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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 29, 2012

Reforming Education: Futility of the Exercise

Reforming Education: Futility of the Exercise
M. Bakri Musa

Last of Six Parts

Earlier I reviewed the challenges faced by three groups of students who happen to be mostly if not exclusively Malays: kampong students, those in residential schools, and those in academic limbo following their Form Five.

There is another group, this time also exclusively Malays, being poorly served by our system of education: students in Islamic schools. These schools see their mission as primarily producing ulamas and religious functionaries; they are more seminaries, with indoctrination masquerading as education. They are more like Pakistan’s madrasahs and Indonesia’s pesantrens.

I would prefer that they be more like America’s faith-based schools which regularly outperform public ones. They are also cheaper and produce their share of America’s future scientists, engineers and executives. Religion is only one subject in these schools, not the all-consuming curriculum. Thus they attract many non-Christians. Contrast that to Islamic schools in Malaysia.

If Malaysia were to serve the aforementioned four groups of students well, that would go a long way in ameliorating the “Malay problem.” It would certainly be much more effective than squandering billions on GLCs, greedily hogging our constitutionally-guaranteed special privileges, or incessantly spouting Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony). The converse is even truer. If we ignore these students, then it would not matter how much resources we devote to GLCs, how jealously we guard our quotas of public goodies, or how loudly we proclaim our superiority, those would all be for naught. Worse, if we do not serve these students well, that would be bad not only for them but also for Malays and Malaysia. What is also self evident is that we do not need yet another commission or a blue ribbon committee to start immediately addressing the pressing problems.

It is a uniquely Malaysian obsession to reform our education policies with every political season. Every new Minister of Education feels compelled to do it, perhaps to show off his political manhood or display his take-charge talent.

I wish the old wisdom – the more things change the more they remain the same – were true. At least then we could be comforted that the system would maintain its old quality and standards. Instead, each reform brings with it a new low. For Malaysian education, the more things change, the more they change … for the worse!

We need a stable predictable education policy. Changes brought on today would not begin to produce their results until decades or even generations later. We are only now bearing the follies of the “reforms” instituted in the 1970s. Predictability and stability of policies would encourage investments in the system. Textbook writers and publishers for example, are more likely to invest their intellectual and financial resources if they are assured that the medium of instruction of our schools would not be changed on a whim. Likewise, investors would be encouraged to set up private schools and colleges if they were assured that the government would not change polices regarding enrollment, curriculum, or language of instruction with every election season.

We have far too many of these reforms, reviews, blueprints, White Papers, and royal commissions. Yet now in our 65th year of merdeka, only Education Minister Muhyyiddin is smugly satisfied with the results, declaring at the recent National Higher Education Carnival that our young are receiving better education than those in America, Britain and Germany. Wow!

There was not even a hint of embarrassment on his part when he asserted that. Then with unconcealed smugness he added, “For those who have come to me complaining about our education system, it seems the [World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness] Report contradicts their claims.”

“Carnival” accurately describes the event where he spoke, for that is exactly what Malaysian education is, with Muhyyiddin the carnival barker. He obviously missed the part of the Report that read, “… Malaysia will need to improve its performance in … higher education and training (38th), improving access … in light of low enrollment rates of 69 percent (101st) and 36 percent (66th) for secondary and tertiary education, respectively.” Those figures are national averages. If you were to dissect further, specifically with respect to Malay vis a vis non-Malay performance, the statistics would be even uglier.

Muhyyiddin is beginning to believe his own propaganda. However, who or what he believes is not my concern except that our young (especially Malays) are bearing the heavy burden of his folly. He promised, or more accurately threatened, Malaysians with yet another “comprehensive” reform aimed at “transforming” our schools. Do not expect much; after all we are already the best. Such hubris!

This “comprehensive” review will once again consume the attention of the minister and his officers, distracting them from their day-to-day responsibilities. Resources will again be diverted to the hiring of expensive foreign consultants. Routine matters will now be ignored and pressing problems deferred until the “comprehensive” review. Meaning, they will once again be left to fester.

I do not expect much with this planned review for another reason. The education establishment, like the civil service generally, is highly insular and in-bred. There is little, in fact no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels, apart from recycled ones from quasi private and other governmental entities. Those currently at the top, having been brought up under the present system, would find it difficult to fault it. That would be tantamount to criticizing themselves. I do not expect them to raise fundamental questions or challenge basic assumptions; they are more prone to “group think.”

