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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 22, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #11

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)
Education and Development


Poverty and lack of education may seem to be in a vicious cycle, with one feeding the other. This is more apparent than real, for the cycle can be broken through effective strategies and interventions. Poor Malay fishermen do not invest in their children’s education not because they do not value education, rather they could not afford to. While education is the key to eradicating poverty, ironically poverty is also the greatest impediment to getting an education. While to economists the value of the foregone income of the youngster attending school is minimal, to that poor family the son being at school and not being able to help in hauling the net may mean the difference between surviving and not having a meal for that day. The solution to this intractable problem is not simply to lecture the poor fisherman endlessly on the value of education, rather to shift the balance in that family’s personal equation to make the child attending school to be worth more than having him out in the high seas. In Chapter Five I discuss the novel Brazilian social experiment of paying parents to keep their children in school as one effective way of shifting that balance in the equation.

Investments in education at all levels and across many nations consistently yield double-digit returns. In Venezuela, investments at the primary level yield a private ROI in excess of 25 percent, and a social ROI of 16.9; for secondary education, the returns are respectively 10.6 and 11.5 percent; and for university education, 13.5 and 12.0. The private and social returns are highest for investments at the primary level. This is especially true for developing countries.

Beyond the primary level the picture gets complicated. For the individual, the loss of income while attending school becomes a significant factor. With the child now older and stronger, he or she could earn considerably more, and his help in the field would be greater. Thus the private ROI would be lower. The societal ROI would also be lower as secondary and higher education cost considerably more to provide.

Beyond elementary education, the societal ROI would also be dependent on the nature and kinds of education provided. A system that emphasizes the sciences, mathematics, and foreign language (in particular English) yields the greatest returns. The remarkable economic success of Singapore is attributable in part to the fact that its early leaders intuitively recognized this. Goh Keng Swee, the island’s long-time economic minister and the man many regard as the brain behind its remarkable transformation, credited the republic’s success to the many parents who encouraged their children to pursue science and mathematics.

It is not enough to simply increase the number of years devoted to science and mathematics. Quality matters more than quantity, as shown by cross-national studies like the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). Additional studies by California’s Public Policy Institute show that the one factor that correlates best with the students’ future success in college as well as the workplace is their achievements in mathematics and language while in school.

Skills in both areas have the greatest transferability to other areas. A system that does not emphasize these key subjects would not yield great returns. India is a striking example, so too are many Muslim countries. Within Malaysia we see this dramatically demonstrated.

Malays with degrees earn considerably less than non-Malays both in private and public sectors because Malays tend to have qualifications in other than mathematics or science. They are also markedly deficient in English proficiency. In many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, literally millions of brains are being wasted in religious schools where the curriculum is singularly devoid of much mathematics and even less science.

In America, differences in economic and social achievements of the various ethnic groups are often attributed to culture (and more sinisterly and unconsciously to race), but had these studies been analyzed more rigorously, education would be the more consistent correlate and accurate predictor. Such thinking also exists in Malaysia. Differences between the achievements of Malays and non-Malays are invariably portrayed as rooted in race and culture when in fact they are more a function of educational attainment. Culture may have a lot to do with Malay attitude towards education, but ultimately the final critical element is still education. Thus to enhance Malay achievements requires exploring ways to improve their education, especially in science and mathematics, and not, as is the present practice, incessantly harping on the inadequacies of culture or race. If this means changing those aspects of Malay culture, social environment, and reward system that impede excellence in education, yes, that would be fruitful. But that is quite a different approach than the wholesale condemnation of Malay culture and mores.

Differences in the economic status of the various regions in Malaysia are also better correlated with educational achievement, not race, culture, or geography. The commonality of poverty among Dayaks in the interior of Sarawak, Tamils on the rubber estates, and Malays in remote kampongs, is due to their poor education.

Our diverse world could only benefit from better education of its inhabitants. Positive exposures to the various cultures would be the first step towards understanding and tolerating the differences among us. Further, transnational issues such as pollution, conservation, and environmental degradation can only be tackled through better education.

Malaysia spends considerable sums on education as compared to many countries, both in absolute terms as well as relative to the economy, population, and overall budget. Yet it has little to show for all the resources expended.

