AS a nation we have many things to be thankful for. Despite the partisan political ructions, we have maintained social harmony. Although it could be better, we enjoy a decent standard of living. We have almost eradicated poverty. Our healthcare system is the best in the world. Our economy is chugging along despite being buffeted by trade wars and a softening global economy.
But if we are to progress as a nation, we need to confront the brutal facts that some things are amiss in society, education and fiscal management. We need to confront them head-on just as Admiral William Stockdale did while incarcerated in the Hanoi prison, or the Hanoi Hilton as it was euphemistically called, during the Vietnam War.
Stockdale was a decorated war hero. He was captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war and kept in solitary confinement for eight years. He was tortured over 20 times. In all those years he confronted the brutal fact that he was a prisoner-of-war. But he never wavered in his faith that he would one day be free. His belief was more than positive thinking. It was a cocktail of optimism, resilience and confidence in surmounting the problem despite the odds.
The positive-thinking prisoners felt sure that they would be freed by Christmas. Christmas came and went. They then awaited Easter. Easter came with still no change to their condition. And then they thought they would be freed by Thanksgiving Day. That too passed. And the cycle of hope was repeated with no liberation in sight. Eventually, they died of a broken heart.
Similarly, we can be positive that the nation will one day be integrated with deep social cohesion. But we need to confront the fact that racial integration is still a work-in-progress. We live in harmony no doubt, but in our respective communal cocoons.
We do not enjoy the synergy that diversity should deliver. We still allow partisan advocacy of parochial interests that drowns out the moderate voices that champion the rights and privileges of all. We need to clamp down on improper clamour of parochial interests.
We have streamed our education system, rationalising this on the principle of equity and equality of opportunity. However, we must remain vigilant that such streaming does not compromise the development of talent among our youth and our global competitiveness.
The education system courts one controversy after another. True, in a multiracial society, some will always feel disenchanted with the education system. But controversies seem to suggest that the system may be losing focus and out-of-touch with reality.
Albert Einstein once said: “Education is not learning the facts but the training of the mind to think.” Undeniably, education is about learning critical-thinking skills and nurturing a creative mind. Indeed, Einstein contended that he was no brainier than the ordinary folk; just more curious. But to be creative, one still needs to gain mastery over knowledge.
Howard Gardner, in this 2005 book The Five Minds of the Future, argues that, apart from a creative mind to survive in the future, one must also be an expert in a particular discipline. Additionally, one should possess the ability to synthesise information from disparate disciplines.
To survive the Artificial Intelligence era, we need to grasp Science, Technology, English and Mathematics. Although scores have markedly improved, we still rank at the bottom half of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. PISA ranks the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students in Science, Mathematics and reading.
Our neighbour next door is in the pole position among 70 countries. We need to confront the brutal fact that our education system is failing us on that score.
In his speech at the International Conference on Emerging Issues in Public Policy at Universiti Malaya on August 5, Tun Daim Zainuddin, the former chairman of the Council of Eminent Persons, was spot on when he said: “We are far from being a united people. We are far from being able to compete at the global level. We are far from being able to embrace differences and changes. And underpinning all of this unpreparedness is education.”
We must also confront the brutal fact that we spend some 83 per cent of our government budget on operating expenditure. Only 17 per cent goes to capital expenditure. It is capital investments that build the nation’s capacity for future growth.
Slightly more than one-third of the budget goes to salaries and retirement benefits. This expenditure will spiral out of control if the size of the public service is not managed well. We need to confront the ever-burgeoning salary and pension costs.
These must be brought to heel if more expenditure is to be shunted for welfare and development. Resolving these faultlines cannot be done overnight. It needs a lot of understanding, sacrifice and compromise by all.
Being positive that we can overcome will sure help. But unless we grab the bull by its horns, we cannot seal these fissures to enable us to move forward with gusto.
The writer is a professor at the Putra Business School