Friday, August 31, 2007

What Went Wrong In Our Schools?

If you had read my other blog, you'd have know that I'm kinda tied up with a writing project for my "work", so I didn't really have time to post a "Merdeka" message. In addition, I've been receiving requests for comments on the latest Higher Education Action Plan launched by Dato' Mustapa Mohammad and the Prime Minister recently. In particular, whether the hype over autonomy for our local universities as well as the highly commended "Apex University" concept are justified. Well, I have my reservations but as I've not read the report in detail except for the media reports (you'd probably need to give me at least a week), I won't say too much as yet.

Anyway, I thought it'll be good for everyone to read an article by R Nadeswaran of The Sun on "What Went Wrong in Our Schools?" published earlier this week, which I'll take the liberty to republish here for all to read.
At the sound of the engine, my late father, who was returning home from work, stood at attention. Others who were cycling got off their bikes and did not move until the Austin A40 went past.

I watched this drama unfold almost every other day - circa 1956.

I remember these scenes vividly as it gave me early impressions and would have a great impact on me decades later. Innocently, I asked my mother what it was all about. She said: "Ithu Vellakaran vatcha sattam." (This is the law of the white man).

When the estate manager was on the move, everything else came to a standstill. The mandore would chide even children if they did not give the manager his due respect.

I was considered lucky because my dad was an estate conductor or kerani as they used to call him, but for the other workers, they were at the mercy of the management and its systems.

Being the son of the kerani, I was forbidden to go to the "labour lines" as they used to call the one-room wooden houses that housed Indian immigrants brought here to tap rubber.

That was my first glimpse of apartheid a'la Malaya, and fortunately, I was never to see such class polarisation and discrimination, when the family moved out of Ebor Estate in Batu Tiga, to Klang.

In town, the initial adaptation was difficult because the boys in the neighbourhood spoke English and I had spent two years in the estate Tamil school.

But those I befriended had no inhibitions. We studied together; walked to school together and played together. No one, let alone my friends who came from the Special Malay Class to join me in Standard Four classified me as kaum pendatang.

I learnt to sing Negara Ku with others, with Mrs Nora Eu on the piano. We did not have to raise flags or write slogans to show our patriotism.

We were all Malayans and we never saw any barriers - racial or religious - in our interaction.

While I was representing the school in the oratory contests and debates which were open to only non-Malays during the Bulan Bahasa Kebangsaan, the Indian Muslims and Pakistanis, in order to take part, proudly gave their full names including son of or daughter of - not bin or binti.

Today, the same people have conveniently dropped those words and assimilated themselves with the majority. I have no problems with that. Good for them that they have learnt how to work around the system.

We had two Abdul Halims in class and in order to avoid confusion, we called one Halim Kichap - referring to skin tone - and he had no qualms about that.

We learnt about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Francis Drake, Christopher Columbus, Gandhi, Mohamed Ali Jinnah and the like.

We were taught that a Javanese Hindu named Parameswara founded Malacca, but we are now told that someone is trying to re-write history by obliterating his name from textbooks.

My Standard Six teacher, B. M. Das, used the cane sparingly and those who had contemplated complaining to their parents were politely told that "if your father comes to school to complain, you can sit at the back of the class and watch me teach".

There were only 13 "A" graders in the trial exams before the government exams proper.

"If there are more than 13 who pass with an A, I'll eat your shoes," he ventured. Our class produced 33 and it goes to show how teachers used to motivate the pupils. Das never ate our shoes and we never asked him to!

In secondary school, we had inter-class games, inter-house games and inter-school games. We all got involved. When the class was playing, everyone was on the field - cheering the team on.

Besides, everyone was encouraged to join the literary and debating society or other extra-mural activities, as they were called. But then, there were no computer labs or clubs.

We never identified ourselves by race and the only "segregation" came when we had to attend "Pupil's Own Language" classes in the afternoon. Everyone ate from each other's tah pau from home, and nothing was taboo.

In Form Two, our literature teacher P.K. Singh made us read a book a week, and then write a synopsis and identify 10 new words that we had learnt. It was this that helped our generation excel in the language.

Cikgu Idris, who taught us Bahasa Kebangsaan, told us that letters should end with Wassalam, an Arabic form of greeting which has now taken religious connotations.

We had the like of Lee Mun Yew and D. R. Daniel as headmasters of two schools - Klang High School and Anglo Chinese School respectively - which had a strong rivalry be it on the playing field or the debating halls.

They were there when the inter-school matches were played, and of course, like all school sports days, the main event was the inter-school relay.

Fifty years on and as a parent of a school-going child, I wonder how these great school days just disappeared and how well-versed they are with some famous names and places. Thanks to the Internet, some children know that the American Independence Day falls on July 4 or that Captain Tasman sailed to Australia with a boatload of convicts and that at one time, the sun never set on the Great British Empire.

What went wrong? Why are children now embroiled in colour, creed and religion at such a young age?

We are blaming the schools for all the ills that afflict society. Can it be changed? Can we go back to the times when we gained so much knowledge within six hours? Can we re-live the times when you had to fight tooth and nail to find a place in the school football team?

I don't have the answers, but as the nation turns 50 tomorrow, our policymakers should put on their thinking caps for a solution.

Happy Merdeka!
Happy Merdeka to you too! ;)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Incentives to stay at home

These couple of reports, here and here, in the Star on the same subject caught up interest. The basic gist of the new proposal by Tok Pa is this - he wants to 'entice' a third of all top SPM scorers (by which he means straight A1s scorers) to study locally, perhaps in a 3 + 1 program where three years are spent in a local university and 1 year is spent abroad.

I think that the flaws of this proposal can be seen almost immediately. First of all, what possible kinds of 'enticements' can one offer a top SPM scorer to study in a local institution when this scholar can potentially study in the best universities outside Malaysia? Cambridge vs UM or Harvard vs UM, hmmm, which school do you think these scholars will choose? Will there be monetary incentives offered to these scholars so that they won't go abroad? Actually, this makes financial sense on the part of the MOHE. Why not offer to pay these scholars 2000RM a month for 4 years (for a total of 96,000RM) versus having to spend almost half a million RM to send a scholar to the US or the UK, many of whom don't return to Malaysia to serve out their 'bond'. If this is the case, why not make ALL JPA scholars stay back in Malaysia? Why only 'entice' a third of them to stay back? In any case, imagine if you were in the position of a student who has gotten into Cambridge or Harvard. Would this student want to take the short term financial incentive and forgo his or her chance to study in one of these prestigious institutions? If I were to advise them, I'd tell them that you can always earn back the 100,000RM (or whatever financial incentives the MOHE is offering) later in life. It's a chance of a lifetime to go abroad to study, especially if you manage to get into a good foreign university.

Secondly, what sort of university do you think these top scorers can go to in a 3 + 1 program where their final year is spent abroad? It's not likely that Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or most of the top universities in the UK or the US will likely offer up places for Malaysians to go to for only a year. It is much more likely that these 3 + 1 destinations will be the universities which currently have twinning programs with Malaysian colleges. These might be decent schools but probably not the top schools in the US or the UK.

Yes, I know that the US have this junior year abroad program which is basically a 3 + 1 program (with the 1 in the third year) where many juniors in US universities study in universities abroad for a year. But can the MOHE negotiate this kind of deal with the top UK or US universities? (or tops unis in other countries for that matter) As far as I know, none of the top US universities offer this kind of option for students in other universities. And as far as I know, Cambridge and Oxford doesn't offer this kind of option to US university students (unless you're a Rhodes scholar which is applicable only for Oxford).

Thirdly, what sort of criteria will be used to select the one third of scholars who are 'enticed' or perhaps 'forced' to stay back to study in a local institution? I'm afraid that with this kind of 'quota', those who get to go abroad might be those who are more 'connected', politically or socially.

Imagine that you're a top SPM scorer who's been awarded a JPA scholarship and then later told that you're getting into UM or UKM or USM as your 'reward'. How would you feel about this? Especially if you know that 2/3rds of your fellow JPA scholars are going abroad to study, many of them at prestigious foreign universities?

