Wednesday, June 29, 2005

"Mismatch of skills and jobs"

The Star yesterday (Tue, 28th June) had an article on "Mismatch of skills and jobs", which it attributes as the reason "why many ICT grads are jobless".

A mismatch in skills is costing many local information communications technology (ICT) graduates jobs in the industry.

The Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry Malaysia (Pikom) and information technology companies cited this as the main factor for local graduates not being hired.
And because of this, Pikom human resource development special interest group chairman, Mr Woon Tai Hai recommended that:

... our universities should implement longer industrial training period of at least six months and also have more collaborations with industries, especially in research and development.
I'm particularly concerned about this type of fairly unsound recommendations (which we have heard many times) being published so prominently in the major local newspapers. Extending the industrial training period in general, will not make our graduates more employable (not by much anyway). I'd be happy to employ many of our graduates even if they have not attended a single day of industrial training. At the same time, I'd never make an offer for certain candidates even if they have had 2 years' worth of industrial training. I've written quite extensively on some of the unemployability issues, you can read them at the links below:
Most importantly, as highlighted by Chris Chan, chief executive offer of The Media Shoppe in the same article:
... some local ICT graduates lacked fundamental technical skills and only had knowledge of basic software such as Microsoft Office (!)
The problem is largely either the poor ICT curriculum of many of our local universities/colleges that doesn't seem teach anything to our ICT students or these students shouldn't have been taking ICT courses in the first place.

I also agree with Chris that, "there were... good local graduates whose technical skills were on par with those foreign ones". I just hope that the authorities do not jump the gun too hastily and decide to one day implement hare-brained measures which will not be beneficial to our university students on the basis of some misplaced reasonings and rationale.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"Mindpower is more powderful..."

Did anybody see the full page advertisement by LimKokWing University College of Creative Technology in the Star on 27th June (Page 23)? Let me quote (huge fonts):

"Mindpower is more powerful, more lethal than a nuclear bomb."
Tan Sri Dato' Dr Limkokwing
Errr.... right...

And the text based advertisement continues:
September 11, 2001. A day the world wants to erase from its memory. A day that proved how lethal the brain can be when faced with possibilities within the most impossible scenarios. When the world witnessed the power of the mind over the most sophisticated weapons of the modern age. (Err... did the terrorist mind control the aircrafts?)

The mind, when used negatively can create disastrous effects that benefit no one, not even the one who perpetrates the ideas in the first place. However, when used positively the results achieve just the opposite. They save lives, end wars, generate wealth, build nations.

And then in bold text again, the advertisment somehow connects itself to:

Enhancing national competitiveness

And with some degree of cliché and corniness, the text advertisement concludes:

Imagine the power of a mind trained to think in innovative and creative ways that will help society overcome issues and problems.

Imagine the collective power of such minds and translate that into a nation, turbo-charged to become economically productive and globally competitive.

At Limkokwing we don't just imagine. We are training people to think innovatively. We are empowering 4,000 minds from over 60 countries.

I'm not sure about you, but if I were choosing a college for my further studies and I were to read the above advertisement, I'd stay away from the college. The entire text sounds like an attempt to be ideologically deep to demonstrate intellectual strength and brilliance. However to me, it backfired by being sounding totally pretentious and philosophically shallow.

I do not have any issues with graduates from the college. In fact, I'm generally quite impressed with the creative and multimedia design students, although I wouldn't say the same for their faculty of Business Management and Information Communication Technology. However, if the college intends to label itself as a "Premier address for world-class education:One of the world’s most innovative university environments (which I disagree)" on their website, they'll need to hire a better philosopher and copywriter.

Monday, June 27, 2005

National vs Chinese School (I)

My daughter, Xin Ying is only 6 months old. So it's really too early think about where she's going to study. However, I've been asked this question many times by friends and relatives - "Where should we send our daughter to school?" This is not to mention the fact that my wife and myself have casually discussed this topic many times, even before Xin Ying was born. ;) And to be frank, we don't have a conclusive answer at this stage.

The national (Kebangsaan) vs the Chinese school debate is an extremely large and sensitive debate in the Malaysian politics. My posts on this topic for this blog shall be broken into three parts - I'll post them as I complete writing over the course of this week :).

  • In Part I, I shall outline the criteria that should be used in order to decide whether I should send her to a national or Chinese school.

  • In Part II, I shall try to evaluate which type of school will be able to best deliver the criteria outlined in Part I.

  • And finally in Part III, I shall outline several policy recommendations which I believe will be able to improve our education system further to best achieve the criteria stated here.

Hopefully, by the time Xin Ying is 6 years old, the decision on which type of school she should attend will be a much easier one to make.

To give a bit of background of the proud parents - I attended a national-type former missionary primary school in Batu Pahat - Montfort Boys School from 1978. So, my education was pretty much in Bahasa Malaysia although some of the teachers continued to teach in English. My parents were both Chinese educated who did not complete primary school and hence barely knew a handful of English words. My parents sent me to Montfort because it was the top primary school in Batu Pahat, and one of the best in Johor during that time. On the other hand, my wife, Ting Fong went through Chinese girls primary school - SRK(C) Ai Chun I, Batu Pahat - before joining a national-type secondary school. So both of us have a pretty good understanding of the national type and vernacular type schools in Malaysia. So, why is it such a difficult decision to make?

Let’s first review our key priorities in terms of the type of school our child should be in (not in any particular order):

  1. Academic standards

    Needless to say, the academic standards, as well as the overall quality of education has to be high. As parents, we are all keen to have our children study in the top schools if they are able to, so that they can have a good future ahead of them. It’ll also to a certain extent provide them with an edge over the crowd.

  2. Mother tongue education

    I’m thankful that despite having attended a national type school in the past, I’m still fairly fluent in Mandarin (putonghua) and able to read and write simple Chinese. This was thankfully sufficient for me to conduct business in Greater China. I'm fortunate because Mandarin was my lingua franca at home, besides a sprinkling of the Teochew dialect. My parents were kind enough to have taught me some written Chinese since I was four or five years old as well, and I took up additional "homework" in the language during my university days.

    Mother tongue education is hence important to us, as it not only represents our cultural roots, the Chinese language has also incidentally become probably the second most important language for commerce in the world. English competence in China is now limited to the elite academia, and the China businessmen have little or no knowledge of it. Hence if one is at all interested in business in China, competence in Mandarin will be imperative.

  3. English language

    While our mother tongue education is important, English language competence is likely to be of greater immediate importance. This is because the top universities which are recognised worldwide today, are located in the English speaking world – be it Oxbridge or the Ivy leagues. In addition, the bulk of the reference materials are of English language origin or at the very least, would have a translated version in English.

    Hence, whichever choice of education system our kids undertake, it should be able to provide them with a strong and solid foundation in English. In addition, we believe that language education is most important during primary school, as that’s when it is easiest for them to pick up the rudiments of any language.

  4. National integration

    What has national integration got to do with a kid’s education, you might ask? National integration tends to be absent from most people’s priority list when selecting a schooling system for their children. I’ll place additional emphasis on this criterion, as it is the criterion most often overlooked by Malaysian, particularly Chinese parents.
    • We live in a multi-racial country. It is my firm believe that for the country to succeed in its national integration goals, all ethnic groups must possess good understanding of each other in terms of culture, religion and common practices. Being Malaysians, national integration should be one of our key goals so that we are able to live in harmony with one another. I’d like my daughter to grow up with life-long friends of all races, not just to “stick” among our own racial group.

    • In addition, national integration allows for our children to pick up many necessary soft skills which will serve them well in both their social as well as occupational careers. If our children are able to integrate well with other ethnic groups, they would have naturally learnt to be tolerant of various social and cultural practices. More importantly, they will learn to accept that being “different” is not equivalent to being “better” or “worse”, a key distinction that is often neglected.

      I am often upset by fresh graduates whom during interviews would inadvertently express racially biased sentiments without realising it. I attribute the basis of their opinions largely to the fact that they have had few or little interactions with other racial groups, particularly during their years in education, despite living in our racially diverse community.

