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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.

Monday, February 27, 2006

More Perspiration, Less Inspiration Required

More perspiration, less inspiration required

Co-written with Din Merican

(Re-posted from Malaysia Today, February 20, 2006)

Prime Minister Abdullah finally had his ilham (inspiration) to shuffle his cabinet. His "new" team, despite the hype, remains anything but new. Had he exerted greater effort in scouting for fresh talent instead of relying on his ilham, the results could have been, well, inspiring.

Now more than ever, Malaysia needs a crisp team to propel the nation into its next trajectory of development. Malaysians desperately need quality leadership at the top, leaders who lead through personal examples, and who empower, not control, the citizens. We need ministers who can execute, meaning, perform as executives, and not be content with being mere mini sultans of their bureaucratic fiefdom. We certainly do not need ministers who wait for directives.

Abdullah's cabinet has two major problems: size and personnel.

Imagine a cabinet meeting with all 33 ministers present. If each were to speak for only a couple of minutes, the meeting would last well over an hour. And that would be just enough time for each to make the obligatory salutations, "Yang Berhormat Tan Sri….!" There would hardly be time for substantive discussions or robust policy debates.

The results showed. The recent unprecedented move by ten non-Muslim ministers in presenting outside of cabinet what essentially was an ultimatum to the Prime Minster over provisions of the Islamic laws is reflective of this dysfunction. Then there were the frequent conflicting statements made by various ministers, including the Prime Minster, over many issues. The most recent - coming right after the cabinet reshuffle - had Rafidah Aziz claiming that she still had control over the controversial AP permits. The very next day Abdullah had to correct her. These contradictory remarks make a mockery of the principle of collective cabinet decisions.

Incapable of Innovations

Unlike many, we are not surprised with Abdullah's latest performance. He has neither the talent nor the temperament to make major changes, despite the strenuous efforts of his apologists and loyalists to portray him as otherwise. His experience was in the civil service, as an administrator. He conforms to the tradition of "Saya menunggu arahan!" (I await the directive!)

His "don't rock the boat" approach served him well when he was in Mahathir's cabinet. Mahathir was strong and decisive, and had no shortage of ideas. Now that Abdullah is in charge, there is no one above him to give him directions. This is an uncomfortable role for him, and he is lost and rudderless. His recent personal loss adds to his distraction.

The performance of Abdullah and his team has been anything but cemerlang (excellence). It would be hard to have a straight face in referring to them as gemilang (glorious). Only they fantasize terbilang (distinction). This new team, with its core members securely ensconced, is nothing but temberang (bullshit).

We are not disappointed as we do not expect much of Abdullah, but we do feel for the millions of Malaysians who gave him their overwhelming mandate. Malaysia is entering its pivotal Ninth Malaysia Plan period. It cannot be business as usual. We have to re-examine our assumptions, explore novel strategies, and have more effective executions. Otherwise this Plan will repeat the same mistakes of all earlier ones, with their incomplete projects, funds not expended, and the nation further away from its Vision 2020 aspirations.

Abdullah inherited Mahathir's team. It is the same tired crew that gave us the loss-ridden MAS, Proton and other GLCs; the ugly AP scandals; decline in foreign investments; continuing blatant corruption; and the rapidly deteriorating education system. Good luck in expecting them to undo their own mistakes!

Securing Fresh Talent

The Prime Minister must be willing to exert himself and cast his net deep and wide to secure fresh talent. That is, more perspiration and less inspiration. By restricting himself to the same stagnant pond, he nets the same lethargic ikan bilis (anchovies) with pretensions of ikan pedang (swordfish).

His landslide electoral victory of 2004 presented him with a much wider and deeper talent pool. He did not seize that opening, another one of the many great opportunities he squandered.

A man of greater conviction and confidence would not hesitate in going out of the political arena in search of talent. Tun Razak used the Senate appointment route in search of new talent, as did Mahathir. Abdullah did that do, but his choice for the Senate was one Muhammad Taib, a man found with millions in cash in his back pocket, at an Australian airport.

Malaysian ministers are too preoccupied with and distracted by their non-cabinet duties. We would have thought that with all the pressing problems facing the nation, being a minister would consume one's total energy, and then some. There would not be time to be in UMNO Supreme Council or be Chairman of the Football Association.

Decoupling party from government positions would solve this problem. Ministers would not then be in perpetual campaign mode to protect their positions in the party, and thus in the cabinet. Decoupling would have another salutary effect: it would diffuse power. This concentration of power is the prime factor for its abuse and corruption.

This does not mean that ministers should or could insulate themselves from the political realities. Make them answerable to party leaders and use the UMNO Supreme Council as an oversight committee to monitor the performances of ministers. That would keep them sharp.

Unwieldy Cabinet

The other constraint with Abdullah's cabinet is its unwieldy size. Get rid of the five ministers in the Prime Minister's Department. There is no need for a Minister of Information, Tourism, Sports, Women's Affairs, Federal Affairs, Culture, or even Entrepreneur Development. Combine some ministries like Home Affairs with Internal Security, and have only one Minister of Education. That would reduce the cabinet to a manageable size.

With fewer ministers, Abdullah could spend more time vetting them, and he would be spared of a Kasitah Gaddam or Isa Samad, men implicated with major corruption. Abdullah would also be spared a Shafie Salleh or Leo Michael Toyad. Shafie briefly headed the Ministry of Higher Education, a new portfolio now in the midst of a major policy review. The change could only be disruptive, and avoidable had Abdullah been prudent with his initial selection. There is no assurance that the Prime Minster has learned his lesson.

We agree that Shafie Salleh was an inept choice. He clearly demonstrated this in his dealings with the Vice-Chancellors, and his appointing Nordin Kardi, a man with the slimmest academic credentials, to head Universiti Utara.

It was disconcerting the manner with which the Prime Minister announced his new cabinet. Shafie Salleh learned of his dismissal only through the media. At the very least, the Prime Minister owed both Shafie and Toyad the courtesy of a personal call ahead of time. Better yet, Abdullah should have met with his old and new cabinet members individually, apprising them of their strengths and weaknesses. That he did not, showed his lack of personal courage. Abdullah simply had no class.

As for keeping Rafidah Aziz, the Prime Minister obviously has not learned anything from the AP mess. That apparently is the kind of "experience" Abdullah values. Rafidah's retention mocks his commitment to clean government. The arrogance of her to claim that it was God's wish that she remains in the cabinet! Tomorrow she will claim to have daulat (mandate from God), just like a real sultan. Such hubris could only come from someone who has been in government far too long.