Fourthly, if JPA scholars are sent abroad with the intention of getting more exposure, how much of help will 1 year in a foreign institution be? I think the benefits are likely to be minimal.

If Tok Pa wants to increase the standard of students going into the local universities, he should start with the 'second tier' students, those who are not the top SPM scorers but who are offer government scholarships of different types to go abroad to study. Why not 'entice' these students to stay back in a local uni? Aren't the top scorers more 'deserving' of going abroad (as well as standing a better chance of getting into a really good universities) than these 'second tier' (or perhaps even third tier) SPM scorers? These second tier scorers might presumably be better than the average student currently going into the local unis and hence, still help to increase the overall quality of students going into the local unis.

NUS in Singapore was managed to build up a reputation for being one of the best universities in Asia despite having many of the top scorers in Singapore heading to unis overseas. Of course, other factors are also at play in NUS such as better management, better pay for professors, more institutional incentives for research, better hiring practices etc... but it shows that not having your best students is not necessarily an obstacle towards creating a quality university.

As an aside, I think Tony's earlier proposals of offering scholarships to students at a later date and only after they've obtained entry into one of the top foreign universities makes sense. It would reduce the number of JPA scholars that we fund and would guarantee that we're funding scholars who only get into the best universities. Those who don't manage to get into these universities can be conveniently absorbed by our local unis, thereby 'solving' one of Tok Pa's major problems - attracting good students into our local unis. (Of course, some of these potential JPA scholars might still try to fund themselves to go overseas but that can't really be prevented)

On a longer term note, unless we have a much better enforcement and human resource management policy, I'm in favor of slowly but surely cutting down the number of JPA scholarships available at the undergrad level since a large proportion of JPA scholars don't return to serve out their bonds by working for any part of the Malaysian government. (If those of you who thought that the RM1.25 million spent on Dr. Azly was 'extravagant' and 'wasteful', think of the BILLIONS that are and have been spent on JPA scholars who don't serve a single day of their supposed 'bond').

In the meantime, I feel sorry for the first batch of JPA scholars who are denied the opportunity to go abroad to study while they watch 2/3rds of their cohort leave for prestigious universities abroad.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Scam Oxford MBA?

Well, Mr "David Smith" has continued to feed me with information with regards to the MBA scams perpetuated by a "Oxford Centre for Leadership (OXCEL), United Kingdom" which clearly abuses its non-existent association to Oxford University to gain credibility.

First of all, the OXCEL doesn't exist beyond a mail forwarding service provided at the contact address. You can check out the address yourself at the Regus website, an international service office provider.

The OXCEL company was only purportedly set up in the United Kingdom in April this year. However, as early as last May, Oxcel has been granting degrees in Malaysia.

Yusry & co receives their degress & awards

In May last year, KRU main singer, Yusry Abdul Halim was selected to receive an special award (Young Creativity Award) from Oxcel at Oxford Graduation Ceremony in Subang Jaya. Other celebrities who apparently received their diploma, degrees are Nizal Mohamad, Ashraf Sinclair and Chef Ismail (Master in Business Hospitality).

Not only did these celebrities clearly publicised the "school", it was Deputy Minister of Human Resources, Datuk Abdul Rahman Bakar who "launched" OXCEL in Malaysia last year at Carcosa Seri Negara. The modus operandi appears very similar to other dodgy degree-granting institutions such as the non-Irish Irish International University, where Deputy Minister, M Kayveas was also invited to present degrees at convocation ceremonies, which lends credibility to the institution.

(By the way, IIU continues to exist in Malaysia despite the tonnes of information available which discredits their standing. They have been holding convocation ceremonies on a year basis since 2002)

It is understood that the next convocation ceremony for Oxcel will be held at a college of Oxford university on 12 September 2007 for their 5-day MBA programme (or some equivalent award). All the graduates are allegedly Malaysians.

I really wonder sometimes why is it that in a country such as Malaysia, there remains plenty of such bogus institutions, guillible Ministers who are easily persuadable to lend credibility to dubious organisations as well as certification-hungry students who are willing to pay good money for poor qualifications.... sigh.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Crazy guy on a bike

Okay, time to change topics. I was never very adventurous in my days as a student. Never went camping, never tried to climb Kinabalu or hike to Tahan, etc... The most 'adventurous' things I attempted were to travel to Iceland, cycled around some inactive volcanic fields, stayed overnight at the airport in Oslo, Norway and got involved in a car accident in Turkey where a good friend of mine was seriously injured (Thankfully, he's fully recovered now and is a happily married dad). That's why I take my hat off to a friend who recently graduated from Duke (undergrad) and is on his way back to Malaysia ... on a bike!

This friend, Law Tzuo Hann, decided that instead of looking for a job immediately after his graduation, he would take a trip of a lifetime which was to cycle back to Malaysia starting from the United Kingdom, a trip which will take him an estimated 8 months.

He wanted to see if you could endure such a trip and tested himself by trying to cycle across the United States. This he did, to my (and probably his) amazement. Check out his route from the West Coast of the US all the way to DC, a trip which took him roughly 38 days.

Right now, he's in Germany now and making good progress on his way back to Malaysia which would take him through many 'exotic' countries which are not known for being good cycling locations such as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (if I'm not mistaken).

It always amazes me when a student can attempt this sort of journey of discovery, especially when it is done under very minimalist conditions. Tzuo Hann doesn't have an entourage, he camps in church yards and other outdoor locations to save accommodation costs (or stays with friends). He's clearly doing this on a minimalist budget and without any institutional support. He's not looking to be rewarded with a Datukship or money from the government. Instead, he's looking for support and sponsorships to benefit charities.

As far as I know, his dad, who has been very encouraging of him, is trying to raise publicity in regards to this journey and is trying to garner sponsorship for Tzuo Hann's trip back to Malaysia, hopefully, to be donated to charities and to defray some traveling expenses. Indeed, his dad is hoping to join him and cycle back to Malaysia from China!

I think that his story has been featured in Malaysian Mensa and maybe some of the Chinese dailies but if any of our readers would like to help out Tzuo Hann, you can do the following:

(i) Write an encouraging note on his journal which can be accessed here.
(ii) Contact him via email to send an email of encouragement (
(iii) Contact him if you think you can raise some corporate sponsorship for him
(iv) Contact him if you think you can get him some publicity (newspapers, journals, magazines, newsletters etc...)

In the meantime, safe travels to Tzuo Hann!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Reiterating my support for Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara

Frankly, I'm been amazed and surprised by the number of negative comments generated by my previous post on the current situation facing Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara. This prompted me to do a more thorough investigation into the history and chronology of the firing of Dr. Azly and his wife from UUM. My investigations, coupled with my personal experience of pursuing a PhD here in the US, have led me to reiterate my support for Dr. Azly and his wife, in stronger terms than before. In addition, I also want to try to respond to some of the queries raised by certain comments to my previous post on this matter. Be warned, this is going to be a long post.

According to an exclusive by Malaysiakini dated Aug 22, 2005, it was in March of 2004 when UUM initiated 'proceedings' against Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara.

In a letter dated March 17, 2004 from the disciplinary committee stating that the pair had broken the code of conduct, they were also accused of failure to report for work on completion of their doctoral studies in the United States.

Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara started their doctorate program in 1997 (I'm guessing the fall of 1997 when most US universities start their academic term).

The same Malaysiakini report stated that:

They had gone to the US in 1997 and had then written to UUM on Sept 5, 2004 to ask for no-pay leave extension up to September next year (which means Sept 2006, I think), citing a need to stabilise their personal financial situation as the reason for wanting to prolong their stay.

So, the period of time from Sept 1997 to Sept 2004 is roughly 7 years, and including the 2 years that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara was asking for, means that it would be roughly 9 years before they would return to serve UUM. During this time, according to a lawsuit recently filed by UUM Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were paid their salaries as well as monthly expenses totaling RM1.25 million.

