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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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor Of Expensive Ones

Malaysian Education: Simple Solutions Skipped In Favor of Expensive Ones
M. Bakri Musa
Many Malaysians of my generation still remember the old hydraulic tin mines where by just directing a water hose you could bring down a hillside to recover the trapped ore. Many millionaires were created through those simple hoses.
            Dispensing with imagery and metaphor for now, when I entered Primary I at Tuanku Muhammad School (TMS), Kuala Pilah (KP), in 1950, I was only one of two Malays in the two classes of about 70. When I reached Form V in 1960, my Malay classmates formed the majority in our science class of nearly 40.
            How did that happen?
            Metaphorically speaking, the colonials had many water hoses directed at the mountain blocking Malays of my generation from getting a superior education. Today, when faced with an obstacle, our leaders’ reaction would be to hire expensive consultants, fund pricey feasibility studies, and then burden our grandchildren with massive foreign debts to finance the projects. After all that, the problems still remain, and have only gotten worse.
            Consider the East Coast Railroad Project. The estimated cost per mile exceeds that of that across the Swiss Alps! Compared to the Alps, our Main Range is but a molehill. For that much you could give every citizen of Kelantan and Trengganu a car and a truck, with plenty left over to fund their university education!
            Back to my science class, because of the shortage of Form VI slots, only four of us could get in, two being Malays, and we both became doctors. Of my other Malay classmates, six eventually managed to get their degrees through the circuitous routes of teachers’, technical, and agricultural colleges. One received a PhD from Australia; another, an Ivy League graduate degree.
            Meaning, had there been adequate Form VI slots then, we could have potentially eight instead just two Malay science undergraduates, a quadruple increase! Further, no fewer than an additional eight of my Malay classmates could better my fellow Canadian undergraduates. Meaning, had we then been given the same opportunities as those Canadians, the potential number of Malay science undergraduates from TMS would have zoomed from 2 to 16, an eight-field increase! Multiply the number of TMSs in Malaysia, and we had the potential of hundreds if not thousands of Malay science undergraduates.
            Form VI was the bottleneck, or to swap metaphor, the mountain blocking Malay achievement in science. The solution should have been obvious; have more Form VI slots. Instead, TMS did not have its science Form VI until 1974!
            Meanwhile Malaysia had built four new public universities in addition to the University of Malaya during this time. Each cost many million times more than a Form VI science class. For all the money spent, the results were underwhelming. UKM’s inaugural graduates of 1973 had fewer Malays in science than in my old Form V!
            Most of my school years were during British rule, and except during Form V, all my headmasters were colonials while most of my teachers, non-Malays; many, non-citizens. Yet they increased the number of Malays from two in Primary I to over 27 in my Form V Science.
            In his memoir Out East In The Malay Peninsula, G E D Lewis, one of my earlier headmasters at TMS, related how he applied his novel non-language-dependent Intelligence Test that he had developed for his doctoral dissertation to school kids in the villages around KP. He then invited the top scorers to enroll at TMS.
            Any time a child draws the special attention of anyone, more so an authority figure like a Mat Salleh headmaster, both parents and child would be ecstatic. Lewis had no difficulty convincing the parents or their children.
            Enrolling is one thing; practical realities, another. Even when your village was only a few miles from town, but without a bus service or a bridge across the river, KP might as well be on a different planet.
            Lewis built a hostel for those students, as well as the wardens’ quarters next door. Lewis did not build a surau to entice the students. Instead he built a modern science block, a weather monitoring station, and a botanical garden.
            It helped in no small measure that TMS was not named Holy Trinity School. That would have posed a formidable and unnecessary barrier. Nonetheless one Malay parent did send their two daughters to the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Those girls later became the wives of two successive prime ministers. It is the supreme irony that their children, now the nation’s leaders, would have the very opposite mindset of their parents and grandparents with respect to education and religion.
            Lewis and the other colonial headmasters did not just enroll those village kids and then let them sink or swim. They nurtured them in a special class and taught them English exclusively from day one. Modern pedagogy calls that total language immersion, now the rage. Back then it was simply “Special Malay Class.”
            After two years those pupils merged with us at secondary level. By then you could not tell them apart from those of us who had entered at Primary I with respect to their English fluency. Yes, their knuckles were rapped when they were caught speaking Malay in class or hostel, but there was no question their efficacy in learning English.
            Today we still lament the low level of English among Malay students. That is all we do–lament and complain, that is, when we don’t blame the students. Malay leaders and educators in particular exhibit a stunning inability to learn from the successes of the past.
            My colonial headmasters pushed to have Form VI. I would have been in its inaugural class. Alas, the last colonial headmaster was summarily fired because he raised the old Union Jack (together with the national flag) during a school function. That raised the ire of local nationalists. When his local successor took over, advocacy for our Form VI fizzled.
            While national schools have not achieved even its own very modest 60:40 STEM to non-STEM ratio, Penang’s Chung Ling has exceeded that for decades. You would think that there would be a queue to visit that school to see what it is the teachers there were doing right.
            Our leaders did learn something from the British, but not in full, by building residential schools. Those were much more expensive than Special Malay Classes. Unlike Lewis who restricted his hostel only to those kids from remote villages, our residential schools are full of children of Malay professionals and ministers, including prime ministers! Worse, they are proud that their children are being made wards of the state and makan tangung(their meals taken care of) by the government.
            When I entered Malay College in 1961 for my Form VI, it was a quantum leap both in my standard of living as well as learning opportunities. That would not be so for my children and grandchildren today. For them, there would be a significant diminution of both.
            Imagine the enhanced multiplier effect had those residential schools, like the Special Malay Classes of yore, been restricted to poor children or those who would be the first in their family to go to college! Learn from Lewis and his fellow colonials.
            This penchant for expensive and expansive solutions when cheaper and simpler ones would suffice if not more effective extends beyond education. Consider the lack of Malays in commerce. Instead of encouraging and supporting those thousands of enterprising Malay hawkers who are engaged in the most elemental form of capitalism, the government goes all out to harass them and destroy their stalls. Why not provide them with proper facilities, with power, sanitation, piped water, and protection from the elements? You don’t have to go far to learn how that could be done. Cross the causeway.
            Charge a nominal fee or not at all. Today’s hawkers (or their children) could be the creators of the next Genting or Public Bank.
            When Prophet Mohamad set up the first Muslim community in Medinah, the first thing he did was to build marketplaces, not masjids. He did not charge those traders so as to encourage trade and thus social interactions among the residents, between Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Trade is the best social enhancer as well as a wealth creator.
            Pasar Gombak in the few Malay enclaves in Kuala Lumpur took decades just in the planning! Kampung Baru’s Pasar Malam has not improved over a century. Those Malay hawkers set up their stalls where they know the customers would come. The government’s job is to enhance, not destroy those marketing and entrepreneurial instincts. Supporting them would cost minimal but the rewards would be immense. If nothing else it would teach Malays the rudiments of business.
            Instead, the government’s preferred solution is to pour mega billions into a myriad of GLCs despite the spectacular failures like Perwaja and Bank Bumiputra. All we succeed from the billions poured and squandered are pseudo entrepreneurs and ersatz capitalists that have the staying power of fireflies. As demonstrated by the latest fiasco, 1MDB, those GLCs are but thinly disguised conduits for egregious corruption.
            Learn from my colonial headmasters; use many cheap water hoses, not expensive bulldozers to bring down a mountain.
Next:   Malaysian Education:  Deficiency of Ambience
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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