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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, September 30, 2012

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts (Part 3 of 5)

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts: Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Part 3 of 5)
M. Bakri Musa

Third of Five Parts:  Quality, Efficiency, Efficacy, And Trimming of Fat

[Part One discusses the Blueprint’s failure to recognize the diversity within our school system, and with that the need for specific solutions targeted to particular groups.  Part Two discusses the particular challenge of having competent teachers especially in science, English, and mathematics, a critical problem not adequately addressed by the Blueprint.  In this third part I discuss the inextricable link between quality, efficiency, and efficacy, points not fully appreciated in the Blueprint.]

The one diagram in the Blueprint that best captures what’s wrong with the Malaysian education system is Exhibit 6-4, the ministry’s organizational staff structure.  The diagram is described as rectangular; it’s more fat Grecian column.  Incidentally, that diagram is the best graphic representation of data in the entire document; it captures and demonstrates well two salient points.  One, there are as many Indians as there are chiefs in the organization, and two, the overwhelming burden of administrative staff at all levels.

            “Malaysia arguably has one of the largest central (federal) administrations in the world, relative to the number of schools,” says the Blueprint, quoting a UNESCO report.

            We do not need those highly-paid international consultants to remind us of the bloat.  The gleaming tower that is the Ministry of Higher Education in Putrajaya is emblematic of that.  It reveals the government’s perverted priorities.  That edifice shames that of the Department of Education of the US, or any First World country.

            By any measure, relative to the economy, population, or total budget, Malaysia funds its education system generously, much more so than countries like Finland and South Korea.  Yet our students and schools lag far behind.  The answer lies in Exhibit 6-4.  The bulk of the resources expended do not end up in the classrooms.

            It reflects the panel’s commitment (or lack of it) to enhancing the system’s efficiency that the post-reform chart looks only slightly tapered at the top.  It needs to be sharply pyramidal to tackle the current bloated rectangle.

            Efficiency is one of the Blueprint’s six goals.  Briefly though not inaccurately defined, efficiency is output relative to input.  If I expend “x” amount of resources (time, money, effort) and produce “y” amount of intended results, while my colleague expends twice as much, then I am twice as efficient.  However, if he produces other than the intended results, then he is not being efficacious quite apart from being not efficient.  His producing all those unintended and unwanted products reduces or interferes with his output of the desired ones.  Efficiency is doing things right; efficacy, doing the right thing.

            Our system of education is both inefficient and inefficacious.  We are not efficient because despite the vast resources expended we produce far too few graduates who are bilingual, science literate, mathematically competent, and capable of critical thinking.  We are not being efficacious because the graduates we produce are not the types we desire, meaning, they are unilingual, unable to think critically, and good only at regurgitating what has been spoon-fed into them.

            A more tangible manifestation of our inefficiency is this.  Rwanda could provide each child with a laptop at a fraction of the Malaysian price.  We are not being as efficacious as Rwanda where its laptop program teaches not only the children but also spills over to their families.  In Malaysia those laptops end up either being “lost” or gathering dust in the school’s storerooms.  Our teachers have not been adequately trained to use them; besides those computers belong to the school and not given to individual teachers.  Thus there is no pride of ownership, and opportunities for them to learn are that much reduced.

            Pursuing efficiency, we have two ministries (one for higher education), each with its own overpaid minister, deputy ministers, KSUs, DGs, Deputy KSUs, Assistant Deputy KSUs, and hordes of directors.  With the government’s stated goal of autonomy to universities, all you need is one person to write the checks perhaps once a semester.  You do not need a ministry, much less a grand one.  That expensive edifice and bloated administrative staff divert resources that otherwise could have been diverted to the classrooms and teachers.

            Peruse the organizational structure of the Ministry of Education (MOE); dozens of divisions could be chopped off.  Why do we need a separate division for matrikulasi; it is nothing more than Sixth Form; likewise with residential schools.  The purpose of decentralization and devolution of authority to the periphery is, among others, to reduce the central bureaucracy, not to lighten the load of those already under-worked civil servants at headquarters.  If schools truly have autonomy then all you need is one person at headquarters to write the big check every month, term, or year.

            Bureaus like Textbook, Translation, and Dewan Bahasa could be privatized and the resources saved diverted directly to pay writers, translators, and publishers, the actual producers of goods and services.  Then there are the corporate and international relations offices.  Get rid of both.  The only important relationship MOE should cultivate is with parents and teachers.