Some of our readers have commented on why it cost UUM RM1.25 million to fund Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara. For those who are unfamiliar with the US education system, it costs roughly 50,000 US dollars a year to fund a PhD student. My costs are being borne by the department of political science at Duke University. I've said in a previous post that it would eventually cost roughly RM900,000 to fund me for the 5 years of my PhD program (God willing I'm be able to finish in another 2 years). If it was the three years of sponsorship that UUM gave to Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara, it would cost roughly RM600,000 each (depending on the exchange rate and cost of living, which is higher in NY than in North Carolina) which would work out to the RM1.2 million or so cited by UUM.

I'm not sure if the school fees of Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were waived by Columbia (which is roughly 30,000 US per year) but regardless, the RM600,000 or so spent by UUM on Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara respectively is not extravagant and in fact, well within bounds of two graduate students living in NY for three years. In fact, RM600,000 is roughly what JPA will spend to support one student for 4 years here in the US or the roughly RM500,000 JPA will spend to support a student for 3 years in the UK. I don't need to remind many of our readers that many of these JPA scholars fail to return to Malaysia to 'serve' out their bond or that even if they return to Malaysia, many of them end up working in the private sector. This is not to say that I support anyone including Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara to break their bonds which have been paid by taxpayers money (although the circumstances facing Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were different, more on this later) but that our readers who are critical of the amount spent on Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara should be equally critical of JPA sending undergraduates to study in the US or the UK!

OK, back to the question of salaries and expenses. What is unclear to me was whether UUM continued to pay cost of living expenses and the salaries of Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara during the period in which they requested for the 4 extensions asked for.

Again, according to Malaysiakini,

It said the couple had also asked for extensions on four occasions to complete their studies, and this was granted with their monthly salaries paid and their expenses financed by the university despite being absent from duty.

This seems to imply that they were paid their living expenses and their salaries while they were on each of their 4 extensions. But was this sufficient for living and supporting a family in NY?

For those of you who have not had the experience of relocating to another country with your entire family without the support of a corporation (like the many MNCs which help transfer their staff from one country to another), it is a very traumatizing process. Fitting into a new culture, finding schools for your kids, transitioning to a new and demanding academic environment.

My wife and I found it hard enough to transition to life in Durham, North Carolina, and we were relatively 'lucky' in the sense that we don't have any kids, we were able to purchase a car relatively quickly, I was being funded by two scholarships (Duke and Fulbright), she managed to find a job relatively quickly (she's an architect by training) and the cost of living in Durham is much lower than that of major cities in the US, not least NY.

Most sponsored PhD students from Malaysia choose to go to 'easier' places such as the UK and Australia where (i) there is already a large support group of Malaysians there who can help a family settle in relatively quickly (ii) which is closer to home (Sydney is 8 hours from KL, London is 13, compared to the 20 plus hours of traveling time to NY and add another 10 or so hours if you have to transit another time within the US) (iii) there are few pre-PhD dissertation requirements.

Point (iii) deserves further elaboration. Unlike most PhD programs in the UK and in Australia, most, if not all, PhD programs in the US require a student to take between 2 to 3 years of coursework before they are even allowed to start working on their PhD dissertation. That is why it takes much longer for a US Phd student, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, to finish their Phd. The average time for my course is 6 years. For those in the religion department, which have much tougher language requirements, it usually takes an average of 7 plus years to finish a PhD.

While Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara might have taken a bit longer (I think it took them a total of 9 years to finish their doctorate dissertations), this has to be seen in the context of their personal hardships which included the Asian financial crisis in 1997 / 1998 which probably cut their living expenses (including their ringgit denominated savings and salaries, which probably was used as part of their relocation costs) significantly and the 9/11 attacks on the US and NY specifically, which might have pushed their dissertation work back as much as a year. Both of them, for legitimate reasons, have wanted to keep the personal side of their circumstances private since they don't think that that was what led to their subsequent firing but in the end they decided to reveal some of these circumstances in a public letter which was published in Malaysiakini on Aug 9, 2007.

Would it have been easier if they had decided to do their doctorates locally in Malaysia or in the UK or Australia? Of course it would have. But getting into Columbia is no easy feat and it presented them with a once in a lifetime opportunity to study and work in one of the best universities in the US, if not the world.

For those of our readers who wondered why these scholars had to travel all the way to the US to write about Cyberjaya or the MSRMs, I would say this in reply. Being in an academic environment such as one in Columbia allows you to learn different theoretical approaches to one's subject of interest which one can then apply in the study of that subject. In addition, one can also learn about comparative examples (from other countries) in one's subject of interest. I don't exactly know what Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara wrote their respective dissertations on or if they brought in many comparative examples from other countries but I can illustrate this point using my own personal situation.

In the course of my studies here in the US, I've learned a semi-sophisticated statistical technique which can help one estimate racial voting patterns in ethnically divided societies. Using this method, I've been able to estimate ethnic voting patterns in Peninsular Malaysia from the 1959 to the 2004 elections. Using data which my research collaborate, Dr. Bridget Welsh, from SAIS in Johns Hopkins, at the polling station level for the 1999 and 2004 elections, we have managed to estimate racial voting patterns at the polling station level. Would I have been able to learn and apply this if I did my PhD in Malaysia? Probably not! So while I might be writing about elections in Malaysia, I'm using relatively sophisticated tools and theories which I've learn throughout the course of my studies here in the US. I'm willing to bet that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara have benefited similarly from their US experience.

For those readers who are wondering why Dr. Azly had to take so long to finish his dissertation and why he couldn't just 'transfer' credits from his previous Masters degrees, this is what I have to say in response. Most US PhD programs actively discourage the 'transfer' of credits, if you will. There are a few reasons why this is so. Most schools want you to fulfill a number of credits in terms of courses because they want you to be familiar with the theoretical approach which a particular department or faculty member takes in regards to the subject of interest. In addition, this is a good way for a doctorate student to get to know faculty better so that one can better pick and choose faculty to be on one's committee. So even if you could transfer credits, you might not want to because you want to take certain courses under certain professors.

To illustrate how difficult it is for one to 'transfer' credits from one program to another here in the US, let me give you a few more personal examples. I have an MPhil in economics from the University of Cambridge. I toyed with the idea of applying to do a PhD in Economics in the US after my Masters in Cambridge and I found out that I couldn't 'exempt' myself from the coursework components for all of the top schools in the US. A friend of mine who recently transfered from Duke to Berkeley also faced a similar quandary if you will. She did two years of coursework here at Duke, including a Masters dissertation, but she has to repeat another two years of coursework at Berkeley even though she will be in the same field i.e. political science. Hence, the notion that Dr. Azly could have 'transfered' credits from his previous Masters programs is not a very realistic one.

I also have to mention that one needs to take a 'qualifying' or 'comprehensive' exam at the end of the coursework period and one needs to pass this exam before even starting one's own dissertation.

They could have given up even before they started on their quest for their respective doctorates because of the Asian financial crisis. They could have given up halfway through their program especially after the 9-11 attacks on New York. Believe me when I say that if you take a straw poll among many sponsored academics in the public universities, you'd find a significant number who only returned with a Masters degree after 4 or 5 years abroad or that they had to come back and finish their PhDs locally. Kudos should be given to Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara for 'braving' it out in NY and finally finishing their respective doctorates despite their difficult circumstances. Instead, many of our readers have chosen to disparage them, perhaps out of a lack of knowledge of their personal circumstances as well as the a lack of knowledge in regards to the US doctorate process. (I hope that none of the critical comments were 'planted' by members of certain political parties as a way to 'sabotage' this blog)

Back to the chronology of events. After asking for a no-pay leave extension for 2 years starting from September 2004, the disciplinary committee made a decision on December 7, 2004 that the two were 'found guilty' and that they would be fired with effect from Dec 9, 2004. The grounds of the firing were twofold - firstly, because they had not reported back to work at UUM after the completion of their doctorates (it is unclear to me if both of them had finished their doctorates in 2004) and also because of their refusal to sign the 'Akujanji' pledge.

They were sent a letter , dated Dec 23, by the disciplinary committee which 'also gave them 30 days of receipt in which to lodge an appeal, which they did on Jan 1, 2005'.

