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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, February 04, 2007

A Blueprint For Continued Mediocrity

A Blueprint For Continued Mediocrity

First posted on Malaysiakini February 2, 2007

On the day when Prime Minister Abdullah unveiled the new Education Blueprint 2006-2010 (Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan 2006-2010) last month, the Ministry of Education had already posted the entire document on its website. That was a welcomed change, considering that the earlier Education Blueprint 2000-2010 was soon made unavailable within only a few months of its release. Those Ministry folks can learn after all. Beyond that immediate posting however, I am unable to discern any other improvement.

Poor Presentation

The report leaves much to be desired in its presentation. I had expected an English version so I could assess the English competency of ministry officials, but none was available. After all, if they expect our students to master English, then these officials ought to at least demonstrate their own competence.

Apart from the two forewords by Abdullah and Education Minister Hishamuddin, there were no other introductions or acknowledgements. The writers have chosen to remain anonymous. They must have consulted numerous experts in making the report, but you would not know it. Now I know why; no one wants to get the blame for this shoddy paper. There was not even an executive summary.

The first few chapters were devoted to general discussions on educational philosophies and government’s non-educational policies. Many of the ideas were extracted from other sources, yet there was no acknowledgments or references. This omission of standard practice is unacceptable. Worse, it handicaps readers who may wish to pursue a particular topic further.

The report is full of data presented in endless monotonous tables. Many could have been better presented as bars, line graphs, and pie charts. The authors were obviously “graphic-challenged.” Many of the figures are presented without their proper context. For example, the ministry proudly notes the increase in the number of new schools but fails to put that increase in perspective. Did it match the population (specifically, the enrollment) growth? It took some effort and much searching to compare the two figures. No wonder! The seemingly impressive increases in physical facilities no longer look so as they do not even keep up with the enrolment expansion.

With the crowded tables, key figures and trends are easily missed, as with the declining participation rates at all levels (except for preschool) since 2000. This alarming trend would have been picked up easily had the figures been presented as line graphs. As the trend was missed, this important issue was not addressed. Had ministry officials detected this declining participation rate and analyzed it further, they would have discovered that the figures for non-Malays in South Johore had declined even more. The reason? They have abandoned our schools for the more superior ones across the causeway.

The page layout has two columns, with one inexplicably twice as wide as the other. At first I thought the narrow column was a summary, but it was not. The rationale for this difference in column breadth escapes me; it makes the layout visually distracting and irritating, making for a hard read.

Long on Diagnosis, Short of Prescription

The report duly lists the obvious deficiencies of our schools. No marks for that! The Ministry does finally acknowledge one salient point: in education, one size does not fit all. This is also true with much of everything else, except perhaps condom marketing!

The ministry wants to encourage “clusters of excellence” among our schools but does not elaborate on how to achieve that goal. In tandem with its one-size-does-not-fit-all philosophy, the Ministry would like some schools to offer the International Baccalaureate. I am all for that, but then the report does not address the fundamental issue: Does this mean that some schools can be English medium?

Where the report rightly identifies the problems, it offers the wrong solutions. It acknowledges the declining quality of teachers and suggests making their recruitment more rigorous. That is putting the cart before the horse. The problem is more upstream. Teaching no longer attracts the bright and talented for among other reasons, the pay is lousy. Toughening the recruitment criteria would do nothing to change that reality. The pay would have to be increased substantially to make the profession competitive. Once you have a surplus of applicants, then you could be choosy and have higher standards.

The report duly notes that non-Bumiputras are abandoning the national stream. The government hopes to attract them back by offering electives in Mandarin and Tamil. That however was not the reason they are abandoning national schools in the first place, rather that these schools have become Islamic institutions and thereby turning off non-Muslim parents.

Had Ministry officials conducted surveys, they would have discovered this crucial fact. This brings out another weakness of this report: it lacks empirical data and findings to support its recommendations. Consequently its recommendations have that seat-of-the-pants quality.

A major failing of Malaysian schools is the curriculum: too examination oriented, emphasis on rote learning, and not enough emphasis on science and mathematics. Thus one would expect substantive recommendations on the matter. Instead curricular reform would have to wait till the next blueprint on some indeterminate future date! As an aside, it is pathetic that four years after introducing the teaching of science and mathematics in English, it is only now that the Ministry is assessing the English competency of the teachers!

Ministry officials have obviously not learned from reform efforts elsewhere. For example, Malaysia gives stipends so poor children could attend schools. Why not tie it to actual school attendance, meaning, you would get paid only if you were in school, as with Mexico’s Progressa program. On another area, Chile offers many workable models for private schools as well as for school-based management.

National Schools With Various Languages of Instruction

It is a national tragedy that today Malaysian schools are deepening instead of reducing the racial divide. They are designed to appeal to racial identities. In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested that Malaysian schools should instead focus on their language of instruction. Thus instead of Sekolah Kebangsaan Jenis China (National-Type Chinese school), meaning a school primarily for Chinese, characterize them as national schools that use Mandarin as the language of instruction. That would immediately change the focus. Such schools could then attract non-native Mandarin speakers like Malays by for example, serving halal foods and having Mandarin-speaking Malay (or at least Muslim) teachers to serve as role models. There are millions of Muslim Mandarin-speakers in China who would gladly teach in Malaysia. We could also have French- or Swahili-Type National Schools, meaning, schools using those two languages as their medium of instruction.

As for the obvious poor physical conditions of our schools (as evidenced by double sessions), the report suggests nothing beyond recommending more funds be devoted. That does not address the root cause. Our schools are in such a poor state because the funds are used less to improve the facilities and more to provide jobs for favored Bumiputra contractors. Apart from unnecessarily inflating the costs, such constructions are often shoddy and dangerous, as attested by buildings collapsing soon after their completion. Unless the tender mechanism is revamped to ensure that only the most qualified and efficient contractors get the job, we will never improve our school facilities no matter how much money we pour on them.

The Education Blueprint 2000-2010 (the preceding one) had a shelf life of only a few months. This one too would soon be forgotten, and a good thing too for this Education Blueprint 2006-2010 is nothing more than a blueprint for continued mediocrity.


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