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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.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Problem Is Education Of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

 The Problem Is Education of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

M. Bakri Musa


There is considerable public debate (as well as on-line chatter and coffeeshop talk) on the current appalling state of Malaysian education. This recent spate was triggered by the latest World Bank Report as well as the earlier one on the abysmal performances on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Less noted is that both are nothing new. Check their previous reports.


            If experience is any indication, this furor and the associated officials’ “resolve to solve it” will also soon subside. Indeed with the release of SPM (Malaysia’s terminal school examination, essentially middle school level elsewhere) results last week, the chatter had already shifted.


            The problem begins with the very framing of the issue. Malaysian education per se is not the challenge, rather the sub sector affecting Malays. It is huge and impacts Malaysia profoundly. Non-Malays have minimal problems with their vernacular schools or the mushrooming private and international schools that cater to them. Those schools have minimal disciplinary problems and have high standards. It is their students, not those from the national stream or its overhyped so-called elite residential schools, who end up at top universities abroad.


            As is evident, there are successful local models but those Ministry of Education folks are not eager to learn from them. The local expression, bodoh sombong! (Stupid and proud of it!), is apt. 


            Only the very rich Malays (top 1-2 percent) could send their children to these private and international schools. Another 15-20 percent (with the number fast rising) opt for Chinese schools. They come from all socioeconomic strata, and from simple conservative village folks to sophisticated liberal urbanites. Malaysia’s premier public intellectual, the academic architect Muhammad Tajuddin Rasdi, credits his Chinese school education for breaking down his cultural, intellectual, and other artificial silos.


            As for the rest of Malays, a third would choose religious schools, public and private; the remaining, the national stream. Both the religious and national streams are problematic. Had the PISA results been teased as to the types of schools, location, social class, and specifically Malay versus non-Malay, the results would be even more shocking, enough to elicit glee from those with a racist bent. 


            The Ketuanan Melayu (Malay-first) types too are fast and ingenious with their rebuttals. Those PISA tests, designed and administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, rich European and thus Western, do not capture the unique geniuses of our young. They want those tests “Islamized,” whatever that means.


            The ulama and religious bigots have completely taken over the religious stream. There, indoctrination masquerades as education, churning out closed Malay minds that accept only dogmas. When confronted with a problem, they resort to quoting ancient moldy texts and long dead scholars . When that fails, zikir and Tahajud prayers.


            That the rare miraculous specimen would end up as an Oxford don is proof to them that the system is otherwise. With the current trajectory, Malaysia will soon be another Iran or Pakistan. Even the Saudis are modernizing their education.


            As per Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:11, “God never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves.” (Approximate translation.) That Qur’anic imperative on the power of self-determination and self-effort to shape and influence our lives and the world around us resonates with me. It should also be with all Malays.


            Meanwhile national schools have degenerated into political toys for the language nationalists and Ketuanan Melayu types. The mindset there is that the learning of a second language is tantamount to not mertabatkan (respecting) the Malay language. That a second language would broaden one’s intellectual horizon or be a valuable skill is lost on them.


            The darling of Malay language nationalists, the late Siddiq Fadzil, once asserted that emphasizing science and mathematics (STEM) is misplaced. He dangled Henry Hacker’s The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions and mischaracterized Hacker as a math professor. Had Siddiq read beyond the book’s back cover promo, he would have known that Hacker indeed emphasized heightened numeracy skills. Siddiq is not worth quoting except that his daughter, Fadlina Sidek, is now the Minister of Education.


            Contrast Fadlina to Datuk Freida Pilus, the diplomat-turned teacher who started the now premier Cempaka School back in 1983. She recognized even then the inadequacies of the national stream. Today her students are at top global universities. She also impressed me in that her schools have no mandatory retirement age. It is the teachers’ competency, not age, that counts. I suggest that Fadlina view Liyana Marzuki’s “Jangan Pajakan Otak” (Don’t Mortgage Your Mind) inaugural podcast with Freida Pilus on May 17, 2024 (https://youtu.be/pgWFVLBl8tw?si=O6xylW-JVe6eCszu).


            The problem is not with Malaysian education but that of Malays. The good news is that there are Malaysians with the talent and capability to solve it. The bad news is that they are not in the Ministry of Education.


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