Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Majority of PMR Science Answers in English

Headline in the Star today - 51.2% of candidates chose English and English only to answer their PMR Science exam compared with 30.8% who answer in Malay and 18% who used a combination of the two. In the previous year, only 21.5% used English and only English. This is a pretty big jump. I would have liked to see the breakdown for Math as well to see if there was a similar jump. Perhaps this may be a sign that there will not be a complete reversion to the previous policy of teaching S&M in BM or mother tongue at the primary school level? I suspect that a compromise decision may be made. Either continue teaching S&M in English at the secondary school level or start after Primary 3.

Freedom to Our Schools: Decentralisation and Autonomy

One interesting thing I noticed about the roundtable that the Education Ministry held to discuss the issue of teaching science and maths in English is that they mentioned decentralisation of the school system as a possible solution. In my column for The Malaysian Insider a couple of weeks back, I suggested that we let individual schools decide what languages to use in the classroom. Permitting schools to decide on an individual basis how to operate would let school administrators and educators tailor their approach to the needs of individual communities, and permit greater feedback from communities.

There are naturally some administrative difficulties involved in moving from a highly centralised school system such as ours to a less centralised one, but it is important that we give this issue some thought. Treating students the same wherever they are is not a very reasonable approach, and tying the hands of schools when it comes to responding to local needs is a very bad idea. While full decentralisation is almost certainly impossible, we need to start looking into giving our schools more independence and autonomy.

The Chinese schools are a pretty good example of how independent school governance might work. Because the federal government largely ignores them, the Chinese educationists have become adept at running schools and tailoring them to the needs of different communities. Independent school boards comprising respected figures hold administrators accountable for their performance.

So one way to free our schools would be to give principals a little more independence in structuring their curricula - the Education Ministry would still set some standards and list out the minimum material which must be covered, but principals would be allowed to decide how to cover them - what textbooks to use, and so forth. Instead of being accountable to a civil servant, principals would now be held accountable to elected school boards. While I am not sure how our present administrative framework would deal with this, if there was enough political will to devolve school administration, it would not be terribly difficult to accomplish. The school board idea is merely one possibility - there are others. The important thing is to somehow permit greater diversity in our school system.

How will the schools function? Well, the Education Ministry will still be in charge of setting standards for schools to meet. The SPM and other exams will still remain, but now schools will truly be free to approach different ways of preparing students for them. At the moment, we use almost the same textbooks throughout the country; this is a huge racket for the publishers of the textbooks, which are not very good, as you can tell from how almost any student with some money usually has supplementary books which cover the same material but in more effective ways. Likewise, teachers work more or less the same way throughout the nation, giving more or less the same lectures. If schools had some autonomy in these areas, we would see a more effective approach to teaching and learning, one adapted to the needs of specific students.

If we wanted to take this further, we would allow principals to hire and fire teachers, and maybe even vary the pay of teachers depending on ability. Instead of the Education Ministry maintaining a central pool of teachers which it allocates out to schools Soviet-style, we could let schools pick their own teachers. At the moment, the teaching profession is insulated from market forces, which is quite bad for everyone. Teachers are stuck with lousy pay doing a difficult job; schools can't reward excellent teachers or really get rid of people who have no business teaching. Permitting some freedom in the employment process would benefit everyone, since there is really no reason to be tying the wages of our teachers to the wages of civil servants.

Now, how would we prevent administrators from making bad decisions? After all, many will no doubt grouse, what's keeping a principal from picking lousy textbooks or hiring lousy teachers? This is where having an independent school board as a check comes in. The board should be allowed to overrule the principal's decisions, or potentially even hire and sack the principal. Assuming the board is elected by the community, or even just randomly selected from the parents of students at the school, it will do its best to make decisions for the good of the students and the school. If the board has teeth, the principal will be afraid of its bite, and in turn do the right thing.

The Education Ministry should still have a role to play, of course. But the primary purpose of the Education Ministry should be to facilitate good decision-making, not to impose centralised decisions. The Education Ministry could commission studies of different schools across the country and publish its findings as a list of best practices which schools could adopt or reject depending on suitability. It could publish rankings of schools based on different metrics so everyone would know where their local school stands compared to its peers. The Education Ministry should facilitate the flow of information so that good ideas can spread and bad ideas can be checked. But otherwise, its role in running schools should be limited as much as possible; parents and teachers will always be better judges of the kind of education their pupils need.

The only serious objection I can foresee to this admittedly wide-ranging proposal is that it seems a little too radical. We're far too used to a centralised school system, and this is not good. Why should a school in the mountains be conducting the same science experiments as a school near the beach, when they have acces to different ways of illustrating the same scientific principles? Why should a community of rich English-speaking kids have to teach its children in Malay or Chinese or Tamil, and why should a community of primarily poor Malay speakers have to teach its children in English? A centralised decision-making system treats every school and every student as the same, which is simply not sensible.

My proposal is not very likely to be taken up any time soon by the government, though I hope Tony or one of his colleagues can one day put it forward for serious consideration. But I think the principle behind it is sound: We must reduce the bureaucracy and centralisation choking innovation and adaptation in our school system. And if we can start by just letting schools decide for themselves whether to teach science and maths in English or the pupils' mother tongue, that would be good enough for me.

One retort to the suggestion that we let schools decide which language to use to teach science and maths was that schools would make the obviously wrong decision. This is essentially saying, "We're going to let parents throw their kids' lives away by teaching them in English/their mother tongue!" I don't think that is going to happen. Parents are the best judge of what is best for their children; if that is not so, then we should not be letting parents take care of their children. Make as much information available to parents as possible - bombard them with leaflets about the various pros and cons of English and mother tongue education. But let the parents and schools decide which approach will work best for them. It is clear that one single approach will not work for all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seeking Public Feedback: S&M in English

I know that this issue has been flogged to death but I had a thought about this yesterday. Regardless of the outcome, there will be groups that will be unhappy. But one thing which I commend the Ministry of Education for is that they did expend time and resources to seek feedback from different groups. This is a far cry from the way this policy was implemented which was basically a executive decision with little or no debate.

According to a Star report, MOE has held 5 roundtable meetings thus far soliciting feedback from different 'stakeholders' including representatitives from PTAs, NGOs and academics. In addition, MOE also presented some of their internal papers and analysis on the UPSR results to some of these stakeholders which I thought was a progressive way of allowing the stakeholders to evaluate the findings of the MOE and then discuss those findings.

In addition, the MOE was flexible enough to put different proposals on the table.

The proposals are:

> Stick to Mathematics and Science in English;

> Revert to Bahasa Malaysia;

> Let primary schools teach both subjects in the mother tongue and secondary schools use English;

> Let primary schools decide for themselves;

> Mathematics and Science be taught in Bahasa Malaysia and mother tongue for Years One to Three and in English from Year Four onwards;

> A combination of mother tongue in the first three years and a choice of mother tongue or English after that; and

> The two subjects will not be taught in Years One to Three and instead be integrated into other subjects.

Some may criticize the fact that putting these options on the table is just for show that the Ministry has already made up its mind but I do think that there was a serious effort on the part of the MOE officials to incorporate at least some of the feedback they received from the different stakeholders into their thinking process.

Ultimately the decision will probably be influenced by political as much as educational motivations but I think the MOE should be commended for the way they approached this issue. Especially when you consider the manner in which this executive decision was 'imposed' on Malaysians 6 years ago. The Minister, his Deputy and the DG of MOE should be commended for this.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Foreign students - socialising with the locals?

To build on Kian Ming's points about students from Botswana, I thought I would relate my own experience from spending one-and-a-half years at a local college with many foreign students, especially from Botswana.

As I mentioned before, I did my A-Levels in KDU College, an institution that has attracted many foreign students interested in pursuing degrees in law, engineering, and other disciplines. My foreign classmates were mostly from the Maldives, India and Bangladesh, and most of them had no problem integrating with the locals.

At the same time, there were often a lot of students from other countries in other programs - guys from Botswana, Mauritius, places in the Middle East. One thing I observed is that most of the African students kept to themselves in their own cliques, while students from other places mixed with the locals freely.

To some extent this can be attributed to racial attitudes. People from the Indian subcontinent look like locals, and so we probably have an easier time relating to them than we might with someone from the Middle East or Africa. A lot of my friends, especially the girls, were frightened of or otherwise not interested in mixing with African students. So I can see where the Botswana government is coming from when they worry about their students having a hard time integrating into Malaysian society.

But I think the real and main problem is one which Malaysians who study abroad might have noticed themselves: we stick to groups we are familiar with, to people we feel an existing kinship with. In UK universities for example, you often find colonies and cliques of Malaysians and Singaporeans who don't really talk to people outside their group. The experience of being in a foreign country and mixing with different people is largely gone because we climb into our own shells.

