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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.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Charity of Sacrifice

The Charity of Sacrifice

(Speech given to members of the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of the Eidul Adha, Sunday December 31, 2006 at Gavilan College, Gilroy, California.)

Praise be to Allah that we are able to gather on this crisp Sunday morning, the last day of the year, to celebrate Eidul Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, in peace and prosperity! We are fully aware that there are millions elsewhere who are not so blessed or fortunate.

We are able to enjoy our freedom, peace and prosperity today because those before us have made their sacrifices. When Prophet Muhammad (May peace and the blessings of Allah be upon him!) received his first revelation from Allah, he was fully aware of the awesome responsibilities and the sacrifices that he would have to make to fulfill Allah’s mission. We owe much to those early Muslims who sacrificed much and endured monumental tribulations to spread the message of Allah.

One central message of Islam is our equality in the eyes of God. This is symbolized by the pilgrims attired only in their white ashram performing one of the Hajj’s important rituals, kings beside commoners, the rich alongside the poor, and the ulama side by side the novice.

The Founding Fathers too gave much of themselves to rid America of the tyranny of colonialism, and thus ushered in our freedom. Later, leaders like Martin Luther King gave the ultimate sacrifice in bringing the reality of the hallowed assertion in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Today we get to enjoy these freedoms.

Our forefathers too gave much of themselves. It took more than just courage to uproot themselves from the warmth of their family, friends and familiar surroundings in search of a better future in a distant country. They had faith in themselves and in God that their sacrifices would have meaning and consequence. That sustained them in the ensuing uncertainties.

Those like me who were not born in this country but choose to live here share and understand this sentiment. It is a tribute to the greatness of this nation that it is welcoming of new immigrants. The only difference that my great grandchildren could rightly claim decades hence would be that their ancestors came to this great country in a Boeing 747 instead of a steamship or schooner.

Today on this Eidul Adha we celebrate with our fellow faithful in Mecca as they complete their Hajj pilgrimage. Praise be to Allah, that this year we have three members of our congregation, Brs. Amir, Sohair and Merchant, together with their families undertaking their Hajj. May Allah accept their pilgrimage and give them safe passage.

After this congregational prayer, we will reenact the ultimate sacrifice that was asked by Allah of Nabi Ibrahim. What made Nabi Ibrahim endure the searing emotion of having to sacrifice his only son was the supreme belief in Almighty Allah, in the justness of His command, and that there must be a greater meaning to the sacrifice. It was this faith that sustained him through his anguish.

Following this congregational prayer, we will ritualistically reenact that ultimate sacrifice offered by Nabi Ibrahim on the command of Allah by slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat with our friends, family, and the needy. This act of sacrifice is thus also an act of charity, a major pillar of faith, together with the more familiar ones of prayers, fasting, and the Hajj.

The physical aspect of the sacrifice is readily apparent and appreciated. Equally important are the sacrifices that we must charitably make in our spirit, deeds, and words. While it would be easy for us to make the sacrifices for and be charitable to those we like and agree with, the greater sacrifice would be to do the same thing to our adversaries and to those with whom we disagree.

A kind word to or deed upon those we do not like or our enemies requires a much greater sacrifice on our part precisely because it is so much more difficult to undertake. Yet those are the most charitable of deeds that we can perform. The benefits that would accrue not only upon us but also on the recipients of our generosity as well as on our community are immense. At the very least we could then reassure ourselves that we have done our part and salve our conscience; at best it may very well change minds and behaviors.

The effect on our community of such individual acts of charity and sacrifice is self-reinforcing and self-multiplying. The adage, good will begets more goodwill, rings true.

Just as the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today are the consequences of the sacrifices of those before us, so too we must contribute our share of sacrifices so those following us would also get to enjoy theirs.

Today we have our Eid prayers in a rented hall. Insha’ Allah, we look forward to one day of having not only our own masjid but also a facility to educate our young and house our elders. Our community has embarked on the ambitious Cordoba Project on a 16-acre parcel in San Martin. We envisage a community center in the fullest sense, a place for learning, for our congregational prayers, to take care of our elders, and a center of our community’s activities.

Our goals are lofty and the challenges are great. They demand much of us: much work and even greater sacrifices. Let us all do our part. I wish you Eid Mubarak and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #49

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)

Schools of Second Chance

After discussing examinations, it appropriate to ponder the fate of those who fail and fall through the cracks. No matter how good a system there will always be failures. In the past when opportunities were limited, those who slipped were simply let go; there was no second chance. Many through sheer grit would make something of themselves; the rest would suffer their fate in silence. If they have learned their bitter lesson they would pass it on to their loved ones in the hope that the mistakes would not be repeated; others would have their children and loved ones repeat it, and the same cycle is repeated.

The remarkable aspect of human capital is this: citizens are either assets or they are by default, liabilities. There is no neutral zone. They are either contributors to or takers from the economy; they either add to or subtract from the wealth of the nation. The contributors are obviously the producers and workers. The takers come in many forms: the young, elderly, and infirm. The young are takers only temporarily; with good education they too would later become contributors and pay back many times more what they had taken from society and what society had invested in them. Likewise, the infirm could be turned into contributors with good medical and rehabilitative care. Even if their infirmities were permanent and irreversible, with appropriate training and ingenuity we could turn those citizens into assets.

In the beautiful poetry of classical Malay literature, the deaf would work in a noisy environment, the blind in the dark, and the mute be entrusted with state secrets! They all have their place. The elderly, well, they had been contributors when they were young, now they deserve to reap their harvest. Increasingly in the West, with better medical care, senior citizens are contributing right into their ripe old age. William Deming, the revered management guru, is still consulting and giving seminars even in his 90’s. A number of my colleagues in their 70s are still operating.