In a similar fashion, the collapse of our flyways and the shoddy executions of major public works projects contribute to the "valuable experience," and hence the retention of Samy Vellu as Works Minister.

Abdullah pays a steep price for retaining these deadwoods. He deprives the nation of the services of competent talent. Abdullah should be encouraging and grooming the likes of Mustapha Mohamad and the Wharton PhD, Awang Adek.

Abdullah and his "new" team is prepared only to coast along. It is the same old tired crew, being led by an equally tired skipper who is clueless and rudderless. We would be lucky if we were not swamped in these turbulent times.

Din Merican is Visiting Professor (Business Strategy) and Advisory Board Member, Asia Economic Forum, at University of Cambodia, and Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #8

Chapter 1: A Preemptive Strike

No Mission Statement

I am not a fan of the modern obsession with mission statements or their equally fashionable “client charters.” The more high-sounding and noble they are, the less likely they are to relate to the realities of the organization. MOE has a long mission statement emboldened on its home web page. I can imagine the numerous hours of meetings to compose that. I suggest that those goals and aspirations would be more readily served if only we teach our young well. Once we do that, the values and objectives of that mission statement would fall in place, whether elaborately stated or not.

One of the objectives of the ministry’s mission statement is “to inculcate positive values.” Whatever that means! The philosophy of education is stated thus: “…developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in God.” Presumably if you turn out to be an atheist, the system has failed you.

The trouble with such mushy statements and objectives is that they would be difficult to judge when they have been achieved. How would you gauge that someone is “balanced and harmonious?”

If I were to draw up the ministry’s objectives, I would state them thus: Our students should be able to read and write in our national language as well as English, do basic computations, understand the physical world around and the living world within them, and have an appreciation of our history and our diversity. With such clear objectives it would be easier to measure whether we are successful or not.

Consequently I have dispensed with discussions of such nebulous issues of building “a society of high moral character, ethical, just,” and other highfalutin ideas encompassed in the ministry’s mission statement, and concentrated instead only on the pragmatic nuts and bolts issues. How much should we pay teachers so as to attract the talented? Why are our students dropping out in such high numbers? How do we fund adequately school laboratories and libraries? Why are rural schools not provided with generators so they can at least have fans in their classrooms and perhaps later, computers? These are real issues and affect how our young learn, but they are never covered in mission statements or ministerial missives.

I am not an outsider when it comes to education. As a parent I am acutely aware of its importance. I am also born into a family of teachers. My parents were longtime teachers, as are nearly all my siblings. My wife too is a teacher both at high school and college; she taught briefly in Malaysia. I was also a teacher in the early 1960s in the hiatus before entering university, and more than a decade later, I taught medical students in Malaysia.

The one lesson I learned during my teaching tenure in Malaysia was how far detached the policies and statements uttered by top officials were (and still are) from the realities.

When I was teaching at a Malay secondary school, there were no textbooks and the laboratory facilities rudimentary. Yet that did not stop the leaders from extolling the virtues of such schools. Similarly while the government was pouring funds into building the new medical school, I could not even get such basic supplies as journals and books for my students. Nor I could not get funding for buying papers or paying a secretary to type my surgical seminars for distribution to my trainees. Meanwhile the medical school was paying first class airline tickets for its external examiners and putting them up at luxury hotels.

When I complained to the dean, his reply was simply, “We have to maintain our status!” Such misplaced priorities! One does not have to be an educationist to see the idiocy of such viewpoints.

It is also easy to be distracted by discussions on the philosophy of education and other abstract ideas when much more mundane details like lack of textbooks and basic supplies are being ignored.

In this book I avoid listing the deficiencies of the system (that would require a separate volume!) except in so far as to illustrate a particular point. I will be discussing concepts and ideas gleaned from my own experience with the education of my children in America and comparing their experiences with that of their cousins back in Malaysia.

My book is not simply a critique, nor is it the scribbling of a dilettante. I put forth my own proposals for a modern system of education that is worthy of Malaysia. I begin by discussing some general issues on education – its role in development; its political and cultural symbolism; factors in society that bear on education; and the role of technology (Chapter Two). Chapter Three describes the present system, followed by a discussion of its weaknesses and deficiencies. For comparative purposes, I review the education system of a few selected countries, in particular United States, Canada and Germany (Chapter Five).

There are no shortages of recommendations on reforming the system, and I will critique some of them, in particular MOE‘s Education Development 2001-2010, as well as the recommendations of the National Brains Trust (Chapter Six). My reform proposals are presented in three chapters. Chapter Seven covers the schools, and the chapter following, higher education. Chapter Nine reviews other activities of MOE, in particular Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literary Agency), Accreditation Agency, and the Examination Syndicate. I recommend dispensing or privatizing these ancillary agencies.

My book ends with a summary. I debated whether to put it at the beginning but decided against it. Doing so would have made the book look like a bureaucratic report or Government White Paper. A definite “turn off” for readers! I am after all writing an expository essay, not a policy manual. My aim is to persuade, not to dictate. And if my readers are not persuaded, they can at least begin the debate. That in the end is my objective.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

On The Twilight of A Just World

Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Yang Adil
Selected Essays of Kassim Ahmad
Published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, 2006

Foreword by M. Bakri Musa

(Part Two of Two Parts)

I thoroughly enjoy reading Kassim’s essays; I have learned so much both when I agree as well as when I disagree with him. It would be unfair for me to single out my favorites in this collection.

Kassim’s view on Islam is closer to what I profess. In particular, I share his concerns and dismay over the increasing assertiveness and overreaching of ulama in contemporary Muslim societies, Malaysia included. The Islamic establishment in many Muslim countries today is degenerating into the pattern of Orthodox Christianity of Medieval Europe.

The excesses of the clergy class were the undoing of the Catholic Church (helped no doubt by the invention of the printing press and growth of the humanist movement). The excesses of the ulama class today will have the same outcome, as we have seen in Iran and Taliban Afghanistan. The ubiquitous Internet and the spread of mass education will grease the slide.

