Thursday, October 23, 2008

No Free Speech for Nobel Laureate

I want to reproduce a letter written by a friend of mine - Andrew Aeria - on the move by UM to scrap a talk that was supposed to have been given by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi. Just to clarify, the letter is written with a sarcastic tone, in case there is any confusion.

Congrats to the UM VC!
Andrew Aeria | Oct 23, 08 4:38pm
I refer to the Malaysiakini report Invite to Nobel laureate scrapped after 'protest from students'.

I am writing to congratulate Rafiah Salim, the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya for bravely and single-handedly putting Malaysian academia back into the international spotlight.

Well done, Rafiah. By caving in to some obviously hidebound ‘Iranian students’ and cancelling Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s scheduled lecture on 'Islam and Cultural Diversity' at UM, you gratuitously displayed to the world your university administration’s equally immaculate bigoted view of academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge.

Certainly, as Malaysians who already are the most informed in the world and living in a diverse multi-cultural society, we have no need to listen to ‘nobody’ Nobel Laureates like Shirin Ebadi, right?

I mean, what else does Ebadi know and what else can she tell us about ‘Islam and Cultural Diversity’ that we in Malaysia, with the help of our ‘Iranian students’, do not already know? So, well done.

I also gushingly applaud Rafiah Salim’s robust defence of the emotional health of ‘our Iranian students’. After all, if these blinkered ‘Iranian students’ are unhappy about ‘nobody’ Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s views and don’t want to listen to her, let alone allow others to explore any ideas that are different from their intolerant views, then surely we in Malaysian academia have to dance a jackboot march to their tune even if it is reminiscent of the Third Reich, no?

Well, Rafiah, you and your administration have pretty good goosestep dance moves, that’s for sure. I’m certain that all those now ‘happy Iranian students’ will gladly give you a 45-degree full-handed salute.

And if you listen closely, you might hear them happily utter ‘Seig Heil’! What courage you display in protecting the fragile emotions of our ‘Iranian students’. Truly well beyond the call of academic duty. Well done!

In this excellent spirit of ‘Malaysia Boleh’ and to ensure Malaysian academia’s continued international prominence, may I humbly suggest that you now direct the UM chief librarian to identify and publicly burn all books authored by Shirin Ebadi and other Iranian scholars of ‘Islam and Cultural Diversity’ that the ‘Iranian students’ don’t like.

I am sure those ‘Iranian students’ can very quickly draw up an extended list of disagreeable books that make them unhappy for your immediate action. Indeed, why stop at Iranian scholars, Islam and Cultural Diversity?

Why not just burn the whole UM library down so that all in Malaysian academia (led of course, by ‘our happy Iranian students’) can return to the raw pristine beauty of our vain-glorious collective ignorance.

Indeed, I am sure those ‘Iranian students’ and your administration would gladly welcome such a move as a significant civilisational move forward; Malaysian academia’s leap of faith into the brave new world of the 21st century!


Since when have Iranian students in our public universities started dictating policy? Does this mean that if Indonesian students protest a talk given by Habibie, such a talk will be canceled?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the right of the Iranian students to protest. But if they want to protest, they should be given a space, both physically as well as in different student newspapers, to protest Shirin Ebadi's presence on campus. But she should also be given the space to speak her mind in a way that is befitting of a Nobel Laureate. But this is Malaysia so we should not expect either to occur, apparently.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Malaysian academic quoted in the Economist

It's not often that a Malaysian academic gets quoted in the Economist. I read this economist article last week and it referred to a Malaysian academic by the name of Narayanan Kulathuramaiyer, who is based in UNIMAS in Sarawak. I google scholar searched him and he has a pretty long list of publications. The Economist quoted him as a data mining expert. Kudos to the professor!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PhD for Zahid Hamidi

A few friends emailed me recently to tell me that an UMNO leader, Zahid Hamidi, currently a Minister in the PM's department and former UMNO Youth Chief when Anwar was still DPM, was recently conferred a PhD in Communications from UPM. I applaud his resilience in doing his PhD part time despite his busy schedule as a politician. But I am probably a bit suspect in regard to the content of his PhD thesis.

I heard Zahid Hamidi speak at a small PROMUDA function a few years back and he came across as an intelligent and intellectually curious UMNO leader. This was in 2003 and he was already doing his PhD then. I was impressed because he didn't really need to get a PhD to bolster his political credentials. I'm glad that he managed to finally finish his PhD. It's a long process which I can certainly attest to as I'm working hard to finish my own PhD thesis next year.

But I can't help but have a niggling doubt as to the quality of his PhD research. For now, I'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt in regard to whether he did all the work himself or if he hired researchers to some at least part of the work on his behalf. I'll reproduce a brief description of his thesis which appeared on the Ministry of Information website and I'll comment after that.

Deputy Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been conferred a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Communication by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM).

