(function() { (function(){function b(g){this.t={};this.tick=function(h,m,f){var n=f!=void 0?f:(new Date).getTime();this.t[h]=[n,m];if(f==void 0)try{window.console.timeStamp("CSI/"+h)}catch(q){}};this.getStartTickTime=function(){return this.t.start[0]};this.tick("start",null,g)}var a;if(window.performance)var e=(a=window.performance.timing)&&a.responseStart;var p=e>0?new b(e):new b;window.jstiming={Timer:b,load:p};if(a){var c=a.navigationStart;c>0&&e>=c&&(window.jstiming.srt=e-c)}if(a){var d=window.jstiming.load; c>0&&e>=c&&(d.tick("_wtsrt",void 0,c),d.tick("wtsrt_","_wtsrt",e),d.tick("tbsd_","wtsrt_"))}try{a=null,window.chrome&&window.chrome.csi&&(a=Math.floor(window.chrome.csi().pageT),d&&c>0&&(d.tick("_tbnd",void 0,window.chrome.csi().startE),d.tick("tbnd_","_tbnd",c))),a==null&&window.gtbExternal&&(a=window.gtbExternal.pageT()),a==null&&window.external&&(a=window.external.pageT,d&&c>0&&(d.tick("_tbnd",void 0,window.external.startE),d.tick("tbnd_","_tbnd",c))),a&&(window.jstiming.pt=a)}catch(g){}})();window.tickAboveFold=function(b){var a=0;if(b.offsetParent){do a+=b.offsetTop;while(b=b.offsetParent)}b=a;b<=750&&window.jstiming.load.tick("aft")};var k=!1;function l(){k||(k=!0,window.jstiming.load.tick("firstScrollTime"))}window.addEventListener?window.addEventListener("scroll",l,!1):window.attachEvent("onscroll",l); })();

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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #12

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)

Education As A Political and Cultural Symbol

Education is a very powerful political and cultural symbol in Malaysia. This unfortunate association proves to be a major distraction. Major efforts are expended in the name of education not on improving it, rather on scoring political points and furthering the objectives of ambitious politicians.

The consequence of this mindset is that initiatives in education are first analyzed in terms of which race or community “won” and which one “lost.” The corollary to this destructive thinking is that what is good for one community must be at the expense of the other–a “zero-sum” mentality. Chinese parents consider teaching Malay to their children a sop to Malay nationalists rather than as an asset in of itself. Fortunately, this negative attitude is fast receding. Malays however, are still trapped by the bugaboo of colonialism. Many among the educated and enlightened, as exemplified by Nik Safiah Karim, consider learning English as glorifying the colonialists or worse, of wanting to be a Mat Salleh (Malay epithet for the English, an idiomatic equivalent of Uncle Tom). It never occurs to them that English fluency is a highly useful skill.

Because of this powerful political symbolism, Ministers of Education with rare exceptions have been politicians known best for their ability to “stand up” against non-Malays. Such leaders also have a singularly insular view of the world, in addition to their thin managerial and other talents. The degradation of Malaysian education can be blamed in large part to the appointments in the past of such mediocre personalities as Rahman Talib and Khir Johari as Ministers of Education.

Their more recent successors are not much better. The sinister aspect to this politicization at the highest level is that it filters down to poison the atmosphere at lower levels. When I was associated with UKM, I had a competent pathologist colleague. He was enthusiastic, hardworking, and very effective; definitely an asset to the university. Imagine my anger and surprise when he approached me one morning with the news that his contract might not be renewed. Only then did I know that he was not a Malaysian. I brought his plight to his departmental head. He assured me (and I believed him) that he was indeed trying very hard to reverse the decision. Unfortunately the hierarchy at UKM was particularly chauvinistic (still is). To them the presence of every foreigner on the faculty is a reflection of the inadequacy of native talent. In the end, the man’s contract was not renewed. I am sure that those in charge did not even consider the effect of their decision on the students and teaching program.

The challenge for Malaysia is how to de-politicize education. This does not mean that it should operate outside the political realities. Far from it! The successful minister must have the necessary political finesse to balance the conflicting demands of the various constituencies.

What he should not do is have his every decision governed by politics. Aware of the heavy political significance of the portfolio, many ministers have used it to further their personal political agenda. Politicians are inherently ambitious creatures; they cannot fail to note that all of the nation’s prime ministers (except of course the first) had been Ministers of Education. This emboldened those ministers coming later that they too were destined for higher calling.

Anwar Ibrahim, who held the portfolio in the 1980s, was the most obscene example of this crass ambition. His successor Najib Razak also exhibited this tendency, albeit more coyly. But their performance as Minister of Education was nothing but a running record of ineptitude.

The hubris of Anwar was his arrogant attempt to dictate how Malay should be spoken – his famous dictate on the artificial Bahasa Baku (original Malay), now thankfully ignored. Najib’s legacy was in permitting private colleges and universities. He was very good at it, approving in the space of couple of years hundreds of institutions! He must have had an inflated sense of his (and his subordinates’) ability to monitor them all. I have a more suspicious take (pardon the choice of word), for later in 1999 Najib was returned with the highest number of votes as one of UMNO‘s Vice-Presidents. He ran a very slick and, I might add, a well-financed campaign. The consequence of that flurry of approvals is that today’s headlines carry stories of colleges set up by fly-by-night operators and a medical school approved that did not even have a laboratory. Yet this character has the gumption of thinking that he is competent to be a future prime minister!

In a dramatic departure from tradition, in 1999 Prime Minister Mahathir for the first time appointed a non-politician as Minister of Education. Musa Mohamad was trained as a pharmacist, and was previously the vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), remarkable for someone lacking a terminal qualification in his field and without an iota of scholarly contribution. No surprise then that as minister he has been fumbling from one crisis to another.

The most recent was over the teaching of science and mathematics in English. When the government first announced it, there was considerable opposition. The Chinese objected because their schools were already doing a good job, they saw no reason to change a working formula. Malays viewed such measures as further widening the gulf separating urban from rural (and thus Malay from non-Malay) schools.

Online polls conducted by the mainstream media and read mostly by urbanites overwhelmingly favored the proposal. But a similar survey done by Harakah, a publication of the opposition Islamic Party PAS, the results were the exact opposite. The mainstream media (owned by the ruling political party) carried little or no coverage of those opposing the scheme, thus giving readers the false impression that the initiative was universally welcomed.

Had the government concentrated on providing well-trained English teachers to rural schools, the measure would not have generated such hostile responses. Indeed had the government done that, rural (read: Malay) students would have high levels of English fluency and the problem would not have risen in the first place.

This close linking of politics and education means that the ministry’s basic mission of providing quality education often gets tangled with and distracted by extraneous considerations. In 2001, as part of the government’s economic recovery plan, over RM2 billion were allocated for the building of schools. But because of race politics, these contracts were given only to Bumiputras, thereby effectively ensuring that the costs would be jacked up because of the limited competition.

