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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 4 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 4 of 13)

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[In the first three parts I asserted that for Malaysia to achieve her Vision 2020 goals, both her leaders and citizens must have free minds. Those cooped under their coconut shells are unlikely to achieve greatness. To topple that shell we must first be dissatisfied with our present situation.]

Liberation Through Information

Education and information are among the key tools in helping us emerge from underneath our shell. Once we are aware through education and information that there is a wide world out there, then we are not likely to be satisfied with our own confined dark space, no matter how comfortable it seems to us at the time or what a paradise it is as per the repeated assurances of our leaders.

In the past, this problem of stirring people out of their comfort zone is compounded by their physical isolation. Today, those coconut shells can be penetrated by WiFi! Even the remotest villages now have access to the Internet. While in the past the expression was, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree!” today, Gay Paree comes to them, via the airwaves and the Internet!

Apart from leveling the playing field, the Internet opens up a limitless world of news, information and viewpoints. Exposing oneself to this treasure trove is the most effective way of opening up one’s mind. That is the good news.

This leveling effect also means that in cyber world David can have the same presence as Goliath; likewise the village idiot and Einstein. This too could be construed as good news.

There is however a dark side to the Internet. At its crudest level, we have the clumsy attempts by UMNO to influence public opinion by paying bloggers sympathetic to its cause. Then there is China, equally clumsy, paying those who post pro-government sentiments especially on anti-government websites. More sinister is the use of the Internet to spy on citizens. At its crudest there is Iran using images posted on Facebook to trace anti-government activists. On a more sophisticated level there is the data-mining software used to track the activities of private citizens. This is a penchant of not only authoritarian regimes like China but also by such champions of democracy as America.

The other bad news is this. Yes, the Internet brings forth an abundance of news and information. However, to sift through this abundance demands some critical thinking lest we be taken in by the fluff. Lacking this faculty we would then end up focusing only on those viewpoints and information that support our preconceived notions. Thus UMNO supporters would read only The New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu, while those in the opposition opt only for Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini. This “confirmation bias” is the bad news. It contributes to deepening polarization, potentially disastrous for a plural society like Malaysia.

The solution is not to have a single source of news; those in power would love that so they could control it. Instead we should encourage as many news sources and viewpoints as possible, and teach our citizens to think critically and have an open mind.

We should encourage the development of an independent and professional media, with the emphasis on the professional part. This cannot simply be wished upon; the government must actively nurture and be committed to this development instead of thwarting it, as is the current bend of the Malaysian authorities.

Simply having the media in private rather than government hands is not the answer. American media are privately held, and through that they have successfully projected a facade of independence. It is only that, a facade. In reality, they are beholden to their owners’ private agenda and or special interest groups, in particular their advertisers. In their coverage of the Middle East for example, an area of vital interest to Americans, American media have been particularly myopic and subservient to the interests of their owners and advertisers.

On the other hand, Al Jazeera, BBC, and the CBC, all government-owned (Qatar, Britain and Canada respectively) win hands down over the established “independent” American media in the coverage of major international affairs including and especially the recent uprisings in the Arab world.

Even in America, the government-funded PBS trumps the venerable privately-held CBS. What is obvious is that ownership is not the secret; what is critical is the professionalism of your journalists and editors.

I have no problem with the major Malaysian media being government-owned (Bernama and RTM) or controlled by major political parties (NST, The Star, Harakah). My only wish is that their personnel from the lowly cub reporters to senior editors are aware of their awesome responsibility to inform the public and thus the need to be independent in their thinking (having a free mind). Again, this cannot be simply wished for; instead we need to have the personnel be professionally trained. I am no fan of “J” (journalism) schools, but I wish that our reporters and editors go beyond being “Form Five” journalists (middle school graduates). They should have broad-based liberal education.

Only with an independent and professional media could we prepare our citizens to appreciate the Jeffersonian wisdom: Every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle. Or as we say in my Adat Perpateh, “Arang tosonggeh, baro paneh” (Crossing wood in the hearth makes the fire glow). It is this accommodative philosophy that makes my matrilineal Adat Perpateh be in harmony with male-dominated traditional Islam.

Leaders have a critical role in fostering this harmony and tolerance of divergent viewpoints. They must set the example. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear Prime Minister Najib labeling opposition leaders as “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Najib dishonors himself and his office when he resorts to such childishness. His followers are only too willing to ape him; monkey see, monkey do.

We must demand a higher standard of personal decency from our leaders. We should not tolerate them when they descend to the gutter. More importantly, we should not follow them. Instead we should expect more displays of civility and cordiality as demonstrated by this picture of Prime Minister Najib and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim enjoying teh tarik in the lobby of Parliament.

Modern technology, the Internet specifically, brings us to the outside world and it to us. Thus access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. Presently this vast trove of treasure is predominantly in English. To take advantage of this new digital world of information we must be fluent in that language, in addition of course to our national language. Many non-Malays have already achieved this; indeed many are trilingual, their mother tongue being the third. Malays could be likewise, with Arabic as the third language.

To achieve English fluency, the subject must be taught daily in our national schools, and by competent teachers. Additionally, other subjects, in particular science and mathematics, should also be taught in English. It is not enough for leaders to profess endlessly their commitment to enhancing English fluency among our students; our leaders must bring forth effective policies to achieve this.

Knowing another language also helps open our minds. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue. When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a deer on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether it is his or your left. It would be more meaningful, and with less chance of a stray bullet hitting you, if you were to say that the deer is to the west or east. The aborigines are more adept with cardinal signs.

Learn another language, experience a different culture, and expose yourself to diverse viewpoints; these will open you up to the wider world and appreciate its wondrous diversity. These are also the path towards a free mind.

Next: Liberation Through Education

Friday, March 25, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #58

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Enhancing Human Capital Through Education: Revamping Schools and Universities (Cont’d)

There are plenty of ready role models. Malaysia can look to Germany and Switzerland for examples of superior trade and vocational schools. For academic schools, Malaysia could emulate the finest British public or American magnet schools. Local universities could propose model curricula for these academic schools. Similarly, industries could help design specific vocational syllabi. Proton for example, could establish a school to prepare students to be car mechanics and auto body repairers and other skilled workers for the automobile industry.

