Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #3

M. Bakri Musa
May 23rd, 2010
[Last of Three Parts]

[Part One discusses the crucial role of workers’ cognitive abilities (language skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy) rather than years of formal schooling in determining and contributing to a country’s economic development. The second part addresses issues of quality, quantity and equity in Malaysian education. In this last part, I recap the experiences elsewhere and the lessons we could usefully learn.]

Clinical Trials in Educational Initiatives

In addressing the issue of equity, we should not be content only with providing what we perceive to be “equal opportunities.” For if the results do not improve equity despite our intervention, then we must have the humility to examine our premise and be prepared to accept that what we thought of as “equal opportunities” are anything but that.

We may think that by making schools “free” we have leveled the playing friend and provided for “equal opportunity,” but if the results do not improve, then we must be prepared to re-examine our premise. It could be that the major constraint is not tuition fees but transportation and other costs. That was certainly the case when I was growing up. Thus to effectively level the playing field we should provide for transportation, especially for those living far away. American schools provide not only free transportation but also textbooks, another major cost item in education. For children of the poor, these schools also provide hot meals. Thus providing a truly “equal opportunity” entails spending more on the poor.

In educating children, we have to be aware of the Matthew effect, or accumulated advantage. This refers to the biblical verse, “For those who have, more will be given … ” (Matthew 25:29). When we provide “equal opportunity” to children on their first day of school, those who are already prepared (as having been to preschool or have parents with superior education) will gain considerably more than those who are not so advantaged, and this gap only widens with time. To effectively overcome this entails giving more to the disadvantaged, for if you continue with your “equal opportunity” you are effectively giving less to the disadvantaged.

The other pertinent observation is that the earlier this added help is given, the cheaper and more effective it would be. Meaning, it would be much cheaper and more effective to give extra help at the preschool than at first year in school; at primary than at secondary school, and at school than at university. James Heckman, the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics, have written persuasively on the economic advantages of these early interventions, quite apart from the moral arguments.

To apply Heckman’s insight to Malays, it would be cheaper and far more effective to provide preschools than it is to provide extra matrikulasi classes. Those matrikulasi classes in turn would be cheaper than to provide quotas in employment for Malay graduates. Meaning, providing free preschools and serving hot meals at kampong schools would be far more effective and considerably cheaper than spending billions on GLCs in terms of making Malays more competitive.

Apart from the commitment of resources, there must also be political will. There will be the inevitable obstacles, from the passive and less obvious obstacle as inertia, to more active opposition from those who perceive themselves losing or at least not gaining from the change.

It is to be expected that those who have been brought up under or benefited from the current system to resist change. Thus I have minimal confidence that our present personnel and institutions could effect these needed changes. Thus I would advocate adopting the Thai and South Korean approaches, meaning wholesale importation of the American school system, its curriculum, textbooks and teachers.

Unlike the Koreans however, I would begin at the very beginning, preschool, and then slowly work up the system to primary, then secondary, and later, undergraduate level. Once these youngsters are used to active learning and creative thinking at the preschool, they will not tolerate the rote learning and dogmatic style they would get from their teachers in the upper classes. Those teachers would then have to change. Besides, it is easier to instill new values and approaches on a fresh mind instead of having to have them unlearn their bad habits later at an older age.

Admittedly this would be a slower approach, but it would prove to be more enduring and effective.

I would add a twist or two to the Korean and Thai experiments. One is that the student enrollment at these schools should reflect Malaysian society. The other would be that these schools must provide scholarships (full or partial) equal in value of at least of 5 percent of their tuition income. The schools could then use that funds to balance the ethnic composition of their student body. Even in ethnically homogenous South Korea, there are already rumblings over the inequity of these private foreign schools, what with the poor being excluded.

When MARA started its matrikulasi colleges back in the 1970s, it too adopted the American college semester and other styles. Unfortunately it was only the styles, the superficial aspects not the core. Thus these students had electives, free from having to wear uniforms, and move from class to class. The core however, remains typically Malaysian – dogmatic instead of inquisitive; indoctrination instead of education. A generation later, nothing has changed.

I would also adopt the Rwandan approach of supplying a laptop computer to every primary school pupil. What we learn from that initiative is that those children are very effective in bringing about changes to the rest of the family and on their peers.

