Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Education As A Political Football

Written by johnleemk on 3:29:06 pm May 2, 2007.
Categories: ,

The title of this article may surprise some people who recall me lambasting politicians who use education as a political football. But there are good ways to politicise education, and there are bad ways to politicise education.

As far as I'm concerned, all our politicians, government or opposition, have been complete rubbish when it comes to the issue of education. None but a tiny sliver have dared address the problems of education head-on.

And of this tiny sliver, they all say the same thing. They whine about us not being competitive; they complain that one or some other brand of segregated school is not being given enough support; they complain about (gasp) students bringing heavy bags to school; they rail against the injustices of our discriminatory public higher education system.

This is all well and good. However, as any Malaysian student or recently-graduated Malaysian student who has not been brought up in some coccooned elite school can tell you, these are not issues we are really concerned about.

Of course, to some extent, we do care about these things. These issues are important to some people, or else they would not be raised in the newspapers and in Parliament. But these are not the issues that we really want to see addressed.

The fact is, virtually everyone I know who went through the normal education stream in Malaysia is frustrated with the type of education we dole out in our public schools. Even people from elite schools like the Victoria Institute complain about how rotten our education is.

Yet, it seems that few, if any, of our politicians are raising these issues. And I think I know why. Because every single one of them is a product of some abnormal education stream!

Most of our politicians who sincerely care about the country, government or opposition, are products of schools like the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, some famous independent Chinese school, some convent or mission school, and so on. I know quite a few of these people, and they all impress me with their sincerity.

But they are simply missing the problems with education because they have never experienced it! It is surprisingly difficult to articulate this frustration, and the reasons for it, but only those of us who have been forced through the wringer of Malaysian education can adequately describe how wrenching it is. The articles on education here represent but a tiny bit of the experiences of Malaysian students.

A lot of uppity people think they understand our frustration. But they don't. They just don't, and you have to go through this system for the eleven to thirteen years that all normal students are forced to go through to really get what's wrong with things.

The issues raised in the newspapers are just the surface of things, and even then, they are bad enough. You have teachers who can't speak a word of proper English being forced to teach science and mathematics classes in English.

You have teachers intentionally limiting their teaching in schools so they can milk their students in private tuition classes. And this remains the tip of the surface — there are unspeakable things which can be quite commonplace in normal public schools.

The horrifying shortage of properly trained teachers is one thing; ICT teachers are teaching history, while physics teachers are teaching biology, and yet this problem is so easily rectified!

Then there's the fraud and coercion that some teachers subject students to. And mind you, we haven't even gotten to the worst problem with Malaysian education yet — memorisation.

Everyone is absolutely frustrated with the education system, because everyone knows what we "learn" in school is worthless. Everyone knows we are being forced to memorise facts we don't understand, memorise situations that we can't adequately contextualise, and placed under mental torture simply for the crime of being Malaysian students in Malaysian public schools.

Our schools are basically creating the appearance of learning, when they are nothing more than giant factories for producing mindless drones to fuel the country's dying economy. What is important is not being absorbed.

For instance, my sister has been taught that there is a difference between 3x/2 and 3/2 * x. A basic mathematical principle, and her teacher can't even get this right! Then when it comes to calculating the median of a data set, she is totally lost because she has been taught to understand it as "use this formula for this situation, that formula for that situation". There is no actual understanding of what the median is — which is not too surprising considering I had to figure this out for myself.

Moral education is one of the most hated subjects in Malaysian schools. Every student you can find will tell you they hate it. And yet this can actually be one of the most helpful subjects, most relevant to our daily lives, if only it were taught correctly! And yet because of the contraints of our curriculum, our syllabus, our system, we are effectively raising a generation without any morals! (Assuming that the reason we have moral education in the first place is that the moral education imparted by parents is insufficient or non-existent.)