Now, I've been told by some of my lecturer friends in the public universities, that it is very difficult to fire a civil servant, especially lecturers in public universities. It takes a series of steps culminating with some sort of signed document on the part of the minister in charge (in this case, it would be the Minister of Higher Education, previously it would be the Minister of Education). This kind of move is highly unprecedented, especially given that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were sponsored students and a significant amount of resources had already been spent on their obtaining their respective doctorates. In fact, Dr. Azly speculated that they were probably the first two academics to be fired because of their refusal to sign the Akujanji. This leads me to believe that their firings were more about their refusal to sign the Akujanji rather than their requests for a further no-pay leave extension until 2006. To have the approval of the Minister for the firing of two highly qualified academic staff is no small matter.

It also had to go through the then VC of UUM, Dr Ahmad Fawzi Basri (now deceased), which from his writings, I gather that Dr. Azly was not on good terms with. In a letter dated June 13, 2007, he listed some of these issues including his reputation as a dictatorial VC and as someone who regularly suppressed freedom of speech among students and who seemed to specifically target Dr. Azly. Of course, Dr. Basri cannot defend himself now that he has passed away but clearly Dr. Azly saw the potential that Akujanji could be used against him by the then VC if he signed it and later returned to UUM. (For those interested, you can read a report on Malaysia Today on allegations of corruption brought up against the same VC)

The fact that their respective terminations had to go through a vindictive VC is only further proof to me that they were targeted more for their views and their seeming 'disobedience' against the administration of UUM than for their request for a no pay leave of 2 years.

One should look at the case of Terence Gomez, who at one point in time, was 'forced' to resign by the UM, under an unpopular VC, when he was appointed to a position as a research coordinator at UNRISD in Geneva, Switzerland. He was later reinstated at the intervention of Pak Lah. Or one can look at the case of Prof Ramasamy of UKM whose contract was not renewed probably because of his outspoken views against the Malaysian government.

At this point in time, I should remind our readers that Akujanji was only introduced after Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara had left for the US. It was not part of their 'contract' agreement with UUM when they left for the US as sponsored students.

Why not just sign the Akujanji and be done with it, some of our readers might ask? I firmly believe that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara did not sign the Akujanji as a matter of principle and not because it was an easy 'cop-out'. Here are some of the reasons behind my thinking.

If Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara had wanted to stay on in the US and earn the 'big bucks', as some of our readers have speculated, then, the easy way would have been to sign the Akujanji in hope of getting the 2 year no pay extension. Even if they had wanted to stay on in the US indefinitely, it would have been easier to 'dupe' the UUM authorities by showing a certain amount of pliancy and sign the Akujanji and then after the 2 years of no-pay leave, ask for another extension or just not come back at all and ignore UUM totally!

By refusing to sign the Akujanji and by asking for continual clarification in regards to two clauses within the Akujanji which can potentially be abused, they took the risk of getting their request for a no-pay leave extension rejected.

I certainly don't think that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara wanted to be fired from UUM so that they could be freed from their bonds. By being fired, they risked losing their pensions which they could have built up by continuing to work in UUM after finishing their doctorates. They also risked not being able to be employed by any other public university in Malaysia (all of whom have Akujanji pledges) because they would probably be 'blacklisted' by the MOHE as well as the public universities. They would also know that by being fired, they risked UUM going after them for the amount of living expenses and salaries paid to them while they were studying in the US (which is what is happening now) and that UUM could go after their guarantors if both of them remained in the US (which is what is happening now as well).

No, by not wanting to sign the Akujanji pledge, Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were taking a high road and standing by their principles and they are paying dearly for it now, having been fired from UUM (and probably losing the pensions which they have built up there from working before going off to the US) and probably not able to seek employment elsewhere in the public university system and on top of that, being sued by UUM for RM1.25 million.

How would our readers feel if the government decided to target a few JPA scholars who have come back to Malaysia but not served out their bond and instead went to work for opposition parties and sued these individuals while letting those scholars who are working for MNCs get off 'scott-free'? Wouldn't you be criticizing this policy instead of asking only for these few JPA scholars who are targeted to quit opposition politics? (And Dr. Azly's 'crime' is much less 'serious'. He didn't join the opposition, he only voiced out his opposition against Akujanji)

As for the question of them taking the 2 year no pay leave to 'stabilize their financial situation', could we really blame them for doing so, especially if they had run up substantial debts for the medical bills of both Dr. Mutiara and at least one of their children? Taking this no pay leave and working for a US based institution for 2 years doesn't 'cost' UUM anything and in fact, they could potentially benefit from Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara's experience from teaching / working in these US based institutions. If they decided that at the end of 2 years that they didn't want to come back to UUM, they could still be asked to pay back UUM the amount they owe plus interest over the 2 years.

I firmly believe that if UUM had allowed Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara to have that 2 year no pay leave and allowed them NOT to sign the Akujanji as a way of compromise, I think both of them would be teaching in UUM right now. Earning the so-called 'big bucks' in the US would still take Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara a long time to pay off the 300,000 to 400,000 US dollars (depending on the exchange rate) owed to UUM. Perhaps it will take less than the 5 lifetimes that Dr. Azly mentioned but it certainly wouldn't be paid off in a few years, especially with bills to pay and with children to support in the US.

I firmly believe that Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara were and still are committed to improving the state of our public universities in their own respective areas. Just read this excerpt taken from a letter written to Malaysiakini by one of Dr. Azyl's former students, who did not agree with Dr. Azly's decision to remain in the US:

I studied under Azly way before he went to US for his doctorate. Even then, he was, to me, an outstanding educationist. His approach towards learning was different from other teachers, not that I am implying that the others are bad. Azly’s approach is different. He taught us, among others, how to think critically and how to approach a problem and find the best solution. His style of lecturing kept us awake, with him inserting current issues with facts learned, making us voice out our opinions and creating many discussions one after another.

I can remember many of us coming out glimmering from his class, eager to share the knowledge gained with others who were not so fortunate to be taught by him.

Being a true visionist, Azly had so many ideas on how the education system could be improved. Even with all the bureaucracy in MRSM, he and his wife did all they could to make education fun while at the same time making learning as effective as possible. I remember one time when we were a part of an English club which hosted a Drama Night with dancing, singing and a live band performance - something that was truly unheard of in the MRSM learning system.

After that, some of my friends who were originally quite shy, including myself, were more vocal in class and not afraid to give our ideas which completely reversed our personality. Sorry Academy Fantasia, we were performing way before you (only not on a national level).

As a true educationist and after gaining so much experience abroad, I am sure that both Azly and Marina are eager to part with their knowledge only be bogged down with bureaucracy that will only degrade what they have learned. As an ex-student of Azly, I can vouch that he does care for his students. Many, however, may feel threatened by him because of his approach and how much students responded to his way of learning.

Yes, I agree with Ariff that Azly and Marina should come back and just sign that ‘Aku Janji’ pledge and prove themselves to this country and how classroom teaching should be. But then again, as an educationist with a vision that is beyond the standards that are here, I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to stay in the US where he would be truly appreciated and given the opportunity to expand his talent.

As Malaysia heads for 2020, ‘Aku Janji’ and the University and University Colleges Act should be scrapped, giving freedom to both educators and students to express themselves without fear and prejudice, creating the right kind of mentality to appreciate Vision 2020.

Lastly, for those who want to cast aspersion on Dr. Azly's Doctorate in Education (EdD) instead of a PhD in Education, I'll just point to this Columbia link which says that an EdD requires more credits compared to a PhD (90 versus 75) and that an EdD usually takes longer to complete compared to a PhD. As far the difference between the two, I'd just say, based on my limited knowledge that the EdD focuses more on the 'practice' while the PhD may focus more on the 'theoretical' aspects of education. (Perhaps similar to the different between a DBA - application of theory - and a PhD in Business Administration) Please remember that this is Columbia University, a distinguished and reputable university, unlike some of the more dubious ones which we've highlighted in this blog in the past.

I think I've gone on long enough.

I'd like to recap the main points made in this long post:

1) That the RM600,000 or so spent on Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara respectively is not an extravagant sum and is roughly what the JPA spends on a single Malaysian student studying in a private college here in the US, many of whom don't return to serve out their bonds

2) That the US Phd process usually takes longer than the UK or the Australian PhD process because of heavy coursework requirements as well as the need to take a 'comprehensive' or 'qualifying' exam.

