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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.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #59

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Charter Schools


Another avenue for private sector participation would be a joint private and public partnership to form charter schools. Charter school is a new concept and becoming increasingly popular in America. The underlying idea is to empower the ultimate “consumers” of schools – students and their parents – by taking control away from the central bureaucracy and giving it to the schools. The ministry would be concerned only with monitoring the quality and compliance with rules and regulations, and setting the standards.

To gain charter status, such schools must meet certain conditions. Their graduates must demonstrate competency in our national language (Malay) and history. These schools must also recognize the uniqueness and special sensitivity of Malaysian society. Thus their student body must reflect the greater community.

In return, these schools would get state funding – the same amount of funds it would have cost the government to educate these pupils in the public system. Additionally, the state would guarantee loans for capital expenses. The actual lending however would be done through private sources. With the guarantee, the interest rate should be favorable.

Any private entity, local or foreign, could establish such schools. Further, parents and teachers must constitute the majority of the governing board to ensure that the school’s mission would not be subverted. The board would have total control, including choosing the medium of instruction and the setting of fees. The board would also be accountable to the students and parents; they could monitor the school better than any government official or agency.

Such schools must have clearly stated objectives. They can prepare students for Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan, British GCE, International Baccalaureate, American SAT, or any other matriculating examination. These schools could look to their leading counterparts abroad as their role models. Schools preparing students for the American system could emulate Groton and Exeter. Such schools would also attract foreign students and be a source of valuable foreign earnings.

For the non-college bound, there could be vocational charter schools started by Pernas, for example, to train future workers for its hotels. A consortium of construction companies may start one to train plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. The schools, not the ministry, would set the curriculum apart from the core requirements mentioned earlier.

If there is a demand, there could conceivable be schools preparing for Arabic, Chinese, or even French universities. Such schools must of course meet the enrollment mix mentioned earlier.

Charter schools would lead to greater social integration of students as they would be taking classes and doing extra curricular activities together, a marked improvement over the present vision schools or the Pupil Integration Plan. These charter schools must also have adequate ancillary facilities (playing fields, auditoriums) to preclude their being set up above shop lots.

I have participated both as a parent and at the board level in a charter school. One innovation we introduced was the senior exhibition as a graduation requirement. Students write a report as well as put on a multimedia presentation on each subject they take to an audience of teachers, students, and interested community members. They would do their own research and preparation, with the teacher’s guidance. To ensure accountability, they are evaluated not by their teachers but by a panel of outside volunteers. College admission officers are impressed with this innovation. More importantly, feedback from the students revealed that the exhibition exercises were the one high school experience that best prepared them for university. Not only did they learn to study on their own but the experience also built their self-confidence.

Adopting charter schools would require a major shift in the thinking and attitude of the education establishment, a paradigm shift, to use the current cliché. The mindset must accept the premise that the government is not the only entity that can provide education, and that in education, there is no “one size fits all” model that will satisfy the needs of all Malaysians.

Malaysia benefited immensely by allowing private sector involvement at the tertiary level. Unfortunately such institutions, as noted earlier, are currently dangerously segregated along racial lines. American universities long ago recognized that diversity is good not only for themselves and their students but also for the greater community. Harvard today is much more highly regarded than it was five decades ago when it was the preserve of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Diversity in students and faculty is now an important criterion for accreditation. Malaysia should do likewise.

Malaysia should start small, by granting charters to about 20-25 primary schools, 10-12 at the secondary level, and a few universities. After a decade, carefully evaluate the program with a view to enhancing it.

Even without these major innovations there are still much that can be done to enhance public universities and colleges under the present system without resorting to radical changes. For one, the ministry could ease the strict control it has on them. There was much hoopla about the privatization of the University of Malaya (UM). Unfortunately the governing structure may have been changed, but the same control mentality remains. Senior appointments are still made by the minister; nothing has changed there.

The government should consider granting universities a global budget, tied to enrollments, graduation rates, number of science and graduate students, and other explicitly stated goals. Once that budget is established, let the university run its own affairs. If a vice-chancellor fritters that money on grandiose graduation ceremonies and other useless extravaganza like first class air travels for their deans instead of buying books and computers, let him (or her) do that. Trust the students and faculty, as well as the governing board, to keep the vice-chancellor in line. The minister should be concerned only with selecting the best people to the governing board; they in turn would be responsible for the performance of the university. There is no need for micromanagement from the ministry.

There are at least three major glaring deficiencies with Malaysian universities. First, many have the academic atmosphere of a junior college, at best. In particular, their commitment to research is minimal. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the choice of individuals selected to lead these institutions. Few have excelled as scholars or researchers.

Second, Malaysian universities do not have well-developed extension and continuing education programs. Such programs would enable the universities to reach out into the community. They also provide avenues of access for non-traditional students. Additionally, a functioning continuing education program instills a culture of continuous learning and self-improvement. It is noteworthy that at many institutions, such programs are financially very viable. Tertiary institutions in my area from Stanford University to the nearby community college have many outstanding community and professional programs. I have taken many such courses both for my professional development as well as for personal enrichment.

Third is the isolation of Malaysian universities from the realities of the marketplace and the community. On many American campuses each faculty, and often a department, has an advisory committee or a board of visitors comprising of potential employers, active practitioners, and supportive alumni. In this way demands of the marketplace are quickly transmitted to the faculty and changes could be rapidly instituted. For example, American business schools were quick to develop courses on entrepreneuralism, seeing how important that is to the new economy.

More recently in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks, universities were putting up new courses on Islam to cater for the anticipated demands for greater understanding of this faith. At UCLA, the university went further and quickly set up a series of undergraduate seminars led by senior professors to deal with the myriad issues triggered by that great tragedy. The massive Enron scandal was still unfolding and American colleges were already offering courses on business law, accounting, and ethics related to that massive bankruptcy. Such rapid responses would be unthinkable in Malaysia.

Malaysian universities are so tightly and rigidly controlled by the ministry that it would take them years to even think of offering new and relevant courses. Beside being the repositories of the brightest talent, universities also represent the pinnacle of the nation’s universe of knowledge. If Malaysia desires to join the ranks of developed nations, its universities must also aspire to be on par with the best.

Schools are the nation’s future in miniature, goes an old Chinese saying. When I travel abroad, I can tell the state of the nation by just visiting its schools. Observing Malaysian schools over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about Malaysia’s future.

The stark deficiencies of the Malaysian system are now obvious. What is sad and disappointing is that there is very little attempt at rectifying them. In early May 2002 the Kubang Pasu UMNO division, Prime Minister Mahathir’s own constituency, passed a resolution calling for the setting up of English-medium schools. Such calls coming from the grassroots indicate how concerned and desperate Malaysians are over the education of their children. I was extremely disappointed with Mahathir’s response to the resolution. He essentially said that if that were the wish of the people, then he would comply. I would have thought that on such a serious matter as the nation’s education, leaders must lead and not wait for direction from their followers.


Next: Sharpening Malaysian Competitiveness

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