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I’m very interested in education (in fact, I’m actively considering teaching or academia for this reason). I have my pet causes: I’m against the heavy use of examinations. I think individual teachers are better suited to come up with a curriculum than a ministry. I feel that secondary education would be such that it would make tertiary-level liberal arts education redundant. I have a dislike of boarding schools – I much rather have small rural schoolhouses with a teacher or two than concentrating kids in large boarding schools.

But most of my ideas go against generations living through a vastly different education system. The idea of abolishing homework (ala Finland) would not sit well with most Malaysian parents, for example, neither would abolishing subjects like science and local studies (kajian tempatan) at the primary level fly well with such parents.

And that’s the bit with the Malaysian education system – decisions made at Putrajaya affects every parent. And that’s the big problem in education policy in Malaysia: changing policies will always agrieve some parents. Scale plays against reform too – everything from human resources to textbooks become far more complicated on a national level. Instead the better solution is to introduce more decentralization and more choice – at all levels of education.

If every school, college, university and polytechnic were autonomous and independent, and parents/students choose where they study, reform will become easier. Through competition, the current education framework will become better.

More importantly, at least for me, decentralization and privatization means that there is more freedom to innovate, which increases the likelihood of successful reforms. Right now, if I were to open a school modelled after the Finnish education system or a university modelled after the American liberal arts colleges, not only will I be faced with significant competitive disadvantages (i.e. the lack of public funding), there is a significant regulatory challenge.

The stumbling block to decentralization is the fear the education system will deepen sectarian differences. After half a century of federal monopoly in education though, sectarian divides in education have increased. With politics racially-charged, the education system under it is bound to be racially-charged as well.

There is no feasible way of creating an entirely non-sectarian system in Malaysia – and being under government control, it entrenches the sort of divisions that already exists in society. Even if it feasible, it is impossible to force integration (the primary goal of a non-sectarian system).

Privatization makes a solution more viable. Take Chinese education, for example: most Chinese educationalist and Chinese parents view things like teaching Mandarin in national schools with deep suspicion. Most rural Malays in northern Malaysia view national schools as some sort of secular-UMNO ploy. Denationalized national schools, in these cases, will be better off without the political baggage of competing against vernacular schools, and make non-sectarian schools more competitive against sectarian schools.

The central question though is why should schools and universities be a social battering ram of non-education concerns. Reducing sectarian polarization is itself a good thing, but the overwhelming goal of the education system is to educate our kids the best we can.

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