Thursday, August 31, 2006

Way to go, Tok Pa!

Too often, we blog about our negative impressions of our Malaysian education system and too often, we can get disillusioned at the lack of progress. The recent announcement by the Higer Education Minister, Mustapa Mohamed, who asked "public universities to recruit more non-bumiputra lecturers, attract the best brains, and develop a vibrant academic environment" is definite encouragement for those of us who want to see genuine change in our local universities.

Before we all go negative on Tok Pa and make comments like 'action speaks louder than words', let us look at the tone and language which he used in the Star report.

Firstly, he acknowledged that there was more that could be done to attract non-bumi lecturers.

"I want more non-bumiputras to be recruited as lecturers. The Government has acknowledged there is a need for more non-bumiputras in certain sectors of the civil service. I personally believe more can be done to attract them," he said in an interview.

Secondly, he spoke of personal actions taken by himself towards this goal.

"I hope more non-bumiputras will come into the universities as we need everyone to be involved. I have asked the vice-chancellors to look into hiring more non-bumiputra academia."

Thirdly, he acknowledged that there is a tremendous imbalance in the upper management level of local universities.

"The minister acknowledged that the percentage of non-bumiputras, especially in promotional posts, was low. In Universiti Malaya there is only one non-bumiputra dean among 20. In many of the other universities, there is none."

This is actually a pretty brave step for Tok Pa to take since it might and probably will incur the wrath of some of the top management of our local universities who are keen to preserve the status quo.

So KUDOS to Tok Pa for coming out to make these statements.

Now, for some points of clarification and discussion.

Firstly, I think there's something to be said in regards to representation. Issues of quality aside, even if all things are equal, it is a poor reflection of the composition of the university when there is only one non-bumiputra dean among 20 in the UM, arguably the most high profile local university. What kind of signal does this send to students, faculty members and the larger public? How well can our local universities reflect the "face" of our country, given this composition?

Secondly, and more importantly, the system that is biased against non-bumis inevitably forces out many good non-bumi lecturers and academics from the local universities. Furthermore, it is certainly not a good advertisement for young academics returning from overseas and wanting to join the local academia. I would also argue that this system possibly demotivates SOME non-bumi academics resulting in underperformance - if you're not going to get promoted to a full professor regardless of output, then why work so hard?

So by making this kind of stand and taking actions to correct previous policy, Tok Pa is paving the way for:

(1) A more representative upper management
(2) Encourage good quality academics (esp.non-bumis) to stay within the system
(3) Motivate academics (esp.non-bumis) to perform better
(4) Encourage non-bumi academics (esp. from overseas) to join the system

I'm not sure if it's Tok Pa's proactive stance that is responsible but I recently received an email from a professor at a local university. He told me that in a recent promotional exercise, he and 4 other non bumi colleagues were promoted to full professor positions (out of 18, which is almost one third). And the encouraging thing is that he's only 37 and one of his non-bumi colleagues is only 42. He also mentioned that a young, 39 year old, bumiputra lecturer from the engineering school was also promoted to a full professor.

So it seems that the VC is making the right moves by recognizing young, prodigious talent. The VC of this university has a reputation as a more liberal VC in terms of university policies, including the promotion policies. I'm not sure if the recent promotions is just a continuation of the VC's liberal tendencies or if he used Tok Pa's instructions to promote a greater share of non-bumi academics. I'm hoping that it's a trend that will be followed in our other local universities.

Hopefully, the academia in our local universities will see Tok Pa's move as a positive one, heading in the direction of improving the quality and renown of our local universities and not interpret it as an action of 'home turf invasion'. Time will tell. In the meantime, I congratulate Tok Pa and wish him well!

49: Older, Not Wiser?

Selamat Hari Merdeka. Today signifies the 49th year in which our beloved Malaysia has achieved independence. We are now a year older, but I'm sure if we have gotten any wiser in the process.

For the first time that I can remember, our local printed media is no longer just inundated with reports and advertisements which "celebrates" the country's strength in "national unity" ad nauseam. For the past couple of days, I'm reading articles which either outrightly questioned our national unity, or raised the relevant issues between the lines.

The 9th Malaysian Plan (9MP) which was released by the Prime Minister's Department this year is littered with the quest for national unity.

In Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi's foreword, he stated that the "National Mission underscores the need to pursue programmes that enhance the nation’s capability to compete globally, to strengthen national unity and to bring about a better distribution of income and wealth and higher quality of life among the people."

And amongst the "first steps" in National Mission extensive effort will be made to achieve the "overriding objective of the nation, that is national unity and integration."

In the key section of "Human Capital Development Policy Thrusts", the 9MP seeks to strengthen "national schools to become the school of choice for all Malaysians to enhance national unity", and in strengthening national unity, "developing a society with a progressive outlook, exemplary value system and high performance culture as well as with an appreciation for tradition and heritage." In addition, "youth leadership programmes will give emphasis on the role of youths in society and fostering national unity with a sense of common and shared destiny."

The question then is, whether these noble objectives have been hijacked by those who has a vested interest racial seggregation, those who are power hungry and the leaders who don't see the wrongs in citing extremist remarks to "protect the party, race and religion".

I've often been asked, "why blog on education?". While the short and simple answer has been my firm believe that education is the best equaliser in society, there's also the other aspect which was expressed succintly by Tunku Abdul Aziz, a former president of Transparency International Malaysia, is special adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Ethics Office, in his article entitled "Look for beyond the Malaysian 'open house'" published in the New Straits Times today.

In his "Merdeka" message, he argued that despite being "close to half a century of Merdeka, we are nowhere near to realising our vision of a people united by a common destiny and shared values. National unity, which is so vitally important to our survival as a peaceful and prosperous nation, will continue to elude us unless we are all prepared to put it above all other considerations."

And I completely agree with Tunku, when he argued that "the process [to achieve national unity] involves a complete change of behaviour, a mental overhaul that can
only be achieved through a dynamic and sustainable system of education based on the needs of a new nationalism, with emphasis on national unity and equal opportunity."
I place great store by equal opportunity in education, especially because it is immoral and ethically unacceptable to discriminate against innocent and vulnerable youngsters by depriving them of their rights to higher education. How, in heaven’s name, can we expect them not to feel that they are from another planet? You cannot expect loyalty from impressionable young people when they feel marginalised. Equality of opportunity must be the cornerstone of national unity.

By our past policy that denied equal educational opportunity, we triggered an exodus of countless numbers of our extremely bright Chinese boys and girls who succumbed, quite naturally, to the attractions of the Singapore government-sponsored Asean Scholarships. The "cream of the crop" were streamed into special junior colleges and the creamiest among them were provided scholarships to Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges. They were required, upon completion, to work for the Government of Singapore for ten years. Many became citizens of the republic. Our loss was Singapore’s gain.
We both agree that national unity must be predicated on equality of opportunity, justice and equity, and it is ironic that the 9MP preaches pretty much the same, except for it to be understood and framed in a different context:
"Allowing inequalities to persist can negatively impact growth, threaten national unity and affect societal stability." (pg 34)
It is only with reforms in our education system, we can actually see a future of "true" national unity, instead of those staged by political stooges through hand-shaking ceremonies. It is also through a good education, that we hope that future leaders of the country will possess the moral courage to bring about the necessary reforms to make Malaysia truly united. It is unfortunate that quality education from some of the top universities of the world, such as Oxford, has failed to instil such qualities in some of our younger leaders, whom we had initially placed so much hope in.

But while we are not necessarily wiser, the fact that these issues are now raised more openly is indeed a good sign, albeit a small one. Hopefully, in time to come, with a good education, there will be enough Malaysians who will see through artificially constructed facade of national unity we have today.

My wishes this Merdeka, remains the same. Once again, Selamat Hari Merdeka! :)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Latest Global University Rankings

It's almost two weeks ago when the latest updates on the global university rankings compiled by Shanghai JiaoTung University (SJTU) was released, but I thought it'd still be worth a mention here.

Obviously, as per previous years' compilations, no Malaysian universities made it to the Top 500 list, despite obviously being considered. There has been enough said about it such that I do not think that I want to go into the reasons for it in this post. I've mentioned before that I believe the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings overrates regional universities while the SJTU version overrates Western universities based on their respective methodologies. Hence, in my humble opinion, Universiti Malaya (UM), for example gets overrated in THES rankings (yes, even at 169th) while it's clearly underrated in the SJTU version - I'd like to think that UM should easily get into the Top 500 of the world. For a critique on Malaysia and SJTU rankings, feel free to have a read at Sdr Lim Kit Siang's post.

