Sunday, December 31, 2006

Heart of Gold

Teresa Lee with young kids in Timor-Leste

As 2006 winds to an end today, I thought it'll be great to showcase a young Malaysian with a heart of gold. Spunky Teresa Lee have a "zeal for helping the poor, displaced and marginalised," writes Casian Kang in the Star Education Supplement today.

25-year-old Teresa serves as an international aid worker with World Vision currently working out of Timor-Leste, which has only in recent years secured independence from Indonesia.
Teresa believes that those stuck in the cycle of poverty deserve a better life As aid workers, poverty stricken countries, natural disaster areas and war zones are their workplaces.

Lee had spent the previous 12 months in both Indonesia and Cambodia volunteering her time and skills in local aid assistance programmes. She was involved with developing English radio programmes and also assisted with medical clinics in villages.
Teresa actually counts herself lucky in Timor for "At least I have running water, gas and electricity which was not the case in Indonesia." Like Suzanne Lee who was profiled here a while back, Teresa clearly has the determination to pursue her own dreams, making sure that they get fulfilled through her own efforts for "Lee has always wanted to be engaged in something meaningful."

So what does her job involve?
There are still a large number of displaced children in Timor Leste. World Vision has long-term projects in Food and Livelihood Security, Water and Sanitation, Health, Youth Development, Child Protection and Peacebuilding. I help out across most of them.

Basically, a small part of my role is to help ensure that World Vision’s emergency response is part of a collaborative approach because coordination between different NGOs and aid agencies is crucial during emergency situations.

Apart from dealing with crisis relief, we are also involved in long-term development projects. These projects are fundamental to our role here as International Development Workers. While emphasis is always on emergency short-term relief, long-term development work in contrast, is more crucial towards addressing root causes of issues such as poverty and violence.

One of the many projects that I am part of is the Inter-agency Watsan Working Group, which provides water and sanitation to the IDP camps. I help coordinate the distribution of water and sanitation contingency items such as tarpaulins, rope and soap to other aid agencies which then distribute them to refugees at the IDP camps.

I have to ensure that projects are progressing well and gauge how the affected community is feeling about these projects. In the midst of all this, I also assist local staff increase the quality of programmes and their English capabilities.
Teresa loves her job because she gets to play a "part in opening up opportunities for people to improve their situation can be very rewarding."
This can involve securing funding for a health education project so that communities can learn how to avoid getting sick from preventable diseases. When I hear stories of how our projects have helped communities, such as giving them access to clean water or increasing their agricultural crops, I feel excited. It’s nice to know that there is change happening.
Yes, Teresa gets paid for her role as an aid worker. However, that still doesn't take away the immense sacrifices she has made being away from home, living in less then ideal conditions and getting her hand "dirty".

Everyone of us young Malaysians have our part to play in this world, and I certainly hope that there are many more who will take the path less trodden, inspired by gutsy youths like Teresa Lee. ;)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Vouchers, National Education Fund and School League Tables

I was alerted to these two letters recently published in the Sun and the Star by the author of the letters. The content of both letters is similar. The author, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, is Director-General of Malaysia Think Tank London. He basically recommends three proposals as ways to improve the standards of schools in Malaysia: a targeted voucher system, a National Education Fund, a school league table that is published every six months.

Given that the links to the Sun and the Star might be taken down or the urls might be changed later, I've copied the meat of Wan Saiful's proposals and pasted them below:

To overcome this, I propose three strategies. First, introduce a targeted voucher system. Second, set up a National Education Fund funded solely by corporate and individual donations. Third, publish a school league table every six months.

The targeted vouchers give parents with low household income the necessary funds. The vouchers can only be used to pay for education.

Through this system, schools no longer get automatic funding from the state. Instead, “vouchers” are given directly to parents who can then use the vouchers to pay for their children’s education needs at a school of their choice.

The National Education Fund would be funded by the private sector and individual contributions, not the Government. Companies and individuals who donate would gain tax relief as an incentive. Money from this Fund can be used to top up the vouchers if necessary, especially to assist the very poor to pay for other costs like transport, books and school uniform.

Removing school-based funding and giving money directly to parents would effectively make schools like any other private companies offering a service.

Schools must compete to offer services that are the best value for money. Schools that fail to deliver risk closure because parents would simply not send their children there.

The six-monthly league table would provide parents with a tool to compare performance of schools and therefore help their decision making process. It would also inject more competition to improve the schools.

Similar systems have proven to be effective in countries around the world. The report submitted to the Education Minister by Malaysia Think Tank London provides evidence of these successes.

I'm personally in favor of Proposals 1 and 3. The economist in me (the late Milton Friedman was a highschool hero of mine) supports giving parents more choice, providing them with more information and introducing more competition into the education system.

Out of the two proposals, I think that Proposal 3 is probably easier to implement in the short run. Singapore has been publishing school league tables for more than 15 years now and I've been a strong proponent of a similar system being set up in Malaysia.

I'm more sceptical about the 2nd proposal which is the setting up of a National Education Fund for the following reasons:

(i) Cost to the government - if the donations are tax deductible, the more successful this program is at eliciting donations, the more its costs the government in terms of revenue forgone, revenue that could have been used to spend on other parts of the education system such as building more schools.

(ii) Little incentives to donate - the flipside is that if the tax relief is too low, there's little incentive to donate to this fund and which defeats the purpose of setting up this fund in the first place.

(iii) Administrative problems - if this fund is substantial enough, it will not be easy to administer. Imagine having to process all sorts of applications for textbook money from poor students or from schools representing these poor students. Such a fund might be costly to administer and inefficient to boot.

I think that new ideas should be injected into our education system. The problem is that these ideas take a long time to 'seep' up to our leaders and also civil servants, especially those in the Ministry of Education. And even if these ideas are approved, we usually run into massive implementation problems. (Think late delivery of school text books when there has been a significant change in the syllabus or when the medium of instruction for Math and Science was changed from BM to English)

I will email Wan Saiful to ask him for his full paper and will write further posts on this issue. I'd encourage those who are interested in his report to email him directly. His details are found below:

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Director-General of Malaysia Think Tank London. Previously, he was at the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit (CPSU) and the Conservative Party's Research Department (CRD). The report "Introducing Choice and Competition into Malaysia's Education System" is available free by contacting Wan Saiful via email at:

In the meantime, if anyone else has any other reports from this education workshop in Nottingham, England in November, 2006 (last month), please email myself ( and Tony (

National Education Blueprint 2006-2010

Thanks to Charis for this headsup. I wanted to blog about this earlier but for some reason, I couldn't connect to during the Christmas period. It was announced last Sunday that the Ministry of Education would publish and distribute its National Education Blueprint 2006-2010. I wanted to highlight two things, one, regarding the tone of the statements made by the Minister of Education, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein and two, regarding the importance of this Blueprint.

Firstly, I found the tone and words used by Hisham to be totally different from the tone of his message in the last two UMNO Youth General Assembly meetings. This could be due to the fact that he's speaking in his capacity as Minister of Education, not UMNO Youth Chief, and also the fact that NST might have choosen the most 'progressive' parts of his interview / statements to highlight.

For example:

"We need to face up to the fact that Malaysians have to compete with billions of our fellow Asians who are hungry for the kind of prosperity and stability we have achieved over the past 20 years.

"They will work harder and smarter because they are hungrier.

"All Malaysians, especially the Malay community, have to come to terms with this fact.

"If we don’t rise to the ever-increasing critical challenges, we will return to being losers in the global race.

"I also feel the blueprint has approached most of the issues from a purely market perspective, whereby we have looked at satisfying the needs and demands of the market."

He also pointed out that one of the reasons for publishing and distributing this blueprint was to generate more accountability on the part of the Ministry:

The document will spell out the ministry’s approaches for the next five years, including timelines on its delivery of goals.

It will also show how the mammoth RM23 billion allocation for education will be distributed under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

Mindful that "everyone has an opinion on education", the ministry will also explain its direction for key areas such as the strengthening of national schools, its "clusters of excellent schools", access to education, and empowering teachers.

Admitting that the Malaysian education system was at the crossroads, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the blueprint would ensure the ministry’s goals were reflected and planned in a transparent and deliverable manner.

Themed, "Pioneering Change — A National Mission", the blueprint would allow all those involved and interested in education to be clear on where the ministry is heading and how it wants to get there, he said.

I think many Malaysians would have wanted to listen to this Hishamuddin at the UMNO Youth GA compared with the keris-bearing Hisham who actually showed up. Many of the things he said at this interview did really sound progressive and far-sighted, which surprised me a little.