My proposal calls for the elimination of the current matrikulasi programs. They are expensive and waste valuable resources of the universities. Universities should stick to doing what other institutions cannot do, that is, education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.

Matrikulasi was started in response to the 1969 race riots. It was one of the many efforts to increase the number of Bumiputra undergraduates. It has done its job well by complementing the inadequacies of the schools at the time. As a result the program has passionate supporters, especially among UMNO Youth.

Conditions today have changed; now the program is undermining Sixth Form. If matrikulasi cannot be eliminated because of political or other pressures, then its mission ought to be modified to be an academic outreach program for poor, rural, and other disadvantaged students. In this way expensive resources are focused on those who truly need them.

It is gratifying that the ministry is finally disbanding matrikulasi except for the program at the Universiti Tecknoloji Malaysia; I do not know the rationale for this exception. The ministry however is continuing with the matrikulasi outside the university. Nonetheless this long-overdue change would make Sixth Form regain its former importance. Further, strengthening Sixth Form would also enhance the overall standard of a school as some of the improved teachings and facilities would filter down to the lower forms.

In addition to changes in the program (“software”) of the schools, the physical facilities (“hardware”) too are badly in need of upgrading. The current double sessions take their toll on teachers, pupils, and facilities; they must end. Despite repeated declarations to this effect, double sessions are still very much a reality for most schools. With a single session, the school day could be lengthened, with students spending the afternoon either for “prep” time or be involved in extracurricular activities.

Malaysian schools are also woefully equipped with computers. Many especially in rural areas even lack electricity and running water. I fail to see why these isolated schools could not be provided with portable generators and wireless Internet connectivity, as successfully demonstrated by the E-Bakun project in Sarawak. These are expensive propositions but they are necessary investments for these children. Besides it would cost more if they were left behind.

The education system must also allow for private sector participation at all levels. Such private schools must meet strict enrollment guidelines to prevent racial and social segregations, as well as to prevent the one-teacher school and the giant educational factories. There could be joint ventures, with industry providing the facilities and the ministry, the teachers. Big companies would want a school on their premise for their workers’ children. This would boost employees’ morale knowing that they would be close to their children during working hours. One such model is a public elementary school in Florida, a joint project by the giant truck rental company, Ryder, and the local school district.

To further encourage social integration, there should be generous financial incentives for schools whose student body reflects the general society. With such extra funds these schools would be able to offer enhanced programs that would in turn attract students of various races. Given such encouragements, most Malaysians would prefer their children to attend integrated schools.

Again the policy should be flexible so that schools in Klang Valley would have different enrollment requirements than those in Kelantan. Such special grants could also be used to reward superior-performing schools and to compensate those in disadvantaged areas.

Administratively, schools should be decentralized and freed from the ministry’s micromanagement. They should be judged solely on their results. The ministry’s role should be restricted to selecting the managing board and monitoring the quality and performance. To ensure accountability the board must be made up of sufficient number of teachers and parents. Malaysia is now fortunate to have many well educated citizens even in small communities who would make excellent board candidates.

Additionally, the headmastership of schools must be a terminal appointment, with salary increases dependent solely on performance. Headmasters need not be transferred to get their promotions and salary increases. The days when they are nothing more than seat warmers on their way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the ministry should be over.

Decentralization would also result in greater competition among schools and spur them towards improved performance. Inevitably some would be perceived as superior, and competition for them would be intense. These schools must have a fair, objective and transparent mechanism for admission to prevent favoritism. Similarly, poor-performing schools would be under intense public pressure to improve. The ministry could then concentrate their resources and efforts on improving them.

Freeing schools and universities from the rigid control of the ministry would enable them to grow and find their own level. Educational wisdom is never the exclusive preserve of civil servants and politicians.

Next: Charter Schools

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 3 of 14)

The Comfort of the Coconut Shell

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[In the first two parts I asserted that for Malaysia to achieve her Vision 2020 aspirations, she needs leaders and citizens with free minds. I likened those without a free mind as frogs underneath a coconut shell.]

We ignore our better sense and willingly believe the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face because our minds are captive to biology, tradition, and the environment, among others.

The North Koreans fervently believe that they live in Paradise because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to and go to sleep at night on an empty stomach. Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they are competent and not corrupt despite the mess the country is in and their luxuriating in their palatial mansions. It does not take a donkey to realize that these leaders could not possibly be “clean” to afford such obscene opulence just on their government pay.

We refuse to hear the braying donkey because our mind is trapped by culture to believe the mullah. Doubting would be an act of blasphemy, disloyalty, or even treachery.

Returning to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about his world and claim to fully comprehend and in command of it. After all, what is there to understand? His world is all dark and small. As for commanding it, he is the only one to obey his orders!

What that proverbial Señor Frog does not appreciate is that his universe, large as it may seem to him, is nothing but a speck. I am not referring here to Señor Frog chain of bars in the Caribbean and Mexico, which is a huge and attractive universe, at least to American college students on spring break.

We on the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We may even pity the poor critter. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well intentioned people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot. That may well be; after all you would not miss what you do not know you miss.

Malaysians face many forces, subtle and not so subtle, that keep us cooped under our shell. There is our feudal culture, and with it our meek and excessive deference to authority figures. Our schools and universities are more for indoctrinating, not teaching our young to think critically. We are also easily trapped by labels; thus we readily dispense with critically examining what is in or behind those labels. Our leaders exploit this societal weakness by labeling those they disagree with as “anti-nationals” or “unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels.

Then there are intrusive and repressive laws like the awful Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate you without trial. No mortal should ever have that power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha wisely observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any mullah regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is tell you otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.

There are three major obstacles facing our entrapped frog in escaping his lot. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second, help him topple his shell; and third, assist him in adjusting to his new open world.

