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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #36

Chapter 6: Attempts At Reforms (Cont'd)

Meritokrasi and The Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

The year 2002 was a tumultuous one for Malaysian education. Two major decisions – the introduction of meritokrasi (meritocracy) and the teaching of science and mathematics in English – were made almost casually, through executive mandate rather than after wide public discussions and parliamentary debates.

Meritokrasi was meant to improve the quality of education by relying more on academic criteria rather than quotas and special set-aside programs in the selection of students. It is widely acknowledged that many Bumiputra undergraduates would not be there but for special privileges.

Prime Minister Mahathir and other UMNO leaders were becoming increasingly piqued by the behavior of these undergraduates. They expressed their contempt for the government generally and UMNO specifically by actively campaigning for the opposition parties during recent elections. The pivotal moment came when the landmark Chancellor’s Hall on UM was burnt down. There was immediate speculation of arson as the prime minister was scheduled to speak in that auditorium the very next day. To date there has been no satisfactory or official explanation for the fire. The fire department intimated faulty wirings. Few believe that, least of all UMNO leaders who by now could hardly contain their displeasure and anger at the undergraduates. The new head of Puteri (Young Women) UMNO, Azalina Othman, eager to show her stripes, angrily called for the firing of the university’s vice-chancellor, Dr. Annuar Zaini, for failing to “control” the students. This is surprising as Annuar Zaini is a highly qualified and respected academic physician. He is among the few who rose through the academic ranks instead of the usual path of politics and the civil service.

The decision to use merits as the basis for admission was not to enhance the academic standards as widely proclaimed, rather to give those “ungrateful” Bumiputra students their just comeuppance. Thus chastened they would then concentrate more on their studies and would be less interested in politics. Or if they were, they would be more supportive of the government lest they risk losing their cherished special privileges and quotas. At least that was the expectations of the UMNO hierarchy.

Consequently there was much anticipation of the effect of this new policy on the incoming class of 2002. Judging from the statements of UMNO leaders, they were eagerly expecting the shocking news of fewer Bumiputras admitted to universities so UMNO leaders could browbeat those students. “See, if not for us guarding your special privileges, you Bumiputras would not stand a chance!”

Come June when the figures were released, there were gasps of astonishment. The number of Bumiputras admitted under the new merit-based criteria increased, not dropped. To those who think that Malays are dumb (this includes many among UMNO leaders), that shocking news was not expected. One would have thought that there would be hearty messages of congratulations to these students for having done well. Instead there were snide remarks that the process was rigged. How else to explain the success of Malays?

Although I expected such remarks from non-Malays–after all they too needed some rationalization for their less than expected outcome – what stunned me was the disbelief among Malays leaders. The Prime Minster who long championed the cause of Malays went so far as to claim that it was a statistical quirk and that it would not happen again.

Not once did he applaud the students for having done well. Instead he and many others went out of their way to deride and belittle the students’ achievements. Some suggested that because most Malay students entered through matrikulasi while non-Malays through Sixth Form, the former must be of lower standard. Their presumption is that Malays are dumb; so matrikulasi must be easier.

As stated earlier, I believe matrikulasi is a watered-down program, but do not blame the students; blame those who run the program and the bureaucrats who juggled the scores. Meanwhile I heartily congratulate those hard working Malay students who have done well and thus surprised their leaders. May you have continued success, even though your leaders may lack faith in you. Prove them wrong again!

For now meritokrasi stays, the government’s weapon to bludgeon the students effectively neutralized. Those “ungrateful” Malay students have yet to be punished.

The second decision, to use English to teach science and mathematics, had a similar seat-of-the-pants quality to the decision making process. One would have thought that such a radical change would have been undertaken only after meticulous and exhaustive study. We are dealing with the future of our young, something not to be taken lightly. Instead the decision was rushed. The matter was discussed at UMNO Supreme Council meetings, and only minimally in the cabinet. There was no parliamentary debate. Despite howling protests from various groups, the decision stayed. Instead of engaging its many critiques, the government threatened to use the Internal Security Act to silence them.

Yet legitimate questions remain, like the availability of competent teachers and suitable textbooks. These are simply brushed aside. The leaders have spoken and it shall be so. The magic wand has been waved, and all problems will miraculously vanish. The plan is to be implemented in January 2003, but as late as November 2002 the final form and manner has yet to be finalized. Initially it is to begin at Primary 1 and at selected secondary levels, but with protests from Chinese-based political parties, that timetable is now under review.

The authorities had numerous meetings to iron out the kinks. It is instructive that none of these meetings involved teachers or educators. The issue had been discussed entirely in the political arena, indicating that the decision had less to do with education and everything to do with politics.

The rationale of the policy is valid: to enhance the scientific knowledge and mathematical competency of students and at the same encourage the wider use of English. But as presently implemented, and without much prior planning and preparation, the policy will, like the decision to introduce meritokrasi, back fire.

These two initiatives prove that momentous decisions can be made within the constraints of the present framework; there is no need to amend the constitution or have Royal Commissions of Inquiry. Whether these essentially wise decisions will achieve their intended results remain to be seen. I await their implementation.