    • National integration in Malaysia would also mean that our child will have to be reasonably fluent in Bahasa Malaysia. I would like her to be able to converse fluently with her Malay friends in the language. I find that the verbal skills of most of the younger Chinese in the Malay language do not extend very much beyond making food orders at the corner mamak shops. This actually leads to further reasons for segregation amongst the Malaysian racial groups.

The above are our key criteria or yardstick which we will use to decide which school Xin Ying should attend. In my next post sometime during the week, I shall write on whether the national or the Chinese schools will be able to meet the criteria outlined above.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Some Interesting University Entrance Statistics

The Higher Education Management Department director-general Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said has proudly announced to the media that all STPM and matriculation students with a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 4.0 who applied for the medicine course were successful. It's regarded as a success as it would have avoided the controversy in the previous years whereby certain students with perfect grades for STPM were not granted places for medicine studies. On the surface, this actually looks pretty good.

However, if you were to study the statistics available in detail, the picture is then not particularly clear. Study the following numbers and make up your own mind:

No. of STPM candidates with 4.0 (2004/2003): 362/767
% drop in top scorers: -52.8%

No. of Matriculation candidates with 4.0 (2004/2003): 1247/1263
% drop in top scorers: -1.3%

No. of STPM students (2000): 24,000
No. of Matriculation students (2000): 19,832
(if anyone has the latest statistics, please email me)

% of students with top scores for STPM: 1.5%
% of students with top scores for Matriculation: 6.3%
The rate of "top scoring" in Matriculation is >4.1 times that in STPM

% of non-bumiputra students in STPM: [?]
% of non-bumiputra students in matriculation: 10%
(if anyone has the latest statistics, please email me)

Bumiputra admission into medicine (2005/2004): 544/439
% increase in Bumiputra admission: 23.9%

Chinese admission into medicine (2005/2004): 321/297
% increase in Chinese admission: 8.1%

Indian admission into medicine (2005/2004): 45/43
% increase in Indian admission: 4.7%

Total no. of medicine students admitted (2005/2004): 910/779
% increase in medicine students (2005/2004): 16.8% (131 students)
% of Bumiputra students in the increase: 80.2%
% of Chinese students in the increase: 18.3%
% of Indian students in the increase: 1.5%
There are a few additional numbers, which if available will allow the above statistics to present a more accurate picture:
  • No. of top scorers (CGPA 4.0) from Matriculation who applied for Medicine
  • No. of top scorers (CGPA 4.0) from STPM who applied for Medicine
  • No. of candidates admitted to Medicine faculty via Matriculation
  • No. of candidates admitted to Medicine faculty via STPM
Nevertheless, certain questions may be raised with regards to the statistics at hand above:
  1. Why did the number of top scorers from STPM drop so significantly relative to matriculation students? The top students from Matriculation was 3.4 times more than those from STPM, despite the latter having more students.

  2. How was it that of the increase in the no. of places available for medicine studies, 80.2% went to bumiputras as compared to the 2004 overall percentage of only 56.4%?

  3. Was the increase in the number of places a "political decision" meant to please all parties such that bumiputras will be able to claim increase in % admission into medicine while the Chinese will be happy that all top students have gained entry into medicine? Is this the right solution to take to maintain academic excellence in our local universities?

  4. The number of places for medicine increased significantly by 16.8% or 131 places to 910. Are our universities able to cope with this sudden increase in adimission?
The questions above are all the more critical, when we take into consideration the fact that despite the official ministry of education stand that the matriculation and STPM certifications are equivalent, it is commonly understood that the latter is significantly more challenging than the matriculation course. I firmly believe that the simplest solution to the above disparity is to have the matriculation students also sitting for the STPM examinations.

Our Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein emphasised repeatedly on the need for "integrated and united Malaysia" and to achieve "rejunevated consciousness of the Malaysian identity" in his address to the Malaysian Oxford and Cambridge Society Dinner Forum as reported in the Star and NST here and here. (I was privileged to have attended the forum)

"I'm tired of being defensive of our diversity, of seeing only the potential sensitivities and pitfalls. I want to be proud of it. I want to teach our children to see the opportunities in it, to benefit from it, make capital out of it, and leverage it.

... crucially, [the school] is also the place in which [Malaysians] hope that treasured communal identities are cultivated and protected."

Datuk Seri, I fully agree and support your cause to an integrated Malaysia which all Malaysians will be proud of. National integration starts very much with our education system, and common secondary school entry examination into our universities is a critical reform to achieve your vision and objectives.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

"Speed Up Your Pursuit of Higher Qualifications"

Did you see the full page advertisement that was placed on the 3rd page of The Sun on Monday, June 21 by Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR)? You can view it online here - although you'd probably need broadband to provide decent response time.

The advertisement has a large red rectangle with the word "FAST FORWARD" with the fast forward logo (2 triangles pointing right ">>"). The advertisement reads:

Our Foundation and Diploma programmes have been created to give you the higher qualification you need within a shorter study duration. You can complete your Foundation studies in one year en route to our 3-year Degree programme - one of the fastest study pathways offered by a university today.

What is this preoccupation with speed? The attraction of achieving a degree in the fastest possible time is alluring.

  • The student can 'quit' studying earlier
  • The student may join the workforce and earn income earlier
  • It's possibly an easier way to a degree (the common excuse is STPM is very difficult)

Are these good enough reasons for you to join a "fast-tracked" degree programme? To be fair, the Unitar's programme is actually not the fastest available recognised route to a degree. Many of the private colleges offer a 3+0 programme i.e., no foundation year is required, you'll take 3 years to complete your degree immediately after SPM or 'O' Levels, hence "saving" 1.5-2 years compared to students who takes the 'A' levels or STPM. Some of these colleges are 'reviewed' briefly in my blog post on "World Class Universities?".

The simple short answer to the above question is "NO". The only reason why you should join these "fast-tracked" programmes is if you regard yourself as a poor to mediocre student who actually require the degree certifications not because of the education process but purely to own a badge for joining the workforce. The reasons why one shouldn't join these degree programmes are plenty:

  • The move to shorten degree courses is often a commercial ploy by private universities to attract students and not a decision to improve educational quality. The more courses the college offers with shortened degrees, the less likely the college is interested in educational excellence.

  • Practically none of the world's top universities whether in the United States (US) or the United Kingdom (UK) promote shortcuts. For the US, you have to have excellent marks for your SAT examinations, while for the UK, you are almost certainly required to have excellent 'A' Level (or equivalent results) to join the top 10 universities. There is a simple reason for this. The course difficulty as well as academic rigour in these universities are tougher and hence require the extra 1 to 2 year of preparation to ensure that you will be able to "cope" with the curriculum. You want a top degree, you work for it.

  • Shortened degree courses typically means that you will learn less. You will be learning less not just from a knowledge gathering process, but also from having less time to hone your critical thinking and analytical skills. Very rarely do these shortened courses on offer in Malaysia covers the same breadth and depth as other comparable courses with longer terms. It only means that you will be getting your paper certificates with less work (which in this case isn't to the student's personal advantage).

Some three years ago, I employed a computer science graduate with a first class honours degree from one of these 3+0 degree programmes "twinned" with one of the UK universities listed in my earlier post. Even in those early days, I was aware that the standards at these colleges were lower, hence I tend to avoid candidates from some of these colleges. However, I made an exception in her case because she had excellent grades for her SPM (8A1s), believing that she may still have the potential to grow. After three months, the mangement and her colleagues were just happy that she had decided to resign on her own accord as she just couldn't cope with the technical rigour and depth of the work involved. I strongly believe that had she proceeded to complete her STPM (or equivalent) and enrolled into one of the better local universities, she would have coped with her tasks easily.

