Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reviving Missionary Schools

I was very intrigued to read this Mkini report on the CCM's (Council of Churches Malaysia) push to want to revive missionary schools in Malaysia. Being a product of a missionary school, La Salle PJ, I am naturally sympathetic to this plan.

Missionary schools were generally recognized as schools where one could receive a good education because the disciplinary standards were high, the teachers were generally motivated and could teach well, the standard of English was relatively high and the 'brothers' and 'sisters' (priests and nuns) created an environment that was highly conducive to learning. Most of us are familiar with some of these schools - La Salle, St. Xavier, Anglo-Chinese, Bukit Bintang, the many Convent schools - and many of us continue to be supportive alumni members.

It is widely acknowledge that the standards of education in many of these missionary schools have gone down the tubes and have lost the distinctiveness which made them highly conducive environments for learning. They were slowly but surely 'nationalized' when the brothers and sisters who were running these schools reached retirement age and were 'replaced' by headmasters and teachers from the civil service . Many of these replacements did not have a clue in regards to the 'culture' in these missionary schools. Hence they did not have a clue as to how to perpetuate this 'culture' of learning. The older, more experienced teachers slowly began to retire in these missionary schools and they were replaced by inexperienced teachers who were trained mostly in the teacher training colleges. The 'busing' in of more and more outside students, many of them from asrama schools, also contributed to the rapid loss of the 'character' of these missionary schools.

With this in mind, what can organizations like the CCM and Catholic 'organizations' like the Jesuit priests who started the La Salle schools do to restore the quality of education in our national schools?

I think they have to leverage their strengths in a few key areas, namely:

1) The ability of these organizations to use their know how based on their previous experience of running these schools. This includes the ability to restore a sense of discipline among students as well as respect for teachers and the culture of learning and in the recruitment of new teachers and retaining old ones.

2) The ability of these organizations to harness the collective energies of the alumnus. While many of these old alumni still contribute to these schools financially or if their kids are in these schools, through the PTAs, but they could definitely play a larger role for example in being on a board of trustees which has some say in how these schools are being run. Also, one can argue that many more alumni members would want to step up and contribute if they see that there was a concentrated effort to restore the character of these missionary schools.

3) The ability of these organizations to show that missionary schools can be run in a way which is professional and in a way which values education without being overtly religious. I went to La Salle PJ primary and secondary from Standard 1 to Form 3 and in no way did I feel as if Catholicism was being 'promoted' at least not overtly. I did go for Cathechism classes in primary school but that was something optional.

But to do some of these things, the Ministry of Education has to sign off. While the likelihood of this happening is very small, for the sake of argument, let's look at a few areas in which there needs to be greater flexibility in regards to how these schools will be run if its missionary 'character' is to be restored. Let's assume that the CCM together with some Catholic organizations gets the MOE to allow them a greater say in how these former missionary schools are run. What are some of the considerations that need to be taken into account?

1)Who is to give the proper input?
- Many of the Jesuit priests, nuns and the early founders of these schools have either passed away or retired. While their experience can be used / consulted, long term and regular input needs to be given by a different group of people. I suggest that some sort of board of trustees comprising distinguished alumni, parents of current students and possibly reputable MOE appointees (just to make them feel more comfortable) should be given some amount of power in regards to running these schools.

2) What kind of jurisdiction is needed?
- I think that these missionary schools should be given some flexibility in the hiring of teachers (outside of the MOE system perhaps), some flexibility in the curriculum, charging extra fees to pay for better teachers and facilities (means tested so as not to exclude poor students) as well as some control over who gets into these schools (some sort of admission criteria). The intended outcome is that a school which is multi-racial, comprising mostly of local, above average students, with good teachers and interesting curriculum (beyond the mandated syllabus) and an environment of learning and discipline.

Of course, all this is just talk given that the MOE is not likely to want to cede control over these schools. But it's good to put a few things on the table for discussion sake, in case any space opens up in how the government thinks of organizing education policy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Doubling number of foreign students - a good thing?

The push to increase the number of foreign students in Malaysia is continuing, according to Tok Pa, as recently reported in the Star. This is not something new as I've blogged about this here and here. I've expressed my doubts on whether our public and private universities have the capacity to absorb foreign students at the postgrad level. Tony probably has similar doubts on the capacity of our private universities and colleges to absorb these questions at the undergraduate level. Let me share some more thoughts about this issue.

In the Star report, it was reported that 'Malaysia aims to double to 100,000 the number of foreign students at local institutions of higher learning by 2010, Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said.'

He also said that 'Government would embark on a two-prong approach to realise the target, which he described as a “significant increase” to achieve the goal to turn the country into a centre of education excellence.'

The two-prong approach is presumably the approach of attracting foreign students both at the undergraduate as well as the postgraduate level.

Generally speaking, I'm in favor of expanding the education sector, especially the private sector, in Malaysia as an alternative source of employment and growth given that our manufacturing base is declining. Why 'especially the private sector'? It costs less for the government, it doesn't take up valuable spaces in the public universities, there's arguably more capacity or spaces in private universities and colleges. While Tony's concerns in regards to the education standards in many of these private colleges and universities are definitely legitimate, I think that competition among the private universities will slowly raise the educational standards in the top-tier private universities such as Nottingham, Monash at Sunway and perhaps HELP and SEDAYA just to name a few more prominent private colleges. As foreign students become more discerning and more information becomes available, they will be able to sift out the more 'legit' private universities versus the more 'dubious' ones.

I'm less supportive of increasing the number of foreign students in public universities firstly because as mentioned above, they take up valuable spaces which should be reserved largely for Malaysian students, especially if they are also heavily subsidized by the Malaysian government. I'm not so averse to having more post-grads at the public universities, especially if they are NOT subsidized by the Malaysian government, because the demand for postgrad studies among Malaysians is lower and because of the possible value added among these foreign post-grads to higher education in Malaysian (potential future lecturers and researchers) as well as to the larger economy (potential knowledge workers).

So some future points to ponder:

- Where will the increase in foreign students in Malaysia occur? (Private undergrad, private postgrad, public undergrad, public postgrad)
- Where are these foreign students coming from? (It's better to have a wide distribution of students from different countries and regions rather than having them come predominantly from one region)
- How are the public and private universities responding to these increases? Do they have the capacity to do so?
- How will the interests of Malaysian students, especially at the undergrad level in public universities, be safeguarded?
- What can and will be done to ensure that foreign students are not 'cheated' by private universities in terms of overpromising and underdelivering? (the same level of protection should be afforded to Malaysian students as well of course)
- Are there certain fields at the postgrad levels (such as science and engineering) which are being targeted, especially in public universities?

My ideal policy outcomes would be something like:

- Increasing standards in private universities by forcing them to compete for foreign students, both at the postgrad and undergrad levels
- Ability to attract quality postgrad students from different countries / regions to public universities
- Steady growth for the education sector as a whole in Malaysia
- Ample 'protections' for both local and foreign students

In the meantime, we'll be tracking this issue very closely.

Contacting us

For those of you who don't know our email addresses (it's in our respective profiles), you can email us at for Tony, obviously, and for me, Kian Ming. I'll be coming back to KL for about a month in May so maybe we'll have another get-together like the one we had last year? If not, if you want to meet up with me individually to talk about doing a PhD in the US or other related education issues, please email me with your details and hopefully, we'll be able to meet up in May. Indeed, one of our readers whom I met at last year's get together just emailed me to let me know that he got into a Duke Phd program and will be joining me at Duke later in fall.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Why Jiao Zong rejects ranking of Smart Schools

I was slightly irritated when I read in the Star yesterday that "Jiao Zong (United Chinese School Teachers Association of Malaysia) chairman Ong Chiow Chuen was quoted in the Sin Chew Daily as saying that the move would have a negative effect." This 'move' is in reference to the decision by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to implement a 5 star rating system for smart schools. I am fully supportive of moves by the MOE to release more information to the public at large which I think will create more transparency and accountability on the part of the school administrators as well as the Ministry. But why did Jiao Zong's chairman reject this ranking system?

