by M. Bakri Musa
(Fifth of Six Parts)
In the previous four essays I reviewed the particular challenges facing students in rural and residential schools. This essay delves into the six-month period in which our university-bound and other students find themselves in academic limbo following their Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM) examination.
In reviewing the recent SPM results, Education Minister Muhyiddin did not once pause to ponder what those nearly half a million 17-year-old Malaysians were doing since they sat for their test last November. These are the youngsters infesting our shopping malls, roaring around on their motorcycles, or otherwise getting into mischief. For over six months they are unable to plan for their future. They cannot even enjoy their break as their future is uncertain. The government’s myriad post-SPM programs like Sixth Form, matrikulasi, polytechnic institutes, and teachers’ colleges depend on the SPM scores, and therefore do not begin until the middle of the year.
This long period of uncertainty and inactivity during a critical period in a teenager’s development is unhealthy. The expression “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop” is never more true than for teenagers. Even if they could ward off the devil’s machination, with the long hiatus would come considerable attrition of knowledge and good study habits. This is particularly critical for those aspiring to go to good universities.
Those parents who can afford it, had planned for it, or who are not in the habit of depending on the government, enroll their children in the many excellent private programs immediately in January following the SPM examination. Then when the results come out, they would apply to the various government programs. If they are accepted then they would be relieved of a great financial burden. If they are not, they would continue with their private program.
The monetary saving, even though considerable, is but a minor advantage. The greatest benefit is that should they be accepted into Sixth Form, matrikulasi, or any other public post-SPM program, they would be at least six months ahead of their classmates who had been idle. This academic advantage is even greater when you factor in the attrition of knowledge and good study habits of those who had been idle. This six-month advantage is almost insurmountable in a 12- or 18-month program (as with Sixth Form or matrikulasi), and would remain when these students go on to university.
Most Malay families cannot afford private programs, have not planned for the six-month hiatus, or have long been dependent on the government. Thus their children are typically idle after their SPM as there is no government program that starts in January. For those who excel in their SPM and then are accepted in the government’s many university “prep” programs, they wonder why they cannot keep up with their non-Malay classmates who had been diligently studying in private programs for the past six months. Unaware of their already significant academic disadvantage from their being idle, these Malay students would then readily succumb to ugly racial stereotyping of the “dumb Malay.” I meet many of these students here in America and feel sorry for the terrible burden that they have to bear.
Their burden is no less heavy should they enroll in local public universities. Then their Malay Vice-Chancellors and Deans would berate and chastise them for not “measuring up” with non-Malays, thus essentially aggravating and confirming the ugly racial stigma. If only those officials had diligently studied the problem and listened to those students, they (officials) would not be so quick to resort to racial stereotyping.
As with the problems of our kampong and residential schools, the solutions here are as simple as they are obvious. Again here, as the burden falls primarily on Malays, it is critical that we resolve it.
One solution would be to begin the various post-SPM programs like Sixth Form in January, as in the old days. Have a special entrance examination in September, in time for the results to be ready by early December. There will be another intake in late March or early April for those who were unsuccessful at the earlier entrance examination but had excelled at their SPM. This would be a separate class, with abbreviated holidays to make up for lost time.
For those who enter in January, there would be a first term examination in early March. If they pass that, then no matter how poorly they performed in their previous SPM, they would remain in class and not be expelled, as was the practice in the 1960s. That would motivate them to pay attention to their first term test!
We should have the original full 24-month pre-university program instead of the present highly truncated one. The objective is to not only prepare our students well for university but also to cover much of the first year’s work. Only then could we justify a three-year baccalaureate program. The added costs for starting Sixth Form in January would be minimal. After all, the teachers are already being paid. Indeed, a good question to ask would be what are those teachers doing from January to June?
Fully resurrecting Sixth Form in its original form without addressing its many shortcomings would be no advance. The old Sixth Form was too selective; fewer than 10 percent of my classmates made the cut. Related to this was the second problem; the not unexpected overrepresentation from the better-equipped urban schools. As the urban/rural divide then also paralleled the racial one, it did not take long for the issue to be exploited by chauvinistic politicians. The third issue was that the old (and also the present) Sixth Form was its narrow and rigid curriculum.
The first problem is readily solvable by simply expanding Sixth Form. That would also be cheaper than expanding matrikulasi or the various universities’ “foundation studies” programs. That in turn is of several orders in magnitude cheaper than the current idiotic practice of sending students abroad after their SPM to pursue essentially Sixth Form work.
If we were to continue with matrikulasi I would restrict the intake to students from kampong and other schools too small to have their own Sixth Form. Matrikulasi should supplement not replace Sixth Form, as was the original intent. I would have the universities run matrikulasi or have it subsumed under their Foundation Studies program. Each university would then have the opportunity to design its own curriculum and introduce innovations and other unique elements with the idea of the government adopting some of the more successful ones nationally into its Sixth Form. Such a program would also be a resource to the universities’ education faculty and teacher-training program.
I would broaden the Sixth Form curriculum from the current five subjects to seven, and eliminate General Studies. All students would have to take Malay and English (not Malay or English literature, as those would be separate subjects). Arts and Islamic stream students would take as electives a laboratory science and mathematics, together with their three Arts or Islamic Studies core subjects. Science students would take an Arts elective, mathematics (preferably calculus or statistics), and their three science subjects. I would teach science and mathematics in English, and abolish the current Islamic stream’s Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM). Its curriculum is even narrower and more rigid; it does not serve our students well.
I would introduce a new elective for arts and science students, Islamic Studies. It would be an academic not religious subject, and cover Islamic thoughts, philosophy, arts and culture but minus the religious rituals and Koranic recitations. The course would treat Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, as a great historical figure. This would attract those non-Muslims with the intellectual curiosity to study Islam without fear of being treated as potential converts.
Instead of tinkering with the current Sixth Form examination, as with making the term examinations count towards the final as per the current proposal, I would retain its present form as a comprehensive terminal examination. Instead I would give equal weight to the term examinations (the Grade Point Average) for university admissions and other academic purposes.
We currently pay too much attention to SPM. It is after all essentially a middle school examination. When the results are released for example, there will inevitably be a national outcry over alleged unfairness in the awards of scholarships. Those SPM students awarded the scholarships could not enroll directly to university or even a community college; they would have to undergo the equivalent of matriculation or Sixth Form first. So why not wait until these students are actually accepted to top universities before awarding them their scholarships? Besides, at this stage in our national development, we should be focusing on graduate, not undergraduate and certainly not scholarships for matriculation.
If we do award undergraduate scholarships, they should be tenable only at the top universities. In America there would be fewer than 50 such institutions, with about half a dozen each in Australia, Britain and Canada. I certainly would not award scholarships for studies in India, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
Our university-bound students must have solid 13 years of rigorous schooling. Do away with the present six months of idleness following SPM. Expand and diversify the paths towards university post-SPM, as with accepting IB, GCE A level, and other foreign matriculation examinations.
Lastly, an important point worth repeating as it is in keeping with the theme of my earlier essays. Those students who are in limbo for six months following their SPM examination, as well as those in kampong, residential and religious schools are overwhelmingly if not exclusively Malays. Solve their problems, which are independent of race, and we would go a long way towards ameliorating the so-called “Malay problem” of lagging educational achievement. That alone should excite those in Perkasa, UMNO, and other vociferous champions of Ketuanan Melayu.
Next: Last of Six Parts: Futility of Reform