America spends an inordinate amount of resources training the intellectually challenged. Visitors may consider this to be a waste. For Third World nations with limited resources it would certainly make more sense to spend them on educating the smart ones first. But for a wealthy country like America that has taken care of the basic needs, spending funds to educate these unfortunate souls is money well spent. These children attend special classes where they are trained to do simple jobs. Then they are placed in a sheltered work environment, not subject to the regular stresses of the normal workplace. All these are attempts at turning them into producers instead of takers, to put them into the asset and away from the liability column.

The obvious societal liabilities apart from the above are criminals, dropouts, and drug addicts. They cost society indirectly by not being producers as well as directly by the damages they inflict and the costs they incur upon society. Criminals cost society directly as a result of their criminal activities, and society in turn has to expend resources to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate them – all very expensive undertakings. In America it costs about $30,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail, just about as much to attend Harvard. Drug addicts in addition are a public health menace, harboring such lethal communicable diseases as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. The public will bear the burden for treating them. And if they are not treated, the public will again bear the direct burden of their spreading their deadly diseases.

Thus we must have as good and attractive a school system as possible to minimize dropouts who would enlarge the pool of criminals, addicts, and other takers in the economy. But no matter how excellent and innovative a system, we should still expect failures. As can be surmised from my earlier argument, it is not whether we should provide a second (or even third and fourth) chance for them rather how should we do it to prevent them from slipping into the liability column and costing society.

We would be spending these resources on those who fail anyway. The question is whether we pay that later (and much more expensively) through the criminal justice system and healthcare when they become criminals and addicts, or pay less now by providing effective remedial programs so they can become productive members of society.

Malaysia already has a jumbled mess of expensive remedial programs like Rakan Muda (Friends of the Young) and more recently, the equally expensive national service. These are run by agencies that have little experience in dealing with the young. Rakan Muda is run by the Youth and Sports Ministry, while the proposed national service by the Defense Ministry. The objectives of these programs are by no means clear, making it difficult to assess their effectiveness. But because they have strong political advocates, rest assured these programs would simply multiply and grow. It is naïve to believe that by simply marching our young under the blazing Malaysian sun would somehow turn them into useful citizens. Instead of spending expensive resources on Rakan Muda and national service, use those same resources to provide remedial classes and other enhancement programs in the schools.

The best place for children is still in the school. If regular schools fail them, then we should modify the system. We should allow students to repeat UPSR, PMR, or STM. These repeaters (I would not label them failures, as such pejorative tags tend to stick for life and unfairly burden their bearers) should not be lumped together with the regular students; instead they should have their own special class. Hopefully it would be a small one so their teachers could pay individualized attention. I would also assign the most experienced teachers for that class. I would offer these students the extra benefit by recording on their final certificate only the better of their two examinations, the first or the repeat. Thus if in the first examination a candidate scored a B in English and a C in science but F in Malay and mathematics, but in the second (repeat) test he or she scores a C in all subjects, then the final transcript would show a B English (last year’s better score) and C (this year’s same or better score) for the rest. This would guarantee that their second effort would be better (certainly not worse) than the first, giving these students an added incentive.

For the more problematic (or severe) students who cannot be accommodated at regular or vocational schools, I would consider two other options: military and farm (or ranch) school. Both would be completely residential but unlike the regular boarding school, the students would have to do most of the work and earn their keep. These students would rotate through the kitchen, maintenance yard, and farm. They are not simply doing menial jobs rather they would learn specific skills – how to cook, operate machineries, and raise animals. It is not simply that they would raise chickens or cows like their forefathers did but they would also learn some mathematics and statistics (graphing egg productions, feedings, and weight gain) and animal husbandry so that when they do return to their villages at least they would be better farmers than their parents were. The schools could even contract out the students’ services. The ultimate objective is for the students to acquire some usable skills and at the same time get a basic education.

America has experimented with military academies for the problem kids in the inner cities. A similar program would work in Malaysia. Malays in particular have a fascination with uniforms and regimentation, and a military academy may just be the answer for these problem students. The academy I have in mind is very different from the present very expensive Royal Military College. I am certain that the alternatives I am suggesting would not only be cheaper than national service or Rakan Muda but also more effective.

These schools could emphasize sports and other extra-curricular activities, as well as vocational subjects and the performing arts. Such varied offerings would ensure that the students would find an activity that would suit their temperament and aptitude. This would also fit with the modern understanding of the multiple facets to human intelligence as conceptualized by Howard Gardner. We should offer these different types of schools and teaching styles to cater to those whose talent and intelligence are manifested in different areas.

In custodial characteristics, these schools would be like prisons, with the students’ time and whereabouts strictly controlled and regimented, but in philosophy it should be an educational institution. Its mission is learning, not punitive. We are more likely to succeed if we treat these students not as failures rather that we have yet to find a suitable program or teaching niche that would reach and touch them.

We must also be mindful that schools and learning or education are not synonymous. Effective learning can take place outside the classroom, and many a learned and educated man never saw the inside of a classroom. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are two famous examples. In America more and more parents are home schooling their children. In the past when access to schools was severely limited many Malaysians effectively educated themselves through correspondence courses. By offering different models including home, military, and ranch schools we increase the probability that the one of them would meet the particular and unique need of a particular student.

Another remarkable observation is that once students excel in one area they would then transfer their success and confidence into other areas. American schools emphasize sports for this very reason. They found that students who initially do not do well academically but are good at sports or fine arts, develop better self esteem that would help them cope with their studies later. Not to mention that should they excel in those fields, they could potentially have a more rewarding career as professionals in those areas. Many inner city youths managed to climb out of their ghettos through sports and entertainment. Look at Mike Tyson (boxing) and the many rap stars. Apart from entertaining their fans, these individuals contribute millions in income taxes. Given a different scenario, the state would have to expend resources to incarcerate them.

