Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Much Ado About International Schools

Well, the wishes of some parents seem to have come true - Malaysians are now able to send their children to private international schools, should they choose to do so. I've been asked, will I send my daughter to an international school?

As reported in the New Straits Times (NST) on 23rd May:
The Education Ministry announced on Wednesday that Malaysian students will soon be allowed to attend international schools, doing away with the former stringent enrolment criteria.

For a start, more Malaysian students will be able to attend international schools: They could constitute up to 40 per cent of the enrolment of each school. At present, only 0.05 per cent of Malaysian students receive their education in the 32 international schools in the country.
In a separate article, the NST went so far as to claim that the change in policy is a "seismic shift". The rationale for the liberalisation of the international school policy appears to be to:
1. Stopping the brain drain of the country's best and brightest.

Several thousand young Malaysians leave the country every year for primary and secondary education in Singapore, Australia and Britain. A number opted for foreign education after having their requests to attend international schools locally turned down.

2. Promoting Malaysia as a regional education hub.

In the past, many brand-name international schools were not keen to set up branches or campuses in Malaysia because of strict enrolment criteria for Malaysians. They feared that they may not be able to obtain the volume of students needed. A more liberal policy may encourage top foreign schools to consider Malaysia a lucrative location.
Frankly speaking, I do not think that the rationale hold up too much water. The impact on both reversing brain drain as well as promoting Malaysia as a regional education hub is likely to be very minimal, hardly justifying the prominence in which NST gave the Minister of Education in its coverage.

However, I do think that the liberalisation of enrolment into international schools is not a bad thing. Different parents will have different priorities for their children and hence, all parents should have the right to pick their choice of school(s). As it is, we already have the Chinese and Indian vernacular schools, the Islamic religious schools, the government funded national schools as well as the few private schools based on the national curriculum. Adding international schools to the mix will just enhance the choices available for the Malaysian parents.

While there may be arguments that international schools may further jeopardise the atractiveness of national schools and aggravating the segregation of the rich and the poor, I believe that the actual and tangible impact on the above concerns are minimal.

The attractiveness of national schools is challenged mostly by the vernacular and religious schools. It can only be resolved if the national schools are able to deliver education at an acceptable quality. Furthermore the number of students expected to attend the international schools are likely to be very small. These students may be sent overseas anyway, if they fail to secure a place at a local international school. In addition, the wealthy should not be penalised from their choice of education, just because they are rich.

Parents were also interviewed with regards to their decision to send their children to these schools.
Eileen, a product of Assunta Secondary School in Petaling Jaya, said she wanted Lawrence [her son] to be exposed to international culture from a young age. "We wanted to groom him properly from young to learn about international relations and not to have a culture shock later in life," she said
The Star also carried an article on Sunday on a couple who sent their 2 sons to an international school in order to better "adapt" to an overseas education at a later stage.

So how much does an education at an international school cost? It cost Eileen an estimated RM10,000 to RM12,000 per child, per year at the school. Well, what Eileen is paying for her children's education appears comparatively cheap other international schools. Alice Smith International School charges "a cool RM40,000 per annum per child".
And that is not all. Besides tuition, there is an initial outlay of about RM20,000 which includes registration fees, miscellaneous payments and a refundable deposit. This is the equivalent of the cost of a Master's degree programme in local universities, with registration fees included.
The principal of Alice Smith, Nik Bishop justifies the fees with "top class facilities and excellent teachers... Such quality comes with a premium".

So back to the question, will I send my own daughter, Xin Ying to an international school (assuming I can afford it!)?

The answer is simply, no, for 2 reasons:

  1. As a Malaysian, and fully expecting Xin Ying to remain one (until such a time she can make up her own mind :)), I'd like her to receive at the very least a Malaysian primary education. She needs to spend time mixing with Malaysians first, instead of with foreigners of a different culture. She can do her own "mixing" with foreigners at a later age should she get herself a scholarship to pursue her studies overseas. :)

  2. While the international schools may indeed have better facilities, the student population is defined not so much by ability, but by wealth. I'd much rather Xin Ying attends a local top primary or secondary school than an international school. And given that many of the Malaysians who have qualified (and graduated) from some of the top colleges in the world originated from the local education system, I'm confident that if she is able get into these top colleges, she'll get there whether through the local or international schools.
So, there you go. My 2 pence on international schools. :) For those interested, you can read my undecided take on whether to send her to a National or a Chinese school.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Scholarships - University Acceptance Important?

Two weeks ago, I wrote on Scholarship Heartbreaks and made several concrete suggestions as to how the Scholarship criteria and process should be reformed. I've also separately written on how the reform can take place while still maintaining some form of affirmative action for the bumiputera students in Scholarship Quotas. It's a win-win situation for all Malaysians.

If you read the online forums, newspaper columns and even politician's statements, there are plenty of complaints with regards to straight As students being denied scholarships. In my opinion, straight As students do NOT automatically deserve scholarships. (However, they do deserve automatic places in courses and universities of their choice, barring exceptional circumstances such as over-demand in the medical faculty).

However, if the candidate is a top student and is able to secure a place at an elite university, then his request for a scholarship should definitely deserve greater weight.
Overseas undergraduate scholarships should only be confirmed and awarded after the students have been offered a place at a top university. Why should scholarships be awarded to the students even before they have qualified for a place at a top university overseas?
Calvin Teng appears to be the case of a candidate who is possibly not provided with the "added advantage" in the current system. Based on the proposed new system (by me), he will at least have a better opportunity in receiving a scholarship from the Government.

Calvin has already gained acceptance into University of California, Berkeley to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In the US News.com rankings of US universities, Berkeley is ranked 20th overall, but joint second with Stanford University, after Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Engineering. In the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global rankings, Berkeley is ranked 6th in the world overall, and 2nd for Technology. Unlike our local college wannabees, no one will dispute that Berkeley is indeed a "world-class" university.

I've spoken to Calvin over the phone and he definitely sounded fluent and is a positive and confident individual. The only "glitch" in his SPM was a '2A' for his Biology, out of 10 subjects. He was the top student and debater at St Xavier's in Penang and his impressive list of extra-curricular activities and achievements is probably too long for me to put it down here. Calvin's musically talented as well, being the youngest violinist in Penang State Symphony Orchestra.

Unfortunately for Calvin, after attending an 30-minute interview with Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awan (JPA) for the JPA scholarship as part of a group of 10 (or so) individuals, his application was rejected. And given that his parents are middle income earners, a degree at Berkeley will not be possible without scholarships or financial aid.

Calvin is not alone in his plight. Wei Shen from Teluk Intan, who has completed his STPM (and got 5As) last year has qualified for both Cambridge University in Britain and Cornell University in the United States as highlighted by the Star but is facing difficulty raising the necessary financing.

So the question I have for JPA and other relevant government agencies in administering our national scholarships is this:

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?
Or to put it more bluntly, why should I sponsor a student to study in Sumatra, Indonesia? As a citizen and tax payer of this country, the answer is obvious.

In Calvin's case, I'm confident that his intelligence and resourcefulness will take him places, even if he couldn't get to Berkeley this time round. However, it is imperative for the scholarship policy to be reformed to ensure that we are rewarding and incentivising the best in the country, even after taking into consideration affirmative action policies.

Footnote: If there is anyone out there who seeks, and is able to provide assistance to Calvin, please email me separately.

UTAR: Too Fast, Too Soon?

I've written quite a few times on University Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) – here and here, and I've been rebuked quite a few times for some of my opinions as well :) So obviously, I'm risking more rebukes with a few comments here on the growth and development of UTAR, this time, on the back of an article published in the New Straits Times on the 17th May - “New college ponders old tests of survival”.

Chow Kum Hor, who was taking stock of the progress of the University after some 4 years after enrolling is first set of students.
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar), the MCA-run university, is now coming to terms with trying to realise an ambitious project in the cutthroat sector of private education. It is now operating from campuses in Petaling Jaya, Setapak and Bandar Sungai Long pending the completion of its main campus in Kampar, Perak.

From its modest beginnings with only eight Bachelor’s programmes and an initial intake of just over 400 students, it now boasts an enrolment of over 12,000 with more than 30 courses.

But just how sustainable is Utar in the face of increasingly stiff competition?
It appears that UTAR is facing quite a few difficult challenges – some of which are related to earlier criticisms which I've made.