When you have graduated, it may be fair for you to seek the job or career which pays the most money for the least amount of work. If a piece of work is not suitable, you are always able to switch jobs. However, for your degree which you are going to spend some 3-4 years to obtain, it is important that you pick the right one, for you are unlikely to attempt another degree again. Seek the degree course and options which will ensure that you have the best opportunity to receive the best quality education within your personal abilities. Do not seek degree courses or programmes which will provide you with the easiest or fastest route to a piece of paper certification.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Public Service Department (JPA) Vision

I was just browsing the very slow JPA website to seek more information with regards to the scholarship award process and criteria, when I stumbled upon the vision, mission and objectives of our Public Service Department:

Menjadikan Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam Malaysia sebuah organisasi bertaraf dunia dalam perancangan, pembangunan dan pengurusan sumber manusia yang cemerlang berteraskan profesionalisme, integriti dan teknologi terkini selaras dengan matlamat Wawasan 2020 untuk menjadikan Malaysia Negara Maju.

Menjadi agensi yang berprestasi tinggi dalam membekalkan sumber tenaga manusia yang berupaya memberi perkhidmatan yang cemerlang melalui penggubalan dasar dan pengurusan sumber manusia...

Looks like JPA has quite a bit to go before achieving their vision and missions, given the regular miscarriage of their functions, for e.g., here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Application to UK Universities

I've just received my purchased copy of The Times Good University Guide 2006 which was compiled in association with PriceWaterhouseCoopers from Amazon UK (GBP9.59). It's a huge book with 512 pages in very small fonts! So, as promised, I'll be going through some of the key details in the book and where relevant, highlight them on this blog. If there are any special requests, feel free to email me.

The Guide is not just a ranking document (read earlier blog post), it actually provides the entire process of how to choose a course and university, information on some 100 universities in UK, fees/tariffs and of course, overall rankings of universities measured by various criteria such as teaching quality, research, entry standards, graduate prospects as well as by subjects.

Anyway, I'd just do a quick post on the application timetable for UK universities for entry in Sept 2006. This will be useful for candidates weighing their options to further their studies in the United Kingdom, particularly Form 6 students taking their STPM this year or 'A' Level students in June next year:
  • May-Sep: Research & make choices about universities and courses
  • 1 Sep - 15 Oct: Apply to Cambridge or Oxford; or medicine, dentistry or veterinary
    science/medicine in any university
  • 1 Sep - 15 Jan: All other applications from the UK or elsewhere in the EU
  • 1 Sep - 30 Jun: All other applications from outside the UK or elsewhere in the EU
  • 16 Jan - 30 Jun: Late applications from the UK or elsewhere in the EU (considered at universities' discretion)

For more information about the application process for UK universities, please visit the Universities & Colleges Admission Service website. Yes, you can also make the application online. Go through the quick links menu, it's pretty useful! :)

For some additional tip on the application process:

You will find on the UCAS application from, there is a section on "Personal Statement". This is pretty much similar to little write ups which I require my recruitment candidates to complete on their job application form. Read the nonsense I get here and here.

Please treat it as your chance to "impress" the admission officers of the universities of your choice to select you as a potential candidate for the course of your choice. You should probably write about:

  • why you want to study your chosen subject
  • what particular qualities or experience you can bring to it
  • evidence of achievement e.g., special merit awards for your extra-curricular activities
  • your career aspirations
  • any wider aspects of life that makes you an interesting and well-rounded student

Please do not give one-line answers (as many of my job candidates do - sigh). Don't rush, take your time. Review your statement over and over again. [Yes, the repetition is intended]

To quote the Times Good University Guide:

Remember that for most admission tutors an awful lot of applications will cross their desk... the result is a tendency for personal statements to be rather similar ["I want to be a doctor because it's noble"] and, to a hard-pressed admission tutor with a metre high pile of UCAS forms, rather dull. Somehow you have to make it personal and stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, avoid being too wacky - not all admission tutors will share your sense of humour and your form may be read by one who doesn't.

And finally, remember to pick your universities carefully. Don't "under-estimate" your own abilities and qualifications. You'll only be shortchanging yourself in the process. Malaysian students are no worse than those in the UK. Know your own capabilities and seek entry into the best possible universities given your abilities. Good luck!

"Why the giant chased the children?"

The Sun today headlined a story which reflected "appalling state of English among educators". Further to my comments on the state of English literacy amongst the general Malaysian student population today, it seems like some of our "educators" are similarly afflicted.
A Year Four English workbook with errors on almost every page has been withdrawn... A concerned parent, who brought the matter up with theSun, said the workbook, Activity Target, appears on her son's book list under "recommended texts".

"The book is littered with mistakes, as well as comprehension exercises which do not make sense," said the mother.
Unfortunately, unlike the print version of the Sun, there are no examples given in the online version. You can however, view it through the "online print" version accessible here, though you'd probably need broadband to do so. Some of the examples of "rotten" English given are:

  • Where Pak Abu works?

  • Arumugam enrols for Bahasa Melayu class. If his class starts at 8.00 pm, at what time does it ends? [Well, besides the obvious grammar error, how is this question relevant in a comprehension exercise!?]

  • "Pain, pain" said the rock.

  • and of course, "Why the giant chased the children?"
What else do you think made the entire situation even more deplorable?
  • The writers (if they deserve the occupational description) are graduates in "Teaching English as a Second Language" (TESL) from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). And yes, the TESL program is a Bachelors degree program from UPM's faculty of Educational Studies. How in the world did these writers even graduate with a degree specialising in English when they can't even write decent Primary 4 English? I'd be very interested to review their both their degree transcripts as well as their examination scripts - they should make for interesting reading!

  • The workbook was placed in a "recommended" "optional" book list handed out to parents by the schools' bookshops. Should a school bookshop be recommending workbooks? The question then is whether the school administrators have "unofficially" touted the booklist? How many times have we heard of stories of supplemented income for the schools' principals and teachers?

  • The schools affected were both located in the Klang Valley - SK Bukit Damansara and SK Bangsar. These are urban schools which are typically, better quality schools compared to schools in the rest of the nation. As a parent noted:

    "Fortunately my son's English is good and he pointed out all the errors to me. What about those children whose English is not as good? They will think this rotten English is the right way to speak the language."
  • The Headmistress of SK Bukit Damansara, Datin Fatihah Abdul Kadir was typically quick to disclaim responsibility:

    "I cannot stop them [the school bookshop] from running a business or stop the parents from buying the books. How can I campaign against buying other people's products?"
    Which of course can be roughly translated as "not my fault, not my responsibility, please go away." If an educator cannot "campaign" for quality products for our young students, then there is a serious problem with our system!

There are some important questions we need to ask here. I'm not so much worried by the quality of the workbook itself per se. The key question to ask is what type of graduate students are some of our universities producing - how did these "degree holders" in English pass their English examinations, not just their degree examination, but also their SPM? Is our standards scraping the bottom of the barrel? Is this a case of "adjusting" the passing rate by lowering the standards so that the universities can claim to have higher "success" in churning out degree holders? Are we then surprised by the rate of umemployment amongst our recent graduates?

It looks like we have a major task ahead in reforming our education system. And it appears that the biggest problem we have today is our educators may not be of the necessary quality to deliver the educational excellence which we seek for our young. Irrespective of whatever reforms implemented - revising the syllabus, changing the examination methodology or adopting a different teaching and learning approach - they'll all be an absolute waste of time and effort. We may have some of the best raw materials in our young, but if the moulds are of terrible quality, then we can only expect the factory output to be significantly sub-standard.

Oh, and for your information, the publisher is Pustaka Sri Cahaya. I can't find any information about them on the web. I would have thought that any self-respecting "publisher" will at least have a basic web site.

Monday, June 20, 2005

More Scholarship Tales (II)

Search hard enough and you are bound to find plenty of interesting scholarship application experience written on blogs today. Read an earlier story here and here. The ones that I like, and particularly the ones which our authorities could do well to learn from, are those who has expressed disappointment but are not bitter. These are the posts which offer their opinions in a more objective manner and not instead, a rhetorical rant.

