Saturday, September 30, 2006

Different perspective on Chinese education

I came across this interesting story in SinChew (星洲日报)yesterday and I thought that it offers an alternative perspective on Chinese medium education in Malaysia. It all starts with Sabriah(?)(莎比娜) who wanted to study and learn Chinese.

She lives in a Malay area that is next to the Subang New Village and when she was young, she had many Chinese friends and wanted to study in a Chinese medium primary school. But because of family reasons, she was not able to do so. Instead, she put her hopes on her daughter who was, in fact, quite willing to fulfil her mom's wishes by enrolling in a Chinese medium primary school in Subang (SRJK(C)Subang). Sabriah's daughter didn't have any problems fitting into the Chinese speaking environment as she has always had Chinese friends from a very young age.

Sabriah was particularly pleased when her daughter obtained an A for Math for her UPSR exams, an area, she frankly admitted, where many bumiputra students (巫裔学生)are weak in. Her daughter also obtained As in Malay (comprehension and writing) showing that studying in a Chinese medium primary school was not detrimental to her Malay language ability. Overall, she obtained 4As, 1B and 2Cs (for Chinese comprehension and writing). A commendable effort on her part given that she's from a non-Chinese speaking background.

But her primary reason for going to Sin Chew was because she had failed in her many attempts to get her daughter enrolled in a Chinese independent secondary school! While there a small minority of non-Chinese students in Chinese medium primary schools (more than 20,000 if I remember the latest numbers correctly), there number and % of non-Chinese students in Chinese independent secondary schools is much smaller. Sabriah wanted her daughter (Nur Fairuz) to continue her Chinese language studies and be exposed to Chinese cultural activities, which her daughter likes, hence the decision to enroll her in a Chinese independent secondary school. When she went to such a school in Klang, her daughter's application was rejected because all the spaces had been filled. After many futile attempts, she felt discouraged and hopeless and visiting Sin Chew to highlight her situation was something akin to a last desparate resort. Currently, her daughter is attending a national secondary school, where she feels that there is insufficient Chinese cultural activities even though there are many Chinese students there.

Her story has many interesting discussion points. Firstly, what are the entry requirements into Chinese independent secondary schools? There are not that many of them in the country (numbering less than 100) and the demand is usually quite high. My sister went to one of them in KL - Kuen Cheng (坤成女中)- and from what I hear, it's a very popular school among many Chinese parents. But was it a case of an insufficient number of places or was it because of Sabriah's daughter's race? From what little I know of Chinese independent secondary schools, there's a huge one in Klang with about 3000 students. The newspaper report didn't say which school in Klang she went to but if it's a school of 3000 students, I'm sure that one more can't hurt especially when it increases the diversity in the school and the mother of that child has tried so hard to buck the convention by wanting to send her Malay daughter to a Chinese independent secondary school.

Secondly, it is interesting to note that she noticed a discernible improvement in her daughter's Mathematical skills after she started going to the Chinese primrary schools. In the article, Sabriah commented that her daughter would do Math in her head and come up with the answer quickly (mental abacus). The fact that she could compare her daughter's results with her son's, who goes to a national primary school, probably boosted her confidence in the Chinese medium primary school, especially in Math.

While I have not seen any studies which show this statistically, I'm convinced that the Chinese medium primary school environment somehow is more conducive to learning Mathematics compared to a national school environment. Sabriah had her daughter and son to compare. A more natural 'experiment' would have been to separate twins, sending one to a national school and the other to a Chinese medium school. From my own experience, I found that among the ASEAN scholars in my batch, those from Chinese speaking schools (Chung Ling in Penang, Chung Hwa in KL), on average, was better than those from non-Chinese speaking schools (such as myself). Since most ASEAN scholars in my batch were Chinese, this gives us reason to doubt the myth that somehow Chinese people are more genetically disposed to Math.

What exactly this 'environment' in Chinese medium schools provides that is more conducive to learning Math is still a mystery to me. I can hazard some guesses but they would not have any scientific basis. It could be something to do with the learning of the Chinese language - you have to learn to count the strokes, write them in a logical order, use spatial thinking to recognize and remember words. It could be something to do with the nature of the Chinese language that makes Math problems more intuitive to solve - 二二四,四四十六 (two times two equal 4, 4 times 4 equal 16). It would be interesting to investigate if Math results are worse in Chinese medium primary schools after the introduction of teaching some Math classes in English. My suspicion is that the difference would not be significant, since it does not fundamentally alter the 'Chinese' character of the Chinese primary school. And if my speculation about the link between learning the language (strokes, logic, cognition) and Math has any basis, then the difference is likely to be insignificant.

The point here is that people do recognize the quality of education in schools. While parents do not have the luxury of using their children as test cases - you can't send your kid to one type of school for two years and then transfer him or her to another type of school to see if his or her results improve - there is a small minority of non-Chinese parents who do recognize the quality of education in Chinese primary schools and have thus sent their children to these schools, including PPP President M. Kayveas. If even non-Chinese parents recognize this, then why can't the government recognize this as well and build more Chinese primary schools? Of course, I'm simplifying a complicated issue but the point is not lost on many parents, including non-Chinese parents such as Sabriah, who at the end of the newspaper article, expressed her hope that the government would buld more Chinese primary schools.

Sabriah in unique in wanting to send her non-Chinese daughter to a Chinese independent secondary school. However, she's not unique in sending her non-Chinese daughter to a Chinese medium primary school. Many other non-Chinese parents are doing the same as they recognize the quality of education and discipline in Chinese medium primary schools, the increasing importance of knowing Chinese and the steady drop in standards in our national schools.

My hope is that Sabriah's wish to have her daughter study in a Chinese independent secondary school is fulfilled. I suspect that now that her plight has been made public, it would not be difficult to find her daughter a place in a Chinese independent school in Klang. If only the larger issue that her situation highlights can be addressed as easily.

P.S. I'm just starting to formally learn how to write and read Chinese so if I've made any errors in translating the contents of the SinChew article, please let me know.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Prof Shamsul Replies

Ah...the power of the media and of the internet. I'm sure that Prof Shamsul's mailbox was flooded after his comments on the recent ASLI report appeared on Mkini. Tony blogged about it here and I posted a comment saying that I hope Prof Shamsul would issue a quick clarification statement. That he has done in today's Malaysiakini.

For our readers who don't subscribe to Malaysiakini, I'd urge you guys to do so immediately. But for the meantime, I'll reproduce his clarification statement here in full because I think he deserves a fair hearing. I'll post my comments after Prof Shamsul's clarification statement.

Shamsul’s clarification

On Sept 27, 2006, malaysiakini published an article entitled 'Bumi equity: Prof disputes study' which totally misrepresented my opinion of what I have to say about the study conducted by Asli (Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute) entitled “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy.”

When I was asked about my opinion of the report, my respond was brief and simple: “I don’t know about the study, I haven’t read it and I have no opinion to offer regarding its content.”

Therefore, I categorically deny that I said what I had purportedly said, including “the study did not contain accurate facts” and the rest of it. By the way, I am a lecturer in social anthropology and not in political science as reported.

It is unfortunate and a great pity that my purported comments have attracted many negative, even crass, reactions from a number of malaysiakini readers. They have the right to do so if those were really my statements. But they were not.

What I offered instead were some general comments on previous such reports on the New Economic Policy (NEP), and not this particular report by Asli.

The gist of my general comment was that some of the reports that offered evaluation on the NEP thus far are not only inaccurate but also biased.

For example, some Malay-based interest groups would claim that the NEP has been well-received by all Malays. This is simply untrue. The Malay response to NEP has been a highly mixed one.

I have researched and written extensively about this with concrete empirical evidence. Those interested are invited to read my book Rancangan Malaysia Kedua:Tujuan dan Pelaksanaannya (1977) and also From British to Bumiputera Rule: Local Politics and Rural Development in Peninsular Malaysia (1986).

I have argued that the nature of NEP’s implementation has been, to borrow Wertheim’s famous words, “betting on the strong few and not on the weak many,” especially NEP’s second objective “to restructure Malaysian society”.

I also mentioned in my general comments to malaysiakini then that from my close reading of the numerous reports and analyses by academicians and non-academicians on the NEP in the last 25 years, I noticed two clear patterns.

The first exhibits a polarised pattern between, on the one hand, pro-establishment and on the other, critical of the establishment. Within each approach I find there exists a number of schisms, often based on ethnic lines and sometimes ideological ones.

In this context, it is not surprising at all that some of the reports on the NEP were highly ‘ethnicised’ in the sense that the studies were not motivated by the need to seek the truth but often to fulfill the ‘ethnicised’ agenda of a particular group.

