Friday, February 27, 2009

Guest Article: NS Observations and Thoughts (II)

Part 2 of Mei San's article on the NS program.

M-16 Training

The M-16 training is one of the greatest “selling points” of the NS programme.

A day before the actual shooting session, trainees were given a briefing by the army. During the briefing session, we were taught the correct position to take while shooting, the instructions that we had to be aware of and how to walk to our respective positions. During the actual shooting session, each trainee was allowed thirty shots, using live bullets, of which 10 were for testing purpose while the remaining 20 counted for points. The shooting session lasted about five minutes for each trainee. Only trainees with a signed letter of consent by their parent or guardian were allowed to shoot.

What lesson is to be expected of this M-16 training?

During a Dewan Rakyat sitting, in a reply to Loke Siew Fook (DAP-Rasah) who questioned the purpose of the M-16 training, the Deputy Defense Minister stated that the M-16 training “has helped to instill discipline among NS trainees”7.

In reality, there is not much space and opportunity for learning. The M-16 training only provided the trainees a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fire live bullets from an M-16. Nothing substantial was taught during both the briefing and actual shooting sessions. It cannot be said that the trainees have learned the proper way to handle firearms.

While some trainees may be excited with their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fire live bullets from an M-16, the public have not been very receptive with the idea of incorporating the M-16 training module in the NS programme.

Ronnie Liu of the DAP, has once issued a media statement “M16 training for NS trainees serves little purpose but poses high risks for all” in which he wrote that “The proposed additional M16 training for NS trainees may not serve much purpose, but it would inevitably increase the cost of the program besides posing high risks to the trainees and the society in general. I hate to think about the possibility of arms heists and vulnerability of accidents in the camps”.8

Jacqueline Ann Surin wrote for the Sun that “Arms usage training kills NS objectives”: “Does it teach our young constructive and respectful ways of dealing with misunderstandings and conflicts between the races? Does it promote the noble values of, among others, inner strength, patience, peace and justice?

“So, here's a question I have for our government: How does a government agency get away with proposing and then running a programme, albeit a trial one, that explicitly undermines all the three objectives that were set out by the government itself?

“The only reason I can think of for our teenagers to be given arms training is so that they will be prepared to use it one day.

“But, I remember very clearly a commitment made by our government that National Service in Malaysia was not about building a reserve army in the way that the Singapore National Services aims to do.”9

An online poll by The Star on 8 June 2006 found that more than two-thirds of readers disagreed with the move to train national service trainees in the use of the M16 assault rifle.10

NS Training Department deputy director-general Omar Abdul Rahman said “to avoid misunderstanding, we have changed the name from shooting lesson (kelas menembak) to light-arms usage training (latihan penggunaan senjata ringan).”11


The lack of transparency on the ways things are being managed in the NS programme has led to a serious decline of public confidence towards this programme.


As of today, there are 16 fatalities from the NS programme. However, not a single fatality was granted the appropriate inquiry or thorough investigation. Were the fatalities due to negligence by the instructors? Or did those tragedies occur because the trainees disobeyed instructions and were acting based on their own wills and desires? The public has no idea. “… Many of such reports are rarely published to the public”, wrote TE Cheah in his medical blog posting “National Service: A Death Trap?” 12. The vacuum of information only serves to create more uncertainties and fear towards the programme. To make things worse, the Deputy Prime Minister, then Minister of Defense, was even quoted in an occasion to remark that “only 14 have died”, indicating an attitude of indifference and insensitive towards the lives of the trainees13.

Camp Operations

There have been many reports of food poisoning in NS camps. Is the hygiene at all NS campsites regularly assessed by the authorities to be at a satisfactory and safe level?

Ricky Lim, a former NS trainee at Lagenda Gunung Ledang Asahan camp, passed away on 15 September 2008, fifteen days after he completed his training. An initial post-mortem could not identify the cause of death and health authorities are carrying out further tissue analysis which is expected to take between two and three months14. Ricky did not complain of any illness or pain prior to his death but he did complain about the camp’s hygiene and yellowish water supply15.

The writer herself can testify to yellowish water with sedimentation in the canteen as well as dormitories in her NS camp.

In September 2008, Penang state government has ordered the closure of three NS camps in Balik Pulau, Kampung Genting and Machang Bubok following an investigation showed that the three camps were built illegally16. A landslide occurred at the Sri Mutiara Balik Pulau camp after a heavy rain. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was quoted as saying that the three camps would not be allowed to operate until their planning permission was submitted and approved by local authorities17.

The assurances given by the NS Department are clearly contradicted by the events occurring in the camps.

Moreover, the 2007 Auditor-General’s report said that NS ‘shirkers’ and a very “rigid” contract have caused the Government losses of up to RM110.1million from 2004 to 2007.18 The 2007 A-G report also found that T-shirts, track pants, baseball caps and sports shoes supplied under contracts worth RM41.12mil were of low quality.19 But no appropriate inquiry or investigation has ever been conducted on this matter.

How much autonomy is given to each camp? Trainees have come back telling that different rules and regulations are enforced in different camps. Furthermore, there are also trainees who have said that certain camps have “more fun”.

The Different Batches

The yearly conscriptions of the NS programme are divided into three separate batches to undergo their trainings. The unofficial saying goes that the first and second batches of trainees are top scorers and good students while the third batch, on the contrary, are those with problematic backgrounds or are school dropouts. Many trainees, even NS instructors, have testified to this saying. Yet, there is never an official statement by the NS Department on this issue.

Will the NS Department be prepared to make it known to the public how trainees are appointed to their training groups? Will different approaches be adopted to approach the different groups of trainees? For instance, trainees of the third batch might not be accustomed to classroom activities such as Character Building. Will they, instead, be given vocational lessons to arm them with skills that will help them to earn an honest living in the near future?

The Military Issue

The NS Department has always been insisting that the NS programme is never meant to be military styled. Nevertheless, the reality is that there are much resemblance between the NS programme and military training. For instance, training activities such as obstacle course and M-16 training as well as the ways assemblies are conducted in camp. Furthermore, the majority of the instructors employed are formerly with the military and the camps are all administrated by military rank holders. These, coupled with the fatalities, create the confusion of whether the NS programme is truly “not military styled”. Will the NS Department make an attempt to reclassify the NS programme as “semi-military”, stating clearly which are the elements structured after the military, which are not and what are the purposes?