I'd like to highlight that not all top scorers, yes, even those with straight 'A1's deserves or should qualify for scholarships (although most of them probably should). If the candidate has displayed unreasonable arrogance, or had no respect for elders or for that matter, demonstrated rascist opinions, he or she should not be awarded scholarships. This is the reason why I disagree with the calls made by the concerned public and politicians (here and here) to make scholarships automatic for all "Top X00" students.

Equally, those with slightly less than excellent academic grades (but still very good nevertheless, for e.g., 7 'A's) but have displayed outstanding leadership skills or sporting excellence in extra-curricular activities deserve scholarships as well. Hopefully, this will "appease" some of the opinions raised in the comments on my blog that I've been overly "academic". I'd also like to point that I did not score straight 'A's for my 'O' or 'A' Levels (although I shouldn't be proud of that!) :)

I would also agree with our Minister of Education as reported in the Star yesterday:

The objectives and criteria for awarding Public Services Department scholarships should be made public to avoid confusion and uncertainty among applicants in future, Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein said.

... unless this was done, the department would be bombarded with queries from students who had not obtained scholarships despite achieving excellent results.

“This seems to be a seasonal problem. But we do not want to face this every year [hear! hear!]. We do not want to get a few hundred appeals every year from students who feel they did not get the scholarships they deserve,” he said.

But read also the typical quick draw "denial" syndrome in our Malaysian civil service. Deny first, worry later.

I'm also a little concerned that these students are provided scholarships at SPM level instead of STPM (or 'A' Levels). I believe that STPM will be a better gauge for a candidate's academic abilities and critical thinking qualities, compared to SPM. I'm also similarly concerned that students are "skipping" straight to universities in a rush, without having undergone the right foundations. The top American universities would require the candidates to possess outstanding Scholastic Aptitute Test (SAT) scores while the top British universities would still require strong 'A' Levels (or equivalent) grades. Our top students should all "aim" to qualify for these top universities instead of being in too much of a hurry to join a second-rate university, even with scholarships. But that's another set of issues for another post in the blog.

Dulcinea is a unique candidate who has attended the Public Service Department (PSD) interviews not once, but twice (from Singapore!). Read her complete blog post here. Thankfully, despite a short stint in Singapore, Dulcinea "returned" to Malaysia and is currently on a local private scholarship from Gamuda Berhad, currently obtaining her Software Engineering degree in Imperial College, London. Good for her! :)

I recall my own memorable experience with trying to obtain a PSD scholarship. I travelled all the way back from Singapore just to attend that brief interview, and I remember sitting outside the interview room with several of my Malay classmates, and a few of them had just finished their own interviews and of course I asked them how it was and whether they spoke in Malay or English. All of them told me that their interviews were held in English and were fairly friendly informal chats. So when it was my turn, I entered the room and greeted the two interviewers seated inside with a cheerful "Good Morning", which was quickly and curtly shot down with a response from the female interviewer saying "Could you please speak Malay. We see here that you didn't obtain an A1 in your Bahasa paper, so we want to hear you speak Malay to assess your level of Malay".

I sat there absolutely stunned and the rest of the interview went downhill from there, with no mention of my curricular activities what so ever, just the inane focus on my 'inability' to speak Malay. I obtained an A2 for crying out loud. It would require a miracle to not be able to speak good Malay and still attain a freaking A2. As far as I know, less than 10 people in my school got an A1. I know Malays who didn't even manage a B3, and it's their mother tongue for heavens sakes! So why should I be put to the test?

... my friends with perfect 9A1s were all receiving free tertiary education while my 9A1s and 2A2s (note, not a perfect score - thus not worthy of government funding) were thrown aside. Even though my father is a poor civil servant with a meagre civil servant salary. Even though my mother is a housewife. Even though I had a drawer-full of certificates and accolades from society positions to science competitions to journalism efforts to taekwon-do black belts ... I wasn't a worthy scholar in the eyes of the government. Luckily I was good enough for Singapore.

... in my JC [Junior College in Singapore], where my teachers didn't push me aside just
because I was clearly a minority, where they encouraged me to excel in both my outdoor activities as well as the oh-so-important A Levels. And even when I returned to appeal a second time after my A Level results and the PSD then told me that if I wanted to do medicine they'd give me a scholarship straight away (although they clearly overlooked the fact that I didn't take Chemistry or Biology for A Levels) and nothing else, I moved on and looked for other avenues.

And right now as a Gamuda scholar, I know that I am worth every bit the scholar I am, and that I'm not just a number to the PSD, I am a real person to my scholarship board. Because here at Gamuda I know I was given a fair interview, by an external panel made up of people who are qualified and experienced enough to assess interviewees and see through the fake covers our
result-driven education system has built upon us. Heck, Marina Mahathir was on the panel last year (which is not fair! I would have liked to meet her!).

PSD should learn from our Malaysian private sector who are sincere about awarding scholarships to our best and brightest, as highlighted by Dulcinea. The interview panel should be "made up of people who are qualified and experienced enough to assess interviewees" and not civil service administrators who asks stupid questions - a simple reform which will enhance our scholarship award system.

One of the other little issue raised in Dulcinea's experience is the pre-occupation with medical degrees, not just by the students in general but also by the authorities such as PSD. It has also been raised couple of times in comments on my earlier posts. My degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) must be regarded as a rojak course by these guys, for why would someone give a scholarship to somebody who wants to become a Philosopher, or worse, Politician! :) [Note to self: Another topic to blog about.]

Friday, June 17, 2005

Our Education System Not So Bad

I'm currently "on leave" with my extended family, on a visit to my wife's eldest sister in Yogjakarta (Yogja- pronounced 'Jogja'), Central Java. So, obviously, my postings will be fairly limited (in fact I just managed to get myself connected to the internet after two days. Well, the fact that I didn't bother looking very hard didn't help :)) Will be back in KL on Monday, so more posts then :)

But I thought I'd post a quick comment on some interesting discussions over the last two days - before the "expedition" to Borobudur begins this afternoon.

My sister-in-law, Ting Hwee is married to an Indonesian Chinese in Palembang, Sumatera. She now has 3 kids aged 11, 9 and 7. Their pursuit of a better education for has led her to "migrate" to Yogja approximately a year ago. In Indonesia, the cities with a better reputation for educational excellence are basically, Bandung, Surabaya and Yogja. Yogja was selected due to its reputation as a "safe" Indonesian city, as well as the fact that my brother-in-law was a high school alumni here. Yogja is also known as a "university town" due to the number of universities located here. One of Indonesia's most prestigious universities, Universitas Gadjah Mada is located at Yogja.

Like Mencius mum [孟母] who moved three times in order to ensure a better education for Mencius [孟子] , Ting Hwee is likely to have to move one more time when the eldest child completes her primary education. In Southeast Asia, the obvious choices for quality education is actually in Singapore and Malaysia. I would rate Singapore's education system to be significantly ahead of that of Malaysia. While at the same time, Malaysia's quality of education is fairly ahead of the other neighbouring countries, although it is understood that the gap may be narrowing. Singapore, is however, an expensive city to send your children for a private education. Hence, Ting Hwee is likely to move with her children to Kuala Lumpur in the near future for the children's further education.

Why is Malaysia a natural choice? For many years since the ASEAN scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education in Singapore in the 1970s, the receipients were wholly dominated by Malaysian students. Only in rare instances were scholarships awarded to Indonesians or Thais. And for many years, we have suspected that the ASEAN scholarship was named such to camouflage Singapore's blatant attempt to "recruit" specifically Malaysia's best minds from young. It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that ASEAN scholarships were offered to students from countries such as Vietnam, although Malaysians still contribute a large but reduced majority. Singapore has also started separate scholarship schemes for China and Indian students.

While perplexing for some, Malaysia do have a fairly "decent" primary and secondary education. The reasons why Ting Hwee would like her children in Kuala Lumpur, as well as the fact that Malaysians contribute significantly to the pool of ASEAN scholarship receipients is as follows:

  1. As much as I've lamented about the degradation of the quality of English amongst our recent graduates, their English competence is fortunately still substantially stronger than our neighbours (ex-Singapore). Having conducted business and visited most of Southeast Asia, English literacy is extremely limited outside of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Besides being an international language of commerce, English is unfortunately also most widely acceptable academic language for universities, particularly in United Kingdom (UK), United States (US) and Australia.