First of all, I'm not even sure if there are any Chinese medium schools in the smart school project. A cursory examination of the list of smart schools show that these are all secondary schools and none of them could be considered, as far as I can tell, 'Chinese' national secondary schools in the sense that Catholic High in PJ is a 'Chinese' national secondary school i.e. most of the students are Chinese students from SRJK(C) primary schools and who take Chinese as a PMR as well as an SPM subject. So, I'm a little bit puzzled as to why Ong would object to the ranking of smart schools.

Secondly, his logic of rejecting the ranking of smart schools fails me. He said: "It would give the public a clear picture on how good or bad a school was and this would prompt parents to use all means to ensure that their children were placed in schools that are highly rated."

Given the fact that smart schools already receive greater funding and attention from the Ministry, wouldn't the demand to go to these schools already be sufficiently high? Also, aren't there current procedures which allocate students based on where they live which precludes the sudden streaming in of a large number of outside students who want to enroll in the best smart schools? Furthermore, aren't there other good schools out there which are not designated as smart schools?

As I'm from PJ, I'll use some PJ examples. I can't imagine that all parents would suddenly want to send their girls to Sri Aman since it is a smart school and it would probably do quite well in the ranking system given the demographic profile of the students who go there as well as their middle class and well educated parents. This is because there are other good schools in PJ such as Assunta and Catholic High.

I have to admit that I haven't read the full Oriental Daily interview with Ong. (If anyone knows of the link, please post it here and I'll read the full interview) So I might be guilty of not fairly judging his statements.

But this I will say and I say this based on a more general impression of Dong Jiao Zhong (Dong Zhong and Jiao Zhong) as organizations - that they are not keen on education reform and that they are not keen on being transparent internally and the basis of this attitude is that these organizations are governed and run by aging men who are conservative by nature. Anything that smacks of change is an affront to the way they like things to be - which is to preserve the status quo and not to have change.

While Dong Jiao Zhong has done a great deal in regards to protecting and raising awareness of the plight of Chinese schools in Malaysia, it has done less well in reforming the state of Chinese education in Malaysia. I will just point to two specific examples. They have failed to address the poor standard of English that is being taught and learned in Chinese primary schools as well as Chinese independent schools. So much so that they could not provide alternative proposals when the Ministry of Education decided to implement the teaching of Science and Math in English across all primary schools including Chinese primary schools. The second example is one which Tony has blogged about before - which is the issue of corruption among headmasters in Chinese schools.

The rejection of ranking schools is symptomatic of the conservative streak within Dong Jiao Zhong, I argue. If this leads to a ranking of Chinese primary schools, for example, it will reveal the myth that all Chinese primary schools are equally good at teaching Science and Math, for example, and perhaps reveal the poor standard of English among students in these schools as well as some of their teachers.

While having school rankings is not a panacea for the state of education in Malaysia, I regard it as a positive and progressive step. The fact that the chairman of Jiao Zhong has rejected this move further cements my impression that Dong Jiao Zhong is reluctant to reform itself and to take progressive steps to improve the state of education among Chinese primary schools as well as independent Chinese secondary schools.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Masters in Economics (Part 1)

This post was inspired by a comment left by Elanor Tan in regards to whether one should pursue a Masters in Economics locally in Malaysia or go abroad. I thought it would be a good learning experience for me to look at the local offerings in regards to Masters in Economics courses and compare them to similar programs in the UK and the US, something which I'm a little more familiar with.

Assuming that one did his or her undergraduate degree in economics (like the person who left the comment in Elanor's blog) in a local university in Malaysia, the first question that his person should ask is - why exactly do I want to pursue a Masters in Economics? This question is important because it dictates where one should go to pursue one's Masters, whether it is a local program or an overseas program.

For example, if this person is interested in researching a particular aspect of the Malaysian economy (but doesn't want to spend 3 to 5 years on a PhD), it would make more sense for him or her to enroll in a Masters program in a local university. Most, it not all, Masters programs in Economics in UK and US universities are very theoretical and quantitative. Even at the undergraduate level in most UK and US universities, Economics students are required to take numerous quantitative courses -in mathematics (calculus, matrices etc...) as well as statistics (regression, distribution, etc...). I'm guessing that the undergraduate requirements in most Economics programs in Malaysian universities are not as rigorous. A brief glance at the UM faculty of economics and administration website shows that it is possible to take quantitative courses at the undergraduate level but it is unclear if these quantitative courses are required courses. So if one doesn't like math or stats, I would highly discourage you to go to the UK or the US to do a Masters in Economics.

While it is possible to pursue a rigorous quantitative route at the local level, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, there is also the option of obtaining a Masters by dissertation (instead of coursework) at the local level. I'm not familiar with such an option being possible in most US or UK universities, unless it is not a pure Masters in Economics e.g. Masters in Public Administration or a Masters in International Development. So, if you're interested in investigating, for example, the impact of Malaysia's industrialization policy on economic development, I think you would be better served by doing a Masters in a local university, under a knowledgable supervisor, with easy access to local resources.

What if this person wants to do a Masters as the first step towards a PhD in Economics? Some of what I've said above still applies. If you're not quantitatively inclined and if you want to do something which is Malaysia specific, you're better off enrolling in a local program. The downside, however, of enrolling is a local program is that your PhD will be less 'marketable' because, if you've not done sufficient course and if your PhD research design in one that is limited in scope, you'll find that you'll be able to teach only in Malaysian universities. If this is fine with you, then again, by all means, enroll in a local program.

If this person really likes Economics as a subject (and not just one particular aspect of the Malaysian economy) and is not averse to quantitative methods (math and stats), then I'd advise this person to try to enroll in a US or UK university. Most US universities, however, are less inclined to enroll a person seeking only to do a Masters degree program in Economics preferring PhD students instead. Thus, there are not many top-ranked US schools which offer this choice. Some, however, do offer a one or two year Masters in related fields such as a Masters in International Studies (Yale). Nuffied College in Oxford offers a 2 year quantitatively driven Masters program in Economics and both Cambridge and LSE offers a one-year Masters program in Economics which covers the basic theoretical ground in Economics (Micro, Macro, Stats) for further graduate work.

So it this person is intersted in Economics but only wants to do it at the Masters level, then apply to a UK university. If this person wants to do a Masters as a step towards a PhD degree, then apply to a US university.

Finally, what is this person just wants to get a Masters in a field which would advance his or her career? Then, I would suggest that you consider taking an MBA instead of a Masters in Economics. An MBA is a much more widely recognized degree and it covers a much broader area than a Masters in Economics. Of course, the next question would be - a local MBA or an overseas one? This is perhaps a subject for another post, but my general recommendation is that if you don't have too many restrictions (family, financial), apply to go to an MBA school overseas, preferably in the US (although LBS in London and INSEAD in Fontainebleu, France are also good options in Europe).

To recap, enroll in a local Masters program in Economics if:

(1) You are not quantitatively driven
(2) You want to research a particular aspect of the Malaysian economy
(3) You have other personal considerations - time, financial, family

enroll in a Masters program in Economics in the UK if:

(1) You don't mind quantitative methods
(2) You like Economics but you're not sure if you want to do a PhD in Economics
(3) You want to finish this Masters in one year
(4) You don't have other personal restrictions

enroll in a Phd program in Economics in the US if:

(1) You like quantitative methods
(2) You are quite sure you want to pursue a PhD in Economics
(3) Your area of interest in economics is not necessarily restricted just to Malaysia.

enroll in a MBA program if:

(1) You are seeking a Masters degree in general for career advancement and are not particular interested in Economics but just want to get an advanced degree.

These are generalizations and does not apply to all situations or to all people. Take it with a pinch of salt. As to which local university one should try to enroll in, that is the subject of another post.