The first obstacle is the toughest for far too often we lack even the awareness of being trapped. We are blissfully ignorant of the outside world. This awareness of being entrapped is crucial but by itself is not enough; we must also have the desire to escape. For that to happen, we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.

It may seem perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell, readily accepting their fate and ascribing it to Allah’s will. Al qadar (divinely destined)! Who are we to challenge His design?

Then there is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo. Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?

As for ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya sagely observed in his short story, Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid). That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them, their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer humans but worms crawling inside the earth, predicted Pramoedya.

The coconut shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that short story) was tossed over many times yet they still returned to underneath it. They were enslaved by the Dutch, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves they again chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated, the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians, deeming themselves “too good” to be with the natives!

History is replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent toppling of coconut shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of the external cataclysms. All of a sudden we find ourselves in an entirely new, open and much bigger world.

Those who destined themselves to be eternal slaves like Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact downright frightening. Thus they scramble to find new coconut shells to hide under. For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a transforming event.

When the colonials entered the Malay world they certainly turned it upside down, flipping over our shell. We cursed them for disturbing our world but there would be no denying the ensuing good. For one, they ended the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor. If not for the colonialists, I would today be an orang hamba (slave) at the istana (palace). The colonials also introduced modern education, through which I am what I am today.

The British gave us Munshi Abdullah. If not for them, Abdullah too would be another indentured laborer at the istana, and Malay literature would remain nothing more than chronicles of khayalan (fantasies).

Another global cataclysm was World War II. While the colonialists’ entry forced a sea change in Malay culture, the Japanese invasion triggered a momentous change in Malay psyche. Seeing those hitherto invincible white Tuans and their Mems scurrying in their Austins and Morris Minors chased by short yellow Japanese on rickety bicycles must have made quite an impact on the natives: The myth of white supremacy forever shattered! It is the dramatic destruction of this myth that emboldened Malays to pursue with even greater vigor our independence.

Short of such external upheavals we have to make our own effort to topple our shells from within. As alluded to earlier, for that to happen we must first be dissatisfied with our present condition. Progress, and thus change, depends on individuals not being satisfied with the status quo. Once we have this sense of dissatisfaction, or preferably anger, that alone would be enough to motivate us to topple and get out from under our shell.

How that is achieved will the subject of the next few sections.

Next: Liberation Through Information

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #57

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Enhancing Human Capital Through Education: Revamping Schools and Universities

The Malaysian government recently published a massive plan, Educational Development – 2001-2010, aimed at revamping the entire education system. However, only a year earlier it had undertaken another massive revision of the curriculum, and that project was yet to be completed (it was not yet begun to be implemented!) when this new policy was unveiled. Despite its 250 pages, replete with the obligatory buzzwords like knowledge workers, IT revolution, and globalization, the report fails to address the glaring inadequacies of the present system. These include the atrociously low standard of English, abysmal levels of science literacy, and appalling mathematical skills of our students.

To address the increasing disadvantage that graduates of public universities face because of their low English fluency, the government proposes to have private institutions use Malay as the medium of instruction. In other words, handicap everyone to the same level of mediocrity!

A central feature of this new reorganization is the reduction of the school years from the present 13 to 12. This, combined with the earlier shortening of the undergraduate years from four to three, would put Malaysian students at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace.

Instead of spending energy on a disruptive massive reorganization, the ministry would do well to focus on enhancing the present system of P-13, in particular the academic pre-university class, Sixth Form.

The government’s rationale for reducing the school years is to align the Malaysian system with those of advanced societies, in particular America. True, the American system is also P-12, but two years of college is now increasingly the norm for students, in recognition of the need for a highly educated workforce. Further, American high schools offer courses that are traditionally taught in the freshmen (first) year of college. As a result, more and more students especially at the leading universities are now entering with “advanced standing.” Teaching introductory college courses at high school is not only cheaper but also more effective. Additionally, students entering with advanced standing are better prepared and are less likely to drop out. They also graduate faster. We can never over prepare students for college.

Bard College, a highly regarded degree-granting institution, in cooperation with New York City public schools system expanded on this idea and recently started an accelerated program where highly motivated students are selected to pursue their final two years of high school integrated with the first two years of college. These students would then graduate with both their high school diploma as well as an Associate degree. They would then proceed into the junior (third) year of university.

Malaysia had a comparable program in the 1960’s where students who did well at Sixth Form were admitted as directly as “super-freshie,” skipping their first year, equivalent to the American “advanced standing.” Now however, Sixth Form is being emasculated, replaced with the much more expensive and highly inefficient matrikulasi (matriculation) programs of the universities.

I propose simplifying the present school years into elementary (P-6), middle (7-9), and high school (10-13), with a standardized national tests at the end of each level. Thus only three such tests; eliminate the present Form V (Year 11—Sijil Perseketuan Malaysia, SPM) examination. These tests should be used to assess not only the students’ but also equally important, their schools’ performances. Further, such national tests would be limited only to the core subjects of Malay, English, science, and mathematics.

Students would be promoted based on such national tests as well as their individual assessments made by the school. Such evaluations, as in the American system, should be based on the student’s performance throughout the year instead of a single end-of-year examination. It is patently unfair to decide on a student’s future based only on one single examination. If he or she is not feeling well that day or if there are interruptions in the student’s life (for example, floods, as has happened often in the past) then the students’ performance would suffer, as would their entire future.

American students are continuously assessed throughout their school year. Universities base their admissions on these school assessments (as measured by the Grade Point Average) as well as scores on national standardized tests. Often the two are correlated but there will the occasional students who excel in one but not the other. They too should not be denied the opportunity.

Eliminating the SPM examination as well as the number of subjects offered in those national tests would markedly reduce the workload of the ministry’s Examination Syndicate. It would then be able to process the results in weeks instead of the present months. At present students are kept in limbo from January to June the following year waiting for their SPM results. That is more than a semester wasted while they could be in class instead of loitering. While there has been significant improvement in announcing the examination results (in 2002 for the first time they were announced at the end of February) nonetheless university admission is still till late in the year.