The other group I would give free computers would be our undergraduates. Once they have those laptops and our campuses wired, these students would have access to the libraries of the world and more. They could also listen to lectures given at the best universities of the world.

Malaysia has the added problem in that resistance to change in education is often camouflaged under nationalistic flavors. Thus the excuse to rescind the teaching of science and mathematics in English was not based on merit or valid evidence rather on emotional arguments over dubious nationalism. Political will would be needed to overcome such opposition.

This problem is compounded by what economist Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, our tendency of saying something publicly what we do not believe personally. Malaysians all abhor corruption, but when stopped by a cop for speeding, our first impulse is to bribe our way out. Preference falsification makes problem solving that much more difficult.

Our leaders keep extolling on the importance of Malay, yet they send their children abroad where the medium of instruction is anything but Malay. When I was growing up, my parents who were Malay school teachers were under tremendous peer and social pressures to take us out of English schools and enroll us in the then newly emerging Malay secondary schools. If Malay teachers did not support these new schools, who would, was the powerful emotional and nationalistic argument.

Blessed my late father, he bravely ignored those pressures. What fortified him, apart from inner conviction, were the actions of Malay leaders. While Tun Razak, for example, was trumpeting the promise and virtues of Malay schools, he was quietly sending his children to Britain for schooling! My father rightly concluded that until those leaders heed their own advice, he too would ignore them! My father also successfully used that argument on many of his fellow kampong folks. Today, their children owe my father a deep debt of gratitude.

After Tun Razak we had Mahathir, the professed champion of everything Islamic. He vastly expanded the Islamic establishment, with Islamic schools and universities as well Islamic ‘research’ institutes and court system. Did he send any of his children to Islamic school or college?

Today we have Najib Razak. He extols us to be glokal, to be liberated from our affirmative action clutches. So let’s see how many of his immediate family members who own and operate enterprises that would be free of cozy, san competitive-bidding government contracts.

The price we paid for Tun Razak’s preference falsification was a generation of bright young Malay minds sacrificed to the altar of Malay educational nationalism. Mahathir’s falsification caused another generation to be wasted through needless pursuit of false religiosity. We will know soon enough the price for Najib Razak’s folly.

Yes, preference falsification is pervasive, powerful, and worst of all, pernicious.

An awareness of all these obstacles should be enough to make a diligent leader humble. A healthy dose of humility is indeed what is required when approaching these problems. I do not pretend to know how the initiatives I offered here would actually work in Malaysia even though they may have worked elsewhere. Ideas that seem brilliant and foolproof in the comfort of the boardroom of a think tank or could withstand the super critical atmosphere of a graduate school seminar room may still flop in the field.

Hence the need to be humble and to think small; we should begin with pilot projects and field trials closely supervised, and then analyze the results. Then when the wrinkles have been ironed out and the necessary modifications made would you expand. Anything less and you would be playing around with precious young minds. That is morally wrong if not criminally negligent. Those precious minds are not expendable.

The brilliant young economist from MIT, Esther Duflo, suggested that leaders adopt the equivalent of a clinical trial before fully implementing any proposal. Clinical trails and double-blind studies are the norms in modern medicine; they enable physicians to advance from leeches to laser surgery.

Consider the examples of school dropout rates and enhancing educational performances, especially at the primary school level and particularly for Malays. There are certainly many brilliant ideas out there, from the giving out scholarships, as the British did way back when, to paying parents for keeping their children in school as Mexico’s Progressa program, to the Australian government rounding up children of aborigines and warehousing them into residential schools so they could live and learn in a more “civilized” environment. The Canadians did something similar to their native children.

The only commonality to all these undertakings, apart from their consequentialness, expensiveness, and massiveness, is that they were undertaken with the best of intentions. The results are also there, except that few are learning or willing to learn from them. The Canadian government to its credit examined its residential school system for the natives in 1996 and concluded using such phrases as, “an inherent element of savagery,” or “kill the Indian in the child.” At least the Canadians were honest.

Things need not be that way. Duflo tackled the perennial problem of school dropouts among African children as a research clinician would a disease. She conducted clinical trials. Among the traditional choices are paying parents, giving scholarships, and providing free books and uniforms. Then she added two non-traditional strategies: de-worming the students, and informing parents on the value of education. Actually both are not that non-traditional. De-worming was actually one of the recommendations advanced by a Malaysian Royal Commission back in 1960 to explain Malay underachievement in education. As for educating parents, that seems intuitive enough.

