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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, June 14, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #22

Chapter 4: The Deficiencies of the System

Deficiencies Of The System

Were Malaysians to be polled today on whether their education system serves the nation well, the overwhelming answer would be a resounding, “No!” This is not an arrogant presumption on my part, rather the evidences, both anecdotal and statistical, are glaring. Whereas before the deficiencies were noticed only by parents, teachers, and those closely involved, today they are obvious and have reached the top leadership. The problems can no longer be ignored as they are adversely impacting the nation’s competitiveness and threatening to derail the nation’s ambitious Vision 2020 aspirations. Willing or not, the leaders have to confront them. Everyday conversations as well as the daily headlines attest to the angst felt by all.

As of late 2002 these concerns have been expressed in a series of reform proposals. Nothing concrete has been done or implemented. In the colloquial, it is all talk. As a parent I became aware of the shortcomings of the system way back in the late 1970s when my oldest child was about to enter school. I had enrolled her at a private preschool and could not help but notice the difference in her attitude towards school as compared to that of the neighbor’s daughter. Whereas my daughter was keen and eager every morning to put on her uniform and knapsack raring to go, the neighbor’s child was screaming and had to be literally dragged into the car.

This prompted me to investigate the school where my neighbor’s daughter was attending and where mine would be going the following year. I was not impressed, to put it mildly. Hot, noisy, and overcrowded classrooms; playground with uncut grass blasted by the blistering sun, as the principal had earlier cut down the shade-giving trees for reasons only he knew best. There were nearly 50 pupils in the classroom, as compared to 18 in my daughter’s preschool class. As the school was on the main bus line, the diesel fumes were nauseating. The children in turn were uncomfortable and listless, their teachers haggard. The last hour of the day was completely wasted with the noise and hassle outside of pupils coming in for the afternoon session.

I shuddered to think what my daughter would have to endure. No wonder the neighbor’s girl was screaming every morning. She was trying to say something important, but nobody was listening.

In conversations with fellow parents of my daughter’s classmates, to a person they have all decided to send their children to schools in Singapore. They were already discussing car pool arrangements. This was in 1978. The trickle of carloads then is today a steady stream of family cars and bas sekolah (school buses).

A year earlier at the opposite end of the scale, I had an equally jarring experience teaching medical students from UKM. I related this in my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited. The university was an all-Malay language institution, but there were no textbooks. As a result the lecturers were haphazardly translating as they went along, making their lectures sound like Pidgin English. I did not see the wisdom of such an approach; it would simply confuse the students. So I decided to lecture in English.

It was slow and tough in the beginning, but gradually the students caught on. What was most gratifying was their increasing confidence as their English improved. This transferred to their ward performances; they were much more confident and eager to participate in the clinical discussions. By the end of the year I could not tell them apart from the students I had from UM where English was used.

Looking back, this should not have been a surprise. These students had been exposed to English throughout their school years. It was just that everyone – teachers, lecturers, and leaders – had not impressed upon them the value and importance of knowing a second language well. Somehow they had been brainwashed into thinking that English fluency is tantamount to being colonized.

Actually my misgivings of our education system began much earlier. In 1963 I was a temporary science teacher at a Malay secondary school. The first class was started six years earlier, so it was not something new or novel. After all those years I would have expected that they would have ironed out the problems with textbooks and terminologies. Yet there I was, struggling with inadequate and technically poor textbooks. As if that was not bad enough, early in August and a month prior to my leaving, my principal called me in and asked me to speed up my teaching and finish the year’s syllabus. He informed me that there was no replacement for me for at least the next few years as no science teachers were being trained. Those poor Malay students would be stranded.

Imagine starting an important program without careful planning. I felt terrible for those young minds that were being sacrificed not just at that one school but also throughout the nation. There must have been thousands.

Those in authority knew then that they did not have the system ready. Why did they aggressively push it? Why didn’t they start small or with some pilot projects, iron out the problems, and then once running smoothly, expand the system? Did they think that those precious young minds were expendable, so much cannon fodder in the politicians’ battle for supremacy of the Malay language? What was most disgusting was that while these leaders were exhorting parents to send their children to these new schools, the ministers and top politicians were sneakily sending their own children into English schools. Some including Minister of Education Tun Razak was sending theirs to Britain.

These leaders expected the best for their children. Malay schools were good enough for children of the rest of us. Such hypocrisy!

Today I still see some of those students. A few are successful because they had the initiative to learn English on their own and thus enhanced their employability. The rest are stuck in the village, their education system had failed them. They have every right to be angry.

