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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Exchanges with Din Merican

The Fate of Our Universiti Malaya

Dear Bakri:

If you subscribe to the New Sunday Times, you might care to look at the University of Malaya’s (UM) advertorial (November 20, 2005 Page H7) by the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Hashim Yaccob. In it, he explains the institution’s drop in ranking to 169 among the top 200 universities ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) 2005 Survey.

First, he says that there are some 30,000 universities worldwide. Only 200 (0.67 per cent) made the list. He implies that the ranking is not representative. Second, he highlights the fact that UM is in the 0.67 per cent top band. Not bad, he thinks, except he ignores the fact that UM was ranked 89th in the previous year. Obviously, he is not concerned with the downgrading and that UM is a distant “also ran.”

This is pure hubris. He is unwilling to acknowledge that UM is no longer the respected university that it once was (when it was known as the University of Malaya) in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Sir Alexander Oppenheim ( a world class mathematician), Professor Syed Hussein Alatas (a well known sociologist) and Professor Ungku Aziz (a respected economist) were its Vice Chancellors. We had visiting professors from Harvard, Chicago, University of British Columbia, and McGill, as well as foreign students doing their undergraduate, Masters and PhD degrees.

To me it matters that UM be in the top 20, or better, in the top 10. If UM were in the top 50 or 90, there is nothing to brag about.

It certainly does not merit an advertorial from the Vice Chancellor, who is in charge of administration and in ensuring the quality of research and teaching at the university. Under his watch, UM has deteriorated dramatically in terms of academic ranking and reputation.

Dr. Hashim said that UM is ranked 45th in the Arts and Humanities, 83rd in the Social Sciences, and 82nd in Biomedicine. He did not mention how UM is ranked in the sciences or technology. Why? Could it be because UM never made it in the top 100 in these categories? These are critical disciplines where the Government has accorded top priority.

I wonder where the National University of Singapore (NUS) ranks in these two categories (science and technology). The fact that it ranks in the top 20 overall means that it has beaten UM flat in both science and technology as well as the other fields except in the Arts and Humanities (the Bangsawan and Sandiwara subjects). Remember, both NUS and UM were once part of the University of Malaya. That is, both started from the same point, before separating in 1962/63.

Dr. Hashim criticizes the evaluation criteria used by THES. For example, he said that not a single professor from UM was selected to be on the peer review panel. Quoting him, “... it is perhaps safe to assume that many of them [reviewers] came from the advanced countries of the West. It is only reasonable to expect them to give preference to universities in their own countries.” He is implying a bias in the survey.

Can we assume that NUS and the University of Melbourne are more favored than UM in the peer review? Dato Mustapha Mohamed, Dato Tajol Rosli and others who graduated from University of Melbourne would not like that. Would the inclusion of a UM’s representative in the review panel made any difference? I submit not.

The UM’s Vice Chancellor also commented on student-staff ratio, citations, foreign academic staff, foreign student enrolment, and employer ranking. He attributed UM’s failure to have more foreign students and academic staff to Government policy. I assume he means our Bumiputra Policy favoring Malays in student enrolment and staff recruitment and promotion. No wonder outstanding professors like K.S. Jomo, Terrance Gomez, G. Sivalingam and others have left.

Dr. Hashim’s final plea is, and I quote, “The experience of excellent universities worldwide gives us a salutary lesson on what we have to do to maintain our position in the future .... This requires a strategic plan for internal and external development.... For our present aspirations to become a reality, we need the support of the people of Malaysia to enable UM to achieve excellence as a national asset which belongs to us all. It is as a national asset that we can say with some pride that UM has become a better university this year than it was in previous years, and that UM is a university of national standing with an outstanding and improving international reputation.”

He sounds more like a politician than “a calm and sober (and as far as possible objective)” academician. What reputation has UM left now that it is ranked 169th, down from 89 in 2004? Is he suggesting that his predecessor messed up UM? Is he the savior? He seems to be pleading for renewal of his contract!

I am very disappointed with the advertorial. It reflects our culture of excuses whenever we fail to measure up internationally. It is time for our Government to take drastic measures to deal with mediocrity. Otherwise we should stop promoting Malaysia as a center for educational and research excellence. Let us stop kidding ourselves.

As a graduate of the old University of Malaya, I am very concerned that its successor institution, Universiti Malaya, is at the bottom end of the THES ranking. It is time for the incumbent UM Vice Chancellor to opt for early retirement. We should hire a reputable executive search firm to find a successor. Give the new VC a strong mandate to restore the academic standing and reputation of Universiti Malaya.

The government had a committee under Tan Sri Wan Zahid, the former Director-General of Education, to make recommendations on reforming higher education. Most of the committee members were insiders; they created the problem in the first place. Even Tan Sri Murad is no good. Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim, another committee member, sold himself to the other side. He is content with enjoying his retirement and the occasional publicity he gets as a Malaysian history expert and soccer pundit. These types cannot be expected to deliver a “brutally frank and reasonably objective” report. I do not expect any stunning revelations or fresh ideas from these characters.

To my mind, education is too serious a business to be left in the hands of politicians, or their lap dogs in the academy and ministry.

Thanks and all the best to you, Bakri.

Din

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