“Remove the politicians from education”

VARIOUS concerns about Malaysia’s education system emerged from the The Nut Graph‘s latest forum, Found in Conversation: Creativity and Innovation in Education. But they all centred on a key and not unfamiliar complaint: that education is too politicised.

Whether concerns were about the curriculum, the lack of critical thinking, obsession with scoring As, lack of sex education, or ill-equipped teachers, the forum panelists agreed that Malaysia’s education system is too highly centralised. Teaching and learning is rigidly top-down, from the Education Ministry to teachers, and from teachers to students. Decisions lie with politicians and not with other stakeholders like parents, they said.

“If there was one thing you could do to improve the way children are educated, what would it be?” was the question that kicked off the forum on 25 July 2010 in Kuala Lumpur. The panelists were 3R executive producer and social commentator Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir; educator and Five Arts Centre co-founder Datin Marion D’Cruz; and homeschool practitioner KV Soon. It was moderated by The Nut Graph editor Jacqueline Ann Surin.

From left: D'Cruz, moderator Surin, Marina and Soon

From left: D'Cruz, Surin, Marina and Soon

Parents, not politicians; passion, not grades

Soon said parents were not involved enough in their children’s education under the public school system. The most the system required parents to do was to collect their children’s report cards. “Parents are locked out of schools. They should be brought in, and the politicians taken out,” said Soon, who runs the homeschoolers’ resource blog Learning Beyond Schooling.

When parents are not involved, and when a child’s learning is left to the system, the process of automation, or “education industrialisation”, as Soon called it, begins. “Schools provide only two events for students – exams and grades. They do not teach resourcefulness, or initiative, or the desire to learn. The saddest thing is to see a person with no desire to learn,” he said.

It’s what drives homeschool practitioners to pull their children out of the public education system so that they can be directly involved in the child’s learning according to the child’s interest and pace, Soon explained. Because such learning is not purely academic, the emphasis becomes less on avoiding mistakes and achieving grades, and more on passion and curiosity. “It doesn’t matter if the child changes interests, it’s more important to teach them passion,” Soon added.

Marina, however, questioned whether it was realistic to remove politicians from the education system. “What we should do is question them more,” she said.

D’Cruz said the government did not show clear understanding on what it would take to improve the quality of students. Merely increasing the number of graduate teachers, as the government planned to do, was insufficient, she said.

Democratising education

If the government would engage more stakeholders, including homeschoolers who are unrecognised by the Education Ministry, there could be transfer of creativity and ideas into the public education system, Soon said.



D’Cruz said an education think-tank that was interdisciplinary, intercultural and interclass would be an ideal start to reforming the education system by getting the widest input possible.

She also raised some assumptions which she said would have to be challenged if the system was to be more creative and innovative. For one, teachers had to stop treating students like empty vessels into which they deposited information. “Learning is a two-way street,” she said, adding that she learnt from her students all the time.

Secondly, she noted that the divide between arts and science was artificial and detrimental to learning. “Students need to dance as well as do math,” said D’Cruz. “If they are not taught to question or be creative from young, they won’t be able to think by the time they reach university. I ask my university-level students to think and they look at me like I’m mad.”

Soon said the highly centralised management of schools resulted in social control, where teachers and students are told what and how to think, and what to do.



“We need to rethink how schools are managed. It’s students who now sometimes have more information than teachers, [so the top-down approach doesn’t work].”

While democratising education might be better for children’s learning, there were questions from the floor as to what degree of centralised control was necessary. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah, who used to be a teacher, asked if there should be control over alternative learning systems that might teach values contrary to the mainstream. An example that was cited was religious fundamentalism.

Another problem noted was the inability of vernacular school students to speak English or Bahasa Malaysia in university.

The panelists conceded that the solution was more complicated than the issue. D’Cruz suggested a combination of approaches and balance between a national and alternative syllabi, adding that subjects like Bahasa Malaysia and English were necessary.

