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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


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