Coming back to military academies, another unanticipated benefit is that they provide excellent recruits for the armed services. Considering that these young men and women could easily have ended in the criminal justice system, that is a definite improvement for themselves as well as their families and society.

Our schools must not give up on any student; those unfortunate enough not to succeed the first time must be given ample opportunities to try again, and again. President Bush’s education initiative of 2001 has as its theme, “No Child Left Behind.” Malaysia too should have a similar commitment of not leaving any child behind, as well as giving every child all the opportunities that are needed for him or her to become a potential producer.

Next: Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Pak Lah, worry About the Rakyats' Rice Bowl Instead

Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings to you and your family and friend!

May your holidays be safe and joyful!

Bakri Musa

SEEING IT MY WAY, Malaysiakini Dec 21, 2006

Pak Lah, Worry About the Rakyats’ Rice Bowl Instead

Co-written with Din Merican

Editorial lead: This is not the time to be nice to any individual. It is time to be nice to ALL Malaysians and worry about their pots of rice.

As he enters his fourth year as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi still does not get it! He is concerned with his son-in-law’s pot of rice, not that of the rakyats’. Since he cannot brag about the nation’s economic achievements under his leadership, he is reduced to boasting of his son’s wealth. There is no glory if his son (and son-in-law) were rich but the nation poor.

Someone ought to tell him that he was elected to lead Malaysia, not to take care of the well being of his grown-up family, its friends and cronies. His advisers and family members have convinced him that those critics are out to bring him down. If Abdullah persists with his present pattern, rest assured that this belief would be self-fulfilling.

Abdullah should ponder the fate of another leader who was consumed with filling in the rice pots of his family members. Suharto’s downfall was ugly for him, as well as for his family and Indonesia.

Abdullah hides behind accusing his critics of fitnah, a particularly sinister term replete with profound religious implications. That is just a case of yet another rouge politician seeking subterfuge behind religion.

Being intellectually lazy, Abdullah conveniently cocoons himself and is thus shielded from the harsh realities. There he was a few months ago rationalizing that he was just “warming up!” Now he pronounces himself satisfied with his performance! It sure does not take much to make him satisfied, the smug satisfaction of low expectation.

The Curious Silence of Many

Abdullah is impervious to the plight of the poor devastated by his recent reduction of oil subsidy. The demands by civil servants for a 40 percent pay hike reflect the general increasing cost and declining standard of living.

Gone are his promises of open tenders and competitive biddings. Mega projects like the second Penang link and the new palace are being awarded without much discussion or formal tender processes. He has yet to deny disbursing RM600 million to UMNO operatives at the recent General Assembly, the most obscene and expensive display of money politics. Six months after the cancellation of the crooked bridge in Johore and there is still no full accounting of the total costs, including the hefty penalty payments. He spent hundreds of millions on the Monsoon Cup for a sporting event that hardly registered on the Malaysian consciousness.

The self-serving behaviors of his advisors ensconced on the infamous “fourth floor” of the Prime Minister’s Office are understandable; their very positions depend on their ability to humor the old man. As for his family members, there is the traditional Asian filial loyalty: the father being always right, the son (or son-in-law) always the prince. That will never change with Malays, Oxbridge education notwithstanding.

As for the others, there is the residuum of feudal Malay culture: the sultan is always right, challenge him at your peril. Classical Malay literature is replete with heroes presumed to be derhaka (and suffered the fate) for daring to correct the wayward ways of their sultans. Hang Tuah was only the most famous. Whatever the sultan wishes, he gets, and more. Increasingly, Abdullah is behaving like a pseudo sultan, minus of course the heritage or even regal charm.

It Takes More Than A Leader To Destroy A Nation

Thanks to the British colonial legacy, our nation is governed by laws and institutions. Those laws and institutions however, are premised on having competent and honorable leaders and individuals to serve them. With the corrupt and the incompetent, even the best laws would eventually be circumvented, and robust institutions eroded.

Abdullah alone could not destroy Malaysia; his lack of engagement is perversely an assurance of that. His lack of diligence and attention however could by default let others ruin the country. If that were to happen, the blame must then be equally borne by his advisors, ministers, and senior politicians, pundits, and public servants. They let it happen.

There are men of integrity in Abdullah’s cabinet (not many), but they have remained curiously silent. They are either putting their careers ahead of the fate of the nation, or they condone Abdullah’s shenanigans and incompetence. Or both. We look forlornly for a local Robin Cook or Paul O’Neill in Abdullah’s cabinet, men who willingly gave up their cabinet positions to impress their conviction on their wayward leader. More recently, a bipartisan group of distinguished retired Americans told their president publicly and in no uncertain terms that his Iraq policy is deeply flawed.

As UMNO President, Abdullah is answerable to its members. Judging from their collective behaviors at the party’s recent General Assembly, do not expect them to provide responsible checks and balances.

If ministers and UMNO members cannot provide the necessary oversight, then surely there is the UMNO Supreme Council. Their members, except for the few appointed by Abdullah and thus beholden to him, are elected by the membership. Thus we would expect them to be independent. Yet they too have remained curiously silent.

As we look at the roster of distinguished Malaysians who are now retired, we are humbled by their accomplishments and contributions in academia, the professions, and public service. They too are silent. If they agree with the direction the nation is headed, they should voice their support so as to encourage the leadership to do more of the same. If they disagree, then they owe it to their fellow citizens to voice their concerns. Surely the whole country has not suddenly been gripped by mediocrity and low expectations. We cannot find any other explanation for this curious but far from elegant silence.

An African proverb has it that it takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, it would take more than just a leader to destroy a country. Saddam could not ruin Iraq without those “enablers” around him. They too must bore the blame.

When reality strikes and Malaysians find ourselves in an abyss, yes, we will blame Abdullah. We must also pour our wrath on those others complicit: his ministers, pundits, and intellectuals now singing his praise. That ought to make them pause and examine their stance; to have the courage to impress upon Abdullah of this reality before voters deliver their verdict in the next general elections.

