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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 14, 2007

An Educations System Worthy of Malaysia #56

Chapter 9: Mow Down MOE


The Ministry of Education (MOE), like the rest of the Government of Malaysia, is highly centralized, with strict hierarchal top-down command and a penchant for total control. Nothing happens in the schools, universities, or anywhere else in the vast education land without the ministry and its bureaucrats knowing and approving of it. In character and ambience the ministry resembles the old Soviet system. We all know what happened to it. The West would like to claim credit for the collapse of the Soviet empire; in reality it would have imploded under its own weight anyway.

A similar fate awaits MOE unless it changes. There need to be a radical change in the mindset of the senior personnel. Sadly I do not see this happening. MOE would not have lasted this long had there been a countervailing force. In communist and socialist countries (they are the only ones with a penchant for an authoritarian state) the government is held in check by a powerful party and workers’ union. The natural check for MOE would have been the teachers’ unions but they, like the rest of society, are divided along racial lines. They cannot seem to bond professionally; teachers of Chinese schools feel little kinship with those of Malay schools. Consequently the power of teachers is diluted and fragmented.

Only the Malay teachers’ union is powerful and influential because their members are also the backbone of UMNO. For a long time the ministry (and government) was beholden to this union. The other powerful element that exerts control on MOE is the party – UMNO. Thus Malay teachers exert their influence doubly: through their union and UMNO.

UMNO has seen better days. In the 1999 general election its wings were severely clipped, with the party losing a state government and many of its prominent ministers. Najib Razak, then Minister of Education, barely squeaked by. That was symbolically significant, both personally and politically. Personally because Najib had only months earlier been returned as one of UMNO’s Vice-President, securing the highest number of votes; politically because MOE is very prestigious.

The Malay teachers’ union today is leaning towards the opposition, especially since the ousting of its hero, Anwar Ibrahim, who held MOE’s portfolio from 1988-1991. William Roff’s The Origin of Malay Nationalism chronicles the central role of Malay teachers in the emerging nationalism before and after World War II, in particular the pivotal part played by the teachers’ college where they were trained, SITC. The British established SITC at about the same time as MCKK. For many years both institutions took in students from vernacular rural schools, although MCKK was primarily for children of royalty and nobility. Although both began in the same era and catered exclusively to Malays, their products could not have been more different. While SITC graduates were intensely nationalistic and virulently anti-British, those of MCKK were unabashed anglophiles, Mat Salleh wannabes. Why the difference, I do not know. At both institutions young Malays came under the direct tutelage and guidance of colonial Britons; in one the Brits managed to make their protégés eager imitators, in the other, loathsome enemies.

As with all generalizations, this one has many exceptions. The brain behind UMNO was no less than Tun Razak, a product of MCKK where he was legendary for his extraordinary brilliance. There were also many anglophiles among SITC graduates, closet ones to be sure, my father being one of them. His high regard for the British dimmed only slightly with their embarrassing performance during the Japanese invasion.

In his later years when he noted how well the country had done since independence, he wistfully imagined where Malaysia would have been had it been independent sooner. That gradual realization significantly eroded his earlier admiration for the British.

My father admired the British because of what they were able to accomplish for him at SITC. My father was not good at learning English so he was not able to learn much about history, philosophy, or whatever academic subjects they were teaching him. But he could communicate with his lecturers through music. They successfully introduced this village kid who had never touched a musical instrument in his life (unless you count the handmade rice stem reeds) to the wonderful new and magical world of music. He took to the violin with a vengeance, the only toy he ever had, taking it wherever he went, and learned everything he could from his teachers. They were enthusiastic instructors, he an eager pupil. He was totally consumed with music such that he had to sleep outside his dormitory so he could practice late into the night. During holidays he stayed back on campus to practice his beloved violin. (It belonged to the college, so he could not take it home). Besides, there was nothing to do back at the old kampong anyway.

The Brits first taught him the basics and then introduced him to the great works of the masters. He was in complete awe, as anyone would. Through the universal language of music, he bonded with his teachers. He was so consumed with his new passion that he barely passed his other courses. He later confided in me that he may have failed them and would have been kicked out but for the vigorous advocacy of his music lecturers. He was good enough for the British to make him the bandmaster of one of its military units during the war.

Such impact and legacy at the personal level did not go away easily or be readily poisoned by the otherwise ugliness of politics and racism of the time.

This British legacy did not end with my father. He in turn brought music to a generation of his village youths. I did not realize his impact until I met a popular musician who told me that he learned all his music from my father. Strangely enough when he was teaching those village kids, he would shove my brothers and me away. He feared that we would be consumed with music to the detriment of our studies, just as he was at college. I dearly wished he had been more generous with us with his talent! As a parenthesis, a generation later when I told him that my daughter, then an aspiring lawyer, was enjoying her choral music in college, he cautiously warned me of the possible dangers lurking. Old habits die hard!

Today it would be hard to find lecturers at our many teachers’ colleges with the same kind of passion and dedication demonstrated by those British at SITC. Some of my father’s pro-British sentiments rubbed off on me as a youngster. By the time I went to MCKK in 1961, they had become ingrained in me. But by this time MCKK had changed to become a hotbed of Malay nationalism. And like many who find their faith late, the collegians were exuberant converts to the extent that it negatively impacted their studies. Many felt they had nothing to learn from the British or through English, and thus neglected their studies.

