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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, May 16, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education. What Price Affirmative Action?

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


First of Ten Parts


The Malaysian dilemma of socioeconomic cleavages paralleling ethnic lines is not unique. This too is an American one, as well as that of many nations. With the artificial drawings of political boundaries and the massive migrations of people in the last century, few countries have ethnically and culturally homogenous populations. Thus the Malaysian experience has global relevance.


The best correlate of socioeconomic development is level of education. This is true within and between nations. In Malaysia, educational achievements is racially skewed across its three main racial groups, with the Malay (or Bumiputra) majority lagging behind the Chinese and Indian minorities. Malaysia’s major instrument in remedying these inequities is its preferential policies.


As in America, affirmative action still incites passion despite having been part of the political and social landscape for decades. While in America the debates are open, in Malaysia the authorities have declared that the issue is either settled or “racially sensitive,” and thus beyond the realm of public discussions.


Let me highlight the points I wish to make.


First, Malaysia has an aggressive affirmative action in the form of rigid quotas and special set-aside programs not only in education but also in the rest of the public sector. The private sector is free from such encumbrances.


Second, the robust private sector in education together with the rapid growth of public universities vastly expanded opportunities. That softened if not mitigated to a large extent the discriminatory impact of affirmative action.


Third, there is general acknowledgment that the public education system today has deteriorated to a critical level that it impairs the nation’s competitiveness. This decline has little to do with affirmative action rather with the basic flaws in policies, in particular the neglect of English and STEM with the accompanying emphasis on religion.


Fourth, affirmative action was highly successful in its first decade in reducing the perception as well as the reality of inequities. Today the program is fast degenerating into another massive entitlement program.


Fifth, the various programs under affirmative action are expensive, consuming more than their fair share of resources to the detriment of the rest of the system.


Sixth, affirmative action contributes to the creation of a parallel and mutually exclusive educational system that further divides the nation. This dualism is more significant than the decline in quality. In a plural society the fostering of a common identity must be a crucial function of the school system.


Last, any major social initiative requires periodic evaluations. For if it is successful, then the underlying premises and assumptions would no longer exist or be valid, and the program should therefore be terminated or at least modified to meet the new reality. Alternatively if the programs have failed, then all the more they should be reexamined. A generation or two ago the giving of a scholarship to any Malay meant almost certainly that the recipient would be someone poor and the first to go to college. Today that probability has dropped significantly.


            It is this failure to recognize the new reality that dooms the program. Far from solving a critical problem, it breeds new ones, as with creating on its recipients a complacent dependency syndrome that cannot possibly be satisfied. For non-Malays, an equally dangerous  sense of resentment for the futility despite the massive expenditures funded in large part by their tax contributions.


In short, current special privileges program satisfies no one. It is far better to have none than to have a bad one.


Next:  Second of Ten Parts:  Inequities In Education




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