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55th Years of Malaysia’s Independence: Redefining The Basic of National Education

By Zul Fikri Zamir Mohamad Munir and Anas Alam Faizli

31st August 2012 marked the 55th celebration of Malaysia’s independence. Significant changes in education policies had taken place since then.

During the pre independence period, we had distinct education systems with pondoks, madrasahs and race-based vernacular schools dominating the education landscape. Then there was the Barnes Report which proposed a more holistic education system with the unification of all separately existing systems under one national education system. The report however was challenged by the Fen Wu Committee, which accused Barnes Report of under-representing interests of the ethnic minorities, specifically the Chinese and Indians in the then newly-born Malaya.

During the last days of British colonialism, a group of educated Malays begun a movement aimed at promoting changes in the national education policy. Their aspiration was for the education system to emphasize human capital development. The Penyata Razak was born out of this movement led by Tun Razak himself, and supported by country leaders and leading educationists at the time.

The objective of the Razak committee was to establish a national education policy which will act as a blueprint for Malaysian education, and ultimately drive cultural, social, economic and political development of Malaysia by using Bahasa Melayu as the national language.

The Laporan Rahman Talib became a successor to the Penyata Razak, which then contributed to legal frameworks of the Education Act 1961 (Akta Pendidikan 1961), with specific amendments in 1995 and 1996 by Tun Mahathir, in order to face prevailing challenges and aspirations of the 21st century for Malaysia.

Societal Stereotypes and Education

Approaching our 55th year of independence, an irrefutable aspect of the national Education system is the subsequent incentive systems which contributed significantly to how our society has grown to regard academic achievement. Academics, as far as the National Education Philosophy (FPN) is concerned, only seriously covers the Intellectual aspect of education, which is only one of the five aspirations for national education; namely Corporeal, Emotional, Spiritual and Social.

In Malaysia, the stereotypical view of success in education has effectively turned schools into factories with the target of churning out straight-As students. Even from as early as primary schools, pupils have been indoctrinated to believe in the illusionary aim of life and education as achievement of As. In July each year, almost like salesmen having to meet specified sales targets, every public school in the country races towards meeting new targets in the number of straight-A students they can produce; this severely limits the measure of educational output to the Intellectual aspect, which in turn are limited to formal, written examinations.

The genesis of the school as an institution to provide guidance in life has now shifted form to leave student essentially “empty” in the Corporeal, Emotional, Spiritual and Social aspects. As a result, Generation Y in schools today seek for material satisfactions while knowledge is only for personal use, and not for the society they live in; they run after 11 As, university admissions, lucrative employment opportunities and a luxurious life satisfied by consumerism-oriented abilities. Is the meaning of education contained within this cosmetically-restricted definition? Truly, the time has come for the redefinition of Education and the basic tenants of a Malaysian education system.

Great civilizations in the history of human civilizations had witnessed how knowledge had been transmitted and transferred from the Greeks, to the Islam Civilizations of Umaiyyad, Abbasid, and Ottomans, and finally to modern European and Western Civilizations. The only reason these civilizations were able to expand and remain sustained for long periods of time was because of the high regard towards education and knowledge and the foundational role they played. In contrast, the Mongol Empire who once conquered a significant portion of the world saw their ignorance to knowledge leave them remembered now only as figments of history.

Redefining Basics of Education

Omar Nakib (2006) in his book ‘Malik Bennabi’s Approach to Educational Problems in The Muslim World’ said Malik Bennabi proposed that the main problem of education in the Islamic world is civilization. The basic of Malik Bennabi’s philosophy, especially on its project of strengthening the ummah (community), is major element of the basics of that philosophy; made of the nature of humanity, nature of society, nature of knowledge and nature of the purpose of education.

According to Omar Nakib, Malik Bennabi sees the concept of education as the pillar to human civilization. He specified that the purpose of education is an attempt to enrich the needs of individual personality and society, as well as the vital elements to an education process, its purpose and its meanings. Education, according to Malik Bennabi, is meant to be a continuous process for civilization-building, with the final aim of achieving that civilization.

Malik Bennabi’s conceptual framework towards education problems stems from his holistic perspectives of the dilemmas facing contemporary Muslims. Omar Nakib explained how Malik Bennabi views the connection between concepts of education and society’s mission originating from the Quran’s perspectives. Bennabi’s idea is that education is not merely a process of developing human personality with limited purposes. Instead, it is a process of constructing and building human civilization. Thus, this concept recognized the historical understanding of human civilizations as guiding principles which determine the rise and fall of a civilization (Omar Nakib 2006).

