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.
Quotas in International Schools A Positive Development
In striking contrast to the horrendously expensive
and unbelievably stupid idea of sending our teacher-trainees to Kirby, the
Ministry of Education’s other decision to remove quotas on local enrollment in
international schools is very much welcomed and definitely positive. The
Minister confidently assured us that because of the small number of students
involved, the move will not impact our national schools. I respectfully
disagree; his confidence is misplaced and analysis flawed. On the contrary, this
measure will have a tremendous impact on our national schools and ultimately
the nation, for good or bad depending on how it is managed.
the liberalization of higher education instituted in 1996. The rationale was to
increase access and save foreign exchange by keeping at home those who would
have gone abroad. It achieved both, the most successful of government
initiatives. And it did not cost a sen
except for the pay of government lawyers who drafted the enabling legislation.
policy’s impact however, went far beyond. It permanently and profoundly altered
the academic landscape of our public universities. Their current emphasis on
the use of English for example, is the consequence of the impact of these
private universities. Local employers (other than governmental agencies of
course) made it clear that they prefer these graduates over those from public
universities because of their demonstrably superior skills in English.
were initial attempts at imputing ugly racial motives to this preferential
treatment of private university graduates as most of them were non-Malays. That
worked, but only temporarily. Ultimately the horrible truth was exposed. That
realization was the impetus to the current greater use of English in public
universities, with their erstwhile nationalistic Vice-Chancellors now fully
embracing the move. They had to; the pathetic sight of their unemployed
graduates was a constant and painful reminder.
liberalizing higher education aggravated the inequities between Malays and
non-Malays specifically with respect to their employability in the private
sector. It did however, forced public universities to change their ways, as
with emphasizing English. That ultimately benefited their students who incidentally
are mostly Malays.
limits on local enrolment in international schools will have the same profound
and irreversible impact on national schools and on Malays. Yes, initially it
would aggravate gaps in educational achievements, again especially between
Malays and non-Malays, but in the long run it would jolt Malay leaders to make
the necessary adjustments to our national schools. Either that or face the
prospect of future generations of young Malays doomed to perpetual mediocrity.
the locals in these international schools are children of the super-rich, and
thus overwhelmingly non-Malay. Even the upper middle class (with slightly
greater Malay representation) could not afford these schools. The concerns
expressed that this liberalization would exacerbate educational inequities
between rich and poor are therefore valid and reasonable. However, the rich are
already different in many other ways; educational advantages for their children
would just be another.
bears reminding that the impact of any policy is dynamic. Yes, there will be the
expected increased inequity initially but with time people adjust and you may
get radically different reactions and consequences, as was seen with the earlier
liberalization of higher education.
harping on inequities ignore economic realities. There is demand for these
international schools because they offer quality albeit expensive education.
The imposition of quotas only aggravates the situation. Its removal would
expand the market, enticing new players. Greater competition puts downward
pressure on price, an economic truism that cannot be ignored. This is already
happening in Thailand where international schools are found even in small towns
and within the financial reach of the middle class, at least those families
prudent enough to think of their children’s future and not on current
conspicuous consumption. The lower costs in small towns would make these
schools even more affordable.
are three ready markets for international schools. One would be the
super-affluent Malaysians who already have children in schools abroad. That
however, is a miniscule market; besides, those parents are not likely to change
course. The cachet of an overseas education still sells. A much bigger market
would be the next tier of the wealthy. Those parents value education and
recognize only too readily the inadequacies of local schools. At present they
would require special dispensation from the minister and other hurdles in order
to enroll their children in international schools; money alone would not do it.
it is not a surprise that local students (especially Malays) in these schools
are the children of Malaysia’s “Politburo” members. If you wonder how they
could afford the costs based on their parent’s official pay, then you have not
appreciated the culture of negotiated contracts, “Approved Permits,” and other
quirks of the New Economic Policy, as well as the Malaysian way of doing
The third and also
sizeable market would be those parents in Johore who now send their children to
schools in Singapore. To be sure, Malaysian international schools are still
considerably more expensive than the republic’s public schools, nonetheless
after factoring in transportation and other costs, quite apart from wasted time
and energy in commuting, these parents might well fork out the added expense
and opt for the much superior local international schools. After all their reasons
for choosing Singapore are to get an education in English and avoid local
public schools; Malaysian international schools offer both.
To repeat because of the
potential political significance, these three markets are essentially
non-Malay. So expect a racial angle to the argument for reinstating the quota.