1. The Politics of Raising Funds

Apparently, many donors who were probably more interested in hobnobbing with the MCA politicians, after handing over "giant mock cheques in front of flashing Press camera bulbs, are taking their time to come up with the cash". Since the University is privately funded with the exception of an initial RM50 million grant from the Government, income from fees and donations are critical in ensuring continued viability of the university.

2. The Politics of Attracting Academics

It appears that being a “political university” creates discomfort among some academics, and correspondingly attracts academics of a certain profile.

Kampar-born historian Prof Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim says "some good scholars may also be put off by the idea of working for an institution linked to a political party."
The first two principals of TAR College, he says, were distinguished physics professors from Universiti Malaya. But their stints did not last long after falling out with their political masters.
3. Competition

With the New Era College and the Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC) competing for almost the same pool of students and public funds, plus the fact that the latter is 50% subsidised by the Government, UTAR faces the challenge of keeping its fees low and yet pay the bills.

At the same time, students today are almost spoilt for choice in pursuing private tertiary education in Malaysia. With the liberalisation of private tertiary education in the late 1980s and 1990s in the country, many students who were previously unable to pursue expensive tertiary education overseas after being denied places at the local public universities have countless options today.

My Humble Thoughts

Without the benefit of hindsight, the future of UTAR is obviously going to be difficult to predict. When I spoke to some lecturers of UTAR some time back, I detected a sense of pride and achievement from them, particularly in their believe that UTAR is setting new standards and that they are ensuring real quality in the recruitment of both academics and students.

However, with the exponential growth which UTAR has experienced from 400 to 12,000 students (and more in the near future) all within a short period of 4 years, my fear is that something has to give, and that's the qualitative aspects of the university. This is not surprising given the experiences of other private educational institutions in the country.

For comparative purposes, there was a time whereby, UTAR's sister college, TARC produced graduates who were in high demand and were highly regarded by employers. However, with the liberalisation and commercialisation of the tertiary education sector as well as possible politicisation of the college, student enrollment was increased exponentially with the opening of quite a few branch campuses around the country in the late 1990s. Today, given all things equal, I'll hire a computer science graduate from Universiti Malaya over TARC with the same CGPA of say, 3.3 any time. As mentioned in some of my earlier posts, barring exceptions (and there are exceptions), I'll rarely shortlist TARC candidates for interviews.

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.

All top universities anywhere in the world is defined by strict and high entry criteria for students based on their secondary education or pre-university academic achievements. The levels at which some of the students were accepted into UTAR indicates to me that standards have been set a tad too low, possibly due to commercial and political pressures to accept a greater number of students.

I think it might have been a better strategy for UTAR to have focus on being first and foremost, a top quality institution and a strict recruitment criteria for both academics and students, instead of attempting to meet MCA's political needs in growing into a sizeable institution within such a short period of time. Let TARC, its sister college bear the brunt of providing degree education for the masses (since it's subsidized by the Government) and UTAR focus on the top quality students - why should they compete in the same space? UTAR seems to have fallen into the perpetual trap faced by Malaysian institutions and politicians who have no patience plucking fruits only after they have properly ripen.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

162,000 Illiterate Students

I haven't blogged for a couple of days as I've decided to attend some spelling and grammar classes to improve my mastery of the language and literacy levels, having been embarrassingly exposed as not being able to spell properly more than once. :)

But jokes aside, lest some of the authorities remain in a state of denial, there are sufficient illiterate students in the country to populate more than 200 primary schools in the country. The humongous number of illiterate students have been admitted by the Deputy Minister of Education, Datuk Noh Omar, and reported by the New Straits Times last Thursday.

As a result, from this year, the ministry had introduced the "early intervention classes for reading and writing (KIA 2M) to provide basic skills for Standard One pupils in national and vernacular schools.”

I believe that the intervention classes are critical. These classes are most important to identify those students who are actually handicapped in reading and writing, a disability better known as dyslexia and ensure that they are sent to special schools to deal with such disability.

However, it is in my guess that dyslexia probably accounts for less than 10% of the illiterates in the country. What then is wrong with our education system such that the remainder of some 150,000 students are unable to read and write, some even after they are preparing to sit for the Form 3 examinations, Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR)? Given that our primary and lower secondary school enrollment accounted for only 4.4 million students, that's a very significant 3.6% illiteracy level.

I remember some 20 years back, the Government (if I don't recall wrongly) with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the Minister of Education, seeked to improve basic literacy levels with the 3M (Membaca, Menulis & Mengira) programmes. The syllabus for primary and lower secondary school students were revised significantly to focus on promoting 3R. Essentially, what I thought the government did, even as a secondary school student then in Singapore, was to dilute the difficulty level of the relevant subjects and reduce the number of subjects which students have to take.

Older gents like me will remember the primary school syllabus with subjects such as Sejarah (History) and Geografi (Geography) being taught from Standard 4 to 6. I thought that was fun. But everything was revamped when the “new” Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) came into the picture later.

While I do not have the necessary comparative data to compare between then and now, it does indicate that the Government's programme to improve basic literacy levels have not been particularly successful.

It is hence extremely important for the Ministry of Education to figure out the reason for the dramatic failure of our education system in ensuring basic literacy levels. My biggest fear, based on the Government's action of the past, is to continue to pretend that its the issue of the nature of the syllabus or the examination-based system. Hence, all we'll get is really another revamped syllabus supposedly better to improve literacy levels or a diluted examination system which supposedly produces less stress (and hence better performance).

While I do not like the fact that there's no longer history and geography at primary school levels, it is not the syllabus which determines literacy levels. In Singapore, there's only 4 examinable subjects at Primary School levels – English and a 2nd Language, Mathematics and Science. Yet, there are no issues of literacy in the country.

The key difference lies in our delivery system. And key to our education delivery system are our teachers and the framework and environment in which they operate. This is a subject which will probably require a thesis in itself to study, hence I won't dwell with them in detail on this post. However, the 2 key questions to ask will be:
  1. Are the teachers selected to teach our young ones of the right quality and in possession of the necessary attributes? And if they are, have they been given the proper and necessary training to carry out their all-important duties?

  2. Is the environment in which they operate conducive and incentivised for them to carry out their duties diligently and conscientiously? The environment will include the benefits structure, the ministry of education officials, promotion prospects and supporting educational facilities.
When our country fails to deliver an education system which will allow the weakest students to achieve at least basic literacy, the Government has failed in its basic duty to the Rakyat.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Politicians can be responsive

I've been wanting to blog about this since the beginning of the week but couldn't find time until now. A few weeks back, I blogged about how Tok Pa should use incentives and not appeals to nationalism to entice Malaysian doctors abroad to come back home. There was a wide consensus in the responses towards what Tok Pa said and I also blogged about it here. The latest appeal was carried out by Health Minister, Dr. Chua Soi Lek. It looks like he's at least heard what some of the 'rakyat' had and have been saying.

The Star reported earlier this week that Dr. Chua, in a meeting with Malaysian students in London said that 'Malaysian specialist doctors will be rewarded with an “instant” pay rise of about RM4,000 if they were to return home and serve the country.' Their salary scale 'would immediately move up from the Grade U41 salary scale of RM3,000 to Grade U48 of RM7,000.' He also said 'the Public Services Department (PSD) had approved the “big jump” in recognition of their specialised skills and training in Britain.'

He didn't appeal to their sense of nationalism or patriotism. Indeed, the report explicitly stated that this was not the intention of the Health Minister. Rather, he appealed to them using a mixture of incentives, a higher salary scale being one of them.

But of course, we have to put this salary 'jump' into context. Does this mean that specialists who were trained overseas and who returned back to Malaysia only earned RM3,000 a month before Dr. Chua's announcement? This seems surprising, somehow. RM3,000 is what a fresh graduate working in Accenture in KL would get, not what a medical specialist should earn in a hospital, even if it is a government hospital. But if this is somehow true (because overseas trained specialists have to do 'time' within the local system first?), then it is no wonder that these specialists didn't want to come back to work in Malaysia in the first place.

