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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 20, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #57

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital


Enhancing Human Capital Through Education: Revamping Schools and Universities


The Malaysian government recently published a massive plan, Educational Development – 2001-2010, aimed at revamping the entire education system. However, only a year earlier it had undertaken another massive revision of the curriculum, and that project was yet to be completed (it was not yet begun to be implemented!) when this new policy was unveiled. Despite its 250 pages, replete with the obligatory buzzwords like knowledge workers, IT revolution, and globalization, the report fails to address the glaring inadequacies of the present system. These include the atrociously low standard of English, abysmal levels of science literacy, and appalling mathematical skills of our students.

To address the increasing disadvantage that graduates of public universities face because of their low English fluency, the government proposes to have private institutions use Malay as the medium of instruction. In other words, handicap everyone to the same level of mediocrity!

A central feature of this new reorganization is the reduction of the school years from the present 13 to 12. This, combined with the earlier shortening of the undergraduate years from four to three, would put Malaysian students at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace.

Instead of spending energy on a disruptive massive reorganization, the ministry would do well to focus on enhancing the present system of P-13, in particular the academic pre-university class, Sixth Form.

The government’s rationale for reducing the school years is to align the Malaysian system with those of advanced societies, in particular America. True, the American system is also P-12, but two years of college is now increasingly the norm for students, in recognition of the need for a highly educated workforce. Further, American high schools offer courses that are traditionally taught in the freshmen (first) year of college. As a result, more and more students especially at the leading universities are now entering with “advanced standing.” Teaching introductory college courses at high school is not only cheaper but also more effective. Additionally, students entering with advanced standing are better prepared and are less likely to drop out. They also graduate faster. We can never over prepare students for college.

Bard College, a highly regarded degree-granting institution, in cooperation with New York City public schools system expanded on this idea and recently started an accelerated program where highly motivated students are selected to pursue their final two years of high school integrated with the first two years of college. These students would then graduate with both their high school diploma as well as an Associate degree. They would then proceed into the junior (third) year of university.

Malaysia had a comparable program in the 1960’s where students who did well at Sixth Form were admitted as directly as “super-freshie,” skipping their first year, equivalent to the American “advanced standing.” Now however, Sixth Form is being emasculated, replaced with the much more expensive and highly inefficient matrikulasi (matriculation) programs of the universities.

I propose simplifying the present school years into elementary (P-6), middle (7-9), and high school (10-13), with a standardized national tests at the end of each level. Thus only three such tests; eliminate the present Form V (Year 11—Sijil Perseketuan Malaysia, SPM) examination. These tests should be used to assess not only the students’ but also equally important, their schools’ performances. Further, such national tests would be limited only to the core subjects of Malay, English, science, and mathematics.

Students would be promoted based on such national tests as well as their individual assessments made by the school. Such evaluations, as in the American system, should be based on the student’s performance throughout the year instead of a single end-of-year examination. It is patently unfair to decide on a student’s future based only on one single examination. If he or she is not feeling well that day or if there are interruptions in the student’s life (for example, floods, as has happened often in the past) then the students’ performance would suffer, as would their entire future.

American students are continuously assessed throughout their school year. Universities base their admissions on these school assessments (as measured by the Grade Point Average) as well as scores on national standardized tests. Often the two are correlated but there will the occasional students who excel in one but not the other. They too should not be denied the opportunity.

Eliminating the SPM examination as well as the number of subjects offered in those national tests would markedly reduce the workload of the ministry’s Examination Syndicate. It would then be able to process the results in weeks instead of the present months. At present students are kept in limbo from January to June the following year waiting for their SPM results. That is more than a semester wasted while they could be in class instead of loitering. While there has been significant improvement in announcing the examination results (in 2002 for the first time they were announced at the end of February) nonetheless university admission is still till late in the year.

My proposal would not materially change the first P-9 years, except that all schools must follow the minimal core curriculum of the four compulsory subjects of Malay, English, science and mathematics. These subjects must be taught daily. Each school would be allowed to experiment with various electives to fill in the rest of the school day.

The last four years (high school) would see the most change. Essentially I would classify high schools into academic, general, vocational, and specialized (vernacular and religious). Academic schools would prepare students for universities. The vocational stream would equip them with technical training like carpentry and auto repairs, as well as general office skills like bookkeeping. Such schools would be combined with industries’ apprenticeship programs so that when the students graduate they would be well on their way to earn their journeymen’s certificate. From the general stream would come future nurses, policemen, and non-graduate teachers.

Thus regardless of the students’ ultimate career goals, they will be fluently bilingual (Malay and English), science literate, and mathematically competent. English must be emphasized because of its utility in the marketplace. Hence in addition to having English as a subject, I would teach at least two other subjects in that language. The most suitable candidates for this are science and mathematics. Increasing the number of subjects taught in English would give student a much greater opportunity to improve their fluency in that language. As for making mathematics as a core subject, numerous studies have shown that ability in it correlates with later success in college and life. The skills learned in mathematics have wide transferability. Similarly with science; in an increasingly technological world, students must have an understanding of the basic concepts in science.

[Update: In May 2002 the government (actually UMNO Supreme Council) decided that science and mathematics be taught in English in the schools. That is the easy part. The more formidable problem is the implementation. The ministry is presently inundated with fervent Malay language nationalists who would do their best to derail this imaginative initiative. Sure enough, this policy was later rescinded. MBM]

This streaming of students must be flexible so they could readily switch during the first two years. This would accommodate late bloomers as well as those who discover their technical aptitude later.

Graduates of vernacular and religious schools would in addition be effectively trilingual (their mother tongue with vernacular schools, Arabic with Islamic schools) – an added bonus. Because of the core curriculum, graduates of religious schools too would also have greater flexibility in their future career choices and plans for further studies. And should they ended up as ulama, they would be better for it for having had a broad-based liberal education.

Schools should be allowed to chart their own course. I envisage some emphasizing the performing arts, others foreign languages or the sciences. Students would be free to choose the school that would best meet their particular needs. To eliminate obvious disadvantages based on geography (rural versus urban students), each school must also have adequate hostel facilities to cater for out-of-area and rural students.


Next: Revamping Schools and Universities (Cont’d)

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