(Kuala Lumpur, Sunday): It is very fitting that the Conference on Education in the 21st Century should end with the paper by Associate Professor Datin Dr. Rohaty Mohd. Majzub of the Faculty of Education, University Kebangsaan Malaysia on DAP policies for pre-school education - "DAP" here standing for "developmentally appropriate practices" as used by Dr. Rohaty in her presentation. Malaysians would know who to thank when the challenges and problems of DAP preschool programmes are raised and discussed in Parliament.
I have just come back from a conference in New Delhi, and I had thought that my trip to India would help me to escape the haze in Malaysia. But I was going from "haze to haze", as the haze in New Delhi is of a fairly permanent kind, not because of any raging forest or plantation fires, but because of vehicular emissions.
However, there does not seem to be any sense of social outrage at the degree of air pollution in New Delhi and I get the impression that the people in the Indian capital have come to accept air pollution as part of their lives.
I find this shocking, illustrating the important point made by Professor Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas in his paper "The Future of Education" that education is not just about personal development and skills development, and is not complete without the development of the social conscience.
We must not think that Malaysians are far superior, for Malaysians are already showing that they have very short memories with many forgetting about the long-term adverse effects of the national haze disaster once they see blue skies again, pushing to the periphery the need to place on the top of the national agenda the right of all Malaysians to clean air.
The DAP has organised this Conference on Education in the 21st Century to involve the Malaysian public to participate in the discussion of educational problems and challenges and the formulation of education policies for the new millennium.
It is most unfortunate that educational planning has been most elitist in Malaysia, involving only top Education Ministry officials when there should have been the fullest input and participation by broadest sections of society, such as the parents, the teachers, the academicians and all concerned civic organisations.
Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, rapped parents for admiring foreign universities and being overdependent on them for their children’s tertiary education.
He said such a situation was embarrassing as the country had many creditable universities and institutions which were at par or even better than those overseas.
The phenomenon of having 50,000 to 60,000 Malaysian students in universities and colleges overseas is not a recent one, but went back to the seventies and eighties.
Since the seventies, the DAP had been calling for the popularisation of tertiary education by establishing at least one university in each state in the country to ensure that Malaysian students can find places for higher education in their own country instead of having to go overseas at great cost to themselves and the nation.
Last week, when some 30-odd United States Congressmen gave notice to move a resolution critical of the Malaysian Government, and in particular, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet responded immediately and I understand a motion of confidence in the Prime Minister would be moved by the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament next week.
However, when 24 DAP MPs in the 1986 Parliament called on the Government to establish more universities to meet the needs of Malaysian students as well as in the national interests, they were ignored. If the Government had been prepared to be as sensitive to the views of the Opposition as they are now to the views of a handful of US Congressmen, Malaysia would undoubtedly be in a better state of affairs and there would have been no need for Anwar to make such a statement as even now, some 10,000 students eligible for entry into the local universities are being turned away for lack of places!
But this DAP call had gone unheeded for some two decades and is now only begun to be taken more seriously by the government.
But there are other problems about tertiary education in the country which must be addressed if the government wants all parents to have their children educated locally, at least for the first degree programmes.
Apart from ensuring that there are adequate places to meet the demands of increasing percentages of Malaysian students who want tertiary educational opportunities, the government must ensure that there are enough right places for those who wish to pursue specific educational disciplines in the country, whether medical, engineering, information technology, etc.
The government should also ensure that high standards of excellence in Malaysian institutions of higher learning are maintained so as to attract the best and the most creative brains, not only in Malaysia, but even from overseas.
Finally, if Anwar is serious in wanting Malaysians to opt for local universities for their children’s tertiary education, then let the Ministers and government leaders set an example with the Cabinet issuing a directive that all Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, MPs and government leaders should send their children only to local universities.
Both Dr. Rohaty and Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas had dealt about different aspects of what I would call "miseducation" in Malaysia, not only at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, but also for different groups, whether it be pre-schoolers or the gifted and the talented children.
We are not giving enough attention to those with learning problems and are completely ignoring those with unusual gifts. Recently, there was considerable publicity in the national media about the 12-year-old Suffiah Farooq entering Oxford University to read mathematics, just because of the tangential relationship of her mother being a Malaysian, while we continue to squander one of our most precious national resources to be found among the gifted and talented children in our own country - from all racial and cultural groups, across all economic strata and in all areas of human endeavour.
While other countries are placing a great premium on the talents and gifts of their children by developing a special policy and programme for gifted education in full recognition that they constitute one of their most precious national resources, Malaysians are either not interested in the subject or generally unsympathetic or even hostile to the proposal for a special programme for gifted education in Malaysia.
Malaysia is in the race to be a world-class nation as well as to make the quantum leap into the information society in the new millennium, both of which call for qualities of excellence and creativity among our people. However, repressive laws like the Universities and University Colleges Act stunt creativity and even more serious, stifle the development of social conscience among university students who are to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Dr. Peter Shephard in his paper on "Smart School System: IT & Wholebrain Learning" referred to the goals/outcomes of smart schools. I still dislike intensely the use of the term "smart schools" when what we are referring to is the use of information technology in schools.
Furthermore, the use of the term "smart schools" connotes that students of such schools are automatically smart while students of other schools which do not have the tools of information technology are not "smart". It is even an indictment of five thousand years of human civilisation, as not a "smart era", although they have produced the greatest thinkers, philosophers and religious founders without the benefit of "smart" information technology.
One of the goals/outcomes of "smart schools" is to "promote more innovative, creative and analytic thinking among students". How are we going to produce more "innovative, creative and analytic" students without first producing "innovative, creative and analytic" teachers?
We are living in an era of explosive change with information travelling at the speed of light. Dr. Tan Seng Giaw, in his paper "Education in the Next Millennium: the Challenges, Trials and Tribulations" mentioned the need for preparing our students to face the challenges of information technology and virtual reality.
This is very important, for very soon our children will be sending avatars and intelligent agents into cyberspace to interact with other avatars and intelligent agents which will constitute a completely different cyber experience.
May be the next DAP education conference can be entitled "Miseducation in Malaysia", as we propose to continue organising a series of conferences, not only on education, but also on other important subjects concerning information technology, health, environment, sustainable development, corruption, human rights, etc as part of the process of involving the Malaysian public in an reappraisal of the national strategies and policies for the new millennium.