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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, January 14, 2007

More Action, Less Blueprint!

More Action, Less Blueprint!

(First posted onMalaysia-Today.net on January9, 2007)

On returning from the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Meeting in South Africa, Hishamuddin Hussein declared himself satisfied with our school system. This is what happens when you keep comparing Malaysia to the likes of Kenya and Uganda.

Hishamuddin would get a more realistic assessment by standing on the causeway one school morning and watching the stream of buses and private cars carrying our young to schools in Singapore. Or, by simply looking at the stacks of applications on his desk from Malaysians wishing to enroll their children in local international schools.

The deficiencies are glaring; there is no need for yet another National Education Blueprint, 2006-2010, as he is proposing. You would need an eye that would not see to be blind of these realities. Hishamuddin obviously did not read the earlier Education Blueprint 2001-2010 commissioned by his predecessor. It was quickly made irrelevant with the subsequent introduction of the teaching of science and mathematics in English. That showed how far removed from reality those planners were. There is no assurance that current bureaucrats are any wiser or more informed.

The Minister would be better off donating to some poor rural schools the precious funds that would have been expended on the new Blueprint. My brief essay here will tell him what is wrong with our schools, and more importantly, how to remedy them. If Hishamuddin is more ambitious, he could read my book on the same subject, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.

The problems are many and overwhelming; a minister could easily be paralyzed by the sheer magnitude and dauntingness. Indeed many have been sidetracked and distracted by such trivia as what attire girls should wear to partake in sports.

I will cite three major issues; attend to them and you would make our schools better.

First is the appalling level of English fluency, science literacy, and mathematical skills of our students. Second are the overcrowded and dilapidated facilities, with double sessions now the norm. Third is the stultifying curriculum that emphasizes rote learning and undue obsession on examinations. Imagine being tested for up to 15 subjects in Year 11!

Poor English, Science, and Mathematics

Our leaders have impressed upon us the importance of English, science, and mathematics, but they have done little beyond that. It is appalling that no public university has a dedicated Department of English. Where do these leaders think Malaysia would get its graduate English teachers? If our deeds match our words, I would expect each public university to have a major Department of English.

Our esteemed professors too have remained strangely detached; perhaps they are still waiting for directives from the Ministry. So much for independent initiative and thought! They could have made English mandatory for first year students, and English fluency a prerequisite for graduate work. That is within their authority.

If our academics are strangely detached, the political leadership is no better. The Ministry has yet to require a pass in MUET (Malaysian University English Test) for university admission. The reluctance is purely political. Those most disinclined to study English are Malays; they would be the most impacted by such a policy, hence the politically expedient solution. Unfortunately it merely compounds the problem and delays the day of reckoning. When these students graduate they are not wanted in the marketplace.

One prudent solution would be to give those who are otherwise qualified for admission but for their low MUET score a year to remedy their deficiency. That would send a very strong message to them to expend the necessary time and effort to learn the language.

To its credit, Universiti Utara makes its undergraduates take some courses in English. Universiti Putra also made a similar move by teaching some courses (mostly in the sciences) in English. However when some discredited politicians out for their last hurrah raised a stink, the university authorities quickly backed down. They did not have the courage of their conviction to fight those detractors.

The more rational solution would be to provide competent English teachers. Despite the widely acknowledged shortage of such teachers, there is as yet not a single teachers’ college using English as its medium of instruction. Such institutions are needed for training future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. This again demonstrates the gulf between deeds and actions, and between aspirations and reality.

Such English-medium colleges would also attract brighter students who are fully aware that the education they would receive is valued in the marketplace.

Another effective way to increase English fluency would be to teach Islamic Studies in English. Malay students have to take the subject. Next to Arabic, English is the most important language in Islam.

Poor Facilities and Stultifying Curriculum

Hishamuddin is oblivious of the poor physical conditions of our schools. The chronic lament is lack of funds. Yet Malaysia spends generously on education, but the funds are less for improving the schools and more as public works projects for Bumiputra contractors. That bloats the costs and produces shoddy workmanship, as evidenced by buildings collapsing soon after they are completed.

Had there been competitive biddings, those funds would go a long way and our students (and nation) would have been better served. One residential school bought a video microscope, but had to do so through the government-appointed vendor who happened to be the local UMNO operative. The result? I could buy the same equipment for one-tenth the price. Multiply such leakages a thousand times and you can appreciate why our schools are so poor.

The poor facilities are matched only by the constrictive and unimaginative curriculum. Visit any classroom, elementary, secondary, or undergraduate, and one is struck by the lifelessness. There is no spark. Communication is strictly one way. Students are treated less as intellects to be sharpened, more as dustbins to be filled with dogmas. This is most pronounced in Islamic Studies where instructors are not just mere teachers but Allah’s representatives. They could do no wrong, and of course you would never dare ask any questions.

The obsession with examinations means “teaching to the test,” leaving little room for individual creativity. Come testing time, the students regurgitate what had been force-fed to them. The best students are those who could vomit out the original contents, preferably unchanged and undigested.

Why not limit the number of subjects on national examinations to six per student? To further reduce the obsession on examinations, make the student’s year round work a major factor in the final evaluation.

Texas is relying more on local evaluations by teachers and will accept for university admission the top ten percent from each school regardless of their standardized test scores. What the Texans are saying is that they trust the judgment of local teachers as much as those remote examiners.

One positive and unanticipated consequence is that shrewd parents are now enrolling their children in previously “non-competitive” schools in the hope that their children would be in the top ten percent. The positive spillover effects of these bright and motivated students on the teachers and the rest of the students cannot be underestimated.

If Malaysia were to adopt a similar move, imagine motivated parents enrolling their children in rural schools, and the positive consequences that would accrue on all.

As can be seen, one does not need to attend the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meetings or have “Blue Ribbon” committees to know the problems of our schools and to come up with solutions. If Hishamuddin were to spend less time unsheathing his keris at meetings and more time visiting our schools and listening to parents, he would not have smugly pronounced himself satisfied with our current system.


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