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.
[Note: Usually on Wednesday I post an excerpt of my book. Today in view of the eve of Merdeka Day, I am substituting this essay. I delay the excerpt to this Sunday, Sept 3, 2006.]
Britain granted Malaysia its independence on the premise and promise that Malaysians would not senselessly slaughter each other once freed from her civilizing presence. Having gone through the hell-on-earth that was the Indian independence, Britain did not want her hands soiled again. There were intimations of such racial viciousness in Malaysia, as during the brief period of lawlessness following the Japanese surrender.
The British believed that the threat to Malaysia’s viability would come not from the then still very active communist insurgency but from Malaysians tearing each other apart. A seasoned gambler would wisely not bet against the British.
It was a tribute to our early leaders that they effectively demonstrated that Malaysians could indeed get along without the adult supervision of the British. Unfortunately, caught in the euphoria of merdeka, that precious shared sense of goodwill, sacrifice, and accommodation was taken for granted and not nurtured. Half a century later, the nation risks being torn apart by the increasingly shrill pronouncements of our leaders. What an ironic turn of events!
Unity Through Capitalism
Many naively believe that if only Malaysians could speak the same language, share a common culture, or subscribe to the same faith, national unity would be that much more attainable. Others fantasize that if only the political parties were not race based, racial integration would be greatly enhanced. Malays still hang on to the forlorn hope that if only we follow the one “pure” and “true” Islam, we would be united and all our problems would magically disappear.
Such delusions are based on flawed thinking, or to quote the late Lord Bauer, “a widespread disregard of evident reality.” The Koreans share the same heritage, culture, and language yet that did not stop them from killing each other, given half the chance. The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through culture, language, politics, or religion but economics, more specifically the embrace of free enterprise.
Capitalism is the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services; it is also the most effective tool to effect substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians view each other and the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital, understanding and with it peace would follow suit.
Free enterprise is the best instrument to break down racial and other barriers. Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasions, or religious beliefs. Profits are profits, whether the come from your own kind or foreigners.
I would expect socialism with its egalitarian ideals would bring people together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Socialism failed with Malays because of its association with atheistic communism. The communists’ resorting to terrorism during the Emergency certainly did not help.
The New Economic Policy ushered Malays towards capitalism. With a visible business and trading class, Malays began looking at others less as immigrants or non-Malays and more as potential clients and customers. That put a very different perspective on reality.
To be sure, the Malays’ (specifically UMNO’s) embrace of capitalism is very recent. The term kaum kapitalis (capitalists hordes) was once unmistakably pejorative, conjuring images of heartless businessmen of Dickens’ era intent on exploiting the masses in the greedy pursuit of profits. Besides, those capitalists then were also colonialists so it was easy to hate them. With Malays now being capitalists, aided substantially by the state, capitalism has a decidedly new aroma, even if it were only the crony or ersatz variety.
Economic crises in Malaysia today no longer have racial undertones. The 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy affected all. The pain cut across race; economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries.
The government is encouraging greater integration in the business sector. This is commendable; unfortunately, it is pursuing it in its usual highhanded ways. Take the requirement that publicly-listed companies must have 30 percent Bumiputra participation. That is fine if we let the market pick who those lucky Bumiputras would be. With the Ministry of Trade officials picking the winners, that worthy scheme has degenerated into another corrupt political patronage system.
A more sensible approach would be for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as a criterion when awarding contracts. American companies are realizing that workplace diversity has its own rewards, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are outbidding their European and Japanese competitors in Africa because the American executives there are mostly Blacks. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese Americans.
The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is essentially in Chinese hands. They usually recruit their own kind. An effective way to discourage them and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it to foreign competitors like Carrefour and Walmart. Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as for management jobs. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies and exemplary work culture, the government is restricting them, no doubt through the influence of “money politics” of UMNO politicians by these Chinese retailers.
Similarly with the small retail lending business, banks and finance companies ignore these customers with less-than-stellar credit. They have no alternative but to go to pawnshops, Al Longs, and chettiars with their usurious interest rates. They are also all exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect their overdue payments. If Malaysia were to open the market to foreign lenders like AIG that specializes in “sub-prime” loans, we would wipe out these chettiars and Ah Longs. Malaysia would definitely be better without them. AIG, like other American companies, also have enlightened personnel policies. You could be assured that they would employ many Malays, certainly more than what the present ethnic moneylenders would.
If all else fails, Malaysians could unite and boycott ethnic establishments whose workers do not reflect Malaysian society. A few such high profile boycotts would change the employment and ownership patterns of Malaysian businesses far more effectively than any government mandate. Never underestimate the power of the market.
Race-Based Parties: The Solution, Not the Problem
As for politics, I too wish that politicians would not blatantly pander to the baser racial instincts of their followers. However, I would argue the contrary; race-based political parties contribute to racial harmony. They help ensure that minorities are represented in government. An Indian could never hope to win a parliamentary seat let alone be a minister as there is no predominantly Indian constituency. There are Indian ministers only because the Indian parties are in the ruling coalition.
Race-based parties or not, politicians now realize that to secure power they must reach beyond their racial group. At its last Muktamar, PAS adopted a resolution allowing for non-Muslim candidates, a stunning admission of this reality. American legislatures go through grotesque gerrymandering exercises to ensure minority representations. At least the Malaysian formula is more transparent, and therefore more democratic. More importantly, it works! By coming together in a coalition, the race-based parties ensure that political power is equitably shared.
The appointed Malaysian senate is far more representative of local society than the elected American senate is of America. Chalk one up for Malaysia!
There are proportionally more Malays in Singapore than Indians in Malaysia. Thanks to the Malaysian model, Indians are more visible in the upper political reaches in Malaysia then Malays are in Singapore. This bleak picture is repeated elsewhere in the region. Malays are a significant minority in Thailand (in the south they are the majority), but one would not know that from looking at its political establishment; likewise with the Muslims in the Philippines. Ever wonder why they have strong secessionist movements?