Abdullah’s self-admitted poor time management is not an acceptable excuse. His frequent and obvious inattention and dozing off should not be tolerated. If the burden of the office is too much for Abdullah, his advisors, ministers, and senior UMNO politicians owe it to the nation to tell the man to give it up and let others more capable take the helm.

This is not the time to be nice to any one individual; it is a time to be nice and considerate to all Malaysians and to worry about their pot of rice. To remain competitive, Malaysians, leaders and followers alike, must work hard and smart. Malaysia does not need nor should she tolerate sleepy heads.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #48

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)

Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!

The bane of testing in Asian schools is that they are being regarded as the end-all and be-all of learning. Even more sinister, we look upon test scores as the only dimension on which to assess an individual. Test scores become means of permanently labeling someone. We should look upon test scores “not as means of confirmation of fate but as clues to improving children’s learning,” to quote the Annenberg Challenge.

Testing is one measure of accountability, serving as an effective feedback for students as well as their teachers and schools. We all learn at different paces; it is part of the normal curve. We should not infer anything more beyond that. Take learning to read. All too often we label someone who is slow to read or who reads at an older age as a “slow learner,” and that tag would be permanently etched on the individual. Parents’ and teachers’ expectations are now predicated on that label; expectations often becoming fulfilling (Rosenberg phenomenon). Learning to read is like learning to ride a bicycle. Some of us learn it quickly and at a younger age, others take longer and have to be older – the bell curve distribution. We would never make the prediction that because someone learns to ride a bicycle earlier and faster that he or she would later become a champion cyclist. Yet we do that all the time with examination scores. Examinations and tests are an important part of the feedback and accountability process, but we should not be unduly obsessed with them or to presume making unrealistic prediction of someone’s potential.

We are now finding that dyslexic children are not slow learners or readers, rather they perceive the written word differently. This particular insight has helped thousands of children become better learners and productive citizens. We certainly would not label such dyslexics as Albert Einstein and Ted Turner (of CNN) as “dumb” or “slow.” Some like Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie became great writers.

An appropriate and more realistic perspective on examination and test scores is greatly needed. My reform de-emphasizes national examinations and calls for eliminating SPM (Year 11 examination). With the integration of Islamic schools into the national stream, STAM would also be eliminated.

I would also change the way we assess students and in calculating the final scores on national examinations. Currently Malaysia, like other Asian countries, relies exclusively on the end-of-year assessment. The students’ entire career depends on that test. If they are not feeling well that day or if there are interruptions in their personal lives like floods or a family emergency, then they would be doomed. No wonder the heightened anxiety and obsession.

I would limit standardized tests to only the four core subjects. In addition students would be continuously assessed by their teachers on all subjects throughout the year (the GPA), based on their class performance, homework assignments, as well as on regular mini tests. In ranking students for streaming and other purposes, I would use both the GPA as well as the scores on standardized tests, giving equal weight to both. Further I would use the standardized tests to evaluate both the schools and teachers, and to compare their performances with their peers of comparable size and demographic mix. In this way we extend the utility of such examinations. By reducing the number of subjects tested in standardized examinations, we reduce the temptations of teachers to “teach to the test,” thus giving them room for individual creativity. More importantly, it would greatly reduce the current obsession parents, teachers, and students have with examinations and test scores – the curse of Asian educational system.

I would modify the scoring of national examinations so that the final test would contribute only 70 percent to the total score; the rest (30 percent) would come from the teachers’ evaluation of the students’ year-round work (GPA). To correct for interschool variations in GPAs (some teachers are more generous, others more strict) the school’s GPA would be correlated with the students’ overall performance at the national examinations. There are reliable and valid statistical tools to do this. A school whose students’ aggregate GPAs correlate well with scores on the national examination would need no adjustment to their GPAs. But if the school’s aggregate GPAs are much higher than the scores on the national examination, then we know that the school is rather lenient, so the students’ GPAs would have to be lowered to factor in this lax grading. Conversely if students with average GPAs score highly on the national examination, then the school is strict with its assessments. To be fair to the students, the school’s GPA would have to be adjusted upwards to compensate for this.

There could be further statistical refinements by comparing the GPAs and scores on national examination of the top, middle, and bottom 10 percent of the students.

For the UPSR (Year 6), only the GPAs at Years 5 and 6 would count. They would each contribute 15 points to the 30-point final marks. For the PMR (Year 9), the GPAs for all three years of middle school (7, 8 and 9) would contribute equally (10 percent each) to the final score. For the STP (Year 13), the GPAs for the first two years of high school (Years 10 and 11) would each contribute 5 percent; the GPA for Year 12 would contribute 8; and Years 13, 12 percent to the final score of 30. Thus the students’ day-to-day performance during the entire high school years would contribute to the final STP score.

This would give a more holistic and thus fairer assessment. It would also have better predictive value. Such a mechanism would impress upon the students that their work during the whole year is important and contributes directly to the final score. This reinforces the point that studying is a long term and continual affair, not something you cram just before the finals. This would also reduce considerably the anxiety associated with the present system where the students’ entire future would be dependent on that few fateful days of testing.

Such a system would give teachers leeway to teach beyond the test. It would also discourage the present end-of-year practice where the class is consumed with “spotting” examination questions – not a particularly useful or educational exercise.

Although I call for eliminating SPM, nonetheless there could still be a national examination in the core subjects but the scores would not count. They would be used only as a trial or yardstick to measure the student’s progress as well as an assessment of the school. The school and teachers could then use the information to make the necessary changes or areas to focus on for the next two years. Although UPSR and PMR would test only the four core subjects, for ranking and streaming purposes, the GPAs of the other subjects not tested by the national examination would also be considered and be given equal weight. This would prevent students from slacking or not paying attention to these non-core subjects. These GPAs would have to be adjusted as per the formula discussed earlier to account for interschool variability.

