Do we really need civic education? Following the parliamentary adoption of the amendment bill to lower the voting age to 18, there have been talks of prioritising the necessity for civic education in the country's educational reforms, given the fact there will be additional seven million new voters come the next general elections (about 30% of total) who will now be eligible to vote or whose names have yet to be included in the electoral rolls. Some of them are still schooling at this moment.
Other than shaping quality citizenry and instilling universal values, civic education also plays a pivotal role in firming up a country's democratic constitutionalism. Unfortunately, the then BN administration replaced the original civic education with moral education in 1983, leaving behind a vacuum that is yet to be filled to this day.
A recently released report by Shell Youth Study showed that about 9% of young German respondents aged between 12 and 25 endured populist politics, while a third said they were not the least resistant to populist slogans.
On the other side of the Atlantic at Harvard University, political scientist Yascha Mounk pointed out in his study report that almost a quarter of American youths aged between 16 and 24 felt that democracy was not a good political system and about 70% of interviewed millennials believed a democratic and liberal lifestyle was not always indispensable.
Although these two reports have specifically targeted youngsters, such a phenomenon is by no means exclusive to this group of people, nor is it occurring in selective countries only.
Following the drastic changes in Malaysia's political landscape over the past one year, populism has begun to gain grounds in public marketplace of ideas. And since such ideas can be easily and openly conveyed to the public, sure enough future first-time voters who will reach the age of 18 will be targeted by them, as this group of people makes up a sizeable portion of the marketplace of ideas.
The reason why we need to be cautious about the development of populism is that very often such a proposition will undermine the foundation and legitimacy of the constitutionalism in a democratic country.
Public political jargon is a rhetoric art but populist propositions seem to require no embellishment and are often manifested in their crudest forms. They are not only politically incorrect, but are often hostile and discriminatory, such as the Chinese are squatters (pendatang); earthquakes and tsunamis are god's punishments for the LBGT community; and 95% of minimum wage scheme beneficiaries are migrant workers. These are all textbook-style classic examples.
The difference between youngsters and grown-ups is, if these youngsters are still schooling, we can change them by way of education. As such, Western countries have been contemplating whether there are deficiencies in their civic education curricula that need to be reformed.
However, when the entire public realm is being overrun by populism, is civic education still effective in ensuring that the foundation and legitimacy of democratic constitutionalism will not be eroded? This is the most urgent challenge that needs to be tackled by civic education.
In Malaysia, majority of people are only concerned about the implementation of civic education and how to boost the political awareness of young people and their readiness to perform their civic duties. While this is important, there arises yet another question how to lift their judgement acuity in discerning and rejecting populist propositions. If civic education eventually gets to be incorporated in our school curriculum in future, it must make sure that the foundation of democratic constitutionalism will not be shaken in the least.
Do we need civic education? The answer is definitely yes, especially when we come to the sudden realisation that some of our politicians and academics who embrace populism are taking charge of the country's educational resources. This makes civic education all the more urgent and relevant.
This is the last in a series of five articles published in conjunction with the Chinese Education Day 2019.