I wish there would be a moratorium on these highly distracting and resource-exhausting reviews. There are already stacks of reports gathering dust in the ministry’s archives. Their authors are merely recipe writers; they consider their job done with the writing. They are not interested in finding out the fate of their recommendations or whether those ministry officials have even read them!

A vast universe separates a fancy recipe from a delicious morsel. Whether our students remain starved, flabby, or well nourished depends less on the glossy pages of the recipe book, more on the ingenuity and skills of the chefs. They will determine if or when our students get fed, and whether with junk food or nutritious meals.

I would prefer that our educational chefs – the minister, his officers and policymakers – focus on a few recipes at a time instead of trying to remodel the entire kitchen. Study the issues thoroughly, learn from the experience of others, and then try them on small portions. Monitor the details of the ingredients and the cooking, carefully sample the results, and then once successful with the kinks straightened out, adopt the recipe for national use.

A good recipe begins with fresh crisp ingredients; thus I would begin with getting solid reliable data. I have difficulty getting such simple statistics as how many students at MCKK could bear the costs, how many would be the first to enter university, or how many come from families where no one could speak English. Those are important details if we are contemplating the changes I am recommending here. Similarly, there is no solid data on what Malay students do in the six-month hiatus following their Form Five. That problem cries for attention.

Consider the abysmal level of English among Malay students. I have yet to come across a study on the challenges and obstacles they face in learning the language. There is no survey for example, assessing the English fluency of their teachers. If you do not know the problem, you are not likely to solve it. Worse, you would then think that you have already solved your problem, tempting you to brag and thus bring embarrassment to yourself.

With Malaysia in desperate need of English teachers, there is not a single all-English teachers’ college, and few of our universities have dedicated Departments of English. The government for its part awards far too few scholarships to pursue a degree in English. That is our “diligence” in “solving” the problem of English fluency among our students. Again, our policymakers do not see any problem there!

It is precisely this paucity of good data, rigorous analyses and plain rational thinking that prompts our officials to make ad hoc decisions and carry out their usual seat-of-the-pants solutions. It is also this mindset that leads our minister to make such outrageous claims as our schools being the best. The worse part is that they believe it!

Even if that minister’s preposterous claim were true, there would be very little pride if our students in the kampongs, residential as well as religious schools, and those left in limbo after their Form Five – all essentially Malays – were to remain trapped as they are now.

The purpose of my exercise is not to pontificate on the issues or belittle those charged with solving them. It is also not my intention to imperiously diagnose the malady and then dogmatically impose my prescription. My intent is to ignite a much-needed debate. Only then could we appreciate the issues in all their varying facets and full complexities. That is the only basis upon which to craft a sensible and workable solution.

To that extent I am appreciative of those who have engaged me. They have highlighted facets that I am not fully aware of and brought forth aspects that I have not considered. For example, an American scholar suggests that I am underestimating the fear of Malay language nationalists (and Malays generally) to any prominence given to English. That the fear is irrational makes it all the more real and formidable.

To a suggestion in my earlier book that Chinese schools should be identified less with race and more with its medium of instruction, meaning, a school using Mandarin instead of one appealing to a particular race, an activist with the Chinese school movement responded that it would be too much of an emotional burden, bordering on being irrational, for them to do that.

Significantly, there is one group that surprised me for its lack of engagement, those in the public sector of education. I do get the occasional response, invariably from those who have retired! Recently someone very important in the government kindly forwarded my essays to senior officials in the Ministry of Education. They responded by duly thanking me for my “interesting” ideas. Nothing beyond!

In the 1980s the Ministry of Education sent many of its senior officers on a culup (quickie) summer management course at Stanford. I managed to interest a few of them to visit the area’s best private and public schools. A few hours before the appointed time however, they called to cancel as they were going shopping instead! Then apparently mistaking my reason for the meeting, one of them assured me should I have a nephew or niece applying for a residential school back home, to let him know as he could “facilitate” it!

Trying to engage our public officials is like dropping smooth pebbles into a lake; there is hardly any ripple.

