Malaysia: Too much ad hocism

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 22 13:40:34 UTC 2006

Article's URL:

Musa Hitam: Too much ad hocism
By: Husna Yusop (Sun, 20 Jun 2004)

THE GOVERNMENT HAS made it a top priority to improve the state of our
national schools, both as a place to acquire quality education and to
promote a Malaysian identity among our young. Former deputy prime minister
Tan Sri Musa Hitam is passionate about the subject and tells theSun that a
total review of the National Education Policy is necessary, and not just
its implementation. The policy was formulated nearly 50 years ago and has
to be changed to suit the needs of a different Malaysia and a fast
changing world, Musa says.

theSun: What key changes did you make as education minister from 1978 to

Musa: There was great awareness then of the need for a primary system of
education that enables children to command the 3Rs of reading, writing and
arithmetic. When I took over, there was a realisation: Oh, my goodness,
they have been to primary school and yet, they are not able to read and
write, let alone to deal with simple arithmetic. I initiated an in-depth
study of the hows and the whys of the situation and then tried to find out
the best way to overcome this problem. I embarked on a series of
consultations with professionals, educational organisations like teachers
unions etc. The end result of it was the New Primary School Curriculum
(KBSR) which was launched after I left the ministry and became deputy
prime minister.

When did it all start?

Almost immediately after I became education minister. When we came to our
conclusion, it was the result of a very in- depth study. The result is not
for me to say. But the thing I can say now is, we dont seem to hear much
of this talk about primary school children not being able to read and
write anymore, whereas it was very common those days. I would like to
regard this as a success. This is the first thing that I remember very
well from those days. The second thing was the concern about the decline
in the standard of English in all schools and among national school
graduates. We realised the importance of English, especially to promote
studies in science, economics, modern technology etc. Yet, the standard of
English was declining very fast.

What we did was to start a special exercise to recruit English language
teachers from Commonwealth countries especially traditionally
English-speaking countries like Britain, Canada, Australia and New
Zealand. We contracted these teachers to come to this country to be
English language teachers. And we identified the schools all over the
country to place them. This exercise was criticised, I must admit, because
there were a lot of nationalists who said so what if our standard of
English has declined? So what if they are not able to read and write in
English? We must promote Bahasa (Malaysia). So, to do something of that
nature (promote teaching of English) was not in accordance with what was
then alleged to be the governments education policy. Nevertheless, I
proceeded. We recognised that we were sliding in our English. We then
formulated a strategy and went on to implement it. It was a reasonably
successful exercise, except that we could not cover the whole country. It
was also a bit too expensive.

Despite this early realisation and action, poor command of English remains
a problem today. Yes. Of course, if you converted our education system
from using English 100% to 100% Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of
instruction, the result would be that English would be put aside. So, from
a historical perspective, this would be the inevitable result of the
change in the education policy. This was a natural phenomenon simply
because the nationalisation of education (from the early 1970s) led to the
compulsory usage of Bahasa Malaysia, and English was ignored. And then, as
we went along, we came to realise how wrong it was to get rid of English
100%. We should have continued using English in the teaching of certain
subjects so that (the standard of) English could be sustained. But I think
more important was that we could have created more interest in the
teaching of English and the preparation of teachers who would be able to
teach English as a subject, not English as a medium of instruction.
There was insufficient training. We have language institutes but even
there, the standard of English has declined.

And it was only recently that a definite decision was made to use English
in two identifiable areas i.e. Mathematics and Science. I get the
impression that this is acceptable. I do not have feedback about how
successful it is but a decision has been made and this decision I am sure
would, in one way or another, help promote usage of English. But, is the
objective of teaching Maths and Science in English to acquire greater
knowledge in the subjects or to master the language? That is a very good
question. I do not want to enter into a debate on this because I have my
own personal views on this exercise.

What is your personal opinion?

