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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #1

Note: Starting with this posting, my first for 2006, I am changing the format of this website. There will be two regular postings per week: on Sunday and Wednesday evenings California time (Monday and Thursday morning Malaysia time). The Sunday posting will be my essays, while the Wednesday one will be a serialization of my one of my books. I begin with my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa
Installment #1

In memory of my schoolteacher parents,
Cikgu Haji Musa bin Abdullah
(May 24, 1913 to June 15, 2000)
Cikgu Hajjah Jauhariah binte Sallam
(June 30, 1917 to May 12, 1997)


Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1 A Preemptive Strike. . 1
Chapter 2 It’s More Than Just Education 26
Chapter 3 The Present System 67
Chapter 4 Deficiencies Of The System 83
Chapter 5 A Look At Other Models 107
Chapter 6 Attempts At Reform 127
Chapter 7 Strengthening The Schools 151
Chapter 8 Reforming Higher Education 202
Chapter 9 Mow Down MOE 236
Chapter 10 Putting It All Together 259
List of Abbreviations 269
Notes 271
References 285
About the Author 297
Index 299

Preface and Acknowledgments

While visiting my parents many years back, our conversation not surprisingly gravitated towards education. Although they had retired from teaching, they maintained an abiding interest in the field. At the time the consuming and acrimonious public debate was on the demand by the Malaysian-Chinese community to set up Merdeka University. This move was generally met with hostile opposition from Malays, and my parents were no exception.

I made the point that it is never a smart idea to stop anyone from expanding opportunities, on the contrary we should be encouraging, not blocking, the building of another university. My parents were surprised by my contrarian viewpoint, and remarked whether I was merely trying to be argumentative or did I really believe in what I said. I quietly explained that we should support the effort to ensure that the university would serve all Malaysians and not just a particular community, and that with proper planning and cooperation, the venture could be a win-win situation for all. In the end I made a believer out of them. My father went further. He encouraged me to pursue my ideas with the authorities so that they too would see my point. I told him that I already had, unfortunately those in power were not so open-minded. Nonetheless he urged me on in the hope that I would change many more minds.

This book is a commitment I made to my late parents those many years ago. That aside, I do hope to win over many, one at a time.

Education in Malaysia is a powerful political and cultural symbol. Being tightly bound up with these extraneous symbolisms takes its toll. As with the discussion on Merdeka University, rational thoughts are quickly replaced with the narrow politics of race and culture. Instead of looking at the potential for mutual benefits, we analyze policies and initiatives in terms of winners and losers. Such discussions and attitudes often result on all sides losing. The very fact that we have framed issues as “us” versus “them” instead of how best to make them work for all is itself destructive.

I do not look at education through the prism of race, politics, or nationalism, rather on how best to make it serve the needs of Malaysians. When that is done right, everything else falls into place. Conversely, when done poorly, the ugly repercussions are borne not only by the unfortunate students and their families but also society.

This book is my effort to make Malaysians look at their education system from a perspective different to what they have been accustomed. Doing this is a necessary prelude to the changing of minds.

These are my personal views and observations. I shy away from philosophical waxing and concentrate instead on the concrete and the mundane. It is said that when you do not know what questions to ask, that is philosophy; when you do know the questions, then you find ways to answer them. That is the realm of science. You seek empirical evidences, try different models (otherwise known as experimenting), and then fashion your own solutions. With Malaysian education, the questions are many and obvious.

There is also an axiom in science to the effect that when you cannot find the solution, chances are you are asking the wrong question. Thus I begin by raising some relevant questions, and once we are agreed upon them, the solutions would be that much less difficult to find.

I have highlighted different models and examples from various countries. It is not my purpose that Malaysia should blindly adopt or copy them rather these are principles to ponder.

I come from a family of teachers; consequently I have tremendous respect and affection for the profession and its practitioners. As a surgeon my work is exciting and very rewarding. But even if I had done my job perfectly, the best that I could achieve is to restore my patients back to their pre-morbid state. (My plastic surgery colleagues claim that they can make their patients better and younger, or at least feel and perhaps also look that way!) Not so with teachers. When they do their job well, no telling what heights of accomplishment their pupils would reach. Once the intellectual spark is ignited, one never knows where it would lead. I mention this at the very outset because in voicing my criticisms of the system–schools and other institutions–some of them will inevitably rub off on the practitioners. I try to be as narrow and specific as possible when criticizing so as not to tar everyone with a broad brush. The vast majority of our teachers and professors are dedicated professionals doing their best under some very trying circumstances.

It is unfortunate that their profession is today increasingly being inundated by the less-than-committed. My purpose is to bring about a better working environment for our teachers and professors so that their new colleagues would be among the brightest and best, and that together they would once again regain their due rewards and respect in our society.

The first half of this book covers general topics on education, its impact and role on society, as well as societal elements that bear on it. I also describe and critique the present system, and review for comparison purposes the system of a few selected countries.

The second half deals specifically with my reform proposals. I begin by critiquing previous and current attempts at reform. This is followed with my specifics on reforming the schools. Not surprisingly this is the longest chapter, as schools are the core of the system. My ideas on revamping higher education and the ministry of education follow in their own separate chapters. The last chapter is essentially a summary.

Portions of this book were written years ago and had appeared in various publications. I apologize for their inclusion here but had to so for the sake of completeness. My sincere thank you to readers who have kindly written me with their thoughtful viewpoints. Writing would be a futile exercise if not for readers. I value your contributions both when you agree as well as when you disagree with me. Putting my ideas in writing also help elevate them from being mere coffee shop talk.
I am indebted to my late parents for encouraging me to pursue my ideas, and more. They were also my severest critics; as former teachers they brought a much-needed reality check. I also deeply appreciate the editing of my son Zack. His skills honed by years working for his campus newspaper came in handy. Being a teacher, my wife Karen was a careful and critical first reader; she helped sieve the extraneous and lumpy until the final form flowed more smoothly.

M. Bakri Musa
January 2003
Morgan Hill, California


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