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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, May 10, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #17

Chpater 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)

Education, The Economy, and Demographics

The two most important factors that bear on the quality of education lie outside its sphere: the economy and demographics. Stated differently, Malaysia cannot have a strong education system with a weak economy, nor a First World standard of education with Third World demographics. If we look at countries that have superior education systems, the remarkable correlates are that they all have healthy economies and low birth rates.

A strong economy does not guarantee a superior education system. Indonesia had an impressive economy under Suharto, but it squandered that golden opportunity by diverting it away from improving its schools. The Indian state of Kerala has a much superior education system and other social services despite an economy one hundredth that of Canada and a population of comparable size. Kerala’s literacy rates and educational attainment are the highest in India and near that of the First World. Similarly Cuba, despite a crawling if not stagnant economy, has universal literacy and high caliber education. Because of that it is a major force for biogenetic engineering, producing such sophisticated products like Hepatitis B vaccine.

A robust economy enables the nation to devote the necessary resources to improving its education system. Superior schools and universities in turn help buffer and sustain the economy. Much has been written on the rapid recovery of South Korea, Taiwan, and to a certain extent Malaysia following the 1997 economic crisis, but I venture that a major contributing factor is their superior education system. Indonesia and Thailand did not bounce back fast because their education system is that much more inferior.

The other important correlate of a superior education system is low population growth. Cuba and Kerala may have moribund economy, but their slow population growth enables them to devote their resources towards improving their social services instead of just trying to keep up with the population growth. China will leapfrog into the First World simply because it has tackled the most important factor, that of reducing its previously horrendously high birth rates. This together with a rapidly expanding economy ensures that China would be a major power soon. Indonesia and India on the other hand are still struggling merely to keep up, whatever gains they have in their economy are quickly absorbed and diluted by a rapidly expanding population.

Malaysia has the typical Third World demographics, with a pyramidal age distribution, in contrast to the more cylindrical First World pattern. Meaning, Malaysia has the greatest proportion of its citizens in the lower age groups. Additionally it is also at a dangerous transition with a rapidly increasing aging population to boot, thanks to its improving health care. Graphically the apex of the pyramid is broader, meaning more resources would have to be diverted to serve the needs of the elderly and consequently less for schools.

Assume an inflation and population growth rates of 3 percent each. This means the government would have to spend 6 percent more every year just to maintain the status quo, with none going towards improvement in quality. Every year Malaysia spends millions more on education, but these additional funds are simply consumed with building new classrooms and training new teachers just to keep up with the number of additional new school children.

I estimate that the number of births in Malaysia last year was around 600,000, and increasing at 3 percent annually. That means that country will have to build classrooms and find new teachers for 18,000 new children every year until those children finish their schooling 11 years later. The following year we will have to repeat the same process all over again. The cumulative costs are astronomical. But if we have an effective family planning program and manage to keep the number of new births constant, we do not need to build those extra classrooms and train those new teachers. Or if we do, then we could use the extra resources to reduce class overcrowding and pupil/teacher ratio. This would inevitably lead to improvement in quality. If we go beyond and reduce the number of births by only 1 percent, then we could use the resources currently used by the 6,000 fewer children to further benefit the rest. Note these savings would recur every year and be cumulative and additive.

Seventeen years later we would see even greater savings when we do not have to provide the additional spaces at the colleges and universities.

It is not enough to merely stabilize the fertility rates as you would then still have a steady increase in the number of births because the present cohort of childbearing women would continue to increase for at least the next 30 to 40 years. Thus Malaysia must go beyond and actually reduce the number of new births. To do this it has to markedly reduce the fertility rates to compensate for the increasing number of childbearing women now already in the pipeline.

Countries like Singapore and Ireland have improved their education system immensely not so much because their leaders are particularly smart or astute but because their nation’s birth rate has plummeted. Thus they can devote their resources to improving the quality instead of merely trying to cope up.

It is beyond the scope of my book to discuss ways to curb population growth; suffice to say that that is an important strategy to improving the quality of education and other social services. Malaysia can significantly reduce its population growth by making family planning readily available. It does not have to resort to the crude and intrusive ways of the Communist Chinese. Unfortunately Malaysia has the perverse policy of pursuing increased population growth rate with its misguided 70 Million Population program. This will make attaining the goal of a quality education that much more difficult to achieve.

Next: Chapter 3: The Present System


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