Monday, May 18, 2009

Only 20% of JPA scholarships given on merit?

Not sure if the thrust of this report in the Malaysian Insider accurately reflects what the PSD DG told the DAP contingent. That 20% of the scholarships are given based on merit seems a bit too low. I'll reproduce the article below in full since Tony is mentioned a few times. I agree with his suggestion that these scholarships should be awarded based on pre-U results such as STPM results instead of SPM results and should more accurately reflect the kinds of universities that these students manage to get accepted into.

Only 20pc of PSD scholarships given on merit
By Shannon Teoh

PUTRAJAYA, May 18 — Only 20 per cent, or one in five, of Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships are given based on merit while the rest are allocated based on racial quotas.

This appears to be a key factor leading to the public outcry over the large number of top-scorers in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), Malaysia's school-leaving exam, not obtaining scholarships to further their studies.

This was revealed when DAP leaders, including its parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang and information chief Tony Pua, met with PSD director-general Tan Sri Ismail Adam today.

Also present was DAP Socialist Youth chief Anthony Loke, who told The Malaysian Insider that Ismail had confirmed that 60 per cent of scholarships were given out based on the population ratio of respective races.

Another 10 per cent is set aside for East Malaysian Bumiputras and the same ratio for underprivileged students.

"This is at odds with what Parliament Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz told the house last year, when he said it would be split according to a 55:45 ratio," Loke said.

The Rasah MP said that there was no way that the current method of allocation could hit that desired ratio.

"This change of policy is why there are more clear-cut cases of qualified students not getting scholarships this year," Loke added.

Ismail had on Saturday asked the public for understanding as there are 8,000 students who qualify on merit but his department had only 2,000 scholarships to allocate.

Lim, in a press conference on Friday, had called for students with nine 1As and onwards to "automatically qualify for scholarships, especially now that the new prime minister has promised to put the people first."

Pua today also called for a total reform of the system, saying that too many high achievers were falling through the net and that pre-university courses such as A-levels or the local equivalent, Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia, were a more accurate benchmark for who deserved a scholarship.

"We should change the benchmark to the point when they actually apply to enter university. Then if you do not get accepted into a certain list of universities, there is no argument – you are simply not qualified for a scholarship," he told The Malaysian Insider.

Satu Sekolah Demi Semua

Here we go again. Yet another campaign to try to pin all of Malaysia's racial problems on vernacular schools. Someone called 'Blog Demi Negara' has started an online petition entitled 'Satu Sekolah Demi Semua'. I'll paste the contents of the petition below and then comment on it.

Sekolah Vernakular (SJKC dan SJKT) adalah punca utama ketidakserasian dan ketegangan kaum di negara kita tercinta.

Fenomena ini adalah unik di dunia ini dan telah menjadi suatu barah yang kian menular dalam kancah kerapuhan masyarakat Malaysia. Jika gejala Sekolah Vernakular ini tidak dibendung, negara kita akan terus bergerak ke ambang kehancuran.

Pengkajian semula sistem pelajaran negara ini haruslah dilakukan memandangkan fenomena perpecahan kaum yang semakin meruncing di masa kini. Gejala ini amatlah jelas sekali di alam siber dimana segelintir masyarakat kini mempamirkan sikap anti-negara yang semakin ketara dan berleluasa. Jelas sekali, anasir-anasir ini tidak menghormati asas dan prinsip perlembagaan negara Malaysia, tiada rasa cinta kepada tanah air dan juga menonjolkan penulisan hasutan yang mencetuskan sentimen perkauman yang begitu ketara sekali.

Secara lantangnya, puak ini mempertikaikan segala unsur yang melambangkan kedaulatan dan intipati negara kita tercinta.

Kami menyeru agar gejala Sekolah Vernakular ini di hapuskan secara total.

Komuniti Demi Negara


Satu Sekolah Untuk Semua (SSS) is a grassroot movement to reset one of the key foundations of our nationhood and create the essence of a united and cohesive Malaysia. There is no other way to forge national integration, national unity and to instill a sense of shared destiny except to vigorously push for a streamlined, singular School System for ALL Malaysians.

Every single one of us, of all origin and ethnicity, must speak in one tongue and undergo the same educational journey as Warganegaras of this land. No single Anak Bangsa Malaysia should be allowed to fall into the communal trap laid by selfish, irrational chauvinists and denied the same opportunity as Mainstream Malaysiana. Support SSS for our nation's future. Do sign the petition. Get your family and friends to sign as well. Lets collectively make SSS a reality for the future of our Tanah Air Tercinta.