If not handled skillfully, political pressure will build up to jettison the
policy. Already the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), otherwise made up
of liberal professional Malays, is already against the idea though for reasons
other than race.
advocates the greater use of English in national schools especially in the
teaching of science and mathematics. Perhaps PAGE could be persuaded that
international schools are but a backdoor path towards this objective (and
beyond), albeit available only to those who could afford it. This path also
conveniently sidesteps possible constitutional conundrum of having
English-medium public schools. Fortunately, Malay language nationalists are not
sophisticated enough to see through this.
In truth, the
constitutional hurdle, like all man-made ones, is easily surmountable. Consider
that the International Islamic University uses English. It overcomes this legal
barrier by being registered under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, not
Education, hence exempted from the language rule.
schools would be a far superior move than simply bringing back the old English
schools or increasing the number of hours devoted to the subject in our
national schools, as many including PAGE are advocating. The deficiency with
our national schools goes beyond its medium of instruction. International
schools (especially those following the American pattern) have a very different
curriculum and pedagogical philosophy, far from the stultifying ones that
plague national schools.
On a related issue, if
there were to be a blossoming of Arabic or Indonesian International Schools as
a consequence of this liberalization, with Malays flocking to enroll their
children, then we would be no further ahead. Indeed we would regress even worse.
The two education systems are not worthy of emulation.
schools enjoy two complementary advantages. One is of course their superior
curriculum, facilities and teaching, quite apart from the international
ambience. The other and perhaps more important is that the quality of local
schools is atrocious. The recent rescinding of the policy of teaching science
and mathematics in English only made matters worse. Consider that today’s Malay
elite would rather send their children to Garden International School over
supposedly exclusive Malay College Kuala Kangsar.
Where public schools
are excellent, few locals would opt for private schools, as in Alberta, or
international ones as in Finland. The clamor for Malaysians wanting to send
their children to international schools reflects a much greater and more basic
problem – our lousy national schools. Seen from this angle, for PEMANDU, the
government’s transformation program, to view the growth of international
schools as positive could only be construed as misplaced and misguided. Only if
you are convinced that our national schools are beyond redemption would you
consider this a positive development. And I do.
Next:Consequences to the Growth of International
It is incomprehensible that with the Ministry of
Education still in the midst of its review of our schools, the Minister and his
Deputy saw fit to announce two decisions that could potentially have a profound
impact on the system. The first, announced by the Minister, would resurrect the
old Kirby/Brinsford Lodge program of the 1950s, and the second, announced by
his Deputy, would remove the current quotas on local enrollment in
analyzing the two decisions, it is worth pondering as to why they were made before the completion of this
“exhaustive review.” A cynical interpretation would be that the current
“review” is nothing more than a charade rather than a serious deliberative
process. If that were to be so, then it would be a terrible insult to those
distinguished Malaysians who have been co-opted or have volunteered to serve on
the panel. On a moral level, it would also be an unconscionable fraud
perpetrated upon citizens, especially parents who have been banking on the
review to improve our schools.
view, equally less charitable, is that the Minister and his Deputy are not
fully aware of the potential for enormous consequences of their decisions. A
more practical explanation is that both announcements reflect the
seat-of-the-pants style of policymaking typical at the upper levels of our
government. It would have been more reassuring had both proposals been first
vetted by this review committee.
the absence of the panel’s analysis, I will examine the merits and demerits of
the two initiatives, as well as offer my ideas on enhancing both.
The old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge program was
undeniably superb and successful. Thousands of students benefited from the
tutelage and influence of those dedicated professional teachers who were
trained at both institutions. Many of those teachers went on for their
baccalaureate and graduate degrees to become distinguished Professors of
Education at home and abroad, reflecting the high caliber of their talent.
we wish to resurrect the program it is important to elucidate the many
contributing factors to its earlier success. We also have to remember that
conditions today are vastly different from those of the 1950s. That may be
obvious but is often overlooked. For example, to say that the current Form Five
graduates – the potential trainees – are very different from those of the 1950s
would be a vast understatement. Thus if we were to send those with Form Five
qualifications to Kirby today, the results would also be vastly different if
success of Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had less to do with their being operated by
the British or located in England, rather with the candidates selected to
undergo the training. As mentioned earlier, they were simply superior to begin
with. It is well to remember that in the 1950s only the top five percent of
Fifth Formers could go on to Sixth Form and from there, to universities. The
next level would be the potential Kirby candidates; they may not have been at
the very top nonetheless they were still high up there above the 90th
percentile. I knew a few who were qualified for the local university but
instead opted for Kirby simply because of the opportunity to go to England,
thus deliberately settling for a teacher’s diploma.
