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Promoting national unity in Malaysian public schools Essay

Introduction

“Malaysia, Truly Asia” aptly describes the country as a melting pot of three major Asian cultures. Yet, less than 140 years ago, a homogenous society existed in the Malay Peninsular with a population of 90% Malays (Gullick, 1969). However due to colonial policies and increasing economic prosperity, the society evolved ethnically into present day multi-ethnic Malaysians The 2010 consensus from Department of Statistics Malaysia revealed Malaysians of the 21st century as coming from three major groups; 67.4% Bumiputera (Malays, Sarawak and Sabahan bumiputera), 24.6% Chinese, 7.3% Indians and 0.7% others. In short, this land has changed from a homogenous society to a pluralistic society with Malaysians coming from different cultures, languages and religions.

It can be deduced that integration among Malaysians are crucial factors that contribute to the nation’s success. This unity has been a main concern of the Malaysian government from pre-independence day to the present. In the face of multi-culturalism, Ho (1952) stated that “It is accepted that education is not the only means available in the tasks of achieving national unity and solidarity in the plural community of Malaya, but it remains the most important single factor for integration in the racial, religious and cultural complex of Malaya.” Thus he proposed that education be used to unify the multi-ethnic Malaysian society starting from school level where early stages of inter-racial socialisation process begins.

Through education, the younger generation of Malaysians are nurtured with stronger national consciousness and imbued with stronger national identity. Ideologies and policies like Rukun Negara,and Bangsa Malaysia were formulated to cater to each succeeding generation of Malaysians. With integration still remaining as a top national agenda, the first part of this paper attempts to examine the role of education reports on national unity in Malaysia from pre-independence to the present day, and analyse their impact and success.

The impact is analysed by relying upon a combination of historical investigation from various education reports in the light of national unity. With 1Malaysia being the latest effort of integration, the second part of this paper tries to gauge the awareness of NKRA 4, a visible mechanism of 1Malaysia among 1the educationists through analysis of empirical evidence gathered from the interviews with them. Finally, the paper will analyse if 1Malaysia concept conceived to promote unity will be the right panacea for removing ethnicity barriers among Malaysians.

Inculcating national unity in education: A pre-Independence to present day review of the educational reports The current Malaysian education policy for national unity has its roots in pre-independence era and it has become part of the society’s prevailing colonial inheritance (Azhar Wahid, 2011). During the colonial era, the existence of vernacular schools catering for each race had physically divided the Malayan society. The second divisive factor was the different ethnic languages used as medium of instruction to educate the respective races (Marimuthu, 2008). The third was the geographical separation of the vernacular schools according to the unequal population distribution of different races (Omar, 1991). The only opportunity for integration was among students in English medium schools established in towns (Marimuthu, 2008). Separate curriculum for vernacular schools was the fourth factor splitting the communities.

With focus on ethnics’ respective countries of origin and the nonexistent Malayan context in the curriculum, the vernacular education failed to build a sense of national identity and consciousness (Marimuthu, 2008). To integrate multi-ethnic communities in Malaya through educational system, the 1950 Barnes Report 1950 suggested replacing the vernacular schools with national schools using English or Malay as medium of instruction in primary schools and English for secondary schools and bringing students and teachers of different races together under one education system to build a nation with national characteristics (Noriati Rashid et al., 2012).

As the report was viewed unfavourably by the Chinese, another report, the 1951 Fenn-Wu report, was commissioned; it recommended Chinese education curriculum to include local Malayan elements to help form a sense of national identity among its students. Both Barnes and Fenn-Wu reports were taken into consideration when the 1952 Education Ordinance was passed (Ee, 1995). It supported the National School concept with a common curriculum using Malay and English language as media of instruction. However, lack of funding and insurgency hampered its implementation.