The same, I think, has happened with students from Botswana. Because their government sends them over in such big groups, they clump and stick together in their own groups; they feel no need to approach locals and befriend them, and the locals feel intimidated at the thought of entering a large group of people they are completely unfamiliar with. Students who have come over because of their own private initiative, by themselves, don't seem to encounter such problems finding a group of Malaysians to hang out with.

Looking back, one remarkable thing about many of my friends from other countries is how quickly and enjoyably they adapted themselves to Malaysian student life. Many of them mamaked and DOTAed in cybercafes with the Malaysians as if they had been doing this their whole lives; they made the most out of the Malaysian experience. And the cultural exchange went both ways; we learned Mauritian creole and the politics of the Maldives from our international friends. When foreign students mingle with local students, everyone benefits.

Now, I cannot say for sure how justified the complaints of some foreign students like those from Botswana are. Maybe the true reason for their difficulties in adjusting is something besides their social isolation. Without an empirical study it is hard to say. But I can see why students from Botswana would complain about this, and if we want to address this, we must understand the social dynamics international students encounter. Cliquing is prevalent wherever international students are; it even exists to a large extent at Dartmouth in the US, where I am studying. But if we want internationals to make the most out of their studies and stay here, we must figure out a way to integrate them better into the mainstream of student life.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Botswanan students have it hard?

Maybe I was jumping the gun in saying that Malaysia is a good place for international students to come to especially those who are from Muslim majority countries. The Star reported that the Education and Skills Development Minister of Botswana, Jacob Nkate, said that they would be cutting down the number of students sent to Malaysia because they were not acclimatising well to life in Malaysia.

The Minister's decision was influenced partly because of the social issues some of the Botswanan students have encountered while studying in Malaysia. Two of them died after falling from their apartment balconies and another was killed in a road accident. It was reported that the students blamed the hostile environment they encountered in Malaysia that forced many of them to turn to alcoholism and other anti-social behaviour.

This is not the first time I've heard of the challenges faced by foreign students in Malaysia. The ugly head of racism usually rears its head partly because we don't have a long history having foreign students in our universities, especially our private universities and colleges. I'm also guessing that many of these foreign students especially those from Africa also have to deal with racism on the part of shopkeepers, taxi drivers and the like.

This is not to say that Malaysian students going abroad don't face these kinds of challenges. I myself had one or two racist comments thrown at me while I was doing my Masters in Cambridge. But most Malaysians are used to the idea of going overseas to study and many of us have good support systems when we go abroad. Also, a majority of us end up in universities where foreigners comprise a significant proportion of the student population. Many of the professors and lecturers and administrators in these universities are also more used to dealing with foreigners. All these factors help us adjust more easily to life abroad.

My sense is that the onus should fall firstly on the administrative and management staff of our private colleges and universities, where most of the foreign and I'm guessing Botswanan students end up. If they haven't already, they need to set up structures and support systems which can identify and help foreign students who are having problems adjusting to life in Malaysia. In addition, they should 'recruit' their own local students to help these foreign students adjust to academic life in Malaysia. I'm sure that many of these universities and colleges are already doing these things already. But this is a good reminder that these efforts should continue or be stepped up. After all, the management staff are the ones with a more direct incentive to make sure that agencies such as the Botswanan government keeps on sending their students to our private colleges and universities.

Ideally, MOHE might do some coordinating activities to ensure that some of the best practices in terms of dealing with different foreign students can be transferred between the different colleges and universities, both private and public.

Of course, there are limits to how much the university administrators can do. (Remember the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech?) But try they must.

P.S. I know that Botswana is not a Muslim majority country. But the points made here should be applicable to other foreign students who are from Muslims majority countries. Just because they come to a Muslim majority country like Malaysia does not mean that they will not encounter challenges like racism as well as the many temptations to 'let loose', so to speak.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Little Bit (Lot?) About Me, John Lee

Thanks for the introduction, Kian Ming! I think a lot of you might have stumbled across my personal website, Infernal Ramblings in the past, or perhaps read one of the weekly columns I write for The Malaysian Insider. Although I am of course interested in political affairs, I would just like to emphasise that I remain politically unaffiliated, and that I think a vigorous debate about education in Malaysia should be encouraged, because fewer things can be more important than the future of our country and our people. For my first post, I thought I would introduce my educational background and give you a better idea of where I am coming from, and why I care so much about education.

My parents are both graduate degree-holders, and actually met when they were pursuing their Masters degrees. I was born in Japan while my dad finished his post-doctoral work, and then moved to Singapore, where my father taught at Nanyang Technological University for about six years; two of my siblings were born there. My family moved back to Malaysia when I was six, just before the economic crisis. In 1997, I started primary school at SRJK(C) Damansara, and my youngest sister was born.

Damansara was where my love-hate affair with education probably began. I had not attended kindergarten, so I was probably less prepared than many of my peers for primary school, especially in a Chinese-medium setting. I had been a prolific reader as a child, and had actually read some of my father's old secondary school textbooks by the time I was seven, so it was not for a lack of smarts that I had a hard time. I think I found it difficult to cope with the adjustment, and the new languages - Malay and Chinese - I was being exposed to.

So, halfway through the school year, my parents transferred me to Sekolah Sri Kuala Lumpur, a private school in Subang Jaya. I was not happy there either. Although I did well in my classes, I was picked on by my classmates, and spent most of my free time reading books I borrowed from the well-stocked school library; I would borrow a book during the first recess period, read it between classes, and return it and borrow another during lunch period. Two of my clearest memories from this time are the librarian's frequent shock that I could read books so quickly, and how happy I was every time we had library period on Thursdays. I also remember my intense exposure to Malay during this time - the school enforced a strict policy of speaking in Malay during classes, and so I was forced to pick up the language quickly. Ultimately, because I could not relate well with my mainly upper-class and expatriate classmates, and because my parents could not afford the tuition, I transferred again to a public school, SK Bandar Utama Damansara, at the end of primary two.

Of all the schools I have attended, I can confidently say that SKBUD was the best, without question. I made some of the best friends of my life there, and enjoyed the attention from some of the most dedicated teachers I have ever encountered. The headmistress, Datin Fatimah, ran the school with what some might call an iron fist. Unlike many other SKs, the student body was by and large disciplined, and the school made an effort to treat all students fairly, regardless of race.

I was rather surprised when I left the school and found that other schools stream students into classes based not only on academic performance but also race, and that all delegations for interschool competitions had to be "racially balanced"; in SKBUD, you sunk or swam based on your performance, and nothing else. Our school was never the best on any objective scale; most of our students came from poor families and it was considered a stunning success if more than two classes in any year had a 100% pass rate for all subjects. But looking back, I can easily say that my formative years in SKBUD are what made me the idealist I am today about education, and what made me believe that we can do so much more for our students.

I began my secondary schooling in SMK Tropicana. The Tropicana student body was an odd one; I think there were few students from middle class backgrounds. Most students were either from the low-income Kampung Cempaka, or the very high-income suburbs surrounding the school. The teachers, although very nice people, did not always seem dedicated. A lot of them often seemed to be unavailable because of training, and there was a high turnover rate, with teachers frequently joining and leaving the faculty. The main bright spot of my time at Tropicana was my involvement in scouting; I joined the scout troop there, and enjoyed it thoroughly. But ultimately, my parents transferred me yet again; the roads leading to the school were poorly planned and constantly jammed at rush hour; it was just too stressful to drive me to and from school.

The last school I attended, and the one I am most attached to after SKBUD, was SMK Bandar Utama (3). Unfortunately, it made a rather opposite effect on my perception of education: if SKBUD made me see the promise education holds, SMKBU3 made me see how terrible a school system can be if things do not go the right way. The teachers - again, all really nice people - often seemed uninterested in students and more interested in doing whatever suited them. Teachers often only went through the motions of teaching classes, and I think most of us who understood what was going on only did so because we learned from tuition or the textbooks. More than one teacher remarked to us that they were hardly needed since most of us just went to tuition classes anyway. While I had some good teachers - Puan Rozita made moral education, one of the most stupid and worthless subjects ever, worth our time - I had a lot of horrid ones too. One science teacher marked me down as wrong for citing the white fur of polar bears as an example of adaptation, because it was not the answer given in the book. She left the school soon after, and the temporary teacher who replaced her marked me down for describing white blood cells as part of the immune system, because in her words, "red blood cells protect from sick."

My time at SMKBU3 was also marked by a lot of harebrained schemes that can only be described as petty corruption. The school attempted to force all students into taking additional tuition classes and computer classes, and duly charged parents for this. Only official school tracksuits, socks and labcoats could be worn - again, parents were charged for the privilege, at prices much higher than those outside. The year after I left the school, a minor scandal erupted when some teachers attempted to appropriate funds raised for a charity. Of course, the teachers didn't just abuse parents and charities; students got their share too. That same year, a student hit his head against a pole while playing football after school hours; the impact was such that you could actually see the bone of his skull. Although teachers were still on campus, for some reason (possibly legal issues) they refused to take him to the hospital; a student ended up driving him instead.

