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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #57

Chapter 9: Mow Down MOE (Cont'd)

Sponsoring Students Overseas

In the heyday of pre-1997 economic crisis, Malaysia sent literally hundreds of thousands of students abroad for further studies. The buoyant economy made an overseas education affordable even to middle class families. The crisis, and the accompanying devaluation of the ringgit, dramatically changed that.

I do not quibble with private students; what they and their parents do with their own precious cash is for them to decide. My focus here is on government-sponsored students, and the overwhelming majority of them are Malays. Most ended up at third-rate universities taking courses which are readily available in Malaysia. I do not see the wisdom of spending precious taxpayers’ money on such exercises. Those resources could be better spent improving local universities. I wrote a long letter to the director of JPA describing the tremendous wastage and the poor selection of candidates. I also suggested improvements, but of course did not get a reply. I subsequently published part of the letter as an article in a mainstream paper. Still nothing happened. With the economic crisis the government was forced to downsize the program, sending only the most qualified students and then only to selective institutions. I could not knock any fiduciary sense into our officials, but the harsh economic reality did it for me. The program is now considerably better although it can still be improved.

The various government entities, statutory bodies, and government-owned corporations have their own separate program for sponsoring students. These disparate programs are duplicative, inefficient, and very costly. At one time the consulate in Los Angeles had three student advisors – one for JPA, MARA, and Petronas. The cost of maintaining each one of them is substantial. Despite the numerous advisors we still hear horror stories of students being stranded and stipends missed.

I have met many of these advisors and have yet to be impressed by any of them. They are appointed simply to reward them with a plump overseas posting prior to their retirement. Their typical assignment is for two or three years. The first year is wasted with the officer distracted and consumed with such personal matters as settling their own children in school. By the second year they are already busy buying and accumulating household items to be shipped home. They hardly have time for their primary responsibility–looking after the welfare of the students. To make matters worse, many of the advisors are graduates of Malaysian universities; they have absolutely no clue about education in America, nor are they eager to learn.

Petronas has been remarkably successful in recruiting the brightest students. But even this superior program suffers from many deficiencies. I have talked to many Petronas scholars and it is the rare individual who is pursuing a course of study that is his or her first choice.

Many are doing it for the opportunity to go abroad. There are many aspiring engineers taking accountancy; would-be filmmakers taking business, and wannabe lawyers taking engineering simply because those were the scholarships being offered. What a sad mismatch of talent and wasted potential. Imagine had these bright and talented young Malaysians been given the freedom to pursue their own dreams!

An example will illustrate this madness. An aspiring nuclear physicist was given a scholarship to study medicine because it was deemed to be the greatest national need at the time. Of course the young man took it. The following year his sister was also given an award to go abroad, but this hopeful doctor was given one for…biology – the flavor of the year! Again supposedly in the national interest! How could the nation’s priorities changed so quickly? I met both of them years later and suggested to the now young doctor that he could still combine his interest in nuclear physics and medicine by becoming a radiation oncologist. And being a bright doctor and a graduate of a top medical school, he was readily accepted to an American program where the hospital would pay him. Guess what? The government would not release him from his bonds! As for his sister, I advised her to come to America, do her graduate work, and then apply to medical school. She found my suggestion incredulous until I told her that it is quite commonly done in America. She may yet become a doctor if only she could also be freed from her bonds. Those bureaucrats have again thwarted the dreams of two bright young people. Of course those officials looked at the situation differently; those students ought to be grateful for what they had been given. Isn’t that the Malay way?

I suggest that all publicly funded study awards be disbursed under one agency. We would serve our students best by this consolidation.

First, those responsible for selecting the students could enhance their talent-picking skills. They would also become more knowledgeable and familiar with the qualities and requirements of the various universities.

Then we would not have the specter of MARA sending its students to unrecognized institutions as had happened previously. As these interviewers develop their skills and expertise, they could hire out their services to private companies and other entities.

Second, with a centralized and computerized office, we could better monitor the students and get accurate follow up data on their performances, thus ensuring that no one would fall through the cracks. Problems could also be spotted earlier and handled more effectively. With their accumulated expertise and experience these experts could then help advise our schools on how best to prepare students for top universities.

The most important reason for consolidation is that students get to choose the field of study that best suits their interest and aptitude, instead of being forced to take one chosen by the sponsoring agency. This alone is reason enough to change the present system.

On completion of their studies, these students could then be matched with the various departments. If a student has done research and is interested to pursue this he could choose to be with the universities or research institutes instead of being forced to teach raw recruits simply because he was sponsored by the Defense Ministry. There was a plight of an honors mathematics graduate (still a rare qualification for a Malay at the time) who was given an opportunity to continue his doctoral studies under a fellowship awarded by his university. Again his sponsor would not relent, he was needed back home, in the “national interest!” The good news was that in the long delays while negotiating with the authorities in Malaysia he managed to extend his stay for a year and completed his masters. On his return however, those bureaucrats got their vengeance. While he was expecting to be seconded to a university or at least posted to RMC or similar institution, he was asked instead to teach raw recruits, a job that could have be done by a graduate of teachers’ college. He had to stay within the defense ministry as it sponsored him.

