A Decades-old Sad Story

By Kee Thuan Chye
26th July 2013

The intake of students into Malaysian public universities is a sad, sad story. A story that has been around for decades. A story that doesn’t want to end.

Since the establishment of the quota system for Bumiputera students in 1973, non-Bumputera ones have had to take part in what is virtually a lottery when they apply for places. They may not get admitted, or they may not get the course of study they applied for even though they have the best results.

When the system was introduced, 55 per cent of places were reserved for Bumiputeras, although apart from Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia, other universities reportedly admitted more Bumiputeras than was specified in the quota.

Non-Bumiputera families that couldn’t tolerate the unfairness of the system decided to emigrate with the chief aim of securing higher education for the young. New waves of emigration have since followed, resulting in a massive brain drain that is highly disadvantageous to the country’s development.

Those who stayed gave up on public universities as they did not want to put up with uncertainty over their children’s future. They resolved to work harder to earn money to send their children overseas.

This caused a huge flow of currency outflow. So to stem it and also to make Malaysia a future net exporter of tertiary education, the Government instituted the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act in 1996 that led to the sprouting of private colleges and universities locally.

By the end of 1999, according to Government figures, about 203,000 students had enrolled in private institutions, compared to about 167,500 in public universities. This showed the high demand among Malaysians for higher education.

Before private colleges and universities were set up in Malaysia, many bright non-Bumiputera students could not pursue higher education because their parents could not afford to send them overseas. They were deprived of the opportunity to better themselves and improve their lot in life.

I remember arguing with a Chinese multi-millionaire businessman who was then pro-Mahathir Mohamad and pro-BN (he has since changed his stance) because he didn’t seem to acknowledge the unfairness of the system and the plight of the poor non-Bumiputeras. What he said still rings in my head, “No worries, the Chinese can always go to KTAR.”

He was referring to Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman which at the time was not a university college (it was established in 1969 and became a university college only in May 2013), and its graduates were awarded only diplomas. That remark was nauseating coming from a multi-millionaire.

Today, non-Bumiputera students still depend on being admitted to public universities to obtain higher education. Many of them come from poor families that cannot afford to send them even to local private institutions.

In 2002, the Government replaced the quota system with a “merit-based” one, but even under this, studies have shown that the Bumiputera intake since has been at least around 60 per cent.

In 2004, 128 non-Bumiputera students did not get into Medicine, which was their first choice, although they had obtained the highest score of 5As in the STPM (Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia) examination. The Government’s shocking response to this was that they were not good enough. All of them were eventually accepted by private institutions, but some did not pursue Medicine because they did not have sufficient financial support.

This year, the sad old story is re-told.

The intake of Chinese students has sunk to 19 per cent. And it has been far worse for the Indians, with only 4 per cent admitted.

Shockingly, some non-Bumiputera students with the perfect CGPA (cumulative grade point averages) of 4.0 were not given places at all. And some who got in were not given courses of their choice.

After 40 years, we are still hearing this old story. What is happening to Malaysia?

MCA Youth chief Wee Ka Siong has now come out to say he is “tired” of facing the same issue every year.

He even said things had got worse after the merit-based system was introduced. “It is called merit system in name, but it is actually a quota system, in fact more quota than quota,” he said.

He also pointed out that the intake of Chinese students for eight major courses, like Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Chemical Engineering, had been declining in recent years.

“From 26.2 per cent in 2011, it dropped to 25.3 per cent in 2012 and 20.7 per cent this year,” he said. On the other hand, the intake of Bumiputera students for these eight courses this year went up to 70.2 per cent.

He gave the example of Chinese students with CGPA 4.0 and 9.8 co-curriculum marks who applied for Medicine but were offered Agriculture Science instead.

Well, Wee is one to talk about this issue now. When he was deputy education minister from 2008 till the last general election, did he do anything to stop the slide? Did he speak up against the system then? Or did he quietly collude with the MCA’s partners in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), especially big brother Umno, to maintain the system?

It therefore looks like the Chinese did the right thing in rejecting the MCA at the last general election, causing it to fall from grace by winning only seven parliamentary seats and having to stick to its threat of not taking up government positions for the poor performance. Now at least it has some guts to say something about this issue when in the past it would keep quiet.

Now it is the MIC’s P. Kamalanathan who is in Wee’s former position, and he is feeling the heat – even from his own party.