Secondly and more importantly, I'm wonder out loud as to how much this Blueprint will be 'followed' and how 'accountable' the Ministry will be to its promises as outlined in this Blueprint. Many people have told me and I've observed this phenomenon myself - Malaysia (or specifically the Malaysian government) is great when it comes to producing documents (visions, plans, blueprints etc...) but drops the ball at the implementation phase.

I'm reminded by the failure of former Education Minister Musa Muhammed's 10-year Education Development Blueprint 2001-2010 to make any significant impact in shaping our education system. For some historical perspective, you can read what Lim Kit Siang had to say about this here and here.

Some of the policies implemented seemed to contradict those outlined in the Musa plan and in some case, Dr. M seemed to have overidden the Minister on certain key decisions. Will the same happen to Hisham? Will the lack of continuity at this key Ministry affect the implementation of this Blueprint if a cabinet reshuffle takes Hisham to another Ministry? Only time well tell.

In the meantime, I hope that all of us can do our part in reading, analyzing and distilling the contents of the National Education Blueprint 2006-2010 when it will be posted on MOE's website on January 12, 2007. More importantly, I hope all of us can do our part in trying to keep the Ministry accountable to its own Blueprint.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Singapore-MIT Alliance Scholarship

Someone in the earlier post on Scholarship opportunities for postgraduates... well, here's one. ;)

The Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) is a collaboration between National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. SMA offers dual degrees: either a Masters degree from MIT and a Masters degree from NUS/NTU; or a Masters degree from MIT and a PhD from NUS/NTU; or a PhD degree from either NUS or NTU.

Unlike our very own failed RM100 million collaboration with MIT at Malaysia University of Science and Technology (MUST), SMA has proven to be a successful and thriving alliance between the Singapore universities and MIT.

The SMA Graduate Fellowship includes:
  • Full support for tuition and fees at MIT and either NUS or NTU
  • Monthly stipend of up to S$2500
  • Roundtrip airfare between Singapore and Boston
  • Additional living allowance during residency at MIT
Five graduate programmes will be offered by SMA for the July 2007 intake.

To find out more on the programmes, requirements, admissions and application deadlines, please click here.

Application opens: From September 2006 onwards
Application deadlines: Between January - March 2007, varies with programmes.

For any enquiries, please contact SMA at Tel: (65) 6516 4787 and Fax: (65) 6775 2920

Or alternatively, you can email them or check out their website.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas and New Year Greetings

Apologies for not blogging the last week or so. Was busy finishing my term and had to go to DC for a meeting with a friend. Before I dive into the latest education issues, here's wishing our readers a blessed, thoughtful and reflective Christmas and New Year. Party responsibly, eat well and enjoy your time with your loved ones.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Dedicated Educator (II)

I adapted the Reader's Digest story of headmaster Mr Tiong Ting Ming's selfless dedication towards building a better school and providing quality education for his students and community earlier. If you thought the little snippet was inspiring, then you need to read this post. It'll provide you with a lot more insight on what Mr Tiong did to bring technology to his students as well as what he incredibly achieved despite the many hurdles and obstacles. Much of the information below is extracted from a seminar paper presented in 2005 provided to the bloggers of this site. ;)

As a bit of background, there are about 2,000 secondary schools in Malaysia of which 78 are Chinese Conforming Schools which are collectively known as Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK) and are categorized under Bantuan Modal Schools.

The land where SMJKs are sited belong to the Board of Governors (BOGs) who are responsible for the physical development of the school. The key draw back for SMJKs is that the public at large is responsible for the funding of any school projects. The Bantuan Modal scheme provides only some grants for the schools' physical development. However the main advantage is that the school has the flexibility to implement projects without much interference from the authority.

One of the first things Mr Tiong did after being appointed as headmaster for SMJK Dindings way back in 1992 was identifying ICT as one of the key strategies for improving the school in terms of teaching, learning, communications and administration. He placed his vision for the school in a strategic paper and spent 5 tireless years turning SMJK Dindings into a high-tech learning institution. Readers might note that by 1997 the ICT and Internet bug hasn't really caught on in Malaysia. The Government only released the various tenders for the Smart School programme in that year.

During the 5 painful years, Mr Tiong traveled all over the country, “begged and twisted the arms of many people into donating to rebuild the school, netting more than RM1 million in cash and kind”. All that was raised went into the renovation of the older school buildings and the construction of a new three-storey building which is more often refers to as "cyber-classrooms".
The new building was fully 'connected' via conduits for data cables setting up a school-wide Local Area Network (LAN). The laying of the copper and fibre optic cables were undertaken by Sapura Network Integrator, Thomas & Betts, a US-based company and the students of SMJK Dindings.

Mr Tiong's enterprising spirit is almost unbelievable, even to a seasoned Internet entrepreneur like myself. Together with his students, they really went to the ends of the earth, enabled by the Internet to seek out the best deals for the schools with its limited funds.

While the initial years depended on the generosity of the local corporations such as Sapura Holdings, Hock Hua Bank Bhd and 3Com Asia Pacific Ltd, Mr Tiong knew that such consistent and continued charity are going to be hard to come by. Hence, key technology equipment such as hubs, switches, network interface cards and other computer accessories were purchased from at a rock bottom prices when the Internet bubble burst. In fact, one of the students even traveled 6 times to the United States to ship the items back.

Additional hardware was purchased from Singapore or through local auction sites such as In 2005, the school started to purchase large numbers of refurbished CPU and servers from Dell that come with 5-year extended warranty, part and labour. The deployment of the used and refurbished hardware certainly enabled the school to maximise returns from the limited financial resources.

So how “high-tech” is SMJK Dindings today?

Well, I can say that after reading his story, I have nailed a note in my head to visit the school one of this days. And I would encourage all Malaysian headmasters and headmasters-to-be to do the same, for there is much we can learn.

From what I can tell, the entire school is run using some of the best technology applications. Each student have their own RFID tags which linked themselves to the schools management system enabling attendance taking, school discipline via an online merit and demerit systems, library access, utilisation and much more. What is most interesting, is that not only will the system be accessed by the teachers, administrators and students, they are also monitored directly by the students' parents!

Mr Tiong is also not so “blinkered” by technology that he forgets the critical human factor.
“It is probably true that pupils have much higher levels of ability in ICT than many of those in the teaching profession. ICT is the new literacy skill and teachers have to grasp any available opportunity to enhance their ICT skills if they are to use it in the teaching and learning process. Pupils cannot be expected to become adept at the new technologies if the teachers themselves do not fully appreciate the potentials of these technologies.”
It is well-known that teachers often take a longer time to learn the new technologies and to integrate them into the everyday curriculum. SMJK Dindings provides a wide selection of ICT training for teachers and administrative staff. All the staff members must attend computer lessons, one and a half hour each week, learning more about email programs, Internet search tools, web designing, Office tools, computer hardware and trouble-shooting skills, Windows installation and even digital photography.

With so much ICT equipment in the school, maintenance, the Achilles heel of typical Malaysian government projects, will certainly be have been a challenge. Instead, the school turned this challenge into an opportunity by forming “cyber-brigades” which are given responsibilities to keep system downtime to a minimal level.

The cyber-brigades comprised Form 2 to Form 5 students. Software and Operating System maintenance are assisted by Form 4 and Form 5 students taking Information Technology and Computer Programming courses at SPM level. Network and servers maintenance are undertaken by ex-students working in Kuala Lumpur, either remotely or on-site during the weekends.

The story of the students and alumni taking charge is highlighted in the Star Education supplement on November 5nd. The two young men picture there are Mr Tiong's ex-students who came back to help in install network cables.

One of the more interesting projects undertaken by students in the school included a hands-on experience in laying a 700m multi-modal fiber-optic cable linking the school with a nearby primary school and kindergarten. The campus-wide high bandwidth network was probably the first of its kind in the country that was commissioned and maintained by teenagers.

As part of the curriculum, students are also assigned projects by teachers to encourage them to do research on the Internet to complement their traditional subjects. Some tertiary colleges do not even encourage such activities, much less a typical secondary school.

SMJK Dindings was a dwindling school quickly losing relevance to parents even in the neighbourhood when Mr Tiong was appointed its headmaster. His task to turn the school around was not helped by its location in the village, sandwiched between an oil palm estate and a coconut plantation.

Today, parents from far and wide sent their children to SMJK Dindings to study ICT related subjects. Students, teachers, administrative staff and parents are able to access information about Real-Time Attendance with RFID, students discipline, examination management, library management and co-curriculum activity via Internet and Intranet. All this was achieved with a meagre RM2 million in cash and kind which was collected over the past dozen years or so.

This is in stark contrast to the efforts of the Ministry of Education, which has spent hundreds of millions to build smart-schools and very little to show besides poorly maintained and under-utilised computer hardware and ICT equipment. The Ministry of Education should perhaps consider appointing Mr Tiong as the Director-General in-charge of Smart Schools in Malaysia for I'm certain that he'll help achieve Malaysia's goals to provide quality education with less than half the budget in less than half the time for ten-fold the returns.