Even the focus of our curriculum has been dimming. In standard four, my father learnt about the fall of Malacca; by form one, he was learning about ancient world history. In standard four, I was supposed to learn about the history of my school, and I didn't even have a specific history subject; it was called "kajian tempatan" (local studies). In form one history, I learnt about ancient Malaysian history and the fall of Malacca (incidentally, thanks to the way it was taught, I remember virtually nothing of ancient Malaysian history).

You can hear similar tales about other subjects, ranging from geography to civics. In my father's day, civics was about teaching you to exercise your rights as a student and as a citizen in a responsible manner. In my sister's day, civics is about teaching you to be a good obedient hamba.

And mind you, my father's education was still not that good! He only understood what the scientific method is when he did his PhD. An engineer who cannot even grasp how the scientific method works despite going through five years of secondary school science! Similarly, he never grasped the concept of an irrational number until I explained it to him about two years ago — our education system is producing PhD-holding engineers who don't even grasp relatively elementary mathematical concepts!

I ask you, how the fuck is our country ever going to go anywhere with an education system like this? I don't like to swear when I write serious things, but this is absolutely serious. I, and my cohort, have suffered through years of a ridiculous education like this — an education system which, thirty years ago, couldn't produce a thinking engineer, and today, can't even produce a thinking taxi driver!

And why is this? Ironically, because our education system is nothing more than a political football. Many of our politicians are extremely busy molding our students into mindless zombies subservient to their will, to accept a "yes" as a "yes" and a "no" as a "no". Meanwhile, the rest go chase after pet issues like getting more funds for Chinese schools or Malay schools or smart schools or cluster schools or whatever fucking shit schools when we can't even produce an engineer with a basic grasp of form one science and form six mathematics!

What is the fucking point of this political football match? What is the use of shiny bright spanking new schools, when the teachers in them are passionless people assigned to teach the wrong subjects, and the students are mindless maniacs obsessed with going through the motions of an education rather than actually learning?

And you know the real fucking stupid thing about this? If the politicians want to mobilise the youth vote and youth activism, if they want to get as many people as possible to lend them their support, all they have to do is play this football match right.

You see, we're pretty damn pissed about politicians adding more retardedly taught subjects like information technology, sex education, civics and shit science for the sake of appearing like they're doing something about the woeful problem of education. We're pretty damn pissed about politicians who fill our heads with propaganda which we know is false, which we know has zero relevance to our life in the real world, and which we pretend to absorb for the sake of appearances.

We're pretty damn pissed about politicians who make it seem as though everything is fine, and we just need to tinker around the edges of our education system without any need for major long-term reform. We're pretty damn pissed about politicians who treat education as yet another religious, racial or bribetaking opportunity.

Do you know why this pent-up anger remains pent up? Because not a single Malaysian politician is even close to understanding the basic problem with Malaysian education! Do you folks realise how frustrating, how angering, how infuriating it is to enter the real world, to have the scales fall from your eyes, and realise that virtually everything you've dedicated a dozen years of your life to is worthless?

Do you realise how even more frustrating it is to understand this reality while you are in school, and looking forward to many more years of that political footballing until you can leave school once and for all?

I don't care who the fuck you are, whether you're from Barisan Nasional, Barisan Alternatif, Parti Tindakan Demokratik, Barisan Najis, Parti Tiada Demokrasi, if you can fix this education system, if you can even show that you understand these problems, these frustrations, and have half a clue about how to fix them, you will have my damn vote. And I would bet my life that you would have the votes of thousands of other frustrated young Malaysians, and the future votes of many more still in school.

That's what I mean when I say education ought to be a political football. Because if we stop kicking our students around from one propaganda class to another, if we stop shoving their brains full of shit from teachers not even fit to teach shit science, if we stop treating education as equivalent to rote memorisation, and we harness the power of politics to change our education system, we can make a difference.

We can change our country. Virtually all problems with our country stem from our school system. Fix the school system, and you fix the country. It's as simple as that. There is no other problem as pressing, no other problem as critical, and no other problem as important to the people as a good education. And that makes education a political problem. The question is, can we start playing this football match right and start scoring some goals that aren't offside?


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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