Schooled in illiteracy

JAN 13 — Ninety-three per cent. The literacy rate in Malaysia in 2009 was 93 per cent, so says the United Nations Development Programme in its latest Human Development Index report. But was it really?

I began to question the UNDP finding after reading a newspaper report that eight per cent of the National Service trainees are illiterate. It becomes worrying after one considers the context at which the eight per cent is set in.

And the context is this. National Service trainees are chosen randomly from among 18-year-olds all across Malaysia. Assuming the eight per cent figure itself was derived through random means, it suggests that eight per cent of all 18-year-old Malaysians are illiterate.

One hopes that there was some significant non-random process at play. Maybe, the eight per cent came from a non-random sample. Maybe these teenagers came from areas with notorious academic records and were overly represented in the sample. Although that would still be a problem, at least it would be a consolation. At least it would suggest the problem was not a systemic issue within the national system.

But if the process was random, then it would lead to the suspicion that the national literacy rate is lower than what has been reported. 

This can be rationalised by understanding that the literacy rate tends to decrease as the age profile grows older for newly industrialised and industrialising countries. That includes Malaysia.

This is true simply because of secular trend. Access to primary education years ago was not as easy and widespread as it is today. That access has generally improved over the years. By implication, these 18-year-olds in general should have a higher literacy rate compared to their older counterparts.

If that is true, then it brings into question the Malaysian literacy rate itself. If the cohort study with arguably the best access to primary education has eight per cent among them illiterate, one has to wonder about the credibility of the 93 per cent literacy rate. With each older age profile having a similar or lower literacy rate, the national literacy rate might be lower than what has been estimated. At best, the standard used to measure literacy was too loose. Never mind the numeracy rate which is likely to be much worse than whatever the actual literacy rate is.

That in turn says a lot about the education system, notwithstanding its successes. It suggests that the education system is not as successful as it should be at imparting the most basic skills to schoolchildren: read, write and count. Not belief in god, not multiculturalism, not unity, not patriotism but read, write and count.

Other lofty and not-so-lofty agendas should take the backseat to these basic requirements. Without these basics, it will be really hard to acquire more complex higher-order skills and knowledge. Or they probably would not be able to use Google Translate at all, like somebody at the Ministry of Defence, apparently, can.

The biggest issue is that these 18-year-olds were allowed to graduate from school, if they actually even attended school. If they did attend school, then they must have had been pushed through the system regardless of their capability.

The way these students were pushed through the system is deplorable.

What instead should happen is that a student’s competency should be assessed each year. If the assessment is unsatisfactory, then students with normal learning capability should repeat the year until they are competent enough to go to the next level.

Of course, there should be a limit to how many times they can repeat but with almost everybody experiencing 11 years of schooling, surely there are enough years for the repeat to occur until these students can read. Any system that cannot ratify the problem within 11 years is a system unworthy of us.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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