Training of Trainers

The majority of the instructors, particularly those of the physical module, are retired military rank holders. While their contributions and sacrifices for the country must be properly recognized, the NS Department must also acknowledge that they are not necessarily the ideal instructors for the NS programme, especially when the NS Department often emphasizes that the NS programme is “not military styled”. The writer has occasionally observed the burly attitudes of the instructors, including shouting unpleasant words to trainees (“if this is how you live your lives, you might as well die!”), which not only have the potential to hurt the trainees’ self-esteem and self- confidence, but can induce further anger in more rebellious trainees. There are also instructors who, sometimes, do not hesitate to issue threats in order to discipline the trainees (I can break this pillar in front of you!). Will the NS Department come up with a code of ethics for the instructors? Will they reconsider the employment of former military rank holders to train NS trainees?

The conflicts which often arise between the public and the NS Department are due to the statements and facts made by the NS Department which contradicts with their execution and enforcement. Addressing the above issues will help to resolve the conflicts. It will, in addition, help to create a healthy check-and-balance system for the NS Department.

Objectives & Benefits

The official objectives of the NS programme, as stated in its official website, are as followed:20

1. To heighten the spirit of patriotism among the younger generation
2. To promote racial unity and national integration
3. To build positive characters through practice of noble values
4. To inculcate spirit of volunteerism
5. To produce a generation of active, bright and confident youths

The first two objectives clearly cannot be perceived as achieved. C. S. Kuppuswamy wrote in his paper “Malaysia’s Racial Politics” that “a National Service Programme was launched in 2004 where youths of different races were nominated to undergo a camp for about three months for a training programme, during which they would come to know the culture and traditions of the other races. These small measures neither had the desired impact nor had the support of the general public.”21 The same was observed by Aliran - “national harmony and patriotism cannot be hammered into the youths via a three-month stint of military-type training and outward bound activities.”22 Furthermore, while the majority of the trainees who have completed their trainings have testified that the NS programme has allowed them to be more independent, to develop communication skills and to make socialize with new friends, they agree that the NS programme has little impact on patriotism as well as racial integration. The fourth objective cannot be achieved through the community service module, too.

Most importantly, we question the uniqueness and exclusiveness of the objectives set by the NS Department. Cannot these same objectives be achieved through our national education system or through the implementation of youth community programmes such as Rakan Muda?23 Is it justified to have a programme, which does not have any exclusive objective, but costs the government RM2.37 billion?


In 2009, the NS programme enters its sixth year since its launching in year 2004. Fifteen batches of trainees have completed their three month training. While the trainees have talked of the interesting and extraordinary NS experiences that have very much benefited them, the NS programme has also seen its fair share of controversies, with fatalities and the huge expenses heading the list. It is, therefore, urgent and crucial that a thorough review is done on the NS programme. This is also advocated by former NS council chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, who said that a review was necessary after five years and it should cover all aspects, including training modules, training quality, health and hygiene, food quality and camp management.24 There is no excuse for a lack of available sample as fifteen batches of trainees have already completed their trainings. The review should be done by an independent panel and the report be debated in Parliament. Only through this channel can we justify the costs behind the NS programme.


1. “RM2.37bil spent on NS” retrieved on 18 February 2009 from

Nevertheless, Palmdoc, in his blog posting “The Saving Private Ryan Clause for the NS” on on 23 September 2008 wrote of the unclear number of fatalities which range from 16 to 21.

2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Anthony Loke Siew Fook “RM2.37billion spent for National Service since 2004-2007” retrieved on 11 September 2008 from
5. Ibid.
6. Official textbooks of Integration Programme, National Service, Department of National Service, Ministry of Defense.
7. Anthony Loke Siew Fook “RM2.37billion spent for National Service since 2004-2007” retrieved on 11 September 2008 from
8. Ronnie Liu “M16 training for NS trainees serves little purpose but poses high risks for all” retrieved on 19 February 2009 from
9. Jacqueline Ann Surin “Arms usage training kills NS objectives” retrieved on 19 February 2009 from
10. “Poll: NS trainees and M-16 shouldn’t mix” (The Star Online) retrieved on 19 February 2009 from
11. “NS trainees fire away” (Sun2surf) retrieved on 19 February 2009 from
12. T. E. Cheah (2007, 4 March), “National Service: A Death Trap”, retrieved on 27 September 2008 from
13. “Government Won't Compromise On Negligence At NS Training Camps”, ( retrieved on 28 September 2008 from
14. “Helping Jane Get Exemption from NS” (The Star Online) retrieved on 29 September 2008 from
15. Allison Lai (2008, 22 September), “Parents Say No to NS Stint After Son’s Death” (The Star Online), retrieved on 29 September 2008 from
16. K. Kasturi Dewi “Penang Orders Closure of Three Camps”, retrieved on 27 September 2008 from
17. Ibid
18. Royce Cheah, “NS deals led to RM110m loss” (The Star Online), retrieved on 19 February 2009 from
19. Ibid
20. “Objektif”, (Program Latihan Khidmat Negara), retrieved on 11 September 2008 from
21. C. S. Kuppuswamy (2006, 13 December), “Malaysia’s Racial Politics”, retrieved on 27 September 2008 from
22. Aliran Executive Committee (2004, 27 April), “A Disservice to the Nation”, retrieved on 27 September 2008 from
23. Anthony Loke Siew Fook “RM2.37billion spent for National Service since 2004-2007” retrieved on 11 September 2008 from
24. “Thorough Review of NS Programme Soon, Says Outgoing Chairman” (Malaysian National News Agency) retrieved on 21 February 2009 from

Guest Article: NS Observations and Thoughts (I)

Below is Part I of an excellent piece written by Mei San on the NS program. She's one of the many young Malaysians who have inspired me and given and continues to give me hope in our country.

84 Days in Camp – NS Observations and Thoughts

Ever since the National Service (NS) programme was launched in the year of 2004, 339,186 trainees have graduated1. Up till 2007, RM2.37 billion has been spent on the programme2. As of June 2008, 16 trainees have died3.

