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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, December 30, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #134

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Terrorists, Islam, and the West

The greatest and most dangerous misconception in the West today is to presume that Islamic terrorists represent mainstream Islam or the norms of the Muslim world. An equally dangerous misconception in the Islamic world today is to view the West’s battle against Islamic terrorists as being directed against Islam itself. If great wars had been precipitated by misunderstandings of much lesser magnitude, imagine the dangers posed by such monumental misconceptions. It certainly does not help that President Bush saw fit to characterize his battle against

Muslim terrorists as a “crusade,” or that Christian leaders like Pat Robertson in denigrating the great Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) expose their own prejudices and dark side. It is inexcusable for Christian leaders like President Bush not to dissociate themselves from such ugly remarks and personalities; it is equally reprehensible for mainstream Muslims not to condemn Osama bin Ladin and his gang. It is just as baffling for the average Westerner that Osama and his ilk remain popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of the Muslim world, as it is for the simple Muslim villager to understand why the Pat Robertsons command such wide audiences in the West. Granted, the evil deeds perpetrated by Osama and his likes are no way comparable to the gaffe of a Pat Robertson, nonetheless the underlying mindset and assumptions differ only in degree, not kind.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir once remarked that the surest way to turn China into your enemy is to treat it as a potential one. America nearly succeeded in doing so; it took the wisdom of President Nixon to reverse course with his historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Today, both nations and the world benefited greatly from that singular initiative.

In its bluster and less-than-sophisticated approach in fighting Islamic terrorists, America risks treating the Muslim world as a potential enemy. From there it would be but a steep slippery step to making it the real enemy, and by default, America the enemy of the Muslim world.

America’s smashing of the Stone Age Talibans in Afghanistan was welcomed by the Afghanis, as well as the world, including the Muslim world. America’s adventures in Iraq on the other hand are getting less-than-rave reviews, and not just in the Muslim world. The maiming of children and women, regardless of who perpetrated them, must weigh heavily on America. It is the occupying power, and thus morally and legally responsible for maintaining law and order considering that the Iraqi government is but a sham. The images of Abu Gharib prison and the Haditha massacre cannot enhance America’s standing, moral or otherwise.

Back in America, the recent imbroglio over the management of its ports by Dubai World Port, an Arab company, only reinforces this anti-Arab and anti-Muslim image. It is as if Americans cannot distinguish those Arab executives with their MBAs in the high-rise offices of Dubai from their Kalishnikov-armed kin in the caves of Afghanistan. It is specious to argue that America does not want its important assets like ports to be under foreign management; they already are.

Malaysia, having been the victim of and had successfully battled terrorism, can offer a lesson or two to the World. To the West, Malaysia could impart this important insight: In fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. To the Islamic world, Malaysia could offer this chilling reminder: do not tolerate extremists within your midst; they could easily turn against you later. Those Islamic terrorists are first and foremost terrorists; as such they are the enemy of all peace-loving people, Muslims and non-Muslims.

Malaysia successfully defeated its communist insurgency using the first insight. The difficulty in fighting terrorists is in differentiating foe from friend; yet it is critical to do so. For every innocent victim you mistake to be the enemy, you have effectively turned his or her family, friends, clan, and village into your enemy. That was why Robert McNamara’s “body count” in Vietnam as a measure of progress for the war was so destructive and counterproductive. Far from reflecting the number of enemies you destroyed, it pointed to the many potential new ones you had effectively created. America should have learned this lesson in Vietnam; it did not and is today repeating the same tragic mistake in Iraq.

The second insight is equally important. The Al Qaeda and Taliban owe their existence largely to America. America enthusiastically supported them when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. America then conveniently turned a blind eye away from the gruesome practices of the Talibans and Al Qaeda as their victims were Soviet soldiers and leftist Afghanis. President Reagan saw fit to honor those “freedom fighters” at the White House and self-righteously assuring them that God was on their side.

When the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, those Talibans turned against America. It was not so much a show of ingratitude rather the Talibans finally revealing their true nature.

That strange bedfellows would turn against one another once their immediate mission is accomplished is nothing novel or surprising. It is part of human nature. The Soviets and the West were allies against Nazi Germany in World War II. With Hitler’s defeat, the Soviets and the West quickly became deadly adversaries in the ensuing Cold War.

Lee Kuan Yew and his People Action Party readily embraced the Communist Party (at least its members) in their struggle against the British colonials. When that was over, the communists nearly devoured Lee Kuan Yew. Lee prevailed, but barely, a tribute to his political skills and ruthlessness. He did not hesitate to do unto the communists what they would have gladly done to him had they succeeded. To the howling protests of libertarians, Lee jailed those communists, with or without trial.

At a different time and place, in the 1970s Iranian democrats, feminists, and libertarians readily embraced the Islamic radicals in their struggle against the Shah. He could not withstand this combined assault and fell. Now those democrats and feminists, at least those who had escaped being beheaded for their “modernist” ideas, long for the good old days under the Shah.

I wonder whether those Muslims who adulate Osama bin Ladin would prefer that their wives, daughters, and mothers be treated like the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. To those Western-trained professionals in Malaysia who are equally enamored with Osama, I gently remind them of the fate of similar Western-trained individuals and professionals in Taliban Afghanistan and today’s Iran.

The West must remember that the seeming adulation that Osama and his ilk enjoy in the Muslim world is not a reflection of the norms of Islam. After all, otherwise law-abiding Americans have a grudging admiration when recalling the exploits of Al Capone and Butch Cassidy.

If Malaysia could impart these two important insights—in fighting terrorists first do not create new ones, and the surest way to treat the Muslim world as your enemy is to treat it as a potential one—it would have done itself, the West, Islam, and indeed the world, a great service.

America’s battle against the Islamic terrorists and extremists is also the battle of Islam, as the vast majority of Muslims know the faith. Meaning, Malaysia and other Muslim nations must join America in ridding this scourge on our faith. This bridging role between Islam and the West is a tall order for Malaysia and Malaysians, but within our capability.

Granted, Malaysia currently does not have a leader capable of undertaking such a challenge. I do not see it in Abdullah Badawi or any of his ministers. Abdullah can hardly lead Malaysia, much less the Muslim world.

Mahathir is one Malaysian leader held in high esteem in the Muslim as well as the developing world. He commands instant respect and credibility; they respect him for his remarkable leadership of Malaysia. They admire him for daring to “stand up” to the West and to bluntly point out to its leaders what he believes to be their hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Therein however, lies the problem. No one likes to be reminded of their mistakes and shortcomings, not Western leaders or Asian ones. Mahathir pays a steep price for his forthrightness; he is not popular in the West and his counsel not heeded there. Not that he cares. Which is too bad for as alluded earlier, he has some valuable insights to offer the world, in particular the West, in its war on terrorism.

In theory the Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would be the best person to bridge Islam and the West, being the leader of the most populous Muslim nation. He is however, preoccupied (and rightly so) with running his own country.

There are very few Muslim leaders who are held in high regards in the West today. Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf is the current favorite with Washington, DC, but that is purely for utilitarian purposes. Once he is no longer useful in the fight against the Taliban, he will be dispensed. Besides, he cannot be seen to be too friendly with the West; he already escaped a few assassination attempts at home. For Muslim leaders to be seen as friendly with the West would be the kiss of death. Consequently those who support the West are forced to be defensive about their posture. At the other end of the spectrum, irresponsible Muslim leaders have discovered a quick and dirty trick to be popular with their folks through taunting the West. Iran’s wily Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fits this bill.

There are a few enlightened Muslim leaders who understand and are comfortable with the West. Jordan’s King Abdullah is one. Being a hereditary leader however, one wonders how deep and committed is the support he enjoys with his people. Another is the leader of the Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan. He is more a spiritual rather than political leader. Nonetheless he has done much to improve the lot of Muslims in the Third World through his philanthropic works in health and education. As the Ismailis are not regarded as in the mainstream of Islam, his influence in the greater Muslim world is diminished.

