Post-May 9: What's our biggest problem?

  • May 17, 2018
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COMMENT | Just two days after the results of the general election filtered out to an expectant nation, the skipper of the winning slate, after some baulking by assorted hostile elements, was off and running.

One would think that at 92 years of age, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, even granting his formidable reputation for hard work, would pause for a well-earned rest.

Barely had the ink run dry on the appointment papers he signed late on Thursday night, making him prime minister of Malaysia for the second time in his life, than his kinetic self reminded us of the second rallying cry that had accompanied the beginnings in July 1981 of his first stint as premier - Berdisiplin, Giat, Maju (Be Disciplined, Proactive and Progressive).

The first rallying slogan– Bersih, Cekap, Amanah (Clean, Efficient, and Trustworthy) - did not wear well over the long 22 years of his initial prime ministerial tenure as did the second clarion call.

This is not the place for a discussion on why the first did not fly so well.

The second did - if only because it was well epitomised by Mahathir himself.

One recalls, by Mahathir's own account, the occasion when he returned early in the day from a trip abroad and went straight from airport to office where his underlings sheepishly demurred, “Oh, Dr Mahathir boleh lah” (“Oh, you are able to work hard”) when he frowned on the apparent listlessness of some of them.

Even after 15 years of his leaving the PM's office, at an age when eminent retirees would more likely be playing with their grandchildren after completing their memoirs, Mahathir's work ethic is relentless.

That is why the betting is that he will overcome the shortfalls in government revenue expected from the abolition of the GST, bring to account kleptocrats and other malefactors who revelled during the premiership of Najib Razak, and give short shrift to the racial and religious bigots who had a field day during Najib's tenure.

If on the last score he may lag, bearing in mind the favour in recent years he showed Ibrahim Ali and Perkasa, we can expect Amanah president Mohamad Sabu, with whom Dr M has forged a good understanding, to lead the fight against racial and religious bigotry in the country in the course of the second Mahathir administration.

Lack of core curriculum

However, Mahathir's hard work alone won't avail against the biggest problem faced by Malaysian society: The absence of a core curriculum by which our young are educated.

A core curriculum is the corpus of historical, scientific and literary knowledge that students ought to be acquainted with if they stay schooled for as little as 11 years (from primary to secondary level), or for as long as 16 years, by which time they would have completed a basic degree at university.

We had a core curriculum when English was the medium of instruction before the New Education Policy was introduced in tandem with the New Economic Policy in 1971.

That core curriculum was skewered by the changes which over a period of time were made to the corpus of educational works that students in the pre-New Education Policy era were acquainted with.

This has resulted in what we see today - high unemployment among graduates because of a lack of proficiency in English.

This is not an argument for the return of the English language as the medium of instruction in our system of education.

Rather, it is a brief for a return to our education system of the core curriculum that prevailed in the pre-NEP era.

Broadly, this core curriculum developed the capacities of students, who would have had at least a 13-year immersion in its subjects, to write and speak clearly, to deal competently with number and figure, to think critically and constructively, to appreciate and respect personal and cultural differences, and to enjoy with a modicum of sensibility the worlds of art and music.

This core curriculum was better at equipping citizens to acquit themselves of their civic obligations in democratic society.

Fortunately, there has been in recent months a litmus test by which to assess this fitness for civic duty.

Take the case of a child who in 2009 was plucked away virtually from her mother's breast by an estranged father who then went on to defy all orders granted by civil jurisdictions to return the child to the mother.

After a nine-year legal battle, the indomitable mother finally gained from the highest court in the land the right to custody of the child by dint of a court order that experts say validates the fundamental tenets of our liberal democratic constitution.

However, till today that child has not been returned to the mother principally because enforcers are unwilling to perform their civic duty.

Therein lies the root of our problem in Malaysia which is the difficulty - some would say, the impossibility - of drawing up a core curriculum for our education system.

The Socratic test

The problem revolves around what is called the Socratic puzzle.

This puzzle can give those who contemplate it a headache: Is a good action good because it is approved by the gods? Or is it approved by the gods because it is good?

Put another way, are certain beliefs and behaviours good because God commands them? Or does God command them because they are good?

In other words, do the categories of right and wrong, good and evil, have an existence apart from the divine will?

Phrased in another way, is there a criterion of morality independent of what a religious confession or for that matter any religious confession says about it?

The above mentioned litmus test establishes a clear demarcation between those who think it's morally offensive to spirit away a baby from her breastfeeding mother from those who hold that what their confession says about such an action is more compelling than what conventional morality feels about it.

The latter stance fails the Socratic test because it holds that if conventional morality says you cannot snatch a child from the mother, it is conventional morality that is mistaken, not what their confession feels about it.

Unless the Malaysian education system can resolve this problem, it's delusive to think we can draw up a core curriculum by which to foster a citizenry for their civic obligations.

Without doubt, the education portfolio is the single, most important one in our newly installed Pakatan Harapan government.

It's only realism to hold that if it fails to resolve this problem, all salutary attempts to forge an edifice of good governance will in time flounder because the scaffolding has been erected on foundations that have no steel in its girders .