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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, October 04, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #37

Chapter 6: Attempts At Reforms (Cont'd)

National Brains Trust Report 2002


Less than a year after the release of Education Development 2001-2010, a high-level committee, dubbed the National Brains Trust, released its report, Master Plan for the Knowledge-Based Economy. It contains 136 recommendations, of which 64 relate to human resources, and half of that (32) concern education. I will discuss those 32 recommendations, but first some comments on the committee.

It was led by one Nordin Sopiee, a London School of Economics PhD and head of a government think tank. He is more widely remembered as the man who took a full-page newspaper ad supporting Prime Minister Mahathir following US Vice President Al Gore‘s intemperate remarks during a state dinner supporting the refomasi movement. Prudent thing to do as his organization is dependent on the government for funding. More importantly, at that infamous dinner Nordin Sopiee was seen to applaud the vice president. Thus to local cynics, Nordin’s widely publicized action in taking out the ad was seen more as a crass display of bodek (sucking up to the powerful). His committee of 68 luminaries (some reports claimed 95; a committee member could not tell me the exact number) was widely lauded in the media.

The report is like other official papers – dry, more like a recipe book. There is little discussion of background information or references to primary sources and experiences of other countries. It correctly highlights the recent steady decline in the nation’s competitiveness. It stood at 17 in 1997, but slipped to 41 in the latest ranking (2001). While other factors certainly contribute to this precipitous slide, the report makes no references to them. Instead it focuses primarily on the inadequacies of the education system. In this the report is hardly comprehensive.

It makes scant reference to the evident decline of Malaysian universities. I am told that there would be a recommendation for yet another committee to look specifically at higher education. The only suggestion it has for universities is that they should review the salary scheme of its junior lecturers. Even here the committee is missing the mark. Our universities need to improve the pay of its academic staff at all levels.

One recommendation beyond education that caught my eye is for allowing local companies to import top talent, that is, foreigners earning in excess of RM20,000 per month should be given automatic work visa. I would go further; I would grant them permanent status. For these highly talented individuals, the demand for their skills is truly global. Malaysia must be willing to pay competitive salaries to attract them. While I applaud the committee for making this sensible recommendation, the committee then undermines this by putting a limit to the number of such individuals a company could hire. Surely if we value them, then more is better. Why the restrictions? The committee could not escape its parochialism in protecting Malaysians in these high-paying jobs. Malaysians with that kind of talent do not need such protection. The challenge is to entice them to remain at home.

The report rightly highlights the mediocre pay for teachers. Although Malaysian teachers earn as much as their American counterpart relative to the per capita GDP, the more important indicator is how well they are paid relative to other professions. When a tour guide or a fish hawker earns considerably more, then we have a problem. In Malaysia (and also in America) this is manifested by the fact that the profession no longer attracts the best and talented. With low pay comes low status.

In my The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I referred to Lat’s cartoons to illustrate this point. One sketch of a 1950s’ scene showed a schoolteacher in his sleek car, with a father and son looking on admiringly by the roadside. The next scene was of more recent vintage, and it showed a father driving his son to school in an expensive sedan, and forcing the schoolteacher, who was riding a decrepit motorcycle, off the road!

The report calls for across the board salary hikes. That would be laudable but prohibitively expensive. Instead Malaysia should have targeted increases to attract those with the most-needed skills: teachers of English, science, and mathematics. With a glut of teachers for Malay and Islamic Studies there is no point in increasing their pay. Even if we reduce it, there will be no shortage of applicants.

The committee is enamored with IT, and calls for bridging the digital divide by 2010. In its infatuation with computers the committee ignores other more glaring divide separating rural from urban schools – poor physical facilities and lack of quality teachers. To me these should be the highest priority, ahead of supplying IT. Many rural schools do not even have electricity, how can they have computers? Many still have double sessions, dilapidated libraries, and inadequate laboratories. I would fix those first.

The committee recommends that schools be provided with a manager to take care of the administrative chores thus freeing the headmaster to pay attention to professional and educational issues. I agree, provided that the manager is answerable to the headmaster and not to some bureaucrat in the ministry.

Another of its recommendations is that teachers at the secondary and upper primary levels be degree holders. I would settle for teachers only at the upper secondary level to be graduates. For others, a good teaching diploma should suffice. I would upgrade the quality of teachers’ colleges; this would be better and more cost effective way of enhancing the quality of teaching, rather than insisting that teachers have a degree. That would end up diluting the quality of our universities by diverting them to train the massive number of teachers. Look at America where former teachers’ colleges are now universities.

Today a graduate teacher from a local university has less professional skills and knowledge than a diploma-trained teacher from Kirby or Brinsford Lodge of the 1950s. It would be better and more effective to upgrade the teaching diploma than to cheapen a degree.

A major disappointment with the Brains Trust report is that it barely scratches the surface of the monumental problems facing Malaysian education. It does not address the basic problems of our institutions being tightly controlled by the ministry, with no room for them to grow professionally or develop their excellence and expertise.

Next: Reform in Other Countries

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