Today with the digital revolution, Malaysians are better informed; hence the derision that greeted the minister’ pronouncement on the supposed superiority of our schools. Malaysia has a long way to go, Muhyyiddin! In trying to delude us, you succeed only in deluding yourself.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reforming Education: Part 5 of 6: Post-Form Five Options

Reforming Education: Post-Form Five Options
M. Bakri Musa

Fifth of Six Parts

In the previous four essays I reviewed the particular challenges facing students in rural and residential schools. This essay delves into the six-month period in which our university-bound and other students find themselves in academic limbo following their Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM) examination.

In reviewing the recent SPM results, Education Minister Muhyiddin did not once pause to ponder what those nearly half a million 17-year-old Malaysians were doing since they sat for their test last November. These are the youngsters infesting our shopping malls, roaring around on their motorcycles, or otherwise getting into mischief. For over six months they are unable to plan for their future. They cannot even enjoy their break as their future is uncertain. The government’s myriad post-SPM programs like Sixth Form, matrikulasi, polytechnic institutes, and teachers’ colleges depend on the SPM scores, and therefore do not begin until the middle of the year.

This long period of uncertainty and inactivity during a critical period in a teenager’s development is unhealthy. The expression “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop” is never more true than for teenagers. Even if they could ward off the devil’s machination, with the long hiatus would come considerable attrition of knowledge and good study habits. This is particularly critical for those aspiring to go to good universities.

Those parents who can afford it, had planned for it, or who are not in the habit of depending on the government, enroll their children in the many excellent private programs immediately in January following the SPM examination. Then when the results come out, they would apply to the various government programs. If they are accepted then they would be relieved of a great financial burden. If they are not, they would continue with their private program.

The monetary saving, even though considerable, is but a minor advantage. The greatest benefit is that should they be accepted into Sixth Form, matrikulasi, or any other public post-SPM program, they would be at least six months ahead of their classmates who had been idle. This academic advantage is even greater when you factor in the attrition of knowledge and good study habits of those who had been idle. This six-month advantage is almost insurmountable in a 12- or 18-month program (as with Sixth Form or matrikulasi), and would remain when these students go on to university.

Most Malay families cannot afford private programs, have not planned for the six-month hiatus, or have long been dependent on the government. Thus their children are typically idle after their SPM as there is no government program that starts in January. For those who excel in their SPM and then are accepted in the government’s many university “prep” programs, they wonder why they cannot keep up with their non-Malay classmates who had been diligently studying in private programs for the past six months. Unaware of their already significant academic disadvantage from their being idle, these Malay students would then readily succumb to ugly racial stereotyping of the “dumb Malay.” I meet many of these students here in America and feel sorry for the terrible burden that they have to bear.

Their burden is no less heavy should they enroll in local public universities. Then their Malay Vice-Chancellors and Deans would berate and chastise them for not “measuring up” with non-Malays, thus essentially aggravating and confirming the ugly racial stigma. If only those officials had diligently studied the problem and listened to those students, they (officials) would not be so quick to resort to racial stereotyping.

As with the problems of our kampong and residential schools, the solutions here are as simple as they are obvious. Again here, as the burden falls primarily on Malays, it is critical that we resolve it.

One solution would be to begin the various post-SPM programs like Sixth Form in January, as in the old days. Have a special entrance examination in September, in time for the results to be ready by early December. There will be another intake in late March or early April for those who were unsuccessful at the earlier entrance examination but had excelled at their SPM. This would be a separate class, with abbreviated holidays to make up for lost time.

For those who enter in January, there would be a first term examination in early March. If they pass that, then no matter how poorly they performed in their previous SPM, they would remain in class and not be expelled, as was the practice in the 1960s. That would motivate them to pay attention to their first term test!

We should have the original full 24-month pre-university program instead of the present highly truncated one. The objective is to not only prepare our students well for university but also to cover much of the first year’s work. Only then could we justify a three-year baccalaureate program. The added costs for starting Sixth Form in January would be minimal. After all, the teachers are already being paid. Indeed, a good question to ask would be what are those teachers doing from January to June?

Fully resurrecting Sixth Form in its original form without addressing its many shortcomings would be no advance. The old Sixth Form was too selective; fewer than 10 percent of my classmates made the cut. Related to this was the second problem; the not unexpected overrepresentation from the better-equipped urban schools. As the urban/rural divide then also paralleled the racial one, it did not take long for the issue to be exploited by chauvinistic politicians. The third issue was that the old (and also the present) Sixth Form was its narrow and rigid curriculum.

