by Tamanna Patel and Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The 16 September 2013

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released The Global Competitiveness Report 2013 -2014. Malaysia was ranked 24th out of 148 countries.  In ASEAN we are second after Singapore.  Many have said that this is a satisfactory position to be at.

According to the WEF, the top five most problematic factors for doing business faced by our country are inefficient government bureaucracy, corruption, poor work ethic in national labour force, insufficient capacity to innovate and inadequately educated workforce.

Almost all these are related to the quality of our human capital.  And the key ingredient to remedy these problems is education.  We are comforted by the fact that the government is serious about transforming the education system.  The Malaysia Education Blueprint, a report that was launched by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently, outlines the government’s strategy in this respect.

The Muhyiddin Report is an important document for it will guide our education system until 2025.  It paints an ambitious vision of a world-class education system that is accessible by everyone.  And it outlines strategies hoped to bring us from where we are now to the dreamed world-class status.

Good engagement, poor representation

The Ministry of Education (MoE) deserves praise for their attempt to engage with the rakyat when drafting this report, particularly through the National Dialogue Series that took place from 29 April to 14 July 2012. At IDEAS, we attended and observed the engagement events in five states and we concluded that while it was a praiseworthy attempt, it didn’t work very well.

At the end of May 2012, we released a briefing paper urging the MoE to urgently look into the poor public representation in the national dialogue series.  The vast majority of participants were teachers and some Parent Teacher Association (PIBG) representatives.  There were times when the events sounded pretty much like a teachers union meeting in which the main focus was on teacher welfare, not the future of our children.

Representation from the private sector, parents with children with special educational needs, parents from the “bottom 40%” category, and from parents generally was very low.

The MoE confirmed our observation when they said that 84% of the participants were teachers and PIBG reps, and only 16% were members of the public.  This was a major weakness in the input gathering process which could skew the Blueprint from prioritising our children to prioritising teachers.

But that weakness was rectified by the outstanding leadership of Tan Sri Wan Zahid Mohd Noordin and his team in the National Dialogue Panel.  They were tasked with running the dialogue series and preparing a report to summarise the findings.  The combined experience and expertise of this 14-member panel enabled a diverse set opinion to be pooled together.

Mystery

Having said that, the secrecy surrounding the whole process is regrettable.  Tan Sri Wan Zahid’s report – documenting the findings from the national dialogue series and the analyses of the panel members – has not been made public.  This led to rumours that many of their recommendations from have been ignored, but it is impossible to prove or disprove this rumour without seeing the actual document first.

There are also other reports – produced by Universiti Putra Malaysia, University Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Malaya, and the Higher Education Leadership Academy – that contributed to this Blueprint.  But their reports will remain a mystery to us.  Without access to the documents, it is not possible to ascertain how much from these reports went into the Blueprint, and how much went to the dustbin.

Experts expertly ignored

Another group of luminaries were appointed as members of the Independent Review Panel, led by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak.  This group was known to be pushing the MoE to significantly raise the bar to make our education system truly world-class.  They even suggested that the MoE explore establishing schools where English is the medium of instruction but without neglecting the Malay language.  This is clearly one of the proposals that have ended up being binned.

When the interim Blueprint was published in September 2012, it introduced 11 “shifts” to transform the education system.  However some senior experts complained that the 11 shifts were not new, but merely a repackaging of what is already outlined in the previous policy document, the Education Development Masterplan 2006-2010.  They argued that rehashing more of the same will not produce the holistic transformation we all want.

Instead, to create real transformation, they proposed the adoption of a completely new worldview by making school-based management, empowerment, autonomy, and decentralisation as the key pillars of the Blueprint.  These ideas are indeed radical for Malaysia and could potentially catapult our education system to greater heights quicker.

These experts must be disappointed when they see the final Blueprint.  Their views, and their plea for the MoE to engage them in future deliberations, have been expertly ignored.  The fact is, there are no major changes after the interim version despite additional inputs.  The 11 shifts are still more or less the same, while decentralisation, empowerment, and school-based management are not made the key thrusts driving change.  We are still stuck with a system that is, essentially, top heavy.

Hurdles

Understandably there are hurdles to success.  We are notorious for having good plans but bad execution.  The newly formed Education Performance and Delivery Unit (PADU) is the main agency tasked with implementing the Blueprint and this is a gargantuan task.

Issues like resistance to change from teachers, principals, and from within the MoE itself, as well as the need for political will, have been clearly identified right from the beginning.  PADU should be wary of these hurdles.

But the biggest hurdle is our tendency to centralise command and control at the top, particularly at Ministry level.  When UNESCO examined Malaysia last year, they said that our cross-cutting issue number one is concentration of authority.  We seem to have policy documents and plans covering everything, but heavy bureaucracy and administrative bottlenecks are a challenge to implementation of these good policies.

It is too late now to suggest new ideas.  The policies have already been set and the ink is already dry.  We have only two choices.  Either find ways to make the most out of the policies contained in the Blueprint, or, as some are fond to suggest, migrate or find another system.

The majority of Malaysians, particularly those at the bottom 40percent, cannot afford the latter.  Certainly we will not see an exodus from Malaysia.  We simply have no choice but to brave it.

Let us hope that even though the Blueprint will not produce a truly transformational change we so desire, it will at least create a better system than what we have now.  Maybe then more ministers will send their children to government schools (and universities) like the rest of us.

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Tamanna Patel and Wan Saiful Wan Jan are at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

Image credit: The Nation

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