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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.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 5 of 6)

Towards A Developed Malaysia
M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]

Part Five of Six: Q&A Con’td:

Q 4: How can we unite Malaysians when we have these separate school systems?


MBM: The underpinning of the national school policy, as articulated in the Razak Report of 1956, was that if young Malaysians were to learn the same language, read the same books, study the same history, then we would all idolize the same heroes and subscribe to the same values. With a common base and shared goals, national unity would be that more readily achievable.

It was not an unreasonable assumption. Tun Razak’s national schools were a definite improvement over the then existing vernacular schools. At least Malaysians now know more about Tunku Abdul Rahman than Nehru or Chiang Kai Shek, and can speak the national language, an achievement that should not be belittled.

Instead of building on that, we have over time corroded the noble values of the Razak Plan such that today we are even more segregated racially then we were during colonial rule. There are many factors contributing to this sad affair, among them the increasing Islamization and the de-emphasis of English in our national schools. I have elaborated on this in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia and elsewhere. Today young Malaysians may be reading the same books or learning the same facts, but they are not doing it together in class as they have voluntarily segregated themselves, with the Chinese attending Chinese schools and Malays, national schools. That is the crux of the problem.

I have a different perspective. I could not care less if we have a thousand school systems, as long as young Malaysians from the different races are learning together in class, playing together on the school fields, and participating in the same school plays and bands, then we would more likely end up as a nation less segregated and consequently more united. I would focus on making our schools integrated; the student body must reflect the general community. How that is done is for each school to decide. To encourage that effort, I would reward through generous funding those schools that are fully integrated so they could enhance their programs to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.


Q 5: What school system is best for Malaysia?

MBM: I do not know. That is not an attempt at false modesty on my part. I cannot honestly say that I know what is best for the children of a fisherman in Ulu Kelantan as compared to the needs of the children of a diplomat at Bukit Tunku.

This certainty I do know. Our schools must have a function beyond only educating our children; they should also serve as an instrument to bring our young together; dwifungsi (dual functions) as the Indonesians would say of their military. Otherwise we would have a highly educated but divided society, another Northern Ireland.

So if we were to have a single school system, then it should have only the two requirements. One, the enrolment must reflect the community; two, its curriculum should have the core of Malay, English, science, and mathematics. Beyond that, each school should be given the latitude to chart its own course, including choosing its language of instruction.


Q 6: Can you comment on the recent policy reversal with respect to the teaching of science and mathematics in English?

MBM: I do not wish to go over the various arguments except to point to two incontrovertible facts. One, we are better off knowing two languages instead of just one. Quite apart from enhancing our marketability, being bilingual offers other significant cognitive advantages, like being able to see things from different perspectives. I would leave it to the professionals on how best to make our children bilingual.

Two, the bulk of the literature in science and technology is in English. If we have to depend on translations, that means we are putting an unnecessary barrier in getting to the forefront of scientific knowledge. I support the teaching of science and mathematics in English because of these two realities.

There is no point in saying that the Japanese learn science in their language. They have had centuries of experience; we do not. Besides, they are already so far ahead of us. If we were to “Look East,” the Japan we should emulate would be the Japan following the Meiji Restoration. Then realizing how far behind they were as compared to the West, the Japanese sent thousands of their senior officials abroad for extended study tours to learn and absorb the best practices. Additionally, Japan imported massive number of teachers and scientists from the West. Even today thousands of young Americans go to Japan to teach English (the JET Program).

I question the relevance to Malaysia of the UNESCO report favoring the use of mother tongue. That report was concerned with the languages of small tribes and the fear that those languages would disappear. Malay is the native language of over a quarter billion people; there is no likelihood it would suffer such a fate.

I would go beyond being bilingual and make Malaysians trilingual, or at least have a working knowledge of a third. Non-Malays are already trilingual: Malay, English, and their mother tongue. Malays could too: Malay, English, and Arabic. In truth I could not care less what the second and third languages are, but I presume for most Malays, English and Arabic would be the easiest to learn.

Apart from the cognitive advantages, there are other benefits of knowing another language. According to the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity, the way we look at reality is shaped by our language. Thus we think and behave differently because of the differences in our languages. I will illustrate this with a seemingly unrelated account.

