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.
Personal note: Many of you wrote me expressing your concerns for my personal well being as I did not have a posting last Sunday, June 25, 2006. Praise be to Allah, I am well and fine. I was on holidays and while I had access to a computer, I could not very well hog it to do my postings; just enough time to check e-mails! My posting continues as its regular schedule on Sundays and Wednesdays. MBM
Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System (Cont'd)
In 1999 Malaysia took part in the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). The original studies were done in1995 and assessed students at the Years 4, 8, and 11, but Malaysia did not take part in that. The 1999 studies were a repeat (TIMSS-R), involving only Year 8 students. Malaysia scored somewhere in the middle for both mathematics and science (18 and 22). We are no doubt ahead of the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, but way behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan.
That study was extensive, generating mountains of data. While others were busy poring over them and trying to discern the weaknesses and strengths of their system, in Malaysia no mention was made of that study. My enquiries to the lead official at MOE and some researchers at the universities drew a blank. Malaysia spent considerable resources and efforts in taking part in that study, yet its officials show scant interest in analyzing the results.
Singapore, which scored at or near the top on both surveys, has done a credible job in reviewing its data. Not surprisingly it found that the scores were correlated with the students’ socioeconomic status and home educational activities, reaffirming the points I raised earlier. One interesting observation is that 96 percent of Singapore Chinese students scored above the 50th percentile internationally for mathematics, while 83 percent of Malays did the same. For science, the figures are 86 and 61 percent respectively. Note this is a crude and simplistic analysis based on race. There was no attempt to factor in the all-important socioeconomic status. How do Chinese and Malays of the same socioeconomic status and comparable parents’ educational background fare, for example?
That criticism aside, the Singapore figures reveal something important for Malaysia. That is, Singapore Malays do better both in mathematics and science as compared to their international counterparts, and certainly way ahead of Malays from Malaysia.
Equally remarkable were the responses of the various officials. In America there was hue and cry that triggered massive movements for reform. Meanwhile Singapore‘s Minister of Education was busy visiting top American schools. When asked that perhaps American officials should visit Singapore instead, he replied modestly that while his students had done well in the tests, he felt that they lacked the more important qualities like independent and critical thinking, innovation, and creativity.
Meanwhile Malaysia’s Minister of Education hardly commented on TIMSS. He was not interested in the results or the details; he was busy bragging about Malaysia being a center of educational excellence and far ahead of Zambia. Amazing the differences in reaction!
Concomitant with the deteriorating quality of education is the deplorable physical facilities. Double sessions are now common and take a severe toll on facilities and personnel. The initial rationale for double sessions was reasonable – to provide education to as many pupils as possible. As these schools are not air-conditioned, the productivity of both students and teachers in the oppressive heat is severely tested. Imagine trying to teach mathematics or English in the hot afternoon! Teachers have a tough time keeping the children awake. When I was in school the headmaster purposely planned the timetable so that subjects requiring intense mental activities like mathematics were taught in the morning. Students are sharpest at that time because of the coolness.
More significantly, studies show that the promised hours of teaching in the afternoon are always interfered with or cut short for a variety of reasons. In one World Bank study, about 20 percent of the instructional hours are lost. Long before the afternoon session begins, the commotion and crowd outside would effectively disturb the last hour of the morning’s session. Leaders have made repeated pledges to eliminate double sessions. Thus far those have been nothing more than the typical politician’s pre-election promises.
Visit a class in the second session. The first half hour would be wasted, waiting for the children to settle down from the heat, sweat, and noise. The government implicitly recognizes the limitations of afternoon sessions by limiting them to classes that do not have to sit for important national examinations.
The greatest failure of the system impacts two particular groups of students: those who are not academically inclined, and students in the religious stream. Vocational education is a haphazard affair. There are not enough vocational schools and they offer courses of little relevance. No surprise as ministry bureaucrats who are ignorant of market realities draft the curriculum. For example, while the construction industry is desperately looking for plumbers, plasterers, and electricians, few schools produce them. In the east coast states with their fishing industry, one would expect the schools there to have programs in marine repairs and refrigeration. Not so. And homeowners know the difficulty in getting skilled craftsmen. Often the only training these workers have is simply on the job, and done erratically. Few vocational schools offer woodworking and other useful crafts.
While American schools have Future Farmers of America clubs and active agricultural and horticultural programs, few in Malaysia have comparable curriculum. The school in my town has an active agricultural club that sells flowers at Christmas. Similarly students in the animal husbandry class raise farm animals that are exhibited at county fairs and later auctioned off. I fail to see why rural schools in Malaysia do not have comparable programs. There could be rice or banana planting clubs, raising various varieties of fruits and doing simple experiments on cross pollinating and grafting. Why cannot rural schools have experimental farms and gardens for the students to grow vegetables and raise small animals? In this way if these students do end up staying in their villages, at least they would have enhanced farming skills. More importantly, by teaching such agricultural and vocational subjects, we legitimize those vocations. During British rule, it was quite common for rural Malay schools to teach these skills. But with independence these activities are disparaged, not befitting for a school to partake.