Soon noted that the Education Ministry’s role in building human capital had to be redefined if education was to be decentralised. He added that as a start to addressing the issues arising from decentralising education, all stakeholders had to engage and understand one another’s position first.

Where have the good teachers gone?

Other questions from the floor were on teacher training and where good teachers were today.

D’Cruz said there were still many good teachers in the system who were struggling. “There are many fighting the system, but the system is like a huge cancer which eats teachers up over time,” she said.

Theatre practitioner and former teacher Anne James, who was in the audience, said the problem in teacher quality began with the type of people who get into the teacher training course or Diploma of Education. Not everyone training to be a teacher was passionate about teaching, and many considered it just another job to earn a living, she said. “You don’t get sieved to be a teacher, you get sieved just to get into the course.”

Other problems she said she faced while teaching were politics and conservatism. “Schools reflect the most conservative aspects of our society. We need to take political and religious approaches out of how we fashion education policies,” James said.

Sex education

The forum also broached the topic of sex education, which has yet to be implemented as a separate topic in schools due to political conservatism.



Marina said educators and politicians were still debating over the need to teach sex education in schools when students themselves wanted it. She said the topic is being taught piecemeal through different subjects like physical education, moral or religious studies, and biology, but was not addressed realistically.

“Let’s assume kids are going to have sexual relationships. They see it on television all the time. How do we educate them about managing it?” said Marina, who is also former Malaysian Aids Council president.

That teachers were “shy” to talk about the subject was of concern because “they are parents, too, and it makes me wonder what or how they teach their own children,” Marina said. Educators have to learn that “there’s no such thing as a sensitive subject, only how you approach [the topic],” she added.

D’Cruz said many teachers were simply ill-equipped to handle the subject. “I knew of schoolgirls who would sit and grope each other in full view of teachers passing by to attract their attention so they could have someone to talk to about sex. But their teachers just walked past and ignored them.”

She also spoke about other instances where she felt teachers did not know how to handle disciplinary issues, such as when they locked up students who were late to school. “Teachers need to create safe spaces for students to talk about things that are troubling them,” D’Cruz said.

Found in Conversation is a series of conversations hosted by The Nut Graph with our media partner PopRadeeo and venue sponsor Leonardo’s Dining Room and Wine Loft. It aims to link personalities, ideas and people, and to provide opportunities for the public to engage with notable personalities and industry experts. The next Found in Conversation will be at the same venue on 8 Aug 2010 and will discuss creativity and innovation in show biz.

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17 Responses to ““Remove the politicians from education””

  1. feicipet says:

    As much as I disagree with politicians running our education system, I’m not comfortable with parents having too much of a say either. The control should lie firmly in the scope of academics, who are the ones who know best.

    For example, the teaching of biology in US has often been disrupted by so-called concerned parents who are quite simply uneducated and not qualified to make comments on what should be taught. Should evolution be taught in biology? Of course, it remains the only theory of our origins that has been solidly backed by evidence and science. But there are throngs of parents who simply reject the idea of evolution, due to their religious backgrounds. If they are allowed to inject their input into the system, we will get a curriculum so watered as to be useless.

    So, no, please tell the parents to stay out. There’s a reason why you’re not an academic in the first place.

    • THis is exactly the kind of mindset that is causing problems in our education – leaving it to the “experts” and looking upon parents as ignorant fools. First of all, education is NOT about making academics out of students but it sure seems to be that way. It is supposed to be turning them into caring and knowledgeable individuals who can contribute positively to society.

      And parents today are much better educated and informed, hence their contribution towards their children’s education should be encouraged. When learning is devoid of values, it is detrimental to society. We need to be more inclusive of the diverse values and needs of people in order for education to be truly open and inclusive. But we are not even discussing these pertinent issues because everyone is too busy debating whether or not we should scrap the school exams, which in my opinion, is the wrong question to ask!