One Muslim (and Malaysian) leader who still commands considerable following in Malaysia and the Islamic world as well as being highly regarded in the West is Anwar Ibrahim, even though he is now out of power. After his release from prison, august Western universities like Oxford and Johns Hopkins were eager to grab him. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, and from that lofty perch he continues to espouse messages that are welcomed by both Western and Islamic audiences.4 If he could be persuaded not to drag himself into the Malaysian political maelstrom and instead focus on leading the greater Muslim world through established organizations or new nongovernmental entities, he could be a major force for positive change. He wields considerable influence as he can articulate the ideals of Islam in a language understandable in the West. His current standing in the West reminds me of another Anwar of a bygone era, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Thanks to his brave initiative, nearly 50 million Muslims (the Egyptians) are now spared unnecessary destructive wars with the Israelis.

Anwar Ibrahim is the one person who could best fulfill Malaysia’s destiny of being an effective bridge between the West and Islam. Ironically he could do this best by not being distracted by a formal political leadership position like being Prime Minister.

One avenue would be to work through the OIC. As Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is also the Chair of OIC. Anwar could use Abdullah’s good office to secure a senior position at the organization. One caution however. The OIC is made up of wily Muslim nations from Iran to Libya. Getting them to agree to anything is an impossible mission. It is an organization long on slogans and short on executions. Anwar would be better off creating a new vehicle. That would be a grand undertaking, with high rewards to go with the high risk of failure.

Less grand but more consequential would be for Anwar to use his influence in the West (especially America) to bring American-style broad-based liberal education to Malaysia to serve the needs of Muslims in Malaysia, the region, and the larger Islamic world. He had experience setting up the International Islamic University (IIU).

This campus should be based on Islamic principles in the same manner that Georgetown is a Jesuit institution. Meaning, all—Muslims and non-Muslims—should feel at home on the campus. Unlike IIU, the university must be free to explore the vast spectrum of Islamic thoughts and practices, from the liberal Ismaili sect to the fundamentalist Wahhabism. Currently there is not a single university or institution in the Muslim world where the different sects and schools of thought in Islam are studied and taught under one roof.

Anwar should use his influence in the West to secure the necessary funding through private foundations and donations. Such institutions would also be the ideal place to project the ideals of the West such as free enterprise, democracy and representative government, and basic human rights. These incidentally are also the ideals of Islam. The major personal challenge for him would be to prevent himself from being seduced by his many adoring followers in Malaysia to seek elective office back home and be distracted by that pursuit.

Anwar can do much by not being associated with the current rot in the Malaysian political system. He should lead outside the political system; ironically his success there would then enhance his chance of ultimately leading Malaysia.

Next: Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Enhancing the Role of Private Sector in Education - Part 5

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education
M. Bakri Musa

Private Sector Participation in Preschools and Schools

[Fifth of Six Parts]

[In the preceding four parts, I discussed the rationale and benefits of enhancing private sector participation in education, surveyed the various models in the rest of world, and summarized the current state of affairs in Malaysia. This fifth part contains my specific prescription for private sector participation at the pre-schools and schools, while the last (and sixth) part, for tertiary level.]

Private sector participation at the preschool level is already robust; there is not much more that can be done to increase that. However, the glaring deficiencies must be remedied. One, these private preschools cater only to those who can afford them. No surprise there as they are profit-making ventures. Two, there is minimal regulatory oversight; it is strictly a case of buyer (or more correctly, parents) beware.

Private preschools catering to the poor and disadvantaged are non existent except those few set up by religious and charitable entities, as well as public social agencies. The government could increase that number considerably by granting generous subsidies. As we want to encourage our young to integrate early, these grants should only be given to those preschools whose pupils reflect the general population. If the subsidies were generous enough, there would be plenty of takers. I envisage a chain of brand name preschools set up all over the country catering to the poor.

The government must regulate these private preschools more stringently to ensure safety. Such issues as adequacy and safety of the physical facility, criminal background checks on the staff, and qualifications of the licensees must be clearly established before these preschools could be set up. The facilities should also be regularly inspected to ensure their compliance.

Private Schools

There has been a remarkable increase in private sector participation worldwide at the school level both in developing as well developed countries. In resource-challenged Benin, enrolment in private primary schools increased from 3 to 12 percent from 1990 to 2005, and 8 to 25 percent for secondary schools, reflecting the vast potential for contributions from the private sector even in a poor country.

Private sector participation can take two forms: on its own, independent of the government except for regulatory compliance, or in partnership with the public sector (public-private partnership – PPP). Both would require an official recognition of the fact that while education is a public good, the government is not the only entity that can provide it.

As schools are concerned with the nurturing of young minds – the future citizens – permits to operate a private school even one free of government funding should not be granted liberally as if one were dispensing licenses to sell ice cream. Even operators of ice cream parlors have to meet certain rules with respect to public health.

Private schools too must be subjected to certain rules not only with respect to protecting its consumers (students) but also in serving legitimate national interests. An example of the first would be to require these schools to post performance bonds such that if they were to fail, the students would be compensated for their inconvenience and time loss. Beyond that I do not think the government has any legitimate right to demand these schools follow the national curriculum or dictate the teachers they employ.

As for serving the national interest, these schools must assume their appropriate responsibility of preparing their students to be citizens of a plural Malaysia. Thus their students must be sufficiently fluent in our national language, and be familiar with our history, society, and system of governance. Specifically the school must teach Malay language every school day and at every level. To prevent such classes from being a sham, their students’ aggregate performance must match those of government schools. If not, these schools would risk losing their license.

All the current private schools – international, independent Chinese, and private religious schools – meet these minimal physical standards, except perhaps some of the private pondok religious schools in Kedah and the East Coast. This is evident from the regular news reports of students succumbing to food poisoning or being burnt to death in dorm fires.

The greatest demand is for international schools, in part because they do not follow the national curriculum. This tells us something of what citizens feel about our national curriculum. These schools are still few in numbers and expensive. If we liberalize the setting up of such schools and open up the admissions, many more would be set up. Then the wonders of the marketplace would take over: Their fees would come down because of the competition and more Malaysians could afford them.

As with anything else, we will never know how such a policy would actually turn out. Thus it would make sense to start out small, like giving out permits for about 20-25 such schools initially and then study the results for the first few years.

My hope is that the experiment would be so successful that there would unanimity to expand it. By this I mean that these schools would provide quality education, with their students flawlessly fluent in as well as proud of our national language, and have a faculty and student body representative of Malaysian society. The poor would also be sufficiently represented, made possible through scholarships. In short, they would emulate the successful “private” non-profit American prep schools.

Of course many things could go wrong. There could be corruption in the awards of these permits. The schools would then be expensive, ineffective, and merely a repository for spoilt rich kids who would be illiterate in our national language and have no appreciation of our history. That would only generate a backlash.

Or these schools could be set up by extremist groups (secular and religious) bent on perpetuating their own brand of intolerance or on proselytizing rather than educating. That too would not be healthy.

Should any of these were to happen, then the policy or its implementation would have to be reexamined and modified.

Public-Private Partnership

The other avenue for private sector participation would be through a variety of public-private partnership (PPP). The World Bank recently analyzed the global experience with PPPs. At one extreme is the Netherlands where the government is merely the provider of financing, with the private sector the provider of services. At the other end is Chile with its extensive use of vouchers. In between we have charter schools (America), direct subsidies (Quebec), or where private contractors are engaged to run public schools (America).

Nearly two thirds of Dutch pupils attend private schools, which can either be fully or partially funded publicly. This model obviously works for it receives wide support. Dutch students also consistently score at the top in various international comparisons like TIMMS.

If such a model were to be adopted locally without any modification, there would be the inevitable self-segregation based on class, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. That would not be healthy. There would also be the question of inequity of access based on geography, with the good schools in affluent areas and beyond the reach (physically as well as psychologically) of the poor.

The best for Malaysia would be to have PPP along the concept of charter schools. Charter schools are fully funded by the state but run by private (usually non-profit) entities. The state would pay the school the same amount what it would normally cost for a pupil to attend government school.

The main barrier to charter schools in America is that such permits are issued only by the local public school board. That immediately sets up a conflict of interest because for every charter school it approves, funds would be taken away from the board’s budget. Further, to maintain their charter these schools have to satisfy the local school board, which views such schools as unwelcome competitors.