To top it all off, I have to say that SMKBU3 was one of the most racially polarised schools I have ever seen. The Chinese-dominated administration and faculty often emphasised Chinese interests and issues; the student body followed suit. My classmates who had attended other SKs for primary school, who were and are not some of the most openminded people in the world, even remarked on how racist many of our Chinese-educated classmates seemed, and often made an effort to distance themselves from them. I did not encounter this when I was in Tropicana, not to the same extent; some of my best friends when I was in form one there had been Chinese-educated, and no such barriers seemed to exist. Meanwhile at SMKBU3, those from other racial backgrounds retaliated; one Malay teacher infamously told her students that non-Malays were hopelessly disloyal and could never be trusted to defend the country. As far as I know, she was never disciplined and the incident was hushed up, because we never heard of the matter again.

Now, these were all reasons why I decided to drop out of school rather than transfer yet again, but the main impetus, really, was this: I had had enough of the system. We hear a lot of complaints about rote learning in our schools; about incompetent or lazy teachers; about racial polarisation; about the lack of emphasis on extracurriculars; about how exam-oriented our schools are; so on and so forth. These are all problems with the system; I do not blame my teachers for the way they have acted because as far as I am concerned, they are products of a school system that does not respect them either. (I always thought it was ridiculous that besides teaching, teachers have to worry about filling out menial paperwork and angry parents, all for an insanely low salary; of course they would rather devote their time to creating other streams of income and avoiding work as much as possible.) I could have transferred to a less horrid school, but to what end? I might have marginally better teachers, possibly more active extracurricular groups to join, but I would be working from the same syllabus and curriculum from within the same system - a system that I saw and still see as horribly broken.

When I was in form three, I decided I wanted out. I did not know where to begin in getting out, though, and neither did my parents. My father knew, however, that American universities rely on the SAT to gauge the abilities of prospective entrants; he suggested I take it. When the results came back, I was near the top percentile in every category. So, we began to look around, and asked local colleges what it would take to accept me for a diploma or pre-university program of some sort; all required the SPM or equivalent. The equivalent, then, was the GCE O-levels. I took seven subjects for my O-levels, and studied by myself for the next four or five months, sitting for the O-levels around the same times as my PMR.

After I got my results back, I registered for the A-levels at KDU College. My experience at KDU was something altogether different, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As a college student, you have a lot more freedom and independence than you would ever have in form six or secondary school. My lecturers were dedicated and friendly with their students, and although I do have some complaints (I would not recommend KDU as your ideal option), it was a breath of fresh air after all those years in the school system. I finished my A-levels almost two years ago, and left shortly afterwards for Dartmouth College, where I am presently majoring in economics.

There is fortunately not a lot to say about my university life so far, except that I am enjoying it, and that I enjoy the greater freedom the American liberal arts philosophy gives to students. I have taken classes in English, Chinese (my Chinese has a rather pronounced Beijing accent as a result), history, and political science; I even have the option of majoring in any of these subjects, if I really want to. Dartmouth has provided me with financial aid allowing me to attend even though my family cannot afford the high tuition fees and other living costs. This is why I am a strong advocate of American education for anyone interested in pursuing their studies overseas; I think it is something not enough Malaysians consider as a choice.

So, now that we've come to the end of my life story (as far as education is concerned), I hope you have a better idea of why it is I think the way that I do. A lot of the things I have written about education on my own website and in my column for the Malaysian Insider have proven controversial, and that is because I am coming from a rather controversial and unique background. I have explored almost every kind of education possible; I have been to a Chinese school, a private school, an SK, two SMKs, and I have even been homeschooled if you count those four months I spent teaching myself for the O-levels. I have had friends who went to Chinese independent schools, missionary schools, and MRSMs. I believe any and all of these paths are viable ones to take, but at the same time, through my experiences and those of others, I have also found that they all have their imperfections and deep flaws.

My hope is that through dialogue and debate, especially on this blog, we can delve further into the successes and failures of the different educational streams and choices in this country; that we can figure out how to fix what is rotten and retain what is excellent. I believe that at a very fundamental level, our national public school system is failing our students, and that there are ways to fix it; I also believe that at a very fundamental level, many of our alternatives to the public school system have been succeeding, and that there are ways to learn from them in rehabilitating and repairing our public school system.

My future posts will usually not be this long, but I hope you've been able to bear with my recounting of the experiences which have shaped how I see our education system today. Although you and I may (indeed, probably) disagree about the best way to reform our school system, I look forward to having a productive dialogue about the successes and failures of the different streams of education in our country, and how to learn from them.

Welcome JohnLeeMK

There's a new addition to the blogging team here at Education in Malaysia. Tony has been really busy with his responsibilities as an MP and I anticipate that I'll have to restrict my blogging activities as I try to finish up my PhD next year. Also, we thought that it would be good to bring in a fresh perspective. Someone younger and who would look at things from a different angle. The new member of our team is John Lee Ming Keong, a sophomore at Dartmouth. I first met John at a blogger's meeting in Subang Jaya a few years back. This was before he left for the US to start his undergraduate degree. He came across as a precocious and idealistic young man then and his interest in things to do with Malaysia including the education arena has not waned even as he has immersed himself in the US education experience. You can read more about him on his personal blog. I'll leave him to introduce himself on this blog. Welcome JohnLeeMK!

Malaysia's Comparative Advantage

I was chatting with a student from an Islamic country this morning. He seems like a really bright guy and he was interested in doing a PhD on Islamic Finance in a Malaysian university. This got me thinking. Malaysia should use its comparative advantage as a Muslim majority country where English is widely spoken and used at the higher education level to attract bright and young aspiring scholars from other Muslim majority countries to do research in Malaysia.

This is an untapped market. Many bright young potential scholars from countries like Pakistan and Nigeria may not have the necessary background and resources to apply to universities in the developed world to do their PhDs. Some of them also may not want to apply to some of these countries because of the visa restrictions post 9-11.

Malaysia is actually a good place for some of these scholars to do their PhDs. There is more cultural affinity because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country which means easy access to mosques and halal food. English is widely used in most if not all public universities. Our universities have decent resources and infrastructure.

Our public universities perhaps in collaboration with MOHE should pick the best brains from these countries to come here to Malaysia. Offer them scholarships but bond them to teach in our public universities for at least 3 years. Similar to what Singapore does when it gives Malaysians scholarships to study in NUS and NTU. Except that they Singapore government bonds Malaysians to work in Singapore in ANY field for 3 years.

Doing this would solve 2 problems for our public universities. Firstly, it would partly solve the problem of not having enough Malaysians to fill the spots in PhD programs in Malaysia. This is likely to happen if MOHE forces the public universities to increase their post grad intake. Secondly, it would partly solve the problem of not having enough PhDs to teach and do research in our public universities. Some of you criticized me for seemingly not being aware of the new UM VC's statement that he would bring in an additional 300 academics in critical sectors to teach at UM even as he increases the number of postgrads there. The problem is that qualified academics don't grow on trees or in the paddy fields. It's not easy to hire 300 good academics just like that. Of course, increasing the number of PhD students won't solve this problem immediately as well but long term, if these students stay on, get their PhDs and teach in our public unis, it would certainly help.

I know what some of you are going to say. What about our local students? Shouldn't they take priority over foreign students? Of course they should. After all, Malaysian students have parents to are taxpayers and they should get first dibs at any scholarships and places at the postgrad level. Malaysian postgrads should make up a majority of students in these postgrad programs. I would be worried if this was not the case. Even in a place that is as open as the US, foreigners make up only 20 to 30% of the graduate population. It varies by course but there are good reasons for this. I don't expect Malaysia to be any different. If the ratio was anywhere close to 50-50, I would start raising a ruckus.

But if my intuition is right and not enough Malaysian students apply for these postgrad positions and if there is a latent demand coming from good foreign students like the one I talked about earlier, I think it would be a strategic move for the Malaysian government and our public universities to make.

It would be ideal if we could attract Malaysians who have been trained in universities in the developed world to come back and teach in our universities but we all know that that is going to be difficult at least in the short term. This is one of the alternative solutions.

Of course, this shouldn't distract us from something that I have blogged about many times before, which is that the promotion process in our public universities should be made more transparent. It would be sad indeed if we gave scholarships to foreigners to come do to their PhDs here and they are promoted faster than some of the local staff even though the local staff may be as good if not better than some of these foreigners. In other words, the playing field has to be leveled. If the foreign PhD students are good, they should be offered jobs and promoted. But if the locals are equally good, they also should be offered jobs and promoted.