      “It takes a village to educate a child” – we forget this and we try to educate our young by isolating them from their parents and their community. And this is exactly what we are doing to the orang asli – we take them out from their natural habitat and put them into a new environment that is alien to them, and expect them to learn like everybody else and make a good living out of it!

      • feicipet says:

        “parents today are much better educated and informed”

        If a parent thinks he/she is well educated and informed, then join the system and contribute from there. Let them be vetted so that the wheat can be separated from the chaff. Then they’ll be “experts” who are also parents. For every educated parent there is out there, there’s at least another one who’s hopelessly misinformed and blatantly propagates ideas and concepts that have been disproven over and over again.

        I am basing my comments on what’s happening in biology education in the Western world. There is a very noisy group pushing the concept of creationism (also rebranded as “Intelligent Design”) which basically pitches that all sentient life was created as is and evolution is a myth. Obviously, this has roots in the biblical account of how the Earth was created. Some branches even advocate that Earth itself can be no older than 6,000 years old. They’re trying to push this view into the national school system, and so far it has been rejected because their theories have never been able to stand up to scientific inquiry (“the bible says so” does not constitute scientific proof).

        Now, assuming that “stakeholders” such as parents are allowed to provide input into our curricula, what are the chances that enough of “concerned but misinformed parents” create enough noise and achieve the ability to really change things? I shudder at the thought. In each class, there’s a ratio of approximately 40-80 parents to just 10 teachers (assuming one for each subject), and even less at the tertiary level. Rather easy to see who’d win in a “democracy”, isn’t it?

        Note that “giving feedback” is different from playing a direct role. Any concerned individual can give feedback, it’s just part of free speech. But to make the education system beholden to those who gives the most feedback is not desirable at all.

        “(Education) is supposed to be turning them into caring and knowledgeable individuals who can contribute positively to society.”

        I learnt to be fair to all humans when biology taught me that all humans share the same genealogical roots. I learnt to be kind to the environment when geography/history taught me the impact of human progress on the world around us. I learnt to reject all brands of dogma when history taught me of all the brutality that occurred because of misinformation and lack of knowledge.

        My point? Morals cannot set the direction of knowledge or even act as a complementary peer to knowledge (which is something I interpret from your statement above). Conversely, knowledge sets the basis from where we interpret our morals. And that is why I put academia above everything else.

        • Actually, ID doesn’t teach that evolution is a myth, but that evolution is really a directed process with a grand designer overseeing the process.

          I realize ID has a lot of holes, but it’s important to get the facts right, too.

          • feicipet says:

            Kate, you’re right there. I was lumping ID together with creationism, which was not exactly right. The direct association between creationism and ID should be removed. But nevertheless, ID has its roots in creationism and can be considered a reworked derivative circling around the same basic tenets.

    • aspiring parent says:

      Is it even possible to have different systems working together?
      Parents who want to be locked out from schools go send their children to school and support that system. Parents who think that they can manage it themselves, just do it. If MOE or certain organizations can set guidelines and provide support and let them all coexist, it would be good. Keep the examinations if people choose to. I see the discussion is assuming the “one size fits all” approach. I for one, when I have kids, what to know what are the choices available.

  2. Jamie says:

    I think it is laughable parents who go to La Salle school in the 1960s are interested in writing education policies for 2010.

    The thing is, in this age, we do not
    1. teach in English
    2. have an alma matter body
    3. learn much from school (believe it or not, we learn more from the web and TV than six hours of school… and we learn everything else in tuition).

    I think it is also laughable that parents point fingers at teachers and the government and whine about our ‘exam-oriented’ culture when THEY are paying the tuition teachers… their kids go to school from 7am to 1pm, have math tuition at 2pm, history tuition at 4pm, and add math tuition at 9pm. They’re more hardworking than the parents themselves!

    In addition, in the good schools, we have monthly exams and our progress is made known in pretty little report cards. Kiasu parents will make sure their kids are top 10 or they’re not their kids anymore. We’re worrying about exams that happen once in six years (UPSR) or three years (PMR)?

