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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, June 27, 2021

Race , Religion, and the Politics of Malaysian Education: Private Sector Participation

 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, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Seventh of Ten Parts:  Private Sector Participation


In 1996 the government introduced major legislations allowing for private colleges and universities. In its eagerness the Ministry of Education gave a flurry of approvals, in excess of 600 permits over a two-year period. The Minister of Education then, and the one responsible for approving those applications, was Najib Razak. It was not coincidental that he had no difficulty at the time to generously fund his expensive campaign to be one of the three UMNO Vice-Presidents in a hotly contested party election.


Most of those new institutions were nothing more than glorified tuition centers comparable to the cram schools found in many Asian countries. More than a few were set up over empty shop lots. There was even a medical school approved without having laboratories or clinical facilities! The path to its approval must have been especially well greased. By no stretch of the imagination could those institutions be considered a college or university in the traditional meaning. Many folded after a flourishing start, stranding their students and dashing their hopes, not to mention draining their parents’ pockets. None of those institutions were required to post any performance bonds. Those institutions will never lead Malaysia to educational excellence. The nation deserves better.


Amidst the academic debris there were a few gems like the branch campuses of established foreign universities such as Monash and Nottingham. They have their reputation to protect. Then there were the established private colleges like Taylor and INTI that had expanded, together with those sponsored by government-linked corporations like Petronas and Tenaga Nasional.


            Many looked to the excellent private American universities to justify as well as model the Malaysian variety. Those folks misread the American scene and thus opted for the wrong model. America’s Harvards and Stanfords are private but not in the same mold as IBM or Microsoft. Rather the former are non-profit entities. The government supports them indirectly as with exemptions from many taxes, local as well as Federal, and directly through funding their research. Stanford receives as much (if not more) taxpayers’ funds as the public UCLA.


Malaysian private universities on the other hand get no governmental support of any kind. They instead issue annual financial statements and distribute dividends to their parent companies! One of those universities, which has a reputable “parent” campus back in its home country, is now up for sale! Imagine!


Malaysia’s many private universities are comparable more to the proprietary (money-making) universities in America. Those are not held in high esteem. More than a few have been investigated for financial irregularities. Those institutions should not be the model for Malaysia, but unfortunately it is.


            Despite that, those private Malaysian institutions still provide stiff competition to their public counterparts. Their strength lies less with their being private and thus free of government control rather to the simple fact that they are freed from the government’s specific stricture of using Malay as the medium of instruction. That is their main if not only competitive advantage – their use of English. They have read the Malaysian educational market well. The impetus for the increased use of English in public universities was the direct result of market forces brought on by these private institutions.


            None of the Malaysian private institutions have need-blind admission policies. In contrast, Harvard and Stanford have aggressive and explicit affirmative action programs. Thus Malaysian private universities remain segregated socially as well as racially. There was a perfunctory attempt at fostering a common identity by making a course on Malaysian Studies mandatory.


            As for what price affirmative action, ponder the consequences Malaysia would have to pay for not having one. The wrenching riot of 1969 was a rude awakening and a severe price for ignoring those glaring inequities. It is worth recalling that the May 13, 1969 “incident,” the euphemism for that ghastly event, coincided with the equally deadly “disturbance,” the flare up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians are now living in peace and coming to terms with affirmative action, the Catholics and Orangemen are still busy settling their deadly scores. I would definitely settle for the Malaysian solution. Nonetheless I would reduce the leakages and thus make preferential policies less costly and more effective as well as efficient.


            Affirmative action combined with expanded opportunities dramatically reduced educational inequities in Malaysia, but today it risks degenerating into a massive entitlement instead of the outreach program it was initially designed for. The good news is that the intended beneficiaries of the program like the kampung folks are now questioning it. 


            The success of affirmative action was not at the expense of quality. Rather the widely acknowledged decline in Malaysian education today is due to the de-emphasis on English and the increasing Islamization of the system. Unless both are reversed, the decline will continue. The flourishing private sector in Malaysian higher education does not reflect its quality rather to the simple fact that they use English as the medium of instruction. Malaysians recognize the premium enhanced English fluency confers.