The other question we have to ask is whether the RM4,000 'jump' is enough to entice a sufficient number of specialists to return home. We cannot compare how much a specialist in the UK is earning in ringgit terms because that is not an accurate indicator. For example, a specialist in London might be earning, let's say, 150,000 pounds a year which translates into 900,000RM a year (using a 6 to 1 exchange rate) or roughly 75,000RM a month, which is 10 times the 7,000RM he or she will be earning in Malaysia. But this does not take into account a high cost of living in London and a higher marginal tax rate that kicks in earlier than in Malaysia. Minus living expenses and taxes, the nett pay of this specialist in London might only be something like 40,000 pounds or 240,000RM per year or 20,000RM per month. It's still more than 7,000RM (or 5,000RM nett pay in Malaysia) but at least the gap is not as wide as perceived earlier.

I don't know if this salary is sufficient but addressing the issue of salary is a good start.

Dr. Cha also said that Malaysian medial students would 'find it more difficult to work in Britain in the next three to five years' as 'the British government would increasingly give preference to its citizens and EU nationals, while Malaysians would be lumped together with other nationalities'.

I actually doubt whether this is the case on the ground. While not having the proper citizenship, I have the impression that Malaysian doctors are well-respected and valued in the UK. They would have a better command of English than doctors from perhaps, the former community countries (Poland, Czech Republic for example) and they would have been the 'cream of the crop' to be able to go to the UK to study medicine in the first place and later, to take the specialist exams.

Furthermore, most Malaysian specialists in the UK would have been in the country long enough (10 years) to apply for a Permanent Resident status which would put them on more or less equal terms with citizens of other EU countries and even UK citizens. The enticement to come back to Malaysia only works for those who have finished their medical degree (which takes about 5 to 6 years) and have not done their specialisation).

But if they do want to come back to Malaysia, then they would have to ask - is it better for me to do my specialist courses in Malaysia or in the UK? Earlier, I blogged about the dean of the UKM medicine faculty, Prof. Dr. Lokman Sain, appealing for Malaysian doctors to return home to do their specialist degree in Malaysia because there were more places open to them in Malaysia. Dr. Chua seems to have used similar arguments, which received some criticisms in that earlier post.

Interestingly, in the Star on the same day, this report came out, saying that it took 8 years to do a specialist course in Malaysia while it would only take 2/3rds of that time (I'm guessing 5 to 6 years) in the UK.

Again, one can criticize Dr. Chua's approach in this respect but at least, he's appealing to their self-interest rather than asking them to come back based on nationalistic or patriotic appeals. And even if the argument about non-EU citizens is not entirely accurate, at least he's putting the perception out there that things are not always rosy overseas compared to the situation back in Malaysia.

Finally, some of the points which the Star report briefly highlighted are also encouraging. They included:

- ON-CALL allowance in- creased from RM25 to RM170
- ALLOWING locum in government hospitals
- SIMPLIFIED Bahasa Malaysia exam for service confirmation
- FULL-PAYING patients in Putrajaya and Selayang hospitals as a pilot project, where part of the full rates go to doctors
- 298 promotional posts approved for senior positions

I think that these are moves which were enacted to prevent government doctors from moving to the private sector in the Malaysian context. But they also bode well for doctors who are thinking of moving back home to Malaysia.

This episode clearly shows that our politicians (at least some of them) can be responsive towards what the public is saying or has been saying on certain issues. Hopefully, this trend can continue.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Headmasters Sent to Principal's Office

About two to three months ago, the issue of corrupted headmasters came to the fore with a certain businessman, Mr Ong Koh Hou offered RM500,000 as a reward to parties who are able to come up with evidence proving the guilt of these principals. Of course, the headmasters went beserk with all sorts of unreasonable threats and the Minister of Education claims it's not his problem.

And I thought that was the end of the story. Nothing much was published in the papers anymore and I suspected that everything was just swept under the carpet. But hey, it looks like I thought wrong. The game is pretty much still in play. :)

The New Straits Times reported on Saturday that
[t]wo months of homework involving investigations into allegations of graft of about RM100 million annually by Chinese primary school headmasters has yielded results. Two boxes of evidence, gathered from, among others, school committees, parent- teachers associations and parents, were handed to the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA)...
Apparently the lucrative reward offered attracted evidence from book distributors, computer wholesalers, tour agencies and stationery dealers. Mr Ong, who is a protem adviser to the newly founded Malaysia Chinese Schools' Parents Association (MCSPA) handed over the evidence to the authorities.
"Some of the evidence from certain schools is complete while some other
evidence is partially complete. But overall, there is more than enough for the ACA to act."

He said more evidence would be compiled for submission to the ACA sometime after Sept 1.
Malaysiakini also published a similar report on the matter. In it, the protem deputy chairperson, Teh Hon Seng clarified that "the finances involved in Chinese primary schools amount to RM500 million (annually). This include money for books, stationery, tuition, computer classes and extra curricular activities".

He further alleged that "over RM100 million is being siphoned from the 1,288 Chinese primary schools nationwide".

The amounts involved are clearly sizeable on a cumulative basis and is a clear betrayal of the trust placed by the school children and their parents on the headmaster. Let's see further actions taken by the ACA on this issue. Hopefully it won't take too long for MCSPA has done plenty of homework on their behalf.

More Fairs & Camps

The way I look at it, youths today have plenty of opportunities to take part in various enriching extra-curricular activities organised by many different parties and organisations. If you are worried that you are being typecast as a nerdy straight As student, you just need to open your eyes a little and you'll find that there's so much more to do out there. Here's a list of some of the activities you can take part in.

1. Cathay Pacific International Wilderness Experience 2006

Two lucky teenagers will get their chance to participate in the wilderness experience this year as Cathay Pacific Airways Limited has launched the 12th chapter of CXIWE. Two Malaysian youths aged between 16 and 18 years old will be selected for this project, which will take place from Aug 22 to 30 at Botshabelo, South Africa.

The Malaysian ambassadors will be flown to the South African wilderness to join more than 50 youths from South Africa and Asia Pacific Rim countries for the nine-day ecological project.

Application for the Cathay Pacific International Wilderness Experience 2006 opens now! For more information, please click here.

In addition, you can read more reports from former participants at Tinkosong.com.

2. Youth Science Camp 2006

Well, for those less adventurous but interested in stuff beyond school work should be interested in the Youth Science Camp to be held at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia next month.

The Youth Science Camp will provide an environment in which participants are exposed and challenged academically through exciting lectures, visit to hi-tech laboratories and hands-on experience. The participants have the opportunity to challenge themselves physically and mentality in an extensive outdoor recreational activities and motivational programmes as well as to share their knowledge and experiences. They will have the opportunity to interact and communicate with a diverse society of guests, academics, researchers and other participants as well as establish interaction with others.

Lim Yang Li, a former participant at the Camp concluded that:
All in all, this program is definitely good for aspiring scientists/ science aficionandos. The first hand experience of handling these equipments as well as seeing and participating in research works will definitely ignite the love for science. Lastly, the certification received will also help you stand out.
Read more of his review of the Camp at TinKosong.com. You may obtain more information at the YSC website. The application form can be downloaded here. Do hurry as the registration dateline is 26 May 2006.

3. Levi's 501 Day

Err... ahh... what has Levi's got to do with education fairs and camps? Well, 501 Day festival is held in May to showcase youths' passions and hobbies. This can run the gamut from performance skills such as DJing or music, to businesses, to activism, to projects, to concepts… anything at all!

Hence alternative education afficionado, Tiara has taken the initiative to set up a booth at the event to promote alternative education activities. She is also requesting for assistance with the booth to help set up, run the booth and contribute alternative materials. You can email her @ divabat @ gmail.com.

There you should get to find out more about all the interesting things she does with Up With People and more. Other stuff will include study abroad programmes, Raleigh International, alternative schools etc.

So, those with a bit of time on a lazy Sunday afternoon, make a trip to Zouk, Kuala Lumpur:
  • The Educated Deviants: Learning Differently
  • Date: Sunday 28th May 2006
  • Time: 2 pm - 12 am
  • Venue: Zouk KL, Malaysia (walking distance from KLCC)
  • Free entry for all ages
So take care and have fun!

Monday, May 22, 2006

American Universities Education Fair 2006

Come July, prospective university students in Malaysia will benefit from the first of its kind American Universities Education Fair in the country. "Another Education Fair?", you might like to ask sceptically. Yes indeed, but this one has a critical difference. This fair is organised and manned by current students and alumnis of the participating American universities.