Lastly, I just want to emphasize that this works only if the selection mechanism put in place in our public universities is sound and rigorous. This is to ensure that only the best foreigners who don't want to apply to schools in the developing country get to come to Malaysia and do their PhDs here. No point getting those who want to come here only for the free education and whose qualifications are less than stellar.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kenapa say benci AUKU

Interesting points raised by the MP for Rasah, Anthony Loke, on the effects of AUKU / UUCA. I particularly like the 3 M's (menyalin, menghafal and muntah). The final point he made is a good one. Replace AUKU / UUCA with AUTU - Akta Urus Tadbir Universiti. This would mean that the restrictions on political activities on the part of the students would be replaced by an Act which specifies the administrative procedures required for political activity to take place on campus. For example, there are many guidelines which US universities have to follow to keep their status as non-partisan non-profits. Political activity is allowed but there are different internal administrative rules used such that the university administration is not put in a position where they are found to have supported one side or the other. Professors and students are free to campaign but not on university time or resources. Malaysia should do something similar. But this won't happen under the present administration.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Guide for future and current medical students

Was alerted by a friend of a free downloadable book that every medical and wanabee medical student should read before and during his or her medical degree. The book is written by Dr. Phar Cheng Kar, who's a clinical psychologist at HUKM. He started out in vet school at UPM before transferring to the medical school. Enjoy the stories, the graphics and the life lessons!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Postgrad smokescreen?

One of the first initiatives announced by new UM VC, Prof Ghauth Jasmon, is the decision to increase the number of post graduate students at the UM and reducing the number of undergrads. This is not really something new. We've blogged about it here and here. Many of my previously expressed concerns are still valid today. What I fear more is that this may be a smokescreen that the new VC will be forced to use to increase the number of foreigners at the postgrad level in an attempt to artificially boost UM's position in the THES rankings.

This is a sample of what I previously blogged about:

The first question that comes to mind is this - where are all these 'extra' postgraduate students going to come from? According to the same Table, to achieve this three fold increase in postgraduate student enrolment, we need to have an annual average growth rate of 26% for the next 5 years. That seems like a pretty tall task. Imagine a faculty with 40 Phd students and 40 Masters students. To achieve a three fold increase in enrolment, this faculty has to take in an average of 16 new students in both the Masters and PhD programs for the next five years (closer to 20 if you take into account graduating students).

I am quite sure that if one requires a department to increase its intake of students at such a rate, quality will surely be compromised. Most programs probably won't get sufficient applications to makeup the additional places required for growth. And if they do, it probably means that they are letting in students who might not have otherwised qualified.

One can only begin to imagine possible consequences. Since most departments would not be willing to fail or to hold back the underperfomers, what might happen is that we'd get a flood of underqualified Masters or PhD holders coming out from our public universities.

While an increase in the number of post grads is probably necessary if one wants to become a research university, it is not a sufficient condition. I asked in my earlier post the following questions:

- Can our public universities sustain such a dramatic and large increase in the intake of post grads?
- Do we have enough PhDs among our academia who are sufficiently trained to teach these new post grad students? (Currently only 30% of our academic staff have PhDs, the MOHE plans to increase this to 60%)
- Will we compromise on the standards newly hired academics to cope with this increase in the number of post grads?

These questions are still relevant. I doubt that we have the infrastructure (physical hardware and software) to support this level of increase in the number of post grads. But I can be convinced if I see substantive changes in the way resources are allocated within the universities, the way in which academics are hired and promoted and the way in which post grads are trained and supported.

What was interesting about the most recent newspaper report was the the UM VC stated that the number of undergrads accepted would be decreased. While I always thought that the number of post grads would increase over time in our public universities, I've assumed that the number of undergrads would also increase given the high and increasing demand for affordable higher education (albeit at a slower rate compared to the post grads). This surprises me somewhat.

I agree somewhat with the premise expressed by Gerakan Kedah Youth Chief, Tan Keng Liang.

"I hope that UM can consider opening up more undergraduate places to qualified non-bumiputera Malaysian students. It is better for UM to boost its rankings and improve its quality by accepting more highly-qualified Malaysian youths," he said.

This premise is true only if UM opens up more places to qualified non-bumiputera students. But I'm not sure if this is necessarily the case at least in the short run. My sense is that almost ALL the well qualified non-bumi students who takes the STPM exam manage to get placed in a public university. They may not all get their 1st choice uni or 1st choice course but I'm almost positive that the top 50% of non-bumi STPM students gets admitted into a public uni. The other highly qualified non-bumi students are either studying overseas or studying in private colleges. Most of them have no desire to apply to a public uni, partly because they know it's difficult to get into the course of their choice i.e. medicine and partly because they know that the standards are lower in most public universities. Even if the MOHE agrees to allow more non-bumis entry into the public unis, they won't be able to attract a slew of high quality non-bumi students. What they might get is those non-bumi students who took the STPM but did not qualify to gain entry into ANY public university.

What Keng Liang also needs to consider is that UM's 'quality' may be boosted by taking in more post grads and if this process is transparent and meritocratic, I'm willing to bet that there should be more non-bumis accepted at the post grad level compared to the undergrad level. If this is indeed the case, then Keng Liang should have less to worry about in terms of the quality issue compared to allowing more non-bumis entry at the undergrad level.

Prof Ghauth is right to say that having most post-grad students is more likely to increase the academic output of a university but he's got the causation arrow wrong. Having more post-grad students is a result of increasing the number of qualified academics at the professorial level who will hopefully increase the level of academic output. Increasing the number of grad students but not having the proper support academic structure to support them e.g. not enough qualified supervisors will not increase academic output because there are not enough qualified professors in place which means that the post grad students themselves will not be adequately supported.

Finally, my biggest fear is that this is a smokescreen that UM will try to use to increase the foreign intake of students at the post-grad level. I've said this before and I'll say it again - I don't have a problem with accepting post-grads who are foreigners at UM as long as it is done transparently - good quality post grads, the locals are not disadvantaged, etc... But I'm not sure that this will be the case. Rather, it may just be an easy shortcut for UM to increase the number of foreign students to increase UM's position in the THES ratings. This of course after it fell from 93 because THES realized that Indian and Chinese students in Malaysia were not foreigners after all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Star SMS Poll, Tuesday 16 Dec 2008

Have your say!

The Star SMS Poll, Tuesday 16 Dec 2008

Should Mathematics and Science continue to be taught in English in primary schools?

YES - type STAR NEWS1 A and send to 32088

NO - type STAR NEWS1 B and send to 32088

Polling begins at 7am and ends at 5pm today, Tuesday 16 Dec 2008. Each SMS will cost 30 sen. In the case of multiple entries, only your last vote will be taken into account.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Biro Tatanegara - The Prime Minister's Reply

After all the questions and reports we've received on the Barisan Nasional propaganda organ in the form of Biro Tatanegara, blogged here, here and here, I had earlier submit a question to the Prime Minister's office for further clarification.
[Petaling Jaya Utara] minta Perdana Menteri menyatakan tindakan yang akan diambil ke atas pihak pensyarah Biro Tatanegara yang menggalakkan fikiran racist apabila mendesak bahaya "kalau ular dengan India depan mata, ketuk India India dulu" dan menayangkan video menuduh pemimpin Teresa Kok dan Ezam Mohd Noor sebagai penyokong "Zionist".
You can read for yourself the reply from the PM office here (well, which basically is "deny, deny, and deny further").
Biro Tatanegara (BTN) adalah sebuah agensi yang menjalankan kursus berkaitan kenegaraan dan juga semangat patriotisme di kalangan rakyat Malaysia keseluruhannya. Peserta-peserta yang menghadiri kursus berkenaan terdiri daripada pelbagai kaum dan peringkat umur.

BTN juga turut menggunakan maklumat-maklumat atau statistik yang diperolehi daripada agensi-agensi kerajaan yang lain seperti Unit Perancangan Ekonomi (EPU), Jabatan PErangkaan, Unit Penyelarasan dan Pelaksanaan (ICU), Kementerian Kewangan dan lain-lain Kementerian dalam menyampaikan fakta-fakta kepada peserta kursus dan telah menjadi dasar kepada jabatan ini tidak membenarkan penceramah BTN menyentuh apa-apa perkara yang boleh menyinggungkan perasaan mana-mana kaum, dan sekiranya ini berlaku pihak Jabatan akan menggugurkan mereka daripada menjadi penceramah BTN.

Berhubung dengan persoalan yang ditimbulkan, BTN sedar ianya di dalam blog-blog di internet, dan hasil dari siasatan kami, kata-kata seperti dinyatakan oleh YB PJ Utara tidak benar. Kemungkinan ada di antara penceramah menyatakan beberapa pepatah orang India yang berkaitan dengan hal-hal orang India yang telah disalah tafsirkan oleh pendengar. Siasatan jugak telah dijalankan dan didapati tiada sebarang bentuk rakaman ceramah yang boleh kami jadikan bukti samada tuduhan itu benar ataupun tidak.

Bentuk persoalan kedua, BTN tidak pernah menerima sebarang bentuk aduan berkenaan perkara yang disebutkan, dan sepengetahuan pihak kami tiada sebarang pebayangan video seperti yang dimaksudkan di dalam kursus-kursus yang dijalankan oleh pihak Jabatan ini.
There you go. Some take home points:

Firstly, will the earlier complainants be willing to file an official complaint? I'll be more than happy to assist, but at the same time understand the "rock and hard place" position you'll be putting yourself into.

