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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 11, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Poltics of Education in Malaysia

 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.]


Ninth of Ten Parts:  The What-Might-Have-Been


In my 2003 book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia I put forth ideas on improving the system. Today the situation is much worse. Nonetheless some, with appropriate modifications, could still be useful.


The cheapest, easiest, and most immediate would be to end the current obsession with Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM – taken at Year 11). Make K-13 the new standard, with Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan (STP – taken at Year 13) the new terminal examination. While America has K-12, that is misleading. The norm is at least K-12 plus 2, the two being junior college or university. The necessary first step to improving the quality of Malaysian universities would be to improve the quality of its incoming students. Thirteen years of schooling would achieve that.


            Stop sending students abroad after SPM. That is an exorbitant waste of funds. Instead expand Sixth Form. Universities should disband their expensive, resource-wasting foundational and matrikulasi programs and undertake only what could not be done elsewhere, that is, undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, plus extension and continuing education courses.


Stream Sixth Form into academic (university-bound), general (for those who would enter the workforce directly), and vocational, integrating that with industry’s apprentice programs as in Germany.


            Students should take seven subjects – Malay, English, mathematics, one science, one humanities, plus two electives. The science and mathematics for aspiring engineers would necessarily be different from would-be history majors or future mechanics. With English mandatory, dispense with Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET), except for foreigners.


            Many call for the return of the old English schools. Unmodified that would be no progress. I would bring them back but with a twist. Site them where the community standard of English is low, as in the villages, small towns, and poor urban areas. In addition to having Malay as a mandatory subject, I would add another with a high language content like history be taught in Malay to ensure graduates would be bilingual.


            The weak link is the lack of teachers of English. Set up English-medium Teachers’ Colleges. Trainees could enter after SPM or STP. Those with SPM would have an intensive year of English akin to the old Remove Classes of yore. STP candidates would enter into second year. With their English training, these graduates would enhance their acceptance into universities in the English-speaking world. That alone would attract the brightest into Teachers’ Colleges.


As for universities, it would be presumptuous of me to tell them what to do as they have (or should have) their own bright people to chart their course. Nonetheless, some thoughts.


Nanyang Technological University would not be the premier institution that it is today had Lee Kuan Yew not driven off the Chinese language chauvinists from campus back in the 1970s. Remember the riots when he made English the medium of instruction? Likewise with the National University of Singapore when he made local faculty compete with foreigners.


Two elements are responsible for degrading Malaysian education – the Islamists and language nationalists. The political leadership lacks the courage to curb them. On the contrary, the two negative forces are allowed to run loose. Malay political leaders outdo each other to cater to those two regressive elements. Expect continued deterioration, difficult though that may be to imagine.


Even if universities were to be given greater autonomy, a remedy often proposed, that would mean letting those regressive forces there now be more emboldened.


What makes universities great are its faculty members. As such at the minimum, all the faculty should have terminal qualifications. For the five apex universities, at least two years of post-doctoral work.


The current remunerations for Malaysian academics are pathetic. You can never attract the best with the measly pay. It is a tribute to those dedicated academics that they stayed on. One way to augment the pay would be to have a core of endowed professorships paying globally competitive salaries. Those academics would then become the nucleus and inspiration for the rest. A few dozen on each campus would do it.


Another would be to let the faculty augment their income from outside sources. Thus engineering professors could do private consulting, law professors outside legal work, and medical specialists some private practice.


There would be rules with respect to both conflict of interest as well as to the limits and distribution of the outside income. One scheme would have 50 percent going to the individual, 30 to his department, and 20 to the university. After all, when professors engage in extracurricular activities they would directly as well as indirectly use the campus facilities. As such it would be difficult to allocate based on time spent. Thus a Professor of English could consult for a newspaper to improve the writing skills of its journalists. Likewise a Professor of Malay studies could write his blockbuster novel and share his royalty as per above. This is common practice on American campuses.


Another way to augment the faculty would be to have adjunct professors where accomplished professionals could spend a few hours a week on campus sharing their expertise. As the bulk of their income comes from their practice, the low pay would not be a factor. It would be more an opportunity for them to contribute to the next generation in their professions.


Most of all Malaysian universities must be liberated from the clutches of hidebound, kami-menunggu-arahan (I await directive) mindset of the civil service. That is the biggest obstacle.


Next:   Last of Ten Parts:  Readers’ Reponses



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