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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, May 31, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #20

Chapter 3: The Present System (Cont'd)


Public Universities and Other Post Secondary Institutions


Until recently, all universities in Malaysia are public institutions. There has been a proliferation of new universities built to cater for the increased demand brought on by the expansion of the schools.

University of Malaya (UM) was the first. It began in Singapore in1949 with the merging of Raffles College (a liberal arts institution) and the King Edward Medical College. In 1959 it established an autonomous branch in Kuala Lumpur, and in 1962 it severed its link with Singapore, taking with it the original name. The University of Malaya that was in Singapore then became the National University of Singapore. Being a colonial institution UM used English as the medium of instruction. With the introduction of Malay as the sole medium of instruction in Malaysian schools, UM later switched to Malay. As it has a strong tradition and foundation of English, that language is still widely used especially in the professional faculties.

The first university established to use exclusively Malay was the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM–National University of Malaysia). It took its first students in1970, a year following the race riot. The institution represented the pinnacle of achievement of the Malay language nationalists. Up to this day the university remains the hotbed of these extremists.

All public universities except one are under MOE, and it keeps a very close tab on them. The minister appoints not only the governing board but also senior academic officers. No surprise then these institutions ended up as pale clones of one another. The mistakes of one are quickly replicated at other institutions.

The one university not under MOE is the International Islamic University (IIU). It was started and thus partly financed by the International Islamic Secretariat, and set up under the Companies Act, and thus came under the purview of, of all things, the Ministry of Trade and Industry! It uses English as the medium of instruction. This was the only way to circumvent the then national policy of using only Malay in all institutions under MOE. On paper at least IIU is an economic enterprise, not an academic institution. How ingenious!

Because of their superior English proficiency, IIU graduates are highly sought after by private industry. Its student body is also the most diverse in Malaysia or even Asia. It has the largest percentage of foreign students, attracting many from all over, including America.

Interestingly there were no howling protests from Malay language nationalists with IIU using English. For one, the Islamic cachet caught them at bay; they did not have the courage to criticize something with an Islamic label even if that institution grossly violated the stated national education policy. In Malaysia, Islam is a much more powerful symbol among Malays, much more than that of language or culture.

IIU also proves that when there is the political will, even the most stringent regulations and insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles can easily be bypassed!

Today Malaysia has over a dozen (15 to be exact, and counting) public universities enrolling a total of over 320,000 students (2000 figures). Hardly a day goes by without some officials announcing the planning of yet another campus to keep up with the growing demand. Obviously to them, the setting up of a university is a trivial affair, perhaps akin to building another kampong hut. The results show. Most of these new universities have the academic atmosphere of a junior college, at best. Because officials do not pause and learn from each experience, the same mistakes get repeated and amplified. It reminds me of the wise observation of the legendary American surgeon William Mayo to the effect that some surgeons make the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience. Malaysian officials unabashedly boast of their vast experience setting up new universities. In contrast, California, a state with considerably greater financial and academic resources, managed to build only a couple of new campuses in the last decade.

The mediocre quality of these new institutions led former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, himself a former education minister, to call them kampong kampus. Kampong is the Malay word for village, but idiomatically it refers to an insular state of mind.

As part of the general plan to allow greater autonomy, the government embarked on legally incorporating public universities. This began with UM, and thus far it remains the only one to be “corporatized.” The premise of the exercise is to allow these institutions to operate more as private entities rather than as government agencies. They would be able to raise funds independently and be given more room to innovate after being let loose from the tight strictures of the civil service code. Sadly like everything else associated with MOE, the reality is far different.

The plan was enmeshed with controversy right from the very beginning. Even though it was ultimately concluded and UM is now a corporation, in reality and ambience, nothing has changed. The key personnel remain the same and senior appointments are still made by the minister with no input from the faculty. The transformation happened only on paper; on the ground nothing changes.

Public universities in Malaysia are essentially, in the words of a foreign academic familiar with the situation, “teaching factories.” Their commitment to research is minimal. There are no special funds set aside to support such activities. Worse, those few productive scholars and researchers are not even appreciated. Professors in the sciences are rarely provided with funds for research and laboratory assistants. Senior academic appointments are given more to political types. Perusing the resume of senior university officials, one is hard pressed to discern their significant (or any) academic achievements.

In the last few years the older public universities are beginning to emphasize research and setting up their own graduate schools. Except for Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), most of the graduate degrees are in liberal arts and social sciences rather than the natural sciences.

Apart from universities, there are numerous other public institutions of higher education like teachers’ and technical colleges, polytechnics, and specialized training institutes. Most, like teachers’ and technical colleges, come under the purview of MOE, others under Health (nursing schools), Human Resources (various training institutes), Entrepreneur Development (various MARA training centers), Defense (Military College), Agriculture (Cooperative Colleges), and the various state governments.

The entry requirement for these non-degree granting institutions is usually SPM (Sijil Perseketuan Malaysia–Malaysian Certificate of Education, given at Year 11). There is minimal transferability between these institutions and universities; no formal mechanism for students to continue on to universities.

Malaysia has not succumbed to the Western habit of puffing up its other tertiary institutions into universities. In America what was once teachers’ colleges are now full-fledged universities. Britain too is doing the same thing with its technical colleges and polytechnics. Whether such moves enhance these institutions or merely debase the status of universities is debatable.

Public universities and other tertiary institutions are heavily subsidized. Tuition covers less than 10 percent of their operating costs. For teachers’ colleges and nursing schools, students are paid in return for their services on graduation.

In 2000, about 25 percent of the 17-23 age cohorts are in higher education. The government hopes to boost this to 25 percent by 2005, and 40 percent by 2010. By 2020 that figure should exceed 50 percent, and will place the nation in the same league as the developed countries, thus fulfilling the aspirations of Vision 2020.

Next: Private Sector Involvement

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