Historically, 1957 was the year an independent Federation of Malaya was formed. To cater to a post-independent Malaya, the Razak Report, the most influential education committee reports, was commissioned. It cited two major considerations: using Malay language as the main medium of instruction and incorporating Malayan context and values into school curriculum (Omar, 1991). The proposal desired to instil national consciousness and mutual understanding among multi-racial communities through mono-language and socio-cultural values. The Razak Report led to the 1957 Education Ordinance. As a follow-up, 1960 Rahman Talib Report recommended retaining a single schooling system for all pupils with the same school curriculum using Malay language as medium of instruction. This report resulted in the Education Act of 1961with its most significant outcomes of phasing out English medium schools and converting Chinese and Tamil National secondary schools to Malay medium secondary schools, standardising school system, and nationalisation of curriculum and examinations (Omar, 1991).

The 1969 racial riot had warranted the need for a more intense scrutiny of the nation’s fragile unity. Poverty, ethnic disparity in economic participation and wealth distribution had emerged as the primary causes of racial tensions and social political instability (Syed Husin Ali, 2008). Hence, in 1971, New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced as a remedy. The policy emphasised on education as a major role in eradicating poverty and in restructuring economic and wealth disparity in Malaysian society leading to social integration and national unity (Hussein Ahmad, 2008). Not surprisingly, the 1979 Mahathir Education Report again emphasized on national unity.

Process of reforming Malaysian education system continues on in strengthening socio-cultural mechanism to build a stronger national identity and consciousness (Hussein Ahmad, 2008). In 1990s, national unity and social cohesion were still the major agenda of Malaysia’s nation building which led to Vision 2020 with the first goal of establishing a united Malaysian nation made up of one Bangsa Malaysia (EPU, 2011) together with Vision Schools where children of all races study in their respective mother-tongue primary schools under one roof and sharing same facilities.

Impact of Educational Reports on National Unity in Schools Past and present educational reports have highlighted the needs for curriculum standardization, use of common medium of instruction, employing teachers of all races, using multi-cultural Malaysian context in curriculum and bringing all students together to share common classroom so as to increase openness, interaction and understanding among them. All these criteria which were absent in pre-independent Malaya have now been implemented in national schools.

In particular, the National Philosophy of Education entails using Bahasa Malaysia as medium of instruction, using the same curriculum, standardising examination and syllabus as well as introducing school co-curriculum. The 1979 Mahathir Report brought about the New Primary School Curriculum (KBSR) which was formulated to help develop socio-cultural values based on the Rukun Negara, and national culture (Azhar Wahid, 2011). Integrated Secondary School Curriculum (KBSM) was introduced with emphasis given on mastering Bahasa Malaysia and nurturing national consciousness through inculcating common values, aspirations and loyalties (Nagendralingan, 2008).

Multi-cultural education is promoted in the curriculum to ensure that all students are aware of cultural, gender, racial and ethnic diversity of the nation and to foster mutual respect and positive social interaction with each other (Azhar Wahid, 2011). In the classrooms of national secondary schools, teaching and learning process promote cooperative learning methods such as doing projects, case research, group discussion, pair work and group assignments to help students of different races to not only improve communication skills with each other but also to interact, share ideas and learn teamwork spirit (Neo et al., 2009). When students are aware of the values of multi-cultural education, they learn to respect different cultures, thereby reducing misconceptions and prejudices towards those of other ethnic groups.

Syllabus and curriculum are replete with elements of Malaysian cultural heritage where students learn and understand another culture’s dominant practices, way of life and religious holidays (Azhar Wahid, 2011). As part of co-curriculum activities, sports and games, uniformed bodies, clubs and societies help students to interact with each other; speech day, field trips, sports carnivals, fund raising events are designed to draw out involvement from all students to socialise together (Nagendralingan, 2008). Parent Teacher Associations and alumni associations help to integrate the school communities with the outside communities.

