by M. Bakri Musa
Third of Five Parts: Quality, Efficiency, Efficacy, And Trimming of Fat
[Part One discusses the Blueprint’s failure to recognize the diversity within our school system, and with that the need for specific solutions targeted to particular groups. Part Two discusses the particular challenge of having competent teachers especially in science, English, and mathematics, a critical problem not adequately addressed by the Blueprint. In this third part I discuss the inextricable link between quality, efficiency, and efficacy, points not fully appreciated in the Blueprint.]
The one diagram in the Blueprint that best captures what’s wrong with the Malaysian education system is Exhibit 6-4, the ministry’s organizational staff structure. The diagram is described as rectangular; it’s more fat Grecian column. Incidentally, that diagram is the best graphic representation of data in the entire document; it captures and demonstrates well two salient points. One, there are as many Indians as there are chiefs in the organization, and two, the overwhelming burden of administrative staff at all levels.
“Malaysia arguably has one of the largest central (federal) administrations in the world, relative to the number of schools,” says the Blueprint, quoting a UNESCO report.
We do not need those highly-paid international consultants to remind us of the bloat. The gleaming tower that is the Ministry of Higher Education in Putrajaya is emblematic of that. It reveals the government’s perverted priorities. That edifice shames that of the Department of Education of the US, or any First World country.
By any measure, relative to the economy, population, or total budget, Malaysia funds its education system generously, much more so than countries like Finland and South Korea. Yet our students and schools lag far behind. The answer lies in Exhibit 6-4. The bulk of the resources expended do not end up in the classrooms.
It reflects the panel’s commitment (or lack of it) to enhancing the system’s efficiency that the post-reform chart looks only slightly tapered at the top. It needs to be sharply pyramidal to tackle the current bloated rectangle.
Efficiency is one of the Blueprint’s six goals. Briefly though not inaccurately defined, efficiency is output relative to input. If I expend “x” amount of resources (time, money, effort) and produce “y” amount of intended results, while my colleague expends twice as much, then I am twice as efficient. However, if he produces other than the intended results, then he is not being efficacious quite apart from being not efficient. His producing all those unintended and unwanted products reduces or interferes with his output of the desired ones. Efficiency is doing things right; efficacy, doing the right thing.
Our system of education is both inefficient and inefficacious. We are not efficient because despite the vast resources expended we produce far too few graduates who are bilingual, science literate, mathematically competent, and capable of critical thinking. We are not being efficacious because the graduates we produce are not the types we desire, meaning, they are unilingual, unable to think critically, and good only at regurgitating what has been spoon-fed into them.
A more tangible manifestation of our inefficiency is this. Rwanda could provide each child with a laptop at a fraction of the Malaysian price. We are not being as efficacious as Rwanda where its laptop program teaches not only the children but also spills over to their families. In Malaysia those laptops end up either being “lost” or gathering dust in the school’s storerooms. Our teachers have not been adequately trained to use them; besides those computers belong to the school and not given to individual teachers. Thus there is no pride of ownership, and opportunities for them to learn are that much reduced.
Pursuing efficiency, we have two ministries (one for higher education), each with its own overpaid minister, deputy ministers, KSUs, DGs, Deputy KSUs, Assistant Deputy KSUs, and hordes of directors. With the government’s stated goal of autonomy to universities, all you need is one person to write the checks perhaps once a semester. You do not need a ministry, much less a grand one. That expensive edifice and bloated administrative staff divert resources that otherwise could have been diverted to the classrooms and teachers.
Peruse the organizational structure of the Ministry of Education (MOE); dozens of divisions could be chopped off. Why do we need a separate division for matrikulasi; it is nothing more than Sixth Form; likewise with residential schools. The purpose of decentralization and devolution of authority to the periphery is, among others, to reduce the central bureaucracy, not to lighten the load of those already under-worked civil servants at headquarters. If schools truly have autonomy then all you need is one person at headquarters to write the big check every month, term, or year.
Bureaus like Textbook, Translation, and Dewan Bahasa could be privatized and the resources saved diverted directly to pay writers, translators, and publishers, the actual producers of goods and services. Then there are the corporate and international relations offices. Get rid of both. The only important relationship MOE should cultivate is with parents and teachers.
