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Education for what and for whom?

logo_pmBy OOI KEE BENG [Editorial in Penang Monthly, January 2013]

The Federal Government announced its Master Plan for Education in September 2012. As was expected, the general goals sound fine at first glance while the larger problem of implementation—and credibility—remains.
Let me take this opportunity, especially when our cover story by Wong Chin Huat this month is about new thinking in education, to add my one-sen worth to the subject of education.
Education policy-making in new nations such as Malaysia is a complicated and conflictive process where different political agendas necessarily fight things out over time. Continuing the imagery of warfare, there must therefore be long periods of deadlock and defensiveness of past policies. This is of course counter-productive in the long run.
At any one time, the first question to ask is: Education for what and for whom?
If for the individual, then education is a human right with which the student can at a suitable pace develop intellectually to his or her best potential, not only where employability is concerned but also where his or her general ability to understand the world for himself or herself is concerned. His grasp of philosophical issues and the generating of knowledge—i.e. developing a scientific mindset—is necessarily encouraged.
If for the State, then the creation of a sufficiently literate citizenry that can participate in nation building and develop the national economy is paramount. But to be realistic, we nust realise that the State is always a compromise of agendas, where the solution is never the optimal one. Also, we must not assume that a State always wants all its citizens to be as fully literate and scientific as they can be.
If for private corporations (and this was what mass education in its early years was all about), then education looks quite different again. Training for employment means that schools aim at fostering industrial workers at various levels. Such regimentation was the essence of early nation building throughout the world.
If for the teaching profession, then conditions in schools are likely to beconservative where values and even knowledge are concerned. What was true when these teachers went to school will be taught as true even for the next generation.
If for religious teachers, then we are on another plane altogether, and the end products may not even be what the national economy and nation building in general requires. The scientific mindset will probably not be what is developed in the student at all.
If for the parents as a whole, then exam resultswill probably become the mainstay of education policies.
And if for the politicians, then populist arguments and short-term and visible measures will be most dominant.
In the case of Malaysia, where education policies have been a major political battlefield, what we have ended up with is an ad hoc populist construct, and not a conscious policy, where the goals are set low to start with, and the results much lower.
An open debate is indeed needed, as Wong Chin Huat’s article in this issue shows.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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