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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, February 01, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #5

Chapter 1: A Preemptive Strike (Cont'd)


Integration Through Education

Schools are powerful institutions for acculturating the young. American schools successfully integrate millions of children of immigrants into the mainstream. The elite of America, from government and business to the professions and academia, are inundated with children of first generation immigrants. Every year America garners more than its fair share of Nobel prizewinners, but what is not appreciated is that many of those luminaries are foreign born. What is remarkable is that these naturalized citizens feel and are treated no differently than native born ones.

Education also serves as a great elevator. As the Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, Horace Mann, stated in 1848, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” With such farsighted individuals in charge of education, no wonder that state in general and Boston in particular are famous for their colleges and intellectuals.

Malaysia has always been conscious of the importance of schools in molding a united Malaysian nation. That was the central aspiration of the Razak Report. Unfortunately, purity and nobility of intentions alone are not enough. Today young Malaysians remain even more segregated.

Worse, unlike the segregation of the past that was essentially imposed by the colonial structure, today Malaysians choose to remain apart. Malaysian parents deliberately decide that their children attend schools with only their own kind. They express no desire to mix or integrate. You see this not only in schools but also on college campuses.

The British had no grandiose pretensions of trying to unite the various races. On the contrary, the system was designed specifically to perpetuate existing divisions, all part of the colonialists’ grand strategy of “divide and conquer.” They built just enough schools to produce the necessary functionaries to run the country for the colonial office. Ironically while the British had no desire of bringing the various races together, nonetheless there was far greater social and racial integration among the students during British rule. The English schools with their integrated student body had this unintended consequence.

This integrative role of schools and other educational institutions must be strengthened lest Malaysia becomes a highly educated but divided nation.

The remarkable success of American education is precisely because it is decentralized to the local level. The consequent flexibility allows it to meet the different needs of a diverse nation, while maintaining its core of commonality. There is much that Malaysia can learn from that system.


No One-Size-Fits-All

If I have learned anything about being a parent it is that my three children are all very different. I was fortunate to be sensitive of such individual variations early to be able to help them.

Nowhere are these differences best demonstrated than in their attitude towards school. My two older children managed to go through the large comprehensive public school quite well. My youngest did fine at the small elementary school, but by the time he was ready for middle school, we encountered problems. He made up his mind not to go to the same school his older sister and brother attended. He heard enough horror stories of drugs and bullies. The fact that his older siblings did all right did not impress him. That was before, he said. We did not realize how adamant he was until he absolutely refused to go to school, despite our encouragement, cajoling, and yes, also our anger. He also had a ready and convenient excuse as at that time we had moved out to the country and the school was far away.

Fortunately we were able to put him into a private school in a neighboring town. When we took him for the interview he immediately liked this new school. We did not know what attracted him but months later when we visited him on parents’ day, we knew we had made the right choice. My son cheerfully greeted the headmaster who in turn beamed and replied, “Hi Azlan! How’s that science project of yours?” You can tell a lot about a school when its principal knows not only the name but also the latest project of some random students who happened to bump into him in the schoolyard.

My son thrived there but when it was time for high school, we had problems. He was accepted to two private schools but they were too far away (there was no private high school in our town). I could not bear to see my wife driving him to and fro every school day. I imagined some horrible road accident on some wet winter day. Thus after much cajoling he agreed to attend the local high school. It was the typical comprehensive American public school with over two thousand students.

He managed to stay a year, and what a year it was! He was miserable, had disciplinary problems, and his grades suffered despite our many conferences with his teachers. Fortunately at this time a new public school was being built in a nearby town, and because it was a small district, the school too was small, with less than 200 students, a tenth the size of his present school. We took him there for a week’s trial attending classes in converted temporary trailers. Despite the less than ideal surroundings, he liked the school. So we transferred him. He settled in quickly and by the time he was in his last year he was among the top students. What a difference in four years! All we did was listen to him and found a school that met his needs. I shudder to think had we lived in Malaysia where there are no choices. When I see school-age children loitering and dropping out of schools in Malaysia today, I wonder how many of them could be saved if only we could find a school that would meet their needs. We are more likely to find such schools if we give our children and their parents choices. There is no one school or teaching style that will suit all children. If there are differences in the children from one family, imagine how much dissimilar children would be from different families, races, and cultures. There is no such thing as one national system that would suit all children.

It would be naïve to assume that a system of teaching or schooling that would be suitable for the son of a doctor in Ukay Heights would also be appropriate for the daughter of a rice farmer in Ulu Kelantan.

With the former, there is high background intellectual activity and English proficiency at home and in the community, not so with the latter. We ignore such crucial differences at our own peril. More specifically, our children (and so too our nation) will suffer the consequences of such foolish thinking.

America is able to achieve remarkably rapid assimilation of its immigrants’ children precisely because there is no central authority governing education for the entire nation. Education is decentralized; with schools under local control and setting their own standards and evaluating their own students. There is no national school-leaving certificate.

Similarly for higher education, there is no central bureaucracy controlling the universities. Apart from the public system there are private schools and colleges; they all thrive and meet the needs of various students.

Despite the diversity and bewildering models, the system is able to achieve its primary goals of educating and acculturating young Americans.

What can Malaysia learn from America? Could Malaysia achieve its goals of national integration as well as produce an educated citizenry with such a decentralized system? Absolutely! The whole thesis of my book is to convince readers that this is not only possible indeed it is the only option for Malaysia.

Underlying the diversity of the American system is a core of commonality. All schools use English as the medium of instruction and all students have to take US history and government, science, mathematics, and a foreign language. Although there are no national exit examinations nonetheless there are standardized tests like the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) and Achievement Tests (AT) to enable universities to compare students from various schools and districts. Additionally, students are continuously evaluated throughout their school year by those most competent to do so–their teachers. Many universities now regard this evaluation, the Grade Point Average (GPA), to be more reliable and a better predictor of college performance than standardized test scores. There is currently a movement to have national or at least statewide school-leaving test, but this has not been widely accepted. Even if it were fully accepted, such testing is designed more to ensure that students achieve minimum competency levels and to make the schools accountable, not to rank the students.

Teachers rightly fear that adopting and emphasizing national tests would cramp their classroom style and freedom. Teachers would then be tempted to “teach to the test” rather than use their imagination and style to fit the individual class and student. It is this freedom that accounts for the unique success of American schools. Students are allowed by their teachers to experiment, explore, and express themselves instead of being bound rigidly to a tight syllabus and examination requirements.

When students in Monterey, California, learn about the environment, they have the vast Pacific Ocean at their doorstep to study, and their teachers plan their lessons to take full advantage of this natural attribute. Students in Colorado have the wonders of the Rocky Mountains.

Having a rigid national curriculum would inhibit such local experimentations and variations. Likewise with the study of foreign languages; schools near the Quebec border of Maine would more likely offer French, while those at El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, would offer Spanish. The beauty and genius of the American system is precisely this great flexibility to accommodate local and individual variations, a lesson that Malaysia would do well to note.

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