3) That it would have been easier for Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara to sign the Akujanji pledge to obtain their no pay leave extension

4) That it doesn't make financial sense for Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara to renege on their bond to UUM so that they can work in the US

5) That they took a principled stand against Akujanji and paid the price for it

6) That they were targeted by the former VC and perhaps the former Minister of Higher Education because of their stand against Akujanji rather than because of their request for a 2 year no pay leave

7) That they went through many trying personal hardships including the 1997 / 1998 Asian financial crisis, the 9-11 attacks on New York and the many illnesses and deaths in the family and still managed to finish their respective doctorates

8) That they were and still are committed to returning to Malaysia to teach and contribute to building up the capacity of our local public universities

I hope that I've answered many of the criticisms targeted at Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara in this post.

And I sincerely hope and pray that with a different VC at UUM and with a different Minister of Higher Education, the situation facing Dr. Azly and Dr. Mutiara can be resolved in the near future (perhaps with the intervention of Pak Lah?) so that these two scholars can return to Malaysia and contribute their expertise, their passion for teaching and their knowledge to building up our public universities.

Thanks for your patience in reading through this long post and apologies for any grammatical and spelling errors (of which I'm sure there are many).

Friday, August 17, 2007

A consultant's ideas to improve schools in the US

Thanks to my wife for referring me to this New York Times article about how a senior adviser to Tony Blair and now a partner with McKinsey and Co, one of the world's top management consultancies, was being asked to help improve schools in the US. I read three points in this article that are worth highlighting.

The first point Sir Michael Barber raises is in regards to teachers.

“What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?” he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great, in Finland, Singapore, South Korea and Alberta, Canada. “Four systems, three continents — what do they have in common?

“They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the U.S. selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates. This is one of the big challenges for the U.S. education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?”

South Korea pays its teachers much more than England and America, and has accepted larger class sizes as a trade-off, he said.

Finland, by contrast, draws top-tier college graduates to the profession not with huge paychecks, but by fostering exceptionally high public respect for teachers, he said.

I can't say much about the education system in Finland, South Korea and Alberta, Canada but I can say something about the education system in Singapore, where I spent 4 years studying.

As far as I know, teachers in Singapore are paid a respectable salary and continual efforts are made by the Ministry of Education in Singapore to review the salary schemes of teachers. Most teachers lead a decent lifestyle and perhaps with not as much stress as those working in the private sector or for MNCs in Singapore. And choosing teaching as a career path is also a respectable one though many parents would probably prefer their kids to be earning more money in the private sector.

To be fair to the Malaysian government and to the Ministry of Education, steps have been made to increase the salaries of teachers. From some of the comments from one of Tony's previous post, I gather that the starting salary of teachers have increased and adding in the allowances which they receive, their salaries are almost commensurate with some starting salaries in the private sector.

I also recall when I was back in Malaysia in May this year that the hardship or transport allowances for teachers who teach in the more rural parts of Malaysia, especially in Sabah and Sarawak were to be increased, I think as much as up to 1500RM per month.

But my impression is that teaching as a profession is not attracting anywhere close to the top quality Malaysians who graduate from either a local university or from abroad. When was the last time you heard a friend who after graduating decided to go for teacher training and decided to become a teacher at either the primary or secondary level? While I know many friends who are teaching in private and public colleges and universities in Malaysia, I cannot name one single friend, Malay, Chinese or Indian who is teaching in a primary or secondary school in Malaysia. If I was a betting man, I would say that most of our readers would not be able to name more than 5 of their friends who are teachers in either primary or secondary schools. I'm also willing to bet that many of our readers would probably be able to name at least 5 people who are either aunts, uncles or parents of their friends who either are teachers or were teachers and have retired.

Truth be told, I don't know of many of my Singaporean friends who have entered the teaching profession but I can at least name a couple of acquaintances from my Raffles Junior College cohort who have gone into the teaching profession in Singapore.

So if pay is not necessarily one of the main obstacles in attracting decent talent to the teaching profession in Malaysia, what are some alternative explanations? A few that comes to mind off the top of my head include: (i) the possibility of being assigned to a rural school, especially for those who are more used to the more urban lifestyle (something which Singapore teachers don't have to face) (ii) the possibility of being assigned to a school with a lot of disciplinary problems (which describes a majority of urban schools) especially at the secondary level (iii) the perception that there is little prospect for career advancements, more so on the part of the non-Malays (iv) the declining respect for teaching as a profession, perhaps because of a lack of publicity and marketing on the part of the Ministry of Education (v) the lack of aggressive recruitment drives on the part of the MOE.

The problems facing our primary and secondary education system are complex but certainly addressing the quality of the teaching staff has got to be one of the main priorities.

The 2nd point he raises is in regards to the amount of control a federal government has over the education system.

Comparing the UK with the US, he says:

But more important, he said, Britain’s political system endows its prime ministers with greater powers to impose new practices than any corresponding American official enjoys, since basic education policies in the United States are set in the 50 states and in the nation’s 15,000 local school districts, he said. Even though President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law has considerably increased federal influence over what happens in American schools, Washington still plays a subsidiary role to states and municipalities, he said.

“Once Britain’s prime minister is elected, he has a majority in Parliament and it’s much easier to change things,” Sir Michael said. “In contrast, the founding fathers created a political culture where you have to get consensus from competing factions.”

The Malaysian federal government is similar to the UK's in that it has almost complete oversight in regards to education matters in Malaysia. Therefore, it should be easier for the Malaysian government to change education policies in Malaysia compared to the US.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility and with this power, the Ministry of Education has within its capability, the ability to do great harm as well as to do great good. This includes haphazard changes in the syllabus, frequent changes in national education blueprint depending on the minister in charge, the failure to implement policies set by either the cabinet or the minister and so on.

But the fact that there is centralization of power in regards to education policies in Malaysia means that the potential to change our education system for the better is there and can take place faster compared to a context where the jurisdiction for education matters is much more decentralized.

The third point that he makes is in regards to the review process in evaluating schools.

The world’s best school rating systems, including England’s, he said, not only consider test results, but also send government inspectors directly into schools to search for causes of poor performance. McKinsey’s report on Ohio recommended that the state create a corps of inspectors like England’s, which reviews every school at least once every three years, examining the teaching environment and the caliber of school leadership, and suggesting changes, he said.

New York has set up a similar corps of inspectors, he added.

I'm not sure what kind of a review process our MOE has in regards to our primary and secondary schools but I'd be very interested to find out. For example, does the MOE try to teach the 'best practices' of the top performing schools to other schools? Does it have some sort of internal rating process in regards to how well individual schools are performing? Does it have a review process by which non-academic results (such as the UPSR or the PMR) are evaluated? My guess is that currently, no such comprehensive review process exists and that not much is done in regards to trying to improve the worst performing schools in the country.

For those interested in the report which Sir Michael Barber and McKinsey and Co did for the Ohio state government, please click here. It's over a hundred pages long. I'm sure that there's a lot of stuff in there which is already known to us ('taking your watch and telling you the time and charging you for it' consultant practice) but I'm sure that there are insights to be garnered and interesting comparisons which can be made between the US education system (or Ohio to be more exact) and the Malaysian education system.(For example, I was surprised to find that disadvantaged Asian and White students performed better than non-disadvantaged Black and Hispanic students and that Asian and White students performed better than Black and Hispanic students even after controlling for income)

In the meantime, we should keep our eyes on how well our MOE is doing in regards to keeping with the objectives of the latest National Education Blueprint. I'm happy to hear that the MOE is conducting regular reviews on how many of the Blueprint's objectives and plans they have implemented / achieved, according to reports in the past few months.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Shoplot School (II)

In a follow up story by Malaysiakini, it appears that SJK (T) Ladang Sungai Salak in Lukut, Negri Sembilan, while having shifted to "new" premises in the shoplot as per my earlier blog post, will face new financial challenges.
“Now the rental of RM500 and utility bills of RM200 are being paid by donors,” [School Board Chairman, A Ponniah] said.