            Affirmative action masked the decline thus letting it fester until it reached the present crisis level and making corrections that much more difficult. The various programs under affirmative action are also extremely expensive and consume more than their fair share of resources to the detriment of the rest of the system.


            The concomitant expansion of opportunities by both private and public institutions softened the discriminatory impact of affirmative action, thus ameliorating some of the resentments.


Quality-wise, the old English colonial schools remained the gold standard. Although they were terribly inequitable, nonetheless they had something positive. They fostered, albeit unintentionally, a nascent Malaysian identity. Since that early high standard, Malaysian schools have declined. This became precipitous in the 1980s and 90s with the adoption of Malay as the medium of instruction and the increased emphasis on religion.


            The Razak Report of 1956 was the first attempt at using education to foster a national identity. This effort is severely undermined by the current dualism in education brought on by the emphasis on religion. Malaysians today remain even more segregated, but unlike earlier where it was purposely imposed by the colonials, this time Malaysians choose to remain apart. This does not bode well for plural Malaysia.


Next:  Eighth of Ten Parts – Update Since April 2003

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education In Malaysia (Part 6 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.]


Sixth of Ten Parts:  Enter The Islamists!


The late 1980s saw a heavy emphasis on Islam in national schools, together with the vast expansion of the religious stream. Non-Muslim students in national schools soon felt increasingly out of place and began opting for vernacular schools. Many Malay parents on the other hand felt that national schools were not “Islamic” enough and began shunting their children to religious schools.


            Personal piety aside, Malay parents had plenty of other reasons for choosing religious schools. Unlike their secular (national) counterpart, these schools were focused on religion, with committed teachers. Parents and the community too were deeply involved believing that they were doing God’s work. As such these schools experienced few disciplinary problems, no bullying, teenage pregnancies, or drug problems. In today’s environment, those were significant achievements.


Despite their meager resources and less-than-ideal facilities, their students excelled. The only problem was that their entire curriculum was consumed with religious studies. Their backers claimed that they were also taught science and mathematics, but at the most elementary level. There were also no fine arts, music, or enriched extracurricular activities. Those were deemed “un-Islamic.”


There were a few individual success stories of their excelling outside the narrow discipline of Islamic Studies, but those were the outliers, far from being the norm as the backers of religious schools would like us to believe. For the vast majority, their dream and only option would be a job in the rapidly expanding Islamic establishment, as being a member of the moral squad, again doing as they see it, God’s work.


I do not know which came first, the fast expanding religious bureaucracy that demanded more workers from the Islamic stream, or the glut of religious graduates that had to be employed.


In post-9-11 these schools received extra scrutiny because some were teaching an extremely fanatical and intolerant brand of Islam. Many of their teachers were trained at conservative religious colleges in Pakistan and the Middle East. They sympathized openly with the Taliban and Osama bin Ladin.


The crowning achievement for the Islamists was the Organization of Islamic Conference’s sponsorship of the International Islamic University (IIU) in Malaysia. Since it was designed to take students from other Muslim countries, IIU adopted English as its medium of instruction. That immediately created problems vis a vis the national language policy that would have all universities use Malay exclusively. To overcome this legal hurdle, the government had IIU declared not an educational institution rather a private corporation and thus exempted from the language stricture. So it was registered under the Companies Act within the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Clever!


The remarkable aspect to the whole legal shenanigans was the unusual silence of the language nationalists. They did not raise even a whimper of protest, demonstrating that among Malays, nationalism is secondary to Islamism.


Unlike many Islamic universities, IIU has professional faculties like Law, Engineering, and Medicine. The narrow curriculum of those religious schools however does not prepare their students for such studies. As such IIU has to take students from the secular stream.