That simply means that you won't have to listen to salespersons attempting to outsell each other on how "world-class" their colleges are or be unable to extract meaningful information on what's life like at the particular college.

It would also mean that, probably for the first time, you get booths from representatives from the top universities in the United States, instead of the 3rd liner colleges whose key objective is to boost their foreign student population and of course, your most valuable foreign currency.

The following top universities have indeed confirmed representation at the Fair entitled "Experiences-KL 2006":
  • Brown University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Cornell University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Northwestern University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University
The full list of participating universities (39 of them at the moment) is available here. Currently, the only top universities not in the list that I can think of off my head are Princeton and Duke (Kian Ming?). Trust me, you won't get the presence of so many top universities at a single location in Malaysia at any other events!

I dare say that it's an event where you can pick on the top Malaysian brains all within a single hall. There will be past and present students of these universities giving you first hand accounts of all the goods and bads, the truths and the falsehoods with regards to their respective universities, to help you make a more informed choice in your university applications.

Yours truly here is also honoured to have been invited as a speaker at the event (despite not being the biggest fan of the United States as well as being an alumnus across the Atlantic :-p). For those interested, I'll be speaking on "Choosing the Right Course", particularly targeted at those who thinks that life at university is only about medicine, engineering, law and maybe accountancy. The other speakers include Mark Chang, CEO of Jobstreet.com as well as Dr Ewe Hong Tat, both alumni of MIT.

There is no entry fee charged for visitors as the hardworking committee members have managed to secured a fair bit of sponsorship from schools and corporations to defray the expenses. So kudos must go to the committee members who have volunteered to this thankless task for the benefit of young Malaysians :)

The event is being held at Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre on the 16th July 2006 from 10am-6pm. Spread the message and see you there! :)

Islamic Education

Once again, apologies for being absent for almost a week. I'm still having the residual effects of a "hangover" from the work and late nights last week. :) But how better to restart the blogging engines again, by touching on another potentially sensitive issue in the Malaysian environment - the nature of Islamic education in Malaysia.

I'll state upfront that Islamic education is not an area of expertise which I have, and neither do I have specific knowledge of what is "right" or "wrong" in Islam. What I do believe is that debate, in any subject from politics to economics to religion will bring further enlightenment. On that basis, I was particularly intrigued by this article by Zainah Anwar, which was published in the New Straits Times last Friday entitled "Changing the Muslim Mindset".

Zainah Anwar heads "Sisters in Islam," an advocacy group challenging traditional understandings of Islam. She has a Master's degrees in journalism and international affairs at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She often speaks about the gender bias in Islamic law, and explains how it comes from an understanding of Islam that discriminates against women: "These verses have been interpreted by men, living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their superiority and control over women."

While Zainah's publised article did indeed refer to the issue of gender bias, particularly when she quoted the Prime Minister that:
...there were "elements within our society who are uncomfortable with the advancement of women. They try to obstruct the progress of women through barriers and strictures legitimised in the name of religion or culture."

In making a plea for ijtihad (reinterpretation), he stated that "the problems confronting contemporary Muslim societies today are not the problems of the sixth century, and the solutions do not lie with the notion of a Syariah purportedly final and complete 1,400 years ago, particularly in the case of women".
What was more interesting to me was that
[m]any Muslim scholars, whether from this region or from the Middle East or South Asia, are puzzled how Malaysia could be so modern and progressive in many ways when the many Muslims they meet at academic meetings and international conferences are so conservative theologically and ideologically.

Dr Hiba Rauf, the well- known Islamist woman leader from Egypt, asked me at a meeting in Cairo two years ago why Malaysian students at al-Azhar University were so closed-minded. She was surprised as she had thought Malaysia was modern and progressive.

This same observation was made by an Indonesian activist who studied at al-Azhar. He said every single Malaysian student he met there, "down to the last 8,000th", was "ultra- conservative".

He observed that the closed- mindedness of the Malaysian students was not so much ideological but largely because they were exposed only to conservative traditionalist thinking in Islam. He said they had never read the more enlightened works of Islamic scholars, from the classical period, let alone contemporary times, that he had been exposed to as a student of Islam in a Nahdlatul Ulama pesantren and later at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Hence it appears that the Islamic education offered at our local universities and institutions tends to leave out almost entirely alternative thinking with regards to the religion. Its a little like doing a degree in Political Science by just studying liberal democracy without doing a institutional comparison to communism, socialism and other alternative forms of democracy.

Zainah argued that even in Indonesia, the religious study students are exposed to various lines of thought and some universities even if specific centres dealing with "gender studies".
In Indonesia, besides the abundance of progressive scholarship by their own thinkers, new writings by Muslim scholars in English, French, Arabic and Persian, are translated into Bahasa Indonesia within months of publication.

Gender studies are integrated into every discipline. The Gender Studies Centre in the Islamic universities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta train teaching staff and students in gender and Islam.

The undergraduate and graduate programmes offer courses in Gender and Theology, Gender and Islamic Jurisprudence, Family and Gender in Religious Perspective. A new Master's programme in Gender and Religion has been introduced at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

In courses taught by these progressive scholars, a diversity of opinions from a diversity of sources and periods are studied and debated. Students are taught to understand critically and analytically the methodology and processes of textual and legal interpretation within historical and contemporary social and legal contexts.
Zainah criticised that none of the Islamic studies or Islamic law faculties in Malaysia "comes close to this pedagogy, even in offering a basic course on Contemporary Islamic Thought." And strictly from an intellectual perspective, I believe its important to be exposed to various lines of thought such that even if aline of thought is flawed, one will have better understanding of the subject.

Zainah fears that the limitation in our Islamic education, particularly in the higher education sector have resulted in the students being made "easy targets" for recruitment into PAS and Islamist movements pushing for the supremacy of Syariah rule.
In the wrong hands, [Pak Lah's] Islam Hadhari agenda... could be hijacked by the Maududi and Syed Qutb ideologues and the traditionalist ulama who still dominate the Islamic establishment here.
The Prime Minister himself have stated that:
The notion that the Islamic concept of law is absolute and hence immutable has resulted in intellectual inertia among some scholars, noticeably on the subject of women and, sadly, in a continued injustice towards them.

"When the history of the 21st century is recorded," he said, "let Malaysia be mentioned in the context of not only progress and achievement for the country but also the advancement, empowerment and emancipation of women."
That is a noble aim, and to do that, the Government Islamic and Islamic education department will have to seriously relook at the teaching of Islamic studies at our local institutions of higher learning.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A look at our community colleges

I've wanted to blog about this particular issue for some time but haven't found an opportunity until now. This post is prompted by a recent article in the Star which reported the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein as saying that "the Government will try to absorb all unemployed graduates with teaching qualifications and place them in new schools, community colleges and polytechnics". (italics mine)

I have been suspicious of the role of community colleges in the Malaysian context ever since they were proposed a few years back. The original plan was to have one community college in each parliamentary constituency (I don't think this has changed but it will take a long time before this target can be reached). This alone smacks of 'pork barrel' type politics whereby the location of these colleges is dictated by political reasons (which political leaders' constituencies get chosen, punishing opposition constituencies) rather than academic demand.

The purpose of community colleges is to confer certificates and diplomas to students who might not be very academically inclined and have failed to gain entry into the local universities or other institutions of higher learning. They offer courses which are more hands-on and practical in nature. The ratio or 'nisbah' of practical ('amali) to theoretical ('teori') training is 75%:25%. Examples of such courses include automotive studies, fashion, electrical technician, computer support, hotel catering, food processing and quality control, just to name a few.

Aren't some of these courses more suitable to be taught in vocational institutes? Can't vocational institutions be upgraded so that they can offer certificates as well as diplomas? Or couldn't polytechnics offer some of these courses instead of establishing these community colleges?

Those arguing on behalf of the community colleges would stress that community colleges stress more on the practical whereas polytechnics stress more on the theoretical aspects. My response would be this - how likely is it that polytechnics would end up training potential mechanics who can then apply their 'theoretical' knowledge as a designer in a car manufacturer? In other words, are polytechnic diplomas really as 'theoretical' as they make it out to be?