The first problem is readily solvable by simply expanding Sixth Form. That would also be cheaper than expanding matrikulasi or the various universities’ “foundation studies” programs. That in turn is of several orders in magnitude cheaper than the current idiotic practice of sending students abroad after their SPM to pursue essentially Sixth Form work.

If we were to continue with matrikulasi I would restrict the intake to students from kampong and other schools too small to have their own Sixth Form. Matrikulasi should supplement not replace Sixth Form, as was the original intent. I would have the universities run matrikulasi or have it subsumed under their Foundation Studies program. Each university would then have the opportunity to design its own curriculum and introduce innovations and other unique elements with the idea of the government adopting some of the more successful ones nationally into its Sixth Form. Such a program would also be a resource to the universities’ education faculty and teacher-training program.

I would broaden the Sixth Form curriculum from the current five subjects to seven, and eliminate General Studies. All students would have to take Malay and English (not Malay or English literature, as those would be separate subjects). Arts and Islamic stream students would take as electives a laboratory science and mathematics, together with their three Arts or Islamic Studies core subjects. Science students would take an Arts elective, mathematics (preferably calculus or statistics), and their three science subjects. I would teach science and mathematics in English, and abolish the current Islamic stream’s Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM). Its curriculum is even narrower and more rigid; it does not serve our students well.

I would introduce a new elective for arts and science students, Islamic Studies. It would be an academic not religious subject, and cover Islamic thoughts, philosophy, arts and culture but minus the religious rituals and Koranic recitations. The course would treat Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, as a great historical figure. This would attract those non-Muslims with the intellectual curiosity to study Islam without fear of being treated as potential converts.

Instead of tinkering with the current Sixth Form examination, as with making the term examinations count towards the final as per the current proposal, I would retain its present form as a comprehensive terminal examination. Instead I would give equal weight to the term examinations (the Grade Point Average) for university admissions and other academic purposes.

We currently pay too much attention to SPM. It is after all essentially a middle school examination. When the results are released for example, there will inevitably be a national outcry over alleged unfairness in the awards of scholarships. Those SPM students awarded the scholarships could not enroll directly to university or even a community college; they would have to undergo the equivalent of matriculation or Sixth Form first. So why not wait until these students are actually accepted to top universities before awarding them their scholarships? Besides, at this stage in our national development, we should be focusing on graduate, not undergraduate and certainly not scholarships for matriculation.

If we do award undergraduate scholarships, they should be tenable only at the top universities. In America there would be fewer than 50 such institutions, with about half a dozen each in Australia, Britain and Canada. I certainly would not award scholarships for studies in India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Our university-bound students must have solid 13 years of rigorous schooling. Do away with the present six months of idleness following SPM. Expand and diversify the paths towards university post-SPM, as with accepting IB, GCE A level, and other foreign matriculation examinations.

Lastly, an important point worth repeating as it is in keeping with the theme of my earlier essays. Those students who are in limbo for six months following their SPM examination, as well as those in kampong, residential and religious schools are overwhelmingly if not exclusively Malays. Solve their problems, which are independent of race, and we would go a long way towards ameliorating the so-called “Malay problem” of lagging educational achievement. That alone should excite those in Perkasa, UMNO, and other vociferous champions of Ketuanan Melayu.

Next: Last of Six Parts: Futility of Reform

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reforming Education: Part 4 of 6: Enhancing Residential Schools

Reforming Education: Enhancing Residential Schools
M. Bakri Musa

Fourth of Six Parts

My first three essays dealt with the challenges facing kampong schools and how we could leverage technology to alleviate those problems. I discussed enhancing the educational opportunities through improving the schools, recruiting superior teachers, and enriching the curriculum. Failure to do so would doom these unfortunate students to perpetual mediocrity and poverty, with dire consequences for them as well as the rest of Malaysia. This essay explores ways of maximizing the potential of residential schools. Again here as with kampong schools, we are dealing primarily with Malay students.

Our residential schools get the top students, have the best teachers, and consume more than their fair share of resources. Yet their aggregate performance has been underwhelming. When I visit top American campuses, the Malaysians I meet there are from other than our supposedly elite residential schools. That is the most telling indicator.

Malaysia’s oldest residential school, Malay College Kuala Kangsar, only recently (June 2011) started a matriculation program, the International Baccalaureate. Despite the luminaries on its board and the institution’s special status, it took a full decade to implement the program. Imagine the glacial pace at lesser institutions!