however, the top 25 percent of our students are headed for universities. Those
left for teacher training would be the next tier, those at the 75th
percentile at best. Unless we get the top students – those above the 90th
percentile – to go into teacher training, we will never get good, much less
great teachers regardless where we train them or by whom.
is the crucial lesson from countries like Finland that have excellent
schools. They get the best students to go into teaching, and the best students
make the best teachers. If the lure of spending a few years at Kirby would
attract the best and brightest to apply, then by all means resurrect the
program. After all, many bright students change their career choices simply
because of the opportunity to go abroad. I have met many who dreamed of
becoming doctors but instead pursued accounting or engineering simply because
of the chance to go abroad.
Aspect of the Proposal
Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had a total of about 600
students at any one time. Let us assume that the cost today would be about
RM100K per student per year (a reasonable estimate), for a total of about RM60
million annually. A hefty sum! That is the total outflow of foreign exchange
The money will be spent in Britain with zero multiplier effect in the local Malaysian
if we were to spend the money differently but for the same purpose and using
the same personnel – those British lecturers. Using a faculty/student ratio of
1 to 15 as a guide (comparable to top universities), we would need about 40
professors. With a generous pay package of RM300K per year we would have no
difficulty recruiting them. The total cost would then come to about RM12
million annually. With another RM3 million for non-academic support staff, the
total payroll would be about RM15 million. We would still have RM45 million
we were to pay the trainees RM600 each per month, that would certainly interest
top students, and the cost would be just over RM4 million. To entice them even
more, incorporate elements of the major matriculation examinations into the
curriculum so that these students could sit for their STM, GCE A Level, or SAT
tests while in training. Then reward those who are successful with guarantees
of scholarships to pursue their degrees in return for their committing to
done all that, we would still have RM41 million left. Out of that I would spend
RM6 million for soft costs (food, computers, library books), with RM35 million
left over. Assume that to be the annual mortgage payments instead, and spread
over 30 years (the typical amortization period for real estate loans) at 4
percent interest rates, you could build a campus costing about RM600 million.
Even after accounting for the inevitable leakages through “negotiated tenders”
and “facilitation fees” to local politicians, we could still build quite a
fancy facility, almost luxurious and definitely far superior to the old
barn-like and warehouse structures of old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge.
think of the economic impact of RM60 million being spent locally, with the
multiplier effect from the construction workers to the gardeners as well as the
teh tarik peddlers to the hair
dressers. About the only foreign exchange loss would be the remittance by those
British professors. After paying for their housing and other living expenses,
(which would be high for expatriates), as well as their hefty Malaysian income
tax, they would be lucky to have RM40K at the end of the year to send home.
the total outflow of foreign exchange would be under RM2 million in a year.
Contrast that to the outflow of RM60 million in cold cash if were to send 600
trainees to Britain; thirty times more expensive! And I have not included the multiplier
economic benefits of the RM60 million being spent locally.
are also other non-economic benefits, the most important being academic and
scholarly. Those professors would be interested in doing local research and be
consultants to our schools, as well as conduct workshops for the continuing
professional education of our teachers. Leading education journals would carry
articles with the footnote, “From Kuantan Teachers’ College, Malaysia.”
Minister’s objective is still being achieved, that is to have Kirby-trained
quality of teachers for our schools. The signal difference between my plan and
Muhyyiddin’s is that I would import Kirby-quality professors to train our
would-be teachers while he would export our students (and precious foreign
exchange) to Britain.
course Kirby would like us to send our trainees there and would lobby very hard
to secure the contract. After all we have seen such august institutions as the
London School of Economics engaging in shady deals with Third World dictators
like Muammar Ghaddafi to secure lucrative contracts and endowments. Thus expect
these Kirby folks to engage in intense lobbying to influence the Minister of
feels that the only effective way for our would-be teachers to learn English is
to send them to an English-speaking country. I suggest that he visit Tuanku
Jaafar College in rural Malay-speaking Mantin, Negri Sembilan. Not only do
those students speak impeccable English, they also have acquired some of the
finer Anglo Saxon habits. It would not surprise me that they prefer tea and
crumpets for their afternoon snacks!
students sent to Kirby in the 1950s were already well versed with matters
English, at least in theory from their textbooks. They may be ignorant of the practical
aspects as with using knives and forks, chewing with their mouths closed, and
not burping after dinner, nonetheless their English fluency enabled them to
learn and adapt quickly. Thus it did not take them long to appreciate Beethoven
as much as dondang sayang, their tea
and crumpets as much as teh tarik and
pisang goreng! Sending our students
to Kirby today would only aggravate their culture shock. Far from enjoying and
benefiting from the English ambience, they would recoil and retreat to their
little kampong on campus.