He will receive the Phd at UPM's convocation in October, said the university's School of Graduate Studies Deputy Dean Prof Dr Hasanah Mohd Ghazali in a statement here today.

The university senate approved the degree at its meeting on Feb 21. For the Phd, Dr Zahid completed a thesis entitled "Barisan Nasional Manifesto As Agenda for Malay Language Newspaper During the General Election Campaign."

The study was undertaken to identify the usage of BN manifesto as an agenda for the Malay language newspapers namely Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian during the general elections in 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995 dan 1999.

Dr Zahid, when asked to comment on the degree, hoped that it would spur the young generation to pursue their education to a higher level. He said that the major factor for his success was his belief in life long learning and hoped that it would encourage his children to follow in his footsteps.

"I hope this success will spur my political colleagues, especially the younger ones to study to a higher level. "If I can do it at the age of 55, the young generation should feel challenged (by it)," he said.

Commenting on his thesis, Dr Zahid said that based on the research the manifesto, which is regarded as a promise by BN, was the basis for the success and support obtained by the party during the general elections.

If the manifesto announced provided something good for the rakyat, the effect would be seen from the number of popular votes and increase in the number of seats won by BN, he said.

I'm not sure if this article quoted him correctly but I find the last remark quite disturbing. Has there been a case in the past whereby a BN manifesto would NOT provide something good for the rakyat thereby leading it to lose popular votes and seats? I'm not sure if he had a well defined dependent variable and a set of independent variables which he used in a regression analysis to test his hypothesis but from that statement alone, I find this hard to believe.

Furthermore, he tracked the usage of the BN manifesto in Utusan and Berita Harian in the elections starting from 1982 and ending in 1999. Unless you used very sophisticated coding to pick out and define different categories of reports and later quantify them, I suspect that you would not get much variance in regard to how these papers presented the BN manifesto to its readers - overwhelmingly POSITIVE! In social science methodological speak, you don't get any variance in the independent variable i.e. the BN manifesto or the newspapers reporting them.

In any case, I don't really think there's enough variance on his dependent variable i.e. electoral outcomes in the 6 elections he covered. He cannot possibly use the outcomes in individual constituencies as his dependent variables since you cannot possibly measure the impact of newspaper reporting on the BN manifesto by individual constituencies.

My sense is that he may have been poorly guided by his advisers at UPM who might not have wanted to piss off a high ranking UMNO leader and deny him his PhD. Every PhD inevitably has its share of weaknesses (I'm sure my own will be the same) but some methodological shortcomings will not pass muster in most universities where the advising committee does some sort of quality control.

I hope I can get my hands on his PhD thesis. If anyone has access to it, please email me.

Friday, October 10, 2008

THES 2008 Rankings

The 2008 THES rankings are out as many of our readers have noted. Not surprisingly, no Malaysian university made it to the top 200. The top Asian university (not including Australia) is the University of Tokyo at no.18. NUS is ranked 30 and NTU cracked the top 100 at 77.

We've debated the pros and cons of university ranking systems many times in this blog. I'd also highly recommend the blog of Richard Holmes which monitors the methodology of the THES and other university rankings.

If I were the VCs of any of the top public universities in Malaysia (USM, UM, and UKM), I would refrain from playing the THES ranking game and set expectations low by saying things like 'there's no way that a Malaysian public uni can compete with the other universities in this list given that we're still a developing country, we're still trying to increase the % of PhDs among our faculty, we still have to improve our facilities etc...' I've said this before and I'll say it again, none of the public universities in Malaysia is anywhere near the standard of the top 500 universities in the US (where almost 100% of faculty have PhDs)

We'll have to wait until next week to see where the highest ranked Malaysian university appears (probably in the 300s I would guess) but it seems to me that it would be better for our public universities to try to achieve certain internally set targets e.g. 60% of faculty with PhDs and benchmark themselves to certain Asian universities (like our neighbors down south).

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Third Report Card MOE Blueprint

Read this pretty long article in the Star on the Third Report card of the MOE in following the progress of the National Education Blueprint (2006 to 2010). One always has to read these reports with a pinch of salt since they can be manipulated to present the facts in a positive light. It requires one to carefully read the past two report cards in addition to the latest one. But the Star article does point out some things which I thought were positive.

For example, the MOE does seem to be trying to introduce more flexibility into the education system. Cluster schools such as MCKK and Tunku Kurshiah College may allow its students to take the International Baccalaureate (IB) program instead of SPM starting in 2011.

The Minister, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, also indicated that the ministry would be moving away from a centralized system of exams to one that would allow greater flexibility at the school level.

In addition, he also emphasized that the ministry would be putting in more resources into vocational and skills training, something which this blog has emphasized in the past.

At the very least, the MOE is trying to be accountable by trying to keep to the goals of the National Education Blueprint. In the past, it seems to me that once these Blueprints were released, nobody pays any more attention to it and they are chucked aside quickly.