    My wife asked me to pick some books from the Times Bookshop to bring as gifts to our nieces and nephew. Recalling that I spent a large proportion of my time reading The Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Hardy Boys and other books by Enid Blyton (ok, a couple of Nancy Drew novels as well) from primary 4 to 6, I bought a stack of these (varying degrees of difficulty). Unfortunately, having lugged them across to Yogja, we now realised that these books are way too advanced for even the eldest of them. The are still pretty much limited to the picture-based storybooks.

  2. Malaysia, for all its national vs vernacular school debate (something I'm in the midst of writing about), it's also a country where mother tongue education is readily available. If not in the school, it's abundantly available in the form of private tuition.

    Hence, my nieces and nephew will be able to "upgrade" their literacy in Mandarin beyond a smattering of heavily (Bahasa Indonesia)accented Mandarin words. Listening to the conversations between them and their grandparents will no longer be a fairly comical mix of Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia. :)

  3. The Malaysian education system is based largely similar to the British system, although the similarities have tended to be less, particularly in our "newer" UPSR primary school system. To be fair, the certications at SPM and STPM has been regarded as equivalents or near-equivalents of the internationally recognised and accepted 'O' and 'A'-level system. Some would even argue that the STPM syllabus is 'tougher' than 'A'-levels. Even if one decides instead to sit for the 'O' and 'A' levels, there is sufficient private schools available to make this option a ready alternative.

    Hence, relative to other secondary school certifications available in the other Southeast Asian countries, sans Singapore - Malaysia is an attractive education choice in terms of obtaining the necessary qualifications for relatively easier access to overseas universities, particularly in UK.

So, to put things in perspective, our "beef" with our education system is not so much that it's a terrible education system. Our education system is fairly well accepted globally, and that's a testament that it's actually "not so bad". However, we are often dismayed because with the talent pool which we possess in Malaysia, the education system could have been so much better - "world class", if you like. In addition, we are often dismayed by certain policy and non-policy decisions which are likely to reduce the quality of Malaysian education. These negative policies, if unchecked will ultimately dislodged Malaysia as one of the countries with a better education system in the world, or possibly even in the region.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How to Lower Standards at Our Universities?

The furore around the "forced" resignation of a senior academic, Dr Terence Gomez has begun to "settle" as the intervention of our Prime Minister has resulted in a "happy ending" to the unpleasant episode. Malaysiakini and Screenshots are now covering the "post-mortem" of the entire affair. In an exclusive interview series with Malaysiakini, Dr Gomez talks about why he wants to stay in University Malaya (UM) and discusses dubious promotions of lecturers. Jeff Ooi, on the other hand covered the events of the surprisingly well-attended farewell dinner for Dr Gomez.

One of the points raised by Dr Gomez during the evening as well as in his Malaysiakini interview however, caught my attention:
... the practice of tampering with students’ examination marks to increase the passing rate. He cited a paper where the failure rate was high, amid the strong protest from the lecturers, the department concerned decided to give 13 additional percentage points across the board to all students.

This is probably "best" thing a University can do to lower the standards at our Universities. The fact that this happened at University Malaya, which quite undoubtedly is still the best in Malaysia is disgraceful.

  • If it's going to be that easy to "pass" examination papers in UM, then the output quality of the students will slowly but surely erode over time, and employers will sooner or later discover the deteriorating standards of UM. It's really quite as simple as that!

  • UM should not go down the route which many of the Australian universities appear to be taken by easing the academic requirements to pass examinations. Read about some of the scandals which has hit Australian universities in recent years. Newcastle University here and here. It's also blogged by Idlan Zakaria here on the impact of Australian certificates today. A more general article highlighting some of the "scandals" such as:

    Examples of how our [the Australian] education system is being "dumbed down" include:
    • A lecturer being told to reduce lecture content to "high school level" to improve the rates of students passing his course.
    • Where "fail" marks had been overridden to grant students Honours degrees.
    • Where marks as low as 25 per cent were considered passes.
    • Lecturers were forced to relax rules on plagiarism so that students who were not capable of writing essays would be allowed to cheat.
The older generation of Australian graduates have tended to be more reliable" in terms of qualifications. These days, from my personal experience, a degree from Monash or RMIT, Australia is equivalent to the average local Malaysian universities. You can still recruit the top students (which is difficult to ascertain) but the rest are just so weak. UM does not want to go there.
  • The way to improve the pass rate of the students of UM is not to reduce the passing mark by a humongous 13% points. It is simply by (1) attracting the top students of the country to the university and (2) employing the best quality lecturers and academics in the university. The fact that the university requires the drastic move of significantly lowering the passing grade makes it obvious that either (1) or (2) or both are current failures at UM.

In a fairly long but enlightening article by Craig McInnis on Australia's e-journal of social and political debate, he was lamenting that the key reason behind falling standards at Australian universities was that:
... that the compression of grades towards the high end is an outcome of academics not having a clear and justifiable set of criteria for assessing student performance.

Without strong benchmarks and moderation processes at the discipline and subject level, academics are left to make judgments that are not always defensible in the face of external pressure. Surveys of academics in Australia, as elsewhere, find the majority is unsure whether students are better or worse now in terms of academic abilities than five years before.

McInnis' study was with reference to Australian universities but the lessons learnt are equally applicable to UM's attempt to tamper with passing grades. Is this a standard practice at our Malaysian universities today? When academic assessment in a university is no longer held sacrosanct, the student "passes" but the university fails.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

More Scholarship Tales

One of the little joys of writing a blog (as I've discovered in my very short stint to date), is that you get the nice little mails coming into the mailbox telling you stories of things you would never have known otherwise. Well, the mails telling you to "keep up the good work" are pretty nice too :)

I've earlier blogged on Anisah as well as my wife's experience with the Public Service Department (PSD). Rozanna Latiff then wrote to me about her experience during her scholarship application with MARA. She was one of the very very few bumiputeras who has applied and successfully received the ASEAN scholarship from the Ministry of Education in Singapore. And she's now in the midst of completing her double degree in Law and Arts (Media and Communications) in University of Melbourne.

I applied for a scholarship after getting accepted into uni. I had my race on my side but not much else. During the interview, they insisted on conducting the interview in Malay, assuming that I was already fluent in English. While I had no problems with that, I felt vaguely insulted. I am a bumi, I studied BM throughout my entire school life, maybe just slightly less than your average Malaysian. I also didn't see the point.

Like your wife's account, the interview had nothing to do with my education, preferring to concentrate on my parents and asking about the Singapore scholarship provisions. Then right at the end, they asked me why I wanted to study arts media and why I wasn't interested in engineering. I gave them my reasons. They then told me that theydidn't usually give scholarships for law OR arts, at which point I definitely knew I wasn't getting it. Sure enough, I was right, myapplication was rejected.

Which brings me to my next issue with the current system. TOO many students have absolutely no idea about what they want to study in uni. Too many bright, smart students take the easy option and go for(usually) medicine, engineering and IT. What's worse, a number of students were told specifically by their scholarship provider what course they should be doing, despite the fact they may do better or are more interested in a different course. As a result, there are so many students who may be good at what they're doing but have absolutely no real passion / enthusiasm for their chosen courses - something which in my opinion only serves to encourage the culture ofmediocrity in Malaysia.

I didn't bother with getting a scholarship in the end - my dad [flight instructor, and mum's a former school principal] in the end told me that he had started saving for college since I was born but that he thought a scholarship might ease the burden a bit. He's 59 now and still working to put me through school, something that I'm forever grateful for. But I know I'm lucky and there are many other people who don't have the same opportunities.