The solution to Malaysia’s race issues lies not with doing away with the present workable formula of race-based parties but to build on it. There should be increased collaboration among the leaders; they must be seen working together. They should lead their members towards thinking for the good of the nation and not, as at present, pandering to the most extremist of their followers. Far too often, the surest way for an UMNO candidate to win party votes is to champion the Malay cause. The most ugly demonstration was shown by UMNO Youth leader and Education Minister Hishamuddin when he infamously drew that ketchup-dripping keris (dagger) to demonstrate his resolve to be a latter day Hang Tuah.
Race remains a major factor in the political calculus, and will remain so for a long while. Better to acknowledge this reality and work on improving it instead of dreaming of some unworkable utopian arrangement. Even in mature democracies like America, race is never far from political considerations.
The better solution would be to focus on economics, not politics. We are all consumers, and we are all for lower prices and better services. That economic imperative transcends race, nationality, and class. That is a goal worth pursuing as Malaysia anticipates its Golden Merdeka Anniversary next year.
I was dining with my wife at a fancy restaurant in Malaysia a while back. As the only non-foreign looking face among the patrons, I elicited some curious stares from the local staff. This was especially so as I spoke in formal and respectful Malay, addressing them as “Encik.”
All went well until a young waiter unhesitatingly inquired, “Abang mau kopi lagi?” (More coffee, brother?)
I burst out laughing, telling him while pointing to my generous crop of gray hair that since he addressed me as Abang and not as Pak (Uncle) or worse, Tok (Grandpa), he would get a generous tip! That elicited a joyful response from him. I do not know whether it was from the offer of the generous tip or to his successfully appealing to my vanity.
For decades Prime Minister Abdullah has been referred to as Pak Lah. It went as far back as when he was only in his thirties. Some claim that such forms of addressing someone is a mark of respect or even endearment. Really!
I wonder why then no one dared call then Prime Minister Mahathir, Pak ‘Thir, or even more appropriately Tok ‘Thir. After all he is over 80 years old and more than deserves the honor. Not only that, he is a real Tok as proven by his many lovely grandchildren.
Any soul brave enough to address Mahathir as Pak or Tok ‘Thir would get a silent searing stare from the man. Yet here is Abdullah Badawi absolutely reveling in his Pak Lah moniker. This more than anything else reveals the crucial difference between the two men, but that is not the theme of my essay.
Pak Cik is music to my ears when they come from my nieces and nephews. And I cannot get enough of the sweet melody of my toddler grandson, our first, when he addresses me as Datok! My daughter has purposely not taught him the abbreviated form.
The Malaysian Obsession with Titles
Malaysians, especially Malays, are enamored with titles. Peruse the annual King’s birthday honor list. It runs to the thousands. In addition to the King, there are nine other royal sultans, plus four non-royal governors with equally pretentious regal aspirations. Those medal-minting companies must be raking it in; I suggest the authorities outsource it to China and save some money.
Then there are the ornate court attires that must be worn on such occasions, a windfall for the tailors. Never mind that many of these Malay knights wannabes look silly in such costumes. Well, a Malay would look just as clownish clad in one of those Ming’s Court formal regalia.
These honorifics are fast degenerating into yet another source of revenue for our sultans. Who says they are not enterprising! Once at a social gathering of some powerful visitors from Malaysia, the discussion came around to the going price of these titles. I casually remarked that it would be nice to have one of those to decorate the wall of my office. And the price seemed to be in my range too! If it does not add any decorative value to the wall, at least it would be quite a conversation piece.
Imagine my surprise in receiving a long distance phone call from Malaysia a few weeks later to “explore the idea I talked about earlier!” I had a tough time convincing the caller that I had been merely joking. I did not expect that my ugliest suspicion to be confirmed, and so quickly!
My car already has the license plate, “Tan Sri,” causing me forever having to explain to my American friends what it means. To my Malaysian visitors, it commands instant respect! I assured them that in America, such vanity plates could be had for a few extra dollars.
Avoiding Names in Malay Culture
To address someone by name is considered disrespectful or even uncouth in Malay culture. Everyone must be addressed by his or her title. Even in childhood we had titles, such as Bang Long, the eldest, from sulong. If you run out of titles based on series, there is always one based on skin hue; thus Pak ‘Tam from hitam (black).
As we do not address one another by name, Malaysians tend to be careless with their names. Your birth name may have been Chairil Annuar, but some smart aleck Education Minister decided to “modernize” the spelling, and now your transcript would read, “Cairil Anwar.”
In this computer age such carelessness can be risky. Malaysians arriving in the West invariably get entangled with different spellings of their name. Their applications to universities often get filed under various folders. In my orientation talks to American managers assigned to Malaysia, I caution them about “Google-ing” their Malaysian counterparts. It can be frustrating. Google is not smart enough to consider that “Annuar” and “Anwar” refer to the same person, at least in Malaysia. In the same vein I advised them of the futility of looking up the phone directory.
I once spent hours trying to look up Malaysia Airlines in the phone directory. Some idiot had it under Sistem Penerbangan Malaysia! He probably also listed John White as John Puteh.
Malaysians also have long elaborate names. The problem is aggravated by the common practice of incorporating titles into one’s name, including that of one’s father. Thus Datuk Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein. How do you file an application from such individuals? Under “H” for Hussein, or “T,” “B,” or even “D” for Datuk? Once at Los Angeles Airport I helped extricate a Malaysian dignitary from the hassles of immigration. The gentleman’s name on his ticket did not match that on his passport. Obviously the latter document had not been updated to include his latest grand title.
This obsession with titles afflicts Malaysian academics too. On an American campus one can get away with addressing someone as “Prof” or “Dr.,” not so in Malaysia. Malaysian academics are as obsessed with their academic as well as civil titles.
In my general essays I avoid my professional title; it is irrelevant. In my professional essays, I only have my “MD” after my name. I do not add my undergraduate or graduate degrees, or my fellowships. It is understood that to get your MD you must have had your bachelor’s degree and certainly your high school diploma.