Due to the unexpected deaths and the large amount of expenses involved, there have been many calls, by parents as well as the Opposition, for the NS programme to be called off. Citing reasons such as patriotism and racial integration, the Ministry of Defense has been insisting on the importance and the benefits of the programme. The Defense Minister, also Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak was even quoted saying that the government wanted to continue with the programme as it was “becoming more popular”4. During a Dewan Rakyat sitting, Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Wira Abu Seman Yusop also said studies on the effectiveness of the programme showed a positive response where success in instilling patriotism was 82 per cent, building confidence and leadership (88.3 per cent) and nurturing the spirit of community integration (86.7 per cent). 5

In the writer’s opinion, to call off or not to call off the NS programme, a thorough and transparent review of the programme will first have to be conducted. The review will then be brought up to the Parliament, where the relevance and the necessity of the NS programme to our youths will be decided through transparent, fair and constructive debates.

This piece of writing will present certain points, which, the writer opines, are worth included if any review of the NS programme is to be done in the future. Writing in the spirit of democracy, which appreciates the existence of checks and balances, the writer also hopes to create awareness about the necessity to question the realities behind the NS programme, as well as to invoke more debates and sharing of opinions regarding the NS programme. As a former NS trainee, the writer understands that her view might not be viewed as totally independent. Nevertheless, it should be kept in the minds of all readers that this piece of writing intends to ask questions, not to provide answers.

Integration Programme

The Integration Programme (Program Integrasi) was a one week programme aiming to promote racial integration among trainees and was conducted by external instructors. The daily sessions spanned from 9a.m. till 4.30p.m. Before the session started each day, trainees were first assembled to sing a song which comprised of greetings in five different languages commonly used in Malaysia- Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin, Tamil and Bahasa Jawa. The programme was divided into three subtopics: culture (kebudayaan), religions (agama) and the roles of men and women (peranan lelaki dan perempuan). For each subtopic, a textbook was provided. The programme culminated with a closing ceremony consisting of both traditional and modern cultural performances by the trainees under the supervision of their respective instructors.

The syllabuses for each topic, as outlined in the textbooks, are as followed: 6

Culture (Kebudayaan)

This subtopic aims to educate the trainees about the various race-based cultures in Malaysia and the differences as well as the similarities that exist between them. It is hoped that this will help to reduce the conflicts and to create an integrated, established Malaysian society. The topics included in the textbook are traditional costumes, traditional food and traditional music of the respective cultures.

Religions (Agama)

This subtopic aims to educate the trainees about the different religions in Malaysia. Apart from the elaboration on the virtues called by the religions, there is also emphasis of the importance to respect all the religions in Malaysia, which, the textbook claims can be actualized by “avoiding in-depth discussions about the different religions in order to prevent sensitive issues being raised”. The topics included the traditional festivals and traditional practices of different religions, but are very much racial inclined.

Roles of Men and Women (Peranan lelaki dan perempuan)

This subtopic aims to educate trainees about gender stereotype, the need to overcome it, to be aware of their own perceptions on the roles of each gender and to understand the importance of inter-gender unity.

On a side note, the instructors in camp often stressed the importance of building racial integration in the NS programme. Henceforth, in all events and activities, including meal times and night patrol, trainees were instructed to sit in groups which comprised of “Malays, Chinese and Indians”. There was no mention of the other minorities, such as Eurasians or the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, which could easily be dismissed by their absence in the camp. If the trainees were to be found to have disobeyed such instructions, harsh warnings of punishment could be expected from the instructors. More than often, it also involved remarks such as “Do you want May 13 to repeat?” or “The Chinese trainees want to return to China?”

The syllabuses of this Integration Programme resembled much of the syllabus of our national education system for the subjects of Moral Education, Civic Education and a small part of History. If a decade of national education system utilizing these materials has failed to reduce racial polarization in Malaysian youths, why should a one week integration programme in the three month NS programme be expected to do the miracle?

If a decade of such teachings has failed to meet its objectives, why are we still moving in the same direction?

Moreover, the textbook on religions is misleading and confusing. The overall contents are very race-based. Instead of writing on the teachings of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, it tells of the traditional practices and beliefs of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Dayaks, Bajaus etc. The ambiguous distinction between races and religions only indicate the shallow mentality and insensitivity of the authorities towards the diversity that occurs within our dynamic Malaysian society. What is more, these are the very people who are preaching about integration.


Sports are the best ways to cut across all differences in order to achieve integration and unity. Hence, during the evenings, all trainees would be assembled and were allowed to play the different types of sports they like. During the writer’s training, a sports carnival was held from 9 July 2008 till 20 August 2008. The evenings were then spend on competitions for events which included netball, volleyball, football, cross-country run, tug-of-war, telematches (a.k.a. creative sports) and obstacle course.

There were two major problems with the sports carnival.

Firstly, no proper training was conducted and the players selected to participate were those who were already trained at school. The results was that those who were already skilled players continued to play in the field, dominating the games while those who did not know how to play continue to sit by the field, acting only as audience or supporters. No new player was produced. While unity and integration could also be inculcated and built through the players-supporters relationship, the teamwork that was supposed to be built and experienced in the field were only available to a certain group of trainees, who were fortunate to have received earlier training before NS.

Secondly, the trainees were taught a lopsided form of sportsmanship. Playing hard and giving your best in each game are the criteria of a good sportsman. Nevertheless, the respect for your opponents should also be instilled among trainees. During matches, trainees not only cheered for their own kompeni, but the cheers would occasionally turn into rowdy boos at their opponents. The instructors did little to quell those unruly name callings, as, most of the time, the instructors were themselves too engrossed in the proceedings of the games, too concern if their own kompeni would win the match.

