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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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 25, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #93

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Reforming The Schools

Malaysia spends a large portion of its budget on schools, yet there is very little to show for it. The inadequacies are widely acknowledged, yet little is done to address them, apart from ad hoc measures announced now and then in response to public outcry or crisis. I say, “announced,” because often that was all there was to it, the execution conveniently ignored.

Those who can afford it send their children abroad at a very tender age to escape the regimentation of the local system. Others less affluent but with sufficient influence to get the necessary official dispensation, send their children to the many excellent international schools locally. Those living in the southern tip of the peninsular opt for the excellent schools in Singapore. Others, including many Malays, send their children to vernacular, especially Chinese, schools.

The shortcomings are many: too rigid a curriculum, too examination oriented (imagine sitting for 15 subjects at Year 11!), poor English, science and mathematics skills, inability to think critically, too much religion, and lack of fine arts, foreign languages, and extracurricular activities. A long list!

The government is paying lip service to, or more likely incapable of, improving the English fluency of especially Malay students. Rural schools, where the students are almost exclusively Malays, lack English teachers and reading materials. These students need the most help, as the background English fluency in the community and family is low.
One effective solution would be to have English schools in rural areas. There would be little risk of these pupils losing their Malay language skills as the language is widely used at home and in the community. These schools should admit only children whose mother tongue is Malay or who habitually speak Malay at home. Others would be admitted only if they are already fluent in Malay. That would be an incentive for non-Malays to have their children learn Malay so as to enable them to enter these schools.

If English schools were to be set up in urban areas, we would be back to colonial times with those schools being out of reach to rural students, and the students forgetting their Malay as it is not widely used in the community or at home.

With my proposal, urban parents who want their children to attend English schools would have to enroll their children in these rural schools, the reverse of he situation during colonial times. The presence of these city children (presumably from the more educated families) would enhance the school, providing these rural children with much-needed extra social and intellectual stimulation.

The government is contemplating allowing more international (primarily those using English) schools. This is not a well thought out strategy but a reaction to the demands of the elite who are frustrated with local schools but not rich enough or unwilling to send their children abroad.

International schools have a long history in Malaysia to cater for children of expatriates. Locals are not allowed to enroll without special dispensation from the Minister of Education himself.

Properly harnessed, international schools would enhance the overall system by providing much needed competition and ready models of excellence. Thailand is doing this, and it is reaping an unanticipated side benefit. These schools, employing primarily American and British teachers, are attracting affluent foreign students (and their cash). These schools will effect profound changes faster than any internal reform. Being expensive, they attract children of only the rich and influential. Their graduates would be assured of playing future prominent roles in their society. Since they have been spared the mindless regurgitation and indoctrination that pass for education in the regular schools, they would then be able to effect changes more quickly.

If Malaysia were to let locals enroll in international schools, more facilities would be needed to meet the inevitable demand. The ensuing competition should bring down the cost, making them even more affordable.

To ensure that they do their social part, they must agree to admit a certain number of children from poor families, and that the overall enrollment of their local students must reflect society at large. These schools should not be allowed to be the preserve of the rich or a particular ethnic group. That would be socially unhealthy and lead to further fragmentation of society.

In addition, I would allow for private schools, imposing the same enrollment conditions as those of international schools. With the private sector carrying a bigger load, the government could then divert the savings to schools serving poor rural children.

One innovation would be charter schools, where the government would give grants equal in amount to what it would cost to educate a pupil in a government school. Such charter schools would not be run by the government but by independent entities, with teachers and elected parents forming the majority of the governing board.

These private schools should be allowed to design their own curriculum, including choice in the language of instruction, and prepare their students for any examination. Conceivably there could be a school using Swahili if it could attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.

Any entity, local or foreign, could operate such schools, with one possible exception. Recognizing the sensitivity towards religion, I would not recommend allowing religious organizations to set up such schools.

Within a few years of liberalizing the system, there will be a renaissance. These private and foreign schools would stimulate their local counterparts to improve through examples and by osmosis. Done properly we could reverse the current flow, with Singapore students crossing the causeway to attend Malaysian schools.

Next: Reforming Higher Education


Anonymous Anonymous said...

see www.cowboymalaysia.com on one article titled semi private schools.


11:01 AM  

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