Next: National Brains Trust Report 2002

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Moon Sighting Revisited

Moon Sighting Revisited

This year, as in previous years, Muslims in America and elsewhere are again disagreeing over when Ramadan and Eid should begin. This year, also as in previous years, there will be renewed and earnest declarations to resolve once and for all this recurring issue.

The question is whether the new Muslim month (of particular relevance is Ramadan and Shawal) should begin when the new moon is sighted or go by scientific calculations.
A corollary controversy is over when to celebrate Eid ul Adha, whether to do it at the precise time the pilgrims are celebrating theirs in Mecca or to go by the equivalent local time.

Inherently Insolvable

This debate is endless because we fail to recognize that it is inherently not solvable. It is an arbitrary issue, like trying to agree to a point on a circle or a continuum.

There are only two possible ways of resolving it: through fiat by a central authority a la the Pope and the Catholics. Fortunately for Muslims, we do not have such a structure; that is our strength, not weakness. The issue must instead be resolved through communal consensus, in concert with the Quranic refrain that Allah will not let its community be in error.

For the community to make a wise, or to put it differently, the likely more correct decision, it must be informed on all the relevant factors. These can be conveniently grouped into three categories. One, we must learn from our predecessors on how they dealt with the matter over the last 1400 years. Two, we must be apprised of current scientific knowledge of not only in astronomy but also of human biology and other related disciplines. Three, we must anticipate, based on our past experiences and current conditions, the likely consequences of our decision. Once we have considered all the elements in their totality, then we are more likely to arrive at an informed if not wise decision.

Even then we must still have the humility to recognize that it is only our best collective judgment at the current time. Meaning, we should not hesitate to revisit it should conditions change.

The controversy over when the new month should begin is similar to determining when the new day should start. In the Western scheme of things, the new day begins at midnight; for Muslims, at sunset. Both are arbitrary selections. I am certain that there are other traditions now and in the past that begin their day at sunrise or even mid day.

Biologically, the human body is used to the morning being the beginning of the new day, in tune with our circadian rhythm. When we get to bed late past midnight, we worry about getting up early the next morning even though it would still be the same day. When we get up at 7 AM we feel fresh and ready for a new day, even though it is already nearly a third of the way into the Western day and halfway through with the Muslim day.

Our psychological perception may change if we were to become nocturnal like bats. Our new day would then begin at sunset, the Muslim new day. With global warming and the days becoming unbearably hot, we may yet come to that!

Learning From Our Predecessors

This is where our scholars and ulama contribute greatly. They are well versed with the Quran and the ancient texts, as well as the sunnahs of our prophet s.a.w. In deciphering them, it is well to heed the caution of our luminary Al Arabi, “All that is left to us by tradition is mere words. It is upon us to find out what they mean.”

As Muslims we accept the message of the Quran as universal, for all mankind and at all times. That is a matter of faith. We must first however discern what that message is. We must have the wisdom to put texts in their contexts, and to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. Most of all we must have the humility to acknowledge that all knowledge begins with Him, and only He knows the ultimate truth. For us mortals, the search for knowledge and the truth is never ending.

To quote the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”

Lessons From Science

The birth of the new moon can be reliably predicted through calculations and from past observations. That is the valuable contributions of astronomy. To science, the “new” moon (conjunction) is when it passes between the earth and the sun. At that particular moment, the moon is completely within the earth’s shadow and thus cannot be seen from earth. The new moon will become visible as it slowly emerges from the shadow.

There is the inescapable time lag between when the new moon is born and when it can be visually sighted (hillel). It would vary with atmospheric conditions, seasons (summer or winter), locations (southern or northern hemisphere, sea level or top of the Rockies), weather (hence the science of meteorology), and visual acuity (hence the science of human optics), among others.

Even the science of language plays a role, in particular the definition of “local” community. In a country like Canada that spans six time zones, the new moon may not be sighted at sunset in Newfoundland, but will become obvious at sunset in Vancouver five hours later. By the time the new moon would be sighted at 11 PM at Whitehorse, people in St. Johns would have already started their new morning and be too late to begin their fast.

Similarly, when the new moon cannot possibly be sighted in the northern but can in the southern hemisphere, how should countries like Indonesia that spans the equator handle the issue? There cannot be a right or wrong decision, only a communal one. We delude only ourselves if we think otherwise.

The same confusion occurs with celebrating Eid ul Adha. If we were to follow tradition of celebrating at the same time of the pilgrims in Mecca, as many would insist, it would mean that some communities would celebrate at midnight.

Consequences Of Our Decision

A useful aid in making decisions would be to do a “downstream analysis.” Assume that we have made a certain conclusion, what would be the consequences, fully aware that we cannot always anticipate everything, and that the laws of unintended consequences are always operative.

If we stick to tradition, we keep alive our rituals, and with that, our link to our rich heritage. We could make the moon sighting into a festive event, another opportunity for communal bonding. In Arizona, astronomy buffs have regular celestial sighting parties. It can be a deeply moving and highly spiritual experience to ponder the vast cosmos in the silence of the evening.

The negative would be the current uncertainty and chaos, with some community celebrating Eid on one day while members of an adjacent one would still be fasting. What would that say about our respect for our festive Eid to be fasting on that day, not to mention of Muslim unity?

