The bulk of Rustam’s writings were in Malay but this collection brings together a number of his English columns and op-ed articles culled from magazines, newspapers, and his blog over the past 20 years. They are grouped thematically under four principal headings: Realpolitik and Communalism; Failed Nationalism and the New Malay; Education and Society; and Media and Culture. The title of the book carries a characteristic question mark. Malaysia of course, is not a failed nation although it has still not come to grips with its own sense of nationhood – it could certainly do better.(Click image of book cover to enlarge to full size.)
Ahead of the game
Reading the collection, one is struck time and again by the percipience of many of his observations. One article in the NST headlined, ‘Universities still awaiting the promised autonomy’ is dated 1987, and examines the erosion of academic independence brought about by the UUCA. The issues are familiar to today’s observers of the university system – the emphasis on ‘applied’ over ‘pure’ subjects, the pursuit of ‘administrative’ rather than ‘academic’ positions, and the obsession with ‘passing examinations’ rather than the sharpening of ‘intellectual faculties through inquiry and debates’. He points out that “the restoration of autonomy is perhaps a misnomer” since Malaysia had never had a tradition of autonomy and suggests that the “granting of autonomy would be nearer the mark” provided that universities knew what to do with it.
Another piece, this time from The Edge in 1995 – ‘Tough decisions to be made in education policy’ – resonates with the concern of today’s parents regarding ongoing administrative reorganisations and policy flip-flops (English for Science and Maths immediately springs to mind), particularly in striking an effective balance between “the illusive role of education in nation-building” and the need to promote academic excellence. “The negative effect of a bad policy decision,” he writes, “too usually becomes clear only after one generation of students has been ‘spoilt’ by the system.”
He also hits the nail on the head when discussing the impact of the new technologies on our approach to teaching and learning: “If technology is advancing so rapidly, what purpose does a hands-on approach to the teaching of technological applications in school serve? By the time the student leaves, the very piece of technology he has learned to use would have become obsolete.” What is required is “the flexibility and ability to cultivate future specialized skills” which clearly requires creative and critical thinking skills rather than the rote learning approach that has characterized our system for the past 30-40 years.
Ultimately, this compilation covering politics, education, language and culture provides just a glimpse into the mind of a frustrated nationalist. Unlike the largely abusive and angry blogs that have proliferated over the past decade, his comments are both critical and constructive, motivated by concern for the country rather than antipathy towards those who have made Malaysia what it is, rather than what it could be.
Clive Kessler offers a succinct summary in his preface to the book: “Rustam’s is a singular, perhaps unique, voice in modern Malaysia. A lucky Malaysia – a Malaysia released from its strenuously sustained imaginative narrowness, I like to think – would be one in which twenty Rustams daily argued and quarreled and debated one another in public life: in daily newspapers and a variety of weekly cultural and current affairs magazines, and in thoughtful mass-audience radio and quality television programs…Now that’s a Malaysia to think about! One might then say, ‘good fellow, lucky fellow, Rustam’s country, rejoice with him and for his fellow Malaysians in it!’”
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
We continue Mark Disney's tribute to Rustam A. Sani with this review of his book Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist :