Saturday, April 18, 2009

Centring teaching on the student

ALL is not well in the upper secondary history class. The good students are cramming to score As; the weaker ones count the minutes away. They have to at least sit for the compulsory subject, if not pass it, to get a Sijil Pelajaran Menengah certificate.
  Experienced educationists are at a loss on how to get students interested in history.
  Moreover, teachers say, it's simply too idealistic to use history to inculcate patriotism among students, as upheld in the objectives of the National Education Policy and the new integrated curriculum for secondary school (KBSM).
  Lee Sin Lian, 52, of Kuala Terengganu, who has taught history since 1989 at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Teluk Kerang Pontian, thinks the school history syllabus is just too wide, with too many topics to cover.
Teachers and students skim through the subject, rather than take time to examine, discuss and understand history.
  They have just 120 minutes a week to cover the vast span from prehistoric civilisation to modern Malaysia within the two years of Forms Four and Five, before their SPM.
  "The subject should be taught in a student-centred way, where teachers facilitate discussions on the topics," says Lee. "But due to the constraints, we rely heavily on giving lectures and notes."
  More than most subjects, history demands proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia, with the ability to analyse, associate and conclude an argument.
  However, since history became compulsory with the inception of KBSM in 1993, all third formers, regardless of how they did in lower secondary, advance to Form Four. As a result, many lack the aptitude, or even the ability, for the subject.
  "The hard truth is that history has to be taught to students who are uninterested, illiterate, and some can't even string a sentence in Bahasa," Lee says.
  "Teachers are forced to break away from the required teaching method, including using vernacular language to explain history to the students."
  With smarter students, says retired headmistress Mary George, the problem is that their motivation is to simply score straight As.
  George, who taught history for 32 years, says SPM history questions are restrictive and do not allow students to explore the subject.
  The SPM history paper is divided into two parts. The first has 40 multiple choice questions, while the second has four structured questions and three short essay questions.
  "The students struggle to memorise the nitty-gritty facts but do not understand the topic," George says. "In the end although they score A for history, they are unable to grasp the whole idea of learning history."
  The marking scheme reinforces this, she says. "For the structured questions in Paper 2, the students must give specific terms and answer. If they do not memorise these facts they won't be able to answer the question."
  The previous curriculum had only five essay questions, which allowed the students to elaborate on the topic in their own words, on historical fact. "Marks were given on how they use facts to put forward an idea or argument."
  When the Education Ministry revamped the old curriculum, George, a former principal of Convent Johor Baru, was one of the teachers involved with drafting the suggestions.
  "The old curriculum was much more manageable for the teachers to teach and for the students to understand, but when the new curriculum was implemented, I was shocked to see that it was more difficult than the previous curriculum."
  As stated in the history syllabus in 2000, the objective of teaching history is to cultivate and reinforce patriotism among Malaysians, fostering unity through understanding and appreciation of the country's past.
  "But this only looks good on paper," says Lee, a UKM graduate in Malay Literature. "Realistically, these objectives are near impossible to achieve."

New Straits Times, April 18, 2009

Put history back in expert hands

FOLLOWING our package last week on what's being taught as history in the nation's schools, SHERIDAN MAHAVERA and SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI listen to what historians and teachers have to say.