I suggest that Malaysia adopts the charter concept but with some adaptations. The first is that these charters should be given only to entities that meet the openly stated criteria put forth by MOE. These should address the financial and academic requirements, specifically the qualifications of senior academic officers like the headmaster. He or she should have a degree from a recognized university and have specified years of relevant experience. I would also put as a requirement that the governing board has significant representation from parents and teachers.

The student body of these schools must also reflect Malaysian society with respect to race and socio-economic class. To minimize inequity of access based on geography, these schools must also have sufficient hostel facilities to cater for those who live beyond commuting distance.

The admission policy too must be fair and transparent. Where there are more applicants than space, the school must have a fair method of selection (a lottery for example) to prevent favoritism or corruption. This would also avoid these schools from skimming the top talents. There must be exceptions of course, to accommodate the siblings of present students and children of staff members.

As for the curriculum, the only requirement would be that these schools teach our national language for one period a day at all levels. Again as with private schools, the students of these charter schools must collectively demonstrate competency in Malay comparable to those attending national schools.

If at any time these schools fail to maintain these standards, they would be given a specified time (three years, for example) to correct the deficiencies, or risk losing their charter.

In return such schools would get preferred government funding and credit for capital projects like new buildings and instituting new programs, in addition to their per student grants.

Beyond those guidelines these schools would be free to carve their own path, including the freedom to choose the curriculum and language of instruction. I venture that if there were to be sufficient demand from a broad section of Malaysians for a charter school using Swahili, there will be one.

Again, as with the private school program, I would start small, limiting such charter schools to about 15 or 20 each for primary and secondary levels per state. Study the development, and if successful expand it. I would also allow for the conversion of existing schools into charter schools upon petition by a majority of the teachers and parents.

Malaysia should also be open to other models of PPP. One would be to have private entities (local or foreign) run a national school under a management contract. That would include recruiting the teachers to designing the curriculum, subject to the same conditions as charter schools. The difference is that the contractor would not own the physical facility; the buildings and land would remain government-owned. Likewise, the government would select the students entering such schools.

My first candidate for such private management would be our residential schools. I would invite experienced operators locally and abroad to bid in running such schools. The contract would specify the goals, like the type of matriculation examinations the students would sit, as well as the costs.

Imagine the operators of Exeter running Malay College! We need not go far; we have many existing excellent private schools that could be encouraged, through proper incentives, to run some of our residential schools.

Another PPP would be the reverse, where private companies bid to build the entire school complete with desks, chairs and blackboards to the government’s specifications and then lease it back to the government. The government would run the school, just like any other government school. The P3 program of Canada’s Nova Scotia province is one such program. Such a scheme would lighten the strain on the government’s capital budget.

The government, spearheaded by Khazanah, has initiated a PPP with its Trust Schools scheduled to be operational by 2010. It has wisely started with a small pilot project.

There are a number of commendable features to the concept, principally the granting of greater autonomy to the schools and the possibility of supplemental funding from the sponsoring private entities. However, this autonomy extends only to administrative matters, and a very limited one that. For example, the teachers would still remain as civil servants, and thus the school management would still be unnecessarily constrained by civil service rules especially in critical matters of hiring and firing.

From what I can see from the preliminary design, a private entity would form a non-profit body to run the trust school. So far so good! Then this non-profit body would engage a for profit “operator” to actually run the school. This is an unnecessary intermediation, adding another layer of cost structure (the operator is for profit) and administrative hurdle. I do not see why the non-profit entity cannot run the school itself, thus dispensing with the “operator.” I can just see it: the awarding of these contracts to the “operators” would be yet another source of local corruption and political lobbying. I can predict who the owners of these for profit operators would be. Yes, companies associated with the local UMNO chiefs.

More problematic is that these schools will have to follow the national curriculum. What is at issue is that the national curriculum itself that is wanting. This critical point is missed by the originators of the Trust Schools concept. True, these schools are free to add beyond the national curriculum, but that is a meaningless freedom. The national curriculum already consumes the entire school day; there is little time left for anything else.

Similarly, the freedom to prepare students for other examinations (like GCE or IB) is also a meaningless because these schools must also prepare their students for national examinations. Imagine a school trying to prepare its students to sit for the IB as well; it would be a horror to design the curriculum and train the teachers. This is just not practical.

Lastly, the trust schools designers have not addressed the issue of access, specifically equity of access, and increasing racial as well socio-economic segregation. I would hope that a condition for such schools must be that their students and teachers broadly reflect the greater Malaysian society, and that these schools must have adequate boarding facilities to cater for those who live far away, specifically those in rural areas.

Truly the opportunities for meaningful private sector participation in education, either alone or in partnership with the government, are limitless, bounded only by our creative imaginations and self-imposed limitations.

There is a great pent-up demand for a school system other than what is being offered today by our national schools with its hide-bound culture and outmoded curriculum. We see this in the backlog of applications to international schools, and more dramatically in the daily convoy of school buses carrying our young across the causeway in Johor. It is time we address this desperate need with the help of the private sector.

Next: Last of Six Parts Private Colleges and Universities

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #133

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Learning The Best of the West

The West, Warts and All

Asian leaders especially those in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Mahathir are quick to highlight and denigrate the blight of the West. They do so in an attempt to trumpet the virtues and supremacy of the so-called Asian values. These leaders regard the sins and blemishes of the West not as aberrations rather the norms. To them, the West is intrinsically evil; its successes and advances come at the expense of basic human values, hence the associated social pathologies.

Such conclusions are erroneous. All civilizations have their dark underbelly. Those of the West are well chronicled; they include slavery, imperialism, and degradation of the environment. The great Asian civilizations too have their own versions of slavery and imperialism. Ask the Koreans about their experience under the Japanese, or the Tibetans now under the Chinese.

Western civilization has contributed much to the advancement and betterment of humankind over the past two centuries. The rest of the world ignores this reality at its peril. Volumes have been written, with numerous theories postulated, ranging from the purely racist (the innate genetic superiority of the white race) to the equally Eurocentric proclamation of the inherent superiority of the Judeo-Christian culture and ethics. Even its temperate climate gets the credit.

We cannot transfer the temperate climate to Malaysia, nor can we graft the European genes onto Malaysians, the marvels of modern genetic engineering not withstanding. We can however, learn and adapt the values and practices that are responsible for the advancement of the West. Learning and adapting are quite different from simply aping. Third World leaders are already adept at aping the more unsavory practices of the West. Malaysia sends bright potential leaders to august Western institutions like Oxford where they read treatises by the likes of Machiavelli. On returning, all they have learned is how to scheme and intrigue. They forget or perhaps never learn it in the first place the more important lesson of how to use the powerful instruments of the state for the betterment of their societies. Instead, they use the state to enrich themselves, their families and cronies.

More dangerously, they forget that the awesome power of the state could easily be used for both good and evil, and that this distinction is often difficult to make. The bigger and more powerful the government is, the greater the consequences of its mistakes and mischief.

We need to create an environment where we can maximize the learning experience. Simply exhorting the citizens to learn from or emulate the best of the West would not do it.

Taking a leaf from the Japanese, after Commodore Perry’s intrusion, the Meiji government sent delegations of civil servants, teachers, and leaders abroad for extended periods of study with specific instructions to pick the best practices that could be incorporated back home. Japan also brought in Western teachers, scholars, and practitioners in sufficient numbers to create a critical mass to effect changes at home.

If you have only one or two foreign teachers in a school, the learning and transforming potential from that exposure is limited. There must be a critical number of such teachers to initiate change and make it stick. I had many British teachers during my school years in pre-independent Malaysia. We learned from them beyond the textbooks, including cultural tidbits like table manners and square dancing. More subtly, we absorbed other important values like being punctual, and learning to separate official from non-official functions. We learned that the strict teacher in the classroom would be a very different person on the rugby field.3

After merdeka these teachers left. Later came the isolated foreign volunteers. Malay College had one, Neil Brown, from Canada. He was a delightful and dedicated teacher, and did much to stimulate interest in mathematics among the students. Under his tutelage, many scored A’s in calculus. Quite a feat, as the prevailing thinking then was that Malays could not handle higher mathematics. Unfortunately his enthusiasm and success did not spread far, nor his influence. His local colleagues contemptuously dismissed him as “the hitchhiker.” They could not believe that calculus could be made interesting. They suggested that he was not really “teaching” but engaging in theatrics! Meaning, do not take what he did seriously. They successfully undermined his valiant effort at changing the learning environment.