Anyway, back to the latest rankings table. The methodology employed by the researchers at SJTU dictates that the rankings of the relevant universities are unlikely to be changed by much from year to year. This is simply because the number of new publications as well as new winners of Nobel Prizes are simply miniscule compared to the historical quantities and winners, such that the impact is likely to be minimal to the rankings.

As a result, the only change in Top 20 universities of the world between 2005 and 2006 is Tokyo University and John Hopkins University swapping spots at 19th and 20th respectively.

The next change is actually at position 31st, where Duke University improved by one spot, swapping with Northwestern University.

Overall, the biggest improvement was recorded by Hebrew University Jerusalem, 18 spots to 60th and University Maryland (College Park), 10 spots to 37th. Three universities made it into the Top 100 for the first time - University Iowa (95), Nagoya University (98) and Arizona State University, Tempe (100), all previously ranked 101-150 in the prior year.

The biggest drops within the Top 100 were recorded by Indiana University (Bloomington) by 10 spots to 97th as well as Rochester and Rice University by 9 spots to 74th and 84th placing respectively. Two universities dropped out of the Top 100 rankings - University Vienna and Tufts University from 85th and 100th into the 102-150 bracket.

It is also interesting to note that there are some top universities, both reputable and ranked highly in the THES rankings which were placed out of the Top 100 as well such as Dartmouth, National University of Singapore as well as Sydney University placed within the 102-150 category. As mentioned in the presentation by the SJTU researchers, it was stated that universities established after 1911 had a distinct disadvantage in the rankings system employed.

All in all, not particularly exciting, unlike the THES version of the rankings which obviously stirred a fair bit more controversy for the right or wrong reasons.

Also of note, Newsweek decided to compose their own set of global top 100 universities based on the data and results compiled by both THES as well as SJTU. The SJTU results formed a 50% weightage while the THES version formed 40%. The balance of the 10% comprises of the volume of books in the university's library holdings. (Do we foresee Malaysian universities making a sudden splurge for books in their respective libraries? :-p).

The universities which made it to the Top 20 are:
1. Harvard University
2. Stanford University
3. Yale University
4. California Institute of Technology
5. University of California at Berkeley
6. University of Cambridge
7. Massachusetts Institute Technology
8. Oxford University
9. University of California at San Francisco
10. Columbia University
11. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
12. University of California at Los Angeles
13. University of Pennsylvania
14. Duke University
15. Princeton Universitty
16. Tokyo University
17. Imperial College London
18. University of Toronto
19. Cornell University
20. University of Chicago
Also in this hybrid list, both Singapore's established universities made it to the top 100 - National University of Singapore at 36 and Nanyang Technological University at 71.

Needless to say, we do not expect any Malaysian universities in this list for the next 5 years or so. If however, we do appear in the Top 100 of any of the above lists (without non-bumiputeras being classified as foreigners) within the next 10 years, then I will actually be very happy indeed.

The new THES rankings table is expected to be released in approximately 2 months time, and we'll get to see if the local Malaysian universities fare any better. At the very least, we won't get the (former) vice-chancellor of our premier university asserting that we "improved" despite dropping 80 spots in rankings :-).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Rafiah Salim: Hitting the Right Notes

Anybody interested in Universiti Malaya and what her new vice-chancellor intends to achieve during her 2-year tenure must read the interview conducted by the Sun a week or so back. It's an extensive interview conducted by Jacqueline Ann Surin and Pauline Puah, and I must congratulate them for really knowing their stuff and pushing the right buttons for the answers.

At the same time, Datuk Rafiah Salim, I must admit, hit pretty much all the right notes in the key areas. The Sun team came up with some tough and sensitive questions for her, but with the exception of a few where she dodged with some evasive answers, Datuk Rafiah Salim met them head on. She is after all the head of Malaysia's premier university and I wouldn't expect her to be not at least a little politically correct. Hence, unlike the messages you hear from her peers at other universities such as Universiti Putra Malaysia, I like what I heard based on this interview.

Here are some excerpts of the interview on some of the key points:

On key areas of focus/challenge:
1. Getting the buy-in of UM academics
2. Getting to know the university again
3. Preparing and implementing SWOT analysis and strategy plan for UM
On key strategic plans:
1. Research university
2. Internationalisation
3. Ranking
On transparency and academic promotions:
...I think good governance demands transparency, you know... in fact, [I have asked] the faculty members to nominate who they want as their leaders. ensure transparency, the DVC (deputy vice-chancellor) (for) academic is practically finalising clear criteria for promotion to senior lecturers, to associate professors, to professors. And these will be publicised and it will be on the website, and the staff will know what it is that is needed to be promoted.

...I'm looking into not just making any individual professor's CV made public. If you look at any of the top universities, all the professors' CVs are on the website of the university. And that's the way Universiti Malaya should go.
On Peperiksaan Tahap Kecekapan (Competence Level Examination) which is aimed at civil service (and yes, academics in this country are civil servants): needs to relook at what is the use of the PTK. The PTK is not, and should not, be a measure to assess the technical know-how. You know, because you can't use PTK to measure the level of how a physicist is as compared to an English lecturer... what the PTK is designed, or should be designed, for is to look at maturity levels of the person, leadership level, aptitude, their concern for students, their concern for society, that sort of thing.

[Hence] we are reviewing. We will be. We have not done it yet.
On Universities and University Colleges Act, Statutory Bodies (Discipline & Discharge) Act 605 for civil servants and the Aku Janji pledge:
...some amendments have to happen there. And I believe the government also is looking at the amendment of the (Universities and) University Colleges Act, so whatever I say is just going to reinforce the principle of academic freedom. I think government is fully aware, they are sympathetic to it that universities must be given a reasonable level of autonomy. I'm looking forward to some changes to this.

...obviously some provisions [of Act 605] cannot be applied to academicians. Especially the clause that says they cannot make statements, they cannot write to the press... Because (the) nature of academic world is, one should be in the position to react to situations. For example, what is happening in Lebanon right now. I mean, if you are a true academician, you'd already be holding seminars, making comments, condemning or supporting or whatever.

And I hope the government will relook at that. I really hope they will relook at that.

Aku Janji, whether you sign it or you don't sign it, you are tied by Act 605 anyway. It's exactly what is in there. So, if you join the university, you are governed by that. By Act 605.
On Research & Key Performance Indicators:
...research is our core business, [t]herefore, you do research, you publish or you perish. So, having said that, it means therefore, in the near future we would be introducing KPI (key performance indicators) that includes research... and we are also making sure that, er, sabbatical leave that staff takes would also come with proper KPI for the outcome of it.
On Lousy Pay-Scale of Academics
I think JPA must really look at this, you know. If they want Universiti Malaya and a few of the others to be really an international university, that's one. And two, if they want the ranking of Universiti Malaya to improve, it means that we need to recruit international top brains. And international top brains won't take the job on the pay I'm earning, you know.

So, JPA needs to relook at this. And I hope they will be able to look at this soon because otherwise the universities will continue struggling. Er, or we would be compromising. because if we insist on the upgrading of the ranking, and one of the criteria and quite a big percentage is international staff, then we go and get some half-past-six lecturers from cheaper countrieslah to satisfy that.
On university management's interference with student body elections, and that student elections should be conducted fairly and independently of any group?:
Well, that was what happened in the past. So, I can't answer to that... Should be conducted fairly, yes, yes.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Datuk Rafiah isn't going to be able to fully avoid being "politically correct", at least in some of the questions asked.

When asked if students "should be allowed greater freedom of association and expression", she argued that there are more beneficial activities for students to carry out. One might as well argue that subjects such as political science and history are useless, and hence all students should be pointed in the right direction to study more useful subjects such as science and engineering!
Again, um, I'm a mother. I'm a taxpayer. I've been paying huge taxes to the government all this time... So, as a taxpayer, I subsidise students heavily. And I want them to spend their time studying and developing their personalities, their, um, abilities. And I think the university provides for all sorts of opportunities.