P.S. For those who might not know, I did my BSc in Economics at the LSE and my MPhil in Economics in Cambridge. I'm currently doing my PhD in political science at Duke University. One of these days, I'll share in more detail my positive and negative experiences associated with my education in the UK as well as the US.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Cost-Benefit of Overseas Education

Many parents today save up a lot of money for their children to pursue an overseas education. More than a few would have asked, is it all worth it? Well, someone actually did a fairly detailed cost-benefit analysis on the issue using a simple financial model (with assumptions of course). Check out Ahmad Ismail's analysis on the issue here.

Basically, the conclusion appears to be that "there is nearly no economic benefit to sending children abroad as opposed to sending them to local universities". Unfortunately, I haven't the time this 2 days to do a rigourous study of overseas education and its cost and benefits, I'll give my 2-sen on my personal views with regards to the issue.

The most significant global phenomenon of tertiary education for the past decade or so, has been the "democratisation" of degree-level education. That is sort of a polite way of saying "everybody also can get a degree from somewhere or other". We have argued that the focus on the quantity of universities and university graduates has reduced the quality of degree level education in Malaysia. However, it is not a phenomenon unique to Malaysia.

To varying degrees (pardon the pun ;)), it is the same for Australia, United Kingdom and the United States. The global result is hence the overall decline in the average quality of degree graduates. For example, a student who would possibly have qualified only for a diploma in the past, would have no problems securing a degree certification today.

Viewed from the above context (which is different from the approach taken by Ahmad), the argument that an overseas education may not be economically more beneficial than a local university holds a certain level of merit. My experience in recruitment has certainly taught me that local graduates are not uniformly weaker than foreign ones, as often generalised (and I would say, generalised wrongly). There are graduates from foreign universities who I would not hire, even if I'm offered a 3-month free trial, just as I wouldn't some local graduates.

At the same time, there are many local graduates who I would happily hire, and rate equal or better than most "overseas" graduates. Hence, in this regard, my personal experience 'sort of' adds justification to Ahmad's hypothesis.

However, I believe that there are exceptions. The exceptions are when these overseas graduates originates from the top universities overseas. Whether justified or otherwise, the market rates graduates from say, Yale or Cambridge much higher than those from the average (for lack of a better descriptive term), universities. I must admit that I have personally benefited from such treatment having graduated from Oxford. Whether its fair, justifiable or otherwise, my chosen alma mater eased my entry into on of the top global consulting companies and indirectly helped my start up business due to better chances of seeking appointments with key client managers. Even today, in politics, I'm being viewed a little differently, whether I like it or not.

Hence, in all likelihood (it's still a long time yet) for my own daughter, I'll happily (by hook or by crook) send her overseas if she gains entry into some of the top schools in the world, knowing that she will benefit directly or indirectly from such an education. However, if she's say, an average student, local universities or possibly the insitutions down south, may be the preferred choices.

There is however, a caveat to the above argument. The choice between a local public university as opposed to an overseas university also presupposes that the former is an applicable option, particularly for non-bumiputeras. If access to local public universities isn't a reliable option due to uncertainty of entry requirements as well as course allocation, then the students have no choice but to secure their tertiary education either at local private unversities like Multimedia University or via twinned programmes with local private colleges or directly to overseas institutions.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hokie Tragedy

Yesterday, a gunman, in two separate incidents, open fired and killed at least 32 people and then took his own life on the campus of Virginia Tech, in the worst mass shooting tragedy in US history. Virginia Tech is located in Blacksburg, Virginia, about a 3 hour drive from where I am at Durham, North Carolina. Our condolences, thoughts and prayers are with the families, students and friends of Virgnia Tech. (Hokie is the name of their sports team / mascot) At Screenshots, we are told that all the Malaysians at Virginia Tech are safe.

Observations from Cambridge for UM

A well written letter posted in Malaysiakini that is worth reading.

Observations from Cambridge for UM
Sekar Shanmugam
Apr 13, 07 1:59pm

On Oct 12 last year, I had the privilege to attend a seminar on leadership delivered by the vice- chancellor of the University of Cambridge at the university’s business school.

After all, the recent uproar in Malaysia about the further drop in rankings of my alma mater - the University of Malaya - in the 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings, I thought I could gather some insights on the running of one of the oldest universities in the world and to share lessons with those responsible in formulating policies for higher education back home.

As the vice-chancellor was introduced to the stage, I quickly glanced through her credentials in the programme leaflet and must say that I was truly impressed even before she started to speak.

Professor Alison Richard was installed as the 344th vice-chancellor of Cambridge on Oct 1, 2003 and incidentally is the first woman to hold the position full-time. An anthropologist with a first degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of London, Richard joined the faculty of Yale University in 1972.

Her academic leadership at Yale culminated in her appointment as Provost of Yale in April 1994. The provost is the chief academic and administrative officer of the university after the president, and as provost, Richard oversaw major strengthening of Yale's financial position and significant growth in academic programmes.

Richard started her talk by dismissing the notion that challenges associated with running a university are distinct from the challenges of running a business. I was surprised by this remark as I assumed that the university - steeped in tradition - would frown upon drawing parallels with the ‘dark’ side that being the ‘non-academic and profit-oriented’ establishment of the business world.

To drive home her point, she elaborated on two areas where the challenges are similar albeit a little unique. These, in fact, are valuable lessons.

Lesson 1 - The measurement of success

While measurements of revenue, profit and shareholder value are typical ‘success’ benchmarks for businesses, appropriate measurements for universities are saddled with ambiguity. She went on to mention that league tables are to be taken with a pinch of salt – and this, mind you, comes from the vice-chancellor of a university that was ranked second in the 2006 THES survey.

There was not even a tinge of self-proclamation of success. Instead, she humbly pointed out that these league tables are merely looking at the present and the past, and give little indication of the future.

The more pertinent measurement of a university, she feels, is how it contributes to the country’s economy. To this, Richard made reference to a report by an independent research firm, the Library House. The research encompassed the university’s technology cluster (that now numbers 900 innovation-based companies) concluded that if Cambridge did not exist, the impact on the UK economy will be a whopping £57.5 billion (net present value) with over 154,000 jobs needing to be replaced.

Lesson 2 - Recruiting the best

The challenge in the area of recruitment is not so much as attracting the brightest talent (the Cambridge name does a sufficient job of that) but in hiring the best candidates. In the university’s context, best means brightest and being able to do both cutting edge research and to impart knowledge to others – that is, to teach at undergraduate or graduate level.

She acknowledges that there will be the occasional missteps but as long as the university has the resources and commitment to hire the best, a strong sense of purpose among the leadership team to make Cambridge great and to have the honesty to examine failures, excellence will be maintained.

As I strode out of the lecture hall towards the refreshment table, I could definitely resonate with most of what she said. After being at a renowned global IT company for the greater part of my career and exposed to how global organisations run their businesses, it dawned on me that the lecture could have just about been by a CEO of a global corporation. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that it was delivered by an academic.

I definitely sensed that she is all fired up and optimistic of Cambridge achieving its future goals. In fact, she did declare that she will step down to let someone else carry the torch if the flame within her dies down.

It was indeed an eye-opener coming from the ‘CEO’ of an 800-year-old university who has recognised that the survival of the university in the new global platform is not to rest on its past achievements and traditions but to move forward with vigour to maintain Cambridge’s stature as one of the greatest learning institutions of the world.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Porn @ Lim Kit Siang's Blog?

Update: A reader has informed me that he has had no problems accessing Sdr Lim Kit Siang's blog from the USM network. Hence, the University has either removed the classification, or I could have received a hoax. If it is the latter, then I must apologise to the university for having publicised this matter.

Well, that's apparently how Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang's blog has been classified in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), as shown in the screen capture above ;)

Apparently, the web administrator of Pusat Pengetahuan, Komputer dan Telekomunikasi (PPKT) have decided that Sdr Lim's blog should not be accessed by USM students. Hence not only are university students not allowed to participate in political activities under the UUCA, but even viewing it online is now prohibited.