The other argument for community colleges is that they service the needs of the local community, hence the name. This argument probably has greater merit. Some potential students might not be able to afford to live away from home to attend a private or public institution of higher learning. Private colleges probably won't want to be located in relatively rural areas which is where most of these community colleges can be found. They can also cater to specific community needs which is why hotel catering is taught in the community colleges in Kuantan and Melaka but not the one in Jitra, Kedah.

The question is, do we really need a community college in every single parliamentary constituency (there are currently 219 parliamentary constituencies, not including new ones recently created in Sarawak)? I doubt it. There are currently 34 community colleges in Malaysia across all the states. A list of them can be found here.

Incidentally, those who are interested in more information on community colleges can visit the website here. Ironically, it has a fancy flash intro but I couldn't get consistent access to the content.

This brings me full circle to the Star article. The fact that these community colleges are going to be staffed by recent university graduates whom nobody else wants to employ is worrying. How many university graduates are trained in the field of fashion design or automotive studies? Will they be asked to teach practical courses which they don't have much knowledge in? I suspect that this is likely to occur. So what we'll end up having are poorly resourced community colleges (and you thought our public universities had poor facilities) with graduates that couldn't get jobs anywhere else and don't have the necessary skills to teach the required courses attended students who couldn't get into public universities or polytechnics.

This sounds more like social welfare policy to me rather than post-secondary education.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Matriculation quandary?

I was really surprised to see this report in the Star today. It highlighted the case of Tan Tze Ning, who got straight As (it didn't say how many or whether they were all A1s) in her SPM but still failed to secure a place in the matriculation program.

We aren't told how many As she obtained or if they were straight As so I'm guessing that she probably wasn't a 10A1 scorer. While it may not be that surprising that she didn't get a JPA / PSD scholarship, what I am surprised by is the fact that she couldn't get into the matriculation program.

Tony has blogged about STPM versus Matriculation here and I recall that 10% of the matriculation places were opened to non-bumis about 2 years ago. If I recall correctly, there were initial complaints that there were not enough non-bumis to fill that 10% quota. If that is so, why is it that someone like Tze Ning, who seemed to have done relatively well, could not get into the matriculation program? Furthermore, it was reported that only 2 out of the 17 non-bumi students were accepted into the matriculation program from the same Jasin MRSM.

In my limited understanding, Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) are secondary residential type schools where students stay and study on campus. Given that there are already very few non-bumis in MRSMs, shouldn't the education authorities have made it easier for these few non-bumis to get into matriculation programs? Isn't ethnic integration and inter-mixing an important criteria and goal in the larger scheme of national priorities?

Thankfully, there are options which Tze Ning has which might not have been available to her 20 years ago. I'm sure that if she waits it out a little longer, she can get into a STPM program in one of the secondary schools in Melaka, given that she is qualified to take STPM. She can always opt to do a pre-university program in a private college and might be able to obtain scholarships from some of these institutions. I'm sure that Dr. Wee Ka Siong, MP for Ayer Hitam and MCA Youth Education Bureau chief, can also pull some strings on her behalf. But the point is that he shouldn't have had to. She and most of her other MRSM non-bumi counterparts should have been accepted into a matriculation program in the first place.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Scholarship Quotas

Having written on "Scholarship Reforms" and "Scholarship Heartbreaks", I think it's time to have a look at one of the most thorny and sensitive issues with regards to scholarships in Malaysia. Is there a quota, hidden or otherwise, placed on bumiputera and non-bumiputera students in the award of scholarships?

If I don't remember wrongly, Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) has previously denied such "formal" quotas being in existence. However, with the recent release of statistics by Datuk Dr Abdullah Mat Zin, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in Parliament a few days ago, and published in Sin Chew Jit Poh, it has become crystal clear that there exists a specific quota on bumiputera and non-bumiputera receipients of JPA scholarships.

As the table below clearly shows, JPA has made it a specific point to award 80% of overseas scholarships to bumiputera students and the balance 20% to non-bumiputera students every years since 2000. Nothing was disclosed prior to that year.

In addition, for local undergraduate scholarships, JPA has clearly allocated 30% to non-bumiputeras, and the balance 70% reserved for bumiputeras. This is shown in the table below.

The question then is, is this a just and equitable distribution of scholarships to young Malaysians?

Personally, I'm a firm believer of affirmative action, even racially based ones under certain circumstances. However, to have between 70-80% of scholarship awards reserved for a particular ethnic group which constitutes approximately 65.9% of the population is to me grossly unjust. The scholarship distribution ratio in this situation appears to be a case of tyranny by the ethnic majority under the guise of ethnic-based affirmative action.

To me, an effective ethnic-based affirmative action policy must be balanced between providing a policy advantage to the disadvantaged group, while at the same time provide elements of incentives. That way, receipients of affirmative action policies will continue to have strong incentives to pursue excellence.

However, in our current case, it appears that the policy advantage provided is so overwhelming that the incentives for excellence are substantially (if not totally) diluted. The gap of standards between the bottom 5% bumiputeras and the bottom 5% non-bumiputeras receipients of the scholarships will be so huge, such that the long term objectives of the affirmative action policies are defeated.

Assistance must be given to bumiputeras, who with certain additional policy assistance as well as hardwork and dedication, are able to make the cut. However, such "additional assistance", if provided to under-achievers of whatever ethnic group, will just be a simple case of flushing limited and valuable public funds down the toilet bowl.

Lest my opinions be construed as seeking to eliminate the quotas altogether, I shall propose here, an alternative ethnic-based affirmative action steps and policy.
  1. Scholarship awards should be evaluated totally based on merit, without first taking into consideration ethnic groups. Currently, it appears quite obvious that the number of scholarships to be awarded to bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras are decided up front, and candidates of the respective ethnic groups are evaluated within the groups to fill the available pre-determined slots.

  2. There should however, be a minimum, say 30%, of scholarships to be awarded to Bumiputera students. I use 30% as a convenient figure, because that's the minimum wealth distribution model which our National Economic Policy is seeking to achieve in the 9th Malaysian Plan (and the ones before that).

  3. In the event that the evaluation based on (1) above, produces only say 25% of the proposed scholarship holders comprising of bumiputeras, then the next 5% of bumiputeras shall be offered scholarships.

  4. However, in the event that the evaluation based on (1) above results in 50% of the scholars being bumiputeras, then there will be no necessity for the affirmative action policies to kick in.
The policy should similarly be made applicable specifically to the Indian community, to ensure that they enjoy an equitable distribution as well. Hence, for example, while they constitute 7.5% of the population, possibly a 3.5% quota should be set as reserved for them.

Such a system will be beneficial to all ethnic groups for several reasons.
  1. The system will provide a sense of justice to Malaysians of all races for the scholarships are not awarded to fill availability pre-alloted to particular ethnic groups, irrespective of changes in social circumstances.

  2. In the event that a particular ethnic group performs too poorly, it makes equitable sense for the ethnic group to be given additional policy assistance. Bumiputeras will hence be "protected" in that perspective, and yet at the same time, the advantage does not significantly eliminate the incentives necessary to pursue academic excellence.

  3. However, in the event whereby the "disadvantaged" ethnic group has clearly advanced its well-being and demonstrated an ability to compete on equal footing, the affirmative action policy is automatically made obsolete without a necessity of having to make subjective judgements of "readiness" to compete. For instance, once a merit-based evaluation produced 50% bumiputera scholars, then the 30% quota is automatically made obsolete. The crutches, which are often difficult to discard, can hence be transparently and justifiably removed without even a need to revise government policy.
The above recommendations is clearly in line with what the current Government is seeking to achieve in the 9th Malaysia Plan (9MP) which also emphasized the 10 guiding principles of Islam Hadhari, which includes amongst others:
  • A just and trustworthy government;
  • Free and liberated people;
  • A rigorous pursuit and mastery of knowledge;
  • Balanced and comprehensive economic development;
  • A good quality of life for the people;
  • Protection of the rights of minority groups and women;
  • Cultural and moral integrity;
It is hence, of great importance for the Prime Minister, the Government and its relevant authorities to reform its current scholarship policies which are clearly in breach of the above principles to ensure that not only the economic objectives of the 9MP are met, but also the moral and ethical ones.

