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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, December 27, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #49

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)

Schools of Second Chance

After discussing examinations, it appropriate to ponder the fate of those who fail and fall through the cracks. No matter how good a system there will always be failures. In the past when opportunities were limited, those who slipped were simply let go; there was no second chance. Many through sheer grit would make something of themselves; the rest would suffer their fate in silence. If they have learned their bitter lesson they would pass it on to their loved ones in the hope that the mistakes would not be repeated; others would have their children and loved ones repeat it, and the same cycle is repeated.

The remarkable aspect of human capital is this: citizens are either assets or they are by default, liabilities. There is no neutral zone. They are either contributors to or takers from the economy; they either add to or subtract from the wealth of the nation. The contributors are obviously the producers and workers. The takers come in many forms: the young, elderly, and infirm. The young are takers only temporarily; with good education they too would later become contributors and pay back many times more what they had taken from society and what society had invested in them. Likewise, the infirm could be turned into contributors with good medical and rehabilitative care. Even if their infirmities were permanent and irreversible, with appropriate training and ingenuity we could turn those citizens into assets.

In the beautiful poetry of classical Malay literature, the deaf would work in a noisy environment, the blind in the dark, and the mute be entrusted with state secrets! They all have their place. The elderly, well, they had been contributors when they were young, now they deserve to reap their harvest. Increasingly in the West, with better medical care, senior citizens are contributing right into their ripe old age. William Deming, the revered management guru, is still consulting and giving seminars even in his 90’s. A number of my colleagues in their 70s are still operating.

America spends an inordinate amount of resources training the intellectually challenged. Visitors may consider this to be a waste. For Third World nations with limited resources it would certainly make more sense to spend them on educating the smart ones first. But for a wealthy country like America that has taken care of the basic needs, spending funds to educate these unfortunate souls is money well spent. These children attend special classes where they are trained to do simple jobs. Then they are placed in a sheltered work environment, not subject to the regular stresses of the normal workplace. All these are attempts at turning them into producers instead of takers, to put them into the asset and away from the liability column.

The obvious societal liabilities apart from the above are criminals, dropouts, and drug addicts. They cost society indirectly by not being producers as well as directly by the damages they inflict and the costs they incur upon society. Criminals cost society directly as a result of their criminal activities, and society in turn has to expend resources to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate them – all very expensive undertakings. In America it costs about $30,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail, just about as much to attend Harvard. Drug addicts in addition are a public health menace, harboring such lethal communicable diseases as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. The public will bear the burden for treating them. And if they are not treated, the public will again bear the direct burden of their spreading their deadly diseases.

Thus we must have as good and attractive a school system as possible to minimize dropouts who would enlarge the pool of criminals, addicts, and other takers in the economy. But no matter how excellent and innovative a system, we should still expect failures. As can be surmised from my earlier argument, it is not whether we should provide a second (or even third and fourth) chance for them rather how should we do it to prevent them from slipping into the liability column and costing society.

We would be spending these resources on those who fail anyway. The question is whether we pay that later (and much more expensively) through the criminal justice system and healthcare when they become criminals and addicts, or pay less now by providing effective remedial programs so they can become productive members of society.

Malaysia already has a jumbled mess of expensive remedial programs like Rakan Muda (Friends of the Young) and more recently, the equally expensive national service. These are run by agencies that have little experience in dealing with the young. Rakan Muda is run by the Youth and Sports Ministry, while the proposed national service by the Defense Ministry. The objectives of these programs are by no means clear, making it difficult to assess their effectiveness. But because they have strong political advocates, rest assured these programs would simply multiply and grow. It is naïve to believe that by simply marching our young under the blazing Malaysian sun would somehow turn them into useful citizens. Instead of spending expensive resources on Rakan Muda and national service, use those same resources to provide remedial classes and other enhancement programs in the schools.