Last week, I launched this year's AIESEC society... which is both local and global, imagine what opportunities you have there. Just one! So, there's so much of opportunities that the students can do within the campus without spending their time (outside).
And she argued that the Akujanji pledge should be signed for pragmatic reasons (which of course, 98% of the academics in Malaysian public universities are) even though the discipline of the academics are already covered over-extensively in the Act 605. However, to me, having accepting an unjust Act even if the same injustice is covered in another similarly unjust Act only encourages further complacency and encouraging the establishment of other such Acts.
I'm a pragmatist, you know. I know it's already in the law whether I sign or I don't sign, I'm bound by it. What the heck, if I want to serve in the university, that's what I have to do, I'll sign it now with the hope that by and by, the authorities may even abolish it... to me it's irrelevant! This whole Aku Janji is irrelevant. Because it's irrelevant, you ask me to do it, oklah, I give you my signaturelah. What's so difficult?
And on the alleged tampering of grades at the university, she argued that it was "the past", and we should just look forward to do it right. She argued that by digging up the past, the only victims would be the former students. I would disagree for the perpetrators of such tampering activities should be at the very least be given a warning to prevent a repeat of such events:
Where will you find the proof? And then should you find the proof, what? You victimise the student? Withdraw their degree? I mean, the consequences, the result is going to be, er (pauses), that you may end up victimising the innocent. Which is the student.

They're not a party to any irregularities, if any. If there was any hanky-panky, they were not a party to it. So, should we investigate and find out, what? You want the university to declare their Masters or whatever null and void? Is that fair to the innocent third party?

So, instead of digging up things like that, I'd rather look ahead and find ways of minimising. You know, if people insist on hanky-panky, under any circumstances, they will do it. But all we can do is take all reasonable steps to minimise it. And Senate is very, very concerned and very serious about it.
There are of course various niggly points of disagreement with the vice-chancellor. However, looking at the interview in totality, I'm actually quite encouraged. We cannot be expecting UM to be transformed overnight on all its shortcomings. I'm certain we should all be pretty happy if the shortcomings at the university and other aspects of our higher education system can be improved step by step, as long as it's consistently improved. Datuk Rafiah has given herself a period of 12 months for some of the new reforms such as transparency in promotions and governance.

And to quote our dear friend at Universiti Malaya, Dr Azmi Sharom, "local universities should try to be good first, before aiming for “world-class” standards".

So here's looking forward in great anticipation. :)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Foreign versus Local Grads: Take XXX

The 'X'es refer to the many times we posted or discussed this issue on our blog. I wanted to revisit this issue after reading the following comments from Dr. Azmi Sharom at one of the panels in the recently concluded The Star-ACMS conference:

Among the points he brought up was the perception that foreign graduates were better than local graduates.

“Both go through the same schooling system, and there are an equally bad number of lecturers overseas as there are locally,” he said, rebutting some commonly given reasons.

I'll be blogging more on my thoughts on the conference when their full report in the education pullout appears this weekend. But for the time being, let's reflect over the remarks of Dr. Sharom.

Firstly, I agree with the spirit of his comments which is that we shouldn't unfairly judge against a local graduate versus a foreign graduate especially when it comes to important decisions like hirings and promotions. We have to look at people on a case by case basis. I'm sure that Tony has had his fair share of poor quality applicants from both foreign and local universities.

That being said, from a purely statistical point, I would not think that I would be wrong if I said that the OVERALL quality of foreign graduates is better than local graduates. Before you start castigating me, please hear me out first.

There are, by some latest estimates, approximately 300,000 students in our local public universities (I'm excluding those in the local private universities) versus 30,000 students in foreign universities (I'm limiting these to universities in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ and excluding universities in Indonesia, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For those of you interested in taking a short detour, go this this MOHE link to find estimates of our students currently studying overseas. You might want to ask why more than 5,000 of our students are currently studying in Egpyt!)

So, even if the quality distribution (however you want to measure it) is exactly the same for local and foreign graduates, the sheer number of local graduates makes it so much more likely that we'll encounter more of them who are of poor quality (poor written and spoken English, poor SPM and university results, poor computer skills etc...). Most of us don't work by proportions in terms of our impressions.

For example, if we were interviewing candidates for a job and we find that 16 out of 20 local grads and 4 out of 5 foreign grads are of poor quality, the sheer number of poor quality local grads will likely overwhelm our impressions.

But I'd probably go a step further. I don't think the distribution of quality is the same between foreign and local grads. I think it is definitely biased in favor of foreign grads. I would say that at least a third of foreign grads are government sponsored in one way or another (JPA, Petronas, Tenaga, Telekom, etc...). The fact that these students were selected for scholarships probably means that they were above average performers during secondary school.

I would also say that perhaps another third of foreign grads are high performers who would have gotten government scholarships but didn't because of various reasons (didn't do that well in BM, studied in Singapore, missed the JPA by a few As, didn't want to be bonded by the government etc...). Many of these high performers are from middle class families who have scrounged and saved so as to enable their kids to go to an overseas university. And many of these parents wouldn't have made these kinds of sacrifices if they thought that their kids were going to 'waste' their money on an overseas education. Furthermore, the middle class and mostly urban bias means that many of these kids who do end up overseas are already sufficiently proficient in English. This, of course, gives them a leg up when they do return home and apply for jobs and go out into the working world. It also further cements the perception that foreign grads are somehow better than local grads.

There's probably another third or so who end up overseas because their parents are rich and not solely for their academic prowess. I'm sure we've seen our fair share of spoilt, rich brats who start their first job driving a BMW or Mercedez to work. I know I have. For these kids, there are always other options such as working for daddy's company instead of slaving away at that 9to5 job. Thus they are not likely to skew the public perception of what the average foreign grad is like compared to an average local grad.

These factors, combined with the fact that the selection mechanism for local universities are much more lax (except for the high demand courses like Medicine, Law and Economics), is it that surprising that the overall perception of foreign grads being better than local grads holds true?

There are of course exceptions to these rules. There are a bunch of great local grads out there, some of whom work for Tony, I'm sure. When I was working at BCG, one of the top performers there was a graduate from USM and another two great associates were from UM and UITM respectively. There are also hopeless foreign grads who goof off at work and regularly go for that 3 o'clock beer and siesta. But perceptions are built on OVERALL impressions and for this, the stats cannot lie.

The curve is definitely skewed in favor of foreign grads. The numbers work in their favor too. There are fewer of them and the selection and signalling mechanisms operate in such a way as to ensure that the overall quality of foreign grads is higher than that of local grads. It is not so much the fact that there are crap lecturers in both foreign and local universities (which is definitely true) but the fact that you have better and a smaller number of quality students going overseas versus the masses who attend the local public universities that goes on to shape public perception.

I don't think this gap perception is likely to decrease especially given the push to increase the intake of local public universities without a commensurate increase in teaching and related resources.

There's also the issue of further differentiation within foreign and local universities but that is for another post.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

MA Thuggery (UPM)

I must apologise. The course offered by Universiti Putra Malaysia wasn't an undergraduate level course, BA (Hons) Thuggery. It's actually a Masters level programme.

As highlighted earlier, we discovered that the Youth members of a certain dominant political party pick up their skills in rhetoric, intimidation and violence at the local public universities. But what was unexpected was the depth at which the skills were taught there. The syllabus covered by the local public universities include:
1. Theoretical Elements

Students are required to undergo courses in history and ethnic relations whereby they are taught the subtle (and not so subtle) methods of revising our history. In certain chapters, they are also taught the mechanics of shifting blame, whatever the circumstances, to other parties, particularly those who are not from the "pro-establishment" camp. Where political parties are not involved, the causes of dispute and conflict are filtered such that the blame are pinned squarely on the minority races.

2. Applied Thuggery (Practical Training)

The students are given ample opportunities to demonstrate their skills in thuggery by identifying opportunities and scenarios for the perfect execution. In the recent commotion occuring at the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), it showed that these students are given ample opportunities to practise thuggerism, in particular, against those minorities with dissimilar opinions.

It is quite clear that in view of the high unemployment rate amongst graduates in the country, the universities have actively promoted practical training, in addition to theoretical understanding. This will ensure that the students, upon graduation will have the necessary skills to be of immediate utility in certain political organisations.

In fact, there was an unsubstantiated rumour that the video clip which documented the students' competence in the subject, will be used as part of the ethnic relations syllabus by certain universities. Students of the subject will have to form discussion groups to answer questions such as “The Chinese student from the anti-establishment camp was so violent that he fell off his own chair. Discuss.”

