Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #56

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Enhancing Human Capital Through Education (Cont’d)

Malaysian schools today are a far cry from their earlier days. At the recent Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMS) assessment, Malaysia stood way behind South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. But our leaders are not embarrassed by such comparisons; they keep harping on how Malaysia is the “center of educational excellence” – for the Third World. Malaysian leaders eagerly compare the nation to the likes of Zambia and Malawi so they can pat themselves heartily. When you cannot measure up, why, simply change the yardstick! Or choose a less competitive league.

Malaysia should do to its ministry of education what the Russians did to the former Soviet empire: dismantle the massive ossified structures; decentralize its immense authority; and privatize its myriad activities.

That would require a formidable change in mindset, and I do not see any movement in that direction. Nor do I expect the current personnel to even think along those lines; they seem stuck in the old mold. Education in Malaysia has less to do with educating the young but everything to do with politics and cultural symbols. The main preoccupation of the political leadership is that the ministry be under someone UMNO considers able to resist the demands of non-Malays, especially the Chinese. Thus political credentials rather than managerial smarts or academic talent become the operative criteria for appointment. The appointees in turn are aware of this and exploit the position to further their personal political goals. Anwar Ibrahim used the ministry to propel himself to be deputy prime minister, and Musa Mohammad’s predecessor, Najib Razak, is guilty of the same blind political ambition. No surprise then that Malaysian schools and colleges have deteriorated.

The deterioration is apparent on many fronts. Apart from the abysmal performance at TIMS, there are other internal indicators showing that the schools and universities are a mess. Everyday one reads in the local papers of teachers being assaulted and schools vandalized. In 2001 the examination papers of students were stolen, and then dumped at some roadside. The invigilator apparently left them in his car that was later stolen. Such lax disciplines are evident among administrators, teachers, and students. Visit any school on any day and chances are the headmaster is absent, in a meeting off campus. The teaching profession no longer attracts the best and brightest partly because the pay is embarrassingly low and teachers given no respect. A fish hawker earns more than the average teacher. Teachers lament that they cannot do much disciplining as their headmasters are constantly overruling them.

Powerful parents in turn intimidate these headmasters. No surprise then that there are hundreds of vacancies for teachers.

The dropout rates especially in the primary schools are horrifying. This is most pronounced in rural areas and among Bumiputras and the poor. In an attempt to reverse this, the government plans to make primary schooling compulsory. I would have preferred it first study the reasons for the appallingly high dropouts rate and address them. Those problems will not magically disappear by making schooling compulsory.

Education is a state monopoly in Malaysia, at least until the mid secondary level (Form V). Malaysians have no choice but to send their children to public schools. There are many private schools but Malaysians are not allowed to attend unless they get special dispensation from the minister. Wealth alone will not get you one otherwise there would be a flood of young Malaysians at these excellent schools.

Malaysians in Johore have a choice, and many are expressing their lack of confidence in local schools by sending their children to the much superior schools in Singapore. Observe on any given school morning, droves of buses and cars full of school children heading south.

Beyond Form V the government no longer exercises controls. Once freed from the strictures of the ministry, parents desert the system en mass as seen by the figures of students sitting for public examinations. In 2001 over 320,000 students sat for the Form V examination (SPM), but only about 40,000 sat for the Form VI (given after two years of additional schooling). Either the students drop out after Form V, or more than likely they opt for private colleges rather than continuing with the government’s Form VI. Not surprisingly, private institutions are booming in Malaysia to meet this new need.

The universities are no better, although quantitatively Malaysia has done well. While there were no universities in1957, today there are over a dozen. Newspapers carry almost daily headlines about new universities being set up or planned. To some this represents progress, until one actually visits one of these new establishments. They are nothing more than glorified community colleges. Or in the words of former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, “kampong campuses!” The country is not so much as providing quality education for its young as expanding the job market for administrators and professors.

Malaysia keeps setting up universities as if that is an easy endeavor, and the results show. This does not stop the authorities from constantly bragging about their experience building new universities. It reminds me of the wise observation of Dr. Willy Mayo (of Mayo Clinic fame) who said to the effect that some surgeons keep repeating the same mistakes a hundred times, and call that experience!

The quality of the faculty and students too are wanting, indicating that it is a failure of the system. Choose any criterion, and the woeful inadequacy of the academic staff is apparent; from the percentage having terminal qualifications to their productivity as measured by published works. The only way for academics to have pay raises or be promoted is to accept administrative positions. These are usually given not to promising scholars or researchers but those politically connected.