The uncertainty carries a significant price tag. Facilities have to be rented on two successive days just to be sure, doubling the cost. If we opt for the predictable scientific method, we would be spared the extra expense. Imagine what we could do for the poor with the money saved!

If we could have the day fixed ahead of time, we are more likely to get official recognition of our holy days, and we would be able to plan properly.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Figh Council of North America are to be commended for attempting a consensus. However our Islamic Sharia Council of California does not support their decision. I would have preferred that ISNA and the Figh Council be more inclusive in their deliberations so bodies like our Shari Council could voice their arguments before the decision.

As ultimately this is a community decision, it is incumbent upon us to be informed of the issues and communicate to our leaders our sentiments. This essay is my contribution at both.

Have a Blessed Ramadan!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #35

Chapter 6 Attempts At Reform

There have been many amendments to the Education Act since the landmark Razak Report of 1956. Most involved mere tinkering at the edges. Interestingly the legislation that had the greatest impact on education – the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1970 – was not directed specifically at education. That bold social engineering experiment changed not only the nature of Malaysian society but also the structure of education. NEP institutionalized quotas especially in higher education, and radically expanded the access to education for Bumiputras.

The second watermark period was when Malay replaced English as the medium of instruction in schools (except vernacular primary schools). The first batch of students to enter university under this new system of all-Malay instruction was in 1982. To some, that represented the pinnacle of achievement; to others, the beginning of the decline.

I belong to the second group, and was roundly chastised for my supposedly anti-nationalist sentiments. While I agreed that Malay should have wider usage as befitting a national language and that the then existing English schools were doing a poor job in teaching the language, my proposed remedy was very different. Instead of converting the then existing English schools into Malay, I suggested instead that more subjects be taught in Malay in these schools. History and geography would have been the ideal candidates, but keep science and mathematics in English. My reason then was practical, we did not have enough textbooks or Malays qualified to translate or write them. Nor did we have enough qualified teachers. My proposal would have achieved the same end results as what we are trying to reach today: for Malaysians to be fluently bilingual and at the same time have a good command of science and mathematics.

I made my views known to the political establishment as well as to the Director of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language Agency) in the form of an article submission. I was severely berated by the director for being ungrateful and having no pride in my own heritage. Something about a pea forgetting its pod (kacang lupakan kulit). I would have been satisfied with a simple, “No thank you!” rejection letter.

The agency then was headed by one Syed Nasir Ismail, a vigorous advocate of Malay language and a top UMNO functionary. At the time he was tipped to be the next education minister, which was the reason I wrote him. If Syed Nasir had his way, he would have wiped out all signs in the country other than those in Malay.

With clear hindsight the significance of that change into an all-Malay instruction can now be more objectively assessed. The man who claimed so much of the credit for introducing that change more than two decades ago is today spearheading a movement in the opposite direction. Then, Mahathir Mohamad as Education Minister was basking in the glory of having “restored” the honor of Malay language and of championing the cause of the race. Today as Prime Minister, Mahathir is advocating reintroducing English schools. Perversely, he is again being regarded as the nation’s savior!

At the risk of appearing to gloat, had the government then been more cautious and proceeded along the lines I suggested, the nation today would not have the mess it has. By aggressively promoting Malay, the government sacrificed the greatest asset of its people, their English fluency. As we are now finding out, once we lost something, it is mighty difficult to reclaim it.

While the language nationalists may have their victory parade celebrating their “success” in extinguishing English and substituting Malay instead, the economic costs for this loss has yet to be estimated. Apart from the direct added costs of having translators, think of the immense potential loss through businesses and investments going elsewhere because our workers cannot communicate in English.

Another pivotal point was in 1996, with the amendment to permit the setting up of private universities. Within a few years literally hundreds of private institutions were established. For the first time the monopoly of the government in providing education, at least at the tertiary level, was broken. This was significant as it created the momentum for further change.

The nation had barely digested that innovation when the new millennium brought in more radical changes. One was Education Blueprint 2001-2010, the grand design envisioned by ministry bureaucrats; and soon right after, the National Brains Trust Report of 2002. It is highly significant that these two major proposals, with their far ranging implications, were made without wide public discussions or input. They were not even presented to Parliament.

In addition to these two major reform efforts, there were other significant decisions made during this time that had great impact on schools specifically and education generally. What is significant and frightening was the cavalier way in which these weighty matters were decided. The use of English to teach mathematics and science was made in response to a resolution passed at an UMNO divisional meeting.

Of course the division that made the resolution was the prime minister’s own; hence its extraordinary holding power. In Malaysia nothing happens spontaneously. The other equally significant initiative – to admit non-Malays into MARA residential schools – was also made extemporaneously by the Prime Minister. Purportedly this was part of his overall attempt at injecting merit into the system. The only revealing aspect to that decision is that he now finally acknowledges that there is no consideration of merit in the current system.

I agree with both initiatives and made similar recommendations in my The Malay Dilemma Revisited. I advocated non-Bumiputras be admitted to all residential schools both to increase the competitiveness as well as reduce the insularity. But I went further. These non-Bumiputras as well as those Bumiputras who could afford it, should bear the full costs. These schools should revert to their original mission of being an outreach program for the poor who do not have ready access to quality schools.