3. Leadership by Example

In an attempt to demonstrate strong leadership for the students undergoing the Thuggery programme, no other than the Vice-Chancellor of UPM himself, set himself up for a press conference to stage a hand-shaking ceremony between some of the undergraduates reading Thuggery. The ultimate art in Thuggery has to be the ability to behave thuggish, and yet continue to receive the patronage and protection from the powers that be.

4. The Masters Programme

In my earlier post, I had mistakenly identified the course as an undergraduate programme. I'd like to apologise for my mistake, as I wasn't aware that there was also a fast-track path to a Masters qualification if the students were able to demonstrate successful application of Thuggery.

In the earlier described circumstance whereby the students proved themselves worthy of the highest levels of Thuggery in practical training, their achievements will be further evaluated by a high-panel of academics. The committee at UPM comprising of Ethics course lecturer Prof Dr Abdul Rahman Aroff, lecturers Prof Dr Kamariah Abu Bakar (Education), Associate Prof Dr Tai Shzee Yew (Economy), Dr Mohd Bakri Ishak (Law) and Dr S. Vijayaletchumy (Languages) granted the 11 students direct graduation with a Masters degree by absolving them of all blame in the thuggery incident, as reported here by Malaysiakini.

5. Course Elective: Lies

This blogger would like to also propose that as part of the Thuggery degree programme, students be offered the elective in "telling lies". And this blogger would like to nominate none other that the UPM vice-chancellor, Prof Dr Nik Mustapha R Abdullah as the sponsor for the subject. After all, based on the Malaysiakini report, he has proven most adept in describing black as white, as well as a perfect inability in differentiating what is morally right or wrong. Some clearcut examples include:
  • In a direct denial of recorded evidence, the vice-chancellor further said the fracas did not involve any violence (i.e., there were no kris and parangs on display)

  • Asked to explain portion of the video recording which showed pro-campus authority students shouting and heckling SPF students, Nik Mustapha said they ‘were merely singing and cheering, and not shouting’. “They were singing the song of their hostel, not shouting,” he said.

  • To another question about a press photographer whose camera was damaged while recording the scuffle, the vice-chancellor claimed the reporter concerned, from the Chinese vernacular news website Merdeka Review, had confessed that the damage occurred due to her own carelessness. UPM student and Merdeka Review trainee reporter, Chew Siew Foong also flatly denied that she had told UPM authorities that it was her own carelessness which caused her camera to be damaged during the scuffle.

  • And of course, Nik Mustapha said the committee’s investigations were conducted in ‘a transparent and fair manner’ and he trusted the integrity of the investigation body. However, “the report is only for the consumption of the university and ministry, no other parties will have access to it.”
Oh, and of course, to tell good and credible lies, you need to have muka tembok.
Anyway, congratulations to the 11 candidates who have graduated with MA Thuggery (UPM). I'm certain that all of you, and in particular, the student council president, Abdul Manaf Ariffin, will find themselves gainfully employed with the Youth wing of a certain political your newly acquired soft skills.


p.s., read also article - "Universiti Paling Malu (UPM)" by Nathaniel Tan in Malaysiakini.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reflections from OKM

I thought I'd follow up Tony's reflectionswith some of my own. Instead of reflecting on the whole experience of blogging here, I want to focus my attention on a specific issue - that of "race" in the Malaysian education system .

I thought that the following comments by this astute reader in Tony's "Reflections" post is very insightful and worthy of highlighting:

" It is very sad to see among the comments on the blogs,that things tend to deviate around racial lines, such as the non malays are always attacking the malays and vice versa.

This blog is a healthy forum where all parties can come and discuss things rationally and see that where 'wrongs and errors' can be righted out in the name of fair play. Both parties must try to look and understand the problems and frustrations in the system and try to solve it amicabily for the good of the nation.

May 13 is long dead and gone. Are we still continuouslly waking up to the nightmare and be reminded that it is still there?

I think if there is fair play and understanding and lots of give and take, there are plenty of good things in this country we can share together."

First of all, I'd like to apologize to our readers if I've offended them in any of my previous posts with racially insensitive remarks. I'm sure I've made my fair share of them even though I DO try my level best to stay away from such remarks. I think that both Tony and I are interested in improving the education system in Malaysia for ALL MALAYSIANS regardless of race and I think that our posts have largely reflected that philosophy.

Secondly, where we've observed unfair and unproductive practices within the system that have to do with racial policies, we have not shied away from pointing them out. These include hiring and promotion practices in public universities and the awarding of scholarships, among others. But I think that on the whole we've probably highlighted as many (if not more) education policies which have nothing to do with race including the weaknesses of the local private colleges (one of Tony's pet project), reforming the UUCA and applying for foreign universities and scholarships, among others.

Thirdly, I think we've tried to allow as much free flowing discussions as possible in our comments / feedback session in the interest of free speech. Tony and I probably wouldn't agree with the tone of some of the comments but I think we've refrained from deleting these comments with the exception of those which are the most egregious and racially insulting.

Fourthly, many of our observations and posts are influenced by our respective educational experiences. If we sound a little sore on the issue of the awarding of scholarships, it might be because we've both been offered and given scholarships from everyone with the exception of our own government. We both went to Singapore on the ASEAN scholarship, which was awarded to us by the Singapore government. Tony went to Oxford courtesy of a Malysian tobacco company. I was offered a scholarship to do my Masters in LSE from LSE (which I rejected because I wanted to go to Cambridge) and I'm here in Duke courtesy of the Fulbright scholarship (US government) and funding from Duke University (also tobacco money). We're both largely supportive of many aspects of the Singapore education system because we've been the benificiaries of that system. I'm more in favor of the US education system especially at the graduate level after going through both the UK and the US systems.

Lastly, I want to invite our readers to remind us if and when we've made racially insensitive remarks and to encourage our readers to post constructive comments in the spirit of having an honest and yet measured discussion. I am reminded of Atticus Finch's advice to his daughter Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I'm paraphrasing - You never really know someone until you walk around in their skin.

Thanks a lot for your support and your comments and keep them coming!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Why United World College?

I've written previously with regards to the United World College (UWC) as well as the International Baccalaureate programme which is offered there. The following post is written by Yoong Pui Shen, who has just flown to the United States to pursue her pre-university education with the UWC. She writes about the reasons why she was keen on UWC and how a little advanced planning helps fulfil one's little dreams. I met her first time during our little blog meet up and I certainly wish her all the best with her educational pursuits :-).

The United World Colleges
by Yoong Pui Shen

A-Levels? ADP? SAM? CPU? Form 6? Oh no! SPM first!

Such was the condition of my mind one year ago. “So what are you going to do next?” everyone asked, and all I could offer was a weak smile and a shrug. I don’t know, I would say.

Truth is, I did know where I wanted to be: at a United World College (UWC). I harboured hopes of learning and living amongst peers from the four corners of the globe. I wanted a comprehensive education that would allow me to explore my ‘other’ interests like music and theatre without forsaking academic prowess.

“What? What’s that?” was the common reaction when I expressed my desire to friends and teachers. So I patiently explained: The United World Colleges movement primarily offers pre-university education. What’s special is that it is the only global educational movement that brings together students from all over the world regardless of their ability to pay. There are currently 12 UWCs, situated in the UK, Hong Kong, US, Singapore, Swaziland, India, Canada, Venezuela, Norway, Italy and recently, Bosnia and Costa Rica.

“Oh, is this new?” they would ask next. No, I say with a smile, it’s just rather unknown in Malaysia. In fact, the UWC idea originated in the 1950s, as an initiative to ease post Cold War tensions. German educationalist Kurt Hahn (who is also founder of the Outward Bound School) envisioned a global college whose students were selected purely on merit, regardless of race, religion, nationality, background or financial means. Its objective was to achieve international understanding, peace and justice.

Today, that guiding principle of UWC is more relevant than ever. Tell me: where else in this bomb-fearing world can you find Israelis and Palestinians working together on a Middle East presentation? Or Africans and Americans dancing to the beat of Malay joget? To me, the UWC is like a microcosm of the world, tempered with some idealism: 200 students from over 90 countries, learning how to tolerate one another’s quirks and values. Every room is a veritable melting pot of cultures and beliefs– even the teaching faculty is multinational!

