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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, 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


Anonymous dunce said...

Just look at what Biro Tata Negara is doing. That is the true goal of Malaysia's education system.

3:47 PM  

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