Aggrandisement and defeatism in politics and education

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A defeatist attitude in thinking that there are no solutions, or that the solution is as simple as changing a light bulb, will not take us forward to an enlightened future, argues Nicholas Chan.

Coincidentally, two articles about defeatism have appeared in two different media bearing the title “Straits Times”.

The first comes from across the straits and needs little introduction due to the contentions that arose from it. To put it simply, the article talks about the “pragmatic” need of defeatism for Malaysia’s opposition supporters (and on the Singapore side, for realpolitik considerations) to recognise that the current power structures in Malaysia, be they good or evil, are here to stay.

The second is an article in our very own New Straits Times about how “defeatist” it is for us not to impose a single-stream education system – ostensibly for unity purposes – just because a pact was struck between our forefathers to preserve a multistream one.

Whether or not defeatism is welcome, these two viewpoints are invariably defeatist in nature. Not because they spelt out the static nature of the system, but because their resort towards aggrandisement and oversimplification denotes a lack of intellectual effort.

Our politics are not coin-flips

In the first case, the contest for Malaysian politics is pictured as a grand finale where an immovable race-based supremacist institution faces off with a “delusional” enterprise that seeks to replace it with a more egalitarian and less “primordially-attached” system.

Granted, race and religion is still a strong determinant in our discourse on politics, but this unwarranted aggrandisement of Malaysian politics is problematic on many fronts.

To begin with, to omit the Borneo factor (which accounts for a quarter of the national parliamentary seats) signals a myopic view of Malaysian politics. The fact that the establishment has increasingly pandered to Bornean sentiments demonstrates how the two East Malaysian states are now a force to be reckoned with. Rightly so, in my opinion, after years of marginalisation.

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Also, while it is perhaps stimulating for an interested observer to picture Malaysian politics as an epic Middle Earth-esque struggle, this dialectical imagination of a “human-versus-orcs” battlefield (who’s the orc depends on which side one is on, of course) is entirely inaccurate, discomforting and not helpful in the least.

In this sense, Fuad Rahmat’s astute piece about how misleading it is to divide the Malaysian political landscape into a “red shirts versus yellow shirts” scenario is spot on. To accept that the Malaysian political divide is merely two-sided – on one side poor, ethno-fascists and on the other side ungrateful, well-to-do urbanites – is defeatist for two reasons.

First, it compels one to accept that Malaysians are just caricatures: one-dimensional, cartoonish and unrefined. And above all, it pushes us to subscribe to something that is plainly untruthful.

There are no ‘voila!’ moments for education

Then, we have the argument that we should wait no more to adopt a single-stream education for national unity because it is “defeatist” not to implement the solution in plain sight to our ethnic divide: just abolish vernacular schools. In other words, the more we delay it, the greater fools we are.

But research experience in education tells me that it is even more defeatist to settle for unempirical, oversimplified and populist solutions in a high-stakes matter where grandiose policy adjustments would have reverberating effects on the next generation.

Yes, Malaysians are smarter than many give them credit for. If it were that simple, we would have done it already and race relations would thrive happily ever after.

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I genuinely hope that the situation is just about a train we forgot to board 58 years ago. But if the fallout from our knee-jerk policies in education, such as aborting the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI), is any indication, things aren’t so simple.

In education, good intentions alone do not give “voila!” moments, as can be seen in the billions spent on Malaysia’s education, entailed by dismal Pisa and Timss test scores. Disasters abound when the system is not built for the “noble” intentions it is supposed to serve – for example, launching PPSMI when it was later revealed that 70% of our English language teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test actually performed poorly.

If the aim is to foster national unity, one must ask: are our teachers and education administrators up to the task? Yearly anecdotes about how students are mistreated (forced to eat in toilets and whatnot) during the Ramadan month suggest we are not. To have a multiracial classroom environment but not able to handle it fairly is worse than not having it at all.

And who says school environments are little greenhouses where students are sheltered and unaffected by the greater political and social environments which can impose overriding effects? At this point, we should know better from politicians who claim they had good friends from other races growing up but they instead end up being the biggest racists themselves.

My experience of kindness in the east coast also tells me that just because someone is segregated from the other races, they need not be racists themselves. Kuala Lumpur, by contrast, despite having a more heterogeneous environment, feels heavily racialised in its social interactions.

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My intention is not to over-complicate things and say that everything should remain status quo. There are of course some quick fixes for our education supported by cross-country research, and to our government’s credit, we have adopted some of them, such as picking only the best students to be teachers.

The thing is, these low-hanging fruits do not form aggrandising narratives. They are detail-oriented, effective yet bland. They are neither catchy nor fitting for the ambitions of the ambitious.

But that is our problem: we prefer aggrandisement over substance and in the process we simplify complicated matters to the detriment of the discourse. We are blind to evidence and the hard work in obtaining them.

To be honest, I am not entirely opposed to the idea of single-stream education, provided it is done in good faith, with solid reasoning and after taking all the preparations needed for such a drastic change. The bona fide part of it, as my friend Kok Hin has highlighted, is of the utmost importance.

One of the reasons why Farish Noor, the rock star professor, is incredibly popular in Malaysia is because he refuses a defeatist attitude which panders to simplistic and essentialised notions in contemplation of Malaysian society. Instead, he has worked tirelessly to show that our past is fluid, cosmopolitan and inherently complex.

I believe our (better) future should be so too. But a defeatist attitude in thinking that there are no solutions, or that the solution is as simple as changing a light bulb, will not bring us there.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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