What the government should have done was to open the bids to all, including foreigners, and then accept the best price. In this way it would be spending the scarce resources prudently and would be able to stretch them even further, thus benefiting more students.

I estimate that such restrictive contracts boost the costs in excess of 25-50 percent. In one example, the government spent RM50 million to build a MARA residential school. I visited the site during its construction with a contractor friend who had done many similar projects.

We looked at the blue print, talked with the workers, and scouted around for the cost of the land. My contractor friend confidently said that he could have built the same for under RM30 million and still would have made a handsome profit. And by modifying the design to get rid of the extraneous and expensive arches and fancy roofs, he could have brought the price down to under RM25 million, about half price!

Had there been open bids, the government could have built two such schools for the price of one. With the current practice, the government may have helped its favorite Bumiputra contractors, with the second it would have helped thousands of young students.

In another instance, the ministry embarked on an equally expensive project of building computer labs at schools, a laudatory enterprise. Again the similar restrictions, and as a result less than 10 percent of the projects were completed on time. Appalling! The ministry was saddled with the twin problems of cost overruns and abandoned projects, all because of such favoritism and cronyism. Minister Musa made some seemingly brave statements about penalizing the errant contractors, but in the end nothing was done. The practice continues.

To be fair, such inefficiencies occur regularly in America. In California, every school must be designed from scratch. Obviously the architects’ lobby inserted that clause! And only unionized workers are to be employed, thus ensuring at least 30 percent hike in labor costs. There are also other rules purportedly for safety. Consequently public schools in California cost nearly twice that of private ones. It can be argued that California is rich and can afford such featherbedding practices. Not so Malaysia.

Another egregious example of prodigious waste was the sending of thousands of Bumiputra students abroad, mostly to mediocre institutions. The 1997 Asian economic crisis thankfully put an end to that profligate practice. While these precious funds were being wasted, local institutions struggled with meager resources. When I queried a senior official about this, his reply was as frank as it was frightening. By sending these students abroad and away from local public scrutiny, the government was hiding the fact it was spending billions on them. I would rather that the government been more prudent and sent only the best students and save the rest of the money to improve rural schools and local universities, thereby helping even more Bumiputras.

The quality of the students sent was such that when a team of officials from USM came to America to recruit potential lecturers among these students, almost all the applicants were rejected for the simple reason that few could communicate well in English. This raised the more fundamental question of why they were sent abroad in the first place.

When I encountered the first few students who had academic difficulties in the early 1980s, I blamed them for being lax and lazy. But when I later discovered that there were many more in the same sad shape, I knew then that it was not individual weaknesses, rather a system failure. I visited the centers that prepared these students and was appalled at both the lack of discipline and sense of purpose among the staff. No wonder few of the students were accepted to good colleges.

When I suggested that the selection be more rigorous, the officials replied that none would then qualify. They had such low expectations.

I heard every stereotype and caricature of the “lazy and dumb” Malays uttered by these officials who incidentally were also Malays. They further assured me that these students were the best they had. Note, the remarks were from the principals and senior administrators.

Lest I leave a negative impression, I will relate my experience with the teachers. First they apologized for their administrators’ dismissive treatment of me. Then they showed me the latest circular from the ministry asking them to further cut their syllabi. In physics they were to completely eliminate the whole section on optics. In chemistry, a number of experiments were now to be demonstrated only, not to be done by the students. When I queried why the ministry was doing this, they could not offer any explanation except to suggest that the ministry was pressuring the centers to pass as many candidates as possible, and to cut down costs.

I met with their biology teacher, and our conversation drifted towards teaching microscope, especially the ones with video and computer attachments so images could be stored on discs and projected onto the screen for the whole class to see. He said that he had been trying to acquire the equipment for the past three years but his request had been consistently deferred. My son’s school had just bought similar equipment. The cost? Less than 10 percent of what the Malaysian teachers were quoted! That reason? The school had to buy through the government-approved vendor and thus the consequent horrendous mark up.

Multiply such incidents and the aggregate wastage is truly staggering. Politics have corrupted the procurement process, driving up costs. The more sinister aspect to the intrusion of politics into education is that standards have gone by the wayside. Officials are impatient to get “good” results to prove a political point, thus they lower the standards.

Had they raised the standard, Malay students would have responded. There may be a year or two of bad results until the message gets through, but in the end they will respond.

Further, had such poor results persisted they would have elicited howling protests from the public and would have forced the ministry to rectify the inadequacies of the system. But by lowering the standards, more Malays appeared to be qualified and everyone was happy – until the day of reckoning.

Malaysian schools are also fast becoming the favorite hobbyhorse for ambitious politicians. In his zeal to prove his presumed piety and religiosity, Anwar Ibrahim instituted more teaching of Islamic Studies.

Later another politician, not to be outdone, pushed for teaching entrepreneurial studies, no doubt to boost his credentials among Malay business types. And a third was advocating his pet subject – tourism!

The latest is the Deputy Prime Minister pushing for IT. These politicians forget that there are only so many hours in the school day.

The current appalling standards of education at all levels are the consequence of having ignored the problems and letting them fester. A good start at reform would be to divorce as far as possible politics, especially the race and party variety, from education. Doing so would enable those involved in our schools and universities to focus on their basic mission of providing quality education to all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters
M. Bakri Musa

[From the Sun Thursday March 9, 2006]

The water in the narrow Strait of Johore is usually calm. In fact it is unhealthily stagnant, as the causeway had effectively dammed the waterway and stopped the natural ebb and flow of the tide across it.

This will soon change if Malaysia were to proceed with its planned suspended bridge. The bridge threatens to stir the water, literally and figuratively.

The new structure would not increase capacity, as it would still have the same number of lanes as the existing causeway. Even if the lanes were increased, the bridge would not appreciably increase the capacity, as the other (Singapore) half of the causeway remains the same.

The suspended bridge could markedly improve the marine ecology, as there would once again be free flow of tide across the strait, at least on the Malaysian side. That would reduce the stagnancy and the stench, as well as enhance the esthetics and the marine environment.

If that is the reason for the bridge, then I would applaud its proponents for their ecological consciousness.

That objective could however be achieved just as effectively and at a considerably lower price by burrowing a series of wide tunnels. This retrofit could be done without disrupting traffic.

There are already a few culverts, but they have silted up for lack of maintenance, as are the drains and rivers in town. There is no assurance that the more expensive bridge would not be similarly neglected. Even with the new bridge, the strait would still be blocked because the existing causeway would remain to carry the railroad. Transferring the tracks onto the crooked bridge would be the height of folly; I have yet to see a curved railroad bridge.

Of course the much cheaper tunnel alternative would entail correspondingly smaller profits, and, let us also openly acknowledge, less generous “commissions” and “Kopi Oh!” money. This more than anything else is what drives this common sense-defying and exorbitantly expensive project.

Underwater tunnels, being not visible, would not give rise to bragging rights. There would be no showpiece monument for visitors to behold as they drive across.