The second pattern also exhibits a polarised one between, on the one hand, to view Malaysia and its NEP from an “alarmist perspective” and the other from a “consensus perspective.”

To the alarmists, the NEP is perceived as something negative to the general good of the society hence it is said that it could lead to a massive dissatisfaction amongst the various ethnic groups, which in turn could lead to an equally massive ethnic conflict in Malaysia.

Those in favour of the consensus perspective argue that Malaysia, with its NEP, is a society continuously struggling to find a fulcrum and, since it has to contend with a moving one, it is experiencing an almost perpetual state of ‘stable tension’ underlined by an unending negotiation to seek consensus-based solutions.

As such, in my opinion, some of the reports on the NEP had to be viewed with a dose of skepticism for methodological and epistemological reasons.

Therefore, I have indeed nothing to say about the Asli report as reported by malaysiakini, but got plenty to comment on published and unpublished reports and analyses on the NEP.

Finally, I definitely would like to obtain a copy of the Asli report and offer my genuine comments if I am given the chance, but perhaps, it will not be in the distorted and sensational form that appears in the article.

OK, my comments and thoughts now.

First of all, I've heard Prof Shamsul in many public settings before and he comes across as an articulate, witty and insightful academic. He's also one of the more prolific scholars in the local public university system and has done some good work on the development of the Malay community. Therefore, his seemingly 'off-hand' comments came as a surprise to me.

Secondly, I thought that it was possible that Prof Shamsul was misquoted or his quote was taken out of context. I've spoken to many local journalists in the past and I know the feeling of being misquoted or being quoted out of context (albeit not as sensationalized as Prof Shamsul's statement). Journalists hope to catch quick soundbytes which they can then use as a part of their overall report. My impression is that Prof Shamsul probably made a statement which sounded like - 'I would ask questions about the underlying motivation of the authors of any study on the NEP' or maybe something more flippant over the phone. The journalist in question probably jumped on that statement and made that the headline, ignoring the other things which Prof Shamsul might have said.

One of the benefits of studying overseas and having Malaysian journalist friends and contacts is that I can email in my responses instead of stating them over the phone. That way, I can guard against being misquoted. I can also think more about the issue and what I want to say instead of being rushed into saying something which I might regret later or which I've not reflected on sufficiently. But most journalists in Malaysia are on short deadlines and would prefer the phone rather than email. (It doesn't help if sources are slow to respond to email requests)

The downside of an episode such as this is that future sources might be more hesitant in speaking to Malaysiakini reporters on record. Perhaps, Malaysiakini should be more stringent when it comes to training their reporters and asking them to follow some sort of interview procedure in the future.

Prof Shamsul's full reply shows his more familiar (at least to me) academic side. His clarification statement is measured and reasonable unlike his previously reported remarks. I hope that this is the side that would have prevailed during the design of the Ethnic Relations course (of which, Prof Shamsul is the main course designer) which is about to be re-introduced to the public universities.

I'm sure this is not the last we've heard of the ASLI report and the responses to it. But at least some light has been shed on what Prof Shamsul actually said. As a social anthropologist, he wouldn't be the first person I would go to to comment on the ASLI report. Much better to go to an economist like Dr. Zainal Aznam Yusof who recently published a response to the ASLI report, of which I'll respond to after doing some more thinking and analysis. I'm sure Tony would have insights on this as well.

Bogeyman Politics

A bogeyman is something or someone that is used to scare children when they are misbehaving. We have equivalent bogeymen when it comes to our education system. For UMNO and the radical Malay nationalists, it is the spectre of Chinese medium schools which represent the bogeyman. For the Chinese educationists, it is the looming presence of anything that threatens the 'character' of Chinese medium schools. Both sides need to open their eyes and dispel the myth of these bogeymen.

The latest salvo in this long standing debate was fired by Deputy Higher Education Minister, Ong Tee Keat and right on cue, Minister of Education, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, fired right back. The issue in question was the misallocation of funds for the upgrading of two Chinese primary schools in Johor.

But let us take a step back from that particular issue. The larger issue in question is the long standing demand from the Chinese community for more Chinese primary schools. I don't have the numbers here but if I recall properly, the number of Chinese primary schools in Malaysia has not changed significantly since the 1960s. Some schools have been 'transferred' from low demand areas to higher demand areas. Some have been closed down for a variety of reasons - lack of demand, funding problems, poor infrastructure etc...

It's ludicrous that the number of Chinese schools have stayed more or less the same for the past 40 years when the Chinese community in Malaysia have grown by almost 3 times during that period. Average class sizes in Chinese primary schools in urban areas are approximately 55 a class.

But yet, the federal government has been adamant in not building additional Chinese primary schools (with the exception of Vision Schools, more on this later). For UMNO and for Malay nationalists, the existence of Chinese medium primary schools are an affront and a threat to Malay dominance and the dominance of the Malay language. Chinese primary schools have been blamed for many things including being the main reason for national disunity, why people of different races don't mix together and so on.

The spectre of Chinese medium schools as the bogeyman to Malay nationalists should be dispelled. The position of the Malay language is no longer in question. (If it is under attack, it is from the widespread use of English among certain quarters, rather than Chinese) The dominance of the Malays in the political system is also unquestionable. The 'defacto' outmigration of Chinese students from the national primary schools to the Chinese medium primary schools have not affected the character of the Malaysian state nor has it led to an increase in national disunity. It is hard to imagine that even with a 10% increase in the number of Chinese primary schools that the structure of our society would be changed in any significant way.

It just doesn't make much sense for the federal government to deny the demands of the Chinese community for more Chinese primary schools.

What is needed is a wholesale change in the way primary education funding is allocated. According to an entry in Wikipedia, "Between 1995 and 2000, the Seventh Malaysia Plan allocation for primary education development allocated 96.5% to national primary schools which had 75% of total enrolment. Chinese primary schools (21% enrolment) received 2.4% of the allocation while Tamil primary schools (3.6% enrolment) received 1% of the allocation."

The announcement by the Minister of Education, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, that two new Chinese primary schools will be built in Johor under the 9MP is an appeasement strategy, not a long term solution. The 9MP, to my knowledge, does not state the exact number of new Chinese schools to be built, but sets out broad expenditure patterns which does not envision any substantial increase in the number of Chinese primary schools. The building of 2 new schools is akin to throwing bones to the dogs and hoping that they will stop barking, at least for now. It does not solve the long term problem of hunger, in this case the hunger for substantially more Chinese schools.

For the Chinese educationists, any move to alter the status quo of Chinese primary schools is interpreted as an attempt to change the 'character' of Chinese schools. Hence any attempts to introduce reform into Chinese primary schools have been met by fierce resistance on the part of these Chinese educationists, represented by the influential Dong Jiao Zhong (董教总). While the DJZ probably have good reasons not to trust the government, given that they have been betrayed in the past (notably in the 1961 Education Act), their close-mindedness have caused them to pass up on some opportunities to increase the number of Chinese primary schools.

One of the examples I have in mind is the issue of Vision Schools. I think that the underlying premise of Visions Schools is sound. You have a national school, a Chinese medium school and a Tamil medium school sharing the same facilities (school fields, canteen facilities) with the hope of facilitating greater inter-ethnic interaction but with each school keeping its own medium of instruction (BM, Chinese and Tamil). Many Chinese educationist interpreted the creation of these Vision Schools as an attempt to undermine the 'character' of Chinese primary schools. I fail to understand why this is the case.

I've heard some say that canteens in these Vision Schools would not be allowed to serve pork. But since when is the ability to consume pork an inherent 'character' of Chinese primrary schools? Since when is mixing with students of other races who speak other languages bad for the 'character' of Chinese schools? Perhaps, it's because I'm not fully aware of the other arguments presented by DJZ on this issue but it seems to me that they've let this opportunity slip by.

To date, only 5 vision schools have been built and the momentum to build more seems to have died, perhaps partly due to the strenous objections of groups like DJZ. It seemed to me that it would have been an excellent way to lobby for more Chinese primary schools by arguing that one is for national unity and at the same time, one is also for teaching and learning in one own's 'mother' tongue.

For the Chinese educationists, dispelling the myth of the inherent unchangebility of the 'character' of Chinese schools would have lead to more opportunities to expand Chinese primary education.

I'm not sure what if there was anything new offered at the recent Chinese Education Form publisized by Tony here but I suspect that the Chinese educationists are probably offering up more of the same - complaining against the federal government without proposing any alternatives or putting forth a reform agenda to change the current state of primary education in Chinese medium schools. I suspect that some of the younger leaders / members in DJZ might have some more interesting ideas and alternatives but have not been given sufficient space to air their views to the larger public.