Community Service

This module involved outings and visits to the various places as followed:

1. Maxwell Hill, Taiping. Trainees walked up 650m above sea level, approximately 6km.
2. Taiping Lake Gardens. Trainees participated in a Fun Walk and other activities, such as lucky draw, which were organized by the Taiping City Council (MPT).
3. Rumah Seri Kenangan Taiping. It is a governmental welfare home for the old folks. A presentation about the organization was given by one of the staffs to the trainees upon arrival. Trainees were later brought to visit some of the dormitories, doing a little cleaning up at the same time.
4. Bukit Gantang. The Great Durian Festival was held by the Ministry of Tourism and the event was launched by Dato Azalina Othman Said.
5. Kuala Sepetang mangrove swamp and charcoal factories. Trainees were given a presentation by an officer of the Perak State Forestry Department about the mangrove swamps and were later brought to the nearby charcoal factories by bus.

No explanation on the objectives of each activity was given to the trainees.

What were the trainees’ contribution and service to the community? Were the trainees anymore aware of their responsibilities as part of the community?

Outings to Maxwell Hill and Kuala Sepetang mangrove swamps can potentially serve to create more awareness about nature and the responsibility to preserve it. The visit to Rumah Seri Kenangan exposed trainees to the needs of old folks. Nevertheless, the visits were brief and provided little opportunities for the trainees to have practical experience in community service. The visit to Kuala Sepetang merely involved an audiovisual briefing without any venturing into the mangrove swamps. The dormitories in Rumah Seri Kenangan Taiping had little space for the large group of trainees. Furthermore, the dormitories were occupied by residents who were mobile and did their cleaning daily, prior to our arrival, thus offering the trainees little cleaning work.

What did the trainees’ participation in the Fun Walk and The Great Durian Festival teach them about community service?

Were trainees anymore wiser regarding the long term commitment and devout required in community service? Were trainees truly able to understand the importance of volunteerism and the spirit of serving above self?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do We Really Learn?

One of the professors in my university's economics department runs an informal book club; you don't get academic credit for showing up, but you do get the satisfaction of intellectual exploration from reading the book we're assigned and discussing it. I bring this up, because it affords me a segue into an interesting tidbit I overheard from a senior at the meeting this week — of all the education systems around the world, most have one purpose: they either exist to suppress heresy by propounding the truth, or they exist to encourage freedom of thought and freedom to explore intellectually.

Now, I think we all can guess which category our very own school system falls under. Students are told not to question. The very atmosphere of our schools stifles the notion that one must be free to explore.

But sometimes I wonder if criticisms of our school system aren't really a problem with the idea that we should teach the one truth. The constant debate about Chinese schools is I think a good example. There's no question that the Chinese schools outperform national schools academically. But the problem I have with our school system in general is that all our schools follow the philosophy of teaching one thing as true, with no room to question it or go beyond it.

If we made all our schools more like Chinese schools, we'd do a fantastic job of indoctrinating our children against heresy and the wrong ideas. But the problem with this is that what is wrong is always changing. The whole point of the scientific method is that we never really know the truth; we always just get a little closer to it. Any theory can always be disposed of if it does not reflect the facts we observe; no scientific theory is truly indispensable.

I believe this is why we don't see much real innovation and actual learning coming out of Malaysia. Ultimately the point of education is to learn; and ultimately once you have exhausted what your teachers know, you must learn for yourself from observing the world around you. In our schools, we do a great job learning from our teachers; we just don't learn how to really learn by ourselves.

So when our scientists are called upon to come up with something new, something that's never been observed before, they can't do it. We know very well how to learn from other people; we don't know how to learn for ourselves from the world around us. That is the problem with the dominant educational philosophy in our schools.

How do we fix this? There's no clear answer for that. But we need to stop going through the motions of education. Let's be honest, really — when we do experiments in school, we're really learning from the teachers, not the experiment. We're not actually observing what's going on in the world; we're observing what our teachers say and parroting their answers.

Knowing how to parrot is a useful skill; our Chinese schools often turn out great parrots, and they go on to do pretty good things. But ultimately nothing can really substitute for knowing how to learn things for yourself, from observing what actually happens and learning from it. We need to reorient the way we teach and the way we run our schools if we want that to happen.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Blogging Diversity

A few months back, I wrote about the need for diversity in thinking of different ways to solve old problems. I'm well aware of the fact that the three bloggers who run this blog are anywhere close to being representative of the population that we are reaching out to.

The three of us - Tony (who started this blog), John (the latest invitee) and myself (the in between) - are all Chinese Malaysian males who are 'Western' educated, been through a national school education (John spent some time in an SRJCK, Tony speaks Chinese with his parents and his Chinese has most definitely improved after going full time into politics, I speak Chinese with my parents and recently took 2 years of Chinese classes here at Duke) and have been / are educated at the so called 'elite' schools (Oxford for Tony; Darmouth for John; LSE, Cambridge and now Duke for myself).

I try to expose myself to as many views on the education system as possible but there is no way that I would be able to understand the struggles of someone who has studied all his or her life at an SRJK (C) and then later at a Chinese independent school, or someone who has studied in rural Kelantan in a religious school or sekolah 'pondok', or someone who has studied in a Tamil school in the middle of a palm oil or rubber estate. I would not be able to identify with the experience of someone who studied Medicine in Manipal or Chinese studies in Taiwan or Islamic studies in Jordan or Egypt. I would not be able to identify with the experience of a girl who studied in an all girls environment in Malaysia through high school and then came to the US and studied in an all woman's college.

Ideally, we'd want as many viewpoints represented on this blog as possible (and I think I speak for John and Tony as well). Our challenge is that we don't know people who have the kinds of educational experiences like those that I speak of above. Furthermore, even if we know of some people who fit the above profile, there's the issue of 'quality control' and also whether the person is willing to blog regularly or be associated with this blog.

Moving on, the three of us, with input from our readers will have to figure out a new 'model' of blogging about education issues in the Malaysian context. Tony doesn't really have much time now and if I were to join a university in Malaysia (whether public or private), my blogging on this blog would probably be curtailed in voluntary and involuntary ways. John would be left to 'man the fort' so to speak.

Here are some options I can think of to increase the volume of posts (so that some of the pressure can be taken off Tony, John and myself) and the diversity of opinions as well:

1) Post items / pieces written for this blog by some of our readers. I think we're more than willing to do this on the condition that the posts are not inflammatory and that they represent an interesting viewpoint. It doesn't have to be long.