With its fortuitous choice of English as the medium of instruction, IIU graduates command a premium in the marketplace. IIU has many other distinctions; many of its students are trilingual – English, Malay, and Arabic. Many know a fourth, their native tongue. Not many universities could claim this distinction of such linguistically gifted students – a definite plus in this global diverse market. IIU also has the highest percentage of international students of any Asian university.


            Islamization of Malaysian education created two dangerous trends . One, it further segregated and polarized Malaysians, not only between Muslims and non-Muslims but also between conservative versus progressive Muslims. It further reinforced ethnic and religious identities instead of fostering a common Malaysian outlook. Two, as Malays are increasingly opting for these religious schools with their narrow curriculum, they are again being poorly served.


            The challenge is to modernize these religious schools as well as reduce the influence of religion in the national stream. A daunting task! The Islamic establishment would not take kindly to any diminution, or even threat thereof, of its role and influence. It is unfortunate and tragic that Malay leaders have yet to recognize this, let alone begin to remedy this festering problem. Unchecked it could be Malaysia’s undoing. If this modernization of Islamic schools were to be executed poorly and without sensitivity, that would provoke the ire of the Islamists. They in turn could incite the masses.


            Islamization of the education system created the worst of all situations. It was accompanied by a marked deterioration in quality except for the bright star of IIU, and the system does not foster a common national identity. As the religious stream does not prepare their students for the modern marketplace, Malaysia is again creating educational inequities, except this time it is through the deliberate and willing choice of the participants, principally Malay parents and Malay policymakers, unlike earlier inequities that were imposed by the colonialists.


Next:  Seventh of Ten Parts:  Private Sector Participation


Sunday, June 13, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Poltics of Education in Malaysia. What Price Affirmative Action? (Fifth of Ten Parts)


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.]


Fifth of Ten Parts:  Nationalistic Phase, 1981-1990


The NEP dramatically increased the number of Malays in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as the professions. Instead of building on and solidifying this early but still fragile success, Malay leaders in their cockiness deluded themselves that the hitherto deemed intractable problem of the lack of Malays in STEM was readily solvable and thus no longer an issue. Thus they succumbed and pandered to the language nationalists in the push for the wider use of Malay language. In the past they were shunted aside with the practical argument that there were not enough Malays to teach or write the textbooks. That argument was no longer deemed tenable, and the movement to adopt Malay as the exclusive language of instruction rapidly gained momentum.


            The number of Malays in STEM then while increasing had not yet reached a critical mass. Their presence was not yet being felt in the marketplace. There were few private Malay specialists or engineering consulting firms. Besides, those early Malays in STEM as well as the professions, being scholarship holders, had to spend their formative years in government service where they were quickly shunted into administration and promoted fast at the expense of the development of their professional skills.


One young Malay medical scientist was diverted from his lab to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to coin new Malay medical terms! When I asked him whether he enjoyed his work or felt he was doing something meaningful, his canned reply was, “For the sake of bangsa (nation) and bahasa (language)!”


            The first batch of students to enter university under this all-Malay system was in 1981. To many, that was the pinnacle of achievement. In reality, it was the beginning of the steep decline, not just for education but also for Malays.


            The language switch contributed to the significant deterioration in standards. This was masked as the expanding economy and government could absorb all graduates. Besides, the country then still had substantial numbers of senior personnel trained under the old English system who could pick up the slack and cover for the inadequacies of these new graduates.


            Were one to scrutinize the system, the deterioration would be obvious. British accrediting agencies were withdrawing their recognition of local degrees beginning with engineering and later, medicine and other professional qualifications. Local graduates could no longer enter leading graduate programs abroad with ease.


The politician who spearheaded this nationalistic phase was Dr. Mahathir, the current [April 2003] Prime Minister. Like many of his contemporaries, he was English educated but he shrewdly saw the political mileage to be gained in championing Malay language. Earlier as the Minister of Education he was hailed a visionary and national hero for having “restored” the dignity of the Malay language.