Though the National Education Policy may not have achieved the highest degree of ethnic integration, some of its strategic policies such as using Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction in secondary schools have been successful (Azhar Wahid, 2011). This has created generations of Malaysians communicating and learning using the same language. The concept of equal access to education at every schooling level is another major characteristic of education development in the mid-1970s. Affordable access to education for all can help to narrow the education gap between races and increase upward social mobility. With equitable ethnic participation in the economy and wealth distribution, the causes of racial tensions can be remedied and this promotes social political stability.

National Key Results Area 4 (NKRA)

Pemandu (2011) reported that National Key Results Area (NKRA) is part of 1Malaysia’s concrete efforts to give priority to people’s needs first. Improving student outcome is one of the seven NKRAs “which have been deemed crucial and urgent for achieving 1Malaysia.” NKRA goal for education is improving student outcome by developing students’ minds, talents, and capabilities to safeguard the nation’s future generation.

THE INTERVIEW RESULTS: Views on NKRA 4 from Education Practitioners

The interview questions focused specifically on eliciting their understanding of the NKRA goals which are “access to affordable education” and “quality of education” as well as how their contributions can make the policy a success. Respondent 01 is a school principal who has been an educationist for 24 years; respondent 02, an assistant principal, has been an educationist for 33 years; respondent 03 has been a teacher for 32 years and respondent 04 36 years. Regarding the term “access to affordable education” , respondent 01 replied that it means giving free education from a young age up to secondary education. Respondent 02 said that affordable education includes scholarships and financial help for underprivileged students to keep schooling. Both respondents 03 and 04 mentioned that it means children can easily attain education without been financially burdened.

“Access to Quality of education” was understood by respondent 01 and 03 as getting a holistic education with balanced intellect, spiritual, emotional and physical development. Respondent 02 interpreted it as what makes students employable after finishing their secondary or tertiary education. Producing quality students who have the ability to think critically, apply their knowledge and contribute to society is regarded as quality education by respondent.

All the respondents agreed that Malaysians have access to affordable education in reality. But as to the quality of education, all the respondents conceded that it has declined. Respondent 01 explained that he has experienced the unsatisfactory situation of rural schools where the parents and students do not prioritise education and school principals fail to play their part. According to respondent 02, the decline is partially due to the low standard of admission for applicants applying for teaching training at universities and training colleges and this lowers the quality of education. Respondent 03 believed that the intellectual formation has been over emphasised to the detriment of other JERIS aspects (physical, emotional, spiritual and social). As for respondent 04, she claimed that lack of vocational schools and their limited enrolment make it difficult for under performing students to continue their studies in a meaningful way.

Towards attaining NKRA education goals, respondent 01 pointed out that the principal’s most important contribution is strong leadership with clear and achievable vision and mission for his school. He further enunciated that a principal who sets achievable standards for both the under achievers and bright students can enhance the school’s performance. Respondent 02 and 03 mentioned that active supervision of students and teachers by the principal can significantly improve their performance. Showing interest in students’ performance and connecting with them at ground level are some of the ways according to respondent 04 that the principal contributes to improving student outcomes.

Regarding the role of teachers, respondent 01 stressed that “the input of teachers is proportional to increasing student outcomes in developing students’ minds, talents and capabilities”. Both respondents (respondent 02 & 03) pointed out that students’ access to quality education is enhanced by receiving quality teaching and mentoring from teachers. Therefore, according to them, teachers must be good role models and have the right attitude towards their students. Instead of just settling for mediocrity among students, respondent 04 suggested that teachers should discover students’ weaknesses and motivate them to overcome it.

Evaluating the findings

Generally, it is agreed that Malaysian students have access to affordable education as currently school fees are waived, textbooks are provided on loan, deserving students receive financial aid and rural schools provide free lodging and food. The overall consensus is that quality of education is the holistic development of the whole person. However it may not necessarily correlate with better quality of education as there are other factors involved such as parental involvement and awareness, teachers’ input and principals’ leadership. Two key factors in better education quality are the principal’s leadership and the teachers’ cooperation in increasing students’ performance and outcome.