Malaysian academics are not given the necessary support either in clerical staff or research funding. Many professors do not have personal computers or ready Internet access. Few are given the opportunities for sabbatical leave when they could recharge their intellectual juices. Promotions are still largely determined by factors other than academic excellence. Peruse the resume of deans and vice-chancellors. With very few exceptions they are individuals singularly lacking in scholarly achievements.

The quickest way to oblivion for academics in Malaysia is for them to publish papers or essays even mildly critical of the government. Academics have been fired for being too independent; a few incarcerated, courtesy of the ISA, for commenting on “subversive” topics. The reverse is also true. The quickest path to the top is to write toadying articles praising the system or better still, individual political leaders. Thus the specter of one local economist of no particular renown or achievement urging universities to teach “Mahathirism.” His views, not surprisingly, received widespread laudatory coverage in the local media.

The system is aggravated because the minister makes all senior academic appointments. And if he does not value scholarly excellence, chances are his appointees too would also share that view. Which is why the leadership of Malaysian universities is in the hands of the less-than-intellectually talented. There are many brilliant young Malaysian scientists and scholars, but they are stuck in some remote corner of academia and ignored.

Local undergraduates are not much better. There is the matter of selection as the brighter ones and those who can afford it chose private colleges or have gone abroad. But still there are many brilliant students who end up at local public institutions. Here the universities have failed them. Because local courses are taught only in Malay, the intellectual universe of the students is very confined. Reading materials and references in Malay are limited. Local graduates also suffer in other ways for their lack of English proficiency. Few end up at leading graduate schools, and private employers shun them. Locally minted PhDs rarely secure post-doctoral appointments at leading centers abroad.

In early 2002 Malaysian newspapers highlighted the plight of nearly 25,000 graduates who could not find jobs. Nearly all of them were Bumiputras and graduates of local universities. This raises the fundamental issue: Are they unemployed or simply unemployable? With the former, the answer would rest with the greater economy; with the latter it would be with the educational system. It is hard to imagine with the nation enjoying near full employment and having to import hundreds of thousands of foreign workers that these graduates would have difficulty finding jobs. It is my contention that the educational system has done a poor job of making its products employable. These graduates are simply unemployable. Had they had been given a broad-based education and been fluent in English, mathematically competent, and familiar with IT, employers would grab them. Malaysian universities must bear the heavy blame for this problem. At present the only avenue of employment for liberal arts graduates of local universities is with the government. They have absolutely no skills that would be useful or needed in the private sector.

Had Malaysian universities follow America’s lead and made their curriculum more broad and liberal, then local graduates would have greater transferability of skills and thus flexibility in the marketplace. Leading American universities for example, mandate a year of English, laboratory science, and mathematics for all their students. Malaysia still has the British hangover of too early and too narrow a specialization both at high school and university.

For the past few years the regional publication (now defunct) Asiaweek carried an annual survey of Asian universities. Already in that short space of time we see a steady decline in the ranking of local institutions. In the first survey in 1997, Malaysia’s leading and oldest university, the University of Malaya (UM) was ranked 11th; two years later it dropped to 27th; and in the last survey (2000) it felled to 47th. Meanwhile Universiti Kebangsa’an (National University) made the list once at the very beginning, and then dropped out of sight. Only Universiti Putra Malaysia improved its standing – from 69th in 1999 to 52nd in 2000. One can argue with the criteria used by Asiaweek, but there is no mistaking the trend. Of course the typical Malaysian response is, well, we are still ahead of Papua New Guinea!

To its credit the government, despite vocal opposition from UMNO, recently permitted the setting up of private universities and colleges. Most of these institutions are nothing more than puffed up tutoring centers. Not even in the most stretched meaning of the word could they be called colleges. Still there are a few outstanding ones like Sumway, Inti, and Taylor, together with local branches of some foreign universities that are attracting top students and providing real alternatives. To date these institutions are the exceptions. The ministry still monitors private institutions closely; their permit is conditional upon their satisfying the ministry. Because of this leash, Malaysia fails to attract quality foreign universities from setting up satellite campuses locally. Unlike Singapore that has the likes of Johns Hopkins, Malaysia attracts only the East Anglia and Ulu Australia universities.

Malaysia justifies its tight control on local schools and colleges on the grounds that they serve as more than just educational institutions. They have important social roles in integrating students to enhance national unity. But that goal can be achieved without tightly controlling and thus stifling the institutions. The present system, despite its stated noble intentions, fails to produce much-needed social integration of students. Non-Malays choose to attend national-type (vernacular) rather than national (Malay) schools. Private colleges cater primarily to non-Malays. Unchecked these unhealthy trends would undermine national unity. Malaysia should insist that all its institutions, private and public, have a student body reflective of the general society. The government can help achieve this by giving scholarships to Bumiputras to attend private institutions and by giving grants to those colleges who subscribe to this common objective. American universities that receive federal funding have student bodies that are reflective of the larger society. They are finding that diversity has an added educational bonus – students are exposed to different cultures and viewpoints. In this globalized age, this could only be an advantage.