Such unnecessary titles often are barriers to communication. Without my titles to mess up my message, I often get vigorous rebuttals from young readers, which I enjoy immensely. They obviously mistake me for some wet-behind-the-ears graduate student; hence their unrestrained comments.
Once I accidentally let slip to one of my persistent critics that I had trained his physician father. My critic suddenly became very muted and deferential in his subsequent comments. I had unintentionally defanged him.
Such are the powers and perils of titles and labels.
The Canadian system is similar to the American in being highly decentralized. Education falls under provincial jurisdiction, thus variations between the provinces. While most have K-12, Ontario and British Columbia have K-13. Like America, schools are under the local control of elected trustees. Unlike America, there are two school boards: the Public and Separate (or Catholic). Traditionally the Catholics are mainly French-Canadians; their own school board allows them to maintain their religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage.
The curricular pattern is similar to America. Unlike America, Canadian high schools have common exit examinations (“departmental”) that serve as the matriculation qualification. There is no national examination equivalent to the American SAT. Interestingly America too is toying with similar exit examinations but for a different purpose–to ensure minimal competency and not to rank the students.
Most Canadian universities are public, operated by the provinces. Their fees are low and highly subsidized. There are few private universities modeled after the American non-for-profit ones like Simon Fraser and George Williams. Canadian universities too offer broad based liberal education but generally it is less liberal and broad than the American. Electives are often prescribed, you choose among a given group rather than a free wide choice.
Canada is of particular interest in that it has to deal with two languages and cultures (English and French), and has done so successfully. While in the past there was resistance to learning a second language, today all young Canadians are functionally bilingual. Previously it was considered surrendering or giving in for a French-Canadian to learn English (or an English-Canadian to learn French), an attitude not dissimilar to that held by many Malaysians. Fortunately Canadians are much more enlightened today; now it is an asset to be bilingual.
The main lesson from Canada is how it handles the bilingual and bicultural issue, in particular how it successfully integrates the two groups despite having dual school systems. The difference between the Public and Catholic systems is much greater than that of national and religious schools in Malaysia. With the former there are differences of religion and ethnicity (Protestant English and Catholic French), while in Malaysia the clientele of the dual system share the same race and religion (Malay-Muslims). Despite the lesser difference Malaysia still has difficulty integrating the religious with the national stream. In Canada both streams contribute their share of educating future citizens.
In marked contrast, religious schools in Malaysia are fast turning into seminaries; they do not contribute to the education of the nation’s future professionals and executives.
Although both Public and Catholic schools have different curriculum, nonetheless there is a core of commonality such that students could switch from one to the other without much disruption. Further, all fields of studies in higher education are available for graduates from both streams. In comparison, products of Malaysian religious schools could continue their higher education only in Islamic Studies.
In my reform I propose that Islamic schools become more like Catholic schools in Canada.
Germany’s Dual System
German education is also highly decentralized, with each state having its own separate rules. German children are not required to enroll in kindergarten but many do, and they can start as early as age three.
They enter elementary school (Grundschule) at age six, and after Year 4 they are streamed. There is the general school (Hauptschule), Intermediate (Realschule), and the academic Gymnasium where they will spend the next six years. There is a fourth comprehensive school (Gesamtschule) that combines elements of all three so students could switch between streams without changing campus. After Year 10 students would continue for another two or three years in vocational and technical training or academic stream. German universities charge very low fees; additionally, students get a state subsidy, the amount dependent on the parents’ income. There are private schools and universities, but they play a minor role.
I choose Germany to highlight its much-vaunted vocational training, the Dual System. So called because students undertake vocational and occupational training while at the same time attend school. They spend part of their day or certain days of the week in school, and the rest working in industry. Thus students are exposed simultaneously to educators (teachers) as well as master craftsmen and skilled technicians. Students combine the fundamentals of a general education and learning the theories of the trade both by the book as well as hands-on.
The important feature of the dual system is that it is a joint government and industry endeavor. The local government finances the schools, while the state pays for personnel. Industry provides the cost of the vocational training, including paying wages to the students. The role of the federal government is mainly that of a facilitator and regulator.
As employers pay for the direct costs of the vocational training, they (through a committee) control the curriculum and type of skills the students should learn. The committee also determines the suitability of firms providing the training, monitors the quality, and sets the necessary standards and examinations.
Many Third World countries including Malaysia are eagerly importing the German Dual System with varying success. As the World Bank noted, there are many salient features of the German system that must be appreciated. First, Germany has a large manufacturing and service industry providing 90 percent of the jobs. The figures for most developing countries are considerably lower. In Malaysia, government, agriculture, and the “informal sector” are still major sources of employment. These sectors are unlikely to partake or be competent to contribute to the dual system. If Malaysia were to adopt the dual system it would have to be modified to prepare workers for those areas (especially agriculture) and of employing practitioners in the field as instructors. In Germany, vocational education was introduced long after there had been a formal apprenticeship program. Thus it was easy to graft the two together.
Malaysia does not as yet have such widespread skill-training programs. The German system must be modified to cater for these local deficiencies. Second, the German workplace is highly regulated and the workforce heavily unionized. There is greater compliance with safety and other rules that do not normally exist in the Third World. Student safety must be a top priority for the program to succeed. Third, industry controls the vocational component. It sets the curriculum, standards, rules, and examinations. Third World countries trying to copy the system usually have bureaucrats in the distant ministry controlling the program. The government often meddles by insisting on minimum wages and other work conditions that are not tolerated by industry.
MARA’s many apprenticeship programs suffer from this grave error, in particular, lack of industry input. As a result their products are not readily employable. In Germany participation by industry is voluntary. Companies would not lose their government contracts if they do not partake in the program. Fourth, and most important, vocational training is not regarded as a dead end stream or a pathway for those not qualified to enter university. The system provides increasing levels of technical training so motivated students could continue on right up to the highest level of technical colleges and universities. Equally important, the educational and vocational components complement each other.
