the government finds they have to absorb these local graduates then you will find a bureaucracy that is expanding and expanding and expanding, which I think is already happening now.
We have the national school system which teaches in Malay. We have the Chinese school system where the primary medium of instruction is Chinese, then the Tamil school system and the religious school system. There have been calls to allow the setting-up of a system which teaches in English.
The Sultan of Johor of course called for that. He felt that by converting to an English stream education, it will unite all races under one roof and make the country progressive.
I personally don’t think it is a practical suggestion for Malaysia and I don’t think it is necessary for us to make such a big change. I would think that if you improve the quality of education in the national schools and make them the schools of first choice for parents, you will see over time that the vernacular schools will become less and less attractive to parents.
Because most of the parents who send kids to these vernacular schools do so not just because they want their children to be educated in the mother tongue but because they emphasise on English, on discipline.
There seems to be a division because of the school system itself. Previously most people went to national schools but now they don’t. Among the Chinese, for instance, more than 80% had their primary education in vernacular schools and similarly for the Tamil system as well. Have the level of unity right now and interaction among the races over the years reduced?
I am sure it does have some effect. But that said, eventually when they come out to work they will be working side by side. And from what I can see they get along. It’s not like the Indians and Chinese cannot converse in Malay. They can.
Do you think the level of unity now is as good as it was, say, in the years immediately after independence and then the 1960s?
I would say that we have not made as much progress as we expected to, despite the economic progress and the level of prosperity (since).
So as a nation we have become less united over the years. What do we do about something like that?
I think we should promote moderation which is what G25 is doing. By moderation we mean that we have to have more tolerance over our differences. Regard our diversity as an asset, not as a liability. And provide opportunities for all races to play their part in the government, in the private sector.
I think we have come to a point where you need to mobilise the full potential of our human resources from across all the races to get the best out of the population. That is why I’m in favour of introducing more meritocracy in the public service, for example. I’m in favour of seeing a higher level of non-Malay participation in the public service, the military and the police.
From what I’ve been told, there are efforts being made to increase the participation of the other races in the public services. Hopefully that is true. Hopefully we can see a more balanced representation in the public sector.
Link to the original article in Kinibiz
This is part 4 of 5