Build it better

*Note: I misspelled Escobar’s first name. It is Arturo, not Arthur!

This piece–published in New Straits Times on 9 November 2018–is my first op-ed in a mainstream daily newspaper in Malaysia. In a flurry, I wrote it in the middle of the night, birthed at the confluence of current education-related events in Malaysia, as well as the fantastic meeting I had with my PhD supervisors earlier this week.

Recent events highlighted in the op-ed (policy borrowing, education tied to certain ideas of development) as well as the new direction of my research following this recent supervision (currently reading Escobar’s work on postdevelopment) reflect the continued utility of the vast field of comparative and international education in informing my thinking. The full text is appended below.

Here’s to more publications in the future, whatever form that may take!

To cite this article:

Aizuddin, M. A. (2018, November 9). Science and Arts: Building New Malaysia in Our Own Mould. New Straits Times, 18.

Science and Arts: Building New Malaysia in Our Own Mould

Council of Eminent Persons chairman Tun Daim Zainuddin’s claim, regarding many Malays choosing to study literature instead of science due to the former’s relative ease, has reignited the debate on science versus the arts in our education system, and the privileging of one body of knowledge over the other.

Scholars like Professor Dr Syed Farid Alatas and Dr Lim Swee Tin came to the arts’ defence, highlighting its utility in imbuing scientists with ethical and moral tools, as well as for the cultivation of other actors in nation-building.

This discussion that pits two fields of knowledge against each other finds its roots in the government’s policy that specifies a 60:40 ratio of science to arts enrolment in upper secondary education. Instituted in 1970, the target under this policy has yet to be realised, and the logic remains largely uncontested.

It is accepted that to compete globally, to be as developed as the United States, China, Japan and Australia (countries cited by Daim), Malaysia must prioritise science over the arts. There are no alternatives. In fact, the 60:40 ratio remains unaltered after more than 40 years of implementation. Why is this so? Are these notions Malaysian, or are we uncritically riding the wave of the West’s project of modernity?

Add to the mix, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s announcement on the intent to revive and revitalise the Look East Policy, particularly in the education sector. Perhaps, in this New Malaysia, it is worthwhile to rethink what we mean by development in and for our own context.

As part of my doctoral research, I am interested to learn about young Malaysians’ aspirations in relation to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), particularly in the rural context. But I have been challenged by my supervisors that STEM is a modern and largely urban construct, tied to Western concepts of development.

Do I accept these conventions as the only trajectory of development? Will young Malaysians, particularly from rural areas, marginalised and excluded by modernity, also accept them?

I would like to imagine that there are alternatives.

Anthropologist Arturo Escobar argues for what he calls post-development, a denunciation of the idea of development in the mould of, and benchmarked against, industrialised countries from the Global North. We need not be as radical so as to reject thinking of our statehood in terms of development. However, it is worth being critical and to call into question uncontested ideas of how we should develop.

In my opinion, part of the solution lies in looking inwards.

In 2013, Dr Mahathir was asked in an interview regarding our target to become a developed country by 2020. He pointed to the uneven development between urban and rural areas, and true to form as a staunch nationalist, spoke of Malaysia being a developed country “dalam acuan kita sendiri” (in our own mould).

As we (re)look to Japan as an example of development, admiring its ability to rise to the level of Western countries, we must not forget “acuan kita sendiri“. What does this mean in our society for this day and age? It is important that as a society, we come to a consensus on its meaning, reflecting on our history and cultures, on our technology and biodiversity.

The knowledge of who we are as a nation to craft “acuan kita sendiri” is to be found in the science and the arts.

PhD student in Education and Clarendon-New College scholar, University of Oxford.

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