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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, July 19, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #27

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

The Universities

The recent widely publicized plight of over 40,000 graduates unable to find jobs is emblematic of the failure of Malaysian higher education. The overwhelming majority (over 94 percent) were Malay graduates of local institutions. The public was stunned by the revelation, the sudden realization that the blight had infected the cream. The whole edifice might crumble.

There was no shortage of commentaries and finger pointing, with some blaming the students for being choosy, and others the universities for being out of touch with reality. In all those discussions the basic question was not asked, let alone answered. Were these graduates unemployed or simply unemployable? With the former, the answer would rest with the greater economy; with the latter it would be with the education system.

It is hard to imagine with the current near full employment and with the country having to import thousands of workers that these graduates would have difficulty finding jobs. It is my contention that the universities have done a lousy job to ensure that their products are employable.

Mustapa Mohamad, chairman of the National Economic Action Council, identified this as essentially a Bumiputra problem. Again, this reflects the tendency of officials to view problems through the prism of race; it permeates their thinking. As graduates of local public universities are mostly Malays, the poor Malay race again gets blamed when in actuality it is the universities’ fault in doing a lousy job of preparing their graduates for the realities of the marketplace.

Sadly, the government again reverted to pat pattern in solving the problem, by pouring more money on these graduates. The results will be no better than other similar programs to help Bumiputras, and will be just as expensive and wasteful. The government has done enough already by giving them the opportunity to get a university education. If they cannot go on their own after that, then there is no hope that they ever will. Spending more money only heightens their already inflated sense of entitlement and ingrains their dependency mentality. These graduates are getting RM500 monthly allowance; a hawker can easily earn much more. If an illegal and illiterate Bangladesh immigrant can earn a living in Malaysia, I see no reason why these graduates could not do the same. It is not ordained that our graduates cannot be construction workers, taxi drivers, farmers, or hawkers. Indeed with their university education they would become better and more productive at those jobs.

The government’s various attachment schemes for graduates are nothing more than camouflaged public works programs. They are meant more to provide an income to the graduates rather than equipping them with the necessary salable skills. I would scrap the entire program and use the funds to retrain them with marketable skills. Enhance their English fluency, mathematical competency, and IT training, and they will find ready employers.

The only avenue of employment for arts graduates from local universities is with the government. They have no useable skills needed in the private sector. Blame our pubic universities for this. Had our universities followed the example of leading American colleges and made a year of English, mathematics, and laboratory science mandatory, then our graduates would have greater flexibility not only in the marketplace but also in their further studies. In America, because of its broad-based liberal education, it is quite common for a religious studies or history major to go into medical, law or business school, or to change their field of study at the graduate level.

There have been tepid attempts at broadening the undergraduate program. Deputy Prime Minister Badawi suggested that Islamic Studies students take one elective outside their major. UUM students now have to take at least three courses conducted entirely in English. This will go a long way to stem the decline of English fluency of its graduates. To date this sensible idea has not spilled over to the other campuses.

Despite the glut of jobless graduates, the government continues to provide scholarships and loans for students to pursue the liberal arts. It should be sending a very strong signal to would-be undergraduates by sharply curtailing financial support for those pursuing these unneeded disciplines. Additionally, again through the funding mechanism, I would send the appropriate message to the universities to cut their intake for such disciplines. These academics are being irresponsible in churning out products that are not needed in the marketplace.

Concomitant with the reduction in intake for the arts stream, the government should also broaden the curriculum by making these students take English, science, and mathematics to enhance their employability.

There is a sinister but hidden aspect to the government’s help for these jobless graduates. There is no incentive for would-be undergraduates to choose carefully their majors, as no matter what, the government would be there to bail them out in the end.

The problem with our public universities is that with Malay being the medium of instruction, students have low English proficiency. There are limited number of books and reference materials in Malay, meaning that the students’ intellectual horizon is necessarily limited. Their reading list is extremely short, and students rarely venture beyond the few prescribed texts.