In the meantime, let's try to minimize the practice of Bogeyman politics when it comes to discussing education matters.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Academic Jokes

Professor Lim Teck Ghee, a prominent academic and economic policy advisor with the Centre for Public Policy Studies revealed during the New Economic Policy forum held recently that by using market values to determine the proportion of wealth of bumiputeras in stocks listed on Bursa Malaysia, one will arrive at the figure of 45%. Official government figures on bumiputera share of the listed companies is at 18.9%, which is little changed for the past 15 years. However the government's numbers are based on the par value of stocks. (That's akin to saying a RM1 par value Tenaga Nasional stock with a market value of RM10.10 is equivalent to RM1 par value of Hwa Tai stock with a market value of RM0.66)

Malaysiakini has also reported on Dr Lim's study here and here. Cheekily, the Malaysiakini journalists sought and obtained feedbacks from some of the academics in local universities on the above findings.

Prof Dato' Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia:
“I am very sceptical about the study which has been carried out by a particular race. They (the race) usually have their own agendas,” said Shamsul. According to him, the study did not contain accurate facts.

“So I want to know who conducted the study? When was it done and which angle they (the researchers) were looking at? What is the motive behind the study? Is the research for the public or for participants at a certain forum?” he asked when contacted yesterday.
Is that an academic reply? Or is that an UMNO politician's reply worthy of the Bung Mokthar Radins and Noh Omars? What has the race of the researcher, if the research is credible, got to with it? So, only bumiputeras can research on the equity ownership of bumiputeras in Bursa Malaysia?

Dato' Shamsul Amri Baharuddin is a Professor of Social Anthropology, and currently Director of both the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization (ATMA), and the newly established Institute of Occidental Studies (IKON) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. What worries me is that this is the same joker who has been given the task and responsibility (after many confusing U-turns by the Government) of compiling and editing the new ethnic relations guidebook since the controversial one was published by one of his peers.

Is this Prof Dato' Dr Shamsul even academically mature and qualified enough to perform such tasks when he had the cheek to ask such obviously unacademic questions?

[Update: Note that Dr Shamsul has written to Malaysiakini subsequently to state that the remarks made were taken very much out of context and was not specifically referring to the Dr Lim's report. His explanation is blogged by Kian Ming here, and published by Malaysiakini here. If the original Malaysiakini report which this post is based on, is indeed a misrepresentation of what Dr Shamsul offered, I'd extend my unreserved apologies here.]

Lecturer Judhiana Abdul Ghani of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM):
She said many people would disbelieve the report because the distribution of wealth is not comprehensive.

“On the overall, the (30 percent) bumiputera equity ownership may have been achieved with the inclusion of GLCs (government-linked companies) but it is only focused on a small group while the rest of the community does not enjoy it. Actually what’s most important is to let more bumiputeras acquire that said equity,” she said.

Huh? So has the 45% target achievement of equity by bumiputeras in Bursa Malaysia been achieved or not? I've read the sentences a couple of times and it appears that she can't make up her mind on whether the report will be "disbelieved" or that the target "may have been achieved".

The question isn't whether the setting of such targets is relevant, but whether the target set by the Government based on the Government's valid or misguided definitions have been achieved or even exceeded.

Prof Lim wasn't disputing the fact that the 30% target for equity in Bursa Malaysia is irrelevant or at best, a poor gauge of wealth distribution, both inter-ethnic or intra-ethnic groups in Malaysia. He's just saying that based on realistic calculations, the 30% equity ownership target as set by the Government in its New Economic Policy has long been achieved and exceeded.

Prof Lim may very well be wrong in his calculations, and it won't be a first time for academics to make calculation errors. But if that is the case, then demonstrate one's logical, analytical and numerical skills to disprove the earlier findings. Please do not embarrass the Malaysian academia by spouting irrational, racially-biased and emotive barbs or convoluted and unfocused arguments. Other more competent academics at UKM and UPM must have been shrivelling in embarrassment and disgust.

Gosh, I'd probably flunk my politics and economics papers had I gotten the privilege of being under their tutelage. I just cannot imagine myself achieving their standards.

"Grading" Private Colleges

We've discussed the issue of university rankings quite a bit on this blog. We've proposed that we should come up with a more objective way of ranking universities, both public and private, within Malaysia. It is interesting to note that the Ministry of Higher Education is going to publish its "grading" of private colleges soon as a means of providing more information for parents to make more informed choices about these private colleges.

According to a Star report last week, the Minister for Higher Education, Mustapa Mohamed, announced that private colleges or IPTS will give given one of three grades - A, B or C. The factors influencing this grading include the "location, facilities and quality of lecturers". He also noted that "Private institutions that fall under Grade C category will receive a warning of a possible revoking of their license unless they improved on their “poor” areas."

The issue of private colleges / university colleges is a perennial favorite of Tony's. While I am equally concerned in regards to "fly-by-night" operations which operates out of shophouses and can "close-shop" overnight, I'm a little more optimistic in regards to the potential of the more established IPTS such as Sunway, Taylors, INTI, HELP and SEGI (just to name a few). I think that as the market for private higher education in Malaysia grows and competition increases, the pressure for differentiation grows as well. Private colleges / university colleges will have to compete harder to attract students, both locally and from overseas, and to do so they will have to compete on all levels including providing the necessary facilities (computers, libraries, athletic facilities) and an improve quality of teaching.

Granted, this process may take a while since these private institutions of higher learning are primarily driven by the profit motive (which is not necessarily bad) and have not felt the need to become full fledge research universities making real intellectual contribution to the wider academic world. But I don't think this situation will last that long. Already, with the entry of Monash, Sunawy and the Nottingham campus in Semenyih, we have two internationally renowned research universities in Malaysia. Hopefully, universities such as these also bring along the research infrastructure and culture that is so crucial towards creating a well regarded research university environment.

I think that this "grading" system by the Ministry, if implemented well, could only work to create more competition between the private institutions of higher learning. Those in the "C" cateory will be forced to improve their infrastructure - both hardware and software. Those in the "A" category would also want to find ways of differentiating themselves from the other institutions in the same category.

The only worry I have is in regards to the methodology / criteria used by the Ministry. In another Star report, a senior vice-president of an IPTS, who declined to be named said the lack of transparency in the list of criteria was worrying many IPTS operators. “We laud the move to grade us but we had requested that the criteria be made transparent since the beginning and the ministry still has not given us any information. “The criteria needs to be clear so that colleges are not wrongly categorised,” he said.

The grading scheme is a learning process. There will be some initial complaints from some of the IPTS. The Ministry, hopefully, will respond to the feedback, give clarifications and improve on its methodology for future "gradings". The Ministry would do well to examine ranking systems that have been used in other countries (namely the US and the UK) and adopt best practices that will suit the local context. I'm sure that Tony and I would be scrutinizing the details of such a "grading" scheme to check if the categories and categorization makes sense (remember classifying Indians and Chinese as "foreigners" in our public universities).

One of the by-products, hopefully, of such a "grading" report is that more information such as the student-teacher ratio, the % of lecturers with Masters or PhDs, the library holdings, computer facilities can be disseminated to the public so that parents can make more informed choices. (Maybe through mediations such as this blog?!)

In the meantime, here's to hoping that the Ministry will come up with some sort of "grading" or ranking system for our public universities as well.

Chinese Education Forum

I've just written on the Storm Brewing on Vernacular Education. Now's your turn to give your views on the same issue, well, besides putting down your comments on this blog. :)

There's a Mandarin forum tonight on the Chinese education with the following details:
"Hishamuddin Vs Ong Tee Keat: Chinese Education in Crisis"

Date: 28 September 2006 (Thursday)
Time: 7.30 p.m.
Venue: The KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
No. 1, Jalan Maharajalela, Kuala Lumpur
The Speakers include:
  • Dato' Bong Hon Liong, President of the KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
  • Mr. Chew Seh Yong, Vice President of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia
  • YB Chong Eng, MP for Bukit Mertajam
  • YB Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader
Attendance is free but be early to book your seats to avoid another mad rush like the NEP forum :)

I had the privilege of hearing some of the latest poll statistics as at the end of June 2006 conducted by Merdeka Centre recently. There appears to be major contrasts in perception on the Government's handling of the Education policy among the 3 major ethnic groups. The Malays and the Indians gave fairly good ratings to the government with "strong approval" ratings in excess of 60%. On the other hand the Chinese respondents gave only a 4% response for "strong approval". And this was before the recent storm over vernacular education.