Secondly, the next time a student goes for one of these brain-washing sessions, can we get a recording of the proceedings? I'm sure I don't have to elaborate further on this point. With such recordings, we'll have incontrovertible proof of the abuse that has been going on for too long in this organisation.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The selfishness of all sides

In case any of our readers are wondering, no, I've not lost track of the current debate on teaching Science and Math in English. Partly because of time and partly because of the complexity and the deep feelings which all sides have on this issue, I've tried to take a little bit more time to digest and reflect on the latest round of reactions and counter-reactions to this issue. My gut tells me that the Education Minister, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, will probably revert to teaching Science and Math in BM, Chinese and Tamil at the primary school level but allow this policy to continue at the secondary school level. It will be a political decision, even if the Minister says otherwise. The sad thing for me is that most of the people who are pushing for a reversion back to the old policy are doing it for selfish reasons and do not have the benefit of the students in mind. I'll explain what I mean by this.

Most of those who are pushing for a reversion to the previous policy of teaching Science and Math either in BM or in a student's mother tongue (Chinese and Tamil) are doing so because of 'nationalist' reasons. I say this because of a few reasons. Firstly, the results for the first batch of students who have undergone 6 years of this policy and took their UPSR exams recently, have not been announced yet. These will be made public soon, according to the Minister. If the results have not yet been divulged, I'm not sure if any of these groups who want to revert to teaching in BM, Chinese or Tamil, can make the claim that the policy has caused a deterioration in the Science and Math results of these students. They may point to anecdotal evidence for this occurring but they would not have been able to back it up with the proper statistics.

Secondly, all or most of these groups 'claim' that they do think that improving the command of English among students is something that they care about and is something important to them, but almost all of them do not put forth any credible suggestions on how the standard of English among our students can be improved after the reversion of teaching Science and Math back to BM, Chinese or Tamil. Other than the not very helpful suggestion of putting more resources into improving the teaching of English itself. My sense is that these groups would not protest one iota if the they got their way on the Science and Math issue and nothing is done about improving the quality of English courses in our schools.

It seems a little ironic to me that the different 'nationalist' groups, who are usually at each other's throats, can unite over this issue because of their aversion to the policy of teaching Science and Math in English. While one may doubt the efficacy of this policy in terms of either improving the quality of English or the standard of Science and Math among our students, I have no doubt that reverting to the previous policy, without doing anything else, will definitely NOT improve the standard of English among our students.

I have a few thoughts on this issue after having a long conversation with a friend a few weeks back. I'll share them with you here. There is no way that the command of the 'mother tongue' among Malay, Chinese and Indian students will be and has been significantly affected by the teaching of Science and Math in English, especially if they come from families where the dominant language is their mother tongue. They will continue to remain proficient in these languages. Their job prospects in the future will not be affected because they did not study Science and Math in their mother tongue.

In addition, I do not suspect that the results of any of these students in Science and Math would have been greatly affected by this policy change. My rationale for this is simple. The results of students is affected much more by their home environment firstly and by the quality of teachers, secondly, regardless of what language they teach in. Students from families which are stable, middle class and who have degrees and / or are teachers themselves are likely to do better in school and in Science and Math compared to students from families which are less financially stable. Students from urban areas are much more likely to do better in school because they are likely to have better teachers in their schools.

Let me give you a more concrete example. I have a friend who's about to graduate from Duke. His family is from a semi-rural part of Selangor and he was from a Chinese primary school and a national secondary school were the main medium of communication was Chinese even though all of the subjects were taught in BM. He probably had a better command of English than many of his peers because of his diligence but he would be the first one to admit that the standard of his English was nowhere near that of his counterparts from the urban areas in Penang, PJ / KL and Ipoh. He was a good student (all A1s in his SPM except for Chinese). Because he could not get a JPA scholarship (A2 in Chinese was his 'downfall'), he looked for other avenues including applying to the United World College (UWC) system. He got the scholarship but it was clear to him that his preparation as well as his standard of English was nowhere near those who applied and also got this scholarship. In fact, he was the fist person from a Chinese school background to successfully apply for and get this scholarship.

My point of bringing up this person's experience is this. The networks that can be found in urban areas that help kids apply for scholarships such as the Asean scholarship or the UWC scholarship cannot be replicated in the rural areas or even in the Chinese schools in the urban areas by having Science and Math taught in English. But by forcing these kids and exposing them to English earlier in life (meaning from the primary school level), you would be giving SOME of the them the opportunity to be exposed to things that you would only have gotten through a decent command of English, including the opportunity to apply for scholarships in overseas universities and also private institutions locally. Not having any exposure to English at an early age provides an immediate disadvantage to these students. Not to mention the impact it would have on their job prospects later in life.

I know I am going to accused of being elitist when I say this but if one were to do a survey of the non-Malays in the top universities in the UK, Australia and the US, one would find that those who are NOT from a Chinese primary school background would be severely over represented, even after controlling for things like family background and income.

The hypocrisy of the situation is ever worse when one considers that many of the leaders in these 'nationalist' organizations actually have the means and the opportunity and the networks to have their children achieve a relatively proficient level of English. Certainly to a level which would enable many of them to apply and gain entry into some of the top universities in the English speaking world.

Furthermore, my sense is that those who would be the worst affected by a reversion back to the policy of teaching Science and Math in the mother tongue language are Malay students in rural areas. Chinese students, and to a lesser extent, Indian students, can find alternative ways of pursuing a higher education in Taiwan or China or India and even gain employment in these countries after that, especially with the rapidly growing economies of China and India. But even then, the ability to have a good command of English are important in both these countries especially in China where many locals are making themselves more marketable by learning English. (Indeed one of the strengths of Msian workers in China is that their command of Chinese is as good as the locals but they have a far superior command of English. I'm talking about those from Chinese schools of course.)

The Malay kids from the rural areas don't have this option. If their command of English is not good by the time they enter university, their employment options are extremely limited and their promotion prospects are also extremely limited.

One of the main beneficiaries of the low standard of English in our country is the limited number of professionals of all races who possess a good command of English. Ironically, the middle class parents from English speaking backgrounds in the major cities in Malaysia should join in the chorus of these 'nationalists' by insisting that the ministry reverts back to its old policy of teaching Science and Math in BM, Chinese and Tamil. Better yet, ignore the slide in the standard of English in this country. This way, their sons and daughters can continue to benefit by having the advantage of being more proficient in this language compared to their peers from non English speaking backgrounds, especially those from the rural areas.

I will propose one suggestion here which I think may be part of an overall program that may reduce this rural-urban divide in terms of the standard of English of our students. It probably will make a small dent in this divide but it's a start. I propose that the government set up something that is similar to Teach for America or Americore where teachers / individuals are given incentives to spend a year or two or three to teaching English (or other subjects) in rural schools. I recall that something like that was arranged by UKEC (sorry for the earlier error) called Project Kalsom but what I'm proposing is something more long term and involves professionals / students / individuals spending more than one week or two in the rural areas. This way, these teachers can not only bring their skills in terms of teaching of different subjects in English but also bring their know how in terms of teaching these kids how to apply for different scholarships and also exposing them to the larger world beyond that in their own 'kampungs' so to speak.

Another suggestion put forth is the establishment of rural Islamic schools that uses English as the main medium of instruction. This was put forth by Bakri Musa who discusses this issue in great detail and with great measure. I'd encourage everyone who's interested in this issue to read Bakri's post.

To conclude, I'd advise everyone who has an interest in this issue of think of the implications of reverting to the previous policy of teaching Science and Math in BM, Chinese or Tamil. Think specifically of what other policies can and should be introduced to improve the standard of English among Malaysian students especially those from rural areas and those from non-English speaking backgrounds. Especially if you think that having a good command of English is an important asset to possess.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Amendment to the UUCA

I haven't had a chance to go through the latest amendment to the UUCA that is working its way through parliament right now but from what I've read from newspaper reports, the changes are cosmetic at best. Giving some autonomy to the universities may be good only if there is progressive and forward looking leadership within our public universities. But ultimately, the VCs know that they keep their jobs by pleasing their political masters at the MOHE. Students in public universities still cannot join political parties which I find to be an infringement on the rights of our students. Interestingly, the MOHE Minister, Khaled Nordin, said that this act was not applicable to UiTM because UiTM was set up under it's own Act. I wonder if this means that students and faculty at UiTM can be members of certain political parties? After all, the current UiTM VC, Datuk Seri Prof Ibrahim Abu Shah, is an unapologetic member of UMNO and has been since his days as a lecturer way back then.

Advice to UM VC: Clean up the promotion process

Below is an edited version of an email I sent to an academic in UM whom I've been corresponding with. I received news from this academic that the new UM VC was being pushed to bring UM back into the top 200 in the THES rankings within 2 years and back into the top 100 within 5 years. One of the things he's been trying to do is to 'force' UM academics to publish a minimum of 2 articles in journals which are considered 'impactful' journals (or ISI journals). My advice to the UM VC: Concentrate on cleaning up the promotion process instead of being distracted by this pipe dream of climbing the THES rankings.