Several students have made complaints to the university authorities, and we'll see if the policy gets reversed (or has been reversed, as I've gotten this 3 days back) ;)

Friday, April 13, 2007

LAN accredited courses

Read this story in the Star today in regards to registering for courses which are accredited by LAN (Lembaga Akreditasi Negara) or the National Accreditation Board. I quickly checked the LAN website, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they have a list of accredited courses by institution online. You can find it here and here.

I'm still a little unsure as to what happens if someone takes a 'provisionally' / accredited / approved course and finds out at the end of his or her 3 years of taking this course that this course didn't make it to the fully accredited list.

I was also surprised to find a lot of PHEIs (Private Higher Educational Institutions) which I've never heard before appearing on this list. (Maybe an issue for a future post)

But at least we can access this information online to check if a particular course in a particular institutions is accredited or not, which is what most students would do in this day and age.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

SMK Canossa Convent, Melaka

The Truth, The Way and The Light
by Karen Lee Huey Shyan
Canossa Convent urgently needs funds to reinforce the foundation of the school hall and library block, which are in danger of collapsing. The beams and pillars are significantly exposed, and action has to be taken fast before any untoward incidents happen. A fund raising dinner will held on the 28th April 2007 in Malacca.

For details, please contact Siok Hoon (012 – 6218909) or siokhoon_chin(at) Donations can be made to ‘SMK Canossa Convent (Funds Account)’ and sent to:
SMK Canossa Convent, Perkampungan Portugis, Ujong Pasir, 75050 Melaka.
I remembered vividly how I used to describe to my colleagues and university mates that my secondary school was like a lighthouse by the edge of the sea. The freezing cold morning air and the lapping of the waves were the sounds that greeted me every time I stepped into the school compound. Located on the highest floor of the school building, my classroom overlooked the sprawling houses in Portuguese Settlement and had a really magnificent view of the Straits of Malacca.

Standing just merely five meters away from the sea, SMK Canossa Convent, metaphorically, has served as guiding light, as a beacon of hope, for the many lost ‘ships’ in their voyage through life be it spiritually, academically or socially.

I had schoolmates who were Portuguese, Chinese educated Chinese, English educated Chinese (they were from Chinese Medium Primary Schools and Primary Convent Schools respectively), Malays, Hindu Indians, Christian Indians, Baba Nyonyas etc. You named it; we were truly a melting pot. And through this melting pot, we learnt the lessons of racial tolerance to the extent that each festive season was the highlight of our otherwise ordinary school life. We would organize cycling expeditions through the kampungs and paddy fields as we visited our schoolmates and enjoyed the delicious delicacies prepared by different races.

It was also this ‘muhibbah’ spirit, which spurred us on as we made it a point to have festive concerts in our school hall come every festive season.

While we did not have many students with strings of ‘A’s, what we lacked academically, we made it up by excelling in sports and extra-curricular activities. Our school’s volley team was one of the best in Malacca. Coached by the ever popular and charismatic Mr. Lee, though the going was tough, the team players played their guts out at every match and tournament. Not forgetting the huge turnout by the cheerleading students from all age group, we had so much fun supporting our favourite team.

I remembered we were champions in the Malacca English Drama Competition for three years in a row. All thanks to teachers like Mrs. Joan Chong, Mrs. Koh, Mrs. Doris Tan and many others who poured their hearts and souls making diamonds from rough stones like us. Many of us students also sacrificed our time forgoing all other engagements and spending days getting all the lines ready and preparing our props and costumes. I wonder how is the situation like now in my alma mater?

I was in the science stream and my, my classmates and I were really an outspoken lot. We made our presence felt in school by being vocal about a lot of things. We were quite a notorious lot and no one wanted to be our form teacher, fearing that we were too much to handle probably. Which was all the more why we respected Mrs. Seow because she gave us the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t see us as a bunch of misfits but rather like a bunch of youngsters enjoying the emancipation of women to the maximum.
Mrs. Seow, may you rest in peace.

But to me, the person I revered the most was and still is my former Principal, Sister Esther Thomazios. I was really touched by her undying effort and her utmost commitment in bringing out the best in us. She displayed such uncanny ability in making something out of nothing, making Canossa Convent one of the best-kept and organized schools in Malacca.

Two years ago, Canossa Convent celebrated its 100 anniversary of the arrival of the Canossian Sisters in Malaysia. We had a huge gathering amongst the ex students of the school. We also invited the Canossian Sisters from all over Malaysia (Kluang, Malacca, Monfort Boys Town etc) and Singapore to grace the event.

No words can described the feeling of being able to meet our former teachers again and catching up with old classmates and friends, looking at how some of us prosperous horizontally (pun intended) with growing families and sadly, some who had left us to be with God. I was moved to tears when I saw many of the Canossian Sisters I knew like Sister Dorothy, Sister Geraldine and Sister Esther and how they have made a lifetime commitment to the betterment of the unprivileged.

Canossa Convent is located right in the heart of Portuguese Settlement. Unlike now where many dwellers of the settlement are much more affluent, twenty years ago, the main source of income for most of the Portuguese families came from the sea, as most of them were fishermen. Many families could hardly earn enough to sustain a living. Low literacy rate and high dropout rate were common among their children. Not to mention, there were many social problems in the community like alcohol and drug addiction, gangsterism, marital problem etc.

The Canossian Sisters from Canossa Convent were there at a time when the community needed them most. They have been like the light at the end of the tunnel, a beacon of hope when all were in despair. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers alike respected the Canossian Sisters. Masses were conducted weekly at the school hall for the community. Fund raising projects were organized to keep the poor fed and clothed. Extra tuition classes were held for the weaker students. Counseling sessions were conducted to improve relationship and more importantly, all were welcomed with open arms by the Sisters. Regardless of race, religion and status, the Canossian Sisters have shown that what God has provided for us, we need to give it back to the community.

Via, Veritas, Vita. The Truth, The Way and The Light. Canossa Convent’s motto. My school’s motto. I finally realize what it meant.

Karen Lee is currently a full time homemaker and a part time teacher. In the midst of her busy schedule, she feels compelled to write about social and environmental issues that touch her heart. She can be contacted at karenleehs(at)

Overseas recruitment

It's a small start but at least it's a start. Tok Pa, Minister of Higher Education, "said as a result of his ministry’s headhunting mission in Britain last month, 24 promising candidates have been identified, including 14 medical specialists".

From the same Star report:

Mustapa said the Government has agreed to provide higher salaries for lecturers with PhDs to attract the best brains to public universities.

It is understood that new lecturers with PhD qualifications will be placed on the Grade 51 scale (which pays about RM5,000 monthly with allowances) instead of the current Grade 45.

Hopefully, this headhunting trip will actually lead to these 24 individuals returning to Malaysia. We would probably like to know a more detailed background of the 24 candidates (qualifications, field, race, etc...) but for now, the fact that the MOHE is taking a pro-active approach towards recruitment is certainly a positive thing.

I've not heard of this organization before but in the same report,

Malaysian Academics Movement (Move) chairman Dr Wan Manan Wan Muda welcomed the move but added that more needs to be done.

“It will not improve matters if the promotion and award system in universities is not improved.

“You can headhunt for the best brains, but they will not stay if they have to work under heads who are not qualified.”

I'll try to look them up to see what they are doing to make the promotion system in our public universities more transparent.

Cultural societies allowed in public universities

Some good news. Certain cultural societies esp. to do with language (and sometimes religion) have regularly complained about resistance on the part of the authorities in public universities in allowing them to be set up or allowing them freedom to conduct their activities in public universities. This latest Star report indicates that restrictions against these cultural societies being set up in our public universities will be a thing of the past.

Some positive and progressive sounding remarks:

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) deputy vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Wahid Samsudin said the move by the Higher Education Ministry would “promote diversity through integration.”

“It is important that we involve all races in different activities like the Chinese Lantern Festival and Ponggal so that we can be educated on each other’s culture,” he said.