The religious establishment is working in cahoots with the political authorities in tightening their grip over the ummah (community). The instruments of Islam are increasingly being used not to emancipate the citizens but to oppress them. Friday sermons, that most sacred of our faith’s rituals, have degenerated into yet another propaganda medium for the state. Islam is being abused to justify denying women their rights to vote, to an education, and to their freedom. The height of this perversion of our great faith is seen in Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to vote, drive a car, or be out of their homes unless accompanied by their husbands. All these in the name of “protecting” the womenfolk! Next door in Iran, with the Mullahs in charge, blatant abuses of basic human rights occur with impunity.
The Mullahs and their likes have conveniently framed the discourse in Islam such that criticizing them is tantamount to criticizing the faith. This is the poison (fitnah) the religious establishment is throwing at Kassim. I am appalled at how freely they throw around such contemptuous labels like murtad (apostasy) and kafir (infidel).
It is a tribute to Kassim’s inner strength and conviction that he is not silenced by such treatment. He has seen and experienced worse.

The powerful (religious and secular) would not indulge in their excesses without the complicity of others, in particular the intellectuals and commentators. It is this lack of effective checks and balances that undermines our nation. Kassim’s plaintive plea to the country’s editors and journalists in to “utter only the truth” (Katakan Yang Benar!) was written more in sorrow, less in anger.

Kassim has every right to be angry at his country. That he is not is a tribute to the man’s basic humanity and inner sense of dignity.
His forthrightness landed him in jail once, courtesy of the intrinsically “un-Islamic” Internal Security Act that permits incarceration without trial. After his release, he wrote his Universiti Kedua (Second University). It makes for painful reading. If I have my way, I would make it mandatory reading for all ministers and civil servants responsible for that inhuman statute.

My political persuasion could not be more different from Kassim; he is a staunch socialist while I am a committed capitalist. To me capitalism has uplifted the fate and living conditions of the most number of humans. Through capitalism, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese have been freed from the clutches of poverty. Yes there are excesses and imperfections with the system; it is after all the creation of mortals, not of God. Many are diligently working towards correcting its imperfections and enhancing its effectiveness. The capitalism of today is far more humane and effective than the raw form that existed during Charles Dickens’ time. The capitalism of tomorrow will be far more fair and superior.
Kassim views those imperfections and excesses as integral to the system; they cannot be separated away. To him, capitalism is inherently evil, exploitative, and destructive.

He extols the virtues and ideals of socialism. Yes, they are laudable; I share them too. Unfortunately they are just that - ideals. No one has yet been able to translate them into a workable and practical system. The collapse of the Soviet system is a tragic reminder of this flawed system. China avoids the fate of the Soviet Empire by “modifying” its socialism. Practically it is capitalism in all but label.

Socialism would more likely succeed if humans were saints, or angels.
It is Kassim’s political views that landed him in trouble with the authorities. They could not discern the difference between communism, which Kassim passionately abhors not least for its atheistic foundation, and socialism, which espouses social justice.
True to form, Kassim is not content with the status quo. Many of his essays explore paths for complementing the ideals of socialism with the pragmatism of capitalism. Kassim’s version of the so-called “Third Way” would be based on and be consistent with morals and ethics of Islam as revealed in the Holy Quran. That is what I find exciting and promising.

In his New Year’s speech welcoming 2006, Prime Minister Abdullah exhorts Malaysians to work with him and the government to solve the nation’s problems. This patriot Kassim has done his part with these and other contributions. I only wish that those in power would heed his words.

It is a reflection of the times in Malaysia today that an establishment publisher, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, is publishing this volume. There was a time in the not too distant past when many editors would shy away from associating with Kassim. Consequently, some of the essays published here have previously appeared only in foreign publications. I congratulate UKM Press for undertaking to issue this volume. Its parent institution had earlier recognized Kassim Ahmad by conferring upon him an honorary doctorate in letters. It is good when a premier institution honors a premier intellect.

In all these Kassim has remain the same; what has changed, and for the better, is our society. It is now willing to embrace ideas beyond the accepted ones. More importantly, we are now willing and brave enough to ask questions that previously we would not have dared think about. We, individually and as a nation, owe Kassim a huge debt of gratitude for nurturing the Hang Jebat in all of us. That he is successful rekindles my optimism in our people and nation.

M. Bakri Musa
Morgan Hill, CA
January 2006

On The Twilight Of A Just World

[Personal note: I am pleased that Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press is releasing Kassim Ahmad's fourth collection of essays, Di Bawah Ambang Dunia Yang Adil (On The Twilight Of A Just World). I am proud and privileged that Kassim had asked me to write the Foreword.]

Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Yang Adil
Selected Essays of Kassim Ahmad
Published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, 2006

Foreword by M. Bakri Musa

(Part One of Two Parts)

In a country where the official retirement age is 55 years, and where many do indeed stop working on reaching that age, it is heartening to note that Kassim Ahmad is bucking the trend. He is still intelleDictually productive, as evidenced by this collection of his essays, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Yang Adil, his fourth. The title aptly describes the theme of his various commentaries.

Bucking the trend defines Kassim. I first came across his work while in secondary school nearly half a century ago. At the time Kassim had just published his The Characterization in Hikayat Hang Tuah, an academic exercise in partial fulfillment for his honors degree. It was a thesis that would later shake the Malay world out of its cultural comfort zone.
In it he took a decidedly different and necessarily negative view of the hitherto hero, Hang Tuah; instead Kassim extolled the virtues of the presumed renegade, Hang Jebat. In part, Kassim was reflecting the general anti-hero sentiment of the 1950s and 60s; the era of the Beatles, long hair, and rebelliousness. It was also the time of my youth, the phase in one’s life where challenging tradition and accepted wisdom was a given. Thus Kassim’s dismissal of our legendary hero and cultural icon resonated with me.

Kassim did more. By shining the light from and shifting our view to a different angle, the same reality can look very different. To many, that can be unnerving; to others, exhilarating. Regardless of how one reacts, one inevitably begins asking questions. To me that is a healthy intellectual development; to those in power, that is very threatening. This is especially true in a feudal society; and ours is still one steeped in its feudal traditions and strictures.
Stimulating us to ask questions is what Kassim does best; therein lays his major problem. Our culture does not look kindly upon those who would dare see or imagine things differently.

There is an axiom in science that if we cannot find the solution, then we have asked the wrong question. If we listen to the many questions stimulated by Kassim’s writings, chances are some will be the right ones, and we are then that much closer to solving our problems.

I still treasure my frayed and faded translated copy of Kassim’s thesis. A few months ago, with Kassim’s kind permission, I posted his entire thesis in its original format and language on the web (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). This will bring his work to within reach of the Internet-savvy younger set. It is my hope that this website will also be a repository of Kassim’s writings.