Apologies for the late reply. Was overdosing on turkey yesterday.

This is what I wrote to the new VC in a previous post:

P.S. One of the first pieces of 'advice' I would give to Dr. Jasmon is to read the measurements in the THES rankings very carefully. That way, he can avoid making some of the same mistakes made by his predecessors. For example, Rafiah probably should not have tried to take credit for 'improving' UM's ranking from 246 to 230. After the top 100 schools, the differentiation in terms of scores between the rest of the schools is miniscule at best. A measurement error could easily push the ranking of a school from 250 to 210 or from 250 to 290.

Secondly, I would 'advise' him to stay as far away from these rankings as possible. Play down expectations by saying that UM is in no position to compete with the top universities in the world. Instead say that UM is trying to consolidate its academic resources in specific areas and trying to slowly but surely increase the % of PhD holders among its faculty as well as their publication records. This way, he can divorce himself somewhat from the vagaries of the THES ranking system.

Do you think he really understands how stupid the demands of his masters at the MOHE are? Top 100 within 5 years? Try getting all your faculty to have PhDs first.

Here are a few responses to what you've said below.

I totally agree with what you've said about the need for a customized approach towards trying to improve the different faculties and departments.

Here are a few of my thoughts on this and we may differ / disagree on some of the finer points perhaps because of my US training and also perhaps because of my field.

I think one of the most effective things which the new VC can do is to improve and make more transparent the promotion processes in the university. If he can do this, he'll be able to give the right incentives for the different academics to publish and make an impactful contribution to the academia, either in Malaysia or internationally. He should put in place certain processes which ensures that only the right people are promoted and that those who do not contribute academically should not be.

Here is what I think the criterion for evaluating promotions should be:

1) The number of papers in peer reviewed journals
- I really think that it's important for one's work to be evaluated by one's peer and that publications in these sorts of journals should count more than publications in journals which are not peer reviewed, even though some of these journals may be read more by the 'practitioners' in the field.
- We probably may disagree on this but I do think that there are tiers in peer reviewed journals. Some are obviously more 'presitigous' and harder to get published in than others. I think our scholars should be rewarded for being published in the more prestigous journals compared to the less prestigious ones. These would make our scholars more well known internationally as opposed to being published in less prestigious journals which may be read by more people in the region i.e. Asia or South East Asia.
- But I think the disagreement here may be more on an academic rather than a practical level. My impression is that the problem among our academics is that many of them don't even published regularly in peer reviewed journals, whatever the quality. My impression is based on my interactions with those in the political science faculty so I apologize in advance if this is not reflective of the faculty in your department. My guess is that there are probably easily over 200 political science faculty spread across the different public universities in Malaysia. Based on the stuff I've read in political science peer reviewed journals (and I define this quite loosely), there are probably 10 academics in our public universities that have actually published anything in these journals. I have no idea where the rest of the people publish but I'm guessing that they publish mostly in Malay journals which may not be peer reviewed and also Malay academic books which are probably not peer reviewed as well. I'm guessing that many of them don't even make the bar using these much 'looser' requirements. So for these academics, getting them to publish something, anything, is already a good start. Forget about the ISI journals.
- Let me give you an example from personal experience. I just finished completing a 1st draft of an article which I think has a pretty good chance of being published in one of the top political science journals. If I do make the grade, I'll probably be the first Malaysian political scientist to get published in a journal of this quality. To write the paper which I'm writing, I had to spend about 1 year collecting elections data from 152 countries. After that I had to do case study work for about 30 of those countries. And then I had to many regressions to test the modes which i wanted to test. I just sent the paper out to about 20 people for comments and feedback. After the feedback comes in, I'll have revise my paper again and probably run more regressions. And then I send it in to the peer reviewed journal. Wait to see if it is accepted. If it is, it will come back with comments from 3 reviewers and I have to amend my paper to take into account those comments. From the start of this project to when I hope the paper will be published will be 2 years, give or take. All this for a 35 page paper. I cannot imagine many Malaysian political scientists who may not have had the luxury of the training I've received of going through this process. If I were the head of the polisci department of a Msian public university, I would encourage the faculty, especially the younger ones, to publish in region journals which may be easier to get published in and go from there.

2) Editor of a edited volume

- Besides writing one or two articles in these volumes, an editor has the additional responsibility of collecting and editing these articles.
- Of course, there are also differences in the quality and impact of different edited volumes. Those which are published by good publishers obviously have more reach and impact than those which are published by less well known publishers.

3) Chapters in edited volumes.

- Although many of these volumes are not peer reviewed (except by the editor, who of course, would have different standards than anonymous reviewers in peer reviewed journals), they can be impact chapters which can genuinely add to the body of knowledge of a particular subject. It may by the preference of some who want to publish something quickly and do not want to suffer through the vagaries of a peer review process.

4) Conference papers

- These are not the same as the above since they have not been converted to papers or chapters. But they should be counted if it is in the process of being converted into something more substantive

5) Other organizational responsibilities

- These should be things which contribute to the intellectual life of the department including organizing important conferences, inviting speakers to come and share ideas, etc...

6) Writing articles for newspapers, magazines etc...

- I would probably benefit from this but I would put it very low on the totem pole. It reflects the responsibility of an academic to be a public intellectual but it is DEFINITELY NOT a replacement for being published in journals or books.

You can see where my priorities lie - they have to be in publishing material, the heartbeat of an academic's life.

I think if you can get the promotion review process, either internally or externally, to be able to take into account, holistically, the career of an academic thus far, the VC will have done a lot in terms of getting the message out there that you cannot be academically unproductive and still expect to be promoted. I still hear stories of how academics who are less accomplished are being promoted over those who are more accomplished because of racial quotas or connections with the VC or the right politicians. If a sound review process is in place, you don't actually have to put in place the 2 ISI journals in one year requirement. You can take a three year cycle of an academic's career and make promotion decisions on a medium term outlook.

Lastly, on the teaching load bit, I'd ask the VC to think creatively here. One possibility is to recruit more Masters and PhD students who can then act as TAs for the professors. This will decrease the marking load for many professors and hopefully allow them to be more productive academically.

Sorry for being so long winded but I've been thinking about this over the last day or so.


Kian Ming

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School

I'm doing a plug for a friend who's at the relatively new Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School down in Singapore. If you have any questions about the program, you can contact her at sally.ong (at) nus.edu.eg.

Dear Students,

As you consider your medical school options, let me take this opportunity to suggest that attending Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School could be one of these exciting possibilities. The newest of the National University of Singapore’s graduate schools, and the first American-model medical school in Singapore, Duke-NUS is the brainchild of Duke University School of Medicine, NUS and the Singapore government. The Times Higher Education rankings places NUS in the top 30 universities world wide and one of the leading universities in Asia. At Duke-NUS, we seek outstanding individuals with strong passion for medicine and dedication to scientific learning to become physicians, physician scientists, and academic physicians. You could be one of them. Our class would be enriched by the perspective you have to offer as an international student.

Why come to Duke-NUS?

Using innovative team-based learning methods and Duke's distinctive integrated curriculum, our rigorous four-year Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program prepares students for entry to the medical profession. With Duke as the key education partner to NUS, we are privileged to be at the center of knowledge exchange between two prestigious universities. By the time next year’s class matriculates here next August, we will have moved into our new campus at Outram, with its impressive on-site research facilities and proximity to the clinical infrastructure at Singapore General Hospital (SGH). SGH is the largest tertiary care medical center in Singapore and is a highly rated, JCI approved facility. Additionally, our research-focused education will appeal to those who see themselves becoming both medical practitioners able to care for patients and physician-scientists engaged in biomedical research.

These considerations aside, what is most important about Duke-NUS is the superlative quality of the students themselves, and the opportunities for each person’s professional and intellectual formation. With only 50 students in each cohort, each student is assured of faculty attention and ample access to educational resources. Our emphasis on learning in teams helps foster strong relationships in an already close student community. Duke-NUS is also a school with a strong global character. This year’s class includes students from 13 countries. To give you a quick peek at some of the achievements and new happenings at our school, we are sending a copy of our most recent newsletter, Vital Science.

A note about Admissions

Applications for the school year beginning August 2009 are open until 1st December. We invite you to visit our website www.duke-nus.edu.sg to learn about our school, our curriculum, the admissions requirements, and, if you are interested, to begin the online application process https://admissions.gms.edu.sg/. If you have questions, please contact

We look forward to your application. Join us in 2009!

Best regards,

Dr. Stenberg
Associate Dean, Student Affairs and Admissions

What is Duke-NUS?

Duke-NUS, or the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, is an innovative new medical school in Singapore co-founded in 2005 by Duke University and the National University of Singapore. The school offers students from around the world the singular opportunity of receiving an American-style medical education while studying in one of Asia's most vibrant centers of biomedical research.