Footnote: While I feel very strongly with regards to the above topic, I actually had to think twice about publishing this blog post on this thorny issue. As a sensitive issue, more often than not, it'll raise debates and comments which are inconsiderate, racially-biased and even irrational, driven by unmitigated emotions under the anonymity of the Internet. Hence, I'd like to implore on readers out there to please comment with thought, reason, maturity and responsibility to demonstrate that we can deal with such issues without being prejudiced and destructive.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Scholarship Heartbreaks

Predictably, with more than 15,000 applicants vying for some 1,300 scholarships, there's always going to be heartbreaks for some of our top SPM students, even in the perfect world scenario whereby the scholarships award by Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awan (JPA) is carried out in a fair and square manner, absent of human errors of judgement and bias. To quote the editorial by the New Straits Times (NST) on Saturday:
With more than nine in 10 of the applicants for the overseas scholarships offered this year by the Public Service Department destined to be disappointed, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the education bureaus of Umno, MCA and MIC would be deluged with calls from disgruntled candidates, or that newspapers would be filled with sob stories about bright and industrious school prefects from poor families who did not make the cut.
The whole scholarship picture becomes a tad absurd when one can practically picture journalist with ready written scholarship injustice pieces. All they needed was to eye any of the students with 10 1As and above who gets rejected and fill in the necessary blanks such as the name, number of As, subject of study, country intended etc. I must say that over the years, while the bulk of my sympathies has always been (and still are) with the students, a little bit of it has shifted over to the JPA.

Take the case of Yeo Chin Hooi. His plight was highlighted in the NST on Friday last week.
Yeo Chin Hooi swotted and crammed for 17 papers in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examinations last year, hoping to get the grades to get him into medical school. The years of study paid off: He scored 15 A1s. He also got an A2 for English and a B3 for English for science and technology.

Son of a lorry driver and a factory worker, he dreamt of securing a scholarship from the Public Service Department. The dream was shattered yesterday.
Believe me, my sympathies are with Chin Hooi. However, whether, as one of his teachers put it, “Yeo deserved a scholarship because he was from a poor family and had studied hard,” and hence deserve an automatic place for a scholarship, is another matter altogether.

In my opinion, nobody, even those with perfect scores deserves a scholarship award automatically. Naturally, those with top grades will have an edge in securing the scholarships, but the award should not be automatic as a fair few other factors do matter in the process. Readers may note that while I've written often with regards to scholarship woes faced by Malaysian students, particularly with JPA, they have always been with regards to the process and administration of the scholarships, and not with whether a candidate deserved the scholarship.

Hence I'll repeat again some of the points which I have raised before in an earlier post on scholarship reforms. The issue is not whether Chin Hooi should be given a scholarship, but the scholarship administration and process which needs to be thoroughly revamped to prevent the circus from repeating itself annually.

1. University scholarships should not be awarded after Form 5 (SPM/'O' Levels)

Why should a student, not even certain of university entrance (or at least which university) be awarded a university scholarship? What is the rationale for that?

In the past, the silliness of the process might not have been as serious due to the fact that the number of top scorers aren't that many. However, with as many as 10,000 students with comparable results of some 8As or more, the entire selection process to award the scholarships becomes completely unmanageable.

Is this the best way our limited tax payers funds and the country's resources are being utilised?

2. Is 30% of all scholarships allocated to Medicine students excessive?

I'm not in the best position to judge how important Medicine is relative to other subjects like Engineering, Economics or even Political Science. However, I'd like to think that reserving some 30% of scholarships for Medicine students a little excessive. Yes, despite the fact that Chin Hooi above failed to get a place among the 400 students given scholarships to study Medicine.

Here's some constructive suggestions for the relevant authorities for reform of the university scholarship administration and processes.

1. Create Pre-University Scholarships

Should scholarships be awarded after SPM, I believe that they should only be for pre-university courses which can take anywhere between 1-2 years. That way, all top SPM students can be awarded places for these courses without being subjected to subjective evaluations such as school testimonials or interviews. The scholarships awarded for these courses which are conducted locally should definitely be affordable.

The only possible exception to this is if the student have received entry into a top university overseas.

2. Undergraduate Scholarships

Overseas undergraduate scholarships should only be confirmed and awarded after the students have been offered a place at a top university. Why should scholarships be awarded to the students even before they have qualified for a place at a top university overseas?

The way I look at it, if Cambridge is happy to accept the student for a place to study Physics, there is little reason for scholarship to be denied to him or her. Unless of course, the student informs the scholarship body that he or she doesn't intend to return to motherland after completing studies.

This suggestion is also clearly supported (indirectly) by the Zahid Higher Education Report.
137. The Committee recommends that the practice of sending undergraduates overseas be reviewed. It is probable that only a small number need to be sent overseas to excellent and highly ranked universities to pursue courses in selected disciplines which are critical to national development.
Our systems have resulted in many students receiving scholarships to pursue tertiary studies at universities overseas which are sometimes ranked lower than even the local public universities. I'm aware for example of students being sent on scholarship to countries such as Russia or Indonesia to study medicine.

Our neighbours down south do not send anywhere near as many students on scholarships overseas, and yet I've never heard of any annual “complaints” of denial of scholarship, despite their well endowed coffers. This is because it is clear that only students who qualify into universities of distinction overseas will be given an opportunity to secure a scholarship.

3. Scholarships for Medicine Studies

Malaysia is an interesting country whereby it appears that many students feel that it is the Government's responsibility to provide scholarships for studies in Medicine. As far as I'm aware, there are hardly any scholarships available for students pursuing medicine, and almost as few for those pursuing a degree in law.

Given that it appears that one of the strongest pull factor in pursuing medicine studies is the lucrative long term returns, whether as a general practitioner or a specialist, should the government be offering scholarships for these courses? It doesn't help that Medicine courses are by far the most expensive among all undergraduate degrees.

4. Distinguish between Student Loans & Scholarships

Now, not granting scholarships is different from not financing education. Students who don't qualify for scholarships should still have easy access to student loans at attractive interest rates to ensure that all qualified students are not denied higher education opportunities due to the lack of funds. This is also one of the recommendations made by the Zahid Higher Education Report.
107. The Committee recommends that no eligible student who has been offered a seat at an institution of higher education at diploma or undergraduate level be denied the opportunity to learn because of financial difficulties.
Hence even if students like Chin Hooi whose scholarship was rejected (possibly with valid reasons), they should not be denied student loans to ensure that he could pursue his tertiary education in the courses of his choice.

I think its seriously time for JPA and other relevant government agencies to re-look at the existing scholarship scheme and processes to ensure that the country is making full use of our limited financial resources, instead of the current state of affairs which appear to be haphazard and poorly administered.

As for Chin Hooi (and others like him) – being denied a scholarship at this stage after SPM is not worth crying about.
"I don't really know what to do next. My heart is set on becoming a doctor, and I have worked hard for the last two years to achieve this goal," he said.
There's still plenty of time and options available, even if he is absolutely certain that he wants to pursue a degree in medicine. Chin Hooi can proceed to complete his STPM or 'A' Levels or other equivalent qualification to obtain his place in either the local or foreign universities.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Happy Teachers' Day

In Malaysia, Teachers' Day is celebrated on 16th May, which falls on Tuesday, next week. Normally on this day, we will pay tribute to all our teachers, many of whom have toiled tirelessly to provide us with a good education, so that we can all grow up as useful citizens and adults. We have certainly heard stories of many exemplarary teachers who have dedicated themselves to their profession, and I've certainly had my share of them.

However, I thought my Teachers' Day post cum tribute today shall be a little different. Teachers have certainly shaped my life immensely as an individual. Exceptional teachers have definitely played a positive part in bringing out the "best" in me. However, lest we forget, there are certainly less than joyous experiences with certain other teachers. These "not-so-nice" experiences have probably made a big impact to me to. And I'd add that while these experiences with certain teachers weren't particularly pleasant, I'd like to think that I've been made a better person because of them.

So here are the 3 teachers with whom I've had some not-so-pleasant memories, but whom I'm somehow thankful for.