Imagine had he been part of the permanent establishment, and with that the possibility that he may one day be the headmaster. The attitude of the rest of the academic staff would have been far different. And if there were not one but four or five such teachers, those autocratic local teachers brought up under the old tradition would be put to shame. They would be forced to change.

I had a similar experience teaching medical students and young doctors in Malaysia. I successfully introduced graduate seminars and formal teaching rounds, common in American universities. I also broke down many of the formal barriers between faculty and students by joining them in coffee breaks and lunches. My local colleagues took a dim view of this and suggested none too subtly that I should act more like a “real” professor lest my students would get “uppity.”

Imagine if I had a few more colleagues who had the benefit of the training I had and thus shared my philosophy of teaching. I would not appear as an aberration, and there would be a critical mass for change.

My suggestion would be for Malaysia to hire thousands of teachers and professors from the West. Instead of spreading them all over and diluting their contributions, concentrate them in a few institutions where their critical mass could effect change quickly.

The rapid improvement of the National University of Singapore was not due to Singaporean academics suddenly becoming more productive and brilliant than their Malaysian counterparts. Rather back in the 1970s, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew opened up the campus to foreign academics. He encountered considerable local opposition but in the end Singapore and the local academics benefited. They were inspired to perform at a higher level, spurred by the presence of their foreign colleagues.

Malaysia took the opposite tack; it discouraged (still does) foreigners. Foreign professors were denigrated for lacking “local” expertise or being insensitive to local nuances. We also feared that those foreigners would instill “alien” values in our young.

Thailand is emulating Singapore in a different way and at a different level. It is encouraging international, primarily American and British, schools to be established, complete with their own teachers. Their students, brought up under a different system, would initiate change in Thai society at a much faster pace. The only effective way to change Malaysian society is through the Thai approach. Exposing the young to Western liberal education early in school is one way for them to appreciate the enduring values of the West beyond its popular culture. One reason Malaysia had a harmonious relationship with its colonial rulers was that many Malaysians were educated in the English school system.

The defects of the West are plenty. We should be aware of them not with a view of criticizing them or having a holier-than-thou posture, rather to avoid them. Take the issue of gender equity, which is valued in the West. There is however a less desirable flipside. Now there are more families headed by single women, together with the increasing number of children born out of wedlock. The other is the devaluing of child rearing, with mothers rushing to return to work and leaving the child-rearing to someone else.

Similarly, the generous social safety net of the West risks sapping the initiative of the citizens; its generous old age pensions is responsible for the breakdown of the traditional filial duty of adult children to take care of their aged parents.

The emphasis on science and technology contributes to the remarkable advances in the West. Those too carry their own burden. Not all human behaviors or natural phenomena can be rationally analyzed or explained. Science and reason are no substitute for faith. It is not surprising that yoga, Sufism, and other mystical manifestations find ready soil in the West.

The much-valued rugged individualism of the West versus the communitarian of the East too has a price. Humans are social beings, we long for company; no man is an island unto himself. Whether it is due to the rugged individualism, the gender equity, generous social safety net, or totally unrelated, the extended family is declining in the West to be replaced by the nuclear family. With that goes much of the comforting social and familial support system. The consequence is increased social dislocations, as reflected by the high suicide rates and depression.

The West can be rightly proud of its technological marvels and the consequent elevation of the living standards of its citizens. A baby in the West today is more likely to realize his or her full potential than one born in Asia or Africa. With the latter, survival itself is a challenge, let alone fulfillment.

The most striking difference between East and West can be surmised by their responses to unanticipated disasters. Relief workers in the 2004 Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia were impressed at how remarkably calm the survivors were, the lack of anarchy, and the speed of their psychological recovery. Contrast that to the reactions of the Katrina hurricane in America, despite the much greater resources that were available.

In unanticipated crises, what would hold society together are not material resources or might, rather the existing communal bonds and the perception citizens have of one another as being members of the same community. The challenge for the East is to adopt those ways and values of the West that would lead to the material improvement of the citizens, and at the same time enhance or at least maintain those traditional Eastern values that would help them deal with those tragedies and crises in life that reason alone cannot explain.

Next: Terrorists, Islam, and the West

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education - Part Four

[In the first three parts I discussed the rationale and advantages of private sector participation in education, and reviewed the current experience in Malaysia. In this fourth essay, I survey the experiences elsewhere for useful lessons that could be relevant
To Malaysia.]

The Experiences Elsewhere

In formulating a policy that would envisage a greater role for the private sector, it is worthwhile to review the experiences elsewhere.

In America, everyone is entitled to free publicly-funded education from K-12 years. In fact schooling for this age group is compulsory. While the government is not directly involved in preschool there are many publicly-funded programs targeted for children of disadvantaged families.

Preschoolers excepted, most (over 85 percent) American children attend public schools where not only is the tuition free but so too the textbooks and transportation. There are also no examination fees. Contrast that to Malaysia where while the tuition is free, there are considerable added burdens of the cost of books, uniforms, non-tuition fees, and transportation.

There is no pubic subsidy of private schools in America, as in many countries. Consequently these schools are only for the wealthy. However, many of these schools recognize their social responsibility and provide generous scholarships to promising students from poor families. That is also a smart way to widen their talent pool as well as provide diversity to their student body.

To the north in Quebec, Canada, the state subsidizes private schools that meet its standards and prescription. Such subsidies reduce the tuition by as much as 30 percent. It is also an effective way for the state to exert influence over these private schools. It is not surprising that Quebec has a high percentage of its students attending private schools (17, as compared to 10 in America).

Chile has a novel system of vouchers. With a voucher a student is free to attend any school, public or private, with the school collecting its revenue through the vouchers of the students it enrolls. The salient point is that judgment on a school’s quality (and the decision to enroll) rests entirely with the consumer: the student. Unlike in Quebec, the government exerts no control over these schools. It is sufficiently enlightened to recognize that the best judge of a school’s quality is not some central authority but its pupils and their parents. The market will take care of the mediocre schools.

Central to this assumption is that the performances of these schools must be widely distributed so parents could make an informed decision.

Thailand has another approach towards private – specifically international – schools. Its leaders recognize that the national curriculum is hopelessly out of date but the teachers and administrators are incapable culturally, intellectually and politically of changing it as they have been brought up under the system.

Thus Thailand approaches the problem from a different angle. It opens up the system to international schools with their own sets of curriculum free from controls of the Ministry of Education (MOE). The government still exerts controls but only in areas other than the curriculum. For example, these schools must meet certain physical requirements and be headed by a Thai national.

These schools must also be accredited by a recognized international body. That is smart as there is no way for those bureaucrats in the Thai MOE to competently evaluate these schools.

There are currently nearly 100 such schools in Thailand, not a large number but enough for a critical mass. These schools are not yet within the reach of the middle class, as in Quebec. However, as these students end up at leading universities abroad, and as they are also the children of the elite, they are destined to be influential. They would be capable later of effecting fundamental and transformational changes as they had not been brought up and trapped by the rigidity and stultifying culture of the current national system. The Thai experiment is certainly worth watching.

A slightly different model is South Korea. There are private schools there but except for their being free of government funding, there is not much difference between them and public schools. The same rigidity, mindless memorization, and strict blind obedience to authority exist as in pubic schools.

To escape that cultural stricture, South Korea allowed many private international (primarily American) schools with their independent curriculum and medium of instruction, as with Thailand. Two such schools, Daewon (established in 1983) and Minjok (1993) deserve special mention. Both use English exclusively, designed to prepare the best Korean students for global leadership. At Mijok, the emphasis is on “Teaching-Discussion-Writing,” away from the usual memorization and regurgitation that masquerade as education in Asian schools.

The remarkable feat of these two schools is that their short history notwithstanding, they are now the biggest feeder schools for elite American universities. This being Korea however, the two schools still cannot escape their cultural trap. As one former Daewon teacher commented, one of her students committed suicide on the day her SAT score was released.

