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A call for democratic education

  • Before introducing any new policy, do take seriously the need for young people to learn how to participate in a democracy and to adopt democratic education.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Last week, Malaysia celebrated its 61st anniversary of independence. It is one of the most memorable one and a historical moment, as it is the first time that Pakatan Harapan (PH), former opposition coalition took over the government that was put under Barisan Nasional (BN) for six long-decades. Reflecting back, it is a chance to assess what lies ahead of us, the Malaysians. It should also be taken as an opportunity to analyse its challenges and assess how they can be overcome.

Much reform has taken place in the country since 9 May; it has also made great strides after decades of authoritarian rule and suffered from corruption. However, it still faces many challenges. One of the reforms that have yet to take off much is the education sector.

Education is the key to nurture a strong country. With a new and differently composed government today, we see and will continue to see debates over our education policies, for instance the recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC). In the initiative to reform education system, it involves the integration of different ideologies and practical considerations to ensure it is a comprehensive policy that does not exclude any groups.

The new government envisages our society to be based on participation, empowerment, and democracy, on the same coin, shouldn’t education also be participatory, empowering, and democratic?

Changes of policy direction are a consequence of embracing democracy. Thus far, while the Ministry of Education has made several commendable announcements such as the opening of space to intellectual discourse in the learning institutions especially in the higher education, but what’s even more crucial is to nurture the critical thinking among the students and to train them to participate effectively in discourse that take place in our society.

While rarely acknowledged, young students too have a right to engage in political dissent and, more significantly, an education that nurtures their ability to do so. Many schools, rather than being democratic, are still using "authoritarian" approach in many ways. That leads to where very often; our society probably underestimates the ability of the young children.

There is a growing unease that children are losing the freedom they need to express their personalities and learn for themselves what is right and wrong. After 61st year, we should really start rethink our education approach and to adopt an approach that can allow them the space to grow and learn and criticize. At the same time, in order to achieve that, it is important for us to also have teachers who are able to be objective and able to relinquish their personal views in issues.

Article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that Malaysia is a state party to, stated that, "The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice."

With the new government or New Malaysia as many labelled it as, we should really take seriously on reforming the educational approach starting from young children.

Freedom of expression is rarely part of what we learn in the school, yet it is critical for the realization of all children’s rights. Children have the right, as do the adults, to have an opinion, to express it and to meet in order to share their point of view. By nurturing and promoting such skill, we are able to have students who are able to compare, contrast, evaluate, understand, organize, and classify information or in other words, think critically. This empowers students to make decisions and deal with problems confidently, which are essential skills in school and the rest of their lives.

But all these can only be done is we reform our educational approach with the involvement of relevant stakeholders whom understand fully the vision and objective to establish citizens who know how to dissent in the spirit of democracy.

At the same time, our students must learn about the responsibilities of citizenship, for instance, learning how to evaluate the justice of laws. So minister, please ensure that any new policies you introduce, do take seriously the need for young people to learn how to participate in a democracy and to adopt democratic education. Most importantly, it should not be treated as another academic subject, but as a way of life.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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