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