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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, March 15, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #10

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education - Cont'd

Education and Development

If we compare countries that are fast developing to those that are stagnating, the glaring difference is the educational attainment of their citizens. This is true not only between but also within nations. In Malaysia much has been said and written on the gaps in development between Malays and non-Malays, and invariably such differences are attributed simplistically to race or culture. But if those researchers and commentators had been more meticulous and looked beyond race, they would find that the better correlate would be educational achievement.

I wrote this once in my column and received a blistering reply from a Malaysian sociologist. How would you explain, he demanded, the lower earnings of Malays with a degree as compared to those of non-Malays? He was intimating that there were other factors, like discrimination.

I referred him to some studies that showed the best predictor of success in the workplace is achievement in mathematics, and asked him to review the data to see which was the better correlate, race or scores in mathematics. I predict that a Chinese with a BA in history would earn less than a Malay with an engineering degree. Malay graduates earn less than similarly qualified non-Malays because most Malays have degrees in the liberal arts rather than the sciences. And most schools attended by Malays (national and religious) do not emphasize mathematics. Skills in mathematics have the greatest transferability in the marketplace.

Education benefits society through increases in productivity and earnings of its citizens. This in turn translates directly into superior economic performance and growth of that society.

In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I related the dramatic differences in service and productivity between my secretaries in America as compared to the ones I had in Malaysia, and between American limousine drivers as compared to their Malaysian counterparts. This was directly related to the superior education of American workers. I also cited the example of the Japanese factory worker who successfully traced the source of her factory’s product defects to the interference from the vibrations of the nearby train. She was able to make the connection because of her superior education. Japanese factory workers are among the most highly educated, very unlike the typical assembly line workers in the Third World.

There are many studies correlating economic development with levels of education of citizens. Of course correlation means just that, it does not imply causation. It may very well be that rich nations could afford to spend more on education and that improved educational achievement is the result and not the cause of wealth.

Studies show that individual wages increase with years of schooling, with the improvement greatest in poorer countries. In Indonesia the MIT economist Esther Duflo show that investments in primary education alone resulted in increased economic returns ranging from 6.8 to 10.6 percent. It is estimated that for agricultural workers, four years of education translates into a 10 percent increase in agricultural output.

In East Asia, each additional year of education contributes 3 percent in real GDP. An American study on twins showed that every extra year of schooling translated into a 10 percent increase in earnings. These are empirical figures, not guesswork.

American farmers, unlike those in the Third World, are rich because they are highly educated. They typically have a degree from state-supported Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) universities, very unlike their illiterate counterparts in the developing world. Improving the plight of farmers in Malaysia and other developing countries would take more than just providing better agricultural techniques and supporting infrastructures like irrigation, rather on nourishing and tilling the minds of the farmers in the form of better education. The key to improving agricultural productivity and reducing rural poverty resides not in the rice fields or rubber estates, rather in the classrooms.

Malaysia was fortunate in that its early leaders saw the wisdom of investing in education over everything else, including defense. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, knew that the nation then had limited resources, thus he prudently signed a defense treaty with Britain so he could concentrate on education. Many at that time thought that the country’s independence was a sham because of that treaty. But as Tunku wisely observed, he would rather build schools instead of barracks and train teachers instead of soldiers. With defense thus taken care of by the British, Tunku was able to focus on developing his people.

Tunku was one of those rare wise leaders who, though not terribly bright, knew exactly his and the nation’s limitations. Had Tunku been endowed with Sukarno‘s megalomaniac ego and grandiose pretensions, and concentrated on buying tanks and battleships instead, Malaysia today would be like Indonesia – stagnant and poverty stricken.

It was the enduring wisdom of Tunku that he was not bothered by being labeled pro-British or a cryptic neocolonialist by signing that treaty; he did what he thought was best for his beloved nation. Malaysia’s subsequent trajectory of development owes much to that earlier insight and decision of Tunku’s.

Economists have elegant formulas to quantify the benefits (or what they technically refer to as rates of returns on investment – ROI) of education. ROI can be viewed from two perspectives, the individual (Private ROI) and society (Social ROI). The elements considered in calculating Private ROI are the direct costs to the individual of acquiring that education (cost of tuition and books), and the foregone income while attending school or college. Social ROI takes in all the costs in providing that education, the running the ministry of education, building schools, and training teachers. These are externalities from the perspective of the individual and thus not included in the calculation of Private ROI. The cost factors are necessarily larger with Social ROI, but so too are the returns.

These economic calculations not withstanding, one can intuitively appreciate that such investments are rewarding and good on their own merit. There is no moral virtue in keeping the citizens ignorant. There is no biblical refrain to the effect that the ignorant shall inherit the earth. The Qur’an exhorts every Muslim to acquire knowledge, and this is reaffirmed by the various hadith (sayings of the prophet).

Here, a brief digression. I have always thought this (the value of education and knowledge) to be self-evident and that everyone subscribes to it. Not so. Many years ago I met a senior official (later to become head of education) of Brunei who was on a study tour of America. We got into a discussion on education; he saw no merit in educating the masses, it would only feed their expectations and lead to trouble. The policy of his government, he explicitly told me, was to educate just enough of the citizens to keep the government running. Beyond that he saw no necessity of spending additional precious funds. He also added that Brunei Malays are a very happy lot with this policy. To the likes of him, spending money on royal ponies would yield greater returns.

Lest we think this mentality exists only among medieval Malays of Brunei, consider this recent statement by the Malaysian linguist, Nik Safiah Karim. An extremist nationalist, she vehemently opposes the greater teaching and use of English to the point of calling those advocating such moves traitors to the race and culture. Strong stuff! I respect people with strong convictions, but what troubles me is the basis of her arguments. She exhibits the same medieval mentality as that Brunei official by suggesting that Malaysia needs only about 20 percent of her citizens to be conversant with English, the rest can get by with knowing only Malay. For a supposedly esteemed scholar to say that more knowledge is superfluous is just absurd. Left unstated is that she and her children would be among that 20 percent who should be fluent in English. The rest can languish in their kampongs speaking only Malay.

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