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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, May 31, 2009

Abolish Overseas Scholarships For Undergraduates

Abolish Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships
M. Bakri Musa

Every year at this time the nation goes through its regular spasms of indignation over perceived unfair distribution of scholarships for studies abroad for those with the Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM). This being Malaysia, such controversies inevitably and quickly acquire ugly racial overtones, no matter how ‘objective’ or ‘sophisticated’ the arguments put forth.

I suggest that we abolish all public scholarships for undergraduate studies abroad. That would at least remove yet another source of racial disagreement. The fewer such contentious issues we have, the better it would be for Malaysia.

Public scholarships for studies abroad should only be given to those pursuing higher degrees. As for the handful of our brightest who secured undergraduate slots at the world’s most competitive universities, rest assured that there will be no shortage of sponsors outside of government if these students were truly in need of financial aid.

Whatever money left over after funding those pursuing higher degrees abroad should then be diverted to strengthening our local universities, which desperately need the support.

A candidate with only the SPM regardless of the number of A’s obtained could secure a place only at a third-rate institution in America. We do not need to send our students there. Even when on the rare occasions that they do end up at a respectable university, these students have to spend a semester or two doing preparatory courses (essentially Sixth Form).

Cheaper To Hire American Professors
This may surprise many, but it is actually less expensive to hire a full (not an assistant) professor from America than to send one undergraduate there. Let me review the arithmetic.

The average American professor earns about US$100K annually; pay her that to come to Malaysia. Out of that she would probably spend about $40K for local living expenses. At that level (about RM140K) she would have a lifestyle that would be the envy of her former colleagues in America. Additionally she would spend $10K for transportation, another $10K for her driver, maid and gardener, and $5K for local holidays. Then there is the local income tax of about $20K. At the end of the year she would be lucky to have $15K to remit home.

The rest ($85K) would be spent locally to benefit the area hamburger joints, satay sellers, and apartment owners, among others. Imagine the multiplier effect of that spending.

Contrast that to sending one student to America at an average cost of $50K per year. That whole sum is lost from the country, with no spin-off or multiplier effect in Malaysia. Thus in terms of actual foreign currency loss, it is over three times more expensive to send a student to America than to hire an American professor ($50K versus $15K).

That extra expense would have been worthwhile if we were to send our students to the MITs and Harvards of America, but we are not. This is true especially of JPA and MARA students, and only slightly less so with Petronas.

Imagine if our universities were to have a critical mass of American faculty members. The first impact would be felt at the faculty level. Those local faculty members would now have real competition and new academic role models, scholars instead of politicians in academic robes. One reason the National University of Singapore had a quantum leap in improvement was its recruitment of many foreign academics way back in the 1970s, despite the opposition of local professors.

Our universities need a generous infusion of foreign academics as there is a limited local supply. Even our so-called top tier universities have fewer than half of their faculty members having terminal qualifications.

For the students, they would now have not the typical aloof and imperious Third World professor but a more approachable and less formal teacher. Lastly for the university, it would end up with a scholarly-productive faculty. That incidentally is the only way for the university to ascend the academic scale.

Sending a student abroad would only benefit him; the nation would gain later, and only if he were to return. If he would not, the country could never recoup the loss. On the other hand, that one professor would directly and immediately benefit local students, the university, and thus the nation.

We send about 2,000 new students abroad a year at a cost of at least RM350 million. Assuming that such students spend on average about four years abroad, the total annual budget must be in the range of RM1.4 billion (350 x 4). Compare that to the 2009 operating budget for all our public universities of RM14.1 billion!

Fallacious Arguments on Meritocracy
I am surprised how otherwise intelligent Malaysians would suddenly have a sudden and almost religious faith in the validity of the SPM as a measure of merit. One needs only peruse the examination, as well as the syllabus and textbooks on which those examination is based, to be disabused of this misplaced confidence. If you need further affirmation, just sit in one of those classes and see what the teachers’ expectations are of the students.

The SPM measures how faithfully the students could regurgitate what the teachers had imparted to them in class. Thus it is an excellent surrogate indicator of a student’s memory, hard work, and obedience to authority figures. The first two qualities will get you far anywhere. I am uncertain of the value of the third. While it will get you far in the Third World and authoritarian societies, I am certain that it is not an attribute that we should hold at a premium if we were to progress.

What we need instead is the ability for critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating effectively. Unfortunately those are not the skills we are teaching and testing our students.

Nobody even questions the ridiculousness of a student sitting for 20 subjects! A matriculating American high school student sits for only seven subjects, at most. The American standardized test, SAT I, covers only three: English, mathematics, and writing skills. Even top American universities require the SAT II (or subject SAT) in only three subjects, while students sit for at most five subjects.

Seven should be enough fro SPM, and focus more on content. The International Baccalaureate, now recognized as the global standard for matriculation, offers only six subjects, while its middle school program (equivalent to our SPM), only 8.

Minister of Education Muhyyuddin’s proposal to reduce the SPM offerings to 10 subjects represents the usual seat-of-the-pants decision rather than the result of serious policy deliberations. He only adds to the muddle.