Private Universities
Today there are private universities even in the most socialist of countries, with Russia now boasting more than 200. For the most successful model however, you cannot beat the American system of private colleges. If you take anybody’s list of the top 25 American universities, the vast majority would be private. Looked at another way, private American universities dominate anybody’s list of top global universities. That is reason enough for Malaysia to look closely at the American model.

First however, I need to clarify the terminology. Those private American universities like Harvard are not “private” in the same sense as IBM or Microsoft Corporation. Meaning, they are private but not profit making; they do not have shareholders eagerly anticipating dividends. Instead they are non-profit entities, akin tax-wise to non-governmental groups (NGOs). As such they enjoy considerable tax and other advantages. These universities are entitled to research grants from governmental agencies, and their students are eligible for government grants, loans and scholarships, just like students at public universities.

In return for those privileges, these universities have to abide by certain rules, like subscribing to Federal affirmative action rules and non-discriminatory practices in admissions and hiring. It is this unique public-private partnership that makes American “private” universities shine.

There are “real” private (meaning, profit-making and proprietary) universities; DeVry and the University of Phoenix being two of the largest. However, they never appear on anybody’s list of top universities. Their student body too is entirely different, made up mainly of working adults rather than those coming straight out of high school. They also do not have the traditional campus of a “regular” university.

Private universities in other countries are more like America’s DeVry than its Harvard. In Malaysia’s pursuit for private universities, the American non-profit institutions like Harvard should be the model, not the proprietary ones. Unfortunately most private universities in Malaysia are of the DeVry variety. They have their place and help feel a void, but they would never lead the nation to greatness.

Many countries are importing wholesale this American model by inviting them to set up branch campuses. By far the most successful (by this I mean the most number of campuses) have been the Middle Eastern countries, undoubtedly facilitated by their oil wealth.

There are definite limitations to this wholesale importation. Even if I were to transplant en bloc the Stanford campus in Dubai, the university will never be the Stanford of Palo Alto. Try bringing a speaker critical of the government to speak on campus at one of the branches of the American universities in Dubai! Those countries that are enthusiastically transplanting Western campuses in their home soil forget one salient element. That is, what contributes to the greatness of Stanford include the general social, economic and political environment of California specifically and America generally.

This wholesale importation is not a recent phenomenon. Early in the last century Western philanthropists set up the Peking Union Medical College. It quickly achieved its goal of being the Johns Hopkins of China. However, with the Cultural Revolution all that painstaking gains were destroyed. That institution has since regained its original premier status with the return of sanity in China.

Another successful experiment, also led by Western philanthropists, is the American University in Beirut, established in 1866 at the height of Western imperialism in the region. With its Western curriculum and teaching style, it quickly eclipsed such venerable institutions as the centuries-old Al Azhar. Today with the turmoil in the region, the luster is off that institution, but for a long time it remained the jewel in the crown of the Arab intellectual world.

Malaysia too has dabbled in its own version of American importation but with little success: the Malaysian University of Science and Technology (MUST) set up in collaboration with Boston’s MIT. It would take more than just grafting the name of a prestigious American university to make your campus respectable.

A more enduring endeavor would be to adopt the concept of a western liberal education, and with the help of proven scholars and educators, establish your own institutions. The Aga Khan did this, setting up campuses first in Pakistan and then in other Muslim countries. Its success can be gauged by the fact that its medical school, established in Karachi only in 1983, has today an international reputation far exceeding other long established universities in that country.

What the Aga Khan proves is that what is important is not the building of fancy Western buildings or the pasting of a prestigious name that would make your institution great, rather the adoption of the concept of liberal education, academic freedom, and the pursuit of knowledge.

This is what our policy makers must keep central as they examine the various models and envisage a greater role for the private sector.

Next: Part Five: Private Sector Participation in Schools and Pre-schools.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #132

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Learning The Best of the West

The West’s Embrace of Science and Technology

The other attribute of the West worthy of emulation is its respect, almost deference, to science and technology rather than to tradition and hierarchy.2 The Imperial Chinese knew the science of explosives, navigation, and shipbuilding, yet they never went far with that knowledge. Their deference to their emperor made them abandon those promising ventures.

The Confucian respect for knowledge is more apparent than real; it is more an expression of reverence for tradition and the emperor. To the Imperial Chinese, knowledge is not new discoveries or novel ways of doing things, as in modern science and technology, rather reverence to existing knowledge and consequently, the status quo. Thus they put supreme value in test scores instead of innovations and original thinking. Test scores measure your ability to recall existing knowledge, meaning your familiarity with the status quo.

The test scores of top mandarins were even chiseled on their tombstones; such was their reverence and faith in such tests! Those tests (as today’s) did not reflect brilliance or creativity, only the ability to regurgitate or reaffirm the views acceptable to the establishment (the test markers). There was a reason why those Imperial Chinese with their obsession with excellence at tests did not rule the world: They were obsessed with the wrong thing!

In the West, nobody cares about Bill Gates’ or Albert Einstein’s test scores. They are remembered for their contributions; and their contributions threw the status quo into upheaval. Gates and Einstein would hardly qualify for office boy in the Imperial Chinese civil service.

New knowledge often disturbs or even undermines current understanding; it challenges the status quo and accepted wisdom. Tests measure only your ability to absorb and understand current knowledge, not your contributions to new knowledge. Progress depends on new knowledge and the novel applications of existing knowledge.

One quick way to discover novel ways of doing things is to see how others do them. The Japanese went through this stage of “copy cat,” of imitating the West, as did the early Muslims from the Greeks and Romans. After they had gained some familiarity, they then went on to make their own contributions. This is the pertinent lesson for Malaysia. Unfortunately today we have lost this willingness to learn from others and instead have turned increasingly inward.

Malaysia’s association with the West through colonization by Britain was also positive. Many would challenge this assertion, nonetheless for Malays in particular the colonial experience was emancipating.

At the very least colonialism got rid of slavery in Malay society and helped nudge it away (though not completely) from feudalism. Together with the introduction of secular education, people like me who were not fortunate to be born into the nobility had a fate beyond being a serf and palace hanger-on. English education liberated not just me but also my generation. I do not belittle such contributions. It is also a tribute to colonial rule that leaders of my generation were inculcated with the values of Western secular education. Had I been born today, my family would have been under tremendous social pressure to send me for religious studies.

The British did something else; they brought in hordes of immigrants. That transformed Malay society and awakened it from its collective slumber. Malays became politically conscious. The entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrants also rubbed off on the natives. It is not coincidental that Malays from the former “Federated States” with their higher concentration of immigrants are more advanced socially and economically than those from the “un-Federated states” like Kedah, Trengganu, and Kelantan.

Some would argue that Malaysia lost more than it gained through its encounter with the British. For one, Malaysia is now saddled with a race problem that rears its ugly head every so often. It is to be noted that long after Malaysia became independent and its leaders essentially Malays, they too brought in millions more new immigrants. Under the once ultra-nationalistic Mahathir, the number of immigrants, legal and otherwise, exploded. These latter day Malay leaders use the same economic argument as those earlier colonial rulers in justifying bringing in foreigners. Economic imperatives have a way of defying nationalist and ethnic considerations.

I do not underestimate the positive influence of those earlier immigrants on Malays. They helped enlighten Malays on the ways of the world by exposing us to different ways, cultures, and languages. If not for the early Arab traders, Malays would still be pagans and animists, and without a written culture. In contrast, today’s immigrants brought in by the current Malay leaders contribute nothing towards the betterment of Malaysians except to make them feel lordly superior.

In this era of globalization, we have to get along with others of different cultures and beliefs. The remarkable success of the West is its diversity, with its minority populations sizeable and increasing.

Malaysians are accustomed to such diversities at home, and thus are better able to cope if not thrive with globalization. I marvel at the ease with which Malaysian Chinese adapt abroad. Contrast that to the Chinese from China and Taiwan, or the Koreans and Japanese. Coming from a culturally and ethnically homogenous society, they have difficulty living outside of their familiar social environment.

Unlike many countries that had negative experiences with the West, the interface between the West, as represented by Britain, and Malaysia had largely been beneficial. Malaysians still eagerly go to the West for further education and visits. Visit any remote village and chances are there is someone there who has either gone or knows of someone who has gone to the West for higher education. Most returned, made better by the experience. An aberrant few came home filled with rage and hatred against the West.