While I think that we can have a legitimate discussion on the pros and cons of having vernacular schools, I personally think that it is ludicrous to imply that just by getting rid of vernacular schools, we would be able to achieve national unity ala Indonesia or even Singapore, which Rocky seems to imply here.

Having a single language of instruction has not decreased the level of ethnic and religious tension in Indonesia. Nor has it torn down racial barriers sufficiently in the US. Having different languages has not torn apart India as a country.

For sure, having different types of schools with different languages of instruction makes building a strong and cohesive national unity more difficult but it does not make it impossible. Furthermore, it needs to be emphasized again that getting rid of vernacular education is not a panacea towards solving all our racial problems. Indeed, if it is not done alongside other measures which imply racial differences in this country such as the policies associated with the NEP and so on, it will most likely INCREASE racial tensions and unhappiness.

Taking cheap shots at vernacular education in Malaysia is always the easy option out. It's far easier to identify such 'bogeymen' than to do the harder work of improving the state of education in our schools, regardless of the medium of instruction. For example, how do we improve the quality and skill levels of our teachers? How do we try to narrow the urban-rural divide in our education system? How do we improve the level of spoken and written English across all schools, both vernacular as well as sekolah kebangsaan? These are tough challenges and ones which are not easily solved by simplistic petitions and rabble rousing attempts.

Let's have a discussion on these issues instead of making vernacular schools the target.

Friday, May 15, 2009

JPA Scholarships – Seeking A Fair & Equitable Policy

Read about all the renewed controversy over the JPA scholarships recently? Check out Kian Ming's latest take (of our many takes).

Well, in the light of the neverending controversy over the award of government scholarships by Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) of the Prime Minister's Department, DAP will be holding a forum/dialogue session to obtain feedback from:
  • aggrieved students
  • current and former local and overseas scholars
  • academics
  • the general public
The forum/dialogue will be held as follows:
JPA Scholarships – Seeking A Fair & Equitable Policy
Venue: KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
Date: 19th May 2009 (Tuesday)
Time: 8.00 pm
The panelists will include:
  • Lim Kit Siang, DAP Parliamentary Leader and MP for Ipoh Timor,
  • Anthony Loke Siew Fook, MP for Rasah and DAPSY Chief,
  • Tony Pua, MP for Petaling Jaya Utara,
  • Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad, PAS Research Centre Director and MP for Kuala Selangor
  • Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Selangor ADUN for Seri Setia
Dr Goh Cheng Teik, eminent academic, former deputy minister and interviewer for Harvard University admission programme in Malaysia will also be a special guest for the evening.

In addition, for students and scholars who are not able to make it for the forum (e.g., if you are overseas or if you live outstation, you are welcome to submit written submissions to the panel. Please write to: dapscholarship (at) rocketmail (dot) com.

Please forward details of the above forum to all parties concerned, especially those who have failed to secure scholarships despite outstanding results. We will be making a compilation of the complaints, appeals and suggestions made during the evening.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Never ending JPA scholarship 'controversies'

The latest JPA scholarship results have been announced and not surprisingly, it has been met with howls of protests among the usual quarters, starting with the MCA.

Here are a few links to some newspaper reports that document these protests as well as the JPA's response to these protests. You can access them here, here and here.

Protests and appeals should not be surprising given the limited number of scholarships and the higher number of 'deserving' candidates. But the JPA is not helpless in trying to quell some of these protests.

What the JPA needs to do is the following:

(i) Clarify the objectives of the JPA scholarship

- Is it to give an opportunity for academically excellent Malaysian students to study abroad?
- Is it to create a pool of talented workers who would come back to serve the country in the civil service?
- Is it to reward students from academically disadvantaged backgrounds e.g. from rural areas, from lower class families, from Sabah and Sarawak etc... an opportunity to study abroad?
- Does awarding the local versus the foreign JPA scholarship fulfill different objectives e.g. are those who are academically more gifted awarded the foreign JPA scholarship?
- How important is the racial 'quota' in determining who ultimately gets this scholarship?

Right now, my impression is that the JPA is trying to be all things to all people and trying to fulfill too many fast changing objectives with the awarding of these scholarships.

(ii) Make the criterion for obtaining these scholarships transparent to the public

- Hopefully what this will do is to quell some of the protests. At least if the public knows what these criterion are e.g. to reward students from rural areas, they will understand even if they might not agree with these criteria.

I always feel that more information and transparency is better.