    Get a life, parents! Why don’t you practise what you preach and stop abusing your kids with tuition-overload and start helping them to grow through learning from other channels? Drop the textbook culture and go beyond. Policies, politicians, teachers, and a good peer group can only do so much. Stop whining and do your part, parents.

    Btw, D’Cruz, Refsa (a think-tank) is starting a project on education. It would be great if we could work together!

    • Learning from the web and TV is true for urban middle-class students, but not true for rural students or the urban poor.

      • Sean says:

        I’d hesitate to propose that my kids ‘learn from the Web’. They see a lot of ‘the Web’ – the TV in the living room is driven by a PC rather than a tuner or satellite decoder. CBeebies and Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! are only a few short clicks away from “how did you find that?”. But even if there’s not quite so much promotion of augmentation mammoplasty or rape scene reconstruction on the Web as there is on TV, it’s hardly a positive learning environment either, is it?

        Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but I think there’s a gulf between directed learning in an environment designed for the purpose and the information that splashes on us as we wander through life, channels or the Web.

  3. tshiung han says:

    I would argue that politics itself is too politicised, too much like a pissing contest or a zero-sum game than a forum for change.

    The bottom line is, someone has to make the hard choice, not the popular one. That’s great for the politicians, not so great for my kids!

  4. FY says:

    When it comes to the education system that we have, I would have to say it is a rather flawed system. Education is not only about scoring straight As, or doing well in your exams, its more about learning, understanding, being passionate, being creative and etc. A lot of us have been harping about the education system for years. I came from an education system whereby it encourages students to memorise facts/knowledge as opposed to understanding it, and that’s really sad for students or children whose thirst to understand knowledge are not catered to, instead you have teachers telling them, “Oh! just memorise it”.

    In all of this, my parents played a very major role in my studies, not by intervening the system, but by helping me to understand my subjects better than to memorise formulas and etc. Having said that though, I do believe that politicians shouldn’t be so involved, as I believe parents should be more involved in their children’s studies. I don’t mean parents need to dictate or determine how the education system is, I’m just saying that as parents they themselves have a role to be more proactive in their children’s studies, than merely picking up on the report card and signing it off. I don’t believe that parents should dictate what is thought in schools in short, we wouldn’t want indoctrination of ideas that was spawned of parents who has their own ‘special interests’ or ‘beliefs’. We need a universal school system that is to educate, encourage debates, creativity and not to indoctrinate ideas or ideals which serves only a few people.

    Now the politicians, fine if they want to dictate what should be within the syllabus or not, but, I think it is imperative that before such a plan/syllabus is passed, it should be vetted through by academicians, scholars or whatever you may call them. Our politicians are not exactly the best people when it comes to our education system, as they themselves are the byproduct of such an education system themselves.

    The education system needs to be revamped and changed altogether, and that includes the vernacular schools. The fact that we even have different types of schools is mind boggling, the school system should be versatile enough to cater to the different needs of each student, regardless of race or religion.

  5. As a teacher myself, I’m disappointed at the lack of discussion that involves the experience of teaching in a classroom. Much talk about how education should be done do not come from people who’ve actually taught in a schooling environment. It is so important to get their perspectives. My own perspective of the role of an educator and non-tertiary formal education radically changed the minute I stepped into my first secondary-level class.

    I’m glad that the panel includes at least one former teacher, but it didn’t seem as if she had much time to dwell on the experience of teaching in class. Perhaps the discussion topic was simply too broad.

    If TNG addresses this topic again, I hope that you can narrow it down to something more specific.

  6. To feicipet:

    No, creationism and ID are not from the same source. The people behind them have completely different goals, and completely different motivations. The Young Earth Creationists I know are completely different from the ID-proponents.

    Young Earth Creationism is a belief system that emerged from literalist Bible hermeneutics. ID is the belief that gaps in the evolution theory point to the activity of a Maker. Among the hardcore American Protestants I know, ID is not entertained as much as Young Earth Creationism.