Vocational training is expensive and should come only after the basic education needs of the citizens are taken care. Countries like Indonesia that attempt to graft the dual system fail miserably because scarce resources are diverted away from basic education. Malaysia however has solved the problem of providing primary and lower secondary education and thus is in a better position to benefit from the dual system.
Malaysia’s many vocational schools would benefit greatly from close industry collaboration. Future schools could also be built near industrial estates or major plants. The important element is that there must be major input from industry.
In the movie “Titanic,” the refined English heroine was regally ensconced in her luxurious suite on the upper deck, while the hero, an uncouth Irish lad, was confined to the cramped below deck quarters, and presumably also downwind.
It is a reflection of how far the Irish have come that such stereotypical portrayals did not elicit any protest. When you have had two personalities with Irish heritage (Kennedy and Reagan) leading the most powerful nation in the world, and with Ireland fast surpassing Britain in economic performance, such caricatures elicit mirth rather than anger.
During the era of the Titanic, Ireland was synonymous with poverty and destitution. Ireland then was a never-ending source of poor desperate immigrants to America and elsewhere. There were more Irish who left than who stayed behind. In America, signs like “No Irish Need Apply!” were everywhere, and the stereotypical drunk, irresponsible, crime-prone and perpetually out-of-work father referred to the Irish, not to Blacks.
Today, in addition to the outstanding achievements of individual Irish and those of Irish descent, Ireland is now the envy of Western Europe and the world. There is a lesson here for Malaysia, Malays specifically.
Malaysia of Today, Ireland of Yore
In my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I remarked how eerily the Malaysia of today resembles the Ireland of the 1950s. Malays today, like the Irish then, are in the tight clutches of religion (Islam for Malays, Catholicism for the Irish). Young Malays flock to the madrasahs to study Arabic, hadith and revealed knowledge, instead of English, science and mathematics. The Irish then fled to the convents and monasteries to recite their rosaries and memorize the catechism. Malays today are in the psychological grips of their ulamas and ustazes, just as were the Irish with their bishops and priests.
The Irish then were consumed with trying to resurrect their dead language, Gaelic. Malays today are obsessed with making sure that their young do not study any other language but Malay. Learning another language, in particular English, is seen as an expression of hatred for one’s own.
In business, the major enterprises in Malaysia today are in the hands of the Chinese minority, and politics with the Malays. In Ireland then, the major businesses were in English hands while the Irish were consumed with republican politics and reunification. With Irish education tightly under Church control and consumed with religious instructions, the leading intellectual centers were naturally the Protestant-affiliated universities like Trinity College.
In Malaysia, the schools favored by Malays are the religious and national schools with their heavy emphasis on religion, while non-Malays choose vernacular schools and private English language colleges with their emphasis on science, technology, and other secular subjects.
The Quiet Revolution
It took one man, Sean Lemass, Prime Minister from 1959-66, to initiate and lead the quiet revolution in Ireland. He began by clipping the powers and influences of the Catholic Church by stripping its control over education and social policies. Freed from the suffocating control of the Church, the Irish could abandon their inferior Catholic schools and colleges to attend the much superior English institutions without fear that they would be (or seen as) committing a sin. Likewise, they could use contraceptives without fear of eternal damnation, or more practically, of being condemned by their priests and bishops.
His strategy was remarkably simple and effective. Knowing the formidable power of the Church and its establishment however, that was an extremely bold and courageous move. Lemass made education free and its curriculum relevant and not tied to religion. Despite the Irish traditional antipathy towards things English, he made English, not Gaelic, the language of Ireland.
At first glance Abdullah Badawi would be the ideal leader to take on the Islamic establishment, just as it took a staunchly conservative President like Nixon to make overtures to and visit China. With his religious credentials and personal piety, Abdullah would be unassailable to the Islamists. Unfortunately, he chose not to capitalize on those considerable personal assets. Instead he pursued a futile battle with the Islamists in trying to prove who represents “pure” Islam. The Islamists are openly ridiculing his Islam Hadhari. They accuse him of starting a new sect, a particularly damaging charge.
Instead of the silly Islam Hadhari, Abdullah would be better off learning from the Irish on how best to prepare Malaysians to meet the challenges of and benefit from the opportunities afforded by globalization.
Learning From the Irish
The lesson from Ireland is straightforward. Foremost, curtail if not remove the influence of the religious establishment on education and social policies. Before my Muslim readers hurl epithets at me or accuse me of blasphemy, read again what I wrote. Get rid of the influence of the religious establishment, not of religion.
Islam is a great faith; its ideals are also the ideals of mankind. Islam survived the Chinese and Soviet communism; it will survive without the Malaysian government. Islam survives indeed thrives in America despite its highly secular environment. Islam should be in our heart, not in the government bureaucracy.
Away from the clutches of the religious establishment we can then make our schools emphasize English, the sciences, and mathematics. Without the authoritarian teaching and rote memorization and indoctrination that passes for education in religious schools, we can teach our students to think for themselves – the most critical skills needed in this information age.
Like the Irish, we should embrace globalization and free enterprise. Attract foreign investments by lowering corporate taxes, and make laws pertaining to corporations simple and transparent. These global companies bring much needed investments as well as management and technological expertise that would diffuse locally. Open up the economy and have a sensible fiscal policy that would invest in airports, roads and schools, not on showy mega projects like headquarters for civil servants and ostentatious palaces. Invest in our people, not in company shares.
The lessons from Ireland are simple; the challenge is with their execution. There is no need for a “mental revolution” or for Malays to be kurang ajar (uncouth). If we need to have a revolution, let it be like the Irish Quiet Revolution, or better yet, our very own that is elegantly silent.
It took nearly fifty years for Ireland to achieve its present prosperity following the reforms Lemass initiated in the 1950s. If a Malaysian Lemass were to appear today, we could look forward to the 2050s before Malaysia – in particular Malays – could be considered developed.