I do not dismiss this vanity aspect to the bridge. A beautiful suspended bridge on the Malaysian half would be a spectacular contrast to the drab causeway on the Singapore side, remnant of the utilitarian, low budget, and “good enough for the natives” colonial mentality.

Singaporeans, being residents of a First World city, would not be easily impressed with the suspended bridge; their reactions would likely be one of detached bemusement. They and other foreign visitors would more likely be impressed with Malaysia if our customs and immigration counters were more efficient, and clean.

Considering our culture, I do not minimize the “show off” factor to the new bridge. Drive through the exclusive residential areas of Klang Valley, and we see palatial mansions behind gilded gates and ornate fences. Step outside the well-manicured and immaculately maintained grounds and the stark reality of urban Malaysia hits you: roadside brushes uncut, rubbish all over, and drains plugged.
Yet, for a fraction of the price of these expensive gates and brick fences they could have the drains covered and thus effectively expand their usable land and simultaneously eliminate the stench. If they would jointly maintain their common public areas instead of having to depend on the city, the enhanced esthetic, health and other benefits would far outweigh the costs, not to mention the increase to their property values.

The owners of these ostentatious residences are also likely to be the ones responsible for our public polices. So it is not surprising that they would want to build an expensive bridge to show off to visitors when the money could have been better spent sprucing up the waterfront and cleaning up the deadly polluted Sengget River.

If there were to be a bridge, let it be right across, replacing the entire causeway. Apparently, Singapore’s opposition is over the cost, especially in relation to the expected benefits. If that were the case, make the project subject to the realities of the marketplace.

One way would be to invite potential concessionaires and allow them to charge toll fees. This would spare both governments the expense, with the risk borne entirely by the operators and the revenues paid by users on both sides. Another would be to privatize the project, with the two neighbors owning equal shares and the project funded through private financing to be repaid by user fees. To ensure transparency and to get the best price, open the bidding to international competition.

A joint venture with Singapore on this bridge might teach Malaysia a lesson or two, like how to get the best contract and run an efficient public utility. The most important lesson would be how much cheaper a project would cost if it were subjected to rigorous competition and spared of corruption.

If either option were to happen, the new bridge would truly symbolize the physical, social, economic and other bonds linking the two nations.]

This half bridge proposal has already created considerable anxiety across the causeway. There are those who think that anything that would provoke such reactions in Singapore must automatically be good for Malaysia.

This is an exception; scraping the project would spare Malaysia the unneeded expense and at the same time improve relations with our neighbor.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #11

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)
Education and Development

Poverty and lack of education may seem to be in a vicious cycle, with one feeding the other. This is more apparent than real, for the cycle can be broken through effective strategies and interventions. Poor Malay fishermen do not invest in their children’s education not because they do not value education, rather they could not afford to. While education is the key to eradicating poverty, ironically poverty is also the greatest impediment to getting an education. While to economists the value of the foregone income of the youngster attending school is minimal, to that poor family the son being at school and not being able to help in hauling the net may mean the difference between surviving and not having a meal for that day. The solution to this intractable problem is not simply to lecture the poor fisherman endlessly on the value of education, rather to shift the balance in that family’s personal equation to make the child attending school to be worth more than having him out in the high seas. In Chapter Five I discuss the novel Brazilian social experiment of paying parents to keep their children in school as one effective way of shifting that balance in the equation.

Investments in education at all levels and across many nations consistently yield double-digit returns. In Venezuela, investments at the primary level yield a private ROI in excess of 25 percent, and a social ROI of 16.9; for secondary education, the returns are respectively 10.6 and 11.5 percent; and for university education, 13.5 and 12.0. The private and social returns are highest for investments at the primary level. This is especially true for developing countries.

Beyond the primary level the picture gets complicated. For the individual, the loss of income while attending school becomes a significant factor. With the child now older and stronger, he or she could earn considerably more, and his help in the field would be greater. Thus the private ROI would be lower. The societal ROI would also be lower as secondary and higher education cost considerably more to provide.

Beyond elementary education, the societal ROI would also be dependent on the nature and kinds of education provided. A system that emphasizes the sciences, mathematics, and foreign language (in particular English) yields the greatest returns. The remarkable economic success of Singapore is attributable in part to the fact that its early leaders intuitively recognized this. Goh Keng Swee, the island’s long-time economic minister and the man many regard as the brain behind its remarkable transformation, credited the republic’s success to the many parents who encouraged their children to pursue science and mathematics.

It is not enough to simply increase the number of years devoted to science and mathematics. Quality matters more than quantity, as shown by cross-national studies like the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). Additional studies by California’s Public Policy Institute show that the one factor that correlates best with the students’ future success in college as well as the workplace is their achievements in mathematics and language while in school.

Skills in both areas have the greatest transferability to other areas. A system that does not emphasize these key subjects would not yield great returns. India is a striking example, so too are many Muslim countries. Within Malaysia we see this dramatically demonstrated.

Malays with degrees earn considerably less than non-Malays both in private and public sectors because Malays tend to have qualifications in other than mathematics or science. They are also markedly deficient in English proficiency. In many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, literally millions of brains are being wasted in religious schools where the curriculum is singularly devoid of much mathematics and even less science.

In America, differences in economic and social achievements of the various ethnic groups are often attributed to culture (and more sinisterly and unconsciously to race), but had these studies been analyzed more rigorously, education would be the more consistent correlate and accurate predictor. Such thinking also exists in Malaysia. Differences between the achievements of Malays and non-Malays are invariably portrayed as rooted in race and culture when in fact they are more a function of educational attainment. Culture may have a lot to do with Malay attitude towards education, but ultimately the final critical element is still education. Thus to enhance Malay achievements requires exploring ways to improve their education, especially in science and mathematics, and not, as is the present practice, incessantly harping on the inadequacies of culture or race. If this means changing those aspects of Malay culture, social environment, and reward system that impede excellence in education, yes, that would be fruitful. But that is quite a different approach than the wholesale condemnation of Malay culture and mores.

Differences in the economic status of the various regions in Malaysia are also better correlated with educational achievement, not race, culture, or geography. The commonality of poverty among Dayaks in the interior of Sarawak, Tamils on the rubber estates, and Malays in remote kampongs, is due to their poor education.

Our diverse world could only benefit from better education of its inhabitants. Positive exposures to the various cultures would be the first step towards understanding and tolerating the differences among us. Further, transnational issues such as pollution, conservation, and environmental degradation can only be tackled through better education.

Malaysia spends considerable sums on education as compared to many countries, both in absolute terms as well as relative to the economy, population, and overall budget. Yet it has little to show for all the resources expended.

There are many reasons for this. In part the inefficiency is consequent to the ministry’s mission being tangled up with extraneous issues like helping Malay contractors. Another, Malaysia does not emphasize mathematics, sciences, and technical fields. This Technical Intellectual Capital (TIC) is a far more powerful predictor of development than just simple education. South Korea emphasizes TIC, catapulting the nation into an economic powerhouse. India by contrast chooses the British route of emphasizing education for its own sake, meaning heavy doses of the non-technical. India is stagnant but has plenty of taxi drivers with degrees and an abundance of petition writers, otherwise known as lawyers.

