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The Curriculum is Not a Political Football

Two of the most important humanities subjects, History and Moral Education, are consistently given short shrift by the Malaysian Education Ministry. Why? Simply because it would be too harmful to the establishment for students to learn that there can be more than one point of view.

Written by johnleemk on 11:12:26 am Mar 11, 2007.

As far as anyone can remember, the government has enjoyed meddling in the management of our education system. What goes in our textbooks is not decided by market forces or individual schools or individual parents, but by functionaries at the Education Ministry.

As a result, what goes in our textbooks exists more to serve the interests of the political and administrative establishment. This would be all fine and well if the interests of the establishment coincided with the interests of the people, but more often than not, there is no such coincidence.

Two of the worst offenders in our curriculum today are Moral Education and History. Under a better education system, these two humanities subjects would teach students how to critically analyse a moral dilemma, how to philosophise, how to learn lessons from history, and generally, encourage them to understand the pros and cons of a situation.

Unfortunately, encouraging thinking isn't really in the interest of the establishment. If people know how to think, they know how to question. If people truly know what is right and wrong, rather than memorising hackneyed definitions of moral values, they might catch on to the reality that a lot of the things done by the establishment are, indeed, wrong.

The result of this divergence between the interests of the establishment and the people is that the syllabuses for both Moral Education and History don't evaluate how well our students can think about a moral dilemma or how well our students can analyse a historical event and its impact.

Rather, the teaching methods endorsed by the Education Ministry focus on rote memorisation. To make matters worse, they focus on making students memorise one single definition of morals and one single viewpoint of history, even though these subjects are in fact defined not by agreement but by disagreement.

After all, what is the defining characteristic of philosophy? The very fact that you can never get philosophers to agree. Heck, I bet it's impossible to get just any two human beings to agree on a set of moral values.

The same applies for history. There is surprisingly great disagreement among scholars about the facts, and needless to say, when it comes to drawing conclusions from the facts, there are a lot of different opinions.

Despite these disagreements, the way History and Moral Education are taught in Malaysia treats them both as monolithic subjects where everything has been conveniently agreed upon in favour of the establishment's views.

Students might learn about 32 moral values, but what are they really learning? All they learn (rather, memorise) is 32 set definitions of moral values, and there is zero room to disagree about how many moral values there should be, let alone how these values should be defined. I may disagree about what constitutes honesty, but ironically, if I am honest about my views, I will be penalised for it.

And as for history, anything that might be detrimental to our view of the existing establishment is conveniently ignored or downplayed, while ideas that matter little in the big picture but matter a lot to the establishment are given great attention.

Take my pet subject, ketuanan Melayu, for example. Although if you splashed this across the headlines of newspapers, you'd stir up a great controversy, this is a concept given attention by our textbooks, which go as far as to provide a specific definition of what ketuanan Melayu should mean.

Meanwhile, anything that might be detrimental to ketuanan Melayu and its advocates is brushed over. Tun Dr. Ismail, who criticised its proponents in the aftermath of the May 13 Incident, is barely mentioned in our textbooks, and even then, is only given credit for leading the Malaysian UN delegation's efforts to halt the Confrontation with Indonesia. You'd have no idea he almost became Prime Minister, and actually died as our country's acting Prime Minister.

The separation of Singapore from Malaysia is also cast in a very negative light, focusing single-handedly on the issue of ketuanan Melayu. Lee Kuan Yew is presented as attempting to end the special rights of the Malays, even though he explicitly endorsed Article 153 of the Constitution. From the text, you'd think this is the only reason Singapore left Malaysia, and it's not even based on reality.

Being exposed to only one viewpoint of history is bad enough, but students are also made to single-mindedly memorise it and other meaningless trivia — anything to keep them from actually learning something about or from our country's past. The last thing our students need is to learn that there can be more than one way to view our past; it's better to keep them focused on memorising the name of the first company to operate steamships in Malaya.

The short shrift given to these crucial humanities subjects is all because of political concerns. Our students are treated like political footballs, and what they learn is based more on the issues of concern to the establishment rather than what is of concern to true academics.

Then, when in the real world, where being able to analyse the past and dissect moral situations is actually crucial and relevant, our students are unable to perform. The next time we read about unemployable graduates and a lack of innovation amongst Malaysians, we would do well to remember how our government has failed us in the humanities.