by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 1 March 2016

I was in Johor Bahru last Thursday, to speak at the “Great Debate” held at UTM Skudai.  The topic was “Does an English medium education increase competitiveness or dilute identity?”

The debate touched on the government’s decision to pilot the Dual Language Programme (DLP) in schools.  Under the DLP scheme, schools are allowed to teach selected subject in English if they fulfil certain criteria.  The aim is to increase the amount of time a student uses English so that there can be greater immersion into the language.

Anti-English groups are vocally campaigning against DLP and they ignore the fact that the government has learnt from previous experience.  This time the DLP is being introduced with a good set of criteria.  In order to implement the DLP, schools must fulfil four conditions.

First, the schools must have sufficient resources to teach the selected subjects in English.

Second, the head teacher and teachers must want to run DLP.

Third, there must be demand and support from parents, which must be expressed in writing.

Fourth, the school must perform above average in Malay language.  This means the students must be doing well in Malay before they are allowed to embark on DLP.

I suspect the first criterion was put into place because the DLP is a pilot project and the government wants to use resources that are already available from PPSMI time.  This is a good move.  We should not spend unnecessarily for a pilot project.

Criterion number four shows that the government has learnt from the PPSMI debacle.  People claimed that under PPSMI the government neglected the national language.  So now under DLP, schools can only take part if they are already good in Malay.

The middle two criteria are exciting.  The government now allows parents and teachers to make an important decision on how to teach.  We at IDEAS have always advocated for choice and I am glad we spent time with government officials last year to shape the DLP.  It was time well spent.

Choice is an important element of modern society.  Even Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak announced in April 2009 that the era of “government knows best” is over.  This indicates that deep inside he too believes that if Malaysia were to move forward, paternalism should not have a place among policymakers.

It is great that the Ministry of Education now shows that they are willing to step away from paternalism.  It is just a small step but it is a start.

I wish other government agencies too would stop pretending that they know better than all of us and start moving away from government-knows-best attitude.  There are still a few agencies showing paternalistic behaviours.

When the government failed to cope quickly enough with new technologies in public transportation like Uber and Grab, their immediate reaction was to ban the services instead of updating the laws to match consumer demand and new developments.

When faced with adverse media coverage, the government’s reaction was to either suspend the publication’s permit or block access if it was an online news portal.  Providing robust and believable answers seems not an option.

When vape and e-cigarettes came into the market, the government-knows-best attitude led to the banning of the product by some local authorities.  Consumer voice was ignored.

The latest paternalistic voice comes from the Ministry of Health.  They announced last week that they are considering a “plain packaging” policy for cigarettes.  This means cigarette packs cannot display any branding and brand names can only be printed using standardised font.

I don’t smoke and I get annoyed if people smoke near me.  But not withstanding my attitude towards smoking, paternalistic government behaviour is more dangerous and must be rejected when we see it.  We should hold the final say on our personal choices and we must not allow this precious right to be taken away.  Introducing something like plain packaging is pure paternalism, more so because its efficacy is unproven.

There might be some people who say that smoking is different because it is harmful.  But once we make exceptions on when to reject or accept government paternalism, how do we draw the lines?  What if the Ministry of Health proposes higher tax on sugar under the pretext of reducing sugar-related diseases?  What if schools make it compulsory to wear the tudung because Islam is the religion of the federation?

In fact, over the weekend IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar instructed the cancellation of a course on Marxism because he feels this is an effort to promote communism.  If we give exception to this paternalistic behaviour now, what are we to do if the authorities decide to ban your belief or cultural practice?

German theologian Martin Niemoller puts it best when he said, “When the Nazis came for the communists, I did not speak out as I was not a communist. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out as I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out as I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

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