Prior to the IB, MCKK students had to go elsewhere for their matriculation, reducing the school (and others like it) to nothing more than a glorified middle school, and a very expensive one at that. This has not always been the case. Up till the late 1960s, MCKK still had its Sixth Form. For over the past 40 years – two generations – the institution has been emasculated academically; the same with Tunku Kurshiah College and other residential schools. What a colossal lost opportunity for Malays, one that cannot be readily quantified. My surprise is that Malay leaders, especially the Perkasa types, are totally oblivious of this loss.

The issues with residential schools are principally with reducing their cost and enhancing the output.

Reducing Costs

The comparable cost for private schools in Malaysia ranges from about RM25-45K annually for tuition, plus another RM15-20K for full boarding per student. The facilities (academic and non-academic) at MCKK and other government residential schools are nowhere comparable to such private ones like Tuanku Jaafar College, so I would put a lower figure, conservatively at RM40K per student. That is still at least 8-10 times more expensive than the regular government day school.

The government bears the entire cost regardless of the families’ economic status. Thus one quick way to reduce cost would simply have parents bear the costs based on a sliding scale, depending on income and assets. Beyond a certain level they would have to pay the full cost; below that, nothing, the students effectively on full scholarship. With the extra revenue the schools could enhance their curriculum and facilities.

The immediate impact would be to discourage well-to-do Malays from enrolling their children at these schools, preferring the much superior private ones instead. That would effectively free up more slots for children of the poor.

Another way of reducing costs would be to make these schools only partially residential, restricting hostel facilities only to those from out of town. Another would be to limit the intake of students from within the state or adjacent ones, thus reducing transportation costs, although that is only a minor component.

With the increasing urbanization of Malays I would build these schools in the cities to cater to poor urban families. Then with most of the students coming from nearby areas, this would obviate the need for full hostel facilities.

Increasing and Enhancing The Output

As our residential schools get the best students, we must ensure that the output of these schools must be superior both in quantity as well as quality. At a minimum all their students must qualify for university; anything less would be a failure both for the students as well as the institution. It would also be a loss for Malays.

Again, because they get our best, these schools must be challenged and compared with the best in the region, and not to SMK Ulu Kelantan. If today we were to compare MCKK to Kolej Tuanku Jaafar or KYUEM, the results would be embarrassing.

By far the most effective way of reducing cost and at the same time increase the output would be to eliminate the lower forms. Focus only on the last four years, meaning, take in students only after Form Three. Resources and facilities currently devoted to the lower forms could now be diverted to the all-important upper forms.

MCKK takes in over 100 pupils at Form One, but five years later fewer than 50 would be in its IB program. I would rather get rid of Forms One to Three and double up on the IB class. That would boost both the quality as well as quantity of the output.

Another way of increasing the quality would be for these schools to offer specialized programs. Some schools could for example, emphasize the sciences, others foreign languages, performing arts, or sports. Or these schools could admit only boys (as with MCKK) or girls (TKC). The government recently started one specifically for the children of FELDA settlers. There could be one catering only to children of Orang Asli, or those who would be the first in their family to enter college.

I would also have the headmastership of these schools be a terminal appointment. Let it be the job he or she will retire in (contingent upon performance of course). That would be the incentive for the individual to strive for a significant legacy. During the tenure, superior performance would be recognized by increasing the pay, and not, as is the current practice, by being promoted and transferred out.

It is a crying shame that Malay College had nearly twice as many headmasters during the past 47 years when locals took over than in its first 60. One local headmaster stayed barely a few months, just enough time to put an entry on his resume, before being promoted to be a functionary at the ministry. Then we wonder why MCKK has slid so far behind.

Other schools in Malaysia trumpet their students who are being accepted to top universities, but MCKK and other residential schools are still obsessed with and fixated over their students’ SPM scores, with their graduation exercises (“Speech Day”) attended by sultans and ministers. That, more than anything else, reveals the standards as well as aspirations of these students, their teachers, and our society.

The government is building many more residential schools. However each new one merely replicates and is being run like existing ones. There is little innovation in curriculum, management or philosophy. Consequently the same mistakes get repeated, and they call that experience!