    Literalist Bible hermeneutics takes the stance that anything that God did not mean metaphorically was clearly indicated in the text itself. For example, a parable did not happen literally because it is understood to be fiction. A work of poetry does not happen literally because it is understood to be poetry. But if the account is historical, then it has to be historically true, because for Scripture to be God’s Words, it must be the absolute perfection of truth — so something cannot just be metaphorically or theologically true, but also literally true.

    The Creation account in Genesis was not written in poetic form. Therefore, the writers and the readers understood it as a literal account. This can either mean that the Bible is wrong, or the world as we understand it is wrong. The faithful choose the latter. As someone I know once said, “It’s not about arguing against science, it’s about the innerancy of Scripture”.

    ID itself pays very little attention to Bible hermeneutics. Much of its arguments is simply the act of pointing gaps in contemporary evolutionary theory. In fact, for ID to work properly, it must also be regarded as false by the Young Earth Creationist.

    They are really not the same systems. They are not supported by the same people, nor strengthened by the same sentiments (except perhaps a vague distrust of contemporary science).

    • feicipet says:


      The “same basic tenets” I was referring to was that which in the end, both proponents of ID and creationism hope to prove that there is a creator.

      In the spirit of trying to keep this within the scope of education, I would posit ID as the perfect example of how knowledge should not be gained or taught. ID proponents claim that their theories are formulated based on scientific principles and yes, it would look scientific to the untrained eye. But even the methodologies were eventually contested in scientific journals and to date, ID is still struggling to gain recognition in the right circles.

      Now, given that the layman would have huge difficulties to comprehend and understand the right and wrong of all this, how can anyone allow non-academics within 10 feet of making a decision on what to teach is really beyond me. Most of us are simply not qualified and those qualified can only be politicians or parents by coincidence.

      Sorry, Kate, I can’t really go into the details of ID with you within the context of this article. It would be really out of topic and would sadly detract from the noble aim of improving education itself.

      • I have the tendency to ramble a lot of stuff on religion. Sorry if my response was a bit long-winded.

        I think the idea that one shouldn’t allow non-academics ‘within 10 feet of making a decision’ is appealing to authority, which is a kind of logical fallacy.

        I mean, the people behind ID are all scientists. That doesn’t mean they’re not guilty of flawed logic.

  7. another teacher says:

    We must not be afraid to impart or facilitate in our class current views that contribute towards the first base eg, scriptural hermenuetics, Darwin’s theory; now the much discussed ID (don’t mean here but on other forums) and other approaches; more importantly is the courage and responsibility and accountability to challenge and inspire each young mind in the class to think things through critically for their selves and [to] draw [their own] conclusions. The moment we impose our own due to fears over this school of thought or that school predominating over another, parents, teachers and politicians are equally guilty of stultifying an already much maligned and marauded education system, read, specifically in the Malaysian context. For years, we have been driven by survival instincts to obtain good grades through the easiest means; pressure, rote, regurgitation, tuition, kiasuism, maybe even vain glory of child and parent and teacher. Look at the newspapers each time it’s convo or time for public examination results. Until today we have whole generation(s?) of youth with excellent grades who cannot express themselves, present or articulate with convincing reasoning skills because they are bereft of ideas, language proficiency, critical thinking/learning training processes in the system et al

    The alarm increases unceasingly. What we are doing or not doing for our kids and young people? [There is] a long way to travel.

  8. born2reign says:

    My worry with academicians controlling education is that we may end up with a mob-rule education policy, which may not necessary be right.

    Humans believe they are at the top of the food chain, the intelligent being. The joke is they cannot even make head or tail of their own brain, how it is manufactured, why it is designed in such a way, how to prevent and detect stroke, mental illness etc.

    The education policy may establish certain subjects to be taught in school, however parents have the last say on what to educate our children.

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