American universities are just as varied. They vary in their requirements for admission and graduation, academic and social ambience, and also most importantly, in academic reputation. The crowd attracted to and accepted by Harvard is very different from those of Podunk State. But what is important is that both institutions serve the nation well.
American universities are either public or private. As education is state responsibility, the federal government does not operate any university except for service academies like West Point and Annapolis. Public universities are mostly state institutions although there are a few operated by municipalities (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati). The private ones are typically set up as not-for-profit bodies (Harvard and Stanford), or by religious organizations (Georgetown and Notre Dame).
There are some for profit (proprietary) institutions (University of Phoenix); few are of superior quality. This is worth mentioning because in Malaysia all private colleges and universities are profit-making entities. There is no exemplary model for Malaysia to follow.
In terms of funding, there is little difference between public and private universities as both receive substantial public funds. The private Caltech gets nearly half its revenue from government sources in the form of research grants and consultancy fees, while public UCLA gets only 27 percent of its funding from the state government. This is important for Malaysia to note.
The fees for public institutions are as expected highly subsidized and affordable. The junior colleges are practically free. The fee differential between private and public universities can be as high as ten fold. Students attending private institutions are treated no differently from those attending public ones with regards to government study loans and scholarships.
There is a definite class system in American higher education. This fact is not well appreciated by foreigners especially those from the Third World who think that a degree is a degree. In the marketplace, those parchment papers command different premiums depending on the institution issuing them.
Of the over 3,000 degree-granting institutions, only about 300 (less than 10 percent) can be considered competitive. That is, they do not admit everyone who applies. The rest will admit anyone with a high school diploma, and who can afford the fees. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies American universities as follows: doctoral universities (offering up to doctoral degrees); masters’ institutions; baccalaureate colleges; junior colleges (offering only Associate degree); and specialized institutions (Julliard School of Music and California Institute of Technology). By this classification, Harvard is lumped together with Idaho State University (ISU). While people at ISU may be flattered by this categorization, consumers (that is, would be students) are not much helped. Under the old Carnegie classification, Harvard is classified as Research University I (offering more than 50 doctorates per year) and ISU, Research University II.
This class system is best demonstrated in California where the top 12.5 percent of high school students are eligible for the elite University of California (UC) System with its nine campuses, while the top third qualify for the CSU System with its 22 campuses. The junior colleges admit everyone including those over 18 who do not have high school diplomas.
An outstanding feature of American undergraduate education is its broad-based liberal curriculum. Regardless of their ultimate career goals, students have to take a year of English, mathematics, laboratory science, foreign language, and the humanities. The first two years (freshman and sophomore) are spent fulfilling these “general ed” requirements. Only in the last two years (junior and senior) do the students concentrate on their majors.
American universities, especially the top ones, also have incredibly diverse student body. This is by design. Harvard has no difficulty filling its slots with Americans, yet it actively seeks bright young students worldwide. It is this diversity that gives American campuses their intellectual spark.
Top American colleges in addition have freshman seminars, where first year students gather in small groups under a professor, with the emphasis on oral communication and class participation. Students also have to enroll in writing classes. At a quality school a student typically writes dozens of term papers in addition to the senior thesis.
It usually takes four years to complete the baccalaureate program, although students who enter with advanced standing and who take summer courses could accelerate their studies. Conversely, students could take a more leisurely pace or skip a year or two. Many, especially the talented, are doing exactly that – for travel, preparing for the Olympics, writing a novel, or even starting a business. Some like Bill Gates and Tiger Woods became so successful that they never returned to complete their degree.
Another innovation at many American universities is the year off campus where students can study at an approved foreign university and have the academic credits transferred back to his home campus.
It is this liberal and flexible education that gives American graduates an edge in the marketplace. It is also the reason why the best and brightest from around the globe compete vigorously to enter the system.
Two recent announcements concerning our schools give me hope. Education Minister Hishamuddin proposed granting autonomy to our leading schools, while Raja Nazrin, Chairman of the Board of Malay College, suggested that its students sit for the International Baccalaureate. If followed through, both would be positive developments.
Currently, the Education Ministry resembles the old Soviet system, with its strict top-down and central command-and-control structure. Even the Russians have abandoned it. Our schools and other educational institutions suffer unnecessarily from such strictures. Any loosening of that grip should be welcomed.
The challenges facing Malay College are very different from those of SMK Ulu Kelantan. Those closest to the problems – headmasters, teachers, parents, and governing boards – would be in the best position to solve them, not those distant bureaucrats in the capital city.
This is the rationale for school-based management (SBM), with power devolved from the central authority to the local institutions. This is the guiding principle of school reforms in Chile, America, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Like the old Soviet system, if we were to liberalize our schools overnight, there would be chaos. School boards would be the new arenas for aspiring local politicians. If SBM were to be introduced to the average school that does not have a tradition for excellence, there will be no end of conflict among the board members and teachers, to the detriment of the pupils.
Restricting SBM only to leading schools, at least initially, makes sense. They must be already doing something right, so reward them by granting them greater freedom so they could blossom. That would also encourage others to excel.
Effective School-Based Management
School-based management is not a new concept or practice. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel. Suffice that it learns from the best practices elsewhere.
The best model, pardon my bias, would be America. There is little that could be learned from Chile, New Zealand, or even Singapore. Those countries do not have the diversity issues Malaysia faces. Singapore would like to consider itself multiracial but it is essentially Chinese. It is not exactly the best model on how to treat minorities. The schools in New Zealand that may offer relevant lessons for Malaysia would be those located near Maori settlements or have significant number of their students. Such schools face the same dilemma that Malaysian schools have.
The elite American schools, like its elite colleges, have a conscious policy of ensuring that its enrollment reflects the greater society. They have no trouble filling their slots with rich White students but purposely and aggressively recruit minorities. These schools fervently believe that a culturally diverse classroom enhances the learning environment.
