Edu Nation: Johor’s education system can lead the way

Now that the Johor state election is over and the dust has settled to some extent, what can his rakyat expect from Barisan Nasional’s majority victory when it comes to the education system?

Historically, the royal house helped shape its educational system as early as 1883 during the reign of the second ruler of Johor, Almarhum Sultan Sir Abu Bakar Ibni Almarhum Tun Temenggong Raja Daing Ibrahim. Agonized by the future of education in his state, he then decreed that education would be compulsory for all – a decision which was enshrined in the Compulsory Education Act of 1902. Known as the father of modern Johor , he formed the Johor Education Department, headed by Datuk Muhammad Munsyi Ibrahim, which initially operated five schools and the number gradually grew to 66 boys’ schools and five girls’ schools in 1919.

Fast forward to today, the current Johor Sultan, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, laments the deteriorating level of the English language in the state and the disunity of his Bangsa Johor, a term coined by his great-grand- father and namesake Sultan Sir Ibrahim Al-Masyhur. Abu Bakar, as early as 1920. He believes the solution is for national schools to adopt the English language as the language of instruction – in other words, to restore English schools to their former glory. The Sultan goes further by suggesting that the English stream should be the only one in the state – where the English language, being the neutral ground, would be a unifying means to harmonize his Bangsa Johor, while allowing public religious schools to continue to function.

Although education falls under the purview of the Ministry of Education, the private sector is encouraged to inject funds into state education departments or directly into schools to improve facilities and benefits for its students. Chinese vernacular schools in Johor have excelled in this area, receiving financial assistance from generous Chinese associations. The funds have been used to set up learning centers for its students who are left behind for whatever reason. The importance of their contributions has been more clearly seen during the current pandemic.

For decades, Johor has found itself in a unique situation where its students are bussed in the early morning hours on weekdays to schools in neighboring Singapore. It has been recorded that up to 200 buses cross the border to bring these students to the carriageway. Most of these young people either try to win the Asean scholarships offered by the city-state or stay and pursue a career there or anywhere abroad where a world-class education in Singapore takes them. A main criterion is that the candidate is proficient in the English language. So far, the brain drain has taken two million high-achieving Malaysians from us – a loss we cannot afford.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, Singapore schools were physically closed for 10 weeks while Malaysian schools exceeded 48 weeks. Schools in Singapore have taken a nuanced approach to transitioning seamlessly to home-based learning. They have ensured adequate accessibility for students, including Malaysians, by rescheduling holidays and providing devices. By contrast, students in national schools in Malaysia were still struggling with the availability and suitability of devices, worsening the already widening learning gap for those who did not have access to lessons.

Johor’s education system is extraordinary in allowing dynamism to be practiced in its management style and is poised to excel. It had strived to be a hub of international education and now proudly offers more than 18 international schools and eight top foreign universities and institutions in the field of education mainly in the Iskandar region of Malaysia.

With the new government leadership in place, the state is expected to continue to invest heavily in the development of Bangsa Johor. This can start with providing students with electronic devices so they can use 21st century learning tools and store their heavy school bags.

The state should encourage more schools to adopt the Dual Language Program (DLP), which has been put in place. Schools that have already adopted DLP should take it to the next level – DLP+ – by delivering digital instruction in English. The state could also encourage students from these DLP+ schools to enroll in international schools and foreign universities.

Engineers who graduate from the University of Reading in Malaysia can become sought-after physics teachers. Computer scientists at the University of Southampton Malaysia can become advanced computer science teachers. In time, a new brand of English teachers will emerge from the increased immersion in the English language.

Efforts to defend Bahasa Melayu are expected to continue, with Indonesia poised to become the next superpower. It should also improve Mandarin fluency in schools as we boost trade with China. The state should persuade students who have enjoyed a world-class education in Singapore to come back and make an impact. Let’s take advantage of what we have in our own backyard. There are enough highly ranked local and foreign universities that can lead the industry.

Over time, Johor will have produced a skilled workforce to be reckoned with, second to none and bold enough to move mountains and achieve a better quality of life for all of Bangsa Johor.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is Chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an education lobby group that serves as a conduit between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other education stakeholders.