The terminal Form 6 examination (STP) would see the most changes. Students would take six (the four core subjects plus two more) instead of the present five subjects. I would eliminate the current useless General Paper (Kertas Am). Those interested in medicine and the life sciences would take biology, physical science (physics combined with chemistry), and an Arts elective, together with the core subjects of mathematics (preferably calculus), English, and Malay. Aspiring engineers would take physics, chemistry, and mathematics, together with an arts elective plus the core subjects of English and Malay. A would-be economist or social science major would also have to take one of the sciences together with mathematics (preferably calculus and or statistics), and of course English and Malay.

Under the present system with the focus on matrikulasi and the consequent de-emphasis on Sixth Form, STP is fast losing its popularity. In 1995 there were over 60,000 candidates sitting for STP, in 2001 barely over 40,000. Students are abandoning Sixth Form. The irrelevance of STP can be gauged by the fact that the most popular subjects remain Malay Studies and History, while subjects like mathematics and biology account for only about 10 percent of the total. If we consider the Islamic stream with nearly 29,000 students sitting for STAM, one can see how far detached from the real world the system of education in Malaysia is, especially for Muslims.

My proposal would restore the original primacy of Sixth Form. Having these classes would have a positive ripple effect on the quality of teaching on the lower levels. The laboratory and library facilities would have to be improved and this would benefit the rest of the school. Having better qualified teachers teaching Sixth Form would also enhance the overall standard of teaching at that school. Eliminating SPM and STAM, and testing only the four core subjects in PMR and USPR would greatly reduce the load of the examination syndicate. The results then could be released much earlier. More specifically, students in Year 6 need not have to sit for their examination in early September. That could now be deferred to late November, thus giving pupils the whole of September, October, and part of November for meaningful class time. By eliminating SPM, students would continue directly into Sixth Form in January instead of having to wait six months for their examination results.

With a reduced load, the examination syndicate could undertake much-needed research to enhance the reliability, validity, and predictability of its tests. It could also present the test scores in a meaningful format so parents could gauge the quality of the schools to help parents make the appropriate selection for their children. Schools could be ranked nationally, by state, with their peers of comparable size, location, and socioeconomic indicators. Schools could also be ranked by their academic strengths. My point is the more information parents have, the more informed would be their decision.

Next: Schools of Second Chance

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Lesson For Malaysia

The Lesson For Malaysia

[Note: The original version was posted on Malaysia-Today.net on December 17, 2006. I have expanded on that piece.]

The office of the President of the United States is the most powerful. The power, prestige, and influence wielded by its occupant are unmatched. Yet there was the remarkable event recently of a bipartisan committee of ten distinguished Americans publicly telling their President in no uncertain terms that his policy in Iraq was fatally flawed.

To me, this again demonstrates the beauty and genius of the American system. It is remarkable that rest of the world (except for Iraq, of course) does not appreciate the significance of this singular event. While Malaysian media covered in some details the recent American midterm elections, they hardly had a word on the Iraq Study Group and its Report.

Yet there is an important lesson or two here for Malaysia. One, even the most powerful leader can be subjected to scrutiny by the citizens at any time, not just at elections. Two, such criticisms even during times of war do not in any way undermine the power or prestige of that office. No American, not even the President who is the prime target of the criticism, is accusing the committee of undermining the war efforts in Iraq by their criticisms. Nor Bush did question the loyalty of the committee members or his other critics.

In mark contrast, there was Prime Minister Abdullah Bawadi in his usual self-righteousness manner accusing those who criticized him as engaging in fitnah. This is an especially sinister exercise as that derogatory term is replete with profound religious implications. It is particularly offensive coming as it was from a self-professed “religious scholar” and “ulama.”

There was another remarkable aspect to the Iraq Study Group. It presented its report directly to President Bush in a face-to-face meeting on December 6, 2006 at 7AM. Rest assured that everyone was wide eyed and awake, especially the President, at that early morning meeting. Please take note of this, Mr. Prime Minister!

Before submitting its unanimous report, the Group had earlier “interviewed” (grilled is the more accurate word) the President and senior members of his team. The Group released its full report to the public on the day it was presented to the President. There was no hiding behind concerns on “national security” or “sensitive issue.”

The Relevant Lessons

Like many, I feel strongly that Malaysia is headed in the wrong direction. Our society is increasingly fragmented along racial, religious, and regional lines while our institutions are losing their integrity and effectiveness through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence.

Malaysians increasingly view themselves as “us” versus “them.” The “us” could be Malays and the “them,” non-Malays. For Malays, the “us” could be those who subscribe to the “pure” form of Islam, and the “them,” the misled. For the Chinese, the “us” could be those who have adapted to the Malaysian reality and proudly display their Tan Sris and Datuks, while the “them” are those who feel that the very survival of the great Chinese culture and language rests on their shoulders. For the Indians, the “us” could be those who have forsaken their “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan” of their birth certificates for a “bin” or “binte” respectively, acquire an affected Kedah accent, and voila, suddenly become ardent defenders of Malay special privileges! The “them” are the rest.

Our national schools no longer attract a significant portion of our citizens, and our universities have failed to provide the necessary skilled manpower. Thousands of our graduates are unemployed, or more correctly, unemployable.

Economically, Malaysia no longer attracts foreign investments. Investors, local and foreign, perceive the nation as being increasingly corrupt. The recent demands by civil servants for a 40 percent pay hike reflect the increasing cost and declining standard of living.

Instead of being the engine that would propel our progress, the civil service is a major impediment. The only difference between lawbreakers and law enforcers is that the latter is on the government payroll. Otherwise they both extort and terrorize the public. As these public institutions are essentially Malay, they also bring shame and dishonor to our race.