A few years ago Korea Airlines suffered through a series of terrible crashes such that the authorities were considering banning the airline from American airspace. These accidents were all due to pilot errors. The tragedy was that often the first officer and flight engineer were fully aware of the dangers they were in but were too scared of contradicting their captain. This fear subordinates have of their superiors is a feature of many Asian cultures, ours included.

To remedy the situation, the airline hired an American consultant; he immediately recognized this major cultural impediment to effective cockpit communications. As a foreigner he had little hope of changing Korean culture. Instead, he prevailed upon management to impose an all-English rule in the cockpit. Once the crew enters the plane, all communications must be in English. He justified that on the basis that English is the language of aviation. He also instituted other changes, like enhancing their communication skills.

A remarkable thing happened. He found that junior officers were now more open, direct and most importantly, clear when communicating with their superiors. Whereas before they would convey their disagreements with their superiors in the most indirect and obtuse way, now those junior officers had no difficulty expressing them forthrightly.

How did that happen? Apparently in Korean language there are multiple ways of referring to “you” and “I” depending on the status of the speaker and the person addressed. Just like Malay language, when a commoner addresses a royalty, he would refer to himself as patek (slave) while the sultan refers to himself as beta (royal “we”). In English, it is only “I” and “You,” so the status barrier, or what cultural anthropologists refer to as power distance, is eliminated. Today, directly as a consequence of the English-only cockpit policy, Korea Airlines is one of the safest airlines. A remarkable transformation!

Recently Mahathir lamented that his greatest failure was not being able to change Malay culture. It is pure hubris on his part to think that he could change our culture. If he had been more modest, he could have effected significant changes in Malays by making us learn English. At least then we could address ourselves as “I” or “we” and not as slaves when addressing a member of the royalty. Then we would not have witnessed the incongruity of our language as demonstrated by Mentri Besar Nizar of Perak when he respectfully disagreed with his sultan, “Patek memohon derhaka … ” (I, your slave, beg to be treasonous with Your Majesty!) Malay language is just not equipped for such direct or frontal communications.

Many of our sultans sit on the governing boards of important institutions. How could there be robust discussions in such meetings when everyone would be deferring to the sultan? Senior scholars, seasoned politicians, and hard-nosed corporate captains suddenly become meek and genuflect to the sultan. That cannot be good. One way to overcome that would be to communicate in English. It would be so much easier to say in English, “I am sorry Your Royal Highness, I respectfully disagree!” I challenge anyone to say that in Malay and then be brave enough to say it to a sultan! It just cannot be done; that is the constraint of our language and culture.


Q 7: You have these wonderful ideas like air-conditioning our schools and equipping them with modern laboratories. Those are expensive propositions. How can we afford them?

MBM: You are sounding like a politician or civil servant already! “No funds lah!” is their chronic excuse. We have the money, but we spend it foolishly, as in the billions wasted bailing out those GLCs.

I will illustrate the misplaced priorities of our officials with this small incident. A senior official was visiting California recently. At a private conversation I noted to him that our officials do not carry laptops when they travel abroad and wondered how they would keep in touch with their offices back home. Besides, what do they do on the long trans-Pacific flights and the hours waiting at airports?

His response was to blame the government for not supplying its senior officers with laptops. My rebuttal was that that if they had traveled business instead of first class, the government would have plenty of leftover cash to buy them fancy laptops! That demonstrates the priorities of our officials at the micro level and involving only a few thousand ringgit. The same misplaced priorities occur at the macro level, and with a price tag of billions.

Along the same point, if we have open competitive bidding, our schools and their laboratories would cost considerably less. We have the resources if only we use them wisely.


Q 8: How can we use our schools specifically and education system generally to open up Malaysian minds? Malaysians today are better educated than ever, with many ministers having impressive degrees from leading universities, but their mindset is still kampong.

MBM: That is a profound question and observation. I will try to answer by stating a few simple and obvious facts. First, schooling does not equal learning. If you were to ask the many who dropped out why they did so, invariably their answer would be that they were not learning anything at school.

Second, the classroom is not the only place where you can learn. The boy who helps his father at his kedai kopi is learning many things, like customer relations, cash flow, and inventory control. He may not know them through such terms but he is still absorbing the essence of those concepts. If he had stayed in a Malaysian school he probably still could not balance his checkbook.

