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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #21

Chapter 3: The Present System (Cont'd)

Private Sector Involvement

Until recently, private sector involvement is permitted only at the polar ends of the education spectrum: at preschool and tertiary levels. The government monopolizes education from Years 1 to 11. This was not always the case. In the 1950s it was common to have private English schools to complement the few government ones. But with independence and the aggressiveness of Tun Razak in building many more government schools, these private schools fell by the wayside. Even my own village in Sri Menanti had a private English school started by the parents with no governmental support. The students were either flunkies from or those unable to secure a slot in government schools. The point I wish to highlight here (and I will revisit later when discussing private universities) is that when there are good public institutions, private institutions do not thrive. The corollary is that when private institutions proliferate, that usually means the failure of public institutions.

The government does not presently control preschools but that too is set to change. By 2003 all preschools must follow MOE’s guidelines as to the curriculum. There is no shortage of preschools in urban areas provided mostly by private entrepreneurs and “mom and pop” operators. The government does not regulate them either with regards to quality or for compliance with health and safety regulations. This is strictly a situation of buyer beware or more correctly, parents beware.

This prohibition against private sector involvement has one glaring exception – religious schools. Typically these are nothing more than the one-teacher huts or pondoks and madrasahs that are scattered all over the villages in heavily Malay populated states. Not much is expected of such schools and not much is delivered. In the past such schools were meant primarily to provide religious instructions to students from the regular schools. Today as all national schools are mandated to provide religious classes, these madrasahs have become redundant. Nonetheless they are still active to cater for those who believe that the Islam propagated in the secular schools is less than pristine. In light of the 9-11 terrorists’ attacks on America, these madarasahs are getting greater scrutiny from the government. They preach a particularly suffocating brand of Islam, more along the Taliban variety.

These madarasahs and other private religious schools are in technical violation of the education code. The government does not credential their teachers nor approve the curriculum. Despite such glaring breaches, the government does not dare close them for fear of being tarred as anti-Islamic – a politically very damaging accusation in a religiously obsessed nation.

There are also subsidized religious schools, Sekolah Agama Rakyat (People’s Religious Schools). These too preach a narrow brand of Islam. Recently (October 2002) the government, piqued with the alleged anti-government propaganda preached at these schools, suspended their grants.

Apart from the madrasahs, there are private international schools to cater for children of expatriates. Malaysians are barred from enrolling except in rare instances, and only with the special dispensation from the minister himself. This stricture against private schools is slowly relaxing; there are now emerging private schools that are extensions of private colleges. There is no proper policy governing these institutions and their permits are being issued on an ad hoc basis.

Malaysia, like East Asian nations, has many private “tuition centers” to give extra help for those able to afford their fees. Thankfully the Malaysian system has not yet degenerated into the brute competitive atmosphere that gives rise to the torture chambers that are the Japanese “cram schools.” The government recently introduced a voucher system enabling children of the poor to partake in these extra hours tuition. It would have been smarter to incorporate these sessions into the regular school day.

Moving on to higher education, until recently only public institutions can grant degrees. But with the increased demand, the government finally relented and allowed private universities. The situation was made acute following the 1997 Asian economic crisis when the cost of an overseas education became prohibitive with the ringgit devaluation.

Since the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1996, and with it the removal of the prohibition against private universities, there has been a mushrooming of private colleges and universities. No less than 700 at last count, with the overwhelming majority set up within the last few years. This reflects either extraordinary vigor of the private sector or more likely, trivialization of higher education.

Even before the Act was amended, there were private colleges but they were not allowed to grant degrees. They offered instead their own diplomas or prepared their students for foreign (usually British) professional qualifications in accountancy, law, secretarial, and engineering.

Many easily circumvented the stricture against degree granting by offering courses for external degrees of British universities. Others had linked academic programs, popularly known as “twinning,” where students would complete their first few years in Malaysia and then spend the finishing years at the host university abroad.

Private universities are set up primarily by four entities. First are the established colleges like Taylor and Stamford. With the liberalization of the rules, they are able to expand significantly their academic offerings to include not only twinning programs but also their own degrees, usually in conjunction with foreign universities. Next are the large public corporations like Petronas (the national oil company), Telekom (phone company) and Tenaga Nasional (utility). These companies are only nominally private as they are owned and controlled principally by The Ministry of Finance, Inc., and statutory bodies. In ambiance and character, their universities operate no differently from the public ones. The overwhelming majority of their students are Bumiputras, just like the public universities. The third entity comprises institutions sponsored or owned by the governing political parties. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) has Universiti Tunku Abdual Rahman (UTAR), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) has TAFE College and the Asian Institute of Medical Science. The fourth group consists of branch campuses of established foreign universities like Monash and the University of Nottingham.

In 2002 there are 16 private universities with an enrollment of nearly 25,000, including four branches of major foreign universities with fewer than 2,500 students total. As can be seen by the average number of students per campus, these institutions are still very much work in progress. These private institutions use English as their medium of instruction (except for the few operated by Bumiputras that use Malay). Thus their graduates enjoy a premium in the marketplace. Their tuition and other fees are, as expected, considerably higher. While tuition at public universities runs at about RM1,400 per year, the private ones charge in excess of RM20,000. Despite that they are still very popular simply because expensive as they are, they are still cheap as compared to going abroad.

Many of the private universities including the local branch of reputable foreign institutions have a long way to go before they can be regarded as anything close to a traditional campus with dormitories, athletic facilities, and cultural amenities. The University of Nottingham for example, is located in a shopping complex, although it is planning a brand new traditional campus outside of Kuala Lumpur. Universities like Uniten that are associated with large government-owned corporations have traditional campuses.

Some of the private universities also offer graduate degrees. Like the public institutions, the disciplines offered are mostly in the soft sciences and management. The one exception is MUST (Malaysian University of Science and Technology) set up in conjunction with Boston’s MIT. This arrangement was a short circuit attempt to ride on MIT’s prestige, but in matters academic, close association means nothing. MUST will have to develop its own reputation. Thus far the practical effect of the association has simply been for MUST to pay exorbitant consulting fees to MIT. Unlike other universities in Malaysia, MUST is exclusively a graduate school.

There is one other institution that is exclusively a graduate school, The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), started by Syed Naquib Al-Attas and sponsored by the International Islamic Secretariat. It boasts an impressive faculty of PhDs from leading Western universities like Princeton and McGill. Its enrolment of 55 doctoral and 66 masters’ students easily makes it the largest graduate academic unit in the country. Though ISTAC gets rave reviews from Islamic scholars, a number of its features disturb me. First is its physical location, away from other academic institutions. Its scholars and students thus do not get to mix with those from other disciplines, a situation that can easily lead to both social and intellectual isolation. Second, it accepts only Muslims as students and staff. ISTAC has the ambience of a monastery rather than an academic institution. It perpetuates the intellectual and social insularity typical of many present-day Islamic institutions.

There are other private specialized training institutions like the nursing school run by a private hospital in association with an Australian institution, as well as numerous technical institutes. Their aggregate contributions are still minimal.

There are still many teething problems with private sector involvement in education. The government has yet to unleash the maximal potential of this sector to contribute to the training of its citizens.

My next chapter will review the weaknesses and strengths of the current system.

Next: Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System


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