            I would also spin off the Examination Syndicate.  Such bodies in America like the College Board (responsible for the Scholastic Assessment Test, SAT) and American College Testing (ACT), as well as those responsible for graduate and professional studies like GMAT (business school) and MCAT (medical school) are private.

            Yet there is not a word in the Blueprint on streamlining the ministry, reducing the bloat, and getting rid or at least privatizing those peripheral services.

            Malaysians, individually and as a society, value and respect education.  We willingly expend resources on it but are unwilling to expend the extra effort to make sure that that those funds are spent wisely.  MOE’s budget escapes critical scrutiny.

            MOE, being part and parcel of the massive Malaysian bureaucracy, is also afflicted with rampant corruption, blatant cronyism, embarrassing incompetence, naked nepotism, and a distorted sense of meritocracy.  The last scandal (at least one that was exposed) was in 1960 under Rahman Talib when RM100 million in school construction funds were “unaccounted for,” the euphemism for “missing.”  That may seem small change by current standard of greed, but after factoring for inflation and devaluation, it would be a billion in today’s currency.

            The Blueprint completely ignores this blight of administration in MOE.  In an earlier book I cited the example of the bloated cost of a MARA residential college where through competitive bidding we could get three such schools for the price of two.  If competitive bidding were to be standard practice, then not only would we get more for our money but also our schools would have roofs that would not collapse, thus endangering our children.

            Najib and Muhyyiddin have not demonstrated their ability to take on local UMNO warlords.  On the contrary, both are central to the corrupt political patronage system that plagues Malaysia.  So expect the bloat and inefficiency in MOE (and the rest of the government) to continue.

            As for efficacy, the Blueprint does not even comment on whether the recent rescinding of teaching science and mathematics in English advances the goal of producing bilingual and science literate graduates.  There is no recommendation for increasing the number of hours of instruction in English or mandating a pass in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET).  The more hours and the younger you are exposed to a language, the more proficient you would be, and faster.  Making students pass a test definitely motivates them to study for it.

            In the 1950s the government mandated all civil servants to pass a test in Malay to impress upon them its importance.  That prompted many to take private lessons lest they would be bypassed in promotions.  This Blueprint does not mandate teachers and headmasters demonstrate their competence in English.

            As for developing “critical, creative and innovative thinking skills,” the government could begin by abolishing that indoctrination center, Biro Tata Negara (BTN).  The resources saved could be diverted to schools.  Both Najib and Muhyyiddin are ardent defenders of BTN; that reflects their veneer of commitment to nurturing independent critical thinking.

            Quality is linked with efficiency, efficacy, and the trimming of an organization’s fat.  We must strive high; surpassing a low bar is no achievement.  It only gives us a false sense of it.  On a recent visit to China Muhyyyiddin declared that we have done well with “93 percent of Malaysians able to attend school and most of them could read, write and count.”  Malaysians deserve better; we expect more.

            The goal should be our children attending not just any school but one that would teach them to be fully bilingual, science literate, mathematically competent, and able to think critically.  We should be haunted by the fact that 40,000 of our graduates are still unable to find jobs at a time when Malaysia has millions of foreign workers.  That tells us that it is not a problem with the economy rather with the quality of those graduates.

            The focus must be on quality and not on years spent in schools.  Instead of extending mandatory schooling to 11 years (the Blueprint’s recommendation), I would focus first on providing universal preschool and kindergarten especially in rural areas.  If you want to teach kampong kids English, starting them in immersion classes at preschool years would be the most effective way.  Insights from modern neuroscience support that contention.

            Further, a year of preschool costs considerably less and is far more consequential to a child’s future than a year at high school.  As the Jesuit wisdom would have it, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

            Without quality, our schools would degenerate into nothing more than human warehouses for the young; our teachers, well-paid babysitters.  We would have wasted all those precious resources, but the most precious of all is of course all those young minds.  They would be better off out of school and learning the more important lessons of life in the real world instead of being bullied by their peers and indoctrinated by the system.  Then when they failed, they would be tagged forever as losers, turn into caricatures of their race, and made to bear the burden of ugly stereotypes.

            That thought should haunt anyone given the awesome responsibility of educating our young; likewise those tasked with reforming the system.

