After the historic 509 election, we have a new cabinet, and most importantly for me, we have a new Education Minister, in the name of Maszlee Malik.

An Education Minister is important because he basically dictates the general direction of where the education system is going to. And we all know that Malaysia education system needs an overhaul to produce graduates who are at least competent in workplace, and also human beings who can think well.

So, as a victim of the failed education system in the past and as someone who is passionate about educating the next generation, I would like to see the incoming Education Ministers tackle the following issues:

Emphasize on learning from first principle

For as long as I can remember, the primary and secondary school education I received in 80s and 90s was mostly rote memorization, and as such, there was very little or no emphasis on logical thinking and problem solving skills. Even mathematical/physics subjects were dumbed down to such a level that if you memorized certain formulas, you could already score. You didn’t have to understand anything.

There was no subjects that taught you how to think, or how to analyze fallacies. No philosophy, folks! The school was very boring because it didn’t stimulate intellectual curiosity. It was more like a factory churning out automatons.

Can you reason from the first principle? Can you connect the dots? Can you rephrase what you have learnt in your own language without using new words? If you can’t, probably you don’t understand enough of the material. And probably you don’t learn enough to solve problems on your own. Najib once said that there is now no more permanent employment, only permanent employability. I don’t usually agree with our ex-PM, but on this instance, I do wholeheartedly. A person who can solve problem can better survive in this world, where knowledge gets outdated really fast and where rote memorization will most likely get you nowhere.

Encourage learning for the sake of learning

I loved to read, but I hated the school curriculum. The main reason is that the curriculum was designed to squash any desire for learning ( probably the curriculum designers figured that they need automatons so they only want to train robots). The only metric we were being measured against was the amount of As that we got. To get As, you would have to memorize, memorize and MEMORIZE a long list of factoids, names, events that were presented in a way that was ABSOLUTELY not connected to one another. The textbooks were uninspiring, because they were just presenting facts ( sometime only one-sided facts) with very little logical connection between topics.

So ironically for a lot of people, the school is the reason why they dislike reading, and the place where formal learning begins and curiosity ends.

But for me, I would often find refuge in reading my own books that my parents and school teachers didn’t approve, because they took away the time in rehearsing exam materials and sometimes flatly contradicting what our textbooks said. Those “my own books” were written to compete in a fair and competitive market, so they tended to be A LOT better written than textbooks.

That was also the time when information was not readily accessible, so one would have to be extra creative in sourcing new, exciting ( and maybe even forbidden) reading materials. But the taste of the Apple of the Knowledge is so sweet, especially if it is forbidden, that I got hooked in reading and learning for life; the dopamine gets triggered every time I read a hard-to-access reading material. Kindle fans today, unfortunately, don’t have this luxury because all the books are available to them in 60 seconds or under. When you can get anything you want instantly, what is there to strive for?

To stay competitive in current job market, one has to learn continuously. So it’s more important to instill the thirst for knowledge so that the graduates can catch their own fish, rather than to just give them fish. Can our education minister make students love to read and to learn? I certainly hope that he can, given that he said that he wants to cut down on teacher’s administrative work so that they can concentrate on teaching, and change the exam-oriented culture.

Revamp the History subject

For all as long as I can remember, our History subject in secondary school was the most boring, and “biased” subject of all. The winner writes the history, in order to use it as a indoctrination and propaganda tool. In my History books, there were always two characters, the good ( the “valiant” freedom fighters, the UMNO founders) and the bad ( the colonizers, and the Malaya Communist). The narrative was simple: The good triumph over the bad and we live happily ever after! Full stop.

What about the nuances? Say, the bad things that the good people did, or the good things that bad people did? Sorry, not mentioned. And what about the losers who opposed the bad people? They were either omitted or simply being casted as another party of the villian ( no wonder you can’t afford to lose). And what about the bigger picture, say, the World History? They were glossed over, because it was not aligned with the central narrative.

History should present as many views as possible. The purpose is not so much to get the correct answer, but to train students to think and to appreciate different points of views that lead to a particular event . What’s the purpose of History subject ? So that we can learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. You can’t learn if you can’t think critically.