The curriculum at nine of the colleges adopts the prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma. The IB, as it is known, requires that candidates take subjects from 6 groups – two languages, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences and the arts. With its additional components - CAS (Creative, Action and Service), Extended Essay (EE) and Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the IB is fast becoming the preferred option to develop well-rounded graduates with a genuine interest in thinking and learning.

Therein lies the strength of the UWC. Many other schools in the world offer the IB Diploma, but the sheer diversity of UWC maximizes the meaning of its global syllabus. Imagine studying the Holocaust with people whose grandparents have survived it. Imagine working with the homeless in Los Angeles with people who have been homeless at a time. Imagine having the freedom to try new, exciting things like ballroom dancing and capoeira. If the outdoors is your passion, well imagine having the opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls. Or experience glacier climbing in Norway, as accomplished by Sijie, a 2nd year student at Red Cross Nordic UWC.

It is for those reasons that I applied for the United World Colleges scholarship last March. While it is possible to pay for entry to certain UWCs, most students are awarded scholarships after a rigorous selection process by National Committees in about 115 countries. Scholarships range from a full one for certain colleges down to 50% for some. Interviews are conducted by the UWC Malaysia National Committee, chaired by Tan Sri Awang Had. Here, PETRONAS also awards UWC scholarships to selected successful candidates.

The new scholars are (left to right) Front: Arif Imran Zahari, Tang Shu Haur, Nik Razman, Yap Ee-Lynn, Yoong Pui Shen, Nabilla Ariffin, Natasha Su d/o Sivarajah, Nadhira Abdul Halim,
Back: Amir Kamarudin, Teh Min Sern , Wong Loke Jin, Lim Yangli, Joan Low Su-May, Nishreen Daud Ali

As much as I wanted to go, my elation lasted but for a second when that fateful email came informing me that I had received a partial scholarship to Armand Hammer United World College, USA. Due to the UWC’s non-profit nature, my parents would need to contribute approximately RM90, 000 towards my education at UWC-USA for the two years. How extravagant for a pre-university education! I thought, as many Malaysians would. Where am I going to get funding for university?

A long-distance call from my Malaysian senior studying at UWC-USA, Nithiyanathan s/o Muthusamy, dimmed my apprehension considerably. “I’ve only been here a year, and I’m not that worried about getting funding for university any more”, he assured me. Almost all UWC students get into reputable universities or colleges with very generous financial aid – Yap Xiang Ling from Pearson College in Canada will be attending Harvard University for 50 USD a year. The Shelby Davis Foundation gives full need-based financial aid exclusively to successful UWC applicants to Princeton, Middlebury, Colby, Wellesley, and College of the Atlantic. There are many other schools to which the Davis fund contributes $10, 000 towards fees. Lest you assume that the UWC only enjoys recognition in the US, Pravina Gopalan is going to Warwick University this fall while two of my seniors are attending the Australian National University, Canberra on full scholarships.

The beauty about UWC is that every graduate emerges from it with a different experience. Take my college seniors for example. Adriana Nordin Manan studied theatre arts and economics during her time at UWC-USA. Rina Ayob, a current psychology student at Princeton helped to set up a radio for the surrounding community. Ng Eng Han, currently a freshman at Dartmouth College, dabbled in water polo and trained to be a Wilderness Search and Rescue leader. Nithiya himself is involved in student government, Model UN and the Constructive Engagement of Conflict program.

And me?

For the first time in all my 18 years, I can’t wait to be dressed in a batik kebaya, waving the Jalur Gemilang a la the Commonwealth Games delegation flag-bearer as I walk in for the Welcoming Dinner at UWC-USA!

For more information about the United World Colleges scholarships, please contact the Malaysian UWC National Committee at or 03-78805455/66. You may also drop the writer a line at psyoongatgmaildotcom.

This same article may be published as well in the local papers, but well, you heard it here first! :-)

Sunday, August 20, 2006


I'm getting old, there's no denying it. I remember the days where I used to sleep two nights a week on the KTM train traveling to and fro Singapore. And it wasn't that many years ago whereby I was used to travelling multiple countries back to back over the course of a couple of days. None of that seemed to have any significant impact on me physically. But that was the past.

I travelled to Macau and China on Monday evening and got back in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday. Its Sunday today, and I have yet to feel sufficiently rested and recovered. There's quite a fair bit to write about over the past couple of days, but somehow, after catching up with the necessary amount of work, there's no energy left for anything else, besides spending time with the little kid. The haze of course doesn't help with a ultra-sensitive sinus problem.

Since I haven't written for a week, I thought its a good time to do some much overdue reflection, on this blog that is. It is close to 18 months since I first started this blog, and together with Kian Ming, we have clocked more than 400 posts here already. While the number doesn't sound overwhelming, the number of words written is quite amazing. While many blog sites have more frequent posts which are often short and sweet, ours tends to be a fair bit more lengthy (and long-winded? :)). Assuming an average of 700 words per post, that's more than 280,000 words already! Maybe we should edit the posts into a book, publishers or editors anyone? :)

More than just the written words, I'm happy that we are getting consistent page views averaging 1,500 per day which doesn't yet include those who reads the posts of the site via their news feeds. The page views peaked above 2,000 per day regularly back in May. It's no Kenny Sia by far, but I believe it's a commendable achievement given that the blog covers only the parochial interests of education in Malaysia. :)

From the emails and contacts I've received, I'm also aware that many of our readers are not just students, but members of the academia and administrators of our institutions of higher learning, in the private and public sector. I'm honoured to find out that the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman's (UTAR) management are aware of the blog (probably relating to this particular post) and that certain senior academics from Universiti Malaya (UM) frequents the site too. I'm also aware that some of our articles circulates in the local universities mail systems – UiTM, UTM and more. Hence, while we dare not lay claim to the fact that the blog has had any “tangible” impact, we can safely say that we have encouraged greater awareness and discussion (which is never bad) with the right audience.

What I'm most happy about however, is the fact that through the blog, I've gotten to know and met many interested parties in education, from politicians to academics in public and private universities, fellow concerned citizens and of course, Malaysian students in secondary schools, local and overseas universities. Many have of course, written to me seeking advice and opinions with regards to issues such as courses to take, colleges to attend and more. I must take the opportunity to apologise here that I may not have responded to all queries, not out of disinterest, but purely due to timing and time constraints. I certainly welcome your mails and will try my best to give prompt replies.

We have also had our very first blog meet, as suggested by Kian Ming which was attended by some 10-15 guys, while watching Germany knocking out Argentina from the World Cup. Some have written for updates (which I've yet to do) and others are asking if we could make this a regular thingie. Well, I suppose why not? :) For various sessions, i could even invite if possible, “personalities” to join us informally. However, maybe to help with the organisation effort, someone could volunteer to be a coordinator for the event. Send me an email if you are interested.

I have also written earlier that I was interested in setting up a non-profit educational organisation to assist the public on various issues. Unfortunately, due to various constraints, particularly with regards to timing availability, nothing tangible has been done on this front. However, I'm happy that I've been invited to take part in various events such as the Experiences 2006 American Universities Education Fair in which I was able to do some of the things which I wanted to do, such as providing guidance to students (and parents) on the choices of courses, universities and careers. More recently, I've been interviewed quite a couple of times by the local and foreign media on various issues with regards to the local education system.

In addition, readers may be pleased to know that this blog has sponsored its first student to the China Synergy Programme by footing the bill for an air ticket (Kuala Lumpur – Hong Kong) as well as the participation fee of US$200. The participant from Multimedia University has recently returned from the 3-week event and her report on the event will be up soon, once the editing is completed :). For those interested in helping this blog sponsor more students for such events, feel free to visit the Google advertisement sponsors on the right and at the bottom ;-).