The problem for Malaysia would be how to ensure that the student body adequately represents all races and socioeconomic status. Then there would be still issues regarding preferences (geographic proximity, siblings of current students, children of staff members and old boys). I have no objection as long those preferences are not large and are explicitly declared. These are issues for the board to decide. Meaningful autonomy must go beyond budgetary freedom. The governing board must have full authority to hire and fire the headmaster, teachers, and other staff members, select and discipline the students, and to design the curriculum and choose the textbooks.
The Board is accountable to the major stakeholders, including and especially the parents, and to the Ministry. The Board must therefore have sufficient representation from parents, teachers, former students, and community members. Malaysia is fortunate to have many well-educated citizens living in small towns like Kuala Kangsar. Co-opting them to be board members should pose minimal problem. There is no point appointing luminaries residing hundreds of miles away.
The ministry would set only broad guidelines and allocate an annual global operating budget and let the schools decide how to spend it. There should be a separate capital budget upon approval by the ministry. If the school could raise its own funds for capital expansion, then it would not need ministry’s approval.
Granting these schools greater autonomy would encourage others to seek excellence so they too could enjoy the freedom. With autonomy comes accountability. The school – its board, teachers, and headmaster – would be responsible for its performance. Failure to perform would be reason to withdraw that freedom. The converse, excelling would result in incentive grants.
SBM is the best antidote to the increasingly bloated education bureaucracy. Even if a small proportion of our schools were independently managed, imagine how much smaller the ministry would be! The savings in overhead could be diverted to the schools to benefit the pupils directly.
SBM would result in headmasterships becoming terminal appointments. There will be no more headmasters warming their seats while waiting to be promoted up the bureaucracy. One Malay College headmaster stayed barely a few months, just enough for an entry on his resume.
Malaysia’s best should compete with the world’s best. The National Academy of Science regards the IB as one of the two top programs to prepare students to pursue the sciences in college, the other being the American Advanced Placement (AP) program.
IB combines breath with depth; it is much superior to the GCE A Level which while rigorous, lacks breadth. Many leading universities give first year credits based on the IB and AP results.
Currently Malay College does not prepare its students for any matriculating examination; its students have to go elsewhere for that. The College is now reduced to being a glorified middle school. What a disgrace to a once proud tradition. Following up on Raja Nazrin’s suggestion would go a long way towards redeeming that heritage.
When we set a high bar our young will respond. For years Mara College at Banting has had a successful IB program. When I was teaching young surgeons in Malaysia, I insisted that they sit for recognized foreign qualifications like the FRACS and FRCS instead of the local Master’s program. This was not the residuum of colonial thinking or lack of faith in local institutions, rather that in this era of globalization, we must measure ourselves against internationally recognized yardsticks.
Today, good enough for Malaysia isn’t; Malaysians demand global standards. The decisions of the Minister and Raja Nazrin bring Malaysia closer towards this goal.
There are many recent attempts at reforming the schools, but Conant’s comprehensive schools remain the staple to this day. In 1983 a committee chaired by David Gardner, later to become president of the prestigious University of California System, produced its landmark report, A Nation At Risk. The Imperative for Educational Reform, in which it laments the declining academic rigor of American high schools that fill their curriculum with soft subjects like consumer math and driver ed. “The educational foundations of our society,” the report notes, “are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
Gardner’s report was commissioned in response to the challenge coming from what was then widely accepted as the rising East, in particular Japan. Gardner’s committee lacked enforcing power; it was merely advisory. As a result nothing much happened.
Since then there have been many other reform movements. Though they have not caught on nationally, nonetheless in their aggregate, they produce far greater changes. These include the voucher system, charter schools, and the movement of returning to the basics, in particular the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). Vouchers are meant to empower poor children trapped in lousy school districts. With vouchers these students would be free to enroll in any school, public or private. Presently the system works well in some districts (Milwaukee) where the vouchers are restricted to poor families. Elsewhere the voucher system is entangled in protracted lawsuits. California voters rejected the system because they believed it would simply subsidize those currently enrolled in private schools. The California initiative would more likely be palatable if it had been restricted to the poor, as in Milwaukee.
My concern with unrestricted vouchers is that they would perpetuate if not promote self-segregation, with Jewish parents sending their children to Jewish schools, Arab parents to Arabic schools, Serbians to Serb’s. A generation hence and America would be like the Middle East and the Balkans.
CES, unlike the other reform movements, was started by educators and teachers rather than citizen activists or politicians. Theodore Sizer, a longtime teacher and former headmaster of Phillips Academy, a prestigious New England prep school, started the movement to revamp the way schools teach. Instead of the present factory and assembly-like module system, students would be divided into groups and taught by a team of teachers. The idea is to dismantle the artificial boundaries separating the different academic disciplines and have the teachers communicate with each other more. Thus instead of one teacher teaching chemistry and being oblivious of what the others are doing in physics or history, with team teaching every teacher is made aware of each other’s lesson plans, and their teaching would be interrelated and integrated.
A major feature of CES is that for graduation, students must present an exhibition on a topic of their choice for each subject. This is comparable to the student’s portfolio in a fine arts academy. I am familiar with CES as one of my sons attended such a school and I was on the governing board. One of his exhibitions (for chemistry) was on the internal combustion engine in history, which neatly combined elements of mathematics (laws of thermodynamics), history, and social science in addition to chemistry. The unique feature of CES is that it works within the system; there is no need for special legislation or increased funding. CES involves rearranging the present elements. To join CES, the teachers would have to petition for it and then agree to the guidelines. Unlike other reforms that are often forced upon the working professionals, CES is teacher-driven, which explains its remarkable success and acceptance.
Many American high schools work closely with nearby colleges so ambitious students could simultaneously take college courses for credits. Bard College goes further with an innovative program of fully integrating the last two years of school with the first two years of college for highly talented and motivated students.