Again, visit any village and you will find many who had worked or are working for Western multinational corporations and benefited greatly from that experience. Malaysians rank these companies as the most enlightened employers, much more so than local ones.

Malaysians, being comfortable with the ways and values of the West, are best positioned to interpret the West for Asians, and Asia to the West. Malaysia’s economic and trading activities reflect this, with EU and America being Malaysia’s major trading partners.

Malaysian universities are belatedly recognizing this reality. University of Malaya has long established its Asia-Europe Institute, and Universiti Kebangsaan now has its Institute of Occidental Studies. With or without these academic institutions, Malaysia will continue to play an increasingly important role in bridging East with West.

In order to play a more effective role, Malaysia must fully understand not only the core enduring values of the West but also its popular culture. Adopting in toto Western values and ideas is not the answer; the Philippines is a sad example of that folly. Its political institutions have all the trappings of the checks and balances of a modern Western democracy, courtesy of Washington, DC, but instead of ensuring a clean and effective government, it produces perpetual gridlock. India is another sorry example.

We must distil and adopt the best of the West and discard the debris and hubris. We should emulate, not ape the West.

Next: The West, Warts and All

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Enhancing the Role of Private Sector in Education - Part 3

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education
M. Bakri Musa

[Third of Six Parts]

[In the preceding two parts I discussed the rationale for private sector participation in education. It would lessen the load on the public sector thus enabling it to focus more on a smaller population. The nimbleness of the private enables it to meet the rapidly changing and necessarily diverse needs of increasingly sophisticated Malaysians. Our public sector institutions are tightly controlled and heavily micromanaged from the center. As such they are unlikely to lead us to excellence, making it an imperative to nurture private institutions. In this third part I examine the role of the private as it is currently. MBM]

The Current Situation

Currently private sector participation is limited to the polar ends of the education spectrum. The private sector has unbridled access to preschool, and increasing liberalization at the post-secondary level. In between (Years 1-11), private sector participation is extremely limited and tightly controlled.

There is no coherent or comprehensive attempt to rationalize the role of the private sector. The result is a hodgepodge mixture of the various elements instead of a cohesive pattern.

Thus instead of an exquisite cuisine with the various ingredients contributing to and enhancing the final flavor, Malaysian education is akin to a stew of leftovers, with a few new ingredients thrown in to put a fresh taste. The final concoction is more like dinner at grandma’s house on the third day of Hari Raya; not quite rancid yet, but not refreshing either.

Private Preschools and Schools

The result of unfettered private sector participation at preschools is this. Some are superb, with the teachers, facilities and results matching the best elsewhere. Then we have preschools located near dumpsites or busy streets, and posing significant dangers to the children. The standard of hygiene is such that outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease occur with distressing regularities. As for their staff and operators, none are subjected to criminal background checks.

More problematic is that these pre-schools are highly segregated racially, religiously, and socially. Many preach a virulent form of ethnic, religious and other cultural pride that would be inimical to the development of a harmonious plural society. Because of the government’s essentially “hands-off” policy, these sinister developments remain unchecked, and that could haunt us later.

The private sector has a minimal role at Years 1-11. There are a few private religious (mainly Islamic) and vernacular schools but their aggregate contribution is marginal, with the exception of a few excellent, well-endowed independent Chinese schools. There are only about 60 such schools but they send more students to top universities than all the other schools combined.

They may be excellent but their influence on the greater Malaysian scheme of things is severely limited because they make no attempt to broaden their appeal to the other communities. Nonetheless the association representing them is among the most powerful, ready and able to challenge the UMNO ultras.

These private schools receive no formal public funding except at opportune times as during tight election campaigns. Then the government would make a grand show of its on-the-spot generosity. This happens frequently in Penang and Selangor for the Chinese schools, and Kelantan and Trengganu for the madrasahs.

If these excellent independent Chinese schools were to change their mission from being Chinese (meaning, catering primarily to their own clan) and instead be one that happens to use Mandarin as its medium of instruction and then actively seeks students and teachers from the other communities, then these schools would be my ready model for an ideal private school for Malaysia. For that to happen would require a monumental shift in mindset of their leaders. I am uncertain whether they are capable of that.

As for international schools (the other group of private schools), only Malaysian children who previously attended schools abroad (as with children of diplomats) are permitted to apply. Admission requires the permission of the Minister of Education himself, indicating a high-level decision. Consequently only a few Malaysians are enrolled although the demand is great. Of course this being Malaysia, children of the influential have minimal difficulty securing that permission.

Private Post-Secondary Institutions

As for private universities, a seminal development was the Private Higher Education Institutions Act of 1996 permitting the setting of private degree-granting institutions, hitherto the exclusive preserve of public universities. Within the first few years of its adoption there was a mushrooming of private tertiary institutions, with the number zooming to nearly 600 from fewer than 50!

Such an explosive development would tax even the most efficient regulatory agency, and ours is far from being the best. Consequently many of these colleges are nothing more than rented spaces over empty shop lots. They also have the lifespan of mushrooms. Many of the permits were granted to those known more for their political connections and financial might rather than academic weight.

These ‘educational’ institutions do not serve their students or the nation well. They excel only in having the rich part with their hard-earned money. They are not likely to propel the nation into its next trajectory of development. On the contrary, they will weigh us down.

Nonetheless amidst the pebbles there are a few gems, like the local wing of Monash and the University of Nottingham. These institutions have their reputation to protect, and they are precisely the ones Malaysia should encourage and support.

The other noteworthy private colleges are longstanding ones likes Taylor which began initially by catering to the needs of school leavers who could not get slots in public institutions. With the deterioration of public institutions, combined with their exclusive use of Malay, these private institutions expanded their turf to meet the demands of Malaysians wishing to enhance their marketability.

Thanks to their entrepreneurialism and innovativeness, the likes of Taylor have expanded far beyond their initial offerings of ‘twinning’ and external degree programs. Today they grant their own degrees, even graduates ones!

Then there are the major private institutions associated with government-linked companies; Uniten (of Tenaga Nasional) and Petronas are ready examples. They are private in name only, for like their parent GLC, they are under heavy government control.

The major political parties too, UMNO excepted, sponsor their own private colleges. MCA has its Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC). The name is its only sop to Malay sensitivity. Meanwhile MIC has its TAFE and AIMST colleges, including (if you can believe it) a medical school! Unlike the Chinese, the Indians love acronyms for their institutions. Also unlike the Chinese, the Indians make no effort to appeal to Malay sensitivity by giving their institutions local-sounding names.

TARC is the oldest, biggest, and most successful. It was MCA’s second choice after Malay ultras scuttled its demands for Merdeka University. Unable to grant degrees, TARC initially focused on preparing its students for globally (principally British) recognized professional qualifications. Because of that, and its emphasis on English, TARC graduates are in demand in the marketplace.

It is the supreme irony, one that has not dawned on many, that those Malay ultras had actually advanced the cause of the Chinese by denying them a university. If those ultras had acceded to MCA’s demands of a Chinese-language university, what Malaysia would have today is another of the old Nanyang University, with its graduates well versed in the ways of ancient China but totally unprepared for the modern marketplace. TARC on the other hand produces sub-professionals with recognized foreign qualifications, precisely what the market needs.

Deficiencies of Private Colleges and Universities

Private Malaysian colleges suffer from three major deficiencies. First, with few exceptions, their academic offerings are wanting. Their degrees and diplomas are heavy on such utility disciplines as marketing, accounting and engineering. As for engineering, I am uncertain of the difference between their degree and a technical diploma. In perusing the syllabus, it is clear that the engineers they produce are mere technicians, not educated professionals.

How could these institutions produce educated professionals when they lack a core liberal arts faculty or unit? How can you teach your students English and learn to think critically when you do not have the basics such as an English or Philosophy Department?

To date no private university has a Department of Malay Studies. I would have thought that having a branch campus in Malaysia would have been an excellent opportunity for Monash and Nottingham to strengthen or establish their Department of Malay Studies.

Most of these private institutions are nothing more than glorified trade schools, catering strictly to the demands of the marketplace. Not that there is anything wrong with that, only that is not what I have in mind with a traditional university.

