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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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #41

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset

Educating and Training Malaysians

The smartest decision Tunku Abdul Rahman made early as Prime Minister was to build schools instead of barracks and train teachers instead of soldiers. He did that long before economists saw the importance of an educated workforce for development. Tunku did so not because of some brilliant economic insight, rather for a more noble and humanitarian reason. He wanted to see Malaysians lifted from the darkness of illiteracy and ignorance.

That turned out to be the most fateful decision. Malaysia’s subsequent remarkable economic transformation owes much to that earlier prescient move. His emphasis on education was correct, but even more significant was the right kind: primary and secondary schooling first.

India’s Nehru also focused on education, but instead of first building schools he created a series of prestigious universities, the Indian version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Imperial College. It was elitist, as well as expensive. He believed that India’s brightest should get the best. Laudable! Today India lags far behind Malaysia economically and socially. The string of highly regarded Indian Institutes of Technology serve nothing more than as gateways for bright young Indians to escape the wretchedness of their homeland.

Again this relates to my earlier discussion on the bell curve. As with my fish story, in education it is best to concentrate on the middle rather than the top, at least initially.

Economists today agree that education is the key to economic development. The value of education at the individual level is readily apparent, and that is what motivates people to improve themselves. Numerous studies demonstrate the personal benefits of more education, but some caution is needed in interpreting this. It may not necessarily mean that more education makes one more productive. It may simply be that employers use academic qualifications as a signal or surrogate indicator for diligence and intelligence, both desirable qualities in a worker.

For a developing country, investments in primary education yield the highest returns, followed by secondary education. This is particularly true for girls, as it also accrues other significant non-educational benefits like low fertility rates and improved maternal and child health. For agricultural workers, it is estimated four years of education translate into a 10 percent increase in output. These improvements have been empirically demonstrated from the Andes to Zambia.15

These cross-national studies are based on data that can be easily collected, like the number of years of schooling and funds expended. The more important variables, like the quality of education or how the funds are spent, are difficult to get, quantify, and compare. Take the years spent in schools. A visit to a high school in Seoul and inner city Chicago will quickly reveal the limitations of such simplistic comparisons. Children in both systems may have spent 12 years of schooling, but the Koreans are facile with calculus and chemistry, while the ones in Chicago are doing consumer math and barely able to read.

Similarly with funds expended. Even within a nation we can readily see differences. The American Catholic schools spend about a third less per student than the public schools, but the quality of their products is dramatically different.16 Malaysia spends more on education than most countries—in absolute amount as well as relative to the total budget and economy—yet even Malaysian officials would not dare claim that their schools are superior.

There is no detailed breakdown on how Malaysia spends its funds, but a look at the establishment is revealing. There are three cabinet ministers of education, one for higher education, another for schools, and yet a third for international development. Each ministry supports its own bloated bureaucracy. All the expensive administrative expenditures would be classified as “investments” in education.

The Malaysian education establishment resembles the large public school systems of America both in terms of the massive resources expended as well as the quality of their products.

In my earlier example of farmer Ahmad and Bakar, I alluded to the role of knowledge. Ahmad with his superior knowledge was receptive to his environment and learned from his experience. He was also willing to challenge tradition, try new models, and compare the results. A school system that encourages its students to think critically, challenge tradition, and experiment with new ways of doing things (that is, a curriculum heavy on science and mathematics) will produce graduates with the attitude of Ahmad. On the other hand, a curriculum heavy on memorization, blind obedience to authority (otherwise known as the teacher), discourages critical thinking—the type of learning typically seen in Islamic schools—will produce graduates more like Bakar. These important issues of quality, types of education, and other equally important variables are never considered in comparative statistical studies.

With those cautions in place, we can put the various studies correlating investments
in education with economic development in better perspective.

Next: Schooling Does Not Equal Learning

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