Instead of coming clean in the face of his community’s wrath over the low admission for Indians and high-scoring students not getting their course of choice, he said the problem could have been caused by some students wrongly filling in their university application forms.

Wee rightly dismissed it as a “silly explanation”. MIC treasurer Jaspal Singh was even tougher: “Sadly, even Kamalanathan … is a part of this deceitful trickery … (he) would do well to remember that he is there as the representative of MIC and the Indian community, not to cover up for the Education Ministry.”

Meanwhile, a few questions remain.

Did Malay students with CGPA of 4.0 fail to get into courses of their choice? Did any of them fail to get a place at all? When we talk about a merit-based system, should it still be restricted to so many per cent for Bumiputeras and the rest for non-Bumiputeras? If so, how does that fit the meaning of “merit”?

In 1984, I wrote a play called 1984 Here and Now in which a character, a Prole (meaning of minority race), says this:

Like our Prole party lah. Weak like anyting. Everyting Big Broder say, OK. Like balls shaking in der pants, man. And now, quarrelling some more, der leaders. Wan more power, wan top post. Firs, dey should be more strong to bring our problem to Big Broder. … No shame la, dese people. Meanwile, our people suffer. Our chiren carn get place in university. Every year, only so many people can go in. Not fair la.

I wrote it with the hope that not long after that, the university intake issue would be resolved. Today, nearly 30 years later, my hopes have not been fulfilled. The situation has actually become worse. And sadder.

So much for 1Malaysia.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling books No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians and Ask for No Bullshit, Get Some More!

  1. #1 by balance88 on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 10:08 am

    Now this is one of the real reason why MCA was almost white washed during the recent GE. And Chuah Soi Lek dare spike the Chinese by saying that the Chinese now have no representation in the govt. MCA was there since merdeka and the matter got worst and they could not do anything about it except enrich themselves. So, whats the difference of having MCA in the govt or out of it? Answer – No difference.

    At the end of the day, the real losers are the Malay students. When you have mediocre students, you get a mediocre studying environment and mediocre quality of graduates and hence, a mediocre workforce to compete in a BORDERLESS modern world. I know of Malay parents who sent their brilliant Malay children, overseas for their studies. Even they do not want to enrol them in the local university.

    And I always wander why our local Chinese multi-millionaires and billionaires are not able to help out these brilliant students. This education problem will persist another 100yrs as there is no political will to solve it. Unfortunately, the people in power pursues a win-lose solution and not a win-win solution. When the talent stays, the country progresses economically and the money pie grows bigger for everyone to have a larger share.

  2. #3 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 10:43 am


    It has got embedded in our culture.

    We now have the Annual Begging Festival – a festival where non-bumis are made to beg for university places and scholarships.

  3. #5 by Winston on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:26 am

    Well, well, well.
    What with the lunnies in UMNO/BN ruining the country!
    Such things are to be expected!
    A country with rich and diverse natural resources should be having a far, far better quality of life for all its citizens than what we are having.
    But where’s all the wealth gone to?
    Instead, most ordinary Malaysians are finding it harder and harder to cope with fast rising inflation.
    And a National Debt of hundreds of billions of Ringgit at the last count.
    Just like the haze that’s seriously affecting our country, all our suffering is completely unnecessary and is brought on by lunnies in the ruling party.

    • #6 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:01 pm

      Malaysia’s national religion is Islam

  4. #7 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:27 am

    Meanwhile, Singapore is happily receiving these “rejects” with open arms, bursaries and scholarships.

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teaming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp in Singapore. (apologies to The New Colossus)

    Like I always said, the greatest competitive advantage Singapore has over Malaysia is the self-inflicted Bumi policies.

    • #8 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:03 pm

      or other countries even Bumis are finding their homes there

  5. #9 by yhsiew on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:44 am

    Malaysia is destined to be a benevolent, charitable supplier of free talents to its neighbors such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. This is a curse brought about by the NEP.

    • #10 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:05 pm

      Doing charity is good. Malaysia bless the world. If this is the least that she can do for others.

  6. #11 by sheriff singh on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:50 am

    In China every year, millions of students sit for extremely difficult university entrance examinations and the universities only admit the best. It is a yearly nightmare for many parents.

    In 1970, China was very poor and backward and was known as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’. Fast forward 40 years. It is now the second largest economy in the world, a major economic power and a very, very modern and progressive country, able even to build high-speed trains and space-stations, able to export knowledge and technology.

