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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Genuine Obsessions With Fake Qualifications

Genuine Obsessions With Fake Qualifications
M. Bakri Musa

The kerfuffle over the college credentials of Kamalanathan a/l P. Pancanathan, the Barisan candidate in the recent Ulu Selangor by-election, reveals less of the man but more on our fascination with paper qualifications. This obsession with credentialism is an intellectually lazy way to judge someone; you let those papers and certificates do it for you.

Who cares if you have a doctorate from Oxford, for if you cannot speak and read our national language then you have no business to be in Parliament or the state Assembly, where bills are debated and businesses conducted in Malay. You cannot possibly be effective if you are not fluent in that language.

At the same time with Malaysia inextricably linked with the greater world and English being the global language, our legislators and others who presume to lead us should be equally facile in that language. Anything less and they would not be serving us – their clients – honestly and honorably.

I do not expect average citizens, least of all potential political candidates, to appreciate or acknowledge this reality. However, I do expect party leaders, both in Barisan and Pakatan, to be fully cognizant of this and to factor it heavily in their selection of candidates.

At one level it is amusing that we should still be obsessed with college degrees. With higher education now available to an increasingly larger segment of society, declaring that you are a college graduate would today elicit at best feigned interest, expressed in between yawns. The exception would be if you were to graduate from Oxbridge or an Ivy League. That would definitely draw some attention, at least initially, even in the most sophisticated circles.

If after a few minutes of conversation it turns out that your association with those august colleges was merely attending one of their culup (“quickie”) courses, then whatever impression you may have created initially would rapidly vanish. Actually you need not reveal whether you are a genuine product or not, the content of your conversation would be a sufficient differentiator. Less than a minute into Barack Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s speeches and you could readily tell who is the product of an Ivy League and who is from the local community college.

Both Obama and Palin attract huge crowds with their captivating oratory. In deciding who to vote for however, we should go beyond their academic pedigrees and flourishes of their speeches to seeing the clarity of their vision, weighing the substance of their ideas, and judging the effectiveness of their leadership.

At another level, despite our unabashed nationalism and pride in everything local as expressed in such jingoism as “Malaysia boleh!” there is still this obsession with everything foreign, especially university parchment papers. Again here, that says more on the state of our local universities than the regards we have of foreign ones.

I was not surprised that Kamalanathan could earn his Australian degree without ever setting foot on that continent, let alone on the campus. In these days of on-line courses and “distance learning,” there is nothing unusual about that. If anything those are significant improvements over the old correspondent courses.

The more significant – and disturbing – revelation is this. Although he attended the local Olympia College (its academic director confirmed that) to get his Australian degree via “twinning,” the college no longer has his academic records. I graduated over four decades ago, despite that I could still retrieve (if I am so inclined) from my alma mater my transcript, including my freshman English grades. Kamalanathan had his degree barely six years ago, and already his college has purged his academic records.

As mentioned, this controversy reveals more about local institutions than it does of foreign colleges.

Vetting Candidates

Higher education has not been spared the invasion and innovation of modern technology. At the criminal plane, with digital technology I could easily reproduce those impressive diplomas, complete with original signatures, intricate seals, and those fancy Latin phrases and dates. That makes it even more difficult to ascertain the veracity let alone quality behind those certificates.

At the legitimate level, modern technology has radically altered the manner of teaching and delivery of instructional materials. Today I can in the comfort of my living room listen to the same lectures given to those undergraduates at MIT. My continuing professional education is increasingly being delivered through “webinars,” CDs, and other multimedia modules.

With the greater appreciation and subsequent growth of “non-traditional learning,” the task of evaluating the quality of college credentials becomes even more complicated. The boundaries between blatant degree mills, virtual colleges, on-line courses, “external” degrees, and the traditional “board and mortar” campuses are becoming more difficult to ascertain.

In my profession where such decisions could have literally life and death consequences, we have gone beyond merely ascertaining the validity of those pieces of papers to contacting directly the issuing institutions and getting attestations on what those certificates actually signify. Failure to truthfully disclose could expose those institutions to both civil and criminal liabilities.

The problem with Kamalanathan could have been resolved had a non-governmental organization concerned with the conduct of honest election for example, queried that Australian university on whether he was a legitimate student. Indeed the problem would not have arisen at all had Barisan leaders verified the matter before selecting him. Had those leaders institutionalized the practice, they would have been spared the embarrassment of picking a disbarred lawyer as their election candidate, as had happened recently.

This vetting of candidates is tough and tricky. Even when everything seems clear and legitimate, we could still have difficulty detecting fraudulent applicants.

I was on the selection committee to fill a senior position at our hospital. On perusing the resumes of the short-listed applicants, one stood out – impressive undergraduate degree from a leading university and a prestigious MBA. She also stood out in the interview; articulate and well informed. When my turn came, I congratulated her on her MBA and then innocently inquired whether she had taken any classes from a certain star professor at her school, and if so, could she share her experience. I must have hit something for she became flustered and began fanning her suddenly reddened face with her hand.

“I… I,” she stuttered, “did not get my MBA from that Columbia!”

Her interview went rapidly downhill from there. At the end of the session, the committee went over her application carefully to see where we had slipped. Indeed her resume clearly stated, “1997 – MBA (Columbia),” and she had duly submitted a copy of her diploma in which it was equally clear that her Columbia was not the one in New York City. The mistake was obviously ours, in making the leap in assumption after perusing only her resume.

The sad part was that her undergraduate degree and her experiences were impressive enough and would have been sufficient for her to be the top choice. By needlessly embellishing her qualifications, she doomed her prospects. As can be further noted, this urge to inflate one’s resume is not confined only to the academically unsophisticated.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum. A while back an accomplished young Malaysian returned from an interview in Malaysia for a position with one of the GLCs without bothering to wait for the results. He decided after the encounter that he did not wish to risk his future to a company whose CEO and Board Chair could not tell the difference between the Stanford of Palo Alto and the local Stamford College.

I am less concerned with a two-bit politician trying to hoodwink simple villagers with his inflated resume. I am more perturbed that our top leaders too could easily be taken in. Within UMNO alone, there are quite a few senior leaders including chief ministers sporting the title “Dr.” They are not physicians, dentists or veterinarians, because for those professionals there are statutes governing the use of that title so as not to confuse the public. Not so for those with other doctorates, legitimate or otherwise.

There are many foreign degree mills, with three or four focusing almost exclusively to aspiring Malaysian politicians and corporate figures. The recipients are not even embarrassed; on the contrary they go out of their way to showcase their ‘achievements’ through paid self-congratulatory messages to celebrate their ‘graduation.’

One UMNO leader publicly bragged about having a doctorate from Preston University. When he pronounced it, he made sure that it sounded like Princeton, the Ivy League university in New Jersey, the academic home for Einstein and other luminaries. Meanwhile Preston, whose mailing address was somewhere in the prairies, offered degrees based on your “life experiences.” That ‘university’ had since left the Midwest after the state had a crackdown on diploma mills.

I would not have cared if this slimy character had managed to convince only the Mat Rempits and UMNO Putras of his pseudo academic prowess, but judging from the high praises he has been receiving from other top UMNO leaders, he has them duped too. That is the disturbing part.

Again as with the Kamalanathan controversy, this one tells us less of the “Preston PhD” character and more on our top UMNO leaders, and their genuine obsessions with fake qualifications.


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