Next:   Part 4:  Roar of An Elephant, Baby of a Mouse

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts (Part 2)

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts (Part 2)

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts: Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Part 2)
M. Bakri Musa

Second of Five Parts: Quality Schools Begin With Quality Teachers

[In Part One, I discussed the Blueprint’s failure to recognize the diversity within our school system and the need to have different solutions for different constituents. In this Part Two, I discuss the particular challenge of having competent teachers especially in science, English, and mathematics that is not adequately addressed in the report.]

In the 1950s, the headmaster of my Tuanku Muhammad School, Kuala Pilah, lived in a palatial bungalow up on the hill, next to the residence of the District Officer. Two decades later, his successor was renting a modest house from my father, a retired Malay primary school teacher. As for that hilltop house, it is now occupied by a civil servant.

In the 1960s when the Minister of Education visited Malay College he was noticeably deferential to its headmaster. Today, the threat of a visit by a lowly ministry functionary would throw the headmaster and his senior staff into a tizzy.

Those are the realities of the teaching profession in Malaysia today. The folks that produced Education Blueprint 2013-2025 see the world of Malaysian teachers differently. They brag about having 38 applicants for every teaching slot, way over the eight in Finland, acknowledged as having the best schools and teachers.
What gives? Just a few lines away and easily missed by careless readers, the Blueprint reveals that over a third of those applicants lacked even the minimal (and very low) current qualifications. Imagine! The perception students have of the teaching profession is this: If you are not qualified for anything else, apply to be a teacher.

The panel wants to tighten the qualifications so only those in the top third could apply. Great, but how? As a mental exercise, I wonder how many of the current applicants would qualify if the proposed higher standards were to be applied. If the panel had done so, it would realize the magnitude of the problem. They would then be dissuaded from resorting to simplistic solutions as merely raising the entry requirements. The challenge is not with imposing tighter criteria (that could be done simply with a directive) but enticing those top students.

The panel’s approach to the teacher issue is reflective of its collective muddled thinking. Its members are unable to look at data critically or know the limitations even when those figures defy reality and common sense. They are easily mesmerized and be taken in by such silly statistics as over 38 applicants per teaching slot.

Yes, there is a glut of applicants, but only from those in Malay and Islamic Studies. They are unemployable elsewhere. The critical shortage is in science, English, and mathematics (SEM). The focus should thus be on this critical and difficult challenge instead of searching for an overarching solution to all problems, or ones that do not even exist, as with Islamic Studies teachers. And some problems could be solved simply through less meddling from the ministry.

Consider another set of figures cited in the Blueprint: Malaysian teachers have comparable pay to and are treated like their peers outside the profession. Again, reality is far different, as attested to by that headmaster renting a house. Salary figures alone do not tell the whole story, as with that bureaucrat’s house on the hill.

As the Blueprint does not provide actionable recommendations to address this critical shortage of SEM teachers, I put forth mine. First, I would double their stipends during training. To help defray the costs I would simultaneously reduce the stipends for the others, especially those in Malay and Islamic Studies. We already have a glut of them. If that does not attract enough top candidates, I would sweeten the deal. Guarantee them scholarships to pursue a degree upon graduation from teachers’ college. That would also encourage them to enhance their qualifications to enable them to enter university.

If that still does not attract enough top applicants, then try another tack. I would select from the next tier – those just below the top third – but put them through six months to a year of rigorous “prep” where they would undertake intensive classes in the three subjects. Those who do well would then continue on. Again I would pay them during this “prep” year.

While those thus chosen may not initially be in the top third as per ministry’s criteria, but then as noted earlier, our national examinations do not correlate well with international tests. It may well be that those not currently in the top third by local criteria may be the truly smart ones.

Another factor to attracting top candidates would be to have superior teachers’ colleges. It is a sad commentary that despite the demonstrated critical shortage, only one of the 27 teachers’ colleges is devoted to training science teachers and one for international languages but not English exclusively. It is no better at the universities; not one has a dedicated Department of English. That is the gulf between intent and action, between talk and walk.

The ministry’s perennial training mode is “crash” or short-term culup courses of a few weeks or even days. It proudly proclaimed to have “trained” thousands of such teachers. Ever wonder why our students have abysmal results or why the talented are not attracted to teaching?

Convert a dozen existing colleges into exclusively English-medium for training SEM teachers. This should have been done earlier in preparation for the switch in teaching science and mathematics in English. Had that been done, the initiative would have been more likely to succeed, and we would have spared our children yet another disruptive switch a few years later when we reverted to teaching those two subjects in Malay.