The avenues and opportunities for learning in these vocational subjects are limitless. We should use all the natural resources and attributes available to benefit the students. Besides, there is a lot of science and mathematics that can be fitted into these subjects. In primary school I remember the enchantment of watching and measuring germinating seeds and the metamorphoses of pupa wrapped in banana leaves. A lot of biology can be taught in incubating eggs. For good measure we can throw in some mathematics and statistics too! Those are not demeaning pursuits, in fact the very same research is being done at universities all over.
The important objective in vocational schools should be to relate knowledge with its applications. There is a lot of geometry that can be taught in woodworking. Watch a carpenter build a door frame, and see how he “squares” it by ensuring that the distances between the opposite corners (hypotenuses) are equal. It is wrong to assume that those who are vocationally and mechanically inclined cannot think, rather they think more with their hands. Anyone watching a skilled craftsman or mechanic at work can attest to this.
If we have attractive and meaningful vocational and technical programs to cater for those not academically inclined, we give them an opportunity to shine in their own special areas. The remarkable insight in education is that if students are allowed to succeed in one area, it will open the doors to learning in other areas. Hence the importance of having not only these technical and vocational programs but also such activities as sports, music, and drama in the overall school experience.
I will examine the system from three perspectives: access, equity, and quality. Stated differently, how easy it is for citizens to get an education; do all have the same opportunity; and lastly, the overall standard and quality. Malaysia has done reasonably well with the first, moderately successful with the second, and poorly with the third.
Although Malaysia has near universal primary education, with participation rate in excess of 94 percent, at the preschool the rate is much lower (64 percent). At this level much work remains to be done, especially in rural areas. Of the pupils who entered Primary 1 in 1995, about 3.1 percent dropped out by Primary 6. And of the students entering Form One that same year, about 20 percent did not complete their Form Five. The government estimates that the participation rate at the secondary level is 85 percent. This is overly optimistic. If every student in the age group had enrolled in Form 1, the participation rate would have been only about 80 percent, but since the participation rate at the primary level is only 94 percent, the participation rate for the secondary level should be even lower, in the low 70s by my estimation. Nonetheless this is a marked improvement over the 1990 figure of 52 percent.
The difficulties I have in checking government figures is that they simply do not add up. I do not believe that these officials are purposely misleading the public rather they do not understand the meaning and relationship of these figures to one another. They do not crosscheck one set of figures against others for reliability and accuracy.
These are national averages; the rates for rural and estate schools are much worse. In one rural primary school the dropout rate was in excess of 20 percent, that is, one in five students did not complete their schooling at the primary level. The figures for rural secondary schools are also appalling. The government does not release this subset of figures (perhaps it does not have them) but one can get a sense of this by visiting rural areas on any school day. There are kids loitering all over.
When I was vacationing in east coast Malaysia recently, the one jarring sight was seeing so many school-age boys working at major resorts doing odd jobs. They cannot do much more as few could speak English. If you ask them why they quit school, invariably their answer is, “It’s boring!” One fisherman who had his son helping him said that he could teach his son better by having the boy work with him than being at school. Before you dismiss the fisherman’s attitude, you should first visit the local school.
I was donating some books to my village school. The gift was very modest nonetheless I was taken aback by how genuinely pleased and appreciative the headmaster and teachers were. When I checked their library I understood why. Their books were old and in poor shape. They had no recent acquisitions, as there was no funding. The laboratories too were equally pathetic. There were very few test tubes, and experiments were often demonstrated rather than done by students because the teachers had to conserve those precious test tubes. Thus all the joys of experimenting – the very essence of science – were taken away. No wonder these pupils did not enjoy the subject. My village is on the west coast, much more developed than those in the east coast. Imagine the condition at a comparable school in Ulu Kelantan.
This brings to my second point of equity. Contrary to most people’s understanding, equity does not mean treating everybody the same or giving every school the same amount of funds or delivering the same package of services. The greatest inequity, as the great America jurist Felix Frankfurter observed, is to treat the unequals equally. Giving the same amount of funds and services for a school in Ulu Kelantan as that in Ukay Heights may seem as if we would be treating the two equally, in reality we would not. That Ukay Heights’ school would be able to supplement its programs with generous contributions from affluent parents. Further, those pupils would get much intellectual and educational support at home. There would also be a high level of intellectual stimulation in the community, with good libraries and other amenities. Rural schools on the other hand, have students who would not have regular breakfast and whose parents would not have high levels of educational attainment or aspirations. Further, that school in Ulu Kelantan would less likely to attract capable and talented teachers. Thus to treat both schools equally, we would have to give more to the rural school to adequately compensate for its many disadvantages. We also would have to pay its teachers more to attract them and to offset the less-than-alluring lifestyle. Its library too would have to be doubly well endowed to make up for the lack of intellectual stimulation at home and in the community. The greatest inequity is the urban and rural divide. By whatever measure we choose, the divide is obvious and widening, from absenteeism and dropout rates to performances at national examinations. Unfortunately this divide also parallels racial lines, with rural schools having mostly Malay pupils. Thus the poisonous atmosphere of racism is unnecessarily injected into the discussion of rural and urban schools. The equally dismal performance of small estate schools attended by Tamil pupils is a ready rebuttal to that race argument.