There is no national or standard exit examination in America. Each teacher assesses the students on his or her own terms. The school district lays down the graduation requirements. Students are continuously assessed throughout the school year rather than in one final examination. Even their homework and other assignments are graded and contribute to this final score. The student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) represents the yearlong assessment and not a snapshot as one would get with a single Malaysian type end-of-year examination.
There are standardized national tests like the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), Achievement Test (AT), and AP. Many universities use both standardized test scores and GPAs in evaluating students. There is a trend among top-ranked colleges of doing away with SAT.
This sentiment has professional backing. The American Psychological Association in its guidelines for test use specifically prohibits basing any consequential judgment about individuals on a single test score. The reason is the significant margin for error. The solution is to use multiple measures, including test scores, GPAs, teachers’ recommendations as well as reviewing the student’s portfolio. For admission to select music, drama, and design schools, the student’s portfolio is the determining factor.
SAT does serve a purpose; it allows comparisons between schools. It does not say much about the academic rigor (or at least the rigor of its testing) of a school if collectively it’s “A” students score poorly at SAT. SAT and similar tests serve to assess the schools as much as the students.
For the individual student however, the predictive value of such standardized tests is more problematic. There are few students who excel in class but perform poorly in these “filling-in-the-blanks” tests. Texas and California now accept the top 5 percent of graduates from each school into their elite universities regardless of their SAT scores.
Doing away with standardized tests creates its own problems because of the variability of school quality. The less selective California State University (CSU) System does not require SAT; it relies exclusively on GPAs. Consequently half of its freshmen have to take remedial classes in English and mathematics.
The King recently called upon Muslims to open up their minds to knowledge. As head of the faith, the King should impress this first on our ulama and religious scholars. Their demand that discourses in Islam should only be among and by them reflects their closed minds. This intellectual arrogance is also far from the image of humility and piety we expect of them.
These scholars have learned little from their illustrious predecessors. Ancient Muslim luminaries did not hesitate seeking knowledge from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus; they were not at all perturbed at learning from the infidels. Those scholars acknowledged that all knowledge begins with Allah. That He had chosen to dispense the wisdom of the concept of zero to a Hindu, the secret of the atom to a Jew, and the universality of gravity to a Christian, is not for us to question. Suffice to know that such insights are for the benefit of all mankind.
Having mastered the then known body of knowledge, those scholars went on to make their own seminal contributions that enlightened the world. They did not distinguish between “secular” and “religious” knowledge. Ibn Sinna and others made significant contributions to the sciences as well as theology.
Like the Berlin Wall, the massive mental wall today’s Islamic scholars erect around themselves will eventually crumble. Until then they are trapped, entangled in the infinite variations of the contents while missing their underlying universal concepts. While we look upon our differences and diversities as a sign of God’s Grace, these ulama would seek to impose “purity,” as they see it.
Etiquette of Disagreement
Many believe that if only we would go back to the original text and have the “right” interpretations, then all the differences and divisions amongst us would magically disappear. Such naivety! As long as we are humans, there will be differences. Instead of bemoaning such differences and letting them divide us, we should learn to live with them. It would then be much easier for us to get along not only with each other but also with those outside our faith.
We should learn the etiquette of disagreement. Disagreements are a sign of God’s beauty, but only if they lead us to better understand ourselves, and those who disagree with us. Disagreements are God’s blessings, only if they help expand our horizon and appreciate other perspectives. This assumes a certain degree of humility on our part; we are not always right, and those whom we disagree with are not always wrong. If we let those disagreements divide us, then they would be ugly and a curse.
It is well to remember that disagreements occurred even during the prophet’s time. Once the prophet instructed his traveling parties to meet and pray Asar at a certain place. On the way, one of the parties was delayed, and disagreements immediately arose on whether they should continue and pray when the reached their destination as the per the prophet’s earlier instruction, or stop and pray right there and then as per Quranic dictates. One party decided to do this, while the other proceeded on. Later when they met the prophet s.a.w. at their final destination, they asked him which party was right. The prophet s.a.w. replied that both were!
There were also profound disagreements soon after the prophet’s death over who should lead the community. Again the companions did not let that disagreement came between them; they agreed to a satisfactory formula after discussions (shura).
Breaking Down the Mental Berlin Wall
Just as ancient scholars made no distinction between secular and religious knowledge, likewise today’s scholars are breaking down artificial barriers separating the various disciplines. My own specialized area of surgery is benefiting immensely by contributions from such fields as engineering and space research.
With Islamic studies, we are fortunate that there are emerging today scholars who have been exposed to the traditional system and then benefited from the superior Western liberal education and rigorous scholarship. In the West and freed from the censorship that had stifled them back in their homeland, their contributions are a refreshing breadth of fresh air. They are slowly but surely peeling away the layers of accretions that have fossilized Islam since the tenth century.
Theirs is still work in progress, but they have already demonstrated the universality of the principles of this great faith, giving substance to the Quranic refrain that Islam is indeed a “perfect religion for all mankind and at all times.” In their native lands these scholars would be branded as adulterators of their faith (bida’a) or worse, apostates. In the freedom of the West, and with a supportive and nurturing intellectual environment, their scholarships blossomed.
The dean of such scholars, the late Fazlur Rahman, suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Quran and hadith their underlying principles, and then apply them to the challenges of today. Obviously modern society is very different from that of the prophet’s time, but the moral imperatives remain the same. Such an exercise would demand considerable intellectual effort, much more than the mindless parroting of some ancient texts.
All faiths subscribe to the golden rule, or variations thereof. No argument over the concept; at issue are the contents. A barbed wire fence can be a reassuring protective barrier to some; an intimidating intrusive barricade to others, even when viewed from the same side. A hijab may be oppressive to a Western feminist but liberating to a Muslim housewife. Exposing one’s midriff may be emancipating to a Westerner but degrading to an Easterner.
If we focus on the contents, the twain shall never meet; concentrate on the concept – personal freedom – then we are likely to find common ground.