The remarkable aspect of investments in education is that, properly done, the benefits are both cumulative and synergistic. Stated simply, the more we invest, the more the benefits. Or in the language of the economists, such investments yield high marginal returns. I will illustrate this concept with an example.

My son is an aspiring pilot, but instead of going straight to flight school or joining the air force to get his training, he decided to get his degree in business first and take his pilot training on the side, figuring that his academic qualifications and technical training would enhance his employability. We were watching a television program about a revolutionary jet engine pioneered by NASA and now being incorporated into new model executive jets. They are markedly more efficient, and costing much less to build and operate. My reaction was simply, “Very interesting!” My son however, immediately saw the splendid opportunity for air travel between small towns now not adequately served by major airlines. He saw the potential of an air taxi service using those executive jets at a price comparable to the current coach fares. Additionally, passengers would be spared the hassle and delays at major airports especially today with the heightened security checks. As this jet could land at small airports, this would reduce congestion of the major ones as well as increase the use of currently underused country airports.

He was so excited with the potential that he decided to explore it. The upshot is that he is making that project into his senior thesis and considering running air taxis his career.

My point is that to someone who does not have the necessary background knowledge, the development is simply “interesting.” But to him, it opens the potential of a new business.

When we embark on seeking new knowledge, we will never know where it will lead. At one time many were against spending money on space research contending that the funds were needed more on earth.

Today directly as result of those researches we see the benefits accruing in medicine, agriculture, and telecommunication. The elemental diet now used widely in clinical medicine was the direct result of space research necessitated by the need to find zero residue diet for astronauts because of the limited lavatory facilities in spaceship. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous cell phones are the direct spin off of space and satellite research.

The Muslim philosopher Saidina Ali wisely observed on the difference between wealth and knowledge, and the much superior benefits of investing in the latter. Knowledge protects us, but we have to protect our wealth against theft and inflation. Not so with knowledge. My knowledge and skills as a surgeon are always with me, no one can take those away. The world around may crumble but I can still practice my profession. Wealth is reduced and diluted when shared; knowledge on the other hand gets amplified and enhanced when shared, to the benefit of everyone. The remarkable progress of science is precisely because of this open sharing of information, knowledge, and discoveries.

Knowledge kept secret would lose its value. Knowledge retains if not increases its value with time, wealth risks being eroded with time and inflation. Investments in knowledge are durable; investments in fancy skyscrapers could be easily destroyed by fire or suicide bombers. Likewise investing in education is durable; nothing could destroy it. The first thing the ancient Mongols did in subjugating and destroying the Muslim civilization was to kill the intellectuals and burn all the books and libraries. They failed; instead they ended up becoming Muslims, a testimony to the power and endurance of knowledge.

Education is no panacea, but a well-educated citizenry is a prerequisite or an enabling condition for socioeconomic development. To maximize the returns on investments in education we must also simultaneously provide opportunities. The remarkable transformation of South Korea and Taiwan is because they combined education reforms with increased economic opportunities. Malaysia in contrast invests heavily in its Multimedia Super Corridor and Biovalley, but those programs do not produce the anticipated returns as they are few trained Malaysians able to take advantage of the opportunities. The lack of qualified local personnel is also stalling the projects.

Opportunities are more likely to come to those who are ready with the skills and knowledge; to those who lack such skills and knowledge, the opportunities would simply be missed. And providing quality education is the surest way to make the citizens ready.

If our leaders are worried that Malay culture and race would be lost with globalization, the best and most effective remedy would be to ensure that Malays get the best education.

Malaysia is suddenly realizing that its competitiveness has slipped. This is the final expression of a failed education system. Unless steps are taken to improve the quality, broaden its access, reduce the inequities, and increase its relevance, Malaysia will remain poorly served.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

RMC's Wise Decision to Drop Lower Forms

RMC’s Wise Decision to Drop Lower Forms

(From the Sun Weekend edition, February 18, 2006)

The decision by the Ministry of Defense to eliminate Forms I-III and re-institute Sixth Form at the Royal Military College is wise. I hope this is just the beginning of the innovations, and that other residential schools would follow RMC’s lead.

By eliminating the lower forms, RMC would effectively double its output for the same resources. Besides, children at that age are too young and psychologically very vulnerable to be separated from the support and nurturing of their family. By bringing back Sixth Form, RMC would have its own matriculation program. This would be considerably cheaper and far more effective then the current matrikulasi.

As I wrote in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, our residential schools get the best students and teachers, and consume more than their fair share of resources. Despite that, their aggregate results are disappointing.

Visit any leading university, and the Malaysians there are more likely to come from other than our residential schools. Our elite too are shunning these schools, opting for private schools locally or even abroad. The Deputy Prime Minister sends his daughter abroad for her matriculation. The clamor for expanding international schools also reflects this sentiment.

MARA recently opened its residential schools to non-Bumiputras. That there are few takers indicates the low standing of these schools among non-Bumiputras. Consequently, the experiment to decrease the insularity and stiffen the competition fails miserably. These schools remain segregated racially, and their competitive spirit nonexistent.

The Ministry of Education tried to eliminate Form I at Malay College in 1971, but intense lobbying by its “old boys” scuttled the idea on grounds that it would weaken its “tradition.” I argue the opposite. Certain traditions, in particular the college’s celebration of mediocrity, need to be broken. Today, Malay College does not even prepare its students for matriculation; they have to go elsewhere. So much for hallowed tradition!

Eliminating the lower forms should be just the beginning for RMC; it should go further. Its curriculum must be revamped to emphasize English, mathematics, and the sciences. I suggest that RMC be English-medium.

RMC has a national responsibility to prepare those bright students under its tutelage for the best universities. Anything less is unacceptable. RMC must regain its earlier stature where its graduates ended up in such institutions as Oxford and West Point.

This means the students must sit for well recognized matriculation examinations. Today these are the International Baccalaureate (IB), America’s Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP), and the British GCE-A level. IB and AP are especially highly regarded; IB in particular provides both depth and breadth.

Private institutions are already preparing their students for these examinations. These examinations are a novelty only to the bureaucrats, educators, and students of our government schools.

Residential schools are expensive. To defray the costs, I would charge tuition and boarding, subsidizing only the needy. Another way to reduce cost and at the same time expand capacity would be to make these schools not wholly residential. Those who live nearby could be day students.

To make these schools even more effective, they should admit students only from rural areas. These are the students who would benefit most from the superior facilities. There is little point in admitting those already attending superior schools.

I would grant these schools their autonomy, giving them an annual global budget based on enrolment and agreed-upon performance criteria. Let each school, guided by its Trustees, run its affairs, design the curriculum, and chart its course, including the freedom to hire and fire the staff. Such school-based management would result in the blossoming of innovations. Each school would be free to try new ideas, and the successful ones would then be shared and adopted by others.

