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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

No Eton of the East

M Bakri Musa
Malaysiakini.com Dec 5, 2005

No Eton of the East

Book review: Leadership: But What’s Next? Malay College Kuala Kangsar

Writer: Khasnor Johan
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Times Edition, 2005 Shah Alam.
248 pp; Indexed

Editorial lead: Malay College excelled when it was the only residential school.
It thus represents a sorry metaphor for the Malay mentality – to excel there
must not be any competition.

This year Malay College celebrates its centenary. Apart from the glittering and very expensive bashes, there are the adoring editorials, press releases, and the occasional books. Well, actually only one book, so far.

I bought Khasnor Johan’s Leadership: But What’s Next? tempted by its title. It promises a critical look. The foreword by Abdullah Ahmad, a distinguished alumnus and former Ambassador to the United Nations, sealed my decision.

Alas, the promise is unfulfilled. The book is long on description but pitifully poor on analysis. As for a prescription on what ails this “national heritage,” she offers none.

The author is a retired academic, formerly with the University of Malaya, an institution mired in its own controversy recently. I expected a semi rigorous if not scholarly production.

The author’s “research” consisted nothing more than snippets of interviews from legends of the college’s “old boys.” The quotes were more “man on the street” variety rather than weighty discussions and deep reflections. Her excuse is that she resides in Australia. The long (40 pages) Chapter 5, “What Old Boys Left Behind,” is nothing more than a laundry list of former students and their achievements, with no overriding themes or lessons learned. A commentator once cynically advised authors to include as many names as possible in the index; they are potential buyers of your book!

Rest assured that even though she cited me three times, that is not the reason I bought her book.

I would have expected that as a former historian she would still have her skills especially in research and writing. I was sorely disappointed. She never read any of the archives at the college or ministry (if she did, she did not refer to them). Thus, the glaring deficiency of this book is the lack of references. When she did quote, as she did from my first book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited, she did so without giving due credit or referencing it. This reflects sloppy scholarship, lack of diligence, or sheer laziness.

Malay College’s Trimesters

She breaks Malay College’s 100 years into three: from its inception in 1905 to its sudden closure in1941; from its reopening in 1947 after World War II to 1965 when its last expatriate headmaster, N. J. Ryan, left (the “Golden Years” to Khasnor and many collegians); and after 1965, when locals specifically Malays took over.

The British were intent on nurturing this “germ of an Oxford.” The college’s moniker, Eton of the East, reflects this aspiration. The British supported their aspiration with deeds; they sent only graduates from their best universities to teach at and lead the college.

There was only one snag. As admissions to the college were limited only to the royal and aristocratic class, the supply of talent among the students was necessarily limited.

Khasnor did not explore whether the British decided this on their own or they were merely pleasing the Malay sultans and aristocrats by ensuring that their sons would not be contaminated by mixing them with children of commoners.

Perhaps sultans and colonialists alike believed that we kampong children were content running around barefooted and half naked; educating us would be futile.

With rising nationalism and the consequent quest for independence after World
War II, there was a great and desperate need for Malays trained for the public service. The college had to open its doors to bright young Malays of less than noble heritage. To augment its output, the college discontinued its primary classes. The man responsible for liberalizing the admission policy was Datuk Onn, UMNO’s first president.

In the early 1960s, the Malay establishment belatedly recognized the acute need for Malays trained in the sciences. Malay College expanded its science classes.

Khasnor blamed this delayed introduction of science at the college to the generally low level of science teaching in Malaysia. That is not correct.

When I entered the college for my Sixth Form in 1961, my teachers and fellow students were stunned to learn that my old Tuanku Muhammad School in sleepy Kuala Pilah already had pure science classes at Form IV for many years while Malay College was still planning its own!

Racism of the Malay Elite

Many lament Malay College’s decline in the last few decades. The “old boys” blame the slide to Malays taking over the leadership of the college. Khasnor endorses this assessment. This is racism of the worse kind; Malays lacking confidence in their own kind. To Khasnor and those old boys, Malay headmasters and teachers were no match to the earlier expatriates.

Conveniently overlooked is that those Malay headmasters were never given a chance. Except for the first, Abdul Aziz Ismail, who stayed for a few years, all the rest had brief tenures, with one lasting barely a few months, just enough for an entry on his resume. Unlike their British counterparts who treated their postings at Malay College as terminal appointments, these Malay educators treated their stints at Kuala Kangsar as steppingstones on their way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

The only and alas very brief shining moment for the college was during the 1960s and 70s when it made merit the criterion for admission and emphasized the sciences in the curriculum. Unfortunately, instead of learning from and enhancing that success, the ministry and the college rested on their laurels.

The slide began. Instead of being a shining model for the many new residential schools, Malay College became an ordinary school, with equally ordinary achievements. I dare not compare Malay College with its counterparts in other countries, like Singapore’s Raffles Institution (now a Junior College), or the real Eton back in the United Kingdom.

Today Malay College does not even prepare its students for university matriculation; they have to go elsewhere for that! The “college” is reduced to nothing more than a glorified and very expensive middle school.

Malay College and the other residential schools are expensive, with the students’ entire tuition and living expenses borne by the government. These schools chronically complain about not getting enough funding from the government. Yet no one suggested that the children of the well-to-do must pay their way.

These students thus learn early and well on how to get a free ride. At its multitude centenary celebrations, many graced by the sultans and other dignitaries, the rich and famous among the College’s “old boys” ostentatiously displayed their wealth. Yet there is not a single structure or project on campus donated by them.

Malay College excelled only when it was the only residential school in the country. It thus represents a sorry metaphor for the Malay mentality, that is, to excel, there must not be any competition! Today’s insistence on rigid quotas and preferential policies by the Malay establishment reflects this ingrained mindset; thus no competition for UMNO’s top positions!

Excellence in an environment sans competition is a dubious distinction. Even a dim candle would look bright in dark room if it were the only candle.


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