Removing Quotas in International Schools A Positive Development


by M. Bakri Musa

In striking contrast to the horrendously expensive and unbelievably stupid idea of sending our teacher-trainees to Kirby, the Ministry of Education’s other decision to remove quotas on local enrollment in international schools is very much welcomed and definitely positive. The Minister confidently assured us that because of the small number of students involved, the move will not impact our national schools. I respectfully disagree; his confidence is misplaced and analysis flawed. On the contrary, this measure will have a tremendous impact on our national schools and ultimately the nation, for good or bad depending on how it is managed.

Consider the liberalization of higher education instituted in 1996. The rationale was to increase access and save foreign exchange by keeping at home those who would have gone abroad. It achieved both, the most successful of government initiatives. And it did not cost a sen except for the pay of government lawyers who drafted the enabling legislation.

The policy’s impact however, went far beyond. It permanently and profoundly altered the academic landscape of our public universities. Their current emphasis on the use of English for example, is the consequence of the impact of these private universities. Local employers (other than governmental agencies of course) made it clear that they prefer these graduates over those from public universities because of their demonstrably superior skills in English.

There were initial attempts at imputing ugly racial motives to this preferential treatment of private university graduates as most of them were non-Malays. That worked, but only temporarily. Ultimately the horrible truth was exposed. That realization was the impetus to the current greater use of English in public universities, with their erstwhile nationalistic Vice-Chancellors now fully embracing the move. They had to; the pathetic sight of their unemployed graduates was a constant and painful reminder.

Yes, liberalizing higher education aggravated the inequities between Malays and non-Malays specifically with respect to their employability in the private sector. It did however, forced public universities to change their ways, as with emphasizing English. That ultimately benefited their students who incidentally are mostly Malays.

Removing limits on local enrolment in international schools will have the same profound and irreversible impact on national schools and on Malays. Yes, initially it would aggravate gaps in educational achievements, again especially between Malays and non-Malays, but in the long run it would jolt Malay leaders to make the necessary adjustments to our national schools. Either that or face the prospect of future generations of young Malays doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

Currently the locals in these international schools are children of the super-rich, and thus overwhelmingly non-Malay. Even the upper middle class (with slightly greater Malay representation) could not afford these schools. The concerns expressed that this liberalization would exacerbate educational inequities between rich and poor are therefore valid and reasonable. However, the rich are already different in many other ways; educational advantages for their children would just be another.

It also bears reminding that the impact of any policy is dynamic. Yes, there will be the expected increased inequity initially but with time people adjust and you may get radically different reactions and consequences, as was seen with the earlier liberalization of higher education.

Those harping on inequities ignore economic realities. There is demand for these international schools because they offer quality albeit expensive education. The imposition of quotas only aggravates the situation. Its removal would expand the market, enticing new players. Greater competition puts downward pressure on price, an economic truism that cannot be ignored. This is already happening in Thailand where international schools are found even in small towns and within the financial reach of the middle class, at least those families prudent enough to think of their children’s future and not on current conspicuous consumption. The lower costs in small towns would make these schools even more affordable.

There are three ready markets for international schools. One would be the super-affluent Malaysians who already have children in schools abroad. That however, is a miniscule market; besides, those parents are not likely to change course. The cachet of an overseas education still sells. A much bigger market would be the next tier of the wealthy. Those parents value education and recognize only too readily the inadequacies of local schools. At present they would require special dispensation from the minister and other hurdles in order to enroll their children in international schools; money alone would not do it.

Thus it is not a surprise that local students (especially Malays) in these schools are the children of Malaysia’s “Politburo” members. If you wonder how they could afford the costs based on their parent’s official pay, then you have not appreciated the culture of negotiated contracts, “Approved Permits,” and other quirks of the New Economic Policy, as well as the Malaysian way of doing business.

The third and also sizeable market would be those parents in Johore who now send their children to schools in Singapore. To be sure, Malaysian international schools are still considerably more expensive than the republic’s public schools, nonetheless after factoring in transportation and other costs, quite apart from wasted time and energy in commuting, these parents might well fork out the added expense and opt for the much superior local international schools. After all their reasons for choosing Singapore are to get an education in English and avoid local public schools; Malaysian international schools offer both.

To repeat because of the potential political significance, these three markets are essentially non-Malay. So expect a racial angle to the argument for reinstating the quota. If not handled skillfully, political pressure will build up to jettison the policy. Already the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), otherwise made up of liberal professional Malays, is already against the idea though for reasons other than race.

