Recently a few friends and I had a robust discussion about education. Naturally, the discussion started off with something only tangentially related, i.e. the rapid increase in the proportion of the federal budget that goes into emoluments (i.e. wages and compensation) for civil servants. As is typical for most “kedai kopi” discussion on Malaysian politics, it morphed into a discussion about the decline in the quality of our graduates, as a result of poor education. I made a few observations, in reflection from this discussion:
- Education is not a silver bullet. Many Malaysians think that all the problems facing the country can be fixed through education. In some ways, they are right. Malaysia is in the economic and social rut that it is, largely because we have failed to equip an entire generation of Malaysians. Too many of them are getting sub-standard education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, resulting in hordes of local graduates who cannot articulate, are not as adaptable, and require massive retraining by employers in order to be acceptably productive. But fixing education is difficult, and the outcome is naturally lagging, as effective changes in the education sector requires at least a decade for it to substantially ripple through the cohorts of students churned out by the system. And Malaysia’s problems are wide-ranging: poor skill levels, corruption, rising levels of crime, choking roads due to over-abundance of private vehicles, halting economic growth due to long dependence on low-wage policies, large amounts of illicit capital flows, and a whole host of other things. Education is one important lever to solve all these issues, but it is not the only one.
- The solution is not education per se, but institutions as a whole. In a way, when you think about it, the problem with Malaysian education is actually just one instance of the larger, higher-level problem for Malaysia: weak institutions. With a weak education system, the quality of graduates turns out to be inadequate, and we lack the right amounts of skilled and semi-skilled workers which lead on to a surge in migrant workers. With a weak policing system, crime continues unabated while poor standard operating procedures lead to unnecessary deaths of innocent civilians. With a weak judicial system, judgments are not seen as fully above board, and aggrieved parties are much more wary of taking their disputes to court. With a weak political system, extremists can take centre stage and hold the nation ransom to their own narrow interests, while the rakyat are forced to choose between two sets of equally unappetising politicians. With weak safeguards against corruption, public officials and private individuals are free to line their pockets with the people’s money, and can even flaunt their wealth unapologetically in the faces of the rakyat. In this regard, we can only gasp at the wreckage done to our national institutions by the determined iconoclasm of an impatient politician, and must now rebuild our institutions in the face of two decades of systemic erosion.
- BN is the problem, but it can be the solution. Having said all of the above, we cannot ignore the fact that the nation has come a long way, despite all of the weaknesses manifested today by the excesses of the past. For many of my friends who consider themselves to be tribally bonded to the Barisan Nasional, reform can be a very confusing process. Where do you begin, trying to fix the problems faced by the country, when the country has been so firmly shaped by the same Barisan Nasional coalition that continues to lead the country over the past five decades? So far, the government of the day has adroitly skirted around this embarrassing fact. Transformation programmes have been launched, correctly identifying the required changes. But the inability to admit to the excesses of the past, means that internal resistance to change remains high. The nostalgia for Mahathirism is an expression of this strong resistance, and no real momentum for change can probably be borne until there is an open admission from the current leadership of the Barisan Nasional that we have made mistakes in the past, but also that the current leadership has the right diagnosis for transformation. Until then, the country will continue to labour under nostalgia for autocracy, which will only serve to apply friction to earnest efforts to reform the country and bring it closer to the ideal that all Malaysians aspire for.