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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, April 12, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #14

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)
Socioeconomic Factors Affecting Education


The Stanford psychologist Claude Steele describes the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” felt by those long stigmatized. When Malay students fail in science and mathematics, it is not simply that they have not studied hard enough or have not been taught well rather they are fulfilling the stereotype expectations of their race. Extra tutoring and better teachers could remedy the first two, but the last premise is more difficult to eradicate.

We should assume that Malays are just as capable in science and mathematics; they must take these subjects. Make them mandatory even in religious schools. Because religious schools are popular and successful with Malays, we must make these schools like their Catholic counterpart in America. Religion should only be one subject, not the consuming curriculum. These schools must produce their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, and executives.

During my school days under the British, my parents were not involved with my school although they did keep a close eye on my report card. The reason was simple; they physically could not do so as the school was far away. Even if they could, the language used was alien to them. This was typical of most Malay parents at the time; no surprise then the dropout rate for Malays was atrocious.

Today many schools in California have newsletters in Spanish as well as English in order to reach out to Hispanic parents. Additionally many schools have after-hours adult programs involving the parents.

One school, recognizing that many of the parents do not speak English, has evening classes to teach English, as well as other subjects specifically tailored to their needs such as how to become citizens. In this way parents would be made to feel involved with and connected to the school. These gestures go a long way to make parents (especially those from minority groups) feel welcome and be part of the school community.

Gender is also a formidable barrier to education especially in traditional societies. Many Malaysian parents actively discourage schooling for girls believing that such investments would be wasted. In Malay society specifically, this was a prevalent practice until a few years ago.

Today the achievements of Malay girls are much superior to that of boys, indicating that such cultural barriers can indeed be changed for the better.

Even mundane details like textbooks and uniforms affect school performance. Studies in Kenya show that when children are provided with free textbooks and uniforms (often substantial cost factors for rural families) these pupils tend to stay in school. Research shows that among Malaysians, family size is inversely related to educational attainment. That is, the bigger the family the lower the educational attainment of its members. Schools entail costs, thus poor families conserve their scant resources by limiting schooling only to their more promising progenies. In the past it was quite common for other siblings to sacrifice so one could finish his (usually a son) schooling. Such socioeconomic barriers can be effectively overcome by imaginative policies. It is interesting that for Malay children born after 1970, that correlation no longer holds. That year is significant in that the NEP was introduced giving Malays substantial aids in education. It was effective in breaking down that barrier for Malays.

For Muslims, yet a major impediment to excellence is their attitude towards education, in particular, secular education. This barrier arises from the traditional interpretations of and differentiation between worldly and religious knowledge. Present day Muslim scholars disparage the pursuit of the former lest it would contaminate their piety and religiosity. Much of the attempts at educational reforms in the Muslim world are geared towards the “Islamization” of the curriculum, that is, trying to put an Islamic spin to secular knowledge. This is a retrograde step as it merely reinforces this artificial separation and further demotes the value of secular education.

This fad is already entrenched among Muslim intellectuals in the social sciences. Unfortunately those in the natural sciences too are not spared. Inevitably this results in their producing adulterated “scientific findings” that will never see the pages of reputable journals. Worse, now we have Islamic “scientists” who have never seen, let alone used, a test tube. Consider the absurd comments of Muslim “scientists” attributing computer viruses to the works of jinn (devil)!

Science is science. Hydrogen mixes with oxygen under the right conditions to produce water, Islamic science or not. Science and religion is complementary, not adversarial. Science explores the world around and within us while religion answers our spiritual needs.

Advancements in science benefit all mankind; we should not belittle these discoveries. In trying to discern differences where none exists, these intellectuals and scientists are wasting their energy. They would be better off trying to elucidate the secrets of Allah. Such “Islamizing” activities simply mask their lack of intellectual ingenuity and curiosity.

They cannot discover or contribute anything original so they seek refuge in concocting such puerile intellectual pursuits as Islamizing established principles.

A more sinister aspect to these pseudo-intellectual activities is that their practitioners are hiding behind their Islamic cloak to advance their career. Religion has always been the refuge of scoundrels including academic ones. Nobody dares call them to the carpet for fear of being labeled anti-religious. These Islamic intellectuals remind me of third-rate Soviet scientists and scholars who, unable to advance on their own talent, hide behind their communist party credentials. In truth, those who truly uplift the image of Islam are the scientists who diligently pursue their curiosity. Scientists like Abdus Salam (1979 Nobel laureate in physics) and Ahmad Zeweil (Chemistry 1999), like thousands of others quietly toiling in their laboratories discovering the secrets of Allah, do more for Islam than third-rate scientists cloaking themselves in the veneer of the faith.

It is interesting that both Salam and Zewail found the fullest expression and appreciation of their vast talent in the West. More poignantly for Salam, his native Pakistan’s parliament passed a special resolution condemning him as an infidel. So much for the Islamic respect for knowledge!

A more fruitful approach, and the one that I am advocating, is to remove this artificial barrier. All knowledge – secular and religious – originates from God and thus is worthy of our quest.

Next: Education and Technology

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