(iii) Have some sort of tracking mechanism to see if these objectives have been met

- For example, JPA could easily track the statistics of different scholarship recipients e.g. % of scholars obtaining places to study in the top universities in the UK or US, graduation rates of scholars with different academic abilities based on their SPM results, % of scholars who return to Malaysia after graduation, % of scholars who return to Malaysia and work for the civil service, etc...
- Using these statistics, the JPA as well as their political masters can decide on whether their objectives have been fulfilled and if not, how the criteria for selection needs to be changed to fulfill these objectives

Right now, most JPA scholars who go abroad either don't come back to Malaysia or if they do, end up working in the private sector which is what they would have done anyways, without the JPA scholarship. Hence, it is a waste of taxpayers money.

My sense is that for this year's JPA scholarship, many more students who did not achieve academically stellar SPM results and who were from rural areas were awarded a disproportionate share of the scholarships while many students who were more academically superior but who are from the urban areas were rejected.

We've blogged about the JPA scholarships many, many times in this blog. I will summarize some of the recommendations which have been put forth here:

(i) Award these scholarships only after these students have applied to and obtained places in foreign universities
(ii) Give priority to those students who have obtained places in some of the top schools in foreign universities based on a pre-approved list of universities
(iii) Bond these students so that they have to return to Malaysia to serve in the civil service

If I were advising the Malaysian government on this matter, I would recommend the following steps:

(i) Refer to the JPA foreign scholarships as the JPA scholarships. Call the local scholarships something else since most of the attention is paid to the places for foreign universities.
(ii) Restrict the number of JPA foreign scholarships so that you can be more selective about who you pick to received these scholarships.
(iii) Create an administrative layer within the civil service that is specifically in charge of 'taking in' these JPA scholars as civil servants so that their skills and expertise can be utilized for the public good
(iv) Allow other GLCs to recruit these JPA scholars but with the caveat that these GLCs have to pay back a certain value of the scholarships (but with a discount) so that the taxpayers' money is accounted for

I would make it absolutely clear that the JPA foreign scholarships will be awarded to the best and the brightest who are willing to come back to serve their country. This way, the JPA scholarships will have a focus instead of trying to be all things to all people.

And hopefully, end some of these always occurring 'controversies' about who is or is not deserving of a JPA foreign scholarship.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Treating students with respect

Amidst the political turmoil in our country, this little story headlined Student alleges sexual assault by teacher appeared in Malaysiakini. For the benefit of those without a subscription, a Form 2 student claims her male teacher physically assaulted and sexually abused her in front of her classmates—and when she reported it, the discipline teacher told her to keep the matter a secret. She told her parents, who confronted the principal—but the principal claimed the teacher had only scolded the girl for not bringing her Malay grammar book to school.

Sexual and physical abuse is a clearcut issue, so let's talk about a related problem: discipline. I am not opposed to caning in the household or in school; I think used properly, the cane can reinforce a good lesson. But the problem is, caning is difficult to do responsibly. And the reason it is hard to cane responsibly is that it is hard to discipline young people responsibly.

A big problem with expecting schools to enforce discipline is that it is hard to respect children and young adults as people who have their own thoughts and feelings. I've attended many different schools, all of which had their own approaches to discipline. But in almost every case, I think the approach would have been very different if the teachers had been dealing with someone their own age and size, instead of someone younger and smaller than them.

You can argue that young primary schoolchildren need harsh discipline; I am inclined to disagree, but I can accept that. What I cannot accept is the idea that young adults in secondary school still need to be scolded and caned like primary schoolchildren for things like forgetting their books. How is this supposed to reinforce the lesson? These are young adults who are already in a position to think for themselves. If canings and harsh scoldings are supposed to work on young adults, why don't bosses cane their subordinates?

Yes, there are bosses who do yell at their employees, and there are some who even beat them. The latter is illegal, and the former is just bad business. It may be better to be feared than to be loved, but you should at least be feared for the right reasons.

I think a lot about my primary school headmistress when it comes to the question of fear, because everyone in my primary school was deathly afraid of her. I can't remember ever seeing her cane anyone; she never even yelled at anyone. There was just something in her demeanour which told us she meant business, and that she would not look kindly upon anyone who let her down. If you did let her down, you would get a stern talking to from her, but she wouldn't beat you up. She wouldn't shout at you. She would tell you what you had done wrong, and what she expected from you—and you would scurry away, tail tucked firmly between your legs, knowing you never wanted to get another such talk from her again.

The difference is that my headmistress knew that people will respect you when you first respect them (a lesson some politicians on both sides of the aisle could learn). She treated us as responsible people who knew what was right and wrong, even though we were just primary schoolkids. She made us feel shamed, not because we had been punished, but because we had let her and let ourselves down. That is the kind of shame and fear which works. This is why my headmistress was both feared and loved.

