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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.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #35

Chapter 6 Attempts At Reform

There have been many amendments to the Education Act since the landmark Razak Report of 1956. Most involved mere tinkering at the edges. Interestingly the legislation that had the greatest impact on education – the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1970 – was not directed specifically at education. That bold social engineering experiment changed not only the nature of Malaysian society but also the structure of education. NEP institutionalized quotas especially in higher education, and radically expanded the access to education for Bumiputras.

The second watermark period was when Malay replaced English as the medium of instruction in schools (except vernacular primary schools). The first batch of students to enter university under this new system of all-Malay instruction was in 1982. To some, that represented the pinnacle of achievement; to others, the beginning of the decline.

I belong to the second group, and was roundly chastised for my supposedly anti-nationalist sentiments. While I agreed that Malay should have wider usage as befitting a national language and that the then existing English schools were doing a poor job in teaching the language, my proposed remedy was very different. Instead of converting the then existing English schools into Malay, I suggested instead that more subjects be taught in Malay in these schools. History and geography would have been the ideal candidates, but keep science and mathematics in English. My reason then was practical, we did not have enough textbooks or Malays qualified to translate or write them. Nor did we have enough qualified teachers. My proposal would have achieved the same end results as what we are trying to reach today: for Malaysians to be fluently bilingual and at the same time have a good command of science and mathematics.

I made my views known to the political establishment as well as to the Director of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language Agency) in the form of an article submission. I was severely berated by the director for being ungrateful and having no pride in my own heritage. Something about a pea forgetting its pod (kacang lupakan kulit). I would have been satisfied with a simple, “No thank you!” rejection letter.

The agency then was headed by one Syed Nasir Ismail, a vigorous advocate of Malay language and a top UMNO functionary. At the time he was tipped to be the next education minister, which was the reason I wrote him. If Syed Nasir had his way, he would have wiped out all signs in the country other than those in Malay.

With clear hindsight the significance of that change into an all-Malay instruction can now be more objectively assessed. The man who claimed so much of the credit for introducing that change more than two decades ago is today spearheading a movement in the opposite direction. Then, Mahathir Mohamad as Education Minister was basking in the glory of having “restored” the honor of Malay language and of championing the cause of the race. Today as Prime Minister, Mahathir is advocating reintroducing English schools. Perversely, he is again being regarded as the nation’s savior!

At the risk of appearing to gloat, had the government then been more cautious and proceeded along the lines I suggested, the nation today would not have the mess it has. By aggressively promoting Malay, the government sacrificed the greatest asset of its people, their English fluency. As we are now finding out, once we lost something, it is mighty difficult to reclaim it.

While the language nationalists may have their victory parade celebrating their “success” in extinguishing English and substituting Malay instead, the economic costs for this loss has yet to be estimated. Apart from the direct added costs of having translators, think of the immense potential loss through businesses and investments going elsewhere because our workers cannot communicate in English.

Another pivotal point was in 1996, with the amendment to permit the setting up of private universities. Within a few years literally hundreds of private institutions were established. For the first time the monopoly of the government in providing education, at least at the tertiary level, was broken. This was significant as it created the momentum for further change.

The nation had barely digested that innovation when the new millennium brought in more radical changes. One was Education Blueprint 2001-2010, the grand design envisioned by ministry bureaucrats; and soon right after, the National Brains Trust Report of 2002. It is highly significant that these two major proposals, with their far ranging implications, were made without wide public discussions or input. They were not even presented to Parliament.

In addition to these two major reform efforts, there were other significant decisions made during this time that had great impact on schools specifically and education generally. What is significant and frightening was the cavalier way in which these weighty matters were decided. The use of English to teach mathematics and science was made in response to a resolution passed at an UMNO divisional meeting.

Of course the division that made the resolution was the prime minister’s own; hence its extraordinary holding power. In Malaysia nothing happens spontaneously. The other equally significant initiative – to admit non-Malays into MARA residential schools – was also made extemporaneously by the Prime Minister. Purportedly this was part of his overall attempt at injecting merit into the system. The only revealing aspect to that decision is that he now finally acknowledges that there is no consideration of merit in the current system.

I agree with both initiatives and made similar recommendations in my The Malay Dilemma Revisited. I advocated non-Bumiputras be admitted to all residential schools both to increase the competitiveness as well as reduce the insularity. But I went further. These non-Bumiputras as well as those Bumiputras who could afford it, should bear the full costs. These schools should revert to their original mission of being an outreach program for the poor who do not have ready access to quality schools.

My other recommendation was to teach science and mathematics in English at these schools. It would be a way to attract more Bumiputras to pursue those subjects, and as the students are smarter, the plan would more likely succeed and the kinks more easily ironed out. Once the system was running smoothly, then it could be expanded onto regular schools.

Like others, I too have deep reservations on the workability of the government’s current proposals. It would not surprise me that there would be few non-Bumiputras eager for the MARA slots. This was confirmed by the headlines in November 2002. Non-Bumiputras are not the only ones who are unimpressed with MARA. To many Malays especially those in the private sector and the professions, MARA is synonymous with mediocrity. Few send their children to MARA institutions.

Likewise with the teaching of science and mathematics in English; I anticipate problems not only with textbooks but also the teachers.

Next: Education Development 2001-2010

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