The liberal arts may have little marketplace value, but in the end that is what separates the graduates and professionals you produce from mere technicians. What makes the great American universities great, including the highly ‘technical’ ones like MIT and Caltech, is their strong liberal arts core and commitment.

I would have thought since these private colleges have limited resources they would husband them and be more focused in their mission. Far from it! They typically have a smorgasbord of academic offerings, from vocational training to secretarial courses, and from diploma to pre-university, twinning, as well as degree and even postgraduate studies. All on the same campus and with the same staff!

Running any one of those programs well would tax even the most talented educator. These private colleges are trying to be all things to all people at the same time, or at least to people who could afford their fees. This miss-mesh strategy is clearly aimed less at improving individual programs, more on maximizing revenue.

Their anemic academic offerings are matched only by their mediocre physical facilities. Many lack the amenities one normally expects of a campus: No auditoria, sports facilities, or students’ dormitories. While even the smallest American campus would have a sports team and a string quartet, even the largest private Malaysian universities do not offer these. For these institutions, anything not related to their students passing their final examinations is deemed irrelevant.

The biggest criticism is that these private institutions contribute to the greater segregation and polarization of Malaysians. They are essentially non-Bumiputra institutions; there is minimal attempt at diversifying the student body or faculty. Worse, these institutions justify their stand by arguing that they are remedying the imbalance of public institutions which are predominantly Bumiputras. Obviously to them, two wrongs would make it right.

Diversifying the student body and faculty is a worthy goal in itself; it is not a sop to Malays. How can these institutions, private or public, prepare their students for an increasingly diverse global marketplace when the learning environment is so insular and limited? You would think that with the predominant Bumiputra population, private institutions would strive to cater to this market niche and at the same time expose their students to the predominant culture.

This racial segregation is worse because it is voluntary. There is no attempt at remedying the situation. Educators in both private and public sectors are content with the status quo. This segregation does not serve our students; it is also inimical to the healthy development of our plural nation.

Our private colleges are satisfied merely in being followers. While it is good for them to have affiliations like twinning and transfer programs with foreign universities, Malaysian institutions must carve their own tradition and path. At present most are content with being ‘feeder schools’ to foreign institutions.

What we need is the development of indigenous private schools and universities that would meet the unique demands of our nation. We can achieve this by adopting the right policies and with appropriate governmental support. In the next three essays I will explore how this could be achieved.

Next: Part Four: The Experience Elsewhere

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #131

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Learning The Best of the West

Whatever the defects and deficiencies of the West are, the fact remains that it is the leading civilization today. That is reason enough for Malaysians to study and understand it.

There are two ways at looking at the West. The more fruitful approach would be to assume that the West is essentially a force for good, and that its blemishes are imperfections inherent in any system designed by mortals, and that with good faith and effort those deficiencies could be remedied.

The other is to assume that Western civilization is at heart oppressive and evil, and that its much-vaunted economic system—capitalism—is essentially exploitative and relies on human greed for its success. Whatever good the West has produced was an unintentional byproduct.

I prefer the first take; many leaders in the developing world like Mahathir subscribe to the second.

The Japanese experience with the West is instructive. At the end of the 19th Century, with Commodore Perry’s naval expedition successfully breaching the Japanese fortress-like mentality, the Japanese suddenly realized how far behind they were as compared to the West. Instead of retreating, they were eager to learn from the West.1 They learned only too well for Japan soon had its own imperial aspirations. The world, in particular Asia, bore the burden of that hubris.

While the Japanese deeds (of learning from the West) were praiseworthy, their intentions (niat) were not. Their intent was not for the betterment of their society or humankind, rather on how best to use the lessons learned to beat back the West. Learning from the enemy so you can defeat it, a long acknowledged basic human instinct. Japan treated the West not as a teacher rather as a potential enemy, an evil assumption and motive. That was also contrary to their own Confucian tradition of respect and deference for their teachers.

We should learn from the West as we would from a great teacher. We want to absorb the values and knowledge, as well as aspire to be better than the teacher. When the Europeans learned from the Iberian Muslims, they had great respect for the Muslims. Those Europeans went further with what they learned; they brought enlightenment to Europe.

Before Malaysia can learn from the West, it must first have the correct intention and proper attitude. Malaysians cannot effectively learn from the West without first paying due respect to its great achievements, just like we cannot effectively learn from a teacher whom we do not respect and whose achievements we do not admire. If we view the West as essentially decadent, then we are not likely to learn anything meaningful. Worse, we would be learning for all the wrong lessons, as the Japanese did. The Japanese did finally get it right under Mac Arthur’s tutelage in the aftermath of the humiliation of World War II.

The central and enduring ideal of the West worthy of emulation is respect for the dignity of the individual. From there emerge other values. If we value our citizens as individuals, then we should give them their freedom to pursue their dreams and not coerce them into certain beliefs. From that arises the freedom of conscience, as well as of expression. If we respect them as individuals then we should not discriminate against them based on their beliefs, origin, or gender. We should respect them as individuals in their own right and not as means to achieve the goals of the state. We would ensure that they be educated, have adequate healthcare, and their basic needs looked after.

The more practical reason for respecting the individual is that we just do not know where or from whom the next great spark of innovation or insight will emerge. We do not know who the next Hang Tuah, Munshi Abdullah or Tun Razak will be. We cannot underestimate or afford to lose the potential of any individual. We must treat every youngster as a potential Tun Razak or Mushi Abdullah. Implicit in this respect for the individual is that our government and institutions must serve the individual, and not the other way round.

Respect for the individual means respecting the fruits of his or her labor. Slavery and indentured labor breach civilized norms. Likewise, we must also respect his properties. Private property rights are the hallmark of Western democracy and its accompanying free enterprise system. This does not mean that the West has always valued or even respected this. Slavery, which represents the ultimate contempt for personal property rights, was very much part of Western civilization. America got rid of it only with the Civil War in the late 19th century. Lest the rest of the world feels smug about this blemish on the West, rest assured that slavery was very much part of the Arab and other great Asian civilizations.

Remnants of the slave-master mentality still persist. We see this manifested when a Malay commoner addresses the sultan, referring to himself as patek, the humble obedient slave. Visit a Malaysian home, and observe how the “master” treats the “servants.” This is especially noticeable when the two are of different races, as with a Chinese homeowner and his or her Indonesian maid. Newspapers regularly carry headlines of maids being abused. Worse is the lack of public outrage. The fact that Malaysians refer to their household-help as ‘servants’ and not ‘maids’ betrays this underlying master-slave relationship. Even in the homes of those who have had the benefit of superior Western education, we still see this slave ownership mentality.

This is not unique to Malaysia. I see it everywhere in Asia.

The egalitarian ideals of the West should be the aspirations of Malaysia, in fact of all societies. For Malays, these are also the ideals of Islam.

These Western ideals—respect for the individual and for private property rights—are also the essential ingredients of free enterprise. The remarkable success of the West is in part attributed to its embrace of capitalism.2 Capitalism transformed Western societies from feudal to modern. That was the factor for the West’s advancement, not genetics, skin color, or supposed cultural superiority. In a feudal society, your birth and heritage would determine your fate in life; in a modern society, your talent and capability. With the former, a society loses the potential contributions of its talented citizens who are not lucky enough to be born into the right class.

Even though the West is no longer a feudal society, the fate of its citizens is still largely determined by the accident of their birth. In an attempt to ameliorate this, Western countries have inheritance and gift taxes, as well as other measures like free education and generous social safety nets to reduce the advantages conferred by one’s station at birth. Despite that, the best predictor of success in the West, as elsewhere, remains the luck in choosing one’s parents.

Next: The West’s Embrace of Science and Technology

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education Second of Six Parts

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education
M. Bakri Musa

M. Bakri Musa
[Second of Six Parts - In Part One, I emphasized the importance of getting the widest possible input in formulating a policy. Then when the policy is adopted , to start with small and manageable pilot projects to iron out the inevitable kinks, get feed back from the participants, and strengthen the weaknesses, and make the needed modifications. In this second part I discussed the rationale for private sector participation in education. MBM].


The Rationale For Private Sector Participation

Education, specifically the language of instruction in its institutions, is a highly politically-charged issue in Malaysia, as with any plural society. America for example still grapples with how best to integrate through its schools the children of minorities. Until recently Canada had to contend with its own English-French language rivalry.