Characterization was only the beginning. Three decades later, Kassim again shook the Malay world with the release of his Hadith: Satu Penilaian (Hadith: A Re-Examination). Sadly, before I could get my copy, the authorities had banned it!

Fortunately, some sympathetic soul in America saw fit to translate that important book into English, and I was able to obtain my copy. In it, Kassim challenged the accepted wisdom that places the centrality of hadith over and above the Holy Quran. The book did not endear him to the establishment, both religious and political. Kassim was effectively ostracized and forever tagged as “anti-Hadith,” plus some other more derogatory terms.

I recently profiled Kassim Ahmad for the Sun. I was astounded by the responses from readers who are critical of him yet had not even read his books! Modern myths, like the classical ones about the purported heroism of Hang Tuah, do not die easily.

To me, Kassim’s Hadith, like his earlier Characterization, brings a much-needed fresh perspective. He again challenges accepted wisdom and forces us to think and re-examine our assumptions. To those in authority, that can be very threatening, even dangerous.

It is precisely this quality that we see in Kassim that is becoming rare in our society. We should be nurturing, not discouraging, this trait especially in our young, lest we become a nation of sheep blindly following the shepherd. We are fast becoming what my friend Din Merican calls a society of ahli bodek (sucking up to our superiors).

I am reminded of the teaching techniques of the Sufi Mullah Nasrudin. He delighted in making fun of himself to illustrate a point to his followers. One day his neighbor came to his door to demand the return of the mule the Mullah had borrowed a few weeks earlier. “I don’t have your mule,” lied Nasrudin. Unfortunately at that moment the donkey brayed, and the neighbor exclaimed, “But I can hear the animal in your barn!” Whereupon Nasrudin, looking shock, replied in feigned indignation, “Would you take the word of a mule over the word of a Mullah?”
The moral of this delightful tale is that we should have the courage to not believe even those in authority if what they say does not agree with our experience and common sense. Even a mule may the bearer of truth, and a mullah, lies. This is the recurring thread in Kassim’s essays and commentaries.

Back at my kampong, the villagers have a way of dismissing the hyperboles and grandiose promises of those in power: Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense!). What Kassim is saying is that we should have the courage to tell our leaders when what they preach tak masok akal.

(To be continued next Sunday)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #7

Chapter 1: A Pre-emptive Strike (cont'd)

A Preemptive Strike

Education should concern everyone as it affects us as individuals, parents, employers, and employees.

Many professionals in the field would like us to believe that education is their sole prerogative and that they and they alone have the right to comment on such weighty matters. While I appreciate the professionalism of teachers and educators, nonetheless as education affects us all, we have every right to be involved. My simple rebuttal to such professional parochialism is this: Education is not quantum physics; concepts and issues in education can easily be framed in a fashion understandable to the average citizen. Many of the significant innovations in education in Malaysia and elsewhere have been through the efforts of non-educators.

The first major reform in Malaysian education was undertaken not by a teacher or educator, rather a politician who was a former civil servant – Tun Razak. His professional training was in law. His landmark 1956 Razak Report was responsible for the massive restructuring of the system. Nearly five decades later, the framework of that revolutionary report still underpins the country’s education – a testament to his wisdom and foresight.

Further away in place and time, the greatest innovation in medical education was undertaken not by a medical doctor rather a former school principal, Abraham Flexner. Medical education in America during the early part of the last century was a haphazard affair. Medical schools were less places to train doctors but more moneymaking enterprises.

And the results showed: mediocrity. To reform the sorry and dangerous state of affairs, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned Flexner. His searing criticism of the status quo and his bold prescription put American medical education on its firm scientific foundation.

In particular, he recommended that medical schools be part of a university rather than freestanding institutions, and that would-be doctors must first have a liberal education and be well versed in the sciences prior to undertaking rigorous medical studies. He further advocated a core of dedicated medical educators, complemented by the clinical faculty, to train these students. Directly as a consequence of Flexner, American medical schools today are unanimously regarded as the best.

Like the Razak Report to Malaysian education, the Flexner Report still governs medical education in America and elsewhere.

It would be pretentious of me to consider myself to be in the same league as these two eminent gentlemen. Rather my hope is that this book will be a catalyst for a much-needed wide debate on education in Malaysia. It is only through such broad participation and from hearing the views from the whole spectrum of society will Malaysia discover the system or systems of education that would best fill her needs.

My book is not a compilation of how-to’s or a laundry list of what ails the system, rather a discussion of broad concepts and ideas. A recipe book this is not. Absent is the nitty-gritty of the how and what to teach. Nor are details of the curricula or textbooks listed. Those are clearly the prerogative of the professionals. Similarly I will not be citing figures and statistics except in so far as to demonstrate some points.

To better illustrate my approach, I will compare education to my own profession: medicine. How health care is funded, doctors paid, or whether a hospital should be built and where are clearly for society to decide. In making those decisions policymakers must consider the views of health care professionals, but once the priorities are set, then let the professionals free execute them.

In my practice I actively involve my patients in the decision. The days when doctors were aloof, placed on a pedestal, and practically deified are thankfully gone, and rightly so. When a patient comes to me for a breast lump I do not dictate what she should do, I merely recommend the necessary steps and the consequences of not doing so. Even if the lump proves to be cancerous and the best treatment is surgical, the patient is still intimately involved in the decision. There are still questions as to what type of surgery and whether it should be combined with reconstructive procedures, radiation, and chemotherapy. There is no one right or best solution. Even if there were one best solution that the doctor thinks would suit the patient, she may think otherwise.

I remember a young lady who consulted me for early breast cancer. She would have benefited from conservation breast surgery, removing only a small portion of the organ while maintaining its cosmetic integrity. That too was the consensus of the tumor board reviewing her case. When we presented her with the various options, much to the surprise of all the professionals, she opted to have total removal of her breast. When I inquired why, she replied to the effect that to her that organ no longer defined her beauty and femininity, rather her potential killer. She did not want anything more to do with it. As she aptly put it, “I would prefer it to be in a jar of formalin rather than on my chest!”