Malik Bennabi (1905-1973), a Muslim intellectual par excellence hailing from Constantine, Algeria, spent his life in search of the root causes of problems in Muslim retrogression by formulating a basic formula for attainment of civilization; Human (Insan) + Land (Turab) + Time (Waqt) = Civilization (Hadarah). Ahmad Nabil Amir (2012) in his article ‘Malik Bennabi dan Falsafah Tajdid’ (Malik Bennabi and the Islamic Revival Philosophy) explained that the combination of human, land and time alone do not guarantee the flourishing of civilizations. There is need for religion and ideas to catalyze and “nudge” the formula to work.

Ahmad Nabil Amir explained further how Malik Bennabi used the examples of how the Germans saw the destruction of Gernmany in the Second World War and its temporary loss of ‘Realm of Things’ (a material and physical kingdom). However, Germany succeeded in re-creating its ‘Realm of Things’ enabled by a ‘Realm of Ideas’.

On this issue, Malik Bennabi asseverated the dilemma of underdeveloped countries; how their focus is often upon material civilizations (hadarah shahiyya) constructed on material accumulation, rather than a convolution of ideas which can only be gained from education. Although trained as an engineer, Bennabi committed to reintroduce Ibnu Khaldun’s rationalism throughout his life, through his writings on social science, history and civilization.

“The Return Home” to Original Function of Education

Now here is a new issue. What is the real purpose of education? In Malaysia, education is defined as academic achievement or merit. Children go to school to obtain a string of As’, with the blatant belief that these strings of As is ticket to university and sort out their entire lives’ problems in the future.

The typical example on a global level applies; the likes of Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Founder of Apple), Michael Dell (founder of Dell) and Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) never even graduated from university. This ‘failure’ did not prevent them from becoming among the most successful people in their respected fields. They can in fact be credited for their contribution to human civilization via revolutionizing how people access information, thereby transforming human lifestyle in the 21st century.

The concept of education at the core of Malaysian schools needs remodeling. Material benefits promised to schools which are deemed “excellent” based on students’ academic achievements have to be retracted. Education in schools requires urgent re-orientation towards building and nurturing more holistic individuals. It is as inconceivable that a child with talents in arts be forced to study engineering science, as it is unfair for a child with tremendous literary abilities be forced to study medical technology, just because the rest of society deem the latter useful.

Education should be fun. Children should be happy in schools, not because they obtain many As but because their curiosity is celebrated, because they believe that they will learn something new about the world at school, things never known to them before. School is a sacred institution for seeking and searching knowledge, not repetitive memorization test labs of existing facts, scripted by teachers for the sake of passing examinations.

The fashionable trend of parents wishing for their children to become doctors or engineers once they obtain those As in examinations must also seriously be done without. Thousands of children are forced into fields that do not interest them. As a result, those who lack As are left to take less glamorous subjects such as business or religious studies; thereby breeding mediocrity in what should be professions that drive entrepreneurship and advanced religious thought in Malaysia. Schools should be the place where our children learn to believe in themselves to the extent of believing in their abilities and interests through the consistent process of shaping their talents for those eleven years beginning from standard one to the end of form five.

Muhammad SAW spent 13 years to educate his closest companions (sahabah) with the knowledge of tauhid (monotheism) and akidah (creed). He was responsible for the establishment of a deep sense of belief and faith among followers. Once this strong belief has been established, other concepts of fiqh (jurisprudence) and ibadah (rituals) easily seeped into the followers. Just imagine how something so imprinted in their lifestyles for generations such as alcohol, is so easily discarded the moment it is declared forbidden by Islam? The same concept must be applied to this new conception of education. The culture of love for knowledge and critical thinking needs to first be nurtured within our children, before the knowledge itself.

Let Them Ask: The ‘Mars Rover Curiosity’

Reformation in education policies needs to appreciate its historical contexts. Impacts from these proposed changes should not stop to spread among only the school-going children but also outwards into in the society at large. Passing examinations is an achievement, but getting the As are only bonus to that achievement. More importantly, failing examinations should be celebrated as tribulations, not as being doomed for life.

The ‘reading, writing, calculating and reasoning’ (4M) skills are still very important as a mechanism to build self-esteem for children before they reach age of 12. However, there is also urgent need for a movement towards mobilizing culture and extracting the sweetness from the fruits of knowledge, to substitute our current exam-oriented books and knowledge.