Is the Minister of Education himself, or his senior officials too proud to eat humble pie at the expense of the nation?

Thank you, Mr Tiong for helping make Malaysia a better place for fellow Malaysians. This certainly makes a great Malaysian and Christmas story. ;)

US College Essay: Expert Advice

I think it's about time pre-university students start preparing and making applications to top universities overseas. Many of these applications will require you to write not just one, but a few college essays.

Well, Jennifer Johnson of the Wall Street Journal did a quick compilation of some frequently asked questions on writing college essays for university entrance. The admission directos at 3 top schools in the United States, Brown, Harvard and Virginia Universities provided the "expert advice". You can't get better 'informed' tips than this.

Q: What role does the essay or personal statement play in the admissions process? How much weight does it receive?
  • BROWN: The essay plays a role slightly less important than the student's high-school performance. High-school performance carries the most weight, and is most important. Everything else -- testing, essays, recommendations, etc. -- carries about the same weight.

  • HARVARD: Because we use no formulas in admissions, or in evaluating applications, there is no specific "weight" assigned to the essay. The importance of the essay depends on the case -- and on the extent to which an essay deepens or illuminates our understanding of the applicant.

  • VIRGINIA: Although we do not place numerical weights on the various factors we consider in an applicant, we count them as important in our coming to know the students better. We see the essays as a means for students to talk to us. They can say whatever is important to them and in doing so, give us a more human sense of who they are. We intentionally shape our several questions so that any student can probably find one that speaks to her or him and lets that person respond in a way that is unique.

Q: What makes a good college essay? How can students stand out among the crowd?
  • BROWN: Essays that have simple themes, are personal and focused are most effective.

  • HARVARD: A good essay extends the admissions committee's appreciation of the candidate, helps us to understand better "what makes him or her tick."

  • VIRGINIA: We think a good essay question is one that separates the best students from those who are not as strong. In the same manner, a good essay is one that gives the admission deans a deeper look at the student -- it permits us to go well beyond the numbers we see on the transcript. After all, we are building a community of people and without an expression of their human qualities, we would be left with only statistics.

    They can stand out from the crowd by being themselves in their writing. Simple, plain language can be a persuasive part of the application.

Q: Are there any topics or techniques that students should avoid?
  • BROWN: Don't write travelogues, don't rehash yesterday's editorial, and don't use gimmicks.

  • HARVARD: It would be hard to proscribe specific topics, though I would advise using common sense in choosing a topic. As to techniques, legibility and clear expression are good techniques to use, always.

  • VIRGINIA: Our parents always said not to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table, but some students write magnificent essays about either, both or just about any other subject. It all depends on how the writer handles it.

Q: How do you feel about online-editing services for college essays?
  • BROWN: Not worth the time or money.

  • HARVARD: We expect applications to be a student's own work, honestly presented.

  • VIRGINIA: We ask our applicants to sign a statement on our application that the work is their own, and we take them at their word.

Q: About how many essays is your committee responsible for reading? And how do you divide the work?
  • BROWN: We read 18,000 to 19,000 applications per year -- each application has four to six short and long essays. So, we read a lot. Applications are divided up among admission officers regionally.

  • HARVARD: We received last year about 23,000 applications and each one is read carefully at least once. Assignments are made by geographic area. The first reader is the officer responsible for presenting the case -- and other cases from assigned areas -- to the admissions committee, and other officers read folders as well. Often, essays (and other materials from the folder) are read in committee meetings, sometimes more than once.

  • VIRGINIA: We ask our deans to read 30 to 35 applications per day, and that includes the essays. On many days, they can't get them done in normal working hours and so they take them home at night or over the weekend to complete. Our process is holistic, and so we do not separate any part of the credentials for evaluation unless it is a portfolio for art or a tape for drama or music. We consider everything in the folder and within the context of the school or community.
I've read the above and I certainly think that they are extremely useful tips. Spend time understanding these tips and review your essays over and over (again). Good luck!

Thanks to for the link!

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Dedicated Educator (I)

The following story is adapted from the Reader's Digest Asia Edition, April 2001, in a short story entitled "Everyday Heroes: Tech Teacher".

When Mr Tiong Ting Ming was appointed headmaster in 1992, his school, SMJK Dindings was a ramshackle set of wooden buildings. It is a secondary school in the village of Pundut, 100 kilometers west of lpoh. There were 320 students, and the number was failing.

"They were dropping out to help with their families' businesses," he recalls. At that point of time, school just wasn't a priority.

After becoming a teacher in 1977, Tiong had developed an interest in computers. By the time he arrived at Dindings, he realised that new technology was changing the way the world communicated and did business. To give his students an opportunity to break out of their rural poverty, he introduced courses in computer hardware and software, programming, networking and the Internet.

Many teachers and parents resisted the changes, but the students enthusiastically embraced Tiong's ideas. When he started a computer club, more than 100 youngsters signed up. To get equipment, Tiong lobbied tech companies in Malaysia for donations. Many contributed old, unwanted computers, which he and his students repaired in their spare time. Others, impressed by Tiong's dedication and enthusiasm, wrote cheques.

The school now has a new building wired with the latest high-speed Internet connections, and every student has access to a computer.

Thanks to Dindings' growing reputation, it now has 900 students. One of them is Zulkifli Mohamed, a 17-year-old who plans to start a Web design business when he graduates. Without Tiong's guidance, he says, "I would never have been able to acquire the computer skills I now have."

Tiong, a 49-year-old father of three, says he wants to give his students the tools to go on learning for the rest of their lives, so they'll always be able to find the information they need to survive and rosper. Like a computer-age Confucian, he adds: "I'm teaching kids to be paddy planters - not just rice eaters."

Both Kian Ming and myself have communicated with Mr Tiong, and we have certainly found out a lot more. His story is inspiring, on how one person's dedication can make a difference to the lives of many, and hopefully influence policy which will affect plenty more. There is much our own Government can learn from his efforts with the millions at its disposal to build our very own "schools of the future".

His story certainly cannot be justifiably told within a single short post, and hence we will flesh it out in a few subsequent posts. Happy reading. ;)

Scholarship Opportunities

If you haven't seen these in, there are a couple of scholarship opportunities available for those seeking to pursue their first degree soon.
  • The Wesleyan Freeman Asian Scholars Program

    Wesleyan University is now accepting applications for the Freeman Asian Scholars Program. The deadline is 1 January 2007. For more information on the scholarship, please read this and this.

  • Government Investment Corporation (Singapore) Global Scholarship

    Visiting the GIC website here. The full scholarship is for current Form 6 student or equivalent for fields of study including Economics, Engineering, Computer Science, Business Admin, Accountancy and others.

    The deadline is 29 December 2006, so hurry!!

  • 2007 ANU Alumni Assocation Malaysia Scholarships

    They are offering one undergraduate scholarship covering tuition fees with an annual stipend of A$10,000 for any Bachelor’s degree(including Honours and combined degrees).

    Application forms and further information are available from all AusEd-UniEd offices and IDP Education Australia offices. You can also email anu dot alumniassociation at gmail dot com

    Hurry! Application deadline is January 5th, 2007 before 5.00pm.
So go ahead, give yourself a chance. Remember however that to stand a fair chance, the completion of the application forms and essays is a critical process. Take good care in completing them.

The team at have also volunteered to refer potential candidates to possibly get in touch with some of the existing scholars who could hopefully share their experiences with you. Visit their site for more details. ;)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What Makes A Good Lecturer?

Apologies for the slow rate of posts for the last couple of days. Have been a tad busy with travelling, taking care of the little one who's on 2 weeks play-school "holiday", work (yes, I still have to make a living) and Kian Ming's sitting for his examinations. ;)

I posted a while back with regards to "UTAR: Too Fast, Too Soon?", which by-the-way, has some of the most active and intelligent discussions on-going. Together with another post on UTAR, "Qualitative Insights", they are among 2 of the most popular posts (combined nearly 150 comments and 7,200 page views) on this blog attracting those I believe to be UTAR academics, students and alumni.

There was this extremely insightful comment which I'd like to highlight here, that essentially raises the question of what makes a good lecturer, as well as the difficulty and paradox of becoming a truly good one.