Asked if the school has approached the government for assistance, he said the board had asked for money to buy furniture, but that the district education department rejected the appeal.

“In June, we asked if the education ministry could at least take over payment of one of the utility bills,” he said.

“Last month, they agreed verbally to pay the electricity bill for three months - possibly from this month, although we don’t know for sure. I guess, after three months, they expect us to find another donor to take care of the bill.”
Why is the school board forced to beg from the Ministry a couple of thousand ringgit to maintain the school?

Is there a demand for the school? Apparently there is.
Ponniah also said there has been good response to enrolment in the school despite its unconventional location.

“We easily get more than 100 applications, but cannot accept everyone because of space constraints,” he said, adding that there are plans to rent the neighbouring shoplot if the enrolment increases next year.
Hence if there is such a demand, which exceeds the current schools' abilities to cope why isn't the Ministry of Education acting promptly on it? Why must education be politicised such that "interventions" must come from political parties, e.g., MIC in this case?

If the Government can announce the proposed expenditure of RM1.1 billion for motivational courses for students, why can't they spend not more than RM250,000 to build a proper school for the students in these village? Or is this the definition of the government's equitable education system?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scam MBA?

I received an email in my mailbox this evening. I certainly hope that this "David Smith" was being sarcastic. He asked me how much it cost my to obtain my Oxford degree. He got his "Oxford" MBA right here in Malaysia for only RM15,000 and pointed me to the programme - Millionaire's MBA, which he "took" part in. Yes, it's called the "Buiness School for Millionaires Mentored by Millionaires".

This MBA certification is granted by the "Oxford Centre for Leadership (OXCEL)" and it's complemented with the so-called "Oxford Business Club". And guess, what? You can obtain your "prestigious" MBA all within an "intensive" period of 5-days(!).

The website even attempts to pass off its "Oxford" credentials by highlighting "Oxford as an University City" within the site.

And oh dear, it's office is located within a stone's throw away from my current office!
84-A, Jalan SS 21/35, Damansara Utama (Uptown), 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor,
Tel: +603 77291070
Fax: +603 7725 5071
The apparent founders, Saiful and Ernest even got themselves featured in magazines, Usahawan and Dewan Ekonomi.

Well, let me assure you that the Oxford University is certainly not associated with the above programmes, and would certainly not offer a 5-day MBA programme. Oxford University has a Business School of its own, Said Business School and you can find out more about its 1-year MBA programme here. My former Economics tutor when I was at Keble, Dr Tim Jenkinson, is currently the Professor of Economics at the School.

However, you can be assured that an MBA there will set you back at least GBP30,000, excluding living expenses, 14 times more than the alleged RM15,000 "MBA" advertised above. This Millionaires MBA thing certainly doesn't sound too much different from the other infamous bogus university, Irish International University (hint: there's nothing Irish about it), which I've blogged about umpteen times.

So, guys, be warned.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Support for Dr. Azly Rahman and Dr. Mutiara Mohamed

The issues facing Dr. Azly Rahman and Dr. Mutiara Mohamed has been highlighted in this blog before by Tony and myself. With UUM firing the next salvo against Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mohamed, I can't help but even sympathize more with the plight of these two distinguished Malaysian scholars.

It was recently reported in Malaysiakini that UUM is seeking 1.25RM million in compensation from Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mohamed and at the same time, casting aspersions on the character of both these academics in regards to the reasons why they didn't want to come back to UUM. It was not really because of the reluctance on their parts of not wanting to sign the Akujanji pledge (which sounds like a bad word to me) but that they didn't want to return to Malaysia despite being given four extensions by the university.

In return, Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mutiara wrote a reply outlining the circumstances under which they had to do complete their PhD including:

* Having to endure extreme financial, and economic hardship as a direct aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997 that happened at the beginning of our studies, in which we were suddenly living below the American poverty line with the loss of 75 percent of our finances and had to take up minimum-wage jobs while attending graduate school and supporting our family,

* Having a loved one with a terminal illness that consequently resulted in death,

* Dr Mutiara Mohamad experiencing years of debilitating medical condition in which it has recently culminated in a major surgery,

* Undergoing numerous hospital and specialist's visits when one of our children underwent diagnosis for the causes of his unilateral loss of hearing,

* Undergoing the long process of rigorous requirement of Columbia University doctoral candidacy (90 graduate credits and two comprehensive exams plus a dissertation),

* Having to go through the long and arduous process of preparing a Columbia University dissertation report,

* Needing several changes of dissertation advisors, and having to coordinate for the availability of the full dissertation committee for the final defence,

* Experiencing the emotional trauma from the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers which happened literally in our backyard,

* Enduring the discontinuation of scholarships and all forms of financial aid from UUM towards the end of our studies, and a host of other hardships we which finally overcame and persevered through even when all means of economic resources had dried out.

Being a PhD student myself, I can totally empathize with Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mohamed's situations while they tried to complete their PhD. New York is an expensive and often difficult place to live in, especially if you have kids and are living on graduate student wages. Their personal circumstances and other extraordinary events, such as the 9/11 attacks, could only have made a difficult process even more difficult.

Asking for extensions is quite normal for a US PhD student since most Malaysian universities give only 3 years for a PhD to be completed while a US PhD usually takes 5 or 6 years to complete. What more, given the personal circumstances of Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mohamed.

My brief reading of both their bios (here and here) indicate to me that these are two highly capable academics, the likes of which Malaysia should be proud to have. Both completed their PhDs in Columbia, one of the top universities in the US and one which few Malaysians are accepted to at both the undergraduate but especially the graduate level.

The fact that these two obviously capable and well published academics are not treated with respect by a local university doesn't give me confidence that our public universities with be able to attract enough of this type of talent to take our public universities to the next level.

On my part, I'll be hoping and praying that Dr. Rahman and Dr. Mohamed manage to resolve their issues with UUM and perhaps one day, even teach and contribute to the building up of our public universities, which from what I've read, both are keen to do.

Chevening Scholarship Deadline 17 September

Thanks to Adriene for this heads-up - those who want to do a Masters degree in the UK and want to be sponsored under the Chevening scholarship, please see the details here.

Deadline is the 17th of September, that's about a month away! Good luck to those who are applying.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Shoplot School

I've been told by some that I seem to have written less "positive" things both here on this Education blog as well as over at my personal blog since I "officially" announced my decision to join the Democratic Action Party.

I can only write here to reassure you that my thinking process hasn't changed at all, and I'm not obligated to write more "opposition" posts. However, over the past year, a certain sense of pessimism seems to have set in, whereby my faith in the Government, its rhetoric versus its action (or rather non-action), leaves much less to feel "positive" about, and hence its possibly reflected in my writings.

Take the following story, just published in Malaysiakini - "Government school sets up home in double-storey shoplot", a sense of despair over our education policies will just set in.
SJK (T) Ladang Sungai Salak’s staff and students moved into the shoplot on July 26 - believed to be a first in Malaysia - while awaiting for a land grant from the government.

When contacted, headmaster M Krishnamoorthy, 44, explained the dire situation which prompted the school to move into the shoplot. He said that the school was originally located in the nearby Siliau estate.

“When the estate was closed down in the 1990s, estate workers started to move out to the nearby town and the number of students in the school dwindled,” said Krishnamoorthy.
“Despite numerous attempts, the Education Ministry never approved our application...".
This appears to be polar opposite of Datuk Seri Samy Vellu's preposterous boast in September 2006 that 21 new Tamil primary schools were built under the Eighth Malaysia Plan and that MIC wants the government to build 14 new Tamil primary schools under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. His grandstanding theatrics was easily proven false as not even a single Tamil school was built under the 8th Malaysian Plan and it is very unlikely that any new Tamil school will be built under the 9th Malaysian Plan.

Now, it appears clear that the Tamil community can't even depend on the Government to provide for relocation, much less the construction of new schools. What's worse, the relocation expenses had to be raised from the public!
The school, with the help from Rajagopalu [state assemblyman for Port Dickson], collected RM80,000 from the public and converted the shoplot into a fully air-conditioned school building.
The plight of the Indian community, particularly those living in the plantation estates and its surrounding townships are in all probability the poorest and most marginalised underclass in Peninsula Malaysia. As I've often emphasized on this blog, education is the best equaliser in the society and offers the best opportunity for the next generation to break out of the poverty trap cycle.