Making those colleges all-English would also help attract top students. Those smart students know that furthering their education in English would expand their career, intellectual, and other horizons. Look at the earlier experiences with Kirby and Brinsford Lodge graduates.

To attract top candidates you also need a first class physical campus and facilities, meaning among other things, not only air-conditioned lecture theaters but also residence halls. I would also give trainees free I-pads or laptops. I would pamper them beyond their college years, as with extra allowances. If they were to serve in rural areas they would get additional allowances that could effectively double their pay. Beyond that I would ensure that they would get first priority for those coveted on-campus quarters and government houses generally.

These tangible recognitions would be far more effective than such things are Tokoh Guru (Champion Teachers) awards and other public ceremonies. Of course it would help if the government were to also recognize outstanding teachers and educators in its civil award lists.

The measures proposed here would produce not only competent SEM teachers but also truly be bilingual ones. And bilingual teachers would produce bilingual students, another stated goal of the Blueprint.

I applaud the Blueprint for advocating greater autonomy and authority for headmasters. However, it would be difficult for them to exercise both when those bureaucrats at the ministry are paid and treated so much better. The Minister of Education in the 1960s was deferential to Malay College’s Ryan not because he was the headmaster rather that as an expatriate he was paid so much more than the minister! That was also the reason why Ryan did not kow tow to those politicians and bureaucrats.

While issues of pay, autonomy and respect are important, those are not the main considerations in opting for teaching. As a former teacher, and as my parents who were longtime teachers demonstrated, the greatest satisfaction is to see the sparkle in your students’ eyes when they learn or discover something new, and the reflected glory you quietly savor on seeing your former students achieve great heights. Consider that as a physician, the best that I could do for my patients is to restore them to their pre-illness state. For a teacher however, there is no limit to the potential achievement of her students.

It is this professional satisfaction that drives teachers. Before they can get to savor that, they first must be treated as true professionals.

Training competent teachers takes time; meanwhile we have an immediate problem in the classrooms with respect to SEM teachers. Specifically for English teachers, Malaysia used to have a big pool of them but we have squandered that precious resource. Attempts at enticing them out of retirement have been marked by incompetence and outward antagonism by those in charge. The reason is obvious. Those retired teachers would put their present colleagues to shame. Thus instead of encouraging them, current headmasters are intent on imposing obstacles.

There is another large pool, native English-speaking spouses of expatriates and Malaysians. They can be trained “on the job” in the manner of the old “Normal” teachers. We need to be flexible and innovative.

One of the Blueprint’s consultants is the former South Korean Minister of Education. I am surprised that he did not recommend for Malaysia to import SEM teachers as South Korea and other (especially Asian) countries are doing. Thailand demonstrates that you do not have to pay exorbitant expatriate pay to recruit them. Malaysia has a small program undertaken jointly with the Fulbright Foundation. I see no reason why we cannot do it independent of American agencies.

Teachers do not operate in a vacuum; good teachers need good schools. My greatest disappointment with this report is its lack of ideas on revamping what is obviously a failing system – our national schools (more on this later). Non-Malays have already abandoned the system; now Malays too are joining them. This failure mocks the Blueprint’s claim to be transformational.

The only innovative idea was liberalizing local enrollment in international schools, but that was done long before this report. Besides, that measure is only the “letting out of steam” to satisfy the elite.

In an earlier book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003), I proposed charter schools and the decoupling of the identification of vernacular schools with race. Charter schools would get the same financial and other governmental support as national schools but would be free of ministry’s control, especially with respect to the curriculum and medium of instruction. The only stipulation is that their enrollment must reflect the general society and their graduates must be fluent in Malay and English. How that is achieved is left to the genius of the school’s management.

The other is to make Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan China for example, less of a school for Chinese, more one using Mandarin as its medium of instruction and catering to all Malaysians who desire such an education. Meaning, these schools must make serious efforts at attracting non-Chinese especially Malays, as with having halal canteens and teaching Islamic Studies in Mandarin, as they do in China. Along the same vein, I see no reason why there cannot be Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Arab, Inggeris, or even Swahili, supported by the government as long as they attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.

Having students of all races study and play together would advance the Blueprint’s unity agenda far more effectively than all the other measures combined. As a bonus, diversity in the classrooms enhances the learning environment.