I believe the Government will do well to pay heed to the disgruntlement faced by the Chinese community.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The NEP and Education

I'm not sure how many of you attended yesterday evening's forum on the New Economic Policy after reading the blog post here, but it was certainly a major crowd puller. The auditorium was packed to the brim and a separate projection was made of the forum outside of the auditorium with barely sufficient standing room (outside). See also Sun report on the forum. And given that we were clearly in the mood about discussing the merits of the New Economic Policy (NEP) - the forum ended only at midnight with the audience still lining up to speak - I thought I'll add my little two sen here, especially in relation to education in Malaysia.

Although much of the focus of yesterday's forum was on the financial perspective, the NEP is not just limited to the economic sphere in Malaysia. No discussion on the NEP will be complete unless one evaluates its impact in the country's education system. The NEP for the past 30 years have discriminated against non-bumiputeras in their access to education and particularly, quality education with the unreasonable quota system. I've written about these policies in various post over the past two years, and I thought it might be useful to coagulate some of these thoughts to debunk the perceived benefits which bumiputeras received from the implementation of the NEP.

Let's first take the matriculation colleges which provides easier access to universities for bumiputeras, and where non-bumiputera enrolment is limited to less than 10% of the total intake. Yes, it's unfair and discriminatory against non-bumiputeras. However, it can be argued that this NEP-inspired matriculation system does not benefit the bumiputeras. In fact, more likely than not, it even retards the bumiputeras ability from achieve their full potential!

The “watered-down” syllabus and the “easier” examination structure of the matriculation colleges fail to enable the bumiputera students to fully achieve their potential. As a result, many of these students fail to cope fully with the subsequent university education. It is hence not surprising that the top students of most local universities comprises largely of non-bumiputeras. The government has in fact, inadvertently, left the superior STPM education channel to the non-bumiputeras.

The ease at which many of the matriculation students are able to gain entry into the local universities will understandably inculcate a culture of complacency, as they do not need to work as hard in order to achieve their “dream” of entering university. This has resulted in longer negative effects post-graduation as they may be used to getting more with less.

And due to the nature of the matriculation colleges whereby the teaching staff are largely defined by their ethnic group rather than their teaching abilities, it is plausible that the standards of teaching may not be as good as some of the top national type schools. Hence the top Malay students are actually offered an inferior education stream.

Which brings us to the next example – the fact that non-bumiputera academics and academic wannabes at our local public universities have much fewer opportunities of sponsorship for postgraduate and doctoral studies at universities overseas compared to bumiputeras under the NEP-inspired education system.

Given that these sponsored non-bumiputera candidates will have to return to their respective Malaysian universities to contribute their knowledge, wisdom and expertise to the younger local Malaysians - who will include a large majority of bumiputera students, is the policy of disadvantaging non-bumiputeras here, a clear case of cutting of ones own nose to spite ones face?

By discouraging talented non-bumiputeras from pursuing further education at reputed institutions overseas, doesn't it then result in fewer qualified lecturers for the Malaysian public universities, which will then retard the local universities' abilities to provide quality education for our local undergraduates, who are largely (more than 65%) bumiputeras anyway?

What may be regarded as a discriminatory affirmative action policy to support the "weaker" majority ethnic group in the country is paradoxically and ironically, at the end of the day, resulting in the very objectives of the policy not being met. By denying the benefit to a few non-bumiputeras from further education, the higher education policy is in effect denying the delivery of better quality education to thousands of bumiputeras over the years. The impact cannot be insignificant.

Hence, clearly in the case of the Malaysian education system, all the money has gone into building sub-standard matriculation colleges producing substandard students for our local universities which in turn sponsors substandard academics for overseas postgraduate programmes. The ultimate losers in these NEP-inspired policies are not only the non-bumiputeras but most of all the bumiputeras themselves!

I thought it'd be useful to make reference to a lengthy quote made by Sdr Lim Kit Siang last night from an article by Tunku Abdul Aziz on "Be Race Blind for Educational Excellence".
In the last four years, I have delivered two speeches to undergraduates at Harvard University on corruption and ethics issues. There were large numbers of Chinese students from Singapore, Hong Kong, a sprinkling from Malaysia and even China. I did not see a single Malay.

In the United States, Mara and other government-sponsored students, nearly all Malays, could at best be placed in mediocre state universities which are less fussy about standards.

The Malays have somehow become the unintended victims of misguided Malay chauvinism disguised as nationalism, the handiwork of over-zealous politicians with a keen eye on popularity.
And even the key architect and "partner-in-crime" for our version of NEP-inspired "Malaysia Inc" in the 1980s and 1990s appears to have repented, short of seeking forgiveness for his misdeeds. ;p

Tun Daim Zainuddin, former finance minister argued as at the end of last year that the future transformation of the Malays hinges on education and not so much on accumulation of wealth. He said during his speech last September on “Issues Facing the Malays” that:
“The natural second phase to social and economic transformation of the Malays is only through education, not equity participation. You take care of education and they will have enough to participate in the capital market.

The NEP has always concentrated on equity participation of the Malays. The poor Malay's route to success will not be through having shares in the KLSE.”
I think it is time for the government to recognise this and the fact that the current high-level educational policies being pursued are retarding the process of becoming a fully developed nation. Government officials and UMNO politicians should not wait til post retirement like Tun Daim, before deciding that their entire career was built on fallacious grounds.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Storm's Brewing in Vernacular Schools

I've not had time to write on this issue earlier, when it "exploded". But it looks like I needn't have worried that the issue will die a quite death. After all, it relates to one of the hottest buttons in the Chinese community - the well-being of Chinese vernacular schools. This issue is clearly testing the spirit of Barisan Nasional component parties and highlighting the potential fragility of the alliance.

It all started when Deputy Higher Education Minister, Datuk Ong Tee Kiat made reference in a speech at a school dinner to possible corruption in the Ministry of Education in the utilisation of the special RM10 million fund for the purposes of upgrading vernacular schools. Allegedly, SJKC Kung Yu in Johor received only RM3,000 worth of repairs, when the allocated and expended budget was RM30,000.

Unfortunately for Datuk Ong, the spirit of Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties dictates that the ugly truths must never be revealed public, irrespective of whether the issue raised is in public interest. And for the next couple of days, Datuk Ong can only be described as having been given a metaphorical public whipping with his pants down, hands tied and mouth gagged.

His peer, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, the Minister of Education and UMNO Youth Chief chastised him for "trying to be a racial hero" and effectively told him to mind his own (ministry's) business. His superior, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, the Minister of Higher Education, immediately apologised on his behalf prior to even obtaining clarification from him. That was immediately followed by an order to cease and desist. The cabinet under the leadership of former Minister of Education, and current Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak issued a public reprimand for Datuk Ong's actions. And all throughout, Datuk Ong's party leadership in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) had their tails between their legs and deserted him, leaving him high and dry.

Ah, and that's when the story gets interesting. Despite the honourable BN spirit of non-interference between ministries, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting and Datuk Seri Samy Vellu paid a visit to the Muar schools - Kung Yu and Ai Hwa. The twist is, they both declared that there was indeed some major hanky panky in the utilisation of the specially alloted funds. For SJKC Ai Hwa, RM20,000 was claimed for RM5,000 worth of work. This news was carried on the front page of major vernacular newspapers.

So despite the fact that Datuk Ong Tee Kiat was right, and despite the reflex denial from the Minister and the Ministry of Education, there was no "apology" to him, and of course, no retraction of the reprimand by the cabinet. More curiously, I was half-expecting another public reprimand for the Minister of Housing and Local Government, as well as the Minister of Works for interfering with the affairs of the honourable Ministry of Education.

Now, the snowball threatens to turn itself into a major avalanche. The vernacular newspapers were competing among themselves to see who can better brush the teeth and scrub the tongue of the Minister of Education who claimed that "99 percent of the RM10 million fund was allocated to schools without a hitch but Ong’s statement created the impression that government officers had misappropriated the whole lot".

The Chinese press unearthed more fishy business in a few other Chinese schools around the country. The alleged a misappropriation of RM40,000 for work done worth only RM5,000 for SRJK Sin Bin in Klang. Even the Prime Minister's home constituency isn't off the hook, when the new hero for the Chinese community, Datuk Samy Vellu hitting the roof that the RM100,000 ceiling repair works at SRJK Man Hua in Kepala Batas was far from satisfactory.