Next: Fifth of Six Parts: Post-Form Five Options

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Reforming Education: Part Three. Fixing Kampong Schools

Reforming Education: Fixing Kampong Schools
M. Bakri Musa

Third of Six Parts: Extending the School Day and Year

In the first essay I suggested enhancing the English fluency of kampong students through increasing the number of hours devoted to the subject and the number of subjects taught in that language, introducing English immersion classes, and even bringing back the colonial-era English schools. The second essay dealt with recruiting teachers, as with those retired ones trained under the old all-English system, native English-speaking spouses of Malaysians and expatriates, and recruiting from abroad. This essay focuses on kampong schools.

Finland demonstrates the crucial importance of having professional, well-trained teachers. That is only one part of the solution. Provide these teachers with superior school facilities, as those Finns are doing, and only then can we expect miracles from our students. Today we provide kampong pupils with neither, and we expect miracles from them. When they do not deliver, as you would expect, they would be blamed and left to shoulder the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture.

What a terrible burden we impose upon our fragile young!

The first and immediate issue is the deplorable physical conditions of kampong schools. Many are unsafe, from roofs collapsing to unhygienic canteens. At first glace this is purely an engineering and public health issue respectively. Meaning, get competent engineers and builders to design and build structurally safe schools, and have public health inspectors to check regularly on the canteens.

Like everything else in Malaysia however, the corrosive effect of political corruption intrudes everywhere, even and especially on school contracts. The roof contractors and canteen operators are at the end of a very long line, after the economic parasites that are the corrupt politicians have had their fill. Then we wonder at why our school children are burnt to death from unsafe hostels. There is no money left for a sprinkler system or fire alarm.

It is a complex and systemic problem, and school contracts are only a small and not even the most lucrative part. So do not expect remedies any time soon, certainly not from the government as these corrupt politicians are it.

Fortunately in Malaysia the various professional bodies still retain some semblance of autonomy. One solution would be for them to hold those professionals accountable. When roofs collapse for example, the engineers and architects responsible should be hauled before their respective professional boards to be disciplined. Revoke a few professional licenses and that would send a clear and effective message. It would not stop political corruption but at least that would keep our professionals honest and, well, professional. The Watergate scandal of the Nixon era saw a number of lawyers disbarred, with salutary effect on the others.

A more direct and practical solution would be to stop entirely the building of schools and focus instead on having classrooms, specifically factory-built modular units. Put a few of these together, and with additional units for administration, teachers’ lounge, and multipurpose use, and you have a school. The only local tender left would be to prepare the site to put these units, grade the school field, and pave the driveway. The monetary value of such tenders would be so small as not to interest the local political warlords.

With portable generators these units could be air-conditioned and equipped with satellite dishes. Then those children would no longer be disadvantaged, at least with respect to digital connectivity.

Put these modular units under shady trees and you lessen considerably the cooling bill. With cool classrooms you could extend the school day and year. Those students would rather remain in class rather than be out in the heat of the day. I would use the afternoon for fine arts as with music lessons, “prep” time, and sports so that when these students leave for home it would be only to play with their friends, and to sleep. All their school work, and more, had been done at school.

I would lengthen the school year from the current 180 to 210-220 days, to match the Japanese. This is one area to “Look East.” I would also provide lunches and mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks to ensure that the pupils would get adequate nutrition. Besides, it would hard to educate a hungry kid.

Next to nutrition is health. You cannot educate a child who is unhealthy, and you cannot keep a child healthy who is uneducated. During my primary school days in the early 1950s, there was a dental clinic at my school and we had regular checkups. Indian and African school children are today regularly de-wormed. That is one intervention that contributes most to their improved school performance and reduced absenteeism.

Worm infestation was endemic during my youth as kampong kids were essentially kaki ayam (barefooted) at home and in school. Today with a better economy, they wear shoes. However, now with frequent floods, worm infestation may again be a major factor. We need solid data for if indeed this is a major problem, it can be readily and cheaply remedied.

I would enrich the curriculum with music lessons and singing classes. That would boost the pupils’ confidence and spill over to their academic performance. This has been demonstrated in rural Venezuela with its highly effective El Sistema program, and has been successfully replicated in inner-city schools of New York. Singing is also the best way to learn another language. I learned English through singing Baa Baa Black Sheep, as well as taking part in debates, speeches and class plays. Those activities would not and could not be readily tested at the end of the year, but they contribute immensely to learning.