For Malaysia, there is another and very special reason for actively encouraging diversity in the classroom. If we continue with the present trend of self-segregation, we would end up like Northern Ireland. That wretched country has a well-educated populace; alas it is deeply and viciously divided. Malaysia had a taste of its own Northern Ireland not too long ago; we have no wish to repeat that bitter, bloody experience.

Next: Part 3: Quality, Efficiency. Efficacy, And Trimming The Fat

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts: Education Blueprint 2013-2025

The Havoc Education Reform Inflicts:  Education Blueprint 2013-2025
M. Bakri Musa

First of Five Parts:  Education Blueprint    Transparent, But Not Bold Or Comprehensive

Education reform is inflicted upon Malaysians with the regularity of the monsoon.  Like the storm, the havoc these “reforms” create lingers long after they have passed through.

            In this five-part commentary I will critique the latest reform effort contained in Preliminary Report: Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 released on September 11, 2012.  The first three essays will address the Blueprint’s findings and recommendations; the fourth, its omissions, and the last, the flaws in the process with this particular reform effort.

            The Blueprint clearly identifies the main problems and challenges at both the system and individual levels, but fails to analyze why or how they came about and why they have been let to fester.  Consequently the recommendations are based more on conjecture rather than solid data; more towards generalities and the stating of goals rather than on specifics and how to achieve those goals.  On the positive side, the goals and milestones (at least some of them) are clearly stated in quantifiable terms, so we would know whether they have been achieved going forward.

            Despite extensive public participation and the inclusion of many luminaries (including foreign ones) on the panel, the report has many glaring omissions.  It fails to address the particular challenges facing Islamic and rural national schools.  This is surprising considering that the constituents in both streams are Malays, a politically powerful group.  Even more pertinent, those schools regularly perform at the bottom quartile; they drag down the whole system.  Improving them would go a long way in enhancing the entire system.  Yet another omission is the failure to analyze and thus learn from earlier reform efforts.

            This Blueprint does not live up to Najib Razak’s assertion of being “bold, comprehensive and transparent.”  Transparent perhaps, but not bold or comprehensive!  That is not surprising as the panel is dominated by civil servants.  They have been part of the problem for so long that it would be too much to expect them now to magically be part of the solution.

Predictability of Education Reform

It is a particularly Malaysian obsession to reform its educational policy with the political season.  Every new minister feels compelled to do it, as if to demonstrate his political manhood.  Now it is Muhyiddin’s turn.

            Five years ago under Hishamuddin there was Langkah Langkah Ke Arah Cemerlangan (Steps Towards Excellence).  Five years before that under Musa Mohamad was Pembangunan Pendidikan 2001-2010:  Rancangan Bersepadu Penjana Cemerlangan Pendidikan (Education Development 2010-2011.  Plan for Unity Through Educational Excellence).  Notice the long pretentious titles and frequent use of the word “excellence.”

            In the meantime generations of young Malaysians, especially Malays, continue to pay the price for the follies of previous reforms, in particular the one in the 1970s that did away with English schools.  Someone finally wizened up and brought back the teaching of English, albeit only in science and mathematics.  Then just as we were adjusting to and recovering from that reversal, a new leader who thought himself smarter changed back the system!

            This latest reform released on September 11, 2012, will prove to be the 9-11 of Malaysian education.  The destruction may not be as dramatic visually and physically as the other 9-11, but the wreckage will be real and massive, with the havoc remaining long after to haunt current and future generations.  The damage will be extensive, cumulative, and compounding.

            As in the past, this time we are again being promised that this storm of a reform will wash away the thick polluted haze that has been hovering over our schools.  Yes, the air will be clearer and fresher after a storm, and the birds will sing.  Meanwhile however, we have to deal with ripped roofs, flood debris, and destructive landslides.

            In compiling this Blueprint the government has commendably sought wide public participation and at great expense.  The public in turn responded massively and enthusiastically, reflecting the angst over our education system.  The panel however, did not sufficiently discern the difference between quantity and quality, and duly gave equal time to the bombasts as well as the wise.
The Challenge of Quality

This Blueprint, like earlier ones, is already getting rave reviews from the usual quarters.  Just as predictably, a year or two from now even before any of the recommendations have been fully implemented, “scholars” from our public universities will declare through their “research” that the reforms have already produced the anticipated improvements!