NKRA education recognises this by creating High Performing Schools whereby schools are categorised into bands according to performance in order to motivate and increase principals’ performance (The Star, 2012). To produce committed, responsible and caring teachers, intervention programmes to train and motivate teachers towards higher achievement are also in place under NKRA 4. To improve the quality and standard of professionalism, the Education Ministry plans to pick only top-scoring university graduates to be 20% of trainee teachers by 2015 and review the passing criteria for trainee teachers at training colleges (Fernandez & Lingan, 2012) to ensure quality teachers. The goals of NKRA in improving student outcome help teachers and principals to tackle the challenges faced in providing quality education. Achieving the goals can indirectly increase unity goal under 1Malaysia as better education opportunities for all can bridge the gap between ethnic groups by balancing their level playing field and providing economic advancement.

Evaluating 1MALAYSIA as the underlying key towards unity in cultural diversity Although efforts were made to integrate the Malaysian society using national education and ideologies, strong feelings of ethnicity in Malaysian social life are rife (Centre for Public Policy Studies, n.d.). In response, the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak introduced 1Malaysia concept in 2009 which aspires to unite the pluralistic Malaysian society by inculcating the spirit and values of solidarity and sense of togetherness, irrespective of race, religion and creed. (Najib Abdul Razak, 2009). The objective is to have the Malays, Chinese, and Indians perceive themselves collectively as a single identity –Malaysians. 1Malaysia founded upon the principle “People First, Performance Now” means that the government’s prime concern is people’s welfare and producing high quality performance that benefits them. In identifying his government with Malaysians regardless of race, social background or religion and understanding their aspirations, he seeks to lead his government to identify their needs and to incorporate their feedback. Consequently, 1Malaysia can strengthen solidarity and cooperation among races for unity in cultural diversity.

Is 1Malaysia the underlying key towards achieving unity in cultural diversity? According to Mujibu Muis et al. (2012), history shows that when national unity and integration focused on assimilating minority cultures into the dominant culture, it invariably caused minority ethnic groups to hold stronger to their languages and cultures. As Hazri Jamil and Santhiram Rahman (2012) suggested, the past assumption that the main method for national integration is the educational policy has been over simplistic. They claimed that racial harmony cannot be fostered through education initiatives alone.

Hence, the concept of integration is not only about a mono-language, but is about mutual respect and understanding of other cultures and beliefs. In this respect, 1Malaysia concept which celebrates multi-culturalism, accepts cultural diversity and sees it as an advantage which can contribute to a prospering, stable and sustainable future (Hasnul Salleh, n.d.). As examples, Malaysian multi-culturalism has been packaged as the main attractions for the tourism industry (Tourism Malaysia, n.d.) and it brings about economical advantages in trade relations with China and India because of the language and cultural link.

Has 1Malaysia concept being embraced by all Malaysians when through its acceptance, Malaysia has the potential to be more developed and stable economically, politically and socially? Without Malaysians’ acceptance, the implementation of the concept may not reach its full capacity. Yet, time will tell if 1Malaysia is to be seen as an underlying key to achieving unity in pluralistic Malaysia. Such a unity attained through the acceptance of the ideology of 1Malaysia renders one’s loyalty more towards the country and breaks down barriers of ethnicity.

Conclusion

Among the government educational policies built on the educational reports, the national language, common curriculum, standardised syllabus and examinations and national schools have always been tools of unity. Such policies have been effective and workable throughout the first 50 years of the nation’s independence. However, the idea of integration has somehow progressed further according to the changing times with 1Malaysia concept which proposes that the nation celebrates its unity amidst cultural diversity and views multi-culturalism as an edge that makes the country unique as in “Malaysia, truly Asia.” This means that the cultural diversity can become its strength rather than its Achilles heel when rather than assimilating minority cultures into dominant cultures as the only way of integration, 1Malaysia concept accepts the reality of multi-culturalism and promotes unity in its diversity. Therefore, the realisation of the concept may be the way forward for Malaysia to reinvent itself as a progressive nation at the dawn of the 21st century.

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