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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, May 23, 2021

Race, Religion, And The Politics of Education (Part ii of x)

 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.]


Second of Ten Parts:  Inequities In Education


When my children were in high school in California during the first Gulf War, the state was facing a severe budget crunch. As such, the local school board was contemplating scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes to save money. At a public hearing I defended the program, arguing that our children should get the same opportunities as those in the better districts. I suggested rather foolishly to cut back on the football program. You can imagine the ensuing uproar. One lady who disagreed with me said we should instead scrap the expensive AP program. Then eyeing me coldly, added that they were filled with only white and Asian kids!


As I listened to the heated debate fast degenerating, I could not help thinking that I have heard all those arguments before, albeit with different actors and scenes. When I started my specialty training at McGill in 1970, the strident and impassioned demonstrations then (and yes, even race riots) were protesting the paucity of French-Canadians on campus. Further away in time and place, while I was growing up in Malaysia in the 1950s, the consuming debates were on the lack of Malays in higher education, specifically the sciences. There were fewer than a handful of Malay science graduates out of a population of three million. The debates too were like those in Quebec and California, with high passions and fiery rhetoric.


Inequities in education, specifically differences in achievements, generate strong emotions because we recognize that they reflect a much greater socio-economic cleavage. The dynamics in Malaysia is more like Quebec than America, with the dominant Quebecois lagging the minority Anglophones. In America, minorities lag the White majority.


Discussions on preferential policies in education revolve around issues of quality versus equity, the implication being that you have to sacrifice one to achieve the other. In Malaysia there is an added element. Education is an explicit instrument in molding a common national identity.


During colonial rule, Malaysian education was but a tropical version of the British. We used the same textbooks and sat for the same examinations, with Malaysians eagerly learning about the Lake District and memorizing Wordsworth’s beautiful poetry, but we learned little of our own backyard or literature. The outstanding feature of the system was its unquestioned quality. If you did well you knew you had bested those kids back in old England. Then consider that my headmaster was a London University PhD while my English teacher was an Oxonian!


The major criticism was equity and accessibility. First, there were too few of those schools, just enough to satisfy the colonial conscience and to produce the necessary functionaries to run the country for the colonial office. Second, those schools like Penang Free were not free despite the name. In addition to tuition fees there were miscellaneous ones for sports, libraries, and others that quickly added up. Third, these schools were in major towns. For rural students there were the added substantial costs for transportation. Town students were spared that. As such, those schools were out of reach for the overwhelming number of Malays. We can imagine the racial implications of such inequities.


Many of these schools were church-sponsored with such names as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Students were made to sing hymns and memorize catechism. Despite those cultural barriers many Malay parents still willingly sent their children to those schools, as exemplified by the parents of the wives of the second and third Prime Ministers.


There was another reason for the schools’ superb quality. As they were few in numbers, they attracted only the most motivated. Besides, underperformers had already been culled in the lower grades. The system gave no second chances. The final products thus had been ultra-filtered.


These schools had a significant and lasting impact on the future of Malaysia, and that was not by design. As they were full integrated, the students bonded with each other. They were spontaneously creating their own nascent Malaysian identity. Later as leaders of their respective communities they were able to suppress their own parochialism and work together for a common cause:  the country’s independence. Even though their followers distrusted each other but because these leaders shared a genuine friendship and affection, they were able to bring along their followers.


There were also vernacular and Islamic schools at the time but they played marginal roles.


Judging on quality, equity, and identity, English schools were unquestionably tops on the first, extremely poor on the second, and surprisingly successful on molding the third.



Next:  Third of Ten Parts:  Education in the Immediate Post-British Period (1957-70)


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