    In 1Malaysia, our education system is now very suspect. We do not admit the brightest to our universities. We struggle in many fields looking abroad for assistance, even from China.

    See the marked difference in 1 or 2 generations? Is there something wrong with our planners and how we are governed?

    • #12 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:10 pm

      It started from the very beginning. In ancient China, people who wish to work inside the palace will have to sit for very difficult exams. Therefore this difficult exam started since ancient times ago. It never stop. Except now, in place of the palace is the government in China. And serving in the palace was no easy job.

  7. #13 by sotong on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:50 am

    A society is judged by how we treat innocent children/disabled/minorities.

    With this incident, which is not uncommon, would you trust the school to take good and proper care of your child, may be the only child?

    After decades of worsening situation, this has passed sad…..it’s tragic and shameful to decent Muslims and Non Muslims alike.

    Most people don’t care because it does not or will not affect their children.

    • #14 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:11 pm

      If you have a choice, you would naturally choose the better one.

  8. #15 by Loh on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 11:57 am

    ///The results startled them as they defeated almost all the non-racial parties. Realising the political advantage of cooperating with each other the Tunku (Abdul Rahman) and Sir Cheng-Lock Tan, and senior leaders of the MCA and Umno decided to formalise their cooperation by setting up the Alliance, a coalition of MCA and Umno.

    The basis of this coalition was the idea of supporting each other and sharing the power gained. Buoyed by the success of the Alliance party in the 1955 elections, in which the MIC had joined, the Tunku looked more kindly at the proposal of Sir Cheng-Lock that citizenship should be based on jus soli (citizenship by being born in the country) and not jus saguinis (citizenship based on the Malaysian citizenship of the father or mother, i.e. citizenship based on blood relation).

    The Tunku did not quite agree but he nevertheless decided to give one million citizenships to unqualified Chinese and Indians.///–Mamakthir

    ///Read more: The Chinese dilemma – Columnist – New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/the-chinese-dilemma-1.326708#ixzz2a7QjyBXC///

    If the Tunku did not agree with the jus soli (right by birth) then there would be no agreement on cooperation between UMNO and MCA. Since they did cooperate, the Tunku had therefore actually, factually and quite happily agreed to the term. People born in Malaysia then are qualified to be citizens and rightly so. Only Mamakthir chose to use the term ‘not quite agree’ like what he did to the Suqiu group in 1999, agreeing to their terms to get support and then negated on his agreement. Tunku was a man of principle and unlike some low quality humans, he either agreed and lived up to his promise or not agreed at all. He would not let NEP run beyond 20 years as promised by Razak; yes Razak died young, but the post of UMNO President still lives on. Oh UMNO now is different from UMNO then! or just UMNO Presidents are not of the same make as Tunku.

    Jus Saguinis (citizenship based on the Malaysian citizenship of the father or mother, i.e. citizenship based on blood relation) would not work in that instance since Sir Cheng-Lock Tan himself might not even be citizen, and he had every right at that time as British subject to seek independence as other residents in the country. As people were free to move in and out then Jus Sanguinis was out of question, and Tunku did not even think that everybody has to lose something to live in peace. To him everybody should be rewarded for their efforts. It was only opportunists which played the race-card for self advancement.

    • #16 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:13 pm

      Will it make any difference if Malaysia has only one race and one religion ?

  9. #17 by clnt on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 4:50 pm

    I had a cough and went to a government polyclinic hoping to get some cough syrup. The doctor instead asked me to go for a chest xray. He looked at the xray and said that I may have TB and sent me for further tests. In the midst of all these, I went to see a private paying radiologist and a cardiologist who confirmed that the white spot shown on the xray is not due to any TB ‘attack’ but is actually the mark of my ‘nipple’! I wonder what have become of this doctor who had caused me sleepless nights over his remarks. Did he qualify as a doctor based on meritocracy or because of the quota system!!

    • #18 by cemerlang on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:15 pm

      Many people go to the private clinics, private hospitals because if the government clinics and government hospitals are too busy, anything can happen.

    • #19 by bangkoklane on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:38 pm

      Back in the 70s, the UM medical degree was no longer recognised by UK. There were two distinct cohorts of medical students, poles apart in their performance.

  10. #20 by sheriff singh on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 7:23 pm

    Stop smoking shisha. It is not good for you, they say.