Universiti Malaya (UM) deputy vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin concurred that cultural societies were a good way to bring the races together.

“This will be a healthy move as it will make us truly Malaysian,” he said.

Let's hope that there won't be any clampdown on the part of the authorities if and when certain 'incidents' regarding 'sensitive' issues arise.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cluster schools - good or bad idea?

I generally like the idea of giving schools more autonomy and local 'stakeholders' to have a greater say in the running of a school. I think it provides more freedom for farsighted and innovative principals in cooperation with local businesses, parents and students to venture beyond the narrow field of 'education'. The idea of having cluster schools, as outlined in the National Education Blueprint, builds on this platform, where schools will be "given autonomy in five key areas - human resources, school funds, student intake, teaching and learning, and examinations and evaluation". This issue was covered in last Sunday's education pullout in the Star.

The problem with such ideas is that, as usual, the implementation process leaves much to be desired. According to the Star report, "Since the announcement of the schools, principals have been waiting for the Education Ministry to give full details on the degree of autonomy or the funds they will get." Bureaucratic ineffectiveness on the part of the Minister of Education, surprise, surprise. Remember the announcement sometime last year that the Minister of Higher Education was going to release 'rankings' of private colleges? We are still waiting, as are some of the principals who are hoping that their schools will be selected as one of the cluster schools.

Some possible reasons behind the bureaucratic delay:

1) The sensitive issue of choosing which schools. The ministry, I'm guessing, is attempting its usual balancing act of not choosing only schools from predominantly urban areas in certain states but want to 'spread' out these schools. My feeling is that it is precisely urban schools (or those in semi-urban areas) which can benefit most from having this greater autonomy since there are a greater number of 'stakeholders' who can contribute and benefit from the process. It is much more important to ensure that the basic necessities - sufficiently qualified teachers, electricy and school supplies - are provided to rural schools before they can even think of 'making the leap' to being a cluster school.

In any case, doesn't the very definition of 'cluster' imply that there should be groups of these schools in the same vicinity? Presumably so that they can have different areas of specialisation, for example?

This is not to say that most of these cluster schools should only be in PJ, KL, Ipoh or Penang. I'm sure that schools in Kota Baru, like the one headed by Aidah Mohd Salleh of SK Zainab 2, can benefit from being a cluster school. In this particular case, the headmistress wants the school to specialize in archery.

2) The issue of funding. While it is implied that cluster schools will be given more money by the Ministry to run some of their 'specialized' programs, it seems that not all the funding will come from the Ministry. The principals together with other stakeholders will have to find creative ways of coming up with sufficient funds to cover the total running costs of having these programs.

I don't have too much of a problem with this since if it is the students in these schools who will benefit from having these specialized programs, the stakeholders such as the principal and parents should take the iniative to raise more funds e.g. working with local businesses or MNCs.

It has also been suggested that the Ministry set up a central fund from which individual cluster schools can apply to for the specific purpose of running / starting certain programs.

In general, I think that this can be a good idea, albeit limited to being applied to a small number of schools, at least initially. The problem is, like with most things in Malaysia, is the bureaucratic process which screws up the original intention of having such a program in the first place.

On a related note, anyone knows what's the status of the 'SMART' schools?

Virtual Integration

Yes, the Ministry of Education means it literally. As part of the Racial Integration Programme (RIMUP) for school children, there is now plans to create an online "game" to promote "virtual" integration. When I read the report, frontpaged on the Sun today, I nearly fell off my chair (ok, that one is not meant to be taken literally).

As it is, RIMUP (which was blogged here much earlier) has a relatively small budget of RM25.8 million to operate with for the year. However, it has been disclosed by the Ministry of Education that almost one-third of the funds, RM8.35 million is being used to develop the programme and "set up internet and servers and software in schools for the e-integration programme".

(Tony faints.)

Apparently this software is a "virtual game with 10 different components, using cartoon characters like Izat, Chong and Raj with a storyline that has elements of national unity. Student from all other schools can be lined through the game virtually, without actually meeting up."

(Tony faints again.)

Are our officials, elected or otherwise, so absolutely out of their minds? We already complain that students have insufficent interaction with each other. Now the Ministry is trying to enforce this lack of interaction by providing them with a ficticious and virtual "lala-land" where they are probably fed an overdose of perfect ethnic relations.

It doesn't take a child psychologist to be able to tell you that integration is built through physical interaction and other real world experiences. A child's emotional growth depends on the varied responses given by different parties under similar circumstances. Interaction and communication necessitates actual speech (face to face, just in case some other joker decides that adding webcams will solve the problem) and live discussions. It entails laughter and tears, and not some woolly feel-good cartoons!

How in the world are we suppose to build integration playing computer games? It's just as bad as the current Moral paper in SPM whereby one has to literally memorise word for word the 81 nilai murni. Are we losing track of the objectives of the programme? Or is this just another small leakage in the system?

Sigh. As highlighted earlier in posts about the National Education Blueprint, it's really not the objectives which are the issue with the typical government plans. It's all down to its implementation, and obviously the implementors (or the lack of them) behind the programme.

Postgrad Scholarship To Oxford?

Congratulations to Jasmine from Malacca, who was successful in securing a place to pursue her PhD in University of Oxford in molecular genetics for October 2007/08 intake. She is currently working as a research assistant in one of the local public universities.

She wrote to me with regards to the types of sponsorship and scholarships available in Malaysia at the moment, which she may qualify for. At this point of time, I'm only specifically aware of the supposed RM1.2billion university PhD funding programmes as blogged here a while back.

If there's anyone else with knowledge of other sources of funding available, please don't hesitate to let her know here, or alternatively, email me. Officials from the Ministry of Higher Education are welcome to contact me as well if there are scholarship opportunities for Jasmine, in line with the Minister's statement that postgraduate scholarships are now only available to successful applicants to top overseas universities.

MIT Admission Talk

Kian Ming wrote on the record number of Malaysians gaining entry into Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few weeks ago. For those who are interested in following their footsteps, the MIT club of Malaysia will be holding a talk to interested students this Saturday.

Date: 14th April 2007 (Saturday)
Time: 1030hrs
Venue: Royal Selangor Golf Club (off Jalan Tun Razak), Kuala Lumpur

You can visit the MIT website for more information, or alternatively, send your queries to htewe(at) or premraj(at)

Friday, April 06, 2007

More on Young Malaysians Roundtable

Yes, Raja Nazrin certainly made an important speech, and the Young Malaysians Roundtable which attracted some 150 participants is a success in itself, judging even sole from the coverage it has received in all media over the past few days. Thanks to Kian Ming, who's certainly more on the ball, when he highlighted the media reports of the event.

I am thankful to the Centre for Public Policy Studies, in particular, Tricia Yeoh for inviting me to speak at one of the 3 sessions, with regards to the Governments Education Policy and its effectiveness in forging national development and unity. Wearing my "Education-in-Malaysia blogger" hat, I was given a short 10-15 minutes to raise my views in a panel which also comprised of Dr Oh Ei Sun and my favourite UM academic, Dr Azmi Sharom.

Given the short time frame (or I could have gone on-and-on for hours), I had to pick a single issue to talk about to make it meaningful. I ended up picking the issue of vernacular education for it appears to have the biggest relevance to national unity in this country. I have separately dealt with these issues at depth here on this blog, e.g., here, here and here. Kian Ming too, has his views blogged here and here.

As mentioned during the conference, I picked what I regarded as the most divisive issue to be tackled head-on because, if we can't openly deal with these issues and find the relevant resolution to them, then all talk of promoting national unity will only be about sweeping the cracks under the carpet.

Thanks to the New Straits Times, I was given a fair bit of prominence (given the limited space) in a report on Wednesday. Although understandly, it focused on my comment that parents are choosing vernacular schools due to declining quality of national schools, and not other issues raised, it's a good start ;).