I would also spin off the Examination Syndicate. Such bodies in America like the College Board (responsible for the Scholastic Assessment Test, SAT) and American College Testing (ACT), as well as those responsible for graduate and professional studies like GMAT (business school) and MCAT (medical school) are private.
Yet there is not a word in the Blueprint on streamlining the ministry, reducing the bloat, and getting rid or at least privatizing those peripheral services.
Malaysians, individually and as a society, value and respect education. We willingly expend resources on it but are unwilling to expend the extra effort to make sure that that those funds are spent wisely. MOE’s budget escapes critical scrutiny.
MOE, being part and parcel of the massive Malaysian bureaucracy, is also afflicted with rampant corruption, blatant cronyism, embarrassing incompetence, naked nepotism, and a distorted sense of meritocracy. The last scandal (at least one that was exposed) was in 1960 under Rahman Talib when RM100 million in school construction funds were “unaccounted for,” the euphemism for “missing.” That may seem small change by current standard of greed, but after factoring for inflation and devaluation, it would be a billion in today’s currency.
The Blueprint completely ignores this blight of administration in MOE. In an earlier book I cited the example of the bloated cost of a MARA residential college where through competitive bidding we could get three such schools for the price of two. If competitive bidding were to be standard practice, then not only would we get more for our money but also our schools would have roofs that would not collapse, thus endangering our children.
Najib and Muhyyiddin have not demonstrated their ability to take on local UMNO warlords. On the contrary, both are central to the corrupt political patronage system that plagues Malaysia. So expect the bloat and inefficiency in MOE (and the rest of the government) to continue.
As for efficacy, the Blueprint does not even comment on whether the recent rescinding of teaching science and mathematics in English advances the goal of producing bilingual and science literate graduates. There is no recommendation for increasing the number of hours of instruction in English or mandating a pass in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET). The more hours and the younger you are exposed to a language, the more proficient you would be, and faster. Making students pass a test definitely motivates them to study for it.
In the 1950s the government mandated all civil servants to pass a test in Malay to impress upon them its importance. That prompted many to take private lessons lest they would be bypassed in promotions. This Blueprint does not mandate teachers and headmasters demonstrate their competence in English.
As for developing “critical, creative and innovative thinking skills,” the government could begin by abolishing that indoctrination center, Biro Tata Negara (BTN). The resources saved could be diverted to schools. Both Najib and Muhyyiddin are ardent defenders of BTN; that reflects their veneer of commitment to nurturing independent critical thinking.
Quality is linked with efficiency, efficacy, and the trimming of an organization’s fat. We must strive high; surpassing a low bar is no achievement. It only gives us a false sense of it. On a recent visit to China Muhyyyiddin declared that we have done well with “93 percent of Malaysians able to attend school and most of them could read, write and count.” Malaysians deserve better; we expect more.
The goal should be our children attending not just any school but one that would teach them to be fully bilingual, science literate, mathematically competent, and able to think critically. We should be haunted by the fact that 40,000 of our graduates are still unable to find jobs at a time when Malaysia has millions of foreign workers. That tells us that it is not a problem with the economy rather with the quality of those graduates.
The focus must be on quality and not on years spent in schools. Instead of extending mandatory schooling to 11 years (the Blueprint’s recommendation), I would focus first on providing universal preschool and kindergarten especially in rural areas. If you want to teach kampong kids English, starting them in immersion classes at preschool years would be the most effective way. Insights from modern neuroscience support that contention.
Further, a year of preschool costs considerably less and is far more consequential to a child’s future than a year at high school. As the Jesuit wisdom would have it, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”
Without quality, our schools would degenerate into nothing more than human warehouses for the young; our teachers, well-paid babysitters. We would have wasted all those precious resources, but the most precious of all is of course all those young minds. They would be better off out of school and learning the more important lessons of life in the real world instead of being bullied by their peers and indoctrinated by the system. Then when they failed, they would be tagged forever as losers, turn into caricatures of their race, and made to bear the burden of ugly stereotypes.
That thought should haunt anyone given the awesome responsibility of educating our young; likewise those tasked with reforming the system.
Next: Part 4: Roar of An Elephant, Baby of a Mouse