Thus even when we professionals think that we have the best solution for a particular patient or client, we can sometimes be very wrong. We have to involve our clients and consumers. Blindly accepting the doctor’s prescription is not good enough. But once the patient has chosen a course of action such as surgery, then let the surgeons operate. Decisions as where to place the incision, types of sutures, and hundreds of other technical details are properly the surgeon’s expertise. But even here surgeons have to be mindful of the patient’s special needs and wishes. For Jehovah Witness patients whose religious beliefs preclude their accepting blood transfusions, I would be extra meticulous in my dissection. Someone sensitive of the scar, I would make the incision as small and inconspicuous as possible.

Returning to education, in this book there will be no discussion of the details that are properly the purview of the professionals–teachers and educators. How and what they should teach, or how best to motivate and engage the students are clearly their expertise. I would not want to second-guess them. They are the ones who see the children every day, and who have been professionally trained. The choice of textbooks and curriculum too is their prerogative. Nor should I be telling teachers how to test their students. But what we as society should expect of teachers and our schools is that they remain accountable both to the students and their parents, as well as to society.

This accountability can be measured partly by showing that the students are indeed making progress as indicated by their periodic test results. Other measures of accountability could be the dropout rates and the discipline level. I also shy away from discussing the philosophy of education. This book will deal more with pragmatic issues like ensuring our students are able to read and write, be mathematically competent, and be an asset to the community. All Malaysians deserve the best education regardless of where they live, their parents’ political affiliations, or their socioeconomic status.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #6

Chapter 1: A Pre-emptive Strike (Cont'd)

Education in the Era of Globalization

Globalization is bringing the world closer. With the coming together of the global community, there is an imperative for a common language. By default, English is that language. Why English and not Chinese is an interesting question. In terms of the number of native speakers, more people speak Chinese. Nonetheless the market has spoken, and English is now the most widely spoken. Trying to explain why English and not Chinese is like trying to explain why VHS format is favored over Beta for videotapes, and personal computers over Apple.

Undoubtedly, had the native English-speaking countries of America and Britain been third-rate economic powers, that language would not have been widely accepted. The current impetus to improve the English proficiency of Malaysians is because senior civil servants and diplomats are severely handicapped in dealing with international organizations and when negotiating international agreements. Malaysia’s interests would not be protected if her negotiators and diplomats do not understand the basic language, much less the nuances.

Malaysia is handicapped because of its British colonial past. Malaysians are rightly leery of anything English. Thus current attempts at improving the English proficiency of students are viewed with deep suspicion as yet another subtle manifestation of the colonial mentality.

No amount of rational explanation seems capable of overcoming this deep suspicion. In this regard the Indonesians have an advantage. Although they too had been colonized, it was by the Dutch. Thus the Indonesians do not harbor the same suspicion towards English.

In truth the future does not belong to the English speakers rather those who are fluent in English and another language; next would be those who speak only English; and the least advantaged would be those who speak only other than English. The Europeans have known this for along time. Speakers of English are handicapped as their language is widely spoken they have little incentive to learn another language. America is awakening to this fact and is now encouraging its students to be bilingual. Being fluently bilingual means more than simply knowing two languages, it offers other cognitive and intellectual advantages.

With globalization the world needs a common standard. This makes sense. We should expect that Chinese pilots be deemed equally competent as American ones so they could land their jet at any airport.

With better and open communications, Malaysians are fully aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. Malaysians would want for themselves and their families the same standard and quality of medical care and education as available elsewhere. When they cannot get that locally or if they deem that the quality of local services is not up to par, they will leave. Every year thousands of Malaysians go abroad for their medical care and education, costing the nation billions in lost foreign exchange. With such matters as health care, education, and personal consumption, nationalism plays a minimal role. Malaysians go to Britain for such matters simply because they perceive they would get better services there, ex-colonialist notwithstanding.

The king flew to Singapore to have his pacemaker inserted, and the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister went to Los Angeles for treatment of her breast cancer. She spoke glowingly of her treatment by American physicians. Despite her husband’s Islamic credentials, she had no qualms about being examined by infidel and male doctors. Beyond a certain level you do not care about religious scruples or nationalism, you just want the best for yourself and your loved ones.

When Malaysia built the Petronas TwinTowers, it unhesitatingly employed many skilled foreigners. If Malaysians ever want to participate in such projects not only in Malaysia but also elsewhere, they too must have internationally recognized training and qualifications.

Malaysians must now assess themselves by international yardsticks. Malaysian schools and universities must be cognizant of this. Their graduates must, at a minimum, be bilingual in Malay and English, science literate, and mathematically competent. Anything less would be doing the students, and the nation, a great disservice.
In the modern economy wealth resides less with the natural resources or the strategic location of a country, more with its people. As the UN Human Development Report 2001 states, “People are the real wealth of nations.”

Malaysia is proud of its Petronas Twin Towers that grace the skyline of its capital. That monument symbolizes the country’s preoccupation with building things physical and material. But the most important infrastructure of the new millennium will be human resources, and the twin pillars to developing that would be education and health. Prime Minister Mahathir never fails to take visitors to see his pride and joy, The Twin Towers. Would it not be nice if our schools and universities too were of such eminence that foreigners would want to visit them?

The Judicial Conundrum of Shari'a and Secular Coourts

The Judicial Conundrum of Shari’a and Secular Courts
M. Bakri Musa

[Personal note: Following my essay, I posted a well written piece by Chez1978. I agree with the essence of his arguments. Shari’a affects us all, Muslims and non-Muslims; it behooves us all to be informed.]

The literature on Shari’a is voluminous, and can be classified in two broad categories. The first, written mostly by Muslims educated in the traditional mode, is long on description but woefully short on analysis. These scholars have great influence in the Muslim world. Second are by those, Muslims and non-Muslims, trained under Western liberal education. Their scholarships are rigorous and analytical. Unfortunately, they are often dismissed as being influenced by the “Orientalists.”

One of the best treatises is Abdullah An-Naim’s Toward An Islamic Reformation, published by Syracuse University Press. In Malaysia, we had the intellectual giant, the late Ahmad Ibrahim. Though trained as a lawyer at Cambridge, he was highly respected by Malaysian Islamists. I recommend two additional references: Salbiah Ahmad and Shad Saleem Faruqi. Salbiah is a Malaysian social activist, a lawyer by training, and was a Fellow at Emory. Indian-born Shad Faruqi, a law professor at Universiti Technlogy MARA, was educated both in America and Pakistan, and a student of Ahmad Ibrahim.]

The Judicial Conundrum of Shari’a and Secular Courts
M. Bakri Musa

Recent highly-publicized decisions by the secular and Syariah courts exposed the stark “judicial conundrum” resulting from their overlapping jurisdictions. This is not a legal problem; its solution lies beyond changing the judicial system or tinkering with the constitution. Rather, it is a political problem; it must therefore be solved in the political arena.