There was a comment from the floor, coming from a confident young lady probably in her early 20s, who objected to my views. She stated outright that she believed that vernacular education should be abolished outright. She argued that the education received up to 12 years old plays a key role in ensuring the ability of young Malaysians to mix amongst various races in their teenage and subsequent years. In addition, there's no reason for various types of education options given that we are a single country. There should just be a single type of education.

My reply to her (and unfortunately, given that I was with the panel, I had "the last word", which didn't give her the option to reply ;)) was 2 fold:
  1. Just as there are weaknesses in the national schools, there are also weaknesses in vernacular schools. Regular readers would know my despair at the competence of the English language in vernacular schools. However, given the weaknesses, we should address these weaknesses head-on, instead of abolishing vernacular education altogether.

    I reiterated my stand that that vernacular education represents a part of our multi-racial and multi-lingual society which should be regarded as an asset and to quote the Education Minister's rhetoric, "the very fabric of our society". The focus of our government should be on integration and not assimilation.

  2. Even without taking the above reason into consideration, we must also address the issue of choice and options for Malaysian parents. Parents are choosing vernacular schools over national schools (even those previously from national schools) for a reason. Parents want the option of mother-tongue education not provided in national schools, and more so, they want better quality education for their children which, by clear consensus, is generally available at many vernacular schools.

    By eliminating vernacular schools, one will be taking away the alternative for Malaysian parents (irrespective of race). It should be noted that some 10% of Chinese school enrolment, or some 60,000 students are non-Chinese. Where would they then send their children for quality education? Most Malaysians certainly cannot afford an education in private schools such as Cempaka Secondary School, where the she had the privilege of completing her studies.
Hence, even though I came from a national primary school, I understand that the issues with regards to vernacular education is a lot more complex than a case of abolishing vernacular education to "solve" our national unity and racial integration woes. I'll not repeat the other reasons which I've have already highlighted in my other blog posts.

However, certainly, I implore the Government to stop marginalising the vernacular education community through clearly unfair policies. It is important for the Government to start believing in its own rhetoric of a multi-cultural society being Malaysia's strength, for preferential and unequal policies will only lead to the very outcome which it is seeking to avoid, national disunity.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Raja Nazrin on national unity

Kudos to the CPPS and the Bar Council’s National Young Lawyers’ Committee for organizing a highlight successful Young Malaysians Roundtable Discussion on National Unity & Development. The event's highlight was most certainly Raja Nazrin's opening remarks which were progressive, insightful and balanced. I encouraged our readers to read the full text which can be accessed here. Raja Nazrin's remarks elicited a flood of positive responses as evidenced by Azmi Sharom's column here and other reactions here. For the full text of the concensus document arising from the roundtable, click here. Hopefully, this even is not just a one-off but will be sustained by future roundtables which can be conducted in innovative ways to bring people to discuss national unity issues in greater depth.

More on MUST

Malaysia University of Science & Technology (MUST) continues to create controversy in the country. I've blogged about it not too long ago as a RM100 million fiasco, especially with regards to its supposed tie-up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More recently, MUST is still regarded as a "success" by the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, which left our Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang speechless.

Well I've received a letter from K, who's a rare graduate of MUST, to provide us all a better picture of the university.

"I just stumbled upon your blog entry "RM100 million MUST Fiasco" from December 2006. I'm writing to you now to give you a better understanding of MUST. I'm actually a graduate from MUST, who enrolled in 2004. I was in the third batch of students for MUST, although I was the pioneer batch for my particular department. As far as I know, there were 3 departments in 2002, 5 in 2003 and 7 in 2004. I was also the final batch of students to receive the full scholarship given by the Ehsan Foundation, which includes a RM60,000 waiver for school fees and a monthly stipend of RM1300 (for my 18 months of full-time study). For the 2002 batch, the intake was roughly about 40+ students, the 2003 batch about 80-100, and my batch about 100-120. The drop-out rate was pretty high, especially for certain departments such as Biotechnology, who will lose about half of its students within one semester (the workload is quite brutal, and the syllabus is very engineering-based, which can be quite hard for students that do not have the appropriate background). During the first 3 batches, all students that were accepted into MUST automatically received the scholarship waiver and the monthly stipend. FYI, each intake consisted of about 98% Malaysian Chinese, with a few Malay and Indian students.

I was previously an engineering graduate from UPM, and had never experienced the US style of education. The facilities in MUST were first class, even though we were in Kelana Square. We occupied about 6 floors. Each department had its own set of labs, either computer labs or science labs. The faculty staff was excellent and mostly had gained their postgraduate degrees in esteemed universities, such as Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, etc. Most faculty were expatriates, but not Caucasian. We had faculty from India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, etc. My own Head of Department was from Harvard, and even though he was young, the manner in which in he taught us were far and beyond any lecturer I've ever met in UPM. We had to earn our degrees by taking about 9 subjects and doing a research thesis. Besides the full-time faculty, we also had adjunct faculty (local lecturers) that taught in specialty subjects. I
would just say the adjunct faculty’s style of teaching is what I'm accustomed to when I was an undergraduate in UPM.

Our coursework revolved mainly around assignments. Each subject required a term paper, which had to be carefully researched. In my first semester, a few students were accused of extreme plagiarism, which included myself. At that time, I was struggling so much with the workload that I didn't bother to research properly. The faculty allowed us to rewrite the assignment, but told us to write down our own opinions instead of someone else's. From that time onwards, it was not unusual to find students spending up to 12 hours a day in the university, sometimes even more. I have lost count of the days I slept in my lab simply because I had to use the Internet facilities for research (I don't have broadband access at home). Our information had to be backed up by reliable sources, which usually consists of journal articles and books (Internet websites are not considered a reliable source), which explains the long hours on the Internet. Needless to say, I have never worked harder in my life, not even when I was working.

Our syllabus was based on subjects taught in MIT, although some were not even offered in MIT. For some subjects, we had to watch the video lectures that had been taped in MIT, and for most subjects, we were doing almost the same assignments and tutorials given in MIT. All assignments were posted online, and we had to submit it online. Our assignments would be corrected in soft copy and e-mailed to us. Each term paper had to be presented in a professional manner and marks will be given for presentation. Since attendance for lectures also accounted for a small portion of a grade, my faculty stated that students who asked more questions during lectures would be given higher marks and those that didn’t ask any were not given any marks at all (It’s quite impossible to skip classes when there’s only 7 students in a class, so 100% attendance is not a big deal)

After my first year, MUST decided to withdraw the scholarship program. That's when the intake numbers fell drastically. By this time, the first batch of students had had their convocation and all students had been dismayed when we were informed that our degrees would not be endorsed by MIT. So without the MIT endorsement and scholarship program, the university had difficulty recruiting students that were willing to take a RM60,000 loan. All the problems regarding the withdrawal of the scholarship scheme, the refusal to lower the fees, and the subsequent reduction in intake, I personally blame on the university management. Not the admin, and certainly not the teaching staff.

Another issue that has yet to be resolved is the convocation for MUST graduates. Only the 2002 batch has had their convocation (in 2004). In that convocation, only 28 ppl received their scrolls, as the rest of the batch had yet to complete their thesis. Five Cabinet Ministers attended the convocation that day, which is the highest number of Cabinet Ministers I ever got to see at one time. Since 2004, there has yet to be a convocation for the remaining graduates of the 2002 batch, and the graduates of the 2003 and 2004 batches. Personally, I am not optimistic that a convocation will be held anytime soon.

There were only 40 students for the 2005 intake, which then dwindled to less than 20. There were only 4 students for the 2006 intake, all for the IT Dept. A lot of the international faculty has left, and a lot more will leave when their contracts expire this year. It's just sad that such a university with so much potential, with such great facilities and faculty, will be remembered as a "failure". Perhaps you might think that RM100 million was wasted on so few ppl, but then again, how many Malaysians actually have the opportunity to receive such education? I feel privileged that I received the scholarship, and even though my Masters cert does not have the endorsement from MIT, I feel that I have received an education of world-class quality.

Hope you have a better view of the whole MUST issue now."

