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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 30, 2021

Race religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia (Part 3 of 10)

 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.]


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


The immediate post-British period was one of expanded opportunities in education at the primary and secondary levels. The first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared that his immediate priority was building classrooms, not barracks, and training teachers, not soldiers. Spared an expansive military budget thanks to a defense treaty with Britain, he was able to build schools and train teachers on a scale unimaginable.


His Minister of Education Tun Razak began by undertaking a massive registration of preschool children, an exercise appropriately termed Operation Torch as it would bring light to that generation.


I was twelve then and remember following the village headman going from one kampung hut to the next tagging preschool kids with indelible ink on their forehead so they would not be counted twice. He could have taken the easy route by checking the birth registry but he was too smart a man to trust the official statistics.


That was just the beginning. Then came a building spree, with new schools mushrooming all over the country especially in rural areas. In the seven-mile bus ride from my kampung to school there were no fewer than five new schools being built, including a secondary school. Amazing! Obviously there was a huge hitherto unmet need that was previously ignored by the colonial office. Even more impressive, the constructions were all internally financed. There was no foreign aid or borrowing. The government of the day was fiscally conservative. This early commitment to basic education contributed to Malaysia’s subsequent spectacular economic performance. Tun Razak also produced his Razak Report, aimed at creating a common Malaysian identity through a common curriculum and syllabus while mandating Malay as a compulsory subject in all streams.


Unfortunately there was no comparable expansion at the tertiary level. The reasons for this were many but lack of funding was not one of them. Rather it had everything to do with the elitist mindset in the academy at the time that equated expansion with dilution. Malaysian intellectuals then were obsessed that their sole university must be a jungle version of Oxford and Cambridge. The idea of democratization of higher education for the masses was not quite yet acceptable. Everyone was obsessed with maintaining “quality” which in their little minds was equated with scarcity.


The political leadership could do nothing as the university enjoyed considerable autonomy. The result was a bottle neck at that level. The rich could send their children abroad and be spared the stress. The rest however had to fight for the scarce slots. Naturally that favored the status quo, meaning, students from established schools in the major towns. In 1967 for example, over 80 percent of the freshmen came from only eight schools, the established urban ones. This was at a time when there were already nearly 50 high schools nationwide.


Few paid attention to these glaring inequities and inequalities, least of all the academics. This educational divide between urban and rural, old versus new schools was nothing more than a surrogate indicator of a much larger and more dangerous racial divide.


Another glaring statistics illustrates this point. In 1967 Malays made up less than 15 percent of the undergraduates while constituting over 55 percent of the population. The local science, engineering, and medical faculties were the exclusive preserve of non-Malays in students and faculty. The few Malays were made to feel as if they did not belong there.


The greatest anxiety among my fellow Malay high school classmates in the 1950s and 60s, especially the aspiring doctors, scientists, and engineers, was that we would end up at the local university. We were terrified of that prospect. Stories abounded of those who flunked the local university only to excel when they went abroad. Dr. Ismail, a senior minister at the time, failed his first year locally only to graduate later from the University of Melbourne. Two of my Malay classmates who failed even to get admitted locally eventually managed through the circuitous route of technical and agricultural colleges to get their PhDs in science abroad.


Lest we think that this was a particular Malaysian aberration, remember this was the 1950s and 60s where Blacks in America, and not just in the Deep South, were denied basic education.


When leaders ignore such glaring problems, then others less responsible would gladly take the opportunity to champion the issue. Thus entered the ultranationalists, chauvinists, and outright racists. They were aided by opportunistic and ambitious politicians who may not have been racist at heart, at least initially, but nonetheless found that riding the charged issue was politically rewarding and career enhancing.


The result was an increasingly divisive, shrill and coarse public discourse that culminated in the race riot of 1969. That shocked the young nation and nearly tore it apart.


The immediate post-colonial period continued the British pattern of minimal or no preferential treatment. The rapid expansion of the system meant that there was the inevitable decline in quality. This was expected as now education was no longer for the select few. The new system was definitely more equitable at the school level but remained unacceptable at the tertiary level. The integrative role of education in creating a common identity was now a deliberate policy instead of merely an unintended byproduct, as during the earlier British period.


Next:  Fourth of Ten Parts:  The New Economic Policy (NEP) Phase – 1971-81.


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