The present system must be improved. This is best achieved by first doing away with the present mindset of total control and the attendant burdensome centralization. Further, there must be a greater role for the private sector in education at all levels.

Next: Revamping Schools and Universities

  1. #1 by limkamput on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 12:52 pm

    Education in Malaysia is in shamble because we have the blind leading the blind. Everything has its genesis in the misplaced and ill-conceived NEP which allows appointment of half baked people to positions of importance in the Education Ministry. It has nothing much to do with pay. The public sector employees, given their security in tenure and other perks, are more than adequately compensated presently. It is half baked credential, racism, and laziness that have sapped the very foundation of education. Just ask around, how many non Malays senior teachers were asked to “act” as principals in new schools only to be replaced (or not given the promotion) after the new schools are well set up. Then you look at the universities – how many of the Tan Sri Datuk Prof Dr have published anything worthwhile. Public universities in Malaysia are more than adequately financed. It is the misuse of fund, spending on good for nothing projects, seminars and conferences that have made our universities third class. Don’t blame it on parents who complain and confront the school headmasters and teachers. Usually the faults are due to inept, incompetent, and racism among the schools adminstrators.

  2. #2 by dagen on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 2:17 pm

    Change? Now? Come on. Not when china has clearly stamped its influence in the world scene! Twenty years ago, change was still possible. But today? Hey. The bus has left us and it has been gone for good since then. Today people the world over want to learn chinese. Meanwhile, english still retains its international status and hence it is still a necessary and important language to know. In this scenario there are little space left for learning malay, not as a first language anyway. As second language, probably third, fourth (wot)?

    Set up fully english medium school (with mandarin as a compulsory language for chinese kids) and chances are some (not insubstantial I believe) chinese parents in malaysia would send their kids there. Forget about the present type umno-punya national schools. It will not work. And yes. Merit. Go straight for merit. Not connection. Not race. Not religion.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 3:04 pm

    The education system here seems to be defective. Some people, especially the pm, are still unclear as to who the real first lady is and who is the usurper of that title.

  4. #4 by monsterball on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 3:17 pm

    The more fanatics…racists and idiots produced in Malaysia…the better chance for UMNO B to govern forever…besides encouraging corruptions and applying double standards.
    Retired Judge Ian was right…Mahathir is the devil reincarnated.
    Current UMNO B Suprme Council top man..Tunku Ritthauddin was right…”UMNO B is corrupted to the Core”
    Stange enough….such insults and accusations are ignored completely….while one small insult from ex PM of Australia to Mahathir..all co-operate to boycott this or that from Australia.
    Lee Kuan Yew was right…these are weird fellas…and why not….they are all crazy for money …by stealing…grapping all with no fear…and dressed up with false titles with such thick skinned faces…feeling no shame at all.

  5. #5 by Ray on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 4:17 pm

    Thank goodness!! this was the worthwhile and truthful article written..
    Malaysia Education system was indeed a piece of torn fabric …no values ,no merits ,full of islamic doctrination likewise TV123 Berita Harian Bernama
    What it need urgently a World class education system like Havards Oxford Cambridge std with no borders .
    It should not indulge in Oppressed islamic religion propagation /laws ,No race or politics element .
    Singapore for example Stand Tall overtake Malusia in terms of Political stability,Economics power since seperated from Idiotiic UmnoBN 2020 ???
    Now Singapore being a Financially economically culturally developed nation, as a country of educated people and as a country of people who know what it’s like to be oppressed by Race based Politics which – theoretically – should be a good device to abandon oppression.
    Average North Korean for example doesn’t know anything about the world, all the country is totally manipulated by a bunch of power-hungry fanatics Dictator.
    Hope PR can lead in the reform of ES thus work well for all Rakyat.
    …cant speak much for Malusia Hishamudin Keris Idiot

  6. #6 by dagen on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 4:56 pm

    A certain local law prof told me recently of a meeting he had with the australian AG. He felt extremely nervous during that meeting because he was afraid to make a fool of himself in front of him. What about meeting our local AG? I asked him. No problem. His only concern then was to make sure he has got his title right.