The lecturer from UTAR was responding to a comment by former scholar, Emily who gave some constructive criticism on the university's spoon feeding tendencies, for example, by not encouraging "further reading". Emily argued that for "many of [her] classes, you read the lecturer's notes and the text, memorise and embrace them - they are your bible, your religion, contradict and you're a heretic who will burn."
I was in the industry for 6 years, and then I come over here [UTAR]. I had no teaching experience. I picked up “teaching” skills through my own hard ways, trying to emulate the way I was trained overseas. It was not long before almost all the students told me they were unable to follow my lessons. They were basically unable to comprehend me if I did not translate some words into Bahasa or Mandarin. They were not able to take down notes on their own if we were to deliver our lectures without dictating to them the points or giving printed notes to them. Even outlines and handouts (with cross-referencing to textbooks and other sources as per the unit plan) were not sufficient for them, they said they were still lost. And whatever notes we wished to give, these had to be given to them a week in advance, if not, as the class representative put it, “we won’t be able to concentrate in class”.

Taking their feedback at face value, I then spent countless long nights preparing detailed notes, summarising, in simpler English, from the textbooks. It occurred to me, I was spoon-feeding them, but I thought, hey, perhaps that was how they did things in here.

It was not long before I observed them paying less attention in class – because they no longer needed to listen and write down anything during the lectures. During tutorials, I observed them not preparing in advance the answers to the tutorial questions. When asked, they replied, “your lecture notes are too detailed, we haven’t finished reading”. Some hadn’t even read it – I could see the photocopied notes, still crisp without underlinings, highlightings or jottings.

For the exams, I referred to the local, UK, Australian and US examinations, and based my teaching and assessment on these. In my first semester, 55% students failed my paper. Understandably, I had to give explanation to the Head for the failures.

The students were asked also and they replied that the questions were within their abilities; they had covered the topics before, and had practised same difficulty-level questions before in tutorials. But they had not finished studying the lecture notes and practised the tutorial questions. And most importantly, they said they found the exam areas “too wide. The lecturer did not narrow down the areas for us to revise for the exam, so how to score?”

In my next semester, with a new group of students, I gave printed lecture notes again, and kept advising them to check this or that textbooks and web-sites to get more informative materials for their assignments and coursework. I told them to have confidence in their abilities to do research, do not underestimate themselves as not being of the same level as students from other universities. Then I told them I expected to see them presenting a solid, well-research assignment in class. They had something like 2 months to do the group assignment and presentation.

I discovered during the presentation that they “cut and paste” materials from the Internet and any textbooks. Despite my cajoling them to have more eye-contacts and refer less to their notes/slides when presenting, they failed to do so. Come Q&A time, I asked for their original opinion and inputs, telling them they would get marks no matter how much they disagreed with what they had picked up from my class or the books. What I wanted was creative, original opinion. They remained silent or repeated the points from the notes and textbooks. I asked them, when did they started their work – they started five days ago. Why? “Because we were rushing other assignments...” When were those assignments given? "Beginning of the semester.”

For the exam, again I referred to local and overseas standards, with adaptations. I also watered down some of my questions and I confidently thought most would pass. In fact, some of the questions were similar to the case-studies they had tackled in the tutorials(or rather, were given answers since they did only minimal work and remained silent during class, forcing us to have to give them the answers). That semester, 45% failed. My head respectfully moved me to another subject, saying that perhaps another colleague could handle that subject better.

Ever since then, life gets “better” for my students. I still maintain my high standards, but extensive spoon-feeding and “narrowing of exam topics” are given. Articles are photocopied in advance for them, and once a while, I still receive groans like “aiya, why so many one…how to finishlah….”

At the end of each semester, we lecturers often have to ask our students to do lecturers’ evaluation (evaluations are done on-line). Often, those of us who conduct their lessons ala-"Utar" style get impressive feedbacks, with students giving comments like “he is so helpful” (read: give detailed notes, photostat articles for them and give exam tips) or “she delivers her lessons so well and interestingly” (read: tell jokes in class, give them answers, play games, cover only easy parts of the syllabus, leaving out the difficult ones).

Those of us who are tough, who insist on not spoon-feeding them or adhere to high standards often get lambasted in their evaluations “she is never punctual for class” (ticked off one or students for being late), “we learn nothing from his class” (ticked them off for not preparing for their tutorials and made them do the questions & discuss during class itself) or “he always wastes time talking about issues irrelevant to our syllabus” (discussed current issues pertaining to the economy, unemployment among graduates of the same discipline and social environment). These lecturers are left praying that the exam results won’t be so disastrous, since if that were to happen, the evaluation comments will definitely be taken into account. (usually the head will try to be fair and speak to the lecturers first regarding their evaluations, to hear their side).

Some of us do not have “insecure and unintelligent” nature, but for the sake of “enhancing appearance of superiority”, wouldn’t it be wise for them to start learning how to be?

I understand and appreciate whatever strong comments Emily and the rest have made so far in this and other blog on the Utar lecturers. Perhaps my story will give you all a chance to hear “the other side” and form your own conclusions.

Having been here for over 2 years, and having gone through all that above, I can say I am still hopeful, i.e. I am not that put off by the type, quality or attitudes of many students that we are having here. After all, when lemons are handed to us, we have to try make lemonades out of them.

Even so, I feel that if only the students have the right quality and attitude, this will go a long way. I am of the opinion that it does not matter if the students, at the point of entry, were to have poor SPM, STPM or whatever entrance exam results. What is important is their willingness to change themselves, make that commitment and go all way out to achieve something for themselves.

We lecturers here are trying our best to firstly, address the gap in the students'academic abilities and English, and secondly, to bring them on par with the international university students. We can only do our level best, but how are we to achieve our desired results if year in, year out, the students give us the feedback that “we want only that piece of paper that will get us a job, so please teach only what you want to examine, the rest we are not interested”.

I sometimes wish there are 70 or 80% Emilys in my fac, it would have made my teaching experience here so enjoyable and meaningful. True, we have our fair share of 1st class Honours students here, I have taught many of them myself. Someone hits the nail on the head by saying that in UTAR, the 1st class honours students are the truly good ones, while those getting 2nd class and below are, well, what can I say.....

Here, most of us are overworked, but whether we are being appreciated by the students, the management and community....that is a big question. But then, we must always remain positive and do our best.
I actually don't think I have to write much more for I think what the lecturer has highlighted doesn't really need further elaboration. But that will really be underestimating the complexity and seriousness of the issue. In particular, it reflects the inherent difficulties in creating well-rounded graduates equipped with critical thinking and analytical skills.

While the concerned raised was specific to UTAR, it obviously isn't unique to the college and is probably prevalent in most, if not all of our local private and public universities.

I'm certain that many other academics ploughing this blog will have their "stories" to tell as well. Let's hear from students and lecturers, or even the university management for the relevant views as well as how this problem may (high hopes here), be resolved.

I will write on my personal contrasting experience at Raffles Junior College in Singapore, and my undergraduate years at Oxford in Part II to this post. This type of comments here certainly makes me feel like I'm doing something useful with my time spent running this little blog. ;)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Girls Smarter Than Boys? (III)

As the title suggests, I've written on this topic twice (Part I and Part II) previously already. But the statistics just gets more and more interesting each year, that I thought it's definitely worth another mention.

Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Ong Tee Keat said out of the 79,337 graduates for the 2005/2006 academic session, 50,227 were females and 29,110 males in the Dewan Negara on last week. In percentage form, it means that "man"-kind only made up 36.7% of the total graduates in this country!

More interestingly, it ratio appears worse for the bumiputera community. While bumiputera only institution, Universiti Teknologi Mara produced the highest number of graduates at 25,560, women led the way with 17,151 graduates. That means only less than one-third or 32.9% of the bumiputera graduates are male!

While it's great for the women-folk, for I've always believed that education is a tool for emancipation of the fairer sex. However, what has become of men, and in particular Malay men? Have they all been Rempitized? Surely, this must be of great concern to the leaders of the society?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

PhDs must now register with MQA

The Star reported today that the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) will soon require PhD holders to 'register' with them in view of the increasing number of people who "buy" their PhDs. Thanks to one of our readers, Ellie, for alerting us of this article.

Malaysian Accreditation Board (LAN) chairman and chief executive officer Prof Datuk Mohamed Salleh Mohamed Yasin said the move was necessary in view of the increasing number of people who buy or forge PhD qualifications.

He added that LAN would not recognise PhDs that had been bought (usually for about RM30,000) and those earned through online distance learning courses.

I think this is a good first step by the MQA especially given the complaints and Tony and myself have made in regards to "dubious" PhDs.

I just have a few clarification questions for MQA.

Firstly, what incentives or dis-incentives will it have to entice / force PhD holders to register themselves with MQA? Does it have the legal jurisdication to 'fine' those who do not register with them?

Secondly, what 'proof' will the MQA ask for from PhD holders if and when they register with the MQA? Will a certificate do? Will the MQA try to verify with the universities that these certificates are genuine? Given the fact that some of these certificates can be as easily 'forged' as they are 'bought', perhaps at a cheaper rate. If the MQA does not have a relatively rigorous method of ensuring that these certificates / qualifications are indeed genuine, then the registration process does not have any credibility.