No, Im not going to say it because it is already fait accompli. It is
already there. I dont want to kacau-kacau (disturb). But I want to say
this, I am not really comfortable with what is going on, vis-a-vis this
talk about this action and that action and some of the things being
carried out in the area of education. I have an uneasy feeling about this.
The reason is simple. I think there is too much ad hocism. ducation is too
important to be dealt with on a piece by piece basis, in a piece by piece
manner. In the past, and it seems to me, even now, every day, every other
day, we hear, ah, this is being done, that is being done. Why? Well, maybe
a group of people, after an official study, decide this is one way of
doing it and okay, the next day it is announced! I dont think education
can be treated that way. Education needs a more comprehensive, in-depth
study before any one of the major issues can be dealt with and decided on.

Let me develop this further. I made a speech some time ago in Penang where
I said that we need to have a special comprehensive nationwide study of
the whole education policy and the implementation of this policy. I said
this because all the reports that were the basis of what is now known as
the national education policy were done nearly half a century ago. (These
were the Razak and Rahman Talib reports.) I think anything that old really
requires a fresh look in view of the fact that we are today a modern
society, throbbing with dynamism and occupied with being part of this
global village and playing quite a major role in trade, industry,
manufacturing and in all aspects of life in the international community.
In the past, when we talked about education, very few people dared to
touch on the so-called education policy. Education policy was sacrosanct.
You couldnt touch it. Everybody who talked about it will say, no, no, we
are not touching on policy, we are only finding fault with the
implementation of that policy because the education policy itself was
something too nationalistic for us to touch.

Our education policy was formulated with the main objective of promoting
national unity, that is the creation of a then Malayan nation and now
Malaysian nation. This meant using Bahasa Malaysia, so touching it means
you are a anti- nationalist. I personally feel there is no reason for us
to continue talking like that.  I feel we are all mature now. Everybody is
educated enough to come to an agreement that we need to have a fresh look
at the policy. You mean to say that we cannot touch this 50-year-old
policy because it was initiated by our forefathers? I do not accept that
argument. I say, okay, let us have a look at it. Maybe, although I do not
agree, remotely it is still useful. Maybe, parts of its objectives could
be useful. But maybe, it is now completely out of date. Indeed I think, in
many respects, it is out of date. But why not let us sit down and form a
high-powered group of people to look into it?

That speech of yours in Penang in April 2001 was picked up by DAP chairman
Lim Kit Siang.

Really? I didnt know. I should be proud of it. People should not go
against it simply because DAP picked it up. I wish it was Umno which had
picked it up, but never mind.  I must tell you this: I heard murmurings
when I talked to people about education that I will stir up too much
controversy and there would be even some racial issues that would be
raised. My response was very simple. Yes, in this country everything is
racial because we are all made up of different races. We perceive our
interests in our own way and we should well be like that but in a positive
manner.  If that is the fear that too much discussion in the open would
cause a lot of unnecessary tensions okay, let us have closed-door
meetings. Let us have some sort of an agreement whereby after each
session, they come out with a general statement to say we covered this
issue and that, and keep it that way. And get everybody to contribute.

Irrespective of however extreme they want to say it, say it in front of
this group of people. Let us listen to them. It may be part of a very
positive exercise that makes us aware of the problem. But ultimately, it
is the authorities i.e. the government elected by the people which will
decide what is the way. I think the people would accept it because we are
democratic, experienced, matured enough to be able to appreciate the
meaning of collective responsibility and a democratic process. For
example, let us say, something is of Malay interest. Let the Malays get
together through Umno or any other Malay group and look at the overall
national education policy. Let them have their own discussions. Let them
have in-depth sessions and then put it forward to this group of people.
Why not? Other races also should have their own exercises as well as other
groups with vested interest, e.g. chambers of commerce, academic staff
associations they can all have an input.

That is what a thorough study means. It means every aspect is looked at.
Meaning, everybody should be listened to and that feedback should give the
opportunity to those assigned this responsibility to examine, to sieve
through it and come to a conclusion that is truly in the national
interest. I know some people have heard my views on this. I have repeated
it and Im going to repeat it to you.

Some people say the national schools original policy of creating a
Malaysian nation has created an uneasy feeling among non-Malays. They see
national schools as Malay schools and are therefore, afraid to send their
children there. What is your view?

