Building on trust

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
October 31, 2018

THE keynote speaker of the Conference on the Finnish Education held at the International Islamic University recently ended his presentation by highlighting the development of a human being (not human capital) and citizen. That this came from the director-general of education (a three-term former education minister, is something unthinkable in Malaysia) made it even more precious. The question is why?

For one, it is because the same could be said for Malaysia some 30 years ago only if the Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan (FPK) were put on a pedestal that it rightly deserved. More specifically, this is because the FPK talked about nurturing a balanced and harmonious person (also not human capital) and citizen as its endpoint. The resemblance between the two cannot be more identical.

The difference perhaps is the Finnish are focused on implementation regardless of who comes who goes. The education agenda as per Finland's constitution since its inception has benefited from this approach for more than a century now.

For Malaysia, this seems not to be the case. It wavers depending on political expediency.

Even the Federal Constitution was changed to accommodate some unhealthy political compromises that make the ecosystem so complex that it remains untenable when it comes to meeting the goal of nurturing the balanced and harmonious person, more so as Malaysian citizens. Otherwise, how else do we explain why "national identity" is still one of the six student aspirations laid out in both the latest education blueprints after almost 60 years of Merdeka. Worst, when "national identity" is being contested by bigotry and racism every now and again with the issue of the national language taking most of the beating.

Indeed, this week marks the end of the National Language Month, which rightly should have been a daily affair where all Malaysians are truly conversant with the national language being the Malaysian citizens that they are.

But instead this turns out to be embarrassing when a sizeable number still cannot string a reasonable sentence in Bahasa; unlike that of Finland where even migrants as recent as the last exodus in Europe are required to muster the Finnish language before being assimilated. And that they have to attend the Finnish education system – the one and only.

More ironic still is that the FPK too has a clear statement that our education ecosystem is continuous, holistic and integrated. But then to no avail until today. In contrast, it has been subjected to distortions (mis)shaping it into what it is today. Vague and disjointed when implemented.

The conference was therefore a good and timely reminder yet again that there is nothing essentially wrong with the national education ecosystem. It is the political intent and political will that must be scrutinised and put to rigorous realignment if the outcome of the FPK is to reach a higher level of satisfaction across the board. By doing so, Malaysia could have easily mirrored the successes of Finland some time back and not wasted several decades as the case today because of our national resolve which is confused to begin with.

In short, learning from the Finnish experience is to start to work on "trust" (amanah) as the foundation and investment to build a truly cohesive nation as the ultimate goal and motivation nationwide.

It is this "pride of work" that will drive the education system such that there is no longer any need for supervision and even assessment the way the KPIs are structured in the Malaysian education environment.

School inspection in Finland was reportedly abolished as far back as the 1990s whereby "trust" takes over as the underlying framework to deliver and perform. Thus, there is only one national standardised test after 12 years of education. Otherwise each school carries out its own self-evaluation using local materials guided by a national core curriculum. The emphasis on flexibility and local context is paramount, not a one-size-fits-all (read bureaucratic) model that is now blanketing our system based on the need to compare and contrast (read ranking), which is virtually non-existent or celebrated in the Finnish system.

Key to this are the teachers who are highly valued and well-empowered as professionals entrusted to lead and sustain a highly effective and human-centric learning ecosystem. It goes a long way to demonstrate that the culture of "trust" is a vital ingredient for the Finns. It is helped through partnership and collaboration derived by the said "trust".

Contrary to conventional wisdom, reportedly less competition is producing better outcomes in nurturing an ambient that promotes "the joy of learning" – to learn and work together forging even greater "trust" all round. In turn, it brings about a world of change with varying concepts for the future, said to be largely uncertain and unpredictable.

What is clear is that education is no longer a linear process confined to just one stereotype (outdated) environment. Instead, it is more than that whereby working and learning are being diffused to further widen the concept of learning beyond the classrooms or lecture halls. It is more experiential as well as diverse in tandem with the reality of the day. It is invariably values-based zeroing in on the issue of equity as the path forward in creating a cohesive nation. Education is free of charge and not commoditised. There is no PTPTN. No student debt.

In that sense, the Finnish ecosystem is future-proof because it is easily accessible and adaptable to change without sacrificing inclusiveness, diversity while remaining egalitarian and least hierarchical or politicised, that is, of equitable benefit to all in the name of "justice".

In words of the FPK, it is about being balanced and in harmony at the level of the individual and community laying down the need for a fair and just system centred on the culture of "trust". Unfortunately, this is where our failure is. Period.