That was then. Today [2003] more than a decade later the folly of that move is obvious, with the realization that Malaysians especially Malays could not compete effectively on global markets because of their lack of English proficiency. He is now desperately trying to reverse course, even calling for reestablishing English schools. Perversely in an Orwellian twist, he is again being hailed a hero! The typical wily politician that he is, Mahathir would rather we forget his earlier zeal.


The nationalistic phase did not alter the integrative ideal or equity objectives, but the damage it did to quality was undeniable and irreversible. Less appreciated was the squandering of the precious talents of those still scarce Malays in STEM.


Policies are better appreciated if accompanied by narratives of their impact on individuals. I have two examples.


In late 1990s a young Malay doctor left Malaysia to join her husband in California. She had completed her mandatory ten years of service as required by her scholarship bonds. Meaning, she had graduated from the University of Malaya in the mid 1980s, the time when the language switch was in full swing. She sat for the US Medical Licensing Examination, necessary for entry into specialty training in America. She scored near the 90th percentile and was accepted into a prestigious residency (specialty training) program. Quite an achievement considering that she had graduated over a decade earlier and the test included substantial first-year basic science materials.


I asked her what was her class standing in Malaysia, expecting her to be near the top. She surprised me when she replied that she was in the middle. That reflected the standard of her medical education in Malaysia then.


I had thought that with the language switch the quality would be adversely affected, and with that her chances for further studies in America. She corrected me and said that all her lectures, assignments, and clinical rounds were in English despite the mandate to switch to Malay. Kudos to her lecturers for thinking of their students’ best interests instead of following the official edict.


As it turned out those medical professors did not defy the official ruling. As most of the teaching was done in the clinics and hospital, the Agung had given them a special dispensation from the language stricture. Likewise with legal proceedings.


A decade earlier I too did my teaching using English with the first batch of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) medical students, ignoring the country’s and university’s language rules. My rationale was simple. Why waste my time as well as the students’ in trying to concoct silly “Malaynized” medical terminologies? Stick with their original Latin or English. That would help the students with reading the textbooks and journals. Like those University of Malaya lecturers a decade later, I conducted my rounds and seminars in English.


It was rough for the first few months. Soon however, I could not tell them apart from the English-medium University of Malaya students rotating through my Unit. In retrospect, that should not have surprised me. Those UKM students had been taught English right from Standard One in the national schools. It was just that they were not encouraged to use their English skills for fear of being ostracized, of not mentarbatkan(respecting) the national language, akin to American ghetto kids trying to be a “whitey.”


The second example was an Engineering PhD. When I first met him he was already the Chief Scientific Officer for a major start-up in Silicon Valley. I thought he was the product of the English stream as his English was flawless sans any accent. Instead he was among the first science graduates from UKM and was its top student. He told me that he could have finished his doctorate in half the time if not for his English deficiency. He had to enroll on his own private English lessons including accent-reduction classes. How he envied me and others educated in the English stream! He was angry to have wasted those precious three to four years having to make up for his English deficiency.


Referring back to the doctor, I wonder what her chances would have been had her Malaysian professors toed the government edict and not continued their teaching in English. As for that young engineer, what academic and intellectual opportunity costs did he have to bear while learning English because his earlier Malaysian lecturers were swayed by those language nationalists?


Peruse the resume of many Malays in STEM a generation after me. Most took an inordinately long time to get their terminal qualifications, often as long as a decade following their first degree. That represents a colossal waste of time and talent in addition to the lost intellectual opportunity costs. The exceptions are those who obtained their doctorates locally. Few of them however, continue (or could) with their post-doctoral pursuits abroad.


Ultimately the best judgment and measure of a policy is less with the aggregate statistics rather its impact on individuals. With the language nationalists’ influence on the education system, it failed on both counts.


Next:  Sixth of Ten Parts:  Enter The Islamists!

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia (Fourth of Ten Parts)

 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.]