Im sorry, I do not agree with you. To begin with, it is unfortunately
perceived that national schools cater to the Malays because of the use of
the Malay language as the medium of instruction. But I personally think,
that is not the real reason. This is just the image from the outside. What
is important is the quality of education in these national schools is
known to be so low that they have no confidence their children will get
the right or proper education there. Im saying this because it is not the
medium of instruction that is of concern, but the quality. People who use
English send their children to Chinese or even Tamil schools because they
are searching for quality, not running away from Bahasa Malaysia. They can
be in Holland and having to speak Dutch but if the quality of education is
good, they will know it and send their children to that school.

The choice of people all over the world to send their children to
international schools or English language schools is not because of the
love of the language, but the love for the quality of education that seems
to come along with that language. You mean that English-speaking
Malaysians do not mind sending their children to the vernacular schools
although the teaching of English is not that good? Yes, that is the point
Im trying to make. And it is not their love for Mandarin. Of course, there
is a new awareness with a lot of parents, which I agree with, who say that
Mandarin is a very important language. Here we have nearly two billion
people who are going to be a big power.  The Americans know about it. They
are scared about China. And we better know about it, and we better be
practical about it. Anybody learning any major language is always useful.
And I think to study Mandarin is going to get you places in your future
because China is just leaping forward. The more of us who know Mandarin,
the better.

But then, if you want to argue about it, it can be English, Mandarin,
Japanese, French or Spanish for that matter. But, why not? If there is a
Spanish school here, why not? If you feel that Spanish schools provide
very good quality education, why not? But coming back to our national
schools, the quality of education there seems to have suffered. We have
got that reputation and it must be corrected. Im talking about overall
quality. You can choose a few good schools here and there, but overall,
people feel the standard of education in our national schools is low and
this must be corrected. How do you do it? I do not know. I can give you
suggestions but it is not conclusive. We talk about teacher training and
all sorts of other things.  As Ive said, every day I hear these
[piece-meal solutions]: Okay, were going to have religious education. Why?
Because, there are social ills in the country.

I say okay, have religious education. But I think the issue is not whether
there is religious education or not. The issue is how do you teach
religion? I have an observation about the so-called study of Islam. It is
bad. What are the priorities in Islamic studies? Is it to teach about
fardhu ain, fardhu kifayah, prayers or moral [conduct]? This needs to be
looked at. And then if you have teachers from the beginning who promote
Islam as a religion of donts, then were in trouble. I have talked to some
of the ulama associations. Why is it when I watch television, when I
listen to religious talks, they always say we (Muslims)  cannot do this
and cannot do that. Why? From school, we were told this is a no, that is a
no. I dont know. As Ive said, Im not an expert. So what do you do? I dont
know. Im not the expert. Im just conveying to you my impression. If Islam
is taught in schools and promoted country-wide as a religion of donts,
were in trouble. There needs to be a revision in approach of conveying
Islam as the true religion, as the religion that we Muslims should all

But, among the non-Muslims, there is no trouble. I am sorry to say this,
but people say our (Malay-Muslim) children are misbehaving because they do
not have enough religious education, so we must have more religious
teaching. (But) the non-Malays do not have religious teaching (as much as
the Muslims have), but they dont seem to be the bohsia. They dont seem to
be the ones who are involved in a lot of social ills. There are (cases of
non-Malays involved in social ills) of course, but the concern is among
the Malays. Again, I know I am being provocative, but why not? Since you
are interviewing me, why not I provoke (you into thinking). I want to
provoke.  I want to listen to people in a positive way.

So, in line with the governments intention of making national schools the
top choice, how do we attract the non-Malays to these schools?

I have just told you, improve the quality of teaching. Perhaps you could
be more specific. What kind of action should be taken?  Would it help if
we get more non-Malay teachers? It could be. But as Ive said, I do not
want to translate things in a racial way. Even in the case of Bahasa, it
should not be that (to speak)  Bahasa Melayu means you are orang Melayu. I
speak English. I think I speak almost perfect English. But I am not
anglicised. I think Im very Malay. And Ive met Chinese friends who speak
absolutely impeccable Malay but they are not Malays. So I dont want people
to say the best way to attract non-Malays is by having more non-Malay
teachers. No, no, no. I say improve the quality of education. If it is
(taught) even by somebody from Mars, if it is good, people will come to
that school.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list