As far as I'm concerned, meritocracy simply doesn't exist within the current system. It's not just race-based but class-based as well (too many stories of scholarships given out to children of already wealthy goverment officials). The current policy of encouraging students to enrol in such-and-such courses helps no one either.

Rozanna, I agree with a lot of the points raised and hopefully you'll return back home to help us make the system a little better. I'm a firm believer of the maxim "sikit sikit, lama-lama pun jadi bukit" :)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Dr Terence Gomez Reinstated

As the PSD "top student" scholarship fiasco comes to a "happy ending", another less expected surprise was lying in store.

Our Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr. Shafie Salleh "has approved two years' unpaid leave for Assoc Prof Dr Terence Gomez to take up his post with the United Nations in Geneva" as reported in the Star and Malaysiakini today.
This means Dr Gomez will now be able to take up the post of project manager for research in identity, conflict and social cohesion with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) without resigning from the Economics and Administration Faculty of Universiti Malaya (UM). [The Star]
Dr Gomez was evidently pleased (see picture here) with the outcome.
"I am very grateful to the prime minister for responding to my call to intervene in this matter." [Malaysiakini]
While I congratulate Dr Gomez on his reinstatement, a clearly positive outcome for our education system, once again, there are plenty of questions in the way our system is run.

  1. 1. As raised in my earlier blog on the scholarship fiasco episode, "Why does it take our Prime Minister to discharge his "powers" before the "right" things are done for simple and fairly routine exercises?" No Prime Minister should have to deal with such "micro" issues, which should be carried out competently by our civil service. While Pak Lah has yet to make any official statement on the issue, I'm fairly certain he was the hidden hand behind the reinstatement, although the message was carried by our Minister of Higher Education (who is embroiled in another university controversy reported in the Star, here, here and here and highlighted by Lim Kit Siang here).

  2. Is this "U-turn" a clear slap in the face for the Vice Chancellor of University of Malaya Prof Dr. Hashim Yaacob? Dr. Hashim had yesterday defended his position not to grant Dr Gomez unpaid leave to take up his project manager role at the UN. In a press statement by opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang, Dr Hashim has offered some irrational reasons in defending his position:

    Hashim had compounded the offence when he insinuated that Gomez has not sufficiently loyal to Malaysia or fully committed to the University of Malaya and the country in accepting the two-year appointment with the Geneva-based [UNRISD] when he said that "any individual should consider the interests of their 'students, country and thenation' before deciding to resign".
    Is Hashim seriously suggesting that should a day come when a Malaysian is offered the post of United Nations Secretary-General, this offer should be turned down in favour of such a Malaysian being able to continue to serve inside the country?
    Dr Hashim, in his statement has depreciated both his intellectual competence as well as the reputation of University of Malaya.

  3. And finally, it strikes me as a tad "scary" the reply made by our Minister of Higher Learning, Dr Shafie Salleh when asked about Dr Gomez's resignation by the Star reporter:

    Dr Shafie said: “As the minister, I have the power to hire and fire, so I have revoked his resignation."
    Why is our academia subjected to such absolute controls from our political Minister? How are we to create "Towering Malaysian personalities" as espoused by our Prime Minister if our academia is subjected to the whims and fancies of the Minister? From the quote above, you can almost tell how proud Dr Shafie is, to have such "powers".

For those attending the "Solidarity with Dr Gomez" dinner - the dinner is definitely still on. It's now:

"Celebration with Dr Terence Gomez!"
Hosted By: Lim Kit Siang (Parliamentary Opposition Leader)

13 June 2005(Monday) 8.30pm

Click Here for Location)
RM40 (Public) RM20 (Student)
First-Come First-Served!
Contact: 03-79578022 ( John/Ms Lim)

See you all there! :)

Friday, June 10, 2005

TV Smith's Scholarship Test

I thought TV Smith's Dua Sen blog: Scholarship Test was quite hilarious! :)

Pak Lah Promises Scholarship for Top Students

As scripted, the nice little soap opera blogged here and here of our top students denied Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships is coming to an end. In all likelihood, the "attempts" by some bloggers to promote scholarships from our neighbour down south by providing the convenient application URL is foiled. As reported in the Star today:
Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) top scorers denied scholarships by the Public Services Department (PSD) can heave a sigh of relief, as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has intervened.
Of course, our civil service "yang mengikut perintah" will now obediently offer all the fortunate candidates whose names have been published in the various local newspapers over the past couple of days their scholarships for, in all probability, any course they wish. Our Minister of Education, Datuk Hishammuddin Tun Hussein also pledged to do his part:
Hishammuddin also showed his determination when he said: "You can tell them that I am fighting for them. You can tell them that their names are embedded in my mind. I have asked (Deputy Education Minister) Datuk Hon Choon Kim to get all their particulars."
So, the upset students will get their scholarships, the politicians will bask in glory and the media will be proud of the role they played in the entire episode. A Malaysian fairy tale comes to a "happy ever after" ending... or not?

Some serious questions need to be asked, and the implications of the above (oft repeated exercise) needs to be raised:
  1. Why does it take our Prime Minister to discharge his "powers" before the "right" things are done for simple and fairly routine exercise of awarding scholarships to our most promising students? Is our system so screwed up that everything needs to go to our Prime Minister to right the wrongs? It's no wonder Pak Lah has little time for some of the more important issues facing the country.

  2. This is the question which everyone will be asking - will the same soap opera routine be repeated in subsequent years as it has in previous? Will the lesson be learnt? Do we have to set up a Royal Commission to Reform our PSD? The actions of PSD, whether intended or otherwise, seriously damages the efforts of our leaders to enhance national integration - undoing the millions spent for example, on National Service.

  3. More importantly, what about the negative implication of our Prime Minister's intervention? While I expect most top students to receive scholarships, it's not necessary that all top students receive them. I would never award scholarships to candidates who are too big-headed, who demonstrates anti-social behaviours or opinions such as being a racist, or candidates who intend to obtain the scholarship to study overseas and subsequently have zero intentions on returning home. However, with the Prime Minister's intervention, which civil servant "yang mengikut perintah" would dare to risk his career by persisting in not awarding the scholarship to aw "top student"? In fact, a potential negative development to avoid controversy, the "bosses" of PSD may decide that "all" top students will be awarded scholarships irregardless rendering the interview exercise all but a formality, with the sole objective of avoiding controversy.

  4. Finally, every protective parent worth his salt will start cultivate relationships with every press and media person in order to have the necessary connections to raise a ruckus, just in case that his son or daughter is "unjustly" treated by scholarship authorities. Why is that not necessarily a good thing? For one, it then becomes the media who decides the fate of whether a candidate obtains a scholarship, and not rightfully, the PSD.
Ok, that's enough "ranting" for a slow-moving Friday afternoon. The Prime Minister's office really needs to look at how our education policies and system can be reformed to meet so many of the objectives that are stated by Pak Lah's administration. Without adequate reform, many of the various piecemeal measures such as National Service, teaching Maths & Science in English, teaching of mother tongue in national-type schools (all of which I support) will not be effective.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Scholarship Woes Revisited

Anisah recounted on her blog her experience of applying for a scholarship from the Public Service Department (PSD) for a place in Medicine. She scored 7 A1s and 4 A2s and she:
knew by way of not getting a reply, not even a reply from PSD to explain that I’ve applied for a scholarship which I was not eligible for, not even an offer to do something else than medicine. Nothing, no communication at all.
Read her blog to find out more about her experience and the impact of rejection on her. She also made an interesting note:

I bought a PSD form to apply for scholarships because my household income then was RM1,200... On the form, it was clearly printed that PSD scholarships to do medicine are only available to Bumiputera applicants.

Can anyone confirm that is actually true? That PSD scholarships to do medicine is clearly printed as only available to Bumiputera applicants? Or is it something of the 'past'? Hmmm...

Top Scorers Fail to Get Scholarships (II)

A nice little predictable drama is unfolding as the furious response from the community hits the media and relevant government agencies with regards to the issue of top scorers failing to obtain scholarships from PSD as reported in the Star yesterday and blogged here.