Finally, there are probably some of you out there who have asked the question, “why do you bother?”. There are clearly those who thinks that the existing education system is beyond repair and any effort on our part is just an absolute waste of space and time – there's been quite a few comments to that effect on some of the posts. For example, Billy said:
Human, especially those in Malaysia, always have this kind of "hoping too much" symptoms whenever there are changes in leaderships. But in the end, we are back to square zero after all those sweet promises. Are we two years old kids that will stop crying when given sweets? We have been blind for almost 50 years, and i am sure we are doing the same for another 50 years, and perhaps forever. So why talk and discuss things happening in Malaysia when we can't changed anything? That is such a waste of time and effort. I rather go for a holiday in Phuket or Bali.
Well, the person who made the comment might be able to afford holidays to Phuket or Bali (or migrate to other countries for that matter), but there are clearly many others who can't do that. And whatever effort being put in here, is simply to help those who have little alternative choices. I took the missus and kid to Chiangmai earlier this month for a short 3 days 2 night trip. And at Wat Phra Singh, there were Buddhist proverbs hung on trees in a park – two of which caught my eye, and succinctly captured why this blog exists in the first place.

“Living without hope is like burying oneself.”

“If there is nothing that you like, you must like the things that you have.”

OK, that's enough reflections for now. Let's get back to discussing our education system :). Coming up next - more on global university rankings, the importance of “top universities”(?), update on the UPM fracas and most shockingly, academics at local institutions with bogus degrees? Thanks for reading, and have fun!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Creativity pays too

Tony blogged about how persistence pays here. I want to add that a little bit of creativity in addition to persistence can also go a long way. That was probably the extra "edge" that helped Nurjuanis Zara Zainuddin get into Oxford.

I think it's not sufficient just to have great results to get into Oxbridge. Certainly, a terrific SAT score alone won't get you into Harvard or Princeton or Stanford. You have to have that something "extra" in your CV to differentiate yourself from the crowd of overachievers. That something "extra" for Nurjuanis was the fact that she wrote a book called "The Art of Seeing Science". What impressed me most about her was not only the fact that she wrote that book (and has completed a first draft of "The Art of Seeing History") but more importantly, her genuine passion and conviction which led her to write these books.

Very often, overachievers would attempt to "pad" their CVs with activities which they might not necessarily be passionate about - achieving a grade 8 in piano playing, taking up equestrian, doing community service, organising fund raising events, and so on.

I think that it's of utmost importance for us to have interests outside our studies and that these interests should be allowed to be developed or even flourish while we're young. We should be encouraged to be creative in our interests. If we like playing RTS (Real Time Strategy) computer games, why not gang up with a few friends to enter a few Warcraft competitions? Or get together to design new and interesting maps? Or if we like playing Civ IV, why not learn to create new and interesting mods? I'm sure a CV or application form to Stanford or MIT which has a link to your own homepage with downloadable CIV IV mods or new Warcraft or Counterstrike maps would impress the admissions office. (Although the old fogies at Oxbridge might not be similarly blown away)

So for the aspiring Ivy-leaguers or Oxbridge hopefuls, take some time off from the books and go do something else more interesting and challenging.

We need to prioritise, says new UKM VC

The Star managed to nab one of the first interviews with the new VC of UKM, Prof Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin. There wasn't much I could glean from this interview in regards to her big 'vision' for UKM but these few remarks struck me as indicative of one of the new VC's key challenges.

“When I go into office at UKM, my first task will be to meet the different faculty heads and identify the university’s strengths and niche areas. We need to discuss which areas need to be pushed very fast and what can afford to wait.

“We need to prioritise. We can’t do everything at once, you’re bound to fail, but everyone needs to feel assured that their area will be expanded or developed,” she explains.

I think she's absolutely right that UKM should push its strengths and niche areas forward instead of wanting everything to be put in the forefront. Identifying these niche areas will be the tricky part since everyone will lobby her that THEIR area is an area of strength and worthy of additional attention and funding.

If I were the new VC, I'd focus on two criteria to ascertain the potential of a faculty. Firstly, I'd look at the publishing record of the senior academic staff of each faculty. The ones with the highest number of published works in respected journals or in book form should get my attention. Secondly, to identify faculties which have a lot of promising young talent, I would look at the % of a faculty who have recently acquired their PhDs from foreign universities, especially reputable ones. This is an indication of how much 'young blood' there is to help push the faculty forward.

I know that these criterion might seem mutually exclusive. It may be so in some cases for example in faculties where there are a lot of senior academics with good publishing records but not many junior academics who have just entered into the system. But in other faculties, it may be the case where you have some good senior academic staff who are well published and have also managed to attract some good junior staff into their faculties.

The important point here is that she should use some objective measures to ascertain the strength and potential of a faculty, not the 'lobbying' strength of the head or dean of that faculty.

There is a tricky balancing act - that you cannot afford to alienate those faculties which you do not deem worthy of additional attention and funding. The 'politics' of this game is important if you want to keep your job and not have people trying to sabotage you at every corner.

I wish her all the best in trying to achieve this tricky balance - the need for change and focus, and at the same time not to alienate too many people so as to make her job of change almost impossible.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Persistence Pays

You guys might remember Calvin Teng, the kid I blogged about back in May. Despite having received a confirmed placement in University of California, Berkeley to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, our own Public Service Department (JPA) wasn't sufficiently impressed to grant him a scholarship.

Well, while I was of no help, we should all be happy to know that Calvin managed to secure for himself a scholarship from Astro to pursue his further studies at Berkeley. Congratulations!

A month or so back, when he called me to inform me that he has successfully secured the scholarship, which was practically his last standing option, I told him that he should write about his experiences and share it with others and that I would be happy to publish them here. Well, he did one better, he wrote on his experiences in 2 parts, Part I and Part II, and started his very own blog. :)

Go visit and learn about his inspiration, the challenges he faced and how he made the Astro scholarship his very own. I am certain that Calvin himself will serve as an inspiration to other Malaysian students as well.

Relevant to my earlier blog post, it is just absolutely incredulous how JPA reacted to his having already secured a place at the prestigious engineering university.
In my JPA interview, I mentioned that I got into Berkeley and they gave me that curt “don’t tell us where you want to go, we’ll decide where to send you” answer.
Gosh, what type of nincompoops do we have administering the scholarship department at JPA? We probably have people who can't spell A to Z (mis)administering and (mis)allocating the country's funds to the country's top talents.

I'll repeat my earlier questions to JPA:
Which is more important and which makes more sense for Malaysia?
  1. Award overseas undergraduate scholarships to post-SPM students who have yet to undergo pre-university programmes or examinations, and have not secured any placements in top universities overseas? This has often resulted in students being sponsored to study in 2nd or 3rd tier universities in Britain and the United States, as well as being sent to other 3rd world countries. OR

  2. Award overseas undergraduate scholarships only to students who have successfully completed pre-university programmes or examinations and have received conditional or unconditional acceptance into the top-rated and most selective universities in the world, such as University of California, Berkeley or Cambridge University, UK?
Anyway, it was great to see Calvin, through his own persistence and resourcefulness found his way to achieving his dreams. And I believe that Calvin will agree with me that he wouldn't consider himself a super-genius. You need to be smart, but not necessarily a genius to get into the top schools around the world. All it takes is a bit of courage, a bit of effort and persistence, and you'd be surprised where that can bring you.

Someone wrote a bit earlier on my post reminding readers about those interested in Oxbridge admissions that "If one really wants to apply for Oxford or Cambridge [or other similar top institutions], (s)he would have found out all the necessary bits and pieces long ago." I disagree. I believe that there are many qualified Malaysians who are capable of entering these top universities but have not entered largely because many did not even bother applying. It is necessary to encourage a greater number of applications and show that one doesn't have to be an Albert Einstein to qualify and secure for themselves a real world class education.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Yes, Minister

For the past month or so, our Minister of Higher Education is certainly having a tough time, and in my humble opinion, probably undeservedly so. If not for the nation's undivided attention on the very public spat between the vindictive ex-prime minister and the meek present one, he'd probably have an even tougher time dealing with the angry public. In fact, after the initial furore in the media, we've not heard much in the past few weeks (which of course, makes this blog post a tad belated).

Let's quickly recap the key events of the past 2 months. Soon after releasing the "good" news that the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) will soon be "reformed" and this blogger giving a generally favourable account of the Minister, Malaysiakini broke the news that a controversial ethnic relations guidebook has been issued and utilised in some of the local public universities. The controversy was pursued doggedly by parties from both sides of the fence in Parliament, and for the first time since his appoinment, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) floundered badly in attempting to defend the indefensible.

Before the incident was even "resolved" by the cabinet ruling that the "guidebook" was to be withdrawn, the mob mentality of "pro-estabilishment" student leaders at Universiti Putra Malaysia created another crisis for the Minister to deal with.