It involves defining the very nature of our nation; more practically, addressing the meaning and implications of such phrases as, “Malaysia is an Islamic state,” and “Islam is the official religion.”

Malaysians are familiar with the civil, criminal and other courts of the secular justice system, based essentially on the English common law. The furor over the Shari’a system is that since the constitutional amendment of 1988, its status is elevated so that it is now separate and equal with the secular system.

To Muslims, the Shari’a is supreme; therein lies the problem. The Federal Court cannot claim to be the highest court in the land if it cannot hear cases from the Shari’a.

Overlapping and Conflicting Jurisdictions

Matters of Islam fall under state purview; federal jurisdiction applies only to the four states without sultans, and the two federal territories. Shari’a applies only to Muslims, but they are also subject to the secular justice system. Muslims are thus potentially subjected to two conflicting or at least competing legal jurisdictions.

The other conundrum lies when one party to a dispute is a Muslim and thus answerable to the Shari’a, and the other non-Muslim and beyond the reach of the Shari’a. Which court has jurisdiction, and which court will decide when there is dispute between the Shari’a and secular system?

In the past, Shari’a covered essentially family law, dealing with such mundane matters as divorces and inheritances. Besides, the estates of most Muslims then were not large or complicated. Even with that, disputes occurred, but they could be appealed to the usual secular appellate process. That avenue is now apparently closed.

Today the Shari’a has been vastly expanded; its jurisdiction now includes areas once under the purview of traditional criminal courts.

Consider this: A man beats his wife. If he is a non-Muslim; he could be charged in criminal court for assault and battery. At the same time his wife could sue him for torts (bodily damage and emotional distress) in civil court. If he is a Muslim, he falls under the Shari’a family dispute. Same action, but very different legal treatment based purely on the faith of the alleged perpetrator. That is not justice. It is an affront to the universal norms of equality before the law.
Muslims might gloat that this would induce non-Muslims to embrace the faith. The flip side is that many Muslim women, especially recent converts, would want to renounce their faith.

Consider another more dramatic example. A man is caught in “close proximity” with a woman other than his wife. If both were Muslims, this is khalwat, adultery under Shari’a and potentially punishable by stoning to death. Fortunately Malaysia does not (as yet) have that barbaric provision, but not for lack of trying on the part of the Islamists. If both parties were non-Muslims, there is no crime or civil liability as it was a consensual act. This differential treatment based solely on the faith of the participants is again not justice. The dilemma would be compounded vastly if only one party were a Muslim.

Malaysia has had nearly two hundred years experience with its current secular system. The elevation of the Shari’a is recent. The late Ahmad Ibrahim was the intellectual and legal giant instrumental in giving credence to the politicians’ elevating the Shari’a. Since then, the system has been bereft of talent in the ranks of both its practitioners as well as theoreticians.

Shari’a Not Divine

To Muslims, Shari’a is the “Whole duty of mankind;” it is divine law. To ascribe any inadequacies or shortcomings would be tantamount to attributing less than perfection to Allah – a blasphemy. However, as noted by Abdullah An-Naim in his book, Toward An Islamic Reformation, Shari’a is not divine in the manner of being revealed like the Quran. Rather, it was crafted by early Muslim jurists based on the Quran and the hadith. Shari’a remains the work of men, and thus suffers from all the imperfections inherent in such endeavors.

At its inception, the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in intellectual, legal and social achievement. Its treatment of women in particular was light years ahead of the times.

Shari’a has been in existence for over a thousand years; it was the operative system during the era of the great Muslim civilization as well as during the Ottoman Empire. Today only such countries as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are using it. These are not exactly examples that Malaysia would want to pattern itself after. It would be easier to sell the Shari’a if these countries were models of peace, social justice, and economic development.

Those countries are also overwhelmingly Muslim, making Shari’a more readily acceptable. Muslims proudly point to the first Muslim community in Madina set up by Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. to prove that the Shari’a is applicable to plural societies. We need a reality check on this point to disabuse ourselves of this delusion.
While Shari’a has remained unchanged for centuries, it is still far different in form, spirit and execution from the original Medina Charter. Second, and far more significant, that first Muslim community was led by no less than the Prophet s.a.w himself. To say that today’s Muslim leaders are a far shadow of the noble Prophet would be a severe understatement.

There has been little improvement or intellectual exertion by Muslim scholars and jurists to make the Shari’a relevant to and consonant with modern universally accepted notions of justice. In particular, as pointed out by An-Naim, the Shari’a’s position on gender equity, public law, and human rights – in particular the freedom of conscience – is problematic. Aspects of Shari’a’s hudud (criminal) provisions seem particularly barbaric and inhumane.

Malaysia’s judicial conundrum is not unique. Canada too has a bijural legal system, with most of the country under the English common law and Quebec under the French civil law based on the Napoleonic code. Unlike Malaysia however, its Supreme Court is national; as the highest court of the land it hears cases from all the other courts. Canada too had difficulties; it was not until the 1970s that it began making a concerted effort at integrating the two systems.

Reconciling the Shari’a with the secular system would require the best minds – legal, Islamic, political and others – as well as the widest input from citizens. In crafting the nation’s first constitution, we tapped the best legal talent in the Commonwealth. Today we would need another mini Reid commission composed of citizens to resolve this pressing issue.

It is not just non-Muslims who are uneasy over the expansion of the Shari’a; this sentiment is also shared by many Muslims.

The two leaders most instrumental in elevating the role of Islam in government and Shari’a specifically are Tun Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim. It is revealing that Anwar in suing Mahathir for libel has chosen the civil rather the Shari’a court. That speaks volumes of their (and the public) confidence in the Shari’a.

January 20, 2006
Reader’s opinion: Legislating Islam
Chez 1978

[Edited for brevity]

The latest action by the ten non-Muslim cabinet ministers further stoked the public debate on Article 121 (1A). Little is known of the actual content of the memorandum they submitted to the Prime Minister.

There is a difference between being informed and imagining ourselves to be so. I am pleased that the Bar Council has called for caution about further amending the constitution on this issue. The Council’s position on Article 121 (1A) is in line with past court decisions, that is, the High Courts can and have overruled the Syariah courts.