Only yesterday, MCA President, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting boasted of his party's 'successful' effort in having 17 Chinese primary schools relocated to more populous areas since 2004. However, there are at least another 80 schools around the country which requires reallocation, and possibly another 100 new schools to cope with the burgeoning Chinese school population. Are we now degraded to beggar politics whereby we cry with joy whenever we are offered crumbs?

We certainly hope that it will not become a trend whereby vernacular schools will be forced to raise funds from the public in order to relocate into shoplots which are clearly inadequate in terms of facilities for our young Malaysians. Our Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein promised fair treatment for all schools.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Degree Via Handphones?

Yes, you didn't read it wrong. Soon, you will be able to obtain your degrees via your mobile phone. As reported in the New Straits Times yesterday, "in the near future, Open University Malaysia (OUM) students can get snippets of their course modules on demand through SMS, courtesy of mobile learning (m-learning)."
"M-learning could become a global open university for all to participate in," she said.
OUM president Prof Tan Sri Anuwar Ali said it was important to utilise m-learning due to the ever increasing availability of wireless portable devices.

This was echoed by LTT Global Communications Sdn Bhd chief executive Wemel Cumavoo who said that mass usage of mobile devices today presented a more feasible environment for the deployment of m-learning than before.

He also added that Malaysia, with its 20 million mobile phone subscribers, had huge potential for m-learning.
I really don't know what else is there for me to add. How is one going to earn his or her degree via SMS? How can the president of OUM even regard this as even feasible intellectually? Is there no rigour left in university education?

As it stands, OUM offers PhD programmes for working adults on a part-time basis in subjects such as Engineering and Information Technology, which I'm not in favour of. Now, you can purchase your degree via SMS.

Submit your essays in chunks of 160 characters? Multiple choice essay questions with very short answers? Fill in the blanks?

The whole idea of obtaining a degree via SMS sounds even more incredulous than the bogus universities concept perpetuated by "institutions" the non-Irish Irish International University.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Silencing a Malaysian student / rap artist

I'm a big fan of Chinese music even though I'm not Chinese educated. When I saw this Star report on how local Chinese singer Ah Niu was using his music to promote Malaysia and Malaysian Higher Education, it reminded me that I've been wanting to write something about the student who sang and composed the 'Negarakuku' and 'Muar Chinese' rap songs which have become a phenomenon. Be warned, this is going to be a long post!

I like Ah Niu's songs because he brings in many authentic Malaysian experiences such as going to the mamak and mixing up English, BM, Mandarin and Hokkien instead of trying to cater to a more Taiwanese or Mainland China audience by taking away the 'Malaysian-isms'.

Similarly, I was intrigued by Wee Meng Chee (黄明志) rap song entitled Muar's Chinese (麻坡话语) - a creative MV criticizing people from KL who speak Cantonese and look down on their more provincial cousins in Muar who speak Mandarin (as well as Hokkien). You can listen to his MV here or you can just type in 'Muar Chinese' on youtube and you'll have lots of hits.

I couldn't find an MV with an English translation but JuneX2 has translated the lyrics in one of her posts in her blog.

Muar's Chinese has become a youtube sensation (at least by Malaysian standards) with numerous uploads recording probably 300,000 hits in total, if not more.

His lyrics are somewhat crude but I think it an honest reflection of what his young composer's feelings are towards life in general. Some of the content was made in a tongue in cheek fashion and was clearly made with purpose of eliciting a laugh rather than to incite racial hatred.

Perhaps I've been in the US for too long and I'm too used to seeing and hearing politicians and racial stereotypes being made fun of by comedians (and the good ones make fun of politicians from all stripes and people of all races). Perhaps it's because Meng Chee didn't make fun of the Chinese as much as he did the other races. But I enjoyed his rap piece and became an instant fan.

His follow up song / rap was something called Kawanku. You can access the youtube video here. This is a version has an English translation. His lyrics are more offensive in this video especially in regards to his statements about the Malays.

He hit the headlines for the wrong reasons recently when his 3rd song (on youtube that is), a parody of the national anthem, Negarukuku, was noticed by the Malaysian government and legal action was threatened against him, including jail time. You can view his rap / song here with an English translation.

He got into trouble for highlighting the widespread corruption among the police, the lackadaisical attitude of our civil servants, the notion that he was insulting Islam by saying that the morning prayers from the mosques are very noisy, the fact that the government only helps the Bumiputeras in the country and that it is very difficult for non-Bumiputeras to enter local universities.

Wee is currently a student in Taiwan but his family in Malaysia has been pressured over his Negaruku rap and I won't be surprised if he's picked up by the police or the Special Branch if he comes back to Malaysia in the near future.

His rap songs on youtube have received tons of comments and so has his own personal blog. If you have the time to trawl through some of the comments, you'll find a fair number of posters who are incensed by him as well as a fair number who are supportive of him and his songs. Because the issues raised here are pretty complex, I think that it is important to break down the discussion into different parts.

Firstly, does the Malaysian government have the right to go after Wee over his youtube postings, specifically his Negarakuku rap? Of course it does, given the prevalence of many draconian laws which exist in the country including the ISA and the Seditions Act, just to name two. Wee must be responsible for his lyrics and his rap songs, which he himself made public.

But does that mean I think it is right for the Malaysian government to go after him? Of course not. After all, he's just a harmless student studying in Taiwan. Yes, some of the things he rapped about were indeed offensive and he did use vulgar language, but he did not advocate for an overthrow of the government. Indeed, in one of his songs, he told the Chinese in Malaysia to be thankful for government policies since it made them more resilient and forced them to work harder and to seek opportunities abroad.

Those of my friends who watched the live proceedings of the UMNO general assembly last year told me that they were frightened by the tone of voice and language used by many of the delegates, especially those directed against the non-Malay community in Malaysia. Isn't this a more serious threat to the racial 'harmony' of the country given that these are political leaders rather than a harmless, long-haired student currently studying in Taiwan?

Secondly, do I condone or agree with all of what was sung by Wee? Of course not! I don't agree with his characterization of all Malays as being lazy. This is blatantly untrue and not helpful at all. I don't think he should have made fun of Malay women who wear the tudung. But just because I don't agree with this point of view, does not mean that I think he should be silenced!

I know of many non-Malays who agree with this kind of characterization of Malays, which I think is unfair but to a certain extent, encouraged by the continuation of certain economic policies in the country. It won't surprise me that many Malays have negative characterizations of Chinese and Indians and other non-Malays in Malaysia. But arresting people just for holding these views isn't necessarily going to improve race relations in Malaysia, is it?

This is entertainment, this is a rap song! We shouldn't take it so seriously (definitely not as seriously as something like the UMNO General Assembly, which actually has political bite). I watch a lot of Jay Leno on the Tonight Show here in the US. He constantly makes fun of US politicians from the left, right and center. Is Jay Leno endangering democracy in the US in any way? Of course not! The Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT) in KL is famous for making fun of Malaysian politicians and of racial stereotypes. Should they be arrested as well? Of course not!

Thirdly, Wee brings up more than just racial stereotypes. He makes fun of the Singaporeans who come to Malaysia to buy chewing gum and then spit it on the streets, he pokes fun at the Chinese who go to KL or live in KL and speak Cantonese and think that they are better than the Mandarin and Hokkien speaking Muarites, he raps about transvestite prostitutes in Muar, he makes fun of the habits of foreign workers who work in factories, he talks about life in small town Muar, driving Proton cars, and so on.

He's just a kid, a student, that has been conditioned by his upbringing and surroundings, putting into words and song his feelings about the world, in a way in which he thinks is creative, honest and perhaps even funny. He's from a Chinese educated background and is probably not that proficient in English (but probably better than my Chinese) and was probably forced to go to Taiwan to study at the university level. His profile is very different from most of the readers of this blog but perhaps not that different from many non-Malays or Chinese from small towns scattered all of Malaysia.