There was a study many years ago of those kampong girls working in the factories of multinational companies – the Minah Karans (Hot girls!). Most had attended only primary school, hence the derogatory label. Yet after a few years of working, those girls had a social profile associated more with those who had completed secondary schooling. Meaning, they marry late, save more, and have fewer children. Obviously working in a factory taught them many lessons such as to be punctual, value time and money, and be independent. Those are useful lessons of life, and they will never learn that in school, at least not our schools. Working in those factories of multinational companies made them escape their kampong mindset far more effectively than had they completed their local schooling or even attended local universities.

As for opening up Malaysian minds, you would automatically achieve that if you are not intent on closing them. What goes on in our schools today, especially religious schools, is nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education. We are intent on closing minds. Children are by nature curious; they have an innate desire to explore. All we have to do is leave them alone; we would of course go further if we equip them with the necessary tools.

One such tool is language skills. I would like our students be fluently bilingual for reasons discussed earlier. The two natural languages for us would be Malay and English. Then we should ensure that they have the necessary quantitative skills so they could think with some degree of precision and not merely agak agak (wild guesses). Meaning, emphasize mathematics. Lastly, I would encourage critical thinking through reading literature, even our simple folktales.

Consider my favorite childhood story, Batu belah, Batu melangkup. You know, the story of the mother who sulked and ran away to disappear into a cave because her children had eaten all the food and left her with nothing. If after reading that story in class, the teacher would ask the girls to imagine themselves as the mother. She is now in the cave alone and a jinn would appear to grant her one final wish: to deliver her last letter to her children. Now ask the girls to write that letter. For the boys, imagine that you, being the eldest and now responsible for your siblings, the jinn too had also given you a similar wish. Now write that last letter to your mother.

Imagine the different responses! That is the sort of classroom assignments that would encourage students to think creatively and explore their inner world. You can be sure that the answer is not given at the back of the book! Nor would there be any “prep” essays available for download! Such an exercise would really challenge and bring out the intelligence and creativity of your students.

Literature is exciting and helps develop our powers of critical thinking, but only if we go beyond the “who said what and to whom,” and, if I may add, on what page!

Our education system today succeeds only in creating an obsession with paper qualifications – credentialism. I am stunned at how many chief ministers and corporate chiefs who unabashedly display their “doctorates” from known degree mills. They are not even embarrassed. Worse, nobody in the media exposes their fraud.


Q 9: [Question from a hearing-impaired student; his question and my answer were translated by a sign language interpreter.]

When I was a student in Malaysia, my teachers would always ignore those of us at the bottom of the class. The teachers focused only on the top students. So I was pleased with your allocation and in not ignoring the bottom decile.

First, I want to make one point clear. When I label a part of the population as being at the bottom or top decile, I am merely referring to a particular attribute that I am measuring. It does NOT make any judgment on the whole person or his other abilities and attributes. I want to emphasize that, and that is why I specifically choose an attribute – the ability to fish – that has no emotive or other association.

In focusing on the “top” students, your teachers were making a value judgment, presumably based on test scores. Let me make a confession here. If I were a student in Malaysia today, I would have long ago been kicked out of school. In fact that nearly happened to me at my afternoon religious school, for misbehaving in class per the ustad’s standards. Fortunately my wise father saw something in me and took me out before I was expelled! If you live in a kampong, you know that took considerable courage on his part.

Your teachers back home assumed that you, being hearing impaired, were also dumb; hence their reactions to you. Here in America and specifically RIT, we do not use the label “deaf.” I am told that there are nearly a thousand hearing-impaired students at RIT diligently preparing to be productive citizens. If they had been Malaysians, ignored by their teachers, they would end up as Mat Rempits. They would be perfect for that as the roar of their machines would not bother them in the least!

Yesterday at Friday prayers on campus, there was a sign language translator interpreting the khutba. What a wonderful sight! I challenge anyone to cite a similar example anywhere in the Muslim world. To Muslims who are hearing-impaired, the Imam’s prayers and sermons are nothing but lips quivering and hands gesturing. Here on the campus of a private secular university in a Christian country, a hearing-impaired Muslim gets to ‘hear’ a khutba!


Next: Concluding Piece - Part Six of Six: Q&A Con’td

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