[Review]: Education: Visions for a New Malaysia / Pendidikan: Wawasan untuk Malaysia Baru

On 25th July 2018, Projek Dialog organized the full-day conference “Education: Visions for a New Malaysia” on education reform at our office in Ara Damansara. From 11am to 8pm, participants engaged in rigorous dialogue regarding the state of education in a Malaysia and how it should change as we march forward into a New Malaysia.

The conference consisted of three panels, which were:

“Pendidkan Seks: Antara Keperluan dan Batasan / Wrapping it Up: Sex Education,”

“Celik Sains: Muluaskan Pemikiran dan Persoalan Kritis / No Monkeying Around: Teaching Science in a New Malaysia,”

“Kebebasan Akademik, Hak Asasi, dan Kepelbagaian / Academic Freedom, Human Rights, and Diversity.”

The first panel was about sex education, dissecting its current implementation in schools and identifying the associating problems. This panel consisted of Dr Hamizah Mohd Hassan, head of the Reproductive Health Unit of the Family Services Sector in Lembaga Penduduk Dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara under the Women, Family, and Community Development Ministry, Shaney Cheng from P.S. the Children, Rozana Isa from Sisters in Islam, and Lim Yi Wei from DAP.

This dynamic panel reviews the different aspects of sex education, beginning with the issue of child safety. With the recent publicity around the case of the 41-year old man in Kelantan marrying an 11-year old, this was understandably a matter of great concern. With her experience working with children, Shaney shared methods that P.S. the Children is currently undertaking to reach out to children and teach them how to protect themselves.

Unsurprisingly, the larger issue lies with adults. Shaney commented that parents frequently disbelieved their children who brought up claims, or lashed out at them because they did not know how to deal with the situation. Worse still, children who did not come forward usually kept abuse a secret because their abuser was someone close to them.

This information was enlightening to many in the audience who began giving suggestions that sex education should not only focus on children, but on adults as well. Indeed, adults are the perpetrators behind sexual assault. It seems that there is a lack of understanding regarding consent in our society.

Rozana postulated that this might be due to our patriarchal society, citing an example of the curriculum in Islamic religious schools which tells girls that when they become wives, they cannot deny sex to their husbands. Yi Wei added on by highlighting the effects mass media plays in sexualizing those who are vulnerable, such as women and children.

In response, Dr Hamiza pointed out that the government has to be careful in implementing non-abstinence based sex education, as this could draw serious furor from parents. This is why the current sex-ed curriculum divides the high-risk students away from the general population of students, and only they learn the more in-depth aspects of sex-ed such as how to use contraception.

Again, it does seem that adults are the biggest obstacle to the safety of children. It is therefore pivotal that we do not just work to reform the curriculum or law – we must also change our culture. Without social change, laws cannot achieve much if children are subject to a different environment or way of thinking at home. Like Rozana said, we live in a patriarchal culture where vulnerable identities are objectified and have their autonomy taken from them. We must address sexual crimes at their root problem, which isn’t the laws, but the culture.

The thread of culture continue on to the second panel about science education. An interesting question was posed: Has Malaysian society advanced enough to the point where we can teach “controversial” subjects like evolution in science classes without inciting the ire of religious conservatives?

This is decidedly not a Malaysian problem – the stigma against evolution is universal, as the audience representative of PT Foundation reminded the panel. While one of the panelists, KUIS lecturer Muhammad Ikhwan Azlan, was able to formulate his own philosophy about the mutuality of science and religion working hand in hand, thus not having a stance against teaching evolution in schools, many in society would not be able to.

Again, this calls for not only a change in the system or curriculum, but of culture. The other two panelists, Dr Rosdiadee Nordin and Yu He Teng, also commented on this.

Dr Rosdiadee elaborated on the problematic culture we have in Malaysia that stigmatizes the arts and creates a separation of science stream and arts stream, which contributes to the disjointedness of education. Students do not end up having a holistic education, which is why many students seem to lack critical thinking. Without critical thinking, one cannot make progress in any field they are in, regardless of it is in the arts or sciences.

Yu He also pointed out that the only sciences that are promoted in education are the ones that appear to yield immediate monetary returns for its practitioner. Whereas more research or passion-driven sciences such as paleontology or geology are ignored, and companies end up having to hire expatriates for these posts seeing as there are few Malaysians qualified in those areas.

All this points to a culture of apathy in our education system, where the pursuit of knowledge is not valued. Education is treated as a medium to carry a student from childhood to working life, and as nothing more.

This is the basis of why academic freedom greatly suffers in universities, according to the third panel on academic freedom, human rights, and diversity.

Dr Syed Farid Alatas said that while the legal restrictions against freedom of speech are there, they are not so drastic to the point that academicians and scholars can get away with not speaking up when there is a human rights issue.

While advocate and solicitor Fadiah Nadwa Fikri seemed to believe more strongly in the negative effects of these laws, she also agreed that most public figures of influence too often keep mum on pertinent issues that require their voice.

Syukri Razab pointed out that even if such laws, such as AUKU 1971, were repealed, it would not make a difference if minds do not similarly change.

Indeed, there is little point in having freedom of speech if nobody actually wants to speak. While there are plenty in civil society who have spoken up and been punished for it, such as Fadiah and Syukri, many who remain in power refuse to compromise their positions and do the same, even though they have more power and security than most activists.

The opportunistic, cronyistic, feudalistic culture that has been implanted in universities, government, and the civil service will forever serve as what Dr Alatas called “internal controls” to impede people from speaking up and promoting academic freedom. This is a deciding issue in whether or not Malaysia Baru is really Baru. Because there is no real democracy if there is not discourse on human rights and diversity. To achieve this discourse, the education system needs to be complicit in reforming our society and culture to be one that values critical thinking and diversity. If universities are factories that produce conformity, we will have a nation of clerks instead of leaders.