This is the first of a three-part series of articles, that intend to query and explore the notion for an improved and comprehensive rendering of political education in Malaysian schools. The first article focuses on the background of Civic Education and the need for pre-service teacher preparation.
On the 30th of July 2020, Sabah chief minister Shafie Apdal announced the dissolution of the state assembly, making way for a state election to be held within 60 days.
A few days before that, without expecting that the State assembly would dissolve, I randomly asked my Form 5 students – ‘Do you know, that once you turn 18 next year, you will be eligible to vote?’ Some of the responses were – ‘Tapi Madam, kami ndak tau apa-apa pasal politik’ which translates to – ‘But Madam, we don’t know anything about politics’. I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised.
This batch of students had gone through 5 years of Civic Education (as a stand-alone subject) but alas, such is the response that I get from my students. In this article, I will attempt to relate their political apathy to the lack of comprehensive political education being embedded in our syllabus in Civic Education.
Following recent developments in the legislation, on July the 25th of 2019, Malaysia’s senate passed the Bill to lower the voting age and the minimum age for elected representatives to 18. Prior to passing the bill, there have been heaps of debates and discussions on multiple platforms especially social media, regarding its implementation. One of the common refutations for opposing the lowering of the voting age to 18, is that the move must be accompanied by precise measures to educate individuals below the aforementioned age, about civic awareness and citizenship education.
While this is a logical step to prepare them for democratic participation, there are indeed challenges with regards to its implementation. In 2017, the teaching of Civic Education through a subject-based approach has been discontinued but it has been repackaged in 2019 through a whole-school strategy and experiential learning. Civic Education in our education system is more focused on being responsible citizens. Although political literacy is embedded, such as the political system and the need to vote, these elements only scratch the surface of political education and it does not translate to producing mature political judgment among the students.
Pre-service teacher preparation
When Civic Education was implemented and taught as a specific subject, most teachers were being assigned to teach even when it was not what they majored in university. Lacking formal training in terms of teaching Civic Education will impede students to grasp it as a meaningful subject that would inculcate the spirit of democracy as well as political interest among the students.
In fact, in teacher training colleges, discussions on politics and the electoral process are perceived as taboo. It is not encouraged to be discussed during lectures even among teacher trainees who have reached the legal age of voting. So, not only do teacher training colleges not train teachers to teach the contents for Civic Education, touching anything on the nation’s political affairs during lectures was also assumed to be sensitive.
Therefore, I believe there is a need for skilled and professionals to deliver the knowledge and importance of Civic Education effectively. Perhaps it is more practical to call for capacity building of our teachers in civic and citizenship education by incorporating courses or content to address the political apathy among teachers themselves.
This need is illustrated in a study which compared four countries regarding the significance of teacher development in terms of civic education. In that study, out of the four countries compared, England has the most significant teacher development. The government offers 200 placements annually at undergraduate teacher education programs all over the country to educate and train citizenship specialists.
Apart from undergraduate programs, one of the universities in England that offers a Postgraduate Certificate in citizenship education is University College London which provides the students the opportunity to be trained at the forefront of citizenship education for school students between the age of 11 to 16 years old. In that program, post graduate students who enrolled will be taught subjects related to Government and Politics, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law.
According to the latest Democracy Index 2019, the United Kingdom is ranked at 14 out of 167 countries. This could imply that having a pre-service teacher education in civic and citizenship education that is comprehensive and does not neglect political education, would likely improve political participation and political culture. This assures that prior to reaching the eligible voting age of 18, students would already have skilled and knowledgeable teachers to help them become more informed of the country’s political affairs.
Hence, I would like to reiterate the notion for comprehensive political education, and the first step that we need to take is to train and expose teachers to contents that are relevant to Government, Law, and Politics. Without this, below 18-year-olds will be misguided on what it means to have mature political judgment and if this proceeds, political apathy among them will still continue even after they have reached the legal age of voting.
Instead of fearing and discouraging discourse on the matter, teachers would be equipped and empowered to guide our young minds, the future of our nation. I look forward to a time where my form-5 students are bold and boisterous the next time I engage them.