The typical Third World professor is also aloof, all knowing, and imperious, a demeanor not likely to encourage or tolerate vigorous class discussions or intellectual debates. Consequently Malaysian students are passive listeners; their classroom involvement is merely to show up. A senior history professor from UM lamented that his students were reduced to being silent stenographers dutifully transcribing everything he uttered, and regurgitating them at examination time.

The professor was as much at fault. If he was worried about his students becoming stenographers, why, simply publish and distribute his lecture notes. To encourage class discussion, try assigned seating and have class participation factored in the final grades. Or he could use some of my tricks mentioned earlier in teaching medical students where I simply uttered something ridiculous and see the students’ reactions. Similarly, he could have “open book” examinations and design his questions to minimize rote memory and mindless regurgitation.

What goes on in the lecture halls and seminar rooms on Malaysian campuses is essentially a one-way communication, a monologue from the lecturer. Students are treated simply as empty dustbins to be filled with data and dogma rather than curious minds to be stimulated. Students in turn treat everything emanating from the professor as gospel truth.

While student evaluation of professors is standard on American campuses, it is unthinkable at a Malaysian university. While Malaysian academics endlessly exhort their students to be original and creative, these professors hardly contribute anything creative or original.

This lifelessness did not develop overnight. The government is directly responsible and indeed actively promotes this sorry state of affair. Such an atmosphere is not conducive for excellence or innovation. If one were to look for the turning point that led to the current state of mediocrity, it would be the introduction of the Universities and Colleges Act of 1971. The original intent of the Act was benign enough, to prevent a recurrence of the nightmare of the race riot of 1969. But the Act has been “strengthened,” that is, made more repressive with subsequent amendments, in particular the one in 1975. The Act not only did away with what little academic freedom the professors and universities had, but more menacingly created a palpable atmosphere of repression on campus. The university was put on a very tight leash; those who dared stray would be jerked right back, or worse. Those who dare express independent viewpoints, meaning not what the government or ruling party wants to hear, would suffer the consequences, and many have. A professor of sociology active in the opposition party had his teaching contract not renewed; actually he was fired, just in case the message did not register with his colleagues. Justice finally prevailed with the professor winning his case in court. The verdict itself was a surprise. No, he was not reinstated, merely awarded monetary damages.
Academics quickly learn that if you want to progress you have to ingratiate yourself if not overtly suck up to the powerful. No surprise then that the universities have failed the nation; they are being led by the meek and the toady rather than the brilliant and innovative.

Malaysian universities are not autonomous; they are divisions within MOE. Faculty members are treated (and they in turn behave) more as civil servants rather than as scholars and scientists. Discussions in the faculty club often revolve around one’s position on the salary scheme rather than papers published or patents applied. Senior academic positions are chosen not by the university community rather appointed by the minister. Often they are civil servants seconded from the Tourism Ministry while on their way to be undersecretary at the Sports Ministry.

This civil service milieu is purposely created. And like the civil service, brilliance, creativity, and innovations give way to precedent, seniority, and general orders.

For the past few years the regional publication Asiaweek (now defunct) conducted regular surveys of Asian universities. Already in that short space of time we see the steady decline in the ranking of local institutions. In its first survey in 1997, Malaysia’ leading and oldest university, UM, was ranked 11th, two years later it slipped to 27th, and in the last survey (2000) it dropped to 47th. Meanwhile UKM made the list once at the very beginning, and then dropped out of sight. Only UPM improved its standing from 69th in 1999 to 52nd in 2000. One may argue with the criteria used, but there is no mistaking the trend. Of course the typical ministerial response is, well, we are still ahead of Papua New Guinea!

Those attempting reform must be prepared to address not only the institutional issues but equally important, the cultural impediments to change. Before presenting my proposals, I will examine the system of education of a few select countries that is worthy of Malaysia to note. This would be followed by a chapter reviewing attempts at reforming the system, in particular the two current proposals, MOE’s Education Development 2001-2010, and the more recent report of the National Brains Trust.

Next: Chapter 5: A Look At other Models


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