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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, July 18, 2021

Race, religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia. What Price Affirmative Action?



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.]



Last of Ten Parts:  Readers’ Reponses


Malaysian education is my favorite topic because of its centrality and importance. I am encouraged by the many thoughtful comments from readers. That seminar coincided with the release of my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia in both America and Malaysia.


            I was pleased that my seminar was well attended. It made the front page of the Stanford Dailycompeting side by side with the coverage of another visiting speaker on campus, a senior Bush Administration official. The interest in my talk could not be because of me, rather the topic, affirmative action, and secondarily education. Both resonated with Americans.


Among the attendees were Stanford faculty who had served in Malaysia either as consultants or visiting professors. I was also gratified to see many Malaysians from outside the Stanford community. My host did a credible job in publicizing my talk beyond the campus.


The Americans were interested on my take of the American version of affirmative action while the Malaysians on whether the Malaysian variety would be better based on socioeconomic criteria rather than race.


The first and obvious difference between Malaysian and American programs is that the former is designed and implemented by the politically powerful for the benefit of the equally politically powerful majority. That carries vast implications, both positive as well as negative. The positive is that you would always get your way. Hence the ever expansive reach and expensive costs. That in turn greased its current degeneration into what it is – a massive entitlement riddled with bloat, abuses, and corruption that erode both its efficacy and efficiency. Being a program by and for the benefit of the majority, there is no effective checks and balances; hence its rapid degeneration 


In America, the minority has to prove the program’s effectiveness or risk it being terminated by the majority. Its proponents have to seek alliances from among the like-minded in the majority. With that comes automatic and all-important critical scrutiny that would discourage abuses. The negative is that it takes effort to get continuing support much less expanding the program.


Special privileges in America go far beyond the very public and much criticized affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities. However those that benefited the majority do not draw attention or criticism. To wit, legacy admissions at elite universities. Kennedy and Bush II did not get into Harvard and Yale respectively based on their SAT scores. Witness the current criminal charges against privileged whites bribing their children’s admissions into elite colleges.


The important lesson there is that those abuses do get caught and then aggressively prosecuted. In Malaysia, ministers brag about their children getting government scholarships, claiming that those are based on merit!


For those arguing that affirmative action should be based not on race but need, there is merit in that except for the associated huge bureaucracy. I would rather the funds go to the students, deserving or not, than to those bureaucrats trying to determine whether you qualify based on need. Think of tax accountants!


As special privileges being extended to non-Malays, the arrogance of them to think that they are more virtuous than Malays and thus would not also abuse and degrade the program! Such an expansion would lead to even wider abuses. The aim should be to curtailing with a view of terminating special privileges, not expanding it.


During the first few decades of special privileges, race was a good surrogate indicator of need. In 1960, if you were to give a scholarship to a Malay, in all likelihood he would be from the kampung, a poor family, and the first to go to university. You did not need intrusive bureaucrats to establish that fact. The problem with many programs for the poor in America and elsewhere is just that, the humongous bureaucratic costs and administrative hassles. Hence unconditional cash transfer programs advocated by progressives.


Perversely with the earlier success with special privileges, today the giving of a scholarship to a Malay, the assumption (or probability) of him being poor and the first to go to university would be much lower. That said, I am still astounded that many rich Malays still lobby to have their children sent to residential schools. 


When I went to Malay College in 1960, it was a quantum leap in improvement of my living standards. Imagine meat served every day! As for having a shower, all I had to do was turn on the tap. No more hauling buckets strung from a pole across my shoulders. As for studying at night, no more smelly kerosene on my hands. If I were to send my children (or grandchildren) to MCKK today, they would abscond after the first night. It would be an unacceptable step down in so many ways for them.


I am heartened that the government is now giving priority to B40 families for these these expensive schools. Belated but much needed. I would go further and restrict residential schools only to children who would be the first in their family to go to university, and ban the children of parents who had once attended such schools. They had their chance.


There is a glimmer of hope. I see growing pride among Malays not to opt for special privileges. Many years ago I met a young man, the scion of a prominent Malay family. He graduated from an Ivy League and wanted to have his own start-up here in America. He said if he were to do it in Malaysia, his success would always be tainted because of his presumed connections.


Contrast that to the response of a visiting minister. She bragged about her daughter getting a MARA “scholarship.” That young man gave me hope; that lady minister shattered it.


A reader of my book, an expatriate teacher in Malaysia, wrote how relieved he was that someone else shared his views. He had tried to share his with local colleagues but was discouraged by hints of his being a residual colonialist. A graduate student in Sweden who topped University of Malaya’s matrikulasi recalled the culture of mediocrity prevalent among his fellow students. Any spark of brilliance would be put down as “showing off.”


The most touching was a long eloquent letter from a prominent Indian-Malaysian who lamented that the media’s highlighting the problems of Bumiputras obscures a growing crisis – the shockingly high dropout rates and under-achievements among poor Malaysian Indians. I agree.


One non-Malay political appointee high up in the Ministry of Education was so enthused about the concept of charter and essential schools mentioned in my book that he invited me to come to Malaysia to talk with his officials. I replied right away with even greater enthusiasm but added a cautionary note. He should first discuss it with his superior, the Minister, a gentleman whom I knew. No further communication after that!


I do not underestimate the will and ingenuity of individual parents to think the best for their children. I am heartened that more Malays are now opting for Chinese schools. With China fast rising, that is prudent and pragmatic. The negative counter trend is the increasing number of Malays opting for religious schools including the literal death-traps Tahfriz schools. With their limited opportunities, Malaysia may be reprising the 1950s with the frequent frightening riots from chauvinists in vernacular schools, except this time from the fanatic Islamists.


            The only good news to the rot in Malaysian education is that today parents both Malays and non-Malays are directly involved and concerned with their children’s education and depending less on the government.


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