Ironically, PAGE advocates the greater use of English in national schools especially in the teaching of science and mathematics. Perhaps PAGE could be persuaded that international schools are but a backdoor path towards this objective (and beyond), albeit available only to those who could afford it. This path also conveniently sidesteps possible constitutional conundrum of having English-medium public schools. Fortunately, Malay language nationalists are not sophisticated enough to see through this.

In truth, the constitutional hurdle, like all man-made ones, is easily surmountable. Consider that the International Islamic University uses English. It overcomes this legal barrier by being registered under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, not Education, hence exempted from the language rule.

Expanding international schools would be a far superior move than simply bringing back the old English schools or increasing the number of hours devoted to the subject in our national schools, as many including PAGE are advocating. The deficiency with our national schools goes beyond its medium of instruction. International schools (especially those following the American pattern) have a very different curriculum and pedagogical philosophy, far from the stultifying ones that plague national schools.

On a related issue, if there were to be a blossoming of Arabic or Indonesian International Schools as a consequence of this liberalization, with Malays flocking to enroll their children, then we would be no further ahead. Indeed we would regress even worse. The two education systems are not worthy of emulation.

Western international schools enjoy two complementary advantages. One is of course their superior curriculum, facilities and teaching, quite apart from the international ambience. The other and perhaps more important is that the quality of local schools is atrocious. The recent rescinding of the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English only made matters worse. Consider that today’s Malay elite would rather send their children to Garden International School over supposedly exclusive Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

Where public schools are excellent, few locals would opt for private schools, as in Alberta, or international ones as in Finland. The clamor for Malaysians wanting to send their children to international schools reflects a much greater and more basic problem – our lousy national schools. Seen from this angle, for PEMANDU, the government’s transformation program, to view the growth of international schools as positive could only be construed as misplaced and misguided. Only if you are convinced that our national schools are beyond redemption would you consider this a positive development. And I do.

Next: Consequences to the Growth of International Schools

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  1. #1 by monsterball on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 4:39 am

    First thing first.
    Priority is to press hard for EC to clean Electoral Roll.
    He can keep on making idiotic excuses..but smart Malaysians know…..a fair ans square clean election…BN sure be defeated.
    After cleaning up corruptions and a program to unite all as Malaysians…then Education is the utmost important task to overhaul it completely.
    That may take at least 10 years…but PR has to know what People want them to do first.
    As such…this post is not important at this moment.

  2. #2 by monsterball on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 4:52 am

    Schools schools schools…..not important right now.
    Change the Govt…most important.
    Charge all big fishes on corruptions.
    Freeze all their bank accounts..properties…here and around the world.
    Recover all the billions stolen.
    UMNO b can destroy all evidences but the truths will be revealed…one way or another.
    Reduce oil prices…food stuffs…and check all food sold at small restaurants are not overpriced to customers.
    A task to see the poor and middle class Malaysians do not slip further down.
    And check all filthy rich People and tax them more.
    Just look at Banks making billions in Malaysia…such glaring downright out of control management by Bank Negara….and we know why too.
    Check ALL companies..large and small owned by UMNO b.
    Using them to be cronies for their corruptions must be investigated thoroughly.
    Many many more…for first 2 years of PR GOVT.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 7:55 am

    This article implies that if you send your son or daughter to an international school, he/she will make brilliant academic achievements and will have a bright future. As a lecturer, I do not quite agree with this argument. I have seen students making brilliant academic achievements even though they come from a vernacular or a government school.

    Whether a student can do well in his study or not, it has a lot to do with home education (parents telling the student the importance of education and showing concern in his study), the student’s will to do well academically and the method adopted for study.

    However, I cannot deny that international schools have good facilities e.g. Internet, lab equipment, library etc. for students to do their study.