1. Mrs Yong, Standard 5 English and form teacher, SRK Montfort, Batu Pahat

Mrs Yong was a tough disciplinarian. Yours truly "suffered" a fair bit in her hands :). I had the privilege of having my father being called in for a "chat" twice by her in that year. I can't remember the exact offences, but I believe they've got to do with not bringing textbooks to class and "forgetting" to complete homework once too often. :)

But my not-so-pleasant experience has nothing to do with that fact (not that I'm particularly proud of it). It was the day which I actually received my Standard Five Assessment Examination (Penilaian Darjah Lima). My classmates and myself were surrounding Mrs Yong excitedly after receving our results. I managed my only straight As achievement for my entire academic career :). As Mrs Yong ran down the list of students, she reached my name, looked up at me, and said the words which shot deep into the heart - "You're very lucky, huh?"

I was a 11-year old kid then. Despite having received my 5As result, I think I had little mood to celebrate that day.

2. Mrs Toh, Secondary 2 Geography teacher, Raffles Institution, Singapore

Mrs Toh has a reputation of being a very dedicated and demanding Geography teacher. Some of my friends who had her as their form teacher the previous year gave her an excellent review, hence I was pleased that she was teaching us for that year, especially since it was my favourite and probably best performing subject.

For our term project that year, we were asked to form groups of 5-6 students on our own. Now, a few of us Asean scholars decided to band together to form a group because of the convenience of staying at the same hostel. You would hence understand that there are some top performing students in our team.

Having broken the class into the respective teams for discussions, Mrs Toh walked round the class listening and giving pointers. When she got to our group, stood listening for a while, then looked down at me and said "You're very smart huh, chose to join this team?" She then walked off to visit another team.

I was stunned.

3. Ms Choo, Additional Mathematics and Form Teacher, Secondary 3 & 4, Raffles Institution, Singapore

This is probably the toughest student-teacher relationship which I had, partly because I had her as a teacher for 2 years for my 'O' levels. Note that the "tough" bit had nothing to do with my grades in Add Maths. I dare say that I breezed through the subject for 'O' Levels.

It probably has more to do with the fact that I was hyper-active in school sports and activities. In my final year, I was the captain of my house and committee members of at least 3-4 active associations, plus taking part in various intra and inter-school debates, quiz competitions and other activities. And being born with a little talent in art, I became an easy target for many teachers for assistance in school events. As a result, I obviously had to skip quite a few classes and because of the activities, I probably didn't achieve as many A1s as I should or could have for my 'O' Levels.

Nevertheless, Ms Choo didn't think much of me as a person, and I suspect she thinks that I like going round sucking up to teachers. Her opinions of me, can be summarised in a sentence in my school leaving testimonial.
"... his exuberant enthusiasm often borders on exhibitionism"
I can say that no one else (that I'm aware of anyway) in the class has the distinction of receiving a testimonial like mine, which was peppered with alliterative bombastic words (I had to look up "exhibitionism" in the dictionary to confirm what it meant) which bordered on sarcasm.

Thankfully, I had the rare honour that the principal, Mr Eugene Wijeysingha had earlier promised me a personal testimonial. When I received my testimonial from Ms Choo, I picked up the courage to take up Mr Wijeysingha on his offer. He gave me a glowing testimonial, albeit with the necessary exception to take into consideration Ms Choo's comments that I'm "inclined to draw attention to [my]self", which he attributed to "youthful exuberance". :)

To say that there wasn't a exuberant side to me, especially in my teenager days, would be a blatant untruth. However, to have that attribute engraved in such a way into my testimonial for use in my future school and scholarship applications was certainly damning.

So, how did the above 3 experiences made me a better person?

For one, each of them played extremely key parts in making me especially determined to prove their judgement wrong. I wanted to prove that my achievements were not due to "luck" and I wanted to prove to myself that I'm not a slouch in my studies and intelligence as well, even when placed in comparison with the best there are. Ms Choo's veiled criticism was certainly the worst I've received up to when I was 16. But it certainly help me take criticism, valid or otherwise, in the right spirit and not get overly affected by them. They have undeniably played a significant role in helping me achieve what I have and making me a much better person I am today. Some may call it a "character building" process. :)

So, for those of you out there, particularly students still in school, don't get upset with teachers, good or bad. You will and you can learn from these experiences. Take them in the right spirit and you will gain plenty from them.

And so, in an ironic sort of way, thank you teachers. Happy Teachers' Day.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

7 Secrets of Doctoral Success

Well, given the amount of interest in postgraduate studies and that many of you readers appear to be in the academia, I thought this article on 7 Secrets of Doctoral Success was particularly interesting :).

We have spoken often about how many PhD students and even senior academics at our local universities fail to complete their doctorates or took an immensely long time to complete them. Well, according to Flinders University staff development and training unit head Hugh Kearns and his colleague Maria Gardiner, distractions and procrastination are just two reasons students struggle to complete their PhDs on time.

The underlying reason, it appears, which causes "distractions and procrastination" are due to students' "battle with perfectionism, over-commit[ment], self-sabotage and ...motivation and focus while writing a PhD... Those negative feelings lead to procrastination and other feelings."
Ms Gardiner said negative feelings often led to delays in the completion of PhDs, wasted time, missed deadlines and people abandoning their work. But she said the problem did not lie in students not being intelligent enough to complete their work.

"It's not about people who are stuck and miserable who are not able to finish their PhD, it's about achieving elite results and coming up with good results in the end."
So what are the 7 secrets?
The seven secrets - revealed in detail in the books - are maintaining a close relationship with a supervisor, writing, showing work and meeting short-term deadlines, being realistic on the quality of the PhD, saying no to distractions, keeping office hours, seeking help when needed and confidence that "you can do it".
Sounds like nothing too special, but here's the rub. What it apparently means to a PhD candidate, Tim Moore was this:
...after learning he did not have to be perfect and his work was unlikely to be worthy of winning a Nobel prize, Mr Moore finished his PhD on schedule. "It helped me to understand it wasn't the most important thing in the world ... and recognition that it didn't have to be perfect."
And to sum it up, the author of 7 Secrets of Doctoral Success, Mr Kearns said:
"To undertake a PhD you need 10 per cent intelligence and 90 per cent persistence."
Woh woh woh. There you have it. Hence the reason why some of our senior academics can't seem to complete their PhDs has got to do with they inspirational quest for perfectionism. And Kian Ming, you don't have to be that smart after all! :)

To quote Eric Beerkens, whose blog referred me to the above article:
It is so simple. You just lower the expectations, compromise quality, and make students realise that nothing needs to be perfect and you have created highly successful PhD students. You see, it's not that difficult.
Oh, and maybe that's the way to achieve 100,000 PhD students in 15 years as stated in the Zahid Higher Education report, and debated by Kian Ming. :)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Rafiah Speaks

Datuk Rafiah Salim started her 3 year term as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya ealier this week. And it started with interviews with the press as well, to give further insight into what she plans and possible what she's like. :) You can read the full articles in the Star here and here as well as Bernama here.

Here's the good stuff. All these are words of course, just words and not yet deeds but one has to start somewhere.

On Her Selection:
Rafiah believes she has been picked partly because of her skills in people management, changing the work culture and reforming organisations.

“My appointment was timely; it was not by accident, but by design. I was chosen because it was thought that my skills in changing work culture and in managing people would benefit the university."
Actually, that's the key reason why she could have been selected to "revive" Universiti Malaya. Clearly, she has not undergone the process of obtaining her doctorate and have only had a brief stint as an academic at the university's law faculty.

Clearly, there is indeed a serious need to reform and transform the culture in our academia to encourage a more performance oriented culture, and not one based on the art of flattery. On this count, I believe that it's acceptable for someone without the necessary complete academic experience to become the taskmaster, to "whip" the laggards back into shape, and to ship out the clear out the donkeys from the university.

Hence, on this count, we hope that her reputation to be one tough lady as mentioned by some of the readers here, is indeed true.

On Transparency:
...Datuk Rafiah Salim Monday began her task by having meetings with various key officials of the university and pledged for a transparent administration as well as having a closer rapport with deans of all faculties.

...she would try to build greater transparency in the promotion of academic staff “as it is part of good governance.”
Transparency is good and we'd love to dearly hear (not too long into the future) from her the type of policies which will promote transparency which she plans to deliver.

On Remuneration for Academicians:
“Brilliant people deserve to be (better) remunerated if we want to keep them here and to attract others into academia. As it is, the attrition rate is going up, especially in the Medical Faculty,” she said.
I completely agree on this. The remuneration of academicians needs to be seriously evaluated and probably deserves more blog space here, although as at this point of time, this writer probably doesn't have sufficient information or authority to do so. But I do feel that academics needs to be de-linked from the civil service remuneration programmes.

