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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


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