It appears that, in order to save the faces of the leaders MCA for being deafeningly silent, of Datuk Hishammuddin who chose to indulge himself with a "personal attack" on Datuk Ong Tee Kiat and last, but not least, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak who meted out the public reprimand, the Internal Security Ministry has instructed the media to downplay reports of the alleged misappropriation of funds earmarked for the repair and maintenance of Chinese primary schools nationwide.
In the Sept 21 letter, the ministry’s Publication Control Unit secretary Che Din Yusoh claimed that the reporting of the controversy would lead to “confusion” among readers and erode public confidence in the government’s ability to resolve the matter.

The ministry also said it considered the spat between Ong and Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein over the issue has ended after Ong’s immediate superior, Mustapa Muhamed, apologised on Ong’s behalf last week.

Several media sources have told malaysiakini that journalists are only allowed to report on the visit of ministers to the affected schools but they are barred from investigating the matter further.
The losers? The teachers, students and parents of the Chinese schools who did not get their school infrastructure weaknesses rectified. And the winners? The corrupt officials who are more likely than not, getting scott free with embezzled funds, particularly in the many schools which have yet to be "inspected".

Pak Lah, you won the last elections with a landslide with promises of being a Prime Minister for all Malaysians and a pledge to be a morally upright leader and to fight the demons of corruption which has permeated into all levels of our civil service. I believe that there is no better time for you to demonstrate your political will than now, to show us that you are indeed a man of deeds.

My First Podcast

Hey, I've got my very first podcast out on the internet! :) Listen to it @ KL Stream today. It's a short 3-minute clip in a chat/interview with KL Stream founder, Oon Yeoh where I talked about the blog, the reasons for starting it, and where it can hopefully go from there. Not the prettiest of photo of yours truly up there, but hey, I'm not too vain :)

Personally, I'm not sure about how popular podcasts would be and I must admit that this podcast is the very very first that I actually listened to. And I'm actually pleasantly surprised that even by downloading and listening to it via my Digi Edge mobile internet access, the speed was good and the sound was clear. And I understand from Oon that despite just starting the site, he gets thousands of downloads a day!

So that gets me thinking of whether I should be trying to set up a permanent type podcast of my own dealing specifically on educational issues. Besides just talking about issues, we could do Q & As with readers and participants, and even be a start to a student's counselling and advisory process e.g., "how should I go about applying to the top schools in the United States?"

What do you think? Would you pay attention to podcasts? Let me know, and I'll go figure out if I can squeeze more time for this little additional venture. :)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Academics on New Economic Policy

For those interested in hearing some of the top academics in the country speaking on the relevance, achievements and impact of the Malaysian New Economic Policy, there'll be a forum held at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on Tuesday evening this week.

Amongst the speakers are:

1. Professor Lim Teck Ghee

Dr Lim is currently the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies of Asia Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), based in Kuala Lumpur. Prior to this, he was Regional Advisor with the Poverty and Development Division of UNESCAP (1994-99) and Senior Social Scientist at the World Bank, Washington DC (1999-2005). Earlier in his career, he was a Lecturer and Associate Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, after graduate studies at the Australian National University, and also a Professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Malaya (1987-1994).

He has received numerous academic awards including the Harry Benda prize in Southeast Asian Studies awarded by the Association for Asian Studies, USA; the Fulbright Fellowship Award (Visiting Professor at Columbia, Yale, University of Michigan, University of California, Berkeley, etc); Rockefeller Foundation “Reflections on Development” Fellowship Award; East West Center Visiting Fellowship; Australian National University Visiting Fellowship; James Jackson Memorial Fellowship, Griffith University; and University of Toronto Visiting Chair in ASEAN Studies.

He has authored/edited over 80 books and articles on developmental issues and challenges in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. His writings have been published by major international publishers including Oxford University Press, United Nations University Press, University of California Press, Routledge, Pergamon and Kogan Page. His latest published works with the World Bank are “Social Cohesion and Conflict Prevention in Asia” (Wash. DC, 2001, coeditor) and Asian Interfaith Dialogue: Perspectives on Religion, Education and Social Cohesion (Wash DC, 2003,co-editor).

2. Professor P Ramasamy

Professor Ramasamy was an academic with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) for 25 years, before his post-retirement contract was unceremoniously and controversially terminated without valid reasons.

He was hired as a lecturer in the UKM Department of Political science in 1981, promoted to associate professor in 1993 and full professor of political economy in 1998. He has published four books and numerous articles in local and international journals.

In addition, he has acted as a consultant to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Shell Malaysia, Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) and numerous other trade unions, social organisations and political parties.

His research projects included the major themes of labour and ethnicity funded by the Selangor state government (estate workers’ housing), Education Welfare and Research Foundation (socio-economic aspects of the Malaysian Indian community), University of Tokyo-Nissan Foundation (plantation workers’ in Riau, Sumatra), ILO (impact of AFTA on trade unions), Ministry of Rural Development, Malaysia (poverty among former estate workers) and ILO (impact of globalisation on trade unions in Malaysia).

Apart from research, he was awarded fellowships at the Centre for Developing Area Studies, McGill University, Canada, Nordic Institute for Asian Studies, Copenhagen, Denmark, University of Tokyo, University of Kyoto and recently he has been awarded a Guest Professorship at University of Kassel, Germany.

3. Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim

Tan Sri Abdul Khalid graduated with an MBA from University of Queensland. He recently completed his stay as a visiting fellow specialising in Islamic finance and the capital market at the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies, at Oxford University.

Tan Sri Abdul Khalid was also the former Chief Executive of Guthrie Group as well as Permodalan Nasional Berhad. He is also currently the Treasurer for Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Other speakers include Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang as well as Secretary-General of Democratic Action Party (DAP), Sdr Lim Guan Eng.

Besides listening to the speakers, you'd also have the opportunity to voice your personal opinions with regards to the New Economic Policy and particularly relevant to this blog, its impact on the education sector.

Details of the Forum are as follows:
New Economicy Policy vs Vision 2020

Date: 26 September 2006 (Tuesday)
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: The KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
No. 1, Jalan Maharajalela
Kuala Lumpur
For enquiries, please contact Ng Wei Aik (019-2459305) or Lau Weng San (016-3231563)

See you there! (And feel free to say hello!) ;)

Friday, September 22, 2006

UTAR: Qualitative Insights

My previous post on Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) almost 4 months ago appears to have struck a chord amongst many, both positively and negatively. It is read by students, academics in and out of UTAR as well as the public. It remained one of the most popular recent posts and is probably second only to the other "controversial" (judging by the record number of comments, mostly emotional ones) post on Universiti Teknologi Mara.

Reader WK wrote to provide some further insights to UTAR, in particular on my comments below:
I've not received sufficient quantity of resumes from UTAR graduates to be able to give a more informed judgement on their quality and standards, especially since their pioneering batch of students have only graduated last year. However, from the few (less than 10) which I have received, I have not been particularly impressed, especially in terms of the entry criteria into the university.
Excerpts from his email, which I thought might be somewhat useful for some of you out there is published below:
Well, based on what you typed in that paragraph, then I guess you'd be interested to hear from me. To cut things short, I'm a product of both TAR College and UTAR, having taken my Diploma studies in the former and my BSc. in the latter. What's interesting is that I actually turned down an offer to take the same course (Computer Science) at UTM. I know it's crazy but I wasn't in full control over my faculties at that moment.

I can't speak for all UTAR graduates, but I haven't been facing much difficulty in getting a job. I did a 4-month stint in Intel for my industrial training (developing mfg automation software solutions) and was immediately re-hired by Intel (into another department) upon my graduation. As far as I know, there are several other UTAR alumni who are software engineers in Intel as well. Apart from Intel, I also know of alumni who have been working in companies such as Dell (mostly as technical support specialists), Altera and Agilent. Most of the people I know of who had difficulties in finding a job were those that specifically wanted non-programming IT jobs. Specifically, they were looking for jobs that didn't involve any sort of coding, because either they lacked self-confidence or were genuinely deficient in programming skills. Safe to say, there is no reason that any reasonably competent graduate from UTAR should worry about their career prospects.

Perhaps you would be even more interested to know of UTAR's academic standards. Upon graduation, one of our top students was awarded a scholarship to pursue his PhD studies in ANU (Australian National University). As for me, I will be commencing my graduate studies in the University of Cambridge on a full Cambridge Commonwealth Trusts scholarship next month. As much as I would like to say that the admissions and selection process focuses on individual qualities, I still believe that the insitutions we come from DO play a role (albeit not a major one).

I'd like to send you my resume (since you mentioned that you haven't been receiving many), but seeing that I'll be off to UK in a couple of weeks, I'm not really in the market for a job right now. But I'll make it a point to send you one when I'm ready. :)

Oh... and what entry criteria? UTAR takes in virtually EVERYONE that applies. :)
Hence students of UTAR may be rest assured that "any reasonably competent graduate from UTAR should worry about their career prospects", but I suppose that would apply to most leading local universities as well :).