The way I look at it, and if my judgement of Tok Pa is correct, then he must be seething mad. He is seething mad not because of the controversy raised by the various parties, be it Malaysiakini or the opposing parlimentarians, but in all probability, with his own underlings at the Ministry and those at the relevant universities. My argument is that Tok Pa got unnecessarily into the hot soup in the first place because of the incompetent staff ingrained with the "Yes, Minister" culture as well as university administrators who are adept with the art of flattery.

I remember two elections back, when our current Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak nearly lost his parliamentary seat in Pekan, Pahang (which was won in the end by a marginal 250-votes or so, and with alleged critical assistance from last minute diversion of postal votes), he gave an earful to his campaigners who were only adept at whispering sweet nothings in his ear. These underlings were obviously so imbued with the "Yes, Minister" culture, that none wanted to be the harbringer of bad news, i.e., the "real" situation on the ground to him.

Similarly, Tok Pa would have discovered first hand, the perils of placing such trust in his subordinates. The following are some incidents supporting my overall hypothesis:
  1. The university authorities, in their ill-fated attempts to play down the severity of the ethnic relations "textbook" fiasco, attempted to spin the story that the document wasn't really a "textbook", but only a teaching reference guide for the lecturers. In addition, it was spun that the guide has yet to be finalised, hence any attempt to judge the contents of the document was premature.

    Unfortunately, the speed at which technology works today is such that this "excuse" which was put forth by Tok Pa was quickly invalidated when it was immediately shown that the "guidebook" was actually being sold to university students for RM9 a copy, or RM6 for a phostated copy!

  2. The higher education ministry officials in their clumsy attempts to justify the credibility of the "ethnic relations" project, presented to the Minister the well-regarded names of the academics who were involved in the project.

    Hence, Tok Pa proudly listed Prof Dr Johan Saravanamuthu Abdullah from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) as leading a team of experts including Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin (UKM), Prof Dr Azizan Baharuddin (UM), Prof Dr Jayum Jawan (UPM), Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr. Khoo Kay Kim (UM), Prof Dr. Abdul Latif Samian (UKM) and Prof Madya Musa Ahmad (UiTM) being involved in drafting the module.

    Once again, the Minister received a slap on the face when Prof Johan and Prof Khoo denied their involvement while Prof Azizan clarified that Prof Musa and her were actually involved in another subject altogether.

    Following the public media revelations by the respective academics, Tok Pa announced that a new committee to be chaired by Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin. He was to be assisted by Prof Dr Abdul Latif Samian (UKM), Assoc Prof Dr Siti Aishah Ali and Baterah Alias (both from UiTM) However, Dr Shamsul claimed that "the official syllabus for the course assigns no blame for past ethnic conflicts, whether the 1969 May 13 race riots, the 2001 Kampung Medan clashes and made no mention of the 1999 Suqiu electoral appeals."

    And that set the background to a 3rd U-turn in 4 days whereby it was announced that the new committee will be "chaired by higher educational institutions management department director-general Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said, and not Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from UKM".

    The bungling mess can only be attributed to the incompetent civil servants working at the Ministry of Higher Education. I really don't envy Tok Pa in this case.

  3. With regards to the UPM gangsters episode, it took some time before the Minister actually responded, and even then the university authorities tried to paint it as some sort of "misunderstanding" and even staged a hand-shaking ceremony at a press conference.

    The farce was easily and quickly exposed and Tok Pa, who had initially "delegated" the responsibility to Prof Dr Nik Mustapha R. Abdullah, the university's vice-chancellor, then "forced" the set up of an official inquiry panel to investigate the incident.
All the above incidents just smacks of the respective subordinates at the ministry as well as those at the universities reacting in knee-jerk fashions, to suppress or make light the issues with half-truths and misleading statements. However, they have clearly underestimated the strengths of the various tools of the Internet to convey the actual circumstances at such a speed which make the responsible parties having to dig deeper holes to cover themselves. And the unfortunate Minister, who had little choice but to first consult his subordinates finds himself caught with his pants down quite a few times.

This however, does not absolve the Minister from blame in the above events. He could have shown greater moral leadership and play a greater role in sieving the truths from the half-truths presented to him. And he would of course, have to take ministerial responsibility for whatever incompetence of the subjects at his ministry.

Hopefully as a result of the above incidents, Tok Pa will take the necessary actions to cleanse his ministry and the universities of the "Yes, Minister" culture which is so detrimental to taking the country's higher education system to a higher level.

Despite the fiasco over the handling of the above incidents, we are generally still quitely hopeful that we are able to see more positive changes in our higher education system led by the current Minister of Higher Education.

Before the ethnic relations episode got all blown out, at the Experiences 2006 press conference, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Ong Tee Keat had stated himself that the current team pays attention to discussions and statements made on the Internet, when replying to a question from a journalist. And to be fair the Minister himself took certain actions when the Parliamentary Opposition leader raised several issues on his blog. Unfortunately, in this case, the action to be taken was too slow and possibly too little too late, and hence the uproar.

Parties close to the Ministry are convinced that the current regime at the Ministry of Higher Education is extremely open to views from the public and the industry and indeed trying to improve our current higher education system for the better. The changes may not be immediate but they appear confident that the Ministry will in some way begin to do things for the better as we continue to engage them.

More reasons to keep blogging then. :)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Doctor, Are You Qualified?

I've written previously on several issues with regards to the medical profession. First the almost irrational desire by many students, and more so their parents, for them to become doctors, irrespective of talents and ability. There was also a bit of a verbal fistcuffs between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Higher Education with regards to the "deplorable standards" of medical education at some of the local medical institutions. Plus, in a study by Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), the doctor population in Malaysia will rise at a very rapid rate from 1:1,361 to 1:400 by 2020.

The simple question then, is whether we are sacrificing too much of quality to boost quantity?

It was reported in the New Straits Times last week that there are now television advertisements promoting medical schools in Poland and Romania to Malaysian students and parents. Knowing how desperate that some of these students and parents are, irrespective of the students calibre, they might just rush headlong into signing up for these courses without knowing that they are not accredidated in Malaysia.
Director-General of Health Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican said medical colleges in Poland and Romania had not been registered. "The agents should not be airing the advertisements. They are misleading the public," he said.
And now we hear that there are going to be even more medical schools, public and private in Malaysia despite that clear evidence that the country does not have the necessary capacity to sustain the required quality in medical education. There's the Cyberjaya University College of Medical Studies (CUCMS) "ready" for its first intake this year. Earlier this year, Kolej Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Selangor (Kuis), one of two institutions of higher learning set up by the Selangor Government, declared that they will offer medical degree courses from 2008 as part of its expansion. And at the end of last year, the Terengganu government has requested for a medical faculty at the new Darul Iman University. Are we just getting from bad to worse?

Yes, the resultant impact of these expansionary programmes both by the Government as well as by parents attracted to misleading advertisements is that we will indeed accelerate the quantity of doctors in this country. However, at what cost?

Let's do a simple comparison between ourselves and our neighbour down south. We all know that Singapore has one of the best medical faculties in National University of Singapore (NUS), which is recognised as among the top 20 in the world. More interestingly, the Government of Singapore recognises some 120 medical degrees in the world, not exactly a small number.

So, how many degrees does the Malaysian Government recognise? A whopping more than 320 degrees from various institutions around the world. While our Singaporean friends recognise only 2 medical colleges in India, All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and Christian Medical College, Vellore, we recognise a whopping excess of 80 colleges.

Less shockingly, but equally significant is that while Singapore recognises some 30 American institutions, Malaysia recognises medical degrees almost 90 universities and colleges from the United States. At the same time, only 11 medical degrees from Asia and Africa, excluding the NUS, is recognised by our neighbours (less than 10% of total) while we recognised some 160 qualifications (50% of total) from the region. For example 6 from Burma, 6 from Bangladesh, 11 from Indonesia, 14 from Pakistan, 4 from Iraq and even 1 from Uganda.

On top of that, there is of course coming to 20 medical schools in Malaysia (serving a population of 25 million) compared to 1 in Singapore (serving 5 million). Of course, absolutely none of the Malaysian medical colleges have received recognition in Singapore. I've asked earlier - is there no cure for our medical schools?