            We saw this when the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English was rescinded.  Barely a year into the program and “scholars” from our public universities were already trumpeting the “remarkable” improvement in the science and mathematics scores especially among rural Malay students.  With all those great improvements one wonders why we need another reform!

            This new Blueprint was barely released when Muhyyiddin announced a new history curriculum, meaning, one written by UMNO hired hands.  So much for the weight given to this reform and its objective of creating students capable of critical and independent thinking!

            No one would argue with the Blueprint’s objectives of improving access, quality, equity, unity, and efficiency.  Consider quality; it is uppermost in everyone’s mind.  The government proudly parades the success rates at its national examinations, as with the accelerating number of A’s scored.  Yet when assessed by such external yardsticks as TIMSS and PISA, our students scored poorly.  As the report acknowledges, they are at least two to three grades behind their counterparts in South Korea, and declining.

            The panel glosses over this glaring anomaly and thus fails to draw the only and important conclusion:  Obviously what we teach and how we test are substandard; worse, we are doing both wrong!

            If your home thermometer says you do not have a temperature but at the hospital you register a high fever, then you should get rid of your thermometer lest you would be dangerously misled in the future.  If we wish our students to be in the top third in PISA and TIMSS, then we should first dispense with the current curriculum and testing as they do not correlate (in fact inversely correlated) with those international measurements.
            Consider another objective, to have our students be bilingual in Malay and English.  I agree with that; the problem is how to achieve it.  The panel addresses the issue generally, but the kampong boy in Ulu Kelantan faces a vastly different problem in learning English vis-a-vis the diplomat’s son in Bukit Tunku; likewise a Tamil girl on an estate school in Ulu Tiram learning Malay to a penghulu’s daughter at a national school in Ulu Trengganu.

            As the challenges are very different; the solutions too must necessarily be different.  For vernacular schools especially in areas where Malay is not widely spoken, devoting more hours to Malay and having bilingual (Malay and the vernacular language) teachers would be the more appropriate solution.

            In the kampongs however, not only is English not widely used, there is also active antagonism to using and learning it.  Again this is not a problem unique to the kampongs.  In Western Canada there is similar resentment towards learning French despite it being Canada’s second official language.  To overcome this and compensate for the low level of French usage in the community, some schools have total immersion classes where pupils would spend their first three or more years in classes conducted entirely in French.  As the program is entirely voluntary, it is politically and socially palatable.  As parents discover the many advantages, the enrollment soars.

            A similar solution could be employed in the kampongs.  Have English immersion classes for the first few or better yet, throughout the entire primary school years.  Introduce Malay only at Form One.  Go beyond that and have secondary schools that would teach half the subjects in Malay and the other half in English.  Science and mathematics would be the ideal subjects to teach in English.  Such a school would produce fluently bilingual graduates.

            Aware of the political sensitivities Malays have towards learning English, I would make the program entirely voluntary, like those French immersion classes in Western Canada.  Kampong Malays are as rational as those Anglophone Western Canadians.  Once those Malays see the advantages of being proficient in English, they will flock to enroll their children in those immersion classes.

            Such schools could be the innovation worthy of emulation by other nations who similarly aspire to have their students be bilingual.  Such Malay-English bilingual schools are much easier to set up than Arabic-English or Mandarin-English ones as Malay and English share the same roman script.  I would restrict such schools to only those who already have (or can demonstrate) near-native fluency in Malay so that those students would not “forget” how to speak Malay.

            In practical terms, this was how my contemporaries and I learned English back in the 1950s.  English usage was even much lower then, in fact nonexistent, at my home and community.  I advocate bringing back those English schools, but site them only in areas with low level of English and high Malay usage, as in the kampongs.

            If we were to bring back the old English schools (as the parent-group PAGE is advocating) and locate them in the cities where the usage of Malay is low, then we would only resurrect the old problem where students would ignore Malay.

            Similarly, such Malay immersion classes could be used to enhance the proficiency of non-Malay students, especially in communities where the usage of Malay is low.

            The panel highlights the many islands of excellence in our school system.  Yes there certainly are, as with the missionary and independent Chinese schools.  As they are already doing a superb job there is little need to reform them.  Instead the government should support them so they could enhance and replicate their successes.  Others (including and especially the government) would then be inspired to emulate them.