2) Invite more people to join this blog as permanent writers. Again, I think we're more than willing to allow for different voices to join the conversation here but we have to figure out a way to 'vet' the applicants. I think there's the issue of time (we don't have time to vet everyone) and also of process (do we send out 'applications'?). But if you guys can give us suggestions / 'applications', we'd be more than happy to take them.

3) Others? Please let us know what other ideas you may have.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Preparing for the Real World?

Let's put aside the academic and intellectual side of education for the moment, and focus on something more basic: basic communications skills. No matter how good a thinker you are, if you can't communicate those thoughts you will have a hard time, both in academia and the professional world. Wherever you end up, you need to know how to read and write, listen and speak. And I think it's almost indisputable that Malaysian schools are doing a pretty bad job when it comes to these skills.

Back when I was still in school, my father's company was looking to expand its operations, but to my father's chagrin, most of the candidates he encountered were simply incoherent. Their CVs were poorly-formatted and their personal statements virtually unreadable. Most of those he shortlisted for interviews were clearly unconfident and unable to speak coherently. My father was terribly put off by the experience, and he himself has always been bemoaning his own difficulties in communication.

At my job in a local research institute this summer, I got the chance to look through a number of CVs and job applications because the institute was hiring, and they were honestly not much to look at. Most of the CVs were so poorly formatted it was hard to even look at them, and the personal statements/cover letters were not much better. Many applicants didn't even bother writing anything in their emails or writing a cover letter, just sending us their CV as an attachment; a few didn't even state which position they were applying for!

I suppose I am not one to be too critical, since I am not yet in the job market (although I am actually looking for a job or internship in KL again this summer), but I do think this speaks to a problem with our education system. If we can teach students standard formats for letters, journals, diaries and reports in school, why can't we teach them standard formats for CVs or cover letters? What is the use of learning Bahasa Malaysia or English in school if you can't even muster the confidence to write a few sentences explaining which position you're applying for? Ultimately we learn languages for a reason — to communicate — and it does us no good if we can score A's but can't use these languages.

Then again, education systems around the world are generally doing a shoddy job of preparing high school graduates for the job market — I'm sure not many American high school diploma holders can actually write a resume much better than the CVs I've seen. But these positions were specifically meant for university degree-holders, and all the applicants were university graduates. Shamefully for our local universities, the vast majority of the properly formatted CVs with well-written cover letters were from foreign graduates.

Ultimately, most people graduating from university will not be going into academia; they will need to know how to write a CV and write a cover letter, and almost certainly how to handle an interview. For whatever reason, it seems like our local universities are not preparing their graduates to do these things, and that is inexcusable.

My university for example has an active Career Services department. The department regularly holds workshops on CV-writing, cover letter-writing, and how to handle interviews. You can even walk in to their office and have your CV and cover letter reviewed by them on a one-on-one basis. You can likewise practice interviews at their office, again in a one-on-one setting. While obviously Dartmouth has a lot of resources to spare, almost any American university has a similar department, and a big selling point for any institution here is how well the university can place its graduates into the job market.

At the moment, we are graduating people from secondary school and university who cannot communicate coherently with prospective employers. Is it any wonder why we have so many problems with unemployable graduates? As it stands, even university-calibre students lack basic skills — I know an alumni interviewer for Cornell University who has had to deal with applicants who refuse to show up on time for interviews, or lack the basic initiative to find out details like how to get to the interview venue (he actually had someone ask him where the KLCC is). In this time of economic recession, we need to take a long hard look at how our schools and universities are preparing students for the job market — if a graduate can't speak or write properly, all those straight A's will be for naught.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What's in a name?

I wasn't even aware that Victoria Institution or VI had changed its name to Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Victoria until I read this article in the Star which reported that VI has gotten back its old name - VI.

It reminded me of the time when I heard that some idiots in the MOE wanted to change the name of my alma mater, La Salle PJ, to Sekolah Menangah Jalan Chantek. This was some time back. This suggestion was greeted with howls of protests from the old boys and I'm very glad that it was never carried out. I'm guessing that some idiotic civil servants in MOE thought that they could get away with this name change by retaining the name Victoria in the 'new' name. I'm guessing that the VI old boys network and the VI PTA had something to do with getting the old name back.

Is it important to retain the names of schools such as VI or La Salle or St Edwards or Penang Free or St Xavier's? Aren't they reminders of a colonial past which we should abandon as we move forward as a free and independent country that should shake ourselves from our colonial shackles? I think this is a bit of overkill. I think that it's part of the overall strategy within the Malaysian government that seeks to 'erase' the past so that the 'victors' can rewrite history and refashion the country in a form more befitting to what they think the country should look like - bland and monolithic. Before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist, remember that things don't happen by accident in Malaysia, even if many of us think that many parts of the Malaysian civil service are incompetent. Most, if not all, policy decisions are taken deliberately, usually with some agenda of 'nation building' behind it. Anyone remember what the former name of Jalan Maharaja Lela was?

Similarly, trying to change the name of La Salle into Sekolah Menengah Jalan Chantek was an attempt by the MOE to get rid of any sign or vestige of the 'Christian' heritage that is associated with many of the top secondary schools in Malaysia. Some may say - so what? Will changing the name of a school result in the decrease in the teaching or academic standards of a school? Most of my friends would say that the academic standards in many of these former 'brother' and 'sister' schools have decreased since the Jesuit brothers and the nuns were 'eased' out of the administration and leadership positions in these schools. I would agree with them.

But being a La Sallian still means something, at least to the old boys. It represents a certain school spirit and standing up for certain values. If you take away that name, you take away what little association these schools still have with those values - values such as academic excellence coupled with social responsibility and camaraderie.

I'm not saying that only former 'brother' and 'sister' schools can have this kind of spirit and camaraderie. I know of many friends from Sultan Abdul Samad or Samadians, Bukit Bintang Boys School and SM Damansara Jaya (DJians) who are equally passionate about their old schools and being part of the old boys and old girls network. But if you change the names of these schools to something random (like a street name), I'm sure that many of the alumni from these schools would protest as well.

But being a La Sallian has value beyond these shores. You share certain traditions and norms with other people who have gone through a similar education experience in other Jesuit schools around the world. For example, I was surprised to find out through the TV that the Notre Dame 'Fight Song' is the same song as La Salle's school rally - Cheer Cheer and Courage Display, All you La Sallians join in the fray.

