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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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #8

Chapter 1: A Preemptive Strike

No Mission Statement


I am not a fan of the modern obsession with mission statements or their equally fashionable “client charters.” The more high-sounding and noble they are, the less likely they are to relate to the realities of the organization. MOE has a long mission statement emboldened on its home web page. I can imagine the numerous hours of meetings to compose that. I suggest that those goals and aspirations would be more readily served if only we teach our young well. Once we do that, the values and objectives of that mission statement would fall in place, whether elaborately stated or not.

One of the objectives of the ministry’s mission statement is “to inculcate positive values.” Whatever that means! The philosophy of education is stated thus: “…developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in God.” Presumably if you turn out to be an atheist, the system has failed you.

The trouble with such mushy statements and objectives is that they would be difficult to judge when they have been achieved. How would you gauge that someone is “balanced and harmonious?”

If I were to draw up the ministry’s objectives, I would state them thus: Our students should be able to read and write in our national language as well as English, do basic computations, understand the physical world around and the living world within them, and have an appreciation of our history and our diversity. With such clear objectives it would be easier to measure whether we are successful or not.

Consequently I have dispensed with discussions of such nebulous issues of building “a society of high moral character, ethical, just,” and other highfalutin ideas encompassed in the ministry’s mission statement, and concentrated instead only on the pragmatic nuts and bolts issues. How much should we pay teachers so as to attract the talented? Why are our students dropping out in such high numbers? How do we fund adequately school laboratories and libraries? Why are rural schools not provided with generators so they can at least have fans in their classrooms and perhaps later, computers? These are real issues and affect how our young learn, but they are never covered in mission statements or ministerial missives.

I am not an outsider when it comes to education. As a parent I am acutely aware of its importance. I am also born into a family of teachers. My parents were longtime teachers, as are nearly all my siblings. My wife too is a teacher both at high school and college; she taught briefly in Malaysia. I was also a teacher in the early 1960s in the hiatus before entering university, and more than a decade later, I taught medical students in Malaysia.

The one lesson I learned during my teaching tenure in Malaysia was how far detached the policies and statements uttered by top officials were (and still are) from the realities.

When I was teaching at a Malay secondary school, there were no textbooks and the laboratory facilities rudimentary. Yet that did not stop the leaders from extolling the virtues of such schools. Similarly while the government was pouring funds into building the new medical school, I could not even get such basic supplies as journals and books for my students. Nor I could not get funding for buying papers or paying a secretary to type my surgical seminars for distribution to my trainees. Meanwhile the medical school was paying first class airline tickets for its external examiners and putting them up at luxury hotels.

When I complained to the dean, his reply was simply, “We have to maintain our status!” Such misplaced priorities! One does not have to be an educationist to see the idiocy of such viewpoints.

It is also easy to be distracted by discussions on the philosophy of education and other abstract ideas when much more mundane details like lack of textbooks and basic supplies are being ignored.

In this book I avoid listing the deficiencies of the system (that would require a separate volume!) except in so far as to illustrate a particular point. I will be discussing concepts and ideas gleaned from my own experience with the education of my children in America and comparing their experiences with that of their cousins back in Malaysia.

My book is not simply a critique, nor is it the scribbling of a dilettante. I put forth my own proposals for a modern system of education that is worthy of Malaysia. I begin by discussing some general issues on education – its role in development; its political and cultural symbolism; factors in society that bear on education; and the role of technology (Chapter Two). Chapter Three describes the present system, followed by a discussion of its weaknesses and deficiencies. For comparative purposes, I review the education system of a few selected countries, in particular United States, Canada and Germany (Chapter Five).

There are no shortages of recommendations on reforming the system, and I will critique some of them, in particular MOE‘s Education Development 2001-2010, as well as the recommendations of the National Brains Trust (Chapter Six). My reform proposals are presented in three chapters. Chapter Seven covers the schools, and the chapter following, higher education. Chapter Nine reviews other activities of MOE, in particular Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literary Agency), Accreditation Agency, and the Examination Syndicate. I recommend dispensing or privatizing these ancillary agencies.

My book ends with a summary. I debated whether to put it at the beginning but decided against it. Doing so would have made the book look like a bureaucratic report or Government White Paper. A definite “turn off” for readers! I am after all writing an expository essay, not a policy manual. My aim is to persuade, not to dictate. And if my readers are not persuaded, they can at least begin the debate. That in the end is my objective.

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