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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, September 27, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #36

Chapter 6: Attempts At Reforms (Cont'd)


Meritokrasi and The Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

The year 2002 was a tumultuous one for Malaysian education. Two major decisions – the introduction of meritokrasi (meritocracy) and the teaching of science and mathematics in English – were made almost casually, through executive mandate rather than after wide public discussions and parliamentary debates.

Meritokrasi was meant to improve the quality of education by relying more on academic criteria rather than quotas and special set-aside programs in the selection of students. It is widely acknowledged that many Bumiputra undergraduates would not be there but for special privileges.

Prime Minister Mahathir and other UMNO leaders were becoming increasingly piqued by the behavior of these undergraduates. They expressed their contempt for the government generally and UMNO specifically by actively campaigning for the opposition parties during recent elections. The pivotal moment came when the landmark Chancellor’s Hall on UM was burnt down. There was immediate speculation of arson as the prime minister was scheduled to speak in that auditorium the very next day. To date there has been no satisfactory or official explanation for the fire. The fire department intimated faulty wirings. Few believe that, least of all UMNO leaders who by now could hardly contain their displeasure and anger at the undergraduates. The new head of Puteri (Young Women) UMNO, Azalina Othman, eager to show her stripes, angrily called for the firing of the university’s vice-chancellor, Dr. Annuar Zaini, for failing to “control” the students. This is surprising as Annuar Zaini is a highly qualified and respected academic physician. He is among the few who rose through the academic ranks instead of the usual path of politics and the civil service.

The decision to use merits as the basis for admission was not to enhance the academic standards as widely proclaimed, rather to give those “ungrateful” Bumiputra students their just comeuppance. Thus chastened they would then concentrate more on their studies and would be less interested in politics. Or if they were, they would be more supportive of the government lest they risk losing their cherished special privileges and quotas. At least that was the expectations of the UMNO hierarchy.

Consequently there was much anticipation of the effect of this new policy on the incoming class of 2002. Judging from the statements of UMNO leaders, they were eagerly expecting the shocking news of fewer Bumiputras admitted to universities so UMNO leaders could browbeat those students. “See, if not for us guarding your special privileges, you Bumiputras would not stand a chance!”

Come June when the figures were released, there were gasps of astonishment. The number of Bumiputras admitted under the new merit-based criteria increased, not dropped. To those who think that Malays are dumb (this includes many among UMNO leaders), that shocking news was not expected. One would have thought that there would be hearty messages of congratulations to these students for having done well. Instead there were snide remarks that the process was rigged. How else to explain the success of Malays?

Although I expected such remarks from non-Malays–after all they too needed some rationalization for their less than expected outcome – what stunned me was the disbelief among Malays leaders. The Prime Minster who long championed the cause of Malays went so far as to claim that it was a statistical quirk and that it would not happen again.

Not once did he applaud the students for having done well. Instead he and many others went out of their way to deride and belittle the students’ achievements. Some suggested that because most Malay students entered through matrikulasi while non-Malays through Sixth Form, the former must be of lower standard. Their presumption is that Malays are dumb; so matrikulasi must be easier.

As stated earlier, I believe matrikulasi is a watered-down program, but do not blame the students; blame those who run the program and the bureaucrats who juggled the scores. Meanwhile I heartily congratulate those hard working Malay students who have done well and thus surprised their leaders. May you have continued success, even though your leaders may lack faith in you. Prove them wrong again!

For now meritokrasi stays, the government’s weapon to bludgeon the students effectively neutralized. Those “ungrateful” Malay students have yet to be punished.

The second decision, to use English to teach science and mathematics, had a similar seat-of-the-pants quality to the decision making process. One would have thought that such a radical change would have been undertaken only after meticulous and exhaustive study. We are dealing with the future of our young, something not to be taken lightly. Instead the decision was rushed. The matter was discussed at UMNO Supreme Council meetings, and only minimally in the cabinet. There was no parliamentary debate. Despite howling protests from various groups, the decision stayed. Instead of engaging its many critiques, the government threatened to use the Internal Security Act to silence them.

Yet legitimate questions remain, like the availability of competent teachers and suitable textbooks. These are simply brushed aside. The leaders have spoken and it shall be so. The magic wand has been waved, and all problems will miraculously vanish. The plan is to be implemented in January 2003, but as late as November 2002 the final form and manner has yet to be finalized. Initially it is to begin at Primary 1 and at selected secondary levels, but with protests from Chinese-based political parties, that timetable is now under review.

The authorities had numerous meetings to iron out the kinks. It is instructive that none of these meetings involved teachers or educators. The issue had been discussed entirely in the political arena, indicating that the decision had less to do with education and everything to do with politics.

The rationale of the policy is valid: to enhance the scientific knowledge and mathematical competency of students and at the same encourage the wider use of English. But as presently implemented, and without much prior planning and preparation, the policy will, like the decision to introduce meritokrasi, back fire.

These two initiatives prove that momentous decisions can be made within the constraints of the present framework; there is no need to amend the constitution or have Royal Commissions of Inquiry. Whether these essentially wise decisions will achieve their intended results remain to be seen. I await their implementation.

Next: National Brains Trust Report 2002

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