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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 28, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #58

Chapter 9: Mow Down MOE (Cont’d)

Dispense with Dewan

DBP is an independent agency with it own supervising board that answers to MOE. It was established in 1962 to spearhead the development of Malay language. Today DBP has become in addition, a major business monopoly involved in publishing, printing, and distributing textbooks as well as other extraneous activities.

Its first director was the economist Ungku Aziz. His successors were all either politicians of no particular repute or civil servants of the same caliber. Seasoned scholars and able managers they were not. Delays in printing and distributing of textbooks are perennial. Why the government chooses to have its own publishing and other businesses instead of contracting them out to the private sector is beyond me. Even back then there existed a thriving and robust publishing industry. Many of my textbooks in the 1950s were published by such private entities like Sinaran Brothers of Penang. Their books were cheap, well written, and most importantly, available on time. DBP figured that to maintain the status of Malay language, its textbooks must be just as expensive as the English ones that were imported. Dewan could not compete on price, quality, or availability; instead it aggressively and successfully lobbied the government to give BDP the monopoly. Being a typical government agency, DBP cannot deliver, but it is always ready with excuses, from shortage of translators to that of supplies.

My own experience with DBP back in the 1970s was instructive. I frequently gave lectures at the nursing school in Johor Baru and was appalled at the quality of the textbooks translated by DBP. Obviously they were done by individuals with scant knowledge of medicine or nursing. They had translated some ancient British texts, no doubt to save royalty fees. Consequently the pictures were of outdated instruments and equipment. The nursing instructor and I agreed that we could come up with a better text using local materials and examples.

We were very excited about this venture if for nothing else that the students would get a more modern text. We contacted DBP, and its representatives too were eager. All went well until I mentioned royalty and copyright. The representative knew nothing of either, or acted as if he did not know. He expected us to write the book gratis and then hand over to the agency the copyright! I demurred, and then began hearing nonsense about “patriotism” and “duty to country and culture.”

The incident prompted me to check on some of the books issued by DBP. Sure enough in almost all cases the translators’ or writers’ name was not prominently displayed. One had to look very hard to find it in the acknowledgment or preface. The one name emblazoned all over is the director’s. That episode effectively aborted my career as a textbook writer.

Earlier I visited DBP‘s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, located in a high-rent district. It was an impressive building, with an oversized and somewhat gaudy mural at the front. The agency had just finished an extensive and expensive addition. What astounded me was that a huge portion of the new addition was being used for nothing more than warehousing unsold overpriced books. When I suggested to a senior official that those books could be stored more cheaply elsewhere instead of in an expensive downtown office building, he professed not the least concerned. Nor was he impressed with my suggestion that the books be sold at a discount; at least then they would be read. Obviously to those officials, costs and wastage mattered little. Whenever they were short of funds they simply asked the government for more.

Malay language was a top priority; no one dared challenge the request. That would be, well, unpatriotic. DBP also publishes a number of popular periodicals ranging from the quasi-scholarly Dewan Bahasa (Language Forum) to the lay Dewan Masyarakat (Society’s Forum). Apart from providing valuable avenues for new writers, these magazines helped popularize Malay literature and language. It is a reflection of the mentality of DBP that these magazines do not carry advertising for the simple reason that for the agency, money is never a problem. It never occurred to them that advertising would spur interests in other publishing products and that in turn would stimulate the market for published materials in Malay generally. In the same vein, Dewan’s magazines and journals rarely carry reviews of books published outside of DBP. To the mindset of these civil servants turned publishers, letting private companies advertise their products would undermine DBP‘s own books and publications.

It did not occur to these officials that by getting advertising revenue they could lower the price of their products and thereby further increase their circulation. It is very hard to erase the ingrained civil service mentality.

I would shutter DBP and use the funds thus saved more productively elsewhere as in building single-session schools. Its publishing business could be contracted out to the private sector or better still, sold out. Textbook publishing is a lucrative business; there would be no shortage of bidders. Those private publishers could produce textbooks much more cheaply especially if we also introduce competition.

At present the publishing division is actually a cost item. I would also sell all of DBP’s publications. If publishers with far smaller circulation could make a handsome profit, I fail to see why those magazines could not rake in the revenues especially if they accept advertising.

As for the translating activities, that could be done by the legends of new academics. Those experts could do the translating more competently than the civil servants at DBP. Better still, contract out the translations, and to maintain productivity, pay the translators piece meal – no completed translations, no pay. By getting rid of these civil servant translators at DBP and using the saved funds to pay professors and experts at the universities to do the translating or writing, the ministry would get better and cheaper textbooks. This would also provide much-needed extra income for these academics. They are presently so poorly paid that this may well tip the balance to induce them to stay in academia.

As for the research and scholarly component of DBP, this too could be transferred to the universities. All public universities have huge Departments of Malay Studies; let them take over the academic function of DBP. Back in the early days I could see the rationale for having DBP, today it has been made redundant by the multitude of universities.

By dispensing entirely with DBP you could then rent out its massive headquarters and use the funds to improve the schools. Transfer all those civil servants back to the Sports or Tourism Ministries, and use the funds thus saved to hire or train more teachers.

I have never seen details of the ministry’s budget to see how much DBP consumes, but judging from the number of personnel and size of its headquarters, it must be substantial, expenses the ministry could do without. Getting rid of DBP would send a clear signal that the ministry would now focus its entire resources and personnel on its core mission – improving schools and universities.

Next: Examination Syndicate

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