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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, March 21, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #61

Chapter 10: Putting It All Together

Educational institutions should educate as well as integrate Malaysians. It is assumed that national unity would best be achieved through a rigid and uniform school system enforced upon all. This was the basis of the Razak Report. Today the consequences of that premise are obvious. Malaysians remain even more segregated, and these institutions have done a lousy job in their basic mission of educating the young. Malaysians today are severely wanting in their English skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy, severely handicapping them in the modern marketplace.

Malaysia can have a system of education that would both prepare its young for the competitive world and at the same time bring them together. For this we would need a system that is the very opposite of the present. Whereas the current system is rigid and uniform, my proposed system would be flexible and diverse, with just enough core commonality to identify us as Malaysians. Achieving this calls for a Ministry of Education that is radically different from the present form.

Whereas today’s ministry is highly centralized, with strict top-down command and rigid controls, I call for a more democratized structure with power and responsibilities delegated to lower levels, in some cases right down to the individual institution. The leadership role of the minister is less that of a drill sergeant barking out orders to frightened raw recruits, more of an orchestra conductor coaxing the best from his highly skilled musicians.

This flexible and diverse system would best meet the varied and differing needs of a plural Malaysian society, and at the same time promote greater unity. Getting there does not require major changes in the current basic pattern, more of a shift in attitude and mindset, away from rigid control and regimentation to that of consultation and collaboration between the center and the periphery.

Reform does not occur in the minister’s office or with some high profile committee of esteemed citizens. Nor would it be achieved simply with the issuance of some thick glossy reports accompanied by glittering ceremony and pompous speechifying. Rather it takes place in the classrooms, beginning with each child and individual teacher. The central and essential element of a good learning environment is still the skillful teacher who can capture the imagination of his or her pupils.

The essence of my reform is to get those teachers and then do everything possible to make their job easier and more enjoyable. This means providing them with an environment conducive to learning, and compensating them adequately.

Reform will fail or succeed in the classrooms. President Bush appropriately named his monumental education reform legislation as the “No Child Left Behind Act Of 2001.” The emphasis is rightly on the individual child, and on maximizing his God-given potential. The individual child is the central focus of education, not the politics of language, culture, or race.

When we single-mindedly focus on this basic theme, all the other peripheral elements and goals that are commonly associated with education would fall into place. If we educate our young well, they would become better citizens of not only the nation but also the world. And national unity would be that much easier to achieve. If we burden our schools with extraneous missions, then we dilute and blur that central mission. And when schools fail, that failure would spill over to and be amplified in other arenas.

In his A Nation At Risk, David Gardner reaffirms the principle that all, regardless of color, race, or economic status are entitled to a fair and equal chance to develop his or her potential, and when that is done, the benefits would accrue not only to that individual but also to society. The report defines excellence in education from three perspectives. For individuals, it would be to enable them to perform at the boundary of their ability, and then to test and push back those personal limits. For schools and colleges, it would be to set high expectations and goals for all learners, and help them achieve those goals. For society, it is to adopt those policies that would enhance those goals for individuals and institutions. My reform reinforces Gardner’s themes.

What I am proposing is not revolutionary or radical, rather evolutionary and incremental. I have not changed the basic premise such as the number of school years, the paramountcy of Malay language, or the basic funding mechanism.

In making my proposals I am guided by the following assumptions. Recognizing that Malaysia is a diverse nation, there is no “one size fits all” system. We should expect and indeed encourage different models. A school that would be suitable for rural and poor Ulu Kelantan would be grossly inappropriate for urban and affluent Ukay Heights. We must also have parental choice. We cannot force a system down any parents’ (or their children’s) throat. Give parents the freedom to choose what is best for their children. Parents know (and care about) their children better than any civil servant or politician. We should recognize that educational wisdom is never the exclusive preserve of government officials and bureaucrats. Nor is the government the only entity that can provide quality education. Thus I call for private sector participation in education at all levels.

Amidst the diverse models there must be a core of commonality. All Malaysians must study Malay, English, mathematics, and science, and the student body of all our institutions, private and public, must reflect the greater society. A nation that studies together stays together.

We must encourage schools to achieve this goal. Schools whose student body reflects society must be rewarded with enhanced state support; conversely there should no funding for those catering only to a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group. This applies both to vernacular as well as religious schools unless they open up their enrollment to attract a more diverse student body.

