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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Maximizing The Benefits of International Schools

Maximizing the Benefits of International Schools

The cabinet’s decision to liberalize international schools is laudable. More needs to be done however, if Malaysia is to benefit maximally from such a policy.

If international schools were indeed providing excellent education (which I believe they do), then limiting local enrollment to 40 percent would not make much sense. Surely we wish as many of our students as possible to have superior education.

Catalyst For Reform

Our schools have deteriorated to such a rot that they cannot be reformed from within. There are too many entrenched constituencies, from the permanent bureaucracy and teachers’ unions to language nationalists and ambitious politicians.

Our public universities are forced to reform themselves with the liberalization of higher education, and the consequent competition from private institutions. The impetus for the wider use of English on campus has less to do with enlightened thinking but more in response to the market that favors graduates of private institutions over those of public ones, because of their enhanced English fluency.

Having a “critical mass” of international schools would force similar improvements on our schools, and do so far more effectively and quickly than any Royal Commission could. It would be unrealistic to expect our bureaucrats, politicians and teachers, brought up under and benefiting from the existing system, to initiate needed reforms.

Good private schools are sound business as well as social investments. Thailand’s blossoming international schools attract many affluent foreign students, and their valuable cash. Singapore’s public schools attract only low-paying Malaysians from Johore.

Thailand is recruiting large numbers of experienced American teachers. They already have their pensions and thus could live well on their reduced Asian pay. These teachers, not trained under the local system, could effect major changes. Their innovative teaching styles are refreshingly different from the rote memorization and stultifying learning typical of Asian classrooms.

Their impact extends beyond. As their students are from influential families and thus would-be leaders and trendsetters, these teachers have enormous influence on the greater society.

Maximizing the Benefit

Malaysia should go beyond simply allowing local students to enroll in international schools. Remove the enrollment limit, and in addition to granting tax incentives, offer guaranteed loans for capital expansion, but tie that generosity with having those schools provide scholarships for the needy. The greatest help would be to expedite with their recruitment of foreign teachers and securing their visas. With such support more schools would be set up. The resulting competition would lower costs, enabling more Malaysians to enroll.

Malaysia should not repeat the mistakes of its private universities with their dangerously segregated (racially and socially) student body. Diversity in the classroom enhances the learning environment; it is also good policy. Thus the domestic enrollment must mirror society; how that is achieved is best left to each school.

Encouraging more to attend international schools would free the government from having to expend resources on those who could pay for their own education. More public funds could then be devoted to the needy.

These schools should be free to set their curriculum, including the language of instruction. The only requirement would be for Malay and Malaysian Studies (geography, history, and social studies) be compulsory subjects.

Any entity, local or foreign, could start such schools. The possible exception would be religious organizations, in deference to local sensitivity. To discourage hustlers skilled at having the rich part with their money, there should be stringent academic and financial requirements. Senior teachers and headmasters must have specified years of experience. There must post performance bonds such that if the schools close down, the students would be reimbursed double their year’s tuition.

Another variant is charter schools. They too are private but would get governmental grants, in the amount it would have cost had those students attended national schools. These schools would not be run by the government but by their own boards, with elected parents’ representatives forming the majority. They too would be free to chart their own course, but with the same enrollment, curricular and other requirements as international schools.

Private, international and charter schools all have one thing in common: They offer parents and students a choice. That is the essence of any meaningful school reform. Such competition is the only way of ensuring excellence.


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