My other recommendation was to teach science and mathematics in English at these schools. It would be a way to attract more Bumiputras to pursue those subjects, and as the students are smarter, the plan would more likely succeed and the kinks more easily ironed out. Once the system was running smoothly, then it could be expanded onto regular schools.

Like others, I too have deep reservations on the workability of the government’s current proposals. It would not surprise me that there would be few non-Bumiputras eager for the MARA slots. This was confirmed by the headlines in November 2002. Non-Bumiputras are not the only ones who are unimpressed with MARA. To many Malays especially those in the private sector and the professions, MARA is synonymous with mediocrity. Few send their children to MARA institutions.

Likewise with the teaching of science and mathematics in English; I anticipate problems not only with textbooks but also the teachers.

Next: Education Development 2001-2010

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rustm Sani's Vox Populi

Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi

One heartening development in Malaysia (and elsewhere) in the last few years is the emergence of personal blogs and the Internet news and commentary portals. This development may prove to be even more transforming socially, politically and in many other ways than the introduction of the printing press five centuries ago.

Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi (http://suara-rustam.blogspot.com) is the latest. He came on aboard a few weeks ago, and has been busy updating it regularly. His recent essays dealt with the current political leadership crisis, as well as commentaries on such topical issues as education.

A sampling of recent topics includes “The Silat Bunga of Abdullah and Mahathir,” and “Something is Rotten in the Kingdom of Higher Education.” Rustam is indeed the voice of the people.

As elsewhere, blogging is now fast becoming mainstream in Malaysia. This process is hastened considerably by the many bloggers who were once mainstream journalists, beginning first with the late MGG Pillai, and later with the likes of Kadir Jasin, (www.kadirjasin.blogspot.com) and Ahirudin Atan (www.rockybru.blogspot.com) entering the scene.

The younger pioneers like Nizam Zakaria are still there, active as ever and expanding their field of commentary. I particularly enjoy his take on the local arts scene and his excerpting his new novels.

Even more encouraging is the appearance of many blogs and Internet portals using the Malay language, as with Kassim Ahmad’s (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). His website also serves as a readily accessible repository of his earlier essays and commentaries, including his banned works like Hadith: A Re-Evaluation. Kassim, like Rustam, is facile in both Malay and English. Unlike many, they both stick to one or the other language with their essays; there is thankfully no jumbling mixture of rojak that I find so irritating and difficult to read.

The appearance of many blogs in Malay indicates that the Malay masses are now no longer captive to the mainstream media and government propaganda machinery (they are both the same). My favorites include Laman Marhean and Agendadaily.

While many are lamenting the current political leadership crisis in UMNO, there is already one positive consequence to this: the spawning of many new websites and blogs in the Malay language.

These enterprising and productive individuals are doing more than those bureaucrats and pseudo scholars at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and other public agencies to project our national language globally. Unlike Dewan’s glut of salaried men and women, these cyber contributors cost the government not a penny!

Introducing Rustam Sani

I first heard of Rustam Sani in 1985 when he delivered the public oration on the occasion of Kassim Ahmad receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Universiti Kebangsaan. That Kassim deserved the honor was beyond question, nonetheless I found the university’s action surprising, although a very pleasing one. Kassim had then just released his harrowing account of detention under the ISA, Universiti Kedua (Second University).

Kassim is an independent thinker; it must have taken great courage for those at the university to so honor him. Rustam was then head of its Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and who nominated Kassim. I was heartened that at least there was one soul at the university brave enough to go against the grain and managed to convince his colleagues in the university senate to go along.

Rustam and I share many commonalities. We both attended English schools in our respective little towns (Tanjong Malim for him, and Kuala Pilah for me). We then went on to the “big school” for our Sixth Form, the venerable Victoria Institution for Rustam, and Malay College for me.

From the University of Malaya Rustam went on to Reading and Kent in Britain. Later as a Fullbright-Hayes scholar, he obtained double masters from Yale. Like me, he returned home, but unlike me, he stayed and put up with the system.

Ponteng (opting out) was never a consideration for him; the nationalist’s blood runs too deep in Rustam’s veins. His father, the late Ahmad Boestaman, was a firebrand nationalist and an early leader in the movement for Merdeka. Firebrand is an apt adjective, for Boestaman was active in API (lit. fire), the acronym for Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (The Committed Youth Movement).

Boestaman later founded the socialist Parti Rakyat Malaysia and served in Parliament in the early 1960s. It was tribute to the way things were then that young Rustam did not suffer the consequences of having a father active in opposition politics. How different things are today!

Tribulations of A Social Scientist

Life as a social scientist in Malaysia must be terribly trying, both professionally and personally. Your field of enquiry touches on so many “sensitive issues,” at least sensitive to the establishment. You cannot follow your intellectual interests, unless the authorities grant you permission. That is quite apart from the funding issue.

When you have someone like Rustam who dares to think differently, life could be even more difficult, on as well as off campus. Rustam was lucky to have been spared the harsh fate meted out to Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, and others. Perhaps Allah in His Infinite Mercy and Wisdom decided that the Boestaman family had suffered enough, and thus spared Rustam the fate endured by his father. The British detained Ahmad Boestaman for eight years for his leftist activities during the Emergency. Just to show that Malaysian leaders did learn a thing or two from their British masters, the Tunku later jailed Ahmad Boestaman for four years under the ISA in 1963. He became the first sitting Member of Parliament to be so detained. That is a mark of distinction and honor in my book, not a blemish.