A large part of my reform addresses the issue of how to improve rural schools so they would be better than urban ones. They have to be in order to compensate for their disadvantaged environment.
The third issue, quality, is most important. I have the vantage point of having my children schooled in America and thus can readily compare their experience with that of their cousins in Malaysia. Jarring differences emerged quickly. First is the quality of teachers. All my children’s teachers, even in the lower grades, had a degree. My son’s grade school teacher even had a master’s, but instead of taking an administrative position she returned to her first love – the classroom – and did not suffer any career loss. I disagree that primary level teachers be graduates; my point here is that American teachers are generally better trained. In Malaysia, the path for advancement is through administration, not by remaining in the classroom.
Then there are the textbooks. My children all have attractive and well-designed textbooks, with colorful pictures, thick papers, and large print for ease of reading. And they are free even for children of doctors. The school also provides free bus service. The mathematics texts have real life problems. In geometry there was an assignment for estimating the height of a flagpole by measuring the angle of the sun and the length of the pole’s shadow. Similarly the biology lesson in middle school involved examining the pellets of owl droppings and inferring from that the bird’s diet. They went further and were able to reconstruct the skeleton of the rodent the owl had swallowed. All involved direct observation and collection of data and their interpretation, which is what science is all about.
The most striking difference is the curriculum. In America it is flexible, with room for electives. Even though my children were academically oriented nonetheless they all took fine arts and crafts. The requirements for entry into the prestigious University of California system include a year of fine arts or crafts at high school. Students in America are taught early how to do independent research. In my son’s social studies class in high school, he did a report on Afghanistan. He even wrote to its embassy in Washington, DC, to obtain some materials, and discussed by phone with one of its officials.
He did such a credible report that five years later when he was in college and the Afghan war broke out, we had to ask him about the background information. He knew more about the recent history of that country than anyone else in the family or even the media commentators. The school library is also excellent, and this is supplemented by an equally well-stocked public library.
Lest readers think that I am uncritically glorifying the American system, let me cite other opinions. I meet a number of older Malaysians either studying at graduate level or working in America for Malaysian agencies. They usually have their children with them. The uppermost anxiety they have when they finish their tour of duty is how their children will cope with Malaysian schools after they have enjoyed the freedom and free-spirited inquiry in an American classroom. They worry about their children surviving the strict regimentation back in Malaysia. One parent went so far as to leave his son behind to finish his schooling.
These anecdotes give a personal flavor to the assessment, but for a more rigorous and objective take we must look elsewhere.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir once made this wise observation of China: One sure way to make that great nation your enemy is to treat it as a potential one. America nearly succeeded in doing so, until President Nixon wisely reversed the course in a historic visit to Beijing in 1972.
Today, the two powerful nations have become major trading partners, and with that the world is made infinitely much safer. Further, Americans now get to enjoy their cheap laptops instead of senselessly spouting Cold War rhetoric, while the Chinese are no longer starving and are spared endlessly chanting the “Thoughts of Chairman Mao.” Mahathir’s other reflection was that in fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. Malaysia successfully defeated its communist insurgency, and did so at the time when the Americans were fighting the communists in Vietnam. Those pajama-clad illiterate peasants ultimately succeeded in humbling the world’s mightiest military power. The sight of the last American helicopters scurrying from the rooftop of its embassy in Saigon was not pretty.
Meanwhile, the communists in Malaysia were not so much defeated as was totally ignored by the populace. Their aging and emaciated leaders were forced to retreat deep into the fetid jungles of South Thailand. In a magnanimous gesture, the Malaysian government under Mahathir signed a “peace” treaty in 1989. It was nothing but a surrender document dressed as a peace treaty, to “save face,” an all-important Asian cultural attribute. Chin Peng, ex thug and murderer but now an arthritic and scrawny old man, signed on behalf of the Communist Party, while Malaysia was represented by a junior Foreign Office functionary.
The Islamic World As A Potential Ally
In its fight against Islamic terrorists, the West, America in particular, risks making the Muslim world its enemy by treating it as a potential one. The West does this less with words and more with deeds. The Muslim street can readily understand – and dismiss – the silly utterances of a Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. It is Western deeds that ring loud and clear.
The imbroglio over Dubai World Ports’ takeover of American ports is instructive. The concern about security is specious as it remains with the Coast Guard and other governmental agencies. The anxiety over foreigners taking control is equally misplaced, as those ports are already run by British P&O.
Perhaps the British, being America’s allies, soften the foreignness. Or, like others, Americans are still tied to the bonds of tribalism (in this case Anglos Saxon), unwilling to trust others who do not share the same heritage.
That controversy sent the not-so-subtle message that those Arabs in the towering executive suites in Dubai are no different from Osama and his ilk in the caves of Kabul.
Dubai WP would not have become one of the largest if it had been inefficient and lax with security. President Bush is rightly “concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East.”
Dubai and the surrounding region already host a number of American schools and universities. Those teachers and professors project American values and ideals far more effectively than the military could, and at a considerably lower price tag. Ultimately, that would enhance America’s security and safety in a much more enduring manner.