Thirdly, what will the MQA do once these (or at least some of these) PhD holders have registered with them? Will they make the information public? Will be open it only to subscribers? By making such a database public, the MQA actually incentives those with genuine PhDs to register with them since there will be a public avenue where the 'genuine'ness of these PhDs can be verified. Even if it is open only to certain subscriber groups e.g. private and public universities, professional bodies, headhunting firms, PhD holders from 'genuine' universities would want to have their names registered with the MQA. Hence, it is key that the MQA thinks through what it will do with this database and how it is going to use it to incentivize PhD holders to register with it. I would probably recommend the private subscription model.

Fourthly, if the issue of 'bought' PhDs is becoming all too common in Malaysia, shouldn't the MQA or the MOHE (of which the MQA is part of) publicize some of the more commonly 'bought' PhDs that are in current circulation in Malaysia including those from the International Irish University and Newport, just to name two? It wouldn't be too difficult for MQA to list some of these universities on their website (which I couldn't find) or the website of MOHE. Indeed, if there were really serious about cracking down on this phenomenon, it could easily 'out' a few people who have obtained some of these dubious PhDs, many of them listed in this blog, to dissuade others from obtaining their PhDs from these same sources.

Or maybe, MQA is afraid of offending certain bigwigs who have either gotten their qualifications from some of these dubious universities (including the head of Putera UMNO who obtained his MBA from Preston University in Wymoing) or have presided over official functions organized by some of these universities (Kayveas and the International Irish University)?

Friday, December 15, 2006

It takes a kampung...

I posted my findings on USM's faculty about a week back. Thanks for all your comments. I thought it would be useful to do a follow up by examining each faculty / school within USM (or any other public university) in greater detail. But such an undertaking is too vast for me or Tony to do by ourselves. Hence, I'm inviting our readers to join us in a little bit of 'investigative' blogging.

I'm asking our readers who are interested to do the following:

1) Pick a faculty or department or school e.g. Public Administration, Electrical Engineering, History, Chemistry, within a public university of which you are relatively familiar with (either in terms of the subject matter or the faculty or both)

2) Compile a list of full time teaching faculty within this department (for USM, go to this link, for other universities, you can visit that university's website)

3) Do a systematic search of the publication record of each of the teaching faculty in that department / school. This can get pretty complicated but I can think of a couple of ways to do this. If you have access to some sort of journal database (especially if you're currently in a university setting), you can search these journal databases for articles by these faculty members. One such example is Thomson's Web of Science or IEEE for electrical engineers. If you don't have access to such journal databases, you can use Google Scholar for a much less scientific / systematic way of finding articles by certain authors. (The advantage of google scholar is that it picks up books as well as articles)

4) Compile some sort of ranking system or calculation method of the articles or books published by these faculty members. For example, you might want to count the number of articles a faculty member has published in high impact journals. (For a litest of such journals, you might want to visit this link provided to us by "Your Fellow Anon", one of our readers. You woud also want to evaluate the impact / importance of books written by these faculty members. For example, a translated textbook (from English into Malay) might not have as high an impact as a book which is trying to show or prove a new hypothesis.

I can think of a number of reasons why something like this would come in handy. It would be a good judge of whether a professor or associate professor has a good publication record or if he or she has gotten that title based on other factors. It would be the basis for comparing across the public universities in Malaysia, if we have a large enough sample size. It would give us different methodologies by which to rank different departments. It would give us some indication of whether our younger faculty members are keeping up in the publishing 'contest', so to speak.

5) Whatever the methodology used, it should be one that is systematic and consistent. We're not trying to 'target' any particular faculty member. We're just trying to evaluate the quality of a department as a whole. If we find certain faculty members who have a publication record that is not commensurate with his or her position, we'll highlight this fact. But we won't do a publication search just for one or two people in a department because we don't happen to like them.

6) The reason why I need more people to get involved is because different people have different knowledge areas and hence, are in better positions to judge what a good publication record is in that knowledge area. For example, I would have no idea how to judge whether a professor in the computer science department has a good publication record or not.

So, if you're interested in joining this informal 'project', please email me at We'll post your findings (with complete attribution to you, of course, unless you wish to remain annonymous) on this blog.

P.S. In case some of you are wondering about the title, it's a spin-off from Hillary Clinton's book, "It Takes a Village". In our case, we need the 'kampung' which comprise of our readers to come together to collaborate on this 'project'.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

RM100 million MUST Fiasco

There was an "urgent" call by a reader to blog on the Malaysia University of Science and Technology (MUST) as highlighted by Sdr Lim Kit Siang two days ago. Sorry-lah, old men Kian Ming and Tony are never going to be able to match the speed and agility of youthful Sdr Lim. ;)

Anyway, have you readers ever heard of MUST? Well maybe if you ransack the brain compartment where you store old nuggets of trivia, you might just remember it.

MUST was set up in 2002 as a brainchild of our former Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammed as a showcase of Malaysia's research and development prowess, "endorsed" by no other than Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MUST was to create “a pool of technology experts, an essential ingredient to attaining the national objectives under Vision 2020” and aimed to have 500 students in five years and 5,000 students in 10 years.

Of course, it is coincidental that MUST was also set up as a private institution owned by the ambassador-at-large for Higher Education, Datuk Effendi Norwawi. whose private investment holding company, Kuching-based Encorp Group Sdn. Bhd. He formed a consortium with the Selangor State Government to establish MUST Ehsan Foundation to enter into the collaboration with MIT to establish the postgraduate university.

It is understood from a reliable source that the Government has funded as much as RM100 million to sponsor students to the university as well as in "fees" to MIT.

As reported by the New Straits Times, MUST is now on the brink of closure less than 5 years after commencement of operations, with less than 10 students enrolled. Unsurprisingly, research "ties" with MIT is dead.

If we can't even get an existing relationship with a top university in the world working properly, can we be at all confident that another RM500 million "collaboration" with the University of Cambridge would not suffer the same fate?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

An Equitable Education System?

On the 3rd December 2006, the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced a budget of RM709 million to build up to 15 new Maktab Rendah Sains Malaysia (MRSMs) and more for upgrades and repairs of existing MRSMs. This announcement actually exceeds the RM90 million announced in the 9th Malaysia Plan (9MP) to build 2 new MRSMs as well as upgrade of existing facilities.

On the 9th December 2006, that is last Saturday, the same Minister of Education announced additional funds of RM2.1 million in the 9MP for the purposes of "upgrading "96 Chinese vernacular schools in the country. Grateful Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting goes out of his way to thank the Minister for his consideration and generous allocation. This was headline news for the local vernacular dailies.

And as political analyst Khoo Kay Peng calculated the complicated sums before arriving at the conclusion that the additional allocation meant a magnanimous RM22,000 for each of the Chinese schools, we are left aghast at state of beggar politics in this country.

On the one hand, we have the richly funded MRSM system which caters almost exclusively to the bumiputera community, while on the other, we have the drastically short-changed vernacular school system which caters largely to the minority communities. Do we have a just and equitable education system in this country?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Spotlight on USM (Part I)

About a week ago, I said I would look at the qualifications of the USM faculty. First of all, I'd like to apologize for taking so long to write this post. (You'll see why in a minute) Secondly, I'd like to thank Ben Teh, a regular reader who's currently doing his PhD in Japan, for this link to a detailed listing of USM's faculty. Thirdly, I'd like to apologize for what is going to be a long post.

Instead of doing a cursory run through of the USM faculty listed in the link above, I thought I'd do something a little more systematic, for my own benefit as well as for the benefit of our readers (hopefully). So what I did was the following:

- I compiled the name, highest qualification of each USM faculty, the name of the university of that highest qualification, the country of that university
- Of those faculty with PhDs, I tried to calculate the % of these PhDs which were from top universities either in the UK or the US

(This took quite a bit of time since I had to convert the data from pdf to excel form and then had to format the data)

The reasons for doing this were manifold. For example, I wanted to get a sense of the % of faculty at USM who had PhDs, an issue which the MOHE has been and is currently concerned about. In addition, I also wanted to get a sense of where most of our faculty were obtaining their PhDs from. More importantly, I wanted to see if most of these PhDs were obtained from relatively well known / good schools especially given the recent announcement by Tok Pa that postgraduate scholarships will only be offered to those who have been accepted by top schools (which Tony blogged about here). If, for example, many of the current USM faculty did not obtain their PhDs from top schools, how likely is it that future faculty will obtain their PhDs from top schools?