The PSD public relations machinery kicked into action with a statement from Pn Hasniah Rashid as published in the Star today. "Concerned" political leaders from the ruling Barisan Nasional component parties make their appeal to the PSD.

I was initially quite impressed with the statement released by PSD. It was fairly well constructed and well thought out:

“... due to fierce competition, particularly for medicine, there will be those who won’t be awarded the scholarships,” she said in an interview here yesterday.

“Our main constraint, when awarding these scholarships, is the limited number of awards that we give out each year,” said Hasniah.

“We called 4,580 candidates for interviews and offered scholarships to 1,265 who were the best among those academically excellent students,” she said, adding that for medicine 1,189 candidates had named it as their first choice while only 322 places were allotted for the course.

These are all potentially valid reasons. After all, there are more good students than there are scholarships. But then as I read more carefully, I saw an apparently innocuous statement in the release. Pn Hasniah mentioned that:

...applicants were allotted points according to their academic achievement in the SPM as well as their extra-curricular activities, family background and performance during interviews with the department.
Errr... Pn Hasniah, may I ask what has "family background" got to do with whether a person receives a scholarship or not? What exactly is the criteria used for "family background"? Is it the family's wealth, connections, race, occupation, political contributions, social status, political affiliations or even for that matter, the number of siblings? What weightage is accorded to "family background" when awarding their evaluation points; is it 5% or is it 50%, or it's discretionary - up to the interviewers? Pn Hasniah revealed that:
Even a half-point matters when students apply for the prestigious Public Services Department scholarships, especially in competitive courses like medicine.
Did the "half-point" that mattered stem from "family background"?

The Penang state government has made their position known that they are making the appeal on behalf of the Penangites. Bernama reports:
The Penang government will appeal to the PublicServices Department (PSD) to reconsider its rejection of applications forscholarships by three students in the state who scored 13A1s in the SijilPelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination last year.

So now, every state is going to make an appeal for all their "top" students who fail to secure their PSD scholarships? According to Jeff Ooi's Screenshots:

Two other national top scorers in SPM, namely Khaw Chok Tong (12 1As) from Pahang and Chew Ying Dee (13 1As) from Perlis, were also rejected by the JPA scholarship committee. Similarly, Ang Nooi Huay (12 1As) from SMJK Keat Hwa, Kedah, was another failure in the hands of the JPA. Reasons unknown.

And from yesterday's Star report:
... other top students who were rejected included Pahang’s top student Khaw Chok
Tong (who scored 12 1As)

Of course, as it scripted, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) jumps into the fray right on cue. In Sin Chew Jit Poh today, our first deputy Minister of Education, YB Dato' Hon Choon Kim offered to communicate the top students' appeals to JPA and requested the students to write in to:

Pejabat Timbalan Menteri Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia,
Aras 9,Blok E8,Parcel E, Presint 1,
Pusat Pentadbiran Kerajaan Persekutuan,
62502 Putrajaya

Phone:(03) 88846040 Fax:(03) 88894755

Similarly, the President of MCA as well as our Minister of Housing & Local Government, YB Dato' Seri Ong Ka Ting offered his office's assistance as well.

Everyone now wants to be a hero. If only all the relevant authorities have taken greater concerns to reform the system earlier, without having to wait for the "crisis" to strike before rushing to the forefront to help.

Guess what? All these students will probably receive their scholarships after the appeals. The pressure place by our Fourth Estate (the media) today is overwhelming. PSD will award the scholarships upon appeal by the various parties to avoid further controversy and embarassment. The authorities will then proclaim that they have performed their duties for the rakyat. But watch this space, same time next year - the story will just repeat itself all over again. Sigh.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Top Scorers Fail to Get Scholarships

The typical "top student" not getting government scholarships story is like a never ending, tiresome soap opera in Malaysia. Someone should perform a search on the Star archives and see how many of these stories have been published in the past 3 years alone.

So, it really surprises no one for this latest story published in the Star today:
Two months ago, Ng Ee Liang, Desmond Chee and Teoh Wan Ying were feeling on top of the world when they each scored 13 1As and were named Penang’s top SPM scorers. But all their dreams and hopes came crashing down on Monday after finding out that their applications for Public Services Department (PSD) scholarships had been rejected.
My wife, Ting Fong shared her experience with PSD this morning as we were reading the article. Unlike me, who didn't even get shortlisted for an interview, she was actually shortlisted after having achieved straight 'A's for her 'A'-Levels and had a letter of offer to read Jurisprudence (Law) at Oxford. The following is an reconstructed excerpt of her interview experience:
Interviewer: Oh, awak dulu belajar in Sekolah Menengah Tun Aminah (STA), Batu Pahat ke?

Ting Fong: Ya.

Interviewer: STA ada nickname yang agak terkenal kan? Tahu tak?

Ting Fong: Tak tentulah. Ada ke?

Interviewer: STA terkenal sebagai Sekolah Tahi Ayam...
Her conclusion from the interview exercise was a waste of time because the 3 interviewers were just not at all interested in the interview process, often asking and discussing largely irrelevant points/issues. And of course, after the interview, she had zero expectations on being successful in obtaining a scholarship from PSD.

I think we all need to do our little parts to improve the system over time. However, at the same time, we should all have the expectations that the current system is going to work against non-bumiputeras at this point of time. So, I'm actually a tad surprised that Ng was so dejected.
“People say boys don’t cry, but yesterday I cried my heart out”

In a system that is run by fallible humans, there are always going to be inherent biases and imperfections in any selection process - whether for jobs or scholarship interviews, whether in Malaysia or in Australia, or whether its due to race or wealth or even language accent. The ultimate determination of one's character, is the ability to work with the system at hand and grow stronger from the process.

So, for Ng and the other students who failed to obtain a scholarship from PSD - don't get too upset or bitter about it. Move on. The PSD is not the only scholarship board in Malaysia. There are a fair few scholarships available from various foundations and large MNCs. If you can't find them in Malaysia, our neighbours Singapore will welcome you with open arms (and they are looking for more doctors). Prove to yourselves that the excellent academic results are not your only talents, you will need just as much the "street smartness" which can take you places when combined with your excellent academic knowledge. Be resourceful! Whining and waiting for food to be served to your on a silver platter isn't going to get you anywhere, even with perfect SPM grades.

Like my wife, I managed to with some luck, secure for myself a place at Oxford University. As I was studying in Singapore then, I applied to many many organisations for a scholarship to pursue my studies there. I was not shortlisted for any interview in Singapore, largely due to my failure to achieve near perfect As for my 'A'-Levels (sigh). Fortunately for me, one of the foundations of a large MNC in Malaysia came to my "rescue", after I've already confirmed my place at National University of Singapore. There was no way my family could afford the fees at Oxford. With hindsight, not obtaining my scholarship in Singapore has been a real blessing in disguise. Not only would I not have "returned" to Malaysia otherwise, I would have been stuck in some stodgy Government-linked corporation (GLC) in Singapore, bonded for as long as 8 years. Breaking the bond midway may have meant being crucified by some of Singapore's top civil servants as well.

I'm not at any point of time saying that we should accept the current biases in our system. We should continue to press our government for a fairer education system which will enhance national integration and help our government achieve that objective over time. That's why I encouraged frightened Malaysian to return home. However, at the same time, it will be day-dreaming to think that the system will be changed overnight and foolish to not acknowledge the existing shortcomings and to work around it the best we can.

So Ng, Chee & Teoh and others in a similar predicament, go ahead and prove that you are better than the system. The rewards will then be sweeter, and you can only be a better person for your efforts. Good luck!

Teaching English Writing

A friend of mine, Oon Yeoh has quit his deputy editor position at the Sun on Sunday (no pun intended :)) You'd have notice his fairly regular columns in the Sun as well as the Edge newspapers. He'll be taking time off to work on some of his pet projects, including an political biography of Lim Kit Siang. However, to pay the bills, he'll be doing various freelancing projects, including his new part time job with New Era College to teach English writing:
I haven't worked out the syllabus for the course yet but I'll draw upon my years of experience in newspaper journalism to come up with something that will help the students become adept at writing straight news, feature articles and commentary pieces.

