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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, October 29, 2017

Malaysian Education: Deficiency of Content

Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Content
M. Bakri Musa
The glaring deficiencies of the Malaysian curriculum and system are its rigidity and narrow focus. That is true at every level. Pupils are assigned to the science, arts or vocational stream in Year Ten, based solely on their national test scores, with zero input from teachers, parents, or students.
            For Malay students, the streaming begins much earlier, at the end of Year Six. The brighter ones, again judged by a standardized national test, are selected to attend academically-oriented residential schools. Again, there is zero input from the teachers or consideration of external factors. The son of a professor attending a well-regarded primary school near campus who scored at the 98th percentile would be selected ahead of the son of a poor farmer attending an ill-equipped kampong school who scored “only” at the 95th percentile. A misguided and narrow understanding of meritocracy.
            This division is rigid and like the earlier streaming, based solely on test results. There is no crossover permitted later regardless of circumstance.
     This early streaming means that an Arts undergraduate would have science literacy the equivalent of an American Grade 11 at best; similarly, a science student with respect to literature or history.
            This myopic thinking has to be rectified. A good start would be to make science, mathematics, and English (as well as Malay of course) mandatory at all school years regardless of whether you are in the arts, science, or vocational stream. The level and intensity would have to be adjusted. Mathematics for the vocational steam could be “consumer math,” for the arts students, algebra, while for those in science, calculus. Similar adjustments would have to be made for English and literature.
            Universities should adopt the American broad-based liberal education with its focus on critical thinking. Despite that, as Allan Bloom concluded in his dense but best- selling book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, today’s version with its de- emphasis on “The Great Books” succeeded only in the closing of American minds. Bloom lamented the moving away from the “Great Books” tradition and the ensuing cultural and moral relativism.
            American universities may have abandoned what cynics refer to as the works of long-dead white men, but those institutions have enhanced their core curriculum by adding foreign language as well as science and mathematics. It makes for a truly liberal and broad-based education, well suited for the modern era.
            Today’s liberal education, in particular the learning of a foreign language and time spent studying abroad, is much superior to the earlier one with its almost exclusive emphasis on the classics. Learning another language and experiencing a different culture are among the most effective ways of opening up minds.
            I appreciate classic books but today you cannot consider yourself properly educated and able to comprehend the world around you if you do not understand the difference between an atom and a molecule, or gene from chromosome. Likewise, your thinking and analysis cannot be rigorous unless you can appreciate the difference between simple gains versus geometric or exponential ones.
            Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 undergraduates from 24 American institutions for their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010). Despite America’s commitment to liberal education, the survey substantiated and amplified Bloom’s earlier bleak assessment. A huge 45 percent of these students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning at the end of two years (with 36 percent at the end of four) in such areas as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Imagine what the results would be for Malaysian undergraduates!
            Malaysians privileged to have been educated abroad, specifically in America, have the best advantage. They benefit from the great tradition of modern liberal education, learning a foreign language (English), and living in a different culture. Those are significant advantages over their compatriots educated at home. Perhaps that explains why Malaysian students in America have the initiative, and courage I might add, to organize seminars like the Stanford Malaysia Forum, Northeast Malaysia Forum, and the Alif Ba Ta conference.
            Those remaining in Malaysia should also consider themselves lucky, but on another front. With the major traditions of Asia represented in the country, they do not have to leave to experience other cultures. Few however, appreciate much less take advantage of this unique opportunity. For many, our diversity is a liability, the cause of never-ending conflict. It would take a major shift in mindset to consider this diversity an asset.
            In Kuala Lumpur at Kampong Baru, we have the essence of traditional Malay culture, albeit intruded by pseudo-modernity and blighted urbanity. A few blocks away, Petaling Street is the heart of Chinatown. Venture further and we are at Sentul, literally Little India. Far from taking advantage of these splendid opportunities, we erect unnecessary barriers.
Next:  Criticisms of American Liberal Education

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Malaysian Education: Deficiency of Ambience

Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience
M. Bakri Musa

One crippling deficiency of Malaysian educational institutions is its ambience, or to be specific, enrollment.
            Step into any Malaysian classroom and one is struck by something odd. While Malaysia is a plural society, its classrooms are segregated along race. Worse, this is voluntary. National schools are fast becoming exclusively Malay, non-Malay enrollment rapidly declining. Vernacular schools are almost exclusively non-Malays, though there is recent rapid increase in Malay enrollment at Chinese schools.
            The growth is with international schools, in particular English-medium ones, with the demand far outstripping the supply despite the much higher costs. If not for that and rigid quotas, those schools would be inundated with Malaysians. Because of the high costs, enrollment in these schools is skewed along race and socioeconomic lines. Those foreign children at these schools (and their parents) thus have a distorted view of local society.
            The growth in international schools reflects citizens’ low confidence in the local system.
            What discourages non-Malays to enroll in national schools is the increasing “Islamization” of the curriculum and environment. Islam is taught not as an academic subject but as theology, with heavy emphasis on rituals and catechisms. Even if non- Muslims wanted to learn Islam as a legitimate intellectual pursuit, they would be put off. Granted, many Christian schools in the West too have heavy religious components, as with attending mass, nonetheless their curriculum is much broader and of higher quality. Consequently, many non-Christian parents have no qualms enrolling their children.
            If the “Islamization” of national schools does not deter non-Malays, then the quality would, from the teaching and curriculum to the general level of discipline. Bullying, gang activities, and drug abuse are the norms. The physical facilities are shoddy, posing hazards to the students, as with halls and laboratories collapsing soon after being completed. Food poisoning is a regular affliction, reflecting the atrocious standard of hygiene in school canteens. National schools do not inspire confidence.
            Concerns about “Islamization” and the deteriorating quality may be the initial reasons for non-Malays to shun national schools, but this being Malaysia, the ugly racial element is not far behind. Today, Malay-medium and Malay control are equated with mediocrity, incompetence, and corruption in schools and universities as well as other institutions. That poisons race relations.
            Malaysia is not leveraging her cultural diversity and ethnic plurality to enhance the learning experiences of her students. Myopic Malaysian leaders consider diversity a liability, not an asset. Malaysian schools and universities reinforce the insularity of their students; these institutions, especially religious, entrap not liberate young minds.
            Segregation can be solved in two ways–mandatory and voluntary. The former is cheap and can be effective, but whether sustainable is an open question. What happens when the compulsive element is removed, as ultimately it would have to be? The old segregated pattern would then return, and with a vengeance.
            That approach however, has merits. The American military is the most integrated of their institutions, more so than universities or the sports and entertainment industry. The military approaches the problem frontally and coercively. The Joint Chief issued a command that all units be integrated. That was it; everyone had to obey. A southern white boy would just have to adjust to the fact that he had to stop and salute to a Black officer and address him as “Sir!” Disobey, and he would be court-martialed. Simple and effective!
            Yugoslavia’s Tito did it that way. There was no ethnic cleansing during his time. There was stability and peace that survived his death, albeit briefly. Sarajevo even hosted the glittering winter Olympics of 1984.
            We may flinch at Tito’s authoritarian ways, but there was no questioning their effectiveness. The problem was just that; when he was gone, old prejudices and hatreds returned with a vengeance.
            What would have happened had the lid been kept on even tighter? Yugoslavia’s disintegration would have been delayed, and if delayed long enough people might get used to each other. They would have acquired the peace habits and forget their destructive ancient ethnic hatreds.
            Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace Laureate and former Canadian Prime Minister, once said that if he could keep Canadians out of war for just one generation, that would immunize them against war. There is great wisdom to that. The contrary observation is even truer; once a nation initiates war, it reduces the threshold for the next one. That is where America is today.
            I am no fan of coercive methods to achieve social goals no matter how noble and worthy. However, if they prove successful, I would not condemn them either.
            American public schools were once shining examples of social integration, acculturating millions of children of immigrants to the American way. That is less so today.
            More relevant to contemporary Malaysia would be the old colonial English schools, credited with producing many enlightened Malaysian leaders. Those schools attracted Malaysians of all races, though for a variety of reasons, fewer Malays.
            Some advocate the return of those schools. I agree, up to a point. If we were to resurrect those institutions in their original form without any modification, then we would be no further ahead. We would be trading one set of problems for another.
            The biggest deficiency with the old English schools was their inability to attract Malays. Unless that is rectified, these schools would aggravate interracial inequities. One strategy to make these schools attractive to Malays would be to have them in the kampongs and small towns. The need to improve English fluency is also the most acute there.
            The other major deficiency was that those old English schools paid little sensitivity to local culture and environment. While I learned much about daffodils in spring in Wordsworth’s Lake District, I was taught nothing about our striking flame-of-the-forest trees or the rich biodiversity of our mangrove swamps.
            As for respecting our national language, Malay was not introduced as a subject until I was midway through my secondary school, and that was only because the country had by then gained independence. As for deference to Islam, I was deep in my science labs on Fridays during congregational prayer time.
            Malay parents adapted to those deficiencies. Bless them!
            Those deficiencies can be corrected; they should not be the excuse for not bringing back English schools. We could make Malay and Islam compulsory subjects, or better yet, teach Islam in English and as an academic subject. These enhancements would not discourage non-Malays from enrolling, thus fulfilling the integrative role of national schools.
            Another would be to make integration an explicit objective, and reward those schools that achieve the goal, as with increased funding. The fact that they attract a cross section of Malaysians suggests that they are doing something right. Rewarding them would encourage others to follow suit. Conceivably we could have state-supported Swahili schools if they were to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.
            At the same time schools with segregated enrollment would lose state support, whether that segregation is based on race, religion, or language. That applies to Tamil as well as Tahfiz schools. That does not mean they cannot exist, only that they would not get taxpayers’ money. The state should not condone much less encourage or support segregation under any guise.

Next:  Deficiency of Content

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.