United Emirate Airlines, widely acknowledged as the best, is Boeing’s leading customer. Seasoned flyers would not have chosen that carrier if they had qualms over security or safety. The crowd of Western tourists and investors in the area attest to the reality you can indeed separate the Osamas from the rest of the Arabs.
As for fighting terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, America should pause and ponder whether it is creating new ones faster than it can kill them. That is a lesson America should have learned in Vietnam.
The images of death and destruction, as well as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the Haditha massacre, evoke powerful emotions in America; imagine the reactions of the families, friends and fellow tribesmen in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Condemning and dehumanizing suicide bombers may rationalize events for us; after all they defy reasons. We might appreciate the human dynamics better if we do not refer to them as such but as vengeful killers. Suicide is not a universal sentiment, thus difficult to comprehend; vengeance is. This does not lessen their lethality, brutality or futility, but it may increase our understanding of their motivation. We would then be in a better position to counter it.
Lessons From Malaysia
Major General Mahmud Sulaiman, the man who led the final successful push against the communists in Malaysia, likened the effort to eradicating rodents. You could trap, poison, and burn those critters, but they breed faster than they could be destroyed. Worse, those brutal methods could later haunt you; the poison may kill your pets, and retrieving rotting rats from hidden crevices could be tricky. Clean up the trash, and you deprive the rodents of their food and breeding ground.
Major General Mahmud made sure that the rubbish was cleared first; he did not wish his troops to be senselessly killed in unnecessary ambushes and skirmishes with those desperate ragtag armed bandits. He also intuitively knew that for every innocent victim killed or maimed by his troops, he would have converted the victim’s entire family, friends, and village into adversaries of the state, making his job that much tougher.
The General wisely recognized that once a terrorist is not always a terrorist, or that the only good terrorist is a dead one. On the contrary, he saw immense propaganda value in co-opting repentant communists who now led peaceful and productive lives in the psychological and tactical fights against their former comrades.
America has created heaps of rubbish (literal and figurative) in Iraq. American soldiers have difficulties differentiating foes from friends. For every mistaken enemy destroyed, America creates many new ones.
American generals would do well to learn the lessons of General Mahmud Sulaiman. American leaders would do well to heed Mahathir’s insight. The first step to winning in Iraq is not to create new enemies; the next step is not to treat the Iraqis as potential enemies.
In its larger battle against Islamic terrorists, it is wise for the West not to treat the greater Muslim world as its potential enemy. The Muslim world would also do well to remember that those Islamic terrorists are, first and foremost, terrorists. As such they are the enemy of all peace loving people, Muslims and non-Muslims. In its fight against Islamic terrorists, the Muslim world is a potential potent ally of the West.
Were Malaysians to be polled today on whether their education system serves the nation well, the overwhelming answer would be a resounding, “No!” This is not an arrogant presumption on my part, rather the evidences, both anecdotal and statistical, are glaring. Whereas before the deficiencies were noticed only by parents, teachers, and those closely involved, today they are obvious and have reached the top leadership. The problems can no longer be ignored as they are adversely impacting the nation’s competitiveness and threatening to derail the nation’s ambitious Vision 2020 aspirations. Willing or not, the leaders have to confront them. Everyday conversations as well as the daily headlines attest to the angst felt by all.
As of late 2002 these concerns have been expressed in a series of reform proposals. Nothing concrete has been done or implemented. In the colloquial, it is all talk. As a parent I became aware of the shortcomings of the system way back in the late 1970s when my oldest child was about to enter school. I had enrolled her at a private preschool and could not help but notice the difference in her attitude towards school as compared to that of the neighbor’s daughter. Whereas my daughter was keen and eager every morning to put on her uniform and knapsack raring to go, the neighbor’s child was screaming and had to be literally dragged into the car.
This prompted me to investigate the school where my neighbor’s daughter was attending and where mine would be going the following year. I was not impressed, to put it mildly. Hot, noisy, and overcrowded classrooms; playground with uncut grass blasted by the blistering sun, as the principal had earlier cut down the shade-giving trees for reasons only he knew best. There were nearly 50 pupils in the classroom, as compared to 18 in my daughter’s preschool class. As the school was on the main bus line, the diesel fumes were nauseating. The children in turn were uncomfortable and listless, their teachers haggard. The last hour of the day was completely wasted with the noise and hassle outside of pupils coming in for the afternoon session.
I shuddered to think what my daughter would have to endure. No wonder the neighbor’s girl was screaming every morning. She was trying to say something important, but nobody was listening.
In conversations with fellow parents of my daughter’s classmates, to a person they have all decided to send their children to schools in Singapore. They were already discussing car pool arrangements. This was in 1978. The trickle of carloads then is today a steady stream of family cars and bas sekolah (school buses).
A year earlier at the opposite end of the scale, I had an equally jarring experience teaching medical students from UKM. I related this in my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited. The university was an all-Malay language institution, but there were no textbooks. As a result the lecturers were haphazardly translating as they went along, making their lectures sound like Pidgin English. I did not see the wisdom of such an approach; it would simply confuse the students. So I decided to lecture in English.
It was slow and tough in the beginning, but gradually the students caught on. What was most gratifying was their increasing confidence as their English improved. This transferred to their ward performances; they were much more confident and eager to participate in the clinical discussions. By the end of the year I could not tell them apart from the students I had from UM where English was used.
