Dr Maszlee isn’t a miracle worker, so don’t expect miracles!

Now making the rounds in WhatsApp world is a rather longish text purportedly written by civil rights activist and lawyer, Siti Kasim. You may or may not agree with her politics, but you have to admit that she has guts. It’s one thing to have unorthodox opinions, but it’s another to stand up to JAKIM for them. So, I have the utmost respect for her.

Anyway, her longish message was an open letter to our new Minister of Education, Dr Maszlee. It can basically be summarized in two parts. The first part asks Dr Maszlee to assure the Rakyat that his supposed extremist religious leanings will not “weigh in (his) decisions as Minister of Education”. In the second, she says that we the Rakyat have “yet to hear anything substantive…with respect to the overt and over bearing religious-centric character of our current education system, curriculum, and teachers.”

While what she says is true, Siti Kasim is being unreasonable. I mean, does she know just how broken our education system is? As I wrote in The elephant in the room, Chinese parents would actually be doing their kids a disservice by sending them to kebangsaan schools. The problem isn’t the syllabus (although it could be improved greatly). The problem is that the schools themselves have been turned into mini-brainwashing centers where discrimination based on race and religion are promoted. Who can forget the case where non-Muslims were forced to eat in the school restrooms during Ramadhan?

There are, unfortunately, even more basic problems. A friend of a friend pulled her son out of a kebangsaan primary school in Subang because the teachers never showed up to teach – they were always on leave or had a meeting. She got suspicious when she noticed that her son didn’t have any homework for around six months! In another case, an English teacher in a rural area told my friend that he wasn’t qualified to teach English. He was only doing it because the other teachers in his school were even worse at English! These are all anecdotes, but I think most Malaysians outside of BN don’t find these stories surprising for a reason.

So, Siti Kasim and those who agree with her on this issue, let’s not talk about overhauling the syllabus, or some great education revolution – YET. The sad truth is that we’re not prepared for such a huge undertaking. If Dr Maszlee can just get qualified teachers in all of our schools by the time his tenure is up, that would be an achievement. If he can get these teachers to actually show up and do their jobs with dedication, now that would REALLY be something.  But if you expect him to rid the system of bigotry, well, I’m afraid you’re going to be waiting for a long time.

My point is let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. He may not be the best choice for the Education post, but after listening to him speak, we could do a lot worse (and we have). The important thing is that for the first time in a long time, we have someone who seems sincere and committed to making improvements, so let’s give him a chance.

The elephant in the room

I, like the majority of Malaysians, have been in euphoria since the results of GE14 came out. It sounds cliché-ish, but it really does feel like a new dawn. We’ve now got the opportunity to put in place institutions that will safeguard our nation.

Let’s get back to the real world for a moment, though. Malaysia has a lot of problems. Budget problems, tax problems, unemployment problems, immigration problems – I think if the new government just solved these four, we’d say that they’ve done a good job.

Which makes me really reluctant to say this (I don’t want to be the wet towel): our education system is a real mess, and until we get it fixed, Malaysia will always be on the precipice.

Malaysia has got to be the only country in the world where there are three government-recognized systems of schools, and a plethora of private schools that teach a foreign syllabus (i.e. the international schools). The core problem that these different school systems cause is that Malaysians grow up hardly mixing with members of the other races that make up the country. Seriously, most Malaysian-Chinese twenty-somethings who went to Chinese schools might as well have been born in HK, Taiwan, Singapore, or China. I mean, they speak Chinese in nearly all aspects of their lives. The movies they watch, the songs they listen to, and the stuff that they all read – they have more in common with people from these countries than their own countrymen! Don’t believe me? Just ask one of them to name you a MALAY movie star.

This is not to criticize the Chinese education system in Malaysia. After all, most Malays are just as in the dark if you asked them something similar (OK, in this case, someone other than Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee). What this highlights, however, is that one of the most basic ways to foster national unity is lacking in our country. And if left to fester, our democracy will always be under threat from those unscrupulous politicians who won’t hesitate to play the race card.

After all, one of the first things that my hero, LKY, did when he took power in Singapore was to abolish the Chinese education system. He was pilloried at the time by the Chinese-language press as a traitor, but he knew that if he didn’t take this step, there would be no “Singaporean Identity”. After all, it was the British who came up with this asinine education system; they would rather we be not educated at all, but if so, they designed a system to keep us divided. Whatever you think of Singapore, if you go there, everyone is a Singaporean – not Singaporean-Chinese, Singaporean-Malay, Singaporean-Indian.

The solution, however, is not obvious. The government schools (i.e. Malay medium) are now so bad that I would be doing my kids a disservice if I sent my kids to one. I don’t say this lightly. Think about it – in this day and age, when we’re talking about a globalized world, an Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, environmental challenges – what did the (previous) government do? They made History a compulsory pass in the SPM. I love History (it’s one of my hobbies), but even I don’t see how learning it will prepare our kids for the future. Especially when half of the Form Four syllabus is about “Islamic Civilization”, and half of the Form Five syllabus is blatant brainwashing of how UMNO developed the country.

So, you just can’t go and close down all the vernacular schools. With the rise of China, the hope of Malaysian-Chinese parents is that their kids will, at a minimum, learn enough Mandarin to live and work with the Chinese. Hell, from what I see in my kids’ school, that feeling is not confined to just Malaysian-Chinese parents. And you can’t say that “we’ll teach Chinese in government schools” either. I mean, they have to get the hang of teaching English properly first!

This problem will not go away, no matter how many Petronas ads you make. Just do this simple test. If you have kids in the school system, then their getting married is something that is likely to happen in the next ten or twenty years. How would you react – I mean, be honest – if your son or daughter brought back someone of a different race? For those who don’t have kids – how do you think your parents would take it if your prospective spouse is of a different race? If you answered “not a problem”, then you (or your parents) are a credit to the human race.

If not, however, then you see the problem. Don’t feel bad, though – after all, we’re only human. It is an evolutionary survival strategy to discriminate and stick to your own. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to overcome our prejudices for the sake of the common good, but it will take time – just like finding a solution to this problem.