HERE'S a view of history that is sure to cause some anguish among certain quarters: this country's independence did not come when power and control of Malaysia was handed from the British administration to the people of Malaysia, but when power was handed from the rulers of the Malay states to the people of then Malaya.
  This view of that totemic pass in national history is advanced by the doyen of Malaysian historians, Tan Sri Professor Dr Khoo Kay Kim - but it's not in the school textbooks.
  It's just another example of how the textbooks are not written by experts like Khoo, while those hired to do so are deficient in their understanding of history (see interview on next page).
  Those who decide the content of textbooks do not understand legal concepts such as de facto and de jure, Khoo says, and they have no grounding in the basics of the Constitution.
  "The British often used the law and sometimes broke it when they wanted to interfere with the affairs of the nine Malay states, so one must know how the law works to teach about what went on.
  "The agreements signed between the nine Malay rulers and the British never specified that sovereignty or kedaulatan would be handed over to them.
  "So the sultans were always the de jure (in law) rulers of all their holdings," Khoo said in an interview with the New Straits Times.
  Though the British advisers to the rulers had de facto (actual but not legal) power, the exercise of that power had to be done with the consent of the ruler.
  The sultans, Khoo notes, were absolute rulers who owned practically every inch of real estate in their spheres of influence, and theirs was the prerogative of granting permission to live on, extract riches from and develop these lands.
  Understanding how "rule in law" worked when it came to the relationship among the Europeans, the royal courts, and the waves of immigrants who made up the royal subjects is crucial when teaching school children about the various races that came to settle in Malaysia.
  The narrative in textbooks of natives being dispossessed by foreigners brought in by a "colonial administration" does not hold water when one remembers that the rulers always had de jure power.
  "For instance," Khoo points out, "the assumption is that the Chinese were brought in by the British whose authority superseded that of the ruler. In fact, the Chinese were brought in by Chinese towkays with the permission of the ruler."
  Khoo does not have a problem with how history is revised in school texts to create a "Malaysianised" point of view, instead of the Eurocentric one that prevailed in the 1950s. "What is wrong is when you write and ignore historic facts," he says.
  "The problem now is that if something in the Eurocentric view was black, it automatically becomes white in the so-called Malaysianised view. You must have proof to back something up."
  Another example is how the textbooks say the British practised a "divide and rule policy", which ensured the communities were segregated, to breed suspicion and hostility among the races.
  "There was no such policy by the British, and I challenge those who disagree to show me the proof.
  "In fact, they tried to get the Malays, Chinese and Indians to integrate. It was the races who refused to do so."
  Khoo laments that many textbook writers and history teachers these days have not even seen primary documents, such as the treaties signed between the British and Malay rulers.
  As last week's NST report on history illustrated ("Whose story is our history?" - April 11), there is an underlying presumption throughout much of the textbooks that non-Malays are not as patriotic as Malays.
  Professor Dr Mansor Mohd Noor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has been researching inter-ethnic relations for years. His findings suggest that this erroneous presumption is widespread in Malaysian society.
  "The Chinese are usually blamed for not being patriotic, but in reality the feelings of patriotism among them are just as high as the Malays," he says.
  "Patriotism is not based on ethnicity."
  The teaching of history, Mansor says, must be inclusive and move beyond ethnic calculations and toxic assumptions, such as whether one community is more "patriotic" than another.
  Most importantly, says Khoo, it must be put back in the hands of experts.

New Straits Times, April 18, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whose story is our history?

AT last month's Umno general assembly, incoming party vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein floated the prospect of revisiting how history is taught in the nation's schools. The suggestion immediately raised eyebrows among Umno's partners-in-governance, with the MCA pledging to convene a conference on the matter. CHOK SUAT LING, SHERIDAN MAHAVERA, SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI and YONG HUEY JIUN explore what may have fallen through the cracks of this country's historical mosaic as it is presented in the school curriculum.  

What can and what can't be found in school history textbooks has been a source of concern for many years.  

Besides omissions and insufficient emphasis on certain communities, experts and parents alike contend that some of the text and illustrations in history textbooks are placed there to subtly brainwash young minds.  

Some of these elements contain politically-aligned and narrow views that can skew students' impressions of historical events and their impact on the country and its communities.  

While school history textbooks now make a clear push for a national culture and society, are more comprehensive, and encourage students to be more analytical than in the past, when they were required to merely regurgitate facts and dates for examinations, certain elements in the texts must be reviewed.  

In the Form Three textbook, for example, the contentious term "ketuanan Melayu", or "Malay supremacy", appears with a definition deemed inappropriate. Some quarters argue that the phrase should not have been included in the textbook in the first place.  

In the same textbook, one illustration gives the impression that vernacular schools cannot promote national unity, and a paragraph on the same page states that vernacular schools will progressively be phased out.  

Also in the Form Three text, specifically in the chapter on cooperation among the races towards independence, the quote used to illustrate the theme states that the country belongs to the Malays and should, therefore, be returned to them.  

These are just some of the elements that have found their way into history textbooks under the secondary school integrated curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah).  

Former Kelana Jaya member of parliament Loh Seng Kok thinks too much focus is given to Tamadun Islam, or Islamic Civilisation. "There was only one chapter in the old Form Four history textbook, but now five out of 10 are on this subject matter," said Loh, who carried out a study on history textbooks two years ago.  

Loh, along with his MCA colleagues, submitted a memorandum to the Education Ministry pursuant to that study.  

What has also been noted is the downplaying of the roles played by Chinese and Indian communities in the socio-economic development of the country.  