When our institutions enhance their standards and have high expectations, our students will respond. Success depends on continually elevating the bars and challenges, not in lowering them. We must also recognize that success in schools has other correlates outside of education, in particular, parents’ socioeconomic status and educational attainment. While we cannot do much to alter these factors, we can, through effective and imaginative policies, intervene and negate their impacts on the children.

My reform seeks to improve the evident weaknesses of the current system and build on the proven successes. I deal only with the broad framework and leave the pedagogical details of what and how to teach to teachers and educators. They are the ones who are trained and qualified to make those decisions. More importantly they are the ones who see the children everyday, not the politicians or policy makers. Those closest to the students–their teachers–should make decisions regarding details of the curriculum, pedagogy, class scheduling, and other educational matters.

I would change the present school years of K-6/3/2/2 (preschool-primary/lower secondary/upper secondary/pre-university) to K-6/3/4 (preschool-primary/middle/high school). I would incorporate preschool with primary school and lower the admission age from the current five years to four. There would not be much change in the curriculum except that there will be only four core subjects: Malay, English, science, and mathematics. These core subjects must be taught daily, and except for Malay, they would be taught in English. Passing them would also be mandatory. Beyond the core, each school is free to choose whatever subjects in whatever language to fill in the rest of the school day.

The sooner pupils are taught multiple languages the better. The benefits would spill over into other intellectual areas like the ability for abstract thinking and to sift the core data from the surrounding noise.

There are numerous clinical studies supporting my contention. We should capitalize on this scientific insight. Students would sit for only three national examinations: at the end of primary 6 (UPSR); middle school (PMR); and high school (STP).

The UPSR and PMR would test only the four core subjects. Further these examinations would contribute only 70 percent of the student’s final score; the rest would come from the teachers’ yearlong evaluation (the students’ GPA). For USPR, the student’s GPA at Years 5 and 6 would each contribute 15 percent to the final score. For PMR, the students GPA in each of three years of middle school would contribute equally (10 percent each) to the final score.

With the reduced load the examination syndicate could release the results much sooner and there would be no need to have these examinations held so early in the school year and thus taking away valuable teaching time. They could be held in late November with the results out by late December, in time for the students to begin their new school year the following January with minimal interruption.

There would be minimal changes to the present primary national-type Chinese and Tamil schools. They should be viewed less as vernacular schools and more as schools that happen to use Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instruction. Thus I would make them even more welcoming to others outside their particular racial group. To a certain extent the national-type Chinese schools are already successful in this. More and more Malay parents are sending their children to such schools. More can be done to make these schools Malay-friendly, like offering Islamic classes (taught in Mandarin) and having Malays on the governing board.

After middle school the students would be streamed to enter academic, regular, or vocational stream. This streaming would be based both on the PMR scores as well as the GPAs for all subjects. I envisage the top third to be in the academic stream, and I would encourage a similar number to pursue the vocational, the rest would continue in the regular stream. There should be sufficient flexibility so students could switch during the first two years, based on their performance and teachers’ recommendations. The academic schools would prepare students for universities. The regular stream would prepare students to enter directly into the job market or for entry into non-degree granting institutions.

For the Year 13 examination (STP), students would take six instead of the present five subjects. Four would be the core mandatory subjects mentioned earlier. Again, as with the reformed UPSR and PMR, the final examination would contribute only 70 percent to the final score, with the rest coming from the student’s GPAs as per the following formula: 5 percent each for the first two years of high school, 8 for the third, and 12 for the last year. My proposal would dispense with both MUET and the General Paper.

The dramatic change from the present is that the student’s final grade would not be dependent exclusively on that one final end-of-year examination, rather it factors in the student’s year round performance. This would give a better evaluation of the student’s true ability and potential. Interschool variations in GPA standards could be adjusted using modern statistical tools.

Next: Final Installment


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grameen banks as a model sounds great, the fact that it can be used to change culture's values is intriguing. Boy, Malays' attitude about money sure needs changing, like money doesn't come from magic but hard work u know, and this bank' practice comes w/some directions. I first heard of it in Irshad Manji's book 'The Trouble with Islam today'. I'd made a note 2 weeks ago to look this subject up.

2:53 AM  

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