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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 28, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #24

Personal note: Many of you wrote me expressing your concerns for my personal well being as I did not have a posting last Sunday, June 25, 2006. Praise be to Allah, I am well and fine. I was on holidays and while I had access to a computer, I could not very well hog it to do my postings; just enough time to check e-mails! My posting continues as its regular schedule on Sundays and Wednesdays. MBM

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

TIMSS 1999


In 1999 Malaysia took part in the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). The original studies were done in1995 and assessed students at the Years 4, 8, and 11, but Malaysia did not take part in that. The 1999 studies were a repeat (TIMSS-R), involving only Year 8 students. Malaysia scored somewhere in the middle for both mathematics and science (18 and 22). We are no doubt ahead of the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, but way behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan.

That study was extensive, generating mountains of data. While others were busy poring over them and trying to discern the weaknesses and strengths of their system, in Malaysia no mention was made of that study. My enquiries to the lead official at MOE and some researchers at the universities drew a blank. Malaysia spent considerable resources and efforts in taking part in that study, yet its officials show scant interest in analyzing the results.

Singapore, which scored at or near the top on both surveys, has done a credible job in reviewing its data. Not surprisingly it found that the scores were correlated with the students’ socioeconomic status and home educational activities, reaffirming the points I raised earlier. One interesting observation is that 96 percent of Singapore Chinese students scored above the 50th percentile internationally for mathematics, while 83 percent of Malays did the same. For science, the figures are 86 and 61 percent respectively. Note this is a crude and simplistic analysis based on race. There was no attempt to factor in the all-important socioeconomic status. How do Chinese and Malays of the same socioeconomic status and comparable parents’ educational background fare, for example?

That criticism aside, the Singapore figures reveal something important for Malaysia. That is, Singapore Malays do better both in mathematics and science as compared to their international counterparts, and certainly way ahead of Malays from Malaysia.

Equally remarkable were the responses of the various officials. In America there was hue and cry that triggered massive movements for reform. Meanwhile Singapore‘s Minister of Education was busy visiting top American schools. When asked that perhaps American officials should visit Singapore instead, he replied modestly that while his students had done well in the tests, he felt that they lacked the more important qualities like independent and critical thinking, innovation, and creativity.

Meanwhile Malaysia’s Minister of Education hardly commented on TIMSS. He was not interested in the results or the details; he was busy bragging about Malaysia being a center of educational excellence and far ahead of Zambia. Amazing the differences in reaction!

Concomitant with the deteriorating quality of education is the deplorable physical facilities. Double sessions are now common and take a severe toll on facilities and personnel. The initial rationale for double sessions was reasonable – to provide education to as many pupils as possible. As these schools are not air-conditioned, the productivity of both students and teachers in the oppressive heat is severely tested. Imagine trying to teach mathematics or English in the hot afternoon! Teachers have a tough time keeping the children awake. When I was in school the headmaster purposely planned the timetable so that subjects requiring intense mental activities like mathematics were taught in the morning. Students are sharpest at that time because of the coolness.

More significantly, studies show that the promised hours of teaching in the afternoon are always interfered with or cut short for a variety of reasons. In one World Bank study, about 20 percent of the instructional hours are lost. Long before the afternoon session begins, the commotion and crowd outside would effectively disturb the last hour of the morning’s session. Leaders have made repeated pledges to eliminate double sessions. Thus far those have been nothing more than the typical politician’s pre-election promises.

Visit a class in the second session. The first half hour would be wasted, waiting for the children to settle down from the heat, sweat, and noise. The government implicitly recognizes the limitations of afternoon sessions by limiting them to classes that do not have to sit for important national examinations.

The greatest failure of the system impacts two particular groups of students: those who are not academically inclined, and students in the religious stream. Vocational education is a haphazard affair. There are not enough vocational schools and they offer courses of little relevance. No surprise as ministry bureaucrats who are ignorant of market realities draft the curriculum. For example, while the construction industry is desperately looking for plumbers, plasterers, and electricians, few schools produce them. In the east coast states with their fishing industry, one would expect the schools there to have programs in marine repairs and refrigeration. Not so. And homeowners know the difficulty in getting skilled craftsmen. Often the only training these workers have is simply on the job, and done erratically. Few vocational schools offer woodworking and other useful crafts.

While American schools have Future Farmers of America clubs and active agricultural and horticultural programs, few in Malaysia have comparable curriculum. The school in my town has an active agricultural club that sells flowers at Christmas. Similarly students in the animal husbandry class raise farm animals that are exhibited at county fairs and later auctioned off. I fail to see why rural schools in Malaysia do not have comparable programs. There could be rice or banana planting clubs, raising various varieties of fruits and doing simple experiments on cross pollinating and grafting. Why cannot rural schools have experimental farms and gardens for the students to grow vegetables and raise small animals? In this way if these students do end up staying in their villages, at least they would have enhanced farming skills. More importantly, by teaching such agricultural and vocational subjects, we legitimize those vocations. During British rule, it was quite common for rural Malay schools to teach these skills. But with independence these activities are disparaged, not befitting for a school to partake.

The avenues and opportunities for learning in these vocational subjects are limitless. We should use all the natural resources and attributes available to benefit the students. Besides, there is a lot of science and mathematics that can be fitted into these subjects. In primary school I remember the enchantment of watching and measuring germinating seeds and the metamorphoses of pupa wrapped in banana leaves. A lot of biology can be taught in incubating eggs. For good measure we can throw in some mathematics and statistics too! Those are not demeaning pursuits, in fact the very same research is being done at universities all over.

The important objective in vocational schools should be to relate knowledge with its applications. There is a lot of geometry that can be taught in woodworking. Watch a carpenter build a door frame, and see how he “squares” it by ensuring that the distances between the opposite corners (hypotenuses) are equal. It is wrong to assume that those who are vocationally and mechanically inclined cannot think, rather they think more with their hands. Anyone watching a skilled craftsman or mechanic at work can attest to this.

If we have attractive and meaningful vocational and technical programs to cater for those not academically inclined, we give them an opportunity to shine in their own special areas. The remarkable insight in education is that if students are allowed to succeed in one area, it will open the doors to learning in other areas. Hence the importance of having not only these technical and vocational programs but also such activities as sports, music, and drama in the overall school experience.

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