Some quarters also take exception to the Chinese clans, the Ghee Hin and Hai San, which played so pivotal a role in the advent of colonial administration in the Malay states, being described as kongsi gelap or secret societies, abiding by the old British proscriptions on these organisations.  

Specific historical figures such as Gurchan Singh, the "Lion of Malaya", and Sybil Karthigesu have all but vanished from the record. Both resisted the Japanese during the occupation of Malaya in World War 2 and paid the price for it. They used to get some mention, but have since disappeared from the pages of our history.  

The key historical roles played by prominent figures from Sabah and Sarawak also merit little or no mention beyond "a line or two".  

All Malaysian communities have their role in the story of how this nation came to be what it is today, and history texts need to reflect this shared ownership. Questions of ethnic relations in history must be discussed in scrupulously neutral language, without judgments of right or wrong.  

A review would, indeed, be timely, but it must be collective, consultative and knowledge-based, not driven by emotion or political imperatives.  

CLAD in a dark shirt and white trousers, Rosli Dhobi held his head high in defiance as he was led to the gallows.  

The member of Rukun Tiga Belas, a secret underground movement agitating against the British administration in Sarawak, had been sentenced to hang for stabbing the governor to death.  

Deemed a common criminal, Rosli was too insignificant to be mentioned in any history - until the secondary school integrated curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah) immortalised him as a nationalist in the Form Three and Form Five textbooks.  

Are the facts presented in KBSM history textbooks historical truths or impressions?  

"Historical facts are one thing but interpretation of facts is another," says historian Prof Datuk Dr Ramlah Adam. "Politicians prefer the latter."  
Ramlah says that the history syllabus was drafted on the records of explorers and philosophers such as Tome Pires, Ibn Battuta, I-Ching and Admiral Cheng Ho, and writings such as Sejarah Melayu, the Malay annals.  

"Could we erase any part of our history and pretend they did not happen? Or choose what we like and leave out the rest?"   Politicians may have their own interpretations of events, Ramlah says, but they are usually shaped by their own interests.

"Let the schoolchildren be educated by the professionals."   Ramlah, an author of history textbooks, says the previous curriculum reflected some of the old imperial didacticism towards historical facts: rebels were rebels, for instance, not freedom fighters.

Under KBSM, "history is given a Malaysian perspective and the syllabus is designed to fulfil the National Education Policy".  

The policy, drafted in 1990, outlines the effort to develop a citizenry that is "knowledgeable, reliable and responsible", contributing to the harmony and prosperity of society and nation.  

The history curriculum is divided into two parts. The lower secondary component covers prehistory till the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, while the upper secondary introduces the history of the world and Southeast Asia, from the birth of nationalism till modern Malaysia.  

While the lower-secondary component is chronological and factual, upper secondary students receive an analytical and critical survey of history.   History is a compulsory subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, but Ramlah says not enough weight is given to it: a pass is not necessary.  

"History should require a pass, just like Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mathematics. With such weight, students would strive to understand the country's history better."  

Poet Datuk Baharuddin Zainal, a.k.a. Baha Zain, agrees. "If the government is serious about creating a nation-state and sowing the seeds of patriotism among the young," he says, "it is essential to make it compulsory for the students to pass history in SPM."  

Baharuddin suggests that the Education Ministry review the history syllabus in line with the National Education Policy.

"There is no point in revising the syllabus just to meet political pressures. It must be done after a comprehensive study.   "Too many times the professionals and educationists have trusted political leaders to make judgment calls. Sadly, some of them have been unwise."  

IN the 1930s, the British administration faced fierce opposition from the working class, largely made up of Chinese at the time, says Dr Kua Kia Soong, director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), a human rights organisation.   In one of the first shots at inter-ethnic political alliance, Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera), a left-wing coalition of militant and moderate Malays, partnered with the Chinese-dominated All Malaya Council of Joint Action. In October 1947, the coalition organised a general strike - a "hartal" - that brought the country to an economic standstill to put pressure on the British government.  

The Japanese Occupation in 1941 was met with fierce resistance from local nationalists. The British had supplied arms to the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) - in effect, the CPM - making it the most potent anti-Japanese guerilla movement and well-organised military group in the country, writes Wong Tze Ken, associate professor in the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Malaya, in the first volume of the book, Malaysian Chinese and Nation Building.  

