(File pix) The University Malaya Foundation Day on Oct 8, 1949. (from Universiti Malaya Wesbsite)

THE education system, as a whole, has faced challenges that changed its traditional status quo of seeking knowledge and wisdom to unravel truth of the mystery of Man and his internal and external universe. For the tenets of education have been to contemplate the mysteries of life and existence and to develop man’s intellect to respond to and control the environment.

The acquiring, exploration and development of such knowledge began with the shamanistic exposition of existence and its attendant manifestations; to explain phenomena and mysteries of life by ascribing them to supernatural powers, namely the spirits. It later moved to the monasteries, madrasahs and mosques where people acquired knowledge to better understand the Almighty’s intention.

These thoughts and knowledge were embodied into various oral traditions, written treatises, oracles, and religious compendiums, epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Homer’s Iliad. The Islamic world prides itself with the development of knowledge as reflected in the works of Rumi, Al Farabi, Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushid, Ibn Khaldum and the Prophet’s Hadiths.

Such knowledge became the basis of ideologies that governed man’s individual and communal living. Early knowledge was religiously inclined, but with scientific principles veiled in esotericism.

This repository of early knowledge, but with scientific principles veiled in esotericism that began in madrasahs, ashrams and churches as spiritual and divine knowledge, has gradually turned secular as Man acquire the intellect to explain the natural phenomena as not the work of spirits, but due to scientific reasons.

Then, developed institutions of knowledge that were referred to as university with the purpose of educating for life and for a profession and, which was also later recognised as ivory tower, the citadel of knowledge.

As a result, the initial religious based knowledge changed from the philosophical rhetorical discourse to the functional and utilitarian. And with the industrial revolution, it further transformed the perception of knowledge from the divine wonderment of ontology and its reflections on daily life to the materialistic mechanistic application of living.

The concept of the ivory tower was a catalyst in the development of secular knowledge. Science and mathematics, which initially were couched in esoteric, mystic and celestial domain from the time of the Greeks in such works as those of Archimedes, came to the fore as secular scientific disciplines that began with Galileo Galilei in the 16th Century. It gained momentum in the 17th Century with Isaac Newton and with Albert Einstein in the 19th and 20th century, among other notables physicists and mathematicians such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking.

While Europe and the Islamic world were advanced in the quest for both religious and secular scientific knowledge, education and knowledge development were in its infancy in the Malay World including Tanah Melayu. It was mainly informal and experiential, acquiring knowledge for survival.

With the coming of the Arabic/Islamic influence to this region, education and the acquiring of knowledge was institutionalised in the religious schools called madrasah, where the Quran and other Islamic teachings were taught with Arabic and Malay as the medium of instruction.

The British brought in the concept of western education when they colonised Tanah Melayu and named it Malaya. The first English school, the Penang Free School, was set up in 1816, followed later by other grammar and technical schools. Alongside the English schools were the Malay medium schools located mainly in the rural areas but with a few in the urban vicinity.

Before the Second World War top local students pursued their tertiary university education in England while some went to Raffles College in Singapore set up in 1928. The best students pursued medicine at the King Edward College of Medicine in Singapore, which was established in 1905.

University of Malaya was established in 1949 in Singapore after merging The King Edward College of Medicine with Raffles College. The rapid growth of the university necessitated the setting up of two divisions in January 1959, one in Singapore and one in Kuala Lumpur. These two divisions became separate institutions when the University of Malaya (Malaya) was established in January 1962.

As a result of the establishment, more local students gained access to tertiary education which before was limited to the elite and a few bright commoners. Malay students who studied in Malay schools were then able to access English medium school through the two-year Special Malay Class as a transition to English medium instruction. However, madrasah and religious schools with Arabic as the medium of instruction existed alongside the Malay and English medium schools.

The focus of the curriculum then was on the traditional 3Rs, language and literature and science.

Part 2 tomorrow

Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an emeritus professor at the School of Arts Universiti Sains Malaysia and honorary fellow at the Center for Policy Research and International Studies Universiti Sains Malaysia