Thank you K for leaving us a little wiser. The ministry should certainly pay heed to hear from its graduates and faculty.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs Mentioned by UM VC yet again

It's the job of any university's VC to defend the reputation and stature of his or her university. It's also our responsibility as bloggers to call individual VCs out if we think what they've said does not make sense or is inaccurate. While defending UM's reputation, the UM VC Rafiah Salim, once again brought up the name of Professor Jeffrey Sachs in association with UM, as the first holder of the Royal Ungku Aziz chair in poverty studies.

I first brought this issue to attention in November 2006 here, expressing my great scepticism at whether this was a bona fide appointment and if it was, whether it was not just a great waste of money.

In this recent NST article, UM's VC Rafiah Salim had this to say about Jeffrey Sachs:

"At present, the person who is holding the Ungku Aziz chair is Jeffrey Sachs from the Earth Institute at University of Columbia. Now, mention his name to any economist and they will drop when they hear it."

The problem is, nobody outside UM or perhaps outside Malaysia seems to know that Sachs is actually holding this position. If you check the Earth's Institute's website here which lists Sachs' CV (and here in a 3 page pdf form), which has been updated as recently as March of 2007, there is no mention of Malaysia, UM or the Royal Ungku Aziz chair.

Among his many achievements listed:

Sachs is the recipient of many awards and honors, including membership in the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Society of Fellows, and the Fellows of the World Econometric Society. He has received honorary degrees from many universities including Trinity College Dublin, the College
of the Atlantic, Southern Methodist University, Simon Fraser University, McGill University, Southern New Hamphshire University, St. John’s University, Iona College, St. Gallen University in Switzerland, the Lingnan College of Hong Kong, and Varna Economics University in Bulgaria, and an honorary professorship at Universidad del Pacifico in Peru. Distinguished lecture series include the London School of Economics, Oxford University, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, Yale and many others. He was the 2005 recipient of the Sargent Shriver Award for Equal Justice. He is a member of the Brookings Panel of Economists, the Board of Advisors of the Chinese Economists Society, among other organizations.

If honorary degrees are mentioned (and some from not so distinguished universities), why not the first holder of a fully endowed chair, especially one that is supposed to be as prestigious as the Royal Ungku Aziz Chair of Poverty Studies at the premier university in Malaysia, the University of Malaya?

I have no doubt that given the correct circumstances and incentives, Professor Sachs will eventually visit Malaysia (I think he's been to Malaysia before) and the UM to deliver a lecture or two but isn't it dishonest of UM's VC and indeed the PM (who first made the announcement) to associate him with UM before he himself has made any announcement that he has even accepted or is aware of this position being offered / given to him?

If Dr. Wee Ka Siong (BN-Ayer Hitam) or any of his staff is reading this post, I encourage him to raise this issue in parliament since making these kinds of inaccurate statements (and giving this information to the PM and asking him to make these statements) can come back to haunt us (remember the whole fiasco about why UM was ranked in the top 100 universities by THES?). More importantly, he should also enquire as to how the expenses associated with this endowed chair (RM20 million) is being spent.

And don't even get me started on the VC being proud of the fact that UM is ranked 13th among the top universities in the OIC.

To be fair to Rafiah Salim, she did bring up some achievements which I had not known about earlier including:

- UM's accounting degree is now recognised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
- UM’s architecture degree is one of three in the region recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. The others are from the Hong Kong University and the National University of Singapore.
- UM's engineering faculty had also been recently invited to be a part of the Asia-Oceanic Top Universities League on Engineering.
- UM has been invited to join the Asia Pacific Research University Organisation because it is doing so well.

Of course, these facts also need to be checked but if they are true (especially the first two), then these achievements are indeed positive ones.

In the meantime, we await the arrival of Professor Sachs to take up his position as the first holder of the Royal Ungku Aziz Chair of Poverty Studies (or for him to list it as part of his CV first).

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tony's points highlighted in parliament

Hot off the press - in today's Star, it was reported that MCA parliamentarian Dr. Wee Ka Siong (Ayer Hitam - Johor) raised the issue of how Malaysian public universities were wasting public dollars by participating in meaningless international trade fairs to 'exhibit' their so called 'technological innovations' and products. I've met Dr. Wee before in a wedding in Johor (before he became an MP) when I was just starting out as a political analyst (so happened that I was seated next to him in a totally random seat allocation) and I've followed his career closely ever since. He generally makes good points in regards to educational issues and kudos to him for raising this point in regards to these 'dubious' international trade fairs. But if he or any of his staff had been reading this blog, he would have realized that Tony brought up this very point as early as 2005.

Tony first critized our public universities for publishing their 'achievements' in the form of gold, silver and bronze medals won at these international exhibitions in November 2005 and subsequently followed up this post in April and Dec 2006. I think he got so sick of it that he stopped blogging about it.

I think bloggers have been taking a bad beating in some newspapers of late but the points highlighted by Dr. Wee illustrate the importance of blogs such as this one. We have an electronic trail which can be traced so that we can go back in time to see when these issues were first highlighted. It can be a useful tool for policy makers, journalists as well as researchers who are interested in educational issues in Malaysia to peruse.

Hopefully this kind of press will put a stop to our taxpayers money being spent or more specifically wasted at these international trade fairs. Kudos to Tony for first highlighting this!

How soft skills requirement can 'backfire'

I notice this interesting Malaysiakini article yesterday about the UM VC's statement that a company had 'exploited' UM students by requiring them to sell the company's products as part of an entrepreneurship course component that was required for graduation. While I think that teaching soft skills in our universities is still important, this episode shows how having this requirement can 'backfire'.

According to this article, 'The UM soft skills programme was initiated by the Higher Education Ministry with the aim of developing entrepreneurship skills among students.' The company, AmCash, which from the logos, seems to be a subsidiary of AmBank selling various insurance products, not only provided soft skills 'training' to a group of 500 final year students but also forced them to set up and man booths to sell the products of AmCash. 'Most controversial of all, the company would grade the reports to determine whether the students pass or fail the course.'

Thankfully, UM VC Rafiah Salim made the right move but not making the 'selling' part of the course a requirement for a passing grade. Now the students are just required to submit a report based on what they learnt in regards to the 'soft skills' component of the course (as far as I understand).

What can we surmise from this episode?

Firstly, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still think that soft skills are an important component of a soon to be graduate's repertoire of skills. While I agree with Tony's earlier post that it is hard to 'teach' soft skills in a course (especially in a one or two day course), having an undergraduate exposed to at least some of these critical soft skills - presentation, interview skills, entrepreneurship, communication - is better than nothing. Of course, if the university environment was opened up more and students were allowed to articulate different views openly, then perhaps this problem would be less serious.

Secondly, this episode shows the dangers of 'subcontrating'. Although not an exact comparison, I'm reminded by how Asiaworks, a large group awareness training (LGAT) outfit, tried to obtain contracts from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to conduct of the training programs for the National Service program before it was rolled out. Judging from one of the links from their website, it seems that they were successful in at least obtaining a part of the pie of the National Service training program. I know that there might be fans or students of Asiaworks among our readers but I am highly skeptical of the methods employed by them. If you google of blogsearch asiaworks, you'll find an ample number of website criticizing their methods including accusing them of being a cult-like organization. (perhaps a topic for another post) But whenever there are these 'subcontracting' possibilities in a market which is as immature as Malaysia's, you can be sure that there will be less than scrupulous individuals and groups who will come in to exploit the situation.

In most US universities, there are sufficient in house capabilities to have this kind of training (esp. interview and presentation skills) staffed by university staff. Indeed, many of the younger assistant or associate professors (and some of the older full professors) are capable enough in powerpoint and presentation skills to be able to teach these courses on their own. This is very much a product of the environment in the sense that many of these professor have to make presentations to large audiences regularly and have to give tough job talks in front of tough and often unforgiving audiences. I'm guessing that there is no such equivalent environment in most public universities in Malaysia which decreases the pool of in house professors who can do this kind of training. In any case, the US is a mature enough market such that even if one wants to subcontract this assignment out, there is ample legit organizations and individuals out there who are more than capable of providing this kind of training.

