I was asked to appear before a task force set up by Dr. Maszlee on the issue of the UEC and its impact on nation-building. The main concern, as I understand it, is that the UEC has not been recognized as a positive development in nation-building because it originated from the Chinese school system in Malaysia that has refused any nationalization efforts.
It was a unique situation for me to be asked about my opinion on this matter because I did not know that much about either the UEC or the Chinese school system. I came because of one simple reason.
I think that there is a HUGE problem with our public school in relation to nation-building. Thus, it is very strange, from my view, that Malays are fault-finding with the UEC and the vernacular school system and philosophy when the main problems stem directly from the public school itself.
In this article, I will make four arguments on how I find that the public school system has jeopardized the very foundation of our nation-building philosophy and approach. I will speak about the culture of administration, then about the level of religious and cultural sensitivities between races, the subject of History and the subject of Bahasa Melayu.
Culture of administration
Firstly is the issue of the culture of administration. As Mahathir himself has said many times, the public school system in Malaysia is already resembling a religious or Islamic school. To many Malays in UMNO or PAS and even in PKR and Amanah, this is a welcome assertion. Most teachers now, unlike in my day, are Malays and this causes a racial imbalance of the teaching force.
Next, we have the administrators who are mostly Malays and they determine the culture and value system in the school such as the insistence of the so called Islamic dress code and the reading of Muslim prayers during events and assembly.
When Christians once did the same at missionary schools, Malays complain of religious pollution in education institutions. But when the Malays do it, it seems all right because the Ministry of Education is full of pious Muslims. Events such as Qia mu lail and Yaasin reading for asking Allah’s help in examinations are rife. These events are fine if conducted outside the school compounds and hours. This kind of culturalisation frightens non-Malay and non-Muslim parents away from the public school.
Have the UEC and Chinese school introduced a non-Islamic administrative culture?
Have the UEC and Chinese school introduced a non-Islamic administrative culture? I have not heard of any Bible reading or Confuscian wisdom and Buddhist meditative practices being part and parcel of the day to day activities of any schools. Thus, from the administrative culture perspective, the Chinese Schools using UEC have no ethnic preference and religious impetus.
Secondly, there is a proliferation of Muslim religious rituals like prayers at school, only having halal food canteens or stalls, students not fasting needing to eat in the toilet, the halal and haram drinking glass, the Sari issue and many others. Parents are understandably frightened that these acts of outward religiosity and have moved their children to private schools or vernacular schools.
I have not heard of any religious rituals of burning incense or procession of deities in Chinese schools being made an issue and thus, I am assuming such religious outward show of piety or reverence does not exist. Thus, the school environment of those taking the UEC seems to me to be more balanced at respecting religious sensitivities by not having any would make a point for accepting the UEC as a good nation-building certification.
The contention against the acceptability of the UEC comes to a head at the curriculum of History subject. Although the UEC has been accepted by overseas and international universities of worth all over the world, Malaysia rejects this certification on the ground that its history does not contain ‘adequate’ local content.
My contention here is that I accept the fact that the UEC History subject covers a more global perspective of history and contain some local content shows the idea of globalization and localization at the same time. We must all get used to the idea that our children will no longer be working in Malaysia but they will spread their wings outside of the country of birth.
I learned about Christianity and the Greeks in my day and it was useful when I went to the USA for my architectural degrees. On the other hand, the public school curriculum contains, to my mind, too much historical content that may be skewed towards creating a narrative of one race over the others.
UEC and the national school History curriculum to concentrate more on the history of peoples
I would prefer both the UEC and the national school History curriculum to concentrate more on the history of peoples rather than one of them being a long-winded narrative of colonialism and political struggle for independence with heroes being ministers and prime ministers as well as political leaders, most of it Malays.
I would prefer that our children know about the rise of each people, the Chinese, the Indians, the Orang Asli, the Kadazans, the Muruts into their anthropological make up of social values and rituals in traditional past and into the adaptation and innovations of the present.
If I were to ask any pupil about the history of Christianity in Malaysia or the Buddhist faith in Malaysia, would he or she be able to answer? There is also the history of technology and the rise of the cities that can form important aspects of history that would help us perceive the present issues of the environment and society better.
My conclusion here is that both the UEC and the national curriculum are flawed in understanding history in a narrow construct. The ICERD rally and the Seafield incident are mostly brought about by graduates of the national curriculum of history looking at the idea of other races threatening the existence of one race. Our present curriculum of the UEC and the national school curriculum fail miserably to educate our young about the history of our own peoples. I will dwell specifically on my idea of the history subject in a specific article in another writing.
The other contention is the subject of Bahasa Malaysia. The so called ‘unacceptability’ of the UEC is on the grounds of the curriculum expectation of the UEC is considered lower than that of the national curriculum. Well, I would like to present a totally different view of this matter.
First of all, most public universities with the exception of perhaps of UKM and one or two others I assume, require students to listen to lectures and do assignments in English. Even UiTM, the bastion of Malay-only education insists on this matter strongly. If so, students of the UEC should steer away from UKM but apply only to UTM, UPM, USM, UM, and others which emphasize English over Bahasa Malaysia. What is the problem here? It was not the Chinese Educationists that decided on this line of a medium of instruction.
It was the Malay Vice Chancellors who opened up their universities to foreigners and thus dealt a death blow to Bahasa Malaysia sebagai Bahasa Ilmu. They should close down Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka for it no longer has any academic relevance. Its rug was pulled out from under it by Malay educationists themselves for international ranking and the idea of a ‘world class’ education.
What level of Bahasa Malaysia do we expect from our children?
Secondly, what level of Bahasa Malaysia do we expect from our children? From my perspective, when I took the standard six exams and the LCE and MCE, the Bahasa Malaysia level has doubled in complexity in my children’s time. I have been writing books, articles and even journals using my MCE Bahasa Malaysia which is ‘lower’ in quality than that of my children. Can the UEC students carry a conversation with a Malay? Can they write a simple job application letter in Bahasa Malaysia? Can they write a simple clerical report in that language?
If yes, what else should we be asking for? Do we want the Chinese to spout Classical Malays or speak in proverbs all the time as well as understand the intricate novels of Malay national laureates? Tak payah lah. I pun tak faham. But I do love the Classical language of Hang Tuah and Munsyi Abdullah when I read them. Such beautiful and soft expressions, not mechanical like the modern Malay. But the question still remains, what level do we or should we expect of an 18-year-old looking for a clerical job in the public service?
In conclusion, I do not see the relevance of the arguments against the acceptability of the UEC as part of a nation-building curriculum. If my arguments above seem still lacking in substance, I ask Malaysians to reflect that Azwandin, Jamal Yunos, Zamihan, Ibrahim Ali, Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, and Bung Mokhtar never sat for the UEC examinations. They all came from the same national or religious school curriculum. Need I say more?
Dr Tajuddin Rasdi is a Professor of Architecture at USCI University and is a popular commentator with a column in Free Malaysia Today and in Sin Chew Daily. This article is from his latest book Rethinking Malaysia: Politics, Extremism and Education