  11. #22 by SENGLANG on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 9:19 pm

    wee dare to be vocal now and tell the truth because he was not a minister. that was the saddest story. mca claimed to fight for the Chinese but they dare not to say much of the truth when they are in the cabinet for decade the story repeated it self

  12. #23 by sheriff singh on Friday, 26 July 2013 - 10:20 pm

    See how a good fresh graduate from a top university in the Little Red Dot can get employed before graduation, and earn S$ 8,000 per month.


    I just wonder how our local graduates are faring as far as employability and pay goes..

  13. #24 by Cinapek on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:14 am

    This discrimination in selecting students for university places or scholarships started way back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was one of the luckier non bumi awarded an overseas scholarship in the 70’s and in my batch were several bumis as well. Some were really good but there were a couple who were not up to the mark and had to be warned by the host nation who sponsored our scholarship that they must buck up or they will be shipped home. They managed to scrape through in the end and that was all they needed. We were bonded to serve for 5 years with the Govt. In no time at all, all the bumis, including the not so good bumi students, were fast tracked up the ladder. In disgust I quit and that was the best decision I ever made.

  14. #25 by tuahpekkong on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 11:31 am

    If our top public Universities really practise meritocracy and admit only the best students these Universities should be highly ranked in the Times World University Rankings 2012/13. We know that none of our top public Universities were ranked among the top 400. Is our meritocracy only a guise? I think our public Universities should learn from Singapore Universities. The National University of Singapore was ranked no. 29 while Nanyang Technological University was ranked no. 86.

    • #26 by bangkoklane on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:33 pm

      No, the top Malay students and those with cables have gone overseas even for their A levels or foundation/prep programs.

  15. #27 by bangkoklane on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:23 pm

    How many Malays are studying law, medicine and engineering overseas and in local universities on scholarships? What kinds of results do they have?

  16. #28 by bangkoklane on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:29 pm

    and are they from matriculation classes scoring from course work and projects?

  17. #29 by SENGLANG on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:39 pm

    QUOTE “The veteran leader said the Chinese have their own colleges and universities and that many of the private educational institutions at all levels were Chinese-owned and this included private universities.”Unquote

    This is the most famous argument that Chinese need not to depend on Public universities in Malaysia.

    BN was form on sharing power so as they claim.

    Now many any one know what the stupid chinese save work so hard and save so hard? because they save bulk of the money go to their children education

  18. #30 by SENGLANG on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:43 pm

    QUOTE “We are not practising meritocracy simply because it will create great disparities between the rich and the poor as well as between the different races,” Dr Mahathir said. ‘UNQUOTE

    The statement above is incomplete with out mentioning that, the disparity among malays is much much larger than among different races. we have ultra rich malays and ultra poor malays WHY WHY??????

  19. #31 by SENGLANG on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 12:48 pm

    recently we have another leader from Terengganu saying with proud that it is perfect ok to award thier party members land and contract because that the way to keep the support on going. so logical and perfect

    but………problem the land was sold and contract was sold for instant profit with benefiting their race only enrich the other……so who to blame then…….

    we also see a big boss throwing birth day party to the great grand longest pm…. ya lah scrap my back i scrap your back noghtly

  20. #32 by worldpress on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 1:08 pm

    You saw, witness and knew, watching the robbers rob the nation money vault day by day, the worst these acts totally protected by bunch of people paid from nation money vault

    If you take action to stop the robbers the bunch of people paid from nation money vault will come after you and may lock you up

    What kind of country is this?

  21. #33 by pulau_sibu on Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 11:30 pm

    you need institutions that are better than the public universities, so that no body will beg on them. the problem now is other institutions are all as bad as the public universities….

  22. #34 by Sallang on Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 7:14 am

    A fresh new ‘Sad Story’, The Wong family.
    Will DAP take the initiative to start a fund raising campaign to seek donations for the poor family? RM5 ringgit a person will be good. I trust DAP to do an honest job.

  23. #35 by on cheng on Thursday, 1 August 2013 - 10:01 am

    A unique Malaysia happening !! No where else in the world!

  24. #36 by on cheng on Thursday, 1 August 2013 - 10:07 am

    Year 2030 ? Malaysia will need thousands of foreign consultants, experts in every fields, medicine, engineering, finance, agriculture, etc etc, local talents only listen to foreign experts ?? so be a developed nation ???

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