Are we certain that we are not giving recognition to doctors who may not be sufficiently competent? Recognising more than 80 medical colleges from India, for example, sounds just too excessive for me to believe that all of them meet the necessary minimum international standards, acceptable to Malaysians. In short, is our Government short-changing and risking our well-being by giving recognition to qualification from less than reputable institutions?

Correspondingly, I would strongly suggest that students seeking to pursue medical studies select schools which are recognised by our neighbour down south in order to ensure that you receive the best medical education as well as your global prospects. If you can't get into these institutions, you might just want to consider alternative careers.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bogus Universities? (IV)

Wah... despite having written six previous articles relating to bogus universities already, there appears to be a fair bit of interest in the subject. So here's the 7th on the very same subject. :)

Thanks to reader H in Leeds, we now learn that the Open University of Malaysia (OUM), which was embroiled in a discriminatory controversy earlier, is offering Masters and PhD programmes. Of interest is that they are now offering PhD programmes in Engineering. It is worth noting that even The Open University in the United Kingdom (UK) does not offer PhD programmes. The highest level offered in The Open University, UK is taught Masters, and even then, none in the scientific fields such as Engineering. I wonder what makes OUM think that they will be able to deliver quality programmes in these postgraduate fields, when its more established compatriot in the UK doesn't deem them appropriate.

Anyway, this post isn't about the quality of postgraduate programmes at OUM. It is more interesting to note that in the online application form for postgraduate programmes for OUM, there is a default list of 36 universities accepted by (or deemed acceptable to) OUM. In it, you'd 21 local universities and colleges, and 15 foreign ones.

Yes, as some of you might have guessed, the now infamous Irish International University (IIU) forms part of the list. So it appears now that one of the easiest way to obtain an accreditated postgraduate degree from OUM is to first obtain an unaccreditated one from a bogus university!

As a general reminder for readers who may not have read the earlier posts on bogus universities, the Office of Degree Authorisation of Oregon, United States have listed the Irish International University as a bogus university. In IIU's case, it specifically mentioned that:
The Irish government has requested that Malaysia close this entity on grounds that it is neither Irish nor a university. It has obtained a business license in a Swiss canton, but is not a Swiss university.
But hey, it doesn't matter, our very own OUM recognises IIU qualifications. And IIU isn't the only dodgy institution deemed acceptable, there is one Asia Pacific International University which similarly provides dubious qualifications on the list.

Separately, it was absolutely mind-boggling how the list of 15 foreign institutions were selected to be part of the drop down menu. The list of illuminaries include the University of Cambridge, juxtaposed against the Anglia Polytechnic University, an Australian Northern Territory University and no other Australian institutions.

Ok, so I'm miffed that Oxford isn't part of the list that is deemed "acceptable". But then again, maybe I should have a laugh at Kian Ming for going to a university deemed comparable to Irish International University! :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Excellent Grades, But Missed the Cut?

We have heard of many complaints with regards to Malaysian non-bumiputeras who have excellent grades but missed the cut for their preferred choices of courses and universities. A recent case was highlighted here, before the appeals process.

Well, if you are one such "unfortunate" student, particularly if you couldn't afford to pursue alternative private education in the course of your choice, then you are wanted. A friend of mine in the media is looking for you to do a feature study on the impact of Malaysia's affirmative action policy for bumiputeras.

Conversely, if you are a bumiputera graduate and have benefited from Malaysia's affirmative action policy, without which you would not have "made it", then you are wanted too to give your point of view too.

The interviews are likely to be conducted in the Klang Valley next week. Please email me if you are interested in having your say. Your identities will be protected should you prefer it as such. Here's a little chance to have your say, and do our small part in helping shape our future education policy for Malaysians. :)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Ohio University Beckons

Experiences KL 2006 might be over but I received news that Karla Schneider, Assistant Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Ohio University will be making a marketing trip to Malaysia on Saturday, August 19th, 2006.

Ohio University is located in Athens, Ohio, a small university town of about 20,000 people (excluding students), about an hour and a half south of Columbus, Ohio. It's not to be mistaken with Ohio State University, which is located in Columbus Ohio.

I've heard that it's a pretty popular place to go among Malaysians. You can read about this history here. I'll just paste a paragraph from that link:

"Ohio University's relationship with Malaysia began in the early 1960s. It was initiated by the then Malaysian High Commissioner to Nigeria, who is now the tenth hereditary ruler (Yang di-Pertuan Besar) of the State of Negeri Sembilan and the ninth King (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) of Malaysia. His Royal Highness, Tuanku Ja'afar Ibni Al-marhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, holds an honorary doctorate from Ohio University granted in 1990"

I've also heard that they have arguably the best collection of materials on Malaysia in the US (and perhaps better than some Malaysian universities as well). I'm sure I'll be visiting that library sometime during the course of my PhD program here in the US. They offer a Southeast Asian Studies Program and a corporate MBA program with Tenaga Nasional.

While not a household name in Malaysia, the fact that they've had such a long history with Malaysia, Malaysian institutions and Malaysians definitely counts as a plus. They also offer special teaching assistant scholarships to Malaysians. I'm sure Karla will be able to fill you in on the details during the expo, the details of which are below:

Ohio University Education Expo!
Saturday, August 19
Renaissance Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
Corner of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Ampang

Whether you are seeing a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree, Ohio University has the program for you! Talk to Ohio University representatives and Malaysian alumni about:

* Graduate and undergraduate academic programs
* Application and transfer procedures
* Campus life and student organizations
* Intensive English courses
* Scholarships

Come see for yourself what being an Ohio University Bobcat is all about!

New UKM VC: Cause for Hope?

NST and the Star reported here and here that a new VC has been appointed for UKM. The new VC, Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hassan Shahabudin, formerly the CEO of LAN or the National Accreditation Board has been on the radar screen of this blog for some time.

She was one of the six candidates on the shortlist to replace Prof Hashim Yaacob as the VC of UM as blogged by Tony here. She was passed up in favor of Datuk Rafiah Salim. When she takes up her position as the new VC of UKM, she'll be the second woman in Malaysia to hold that position.

Firstly, some notes about her background. The Star writes that "Dr Sharifah Hapsah graduated with a degree in Medicine from Universiti Malaya in 1973 and employed as a lecturer at UKM two years later. She also served as head of the medical studies department." NST writes that "From 1975 to 2002, Dr Sharifah Hapsah was a medical studies professor at UKM."

So unlike Datuk Rafiah, Dr. Sharifah actually has an academic background and received medical training. However, her academic record has been questioned by one of our readers here. A google scholar search or even a normal google search will reveal that she has not published anything substantial in her field of training which is medicine. Her latest publication is actually a jointly edited volume with Saran Kaur Gill untitled "Asian Women Leaders in Higher Education: Management Challenges for the New Millennium. Bangi, Malaysia: UNESCO & Centre for Academic Advancement, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia."

I've written about one of her UNESCO publications here and this particular publication deals specifically with the establishment of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and I was generally positive about the focus of her presentation.

I don't think that a VC has to be a brilliant academic (although a good publishing record to boost his or her credentials) to be a good VC (think Lawrence Summers, for example, the former President of Harvard). Prolific academics who have been well-published don't necessarily make good administrators. So I wouldn't hold Dr. Sharifah's poor publishing record against her. In fact, I'm pretty upbeat about her appointment.

The main reason is that she won't have any excuse of not knowing the standards that the Malaysian Qualifications Agency will set after it is established by an act of Parliament (this will happen fairly soon) since she was the one who authored those standards!

According to that paper presented by Dr. Sharifah at a UNESCO meeting, the three objectives of the MQA are:

1) Develop internationally benchmarked standards for the MQF
2) Assuring the standards of qualification and quality of delivery in both public and private institutions
3) Maintaining the MQF resiter and becoming the reference point for information on qualifications and QA and mutual recognition of qualifications

While we have to wait for the act of Parliament to examine the details of what the MQA is / will be, we can get the general gist of it from Dr. Sharifah's presentation. If the objectives above can be fulfilled, then I'm positive that the local universities will be the better for it.

Right now, Dr. Sharifah is in a strategic position to ensure that the university that she will soon oversee, UKM, will be the first to achieve the standards set by the MQA. I feel more hopeful that Dr. Sharifah would be in a better position to implement substantive change in UKM compared to Dr. Rafiah in UM. Perhaps this will spur greater competititon between the two universities. Only time will tell to see if one has left a longer lasting (and positive) legacy than the other.