OK, some summary statistics first. I counted approxtimately 900 faculty in the ACU yearbook link found above. I excluded faculty from the dental and medical schools since almost all of the faculty here would be "Doctors". Included also are professors, associate professors, senior lecturers and lecturers whose names are not listed but was mentioned in the yearbook. (For these 'nameless' ones, I don't have information about their highest degree obtained and the related information) There are approximately 190 of these 'nameless' ones.

Of the remaining 710 whose full information are included in the yearbook, a surprisingly high % have PhDs. 547 or approximately 77% have PhDs. This is certainly above the 60% overall target set by MOHE for all public universities. Even if we assume that some % of those listed as senior lecturers and lecturers are not PhD holders (I estimated the figure at 50%), I still find that approximately 67% of the USM faculty obtain PhDs (about 600 out of 900). If this is indeed the case, then USM is well ahead of MOHE's 60% requirement. (If we assume that all senior lecturers and lecturers are NOT PhD holders, then only 60% of USM's faculty are PhD holders, right at the 60% MOHE requirement).

It would not surprise me if the other top two public universities in Malaysia, namely UKM and UM, have a similar % of faculty with PhDs. Which leads me to my next question: If UM, USM and UKM have more than 60% of their faculty with PhDs and if MOHE's overall target is 60% for all public universities, what then is the % of faculty with PhDs in the other public universities in Malaysia? (e.g. UITM, UUM, UPM, UNIMAS etc...) I would think that it would be significantly lower than 60% to drag the overall % for all public universities to about 30%, which is the latest national estimate. Perhaps some of our readers at universities like UITM and UUM can give us as sense of how many of their lecturers are actually PhD holders?

Next, where did these faculty obtain their PhDs from? A large number of them (slightly more than 53%) obtained their PhDs from UK universities. Unsurprising, given our long history of sending students to the UK. Coming in 2nd, at approximately 20%, are US universities. PhDs from Malaysian universities comprise approximately 15% of total PhDs. PhDs from Australian and Indian universities account for around 4.5% and 3.9% of total PhDs, respectively. These five countries (UK, US, Malaysia, Australia and India) account for 95% of all PhDs in USM. The remaining countries include Singapore, Thailand, Canada, Japan and France, just to name a few.

I decided to look at PhDs from UK and US universities since the universities in these two countries account for 73% of total PhDs at USM. I wanted to calculate the % of PhDs from top universities as measured by the latest rankings available. I realize that this is somewhat of a flawed methodolgy for a variety of reasons (rankings may have changed over time, different universities may be good in different fields) but I decided to stick with this method because it's relatively simple and intuitive. Furthermore, even if one argues that rankings are relative and subjective and that different schools specialise in different areas, I think it's hard to argue against the fact that top schools such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard or Princeton MUST be good in certain fields and if there are very few PhD holders from such schools in a university, this must account for something.

And so I proceed. Using the latest THES university rankings for UK universities (2007), I allocated a ranking for each of the schools from which at least one faculty member obtained a PhD from. There were a total of 47 UK schools. I then proceeded to calculate the % of PhDs which were obtained from Top 10, Top 20 and Top 30 schools in the UK. The corresponding figures are 4.3%, 21.8% and 49.7%. In other words, only 4.3% of total PhDs obtained from UK universities were obtained from schools that were ranked in the Top 10. More than 50% were obtained from schools that were outside the Top 30.

From the ACU data, I found only 1 PhD holder from Cambridge and none from Oxford. Unfortunately, because PhD holders from the University of London unis are listed as PhD (London), I wasn't able to ascertain the no of PhDs from Imperial College, the London School of Economics, SOAS, UCL and King's College, all of which are good universities, in my humble opinion. Given that the UOL includes a diverse group of member institutions, I gave the overall UOL PhD a ranking of 15, which is the average ranking for all UOLs member institutions in the THES rankings (Goldsmith's at 45 drags the overall UOL ranking down).

33 faculty from USM obtained their PhDs from the UOL. 29 were from the University of Wales member institutions, which includes Aberystwyth, Bangor, Lampeter, Swansea, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, University of Wales, Newport and Cardiff University (average ranking of 51). The other popular universities are Leeds (34)(ranking in parentheses), Sheffield (24), Newcastle (25), Hull (49), Birmingham (33), Manchester (26), Reading (31), Strathcylde (40), Liverpool (39).

I think many of these universities are good universities, though maybe not great universities, and I'm sure that many of them have fine PhD programs in areas where many of the USM faculty obtain their PhDs in. But the fact that only a relatively small number of USM's faculty obtained their PhDs from top 10 UK universities should give pause to the MOHE in regards to their policy of awarding postgrad scholarships only to those who enter into top universities. MOHE certainly has to be careful in how it defines top universties.

Furthermore, this simple exercise that I've carried out, coupled with my personal experience in the UK, leads me to believe that there is some sort of network and networking effect at work here. A university which has accepted many Malaysians in the past is more likely to accept more Malaysians in the future. Furthermore, universities which currently have some number of Malaysians doing their PhD there are likely to attract more applicants from Malaysia to their programs because of familiarity, that it's easier to get settled into a place with at least some fellow Malaysians and so on. Also, current faculty who are from these universities are also likely to know current faculty in those UK universities and can more easily refer potential students to work under this or that professor in that particular UK university.

All this also points to the difficulty of sending potential PhD students to places like Cambridge and Oxford. Firstly, with so few Malaysian professors in our local varsities who are from these universities, it is much harder for them to be credible referees for potential Malaysian PhD students, many of them graduates from local universities. Secondly, it is quite likely that Malaysians with PhDs from Cambridge and Oxford are loth to return to teach in public universities for a variety of reasons (salary, better opportunities elsewhere, poor research environment etc...).

Perhaps, the possibility of an RM500 million 'donation' to Cambridge is supposed to make it easier for potential Malaysian PhD students to get a place in Cambridge?

What is the picture like for US PhDs? Here we find a smaller 'network' or 'networking' effect at work. Because there are more US universities, the USM faculty who have US PhDs come from many different universities. I used the latest US News and World Report rankings to calculate the % of PhDs from top 10, top 50 and top 100 universities. The corresponding figures are 3.2%, 25.3% and 53.2%. Only 5 out of the 168 US PhDs were from Top 10 schools (Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Columbia and Yale). Slightly less than half of the US PhDs were from schools outside the top 100. Some of these universities - Bradley, Northern Illinois, Mississipi State, Hawaii.

Again, I repeat some of what I've said in previous posts. It's extremely difficult to get a place in a PhD. program in a top US university. It's even more difficult when (a) the applicant does not have a US undergrad degree (b) the applicant does not have referees who know professors in these top schools personally. And if you DO get a place, it's likely that the university will fund your entire program. Given that the current PhD scholarship in Malaysia only funds a candidate for 3 to 3 1/2 years, it makes it even less likely that an applicant who does get accepted into a top 10 or top 20 school will want to take the Malaysian scholarship if he or she can accept a scholarship from the US university in question.

My conclusion from this rather long post? That the MOHE needs to work closely with the local universities to try to place potential PhD students in good programs but at the same time, be realistic that gaining entry into a top 10 program in a US or UK university is not that easy. My sense is that it's probably easier gaining entry into a top 10 UK university given that UK universities are more strapped for funds and hence, more likely to accept a fee paying Malaysian PhD student. So even though I'm a strong supporter of PhD programs here in the US, for practical purposes, it probably makes more sense for MOHE and the public universities to concentrate of UK universities instead.

Finally, the strength of any research university is not to be judged by where the faculty obtained their PhDs from but the quality of research which the faculty produces. This is much more difficult to evaluate in the kind of semi-comprehensive manner which I've done here. But try I will. In a later post, which will have to wait until I finish my exams and some final papers.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Medal Obsession Continues... (Part II)

I've written in the first part of "Medal Obsession Continues..." on how our universities were gloating about their achievements to the press. And how, with a little common sense and research, it is obvious for all the (lack of) value of the multi-coloured medals collected by our academics.

Many readers have also commented on the post that I should submit the article to the mainstream and online press... Should I? I doubt that the mainstream media will print the letter though, given its fairly "tough" language. If however, any journalist who are reading this, who'd like to do an article on it, I'm more than happy to be quoted or for the article to be used. Or you can contact me for further clarifications. ;)

Now, back to the second part of my "Medal Obsession" thesis ;). Again using the example of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM)'s participation at the World Exhibition of Innovation, Research and New Technologies Brussels Innova & Eureka in Belgium.

While I have discredited the value of the medals and awards achieved by the Malaysian contingent in Brussels, I'd like to also emphasize the fact that I am not suggesting that universities should not be taking part in trade fairs and exhibitions altogether.

