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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 06, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #43

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset

Quality of Education Critical

There are few studies comparing the quality of education across countries. One is The Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). Malaysia took part in the revised study of 1999 (TIMSS-R), and scored somewhere in the middle.22

TIMSS was rigorous and well designed. In America and elsewhere, its findings precipitated much public debate, with educators being held to account. TIMSS also stimulated many subsidiary studies elucidating its finer findings. Even though Malaysia expended considerable resources in TIMSS-R, that study did not precipitate much debate among the public, educators, or academics. Not many were aware of the study, much less its findings; nor did TIMSS stimulate further research. 2.

In going over the raw data for Malaysia,2 (I obtained them from TIMSS headquarters at Boston College, not the Ministry of Education. Nobody at MOE knew anything about TIMSS), many questions arise. For example, what is the breakdown in performance between rural and urban schools, between national and national-type schools, and most importantly, between religious and national schools? The last comparison is important as it cancels out the race factor, as students in both schools are Malays. Those studies are important in allocating resources.

Measuring quality is difficult, thus economists resort to comparing such easily collected data as years of schooling and formal qualifications. Hence the conflicting results. When the actual skills of workers are assessed and then compared across countries, the correlation is stunning. A Canadian study of OECD countries measured the actual literacy skills rather than formal years of schooling of workers entering the workforce from 1960 and 1995. The study identified a clear and significant association between literacy scores to increases in labor productivity and per capita GDP.23 Clearly, investments in human capital through education pay off.

This study involves rich countries where the background literacy rate is already high. If it were extended to include countries with much lower back-ground literacy rates, the difference would be even more impressive, as demonstrated by Barro’s other studies using data from TIMSS.24

When multinational corporations (MNCs) move their manufacturing plants to the Third World, they find that those poorly educated workers are just as efficient and productive as those in the West. Lack of formal schooling does not preclude them from being trained. MNCs by expending resources in training their workers readily overcome their lack of formal schooling.

In many Third World countries, Malaysia included, a stint with a MNC is an experience worth more than attending a university. In looking for chief executives to run Malaysia’s loss-ridden GLCs, one of the stated requirements was that the candidates should have senior management experience with a MNC. What an endorsement of the training and work culture of these MNCs! These companies provide excellent initial training as well as continuing education, a field that is completely neglected by the government and local companies.

I once asked the Editor-in-Chief of a Malaysian newspaper how much his company spent on the continuing education of his journalists. He was taken aback by my query. Obviously nothing. His reporters never get to attend writing classes, learn how to conduct investigative journalism, or hear from the luminaries in their field. Their work reflects this deficiency.

The hospital I work at here in California spends considerable sums for the professional development of its staff, from nurses and medical record librarians to physicians and executives. If I have not kept up with my continuing education, I would not be able to do half of the operations I now regularly perform. More significantly, I could not renew my physician’s license.

Despite their importance, these education and training in non-formal settings are never factored in the various comparative surveys.

Yet another important educational activity missed out in these comparative studies but contribute much to the productivity of workers are the various extension programs of universities and research institutes. In Malaysia, the Rubber Research Institute used to have an excellent smallholders division with an extension department that produced educational pamphlets in Malay. The institute also sent trained technicians to help rural smallholders. I do not see any similar program to help rice farmers and fishermen.

Malaysia should encourage through tax incentives for companies and industries to invest in the training and development of their workers. These expenditures are investments in the workers of company and country.

Next: Tertiary Education

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