Education in Malaysia: Unifying or Divisive?

MSRC-KAS Inter-Cultural Discourse Series III

Education, a contrivance to build nations and individual character, might also inadvertently erect barriers between peoples and cultures. While education in Malaysia has helped the nation a long way in producing a rapidly developing country, concerns about the state of racial polarisation in society and schools have emerged to provoke a renewal of debate about the state and objectives of education in this country. This publication, limited as it is, hopes, however, to bring additional perspectives to this continuing debate of national importance.



This book is a collection of the various presentations and discussions made during two half-day seminars entitled “Education in a Multi-Racial and Multi-Religious Society: Divisive or Unifying?” held on the 20th of November, 2002 and “Education and Religion: Combating Parochialism” held on the 21st of January, 2003, both at the Nikko Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. These seminars were jointly organised by the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung under the MSRC-KAS Intercultural Discourse Series, which is designed to highlight and generate dialogue and discussion on important issues within a multicultural framework.

The main focal point in both seminars was the concept of education and what it means to individuals and society. Education, a revered vocation for its ability to transcend the mundane and uplift humanity’s material and spiritual well-being, and the bedrock of civilisations, also has the ability to engender parochial mindsets and practices within society. Since the very beginning of Malaysia’s nationhood, education has occupied a place of priority on the national agenda. Education is expected to lay a solid foundation for Malaysia’s development and progress in all spheres, from social, economic to political, hence the serious socio-political considerations conferred upon this subject matter. From early debates on the establishment of the national language in schools, school curricula and the allocation of funds to the development of educationalists, education has captured the nation’s imagination.

Even as past challenges are resolved or transformed into novel versions of old issues, new concerns emerge as the world is dominated by globalisation and the pre-eminence of science and technology in all facets of humanity. In multicultural, multi-religious and developing Malaysia, the role of education whether as a unifying or divisive force or as an influence on the adaptability of the next generation of Malaysians in the global economy is keenly felt and acknowledged. After nearly half a century of independence, the challenge of building a truly Malaysian nationhood still eludes the country, while challenges lurk in every corner of an increasingly borderless economy and world order. Fingers have been pointed at the education system, accusing it of smothering creativity and critical thinking, and more significantly, of engendering racial polarisation and parochialism. How far are these allegations true, and what solutions exist to put the education system on much firmer ground? Have practices in schools and elsewhere deviated from the original noble objectives professed for the education system? What changes need to be made in the education system to cater to the needs of both the present and future generations in Malaysia?

Many questions and numerous arguments arise in connection with this vital subject. However, due to the limited scope of the seminars, and the relevance of education as a key instrument in forging national unity, focus was accorded to the challenges facing education in the forms of fostering racial unity and combating parochialism in Malaysian society. Within this context, we believed it to be an opportune time to convene these two seminars to examine the role of education in advancing national harmony and bridging societal schism. The seminars provoked multiple responses to the challenges of reforming and reinventing education to suit contemporary and national needs, and judging from the level of participation, generated keen interest from all those involved.

All speakers, discussants and active participants of the two seminars agreed that public education should only serve the interests of unifying the society and should clearly not have divisive effects. Accordingly, the state has the responsibility to eliminate all structures and contents which do not serve the goal of unifying society. Especially in a multi-racial and multi-religious country, it is the responsibility of the government to develop and safeguard an education system which truly promotes the principle of “unity in diversity”.

This publication is a compilation of edited presentations by the panellists, Datuk Abdul Rafie Mahat, Dato’ Peter Ng, Prof. Dato’ Dr. Hashim Yaacob, Mr. Peter Schier, Mr. Ir. Ang Choo Hong, Puan Zaitoon Dato’ Othman, Mr. S. Radhakrishnan and Dr. Abdi Omar Shuriye, as well as the edited transcriptions derived from the seminars’ proceedings. The earnest efforts and assistance of many went towards the realization of this compilation, and accordingly we wish to thank them all for their invaluable contributions.

Fully aware of the shortcomings of such a publication, we nevertheless believe that much needs to be done to remodel and reformulate the education system in this country in order that more coherent strategies can be devised to address issues of development and nationhood. Accordingly, it is our hope that this publication, in its small way, will be able to contribute to the on-going debate of this critical issue within the nation today.

For more information about the book, kindly contact:

Malaysian Strategic Research Centre (MSRC)

10th Floor, Bangunan Getah Asli

Jalan Ampang

50450 Kuala Lumpur

Tel +603 2163 6089

Fax +603 2163 6087