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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #52

Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education (Cont'd)

Graduate Programs

Like the undergraduate program, graduate studies must also be revamped and upgraded. Universities have a mission beyond simply transmitting knowledge – important though that is – to creating and applying knowledge. We cannot simply assume that the principles and assumptions that apply elsewhere are applicable or even relevant locally. They have to be empirically proven within the Malaysian context. If they are not applicable we have to discover why. Research must be an integral component of local universities, and with it, strong graduate programs.

Presently entry into graduate studies is based entirely on having a good undergraduate degree. The problem is, universities vary greatly in quality and there must be another independent yardstick. America has the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) where students are tested on general principles and in broad areas. Malaysia does not have anything comparable. Many Malaysians view the GRE as simply a barrier preventing their entry into American graduate programs. The main reason for this attitude is that Malaysians fare poorly on such tests; thus they prefer doing their graduate studies elsewhere other than America where the GRE is not required.

I would make all potential graduate students take the GRE. Until more data are collected to determine its relevance, I would not base admission decisions on the GRE scores alone. GRE would be yet another yardstick to assess the students and programs. The validity and reliability of that yardstick will be known only after the data are analyzed.

In America, in addition to the GRE, all doctoral students undergo at least a year of candidacy where they have to take courses in related fields. Thus social science doctoral candidates would have to take courses in statistics and calculus, as these are two powerful tools for their research. In addition they would have to take formal courses in research methodology, data collection and interpretation, plus in depth courses in their specific and related disciplines. Apart from getting above average scores on the coursework, candidates have to sit for a comprehensive oral (candidacy) examination. All these before they begin their research. It is a rigorous program; hence the high regards American doctorates command worldwide. In contrast, a Malaysian PhD is entirely by research, with no formal course work.

Two specific disciplines deserve special discussion: medicine and law. Today these two are like any other undergraduate programs; students enter directly from high school. In America, medical and law are graduate programs, students must have a baccalaureate degree before pursuing them. Australian medical schools are slowly converting into America model, with Britain contemplating the same. Singapore is planning its second medical faculty modeled along similar lines.

Medicine is highly specialized and very intense. The curriculum is already crowded with the necessary basic and clinical sciences; there is no time for other studies. If students already have a baccalaureate degree and have taken courses in the basic science and liberal arts, they could then concentrate purely on medicine and the program could be shortened to four instead of the present five years. We would get more broadly trained doctors to boot, instead of the present narrowly focused technicians.

Some of my classmates in medical school had degrees in engineering, history, music, religious studies, and even architecture. This makes for an intellectually stimulating class. It is this hybridization of the various disciplines that makes for the remarkable intellectual vigor of American professional schools.

The training of medical specialists also needs revision. In the past they had to acquire recognized international (usually British or Australian) qualifications like FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) and MRCP (Membership of the Royal College of Physicians). Unfortunately the local training was haphazard or non-existent; the trainees were left on their own with no formal seminars or teaching. Consequently the pass rate was atrocious; it was the rare candidate who succeeded on the first try. Thus Malaysian academics did away with these foreign examinations and substituted local ones on the pretext that those foreign tests were not valid. Nobody has shown that a Malaysian with an acute appendicitis should be treated differently from an Englishman with the same malady. Unless Malaysian researches can show otherwise, then we should stick with the standard treatment, British or otherwise. The unstated reason to do away with the foreign tests was because local candidates fared poorly.

When I was associated with the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur, I instituted a training program similar to that of an American teaching hospital, with regular teaching rounds and formal seminars. I also assigned each of my medical officers with specific research topics for them to pursue independently. As a result all my trainees passed their FRCS examination, including two who sat for the first time. One is Freda Meah, now a Professor of Surgery at UKM, the other, Zulkifli Laidin, later to become a pediatric surgeon. Further all my trainees managed to publish a paper in refereed journals. My point is, when young Malaysians are rigorously trained and high standards set, they respond.

Today UKM is reverting to its old pattern; trainees now sit for an internal M. Med. examination instead of recognized foreign qualifications. No surprise that I rarely find papers in refereed medical journals emanating from Malaysia.