Let's have a look at the Brussels-Eureka event and its target visitors.
Brussels-Eureka is looking to attract manufacturers, distributors, investors and sales professionals from Belgium and several foreign countries, wanting to establish specific commercial and industrial relationships.
The organisers hence seek to attract exhibitors
  • To make your inventions, original prototypes or new technology known.
  • To establish the necessary contacts to commercialize your patent.
  • To realize your commercial or industrial relations.
  • To meet manufacturers, financiers and/or traders from various countries.
The event was clearly not a "competition" for judging "inventions" for the award of ego-boosting medals.

However, by looking at the objectives of the event and the types of exhibitors it sought to attract, there may be useful reasons why university researchers could take part in the event. If, for example, the UiTM academics are truly interested to meet financiers or manufacturers to market their products, then such events could possibly be the platform for their commercialisation.

The problem is, it is clear from the total emphasis given to the medal tally by all participating local universities in the past 3 years, and none on the commercialisation aspects, the universities aren't particularly interested in the latter objective of the exercise.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) must insist on establishing certain parameters and ground rules for participation of local universities in such events. These ground rules are to ensure that taking part in trade fairs overseas do not become junkett trips for academics to have a jolly time at exotic destinations in Europe. Or equivalent to our local councils toilet inspection trips to Maldives.

First to be established must be key performance indicators (KPIs) to judge the usefulness of the academics participation in the events. MoHE must seek replies from the universities on some of the following questions:
  • For the past 3 years, with millions spent on taking part in these trade fairs, how much tangible (medals not included) returns are there.

  • How many contracts have been signed between our universities with international manufacturers or venture capitalists to explore the potential of the "award-winning" inventions?

  • Have there even been any serious discussions with international manufacturers or venture capitalists to develop the products or inventions exhibited by our university academics?

  • Or for that matter, have there even been any interest at all, by these foreign parties in our so-called inventions at these trade fairs? After spending millions, how many of the international venture capitalists or businessmen have our academics even had a conversation with?
Surely, if even a single multi-million contract have been signed by the universities, that will be a better achievement to gloat about than bringing home dozens of coloured medals.

No, our local universities chose to prove their worth by simply taking the easier route, by spending precious funds in dog and pony shows to collect medals of little or no value. And given that the gullible government administration and the uninformed public, the universities have the opportunity to showcase themselves as multiple international award-winning "academics".

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Medal Obsession Continues...

Ok, I've had it. I've criticised (see here and here) frequently, Malaysia universities' narcissistic obsession with collecting coloured medals at trade fairs and exhibition all around the world.

However, the ease at which these medals can be purchased and paraded as academic achievements to the clueless government and the general public who knows no better, is obviously just too irresistable for university officials.

The latest in the list of universities parading their self-gratifying achievements are Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in the Star here, and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) in the New Straits Times, here.
A team of nine researchers from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) carved a name for Malaysia when they brought home five gold and five silver medals from the World Exhibition of Innovation, Research and New Technologies Brussels Innova & Eureka in Belgium last month. The team submitted 10 inventions for the competition held between Nov 23 and 27.

More than 300 inventions were displayed, with participants coming from the United States, Taiwan, Romania, Belgium and Croatia.
The proud and ecstatic vice-chancellor was proudly showing off the team from UiTM for having achieved "perfect" returns, 10 submission returning with 10 medals.
...Datuk Seri Prof Ibrahim Abu Shah told a press conference yesterday that the success proved the capabilities of researchers from the university to compete at the international-level.
Now, let me bring the Professor there back down to earth before Tok Pa or Pak Lah himself starts lavishing praise on these so-called achievements.

Firstly, and as asserted in my previous commentaries on dog and pony show events, these trade fairs and exhibitions which our Malaysian universities love participating are not, as described "competitions", much less "academic competitions".

They are, and I emphasise, for-profit events for the organisers which our universities have paid a lot of money to participate, and in turn receive "tokens" of appreciation from the grateful organisations in the form of well, what better than medals?

Need evidence?

Have a look for yourself the Brussels Eureka web page which listed the number of medals awarded. Count for yourself the number of medals awarded.

Yes, that's a total 303 gold, silver and bronze medal winners, out of a total of 314 participants i.e., a 96.5% success rate. The non-medal winners (11 of them), received a "Diploma" which comes automatically with the purchase of an exhibition booth. There are no losers. Out of the number of participants, a whopping 167 or 53.2% of participants went home with "Gold-coloured" medals.

You'd also be interested to know that these colourful medal awards are not judged by distinguished academic peers but by the organisers themselves, who in all likelihood, have little knowledge or interest with regards to the inventions' reliability, application, efficiency, safety, commercial viability or for that matter, honesty!

Now, if UiTM and other local universities attempt to boast of its impressive achievements at "international levels" based on medal collections from such trade shows, I think it's just absolutely disgraceful and its really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

You'd be interested to know, the Malaysian "academic" contingent comprising of 26 submissions would have forked out anywhere between RM300,000 to RM500,000, depending on various factors such as the size of the floor space and utilisation of supplementary services such as furniture, electricity, telephone etc., just as basic participation fees of the event. Basic accomodation and economy flights alone will easily add an additional RM200,000 or more to the cost of sending our exhibitors. This has yet to take into consideration the "cost" of preparing the relevant prototypes for the "inventions".

Essentially, each year, by taking part in some 4 to 5 such trade shows, the Malaysian public universities are spending millions in public funds, yes, our tax payers' money, on trade fair junketts to London, Brussels, Geneva, Nuremberg and other exotic destinations to collect academically worthless medals.

When instead, the precious funds which our universities are already short of, should have been spent on attaining achievements which really matter, like getting worthwhile research published in internationally renown journals.

I'm tearing my hair out on this issue, but I'm not finished yet, more on our obsession with fancy medals tomorrow's Part II.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Smoking RM500m for Cambridge?

Readers of the blog will remember that I posted on "RM500m for Cambridge?" more than a month back. It was posted following a post on Anwar Ibrahim's blog which alleged such an expenditure by Malaysia.

Well, it appears now that there appears to be some smoke, albeit the presence of fire is yet to be confirmed.

Sdr Lim Kit Siang had asked the Higher Education Minister, Datuk Mustapha Mohamed in Parliament whether it is true that the government had agreed to give a RM500 million donation to Cambridge University and that Petronas and Khazanah Nasional had each forked out RM190 million.

This is a budget which is exceeded only by the allocation to Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) as no other local university would be allocated with a bigger sum for 2007.

The Minister of Higher Education denied in a roundabout way that there had been a RM500 million donation to Cambridge University, without completely dismissing the subject, using terms like “premature” and “final decision has yet to be made”.
When [Sdr Lim] pointed out that using terms of like “premature” and “final decision has yet to be made” presupposes that the subject was a very active issue and asked why, as well as the reason for the government giving consideration to such an extraordinary endowment to Cambridge University, Mustapha said that this was part of the Ministry’s “smart partnership” with foreign universities to achieve excellence in tertiary education.
Woh... now, that's definitely a case for "no smoke without fire".

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The last of Azmi Sharom's columns?

In a way, I shouldn't be surprised to hear that the authorities at UM have barred (or so it seems) Azmi Sharom, of the law faculty, from writing any more columns in the Star. Perhaps I should be surprised that he was allowed to write as much as he did, many of them articles criticizing the state of higher education in our country. The straw that seemed to have broken the camel's back was certain factual errors in his October 2nd column criticizing the university's handling of campus elections.

This was Tok Pa's reply to Lim Kit Siang, as reported by Malaysiakini:

In his ministerial winding-up, Higher Education Minister Mustapha Mohamed told the House that Azmi was called up after UM found that his article contained two “factual errors”.

“The campaign period was not one day as stated in the article, it was six days. The writer also implied that there were irregularities involved at the law faculty’s election (as there was a re-election held at the faculty), but this was not true,” he said.

“As an academician, he should be objective and write the right facts. The honourable Ipoh Timor (Lim) has been influenced by the inaccurate facts in the column,” he added.

I don't know much about the details of the campus elections in UM and in other local universities, but it seems that these inaccurate facts were at best minor details. Indeed, it was surprising that Tok Pa or the university administrators didn't adress what I thought was the larger issue which was the fact that some pro-establishment candidates were put up in a luxury hotel during the period of the campus elections. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

In the same Malaysiakini article, the newly appointed UM VC was asked about this matter:

On Oct 6, the UM vice-chancellor told a press conference that the university believed in academic freedom but such freedom would not directly enhance academic excellence.

Asked to comment on whether the university restricts its academicians from writing freely in newspapers, Rafiah however appeared evasive and said writing in newspapers does not help improve academic excellence as newspaper columns would not be cited by academic journals.

While she is absolutely correct in saying that writing in newspapers doesn't help improve academic excellence (in terms of intellectual contribution in one's field), she fails to understand that academics are often called to play a bigger role, including contributing to the larger public debate as public intellectuals. Azmi Sharom was clearly contributing to public discourse in his capacity as a public intellectual.