The current system is too rigid and centralized. There is no room for local creativity and initiative. Every decision is made at the ministry, by personnel most remote from the problems and realities of the classroom. This cannot be good.

With these suggested changes, our residential schools would then aspire for greater heights and benchmark themselves against the Etons and Grotons of the world. Currently they compare themselves to the likes of SMK Ulu Kelantan, and then smugly pronounce themselves elite and successful.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #10

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education - Cont'd

Education and Development

If we compare countries that are fast developing to those that are stagnating, the glaring difference is the educational attainment of their citizens. This is true not only between but also within nations. In Malaysia much has been said and written on the gaps in development between Malays and non-Malays, and invariably such differences are attributed simplistically to race or culture. But if those researchers and commentators had been more meticulous and looked beyond race, they would find that the better correlate would be educational achievement.

I wrote this once in my column and received a blistering reply from a Malaysian sociologist. How would you explain, he demanded, the lower earnings of Malays with a degree as compared to those of non-Malays? He was intimating that there were other factors, like discrimination.

I referred him to some studies that showed the best predictor of success in the workplace is achievement in mathematics, and asked him to review the data to see which was the better correlate, race or scores in mathematics. I predict that a Chinese with a BA in history would earn less than a Malay with an engineering degree. Malay graduates earn less than similarly qualified non-Malays because most Malays have degrees in the liberal arts rather than the sciences. And most schools attended by Malays (national and religious) do not emphasize mathematics. Skills in mathematics have the greatest transferability in the marketplace.

Education benefits society through increases in productivity and earnings of its citizens. This in turn translates directly into superior economic performance and growth of that society.

In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I related the dramatic differences in service and productivity between my secretaries in America as compared to the ones I had in Malaysia, and between American limousine drivers as compared to their Malaysian counterparts. This was directly related to the superior education of American workers. I also cited the example of the Japanese factory worker who successfully traced the source of her factory’s product defects to the interference from the vibrations of the nearby train. She was able to make the connection because of her superior education. Japanese factory workers are among the most highly educated, very unlike the typical assembly line workers in the Third World.

There are many studies correlating economic development with levels of education of citizens. Of course correlation means just that, it does not imply causation. It may very well be that rich nations could afford to spend more on education and that improved educational achievement is the result and not the cause of wealth.

Studies show that individual wages increase with years of schooling, with the improvement greatest in poorer countries. In Indonesia the MIT economist Esther Duflo show that investments in primary education alone resulted in increased economic returns ranging from 6.8 to 10.6 percent. It is estimated that for agricultural workers, four years of education translates into a 10 percent increase in agricultural output.

In East Asia, each additional year of education contributes 3 percent in real GDP. An American study on twins showed that every extra year of schooling translated into a 10 percent increase in earnings. These are empirical figures, not guesswork.

American farmers, unlike those in the Third World, are rich because they are highly educated. They typically have a degree from state-supported Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) universities, very unlike their illiterate counterparts in the developing world. Improving the plight of farmers in Malaysia and other developing countries would take more than just providing better agricultural techniques and supporting infrastructures like irrigation, rather on nourishing and tilling the minds of the farmers in the form of better education. The key to improving agricultural productivity and reducing rural poverty resides not in the rice fields or rubber estates, rather in the classrooms.

Malaysia was fortunate in that its early leaders saw the wisdom of investing in education over everything else, including defense. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, knew that the nation then had limited resources, thus he prudently signed a defense treaty with Britain so he could concentrate on education. Many at that time thought that the country’s independence was a sham because of that treaty. But as Tunku wisely observed, he would rather build schools instead of barracks and train teachers instead of soldiers. With defense thus taken care of by the British, Tunku was able to focus on developing his people.

Tunku was one of those rare wise leaders who, though not terribly bright, knew exactly his and the nation’s limitations. Had Tunku been endowed with Sukarno‘s megalomaniac ego and grandiose pretensions, and concentrated on buying tanks and battleships instead, Malaysia today would be like Indonesia – stagnant and poverty stricken.

It was the enduring wisdom of Tunku that he was not bothered by being labeled pro-British or a cryptic neocolonialist by signing that treaty; he did what he thought was best for his beloved nation. Malaysia’s subsequent trajectory of development owes much to that earlier insight and decision of Tunku’s.

Economists have elegant formulas to quantify the benefits (or what they technically refer to as rates of returns on investment – ROI) of education. ROI can be viewed from two perspectives, the individual (Private ROI) and society (Social ROI). The elements considered in calculating Private ROI are the direct costs to the individual of acquiring that education (cost of tuition and books), and the foregone income while attending school or college. Social ROI takes in all the costs in providing that education, the running the ministry of education, building schools, and training teachers. These are externalities from the perspective of the individual and thus not included in the calculation of Private ROI. The cost factors are necessarily larger with Social ROI, but so too are the returns.

These economic calculations not withstanding, one can intuitively appreciate that such investments are rewarding and good on their own merit. There is no moral virtue in keeping the citizens ignorant. There is no biblical refrain to the effect that the ignorant shall inherit the earth. The Qur’an exhorts every Muslim to acquire knowledge, and this is reaffirmed by the various hadith (sayings of the prophet).

Here, a brief digression. I have always thought this (the value of education and knowledge) to be self-evident and that everyone subscribes to it. Not so. Many years ago I met a senior official (later to become head of education) of Brunei who was on a study tour of America. We got into a discussion on education; he saw no merit in educating the masses, it would only feed their expectations and lead to trouble. The policy of his government, he explicitly told me, was to educate just enough of the citizens to keep the government running. Beyond that he saw no necessity of spending additional precious funds. He also added that Brunei Malays are a very happy lot with this policy. To the likes of him, spending money on royal ponies would yield greater returns.

Lest we think this mentality exists only among medieval Malays of Brunei, consider this recent statement by the Malaysian linguist, Nik Safiah Karim. An extremist nationalist, she vehemently opposes the greater teaching and use of English to the point of calling those advocating such moves traitors to the race and culture. Strong stuff! I respect people with strong convictions, but what troubles me is the basis of her arguments. She exhibits the same medieval mentality as that Brunei official by suggesting that Malaysia needs only about 20 percent of her citizens to be conversant with English, the rest can get by with knowing only Malay. For a supposedly esteemed scholar to say that more knowledge is superfluous is just absurd. Left unstated is that she and her children would be among that 20 percent who should be fluent in English. The rest can languish in their kampongs speaking only Malay.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Bold and The Predictable - Exchanges with Din Merican

The Bold and The Predictable: Exchanges with Din Merican

A Reaction to Brendan Pereira

Dear Bakri:

I am sure you have read Brendan Pereira’s latest weekend column, “Plain Talk” (The New Sunday Times, March 5, 2006). He asserted that “…Malaysians saw the bold and the predictable take center stage.” That was just too much for me. Frankly, I am tired of the endless spin and lack of candor in our public discourse, as exemplified by Brendan’s latest piece.