Looking back, this should not have been a surprise. These students had been exposed to English throughout their school years. It was just that everyone – teachers, lecturers, and leaders – had not impressed upon them the value and importance of knowing a second language well. Somehow they had been brainwashed into thinking that English fluency is tantamount to being colonized.
Actually my misgivings of our education system began much earlier. In 1963 I was a temporary science teacher at a Malay secondary school. The first class was started six years earlier, so it was not something new or novel. After all those years I would have expected that they would have ironed out the problems with textbooks and terminologies. Yet there I was, struggling with inadequate and technically poor textbooks. As if that was not bad enough, early in August and a month prior to my leaving, my principal called me in and asked me to speed up my teaching and finish the year’s syllabus. He informed me that there was no replacement for me for at least the next few years as no science teachers were being trained. Those poor Malay students would be stranded.
Imagine starting an important program without careful planning. I felt terrible for those young minds that were being sacrificed not just at that one school but also throughout the nation. There must have been thousands.
Those in authority knew then that they did not have the system ready. Why did they aggressively push it? Why didn’t they start small or with some pilot projects, iron out the problems, and then once running smoothly, expand the system? Did they think that those precious young minds were expendable, so much cannon fodder in the politicians’ battle for supremacy of the Malay language? What was most disgusting was that while these leaders were exhorting parents to send their children to these new schools, the ministers and top politicians were sneakily sending their own children into English schools. Some including Minister of Education Tun Razak was sending theirs to Britain.
These leaders expected the best for their children. Malay schools were good enough for children of the rest of us. Such hypocrisy!
Today I still see some of those students. A few are successful because they had the initiative to learn English on their own and thus enhanced their employability. The rest are stuck in the village, their education system had failed them. They have every right to be angry.
I have one other episode to relate on my experience teaching medical students. During my first few lectures my students were all very quiet. Tried as I would, I could not ignite any spark. So one day I spent the first fifteen minutes of my lecture telling them the right material, but then in the second fifteen I went ahead and purposely contradicted what I had said earlier. Of course I saw many perplexed faces, but I pretended as if nothing had happened. Then as was my practice, I paused and asked them if they had any questions, and waited patiently.
As usual, there was dead silence; only glum confused looks. Finally one brave soul put her hands up and said I had uttered something different in the early part of my lecture. I feigned surprise and asked which part I had contradicted, and she rightly pointed it out. Scratching my head while pretending serious contemplation, I admitted that I had indeed made a mistake and thanked her profusely for bringing it to my attention. I complimented her for saving the class and me. She beamed.
Soon there were other brave souls eagerly pointing out my errors. I thanked each one of them, and concocted some lame excuse for my errors. At last the ice was broken. The obstructing iceberg began to break and the class discussions began to flow. I had disabused these students that professors are not infallible and all knowing, and that they are quite capable of, and indeed frequently do, utter something erroneous if not downright stupid. Earlier I had done the same trick with my house officers in a seminar, and that too worked wonderfully. As a result my students and house officers soon became a lively bunch. They did not hesitate in challenging me, and I enjoyed the banter immensely. For one it kept everybody awake, for another it gave them a chance to practice their spoken English.
All went well until a new colleague returned fresh from his postgraduate studies abroad. He should be “red hot.” I suggested that he give a seminar to my students and medical officers, and he readily agreed. On the appointed day I warmly introduced him and then as was my custom, left him to carry on.
Following the seminar, my students and junior doctors joined me on the ward. They all had glum faces. I inquired how the seminar went, and no one was keen to volunteer a response. Finally one sputtered, “He is a strange guy!” It turned out that this lecturer, as was (perhaps still is) typical of local professors, did not take kindly to being asked many questions. Later at lunch that new lecturer pounced into me, and his first comment was how rude and impudent my students and junior doctors were. “No respect for professors and elders!” was how he put it.
More than 25 years later I still get a tickle in relating this incident. The undue reverence students have of their teachers and professors still exists today. This is common in Asia, a reflection of the culture of reverence towards elders generally. Reverence and respect yes; blind obedience and uncritically accepting what is being uttered, no!
On another front, I often get letters from readers who disagree with me, but instead of rebutting my arguments they would challenge my competence or right to put forth such views. When I write about Islam they would argue that since I am not an ulama, I should not comment on religious matters. When I write on Malaysian affairs, their immediate rebuttal seems to be that since I live abroad, my views are no longer valid. Not once do they consider the merits of my arguments. Worse, they would say that some professors or ulama somewhere with better qualifications have said something different, and since they are professors ipso facto, their views must automatically be sahih (correct). These readers suspend their critical judgment, and spend more time evaluating the credentials of the writer than on the merits of the arguments. I am not surprised that Malaysian students have these views as their professors too exhibit similar insularity.
Such anecdotes and incidents, hilarious as they are, do not indict the system. For that I need more solid empirical evidences. I will do this by systemically dissecting the system and critiquing each segment.
The cabinet’s decision to liberalize international schools is laudable. More needs to be done however, if Malaysia is to benefit maximally from such a policy.