An injured Christian in Beirut does not feel awkward in a Red Crescent ambulance, any more than a Muslim patient in Boston has qualms receiving blood from the Red Cross. If we associate the Red Cross with the Crusaders and the Red Crescent, the Saracens, and not on the universality of their mission to serve the sick and displaced, then there will be no end to the conflict.
Our ulama should seek out and welcome contributions from outside their field. If they have an appreciation of the social and physical sciences, that would only enhance their understanding of our great faith. Their fatwas (decrees) then would have far greater influence and impact. Learning from non-ulama would not in any way diminish their piety. Rest assured that when we need someone to solemnize our marriages, lead our prayers, or bless births in the family, we would still go to our trusted ulama.
Our religious scholars should heed well these words of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”
America, like Malaysia, is a diverse nation and faces the same problems of integrating her various ethnic groups. Like Malaysia, the educational achievements of its various groups are closely related to ethnicity. Both countries have the same problem of increasing the English proficiency of a large segment of its student population who are not native English speakers.
Even though American students do not score at the top in TIMSS, nonetheless they turn out to be very productive, innovative, and creative. Many attribute the remarkable strength and buoyancy of the American economy to its highly talented workers. Ministers of Education from Singapore to Hungary trot to America to learn the secrets of its system.
The prominent feature of the American system is its decentralization. Up until recently, there was no equivalent of a federal Ministry of Education. Education is state responsibility, and that authority is further delegated to the local districts with elected trustees. Teachers in each district are paid by and are accountable to the local school board, not the state superintendent or the federal Secretary of Education in Washington, DC.
These districts vary in size from a few hundred students to one with literally millions as in Los Angeles and New York. They are also incredibly diverse. A school in downtown Los Angeles can have pupils speaking a hundred different languages! And that school will be very different from the one in Minnesota or even close by in affluent Santa Monica. The differences between a school in Ulu Kelantan and Ukay Heights are nothing compared to the varieties in America. Despite such a diversity, the system is remarkably successful in integrating and acculturating the students into the American mainstream, a point that should interest Malaysians.
Because of the tremendous diversity it is difficult to describe the typical American system. For purposes of discussion, I will use California as an example. Even within a single state there are considerable variations.
The American system consists of Kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12). Children enter at age 5. Some districts offer preschool beginning as early as age 3 or 4, especially in poorer areas. After kindergarten they move on to six years of elementary school, followed by two years of middle school, and four years of high school. American schools are all single session, typically ending in mid afternoon; preschools are half days.
In elementary school the pupils learn to read and write, do basic arithmetic, and explore the world around them. Creative arts like singing and drawing are emphasized. Pupils stay with the same teacher, except for subjects like music and special education. Some schools are experimenting with having the same teacher for the entire six years, to maintain continuity. You can be certain that the teachers know their students very well at such schools.
In middle school, the variety of subjects offered broadens, and students move from class to class, each taught by a different teacher. Students take a core curriculum of English, science, mathematics, and social studies. The rest of the school day is taken up by electives, which include such subjects as woodworking and creative arts. There may be a home teacher who will teach two or three of the core subjects in the homeroom. He or she also serves as a center point for the students, a stabilizing focus for them. Some schools have the same home teacher for both years.
High school is similar in that students move from class to class, with different teachers for the various subjects. Apart from the core curriculum, the students again have electives to meet their special needs and interests. Students also have to take a foreign language, although in many districts that exposure could begin earlier in middle or even elementary school.
Most American high schools are the typical large comprehensive variety offering wide range of subjects from agriculture and woodworking to auto shop and welding, as well as highly academic subjects like calculus, economics, and statistics. The more academic schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, the equivalent of first year college courses.
The student’s interests and future goals dictate the courses chosen, with guidance from the counselors. Those aspiring for highly selective colleges take four years of English, science, mathematics, and a foreign language, plus suitable electives in the social studies and fine arts. The transcripts would be greatly enhanced by taking these courses right up to the AP level. Those planning to enter the workforce upon graduation or whose academic goals are less lofty, would still have to take these core subjects except that instead of taking calculus for example, they would opt for “consumer math;” and instead of physics, a less demanding physical science.
The present large comprehensive schools were started in the 1950s and early 60s through the influence of James B. Conant, the former president of Harvard. Prior to that American schools were akin to cottage industries–small and scattered, and thought to be inefficient. The impetus for change was precipitated by the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. That shocked Americans into realizing how far behind they were in science and mathematics.
Merging these small schools into a single large campus was thought to be the most efficient (meaning, cheapest) way to educate as many students as possible. With a sufficiently large pool of students, the number of subjects offered could be expanded. It was also a reflection of the era when assembly line and “scientific” production championed by the likes of Charles Taylor were the rage. Implicit in that model is the lumping of all students together with no streaming. The assumption is that students learn from each other, the slower ones from their brighter classmates. The system works up to a point. To Conant, these comprehensive public schools also serve as a melting pot not only racially but also socially.
Increasingly today these giant educational factories are exacting their toll. Students feel alienated, disciplinary problems abound, and crowd control becomes a major issue. On many campuses there are metal detectors and armed policemen. And an irony that cannot be dismissed, these policemen earn more than the teachers! Columbine High School, Colorado, the scene of the deadly shootout a few years ago, is typical of such campuses with over 3,000 students.
This lack of streaming is more apparent than real. Many districts now have magnet schools and special GATE (gifted and talented) programs. Further, parents do their own streaming. Increasingly when people buy homes, the first question asked is, “How is the neighborhood school?” The high school at Palo Alto, California, regularly sends its top students to elite universities; meanwhile a stone’s throw away across the freeway in East Palo Alto, the story is very different.
The preceding describes the public system. America also has vigorous and extensive private schools run by churches and other organizations. For the most part they are academically oriented “prep” schools, meaning they “prepare” students for top colleges. Some like Groton and Exeter count among their graduates, luminaries in government, business, and the professions. They are also increasingly attracting many foreign students.