And of course, there's a brand name attached to a school as well. In Malaysia, La Salle, VI, St Joseph's, Bukit Bintang, Assunta, Convent Bukit Nanas, Penang Free, St. Xavier (in Penang and in Seremban), King Edward and St. George's (in Taiping), SMDJ and Sultan Abdul Samad (in PJ), Chung Ling (in Penang), VI and the venerable Malay College (MCKK) all have a certain 'shine' attached to them at least in the context of Malaysia. Change the name and you lose the 'shine' associated with the school that has been built up over many years. Wonder if any of the MOE bureaucrats would dare suggest that MCKK's name be changed to Sekolah Residential Kuala Kangsar or something like that?

Finally, changing a school's name will definitely have a monetary cost. Old boys and girls will not be so willing to contribute financially to a school. I for one would not feel compelled to make donations to a school called Sekolah Menangah Jalan Chantek as opposed to Sekolah Menangah La Salle PJ. I'm sure many old boys will feel the same way. If the bureaucrats want to take control of the school, they can have it. Just don't expect me to give anything come canteen day. (Wah, a bit emotional here) Also, one may lose some of the 'network' effects if the school name is changed. There are active La Sallian gatherings and networks all over Malaysia. I'm sure that one would feel less connected to future graduates if the names of all the La Salle schools in Malaysia were changed to whichever street they happen to be located on.

On an unrelated note, I was glad to read about how the PIBG in SMK Subang Utama (SMKSU) stood firm and invited old girl and former head prefect and now Subang Jaya state assemblywoman, Hannah Yeoh, back to her school for a gotong royong project. Her 'ban' from attending functions in schools in her constituency came apparently came from a directive from the MOE.

Okay, enough of my rants. Time for you guys to chip in with your comments.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Our Young About Democracy

As surely every Malaysian knows, there is a lot of political turmoil going on in our country right now. The democratic process is chaotic, and with all three of us on this blog involved in politics — as an active participant like Tony, an academic like Kian Ming, or just an observer like myself — it's a very interesting time for us! I think this is a good time, then, to bring up a topic that's quite relevant to education: how do we learn about democracy?

The sad fact is that our schools don't do a very good job of preparing us to be active citizens in a democracy. We do go through the motions of learning to vote, and the importance of having a vote, but we never learn about how to make up our minds on who to vote for. We never learn how the democratic process is supposed to work, beyond some vague mechanism whereby we put our ballots in a box, and magically some leaders emerge to lead us.

If I were to structure a program for teaching democracy in school, I would probably boil it down to one thing: ask questions. Democracy is really fundamentally about engaging in dialogue — dialogue with your fellow citizens, and the politicians who serve you. You need to ask questions to understand what matters, not only to yourself, but to society at large. You need to ask questions to understand what your leaders have been doing in your name, and what they hope to do for you in the future. Casting a vote is quite meaningless if you don't have any information to make a decision about who to vote for.

The funny thing is, if I were to come up with a program for inculcating the opposite of democracy in Malaysians instead, I would be hard pressed to come up with a more effective program than the one we have in our schools currently. The attitude dominating is that you don't get to ask questions; if you do get to ask them, it is the person answering who always has the power to silence you. As long as you've cast your vote, you've done your duty — regardless of how you decided who to vote for, or whether you care about your community.

Our schools are very process-oriented, all about going through the motions. Just as we supposedly have democracy because we are allowed to cast ballots every four or five years, we supposedly learn about democracy because we learn about this process of balloting. If we pay enough attention, maybe we learn a little extra about how Parliament and the various DUNs make laws. But we never really learn the importance of dialogue and questioning in a democratic country.

Growing up, some of my favourite books were old schoolbooks of my father's, especially his civics books. Each chapter was written in anecdotal form, and one in particular has stuck with me all my life: it's the story of a girl deciding who to vote for in her school's geography society exec board election. While it's a pretty simplistic story, it vividly explains the democratic process: it shows you how you should ask questions, how you should investigate the candidates you are voting for, and makes it clear that democracy is about more than just casting your vote: it's about deciding who you should vote for, and about getting involved with your community.

We're a young nation, so it's not surprising that the story of our democracy has more than a few unsavoury episodes. But we can still get serious about properly inculcating democratic values in our young, by showing them how good citizens can get involved in the democratic process — with vocal groups like HINDRAF, UMNO Youth, BERSIH, and others active in our democratic process, we have tonnes of good and bad examples to use in the classroom. A civilisation's foundation is in its schools — if we want a democratic foundation for ours, we have to build it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Courses offered by Public University 'subsidiaries'

A reader notified me of this latest trend among our public universities - setting up 'subsidiaries' which offer courses such as diplomas or executive diplomas which are not recognized by other public universities or the Public Service Commission (PSC). Two problems ensue - students who take up these courses thinking that they are 'recognized' courses and employers who employ these students thinking that these courses are also 'recognized'. I'll reproduce some of the NST articles below (for posterity) and then comment on the other side.

1st NST article - SpotLight/Unrecognised qualifications: 'Subsidiaries must offer accredited courses'

KUALA LUMPUR: Courses offered by subsidiaries of public universities should be endorsed by the Public Service Department (PSD) or the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).
Former Higher Education Ministry director-general Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said said this was to ensure that the courses would not create problems for people wishing to obtain higher qualifications or pursue career development.

Hassan explained that the corporatisation of public universities as proposed by the Education Ministry in 1998 was to enable public universities to generate external income to provide better services and facilities.

"That is why we allow universities to set up holdings, joint companies and subsidiaries to conduct business activities.

"However, these activities must relate to the core business or activities of the university," said Hassan, who is now Taylor's University College vice-chancellor and president.
He said this was how public universities started having incubators, research consultancy, distant learning programmes and franchise programmes as well as partnerships with private colleges.

Universities also diversified their academic activities by offering part-time programmes for people who were employed.

"We supported the idea as it allowed the universities to generate income and promote lifelong learning.

"For example, this allowed people who are working in supermarkets, factories and banks to continue to study without leaving their jobs"

The universities had to ensure that these programmes underwent processes set by the Higher Education Ministry to enable them to gain recognition.