One reason local academics give for not demanding higher standards or aspiring to greater heights is that doing so would risk losing their graduates to the First World. If the West recognized their qualifications, these graduates would be tempted to emigrate. Forty percent of the graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology end up in America, likewise their top doctors. Thus by having local graduates fluent only in Malay and their qualifications recognized only locally, they would not be tempted or able to leave. This mentality is akin to that of the ancient Chinese who wrapped the feet of their female infants so that when they grew up they would not run away from their husbands. Trapping by handicapping!

Yes, there would be that danger when you meet or exceed international standards, but the solution to the “Indian problem” is not to downgrade your institutions, rather to treat your valuable and talented graduates accordingly by paying them globally competitive salaries so they would not be tempted to leave.

Would-be lawyers too need broad-based liberal education before pursuing their profession. Law in a modern society is highly complex. How can we expect them to craft contracts involving biogenetic engineering when they have no clue as to what DNA is? Or represent their high tech clients when they do not know the difference between bits and bytes?

Before my daughter entered law school, she had an undergraduate degree in political science, but she also took courses in such seemingly unrelated fields as calculus and genetics. Now as a corporate lawyer and litigator, she finds all this background knowledge immensely helpful.

The other major deficiency of Malaysian universities is their lack of extension and continuing education programs. There are limited opportunities for nontraditional students (those who have left the formal school system) to enter university. Presently they would have to enroll in private colleges first for their matriculation. American universities have extension services catering for these students as well as providing non-certificate enrichment courses. Harvard’s extension department offers beginners’ level courses as well as those leading to masters’ degrees. Many American universities have formal programs for nontraditional students. Columbia’s School of General Studies is one such outstanding program. Colleges in my area, from the local community college to Stanford University, offer such courses and I have taken them both for personal enrichment as well as for continuing medical education.

Continuing professional education is big business on American campuses. Georgia Tech has one for business popular with executives because it is so well equipped, complete with hotel and conference facilities. By providing these services, universities would be more directly involved with the community. More importantly the community too would feel connected with the campus. This would ease the perception of the ivory tower isolation and aloofness so common with many Third World institutions.

The university experience is more than just going to lectures and handing in your assignments. It also means learning from your classmates and exposing yourself to those of different views, cultures, and aspirations. I find the segregation of students on campus along racial lines as well as disciplines disappointing. The university must play its role in integrating the students.

I would make the first undergraduate year fully residential, even for students living nearby. Exceptions would be rare and only under the most extenuating circumstances. I would abolish the present separate residential colleges based on faculty. Mix the students; it would do immense good were medical students to share dorms with music majors. I would also intentionally mix the students by race. I would make this explicit to all applicants so that those who would be uncomfortable with such arrangements would know way ahead and not bother to apply. If a Chinese student wants to share a room only with his or her own kind, then he or she would be well advised to apply to a university in Taiwan instead. Similarly if a Muslim student does not want to room with an infidel, then he or she should apply to a university in Saudi Arabia.

Such rules should be flexible. Students who are stuck with a totally incompatible roommate should be allowed to change. This could happen even when sharing a room with a previously good friend or classmate. Universities should be a place where all ideas are explored, including and especially those currently not popular. There must be an atmosphere of open inquiry and tolerance for differences in viewpoints, and for healthy debate. Unfortunately today universities have to get the minister’s permission even to invite outside speakers. It is interesting that in 2001 Johns Hopkins University successfully brought representatives of all Malaysian political parties to a conference. If representatives of Malaysia’s wildly divergent political parties could gather and express their views on an American campus without resorting to fist fights or inciting a riot, why cannot such an event be held on a local campus? Of course not even the UMNO representatives would dare approach their superiors back home about planning a similar gathering in Malaysia.

When citizens cannot or are not allowed to sit together to express their differences in an open and civil manner, why, then they would do so on the streets. Recently there was much talk on bridging the increasing polarization of Malays with respect to Islam. Why cannot a Malaysian university convene a seminar and have speakers representing the whole spectrum of opinion similar to what Hopkins did to the politicians?

Had local academics taken the initiative, there would not be the charade of the on and off “great debate” between PAS and UMNO that never came about. No one took that initiative because they were all waiting for a directive from the ministry. Such are the negative consequences of too much central control.

Next: Personnel


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