My proposal would not materially change the first P-9 years, except that all schools must follow the minimal core curriculum of the four compulsory subjects of Malay, English, science and mathematics. These subjects must be taught daily. Each school would be allowed to experiment with various electives to fill in the rest of the school day.

The last four years (high school) would see the most change. Essentially I would classify high schools into academic, general, vocational, and specialized (vernacular and religious). Academic schools would prepare students for universities. The vocational stream would equip them with technical training like carpentry and auto repairs, as well as general office skills like bookkeeping. Such schools would be combined with industries’ apprenticeship programs so that when the students graduate they would be well on their way to earn their journeymen’s certificate. From the general stream would come future nurses, policemen, and non-graduate teachers.

Thus regardless of the students’ ultimate career goals, they will be fluently bilingual (Malay and English), science literate, and mathematically competent. English must be emphasized because of its utility in the marketplace. Hence in addition to having English as a subject, I would teach at least two other subjects in that language. The most suitable candidates for this are science and mathematics. Increasing the number of subjects taught in English would give student a much greater opportunity to improve their fluency in that language. As for making mathematics as a core subject, numerous studies have shown that ability in it correlates with later success in college and life. The skills learned in mathematics have wide transferability. Similarly with science; in an increasingly technological world, students must have an understanding of the basic concepts in science.

[Update: In May 2002 the government (actually UMNO Supreme Council) decided that science and mathematics be taught in English in the schools. That is the easy part. The more formidable problem is the implementation. The ministry is presently inundated with fervent Malay language nationalists who would do their best to derail this imaginative initiative. Sure enough, this policy was later rescinded. MBM]

This streaming of students must be flexible so they could readily switch during the first two years. This would accommodate late bloomers as well as those who discover their technical aptitude later.

Graduates of vernacular and religious schools would in addition be effectively trilingual (their mother tongue with vernacular schools, Arabic with Islamic schools) – an added bonus. Because of the core curriculum, graduates of religious schools too would also have greater flexibility in their future career choices and plans for further studies. And should they ended up as ulama, they would be better for it for having had a broad-based liberal education.

Schools should be allowed to chart their own course. I envisage some emphasizing the performing arts, others foreign languages or the sciences. Students would be free to choose the school that would best meet their particular needs. To eliminate obvious disadvantages based on geography (rural versus urban students), each school must also have adequate hostel facilities to cater for out-of-area and rural students.

Next: Revamping Schools and Universities (Cont’d)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 2 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 2 of 14)

The Meaning of A Free Mind

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[In Part 1, I discussed the importance of having leaders and followers with free minds – Hamka’s “berani menyebut yang aku yakin” – if we hope to aspire to Vision 2020. In this second part I assert that a free mind is Allah’s command; it is a necessary condition to being a believer.]

I will not wax philosophical on the meaning of a “free mind.” My co-panelist Dr. Azly Rahman is more than qualified to do that; he is also more erudite. The only formal exposure I had to philosophy was an introductory course in my freshman year; that hardly qualifies me. Instead I will share with you my understanding of the concept.

I am less concerned with the philosophical pondering on whether something can exist without being perceived (the tree falling in the deep forest) rather the more practical problem of the same reality being perceived differently, sometimes diametrically so. It is this that can so often leads to much strife and even greater misery.

One way to grasp the meaning of a word is to seek its synonyms and antonyms; likewise a concept. An open, liberated or flexible mind would mean the same as a free mind. Its opposite would be a closed or rigid mind. We have a saying, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an apt and beautiful metaphorical imagery of a closed mind, the very opposite of a free mind.

As Roger William’s song has it, we are “Born free! And life is worth living. Live free and beauty surrounds you.” A free mind is also Allah’s command, as attested to by many Koranic verses. Those who would enslave others are going against His command. And not having a free mind is to be enslaved.

Consider Allah’s command to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as eloquently revealed in Surah Al-Rud (Thunder), “… Thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; the reckoning is Ours!” (13:40 – approximate translation). The prophet was to deliver the divine message but not to force it. This is reinforced in Surah Al-Rahf (The Cave, 18-29), “… Let him who will, believe; and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”

A faith enforced is no faith. That is the essence of those verses. We accept Islam on our own free will, not because it is forced upon us. A free mind is thus a necessary condition to being a believer.

We have an obligation, to ourselves and to our Creator, not to be enslaved. Nor should we enslave others. Of course none of us would willingly submit ourselves to be so. The road to serfdom however, to borrow economist von Hayek’s phrase, is often laid with the best of intentions. We can be readily seduced into following the paved path that would lead to our enslavement.

We also have an obligation to those enslaved, to help topple their coconut shell. To do so effectively, we first must appreciate and understand the challenges and obstacles they face.

Let me clarify three related terms: brain, mind, and mindset. The brain is the jelly-like anatomical structure in our skull; it is part of our central nervous system (the other being the spinal cord). To use the language of the computer, the brain is the central processing unit of our nervous system. The brain is also the core of our consciousness.

The definition of the mind that is relevant here refers to the intellect and consciousness, our thoughts, perceptions, memory, emotions, will and imagination. The mind is also our thinking process, the rational aspects of our behavior. Thus behaving in an aberrant fashion is referred to as being out of one’s mind.

Mindset on the other hand refers to our outlook in or philosophy of life, the German’s Weltanschauung. It is the set of ideas, attitudes and assumptions that we as individuals or members of a group share of reality, or what we perceive to be reality. While the brain is something physical and can be touched, mind and mindset are but concepts or constructs, as the social scientists would put it.

All three are interrelated but the nature and level of the relationships are not well understood. Increasingly they point towards the molecular (specifically neurotransmitter) level, or what neuroscientists refer to as “neurotransmitter correlates of consciousness.”

Anatomists would be hard put to declare at the gross or even microscopic level that there is such an entity as the Malay brain any more than there is a Negro or Caucasian one. At the genomic level however, certain markers are associated with certain races and that there is indeed a Malay brain in contrast to a Caucasian one, just as there is with Malay intestine or red cell in contrast to Caucasian ones. That is why Malays do not tolerate cheese and the English readily succumb to malaria.