If international schools were indeed providing excellent education (which I believe they do), then limiting local enrollment to 40 percent would not make much sense. Surely we wish as many of our students as possible to have superior education.
Catalyst For Reform
Our schools have deteriorated to such a rot that they cannot be reformed from within. There are too many entrenched constituencies, from the permanent bureaucracy and teachers’ unions to language nationalists and ambitious politicians.
Our public universities are forced to reform themselves with the liberalization of higher education, and the consequent competition from private institutions. The impetus for the wider use of English on campus has less to do with enlightened thinking but more in response to the market that favors graduates of private institutions over those of public ones, because of their enhanced English fluency.
Having a “critical mass” of international schools would force similar improvements on our schools, and do so far more effectively and quickly than any Royal Commission could. It would be unrealistic to expect our bureaucrats, politicians and teachers, brought up under and benefiting from the existing system, to initiate needed reforms.
Good private schools are sound business as well as social investments. Thailand’s blossoming international schools attract many affluent foreign students, and their valuable cash. Singapore’s public schools attract only low-paying Malaysians from Johore.
Thailand is recruiting large numbers of experienced American teachers. They already have their pensions and thus could live well on their reduced Asian pay. These teachers, not trained under the local system, could effect major changes. Their innovative teaching styles are refreshingly different from the rote memorization and stultifying learning typical of Asian classrooms.
Their impact extends beyond. As their students are from influential families and thus would-be leaders and trendsetters, these teachers have enormous influence on the greater society.
Maximizing the Benefit
Malaysia should go beyond simply allowing local students to enroll in international schools. Remove the enrollment limit, and in addition to granting tax incentives, offer guaranteed loans for capital expansion, but tie that generosity with having those schools provide scholarships for the needy. The greatest help would be to expedite with their recruitment of foreign teachers and securing their visas. With such support more schools would be set up. The resulting competition would lower costs, enabling more Malaysians to enroll.
Malaysia should not repeat the mistakes of its private universities with their dangerously segregated (racially and socially) student body. Diversity in the classroom enhances the learning environment; it is also good policy. Thus the domestic enrollment must mirror society; how that is achieved is best left to each school.
Encouraging more to attend international schools would free the government from having to expend resources on those who could pay for their own education. More public funds could then be devoted to the needy.
These schools should be free to set their curriculum, including the language of instruction. The only requirement would be for Malay and Malaysian Studies (geography, history, and social studies) be compulsory subjects.
Any entity, local or foreign, could start such schools. The possible exception would be religious organizations, in deference to local sensitivity. To discourage hustlers skilled at having the rich part with their money, there should be stringent academic and financial requirements. Senior teachers and headmasters must have specified years of experience. There must post performance bonds such that if the schools close down, the students would be reimbursed double their year’s tuition.
Another variant is charter schools. They too are private but would get governmental grants, in the amount it would have cost had those students attended national schools. These schools would not be run by the government but by their own boards, with elected parents’ representatives forming the majority. They too would be free to chart their own course, but with the same enrollment, curricular and other requirements as international schools.
Private, international and charter schools all have one thing in common: They offer parents and students a choice. That is the essence of any meaningful school reform. Such competition is the only way of ensuring excellence.
Until recently, private sector involvement is permitted only at the polar ends of the education spectrum: at preschool and tertiary levels. The government monopolizes education from Years 1 to 11. This was not always the case. In the 1950s it was common to have private English schools to complement the few government ones. But with independence and the aggressiveness of Tun Razak in building many more government schools, these private schools fell by the wayside. Even my own village in Sri Menanti had a private English school started by the parents with no governmental support. The students were either flunkies from or those unable to secure a slot in government schools. The point I wish to highlight here (and I will revisit later when discussing private universities) is that when there are good public institutions, private institutions do not thrive. The corollary is that when private institutions proliferate, that usually means the failure of public institutions.
The government does not presently control preschools but that too is set to change. By 2003 all preschools must follow MOE’s guidelines as to the curriculum. There is no shortage of preschools in urban areas provided mostly by private entrepreneurs and “mom and pop” operators. The government does not regulate them either with regards to quality or for compliance with health and safety regulations. This is strictly a situation of buyer beware or more correctly, parents beware.
This prohibition against private sector involvement has one glaring exception – religious schools. Typically these are nothing more than the one-teacher huts or pondoks and madrasahs that are scattered all over the villages in heavily Malay populated states. Not much is expected of such schools and not much is delivered. In the past such schools were meant primarily to provide religious instructions to students from the regular schools. Today as all national schools are mandated to provide religious classes, these madrasahs have become redundant. Nonetheless they are still active to cater for those who believe that the Islam propagated in the secular schools is less than pristine. In light of the 9-11 terrorists’ attacks on America, these madarasahs are getting greater scrutiny from the government. They preach a particularly suffocating brand of Islam, more along the Taliban variety.
These madarasahs and other private religious schools are in technical violation of the education code. The government does not credential their teachers nor approve the curriculum. Despite such glaring breaches, the government does not dare close them for fear of being tarred as anti-Islamic – a politically very damaging accusation in a religiously obsessed nation.