At Duke-NUS, students pursue the same rigorous, research-focused curriculum pioneered by Duke University School of Medicine. To this curriculum, moreover, Duke-NUS has added its own distinctive emphasis on Team Based Learning (Team Duke-NUS) as the primary mode of instruction. In the third year, mentored by distinguished researchers, Duke-NUS students undertake independent research projects. In their clerkship years, they care for patients in leading Singapore teaching hospitals under the guidance of dedicated clinical faculty.

Duke-NUS aims to prepare outstanding physicians and physician-scientists for careers in biomedical research, academic medicine, and patient care.

Graduates will receive an MD degree jointly conferred by Duke University and the National University of Singapore.

How do I apply to Duke-NUS?

Duke-NUS and Duke School of Medicine are closely affiliated, but the two schools have independent admissions processes. As Duke-NUS does not participate in AMCAS, you will need to complete an online application at the Duke-NUS application portal. The good news is that we do not charge an application fee.

We encourage interested students to visit the Duke-NUS Admissions website for more details about the application process and admissions requirements. Duke-NUS has a rolling admissions policy. Prospective students are strongly encouraged to submit applications as early as possible, in any case no later than December 1st of each year.

Are International students welcome to apply?

Certainly! We welcome applications from qualified applicants of all nationalities, and there is no quota on the number of international students we accept. They are also eligible for financial aid.
Will I need to interview in Singapore?
Interviews will be held at various locations in the US (Duke is one of those locations), as well as in Singapore. . If you are shortlisted, the Admissions office will contact you with information about interview locations. Students who are able to attend an Applicant Day will be able to participate in a Team Duke-NUS session where they will have the opportunity to experience for themselves the distinctive educational methods of Duke-NUS. We encourage any students who are admitted to come for a visit to Singapore.

How will the final disposition of my application at one school affect the other?

Admissions decisions for Duke and Duke-NUS are made independently. The outcome of your application at one school in no way prejudices your application at the other. Please be aware that Duke-NUS has a rolling admissions policy, so a student who has agreed to matriculate at Duke–NUS is expected to withdraw from any other schools they have applied to.

Is there an MD/PhD program?

Yes, there is. Students do not apply directly to the MD/PhD program but must be admitted to the MD program first through the normal application process. They may apply for entry to the MD/PhD program at the end of their second year, and if offered a place will commence with PhD research from their third year onwards. After completion of the PhD requirements (typically 4 years) students will continue with the final year of MD training.

To learn about the MD/PhD program at Duke-NUS, please visit our website:

What are the requirements after graduation?

Upon finishing the MD degree, Duke-NUS graduates must complete a one-year internship at a Singapore public hospital to fulfill the requirements for Medical Registration (Licensure). Thereafter, in return for the tuition subsidy provided by the Singapore government, all Duke-NUS graduates are expected to fulfill a Service Commitment (SC) with the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH). Duke-NUS graduates may satisfy the Service Commitment requirement by serving their residencies in Singapore’s public hospitals or by taking research positions in biomedical research facilities affiliated with MOH or the Singapore government. This commitment lasts for four years for Singapore citizens and five years for international students and Singapore permanent residents. Graduates will be paid during the one-year internship and the period of service commitment. MOH has also indicated that a select group of outstanding students may be able to complete their residencies in the US before returning to Singapore to complete their SCs.

I’m interested! Where can I learn more about the school?

The best place to start learning more about the school is http://www.gms.edu.sg

Alternative Career Paths: Corrinne May

I've blogged about alternative career paths before, here. Definitely not as much as Tiara though. Those of you who are interested in an alternative take on education should definitely take a look at her blog. Wanted to highlight the story of Corrine May, a Singaporean singer and songwriter who's currently based in LA.

You can read about her here. She graduated with an English degree from NUS in Singapore and then went to pursue her dreams of making music by going to the Berklee School of Music, not to be confused with UCal at Berkeley. She's pretty accomplished by now and I think she's going to be a name which many people in the music industry will soon be familiar with. (She co-wrote a song with Carole King for a songwriting competition! How cool is that!)

You can listen to her music here and here. She definitely does NOT sound Singaporean or Asian and the content of her songs is also very 'unSingaporean'. Take a listen to see what I mean.

I know of another Singaporean, who's the wife of a friend, who gave up her newspaper career and is pursuing a PhD in Music / Opera at a US university (Apologies in advance for getting the exact name of your course wrong! You know who you are).

It's assuring when you know that you're not the only one who was chosen to take the path less traveled.

BTW, me highlighting Corrinne is no way influenced by the fact that she was from RGS and RJC.

P.S. The friend who introduced me to Corrinne also pointed out that many people who choose alternative career paths often have to leave their home countries to pursue their dreams. A little sad but it's a reflection of the economic, social and political realities of the world we live in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Universiti Rakyat

Recently, Kedah's GERAKAN Youth has come out with a proposal to create a free university that is open to all Malaysians, regardless of race. It received some attention when the Minister of Higher Education, Khaled Nordin, responded to this proposal with some disdain. I shall comment on the proposal to set up a Universiti Rakyat and then I'll talk about the Minister's response.

This concept of a free university was first proposed by Kedah GERAKAN Youth Chief, Tan Keng Liang. The aims of this university are the following (I lifted this from the facebook group - Universiti Rakyat):

This proposed University is a free university for all Malaysians regardless of race and entrace shall be based on merits. The selection of lecturers in this university shall also be based on merits and without any form of quota. In line with the reduction of the subsidy of petrol and diesel in Malaysia, it is hope that the Malaysian government can use part of the savings from the reduction of the subsidy to establish this University for all Malaysians. This proposal is:-

1. in line with the Malaysia's government effort to promote the development of Human Capital and to exploit the potential of all Malaysian youth;

2. able to give all Malaysian a chance to further their education and expand their capabilities; and

3. able to assist the Malaysian youth to compete with the youth in other countries.

To support this proposal, please sign up at the online petition at www.petitiononline.com/unrakyat

Every Malaysian can do their part for the future of all Malaysians.

There are three basic distinguishing aspects of this university - that it is a public university, that entry is based on meritocracy and that it is free. I agree with the first two aspects while I disagree with the third.

I think that the concept of a public university that bucks the trend in terms of entry 'quotas' would be a good test case of what such a university would look like as opposed to the current public universities - which still have implicit 'quotas' even though the entry process now is supposed to be based on meritocracy (ask anyone who has compared the syllabus and exams of those doing STPM and those doing Matriculation).

Of course, the performance of such a university vis-a-vis other public universities is dependent on other factors in addition to the composition of the students including facilities, resources, faculty, etc...

What I don't agree with is the "FREE" component. Running a university is a very expensive endeavor. I think that we've actually been too aggressive in the expansion of our public universities so much so that I doubt whether we have sufficient resources to teach in and manage all these new public universities that have been popping up left and right. I would prefer that the MOHE moves away in the long term from fully funding all the public universities and allow these universities to pay for part of their runnings costs by either charging slightly higher fees and / or raising money to be put into endowments which can go into the running of a university. Universities worldwide are starting to feel the pinch of increasing costs and competition and if our public universities want to be competitive, they have to find ways of raising more revenue to provide better pay for higher performing faculty and to give them the resources they need to do serious research. As such, I don't think that the model of a "FREE" university works. It just cannot provide the kinds of facilities and faculty that would make this university a half decent one.

Now, let me talk about the minister's response.

This is what he said in a statement published by Berita Harian:

1. cadangan Pemuda Parti Gerakan Negeri Kedah untuk menubuhkan Universiti Rakyat ‘adalah tidak masuk akal dan tidak wajar kerana akademik tidak boleh berkait dengan mana-mana parti politik di negara ini’;

2. “kerajaan memerintah sekarang sudah merangkumi kombinasi pelbagai parti politik, justeru, tidak perlu untuk setiap parti politik di negara ini menubuhkan universiti khas”; dan

3. “kebebasan akademik perlu dipelihara dan tidak boleh dikaitkan dengan agenda politik”.

This is Keng Liang's response (again, lifted from Facebook):

Isu Pertama

Cadangan “Universiti Rakyat” oleh Pemuda Parti Gerakan Negeri Kedah tersebut merupakan suatu cadangan pembentukan universiti percuma bagi semua rakyat Malaysia yang akan ditubuhkan dan ditadbir oleh kerajaan Malaysia dan bukan oleh mana-mana badan politik di negara kita.

Isu Kedua

Seperti yang telah dinyatakan, universiti tersebut akan ditubuh dan ditadbir oleh kerajaan Malaysia bagi semua rakyat Malaysia. Ia bukan suatu universiti khas oleh mana-mana badan politik negara kita.