While education can be a divisive issue in a plural society, ironically when creatively handled it could serve as an important instrument for social integration. For Malaysia, it is critical that educational institutions should serve this important function and not be satisfied merely with their traditional role American public schools have been remarkably successful, at least until recently, in integrating its various immigrants into the mainstream. Perversely, Malaysian schools during colonial rule, specifically the English language ones, were more successful in this integrating role than our current national schools.

Failure in this crucial role would result in a society that is highly educated but deeply divided; another Northern Ireland. The increasing polarization along racial lines that we see in Malaysia today is attributed in part to the failure of our schools and universities to play this important role of social integration.

Education in Malaysia has the added burden of being an important cultural symbol. The emotional and political significance of that cannot be lightly dismissed, for both can be overriding and at times overwhelming.

The consequence is that Malaysian education has, since independence, been under the tight control of the central government, with the private sector playing only a peripheral role. Recent moves towards liberalization may have altered the details of the landscape, but the underlying theme remains. As a result the full potential of the contributions of the private sector has yet to be realized.

The move to co-opt the private sector in helping the nation become an “educational hub” has less to do with educational objectives but more with economics: the earning and preserving of valuable foreign exchange. Consequently the ensuing discussions rarely if ever focused on first elevating the quality of education.

If we concentrate on enhancing the quality of our education, foreigners would pay premium dollars to attend our institutions, thus contributing to our foreign exchange. At the same time our students would make our colleges and universities their first choice instead of looking abroad, thus preserving valuable foreign exchange. The economic objectives would thus have been met.

As I see no major policy shift in the near future, Malaysian public universities will continue to be under heavy government control, making them unlikely to shine. They will continue to suffer the same sorry decline afflicting all our public institutions. So do not expect our public schools and universities to lead us to greatness. Recent angst on the state of our public universities supports my contention.

Consequently private universities, colleges and schools, freed as they are from governmental micromanagement, would be our only salvation. Hence the need to nurture them! For them to make their proper contributions however, they must be freed from governmentally-imposed barriers. Private institutions do not necessarily need government support – although that would help – rather we need to rationalize their role so they could play a more positive part.

A major stumbling block is to overcome the current mindset that views the private sector as an unwelcome competitor instead of accepting its legitimate role of complementing public institutions. Our officials still have that old “zero-sum” mentality, viewing the private and public sectors as two candles, one trying to outshine the other. They expend their efforts not on making their own candle shine brighter but on snuffing out the other. As a result what we have today are two dim candles. The challenge is on making both candles shine brightly so together they would brighten the nation.

I liken the private and public sectors to the Petronas Twin Towers, each block enhancing the appearance as well as capacity of the complex as a whole. Unlike the Twin Towers however, we should have not one but many levels of interconnecting bridges between our public and private educational institutions so students could seamlessly move from one to the other.

Rationalizing the role of the private sector is not merely to increase the number of private institutions rather in having quality ones that would meet the needs and aspirations of a modern Malaysia.

The increase in the number of private educational institutions that we see today may not necessarily reflect a healthy development. On the contrary, that may be the consequence of the sorry state of our public institutions. Singapore does not have many private schools and colleges simply because their public ones are so superior. The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University are such quality institutions that mediocre private universities would not have a chance competing against the two; likewise with its schools. Even international schools there do not have a waiting list.

Similarly in oil-rich Alberta, Canada; there are few private schools for, as the Economist rightly noted, even rich Albertans send their children to public schools. Their public schools are that good!

Malaysia is ahead of many developing countries in recognizing that the government is not the only entity capable of providing basic public goods and services. However it is only recently that this realization is being applied to the education sector.

The advantages to private sector participation are obvious. With the private sector partially bearing the load, the demand on the public sector would thus be lighter, enabling the government to provide even better services. This is especially true for a developing nation where resources are scarce and the demand heavy. In a developed country where the citizens are sophisticated and likewise their educational needs, there is no way the government could meet them. In this situation, the nimbleness and flexibility of the private sector come in handy.

Malaysia is in between, with a sizable population clearly demanding a First World level of sophistication in the educational needs of their children but with the vast majority still needing the basics. There is no conceivable way for the government to meet these varying needs and expectations even if it has unlimited resources. Nor can these varied needs be satisfied through a rigid single-school system, as advocated by some misguided souls. Instead what we need is to enlist the private sector with its flexibility and responsiveness to add to the diversity of services and offerings.

Regardless, whether in a developed or still developing country, the entry of the private sector would provide much-needed competition. Properly harnessed, like all competitive situations, that would only improve services all around, including alleviating the urban-rural as well as rich-poor divide.

What we do not want and have to be vigilant in order to avoid, is for the entry of the private sector to result in increasing the social divide and greater polarization of the nation.

We should not expect the entry of the private sector to be welcomed especially where the public sector has been entrenched and acquired powerful constituencies. The teachers’ unions for one would be rightly concerned about loss of job security, among others. Powerful political entities would equate the entry of the private sector to a loss of control. Sometimes under such circumstances it would be best not to confront those entities directly but to start afresh somewhere else, as with new schools and colleges.

This is an opportune time to examine and rationalize the role of the private sector in education. In the Tenth Malaysia Plan the government will commit itself to re-emphasizing the development of human capital. A critical examination of the roles and contributions of the private sector should be a major part of that planning.

Next: Part Three The Current Situation

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #130

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Malaysia is ideally positioned to bridging not only the West with the Muslim world but also between West and East. Malaysia’s relationship with the West, first with the colonialist British and later as a pro-Western and free enterprise embracing society, has generally been positive and productive. The occasional anti-Western rhetoric of its politicians at election times notwithstanding, Malaysians and their leaders are very much aware of the tangible benefits and advantages of embracing capitalism and Western ideas and technologies.

Malaysian society is similar to many Western ones in being diverse, more in tune with the increasingly globalized world. Like many Western nations, Malaysia has accommodated well to its diversity.

Other Eastern societies like Japan and South Korea are racially and culturally homogenous. The only legal “immigrants” they have are their kindred who had earlier emigrated and are now returning. The East Asian culture and mindset do not lend easily to bridging East and West.

India is also diverse ethnically and culturally, but its relationship with the West through its British colonizer had been less than positive. Even after independence, India professes no love for the West. Its embrace of capitalism is recent, and there is no assurance that it will hold.

The Malay script is roman and phonetically based. A Westerner looking at a document written in Malay could still make some sense out of it. One in kanji would look like chicken scratch to a non-Japanese. An American lost in a small Malaysian town can still make some sense of the road and shop signs, not so if he or she were stuck in rural Japan.

English literacy in Malaysia is still high despite the recent decline. An American stuck even in the remotest village could find someone who can speak English. Visit the east coast villages and you are likely to find young Western backpackers holidaying. They do not feel at all lost.

Lastly, as stated earlier, the Judea-Christian West has much more in common with Islamic Malaysia than with Confucian Japan or Hindu India. Malaysia should leverage these favorable factors to maximal advantage. Before it could successfully play this bridging role, Malaysia must first understand the West better, its virtues as well as vices; the virtues with a view of emulating them, its vices in order to avoid them. Thus far Malaysians (like other Asians) are more eager to expose the defects of the West and to assume a holier-than-thou posture. Asians with glee point to the West’s history of slavery and colonialism, conveniently forgetting that those blights too afflict their society. Having read accounts of the Japanese colonization of Korea, and having suffered through the Japanese Occupation, Malaysians are glad that the British rather than a fellow Asian power like Japan or China had colonized Malaysia.

Just as important to Malaysia’s role in bridging East and West would be bridging the West with the Islamic World. There are two crucial messages Malaysia must deliver to both the West and the Islamic world. First, the values and ideals cherished in the West like personal liberty, respect for basic human rights, the pursuit of happiness, and representative government are also cherished in Islam. Second, extremists and terrorists are the enemy of peace loving people everywhere. That they would wrap themselves around a faith is not new or unique to Islam. Those Islamic terrorists are the enemy of and a threat to both the Islamic world and the West. The battle against them will require and should be the joint efforts of peace-loving people in the West as well as the Islamic world.

Next: Learning The Best of the West