The best place for children is still in the school. If regular schools fail them, then we should modify the system. We should allow students to repeat UPSR, PMR, or STM. These repeaters (I would not label them failures, as such pejorative tags tend to stick for life and unfairly burden their bearers) should not be lumped together with the regular students; instead they should have their own special class. Hopefully it would be a small one so their teachers could pay individualized attention. I would also assign the most experienced teachers for that class. I would offer these students the extra benefit by recording on their final certificate only the better of their two examinations, the first or the repeat. Thus if in the first examination a candidate scored a B in English and a C in science but F in Malay and mathematics, but in the second (repeat) test he or she scores a C in all subjects, then the final transcript would show a B English (last year’s better score) and C (this year’s same or better score) for the rest. This would guarantee that their second effort would be better (certainly not worse) than the first, giving these students an added incentive.

For the more problematic (or severe) students who cannot be accommodated at regular or vocational schools, I would consider two other options: military and farm (or ranch) school. Both would be completely residential but unlike the regular boarding school, the students would have to do most of the work and earn their keep. These students would rotate through the kitchen, maintenance yard, and farm. They are not simply doing menial jobs rather they would learn specific skills – how to cook, operate machineries, and raise animals. It is not simply that they would raise chickens or cows like their forefathers did but they would also learn some mathematics and statistics (graphing egg productions, feedings, and weight gain) and animal husbandry so that when they do return to their villages at least they would be better farmers than their parents were. The schools could even contract out the students’ services. The ultimate objective is for the students to acquire some usable skills and at the same time get a basic education.

America has experimented with military academies for the problem kids in the inner cities. A similar program would work in Malaysia. Malays in particular have a fascination with uniforms and regimentation, and a military academy may just be the answer for these problem students. The academy I have in mind is very different from the present very expensive Royal Military College. I am certain that the alternatives I am suggesting would not only be cheaper than national service or Rakan Muda but also more effective.

These schools could emphasize sports and other extra-curricular activities, as well as vocational subjects and the performing arts. Such varied offerings would ensure that the students would find an activity that would suit their temperament and aptitude. This would also fit with the modern understanding of the multiple facets to human intelligence as conceptualized by Howard Gardner. We should offer these different types of schools and teaching styles to cater to those whose talent and intelligence are manifested in different areas.

In custodial characteristics, these schools would be like prisons, with the students’ time and whereabouts strictly controlled and regimented, but in philosophy it should be an educational institution. Its mission is learning, not punitive. We are more likely to succeed if we treat these students not as failures rather that we have yet to find a suitable program or teaching niche that would reach and touch them.

We must also be mindful that schools and learning or education are not synonymous. Effective learning can take place outside the classroom, and many a learned and educated man never saw the inside of a classroom. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are two famous examples. In America more and more parents are home schooling their children. In the past when access to schools was severely limited many Malaysians effectively educated themselves through correspondence courses. By offering different models including home, military, and ranch schools we increase the probability that the one of them would meet the particular and unique need of a particular student.

Another remarkable observation is that once students excel in one area they would then transfer their success and confidence into other areas. American schools emphasize sports for this very reason. They found that students who initially do not do well academically but are good at sports or fine arts, develop better self esteem that would help them cope with their studies later. Not to mention that should they excel in those fields, they could potentially have a more rewarding career as professionals in those areas. Many inner city youths managed to climb out of their ghettos through sports and entertainment. Look at Mike Tyson (boxing) and the many rap stars. Apart from entertaining their fans, these individuals contribute millions in income taxes. Given a different scenario, the state would have to expend resources to incarcerate them.

Coming back to military academies, another unanticipated benefit is that they provide excellent recruits for the armed services. Considering that these young men and women could easily have ended in the criminal justice system, that is a definite improvement for themselves as well as their families and society.

Our schools must not give up on any student; those unfortunate enough not to succeed the first time must be given ample opportunities to try again, and again. President Bush’s education initiative of 2001 has as its theme, “No Child Left Behind.” Malaysia too should have a similar commitment of not leaving any child behind, as well as giving every child all the opportunities that are needed for him or her to become a potential producer.

Next: Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education


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