Even SAT which has been the most evaluated is not the end all and be all in terms of student evaluation. Harvard and other top universities could easily fill their slots with class valedictorians and perfect SAT scorers, but they do not. These institutions recognize that no one test can be valid for all students. And on any one test, its discriminatory value diminishes rapidly at the extremes of the curve.

Yet we have those who would ascribe miraculous powers to SPM such that someone with 20 A’s should automatically get a scholarship over another with only 13 or 9! They are ascribing to the SPM a degree of precision it does not deserve. The SPM has yet to prove itself as a valid instrument in the first place.

These misplaced discussions on merit remind me of two items. I am told that in the old cemeteries of Beijing, the civil service examination scores of the ancient Mandarins were chiseled onto their tombstones! Nobody bothered to find out how well those Imperial civil servants were at solving the problems of the Empire. The second was a delightful essay, “Lost in the Meritocracy” I read The Atlantic in 2005 (now available in a book form) by the writer and critic Walter Kirn. His thesis is essentially that these tests really measure how well you could outwit the test designers!

Back in my days in high school when examinations were essays rather than the SAT-style multiple-choice fill-in-the-blanks, success was measured on how well you could “spot” the questions, which of course is a variation on the same theme.

The controversies over SPM are symptomatic of a much more serious problem with our entire school system. These arguments over scholarships based on SPM distract us from addressing these other more fundamental issues.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

kepada encik bakri,

kenapakah encik bakri sendiri tidak pulang ke malaysia dan mengajar anak watan di sini.

kenapakah encik bakri bayar tax kepada kerajaan amerika, dan berlibur di (luar negara). Tidakkah ini berlawanan dengan cadangan encik di atas.

saya boleh menerima cadangan encik... tapi, apakah senang untuk mendapatkan tenaga pengajar dari harvard / oxford / yale untuk mengajar di Malaysia (terlupa MIT).

apakah sama hasilnya seorang student yang belajar di MIT dengan seorang cikgu MIT mengajar di malaysia?

jawapan saya tentu tidak. kalo anak encik di hantar ke MIT atau yale, anak encik akan di hamburkan dengan pelbagai advances in technology, latest research etc. Tidak lupa juga facilities sedia ada yang tidak termampu di bina oleh kerajaan malaysia.

kalo di bawa pun lecturer dari yale atau CMU, kalo persekitaran kita tidak telus, teknologi tidak akan berkembang. researcher akan kecewa dengan korupsi yang melanda negara kita malaysia ( majlis agama islam pun mintak rasuah ). Bila nak jual hasil research, ada jek golongan peminta sedekah berkolar putih menyebok.

so kesimpulannya, balik lah malaysia sekarang jugak dan jgn mintak gaji lebih perdana menteri. kalo minta lebih nanti kena pau...hahahah

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am totally agree with you sir


8:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dear M.Bakri Musa,

I am impressed and agreed with your point to limit the PSD scholarships to post graduate studies. The argument from the monetary flow is within reasonable understanding and acceptance. Policy makers in PSD and ministries involved should study this point carefully and draft out a road map to achieve our national goals in HR. I believe it will be more beneficiary to the nation and the people with more quality under graduate courses to be set up locally in the current institutions of higher learning (IHL)or setting up new ones alike. Long term strategy in this manner shall be promoted in order to re-establish the credibility of our local IHLs.
Politics shall be kept separate from educations. Without proper and quality education, all future Malaysians will not be able to better equipped ourselves for the challenges ahead, even future politicians. Today politics in our homeland is in dire condition with "gutter politics", "money politics" etc.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Employing full time professors or what ever experts to Malaysia will not help. There won't be any continuity, probably cabut after a short stint.

Why??? Yeah, Malaysia is famous for applying arm twisting technique to those in charge to pass the under achievers just to make ketuanan look good!!

Sorry to rub you a bit on the wrong side, but we all know how it's like in Malaysia. With politician helming the higher institution of learning, what can one expect??

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Bakri
I think your proposal to bring many high quality Professors to Malaysia was done by Malaysian Uni of Science and Tech (MUST) several years ago.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear dr bakri,
i don't really agree with you about abolishing totally the overseas undergraduates scholarships. i think the aim of getting the scholarships can spur the students to work harder in the SPM. i suggested that those top achivers that applied and thought they deserved the sholarships be put through strict and highly demanding interviews by academicians and experts that test on their general knowledge, problem solving and communication. i also want to suggest that those scholarships be reduced in numbers and allocated to those successfully accepted into reputable universities.
i was not a high achiever and was and is currently also trained locally (and proud about it), but feel sick about those demanding about rightness for their places abroad, and those using scholarships to manipulate the word 'ketuanan'

9:06 AM  
Blogger M. Bakri Musa said...

Dear Drloysz:

I think at this stage of our nation's development we should be encouraging students at the baccalaureate level, not SPM. Thus we should be giving scholarships for first degree holders from local universities to pursue graduate studies abroad. SPM is almost preschool level.

M. Bakri Musa

9:16 AM  

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