Civil courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and exceptions are made only by specific legislation. Kamali (2000) pointed out that “the basic intention of the amendment to Article 121 of the Constitution was to address problems arising out of conflicting jurisdiction and not so much as to create any new jurisdiction or introduce any basic changes to the status of the civil courts as courts of general jurisdiction in the country.”

Further, “a Syariah Court is not a court of inherent jurisdiction. It is created by the power in Item 1 and it relies of Federal laws for its jurisdiction over offences.” Further, “Up till 1948, the Court of Qadis and Assistant Qadis in the Malay states were part of the structure of the civil courts,” and was dropped only with the introduction of the Courts Ordinance. The Syariah Court was reestablished in Article 121 of the Constitution, not after 1988 amendment. Supreme Court Judge Harun Hashim noted, “What Article 121 (1A) has done is TO GRANT EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION to the Syariah Courts in the administration of Islamic law.”

Any law student can make the distinction between civil and syariah courts, and recognize that the latter derives its existence from the Constitution and thus its jurisdiction is limited to what is noted in the State List. Islamic laws apply to those professing that religion so far as it is defined by specific legislation, except in matters included in the Federal List. Taking a page from Sukma Darmawa v. Ketua Pengarah Penjara Malaysia’s case in 1998, we must remember that like the Prosecutor back then, Kaliammal could not present her case to the Syariah Court as she is a non-Muslim. The judge opined that the civil court has no jurisdiction regarding matters over which the Syariah Court has been vested jurisdiction, thus declining to hear Kaliammal’s grievances. That case is now under appeal, and with it Judge Kamali’s precedent (2000): “It [Article 121 (1A)] does not, however, overrule the general jurisdiction of the High Courts to overrule decisions of the Syariah Courts for it merely says that civil courts cannot exercise the Syariah court’s jurisdiction.”

It is not necessary to amend the Constitution to rid of Article 121 (1A) if we bear in mind its original limitations. Article 121 (1A) does not remove the ability of a High Court to hear from the Syariah courts. It is the abortion of justice in both Shamala and Kaliammal cases that led to the recent uproar where non-Muslims felt that they have no legal recourse to their grievances. Certainly, legislations in Islamic law that creates unequal treatment of the sexes and between Muslims and non-Muslims in such areas as custodianship and religious conversion of a minor complicate the matter.

Malaysia is not an Islamic State where the Quran and Hadith reign supreme; the Constitution is still supreme. Laws are not created to grant every supposed “rights” one claims to have, or should have. Article 121 (1A) states that the civil courts do not have jurisdiction in what the Syariah courts enjoy, not that they are equal systems. Syariah court is not merely an “unequal part of a dichotomy,” it is not even part of a dichotomy as it is limited to certain areas only as expressly permitted by legislation.

To force those converts to Islam to publicly declare their conversion with penalties for those who failed to do so, as has been suggested, is to discriminate against Muslim converts. Our Constitution provides some basic freedom, and freedom of religion is one. Why should Muslim converts alone make their conversions public?

Clearly, the masses are easily persuaded or outraged by symbolic changes. I do not think it necessary to amend Article 121 (1A). The issue has always been how the civil courts failed to provide a venue for remedy to hear Kaliammal’s case. Why is there so much fear by the High Court that JAWI could not present evidence needed to convince Kaliammal and the judge, or the resentment of the Syariah court towards the civil system where it itself sprang from?

Ahmad Ibrahim noted that “in Malaysia, a person who has embraced Islam is still bound according to the civil law by his or her former personal law.” It was meant to point out that a convert to Islam cannot initiate divorce proceedings under a civil marriage, in effect making a change of religion a matrimonial offence and a reason for divorce. To the Syariah court, the civil marriage automatically is null and void, but can we write off blood relations as easily when it comes to their children? Here, it is important to note what Ahmad Ibrahim (1997) said: “It would result in grave injustice to non-Muslim spouses and children whose only remedy would be in civil courts if the High Court no longer has jurisdiction, since the Shariah courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims.”

We have fundamental rights that cannot be taken away with any law passed by Parliament. The Constitution protects us, and all courts and laws operate under its purview. Nothing is above the Constitution. However, the Constitution is only ink written on a piece of paper if it is not embraced. Previous amendments to the Constitution might have changed the original spirit of the document or weakened its intended meaning, but we must be careful in making further quick changes lest it results in further confusion. Seperti tikus membaiki labu (Mice fixing the pumpkins).

I agree that the Syariah Court and Islamic laws must be given a chance to mature and sort out the weaknesses. Islamic jurisprudence, like common law, is an evolving entity, not wholly free from human interpretations though guided by the Quran and Hadith; thus the various interpretations. In the end, the evolution of Islamic laws will also serve to open the door of ijtihad, inviting open debate. This would only make Islamic justice a more attractive alternative.

It is the universality of the principles in justice that are at trial here, not my rights stepping on yours, or vice versa. It would be a serious misinterpretation to view the recent controversy over the Islamic Family Law amendments as merely a disagreement between Muslim men and women. It is more accurately a struggle between conservative (literal) versus progressive and open interpretations of the Quran. The latter interpretation affirms gender equity. It would be disastrous to automatically favor fathers in the custody battles, especially where the husband has been proven to be unreliable and irresponsible. Legislating Islam is a human affair, and Muslims must partake in much the same way that other Malaysians partake in the passing of laws in Parliament. We do not live in separate worlds where Muslims and non-Muslims do not come in contact.

Mohamad Hashim Kamali (2000). Islamic Law in Malaysia: Issues and Developments. Ilmiah Publications: Kuala Lumpur
Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim (1976). An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia (2nd ed.). Government Printer: Kuala Lumpur.
Mimi Kamariah Majid (1992). Undang-undang Keluarga di Malaysia. Butterworths Asia: Kuala Lumpur.
Ahmad Ibrahim (1997). Family Law in Malaysia (3rd ed.)http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/content/view/2232/2/

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #5

Chapter 1: A Preemptive Strike (Cont'd)

Integration Through Education

Schools are powerful institutions for acculturating the young. American schools successfully integrate millions of children of immigrants into the mainstream. The elite of America, from government and business to the professions and academia, are inundated with children of first generation immigrants. Every year America garners more than its fair share of Nobel prizewinners, but what is not appreciated is that many of those luminaries are foreign born. What is remarkable is that these naturalized citizens feel and are treated no differently than native born ones.