In his usual sycophantic mode, he praises our Prime Minister for being “bold” in choosing “a politically punishing path.” The reality is that over the nearly three years of his Administration, Abdullah is anything but bold. He has yet to demonstrate any sense of direction or urgency about where he wants to take our nation. To Brendan, that is bold, but I call it “chicken.” Just look at the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

We are all fully aware that the era of cheap oil is over. Raising the oil price is therefore not the issue. What surprises Malaysians is the timing, as well as the magnitude of the increase (up 30 cents). Brendan characterizes it as “... Abdullah going down the path of most resistance.” On the contrary, it is foolhardy. The Prime Minister is squandering the massive political capital he garnered in the last general (2004) elections.

The Prime Minister justified his decision by saying that the RM 4 billion in savings would be allocated towards improving public transportation. Will it? Think again.

He also promised Malaysians that there would be no more price hikes for the remainder of this year. He would have to break that promise if crude oil prices, now at USD64+ per barrel, were to increase again. The economic dynamics are there, with the voracious demands from the rapidly expanding economies of China and India, as well the recovering economies of Europe. Combine these with the uncertainties over the political situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unrest in Nigeria, and the mounting tensions between the US and the European Union on one side and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other over that country’s desire to develop nuclear power.

Imagine what would happen if crude oil prices were to rise to USD70-80 per barrel. The savings of RM4 billion would be wiped out, and additional subsidies would be required to maintain the pump prices at current levels. To avoid that, he would have to raise prices again. That would be the only realistic option for him.

Brendan’s profile in courage (as it were) has a very low threshold. He extols Abdullah’s courage, but the man would not dare face the public on TV to explain his decision. He had to defer to his Deputy Prime Minister. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, we were spared massive street protests and civil unrest.

The timing of the Prime Minister’s decision is totally out of sync, what with our economy slowing down, and both inflation and unemployment rising. Malaysians would have tolerated the increase better had the economy been expanding. This price hike will fuel a fresh round of increases in the price of essential goods and services, with the burden borne disproportionately, as usual, by the low income and rural folks.

Brendan cites the example of Japan where “the economic powerhouse did not hit the panic button until after the 1970s oil crisis.” He conveniently ignores the fact that although oil prices quadrupled then, it started from a very low base. Consequently it was nowhere near the present level of USD64+ per barrel. He continues, “[T]he country embarked on a major effort to wean itself off oil. Japan imports 16 percent less oil [in 1974] than it did in 1973 although the economy has more than doubled. Billions of (USD) dollars were invested in converting in oil-reliant electricity-generation systems into those powered by natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or alternative fuels .... Today, it has turned energy efficiency into an art.”

That is fine, but he forgets to mention that Malaysia exports its natural gas to Japan on a long term contract basis, and thus guarantees Japan of stable pricing.

What happened to our energy diversification policy that was initiated under Tun Dr. Mahathir’s Administration? It was a practical and far sighted policy. Why was it not implemented? Minister Lim Keng Yaik and Tenaga Nasional under Leo Moggie must answer this.

Investing to improve public transportation (little success thus far) alone will not help us if we continue to be an oil-driven economy. What happened to the Bakun hydropower plant and the rural electrification projects using palm kernel, methane gas, and related wastes? There is an urgent need to have alternative sources of energy and the better utilization and management of our utilities. We should move away from ad hoc approaches and piecemeal solutions.

If Japan can be “Cemerlang, Gemilang dan Terbilang,” Malaysia too can be likewise. What is needed is a clear vision and political will, both sadly lacking with the present Administration.

Brendan took issue with the opposition parties. Why criticize PAS for holding the demonstrations? The Opposition is always looking for opportunities to criticize the ruling party. PAS politicians have been doing that for years and as long as I can remember. That is in the nature of democratic politics. The recent oil price hike gives them and their supporters the excuse to go back to the streets. I am not surprised.

I agree that “The PM knows that he is being savaged on the ground because of the price hike. In recent days, he [PM] told aides that this is the price that must be paid.”

I would add that the real price is yet to come as he continues to show a lack of strategic and economic leadership. Abdullah is engaging in gostand economics with his emphasis on agriculture to propel our country into the 21st century. In the universe of our balance of payments, the cost for food imports pales to the huge invisibles deficit in the form of our service payments. We should be focusing on upgrading the skills and knowledge of our people so they could be productive in this age of the K-economy. Instead, our Prime Minister wants us all to be amateur farmers. Even if all of us were to plaster our backyards with kacang panjang, that would still not make a dent on the nation’s balance of payment. So get real!

Abdullah’s “edible landscape” and “community gardens” campaigns smell of Chairman Mao’s back-to the-earth movement of the Cultural Revolution era. Thank God, Abdullah does not have Mao’s charisma; otherwise our nation would be wrecked. We should be encouraging our farmers to modernize and to benefit maximally from the economy of scale; not turn urbanites into backyard gardeners. Pol Pot tried the same trick in Cambodia not too long ago, and forced city dwellers into the fields. We all know what happened to that piece of silly social engineering. Naive schemes produce equally naive results; in some instances, disaster.

Of course making sure that our schools and universities produce graduates prepared for the demands of globalization is much more challenging. That requires great thought and courageous actions, not mindless sloganeering.

I keep hoping but recognize that it is wishful thinking on my part to expect Brendan and his ilk in the mainstream media to have the courage to speak the “truth to power.”

Din Merican


Dear Din:

Yes, I read Brendan’s piece, as well as an earlier one by Razak Baginda on the same topic. Read is not quite the right word, more like scan. It takes me less than a few minutes to finish NST and The Star. There is nothing substantive there, and poorly written to boot.

Even the Sun has overtaken NST in circulation numbers. The Star is not much better. Witness its editors chickening out on Marina’s recent piece.

These commentators are serving our nation poorly. At a time when we need sober and serious analyses, they are content with cheerleading. Then they wonder why they lose their credibility.

Years ago NST published my essay, “More Than A Malay Dilemma,” in which I posited that the greatest threat facing Malaysia was not interracial strife but intra-Malay conflict. It was the inaugural piece for its millennium series. The editor praised me profusely saying that my piece had caused a “buzz” among the establishment.

A few days later I was in Malaysia visiting. I was aching to hear comments on my supposedly “buzzing” piece. No one had read it! Yes, they subscribed to NST, but mainly for show as they never bothered reading them as they are full of unabashed propaganda. NST is now nothing more than an UMNO Newsletter.

All these newsmen and commentators have is their credibility; once they lose that, they might as well quit and be speech writers or write advertising copies. The pay is better.

As for the oil subsidy crisis, if Abdullah could not handle this 30-sen reduction, good luck in his endeavor to remove the crutches of the NEP and create the “Towering Personality” among Malays!