            I would impose only one condition for that generous public support and that is the enrollment must reflect the general Malaysian society.  Such a policy would also further one of the stated goals of the Blueprint:  to enhance unity among our young.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim's Ampun Tuanku

Book Review:  Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku
M. Bakri Musa

Last of Three Parts:  Opportunities for Sultans as Head of Islam

[In the first part of this essay I explored the myth to the sultans’ claim of their special powers based on daulat (divine dispensation); in the second, I examined the dynamics that led them to claim that status today.  In this third and last essay, I reviewed Zaid’s novel views of how the sultans could indeed claim their “special powers” by virtue of the fact of their being head of Islam.]

The constitution explicitly states the secular role of sultans.  There are no penumbras or derived powers.  In practice however, as Zaid noted with everything pertaining to the law, if you have money you could always hire a smarter lawyer who would argue otherwise.  Indeed that is what the sultans are doing as they now can afford expensive legal counsel; hence their claim of “something extra” based on daulat.

            Legal theories do not arise out of nowhere.  It is the current weak political leadership of Najib (and Abdullah Badawi before him) that emboldens the sultans to reassert themselves and challenge established principles and practices.

            That notwithstanding, there is one area in the constitution that is indisputable and unchallengeable:  The sultan as head of Islam.  This is where the sultan could rightly claim his special status as his authority there is absolute.  Creatively managed, it could prove to be a splendid opportunity for them to serve not only Malays but also non-Muslim Malaysians.

            “Where Islam is concerned,” Zaid writes, “the Malay Rulers have a golden opportunity to make their mark.”  That they do not is the greatest missed opportunity, for them as well as for Malaysians and Malaysia.

            This special role in Islam for the sultan has a strong foundation.  The concept of a supreme head of the ummah goes back to the days of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and indeed Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., himself.  Not surprisingly, modern Muslim leaders including our sultans have conveniently latched on to that symbolism.

            Historically and for very practical reasons, the British were only too happy to relegate matters of Islam to the sultans.  That was also politically shrewd as it placated both the natives and their sultans.  Conveniently, Islam was also then peripheral if not irrelevant to the politics and economics of the country.  So that was an easy concession on the part of the colonials.  Further, with Malays consumed with their sultans and religion, that eased the British to exploit the economic riches of the land with the help of immigrants who were unencumbered with either.

            Today the situation is very different.  Malays are still obsessed with their religion and to some extent (although decidedly less so) their sultans.  Islam today however, is central to everything that is Malaysian, especially politics and economics.  The increasingly shrill contestation of Islam between UMNO and PAS attests to this.  Islamic financial institutions are now major players, and zakat collections are in the billions.

            At one level, Malays’ continuing obsession with religion and the afterlife distracts us from making our rightful contribution to the country, especially in matters economic.  At another, this presents lucrative opportunities for the sultans to intrude into Islamic financial and economic spheres all in the guise of their being head and defender of the faith.

            With his legal background, Zaid rightly focuses on the increasingly assertive role of syaria in the administration of justice.  In the past, syaria was concerned primarily with family law, as with divorce and inheritance cases.  Now it encroaches into areas hitherto the purview of secular (both civil as well as criminal) courts.  Syaria is now on par with and in many instances superior to secular courts, in effect above the constitution.  Fatwas (decrees issued by religious functionaries) now have the power of law, thus usurping the legislature.

            If those were not problematic enough, with syaria usurping the criminal courts Malaysians face the reality that the punishment they get would depend not on the crime they have committed rather their faith.  A Muslim caught committing adultery could face “stoning to death” under syaria while non-Muslims would not even be prosecuted, or if prosecuted would be slapped with a small fine for indecent exposure perhaps and suffer the wrath of their spouses.  Even in matters pertaining to family law, they can get messier especially where one party to the dispute is a non-Muslim.  The victims are not just the living.  Recent cases of “corpse snatching” are but one ugly manifestation.

            This judicial abdication by the secular courts, in Zaid’s view, occurred because their judges are mostly Malays who want to appear “pious and upright Muslims… want[ing] to fit into the ‘correct’ image of a good Muslim.”

            Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins and made them give up their odious practices such as female infanticide and “an eye for eye” sense of justice.  Perversely today, the more Malays and Malaysia become “Islamized,” the more backward, corrupt, polarized and dysfunctional Malays and Malaysia become.  The irony!

