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The Mission Of Education In Malaysia As A Multicultural Society

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The future of education in a multicultural society: Notes on a Roundtable on Education and Multiculturalism in Malaysia

Q1: Being the multicultural society that Malaysia is, how should our education system be designed? Or, should it be designed at all?

I was asked these questions  relating to the meaning and future of education when I spoke in a Malaysian forum a few years ago:

Q: What is the meaning of education?

AR: Education is a deliberate attempt to construct human beings that will participate in society as productive citizens. The question of whether our education system should be designed or not is quite irrelevant when education, schooling, training, indoctrination, and the spectrum of ways by which the child is “schooled” are all based on intentional design. Schooling is the most contested terrain in any society; it is a battlefield or a conveyor belt for the creation of human beings. We go back one step before the question of design. In a multicultural society, who should be entrusted to design schooling – politicians or philosophers of education trained in the study of political economy and anthropology and alternative historicizing? Are those designing our schooling system equipped with the varieties of philosophical perspectives in education? – Essentialism, Progressivism, Romanticism, Cultural Rejuvenation, Social Reconstructionism, Spiritual Capitalism, Technicism …or even Cultural Revolution these philosophies call for a different perspective of what a human being is and how to draw out the potentials in each and every human being, hence the Latin word “educare”, from which education comes from, meaning “drawing out …”


My question for all of you – what philosophy of education will be suitable for a multicultural society such as Malaysia? And how do we translate such a philosophy into praxis (Paulo Freire “cultural action for freedom,)

Q2: The current design has created an eco-system wherein parents can choose between national schools, vernacular school,s or Islamic schools. Is this healthy for nation-building? The older model of primary education was with the strategic intent of laying the foundation for nation-building. Is that agenda now being sacrificed?

AR: Choices emanate from an evolution of what society is. We must consider what “nation-building” means in the context of schooling. Natio means one people, from the French scholar Ernst Renan. The kind of nation we want to create depends upon the schools we build. How does one build an “American” school? It depends on the people’s understanding and degree of the embodiment of the Constitution of the United States and how America sees herself as a nation of immigrants wherein schooling that separates religion and the state complicates less the process of “nation-building”.

“All men are created equal endowed by the Creator the inalienable rights … “said the preamble to the Constitution. Every morning one hears these words in unison, across America in all classrooms, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic unto which it stands one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all…”

What does 1Malaysia mean not as an evolving concept that has undergone some kind of dialectical materialistic treatment and the cyclical theory of knowledge (thesis-anti-thesis synthesis) but a branding, sloganizing, hollow-fying concept of forced Oneness pushed into public discourse and into public sphere?

What does a truly Malaysian school mean? Herein lies the evolution of ideological apartheid especially in our public-school system. Where is the locus of control? How are race-based ideological battles fought in this terrain? Herein lies the separate schools Malaysians build.

Q3: But, should schools be seen as a tool for nation-building at all? Isn’t it the “nation-building” agenda that has created a divided society that we have now? Can nation-building not be simply the sharing of national values of some universal form that prepares the student for a globalized world?

AR: On schooling and nation-building; this is a question of the post-70s era in which the debate rages concerning nationalism, pluralism, socialism, national-socialism, or even cosmopolitanism or millennialism. Countries or states were jumping into the bandwagon of perceiving education from a post-colonial or neo-colonialist lens arguing for maintaining the race and ethnicity dimension of social and economic progress. The creation of the precursor to Barisan Nasional in the form of The Alliance Party in 1955 and subsequently, the dominance and hegemony of this race-based coalition party has enabled the creation of an education system based on race consideration.

Q4: If given a choice, would parents choose schools based on the medium of instruction, or would they choose quality? In other words, if the choice is given in a multicultural society, would that cause society to break down further?

AR: Multiculturalism is not an option, radical multiculturalism as an educational philosophy is even not an option. I may sound like Plato, Kung Fu Tze, Jean Jacques Rousseau or Marx , “deterministic” – but there is a sense with phenomenological evidence in this country that this society is breaking down and we must seek solutions through education.

Consider these issues as I conclude: The protest over the selected reading of the said-to-be controversial novel Interlok, the rise of NGOs promoting dangerous ultra-nationalism, the suppression of free speech on campuses, the proliferation of indoctrination on campuses through the work of governmental outfits such as Biro Tata Negara, and the list goes on …


But what is multiculturalism? Broader than what many of us here have conceived … “many cultures”, “many worldviews” “multiple perspectives” “multiple ways of knowing” – and to bring human beings from a variety of cultures of ability and disability to enable them to reach their fullest potential – the children of all races, physically, emotionally, technologically, emotionally challenged, the culturally deficient, and many more – all these to be brought into the process of being “educated through schooling” so that each may learn and prosper and grow as critical, creative, ethical human beings who will use their knowledge and power to transform others and not to plunder and oppress.

We need to embark upon a long-term project of radical education transformation based on Radical Multiculturalism as philosophy.

I shall leave these propositions for us to deliberate in this important forum on the future of multicultural education in Malaysia.

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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