Bakri Musa

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Our Own Apartheid -- Marina Mahathir

Personal note: To mark International Women’s Day, I have skipped this week’s serialization of my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia to post Marina Mahathir’s essay. This is an important commentary, and I thank her for permission to post it here. MBM

MBM's note: Wednesday, March 8, 2006 is International Women’s Day. This UN-sponsored event is to mark and celebrate the achievements of women, in particular to monitor the progress towards gender equity. While much has been achieved, considerably more needs to be done.

Achieving equality for women is more than just a do-good gesture. A nation cannot hope to progress if it does not make maximal use of the talent of half of its population. The embarrassing backwardness of many Muslim nations is precisely this; they have chosen to ignore the potential of their women by denying them access to education and opportunities.

Malaysia is fortunate not to be in this category. We count in our midst women ministers, bankers (including the central banker), professors, executives, and judges. While women have made it to and excel at the appellate levels in our judiciary, our Islamic establishment has still to be convinced that women could be appointed judges in the Sharia courts.

As demonstrated by the recent bumbling attempts at reforming the Islamic Family Law, the gains of women, especially Muslim women, are not guaranteed. They will continually be eroded unless vigilantly protected.

Marina Mahathir’s essay below reminds us that while apartheid may have discredited in South Africa a long time ago, that mindset is still persistent within our midst.

M. Bakri Musa

Our Own Apartheid
Marina Mahathir

In 1948, one of humankind’s most despicable ideas – apartheid – was made into law in South Africa and with that racial discrimination was institutionalized in that country. Race laws touched every aspect of South Africa’s social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. Although there were 19 million blacks and only 4.5 million whites in South Africa, the majority of the population was forced to be second-class citizens in their homeland. They were banished to reserves and needed passports to travel outside them, even within their own country. It was only in 1990 that apartheid began to crumble and South Africans of all colors were finally free to live as equals in every way.

With the end of that racist system, people may be forgiven for thinking that apartheid does not exist anymore. While few countries practice any formal system of discrimination, nevertheless you can find many forms of discrimination everywhere. In many cases, it is women who are being discriminated against. In Malaysia, there is an insidious and growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, between Muslims and non-Muslims.

We are unique in that we actively and legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country: Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened to their Muslim sisters.

For instance, since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act of 1976, polygamy among non-Muslims was banned. Previously, men could have as many wives as they wanted under the then customary laws. Men’s ability to unilaterally pronounce divorce on their wives was abolished and in its place, divorce could only happen by mutual consent or upon petition by either spouse in an equal process. The grounds for such petitions include intolerable adultery, unreasonable behavior, desertion of not less than two years, and separations for not less than two years. Compare that to the lot of Muslim women who are abandoned but not formally divorced by their husbands.

Other progressive reforms in the civil family law in the late 1990s were amendments to the Guardianship Act and the Distribution Act. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1961 was amended to provide for equal guardianship of both father and mother, rather than the previous provision where only the father was the primary guardian of the children. In contrast, the Islamic Family Law still provides for the father as the sole primary guardian of his children, although the mother is now allowed to sign certain forms for her children under an administrative directive.

The Distribution Act of 1958 was also amended to provide for equal inheritance for widows and widowers. The amendment also granted children the right to inherit from their mothers as well as from their fathers. Under the newly proposed amendments to the Islamic Family Law, the use of gender-neutral language on the issue of matrimonial property is discriminatory to Muslim women, when other provisions in the IFL are not gender-neutral.

Muslim men may still contract polygamous marriages, unilaterally divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons, and be entitled to double shares of inheritance. And unique in the Muslim world, men may now initiate divorce via Short Text Messaging (SMS)!

The differences between the lot of Muslim and non-Muslim women beg the question: Do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have less rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women in Malaysia are going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing. In every other Muslim country, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.

Malaysian leaders claim to stand for all citizens. Our Prime Minister boasts of being the Prime Minister of all Malaysians. Our Ministers work for all Malaysians in their respective portfolios. There are two exceptions to this. The Minister for Islamic Affairs is obviously only for Muslims; even though some of the things he does affect others. The Minister for Women purports to work for all Malaysian women, even though not all Malaysian women benefit from that work.

We should formally consolidate the apartheid of women in this country by having a Ministry for Non-Muslim Women which works to ensure that Non-Muslim women enjoy the benefits of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Malaysia signed this UN document and is thus legally bound to implement it. Meanwhile the Ministry for Muslim Women works to gag and bind Muslim women more and more each day for the sake of political expediency under the guise of religion.

Today, March 8, 2006, is International Women’s Day. Unfortunately only about 40 percent of the women in this country can celebrate. The rest can only look with envy and despair at their non-Muslim sisters.

With thanks to Nik Noriani.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tunku’s Tapes: More Than “Coffee Shop Talk”

Tunku’s Tapes: More Than “Coffee Shop Talk”

Book Review of K. Das & The Tunku Tapes. Compiled and edited by Kua Kia Soong, Strategic Info Research Development, Petaling Jaya, 2002. 148 pages, RM 20.00.
(www.Malaysiakini.com March 3, 2006)

Editorial lead: The Tunku’s frankness was refreshing, except when he got carried with those he disliked. His disparaging personal remarks on Mahathir’s heritage were unbecoming and offensive.

In the 1980’s, while Tunku Abdul Rahman was alive and still very much in the news, I wrote to a number of Malaysian historians to interest them on an oral history project. It was to be modeled after the excellent ones at major American universities. As was the typical Malaysian response, I did not get any reply, except from one. Typically Malaysian again, he curtly responded that local history was not his specialty!

Mine was more than a mere suggestion; I offered to fund the program. My particular interest was Tunku, and the few surviving members of his first cabinet.
Little did I know that at the time a prominent journalist, K. Das, had been interviewing the Tunku for a planned biography. Sadly, Das died before he could complete his project. Fortunately his estate had made those tapes available. This book, K. Das & The Tunku Tapes, is the final product.

Limitations of the Written Word

Historians recognize the limitations of the written word as a historical source. Unlike the days of yore, today’s leaders rarely keep personal journals. While they give speeches and write official correspondents, for the most part those are “ghost written,” with specific audiences or political purposes in mind. There is minimal personal reflection.

The private communications of leaders today are rarely recorded, unless of course done secretly a la the Nixon White House. Some leaders do keep personal diaries, but more with their memoir in mind. Such notes thus serve to put the writer in a favorable light.

Modern technology makes voice and image recordings easy and cheap. The resulting materials can be digitized, archived, and disseminated with high fidelity without damaging the original.

There is more to an interview than merely placing a microphone in front of the subject and recording the ensuing conversations. Poorly done and you get nothing more than a rambling journey into nostalgia, or the settling of old scores. That is, coffee-shop talk.

Good interviews bring fresh insights or reveal hitherto unknown facts. They enhance our understanding of events.

It would be best to have institutional sponsorship of such projects. This point is validated by Das’ premature death, with the tapes entangled in probate. We thank the estate of Mr. Das for sharing these tapes. I would further urge that the tapes be donated to a university so scholars could readily access them.