I don't have any quick answers or solutions to this problem. Ideally, I think that what Tony said about having a more open environment is a better long term solution. (In US universities, you are encouraged to make your views known, even if they might not be 100% correct) Also, I think it makes sense to develop in house capabilities - does any of the public universities have an equivalent of a Career's Centre? - since this service is required year in and year out. Some of this training could and should be taken up by academic staff (who should be given due credit) who have the capabilities. In the meantime, we should continue to monitor how this 'soft skills' requirement continues to develop!

Don't blame parents for national unity woes

Tony has covered many of these points before in his previous posts but I thought I'd post his most recent Malaysiakini letter here for posterity's sake.

Don’t blame parents for national unity woes
Tony Pua
Mar 30, 07 3:38pm

It was reported that the National Unity and Integration Department director-general Azman Azmin said the “parents’ tendency to send their children to vernacular schools instead of national schools” was the “most probable” cause for the issues relating to national unity.

By pin-pointing vernacular schools as the main cause of the lack of national unity is akin to the recently withdrawn ethnic relations guidebook for our university students which placed the misguided blame on “Indian youths” as the main cause for the Kampung Medan riots in 2001. The National Unity and Integration Department has failed to take into consideration the larger context and hence the underlying cause of national disunity in Malaysia.

If vernacular schools are even at fault for the lack of national unity, then surely the government's policy of promoting ethnic-centric Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSMs) and Matriculation Colleges will be equally at fault for the problems. If vernacular schools result in the lack of racial interaction, then surely, by placing the top bumiputera students in ethnically centric schools is only perpetuating the problems.

Azman has failed to take into consideration the fact that we live in a multi-cultural country. Even Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has argued that “multi-culturalism is an added advantage and a strength for the country.” By treating vernacular schools as obstacles to national unity is akin to the fallacious argument that national unity can only be achieved through cultural assimilation.

On the other hand, the lack of national unity in Malaysia is bred by the persistent unfair and discriminatory practices which marginalises Malaysians of non-Malay descent. For example, the government's disbursement of RM1.4 million to 248 Chinese primary schools - or a meagre RM6,000 per school - as hyped by Deputy Education Minister Hon Choon Kim in the vernacular press, pales in comparison to the RM709 million allocated to building 15 new MRSMs, and more for upgrades and repairs of existing MRSMs.

In addition, despite the consistent claim by the government that it will build more vernacular schools in accordance to the needs of the people, the number of Chinese primary schools have declined from 1,333 in 1957 to 1,288 today, while enrolment has more than doubled from 310,000 to 636,000.

At the same time, the number of Tamil primary schools has been reduced from 526 in 2001 to 523 in 2006 despite a 12.7% increase in enrolment from 88,810 in 2001 to 100,142 in 2006. It is hence not surprising that the non-Malay community in Malaysia feels threatened and discriminated against.

The continued discriminatory policies in education also fails to take into account other policies which discriminates against non-bumiputeras, contributing significantly to the lack of racial integration and national unity.

Hence, the emphasis of mother-tongue education in vernacular schools should not colour our judgement of their national unity contributions. Instead, its contribution to society should be judged by the quality of students, their patriotism to the country and in turn, their future contributions back to Malaysian society.

It is critical for the government to have faith in its own rhetoric, that not only does vernacular education contribute to the richness of the Malaysian education system, it weaves the very fabric of our diverse multi-cultural identity.

On a separate point, parents can definitely not be blamed for choosing schools based on academic standards and quality. If vernacular schools are at fault for the lack of national unity, then surely, our national school system will be equally at fault for providing weak and poor quality education. Malaysian parents are wise to choose the type of education for their children to they will maximise their potentials to ensure international marketability in their future careers.

Azman should immediately retract his statement which blamed the existence of vernacular schools as well as the millions of parents who send their children to these schools as the main cause for the lack of national unity in Malaysia. On the other hand, the continued neglect of the vernacular education system may ironically sow the seeds of national disunity, the very outcome which our government has been seeking to avoid.

The writer is economic advisor to secretary-general, Democratic Action Party.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Meeting Malaysians in Boston

I'm amazed at the number of comments generated by the TARC post. I was surprised that TARC's diplomas are not recognized by the government but after some careful thought I realized that this shouldn't be so surprising. Anyways, I think it's time to move on to other topics, some old some new. But first, an update on my Boston trip and why I haven't posted anything in more than a week.

I was in Boston last weekend presenting a paper at a conference and met a few interesting Malaysian students while I was there. There was Jian Wei, former VI boy and a JPA sponsored Stanford undergrad who was in Boston for his spring break. There was Elaine, currently working in Boston and graduate of Wellesley College, one of the top women's liberal arts colleges in the US. There was Shien Jin, a Malacca High School boy, a graduate of MIT and will soon be graduating with a PhD in computer science from Harvard. There was Sui Lin, a Kuen Cheng grad and a JPA scholar (who took UEC exams instead of STPM!), who is currently in Wellesley. (for more on top SPM scorer Sui Lin check out this old Jeff Ooi Screenshot archive) There was Nick Choo, U of Texas (Austin) graduate who is currently working at a hedge fund in Boston and who kindly hosted us and cooked us excellent chicken rice! (Thanks Nick!) There was Karen Teoh, an old friend from my Singapore days (who didn't join us for dinner), a graduate of Yale who's doing her PhD in History at Harvard. And finally there was Cheong Soon, a fellow La Sallian who lived and grew up in a same neighborhood as myself (Section 5, PJ), who worked in Singapore for 13 years as a journalist before switching careers to do his PhD in History at UCal Berkeley.

There were a few things which struck me about my meeting with these Malaysians.

The first is that most of us took different paths to get where we are today. Sui Lin, was in a Chinese educational environment all her life before coming to the US and even had the guts to take the UEC exam, which many people say is even harder than STPM! Shien Jin applied to and got accepted by MIT after his SPM. Karen studied in Kuen Cheng at the primary level and went to Singapore to do her O and A levels before going to the US. Cheong Soon did his undergrad in UM and then worked 13 years in Singapore before going back to school at the PhD level in the US. So, there's no one single path to higher education in the US.

Secondly, many of us have different intellectual and experiential interests. Sui Lin has worked with the World Bank, NGOs (in her summers) and is interested in the social as well as profit driven aspects of the financial world. Karen is doing her PhD on the impact of education on women in all girls Chinese and missionary schools in Singapore and Malaysia, a topic which few (or any) have worked on in the past. Cheong Soon is looking at how ethnicity is portrayed in Malaysian newspapers prior to 1969. Shien Jin's PhD was in the area of cryptography. It's always refreshing to hear the kinds of things which different Malaysians are up to when I meet them here in the US.

Thirdly, many of us still feel a strong attachment to Malaysia and feel that it is still home to us. I plan to return to Malaysia eventually. Sui Lin expressed the same sentiment to me. I'm sure that the others, if given the right opportunities will gladly return to Malaysia, even if it is for a short term assignment or work related opportunity. I'm sure the same sentiment is shared by many Malaysians overseas. If the government can demonstrate that it is willing to be more open in its approach towards employment and promotion opportunities be it in the civil service, in the public universities, in the hospitals, in the GLCs, many qualified Malaysians will be willing to return and contribute their part. After all, family, friends and food are all to be found in Malaysia.

Boston is a great place to visit, especially when it's not snowing. It was great to meet up with some old friends and get to know some new ones. It was also a great honor to listen to Malaysian poet laureate Mohammed Haji Salleh, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Harvard-Yen Ching Institute, who read some of his poems at the conference I was attending. But all good things had to come to an end and I returned to Boston with my wife last Sunday and prompted fell ill, hence my lack of posts for the past week or so. I'm almost recovered now and have a few posts to get off my chest so here goes!