AS the director-general of the Education Ministry, Dr Habibah holds one of the toughest jobs in the country – being in charge of developing the policies and curriculum that impact millions of students across Malaysia. It’s little surprise that the former teacher starts work at 7am, and only clocks out at 7pm.

Her role as DG, which started in January, quickly became “interesting, but extremely challenging” due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry had the immense challenge of ensuring the safety of students while making sure their education wasn’t disrupted throughout the movement control order.

Despite all the challenges in ensuring students excel in academics, Dr Habibah readily admits that “not everything can be learned in the classroom”. She advocates for social, emotional and behavioural learning, including internalisation of values, attitudes and social skills, such as empathy.

R.AGE: What did you decide to focus on as a top priority when you were appointed director-general?

H: My priorities are on four things. Firstly, enrolment. I believe that school-age children should attend and complete schooling. That means no dropouts. Secondly, on student learning. So it’s not a matter of just getting children to school, but to ensure that they do learn and come up with the minimum acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitude.

My third focus would be on quality teachers and leadership within the school, because they are important to ensure that children do learn. Fourth is on assessment; it’s not just a matter of taking exams and having good grades, but school-based assessments which are a good source to inform teaching and learning, and how you can further improve teaching and learning. 

It’s been nine months since you took over the role of DG. How has the experience been?

It’s been interesting, but extremely challenging. Hardly two months in, we faced something that we’ve never faced before, which was the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before the MCO was announced, we were already facing questions in ensuring the safety of students while conducting various activities.

The most difficult decision we made was to close schools when MCO was announced, and yet at the same time to ensure that learning continues because we didn’t know how long the MCO would be enforced. We cannot disrupt learning even though children are not physically in school. Trying to provide education and learning for children at home is something new to the teachers, students, and parents, especially the younger students. When they are in Year One or in preschool, they require supervision and monitoring assistance to help them while they learn at home, and that requires support from parents. 

How did you deal with the issues that arose from remote learning?

We looked at multiple approaches to ensure learning does continue. We used remote learning through digital platforms via the DELIMA or the “Digital Education Learning Initiative Malaysia”. It provides various resources including digital textbooks, YouTube videos, and so on. 

But there’s a huge gap in terms of devices and connectivity that’s available at home. So we revived terrestrial educational TV using RTM’s Okey TV channel which is also available on Astro. 

Then again, while more than 95% of households do have televisions, we do worry about the rest who do not have access to the internet or educational TV. In these cases, our teachers need to be credited. We have very committed teachers who came up with educational packs and school activities, and some worked with local authorities and health authorities to send these packs to villages and to children at their homes. There are also schools that leave the packs at school, so parents can come and collect them, and return it once children have completed those activities.

You’ve been a teacher since 1986, and you’ve been in the education sector ever since. Why are you passionate about education?

I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I accepted the scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education after finishing my Form Five. I’ve always wanted to do well in everything I do, so even though teaching was not my first choice, I choose to accept the scholarship. So in a way, I chose to become a teacher and serve with the Education Ministry because I’ve already committed myself to it.

It’s very interesting and at times challenging in the service, but it’s certainly rewarding to see your students succeeding. At the Education Ministry, the responsibility is even greater because you are now looking at the whole system and making sure that it achieves a certain quality, and you cannot measure the quality of the education system if you don’t look at the quality of the student output. That quality is not a stagnant thing because you are always chasing the yardstick and always there are things to be improved further. 

What is your proudest achievement as an educator? 

While at the Ministry, most of my experience has been in the policy planning research division. I had a hand in the current Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025, and that’s very satisfying and rewarding. That’s the main reason I’m very focused on the aspirations of the blueprint, because we have committed ourselves and thus we are accountable to deliver on the commitment that we have made.

What are your thoughts about the #StandTogether campaign and the programmes and educational resources that we have for students and teachers?

Firstly, I must congratulate R.AGE and SP Setia for the noble cause that you’re working on. Our national education philosophy focuses on developing children holistically, physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. But it’s most difficult to ensure that holistic development, and (your campaign) is fulfilling and helping us to meet certain aspects of how we want to develop students in school.

The Malaysian education system has been criticised for being very focused on the academics, so we are trying to also measure and develop other aspects such as higher order thinking skills. Values, attitudes and social skills are very difficult to inculcate as well as to measure how children use them in school or daily lives. Your programme works in a whole-school approach, and focuses on leadership, students, teachers and even principals. In promoting kindness and empathy, it has to be activity and action-oriented because although it can be learned through the cognitive channel, the social, emotional and behavioural part of it is important.

Why is it important for students to have an empathy based curriculum?

The curriculum already has empathy embedded within, but because we are very much focused on the academic side of it and making sure students are prepared for tests, we do not measure empathy. So it may be neglected, or perhaps our teachers are not well-trained for that portion.

The StandTogether campaign helps supplement what is not fully emphasised, or lacking within certain classrooms. But definitely it would be for the best to embrace it within the curriculum. For instance, to understand history, internalising what happened with your sensitivities will allow you to learn better from the historical events that happened.

How can teachers integrate empathy based content into their teaching methods curriculum?

You need the cognitive part to be able to understand, and then to empathise. Then, you also need to embed the social emotional and the behavioural part of it within the process. For instance, project-based or teamwork approach into a problem-solving issue may help students understand and relate to issues more. They will also build up social skills, understand the relationships in working together, which is beyond understanding the content.

To do that, teachers need to fully understand beyond just the content of the curriculum. It’s not just the various themes within the subject, but also certain values that we want to inculcate. There’s also the challenge of measuring the student’s values, attitudes and skills.

What is your dream education system?

If I’m given the free choice, I’d like more resources for the Ministry. *laughs* I would also like to see a more equitable education system. While we see that this child is not succeeding academically, we forget that maybe that child has talents elsewhere and not necessarily academically. If I’m given the opportunity, I would design a system that’s inclusive, where children have equal opportunities to succeed in school, various programmes to suit everyone’s needs, by their abilities and what they’re interested in.

The #StandTogether National Kindness Week will take place on September 21 to 27, with exciting online programmes for all students and teachers. Participants stand to earn co-curriculum points and RM1,000 in grant funding! Sign up now at


Journalist and resident “genius” who enjoys telling stories about inspiring people.

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