Of the streaming, Jawi and other matters
Published on: Sunday, January 05, 2020
By: Parveen Kaur Harnam Singh
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I REFER to last year’s water-wave like news on education in that there have been a number of proposed ideas and/or thoughts to revamp the education system that is reminiscent of ups and downs of water on a beach.  

Questionable analogy aside, the highlights (of the “oeuvre” of policies) are the ending of the streaming education system, the introduction of khat, free breakfast, the popularization of slogans, “borrowing” teachers from Saudi Arabia and a host of others. 

I am not one to comment on the validity or strength of these policies, some are ambitious, some appear well-meaning, and others require no words (good or bad).

For one, I was particularly drawn to the ending of what is known as “streaming” (and no, I don’t mean water this time).

Being a human being, I have the unfortunate prescriptive infirmity (as Hardy would put it) of having only my own experiences to fall back on. Now, before I am accused of infantile purple prose, I am myself from the science stream and thought it to be a strong foundation – regardless of whether one enters into a career that is strictly “science”. 

The idea of having no concept of “streaming” sounds daunting, especially in a Malaysian education system, which is (try as we may to have it otherwise) very focused on exams. The concept of streaming helped in finding a niche for students to enter higher education institutions. I wonder what lies ahead without it.

Another thing I found more than a little fascinating was the fixation on Jawi (khat) – for which the racially charged conversations have yet to wane (instead appear to be amplifying as the days go by, now banned by a last-minute court order secured by the police-which creates complexities in the exercise of freedom of speech as well as stokes societal unrest). 

And, thus a delicate discussion on race and religion has become a national conversation. I was myself (again falling into the prescriptive infirmity of most humans – drawing from personal experiences) – I do not want to use the word “forced” here – “prompted” to study Arab during my time in a local public institution. 

It was and still is a requirement for non-Muslim law students to study the language for 3 semester (nearly 2 years) in my alma mater. The idea is that we would require the language in studying Islamic law subjects. After 4 years, I realized (to my own dismay) that I neither needed nor could ever master (or even comprehend) the language enough to employ it in my learning of Islamic law. 

I could understand the law and (dare I say) was moderately good at it, but the language remains an enigma to me. For this reason, the focus on Jawi (khat) is slightly befuddling. There are some skills that need honing from a very young age. Language is chiefly one of them.

I have only one thought in mind, why is there not more literature in our education system? Why can’t there be more resources given to building knowledge focused-institutions (for lack of a better term)? I am, however, not saying that all the proposed plans from the Education ministry this year leave much to be desired. 

The question is: could it be so wrong for there be a shift to a slightly different direction next year? My own experiences with literature stems from a damp and dour basement library (which I actually very much loved) in a federal government office where my rank and file civil servant mother worked at (subsequently demolished some years ago), where one could only find old, dog-eared books with (almost always) the final pages of a book missing. 

My strongest memory is of reading “Little Women”, where for years, the novel ended with Jo sharing an umbrella with Professor Bhaer. I was only able to find out the real ending much later. I was then fortunate enough (or unfortunate, upon reflection) to spend 2 years of my childhood with people who looked at me like I was from another planet (really giving meaning to the word “alien”), to experience the “obsession” over literature in a sleepy little town called Exeter (in Devon, UK). 

My first intimation with disappointment was realising that the education system there is based around moulding interests (which I found refreshing) as opposed to creating “winners”, as is the case (and ruefully so) in Malaysia. After this little interlude, I always wondered and still wonder why our education system is such and why our resources are so tepid in the most crucial of areas. 

There appears to be a high draw to “buzzwords”, “slogans” and short-term plans. I suppose this is not always a bad thing. I think the issue is that memory is fickle: by the time we begin to understand one policy and what it really means, the ministry has already moved on to the next big thing. 

We are then left to fend for ourselves (and by “we”, I am really referring to teachers, professors, students as well as the general public).

In these “trying” times, I would think that literature would be a great inspiration to fight the war that is living in a modern society, where pay is always a debate (Cuepacs’s proposal of increasing the minimum wage of civil servants to RM1800 has been dissected and skinned alive for almost half a year now). Literature, aside from being “enlightening” also has some wonderful “words of encouragement”. Where policies disappoint, literature triumphs. Screaming “Et tu Brute” to the ATM machine must bring some form of satisfaction? Saying “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others” to the premium paying movie-goers (those who can skip lines) would surely be some form of poetic justice? Yes, these things might attract strange and slightly fearful glances, but you have yourself, and your own shoulder to pat (and obviously literature to thank). You have not quite reached the “Van Gogh cutting his own ear off” level of “insanity” just yet, and so you are safe. I, however, seem to have fallen into a hole that I cannot dig out of, so here’s to hoping the New Year brings some welcome news when it comes to policies and ministerial announcements. Auld Lang Syne! 


Parveen Kaur Harnam Singh is a lawyer

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