            “Islam – the great purifier and liberating force in the world – had been reduced to an ordinary cult in Malaysia,” writes Zaid.  Not any ordinary cult but a rogue one, with corrupt, toxic leaders.

            As undisputed leaders of Islam, sultans have a major role to correct these obvious pathologies.  That they have abdicated this crucial role is a major factor to Malays becoming deeply polarized and increasingly marginalized economically.  That is a tragedy not only for Malays but also for all Malaysians.  Ultimately this will also negatively impact the sultans.

            The sultans have shirked their responsibilities because one, they are ill equipped to play this important role as head of the faith.  They have severely limited knowledge of Islam and worse, they lack the curiosity to learn.  They are Islamically-challenged in all spheres.  Thus they become captive to the ulamas (the state sponsored ones), an arrangement reminiscent to what the Saudi royals have with their religious establishment.

            The personal behaviors of these sultans also preclude them from playing exemplary roles in Islam.  They frequent casinos, night clubs and golf courses, not mosques and suraus.  The notable exception is the current Sultan of Kelantan.  His visible piety softened what otherwise would have been a very negative public perception of filial betrayal and palace coup after he took power from his incapacitated father.  His modest and pious lifestyle also embarrassed the other royals.  There is a picture going viral on the Internet of him removing his shoes before entering a mosque during Ramadan.  This was juxtaposed to that of the Johore crown prince being fitted with his polo riding boots by one of his subjects.  The contrast could not have been more revealing; two very different portraits of the head of Islam.

            At another level, Malay sultans do not pay any income or other taxes.  It can be argued that this is the norm for monarchies elsewhere, those being the privileges of being head of state.  In Islam however, nobody is exempted from its precepts.  One of the five cardinal obligations of a Muslim is to give zakat (tithe) in the amount of 2.5 percent of the value of your assets.  This applies to leaders and followers, imams and ordinary believers, and sultans as well as subjects.

            As head and defender of the faith a sultan must be an exemplary Muslim.  I challenge our sultans to declare how much zakat they have contributed.  On the contrary, they are the consumers and beneficiaries of zakat.

            In the final analysis, the fate of Malaysian sultans lies less with what is written in the constitution or their accepted role as head of Islam, rather how they perform both in their official roles as well as personal capacities.  As for the former, we have the Sultans’ of Perak and Trengganu performances following the last elections to go by; for the latter, the thuggish behaviors of the Johor princes and the debt-skipping late Yang Di Pertuan of Negri Sembilan.  With such examples we cannot be optimistic on the future of the institution of sultans.

            The sultans may be the constitutional heads of state but to most non-Malays they are irrelevant; they are after all Malay rajas.  Those non-Malays who found the sultans useful do so because they provide reliable conduits to lucrative government contracts.  The relationship is less symbiotic, more parasitical.  I leave it to my readers to determine which party is the parasite.  Those are the non-Malays who flaunt their fancy royal titles and are genuinely proud of their status as Malay hulubalangs (knights).  Few Malays, especially the young, urban and educated, have favorable views of their sultans.  Those in the kampong still display at least outwardly their loyalty and fealty, but that is more an expression of cultural courtesy rather than respect.

            I visited my kampong in Negri Sembilan near the royal town of Sri Menanti during the reign of its former ruler and was surprised by the outward displays of loyalty by the villagers despite and especially considering the blatant “un-Islamic” and “un-Malay” behaviors of the princes.  One would conclude that this tolerance of and acceptance by those villagers effectively turned them into enablers for the royals’ excesses.

            Then that Yang Di Pertuan died and the Undangs bypassed his family in their choice of his successor.  The relief and joy of the villagers was palpable.  Only then could one subtly discern the loathing they had for the members of the previous royal family.

            On a grander scale, one would be hard put to deny the “love” the Iranians had for their late Shah, judging from their behaviors during the 2,500-year Persepolis “anniversary” celebration in 1971.  Who could have predicted that barely eight years later the Shah would be hounded out of his country!

            The Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Farouk, and the King of Afghanistan all had their positions secured in their respective constitutions.  During their reign, they all enjoyed the effusive adulations and loyalty of their subjects.  Today those monarchs are all gone; recalling their names would only evoke loathing among their former subjects.

            Malay sultans would do well to ponder that.  As they reflect, they would also do well to read Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku.  Better yet, invite him to address their next Conference of Rulers.  That would be the best way for them to avoid the fate they endured during the Japanese Occupation, or worse.