Just to provide a further update, I have since the previous post, hired 2 top graduates from UTAR and the young ladies, based on the feedback from the managers, are performing extremely well as application developers in the company.

Hence it may be alluded that the academic gap between the good students at the weaker ones in UTAR may be very large, such that the good may be very good, while the weak ones will find major problems in employment. This also appears symtomatic of other more reputable private universities such as Multimedia University (MMU). In this universities, I'll usually seek candidates who have achieved cumulative grade point average above 3.5, just ignore the rest. (Here waiting for another deluge of critical comments for employing such a recruitment policy)

A simple cause of this phenomenon is likely to be the fact which was pointed out by WK - that UTAR, and for that matter, most local private universities and colleges, "takes in virtually EVERYONE who applies", which in my guess, is due to commercial reasons. I've spoken to an academic in the Computer Science faculty in UTAR discussing this issue of not setting higher minimum entry criteria and he admitted that it was an issue which has been raised with the management, but clearly as discussed before, commercial reasons appear to have over-ridden the need to maintain higher standards.

Emily Tan, a journalism graduate from UTAR, who won herself a Erasmus Mundus scholarship to pursue a Masters in Journalism had this to say with regards to her alma mater on one of my earlier posts:
For the price, UTAR is adequate but NOT among the best. Its poor library resources alone limits its use as an academic institution and the few truly excellent lecturers I had who were of international standard, have since left. For students who can afford no better, UTAR is indeed the best place you can be. You get a down-to-earth practical university education with a nod to theoritical academia, but they won't really teach you to write well (never had a red mark on any of my pieces, therefore I learnt nothing), and education is definitely not of international standing. (I'm very nervous about the masters programme).
And this brings us back to the remark which Kian Ming pointed out to me earlier, when I said sometime ago that the local universities might not be that bad because I do get some very good employees when I recruit some of the top students from some 6-7 local universities. He said that these students have performed very well "not because of the system, but inspite of it". Hence, for candidates such as WK and Emily above who did very well for themselves, it may be argued that they will have achieved what they did anyway in other universities and not necessarily because of UTAR.

Irrespective, congratulations is due to WK for doing extremely well for himself and good luck in Cambridge. I'm certain that you will absolutely enjoy your time there! And of course, I look forward to your resume upon your return, although you may be priced out of my reach by then :).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Budget 2007 (IV): Civil Servants or Academics?

In this 4th out of five instalments of my assessment on the 2007 Budget with respect to the education and training sector, the focus will be on the treatment of teachers and university academics as your regular civil servants.

I have previously written - 'Teachers Hold the Key' and 'Quality Teachers' - on the importance of teachers being treated differently from your regular civil servants in the government offices. The argument is very simple. The worst case which can happen in the government offices is incompetence and inefficiency leading to poor productivity and late delivery of documents e.g., passports, certificates of fitness, land and strata titles. However, the impact of an incompetent teaching force in the country will be retarding the intellectual progress and development of an entire generation of young Malaysians. The negative impact will be immeasurable, especially when one also takes into consideration the multiplier effects on subsequent generations.

To quote the former Director-General of the Ministry of Education, Tan Sri Dr Abdul Rahman Arshad:
"How can the mediocre (teachers) produce the best (students)?"
Hence I believe as per my pervious blog posts, that it is critical that the government create a separate class of civil servants specially for those in the teaching profession so that they will have their revised pay structure as well as growth and promotion prospects to attract some of the very best people to the profession. Their remuneration package cannot be linked to the typical civil servant packages. More critically, while the civil service may be able to act as the dump for the unemployable, the teaching profession must not absorb this lot.

As for the academia in our local universities, it is imperative that they be "de-link" from our government civil service. There are many reasons for this argument and some of the more prominent ones include political patronage and the lack of academic freedom restricting intellectual development. Instead of focusing on academic achievements such as research and publications to determine promotions, due to the government civil service structure, many academics fall into the trap of being "pro-establishment" purely for the sake of self-interest - for e.g., the publication of the disgraceful ethnic relations guidebook. And of course, the issue of restricted academic freedom has been discussed to death.

More importantly however, it is important to review the remuneration package of the academics at our local public universities to ensure that they are not too far different from regional and international standards in order to avoid attriction of our already limited pool of top academics, as well as to attract new ones into the schools.

In the budget speech, our Prime Minister has stated that
"...the Brain Gain Malaysia programme has been implemented to attract Malaysians and international scientists residing abroad to collaborate on R&D technology clusters, including agriculture, bio-technology and ICT."
Many of these brains are targeted to join the many research institutes linked to our local universities. The question then is, how are we supposed to attract these top brains in the world to join our local civil service and possibly even in one way or another, fall within our civil service remuneration structure? Which self-respecting academics from the top universities in the world would demean themselves to be regarded as part of the "civil service"?

Hence, the Government will certainly have to review these issues in the preparation for the next budget, as these are not just policy issues, but budgetary ones as well. They have expectedly not been considered in this budget, and it is hope that their importance is recognised in the interest of developing and strengthening our education system.

Footnotes: You may read the earlier instalments on the 2007 Budget impact on education and training, unity or segregation as well as quality versus quantity.

In addition, for those interested in my views of the 2007 Budget beyond just education and training, have a read on my interview with Malaysiakini here and here. :)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Corruption: Starting Young

Want to learn to ropes in engaging in "money politics" to advance one's personal interest? Take part in the student council elections in our local Universiti Malaya (UM) as an "pro-establishment" candidate and you'd be in for a treat.

In an exclusive report by Malaysiakini, it was exposed that "scores of university students were booked into a four-star hotel in Petaling Jaya last weekend as part of a gratuitous gesture by the government."
Malaysiakini was able to verify that the students checked into the Crystal Crown Hotel on Sunday. They later dined at the hotel restaurant. Thirty-two rooms - including several located on the highest level known as the ‘executive summit floor’- were booked.
And who paid for the bill which was in excess of RM5,000? None other than the office of the "semuanya OK" menteri besar of Selangor, i.e., the taxpayers' money. What's the relation between the campus elections in UM and the state of Selangor? None. So what's this? Outright abuse of public offices.

In addition, it was alleged that a "character-building" Entrepreneurship workshop was organised by UM administration on Sept 12-13 at the Pearl International Hotel, Kuala Lumpur mainly for the pro-government faction, including those shortlisted as candidates.
UM deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs and alumni) Prof Dr Mohd Razali Agus and other officials , including from Umno Youth, were also present. In all public universities, these deputy vice-chancellors double as the election committee chairperson.
Isn't this akin to election commission officials giving "secret" briefings to election candidates from certain parties, demonstrating contempt of the electoral processes?

And why are officials from political parties involved in these sessions? Based on the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), isn't the university officials, and possibly the students themselves in breach of the Act which prohibits political participation and be subjected to expulsion from the university?

For goodness' sake. This is a students', and I emphasize again, students' elections. Why shouldn't they be given the chance run a simple, honest, unbiased and democratic elections? Why instead, are we taking the opportunity to corrupt the minds of our future leaders by using unjust and underhand tactics? Is it so that when they grow up, they can get used to the same culture as the current "pro-establishment" political organisations?

Datuk Rafiah Salim, you spoke well during your extensive interview with the Sun, as highlighted here on this blog. Are you aware of the shennigans going on in your university, orchestrated by your deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs and alumni) Prof Dr Mohd Razali Agus? Are you in agreement with his actions or are you who we'd like you to be as per your interview?

For the sake of the future of our youth, and our nation, stop corrupting our young and destroying our future.

Check out the earlier blog post on campus elections, here and here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Asian Youth Ambassadors Dream Award

Remember Suzanne Lee? I wrote on her enviable exploits and adventures here and here a while back. Well, she has been nominated and shortlisted for the "Most Outstanding Youth of the Year" for the Asian Youth Ambassadors (AYA) Dream Award (Anugerah Impian Malaysia).

Asian Youth Ambassadors (AYA) is a non-profit organisation founded in Malaysia for the primary purpose of “inviting, inspiring, instructing and involving young people to dare to dream and be responsible in fulfilling those dreams for the good of all”.

AYA’s main priority is a commitment to raising leaders of godly standards and excellence, believing that sound and solid leaders determine the overall health (spirit, mind and body) of a whole generation as it does a whole nation.

