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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, October 05, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

M. Bakri Musa

Last of Three Parts:  Leveraging Residential Schools

[In Parts One and Two I suggested that we should focus on enhancing Malay competitiveness and productivity instead of forever begrudging the success of non-Malays or bemoaning the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture. We should begin with our young, the best of them, those at our residential schools. Have high expectations of them, put them through a demanding program, and expose them to rigorous competition.]

            The key to any high performing school is the teachers. Both Korean schools (Daewon and Minjuk mentioned earlier) actively sought graduates of top universities to be on their staff. Such highly qualified teachers inspire their students. And when it comes to writing letters of recommendations, those teachers carry much weight, especially when students apply to their teacher’s alma mater.

            You do not need and it is impossible for all your teachers to have sterling credentials, only that there should be a critical number of them to set the tone and change the culture. Besides, there are many excellent teachers who are graduates of lesser universities.

            Look back at MCKK of yore, with Oxbridge and London University graduates on its staff. At KYUEM, a local college prep school with exemplary record of student achievements, most of its teachers are local but there are sufficient graduates of top universities, including the headmaster, to set the pace and establish a high academic ambience.

            On another level, it would be difficult for a local graduate to understand the intricacies and nuances of applying to top foreign universities, or the challenges of attending one.

            With the present pay scheme there is little hope to recruit such top graduates. This is where the private sector could help by sponsoring highly educated foreign teachers. Petronas sponsors Formula One and the KL Philharmonic. Why not economics teachers for MCKK? Such “endowed” appointments are very common at American schools and colleges. If MCKK were to charge wealthy parents it could also hire its own foreign teachers.

            You do not have to pay as high a salary as in Singapore or South Korea as Malaysia has much cheaper living expenses. Thailand has no difficulty getting excellent expatriate teachers at US$30-40K per annum.

            For every three students we send abroad, we could recruit two American teachers and benefit many more students at home. In terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is far cheaper to recruit one American teacher than to send a student abroad as that teacher’s salary would be spent locally with the attendant multiplier effect, while the entire student’s scholarship money is expended abroad.

            Such highly-paid foreigners would not generate resentment from their local colleagues. Local teachers at KYUEM are paid less than their expatriate colleagues yet they do not resent the preferential treatment. Of course if you do get a Malaysian who is a graduate of a top university and is an excellent teacher, then he or she too should be paid as well as the foreigner. There should be differential pay based on the quality of the teacher, not citizenship.

            Apart from recruiting from abroad, there are Malaysians who are graduates of top universities whom, given the augmented pay, SBPs could employ as teachers, or at least tap as mentors.


Policy Makers and Executors

Stable, competent, committed, and inspiring leadership; those are the essential ingredients to a successful organization, more so a school. The headship of SBP should be a terminal appointment. There should be nothing else after that except retirement and glowing in the reflected glory of your students’ success. The appointment should never be a stepping stone for someone on his way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

            The headmaster should also serve for a sufficient term. As Howell noted, “No headmaster can leave his mark on a school and have a lasting influence on its development in under five or six years.”

            He or she must also be a graduate of a respectable university, again to set the tone. He need not have an advanced degree. Given the choice, all things being equal, I prefer someone with a good bachelor’s degree over a candidate with a higher degree but from a less stellar institution.

            Like great individuals, little is known about nurturing great institutions. One thing is certain however. Like individuals, if institutions are held under tight control and not given the freedom to grow, they will quickly become sclerotic and unresponsive. The job of policymakers is to select capable individuals to helm these schools. Once that is done, they should be given the leeway to carry out their mission without micromanagement from the ministry.

            This means SBPs must have full autonomy–academic, administrative, and financial. They hire and fire the teachers. The ministry’s lever should be at the macro level, as with selecting the board of governors and through funding.

            SBP’s measure of success should only be this:  number of their students ending up at top universities. All other measures, except where they contribute to this singular goal, are irrelevant. At Speech Day the headmaster should be announcing which top universities his or her graduating students would be attending, just like the graduation exercises at top American prep schools.

            The policy does not end with these students being accepted to top colleges. They must also be assured of a scholarship and then be given the freedom to choose whatever field of study. If they are smart enough to be admitted to those top institutions, then they are smart enough to plan their future wisely, certainly better than those folks at JPA, MARA, or Khazanah.

            It pains me to see bright young Malays pursue a course of study for which they have minimal passion because that is the scholarship they were being awarded, based on supposed “national interest.”

            Providing scholarships for matriculation (sixth form) is misplaced. I would wait after the students have been accepted to a top university. That would free them to choose whatever route (matrikulasi, twinning programs, Sixth Form, IB, or A level) that best suits them. Meanwhile use those funds to support IB and “A” level programs at SBPs to benefit many more students.

            After they have graduated, do not tie their hands with rigid rules like having to return immediately or work for a specific entity. Grant them some freedom. If they are offered graduate work or a job abroad, let them. Do not stand in the way of their pursuing their aspirations.

            The only stipulation is that they should serve the nation in whatever capacity they see fit for a specified period during the first decade after their graduation. Only when they fail to do so would they have to reimburse their sponsor.


GLC and Private Sector Participation

Khazanah through its subsidiary already has a successful model–KYUEM. It prepares students for “A” level. That is more productive in developing quality human capital than the route Petronas and Tenaga chose in setting up their own universities, which are nothing more that puffed-up technical colleges. Khazanah is also involved in joint ventures with the government through the “smart school” programs.

            There are other ways for private sector involvement. One is the current system of letting anyone set up a private college and charge whatever the market will bear. That would benefit only the few wealthy Malays.

            An alternate route would be for Khazanah to pursue its own path a la Singapore’s Raffles Education Group. Freed from governmental strictures, Khazanah could lead the way with its string of prep schools modeled after KYUEM. Without the residential component, the cost would be considerably less. Then it could proceed to a university, modeled not after local ones but the likes of the American University in Beirut or the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

            Education is as valid a sector for private investment as tourism or health. It is doubly profitable, enhancing both human and financial capitals. It would certainly be more productive than pouring money into a floundering airline.

            It is time for Malays to discard the old destructive narrative of the “lazy native” imposed upon us by the colonialists and slavishly perpetuated by our intellectually-indolent “nationalists.” When the colonialists concocted that narrative, they benefited from it. It was their rationale for bringing in hordes of foreign indentured labor. When our latter-day Hang Tuahs aped that, they only made a monkey out of themselves. What benefit do they derive by denigrating our culture and nature?

            We need a modern relevant narrative, grounded in solid social science. Our problems stem from our being not competitive and productive. Fix that and we solve our problem. Bend our rebong now and a generation hence our bamboo groves would be more to our liking. By then we could not care less whether the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and Tun Mahathir would eat their words. They and their myths would have long been forgotten.

            As for me, Insha’ Allah (God willing) I look forward to one day meeting many young Malays at San Francisco Airport on their way to Stanford and Berkeley. That would be the sublime and truest expression of Ketuanan Melayu.