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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 04, 2021

Rae, Religion, and the Politics of Malaysian Education. Updates Since 2003


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.]


Eighth of Ten Parts:  Updates Since 2003


I made that presentation on Malaysian education at Stanford well over 18 years ago following the release of my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia. Had things changed for the better, I would not have even considered re-posting as that would elicit only a dismissive “old story” yawn.


            However, the chaos and degradation continue. The Ministry had been split, then reunited, and later re-split again. The teaching of science and mathematics was switched to English in 2003 only to be reversed a few years later.


Viewed from any perspective, Malaysian education today is on a steep decline. Like a jet plane in a nosedive, it may no longer be recoverable. However unlike in a plane, Malaysians could spare themselves and their families a nasty crash by preparing their own parachutes and bailing out. That would not be easy or cheap. For Malays it would be the swallowing of considerable self and cultural pride as well as abandoning a long-cherished symbol of cultural and linguistic dignity.


The rich have already exited. To them national schools are irrelevant and have long opted for international schools, eased by the government’s liberalizing admissions for locals. Meanwhile UMNO Putra and Ketuanan Melayu champion Nazri Aziz sends his five year old abroad.


Comparable parachutes, cheap but just as effective though less fancy, are also available for others. Witness the burgeoning number of Malays in Chinese schools. The caliber of such schools is reflected by this observation of the headmaster of supposedly elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). Visiting the nearby average small-town Chung Hwa School recently, he was surprised how far better equipped it was, with modern “hi-tech” classrooms geared for the digital age. Had he visited Penang’s Chung Ling, that would have stunned and humbled him even more.


Beyond the physical facilities, compare the performances of their respective graduating classes. Not how many A’s scored at Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), rather which universities they were accepted to. That is the only useful guide as to the quality of a school.


Chinese schools should seize this unique opportunity to make them the first choice for all Malaysians. At the simplest level, have halal canteens. At another, hire Mandarin-speaking Islamic teachers from China. That would also give those Malay students a far more enlightened version of Islam. A public relations shift would be to identify them not as Chinese schools rather one that uses Mandarin as the language of instruction. Same reality but different perception.


China today is a rich country. If she were to emulate the Britain of yore and provide Malays with scholarships to attend Chinese universities, that could change the racial dynamics in Malaysia as well as the geopolitical one in the region. A generation hence Malay elite would brag about their condos in Hebei and taking winter holidays there, much like they do with London today.


The other parachute is more magical or illusory, the 1001 Arabian Nights’ flying carpet version. Malays are increasingly seduced by this as evident by the exodus to religious schools, including literal death-traps Tahfrizes. Unlike religious schools in America with their superior academic reputation and the regularity with which they send students to top universities to pursue secular subjects, Malaysian religious schools are all religion. If they cannot enter local universities, they would be bound for Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Middle East, countries that could teach Malaysia nothing. These schools are but brain-wasting indoctrination centers, their products fodders for the Islamists and chauvinists. That should concern all Malaysians.


Non-Malays may take comfort in that for every Malay opting for religious school there would be one fewer competing for the local law, medical, and engineering faculties. That is short-term calculation. Frustrated, these religious school graduates are but potential recruits for the jihadists and “Tanah Melayu for Malays” chauvinists. That cannot be good for Malaysia, Malays as well as non-Malays.


A measure of the rottenness of national schools is the obsession with SPM. Malay kids have mass prayers before sitting for that test, while the headlines trumpet the number of A’s scored. This year saw a significant improvement in aggregate results. Considering the Covid-19 pandemic and with classes conducted on-line, that is commendable. Viewed at another level, it would seem better for these students not to have the physical presence of their teachers!


This obsession with SPM is misplaced for another reason. As per the Program for International Student Assessment, Malaysian high school students lag by at least two years their peers elsewhere. Academically SPM is but Form III. Yet these are the would-be local undergraduates. The brighter ones (or those who scored high, the two are not synonymous) would be sent overseas. They and their parents, as well as the public, think that they are entering universities when in fact they would be doing essentially Sixth Form, and at horrendous costs.


While there are many more universities today, that is no measure of progress. Consider the current glut of doctors. That should be a positive, doctors are scarce valuable assets. Cuba sends her surplus to work in the region, a magnificent humanitarian gesture as well as diplomatic achievement. Malaysian doctors are unemployed, or perhaps unemployable, and thus not welcomed elsewhere.


Universities are like durians; one premium fruit is worth more than a barrel of the cheap variety good only for tompoyak. Worse, they stink the place. The derogatory appellation Professor Kangkung is now part of everyday Malaysian lexicon. As for universities being places to explore ideas and expand boundaries, Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia recently banned classical dancer Ramli Ibrahim’s performance on campus.


Local universities’ obsession with ranking is also misplaced. It took Singapore two generations to get to where their universities are today, and that is with enlightened leadership. Forget ranking; focus on making your graduates the preferred choice of local employers by improving their English fluency, mathematical proficiency, communicating skills, and critical thinking faculties. The ranking would follow.


Grant universities greater autonomy and dispense with the Ministry of Higher Education. That would save a bundle. More significant, that would minimize interference to the academics. California has many more public universities; it does not have a Minister in charge. Exert control and influence through your appointees on the governing councils. In Malaysia the Minister chooses the color of the faculty lounge drapes.


That is the sorry state of Malaysian education; it would only get worse. It need not be. My next instalment would explore the what-might-have-been.


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



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