The AYA Dream Award is organised in conjuction with New Sunday Times. From the AYA website:
The AYA Dream Malaysia Awards is about our future - and the people who are farsighted enough to invest in it. The Awards is in line with AYA’s objective of building tomorrow’s leaders today and to create a better and brighter future for Malaysia by inspiring, inciting and inculcating responsible attitudes and actions especially – but not exclusively – in the hearts and minds of our youths.

This Awards serves as an encouragement to emerging individuals and responsible institutions to persevere in their dreams of improving the quality of life for themselves and for those around them in spite of the difficulties and obstacles they encounter.
And the "Most Outstanding Youth of the Year Award" seeks to give recognition and to reward young individuals aged 18 to 33, who have overcome and may still be overcoming obstacles in their lives to be where they are today.

Yvonne Foong, the winner of the award in 2005, is a patient of Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (a rare and painful disease that causes tumors to grow all over in her body). Thus, she has started a fund raising effort, aiming to raise USD58,600 for her surgery to remove a tumor (Acoustic Neuroma) that caused hearing loss in her left ear. Her other up-coming fund-raising effort is to publish her own book, called “I’m Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell”. Currently, she is also actively involved in conducting writing workshops held by various bookstores.

So, guys and gals, if you think that Suzanne deserves a shot at the AYA Most Outstanding Youth Award for her effort and achievements, put in a vote for her here by the end of October. The online votes contribute to 60% of the overall votes.

Good luck, Suzanne! :)

Fancy winning a Proton Savvy?

I know, I know, it's a Proton car but from what I've heard, the Savvy is a pretty popular model with relatively long waiting lines. How do you win this car, you ask? And what does this have to do with education in Malaysia? Well, read on.

The Perdana Leadership Foundation, is organising an essay writing competition for secondary and tertiary students entitled 'Nurturing the Minds of Future Leaders'.

From the Foundation's press statement:

"Lower secondary (Form One to Three) students are to submit essays on the contribution of one of Malaysia’s past prime ministers (700 to 1,000 words).

Upper secondary (Form Four to Six) students are to focus on methods to develop a united Malaysian nation (1,000 to 1,500 words).

For undergraduates (under 25 years old), their essays must discuss five lessons learnt from Malaysia’s history (from Merdeka to the present day) in 1,500 to 2,000 words."

The prizes seem pretty attractive. Again from the Foundation's press statement:

"Apart from the grand prizes of a Savvy, scooter and bike for the undergraduate, upper secondary and lower secondary categories respectively, laptops, mobile phones, iPods, MPH book vouchers and savings certificates are also up for grabs.

The top winners will also get to do “work shadowing” at a corporation nominated by the foundation.

The schools of these winners will also win a computer workstation"

I think it's always interesting to examine the thoughts and mindsets of the younger generation given that they've grown up in different political, economic and societal settings than us and hopefully, are less cynical, more hopeful and have more "out of the box ideas" in looking at Malaysia's history and applying it to our country's future.

I hope that the winners would be ones who give us original and creative ways of answering the questions posed by the respective essay titles rather than ones which puts forth the same old ideas in good, well-written English (not that writing well ought not to be encouraged). I'm just afraid that essays which are slightly more 'critical' and 'non-mainstream' would be disregarded because it might be perceived as going against the thinking of the Foundation or even going against some of the mainstream ideas of former Prime Ministers! This shouldn't be the case. After all, isn't critical thinking part of the purpose of this essay competition?

I've put across some of these thoughts to a friend of mine who works at the Foundation. Hopefully, the essay of the winners, when they are announced (closing date is December 31st), will be posted on the Foundation's website and we'll be able to see that they express a diverse range of ideas and thoughts.

Good luck!

Choice of School

He he, getting a bit of press time recently, all in the interest of the public good :). There's an article in the New Straits Times today with regards to the governments attempts to make the national schools more attractive for non-bumiputeras, in which both Kian Ming and myself were quoted extensively :).

Chok Suat Ling wrote on the likely impact of the measures highlighted in the most recent Budget which provided for Mandarin and Tamil to be made compulsory subjects in selected national schools. The ministry also announced plans to establish 300 elite schools which will be given more autonomy to boost their standards.

Here's what we stated:

When asked if the Chinese will 'return' to the national schools if the standards improve:
For education commentator Tony Pua, many [note: 'many, not necessarily 'most'] parents who opt for Chinese schools are not swayed by the language factor but because the quality of education in national schools is perceived — rightly or wrongly — to have declined over the years.

"Returning the schools to previous standards will naturally bring back the non-Malays," says Pua, an Oxford graduate who writes a popular blog on Malaysian education issues called
And Kian Ming says:
Ong Kian Ming, a Fulbright scholar at Duke University in the United States, says the latest measures will work to attract parents at the "margins". "Those parents who are already set on their children learning Mandarin will definitely send their children to Chinese schools and these measures, at least in the short term, will not change their minds.

"But for parents at the margins — those more concerned about the quality of teachers, facilities, and proximity of the school to their home — minimal incentives such as a more attractive and flexible curriculum, better facilities and teachers, and a more elite status, can work to attract them."
On having more non-bumiputera teachers and administrators:
Ong says when parents see administrators and teachers being predominantly of one race, it increases their insecurity.
"Having more non-Malay school heads, who are able to reach out and reassure non-Malay parents, would also help tremendously," he says. He reckons that it would be difficult to find more than 10 per cent of schools having non-Malay headmasters or deputy heads in a random check.
Did the non-bumiputera parents 'abandon' the national schools, resulting in the increased Islamisation?
Ong disagrees. Non-Malay parents, he contends, did not "abandon" national schools.
"Parents are rational creatures and will not abandon national schools for no rhyme or reason. Why would they abandon national schools if they provide a good education environment?"

The onus is on the government to change the perception that national schools are of inferior quality compared to Chinese schools, he says. Ong also notes that many measures or policies proposed by the government are not backed up by action or sustained for long.

"Parents know this. They will not send their children to national schools until they see the results or changes with their own eyes."
And as Suat Ling rightly concludes: thing experts agree on is that the measures proposed will not bear fruit overnight. It took several decades for national schools to reach where they are now, and it could take just as long to turn the tide.
And hence it is important for the Government to persist with its quality and unity policies and not send mixed signals to the community over an extended period of time. I've written quite extensively on this issue, and it has certainly stirred a great deal of debate, as well as raising many additional pertinent issues. I've written more than a year ago two posts with regards to where I would like to send my own daughter for her education.

The first outlined the criteria that should be used in order to decide whether I should send her to a national or Chinese school. And the second, I attempted to evaluate which type of school will be able to best deliver the criteria outlined in the first part. And then, there's a much overdue third, which I've yet to write, on where I'd send my little girl, largely due to the fact that I'm as yet, undecided. :)

Of course, there's plenty of post on the importance of national schools in harnessing national unity, some of the recent ones being on the role of the 2007 Budget as well as my own Merdeka wish. Happy reading! :)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Another One Slips Thru'

There's been a spate of letters to the Star this month by quite a few talented Malaysians, especially academics who were expressing their unhappiness over the local higher education administration system. And I've not written much about our local talents in foreign soils, except in passing, since one of the most popular posts - A Very Frightened Malaysian Abroad.

Sylvia, a PhD student at highly rated Australian National University (ANU) wrote about how Australia is an attractive destination for Malaysia's talented emigrants, and how it is a "home away from home" without the discriminating factors (I disagree on this, but that's not relevant here). Joanna, a Malaysian student in Melbourne, wrote earlier that many of her non-bumiputera peers are already set in becoming permanent residents at the land Down Under. And of course, Dr Chris Anthony, who writes to the Star every other week, called on the need to restructure our university academic and administration system to fully tap yhe vast potential of all Malaysians. This was in response to our higher education minister's call to recruit more non-bumiputeras in the academia.

But the letter that really caught my eye was by an anonymous writer (I'm sure it won't take much for the Minister of Higher Education to reach him, if Tok Pa so wanted to), "Malaysian Oxford Don" (MOD), who looks likely to give up on Malaysia for a country and an education system which sufficiently appreciate his talents.

MOD received his Masters from Imperial College and is currently pursuing a PhD at Oxford University. Some of the colleges were so impressed that he was engaged first as a tutor at Magdalen College, and subsequently with a more substantial lectureship with Brasenose College. He has even been requested to assist with admission interviews for the college, and needless to say, his supervisor was surprised that he was unable to secure scholarships from Malaysia to pursue his doctoral education.

Now, he has been offered the "Highly Skilled Migrant" programme by the British Home Office. MOD has his heart in Malaysia because his family is still here. However, it looks like due to our country's inability to retain its own brains, we will soon lose him to a developed country which valued his services and talents more than we do.