On campus, unless you toe the official line you would definitely be sidelined no matter how productive you are. Rustam was one productive academic; I came across his writings many times when researching for my books. Unfortunately, on Malaysian campuses intellectual productivity is not valued. To advance, suffice that you are an enthusiastic cheerleader for the authorities.

Far from being satisfied as a detached scholar-analyst, Rustam was actively engaged as a political practitioner and activist with Parti Rakyat. He walks the talk; he practices what he preaches.

Off campus, the same oppressive atmosphere prevails. The pages of the mainstream publications and airtime of radio and television are the exclusive preserve of unabashed supporters of the status quo. To these pundits, their sultans would always be donning a samping sutra (silk cummerbund) even when they are wrapped in bark loincloth. Once that sultan is out of power, these cheerleaders would, without skipping a beat, go on praising the next one and unhesitatingly damning the old one. Witness the current vulgar vilification of Mahathir by his once ardent supporters.

The mainstream media have lost their precious credibility, as well as balance and objectivity! In the end it is their readers (and thus the nation) who are not being well served. It is not a surprise that the blossoming of the Internet news portals and blogosphere coincides with (or perhaps the cause of) the decline of the mainstream media.

When Gutenberg introduced his printing press five centuries ago, he did more than simply made reading materials readily available for the masses. He emancipated them, freeing them from the tight controls of the clergy and ruling class who then had exclusive access to written works. They were the exclusive arbiter and interpreter on matters religious and others. The masses need only follow them meekly, as a flock of sheep would their shepherd.

The ready availability of the printing press upended all that. The resulting mass literacy made possible the reformation, and an end to the Medieval Age.

The Internet, by democratizing news, information, and commentaries, would have a similar if not far greater transforming effect. Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi (Voice of the People), and others like his, would ensure that we would not regress.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #34

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Systems (Cont'd)

Brazil’s Bolsa Escola

Brazil, like many developing countries, has appalling rural poverty, child labor, and school dropout rates. Bolsa Escola (School Bursary Program) was started in 1995 to overcome these problems by paying poor families to keep their children in school. The theoretical and intellectual underpinning of this bold social engineering program was provided by the American Nobel laureate in economics, Gary Becker, who advocated that investments in human capital is just as valid and can be as productive as investments in physical infrastructures.

Poor parents of pupils of ages 7-14 are paid if they keep their children in school. These parents are given a monthly income equivalent to the prevailing wage for one year. This would continue monthly thereafter only if all their children attend school for over 90 percent of the time in the previous month. Most of the beneficiaries are families headed by single mothers.

The immediate results were impressive and went beyond merely improved school attendance. In one study there was a remarkable drop (by 36 percent) in child employment rate and a significant drop in street children. But most spectacular was the reduction in school dropout rates. Control districts (that is, comparable areas not under the program) had dropout rates of about 7.4 percent; in subsidized areas, a stunning under 0.4 percent–a near 20-fold difference.

The program has since been refined with payments dependent on the number of school-age children, and reduced proportionately when only one child is missing school rather than the previous all-or-none rule. Some programs also incorporate nutrition and health care. Further, the minimum number of years of support is now two instead of one, and the period extended to a maximum of eight years. These families are further encouraged to be involved in the school.

The World Bank studied this program and offers some useful lessons. One is the careful selection of candidates so as not to miss those most deserving. Two, the selection criteria must be objective and transparent, and understood by all, especially the local bureaucrats and citizens. Most importantly, the program should not be tied to any political party or be used as a tool to curry citizens’ political favors or votes. Brazil’s program is also highly decentralized, as only the government entity closest to the people can best know who are the most needy.

The Bank is sufficiently impressed with the program to fund its expansion. The Bank also notes other equally significant accompanying benefits besides increased educational achievements, like reduction of poverty and child labor. It suggests further refinements, for example, to base payments on the number of children and not just school-age children. The Bank reiterates the importance of decentralization and local control to avoid leakage, that is, missing those deserving. At the same time the Bank cautions that these programs should not be at the expense of basic investments in schools. There is no point in giving grants to families and then have no money left over for improving schools or providing for teachers.

The program is currently being replicated elsewhere in Latin America with equally impressive results. Mexico has the comparable and equally successful Progressa program.

Another innovation of Bolsa Escola is that recipients are now given ATM cards so they can collect their money without having to face the local petty bureaucrats, thus eliminating a potential source of corruption. This also introduces the recipients to the modern concepts of banks and ATM cards.

I recommend a Malaysian variation of Bolsa Escola for the poorest areas. The decision as to who would qualify should rest with those who know the students and their parents well – the teachers. Further, I would restrict the payments only to children attending secular and not religious schools. I would also expand the social experiment by introducing other subsidy models and then evaluate to see which ones work best. In some districts I would improve the physical facilities by providing air-conditioned classrooms, single session, and extended school day, in others by providing nutritious meals. One of these interventions might well be just the right ticket to keep our poor children in school.