Those are the realities, but we would not know that from the official pronouncements. That is to be expected; those in power do not willingly expose their mistakes and inadequacies.

The Surprising Elegant Silence of Many

What is surprising is the “elegant silence” of others. As I look at the roster of distinguished Malaysians now retired from academia, the professions, and public service, I am humbled by their integrity, intelligence, and contributions. I wonder how they feel seeing their fine legacies now being dismantled, and in many cases defiled.

Their silence is puzzling. If they feel that the nation is headed in the right direction and their legacies in good hands, they should voice their support. That would encourage the leaders to do more of the same. If they disagree, then they owe it to their fellow citizens to voice those concerns.

The only luminary who has spoken out is Tun Mahathir. The way the establishment has been treating him reveals volumes of its rigid “group think” and insular mindset. That Mahathir was defeated as a party delegate from his old constituency was a humiliation not for him but for those party members. If pearls had been cast unto them, they would have paved them onto their driveway of their palatial mansions, unable to discern those pearls from pebbles.

Regardless of the ultimate consequence of his criticisms, Mahathir has already made a seminal contribution. He effectively shattered the Malaysian taboo of criticizing the leaders. That can only be good for the nation. I am on record as being one of Mahathir’s severest critics even at the height of his popularity, but I salute him for this singular contribution. It is even more significant that he made it after he retired. For many, retirement means no longer contributing.

Loyalty means loyalty to the rule of law and to our institutions, not to individuals, no matter how high a position they occupy. Those ten distinguished Americans of the Iraq Study Group epitomize this fine tradition. Its Report is widely discussed and President Bush has already taking steps to respond on those recommendations.

The chief architect of the flawed Iraq policy has already resigned. We may disagree with Secretary Rumsfeld’s policies but there is no denying his personal integrity in resigning and taking responsibility. Contrast that to the behaviors of his Malaysian counterparts. Rafidah Aziz is still holding tight despite the Approved Permits scandal; like wise Sammy Vellu with the Highway Bypass collapse, and Syed Hamid over the imbroglio of the crooked bridge.

I look forward to similar contributions from our own corp of distinguished retired Malaysians along the lines of the Iraq Study Group. I am of course counting on the few who are not consumed with indulging their grandchildren, idling their time on the golf courses, or regaling their fellow mosque attendees.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #47

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont'd)

Charter and Private Schools

Presently there is minimal private sector participation in the school system apart from preschools. Schools are essentially government monopoly, except for some private secular and religious schools. There are few private international schools but Malaysians are specifically excluded except under very unusual circumstances requiring ministerial permission.

Within the last few years MOE is relaxing its prohibition against private schools. Thus far these private schools are operated by or extensions of existing private colleges. They still have to follow the national curriculum, so there is no innovation in that area. The only changes are these schools are less crowded and have better facilities and longer hours. Like the private colleges, these schools are also dangerously segregated racially and socially. MOE does not require that they be more inclusive.

There is a definite role for the private sector. If we have private schools along the lines of international schools it would give Malaysians some choices. These schools would also give public schools much needed competition. To be effective and contribute their fair share, these schools should be more inclusive and not become enclaves of a particular social class or race. They should adhere to certain minimum academic, enrollment, and safety standards.

There are two ways in which the private sector could participate – one as a joint public and private venture in the form of charter schools, and the other as purely private schools receiving no state support. Charter schools are popular in America. The underlying concept is to empower the ultimate consumers of schools – students and their parents – by taking control away from the central bureaucracy and giving it to the schools. The ministry would be concerned only with monitoring the quality, compliance with rules and regulations, and setting the standards.

Well designed, charter schools would lead to greater integration of students; improve the level of English; involve the private sector in the education system; and most importantly, introduce much-needed competition to the present state monopoly. Such competition would enhance quality and encourage innovation.

To gain their charter such schools would have to meet certain conditions. Their graduates would have to demonstrate competency in the national language. Their curriculum would have the same four core subjects, with the school free to fill in the rest of the day. These schools would have to recognize the uniqueness and special sensitivity of Malaysian society. Their student body must therefore reflect the community. Exceptions would be rare; a school in Ulu Kelantan could have fewer non-Bumiputras.

In return these schools would get state funding – the same amount it would have cost the government to educate these pupils in its present system. Additionally the state would guarantee loans for capital expenses. The actual lending would be done by private sources.

Because of the guarantee, the interest rate should be favorable. The schools could also charge additional tuition. Any entity, local or foreign, could establish such schools provided they meet enrolment requirements stipulated earlier as well as those that would prevent them from becoming either the one-teacher school or the giant educational factories. Further, parents and teachers should constitute the majority of the governing board to ensure that the school’s mission would not be subverted. The board would have total control, including choosing the medium of instruction and the setting of fees. The board would be accountable to the students and parents; they would monitor the school better than any government official.

As added precaution, these schools must post performance bonds to repay the government’s grants as well as reimburse the students should the school be closed. Such schools should have clearly stated objectives. They could prepare students for any matriculating examination. Some could emphasize the fine arts, others, foreign languages or the sciences. These schools could look to their leading counterparts abroad as their model. Schools preparing students for American universities could emulate Groton and Exeter. Such schools would also attract foreign students and be a source of valuable foreign earnings.

For the non-college bound, there could be vocational charter schools started by private companies. Proton could have one to train automotive and body mechanics; a consortium of construction companies could start one to train plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. A group of hotels could start one to train workers for their industry. Industry, not the ministry, would set the curriculum. If there is a demand there could be schools preparing students for Arabic and Chinese universities. Such schools must of course meet the enrolment mix stipulated earlier.

Charter schools would lead to greater integration, as students would take classes and do extra curricular activities together, an improvement over the present vision schools or the Pupil Integration Plan. To prevent such schools from becoming enclaves of the rich, they would have to provide scholarships for the poor. They should also provide hostel facilities so students from rural areas would not be excluded. The schools should also have adequate facilities (playing fields, auditoriums) to preclude their being set up above shop lots.