Because so many teachers do not understand that fear and love have to go hand-in-hand, we get incidents of teachers beating up and humiliating pupils. While this might work in the short run, it eventually makes school even more unpleasant for students, and makes them even more disinclined to learn.

I am presently reading a book by actor Keith Johnstone—a former teacher who hated school. One fantastic observation Johnstone makes is that we misunderstand the difference between good and bad teachers. Education, he points out, is not a quantity, of which good teachers dole out a lot, and bad teachers only a little. Good teachers, he says, really make you learn. Bad teachers really make you unlearn. This strikes me as true in a variety of ways, but I cannot think of an area where this applies more than discipline. Good teachers give you lessons in discipline which last for life; bad teachers only wind up making you even worse off than you were before.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Delay in Science and Math decision

Looks like the new Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, has decided to defer the decision on whether to continue teaching Science and Math in English until he is "satisfied with the analysis about what are effects from the current policies and what could be improved or if there is a need to amend the policies".

This is part of the same newspaper report by the Malaysian Insider.

“We are looking at some research carried out by a number of independent bodies. They have given me feedback which is not very similar to what the round table discussion that we have. Some round table do not have enough facts and evidences.

“There are a lot of feedback which I think has to be looked at and we are prepared to wait a little bit longer because whatever decision that the government is going to make on this issue is important because we do not want to be seen as a flip flop in terms of administering this issue,” Muhyiddin said.

He added that the Ministry is open to any parties that are willing to share their views on the issue and that he will only decide when the time is right.

“What is important in this stage is that many parties have given their own opinions. Some agreed and others have disagreed. What is important is the future of our national language, the importance of the English language and also the future of our children,” Muhyiddin said.

This issue has been debated ad nauseum and I'm sure that enough trees have been felled and enough coffee drunk over round tables and discussions to give a perfectly healthy man diabetes.

I don't think this is a problem that is particular to the Malaysian political system. In any country with a parliamentary system, when there is a change in not only the Minister in charge of a certain Ministry but also the Prime Minister, it is very likely that the new Minister in question would not just blindly adopt the positions of his predecessor.

In this case, the former Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, did not make any decision on whether the teaching of Science and Math in English would continue next year. Hence, it is only natural that Muhyiddin would not want to make a quick decision that may be uniformed, at least on his part.

But still, one cannot help but think that at the end of the day, whatever decision that will be made, will come at the expense of the students themselves since this delay will probably lead to delays in possible changes to the curriculum, the textbooks, etc...

This kind of delay almost makes me wish that Muhyiddin and the government of the day will just bite the bullet and make a decision on this and then take the heat from it. Whatever decision they make, there are bound to be some groups who will be unhappy. So might as well bite the bullet sooner rather than later.

School choice in Malaysia

A major shortcoming of the Malaysian education system is its cookie-cutter style of teaching, which assumes students are homogeneous, have the same learning styles, and learn at the same pace. One solution which is often touted by education reformers in other countries, and one I personally am partial to, is the idea of school choice.

The fundamental idea is to give families a choice of schools besides those in the standard public school system. A common mechanism for accomplishing this is school vouchers: the government gives each family a voucher, which can either be redeemed for a standard public school education, or at a private school. Another such mechanism is charter schools — schools funded like public schools, but more like private schools in terms of autonomy and freedom to operate. (Charter schools are funded by the central government, but held accountable by the local government or another entity which sponsors the charter.) Both have been implemented to some degree in many other countries; New Zealand in particular has completely switched over to charter schools for its public school system.

The BBC has a brief and interesting piece on school vouchers in Sweden. I have brought up the idea of school choice on this blog before, but many people dismissed it as unstructured and giving schools too much autonomy to operate. As the Swedish example shows, school choice doesn't mean removing government from the picture. The government sets out some fundamental requirements from schools, and sets schools free to accomplish these requirements however they wish. If we were to have school choice in Malaysia, we could well still have standardised exams -- schools would still be required to perform according to set metrics.

One last, brief word on school choice: although I have never been a fan of the Chinese school system, a reason I think they work so well (compared to other public schools) is because they are run like charter schools. Chinese schools are primarily accountable to the communities they serve, and are relatively free from government interference in how they are run. Each school thus has some distinct character to it, and does things differently -- and this positive competition thus not only leads to better schools overall, but also caters to a broader spectrum of people than the standard, homogeneous national schools.