* * * * *

The examples cited here all offer some relevant lessons for Malaysia. My reform proposals incorporate some elements from each of these, modifying them to suit Malaysian conditions. Before I get to the specifics, I will first critique past and present attempts at reform. The next chapter will also review recent reforms in other countries for lessons that would be of relevance to Malaysia.

Next: Chapter 6: Attempts At Reform

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Malaysian "Mexican Stand-Off"

A Malaysian “Mexican Stand off”

The present tiff between former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir and his successor could have only three possible outcomes. One or the other could prevail, or the controversy could result in what we in California would call a “Mexican standoff.” This third ending is unlikely considering the personalities of the protagonists. Nonetheless it would be illuminating to speculate what would be the possible consequences of each ending.

Mahathir’s Victory

Consider first if Mahathir were to prevail. The direct impact would be felt not only by Abdullah but also his ministers and senior UMNO leaders, especially those like Rafidah Aziz, Najib Razak, and Nazri Aziz who owe their rise to Mahathir but who are now consumed with vilifying the man in their own uniquely vulgar style. Rafidah especially, for she was the matron, the so-called “iron lady,” who cried uncontrobaly on stage when Mahathir unexpectedly announced his resignation not too long ago.

The consequence to Abdullah would be obvious. He would be an ineffective “lame duck” leader. Many would argue that would make him no different than what he is already now. Well, even the lame could be mortally wounded, and Mahathir’s victory would do that to Abdullah. He would be out, whether voluntarily or through open challenge. Either way it would not be pretty.

UMNO is a big party with a long and distinguished tradition, its recent soiling with money politics and crony capitalism notwithstanding. The fate of any individual regardless of how important never meant much to the party. UMNO successfully withstood the abrupt resignation of its founder leader Datuk Onn and the forced withdrawal of Tunku and Hussein Onn as Prime Ministers and thus UMNO leaders. In the 1980s, it held up to the combined assault of its former leaders Hussein, Tunku, and Tengku Razaleigh. Hussein and Tunku died without ever returning to the fold; Razaleigh saw the wisdom of repenting.

If UMNO could withstand the downfall of those giants, it could easily brush off the stumbling of a dwarf.

Under normal circumstances, if Abdullah were to lose, those ministers who currently are his fervent supporters through their vociferous vilifying of Mahathir would also have to leave. This however, is Malaysia, and those ministers have not exactly demonstrated any class act; hence their chances of doing so would be nil. Watch instead for them to grovel themselves anew to his successor in order to retain their positions. They would, without skipping a beat, be demonizing Abdullah, just as they did to Mahathir. Such are their true being.

If Abdullah’s successor were to retain these characters, it would be a clear indication that he or she lacks something between the ears, much less political sense.

Mahathir Not Prevailing

Mahathir’s not prevailing does not mean an automatic victory for Abdullah. A strong leader becomes stronger upon surviving a challenge; a weak leader continues to be so, and become even more vulnerable. Abdullah would be battered, and a battered lame leader is an easy prey for other would-be leaders, ambitious or otherwise. The world of politics is no different from the world of animals.

Even if Abdullah were to perceive his bout with Mahathir as a momentous victory, that would not necessarily invigorate Abdullah. He would continue to be asleep at meetings, defer tough decisions, and continually plead, “I do not know!”

That sucking hissing sound emanating from Abdullah is not an expression of victory or satisfaction, but a giant sigh of relief at having survived a close call.

As for Mahathir, nothing would have changed for him. Contrary to the “touching” concerns about his dignity by the likes of Rafidah, the Tun would continue conducting himself as he always has, by being direct and frontal. He would become an even more trenchant critic of the Abdullah Admnistration. He would stay put as advisor to Proton and Petronas, daring Abdullah to remove him.

The media, local and foreign, would continue to attend his press conferences not because he is controversial but because he has something sensible to say and able to articulate it well. Not being elected a delegate would not faze him; UMNO had treated him worse before.

Yes, Mahathir is now much older, but the God Lord has been kind to him; he looks fit. Put Mahathir and Abdullah side by side, and a foreigner would have a hard time telling who succeeded whom!

It is not for the likes of Nazri, Rafidah and other water boys and girls to ascertain Mahathir’s legacy; that is for historians. There will be plenty of time for that.
Abdullah is not without his stubborn streak. If he persists, he risks distracting the nation, and at a time when it could least afford it, what with the Ninth Malaysia Plan barely rolling off.

If Abdullah were to expose his vindictive side and do an “Anwar” on Mahathir on a scale much uglier than the earlier pepper spray episode in Kota Baru, as for example by using the Internal Security Act, that could easily backfire. Besides how would that square with the “Mr. Nice Guy” image he is carefully cultivating, not to mention the Islam Hadhari spirit.

No Joy for Non-Malays (and Malays)

Contrary to the chauvinistic chanting of opportunistic leaders in UMNO ready to exploit any crisis to their own political advantage, there is no particular joy for non-Malays (or even Malays for that matter) to this internal leadership imbroglio. Far from giving non-Malays and the opposition an opportunity to manipulate, as proclaimed by the still green Deputy UMNO Youth leader, they have much to lose with this destructive distraction. Investors local and foreign would not take kindly to any perceived leadership uncertainty. A “Mexican standoff” would do that.