If you read his personal blog, you'll find an idealistic, passionate and perhaps somewhat naive young kid.

I've translated his post entitled "Getting ready to go to jail" when he found out from a reporter that the Oriental Daily, a Chinese newspaper in Malaysia, had an article about how he might be charged and arrested and put in jail. Perhaps those with a better command of the language can help me out with the translation.

Today I received a phone call in Taiwan from a reporter who told me of a news report in Oriental Daily in regards to my 'Negaraku' rap. The contents of the newspaper report can be summarized as such:

The deputy director of the Minister of Culture (Chinese division) expresses his view that the Wee's version of Negaraku twists the lyrics and cast aspersions on civil servants by insinuating that they are corrupt and damages the good reputation of the country. In addition, namewee's video on youtube does not conceal the faces or the identities of those filmed. Therefore, legal proceedings have to be taken and if it is determined that a legal transgression has taken place, Wee will be sentenced and put in jail.

I thought to myself, when did I 'insult' my country? Wasn't what I described part of reality? They can arrest me, but I would advise them to go and arrest the criminals in JB first. Given that the crime rate in JB is so high, why not deal with that situation and catch the criminals there instead of coming after me?

Some more (sic) dare to say that I insult the country ... actually I feel very disappointed with what they have said ... because they tell lies with their eyes wide open.

Furthermore, he himself is a Chinese ... sigh

In reality, scandals are not important...
Ironically, my song is finally getting some recognition from them! Maybe it's a good thing after all!
At least I won't be going to jail for nothing.

I love my country, which is why I did what I did (inaccurate translation)

Going back to the newspaper story, I'm actually looking forward to going to prison. This is not a facetious remark. When I was younger, I used to watch those Hong Kong prison drama serials. I got very interested in the situations that developed in this prison settings...especially those with Chow Yuen Fatt in them!

I'm very happy that another exciting episode has occurred in my life - when I get to eat curry rice every day! I'm sure that this is an experience which most people have not tried before. What an opportunity!

My girlfriend often tells me that I'm a magnet for strange events since I am often confronted with many baffling and unpleasant situations...thus increasing my experience in these things! That's life ... wanting to experience different things.
Otherwise, a life that is too peaceful and without incident can be seen as somewhat tragic. Hopefully going to jail will help be gain new experiences and enable me to come up with better products (talking about his music) ... On with the revolution!

This is a translation of his most recent post. Again apologies for any inaccuracies.

I have removed my Negaraku song from youtube
My youtube account is being monitored closely so there's not much I can do
The is great pressure on my family ... even though they have been very encouraging but I cannot be too selfish

This is what you call 'draconian pressure'

Though the song has been removed from my account, there are many other accounts out there
They can oppress me, they can catch me, ask me to remove anything
But nobody can change the thoughts and ideas of others
Nobody can cover up the truth

My reason for composing this song is very simple
I only use music as a way of reflecting society
I'm only someone who likes to play music ... it's really that simple
Never thought of wanting to make political waves, never wanted to incite racial sentiments, or to oppose the government

However, because somebody had a guilty conscience, was shamed into anger, made a mountain out of a molehill

Thanks to everyone for their encouragement, thanks to everyone for their criticism
As long as there is air, there will be music, no one can stop the spread of music.

This is a somewhat different post from what I normally write about but I thought that since we were discussing freedom of expression among students in Malaysian public universities, I thought that this is fair game.

Still think that Wee should be arrested and thrown in jail?

P.S. You can view his personal youtube account here. Again, note the comments.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Quick update on the 'grading' of private colleges

A quick update on the state of the 'grading' exercise for the private colleges in Malaysia which was blogged about here and here. The Minister for Higher Education, Tok Pa, was reported in the Star today as saying that a pilot project to grade 10 private colleges has been completed.

I've been generally positive in regards to this move to grade private colleges as this will give the public more information in regards to the quality of higher education in these colleges, an issue which Tony has been and is concerned about and has highlighted many times in this blog.

I've been equally strident in pushing for public universities to be ranked as well though it seems that this is not something that the MOHE is interested in pursuing at this point in time.

I think it's a good idea to run a pilot grading system for selected private colleges first before expanding it to all private colleges in Malaysia. This way, the methodology can be scrutinized and improved as a result. Hopefully, the MOHE will make its methodology public when these 'grades' are released.

The only minor criticism I have is the time this process is taking. This was first brought up in this blog in September 2006, almost a year ago. Hopefully we won't have to wait for another year before we finally get to 'see' these grades.

Monday, August 06, 2007

'Booing' of the UM VC

Thanks to Johnleemk for his comments on the First Annual Malaysian Student Leaders Summit 2007. Part of his comment was the following: "Today was more interesting - I think it's quite difficult to have confidence in Rafiah Salim and Mustapha Mohamad (especially the former) after how they performed today. Both gave ridiculous answers to questions on academic freedom at home and abroad; Rafiah made this ridiculous proposal that we send boys to "paramilitary" (her words) boarding schools. For a moment we thought she was joking." Perhaps, it was in this context that the NST reported that she was booed at this summit.

The NST reported that:

Boos and catcalls greeted Datuk Rafiah Salim when she said public university students had the freedom to express their thoughts and ideas.

Several hundred dissenting voices rang out when the Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor, when taking a question from the floor, said there was "no such thing as students being unable to address their concerns".

Hearing their disapproval, Rafiah retorted: "Behaviour like this is exactly what causes people not to respect you. You won’t even give me a hearing. And you won’t get respect.

"If you behave like that, nobody will listen to you because it is not worth listening. You are not respecting others."

I was a little surprised that the NST reported that the UM VC was booed. Usually, something like that would be conveniently 'left out' in favor of more positive news, perhaps focusing on the Minister in attendance, in this case, Tok Pa, the Minister for Higher Education.

I was even more pleasantly surprised that 'several hundred dissenting voices rang out' when the UM VC said that 'public university students had the freedom to express their thoughts and ideas'. While UKEC organized forums in the UK might attract crowds which can be boisterous and opinionated, I would have thought that the fact that this summit was held in Malaysia would have held many 'tongues' in check. Thus, the fact that those in attendance (including JohnLeeMK) would be brave enough to offer their dissent in a vocal fashion is something refreshing.

I would certainly laugh at the notion that there is freedom of expression among students in public universities in Malaysia. The UUCA puts many restrictions on student activities and organizations (including the ability to join political parties and volunteer for political activities) and student elections are notoriously 'rigged' and 'controlled' by the university authorities.

The UM VC should have realized that when she says ludicrous things in front of a crowd that is intelligent and is not afraid to show their contempt for such ludicrous statements, 'booing' is the first thing that she should expect. But I'm sure that she didn't see that coming, probably anticipating a far more docile crowd, perhaps similar to the crowd that she is used to in UM.

Sometimes I wonder if people like the UM VC really believe that there is freedom of expression in public universities in Malaysia or that they say this because they have to or perhaps they have said this so often that they start to believe this fiction.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

First Annual Malaysian Student Leaders Summit 2007

UKEC with a few strategic partners including, organized the 'First Annual Malaysian Student Leaders Summit 2007', over this weekend (Aug 3 - 5th). It seems like a pretty power packed summit with many political, corporate and educational leaders of note. You can view the details of the conference here. Since I wasn't able to attend (and probably Tony as well), we were wondering if any of our readers who did attend this summit send us a report or comments on what they thought of the summit.

Free SPM Revision Questions

The Times Guides have developed a SPM Questions book to be given away for free to SPM students. Its called Soalan Ulangkaji SPM 2007.

The book was developed with the help of a group of expert teachers who are question paper setters, text book writers and SPM paper markers. They were brought together by Ibrahim Saad, who was the Education Editor of Berita Harian, who also sub edited and coordinated the project for us.

Due to the high cost of printing, they could only print 10,000 copies to be given away for FREE to Form 5 students in 43 schools in Klang Valley.

However, as the book has good value and it can benefit more students, the Times Guide have produced an eBook version of the book for students to download for free.

Also available are tips to answering questions for SPM 2007. Thanks to S N Rajah for the note and offer. Good luck with your examinations! ;)