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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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #3

Malaysian Education in Perspective

A measure of the importance of education is reflected by the fact that the ministry has always been regarded as very senior and prestigious.

The first Minister of Education was no less than the Deputy Prime Minister himself, Tun Razak. Every prime minister except the first had been in charge of that portfolio. The ministry consistently gets the largest budget allocation; in the latest year (2003) it received a whopping 27 percent of the total outlay.

Despite the generous allotment, there is general dissatisfaction with the results and performances. While the statistics are impressive, with more students in schools and universities today than at any other time, nonetheless there is a nagging feeling that while Malaysia has done well quantitatively, the quality remains much to be desired. The inadequacies are made obvious because Malaysia is an open society and citizens can readily compare their system to that of the rest of the world.

The first attempt at rationalizing the system was in 1956, with the release of the Razak Report. It was a comprehensive and daring initiative aimed at creating a uniform system of schools with a common national curriculum. Until then, schools were along racial lines. Malay schools were consumed with religious studies and limited to primary level only. Chinese schools were nothing more than fronts for the Communist Party, obsessed with glorifying the achievements of Mao Zedong and the dubious feats of the Cultural Revolution. Tamil schools might as well have been in Tamil Nadu, India. Only the English schools had a multiracial student body. But they were few, just enough to satisfy the social conscience of the colonial rulers. They were necessarily elitist. Their graduates learned more about old England than their homeland. No surprise then that their products were unabashed anglophiles, complete with their tweed coats and affected English accent. With the latter they consciously tried to distinguish themselves from the local peons who were products of vernacular schools; their tweed coats however, only made them look silly in hot tropical Malaysia.

I am a product of one such English school. While I am no anglophile, nonetheless I remember only too well learning about the English countryside through Wordsworth‘s beautiful poetry. But I learned very little of my own village and country. Only when I went abroad and actually experienced springtime and saw some daffodils did I appreciate the exquisiteness of his poetry!

The assumption of the Razak initiative was that if young Malaysians were to read the same books, know the same history facts, and speak the same language, then we would share the same common base and perspective, and national unity would be that much easier to achieve. It was a laudable and not an unreasonable assumption.

Bold and imaginative as the Razak Report was, its subsequent tweaking by lesser lights resulted in the gradual erosion and deterioration of the original core. Today the glaring deficiencies of the system are obvious, and the authorities are finally forced to address them. In October 2001 MOE released a comprehensive report, Education Development Blueprint 2001-2010, to address the issues. Just as one finished digesting its contents, the government announced a few months later the formation of a National Brains Trust to examine the whole system again. Not to be outdone, Prime Minster Mahathir announced in late 2002 yet another committee to be chaired by him to review national schools.

The flurries of reviews and studies merely reflect the general anxiety and dissatisfaction over the current system. They also prompted my writing this book because these reports fail to address the fundamental problems. Both say essentially, “We need more of the same” (more English, science, and mathematics), rather than analyzing why the current system fails miserably.

I bring two distinct perspectives. As I no longer live in Malaysia but a frequent visitor, I notice the deterioration much earlier. Also as a consequent of my being away, I can readily compare the Malaysian system with those of other countries.

I first voiced my concerns in private communications to the education establishment as early as the mid 1980s, and when that did not produce any response, I began expressing them in the popular media.

My interest in education however, dates further back to my high school days in Kuala Pilah in the mid 1950s. It was sometime in 1955, shortly after the Alliance Party overwhelmingly won the first general election, when Tun Razak undertook the first massive data gathering exercise aimed at identifying children who would enter school in the following few years. The whole country was mobilized, and I too was involved in trailing the village headman going house to house counting young bodies. Razak wanted an accurate count in order to plan how many schools to be built and teachers trained. He could have taken the easy way out and simply looked at the birth registry, but he was smart enough not to trust the official figures. That massive exercise was appropriately named Gerakan Lampu Suloh (Operation Torch). The survey literally touched every hut and every youngster.

Metaphorically, that operation would later bring light to a nation that hitherto been kept in darkness. I was truly impressed with and in awe of the intensive and extensive effort. It was a dramatic and tangible demonstration of the new government’s commitment to its citizens.

Sadly that was the first and only time I was impressed with the performance of MOE.