Such insulting assumptions younger UMNO leaders have of their non-Malay fellow citizens reflect the shallowness of their thinking, which in turn is indicative of their thin intellect, despite their having attended august learning institutions.
Resolving this crisis between Mahathir and Abdullah does not mean a simplistic “kiss and make up” meeting between the two, as many UMNO simpletons are urging them to do. It would require addressing the fundamental question of leadership, or lack of one, on the part of Abdullah.

For Abdullah, the central question is (to rephrase Reagan’s famous campaign spiel): Are Malaysians better off under his administration then they were under Mahathir’s. Abdullah has yet to address, let alone answer that plaintive query.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #33

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Systems (Cont'd)

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a Geneva-based non-profit organization established in1968 to cater initially for the needs of children of internationally mobile families. In the short space of time it has already acquired a deservedly high reputation among universities worldwide for its rigorous matriculating examination. Schools in over 112 countries subscribe to the IB program, including many American magnet schools. In Malaysia apart from the few international schools, only MARA College, Banting, offers IB diploma. The college has done exceptionally well, including producing the best results worldwide for the last two consecutive years.

The IB school years resemble the Malaysian pattern, with six years of primary, five of secondary, and two years of matriculation (pre-university or Sixth Form). The curriculum is both broad and deep, integrated, and emphasizes critical thinking. There is also a strong component of community service. The matriculation program revolves around six core areas: primary language, second language, social sciences and history, mathematics, natural sciences, and an elective. Students choose three or four subjects at the higher level (HL) for more in depth studies and instructional hours. HL would be equivalent to Sixth Form‘s principal level. The rest of the subjects are taken at the standard level (SL), equivalent to the Sixth Form’s subsidiary level. This combination of SL and HL neatly tackles both breadth as well as depth. Students with an “artsy” bend need not take mathematics and science at the same intense level as would-be engineers.

This integrative approach is reflected in that all students have to take three common core elements. First is the Theory of Knowledge that emphasizes critical thinking and relates knowledge in the overall grand scheme of things. Second, students choose a topic for an in depth study, culminating in the writing of an extended essay, similar to the portfolio exhibition of the American CES schools. Third, students participate in a community project (CAS) that involves the three elements of creativity (C), action (A), and service (S).

IB’s HL pass is so highly regarded that even elite American universities give college credits for it. The American National Research Council praises IB, considering it one of the two best programs to prepare students to pursue science and mathematics in college, the other being AP.

The secret for IB’s success is due to its strict adherence to standards. Participating schools not only have to pay the equivalent of a franchise fee, but they also have to be regularly accredited. There are regular professional development programs for teachers as well as continuing curricular support for them available on-line. The emphasis on class participation and group projects means that IB, unlike other matriculating examinations, cannot be obtained through home schooling or correspondence courses. But like SAT, IB is both broad and comprehensive. All matriculating examinations have the same disadvantage of being a single end-of-year assessment, instead of regular and ongoing as with GPA. In this regard IB has a slight advantage in that with its science subjects, 26% of the final marks are based on teachers’ internal evaluation of the students’ laboratory work.

IB is sufficiently flexible to meet the national needs of various countries. I suggest modifying Sixth Form towards the IB model.

Next: Brazil’s Bolsa Escola

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Undur lah, Pak Lah!

Undur lah, Pak Lah

Few images could match the pathos of a man struggling to keep his head above water as he is drowning. A more tragic scene would be seeing a Mongoloid child quietly slipping underwater, oblivious of the mortal danger he is in as he sinks down, grinning. No intimations of fear or helplessness; a few moments later he would be found lifeless at the bottom of the pond.

This is the image Prime Minister Abdullah currently projects, and it is not far from the reality. He is way above his head, and is blissfully unaware of it. He still maintains the “elegant silence” of a Pak Bisu (the lovable deaf-mute uncle), and a “What? Me Worry?” grin of Mad Magazine’s Alfred Neuman.

He is sinking fast, and he does not know it. He is also taking his party and the nation down with him. Unfortunately, it is not within our culture for those closest to him to warn him of the impending disaster, much less to rescue the poor soul. On the contrary, they would continue to shield him from the harsh reality, all the way down to the bottom of the pond. They are more interested in protecting their own interests rather than in saving the man or the nation.

Undur lah, Pak Lah! Step down, Pak Lah! Spare your party, race and the nation you love needless grief.

It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that you might also be sparing yourself, your loved ones, and those closest to you. That is not for me to say.

Right Decision; Right Timing; Right Reason

By stepping down now, Abdullah would be making the one right decision at the right time and for all the right reasons, something that has sorely eluded him since becoming Prime Minister.

This would be an appropriate time for him to announce his resignation, to be effective following the election of a new leader at UMNO’s forthcoming annual convention in November. Doing so now would spare his party and the nation the endless distractions of a leadership tussle. With Ramadan coming up, there will be only a few weeks for the members to focus on electing their leader. The restraining influence of that holy month would curtail the more blatant “money politics” that has plagued UMNO. That would help ensure a clean election; at least I hope so.

Were Abdullah to reveal his stubborn streak and hang on however tenuously, rest assured that the party and nation would be consumed by the leadership brawl. Forget about the Ninth Malaysia Plan, economic growth, or even plain normalcy. Even if Abdullah were to survive (a very big “if”), it would be a hollow victory. He, the party, Malays, and Malaysia would have been senselessly and irreparably battered in the process.