Those with a racist bend will find these insights of modern biology as supporting their prejudices. The scientist Daniel Hillis however, likens our genes (or genome) to the menu of a restaurant, or the ingredients found in its kitchen. Yes, if you were to see a wok and MSG in the kitchen and the menu offers sweet and sour pork, then you could categorically conclude that you are at a Chinese restaurant. Similarly if you were to find cheese and truffles in the fridge and the menu offers chicken cordon bleu, then it is most likely a French bistro.

You cannot however conclude from that the taste or quality of the food, the reason for choosing a restaurant. Those depend less on the ingredients and tools in the kitchen and more on the talent and experience of the chef.

Besides, we have so much more in common between the races and so much more variations within a race that it is less helpful if not distasteful to discuss the brain in terms of race.

The mind and mindset however, are culturally and experientially dependent. Since the cultures and experiences of the various races are so demonstrably different, an argument could be made for the meaningful discussion of the Malay mind and Malay mindset, in contrast to those of the Chinese or English.

The practical reality is that whenever we discuss the Malay mind or the Malay mindset, the dialogue inevitably and quickly degenerates into the dredging up of old ugly stereotypes to “explain” our current dilemmas instead of trying to find solid empirical evidence from which to formulate useful and workable solutions. For this reason I will shy away from discussing specifically the Malay mind despite it being on the agenda and instead focus more on the overriding theme of this conference, “Longing for a Free Mind.”

Next: Part 3 of 14: The Comfort of the Coconut Shell

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #56

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Enhancing Human Capital Through Education (Cont’d)

Malaysian schools today are a far cry from their earlier days. At the recent Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMS) assessment, Malaysia stood way behind South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. But our leaders are not embarrassed by such comparisons; they keep harping on how Malaysia is the “center of educational excellence” – for the Third World. Malaysian leaders eagerly compare the nation to the likes of Zambia and Malawi so they can pat themselves heartily. When you cannot measure up, why, simply change the yardstick! Or choose a less competitive league.

Malaysia should do to its ministry of education what the Russians did to the former Soviet empire: dismantle the massive ossified structures; decentralize its immense authority; and privatize its myriad activities.

That would require a formidable change in mindset, and I do not see any movement in that direction. Nor do I expect the current personnel to even think along those lines; they seem stuck in the old mold. Education in Malaysia has less to do with educating the young but everything to do with politics and cultural symbols. The main preoccupation of the political leadership is that the ministry be under someone UMNO considers able to resist the demands of non-Malays, especially the Chinese. Thus political credentials rather than managerial smarts or academic talent become the operative criteria for appointment. The appointees in turn are aware of this and exploit the position to further their personal political goals. Anwar Ibrahim used the ministry to propel himself to be deputy prime minister, and Musa Mohammad’s predecessor, Najib Razak, is guilty of the same blind political ambition. No surprise then that Malaysian schools and colleges have deteriorated.

The deterioration is apparent on many fronts. Apart from the abysmal performance at TIMS, there are other internal indicators showing that the schools and universities are a mess. Everyday one reads in the local papers of teachers being assaulted and schools vandalized. In 2001 the examination papers of students were stolen, and then dumped at some roadside. The invigilator apparently left them in his car that was later stolen. Such lax disciplines are evident among administrators, teachers, and students. Visit any school on any day and chances are the headmaster is absent, in a meeting off campus. The teaching profession no longer attracts the best and brightest partly because the pay is embarrassingly low and teachers given no respect. A fish hawker earns more than the average teacher. Teachers lament that they cannot do much disciplining as their headmasters are constantly overruling them.

Powerful parents in turn intimidate these headmasters. No surprise then that there are hundreds of vacancies for teachers.

The dropout rates especially in the primary schools are horrifying. This is most pronounced in rural areas and among Bumiputras and the poor. In an attempt to reverse this, the government plans to make primary schooling compulsory. I would have preferred it first study the reasons for the appallingly high dropouts rate and address them. Those problems will not magically disappear by making schooling compulsory.

Education is a state monopoly in Malaysia, at least until the mid secondary level (Form V). Malaysians have no choice but to send their children to public schools. There are many private schools but Malaysians are not allowed to attend unless they get special dispensation from the minister. Wealth alone will not get you one otherwise there would be a flood of young Malaysians at these excellent schools.

Malaysians in Johore have a choice, and many are expressing their lack of confidence in local schools by sending their children to the much superior schools in Singapore. Observe on any given school morning, droves of buses and cars full of school children heading south.

Beyond Form V the government no longer exercises controls. Once freed from the strictures of the ministry, parents desert the system en mass as seen by the figures of students sitting for public examinations. In 2001 over 320,000 students sat for the Form V examination (SPM), but only about 40,000 sat for the Form VI (given after two years of additional schooling). Either the students drop out after Form V, or more than likely they opt for private colleges rather than continuing with the government’s Form VI. Not surprisingly, private institutions are booming in Malaysia to meet this new need.

The universities are no better, although quantitatively Malaysia has done well. While there were no universities in1957, today there are over a dozen. Newspapers carry almost daily headlines about new universities being set up or planned. To some this represents progress, until one actually visits one of these new establishments. They are nothing more than glorified community colleges. Or in the words of former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, “kampong campuses!” The country is not so much as providing quality education for its young as expanding the job market for administrators and professors.

Malaysia keeps setting up universities as if that is an easy endeavor, and the results show. This does not stop the authorities from constantly bragging about their experience building new universities. It reminds me of the wise observation of Dr. Willy Mayo (of Mayo Clinic fame) who said to the effect that some surgeons keep repeating the same mistakes a hundred times, and call that experience!

The quality of the faculty and students too are wanting, indicating that it is a failure of the system. Choose any criterion, and the woeful inadequacy of the academic staff is apparent; from the percentage having terminal qualifications to their productivity as measured by published works. The only way for academics to have pay raises or be promoted is to accept administrative positions. These are usually given not to promising scholars or researchers but those politically connected.