It turned out that the most effective strategy was to educate parents on the value of education, followed by de-worming the pupils. The conclusion: A healthy and physically vigorous kid is more likely to stay in school than if they are lethargic and worm-infested. This echoes former US Surgeon-General Jocelyn Elder’s observation, “You can’t educate a child who is not healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who is not educated.”

Traditional interventions like providing extra teachers, school meals, books or uniforms have minimal positive impact. Interestingly, paying parents has a negative impact.

Even after such a careful trial and we a found an initiative that works wonderfully, we should still not rest on our laurels. As mentioned earlier, good ideas, like good durians, have a shelf life. With changing conditions we must be prepared to continually tweak our programs. We must also be prepared to jettison once wonderful ideas if they no longer work, or that other ideas are better.

Fully residential schools, busing students all over the country to attend these schools were once good ideas; likewise universities’ matrikulasi. Today, they are resource wasting endeavors.

Improving the quality, increasing the quantity, and enhancing the equity of our education system are the necessary prerequisites if we were to have economic growth. Achieve this and a decade hence NEAC would report that our economy is robust because 80 percent of our workers have at least SPM. Such a declaration would reflect well on our economy as well as our workers and system of education.

  1. #1 by dagen on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 9:36 am

    “The price we paid for Tun Razak’s preference falsification was a generation of bright young Malay minds sacrificed to the altar of Malay educational nationalism. Mahathir’s falsification caused another generation to be wasted through needless pursuit of false religiosity. We will know soon enough the price for Najib Razak’s folly.” the Author.

    How true. How very true. But let me put it in plain language for the benefit of readers.

    The fact of the matter is this. Malays are stupid – academically speaking. But is this a result of inferior genes or attitude? I for one do not believe genes has anything to do with their situation. It is definately a matter of attitude. Which is to say, for the malays their problem is not one which is without solution. The important question here is whether umno is doing anything to help them? Bakri gave us the answer. And far from doing that – umno mess things up for the malays. Razak gave them crutches and that was enough to start the attitude rot. Mamak was determined to continue the rot. He replaced the crutches with steel ones. And now some umnoputras saw money in the crutches and have decided to fight for lightweight and hardened stainless steel ones.

    I hope this makes better sense. And BTW the statement “malays are stupid” above was meant to arose readers’ interest only. I really meant to say they are academically weak. So there.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 10:09 am

    Go to the cemetery next to the secondary school in Rawang during happy hours on Friday afternoon and you might be able to meet Mr Moo for a bottle or two


  3. #3 by monsterball on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 11:29 am

    Today is preaching day from Bakri Musa.
    He is not preaching. He is telling grandfather stories…like a tape recorder.
    He said this was his the last of part.
    Thank God for that.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 11:31 am

    And Malaysians need not analyse this or that.
    We just vote UMNO B out…and be done with it.

  5. #5 by k1980 on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 1:18 pm

    The Rawang school will be cured of its undisciplined students once Mr Peter Harvey is transferred there (with his dumbbell, of course)


  6. #6 by House Victim on Tuesday, 25 May 2010 - 3:24 pm

    The Basic of Education should be trained to build up the Interest of the Children to care for Learning, not only in the school but throughout their life. Care to be do thing Right and be Responsible for themselves (Health) and for the Society- the behavior.

    The Society should be the best model for education to show the Important of Care, Responsible and Professionalism.

    BUT, DO WE HAVE ENOUGH MODELS IN THIS SOCIETY when Right or Wrong even among a lot of High Officials are just a matter of Flip-Flop?
    Accounting, Law, Disciplinary Forces are showing a lot of BULLIES!!

    Even the bank is bully with stolen credit card where they did not stop the card but allowing expense to be incurred and repeatedly chasing client to pay the disputed amount (with form filed) + interest even without investigation. And, finally declare the client – Defaulter of Payment and cancel all cards and silent to provide the clauses which should actually be involved!!

    Those involved and allowing this type of bullies should have left school for at least 10-30 years. So, what had the Education in Malaysia been heading? It is not a matter of a single staff when matter has to go through a number of Departments and complaints been sent to all who are concerned in the bank.

    Are they “Educated”??
    Or, FOR WHAT??

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