Clinging on would only make him look even more pathetic and helpless than he is already now. Please spare us the sorry sight!

I trust the collective wisdom of UMNO members to select Abdullah’s worthy successor. They have been through the exercise many times before. When Datuk Onn left the party in a huff, sulking because the members would not do his bidding, they demonstrated great judgment in picking the hitherto unknown and colorless civil servant, Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was a prescient choice for later he would lead the nation to Merdeka. In contrast, the daring, brilliant and charismatic Datuk Onn was content to remain in the false security of the colonial cocoon.

Similarly later when the Tunku was enjoying himself too much in being the “world’s happiest Prime Minister” while the nation was fracturing, UMNO members again asserted themselves. That famous genuflecting letter to Tunku from Dr. Mahathir may be from one person, but not its sentiment.

Granted, the UMNO of today is a far cry from its earlier being; it is now corrupted to its core. The rot accelerated when Anwar Ibrahim introduced the party and its members to “modern” forms of campaigning, as with “money politics.” It was only through outright corruption and blatant bribery, condoned by the party’s senior leaders, was Anwar successful in dislodging Ghaffar Baba as Deputy President and thus, Deputy Prime Minister. However, as we Muslims would observe, Allah has His Ways; nothing happens without His Will.

Today money politics is entrenched; it seems futile to have faith in UMNO’s ability to make wise decisions, uncorrupted by money and influence peddling. Examine the last leadership convention, and that was with the two top positions not contested. Imagine the ugly tussles and ensuing gross corruptions had both positions been vacant.

There is some reason to hope that this time it would be different, if Abdullah were to resign now. With the restraining influence of Ramadan and Hari Raya, as well as the short notice, there would not be a prolonged disruptive and acrimonious campaign. There would be corresponding less time for intrigue and bribery. It takes time to form alliances and to engage in backstabbing. This may well be the only opportunity for the party to have a relatively honest election, and for its members to express freely their collective wisdom. This may also be the only chance the party has to cleanse its leadership, and thus itself.

If Abdullah does not seize this rare opportunity and instead succumb to the flatteries of his courtiers, rest assured that the party and nation would needlessly be distracted until he is out. Not a pretty prospect, for him, the party, and the nation.

Contrary to Abdullah’s perception, Mahathir is not the problem; silencing him would not be the solution. Mahathir is getting wide hearing not because he is the former Prime Minister (although that is a factor), rather the issues he raises resonate with the citizens.

Undoing Mahathir’s Legacy

If Abdullah were intent on undoing Mahathir’s legacy, as Abdullah’s many interlocutors seemed to convey, then stepping down now would do it. He would have effectively broken UMNO’s ill-advised “tradition” of not contesting the two top positions. This presumes that Najib would contest the top slot with Abdullah’s withdrawal, and thus automatically vacate his Deputy President post. There is nothing to indicate that he would not do so.

It was just over two years ago that Abdullah received an overwhelming mandate from the people. He has not committed any egregious deeds, which would be the usual reason in calling for a resignation. On the contrary, he has done a few things right; that is to say, I agree with those decisions.

That is precisely Abdullah’s problem. Even when he did the rare right thing, as with trimming the budget deficit, canceling that silly crooked bridge, and reducing the petroleum subsidy, his timing was off and or his reasoning flawed.
It was pathetic and painful to see his ministers and other defenders going through contortions to justify canceling that bridge. As for the timing, the penalty payments may yet exceed the cost had the boondoggle been built!

As for Abdullah’s overwhelming mandate of 2004, do not read too much into it. Malaysians are by nature generous and forgiving of our leaders, at least the first time around. When Tunku took over from the towering Datuk Onn, Tunku’s Alliance Party won all but one of the 52 seats. Datuk Onn scrapped through with the only one seat.

This was not because Malaysians were mudah lupa (easily forgetting) or being ungrateful to Datuk Onn for his great service in establishing UMNO and saving the nation from becoming a dominion. Rather, Malaysians prefer giving their new leaders a rousing start and a generous chance.

Resigning the prime ministership is quite the tradition in Malaysia. Chalk one up for the nation! Tunku did it temporarily to concentrate running his campaign in1959. A decade later the Tunku missed the subtle Malay signals and was more or less forced out, albeit civilly and with decorum in 1970. Hussein did it gracefully in 1981, without prompting, when he found himself overwhelmed.

Fast-forward to today, Hussein Onn is fondly remembered despite his forgettable tenure. In contrast, during the recent celebration of Merdeka’s 49th anniversary, few recalled the Tunku’s pivotal leadership in that fateful event.

Mahathir made it clear that he now deeply regrets anointing Abdullah as his successor. That point is irrelevant. By resigning now and simultaneously opening up the nomination process by letting anyone to participate by doing away with the onerous branch nomination requirements, Abdullah would reduce the corrupting influence of money politics and help ensure getting the best candidates. Let the membership decide who are serious and who are frivolous candidates. By resigning now, Abdullah would also ensure that the next generation of leaders would truly be the choice of the membership. That is a legacy that even Mahathir could not match. That is also the one enduring legacy worth leaving.

Undur lah, Pak Lah!