  4. #4 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 8:56 am

    I support the idea of opening up international schools. I like the idea of giving the right to decide and to choose back to the people; and in this instance, to parents. This would be in line with the right to pick the government of our choice, which mine incidentally and definitely is not umno. So good umno for removing the quotas but I am still not voting you no matter what.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 9:20 am

    Better International School’s facilities do not necessarily imply higher academic achievements just as higher academic achievement does not imply making a better man or helping in greater achievement in his life later. (That’s all true- esp if one’s child acquires snob and rich men’s vales from his peer group in these schools). Bakri Musa here says the obvious: upon the premise that English proficiency helps one to acquire more fast expanding knowledge, secures employability in private sector, multinationals and overseas, and forge network with the Globalised Village, the fact that International Schools – or for that matter even our International Islamic University – use English, they will be several notches preferred over national schools and public universities that don’t! Language is function of currency of usage, and what Bakri says describes (indirectly) is the pathos of many Malaysian in particular Malay students’ situation who because of the UMNO/ethno nationalist/linguist insistence to ‘berdaulatkan’ the national language as medium of instruction over & at expense of the international linqua franca – an imperative that from standpoint of UMNO’s Ketuanan ideology, no Education Minister/cabinet has since 1970s the political will/guts to reverse or change- Bakri has to recommend a “back door” acquisition of English efficiency via facilities like International Schools.

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 9:42 am

    Ooops – “…rich men’s VALUES from his peer group in these schools)…”
    This is a situation where if (i) one wants to have and keep the whole cake (projecting the unrivalled superior and dominant status of the national language over all other languages to mark the nation’s historical & cultural Malay identity) one cannot, at the same time, eat it (ie. allow English usage/currency to take hold and compete with it just because of English’s practical advantages). Because of this ideological gridlock (Pride versus Reality conflict) – and the fact that the ruling party cannot bear the political costs of being seen by its traditional constituency of not supporting the national language- they have tried to ameliorate the adverse effects by piecemeal, make shift and peripheral measures –for eg sending teacher-trainees to Kirby or perhaps removing quota from international school, maybe the greater consideration is more because some important personage or crony has just acquired equity interest in international school etc- that don’t work and cannot nip the problem ate bud! So one gets all kinds of excuses and double talk – to do this and that – which don’t work but which helps maintain the political status quo, with the rich and the politically connected being able to circumvent the debilitating effects of this policy by sending their own children to Alice Smith here and then learning institutions abroad to acquire English facility/net work! The irony is where one can touch one’s nose with the finger (directly), one here tries to strenuously curve his arm behind his head to touch it from the other side!

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 9:58 am

    ///I like the idea of giving the right to decide and to choose back to the people; and in this instance, to parents/// Dagan Wanna Abu . That’s true but mark this -its such an emotive issue and political minefield that even after ABU, ask yourself this, does Pakatan Rakyat have the political will to reinstate English currency of usage & medium of instruction (ended since 1974)? If so, I have not seen it stated in its Buku Jingga and I dare say that if one puts it to PR – will you reinstate English importance and currency of usage in school?- every of its component party including DAP will shirk answering the question directly! Having said this I believe PAGE is doing the right thing. I may be wrong but had Tun Dr Mahathir (who with Anwar played a major role in making the situation what it is today) stayed on he might (then again he might not) be able to reverse this debacle. Only TDM has evinced the dictatorial will to do the reversal, and at the time of his departure, he realised the policy’s mistake/downside (the disadvantages to Malay students in particular) and had initiated baby tentative steps to reverse by advocating English/Mathematics being taught in English, which until today is resisted not just by Malay Nationalist but all kinds of other special vernacular interest groups.

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 10:30 am

    This is from Wikipedia:

    “The Constitution specified a ten-year delay after independence in changing the national language from English to Malay. As the scheduled date in 1967 drew near some Chinese began to agitate for a more liberal language policy permitting some instances of Mandarin in public affairs. Extremists from UMNO and PAS lashed out against them, but the Alliance proposed a compromise in the National Language Bill establishing Malay as the official language, but permitting English under certain circumstances and the use of non-Malay languages for non-official purposes. The Tunku described it as “a course guaranteeing peace”, but the Bill was widely derided by many Malays, who formed the National Language Action Front in hope of repealing or amending it. The leadership of the Tunku was also openly questioned.

  9. #9 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 28 May 2012 - 11:06 pm

    I totally agree with #3; we have seen students, if given the chance can excel even their parents come from comparative very poor social backgorund. Though those whose parents have the advantage of good social backgroung tend to take that advantage in life quicker when they started work. Getting ‘brilliant results’ cannot guarantee progress in work because of the lack of EQ. While we still have many ‘inwards’ looking leaders who hang on the fears of those who feel overwhelmed, we could be literally find ourselves drifting to Zimbabwe very soon! No matter what is offered in schools! we have already created he syndrone of keeping the AP rights as constitutional Rights!! When rightly the duties collected could have been used to offer free education to all Malaysians; anyway, PM had said free education can bankrupt the nation!!

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