A decade before the end of the British rule, the educational system in Malaya was reorganized along the lines of the Barnes Report of 1951. Up to that point of time, Malaya's educational system lacked uniformity in curriculum and an articulated rationale for a policy which would be relevant to the political and socio-economic goals of the people. The country's three principal ethnic communities—Malays, Chinese and Indians (mostly Tamils from South India)—ran their own schools, the latter two often importing a syllabus used in the countries of their origin. The Barnes Report recommended a national school system, which would provide primary education for 6 years in Malaya and English, hoping that over a period of time, the attraction to have separate schools in Chinese and Tamil would wane and disappear. The reaction of the Chinese community to the Barnes Report was not totally positive. While the community agreed with the basic recommendation that Malay be treated as the principal language, it felt that there should be some provision to recognize Chinese and Tamil as important components of a new definition of Malaya's national identity.
Partly to pacify the ethnic sensitivities, the colonial government approved a modified formula that would allow bilingualism in Malay schools (Malay and English) and three language "solution" in Tamil and Chinese schools (either Tamil-Malay-English or Chinese-Malay-English). It recommended a common curriculum for all schools, hoping that a national school system would evolve. In 1955, two years before Malaya's independence, the Razak Report endorsed the concept of a national education system based on Malay (the national language), being the main medium of instruction. A key paragraph from it was reproduced in Section 3 of the Education Ordinance of 1957:
A national system of education acceptable to the people of the Federation [of Malaya] as a whole which will satisfy their needs and promote their cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation, having regard to the intention to make Malay the national language of the country while preserving and sustaining the growth of the language and culture of other communities living in the country.
In the national discussion that followed the Razak Report, two alternative models figured: Switzerland with three languages had fostered national unity "without impairing the autonomy and equality of different languages and cultures." On the other hand, the United States had assimilated the divergent immigrant communities by the use of a common dominant language. The Razak Report revealed an intention to follow the American model. At the same time, the last part of the concluding sentence endorsed the need to include the Swiss component of "sustaining the growth of other languages and cultures" in order to foster the unity of all people.
The Razak Report recommended two types of secondary schools: those using Malay as the medium of instruction to be called "national schools" while those using Chinese, Tamil or English were to be designated "national-type schools." Both being "national," the government should give financial aid to both the types. With the attainment of independence, the new government basically followed the Razak Report. There was no problem at the primary school level since the child's mother tongue would be the medium of instruction. The parents had the option to choose any other language; in practice, such a choice would narrow it down to the use of English as the medium of instruction. There was also a general consensus that at a later stage at the primary level, English and/or Malay could be learned as a "foreign language." The emphasis in these early years was on the need to establish a system that would foster national unity but not at the cost of harmony among the three communities, each of them being keen on preserving its own cultural traditions. Therefore, until the mid-1960s, the government focused on upgrading the content of education rather than on the medium of instruction. Thus, the grant-in-aid to schools were tied to adopting the national curriculum and to offer professional training to teachers to qualify them to teach the advanced syllabus in most subjects particularly, mathematics and sciences. This was because the government felt obliged to link education to the needs of an expanding, modern economy.
In 1967, Malaysia proclaimed Bahasa Melayu the national language for purposes of administration and education. In an effort to promote national integration, it was progressively made the main medium of instruction in schools and institutions of higher learning. At the same time, the people had the option to use their mother tongue and other languages.
In late 2000, the Malaysian government announced that technology education and high-tech industries would have leading roles in the country's economy which would thereafter be predominantly "knowledge-based" or "K-economy." It would address the country's "digital divide by de-emphasizing past practices of promoting businesses run by ethnic Malays." For this purpose the government would focus on education "as a means to deliver the promise of empowering the individual in the twenty-first century." In real terms, economy and education would aim at closing the digital divide between the rural and urban centers of population. The emphasis on high-tech economy and education shifted the government focus from the practice of hand-picking individuals and businesses under the indigenous or Bumiputra policy to introducing information technology at the level of the masses.
The government had emphasized developing a technology infrastructure program called the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). By the end of 1999, there were 32 MSC-approved companies, 33 percent of which were software companies and 29 percent dealt with multimedia. Together, the MSC companies helped to augment the manufacturing output of the country by an estimated 20 percent for several years. There was criticism, however, that the MSC helped the upper class industrialists and businessmen leaving the middle and lower classes and rural populations out of the prosperity loop. The anomaly would be rectified through the new policy. The 2001 budget provided for the spread of computer literacy on a mass scale, including computers in all schools, building 167 schools and 4 new universities, and allocating $316 million for training institutes. If the trend continues, Malaysia would join nearby Singapore in its efforts to minimize the digital divide.
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