I was definitely in a minority in my political conviction, but I had a crude and effective rebuttal for the diehard nationalists. If they think that they could not learn anything from the British or in English, then why not leave MCKK and return to their villages? Of course none took my challenge, which effectively shut them up. At the end of the year, nationalist or not, the chance to go abroad to the English-speaking world was still the most coveted goal. Nationalistic frenzy was one thing, but not if it prevented one from going overseas. This only made those unsuccessful to go abroad even more nationalistic!

Although Malay teachers formed the backbone of UMNO, their Malay education severely handicapped their political careers even though they were the party’s workhorses. This frustrated many who thought that they could reach the top merely by being political activists. Few did scale the heights; Ghaffar Baba (an SITC graduate) was briefly the Deputy Prime Minister.

What Malay teachers lacked in education and learning, they more than made it up with their passion. They championed passionately the cause of Malay language and nationalism. One of their leaders, Syed Nasir Ismail, later headed the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP–Language and Literary Agency). A SITC product, Syed Nasir personified that fervor best, albeit misguidedly. He stridently called for Malay language to be used at all levels, including the university. When it was rightly pointed out the practical problems of lack of qualified instructors, Syed Nasir, Ghaffar Baba, and other ardent SITC graduates proudly proclaimed their competence to teach at those lofty heights. Never mind that they had at most only two years of post-primary education!

Fortunately UMNO‘s leadership at the time was in the hands of sober men like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak. They quietly shot down those silly grandiose pretensions.

My father simply laughed off the claims of the likes of Ghaffar Baba and Syed Nasir. He had good reasons to. When I was in secondary school he always looked over my schoolwork. He did not understand any of it but he was nonetheless very curious what it was I was learning past primary school–the only level he had. He was particularly fascinated with science and mathematics, especially algebra and geometry, subjects totally alien to him. He rightly thought that if what I was learning was the difference between primary and secondary education, imagine the difference between school, university, and postgraduate levels. He remembered only too well the vast gap between the elementary music he learned initially and the great compositions of the masters he would later be exposed. He was understandably more modest in his claims on what he could achieve with his SITC education.

There is a saying in Central Asia that there is a limit to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness. This was more than amply demonstrated by the politically minded graduates of SITC.

Back to MOE, events were already overtaking it. Its Blueprint for Development 2001-2010 was quickly made irrelevant by developments elsewhere. The most significant–the teaching of science and mathematics in English – originated outside the ministry. The minister and his bureaucrats were reduced to mere passive observers in this evolving drama. On another front public universities, which are under the direct control of the ministry, are fast losing their luster. Standards have declined precipitously. To be sure this has been going on for more than a decade but no one noticed it. But with the establishment of private universities, the inadequacies of public institutions quickly became exposed and glaring. With the tightening of the economy and the job market, graduates of local public universities were squeezed out. The market has given its evaluation, and that cannot be ignored any longer.

With globalization Malaysia can no longer insulate itself. Two trends emerge consequent to this. One there is no longer a local standard. Good enough for Malaysia isn’t. While in the past local universities may have produced graduates “good enough” for Malaysia, today these graduates are being judged by international standards. Private employers now have a choice, with thousands of Malaysians trained at foreign universities and private local ones that meet international standards.

As a result private companies employ graduates of local public universities only as the last resort. As most of these graduates are Malays, it is easy to fall for the old bugaboo of a grand conspiracy against Malays. Before falling for that however, I would submit that there are other more relevant explanations, like their low English proficiency.

The second consequence of globalization is that Malaysians are becoming very much aware of prevailing global standards. While the government may control the local media and other sources of information, the Internet is free of censorship. More and more Malaysians are turning to it as a source of alternative news. Malaysian leaders may yell from the top of the highest coconut tree that the country is the center of excellence for education or health care, but ordinary citizens can judge that for themselves. Education and health care may or may not be superior elsewhere, but what is important is that Malaysians are now free to make that judgment for themselves.

Parents are free to send their children to schools and universities elsewhere if they feel that that is in their best interest. Telling them that it would be unpatriotic or local institutions are just as good would not dissuade them. They have made their own decision based on the information they have – government propaganda be damned!

So instead of the minister declaring ad nauseam that the country is the center of educational excellence, he would do well to spend his time and energy to achieving that goal. Merely wishing it would not do.

To begin with, the ministry must reengineer itself and completely change it mindset from one of total control to mutual consultation. Its leadership style would have to change from that of a drillmaster barking out orders to his raw recruits, to a symphony conductor extracting the best out of his talented musicians. The ministry should move away from the Soviet model to that of aWestern democracy, from top-down command and central control to equal participation and consultation with the periphery.

If MOE concentrates on its core mission of education and dispenses with its other extraneous activities, it would more likely do a better job. The ministry has no business doing translations when there are over a dozen universities that can carry out those functions more efficiently and competently. With a robust publishing industry, there is little justification for MOE to have a publishing arm. I can think of many other activities the ministry could discard and leave for the private sector.

In this chapter I will review three activities the ministry could dispense with: its Literary and Language Agency (DBP); the two examination bodies; and its accrediting agency, Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (LAN–National Accreditation Board). Before doing that I will critique the present policy of sponsoring students for studies overseas. This is not the responsibility of MOE rather Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA–Public Service Department) and a number of others including MARA, ministries like Defense and Agriculture, as well as state governments and statutory bodies. This jumbled mess is reflective of the general lack of streamlining and the inefficiency of the entire machinery of government.

Next: Sponsoring Students Overseas

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