There are also subsidized religious schools, Sekolah Agama Rakyat (People’s Religious Schools). These too preach a narrow brand of Islam. Recently (October 2002) the government, piqued with the alleged anti-government propaganda preached at these schools, suspended their grants.
Apart from the madrasahs, there are private international schools to cater for children of expatriates. Malaysians are barred from enrolling except in rare instances, and only with the special dispensation from the minister himself. This stricture against private schools is slowly relaxing; there are now emerging private schools that are extensions of private colleges. There is no proper policy governing these institutions and their permits are being issued on an ad hoc basis.
Malaysia, like East Asian nations, has many private “tuition centers” to give extra help for those able to afford their fees. Thankfully the Malaysian system has not yet degenerated into the brute competitive atmosphere that gives rise to the torture chambers that are the Japanese “cram schools.” The government recently introduced a voucher system enabling children of the poor to partake in these extra hours tuition. It would have been smarter to incorporate these sessions into the regular school day.
Moving on to higher education, until recently only public institutions can grant degrees. But with the increased demand, the government finally relented and allowed private universities. The situation was made acute following the 1997 Asian economic crisis when the cost of an overseas education became prohibitive with the ringgit devaluation.
Since the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1996, and with it the removal of the prohibition against private universities, there has been a mushrooming of private colleges and universities. No less than 700 at last count, with the overwhelming majority set up within the last few years. This reflects either extraordinary vigor of the private sector or more likely, trivialization of higher education.
Even before the Act was amended, there were private colleges but they were not allowed to grant degrees. They offered instead their own diplomas or prepared their students for foreign (usually British) professional qualifications in accountancy, law, secretarial, and engineering.
Many easily circumvented the stricture against degree granting by offering courses for external degrees of British universities. Others had linked academic programs, popularly known as “twinning,” where students would complete their first few years in Malaysia and then spend the finishing years at the host university abroad.
Private universities are set up primarily by four entities. First are the established colleges like Taylor and Stamford. With the liberalization of the rules, they are able to expand significantly their academic offerings to include not only twinning programs but also their own degrees, usually in conjunction with foreign universities. Next are the large public corporations like Petronas (the national oil company), Telekom (phone company) and Tenaga Nasional (utility). These companies are only nominally private as they are owned and controlled principally by The Ministry of Finance, Inc., and statutory bodies. In ambiance and character, their universities operate no differently from the public ones. The overwhelming majority of their students are Bumiputras, just like the public universities. The third entity comprises institutions sponsored or owned by the governing political parties. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has Universiti Tunku Abdual Rahman (UTAR), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) has TAFE College and the Asian Institute of Medical Science. The fourth group consists of branch campuses of established foreign universities like Monash and the University of Nottingham.
In 2002 there are 16 private universities with an enrollment of nearly 25,000, including four branches of major foreign universities with fewer than 2,500 students total. As can be seen by the average number of students per campus, these institutions are still very much work in progress. These private institutions use English as their medium of instruction (except for the few operated by Bumiputras that use Malay). Thus their graduates enjoy a premium in the marketplace. Their tuition and other fees are, as expected, considerably higher. While tuition at public universities runs at about RM1,400 per year, the private ones charge in excess of RM20,000. Despite that they are still very popular simply because expensive as they are, they are still cheap as compared to going abroad.
Many of the private universities including the local branch of reputable foreign institutions have a long way to go before they can be regarded as anything close to a traditional campus with dormitories, athletic facilities, and cultural amenities. The University of Nottingham for example, is located in a shopping complex, although it is planning a brand new traditional campus outside of Kuala Lumpur. Universities like Uniten that are associated with large government-owned corporations have traditional campuses.
Some of the private universities also offer graduate degrees. Like the public institutions, the disciplines offered are mostly in the soft sciences and management. The one exception is MUST (Malaysian University of Science and Technology) set up in conjunction with Boston’s MIT. This arrangement was a short circuit attempt to ride on MIT’s prestige, but in matters academic, close association means nothing. MUST will have to develop its own reputation. Thus far the practical effect of the association has simply been for MUST to pay exorbitant consulting fees to MIT. Unlike other universities in Malaysia, MUST is exclusively a graduate school.
There is one other institution that is exclusively a graduate school, The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), started by Syed Naquib Al-Attas and sponsored by the International Islamic Secretariat. It boasts an impressive faculty of PhDs from leading Western universities like Princeton and McGill. Its enrolment of 55 doctoral and 66 masters’ students easily makes it the largest graduate academic unit in the country. Though ISTAC gets rave reviews from Islamic scholars, a number of its features disturb me. First is its physical location, away from other academic institutions. Its scholars and students thus do not get to mix with those from other disciplines, a situation that can easily lead to both social and intellectual isolation. Second, it accepts only Muslims as students and staff. ISTAC has the ambience of a monastery rather than an academic institution. It perpetuates the intellectual and social insularity typical of many present-day Islamic institutions.
There are other private specialized training institutions like the nursing school run by a private hospital in association with an Australian institution, as well as numerous technical institutes. Their aggregate contributions are still minimal.
There are still many teething problems with private sector involvement in education. The government has yet to unleash the maximal potential of this sector to contribute to the training of its citizens.
My next chapter will review the weaknesses and strengths of the current system.