Malaysian academics are not given the necessary support either in clerical staff or research funding. Many professors do not have personal computers or ready Internet access. Few are given the opportunities for sabbatical leave when they could recharge their intellectual juices. Promotions are still largely determined by factors other than academic excellence. Peruse the resume of deans and vice-chancellors. With very few exceptions they are individuals singularly lacking in scholarly achievements.

The quickest way to oblivion for academics in Malaysia is for them to publish papers or essays even mildly critical of the government. Academics have been fired for being too independent; a few incarcerated, courtesy of the ISA, for commenting on “subversive” topics. The reverse is also true. The quickest path to the top is to write toadying articles praising the system or better still, individual political leaders. Thus the specter of one local economist of no particular renown or achievement urging universities to teach “Mahathirism.” His views, not surprisingly, received widespread laudatory coverage in the local media.

The system is aggravated because the minister makes all senior academic appointments. And if he does not value scholarly excellence, chances are his appointees too would also share that view. Which is why the leadership of Malaysian universities is in the hands of the less-than-intellectually talented. There are many brilliant young Malaysian scientists and scholars, but they are stuck in some remote corner of academia and ignored.

Local undergraduates are not much better. There is the matter of selection as the brighter ones and those who can afford it chose private colleges or have gone abroad. But still there are many brilliant students who end up at local public institutions. Here the universities have failed them. Because local courses are taught only in Malay, the intellectual universe of the students is very confined. Reading materials and references in Malay are limited. Local graduates also suffer in other ways for their lack of English proficiency. Few end up at leading graduate schools, and private employers shun them. Locally minted PhDs rarely secure post-doctoral appointments at leading centers abroad.

In early 2002 Malaysian newspapers highlighted the plight of nearly 25,000 graduates who could not find jobs. Nearly all of them were Bumiputras and graduates of local universities. This raises the fundamental issue: Are they unemployed or simply unemployable? With the former, the answer would rest with the greater economy; with the latter it would be with the educational system. It is hard to imagine with the nation enjoying near full employment and having to import hundreds of thousands of foreign workers that these graduates would have difficulty finding jobs. It is my contention that the educational system has done a poor job of making its products employable. These graduates are simply unemployable. Had they had been given a broad-based education and been fluent in English, mathematically competent, and familiar with IT, employers would grab them. Malaysian universities must bear the heavy blame for this problem. At present the only avenue of employment for liberal arts graduates of local universities is with the government. They have absolutely no skills that would be useful or needed in the private sector.

Had Malaysian universities follow America’s lead and made their curriculum more broad and liberal, then local graduates would have greater transferability of skills and thus flexibility in the marketplace. Leading American universities for example, mandate a year of English, laboratory science, and mathematics for all their students. Malaysia still has the British hangover of too early and too narrow a specialization both at high school and university.

For the past few years the regional publication (now defunct) Asiaweek carried an annual survey of Asian universities. Already in that short space of time we see a steady decline in the ranking of local institutions. In the first survey in 1997, Malaysia’s leading and oldest university, the University of Malaya (UM) was ranked 11th; two years later it dropped to 27th; and in the last survey (2000) it felled to 47th. Meanwhile Universiti Kebangsa’an (National University) made the list once at the very beginning, and then dropped out of sight. Only Universiti Putra Malaysia improved its standing – from 69th in 1999 to 52nd in 2000. One can argue with the criteria used by Asiaweek, but there is no mistaking the trend. Of course the typical Malaysian response is, well, we are still ahead of Papua New Guinea!

To its credit the government, despite vocal opposition from UMNO, recently permitted the setting up of private universities and colleges. Most of these institutions are nothing more than puffed up tutoring centers. Not even in the most stretched meaning of the word could they be called colleges. Still there are a few outstanding ones like Sumway, Inti, and Taylor, together with local branches of some foreign universities that are attracting top students and providing real alternatives. To date these institutions are the exceptions. The ministry still monitors private institutions closely; their permit is conditional upon their satisfying the ministry. Because of this leash, Malaysia fails to attract quality foreign universities from setting up satellite campuses locally. Unlike Singapore that has the likes of Johns Hopkins, Malaysia attracts only the East Anglia and Ulu Australia universities.

Malaysia justifies its tight control on local schools and colleges on the grounds that they serve as more than just educational institutions. They have important social roles in integrating students to enhance national unity. But that goal can be achieved without tightly controlling and thus stifling the institutions. The present system, despite its stated noble intentions, fails to produce much-needed social integration of students. Non-Malays choose to attend national-type (vernacular) rather than national (Malay) schools. Private colleges cater primarily to non-Malays. Unchecked these unhealthy trends would undermine national unity. Malaysia should insist that all its institutions, private and public, have a student body reflective of the general society. The government can help achieve this by giving scholarships to Bumiputras to attend private institutions and by giving grants to those colleges who subscribe to this common objective. American universities that receive federal funding have student bodies that are reflective of the larger society. They are finding that diversity has an added educational bonus – students are exposed to different cultures and viewpoints. In this globalized age, this could only be an advantage.

The present system must be improved. This is best achieved by first doing away with the present mindset of total control and the attendant burdensome centralization. Further, there must be a greater role for the private sector in education at all levels.

Next: Revamping Schools and Universities

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 1 of 14)

Longing for A Free Mind (Part 1 of 14)

M. Bakri Musa

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[A nation aspiring for greatness needs leaders with free minds; only they are capable of carving new paths. The Pak Turut (me too) leaders we have today, content merely to regurgitate what had been programmed in them, will at best only maintain the status quo. To elect leaders with free minds, citizens too must be free-minded.]

Let me first congratulate Amer Shukri, President of UMNO Club NY-NJ, and Zaid Nabil, President of the Malaysian Students Association here at Stevens, for organizing this Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta conference. Despite changes in leadership through graduations and the like that are inherent in organizations like yours, you and your team have demonstrated admirable staying power. I applaud you, especially the hard work of the organizing committee, and thank you for inviting me again.