With my proposed consolidation, these changes could easily be accommodated, as would any alterations in the students’ plan or departmental needs. If a graduate is not needed by any public agency, he or she could be “auctioned off” to the private sector, enabling the government to recoup some of its costs. Doing this would also circumvent the current popular trick (unbeknown to the bureaucrats) where those with highly marketable skills and desirable qualifications from prestigious universities purposely flunk their Malaysian placement interviews and thus would be rejected and released from their bonds. This happened to a bright young man I knew in California. He purposefully bombed his Malaysian interview and consequently was rejected. He laughed all the way back to Silicon Valley. He could not help it if his interviewers could not tell the difference between Stanford and Stamford. That young man was smart enough not to play smart!

I propose simplifying the various study awards into three categories: scholarships, grants, and loans. These awards should cover all expenses, and would vary in value with the cost of tuition and living expenses.

Scholarships would be for those accepted to the prestigious universities like the Harvards and Stanfords of America, the Oxbridges of Britain, and the McGills and Torontos of Canada. As these scholarship winners would be our best and brightest, they should be given the freedom to choose their own course of study and career. Surely they would know better than any bureaucrat what is best for themselves. We should also give them the latitude to proceed to graduate work if they so desire, or to work abroad for an extended period of time to gain valuable experience. By granting them these privileges we would encourage others to apply to these outstanding universities.

The grants would be for those accepted into the next tier–but still very selective–universities. They must however pursue courses that are needed by the country (natural and applied sciences, English, business). Unlike scholarships, their parents would have to contribute a portion of their taxable income (I suggest 10 percent) towards the award. For needy students, the grants would have the same value monetarily as scholarships.

The third level of award is study loan. It would be tenable only to the same caliber institutions as the grants. Like grants, parents too would be assessed a similar percentage of their taxable income, but unlike grants the students would have to repay the loans less their parents’ contributions. The advantage of loans over grants is that students would be free to choose their own field of study. These loans would have to be repaid in the traditional way, monthly following the student’s graduation, with a defined interest rate and amortization period.

Alternatively the loan could also be repaid based on the graduate’s monthly income for a defined period. I propose 10 percent for a period twice that of his study loan duration. In this way if the candidate chooses a highly lucrative job, the government could conceivably make a tidy profit on its investments. The student would choose the repayment option at the time the loan is being given.

This second novel scheme, the Income Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan, is the brainchild of the American Nobel laureate in economics Milton Friedman. It would free the graduate to choose a career that suits his interest rather than be concerned financially because of the loan. We might be able to attract top talent into teaching with this scheme.

ICR was implemented at Yale in the 1970s by the economist James Tobin, where for every $1,000 the student borrowed from Yale, he or she would commit to repay 0.04 percent of his or her income for 35 years, or when the whole class has paid off its aggregate debt, whichever is sooner. The program was terminated after howling protests from highly successful alumni who complained about having to fork out huge sums of their income to their alma mater. ICR is still an option with the Federal Student Loan in America and has also been adopted in Australia. Canada briefly toyed with the idea but gave up for fear that it would unnecessarily lead to hikes in tuition fees. We should also have built-in incentives similar to existing ones where if the students excel, their grants could be converted into scholarships and loans to grants.

As the cost of studies abroad is expensive, public funds should only be used to send our brightest students, and then only to the top institutions. We should send them only to the top 50-100 universities in America, and the top half a dozen each in Canada, Britain and Australia. The operating principle should be: Malaysia sends her best, to the best!

In the 1980s and 90s Malaysia had the Top Ten American University program. The sad aspect of that program was that these students had to be sent abroad for their matriculation first. The fact that our schools are not preparing their students for top universities is again another sad reflection of the system.

By streamlining the process, making the rules explicit, and procedures transparent, our students could concentrate on preparing themselves academically instead of busy navigating the bureaucratic maze. Students would assume the responsibility of getting accepted to top universities. They would choose whichever path which best prepares them–Sixth Form, IB, GCE A level, matrikulasi, or twinning programs.

The sponsoring agency would also be freed from the administrative details of selection, filing applications, choosing the universities, and instead concentrate on giving information, providing guarantors’ letters, helping with the applications, and generally being a facilitator and counselor. The government would have a committee of graduates of leading universities to choose the institutions where these awards would be tenable.

By not being involved in the decision, the sponsors protect themselves against charges of favoritism and unfair practices. The decision is open and the process student-driven. Get accepted to Stanford or Princeton, and you will get a scholarship no matter how rich your parents are or what esoteric field of studies you choose. Choose the University of Oregon and you would get a grant if you pursue engineering, a loan if you take sociology. If only Podunk State University accepts you, tough luck, your parents would have to finance your studies.

By being more efficient and selective, we would achieve more with our precious monetary and intellectual resources. And by injecting competition we would ensure that we get only the best students.

Next: Dispense with Dewan

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