Private schools on the other hand would not get any state funding. Like charter schools, they would still have to post performance bonds to protect their consumers. To make sure that they play their proper role in nation building and in fostering national unity, these schools should also have a student body that reflects society. The only curricular requirement is that their students must demonstrate competence in Malay and the subject should be taught daily. The students would also have to sit for the same national examination in Malay language as students in national schools. Private schools would thus have greater autonomy than charter schools, as befits their status in not getting any public funds.

Adopting charter and private schools would require a major shift in thinking and attitude on the part of the education establishment; a paradigm shift, to use the current cliché. They must also disabuse themselves from the ingrained idea that innovations and pedagogical wisdom are the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats or that the government is the only entity that can provide quality education.

Malaysia should start small, by granting charters to about 20-25 primary schools and 10-12 at the secondary level, and the same number for totally private schools. After a few years carefully evaluate the program with a view of enhancing it. Malaysia benefited immensely by allowing private sector involvement at the tertiary level. It would also benefit by having the private sector be involved in the schools. If Malaysia could reach the stage where Chile is today with nearly half the students opting for non-public schools, imagine the lessening of the load on MOE. It could then pay more attention to those who really need its help.

Next: Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Malaya: Critical Thoughts on Islam

Foreword to Salbiah Ahmad’s Malaya: Critical Thoughts on Islam, Rights, and Freedom in Malaysia, published by SIRD, Petaling Jaya, RM40.00; 405 pages.

[Second of two parts]

Interface of Islam, Feminism, and Human Rights: Prism Versus Eyeglasses

The power and persuasiveness of Salbiah are in her words, ideas and logic, and she demonstrates them well in this collection. She writes on the interface of Islam, feminism, and human rights, three highly contested areas in contemporary social discourse. Just as the ulama are claiming exclusivity on matters Islamic, so too are strident feminists abrogating unto themselves women’s issues, and Western secularists, human rights.

If we view matters exclusively though the individual prism of the Islamists, feminists, and secularists, especially their extremist elements, then indeed there are the distinct and different colors of reality, and never will they merge. Red will remain red; the blue, blue, and the green, permanently so.

Ground those prisms into eyeglasses, not only would those individual colors disappear and be synthesized into a whole and colorless unity, but we would also get a much clearer vision, minus the parallax and other distortions. The sight we see then would be much closer to reality.

Salbiah Ahmad’s essays represent this eyeglass, in contrast to the prisms as represented by the polemics of the Islamists, feminists, and secularists. She is eminently qualified for this synthesizing role.

Educated at the “secular” University of Singapore’s Law Faculty, she brings her lawyer’s analytical skills to her commentaries. To be noted here is that although Singapore has a sizable Muslim minority and is located in an overwhelmingly Muslim region, its law faculty has not seen fit to offer a course in Islamic law. NUS may aspire to be the Harvard of the region, but it has a long way to go. Singapore’s leaders while they were at Harvard never ventured beyond their prescribed coursework to discover that even Harvard has a Chair in Islamic Law. This proves my point that while you can take them out of their island and send them to the Harvards of the world, more difficult is to take the island out of them. Singapore’s leaders, political and academic, have yet to escape the insularity of their tribalism trap.

Salbiah readily made up for that deficiency. She was an International Human Rights fellow at Emory University’s Law School in Atlanta, one of America’s premier institutions. Emory’s Islamic Family Law Global Project, under the leadership of the intellectual giant Abdullahi An-Naim, is pioneering the effort at reconciling the Sharia with modern concepts of human rights.

My own introduction to An-Naim was through his seminal Toward An Islamic Reformation, published in 1990. It transformed my thinking of and rekindled my faith in Islam. To this day it remains one of the few books I keep re-reading.

Salbiah taught law for many years at the International Islamic University, once headed by the legendary legal giant Ahmad Ibrahim. She was also at one time a Human Rights activist associated with various non-governmental organizations. She is now with the United Nations Office of Recovery Center in Aceh, serving her fellow humankind devastated by the Tsunami tragedy. Salbiah takes to heart our prophet’s exhortation that to serve your fellow being is to serve God.

In this collection of essays, Salbiah brings just the right mix of scrupulous scholarship, rigorous analysis, and personal observations. She speaks as a Muslim, a feminist, and an ardent advocate for human rights. She does not see any conflict; on the contrary she is very comfortable with and proud of the three roles, as well she should.

Unlike feminist Muslims of the Sisters-in-Islam variety, Salbiah is very comfortable in her tudung and not at all perturbed that others might mistake her to be of the fundamentalist stripe. She wears it because she is comfortable with it, plain and simple, period. She is fully aware that the tudung now represents much more: as a subtle statement of protest for an oppressed minority (as in Thailand), a reflection of group identity and solidarity (as in Europe), a consequence of peer pressure (Malaysia), or merely as a fashion style. It could also be simply a functional item, a convenient cover for “a bad hair day.” Salbiah could not care less. To each his own, that is what freedom means.

Salbiah’s observations on the reactions (rather, over reactions) of the authorities in Singapore and Turkey to Muslim women donning the tudong are both entertaining and insightful. As she astutely observes, such overreactions reflect more the oppressive tendencies and authoritarian streaks of those governments and their leaders and less on the piety of those ladies.

I find Salbiah’s personal anecdotes just as revealing and instructive as her critical analyses. In one of her essays, she recalled being a member of the Sisters-in-Islam meeting the Ford Foundation officials in Kuala Lumpur for possible funding. Her fellow “Sisters” insisted that she discarded her tudong lest those Americans would think that the organization was made up of fundamentalist Muslims!

