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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 21, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #23

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System (Cont'd)

The P-13 Years


I will examine the system from three perspectives: access, equity, and quality. Stated differently, how easy it is for citizens to get an education; do all have the same opportunity; and lastly, the overall standard and quality. Malaysia has done reasonably well with the first, moderately successful with the second, and poorly with the third.

Although Malaysia has near universal primary education, with participation rate in excess of 94 percent, at the preschool the rate is much lower (64 percent). At this level much work remains to be done, especially in rural areas. Of the pupils who entered Primary 1 in 1995, about 3.1 percent dropped out by Primary 6. And of the students entering Form One that same year, about 20 percent did not complete their Form Five. The government estimates that the participation rate at the secondary level is 85 percent. This is overly optimistic. If every student in the age group had enrolled in Form 1, the participation rate would have been only about 80 percent, but since the participation rate at the primary level is only 94 percent, the participation rate for the secondary level should be even lower, in the low 70s by my estimation. Nonetheless this is a marked improvement over the 1990 figure of 52 percent.

The difficulties I have in checking government figures is that they simply do not add up. I do not believe that these officials are purposely misleading the public rather they do not understand the meaning and relationship of these figures to one another. They do not crosscheck one set of figures against others for reliability and accuracy.

These are national averages; the rates for rural and estate schools are much worse. In one rural primary school the dropout rate was in excess of 20 percent, that is, one in five students did not complete their schooling at the primary level. The figures for rural secondary schools are also appalling. The government does not release this subset of figures (perhaps it does not have them) but one can get a sense of this by visiting rural areas on any school day. There are kids loitering all over.

When I was vacationing in east coast Malaysia recently, the one jarring sight was seeing so many school-age boys working at major resorts doing odd jobs. They cannot do much more as few could speak English. If you ask them why they quit school, invariably their answer is, “It’s boring!” One fisherman who had his son helping him said that he could teach his son better by having the boy work with him than being at school. Before you dismiss the fisherman’s attitude, you should first visit the local school.

I was donating some books to my village school. The gift was very modest nonetheless I was taken aback by how genuinely pleased and appreciative the headmaster and teachers were. When I checked their library I understood why. Their books were old and in poor shape. They had no recent acquisitions, as there was no funding. The laboratories too were equally pathetic. There were very few test tubes, and experiments were often demonstrated rather than done by students because the teachers had to conserve those precious test tubes. Thus all the joys of experimenting – the very essence of science – were taken away. No wonder these pupils did not enjoy the subject. My village is on the west coast, much more developed than those in the east coast. Imagine the condition at a comparable school in Ulu Kelantan.

This brings to my second point of equity. Contrary to most people’s understanding, equity does not mean treating everybody the same or giving every school the same amount of funds or delivering the same package of services. The greatest inequity, as the great America jurist Felix Frankfurter observed, is to treat the unequals equally. Giving the same amount of funds and services for a school in Ulu Kelantan as that in Ukay Heights may seem as if we would be treating the two equally, in reality we would not. That Ukay Heights’ school would be able to supplement its programs with generous contributions from affluent parents. Further, those pupils would get much intellectual and educational support at home. There would also be a high level of intellectual stimulation in the community, with good libraries and other amenities. Rural schools on the other hand, have students who would not have regular breakfast and whose parents would not have high levels of educational attainment or aspirations. Further, that school in Ulu Kelantan would less likely to attract capable and talented teachers. Thus to treat both schools equally, we would have to give more to the rural school to adequately compensate for its many disadvantages. We also would have to pay its teachers more to attract them and to offset the less-than-alluring lifestyle. Its library too would have to be doubly well endowed to make up for the lack of intellectual stimulation at home and in the community.
The greatest inequity is the urban and rural divide. By whatever measure we choose, the divide is obvious and widening, from absenteeism and dropout rates to performances at national examinations. Unfortunately this divide also parallels racial lines, with rural schools having mostly Malay pupils. Thus the poisonous atmosphere of racism is unnecessarily injected into the discussion of rural and urban schools. The equally dismal performance of small estate schools attended by Tamil pupils is a ready rebuttal to that race argument.

A large part of my reform addresses the issue of how to improve rural schools so they would be better than urban ones. They have to be in order to compensate for their disadvantaged environment.

The third issue, quality, is most important. I have the vantage point of having my children schooled in America and thus can readily compare their experience with that of their cousins in Malaysia. Jarring differences emerged quickly. First is the quality of teachers. All my children’s teachers, even in the lower grades, had a degree. My son’s grade school teacher even had a master’s, but instead of taking an administrative position she returned to her first love – the classroom – and did not suffer any career loss. I disagree that primary level teachers be graduates; my point here is that American teachers are generally better trained. In Malaysia, the path for advancement is through administration, not by remaining in the classroom.

Then there are the textbooks. My children all have attractive and well-designed textbooks, with colorful pictures, thick papers, and large print for ease of reading. And they are free even for children of doctors. The school also provides free bus service. The mathematics texts have real life problems. In geometry there was an assignment for estimating the height of a flagpole by measuring the angle of the sun and the length of the pole’s shadow. Similarly the biology lesson in middle school involved examining the pellets of owl droppings and inferring from that the bird’s diet. They went further and were able to reconstruct the skeleton of the rodent the owl had swallowed. All involved direct observation and collection of data and their interpretation, which is what science is all about.

The most striking difference is the curriculum. In America it is flexible, with room for electives. Even though my children were academically oriented nonetheless they all took fine arts and crafts. The requirements for entry into the prestigious University of California system include a year of fine arts or crafts at high school. Students in America are taught early how to do independent research. In my son’s social studies class in high school, he did a report on Afghanistan. He even wrote to its embassy in Washington, DC, to obtain some materials, and discussed by phone with one of its officials.

He did such a credible report that five years later when he was in college and the Afghan war broke out, we had to ask him about the background information. He knew more about the recent history of that country than anyone else in the family or even the media commentators. The school library is also excellent, and this is supplemented by an equally well-stocked public library.

Lest readers think that I am uncritically glorifying the American system, let me cite other opinions. I meet a number of older Malaysians either studying at graduate level or working in America for Malaysian agencies. They usually have their children with them. The uppermost anxiety they have when they finish their tour of duty is how their children will cope with Malaysian schools after they have enjoyed the freedom and free-spirited inquiry in an American classroom. They worry about their children surviving the strict regimentation back in Malaysia. One parent went so far as to leave his son behind to finish his schooling.

These anecdotes give a personal flavor to the assessment, but for a more rigorous and objective take we must look elsewhere.

Next: The TIMSS 1999

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