Bringing out the Real Tunku

The book is “compiled and edited” by Kua Kia Soong, who has no less than 17 titles to his credit. I am familiar with Das’ work during his tenure at the Far Eastern Economic Review and enjoyed his crisp prose and incisive reporting. My expectations are therefore high.

After the foreword by Kua, the book begins with Das’ “Introduction” to what would have been his magnum opus, an authorized biography of the Tunku based on those tapes. My disappointment begins with the very first sentence; it is 118 words long! This is not the Das I remember from his FEER days. More likely, this was his initial rough draft; had he been alive, he would have definitely untangled it. He would never have let that kind of convoluted prose see the light of day. Either that or Das must have had some fine editors at FEER.

Kua should have been more respectful of the memory of his friend by polishing up the manuscript; editing means more than merely compiling.
Fortunately, that longwinded first sentence was the exception; the rest of the introduction was vintage Das, skillfully weaving snippets of the conversations with astute observations of the Tunkus’ relationships with his household help. What surprises me was that all of Tunku’s personal help were non-Malays. They doted on him, reverentially, fully aware that they were taking care and in the presence of a great man.

It is a tribute to Das’ literary skills that he successfully brought out the Tunku’s basic humanity, a man without pretensions despite his royal heritage and being a former Prime Minister. The Tunku was truly “a prince with the heart of a commoner.”

The Tunku readily admitted to his many personal failings, a humility rare among humans especially leaders. As for his well-known fondness for alcohol, haram (forbidden) in Islam, he had a disarmingly simple rational. He sought Allah’s forgiveness, and added that Allah would surely forgive him, certainly ahead of those leaders who oppress and torture their people. Iran’s Mullahs, please take note!

The rest of the book is a verbatim transcript of the interviews with Tunku, except for the last chapter, which is Kua’s tribute to Das.

This is raw – very raw – transcription, with no attempt at clarification or editing. Consequently there are many ambiguous and orphan pronouns. Readers have to pause and reconstruct the whole conversation to figure out to whom the “he” or “him” refers. Mildly irritating!

There were also no notes to place particular interviews in perspective. Unless one is familiar with the topical issues at the time of the recordings, it would be difficult to follow the conversations. It would have been helpful if Kua were to add background information to fill in the void.

More Reminiscing, Less Introspecting

These are less introspective sessions between a seasoned journalist and a retired statesman, rather of two old friends, full of admiration for one another, reminiscing.

The Tunku was amazingly frank in his opinions of the various personalities. Tuanku Mahmud, the King, was described as “mad, raving mad.”

Tunku’s frankness was refreshing, except when he got carried away with those he disliked. His disparaging personal remarks on Mahathir’s heritage were unbecoming and sullied the Tunku’s good natured image. Frankly, they were offensive.

The Tunku was indeed a cultured gentleman of the old world. I can see him being contemptuous of and unable to get along with those less refined like Lee Kuan Yew.

There were two events during Tunku’s tenure that represented polar extremes of his achievements: Malaysia’s independence and the May 1969 race riots. Alas there were minimal reflections on the two important episodes, a failure of both interviewer and interviewee.

These interviews were conducted in 1988 when the Tunku was 86 years old, physically frail but amazingly still mentally alert. His recollections may be selective and details of painful events forgotten, nonetheless the Tunku had done another great service to his beloved nation by giving these interviews. K. Das’ untimely death robbed the nation of what would have been a highly readable and perceptive biography of our first Prime Minister.

I have one suggestion: include a CD of the actual interviews, with appropriate introductory and clarifying remarks, with future editions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #9

Chapter 2: It’s More Than Just Education

Education is more than just schools and colleges. Investment in education benefits the individual, society, and the global community. For the individual, education is a great leveler. The American patriot John Adams observed that education makes a greater difference between men than nature has made between man and brute. Through education America is able to acculturate and bring into the mainstream its diverse immigrants. A century earlier those immigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe and Catholics from Ireland and Italy. More recently they were Buddhists from Vietnam and Cambodia, and Muslims from Afghanistan and Somalia. Through education they all became Americans and aspired for the American dream. As they better themselves, America too benefits.

In Malay culture, an uneducated or unlearned person is likened to a frog underneath a coconut shell (katak di bawah tempurong). His or her world is very limited and dark. The idiomatic Sanskrit equivalent is kupamanduka (frog in a well). Once outside, the horizon opens up; no telling where the frog would end up. Education and learning are the equivalents of flipping the shell over or lowering a ladder into the well – a way out of the darkness and confining wall.

An indication of the significance of education is that illiteracy is the strongest predictor of poverty. Poverty is a complex issue with many intertwining causes and links, but empirically, providing basic education is the necessary prerequisite in the battle against poverty. Education by itself will not solve Third World poverty, but it is an enabling condition. As the World Bank president James D Wolfensohn observed, “…[T]he single most important key to development and poverty alleviation is education.”

At the other end of the spectrum, in a modern economy education is, in the words of Louis Gertsner, chief executive of IBM and head of the foundation that funds the New Century School reform, “the engine of growth and prosperity.” This is especially so in this K-economy.

The key to Malaysia successfully navigating globalization is through providing high quality education for its citizens.

Another well-documented benefit of education at the individual level is its spillover effect on personal health. The more educated the society is, the more healthy is its members, as indicated by such indices as life expectancy, childhood mortality rates, and general nutritional status.

These effects are more profoundly seen with girls where improved education reduces child mortality and enhances reproductive health, and the subsequent better immunization rates and nutritional status of their babies. Women with formal education also tend to have lower fertility rates, delay marriage and childbearing, and use reliable contraceptives.

They have fewer but healthier babies. The World Bank estimates that one year of formal schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent, with the effect most pronounced with secondary schooling.

Malaysia’s obscenely high rate of child marriages could be effectively reduced if girls have longer formal education. As most of these child marriages end up in divorce, the fewer such marriages there are, the better it would be for society. “Children having children” is one sure way to entrap the next generation into perpetual poverty. This is true in America as well as in the Third World.

Globally, reduced fertility could only have a positive impact on an already overcrowded planet.

Education is also an essential component of public health. Education is the single most effective preventive weapon in combating diseases like HIV/AIDS, as well as reducing such potentially lethal enteric diseases like cholera and gastroenteritis. HIV/AIDS may be incurable but experiences both in the First World as well as the Third show that effective public health education goes a long way in reducing and preventing the spread of the disease. In San Francisco, the wide dissemination of information on safe sex proved effective; in Uganda the reinforcing through education of traditional Islamic values of abstinence and fidelity had a stunning effect on reducing the incidence of the disease.

The reverse, the impact of health on education, is equally significant. Health, in particular the state of nutrition, has a dramatic influence on learning. America’s school lunch programs successfully ameliorate this factor, something that is worthy of Malaysia to emulate.

In Africa where AIDS is devastating the bulk of young adults, schools are also terribly impacted through the deaths of teachers as well as their frequent absence through illnesses or having to attend funerals and the sick members of their family.