"They should not compromise on quality and should have in place a proper quality assurance framework for their executive programmes.

"I think it is wrong for subsidiaries of public universities to offer something that is not recognised by national recognition bodies.

"It should be recognised unless it is a tailor-made programme for special skills requested by a company like retail training for hypermarkets.

"If it is not recognised, this could lead to the student being misled by the public university logo in the advertisement promoting the course he signed up for.

"It is unthinkable for the public that programmes by the public university are not recognised by the authorities, and worse still, not by its own university."

Hassan explained that executive programmes were the same as any programme offered to full-time students, except that it was offered the "executive" way.

"Students should understand that an executive programme is meant for those in the workforce.

"It is meant for someone who is trying to upgrade themselves."

Hassan suggested that subsidiaries of public universities look at high-end programmes such as executive postgraduates and certain types of academic programmes that the other institutions could not afford to offer.

There should not be competition between the private and public sector.

"It is inappropriate for senior public universities to get involved in low-level programmes like certificates and diplomas which should be handled by other institutions like community colleges and polytechnics.

"They should instead focus on programmes for high-end knowledge-based communities like professionals, as well as be more active in research and innovation activities.

"The huge investment by the public should be returned appropriately," he added.

2nd NST Article - SpotLight/Unrecognised qualifications: It's not quite a UM diploma

You open the newspapers and an advertisement featuring the logo of a prominent public university jumps out at you. The ad offers an executive diploma programme at affordable rates and, to sweeten the deal, it can be done part-time. But these qualifications may not be recognised by the Public Service Department or the Malaysian Qualifications Agency. SONIA RAMACHANDRAN finds out what such qualifications mean.
MAY (not her real name) wanted to know more about human resources.

An advertisement in the newspaper with a Universiti Malaya (UM) logo caught her eye.

It was offering an executive diploma in human resource management.

"I thought 'Wow! It's UM and it is not easy to get in there' so I joined and paid the deposit," she said.
"I thought it was an accredited and recognised degree as it was from UM. Classes were also held in the UM campus and that added to the impression the qualifications were UM qualifications."

Only after paying more than RM7,000 and joining the course did May realise that she had joined the University of Malaya Centre for Continuing Education (UMCCed) and not UM.

"I still thought it was all right as it carried the UM name."

On the first day of class, May said they were told their diploma was recognised by Open University Malaysia.

Their diploma was not recognised by other public universities or the Public Service Department.

"This centre emphasises life-long learning, but how is this life-long learning when there is no avenue to do so as the diploma is not recognised by any accreditation body?

"If they cannot carry out the mission statement, it is an embarrassment to say this is a centre for continuous education. It is an insult to our intelligence."

Then they found out that their executive diploma in human resource management was not even recognised by UMCCed.

"After finding out that our qualifications were not recognised by Open University Malaysia, I had no choice but to continue with my degree in UMCCed.

"That was when I was told that I could not do so as my diploma in HR management was not approved by the UM Senate," said a student who wanted to be identified only as Sarip.

A Higher Education Department officer said UMCCed was a subsidiary owned by UM and established under the Companies Act.

The qualifications awarded by UMCCed, said the officer, should be treated the same as any qualification offered by a private higher educational institution.

The National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC) received 450 complaints in 2007 on misleading advertisements by higher education institutions.

Last year, there were 350 complaints.

Among these complaints were those regarding courses offered by "subsidiaries" of public universities offering "executive" courses.

NCCC chief executive officer Muhammad Sha'ani Abdullah said they received complaints that the students of subsidiaries of public universities received briefings in the public university itself.

"Some of these 'subsidiaries' have a campus outside the public university but when they recruit and give briefings, they do it on the public university's premises.

"The location provides the student with the impression that the course is affiliated with the university."

Sha'ani said the Higher Education Ministry should impose some regulations on these subsidiaries.

Malaysian Qualifications Agency chief executive officer Datuk Dr Syed Ahmad Hussein said most of the courses offered by the commercial arms of public universities, particularly the executive diplomas, did not fall within the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF).

"The commercial arms are subsidiaries of the universities and are subject to their rules and regulations.

"Executive diplomas and other qualifications with the word 'executive' do not fall under us.

"But we have formed a technical committee last month, made up of top scholars, to advise MQA on some qualifications like associate degrees, executive diplomas and executive bachelor degrees that are offered around the world that have not been fitted into our framework."

Syed Ahmad said while seeking accreditation was not compulsory under the MQA Act, other related higher education acts, as well as the provisions made by funding agencies and foreign governments made accreditation of courses mandatory.

The Ministry of Higher Education also makes it compulsory for programmes in all institutions of higher learning to be in compliance with the MQF by 2011.

One proof of this compliance is accreditation.

"We are aware of courses by these commercial arms and are talking to the Higher Education Ministry and the public universities to see how these courses can be brought in line with the spirit and letter of the framework."

He advised students to always check the status of their courses when they were in doubt.

"Our door is always open. We will never reject any query or complaint and will forward it to the relevant agency or department if it does not fall under us."

Higher Education Department director-general Datuk Dr Radin Umar Radin Sohadi said any programme offered by any university in any form, had to be governed by MQF.

Under the framework, he said, the learning outcome, specifications and attributes of the programmes were specified.

"MQF is flexible in the sense that the method of delivery of the course can differ so long as it meets the attributes defined.

"Universities offering programmes in whatever form have to get them accredited."

3rd NST article - SpotLight/Unrecognised qualifications: Varsity defends centre

A UNIVERSITI Malaya spokesman said the University of Malaya Centre for Continuing Education (UMCCed) was a part of the university and was considered one of its faculties.
On whether the qualifications conferred by UMCCed were recognised by the Public Service Department, he said: "Actually, no. But, you have to look at the history of UMCCed to understand this.

"The UMCCed was set up to promote lifelong learning so that a person who had no opportunity to study while he was growing up could be provided with the chance to do so.

"It is not recognised by the PSD as the target students for UMCCed are those in the private sector."