Kampong schools are also small; we should exploit that advantage and not let it be a liability or be an excuse for not doing anything. For one, the teachers would get to know the students and their families well. Learning and other problems could be spotted earlier and effective interventions instituted sooner. Rest assured that there would be no bullying or other anti-social behaviors as they would be spotted much earlier before they could get out of hand. America’s Small School Movement championed by Deborah Meier is premised precisely on these proven advantages.

There are definite challenges to small schools however, especially when they are scattered in rural areas. Again here we can learn much from America, especially with the experiences of Midwestern rural states. Consider the availability of teachers especially in such areas as music and special education. One solution is “clustering” where a group of four or five nearby schools would share a teacher.

Another would be the virtual classroom where you could have one room specially wired so students could be connected digitally to a teacher elsewhere. Technology can greatly alleviate many of the problems associated with the isolation of rural schools.

Malaysia has a definite advantage in that even though our rural schools are scattered, they are not as widely spread out as in America; thus travel or transportation would not pose a major problem. Malaysia also does not have America’s problem of declining enrollment in its rural schools. In fact it is increasing, which makes solving these problems even more pressing.

For those who think that my proposals as unduly expensive, consider the price for not providing our kampong children with superior education. That will effectively trap them in perpetual poverty, with dire consequences not only for them but also for the rest of Malaysia. A large component to the Bumiputra/non-Bumiputra gaps in educational achievement, as reflected in the recently released SPM results, is the consequence of this urban/rural divide.

In responding to these and other myriad problems, Minister of Education Muhyddin could not venture beyond the banalities. I wish he and his officers would tackle head on the specific issues raised here. You do not need to convene yet another expensive commission or blue ribbon committee. God knows, we already have plenty of those already. The problems are obvious; so too are the remedies. With some political resolve and concentration of effort, plus a wee bit of intelligence and imagination, you would go a long way in ameliorating these problems.

Next: Part Four: Enhancing Our Residential Schools

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Reforming Education: Fixing Kampong Schools Part Two: Fixing Kampong Schools

Reforming Education
M. Bakri Musa

Second of Six Parts: The Challenge of Providing Teachers

In Part One I discussed measures to increase the English fluency of kampong pupils, key to enhancing their employability and self-confidence. These include increasing the hours for English instruction, introducing immersion classes as with our earlier Special Malay and Remove Classes, and even bringing back colonial-era English schools to the kampongs. This section focuses on the special challenges of attracting teachers, specifically to teach English, and on improving kampong schools.

Attracting Teachers

Malaysia has a deep reservoir of English-speaking teachers trained under the old all-English system. They are now all retired, but given sufficient incentives they could be readily enticed to teach in our rural schools. Right now there are only half-hearted attempts at attracting them, with the efforts left to local headmasters. These headmasters, brought up under the existing system, are only too aware of their own limitations in English. They are not about to be welcoming of or risk having their own inadequacies exposed by these hitherto senior English-fluent teachers; hence the failure of the current policy.

To overcome this entrenched resistance you would have to impress upon the headmasters that their ability to recruit these retired teachers would be a major factor in their (headmasters’) promotions or bonus payments. We should also insist that future candidates for headmasterships, as well as other promotions within the ministry, be based on demonstrated competence in English. That is a very effective way of conveying the message on the importance of English. For those retired teachers, a call back to teach would be an opportunity to not only augment their pension income but also re-ignite their intellectual and professional challenges.

Another source of teachers would be born English-speaking spouses of Malaysians and expatriates. Again, we have plenty of them. The issue of working visas is administrative, and should be readily solvable. They may not be trained teachers, but given a brief training as we did with earlier “normal-trained” teachers, they would be able to handle their classes. Their limited teaching skills would be more than compensated by their enthusiasm and English fluency. They would also bring much-needed attitudinal and cultural changes to the class. They would expose our kampong pupils to a very different way of learning as well as speaking English. You can be certain these teachers would not be indulging in “Manglish” or “rojak” English, not to mention their improving our students’ accent. These teachers with their different cultural and personal experience would open up the world of our kampong kids. That would be reason enough to recruit these teachers.

For spouses of expatriates especially but also for those foreign spouses of Malaysians, this would also be a splendid and quick opportunity for them to learn and adapt to local culture and society.

The last and most expensive recourse would be to import teachers from English-speaking countries. The least expensive (in fact cheaper than hiring locals) would be to recruit from India and the Philippines. Some of my best and most inspiring teachers in high school were from India. That was then, however. Today I am uncertain whether bringing in teachers from those countries would serve our students well.

