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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Never too poor for education

The new PH government should show that it will no longer treat education like a political football.
COMMENT
Bernama pic
By Kua Kia Soong
The announcement by Education Minister Maszlee Malik to halt the construction of eight Chinese primary schools (SJKCs) that had already been approved by the previous administration because of supposed financial constraints is totally unacceptable. Is this his own opinion or was this a Cabinet decision? In a government committed to inclusion and transparency, what possible rationale could there be for putting the brakes on such a small yet critically important project?
The debatable size of the debt mountain
Ever since the announcement by the new government that our national debt stands at RM1 trillion rather than RM685 billion, we have watched the ritual of “patriotic” Malaysians dutifully contributing to this fund. Even a little boy’s piggy bank was sacrificed at this new altar of “hope”.
First, there is dispute between economists as to the actual size of the national debt, depending on whether we include government guarantees and lease payments under public-private partnerships. We should hear what the former governor of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), Zeti Akhtar Aziz, has to say about whether she included these items during her term as governor of BNM, and especially during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s term from 1981 to 2003.
Then, it is clear that two important issues need clarifying: (i) how will such a “Save Malaysia Fund” be utilised; and (ii) who is best positioned to lead this noble drive to “save Malaysia”? A little boy sacrificing his piggy bank to plug the national debt hole is certainly heart-wrenching if also a ludicrous spectacle.
During its election campaign, Pakatan Harapan (PH) made it very clear that it could solve the economic problems of Malaysia as long as it was in charge and the country could be saved from the rotten Barisan Nasional (BN) government. After GE14, the finance minister reiterated that the new government can solve all the accounting problems despite the abolition of the GST. Just recently, they could pull RM40 million out of their hat to pay for televising the World Cup.
Then again, surely the wealthiest members of the Council of Eminent Persons can just as easily contribute towards plugging this debt hole rather than let the little boy sacrifice his piggy bank. But whoever heard of the world’s wealthiest persons contributing to plug their country’s national debt? Most of these occasional philanthropists employ smart accountants to evade local taxes and invest in offshore tax havens, never mind contributing to plugging a national debt hole!
So unless the new government specifies the specific purpose of this so-called “Save Malaysia Fund”, who knows how it will be spent? This is Transparency 101.
Must approved new Chinese schools be sacrificed?
Now, the new education minister tells us that even the eight Chinese schools approved by the previous administration will have to be sacrificed at the altar of this debt mountain. For the benefit of those who are not aware, let’s look at the facts of the matter, starting with statistics on the number of schools in the country.
At independence in 1957, there already existed 1,350 Chinese primary schools to serve a Chinese population of 2.3 million. Yet today, there are only 1,298 such schools to serve the current Chinese population of 6.5 million as well as the families of the nearly 100,000 non-Chinese enrolled pupils. With a total of nearly 8,000 primary schools in the country, the glaring need for new Chinese primary schools has never been more urgent, a need that has been voiced by the community ever since the 60s.
I suggest that the new education minister and the prime minister visit some of our Chinese primary schools to understand the appalling conditions of overcrowded classrooms which cannot be beneficial for our children’s education. Perhaps they will see for themselves whether in fact the majority of the Chinese Malaysians are well-off compared to those in SRK schools.
During the 80s, our children were already cooped up fifty to a class. Does the new education minister intend to do something about the teacher-student ratio in SRJK schools, and how he will go about doing this without building new schools or allocating more land for the schools’ expansion?
And how much does it cost to build one primary school? RM10 million, perhaps? So it would cost perhaps RM100 million to build these eight new Chinese primary schools. But as with most of these schools, the Chinese community has ended up subsidising the cost of their construction through fund-raising in the community. Perhaps the richest man in Asia and a member of the Council of Eminent Persons, Robert Kuok, can be coaxed to donate RM100 million to build these eight Chinese primary schools when a little boy can give away all his piggy bank savings to save the country.
Then again, compare this sum with the amount of unpaid PTPTN loans. According to the PTPTN chairman, the monthly collection for PTPTN loans for May 2018 alone dropped by almost RM100 million. The borrowers were apparently adopting a wait-and-see attitude to see if the new government would follow through on its pledge to allow borrowers who earn below RM4,000 to delay repaying their loan. For the benefit of Malaysians who are concerned about saving Malaysia from the debt hole, in 2015, unpaid PTPTN loans totalled RM8.49 billion! Compare that with the RM100 million in the Tabung Harapan to date…
We hope the new government will do the right thing and not sacrifice these new Chinese primary schools for which the community has been hoping for decades. For too long, education under the old BN government was politicised. Let the new PH government show that it will no longer treat education like a political football, and that new schools will be built based on the needs of the particular community in the area.
The education of our children should be seen as an investment, not a cost. Many parents have sacrificed their family assets for the sake of their children’s education because there is a wise saying: “… however poor you are, you cannot treat education poorly.”
The enlightened intellectuals in PH might also like to ponder this Confucius saying: “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”
Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram. - FMT

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