There are other UMNO Clubs much bigger and more established. At one time the UMNO Club of California counted its members in the hundreds, but the best that they could muster was in organizing gatherings to greet visiting UMNO dignitaries. Those were occasions less for the exchange of ideas, more for ambitious leader wannabes to ingratiate themselves to senior party members. So I congratulate you for putting together a substantive program all these years.

I also applaud you for choosing the bioscience and engineering; you could have chosen an easier path. Earlier, Dr. Waleed quoted a hadidth to the effect that someone who removes a thorn from a road is serving Allah, for that simple deed would prevent others from injuring their feet, which could lead to infection and possible amputation.

Take that hadith further. What if you were to build a road? Imagine the immense good you would do, or stated differently, how much more pleased Allah would be! A mother could now bring her sick baby to the hospital faster; that may mean saving a life. Farmers could bring their produce to market easily and thus improve their livelihoods. Then consider the remarkable improvement in our health that is so frequently attributed to the miracles of my profession. In truth it owes more to the marvels of modern civil engineering like central sewer and water treatment plants. Hence my high regards for engineers!

This year’s theme, “Longing for a Free Mind,” is particularly apt. I am assuming that you are not here referring to the free mind mapping software, a necessary clarification as I am speaking at a technology institute.

A nation aspiring for greatness needs leaders with free minds. We can do without the Pak Turuts (“Yes man”) leaders, content merely with echoing and regurgitating what had been programmed in them, encapsulated in their hallowed phrase, Saya menunggu arahan! (I await directives), or the equally servile Kami menurut perentah! (I follow orders). We cannot aspire to Vision 2020, much less greatness, with such leadership. What we need instead are leaders willing and capable of paving new paths. To elect such leaders we need citizens with free minds.

A free mind can best be illustrated by this story of Mullah Nasaruddin, famed for his effective use of ordinary and often personal examples as teaching materials.

He was cursed with having a neighbor who was fond of borrowing items from him and then conveniently forgetting to return them. One day this neighbor came to the Mullah to borrow his donkey. The Mullah, anticipating the request, had earlier locked the animal away in the barn and out of sight. Upon hearing the request, the Mullah confidently replied that his donkey had been taken earlier by his brother. As the disappointed neighbor turned away, he heard the braying of the donkey. Whereupon he turned around and remarked, “I thought you said your donkey was gone!”

To which the Mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey over the words of a Mullah?”

If you can accept that at times a donkey can be the bearer of the truth, and a mullah the purveyor of untruth, then you have a free mind. There are many reasons why we continue believing the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face, and we will explore some of those.

This conference will address “The Malay Mind,” “The Mind of a Muslim,” “Minda Mahasiswa” (The Mind of an Undergraduate), and “The Mind of a Future Leader.” I could add the legal mind and the mind of an economist, for example. To me, regardless what minds we are dealing with, it is far more important that they be free.

This conference’s theme could as well be, “Molding A Merdeka Mind.” It sounds even more stirring in our national language, Mengasoh Minda Merdeka! It is certainly more evocative than Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony), or even Agama, Bangsa, Negara! (Faith, Race, Country!). More importantly, it is also more constructive. We have been politically free since 1957, but our minds are still not free; we remain entrapped in our old ways. It is time we liberate our minds, granting them their own merdeka (freedom).

Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as HAMKA, described best what a free mind is with his poem, Nikmat Hidup (Life’s Bounty):

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin
Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa.
Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa
Berani menyebut yang aku yakin.

My translation:

Censoring ideas is not my deal
Nor putting to rest my writing quill.
Fearless are those who dare to think
And put to words their inner being.

I challenge you to pick among our leaders today those who are Merdeka berfikir (free thinking) gagah perkasa (fearless core).

Merdeka berfikir alone, courageous and laudatory as that may be, is not sufficient. You have to articulate and share your thoughts. It is like a tree falling in the forest; with no one to hear it, will there be any sound? More importantly, will anyone know? Thus you must also have the courage to voice your thoughts – berani menyebut. Today, I am sharing mine with you, at least those present here. By writing I will extend my reach, “one person speaking to many,” in the words of Prameodya Ananta Toer, now and forever. Hamka is long gone but his wisdom lives on through his words.

Writing also imposes a certain discipline. You have to gather, organize and then present your thought in a logical and attractive fashion so as to interest your readers. No such restraints exist with talking. Undisciplined, it can readily degenerate into nonproductive “coffee shop talk.” I hope to avoid that today.

My presentation explores the meaning of a free mind and the associated liberating of entrapped ones. As a physician I am used to viewing problems from the perspective of prevention. Thus I will also discuss the dynamics of the entrapped mind so that we would never find ourselves in that state again. I will review some fascinating studies in neuroscience, and the insights gleaned, in so far as they relate to our understanding of the free mind.

I will conclude by citing examples from our legends and history of individuals with free minds and the remarkable impact they have had on our society. In the remote possibility that you may not readily identify with them, I will share examples of fellow students like you who dared to have free minds and carve their own paths, and contrast them to their contemporaries who were only too willing to menurut perentah. I hope you can draw some useful lessons.

I will end with a “Question and Answer” session.

Next: The Meaning of a Free Mind

Monday, March 07, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #55

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Enhancing Human Capital Through Education

Globalization is driven essentially by knowledge; the new economy is appropriately called the K(for knowledge)-economy. Knowledge is the important ingredient of the new economy, and also its measure. Knowledge has replaced the economists’ “factors of production” – land, labor, and capital – as the chief economic resource.

The philosopher Saidina Ali perceptively observed that knowledge, unlike wealth, protects us under all circumstances, but we have to protect our wealth constantly against theft and inflation. The world around may crumble but with my knowledge and skills as a surgeon, I can still contribute and be productive. Further, wealth is diluted when shared; knowledge on the other hand, increases and gets enhanced when shared. A discovery in one field often stimulates innovations in another, thereby increasing our overall knowledge. Knowledge is also amplified through such exchanges. The nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) that was used initially in basic research to identify chemical molecules is now used routinely in clinical medicine. Indeed the market for this is worth considerably more. Wealth if kept secret may retain its value, but knowledge kept secret will quickly become obsolete and worthless.