Another source, though not as cheap, would be Eastern Europe, specifically Poland. They may not be born English speakers but thanks to their superior education system they have acquired near-native fluency in that language.

Japan imports thousands of young Americans under its JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program; likewise China, Thailand and South Korea. Malaysia cannot match what the Japanese and Koreans are offering, about US$45K annually, but then living costs in Malaysia are considerably cheaper. Thailand has no difficulty getting foreign teachers for about 30K bhat (RM3K) per month. Malaysia could easily better the Thai pay. Foreigners, especially Americans and Brits, would have minimal difficulty adjusting to our roman script as well as other aspects of our society.

Thailand attracts essentially two groups of teachers: one, fresh graduates on a year or two hiatus before entering graduate or professional school; and two, seasoned mid-career teachers. Again, America provides a deep reservoir of both. Many Americans, especially those bound for graduate and professional schools (and thus among the brighter ones), take time off after graduation. These are the students who sign up for such programs as the Peace Corp and Teach For America. Malaysia obviously cannot match what Teach for America could offer in terms of salary, but can more than compensate for that deficiency with the adventure, experience and exoticness.

As for mid-career teachers, there are plenty of them who have become disillusioned with the highly bureaucratized and increasingly alienating and violence-plagued American public schools. With their pensions vested and their children now grown up, a Thai or Malaysian pay would nicely supplement their pension income, especially if we also provide them with living quarters. In my view these are the teachers we should actively recruit; they will transform our students and schools.

Many rural schools have teachers’ quarters. Most however are occupied by religious teachers. Well, we have a glut of them so we do not need to attract or cuddle them by providing them with houses. Reserve those quarters for foreign teachers and those teaching science and mathematics.

Currently Malaysia brings in scores of American “teaching assistants” under the Fulbright Exchange Program, a government-to-government initiative. I fail to see why Malaysia cannot recruit American teachers directly and independent of the US government, unless of course those Fulbright “teaching assistants” are funded by the Americans.

When we bring in these foreign teachers, we should not assign them individually rather as a group, preferably three to five to a school. If they were to be alone at a school, their influence would be minimal and be diluted; it would be difficult for them to make an impact. We need a critical mass of such teachers to effect changes in attitude and culture, quite apart from reducing the “foreignness” they would feel.

I had one such wonderful Canadian math teacher at Malay College, Mr. Neil Brown. He was taking a year off before pursuing his doctoral work at Cambridge. He was highly effective; our class set a national record for the number of As in calculus, but his impact outside the classroom was minimal. The local teachers dismissed him as a “hitchhiker.” If Malay College had a few more such teachers at the time, they would have triggered a cultural change among both teachers and students. More importantly, the local teachers would not be so disparaging of their foreign colleagues; the locals might even learn a tip or two from them.

This incidentally is what China is doing today. On a recent trip to Beijing I was surprised that the plane was full of teachers, lecturers or professors on their way to teach at various levels in China. I recently read the memoir of one such teacher where she related how touched (and scared!) she was in that her students would more readily confide their problems to her instead of the local teachers. She soon found out why. Those students did not trust their local teachers as they were seen as agents of the party or state.

A similar sentiment and mindset exist among our students. When I addressed Malaysians here in America, I was always conscious, as were the students, that there were representatives of the state, or more specifically UMNO (they are the same anyway), in the audience keeping an eye over the students. Not that it bothered me, but it certainly did some of the students. Incidentally there were also representatives from the religious department, more for policing than spiritual guidance!

The intimidating effect remains the same, and it affects not just the students. A British educator posted in Malaysia once confided to me that his local colleagues and superiors were none too pleased with him when he included some of my essays for his students’ reading assignment! It is such instances, more than anything else, that poison the learning atmosphere of Malaysian classrooms.

In recruiting these foreign teachers, I would look for additional skills they would bring, as for example their ability in drama, music and fine arts generally, as well as in sports so they could coach their students.

Improving our rural schools must begin with the teachers. Knowing the inadequacies of the education system generally and our teacher training program specifically, we would have to wait a very long while before we could get better trained local teachers. In the interim we have to adopt the measures suggested here.

It reflects our national priorities that we have a cabinet level decision-making mechanism to import maids but not to bring in skilled teachers.

Next: Part Three: Extending the School Day and Year