One complaint though, I couldn't find any of the report cards on the MOE's website. If someone can find it, please let the rest of us know.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Science Stream versus Arts Stream

A friend of mine, Tzu Anne, pointed me to this post that was originally from a Singapore newspaper, the Electric New Paper, and reproduced in Lim Kit Siang's blog. The story is about a certain Lim Wah Guan. His story is one that is not that common in Singapore. He did pretty well in his primary school exam (PSLE) and for his O levels but did horrendously for his A levels which caused him to be rejected by NUS four times. He finally applied and got into UNSW in Australia for a degree in Chinese and Theatre Studies which he excelled in. He later did a Masters in Oxford and is currently pursuing a PhD in Princeton.

His story is not a typical Singapore story in that, as far as I know, very few students who score a C, E and O for his or her A levels and B, D and D in a repeat exam actually end up doing a PhD in Princeton. It does highlight the fact that there needs to be some flexibility in an education system but having some flexibility is usually not costless. (For those who are familiar with stats, think of having flexibility of making room for a late bloomer like Lim Wah Gaun as increasing your chances of making a Type I error because you want to decrease the chances of making a Type II error)

But more importantly, it does call out to me the question of whether someone should choose a certain stream or subjects to study just because it is easier to 'score' in those subjects. In the Malaysian context, this usually manifest itself in the good students going predominantly to the Science stream and the poor students going predominantly to the Arts stream.

Many students in Malaysia who are not interested in the subjects that are taught in the Science stream after Form 3 may be compelled either by peer pressure or by their parents to choose that default option even though they might be interested in pursuing more subjects in the Arts stream.

Personally, I think that this is a very sad predicament to be in. I left Malaysia after Form 3 but did spend a week or so in Form 4 in Malaysia before leaving for Singapore so that I could spend a few more days with some of my friends. It was more or less taken for granted that if you were a good student, you would automatically enroll yourself in the Science Stream. The students in the Arts stream were somewhat of a laughing stock to us in the Science stream since they were only there because they could not get good enough results to get into the Science Stream. As a result, teachers who teach subjects in the Arts stream were often demoralized because they were teaching poor students who were usually not that motivated. I would be interested in having access to some of the statistics because my guess is that a far larger percentage of students in the Science Stream ended up in universities whether foreign or local compared to those students in the Arts Stream. This becomes somewhat of a vicious cycle since students in the Arts Stream have low expectations of themselves and teachers then have low expectations of them and so on and so forth.

I don't think there is an easy way to rectify this situation but one possible way would be to allow for greater flexibility for students in the Science streams to take courses and subjects in the Arts stream. I'm not sure whether such flexibility currently exists in Malaysian schools (I suspect that there is some flexibility) but it should be extended such that over time, the negative stigma associated with the Arts stream and Arts related subjects can be decreased. It may also have the positive effect of mixing the 'better' students from the Science stream with those in the Arts stream.

I would greatly appreciate it if more recent secondary school graduates can enlighten me on the current situation in Form 4 and Form 5 but I highly suspect that the negative association with the Arts stream is still as pervasive as ever.

From an individual's point of view, I think that someone should take courses and subjects which he or she is interested in and not ones which are perceived to be easier to score. From a larger, societal perspective, having good and not so good students interact more based on subjects which presumably at least some of them are interested in is no bad thing.

Fake Degrees from St Regis

Read this article on the Malaysian Insider, originally reported by SCMP in Hong Kong about fake degrees from a St. Regis University. Apparently, some Malaysians have also bought fake degrees from this place. Just a warning to our readers who might know of someone who claims to have a degree from this place.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Malaysian author long listen for the Booker prize

Got this link from a mailing list I'm party of (the Malaysian Forum started by a group of Stanford students). It's an interview with Tan Twan Eng, whose book, the Gift of Rain, was long listed (as opposed to short listed?) for the Man Booker prize in 2007. I have not read his book yet but I have read Tash Aw's Harmony Silk Factory which is also set in a similar time period (World War II), which I enjoyed thoroughly. It's always nice to read about a Malaysian author gaining some recognition on the international stage.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Finally, a VC with a good academic record

Got this piece of news from a friend from one of the public unis. Zaini Ujang, at 43, is the youngest VC in a public university, in this case, UTM. Unlike the UITM VC, Prof Zaini Ujang is a legit academic with a history of academic publications in peer reviewed journals. And he doesn't boast that he's a life long UMNO member and is proud of his publication record. You can view his publication record here. It's this kind of appointment which gives me some hope in the public university system in Malaysia. Another sign that UTM is moving in the right direction? I recently got to know two Malaysian PhD students in Cambridge who are sponsored by UTM. If they and others like them go back to UTM, it's a good sign for that institution.