When diving off the Trengganu coast a few years back, I was saddened to see our beautiful coral reefs destroyed by careless anchoring and reckless pollution. While this devastation of our reefs and other invaluable national heritage is obvious, the non-recording of our history is equally a loss that is both irretrievable and immeasurable.
I felt this deeply when Tun Ismail Ali died a few years ago. I did not know this distinguished Malaysian except that he was the first Malay Queen’s scholar, an eminent banker, and a dedicated public servant. He gave much to the nation, but we hardly knew him, except through few mushy and ineloquent obituaries. The man did not leave his memoirs, and our historians and intellectuals have not deemed his considerable contributions merit proper recognition.
The Tunku’s Recollections
Many years ago I read Looking Back, a collection of essays by our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Here was a leader who brought our nation to independence peacefully, through shrewd negotiations and skillful diplomacy. It was an achievement sufficiently rare and unique; there were no lives lost through armed confrontations or glorified wars of independence. A truly grateful nation duly anointed him Bapak Malaysia (Father of Malaysia).
A few years later following the 1969 race riot, the nation quickly soured on him. He was literally hounded out of office, and then ignominiously ignored. In Looking Back, the old man bitterly lamented that even the country’s history books did not mention his name in retracing the nation’s struggle for independence. He ventured whether the many honors heaped upon him earlier had not been a cruel joke.
When the Tunku died, a significant part of our history went with him, never to be recovered. We will never know, for example, what prompted him to accept the invitation to head UMNO when its first leader, Onn Jaafar, sulked and abandoned it. Or how were the British leaders Anthony Eden and Harold McMillan in the pivotal negotiations for independence?
We now know how Lee Kuan Yew feels about Tunku, but what was Tunku’s take on Lee? Tunku must have intuitively sensed something about Lee to decide that Malaysia was better off without him. What went through Tunku’s mind when his beloved nation went on wild rampages that May of 1969? What were his dreams for the nation? These and a host of other questions will forever remain unanswered.
Tunku did leave some written records of his reflections. On his retirement, The Star was kind enough to hire him as a columnist. His columns were indeed very revealing. As expected, most were self-serving. Perhaps out of respect for the man or simply that the paper’s editorial standards were non-existent, the essays were rambling and lacked discipline. Nonetheless they were useful historical documents.
As for the Tunku’s voluminous personal papers, their whereabouts are not known. Our National Archives, universities, and other official custodians are curiously not interested in finding out, much less try to acquire them.
Ignoring Other Luminaries
Tun Ghaffar, another prominent player, died recently. Again, no one sought to document his views when he was alive, apart from a few trashy books.
We are still fortunate to have a few of the original participants in the birth of our nation still alive. Khir Johari is one. He was Tunku’s stalwarts and served in his first cabinet. Our historians and journalists should seize this opportunity while we still have him. I am no fan of his, but he was a participant in many of the seminal events in our nation’s history.
I remember Khir Johari as Minister of Education visiting my school in the 1950s. Even then I was unimpressed with him. Compared to my Oxford-trained headmaster, Khir was clearly out of the league. I shuddered to think that he was in charge of such an important portfolio. But he was, and we should record his impressions.
It is unfortunate that few of our leaders saw fit to write and document their experiences. Even if they were too busy, they should have at least authorized someone to write their biographies, or simply hire talented “ghost writers.”
The distinguished legal scholar and public servant Ahmad Ibrahim too died a few years ago. Although he had written extensively on scholarly legal issues, he did not see fit to pen his autobiography. The same could be said of Tun Suffian, another legal luminary.
The chronicles of these giants would inspire the younger set. At the very least, such accounts would help counter the ugly stereotype of Malay leadership and talent so shamelessly demonstrated by those currently in UMNO and PAS.
In this regard, Tun Mahathir is a refreshing departure. Not only has he written many books, he is now busy compiling his memoirs. Mahathir is also the rare leader who writes his own speeches and books; he prides in his own authorship. His style is also uniquely his: blunt and to the point.
Our hot humid climate is not kind to documents and personal papers. They must be carefully and professionally handled to maintain their physical integrity. Papers, photographs and other documents can rot quickly in our climate, be eaten by moths, or be bleached by the bright light. There are immense historical, esthetic and other values to these original artifacts. I would have loved to see the original scores of P. Ramlee’s many compositions.
Just as important to maintaining the documents’ physical integrity is respecting their confidentiality and owners’ wishes. The late Tun Ismail Abdul Rahman, a long time member of the Tunku’s cabinet, left his papers to an institution in Singapore. Apparently he did not trust Malaysian institutions to execute his instructions.
Many of these distinguished personalities have well educated children. It is surprising that few of them feel compelled to record their impressions of or pay tribute to their famous fathers and grandfathers. I would have loved to read what Hishamuddin remembers of his famous father and grandfather, both great figures in our history. I am of course assuming that Hishamuddin can write.
The widows of Tun Razak and Hussein Onn are still alive. More than any other person, they have spent more time with their illustrious husbands than anyone else. These women are valuable resources; they are our national heritage in their own right. Yet, like the hitherto beautiful corral reefs off Pulau Perhentian, these two dignified daughters of Malaysia remain ignored and not valued.