  7. #7 by habis on Monday, 14 March 2011 - 8:38 pm

    The Education System in Malaysia has gone to the dogs. What do you expect from those half baked morons at the Ministry of Education producing unmarketable graduates who are not even fit to enter the universites in the first place.That is the reasons why all the bright brains in our young rakyat are readily grapped by our neigbours.So long as the Corrupt BN is around our country will never PROGESS.

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 - 1:16 am

    Times Higher Education World University Reputation Rankings 2011
    Not 1 univ fr 1M’sia has world univ reputation ranking, how come?
    Not surprising lah as 1M’sia gomen too has no world reputation ranking

  9. #9 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 - 8:30 am

    Our education system has been hijacked by the Umno politicians for their own agenda. In the process they will recruit the leftover of those graduates into the teaching profession[?]. To accomplish they have to induce quantity instead of quality into the serrvice. They even select teachers who would hardly score a credit based on the old Cambridge sylabus to be trained as English specialists! So long that the political agenda is to please there is no way, excellence can come into play. Those smart enough will find their way out of the system and in the process the expectations will slide down further, you can’t make gold out of tin ore! Actually, I use to blame the champions of the vernacular system for the breakdown but looking back, one realizes that the people emplaced to run the education system too have wayward objectives driving many non-Malays away from the national system. Instead of educating, they wanted to use the system to do missionary job! People, especially those claimed to be better educated prefer to think that they can lead just because they had been given preferential treatment in their education; forgetting they were given handicapped race all along! it is only human to feel that respect for leadership comes from the overall perception of the beholder.
    I always remember some 30 years ago at a PTA meeting in the local school when someone questioned the school for grouping the students by tests. Obviously, his son was grouped into a ‘slower class’. He gave himself as an example that he had managed to achieve a doctorate degree even though he had only a 3rd grade at certificate level. Someone said, “well maybe your son would still make it. But by thw ay which U confers you the Doctorate?. Silence!
    It is without doubt that our system not only condone but encourage such mentality; churning up MBAs from every Insitutions but leaving them without any prospect in the market! In this resepct, we Malaysians are exceptionally BOLEH!

  10. #10 by dagen on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 - 9:54 am

    Are you sure we are not in the list boh-liao? Of course we are in the list. Its a long long list for God’s sake. And I think you are looking at the wrong end of that long long list!

    Look again, boy.

  11. #11 by Loh on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 - 3:52 pm

    ///Malaysia justifies its tight control on local schools and colleges on the grounds that they serve as more than just educational institutions. They have important social roles in integrating students to enhance national unity. But that goal can be achieved without tightly controlling and thus stifling the institutions. The present system, despite its stated noble intentions, fails to produce much-needed social integration of students. ///- M B Musa

    Limiting students to study only in national schools, or getting all the students to be in the same school compound will not promote national unity. It is the government policy which divide the people and the demonstration that the different races in the country are not equal that cause polarization. The harm cannot be undone by having all the students study under the same roof.

    The stated intention is no different from the stated objectives of NEP. NEP aims at eradicating poverty irrespective of races, and severing the link between race and economic function. What happens is NEP is used to promote Ketuanan Melayu and to enrich UMNOputras.

    ///Non-Malays choose to attend national-type (vernacular) rather than national (Malay) schools.///– MB Musa

    The Chinese schools have produced law abiding and valuable human resources in the country. The discriminatory laws in the country pushed many well educated non-Malays to pay taxes to foreign governments. Many non-Chinese choose to attend Chinese schools . There are now at least 60,000 non-Chinese students in Chinese schools. Perhaps the parents of these non-Chinese are thinking of national unity in sending them to Chinese schools besides ensiring their children gaining knowledge that make them employable.

    /// Private colleges cater primarily to non-Malays. Unchecked these unhealthy trends would undermine national unity.///–MB Musa

    Sound like these private colleges are producing people who would work to topple the government which warranted the comment that it was an unhealthy trend.

    /// Malaysia should insist that all its institutions, private and public, have a student body reflective of the general society. ///–MB Musa

    So the government should forever control everything and make sure that everywhere Malays should have 30%. UMNO mentality to the core.

    ///The government can help achieve this by giving scholarships to Bumiputras to attend private institutions and by giving grants to those colleges who subscribe to this common objective.///MB Musa

    Malays have the desired quota to enter government institutions almost to the exclusion of non-Malays. Non-Malays pay through their nose to get into private institutions locally instead of going overseas. Now Musa is arguing that in addition to all the unfair advatanges, more unfair grants should be given to Malays. To Musa NEP would never end. Luckily Musa is living in Bolehland. He is no better than Mamakthir.

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