She also fails to recognize that a university should be open to criticism from its own faculty members, especially on issues which have to do with its reputation. Instead of clamping down on such debate, the VC should listen to such greviances and address some of the root causes of such greviances, to the extent that is possible.

Many academics in my own university, Duke, expressed their dissatisfaction publicly with the way the university administrators were handling a high profile rape accusation case involving the players in the lacrosse team at Duke. Many of them wrote letters to the local and national press and none of them were 'hauled' up by the university administrators to be reprimanded or warned, even though some of them did not have all the right 'facts'. Indeed, the administrators at Duke were proactive and tried to address the concerns of many of these academics through the setting up of special committees to further investigate the issues of concern.

What if Azmi Sharom had written columns criticizing certain government policies instead of highlighting certain shortcomings in the local universities? Would he have also been hauled up for not playing his part in the 'nation-building' project? (I wonder if any of the administrators have heard of a New York Times columnist by the name of Paul Krugman who also happens to be a dabbler in the field of economics?)

The ironic thing about the muzzling of academics such as Azmi Sharom (as well as others such as Terence Gomez and KS Jomo) is that the reputation, domestically and internationally, of our public universities is further damaged. The presence of such public intellectuals, who were given space to contribute to the public discourse, actually gave the local universities at least an appearance of having some academic freedom and some proof that a healthy academic environment of debate and discussion within our local universities was not entirely a myth. Worse still, if the actions taken by the university administrators eventually lead to Azmi Sharom leaving UM for greener pastures elsewhere, then we would have lost another good academic.

We were giving the new VC at UM the benefit of the doubt, crediting her (and other VCs) with a measured response in regards to the latest THES rankings as well as inviting opposition members to an event officated by Pak Lah (the setting up of the Royal Ungku Aziz Chair for Poverty Studies). This latest move to try to muzzle Azmi Sharom would certainly count as a mark in the negative column for the new UM VC. It shows that she's not ready to meaningful space for open, transparent and purposely discussion and dialogue in the public realm.

On my part, I hope that the Malaysiakini report is not correct in the sense that I hope that Azmi Sharom might have gotten away with a strong reprimand / warning and that he will be allowed to continue writing his columns in The Star. But perhaps this is more wishful thinking on my part?

Azmi Sharom Silenced?

Is our favourite resident academic on this blog, Associate Professor Azmi Sharom of the Universiti Malaya (UM) Law Faculty issued a gag order?

For those who are unaware, Azmi Sharom has been one of the more outspoken academics in an honest attempt to improve the quality of our local universities. He was at the forefront when Dato' Kapt Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob "strutted around like a bunch of peacocks" when UM plunged 80 spots in the global university rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).

He has also written very regularly since then, for the local English dailies on issues with regards to our universities as well as our youth. He has argued that "students should then be allowed to sort [their own activities] out themselves. After all, they are old enough to drive, get married, buy tobacco; surely they don’t need minders to hold their hand to find their faculty on campus."

When Datuk Mustapa Mohamed took over the portfolio of the Minister of Higher Education, Azmi wrote an open letter published in the Star which pleaded for improved quality, greater transparency and better leadership. He asked that "if you love your universities, you must set them free."

He was also interviewed extensively by Jacqueline Ann Surin of the Sun, particularly on the draconian University and University Colleges Act (1971).

But it looks like the straw that broke the camel's neck appears to be his last article in the Star, which spoke of "Hijinks in Student Politics" on October 2nd this year.

He spoke of the silly nature of university campus elections.
The rules in place with regard to campaigning are really laughable. There are banners and posters put up here and there but they say absolutely nothing except the name of the candidate. There is no mention of their policy grounds and their campaign promises. This is made worse by the fact that the candidates are given about a day to campaign! Add to this the ban on the creation of formal coalitions, and what you get are voters who have little opportunity to know who they are voting for. It makes a mockery of the idea of a true democracy.
And he implied irregularities for the Law Faculty elections, which required a re-election.
Although not completely definitive, an occurrence during the last student elections is worrying and is further reason why a proper investigation should be conducted. What happened was that the voting for two faculty representatives had to be done again because the number of votes was more than the number of voters. The original vote was done at the various colleges. The re-election was done at the Faculty concerned.

In the first vote, an Aspirasi candidate came first, narrowly followed by an independent candidate. In the re-election, the two independent candidates won by a margin far larger that the original vote.

What this shows are two possibilities. Either the original votes were tampered with or that students voted differently when the venue for the election was a neutral one. (Colleges have a reputation of being very pro-Aspirasi.)
He also raised other embarrassing irregularities such as "the Selangor state government’s treating Aspirasi candidates to a stay in a luxury hotel in Petaling Jaya prior to the elections this year," which went unquestioned.

As reported by Malaysiakini, and raised by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang, "the academic was hauled up by the university’s authority after the article appeared and was ‘advised’ by vice-chancellor Rafiah Salim not to write on matters related to the university."

In reply, the feeble excuse provided by the Minister of Higher Education was that Azmi's statement contained "factual errors".
“The campaign period was not one day as stated in the article, it was six days. The writer also implied that there were irregularities involved at the law faculty’s election (as there was a re-election held at the faculty), but this was not true,” he said.
Whether it was "six days" (which I think isn't accurate either) or "one day", the basic substance of Azmi's contention isn't compromised. And the Minister did not explain how the total votes in the Law Faculty was greater than the number of voters, if alleged "irregularities" was not the reason!

It is a sad day for the academia, and a sad day for Universiti Malaya when one of the best academics in the university in terms of having the interest of students, youths and the quality of education at heart, has been barred from writing for the benefit of the public.

Azmi once told me that he has never been "disturbed" by university authorities for his outspokenness, even during the reign of the former vice-chancellor. However, it looks like all good things do come to an end, and it's unfortunate that the expectations of greater academic freedom under the new reign of Datuk Rafiah Salim has evaporated so quickly.

Read more on Kian Ming's take on the issue here.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Secondary School Race Quotas

I wanted to blog on this issue when I first saw a complaint letter from a concerned parent in Tampin, Negeri Sembilan published in the Star two weeks back.
IT has come to my attention that of many other parents that beginning next year, all Form One classes of SMK Tunku Besar, Tampin, in Negri Sembilan, will be formed with the ratio of 90:10 favouring the bumiputras.
Originally, it was explained by the Deputy Minister of Education, Datuk Noh Omar that there'll only be one such "Kelas Rancangan Khas" (Special Programme Class) in each of the schools to cater to top students who failed to gain entry into the boarding schools, or the Maktab Rendah Sains Malaysia (MRSM).

Such classes, apparently will have the quota in place, similar to the MRSMs whereby it's allowed to admit only up to 10% of non-bumiputeras. In addition, the qualification criteria for such class is 5As for bumiputera students, and 7As for non-bumiputera students in the Primary 6 UPSR examinations.

Such a policy in itself, is a highly discriminating policy which justifies the harshest of criticisms.

However, it was left to the effervescent Sdr Lim Kit Siang who provided the necessary evidence in the form of minutes and directives from the State Education Department in Parliament to prove that the said programme isn't just limited to a class in each school, but entire three "national schools" in Negeri Sembilan - SMK King George V, Seremban, SMK Tuanku Muhammad, Kuala Pilah dan SMK Tunku Besar, Tampin. Hence, instead of "Kelas Rancangan Khas", it became "Sekolah Rancangan Khas".

So, despite the Government's discriminatory allocation of RM709 million to build new MRSMs in the country which catered disproportionately towards the bumiputera community as announced by the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein recently, it appears that the MRSM programmes are cannibalising the national schools as well.

Thanks to our Parliamentary Opposition Leader, the Ministry of Education has retracted the circular by the Negeri Sembilan State Education Department, claiming that they were "never consulted". As reported in the New Straits Times:
Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday that a circular issued by the Negri Sembilan Education Department imposing a race quota for three of its schools would be retracted immediately as it was not a decision by the ministry and was against the nation's agenda for integration.
The question then which I have is, if indeed the Ministry was unaware of the shennigans in its own state education departments, who seem to possess the uncanny ability to issue directives against national policies, there appears to be a major governance and accountability issues within the Ministry of Education.

And if there are indeed proper governance and accountability controls in place within the Ministry, then surely rogue elements such as State Education Director, Haji A. Hamid bin Abu Hassan must be punished for breaching such controls and acted discriminatorily against national interests.

Will Haji A. Hamid be punished and reprimanded accordingly, not only for the wrong he did, but also to serve as a warning to other State Education officials to avoid such overzealous discriminatory and marginalisation policies? Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, will you act responsibly and justifiably?