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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, 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!


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