I have one other episode to relate on my experience teaching medical students. During my first few lectures my students were all very quiet. Tried as I would, I could not ignite any spark. So one day I spent the first fifteen minutes of my lecture telling them the right material, but then in the second fifteen I went ahead and purposely contradicted what I had said earlier. Of course I saw many perplexed faces, but I pretended as if nothing had happened. Then as was my practice, I paused and asked them if they had any questions, and waited patiently.

As usual, there was dead silence; only glum confused looks. Finally one brave soul put her hands up and said I had uttered something different in the early part of my lecture. I feigned surprise and asked which part I had contradicted, and she rightly pointed it out. Scratching my head while pretending serious contemplation, I admitted that I had indeed made a mistake and thanked her profusely for bringing it to my attention. I complimented her for saving the class and me. She beamed.

Soon there were other brave souls eagerly pointing out my errors. I thanked each one of them, and concocted some lame excuse for my errors. At last the ice was broken. The obstructing iceberg began to break and the class discussions began to flow. I had disabused these students that professors are not infallible and all knowing, and that they are quite capable of, and indeed frequently do, utter something erroneous if not downright stupid. Earlier I had done the same trick with my house officers in a seminar, and that too worked wonderfully. As a result my students and house officers soon became a lively bunch. They did not hesitate in challenging me, and I enjoyed the banter immensely. For one it kept everybody awake, for another it gave them a chance to practice their spoken English.

All went well until a new colleague returned fresh from his postgraduate studies abroad. He should be “red hot.” I suggested that he give a seminar to my students and medical officers, and he readily agreed. On the appointed day I warmly introduced him and then as was my custom, left him to carry on.

Following the seminar, my students and junior doctors joined me on the ward. They all had glum faces. I inquired how the seminar went, and no one was keen to volunteer a response. Finally one sputtered, “He is a strange guy!” It turned out that this lecturer, as was (perhaps still is) typical of local professors, did not take kindly to being asked many questions. Later at lunch that new lecturer pounced into me, and his first comment was how rude and impudent my students and junior doctors were. “No respect for professors and elders!” was how he put it.

More than 25 years later I still get a tickle in relating this incident. The undue reverence students have of their teachers and professors still exists today. This is common in Asia, a reflection of the culture of reverence towards elders generally. Reverence and respect yes; blind obedience and uncritically accepting what is being uttered, no!

On another front, I often get letters from readers who disagree with me, but instead of rebutting my arguments they would challenge my competence or right to put forth such views. When I write about Islam they would argue that since I am not an ulama, I should not comment on religious matters. When I write on Malaysian affairs, their immediate rebuttal seems to be that since I live abroad, my views are no longer valid. Not once do they consider the merits of my arguments. Worse, they would say that some professors or ulama somewhere with better qualifications have said something different, and since they are professors ipso facto, their views must automatically be sahih (correct). These readers suspend their critical judgment, and spend more time evaluating the credentials of the writer than on the merits of the arguments. I am not surprised that Malaysian students have these views as their professors too exhibit similar insularity.

Such anecdotes and incidents, hilarious as they are, do not indict the system. For that I need more solid empirical evidences. I will do this by systemically dissecting the system and critiquing each segment.

Next: The P-13 Years


Anonymous an-nasr said...

Dear Dr. Bakri,

I am among thousand Malaysian students currently studying in this Land of Liberty. Perhaps I can pay you a visit sometimes in the future.

None of your thoughts in this article contradicts mine. Nevertheless, I was attracted by the story regarding the unfortunate young lecturer. That’s just an example given by you. In fact, most universities(or any other eduction industries) in Malaysia still apply the conservative way of teaching. There shouldn’t be any open discussion in class or else the students will be accused of not respecting the teacher/lecturer.

What a hazardous phenomenon??? To me, sometimes we need to change & only with the wilingness to change can we achieve the ambitious vision of 2020.

I fully understand the situation for I had been involved with the system for the past 11 years (primary & secondary education). Obviously, we are lack of self-confidence & public speaking skills compared to the Americans. When I arrived here a year ago, I was stunned & amazed by them. Their full involvement with the daily discussion is exemplary.

As a solution, I would say that students studying abroad should absorb those great western values & try to apply them back home. This is an additional task to them besides the major responsibility towards their academics.

“For that I need more solid empirical evidences. I will do this by systemically dissecting the system and critiquing each segment.”

As prolific uberblogger Glenn Reynolds likes to say, blogs have given the people a chance to stop yelling at their TV and have a say in the process.

Personally, I think, blogs have served as sort of a ‘fifth estate’ that works in conjunction with the mainstream media and potentially function as a journalism and commentary farm system that provides a new means to establish success.

In a nutshell, keep on writing & I am looking forward to your future posting.


2:09 PM  

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