Education also serves as a great elevator. As the Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, Horace Mann, stated in 1848, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” With such farsighted individuals in charge of education, no wonder that state in general and Boston in particular are famous for their colleges and intellectuals.

Malaysia has always been conscious of the importance of schools in molding a united Malaysian nation. That was the central aspiration of the Razak Report. Unfortunately, purity and nobility of intentions alone are not enough. Today young Malaysians remain even more segregated.

Worse, unlike the segregation of the past that was essentially imposed by the colonial structure, today Malaysians choose to remain apart. Malaysian parents deliberately decide that their children attend schools with only their own kind. They express no desire to mix or integrate. You see this not only in schools but also on college campuses.

The British had no grandiose pretensions of trying to unite the various races. On the contrary, the system was designed specifically to perpetuate existing divisions, all part of the colonialists’ grand strategy of “divide and conquer.” They built just enough schools to produce the necessary functionaries to run the country for the colonial office. Ironically while the British had no desire of bringing the various races together, nonetheless there was far greater social and racial integration among the students during British rule. The English schools with their integrated student body had this unintended consequence.

This integrative role of schools and other educational institutions must be strengthened lest Malaysia becomes a highly educated but divided nation.

The remarkable success of American education is precisely because it is decentralized to the local level. The consequent flexibility allows it to meet the different needs of a diverse nation, while maintaining its core of commonality. There is much that Malaysia can learn from that system.

No One-Size-Fits-All

If I have learned anything about being a parent it is that my three children are all very different. I was fortunate to be sensitive of such individual variations early to be able to help them.

Nowhere are these differences best demonstrated than in their attitude towards school. My two older children managed to go through the large comprehensive public school quite well. My youngest did fine at the small elementary school, but by the time he was ready for middle school, we encountered problems. He made up his mind not to go to the same school his older sister and brother attended. He heard enough horror stories of drugs and bullies. The fact that his older siblings did all right did not impress him. That was before, he said. We did not realize how adamant he was until he absolutely refused to go to school, despite our encouragement, cajoling, and yes, also our anger. He also had a ready and convenient excuse as at that time we had moved out to the country and the school was far away.

Fortunately we were able to put him into a private school in a neighboring town. When we took him for the interview he immediately liked this new school. We did not know what attracted him but months later when we visited him on parents’ day, we knew we had made the right choice. My son cheerfully greeted the headmaster who in turn beamed and replied, “Hi Azlan! How’s that science project of yours?” You can tell a lot about a school when its principal knows not only the name but also the latest project of some random students who happened to bump into him in the schoolyard.

My son thrived there but when it was time for high school, we had problems. He was accepted to two private schools but they were too far away (there was no private high school in our town). I could not bear to see my wife driving him to and fro every school day. I imagined some horrible road accident on some wet winter day. Thus after much cajoling he agreed to attend the local high school. It was the typical comprehensive American public school with over two thousand students.

He managed to stay a year, and what a year it was! He was miserable, had disciplinary problems, and his grades suffered despite our many conferences with his teachers. Fortunately at this time a new public school was being built in a nearby town, and because it was a small district, the school too was small, with less than 200 students, a tenth the size of his present school. We took him there for a week’s trial attending classes in converted temporary trailers. Despite the less than ideal surroundings, he liked the school. So we transferred him. He settled in quickly and by the time he was in his last year he was among the top students. What a difference in four years! All we did was listen to him and found a school that met his needs. I shudder to think had we lived in Malaysia where there are no choices. When I see school-age children loitering and dropping out of schools in Malaysia today, I wonder how many of them could be saved if only we could find a school that would meet their needs. We are more likely to find such schools if we give our children and their parents choices. There is no one school or teaching style that will suit all children. If there are differences in the children from one family, imagine how much dissimilar children would be from different families, races, and cultures. There is no such thing as one national system that would suit all children.

It would be naïve to assume that a system of teaching or schooling that would be suitable for the son of a doctor in Ukay Heights would also be appropriate for the daughter of a rice farmer in Ulu Kelantan.

With the former, there is high background intellectual activity and English proficiency at home and in the community, not so with the latter. We ignore such crucial differences at our own peril. More specifically, our children (and so too our nation) will suffer the consequences of such foolish thinking.

America is able to achieve remarkably rapid assimilation of its immigrants’ children precisely because there is no central authority governing education for the entire nation. Education is decentralized; with schools under local control and setting their own standards and evaluating their own students. There is no national school-leaving certificate.

Similarly for higher education, there is no central bureaucracy controlling the universities. Apart from the public system there are private schools and colleges; they all thrive and meet the needs of various students.

Despite the diversity and bewildering models, the system is able to achieve its primary goals of educating and acculturating young Americans.

What can Malaysia learn from America? Could Malaysia achieve its goals of national integration as well as produce an educated citizenry with such a decentralized system? Absolutely! The whole thesis of my book is to convince readers that this is not only possible indeed it is the only option for Malaysia.

Underlying the diversity of the American system is a core of commonality. All schools use English as the medium of instruction and all students have to take US history and government, science, mathematics, and a foreign language. Although there are no national exit examinations nonetheless there are standardized tests like the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) and Achievement Tests (AT) to enable universities to compare students from various schools and districts. Additionally, students are continuously evaluated throughout their school year by those most competent to do so–their teachers. Many universities now regard this evaluation, the Grade Point Average (GPA), to be more reliable and a better predictor of college performance than standardized test scores. There is currently a movement to have national or at least statewide school-leaving test, but this has not been widely accepted. Even if it were fully accepted, such testing is designed more to ensure that students achieve minimum competency levels and to make the schools accountable, not to rank the students.

Teachers rightly fear that adopting and emphasizing national tests would cramp their classroom style and freedom. Teachers would then be tempted to “teach to the test” rather than use their imagination and style to fit the individual class and student. It is this freedom that accounts for the unique success of American schools. Students are allowed by their teachers to experiment, explore, and express themselves instead of being bound rigidly to a tight syllabus and examination requirements.

When students in Monterey, California, learn about the environment, they have the vast Pacific Ocean at their doorstep to study, and their teachers plan their lessons to take full advantage of this natural attribute. Students in Colorado have the wonders of the Rocky Mountains.

Having a rigid national curriculum would inhibit such local experimentations and variations. Likewise with the study of foreign languages; schools near the Quebec border of Maine would more likely offer French, while those at El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, would offer Spanish. The beauty and genius of the American system is precisely this great flexibility to accommodate local and individual variations, a lesson that Malaysia would do well to note.