And how did that happen? MOD joined our local academia for a couple of months only to find that his opportunity in being granted a postgraduate scholarship limited, and was disturbed by the unequal opportunities presented to Malaysian academics based on one's ethnic group.

The government may harp on the much needed brain gain programme as much as they like. Last year, our Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak related that "Malaysia needs to put in place a sustainable brain gain programme to attract skilled talents to meet ashortage of about 30,000 to 40,000 researchers, scientists and engineers in 2010." However, if the country continues to persist with discrimatory policies and unequal opportunities, particularly in the academia, then the country will never be able to meet its objectives.

I've written earlier that the irony of denying or limiting scholarships to non-bumiputeras in the academia only serves in the long term to inhibit the growth and progress of bumiputeras in our local universities.
By discouraging talented non-bumiputeras from pursuing further education at reputed institutions overseas, doesn't it then result in fewer qualified lecturers for the Malaysian public universities, which will then retard the local universities' abilities to provide quality education for our local undergraduates, who are largely (more than 65%) bumiputeras anyway?

What may be regarded as a discriminatory affirmative action policy to support the "weaker" majority ethnic group in the country is paradoxically and ironically, at the end of the day, resulting in the very objectives of the policy not being met. By denying the benefit to a few non-bumiputeras from further education, the higher education policy is in effect denying the delivery of better quality education to thousands of bumiputeras over the years. The impact cannot be insignificant.
If the Ministry of Higher Education is reading this post, then I'd like to call upon the Minister himself to get in touch with MOD, particularly in one of his frequent trips to the United Kingdom and demonstrate how important MOD is to the country. For that matter, why not offer a PhD scholarship to MOD retrospectively, given that he has obviously proven his worth in one of the top schools in the world (and I don't mean rank 169th). MOD's contribution to the local academia could and should not be underestimated.

A Mockery of Student Elections

Here's an updated post, thanks to information provided by Malaysiakini on the student elections to be conducted in the coming week. Read the full Malaysiakini article here, while I'll highlight just some of the silliest shennigans at our local public universities which makes an absolute mockery of democracy and elections.

Special Tests
In University Malaya (UM) potential candidates must possess a grade-point average of 3.0 and above to be eligible, while International Islamic University (UIA) requires candidates to pass an “English Proficiency Assessment”. UIA, once stronghold of anti-establishment camp, also lists “students who understand the university's expectation (vision and mission) and appreciative to the government's aspirations” as one of the requirements to be candidates.
While I might not be so critical on the policy to have students acheiving a minimum grade-point average to be eligible, an "English Proficiency Assessment"?

It will be most interesting if our actual General Elections is ruled by such regulations! :) Imagine if the Election Commission sets the rules such that candidates must at least be degree holders with minimum CGPA of 2.8 and above, and pass the English proficiency test - would more than half of our existing Member of Parliament be disqualified? Hmmm... it may not be such a bad idea after all, for it'll rid the parliament of some of the useless junk.

At Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), candidates need to fork out RM30 for a nomination form, a RM100 (faculty seat) or RM150 (general seat) deposit and RM300 if they wish to file a protest after the polls.
Unbelievable. So, now only the "rich" students can contest in elections. And obviously students are discouraged from filing protests and objections judging by the exhorbitant RM300! These are students, for goodness sake!

Let us for a moment, just go back to the principles and rationales behind holding elections for student councils. Surely amongst the many honourable principles are:
  • To promote student leadership

    Students will be given the opportunity to speak up and lead their fellow students. They will learn to better express their opinions which will clearly help them in their future careers. They will learn independence, critical thinking and resourcefulness, the very "soft skills" which our universities want inculcated in our students.

  • To demonstrate the democratic process

    Students will be given the opportunity to understand an electoral process. They will also see the moral and ethical values in a justly conducted elections. This is in the hope that they will become morally upright future leaders with integrity.
Is our current student election process in our local universities achieving any of these 2 major objectives?

You've got it. Absolutely none. In fact, I would argue that the current processes is doing the exact opposite, breeding corrupt, spiteful and untrustworthy leaders without integrity. Instead of learning to treasure our democratic institutions engraved in our constitution, they will only learn the mechanics of making an absolute mockery of it.

Abdul Razak Ahmad wrote in the New Straits Times today that the newly established Malaysia Institute of Integrity is launching a programme on "Integrity in Politics", "a programme specially tailored for politicians, it made Malaysia perhaps the only country where politicians are being actively goaded to become a more, well, honest lot."

Apparently one such participant of the programme has this to say of the programme:
[He] was reported by a national language newspaper of pondering on the need to focus on "integrity", which he half-jokingly said was a harmful "foreign agenda" — of the Jewish variety, to boot.
Anyone see the connection with our local universities where the future leaders graduate from, starting with the "blame the Jews" culture as well as an election system without integrity?

With elections conducted like this, why bother have elections in the first place?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Campus Elections: Why Bother?

I have not written much about campus elections in our local universities to date. I wanted to do so last year but never got around to do it. But I thought I should make it a point to pen something down this year, before it passes by once again.

It is clear that besides attempting to teach our students all the wrong things such as the art of flattery as well as the employable skills in thuggery, we are also training our 'future leaders' how to make a mockery of democracy and elections. Even the typically tame Suhakam, Malaysia's officially sanctioned human rights organisation claimed that the rules and regulations and practices governing campus elections are unfair and "cruel".

Some of the best reports on campus elections are found in Malaysiakini.

I won't go through the trouble of listing down all the curious democratic practices of our universities in detail here, but to highlight just some of the more eccentric ones.

Firstly, the Ministry of Higher Education announced that the students are only given up to 3 days to campaign after nomination to campaign before elections. Given the short period of time, it is not surprising that most students wouldn't know head or tail about who the heck they are actually voting for. It's clearly the same tactic for our typical general elections whereby the enlightened citizens are given only 10-12 days to hear out the candidates from nomination to election day. Hence, we start our training of future leaders young so that they are fully tuned to short-changing the electoral processes in the future.

Secondly, in the past, it was alleged and admitted by the university authorities in colleges such as Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, whereby names are taken down and related to serial numbers. The fear that students who voted for the non-endorsed candidates can be traced and threatened is further made worse by the introduction of electronic voting in several universities. The new system requires a student to key in his/her identity card and student card numbers.

And yet, the authorities can declare that voting remains secret with a straight face:
"All voting will be secret. We take down the names so we can use the information should any incident take place," said head of the Rahim Kajai Residential College Dr Mohd Hussein when contacted. However, he declined to specify on the type of ‘incident’ which would warrant the disclosure of voter information.
And thirdly, there are so many cases of threats and abuse occurring in the public universities such that even government sanction human rights organisations such as Suhakam are forbidden from observing and monitoring the electoral process. Suhakam commissioner, N Siva Subramaniam, had earlier met with the Minister of Higher Education.
“We explained to him (Mustapa) the need to have a free and fair elections, where students can participate according to the principle of democracy... as far as the minister is concerned, he is unsupportive of the ideas (forwarded by Suhakam),” Siva said.

“At times, electing a prefect (in schools) is more a more democratic (process) than campus polls. Anyone can contest. But when it comes to campus polls, we can see (that the regulations are) tight, cruel and strange.”
And here, the students learn the lessons on how intimidation, the lack of transparency and unabashed rigging in the election process can bring about victory for the chosen parties. What I fail to understand and find hard to believe is that the university will expend such a large amount of resources to have its own preferred student (note: student(!)) leaders elected. I mean, what's the worse a non-endorsed student leader can do in a university? Threaten national security? Rape and pillage the university library?

To quote our 'resident' academic, Dr Azmi Sharom in one of his earlier articles, entitled “Let's Be Fair To Our Youths” published in the Star last year:
[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.

[The university administrators] must also not behave like gods on Olympus, brooking no dissent or disagreement with our divine knowledge. Instead, we must provide the necessary atmosphere for lively debate to take place. Whether the students are going to take part or not is not in our control, but we should provide that space for them to think. It’s up to them to use it.

If we are seriously going to achieve a “first-world mentality,” we need to have “first-world minds” – minds that are questioning, ethical, inquisitive, principled, critical, innovative and inventive.

The way our students are treated today does not encourage that. They are told to just obey, or face the consequences. They are witness to practices that fly in the face of good governance, integrity, democracy and human rights. They are faced with so many restrictions that a culture of fear has seeped into their consciousness, freezing the brain and stilling the tongue.
Frankly, given the state of affairs, I'm surprised that the Ministry do not just ban elections outright and just make appointment of the endorsed candidates into the student council. It won't be setting any precedents either for we all know that our local councils are all political appointees after all.