Isu Ketiga

Pembentukan Universiti Rakyat tidak akan menjejaskan sistem pengajian negara kita yang sedia ada tetapi akan memberi lebih peluang untuk rakyat Malaysia untuk memasuki universiti tempatan “berdasarkan merit”. Rakyat Malaysia tidak wajib untuk memasuki universiti ini tetapi sebagai suatu peluang alternatif untuk mereka. Oleh yang demikian, kebebasan akademik negara kita tidak terjejas.

Keng Liang is spot on in terms of his replies. His proposal is not to set up a GERAKAN Universiti Rakyat. His proposal is to set up a taxpayer's funded public university.

But there's a reason as to why the minister associated this proposal with a political party wanting to have its own university. The reason is that GERAKAN was given a license to operate its own university - Wawasan Open University. I won't comment on the Wawasan Open University since I was working in a GERAKAN linked think tank while this university was being set up (no, I didn't give any input on the establishment of this university). As such, it was instinctive for the Minister to associate a call to set up a university by a political party to equate this with a political party wanting its 'own' university.

I think Keng Liang's proposal is motivated by good intentions. The current system is unfair in that it pushes out a lot of non-Malays who would otherwise have qualified to attend the public universities. But many non-Malays also voluntarily 'opt-out' of the public university system since there are now many alternatives in private colleges (even though it comes at a higher cost).

My preference would be to focus on improving the quality of our public universities and perhaps improving the entry process into our public universities rather than setting up a new university that is free and meritocratic.

In any case, the possibility of such a university being established by the government is almost nil.

Gender imbalance

The issue of gender imbalance in our public universities is an issue which I've been tracking for some time. I suspect that it is a problem which cuts across racial lines but is especially serious among Malays, all the more because they comprise the majority of the population and those entering public universities. It is a complex problem which has many root causes and it should not be 'solved' by the implementation of a gender quota in our public universities. Thankfully, the Deputy Minister for Higher Education, Idris Haron, has resisted this temptation.

This is one issue which has flown under the radar for some time. We've talked about the unemployability of some of our graduates, the poor quality of our universities and schools but we seldom discuss the fact that the proportion of guys who drop out of school at various stages is consistently higher than the proportion of girls.

People drop out of school for all sorts of reasons and at all levels. While we have compulsory education at the Primary level, there is still a small % of kids who don't go to school because of poverty and accessibility issue. I don't have easy access to the statistics but I'm guessing that the dropping out is most pronounced during important 'transition' years - from Primary 6 to Form 1, from Form 3 to Form 4, and from SPM onwards. My guess is that it is these years that the proportion of guys dropping out of school outstrips that of girls.

While not everyone is meant to go to college, in my opinion at least, I think it's worrying when kids start dropping out of school in large numbers. This problem takes a worrying turn when there is a growing gender imbalance in the drop out rates.

I think can of a few socio-economic problems that may be associated with this phenomenon (or will be):

- Rise in crime rates because of the lack of economic opportunities for the guys who have dropped out of school
- Frustrated guys who will be more easily mobilized by unscrupulous parties to blame their economic woes and lack of educational opportunities on 'others'
- Some of these guys may have problems getting married, especially when it is likely that more and more girls will have degrees.

I don't think there are any easy solutions to this problem. My sense is that no one has really taken a serious look into the causes of these problems. There may be causes which are shared across the different communities in Malaysia such as poverty and urbanization. But there may be others that are shared by certain communities in certain areas e.g. children of Indian plantation workers, Malay students who are sent to different states after primary school who get frustrated with the education process and drop out, Chinese gangs which influence Chinese guys to leave school early and pursue a more 'lucrative' career opportunity.

I think Khairy Jamaluddin was right to ask the Deputy Minister of Higher Education for the gender breakdown of those in our public universities. He's probably seen his fair share of Malay guys getting into trouble because of the lack of educational opportunities e.g. the Mat Rempits. But this is problem which affects all communities and even though the number of Malay male dropouts may be higher than that of other communities, surely something must be done to address this problem for all the different communities involved. (After all, an unemployed Form 3 dropout who wants to rob someone will not differentiate between a Malay, Chinese or an Indian)

A good place to start would be to try to understand the different causes underlying this problem.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rafiah fights back!

I was quite surprised to read Malaysiakini's exclusive two part interview with Rafiah Salim and how frank she was when she was interviewed. You can read the reports here and here. She certainly pulled no punches including a classic 'thing between the legs' line that may have been the highlight of the interview. I'll share some of my thoughts in regard to her tenure and the manner in which she was let go.

When she was first appointed as UM's VC in August 2006, both Tony and I said positive things about her initially. She hit the right notes and said some progressive things in regard to raising the quality of academic at UM.

Then came the 'silencing' of Azmi Sharom, who was initially asked to stop writing his Star column. That decision was later changed to not writing anything about UM in that column.

I also didn't like how she was trying to play up the appointment of Jeff Sachs as the Ungku Aziz chair of poverty studies because I knew that he wouldn't have time to contribute effectively in that role.

In 2007, she came up with a list of excuses to explain why UM fell further (from 192 to 246) in the THES rankings.

Tony has called for her to be replaced when her contract was ending and I think there were good reasons to look for a new VC who is more academically qualified and can take UM forward in terms of its academic standing.

My evaluation of Rafiah's 2 year tenure at UM is mixed at best. I think she tried to emphasize increasing the academic output among academics at UM but she was much more skeptical in regard to opening up academic and student freedoms there.

For an alternative view of Rafiah's tenure, please read Tempinis excellent post here on why Rafiah should have stayed on at UM.

My sense is that she tried her best to implement positive changes at UM but came up against forces that were too great for her to control. She probably had to face many dinosaur academics within UM who probably had never published any articles in peer reviewed journals of standing in their whole academic career, much less the 2 articles per year which Rafiah asked for. She probably had to face political pressures from BN politicians who saw UM as their 'tool' to be controlled and manipulated to serve their own ends.

I also think that she was disadvantaged in what was already an unenviable job in that:

1) She does not have a PhD. While Tempinis is 100% correct in saying that one does not need to have a PhD to run a university effectively, I think that the faculty at UM may have taken her calls to publish more seriously if she herself was a recognized academic with a good publication record. I can half imagine the cynical mocking tones among UM academics discussing the 2 articles per year requirement Rafiah put forward - 'Want us to publish? Maybe she should try publishing articles herself to see how easy it is to get published in peer reviewed journals'

2) She comes across as being too abrasive. This was quite apparent during the Mkini interview. A VC operating in an environment like the UM needs to be able to use the carrot as well as the stick approach. He or she must not only have the academic qualifications and the administrative skills, but also the social skills to be able to cajole when necessary and threaten when necessary. I suspect that Rafiah perhaps was too abrasive for the liking of the staff and faculty at UM.

3) She may not have wanted to 'curry favor' with the politicians. I'm guessing here but she does come across as someone who is less willing to 'play politics' compared to her predecessor Hashim Yaacob. She certainly was not afraid to come out swinging after her contract was terminated. Perhaps this put her in bad standing with her political masters which would have had a trickle down effect to the rest of the faculty. After all, why listen to the threats of a VC who would be leaving soon?

4) Her gender. I'm not sure how much to make of this. I think that regardless of her gender, the job of the VC was going to be a tough one. The dinosaurs there would have rebelled against anyone who wanted them to publish 2 articles a year in peer reviewed journals. But I won't totally discount this factor. It may have been the fact that she was a woman that made some of the faculty and perhaps her political masters less inclined to listen to her. But I do think that it was not gender alone. It was interesting to hear her say that her initial contract was only for 2 years while the new VC's contract is for 3 years. I'm not sure to what extent this is true but it's worth finding out. Of course, the new VC, Dr. Ghauth Jasmon, has much more experience in running universities (he help set up MMU) and is more academically qualified compared to Rafiah which may be reasons given as to why he's been awarded a 3 year contract.

I applaud Rafiah's courage in coming out to say the things which she has said. It certainly takes some courage. After all, she could have kept her mouth shut and try to lobby for some other positions in GLCs after she retires.

But at the same time, I do think that it was time for her to be replaced. I think the new VC has more of the necessary attributes to bring about positive changes to UM. But he'll be up against many of the same forces Rafiah faced - dinosaur academics, political interference, funding challenges, pressures to allow more academic and student freedoms, etc... I wish him well.

P.S. One of the first pieces of 'advice' I would give to Dr. Jasmon is to read the measurements in the THES rankings very carefully. That way, he can avoid making some of the same mistakes made by his predecessors. For example, Rafiah probably should not have tried to take credit for 'improving' UM's ranking from 246 to 230. After the top 100 schools, the differentiation in terms of scores between the rest of the schools is miniscule at best. A measurement error could easily push the ranking of a school from 250 to 210 or from 250 to 290.

Secondly, I would 'advise' him to stay as far away from these rankings as possible. Play down expectations by saying that UM is in no position to compete with the top universities in the world. Instead say that UM is trying to consolidate its academic resources in specific areas and trying to slowly but surely increase the % of PhD holders among its faculty as well as their publication records. This way, he can divorce himself somewhat from the vagaries of the THES ranking system.