It's going to be a challenge, for sure, as the students at New Era College are mainly Mandarin-speaking.

To be very frank, I think Oon's probably going to be in for a fairly rough ride as to the standards of English among his students. This will be true not just at the New Era College, but at many other universities and colleges as well, particularly those which attracts the most Chinese school students. The objective the course he is conducting is:
... to enhance listening, note-taking and reading skills in English. We hope that at the end of the course, the students will acquire the nuances of the English language, the particular appeals in the design of persuasive and informative messages as well as the fundamentals of different types of news.
Oon will have a major challenge ahead. Meeting these objectives will be very difficult, not because New Era College is a poor college, but because our primary and secondary schools (both national and vernacular) do not provide sufficient quality and training in English language. Hence unless the students come from an English speaking family or happen to "mix" with English speaking friends from the early years (I have fortunately fallen into this category - and yet I still struggled to a B3 for my 'O' Level English in Singapore), his or her standards are likely to be poor. Please note, I have no doubt that many of these students would have been good English speakers/writers, if they have had the right education opportunities.

I have no doubt that Oon would have many ideas to incorporate plenty of interesting lesson plans for his students. However, he will most likely have to incorporate many of the English language basics including strengthening vocabulary, dramatically improving grammar (simple stuff like tenses) and subsequently, working to "straighten" their thought structures.

One of the basic lessons which I believe will be most useful for his students will be to teach them to write professional resumes as well as how to answer simple questions often posed in application forms (which tends to be a feature with large local companies or MNCs). This will not only touch on the students English language skills but also prepare them for their next steps in seeking employment. Some of my grievances with graduates and their applications are blogged in "Graduates Need to be Serious 1".

As a student/graduate seeking employment, I should pay particular attention to the "freeform" question segments. Some examples of questions asked as part of the job application process are (examples from Jobstreet):
  • What would you consider as your biggest achievement and why?
  • Describe a situation where you tried your hardest but failed.
  • How did you handle your most challenging experience in your previous job?
  • Describe the last time you did something that made you feel good about yourself.
  • Describe your personal qualities that suit the requirements of this position.
  • Describe a time you were asked to do something you did not think was right.
I remember the time when I applied for my first job some 10 years ago now (no "online" facilities available then!) where I had to fill up an application form for a position in the local chapter of a multinational consulting company. It was 6 pages long with at least 3 questions of the above nature, and you are advised to write your answers for the questions on a separate piece of paper should there be insufficient space. It took me nearly 3 weeks to complete that application form!!

Why did it take so long?
  • Well, first of all, it took me a while for the "writing juice" to start flowing

  • I would think of the answers and plan a tentative outline

  • I would think of the answers which will catch the attention of the employers

  • I would think of the answers which I believe strengthen my case in securing the job

  • I would research the company in great detail, understand their "culture" and seek to provide answers which will fit those cultures (it's so easy with Google now!)

  • I would have friends with "A*" for English help review my language and grammar

  • I would draft the answers, leave them for 2-3 days and return to review the answers again, to obtain a fresh perspective on them.

  • I would read the answers I've written from the perspective of an employer, to see if "I" would be satisfactorily "impressed", differentiating myself from the tons of applications they must receive.

  • I finally sent in the application after being satisfied that I can't make further changes to the answers "overdoing" it :)
And why did I put in so much effort?

  • It's a job I clearly wanted, and I wanted to do justice to myself

  • These questions offer me a chance to distinguish myself from the tons of applications the employers receive, and I decided to take it

  • On hindsight - it was well worth it, I got my first job after being shortlisted and attended 3 rounds of interviews.

However, I realise that the graduates putting in applications today can't be bothered to spend some quality time "answering" these questions. Jobstreet has an interesting function which tells you how much time a candidate spends writing the answers to the questions - most spend bare 3 minutes! I know that submitting resumes online is a breeze today, but what's the rush? The candidates seem to regard these simple questions as bothersome as well, wasting their precious time. You can tell how "bothersome" these questions are, when the number of candidates who applied for a position I advertise for (e.g., web application developer) dropped from between 800-1,100 candidates to approximately 150-300 candidates after Jobstreet installed the "Test" and "Question" features in the application process. Even then, many of these candidates who proceeded to submit left the question's answer blank.

The key errors in the candidates submissions are as follows:
  1. Bad spelling, grammar and vocabulary

  2. Candidates do not answer the question. I asked about "A", I'll get stories about "Z".

  3. Candidates to not structure their answers logically and coherently (i.e., their thoughts are all over place)
I believe that if Oon is successful in just the above task and challenge, it'll help the candidates tremendously, towards securing their interviews, which provides the opportunities to impress and secure the job position. In addition, should they be able to improve significantly on 1-3 above, they'll not just have a "better" application, the lessons learnt will also apply to many of the tasks that are carried out as part of a job e.g., report writing, presentations etc.

For the benefit of those who would like to read some of the answers which I have received, I've listed some below. These submissions are from students all over, local and overseas colleges, and of all races. I've also ignored answers from very weak candidates e.g., 3rd class honours, as they are even worse (well, actually, most of them leave it blank). These answers are extracted from candidates who submitted their application for an Analyst position advertised in March this year:

Question: Why do you think you can make a difference in this position?


  • "I am into analyzing and is a better speaker than a technical person. I have great interest in business especially e-commerce. I believe myself can be a good consultant."

  • "I can help the business to grow by introducing new technology to the business example like m-business which all includes wap phones, PDA and so on..."

  • "i have knowledge in IT areas and Business areas cause i did my degree in Business information system with IT and i did my master in international business"

  • "I am sure i will gain a certain degree of experience from the post. I am willing to learn any kind of experience from the post. I think the post will be a challenge for me."

  • "i have learn management consulting when i was studied in London...and i get upper second class in my degree. i have experience enough to handle this job. i willing to work more and indepentendly. besides that, i feel very interested in e-business."

  • "For this position i would like to make myself have a differences changing in my future. Base on this positiion this a like and analysts & consult so i have interested with this task."

  • "By having good analytical skill and technical background in system development, will be able to produce practical business solution to the client and work closely to the development team."

  • "I am Computer Science student that graduated from Tunku Abdul Rahman College which is a recognize college in Malaysia. I am gained the knowledge of E-Business in my study and the skill of communication with customer from my working experience, most of the customer of my current job is from oversea such like Belgium, USA, England, Thailand, Singapore, China etc."

  • "I'm very confident my knowledge and experience could help me make the difference in this position. I'm also a strong person in analyst issues and technologies to make difference solutions. I've the strong leadership skills as well as working independently for certain task and also a good team player. I've also the multi tasking skills in handling projects or task with a good result as output. This is provent by me handling or holding few position in one time."

  • "since i have the experience working in consultant company,it is an advantage for me to serve better in your company."

  • "Yes with the multitude of experience from many different fields i think i will be a good option. "

  • "I can persue my strong interest in this position by contributing the best for the company. In this position, I am able to make the best out of me by delivering excellent solution to client & provide excellent satisfaction with our team work. I believe having a strong interets in what I'm doing will give me more satisfaction & with this, a good job can be done much more efficiently..and most of all, happiness will last if I'm working on a dream job."

  • "With the given opportunity and confidence, i believe i'm here to drive myself towards my employer's mission and vision. "

  • "I hold 3.84 for CPGA in degree study and score 9As and 2Bs as my SPM result (science student). Besides, I am interest in e-business application development in my university study. "

  • "I'm have an outgoiung personality that makes me suitable for this position in addition to those theory knowldeges in IT that i have gained during my studies. I just need a chance to learn up and contributing my skill in this employment of real life work situation. "

  • "I am hardworking and willing to learn. Given the position, I will dedicate myself to it, and will definately do my best in it."
Hope you enjoyed reading some of their replies :)