Well, here's the not-so-pleasing-to-the-ears bit.

On Akujanji:
... Rafiah said this was the norm for an employee in any organisation. “It is not asking you to do anything bad. It is a code of conduct that you need to be answerable to."
I have written some time earlier to debunk the above innocuous statement. If my employees have to sign a letter of offer to comply with the vague, overwhelming and discretionary terms as per the Akujanji pledge, I can assure you that I will lose my best employees. Possibly only the weakest who can't find jobs anywhere else will stay back (I'd like to think that there are very few of those! :)) The worse type of excuse, of course, was when our former Minister of Higher Education alluded the Akujanji pledge to prayers to God.

So on the balance, some positive stuff to look forward to and for the comments on Akujanji, I'd probably give her the benefit of the doubt for having been appointed by the Government, she'd still need to demonstrate the necessary obeisance and reverance to them.

Datuk Rafiah Salim must have been appointed to one of the hottest seats in the country with everyone from the Government, the politicians, the academics and concerned citizens all having the highest of expectations of her, to check the decline of standards at Malaysia's premier university and hopefully restore UM to her former glory.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Give me those grants!

I read this terrific letter in the Star by Zaharom Nain, an associate professor at the Centre for International Studies in Universiti Sains Malaysia, on research grant abuses in the local university system. I'd encourage our readers to read it too.

I don't want to analyze every statement made by Dr. Zaharom though many of his points are spot on. I want to discuss his letter in the context of one of my favorite topics - incentives. It is clear from her letter that many of his grant hungry colleagues respond to incentives. It is a path towards promotion. It is a way to obtain 'easy money'.

The only problem is that the incentives, in this context, are screwed up. Here in the US, almost all professors across all fields have to apply for grant money. While there are tons of grants out there from different institutions, both private and public, the grant application process is also extremely competitive. Most importantly, the grants are used towards an end product - a publication(s) in a journal, as a report or as a book. Grants are a means towards an end. In Malaysia, we seemed to have stopped just at the means.

Dr. Zaharom says that "there have been – and continue to be – many local academics who hold numerous research grants but have come up with virtually nothing of value, save the oft-repeated “unpublished research report”. And what is frightening is that this genre of “unpublished research report” is fast becoming the norm and no longer the exception in Malaysia."

The point of this posting is this: If academics respond to incentives such as the need to have grants to obtain promotions, then is it not reasonable to assume that they would respond to incentives such as promotions based on their publication records?

The only hitch is that applying for grants might be the easy part. Getting published (especially in internationally renowned journals) is the hard part. My gut feel is that often times, things operate in a virtuous (on in this case, unvirtuous) cycle. In the haste to promote academics up the ladder, many underqualified ones have been promoted. Their publication records are far from stellar. If this is the case, then is it realistic for these, by now, senior academics to exact a more stringent promotion process and requirement on their more junior staff?

There's a saying in economics - "Bad money drives out good money". If the circulation of fake money in an economy reaches a certain point, everyone would keep their genuine money at home and only transact using fake money. Past this point, all bills in circulation would be fake money. Put in the local university context, if academics are rewarded based on something other than their publication record, then past a point, you'd have almost all academics with poor publication records. The good ones would have left the country, retired, gone into another profession or committed suicide (I'm kidding on the last one).

Thankfully, we haven't reached that stage yet. I know of many good academics in our local university system. One of these days, when I have more free time, I'll start compiling the publishing record of our scholars in fields which I am more familiar with - political science and economics. I'll go through each department in our major research universities (UM, UKM, USM, to start) and do a google.com and scholar.google.com search and list their publication 'hits'. It's a rough and ready indicator but I'm sure it'll tell a more or less accurate story. I did a google search for Dr. Zaharom and found more than a dozen publication hits, many of them in international journals. I did a similiar search for four professors in the School of Business Management under the Faculty of Economics and Business in UKM and found that only one of them had any significant hits on scholar.google.com. Try the exercise yourself - I'm sure you'll find it amusing. (Being a 2nd year grad student, I don't have any major publications yet so a scholar.google search on me won't yield any significant hits. Hopefully this will change next year when a book that I'm co-authoring with another US academic, Dr. Bridget Welsh, on Malaysian elections come out.

Wide Consensus: Nationalism just ain't enough

Look's like there's a lot of people out there who agree with this previous posting. Here are some highlights from a recent Star report in response to Tok Pa's speech in the UK.

“The Government cannot just expect these people to be nationalistic and patriotic and return to Malaysia when the time comes,” said UK Executive Council for Malaysian Students chairman Wan Mohd Firdaus Wan Mohd Fuaad.

MCA Club Australia president Chan Wei Ming said verbal encouragement alone would not be enough to draw home those working overseas. “A simple speech on nationalism and patriotism without any positive action is akin to baiting sharks with worms,” he said. (ouch!)

I couldn't agree more with the comments above (though I might have phrased it differently). Appealing to one's nationalism is not sufficient. I hope that politicians will take note of these comments.

So what are some of the proposed remedies?

The UKEC chairman proposed that said government-linked companies including Khazanah Holdings and Danaharta and corporations like Tenaga Nasional could be more proactive. Although the report didn't elaborate on how these companies could be more pro-active, one could perhaps think of some suggestions including overseas recruitment drives and marketing campaigns.

For example, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) carries out annual recruitment exercises in London, Oxford and Cambridge. They also do not restrict their employment searches to just Singaporeans (I interviewed with them).

But my sense is that there are probably enough qualified people in the private sector not to warrant overseas job searches. When Khazanah decided to 'modernize' itself, it had no problems employing many qualified candidates from the private sector. The Khazanah example also goes to show that it is possible to recruit people from higher paying jobs to do 'national service'. The payback is an exciting opportunity to generate decent rates of investment returns from our national assets. I'm sure that the few ex-colleagues of mine from BCG KL took a pay cut to join Khazanah. I'm also quite sure that they were 'sold' on the opportunities offered to them. (How long they will actually stay is another question but as long as a majority of them feel that they are doing exciting things, I think they will stay)

On the other hand, unless old giants like TNB or TELEKOM restructure the way they utilize their human resource, there's no reason why they should recruit overseas. They don't have a 'vision' to sell. As far as I know, there's no specifically tailored 'management trainee' program that rotates new hires with great potential through the different departments in TNB in a structured way. If overseas recruitment does take place, it has got to be in a context of overall corporate restructuring at these state owned giants. Imagine how easy THAT would be!

When we talk about recruiting people back from overseas, I think we have to make a distinction between occupational sectors, something that I mentioned here. We have to weigh investment bankers and doctors differently because their 'rate of return' to society are different. The recent Bank Negara Special Scholarship Awards which were awarded to three students intending to pursue a Medicine degree in the UK were given, bond free, with the sole condition being that the reciepients have to return to Malaysia. The fact that Bank Negara would sponsor students pursuing medicine (in addition to those who are pursuing PhDs in Economics, for example) tells us something about the costs and benefits of the medical profession.

We also have to distinguish between those who go on scholarships and those who go using their own money. MCA international affairs bureau chairman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng
said that government-sponsored students were bound by their scholarships to return and work in the country. “It is their responsibility to serve the country which financially supported them. And they should be prosecuted if they do not come back,” he said. While I don't agree that they should be prosecuted if they don't return, I do agree that they should at least be forced to pay back their JPA scholarships or loans at market rates of interest. And JPA should be far more vigilant in pursuing those who break their bonds. They could also force future JPA sponsorees to have a guarantor who would then pay back the loans if the sponsoree doesn't return to Malaysia.

So what have we found out thus far?

1) Appealing to nationalism alone is not enough
2) The government or GLCs have to do a better 'sell-job' to overseas graduates
3) The responsibility of public scholarship holders to come back is higher than that of non-scholarship holders
4) Different occupational sectors need to be weighed differently
5) The GLCs have to clean up their acts before they can attract overseas graduates to work for them (Petronas is probably the only exception in this regards)

Again, to paraphrase Patti Smyth and Don Henley, 'oftentimes, nationalism just ain't enough'. Politicians take note.