A few years later there was a Commission of Inquiry headed by Razak’s successor, Rahman Talib. This was over the lack of Malays in science, a problem that still grabs the headlines nearly half a century later. He was to visit our school and the few of us Malay students in science were eagerly anticipating the occasion to present our ideas. On the appointed day the man did show up, but instead of meeting us he was consumed with being feted and led around like a sultan. Up close he was nothing more than the run-off-the-mill pompous politician, his diminutive figure notwithstanding. We were piqued, partly in missing the opportunity to meet a top honcho but more so in not being able to present our ideas. When the commission released its report a few months later, it was full of nonsensical fluffs about worms, culture, and lack of science aptitude among Malays, but addressed none of the practical problems we faced. His report would set the pattern of future policy documents emanating from the ministry – full of blarney and far detached from reality.

To cite one dramatic example of the stupidity of that report, in 1960 in my science class of over 30, there were 20 Malays. Because of the severe shortage of Sixth Form slots, only four were admitted, two of whom were Malays. Six of the Malay students who did not get into Sixth Form eventually managed to get their degree through the circuitous route of technical colleges and other institutions. Among them, one received a master’s degree from an Ivy League university (Napsiah Omar), and another, a PhD (Tengku Azmi Ibrahim). Additionally, another six of my Malay classmates were potential university material, but because of the limited space in Sixth Form, their aspirations were thwarted. Had Rahman Talib and his fellow commissioners concentrated on providing enough Sixth Form classes and be less concerned about worms, nutrition, and culture, the number of potential Malay undergraduates then would have been 14 instead of 2, an astounding 700 percent (seven-fold) increase! And this was only from one rural school.

Rahman Talib and all those distinguished commissioners missed this crucial point because they did not listen to those in the trenches. They thought they could solve the problem by just cutting ribbons and being lauded. His present day successors are no different.

A few years later as a medical student in Canada, I spent some time reflecting on the issues that the commission so sorely missed. I put my thoughts into a letter to the Minister of Education (now another person), and mailed a copy to my representative in Parliament. Surely the minister would not toss out a letter from a Malay medical student abroad (at that time a sufficiently rare breed). If he did, then my Member of Parliament would not as he knew me. Imagine my surprise in not getting even an acknowledgment from either!

Soon after, I read about a dynamic and up-and-coming young doctor who had been appointed chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

On a lark and not having much expectation, I resubmitted my ideas to him. To my utter surprise he wrote back to say that my ideas were “interesting.” Then perhaps not meaning to be condescending, he urged me to concentrate on my studies first and wished me the best. That was the end.

Events in Malaysia and in my life then took divergent paths. Malaysia was consumed with the aftermath of the May 1969 trauma, and I was equally absorbed in pursuing my career. Years later, the young doctor to whom I had written earlier had by now, after a dramatic detour along the way, been made the Minister of Education, and much later, Prime Minister. But what pleased me even more was that many of the ideas I had mooted earlier were now being implemented. It would be presumptuous of me to claim credit, but at least I knew that there were others who shared my views. It reinforced my conviction that despite being away from Malaysia, my ideas were not on the lunatic fringe.

Here I digress momentarily to reinforce this last point. In 1997, I wrote a series of essays advocating the teaching of science and mathematics in English as a way to attract more Malays into science. This idea came about after my visit to a Malay secondary school. The science textbooks, written in Malay, were deplorable and of inferior quality. Worst was the content; opaque explanations and dense prose. The translations were erratic; where they were not silly, they were simply hilarious. I also watched with the students a videotape in Malay purporting to explain the solar system. The graphics were appalling, and the explanations convoluted. It was a local production, and even with my science background I could not follow it. I was certain the class was lost too.

I had viewed many such educational tapes in America. They were all professionally done and comprehensible, with imaginative and captivating graphics. If those Malay students could understand English, they could have viewed some of these excellent tapes instead of the amateurish local productions. They could also supplement that by reading the numerous excellent texts and reference books available in English.

When the government decided in mid 2002 to teach science and mathematics in English, many of my readers jubilantly wrote me, “See, they are finally accepting your ideas! Keep writing!”

Much as I appreciate the encouragement and presumed credit, I am realistic enough to realize that the government’s move has nothing to do with the persuasive powers of my earlier essays. I doubt whether the officials have even read them. It is just that the government is finally forced to see the errors of its ways and now has to adopt my sensible suggestions. Meaning, our officials do come to their senses eventually, it just takes them a bit longer!

Thus it can be said that this book has a long genesis. More practically, it expands on the chapter “Enhancing Bumiputra Competitiveness” in my first book The Malay Dielmma Revisited, and “Islamization of Education” in my second, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i suggest you to view pendetaal-hikmah.blogspot regarding the issue of our malaysian education today.currently, she is the professor from one of the university in malaysia.she has a very analytical thought of current system of education.

12:33 AM  

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