This irony is just too delicious not to note. Here we have these modern liberal and “emancipated” feminist Muslims, many related to or part of the country’s establishment (Prime Minister Abdullah’s daughter is an active member of Sisters-in-Islam), successfully overcoming the local social pressure to wear the tudong, only to succumb to perceived Western expectations!

There is yet another personal episode of hers worth noting. On meeting her superior at IIU over the “non-renewal” of her teaching contract, she, being the conscientious teacher, was concerned that there might be students’ complaints over her teaching. On the contrary, she was terminated over a dress code!

I can relate to Salbiah’s experience. Years ago when IIU was planning its medical school, I applied for a senior academic position. Despite being forewarned by the dean, I was still offended by the intrusive questions. The university was not interested in the papers I published, only a few lines devoted to that, but there were pages to inquiring about my intimate beliefs and practices as a Muslim.
I have always thought the university as a sanctuary for open inquiry. At IIU, you need a special dispensation from the Rector to read Shiite literature, which is kept under lock and key. Imagine what they would do if you were caught reading the bible!

Concept Versus Content

Conversations over social constructs like freedom, equality, justice, and human rights quickly degenerate into controversies because we each bring our own cultural and other baggages to the discussions. Such discourses are less genuine dialogues with the intent of learning from one another, more of posturing and talking over each other. These sessions create high heat but little light.

Most of us intuitively think that first and foremost we are all humans, all the children of Adam, all subject to the usual human foibles, and all aspire to the pursuit of happiness. We do not allow such labels as beliefs, class, culture, faith and race to come between us. While we look upon our differences and diversities as a sign of God’s Grace, to quote the Quran, these ulama would seek to impose “purity,” as they see it.

It is an expression of human ingenuity that when we cannot get answers from our leaders we seek them out on our own. When our leaders (political, religious or traditional) go off on a tangent, the masses have a way of re-establishing equilibrium and collective sanity, for the most part.

Controversies erupt because we confuse concepts with contents. We are all for justice, equality, freedom, and human rights; those concepts are universally agreed upon; all faiths subscribe to the golden rule, or variations thereof.

At issue are the contents. A barbed wire fence can be a reassuring protective barricade to some or an intimidating intrusive barrier to others, even when viewed from the same side. A hijab may be seen as oppressive to a Western feminist but liberating to a Muslim woman. Exposing one’s midriff may be emancipating to a Westerner but degrading to an Easterner. If we keep focusing on the content, the twain shall never meet; concentrate on the concept – everyone’s desire to be free – than we are more likely to find common grounds.

A Christian in Beirut does not feel out of place being transported in a Red Crescent ambulance, any more than a Muslim in Boston has qualms receiving blood from the Red Cross. Some may associate the Red Cross with the Crusades and the Red Crescent with the Saracens, and if the two organizations were to focus on that and not on the universality of their mission to serve the injured, sick and the displaced, then there will be no end to the fight.

The ideals of the UN’s Declaration on Universal Human Rights are also the ideals of Islam. They are to emancipate not entrap human beings. The first article of the UN’s Declaration could easily have been excerpted from the Quran when it asserts that all human beings are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and endowed with reason and conscience.

Islam, the feminist movement, and the UN Human Rights Declaration all have one common objective: to emancipate human beings, to give each of us our inherent right as individuals, regardless of faith, nationality, skin color, or sex.

That Western secularists have claimed these ideals unto themselves is no reason why Muslims and others who share in those ideals should not join forces. Yet many Muslim countries have yet to ratify that UN document. An even sadder and more tragic reality is that flagrant abuses of basic human rights occur with impunity in many self-professed Muslim countries. Islamists who are quick to condemn such abuses when they occur in the West are curiously silent when they occur in their own backyard.
Many abuses on Muslims and especially Muslim women are carried out in the name of Islam, making a mockery of our faith’s charity, benevolence, and mercifulness.

Salbiah Ahmad’s central concept in these and other essays is that the ideals of Islam (and other great faiths), the feminist movement, and Human Rights encapsulated in the UN’s Declaration are shared ideals. That is what we should be focusing on, not on the infinite variations of their content. This is the message we must strive to hear but are having increasing difficulty hearing above all the dins and clamor.

If we go beyond the contents and focus on their underlying concepts, we will be pleasantly surprised to discover that such terms as Islamic humanist or Islamic feminists are far from being oxymoronic. They are repetitious, for emphasis.
Of the many things Mahathir did right as Prime Minister, one was to leave cyberspace free from censorship. One consequence is that the views of the likes of Salbiah Ahmad can be freely expressed. That the mainstream media did not seek her out is a sad reflection of the general state of journalism in Malaysia.

Malaysians and others owe a debt of gratitude to the brave folks at Malaysiakini for giving a forum for Salbiah Ahmad. They went further by publishing this volume of her essays.

All will benefit from her thoughtful views. Her training in law enables her to dissect the arcane issues of Islamic jurisprudence in the language understandable to the general readers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Not being an Islamic scholar she has thankfully spared her readers from being obfuscated behind ancient Arabic texts. As a social activist, she brings passion and commitment to her writings.

In the opening I referred to the many contributions of non-surgeons to my profession. Nonetheless when someone needs surgery, they must still seek out a surgeon, not one of the non-surgical experts no matter how eminent. Likewise, our ulama and Islamic scholars should seek out and welcome contributions from outside their field. If our ulama and scholars have a better appreciation of economics, psychology, and the sciences, that would only enhance their understanding of our great faith. Their fatwas (decrees) then would have far greater influence and impact. Learning from these non-ulama experts would not in any way detract or diminish our ulama’s piety or religiosity. Rest assured when we need someone to solemnize our marriage, lead our congregational prayers, or bless a birth, we would still go to our trusted friendly ulama.

Our religious scholars should heed well these words of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, as quoted by Ahmad Zewail in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”

M. Bakri Musa,
Morgan Hill, CA
July 2006