was unbelievably stupid and fiscally irresponsible for Muhyyiddin to put forth
that proposal. I began by suggesting that he may be unaware of the potential
consequences, monetary and otherwise, and that his announcement merely
reflected the seat-of-the-pants modus
operandi at upper levels of our government. Perhaps there is a more mundane
explanation. Sending our trainees to Britain would be the perfect excuse for
Ministry officials to make frequent “official” tours there. It that be the
reason, it could easily be remedied; give those senior officers paid annual
trips to Britain. That would be considerably cheaper.
week:Liberalization of International
School Enrolment A Positive Development
the aftermath of the largest public demonstrations against the Barisan
government, the officials’ obsession now turns to the exercise of apportioning
blame and the associated inflicting of vengeance.Both are raw human reactions, but hardly
enlightening, sophisticated, or even fruitful.Besides, there is plenty of blame to go around.I prefer to look at the bright side and on the
lessons that can be learned.
BERSIH 3.0 clearly demonstrates that
Malaysians no longer fear the state.In
that regard we are a quantum leap ahead of the Egyptians under Mubarak, the
Iraqis under Saddam, or the Chinese under Mao (or even today).When citizens are no longer afraid of the
state, many wonderful things would follow.BERSIH is also the first successful multiracial mass movement in
Malaysia.In a nation obsessed with and
where every facet is defined by race, that is an achievement worthy of
note.Another significant milestone,
again not widely acknowledged, is that the movement is led by a woman who is neither
Malay nor a Muslim.Ambiga Sreenevasan
broke not one but three Malaysian glass ceilings!
On a sour note, BERSIH 3.0 revealed
that Barisan leaders (and a few from the opposition) have yet to learn and accept
the fundamental premise that dissent is an integral part of the democratic
process, and expressing it through peaceful assembly a basic human right.At a more mundane level though no less
important, the authorities’ performance in BERSIH 3.0 also exposed their woeful
incompetence and negligence in basic crowd control.
In any mass rally you expect a
minority to get carried away or be willfully indulging in criminal acts.It is the duty of the authorities to prevent
and apprehend them, but not to use that as justification to treat as criminals the
vast majority who are otherwise peaceful, or for the police to behave like
criminals in responding.
To keep things in perspective, and
with no intent to insult those injured, whose properties were damaged, and those
otherwise inconvenienced, the mayhem last Saturday was no worse than that
following an American college championship game.More to the point, considering the vastly
much larger crowd and the much more pivotal issues at stake, no lives were
The Winners and Losers
with a college championship game, there were definite winners – and champions –
from last Saturday’s contest.As for the
losers, there were plenty of them too.If you were to appear late on the scene or just a distant observer like
me, it would not be terribly difficult to figure out who were the new champions
and who were the sore losers just by watching their reactions.
It was a tribute to BERSIH’s leaders
that they did not gloat – the hallmark of genuine champions.They remained cool and confidently went on to
target their next trophy, the removal of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the
Elections Commission for the pair’s blatant political partisanship by being,
among others, UMNO members.
Although BERSIH was a coalition of
NGOs, it nonetheless welcomed participation from all, including members of
political parties.Thus there were
generous representations from the opposition as they too shared BERSIH’s
objective of clean and fair elections.Again it was a tribute to BERSIH’s enlightened and sophisticated
leadership that it welcomed their participation and did not try to control or
otherwise censor their speeches and actions.BERSIH leaders respected individual freedom, again reflecting their maturity
As for the political players on
either side of the issue, we too could also easily discern the winners and
losers among them.KEADILAN’s leader
Anwar Ibrahim described the event as a “celebration of unity, an awakening for
liberation.[It] … shall go down in the nation’s history as Merdeka Rakyat
when 300,000 spoke in one voice to demand a free and fair election. ….[Those
who] came down in full force were encouraged by a sense of justice to demand
liberation from usurpers. Their message
cannot be mistaken – a free country cannot be enslaved anymore.”
He continued, “BERSIH
3.0 represents the hopes and dreams of all Malaysians that the political
legitimacy of any government in the future can only be attained through a
genuine democratic process.”That is the
confident voice of a winner.