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


The May 1969 race riots forced deep soul searching among Malaysians and resulted in the New Economic Policy (NEP). Among its many provisions were rigid quotas in university admissions and elsewhere. As per NEP, public institutions had to reflect the community that supports them. In addition to quotas, universities were forced to create outreach programs – matrikulasi – where bright disadvantaged rural students interested in the sciences could spend their last two (in some cases one) years of their high school on university campuses and be taught by their lecturers. The program was so successful that it was expanded quickly.


            Matrikulasi’s success was also its undoing. Its highly sought slots were soon filled with children of ministers and doctors instead of villagers and fishermen, making a mockery of its initial outreach commitment.


            In addition to matrikulasi, the government vastly expanded its academic magnet boarding schools, again targeting Malay students. While during my school years there were only two such schools, one for boys, the other for girls. That soon expanded to over a hundred. As before, admissions were strictly on merit. Since it was narrowly defined, based only on test scores, those schools favored Malays from the upper socioeconomic class, again negating their earlier outreach mission. That situation has only gotten worse today.


Both matrikulasi and residential schools are expensive. They suck resources away from the rest of the system. Another common lament from teachers, especially those of rural schools, was that deprived of their brightest students now shunted to these residential schools, the sparks in their classes were gone, and with that, the joy of teaching for the teachers and the excitement of learning for the students.


The government also expanded higher education by setting up three new universities. That reduced the bottleneck for the increasing number of matriculating students. Precisely because of this concomitant expansion of opportunities, the discriminatory impact of affirmative action was softened. Few felt threatened with the denial of opportunities, and with that, minimal resentments or protests. Further, it was obvious to all that the previous gross inequities were inherently unfair and could not be the basis for a stable society. A more practical reason was that the government threatened to use its repressive Internal Security Act to bludgeon anyone who dared protest.


The impact of quotas and expanded opportunities was dramatic. It greatly reduced the perception as well as reality of the disparity. This was achieved in a remarkably short time. In terms of scope and impact, I would put Malaysia’s affirmative action program during its first decade comparable to America’s immediate post-war GI Bill.


Perception unless supported by reality is illusion. An anecdote will dramatically illustrate the impact of these changes.


In 1969 just after the race riot, I was visiting a school in my old village during a break after my graduation. I gave a talk on careers in medicine. Following my talk a shy young Malay girl gingerly approached me. She had patiently waited until everyone had left. She wanted to know whether in my dissections of the brains of blacks and whites, did I notice any difference? I was flabbergasted by the innocent inquiry and immediately sensed the terrible burden on this young girl’s mind.


Startled and unable to give an immediate coherent answer, I responded with a question of my own. “Why do you ask?”


Her answer was even more fascinating. She had previously posed that same question to another doctor and of course was told that there were no differences between the brains of the various races. However, she did not believe him because he was a local graduate and thus had dissected the brains of only Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Since they were all Asian, he would not have been able to detect subtle differences. Since I was trained in Canada and had studied the brains of blacks and whites where presumably the differences would be that much more apparent, my answer would be more accurate. Astute reasoning!


Seven years later I returned to that same school, this time as a surgeon, and again gave a talk on careers. The first question asked of me was, “How much do you make?”


That was followed quickly on whether brain surgeons make more money than general surgeons. When I replied “Yes!” to that second easy query, this young man immediately retorted that he wanted to be a brain surgeon and not “just a general surgeon!”


Although those were all said in gest with the class responding with riotous laughter, I could not believe the sea change I was witnessing. These were children of villagers and rubber tappers. If I were to mention to them that their predecessors only a few years earlier were wondering whether they were even capable intellectually of pursuing the sciences, these youngsters would have given me a stunned look of disbelief, and rightly so.


Quotas and preferential treatments, together with vastly expanded opportunities, greatly reduced the gross inequities in education. The NEP succeeded with minimal dilution of quality and evoked minimal protest. And the government again emphasized the role of education in fostering a common Malaysian identity.


Next:  Fifth of Ten Parts:  Nationalistic Phase, 1981-1990