There are many reasons for this. In part the inefficiency is consequent to the ministry’s mission being tangled up with extraneous issues like helping Malay contractors. Another, Malaysia does not emphasize mathematics, sciences, and technical fields. This Technical Intellectual Capital (TIC) is a far more powerful predictor of development than just simple education. South Korea emphasizes TIC, catapulting the nation into an economic powerhouse. India by contrast chooses the British route of emphasizing education for its own sake, meaning heavy doses of the non-technical. India is stagnant but has plenty of taxi drivers with degrees and an abundance of petition writers, otherwise known as lawyers.

The remarkable aspect of investments in education is that, properly done, the benefits are both cumulative and synergistic. Stated simply, the more we invest, the more the benefits. Or in the language of the economists, such investments yield high marginal returns. I will illustrate this concept with an example.

My son is an aspiring pilot, but instead of going straight to flight school or joining the air force to get his training, he decided to get his degree in business first and take his pilot training on the side, figuring that his academic qualifications and technical training would enhance his employability. We were watching a television program about a revolutionary jet engine pioneered by NASA and now being incorporated into new model executive jets. They are markedly more efficient, and costing much less to build and operate. My reaction was simply, “Very interesting!” My son however, immediately saw the splendid opportunity for air travel between small towns now not adequately served by major airlines. He saw the potential of an air taxi service using those executive jets at a price comparable to the current coach fares. Additionally, passengers would be spared the hassle and delays at major airports especially today with the heightened security checks. As this jet could land at small airports, this would reduce congestion of the major ones as well as increase the use of currently underused country airports.

He was so excited with the potential that he decided to explore it. The upshot is that he is making that project into his senior thesis and considering running air taxis his career.

My point is that to someone who does not have the necessary background knowledge, the development is simply “interesting.” But to him, it opens the potential of a new business.

When we embark on seeking new knowledge, we will never know where it will lead. At one time many were against spending money on space research contending that the funds were needed more on earth.

Today directly as result of those researches we see the benefits accruing in medicine, agriculture, and telecommunication. The elemental diet now used widely in clinical medicine was the direct result of space research necessitated by the need to find zero residue diet for astronauts because of the limited lavatory facilities in spaceship. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous cell phones are the direct spin off of space and satellite research.

The Muslim philosopher Saidina Ali wisely observed on the difference between wealth and knowledge, and the much superior benefits of investing in the latter. Knowledge protects us, but we have to protect our wealth against theft and inflation. Not so with knowledge. My knowledge and skills as a surgeon are always with me, no one can take those away. The world around may crumble but I can still practice my profession. Wealth is reduced and diluted when shared; knowledge on the other hand gets amplified and enhanced when shared, to the benefit of everyone. The remarkable progress of science is precisely because of this open sharing of information, knowledge, and discoveries.

Knowledge kept secret would lose its value. Knowledge retains if not increases its value with time, wealth risks being eroded with time and inflation. Investments in knowledge are durable; investments in fancy skyscrapers could be easily destroyed by fire or suicide bombers. Likewise investing in education is durable; nothing could destroy it. The first thing the ancient Mongols did in subjugating and destroying the Muslim civilization was to kill the intellectuals and burn all the books and libraries. They failed; instead they ended up becoming Muslims, a testimony to the power and endurance of knowledge.

Education is no panacea, but a well-educated citizenry is a prerequisite or an enabling condition for socioeconomic development. To maximize the returns on investments in education we must also simultaneously provide opportunities. The remarkable transformation of South Korea and Taiwan is because they combined education reforms with increased economic opportunities. Malaysia in contrast invests heavily in its Multimedia Super Corridor and Biovalley, but those programs do not produce the anticipated returns as they are few trained Malaysians able to take advantage of the opportunities. The lack of qualified local personnel is also stalling the projects.

Opportunities are more likely to come to those who are ready with the skills and knowledge; to those who lack such skills and knowledge, the opportunities would simply be missed. And providing quality education is the surest way to make the citizens ready.

If our leaders are worried that Malay culture and race would be lost with globalization, the best and most effective remedy would be to ensure that Malays get the best education.

Malaysia is suddenly realizing that its competitiveness has slipped. This is the final expression of a failed education system. Unless steps are taken to improve the quality, broaden its access, reduce the inequities, and increase its relevance, Malaysia will remain poorly served.

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