Contrast that to the reactions of
the Prime Minister, his Deputy Muhyyiddin, and Home Minister Hishammuddin.Muhyyiddin was first to the draw, threatening
to make BERSIH pay for the damages, presumably including those caused by those
ubiquitous razor fences, tear gas explosions, and blasting water cannons.For his part, Hishammuddin contemptuously dismissed
the smashing of journalists’ cameras as “standard operating procedure,” only to
be contradicted later by his Chief of Police.As many later found out, the police smashed more than just cameras.
Najib’s hospital visit to the
injured journalist Radzi Razak was a gracious personal touch.However, the heavily-covered media event
backfired as it revealed too much.Radzi’s facial expression during Najib’s nearly quarter-of-an-hour
monologue where he (Najib) apparently apologized to the injured reporter showed
that he (Radzi) was anything but comforted by the Prime Minister’s presence or
words.Later Najib blasted the
demonstrators for not respecting a court order banning entry into Dataran
Merdeka, conveniently forgetting his administration’s contempt for citizens’
right to peaceful assembly.The irony of
the venue; Dataran Merdeka – Freedom Square!
In short, the political trio of
Najib, Muhyyiddin and Hishammuddin behaved like typical losers, consumed with
blaming others and seeking vengeance.They were not unlike the three blind mice running around as if BERSIH
had cut off their tails.The trio may
not be blind but they certainly behaved like three myopic mice, unable to see
beyond their whiskers.
of the “Blame Game”
to apportion blame at this stage of the game, even when attempted by
well-meaning and neutral observers, is a futile exercise.When done by political hacks, as most surely
it would, the exercise would serve only to aggravate old wounds.
When you have dry rubbish strewn all
over, cans of gasoline purposely left open, and match boxes recklessly tossed
around, the question of who lit the first matchstick becomes irrelevant.There will always be someone who saw somebody
else who struck a match earlier.Then
the analyses and debates would quickly degenerate into the minutiae of determining
the exact seconds or minutes, or interpreting what certain gestures and phrases
may or may not mean in the heat of the occasion.Indeed such a puerile exercise is already well
underway, and worse, it is being taken seriously by the authorities!
A more useful endeavor would be to learn
ways of, metaphorically speaking, getting rid of the dry tinder, the thick
brush of mutual suspicions, the open cans of inflammatory slimes, and the
readily available matches.Such an
exercise would require of Najib, Muhyyiddin and Hishammuddin to be other than
the three blind mice.Mice, blind and
otherwise, thrive in rubbish.
Najib et al. need to look far beyond their whiskers and ponder whether
the laying of razor fences at Dataran Merdeka and turning the center of modern
peaceful Kuala Lumpur into an Israeli-occupied West Bank, Korea’s Demilitarized
Zone, or Stalin’s Gulag is the equivalent of removing open cans of gasoline or
merely spewing more fuel.This point was
forcefully made by a poster on one razor fence, “Welcome to Tel Aviv!”
There are hundreds if not thousands
of such pictures as well as personal accounts of BERSEH 3.0.One touched me immensely.“Up ‘til Friday afternoon I was still unsure
about going,” she wrote.“… Then I saw
the photos of the police rolling out the barbed wire and I saw red. Since when did our police, or whoever is their
boss, roll out barbed wire – barbed wire!! – against their own people?? Are we thugs? Terrorists? Thieves?”
The observer who wrote that is no
raging anti-establishment anarchist.On
the contrary, Marina Mahathir is a thoughtful commentator, very much
mainstream.She saw only the pictures
of police laying down those razor fences, and she was incensed.Imagine if she had been strolling down the
street and been rudely confronted by that hideous sight?What if she was a foreign tourist?
Ponder the mindset of those who
proposed the idea in the first place, or the personnel who laid down those
razor fences.Did they think that
Malaysians are such unruly hooligans that could only be kept away by those
menacing barriers?Or were the
authorities gleefully imagining and salivating in anticipation of some innocent
citizens being ripped apart by those sharp blades?We judge others through our own image.To our leaders we must be a nation of
thieves, thugs, and terrorists because they themselves are.
Najib and others readily referred to
the damages done by the demonstrators while conveniently overlooking those
incurred by the police, as with the unnecessary road closures long before the
event.I wonder how many ambulances and
doctors were delayed on their way to the hospital to attend to emergencies before
the rally because of the massive road closures.Violence was perpetrated upon the city long
before the first demonstrators arrived.
Do not expect much introspection from
our leaders; sore losers are incapable of that.They could not for example, fathom that the laying of razor fences,
widespread closing of streets, and heavy police presence contributed to the violence.Such an insight escapes them.
Next Week:Second of Two Parts:Lessons To be Learned