Are the courses accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, which was formerly known as the National Accreditation Board?
"Because the target group for courses at UMCCed are different from those for normal courses, there is no need for accreditation. The entry requirement for qualifications is based on working experience, so accreditation is not necessary."

So who recognises these qualifications?

"The private sector," he said.

The problem here is that many people will see the UMCCed as part of UM and think that the diplomas issued by UMCCed are equivalent to UM degrees which is clearly not the situation. Our public universities need to be more careful in setting up these subsidiaries and the MOHE as well as the MQA should monitor this trend very carefully including asking these 'subsidiaries' to highlight the fact that their diplomas are not publicly recognized. If not, both students and employers will be fooled.

Properly Using ICT in the Classroom

One thing about the changeover to teaching science and maths in English in 2003 was that for the first time ICT (Information and Communications Technology) began to be used on a large scale throughout our school system as a teaching aid. Unfortunately, instead of being a teaching aid, in many cases the poor English of the teachers turned the teaching aid into the only teacher many kids got. I can speak from personal experience that as good as my science teachers were, there wasn't much they could do to add to the ICT-based teaching aids. If anything, the structure of the aids seems to have been meant to supplant teachers instead of assist them. This is really a great shame, because ICT can be a fantastic teaching aid when used correctly.

The slideshows which schools use as teaching aids presently are essentially whole lectures with some visuals included. There is not a whole lot teachers can add to the ICT-based teaching aids, especially if their English is poor. Teachers are pretty much reduced to opening the slideshows and clicking "next".

Of course, teachers still have a role to play. After all, teachers should be able to tell when students are not paying attention to the virtual lecture, and answer any questions the students may have. If anything, the slideshows probably give more effective lectures than some teachers do.

The problem as I see it is that instead of playing to the advantages of ICT, this marginalises ICT. We're just replacing human lectures with computer lectures. Teachers are now more like teaching assistants than actual teachers.

The primary advantage of ICT is that it offers access to a lot of data and information which teachers don't have, and that it can present this information in compelling and interesting ways. The way we've rolled out ICT is such that our students get a voice from the computer droning at them while some pretty cartoons pop up on the screen. At best, students may get the chance to play a game or two which facilitates retention of the material — but this isn't really playing to all the advantages of ICT.

Let me give some examples of how to effectively use ICT, based on my experiences in university. In my game theory class just two days ago, my professor mentioned a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind illustrating the principles he was teaching. He then loaded up Youtube and showed a clip of the scene to us. In previous lectures, he's used the internet to locate studies proving that the theories he's teaching actually apply to the real world. While my professor could have just told us to look these things up in our spare time, having the option to call up all these visual aids and supporting facts in the classroom itself is clearly invaluable to the learning experience.

When I was studying Chinese last year, my professor frequently made us watch the news on CCTV, or called up Chinese clips on Youtube. It was an obvious and easy way to help us practice our listening, and it was a lot more natural than repeating sentences from our textbooks to one another. In my calculus class last term, the lecturer used graphing software to illustrate the things he was teaching us about vectors. ICT lends itself readily to all sorts of interesting applications in the classroom.

The one thing in common here is that nobody made the instructors use particular software or stick to particular applications of ICT. So far, our approach to ICT in the classroom has been to hand out CDs to teachers, without making teachers realise how they can more broadly apply things like the internet to lessons in the classroom. Our ICT strategy has been essentially "If we give teachers CDs with slideshows on them, we're making use of ICT! It's a success!"

But a truly successful programme for ICT use in the classroom would not only allow but encourage teachers to go beyond government-supplied tools, and to use things like the internet to better their teaching. Even if all they do is use Google to search for answers to questions they don't have answers to, I think it's a lot more instructive and useful for students to see how to use Google to find answers than it is for them to get a simple lecture from the computer.

Right now, we're not doing anything really useful with ICT. All we're doing is pretty much what a teacher with decent English and maybe some visual aids of her own can do anyway. The true advantage of ICT lies in things which ordinarily teachers can't do: answering almost any question imaginable, and offering exciting and interesting ways in which to present those answers. A good education policy would go beyond handing out CDs to schools; it would train teachers how to include ICT as part of their lessons in the classroom.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Involving Parents and Teachers

My apologies for the lax posting over the past two weeks — I've been busy with a research proposal, which I will write a bit more about some other time. I just read this very interesting article by Jay Mathews, a well-known education writer in the Washington Post, titled Why Easy Grading Is Good for Your Career. Mathews lists out school reforms proposed by teachers he interviewed, and assesses them based on their potential and viability. It's a great but quick read, and I recommend it.

I agree with Mathews's assessment of all the proposed reforms — I'm not a fan of teacher tenure, and I absolutely agree that some sort of standardised testing is a must for most education systems. What strikes me the most is that most of the viable and high-potential reforms are those which involve parents and teachers.

Two of the highest-rated reforms, for example, involve parents in the process of discipling unruly children, and improving students' study skills. Most parents from uneducated and low-income backgrounds probably did not do very well in school, if they went to school at all. To expect them to help with their children's homework, or to know how to enforce study discipline, is a pretty tall expectation, and one that will not be met by very many parents. Mathews recommends arranging counseling for families with troubled students, and offering night classes for parents interested in learning how to study.

Mathews also strongly recommends involving teachers and parents equally in the setting of education standards. Instead of having the national curriculum set by bureaucrats, he suggests that each school collect recommendations from teachers and parents, and forward these for consideration at the state and then federal levels by a committee equally involving civil servants, parents, teachers and business executives. The ultimate result will be a curriculum developed by the grassroots, while having passed muster at the national level.

At the same time, Mathews insists that teachers have the freedom to decide how to prepare students for the national education standards. The national curriculum should not prescribe specific textbooks or teaching aids. Teachers know best what will work with their students, and need the freedom to do their work on their own terms; let the exam results be the judge of what works best.

While obviously very idealistic, I think Mathews's recommendations form a good basis for ideals we should work towards to. The education process in our country is very bureaucratised, with little input from parents or teachers. But this is not how things should be: we want our children to learn at the feet of their parents and their teachers, not civil servants or politicians. Our education system is failing our young because our system does not have a role for parents or teachers to play. If we want an effective education system, we need to get teachers and parents actively involved in the learning process.