The move gave MPAJA an edge, and the means, to wage war against the British after the Japanese surrender in 1945.  

"The CPM ideology and struggle had no place in the nation-building agenda as it eventually became irrelevant as the country moved ahead after independence," says Wong.  

Prof Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim agrees, as the vision of communism was one of classlessness and statelessness.  

Under the gaze of a different generation, the joining of forces between the Malayan Chinese Association and the United Malays National Organisation - the Alliance Party - for the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections spearheaded the country's seminal independence movement. The Alliance scored a landslide victory, winning nine of the 12 seats contested.   That solidarity was a turning point, says Khoo. For the first time, the Alliance convinced the British that independence might actually work.  

Dr Voon Phin Keong, director of the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, thinks the subject of history is best left to the historians or specialists in the area. "It should not be left to just anyone. School history textbooks should be written by a panel of historians and subjected to review by a different panel."  

Kua thinks textbooks are not needed in the age of the Internet. Instead, students should learn to access all available resources with the teacher acting as the facilitator in the classroom. "History in education is about uncovering the truth," says Kua.  

And truth, as we all know, is subject to interpretation.  

YEARS ago, when lawyer G.A. David Dass taught at Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara, he would be approached by students who would evince surprise that he was genuinely interested in teaching them and had no motives other than ensuring they understood the material.  

He ventures that this was because they had been "conditioned into believing that non-Malays were not to be trusted and that our presence in Malaysia meant that they were taking something away from the Malays".  

Dass believes that most non-Malay lecturers at UiTM have had similar experiences, in an example of how Malaysian history and how it is taught in schools - and how it can be manipulated by politicians - can graft lasting impressions on young minds that determine how they relate to others of a different community.  

For years, Dass says, the non-Malay history in Malaysia had been framed by an ethnocentric elite as a story of how the Malays had "lost out", "been dispossessed" and "subjugated" by "bangsa asing" or "foreign races".  

This narrative presumes that Malaya was "conquered" (dijajah) by Europeans eager to exploit its natural riches.   Control over who came into the land was out of Malay hands, and the penjajah allowed bangsa asing to enter and build their tin mines and rubber estates, while the Malays watched by the wayside in their villages.  

Such a telling of history is warped, erroneous and, when it comes to the Indian experience in pre-independence Malaya, disingenuous.  

It overlooks the contribution of Indians to local customs, culture, arts and governance. It ignores the fact that for 80 per cent of the Indians who came to Malaya in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their lives were shackled in deprivation and hard labour.  

"How did thousands of mostly Tamil indentured labourers, who were paid pitiful wages and who toiled under the most back-breaking circumstances to open up plantations and build roads, dispossess the Malays?" asks Dass, who co-authored the book Malaysian Indians: Looking Forward.  

Though the history of Indian contact with the peoples of Peninsular Malaysia between the 1st and 11th centuries is mentioned in school textbooks, its influence on Malay culture has been played down.  

It is almost as if it is an embarrassment, says U.K. Menon, deputy vice-chancellor of Wawasan Open University, to acknowledge the extensive traces Indians left on local pre-Islamic culture which can still be seen.  

In The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future, the late Muzafar Desmond Tate wrote of how Brahmin priests and Buddhist missionaries gave Malay chieftains the organisational system that would transform them into the kings of today.  

But, Muzafar stressed, the early Indians' influence was not manifested in force of arms or large-scale migration.  

When it comes to the later migration of Tamils, Telugus, Malayalees, Sikhs and Bengalis, there is a begrudging acceptance of their presence, notes Dass.  

"They were not a colonising force to subjugate or rob the Malays. Many lives were lost in opening up these plantations and towns, and these Indians were indentured to the Europeans who brought them in. The point is to recognise each community's sacrifices that went into this great nation.  

"Our founding fathers knew this was integral to nation-building."   His co-author, Jayanath Appudurai, says that the problem with how history is taught today is that it is seen through the lens of only one community.  

"But the record shows that the peninsula was in a strategic position that attracted everyone from different regions of the world to converge and set up their own settlements here."  

To acknowledge the various influences that went into creating what is now Malaysia is not to prop up one race or culture over another, Jayanath says.

"It is not about the Indians being superior to the Malays or the Chinese being better than everyone else. It is about recognising the multi-ethnicity that has always been and continues to be present in the peninsula.  

"It is about seeing Malaysia as a nation, not of a single ethnicity, but one of shared membership among many."