Globalization greatly enhances the diffusion and amplification of knowledge and ideas.

The remarkable aspect of investing in education and knowledge is that the returns are both cumulative and synergistic. The more we invest, the greater the returns. One set of knowledge enhances the effect on another. As observed by the economist William Esterly, “Investment in knowledge leaks from one person to another and realizes its full potential when high-skilled individuals match with each other. The more existing knowledge there is, the higher is the returns to each new bit of knowledge.”

I will illustrate this with a real life example.

About ten years ago a Malaysian patented a unique engineering device. This grew out of his doctoral studies. He wanted to stay in America for a while to develop his invention, but being a government-sponsored student, he was forced to return. He approached his departmental head at a Malaysian university for some protected time to work on his new gadget but was of course denied. Instead he was forced to teach an introductory calculus class. He appealed to his vice chancellor, but the latter was not interested in the travails of a junior instructor. Besides, Malaysian universities are more teaching factories rather than research centers. The vice chancellor, having no original invention of his own, did not appreciate the young lecturer’s dilemma. In the end, as is so typical of the fate of many talented Malaysians, the engineer left the country.

In America he was able to find an independent laboratory to perfect his invention, and with the help of a venture capital firm and a patent attorney, he was able to successfully market his product and establish his own company. He was greatly aided by the presence of all the supporting infrastructures.

The remarkable success of Silicon Valley, California, is due to this synergy of the various elements, “clusters” to use Michael Porter’s phrase. Each segment brings its own skills and knowledge, thus amplifying each other. A patent attorney would be useless without inventors; likewise, a venture capitalist would not survive unless there are entrepreneurs. All these elements complement and reinforce each other, hence the synergism.

Back to the Malaysian inventor, even if his university had been supportive he would still have difficulty bringing his invention to market because of the lack of supporting infrastructures.

Malaysia was fortunate that right from the very beginning its leaders were fully conscious of the need to develop the citizens. Its leaders wisely chose to build schools rather than barracks, and train teachers instead of soldiers. Significantly, the nation’s first minister of education was no less than the able Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Razak. He purposely took on that portfolio to demonstrate the government’s commitment to education. Ever since then that portfolio has been widely regarded as the most important and prestigious. All the country’s prime ministers (except the first of course) had once held that position.

When Tun Razak was Minister of Education, his budget was the largest, reflecting the importance placed on education. Unfortunately his stream of successors as Education Minister had all been singularly unimpressive, except possibly for Dr. Mahathir in the 1970s. Following Mahathir that ministry again reverted to form, with its mediocre string of ministers. Razak and Mahathir recognized the importance of their assignments; they enhanced the reputation of the ministry. In contrast, their successors used the prestige of the ministry to further their own selfish political ambitions. They merely coasted along or worse, pandered to the political whims of the day. They let the schools and universities to deteriorate.

In an attempt to reverse the decline and in a marked departure from tradition, Prime Minister Mahathir chose the current minister, Musa Mohamad, the first non-politician appointed to the post. Sadly, thus far he has simply carried on this mediocre tradition, fumbling from one crisis to another.

Education remains the biggest item of expenditure in Malaysia. Both in absolute amount as well as relative to the budget, GDP, and population, Malaysia spends more on education than Taiwan or South Korea but has precious little to show for it. The Malaysian Ministry of Education is extremely inefficient; its mission cluttered. First is the poor leadership. Second, it has too many items of its agenda beyond education – politics, social engineering, and public works. And third, it is too much like the defunct Soviet system.

I will cite one glaring stupidity of the ministry. Up until the economic crash of 1997, Malaysia sent thousands of young Malays abroad simply to complete their matriculation, essentially Sixth Form classes. There were scandals where students were sent to fly-by-night “educational” outfits that existed only on paper, and of students being stranded abroad because the “colleges” they had been enrolled had not even been built!

For the cost of sending two students abroad, Malaysia could have easily employed a professor from Berkeley to come to Malaysia, thus benefiting many more students. I can see the rationale for sending them to top universities or for pursuing courses of study not available in Malaysia. But these students were taking run-of-the-mill undergraduate courses at third-rate institutions. While they were expending billions on these students, local universities were starved for funds to expand their libraries and laboratories.

Additionally, the government also runs a system of expensive residential schools where students get free tuition plus room and board. Even children of millionaires and ministers do not have to pay a dime for their children to attend these expensive schools. The ministry is also responsible for distributing millions worth of contracts for construction, equipment, and textbooks. But instead of getting the best value for its money, such contracts are given instead only to Bumiputras, especially those with high political connections. Consequently because of the limited competition and lack of transparency, these contracts incur significant costs overruns and are often delayed or never completed.

A recent example was the contract for supplying computers to schools. At the end less than 10 percent of the projects were completed. Instead of punishing and blacklisting those recalcitrant contractors, the ministry merely extended their deadlines. This of course would be repeated many times. In the end it is the students who suffer.

To put matters in perspective, private colleges in Malaysia are being built and run at a fraction of the cost of running similar government institutions. And their graduates are more employable than products of public institutions.

The ministry is a replica of the defunct Soviet system: highly centralized, strict top-down command, and rigid controls at all levels. The minister even appoints universities’ departmental heads! When led by efficient and imaginative ministers like Razak and Mahathir, such a structure produced admirable results. Left in incompetent hands, and you have a disaster that is the present system.

The present centralized system is clearly inadequate. American universities are widely regarded as the best precisely because there is no central authority; there is no ministry of higher education. Each institution is free to chart its own course. Consequently, the crowd at Harvard is very different from those at Creekville State University; nonetheless graduates from both places are needed. In contrast, American public schools, highly controlled and regulated, lag behind those of many other countries.

Next: Enhancing Human Capital Through Education