Political literacy is crucial

What determines a good democratic government? Some would say it is the strength of its institutions. Although partially true, the essence of democracy actually lies with the citizens. The quality of government relies on the quality of the governed. And those who are governed need to be politically literate enough to understand the significance of living in a democracy.

Political literacy is crucial in developing rational-minded citizens, critical of politics and the democratic processes of a government. Therefore, political literacy should be taught early in schools. Concepts like “rule of law”, “separation of powers”, “elections”, and “first-past-the-post” are very significant terms that students not only need to understand but internalise. The education system should be reformed to ensure that political literacy is cultivated among students early on and internalised by the time they reach adulthood.

To attain a full grasp of politics in Malaysia is a daunting task, one mostly reserved for politicians, academicians, public intellectuals and policymakers. The average citizen would have to manoeuvre through an interconnected web of identity politics, race-based parties, socio-demographics, religious conservatism, progressivism and history. So why not start the process of understanding the basics at a young age?

Social media has become a major tool to keep up to date with national politics, with easy access to the latest news and trends. Many politicians and community leaders have taken to it to air their views. However, any seasoned social media user would know that politics on social media can sometimes be an unpleasant mix of political narratives, bias, half-truths and misinformation. Hence, political literacy is a necessary guide to critically understand politics on social media.

The Malaysian political landscape has witnessed several notable events. The 1969 racial riots, the 1988 Constitutional crisis, the Bersih movement (and its subsequent iterations) focusing on the election system, the collapse of Barisan Nasional rule at the 14th General Election in 2018 and the recent sudden change in government are politically seismic moments in Malaysia that have unique origin stories and impacts. Students should be made to understand the significance of these events and their relation to contemporary politics.

It was reported that the government is looking to implement a Rukun Negara syllabus in the national education system alongside introducing Rukun Negara programmes in schools. This is to not only instil civic responsibility but also to expose young people to democratic practices and help them develop political literacy. While the intention is praiseworthy, it is long overdue. This should have been part of the national Education Blueprint 2013-2025. A close inspection of the blueprint reveals that political literacy is nowhere mentioned.

For Malaysia to be democratically self-sustaining, it should not depend on targeted government programmes or youth-led organisations to impart political literacy. Rather, it should be through reorienting the education system itself to produce politically literate citizens.

A democratic country like Malaysia with so much political dynamism requires sufficient levels of political literacy. The education system is the key to ensure that students build their political literacy from a young age, and then grow up to become citizens who can responsibly demand the best from their government – as the famous Malay proverb goes, “Melentur buluh biarlah dari rebungnya (let the bamboo bend from the shoot)”.

This article was originally published on April 7, 2021 in The Star.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

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