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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Education is Not Only for Building a Common Identity


By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, December 2014

Education is a key issue in nation building; and in no other country has that been more evident than in Malaysia where so much contestation since the 1950s has been about school types and the language of instruction.

As soon as self-governance was obtained in 1955, we already saw the appointment of a committee to review the educational situation in the country and suggest a new structure suitable for a fully independent Malaya. The Razak Report came out of that in 1956 and formed the basis for the Education Ordinance of 1957 that came into being just a month before Merdeka.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, along with much ink being spilled and much bile being released. Today, we have an education structure in Malaysia that few truly understand. It is highly complex and hugely confusing, to say the least.

There are several strong reasons why the education system is so central to nation building agendas. First and foremore, there is the matter of national identity. According to standard nation-building philosophy, one language in one system of schooling with one syllabus provides common experiences among the young and generates a common identity in all.

As recently reiterated by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia failed badly in taking that simple path. Of course the fact that Malaysia has always been such a diverse country should have cautioned everyone that ideas suitable for countries that are much more homogenous cannot be applied in countries as heterogeneous as Malaysia. But things are as they are now—confusing and complex.

So, how is Malaysia to get out of this dilemma? Is bridging the class divide or standardizing national identity more important? Is the success of an education measured through cultural homogeneity and political concord or through economic prosperity and individual advancement?

This leads us to the second function of national education. A child is educated so that he can earn a living, so that he can think for himself, so that he can function in a changing world. Education is the best social leveller we know today, if done right. Even so, the means for enhancing social mobility have to evolve endlessly in response to technology and global changes.

There is hardly anything parents worry more about than their children’s education. Time does not wait for their kids. Their future cannot wait for politicians to get things right. So those who can afford it will pursue alternatives for their children. In fact, many are the parents who sacrifice their own well-being just to give their kids the best possible education they can get, based on the future usability of what they learn. As usual, the poorest get left behind.

Education is also meant to give the kids jobs and skills that will earn them a living; and not merely to have an identity defined as “common” by someone’s political agenda.

National education depends on many external factors. Today, knowledge is generated and disseminated at a frighteningly fast rate—and most of it comes in English. This means that whoever lags behind is going to fall behind exponentially.

The issue now is how access to knowledge—which requires a good command of English, proficiency in the use of the internet, knowledge about what educational possibilities are available on the internet, etc.—is to be effectively provided for all economic classes. Simply investing in technical hardware does not work, as argued by Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari recently. A more comprehensive rethinking of the why and wherefore of education is needed, alongside the need to invest in effective governance.

The kids cannot wait.


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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