In the end, these children will believe, through letting curiosity and thinking culture flourish, that poverty and incapability are not obstacles to success. Education is not only Mathematics and Science. In other fields such as Sports, Social Sciences, History, Arts and Literature, we have thousands of geniuses that we failed to recognize and unveil. Children who understand themselves and identify with their self potentials will drive this ‘knowledge movement’ for the society to benefit from.

The new Facebook and Twitter generation needs to be encouraged to think outside the system. Creative and critical thinking will not strive if it is still constrained within systems. In the West, ‘Curiosity’, a mechanical revolver machine landed on Mars (known as Mars Rover) on the 6th of August 2012 with a ‘real-time visualization’ technological package and ‘up-to-date data sets’, opened new frontiers an enabled the world to share the exciting experience together. We have to encourage children at schools to think and question. No system is able to confine a society’s way of thinking and acting. ‘Curiosity’ is proof to how human curiosity brought its western to Mars.

Revisiting the National Philosophy of Education

Changes in modern education policy such as Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains & Matematik di dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) in 2003, Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan (PIPP) in 2006 and the current policy Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuh Penguasaan Bahasa Inggeris (MBMMBI) only involve portions of the vision and mission stipulated in the National Philosophy of Education. This kind of policies may be effective in solving a few issues in education within only certain periods of time, but it wouldn’t be able to leave significant impacts especially in empowering FPN as the main purpose of education.

Changes in policy need to make due reference to the spirits of FPN, especially of holistic education which does not discriminate achievements other than Intellect (academic achievement) such as Corporeal (physical achievement, sports and psychomotor), Emotion (personal achievement, conscience and good deeds), Spiritual (spiritual achievement and applications) and Social (individual contributions to society).

Execution of policies without clear reference to FPN in general has resulted in the fragmentation of these previous piecemeal policies, whose continuity and interconnectivity cannot be established.

What Malaysia needs most now is not acronymc rebranding exercises such as the Kurikulum Lama Sekolah Rendah/Menengah (KLSR/M) shifting to Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Rendah/Menengah (KBSR/M) and the latest edition, Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah/ Menengah (KSSR/M). Rather, we need comprehensive studies with transformative capabilities such as the Laporan Rahman Talib or Penyata Razak in its time, that comprehends the FPN as a whole and not as a fragmented amalgam of recommendations.

Such report should propose to transform certain pivotal aspects of the system; a) from a policy of concepts and principles to a realistic and executable policy; b) focus to achieve the FPN holistically; c) contiguous policies between pre-school education, primary schools, secondary schools and in preparing school children’s entry tertiary education, and; d) policies that shape Malaysia as a knowledge-seeking nation and nation of thinkers in order to supply highly knowledgeable human capital to re-engineer our own civilization.

55 years worth of changes since independence related to only one side of FPN, thus producing superficial changes. The so-called great achievements turn out to only be based on physical and material beings. We are proud of our KLIA, Petronas Twin Tower and F1 Sepang Circuits. We pride ourselves with 21 public and 75 private universities, in addition to 400 private colleges complete with among the best infrastructures in Asia.

However, we see a contrast with South Korea’s level of tertiary education received by her citizens; tertiary education penetration rate rose from 54.8% to 98.0% between 1990 to 2012, while Malaysia saw a lethargic rise from 7.2% to only 36% within the same period.

Finland and South Korea ranked first and eighth respectively, in the United Nation’s Education Index, while Malaysia stood at 98 from 181 countries. Our material development may be at par with these first world countries, but in reality we are left far behind in the thinking aspect. There is a huge gap for us to close in on, especially concerning civil consciousness and the civil mind; a ‘welstanchaaung’ that broadens our thinking horizons and instill civil-consciousness among our youth.

In September 2012, findings from the Dialog Nasional Pendidikan Negara will be announced. Tan Sri Dr. Wan Mohd Zain Mohd. Nordin, its chairman, said that this dialog consists of nine (9) fields, namely, teachers, school administration, school quality, curriculum and curriculum evaluation, multi language ability, post-schools opportunities, parents and community roles, effectiveness of resources and transmission systems including Ministry of Education’s governance structures.

Let us hope that findings from this dialogue will reflect the ability of the National Philosophy of Education (FPN) more holistically, especially in redefining the basics of our country’s education system. In celebration of our 55th year of Independence, we believe that the purpose of education is to humanize humans. Love for knowledge needs a comeback into society, with a goal none other than to answer Malik Bennabi’s call to rebuild civilization that has drifted away in the course of history.

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