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Making history must-pass the worst bungle ever?

The recent policy decision to make history a compulsory pass for SPM students ranks as one of the most ill-conceived and irresponsible measure ever introduced into the Malaysian educational system since we gained our independence.

According to Second Education Minister Idris Jusoh, the move is an effort toward teaching students to become good citizens.

“It is not our intention to fail them. We intend to pass them, but at least let them know the basic history of our country. If history is not made a compulsory pass, many treat the subject as unimportant and they don’t want to know our history, what happened in the past, and will not appreciate what we have now,” he said.

Everyone knows what a bad state Malaysian education is in. At the secondary school level standards of mathematics and science are low; fluency in Bahasa and English is poor; and knowledge of ICT and technology is limited. At the same time, competence in skills such as analysis, problem solving, reasoning and communication are lacking.

These are the core subjects and skills that need more time and attention if Malaysia is ever going to make it to the first or even second rung of nations. Without mastering them we will continue to wallow amongst the also-ran nations living off our oil and gas bonanza which will end sooner or later.

Without improving on these internationally core subjects and other work-related learning, we will continue to churn out even worse than half-baked high school products who will enter the job market or colleges and universities woefully unprepared and unable to compete with their peer group from other countries.

Instead of improving standards of attainment in these areas, what we are getting is a policy departure which will have the opposite effect. None of the advanced countries that I am aware of have a policy of making history a core subject. None of them insist that the student needs to have a pass in history before he or she is deemed to have successfully passed his secondary education and can move on to higher studies or the job market with a formal certificate.

In Britain, a country after which we have patterned much of our educational system, history, geography and the arts are part of what is regarded as non-core, non-compulsory subjects which are made available to students if they so desire to learn them. This should be our policy - history as a non-core, non-compulsory subject with no ulterior political or other agenda or objective or as an elective subject.

What will be the effect of the new policy measure? Firstly, we will see less time and attention given to the core subjects. Secondly, we will have greater controversy rather than unity or loyalty. There has already been much opposition to the current history curriculum by many parents and educationists which have gone unanswered by the authorities.

Negative impacts

If the Education Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, and his colleague, Idris, believe that making history a compulsory pass subject will make for good and loyal citizens, they are badly mistaken. What will happen are the following negative impacts:

1. Students will regurgitate what is necessary to earn a pass. There will be no attempt made to instill critical and analytical skills as these skills will lead to a questioning of key subjects such as pre-Islamic history and culture; the British and immigrant role in building up modern Malaysia; the anti-Japanese and nationalist movement; the struggle for independence; what happened during May 13; etc.  

2. If the history curriculum is as badly skewed as shown by the Kempen Sejarah Sebenar (KemSMS) or Campaign for True Malaysian History group, then we will see racial and religious extremists and bigots get their introduction in indoctrination in the schools, leading to greater polarisation.

3. Already, one of the country’s top Malay civil servants, Razali Ismail, has recently revealed that he sensed a high degree of sensitivity and resistance to change, especially among young bumiputeras. If a ketuanan mentality emerges among young bumiputeras and they cannot cope with change, the history curriculum and entrenchment of history as a core compulsory pass subject will be among the key causal factors.

We already have one film producer, Shuhaimi Baba, failing to distinguish between fact and fiction and lies, distortions and truth in the film, ‘Tanda Putera’. The new policy will see other such bigoted and opportunistic individuals being nurtured to emerge and ply their propagandist products to Malaysians.      

4. We can also expect rural and poorer students in the national school  system to be the main victims of the new policy measure as many of them will fail in the subject and become dropouts. This will also only widen the inequality between private and public schools, with the private schools offering a superior syllabus focused on making their students compete in the global market, and the national schools offering an inferior all-round syllabus.

If the government is of the opinion that Malaysian students need to be inculcated with patriotism and loyalty to become good citizens, then the right place for fostering these values is in the realm of citizenship studies. It is in this subject where older students can study, think about and discuss topical political, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events and also by extension, the historical developments.

Citizenship studies is also where our Malaysian secondary students can be provided with the foundation of the legal, political, religious, socio-economic and constitutional and economic systems that influence their lives and communities and look more closely at how they work and their effects.

Here, too, they can be involved in the life of their school, kampung or new village or urban area and develop a wide range of skills, knowledge and understanding in these areas. At the end of it, they will learn much more about fairness, social justice, respect for democracy and diversity at school, local, national and global level, and become the more holistic good and patriotic students that the ministry is looking to produce.

I predict that the proposed method which makes history as the main channel for knowledge to produce loyal and patriotic students will be an unmitigated disaster and urge the authorities to review and reverse the policy decision before it is too late.

KOON YEW YIN, a retired chartered engineer, is a philanthropist.

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