Thursday, July 28, 2005

Equal Access to Education

During the UMNO General Assembly which was just completed (see highlights here), a Selangor delegate, Dr Amran Kasimin (the number of "Dr"s making headlines is a tad scary) put up a motion calling for "more access to education for Malay youths and an improvement in the quality of education".

In his motion, he made several assertions:

  1. The assembly also called for compulsory formal education to be raised from six to 11 years.

  2. The shrinking number of Malay students in both public and private universities was worrying.

    “Since meritocracy was introduced, fewer and fewer Malay students are getting into universities."

  3. The motion on education and religion, among others, also called on the Government to seriously addres s the widening levels in academic achievement between Malay and non-Malay students.

  4. He suggested that a medical college specifically for Malay students be set up so as to reduce the divide between Malay and non-Malay students.

My opinions and response are as follows:

  1. I will fully support that education be made compulsory for 11 years - although I must say that this will be a tad ambitious at this point of time. Firstly, the number of schools and teachers will not be able to support the number of students, particularly at secondary level. If we were to "force" the education on the students who would otherwise have dropped out, then we may be reducing the resources available as well as the quality of education to the students who have shown greater potential in furthering their studies.

  2. This point about the "shrinking" intake of Malay students in local universities, which is raised by many many UMNO politicians is hard to understand. The facts which I have at hand, published in the local newspapers says the exact opposite - that Malay student intake has in fact increased, and the number of Malay students entering Medicine have grown at a faster than proportionate rate, compared to the non-bumiputera students!

  3. There is this continual perception, particularly amongst the UMNO politicians that there is a "widening" in levels of achievement between bumiputera and non-bumiputera students. I'm really uncertain as to how factually true this is, between say 5 or 10 years ago, compared to today. I'd rather like to think that while there is a sizeable gap in achievement, this gap hasn't really "widened" in the past decade.

    I would argue that the fact that the gap remains despite the adversity faced by many of the non-bumiputera students points clearly to the failure of the current affirmative action education policies. This failure is not explicitly denied by these UMNO politicians, but they are however not obviously recognised either. The current set of affirmative action education policies, while well-intended to boost the achievements of the bumiputera students, are misguided and might in itself have actually contributed to the stagnation or even the decline of the achievements of bumiputeras in education. I support having a certain amount of affirmative action policies to benefit the less privileged communities. However these policies should not disincentivise the target community in their educational endeavours. It is my opinion that the current set of policies which significantly eases the entry to institutions of higher education, which lowers the standards of the educational syllabus (for example, that of English language), which provides substantial preferential treatment for scholarships - lead to many in the target community being disincentivised from striving and working harder to reach their full academic potential. Instead of reducing the achievement gap between bumiputera and non-bumiputera students, the current policies (some of which are being reformed) have instead backfired and served to instead institutionalise or even widen the gap.

  4. If the government chooses to implement the types of policies advocated by some during the UMNO general assembly - such as dedicated medical schools for the bumiputera students "to reduce the divide between Malay and non-Malay students", it'll only serve to enhance, and ensure that the "divide" becomes a structural divide which will be even more difficult to eliminate in the future.
The government must exercise strict discipline to avoid such short term policies for the purposes of political expediency, particularly if it's just to satisfy some misguided outspoken grassroots leader in UMNO. Some of these hare-brained schemes will not only harm national unity, but will also backfire on its own objectives to improve the achievements of the bumiputera community. With the clues given by the current administration during in its public statements to date, I'm hopeful that they are serious in remedying (instead of deepening) the mistakes of the past.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Education & Meritocracy: UMNO General Assembly Update

The UMNO General Assembly has been concluded as of the end of last week. In all the hoo-ha over the Appproved Permit issues, there has been a fair bit of "rumblings" with regards to the "Malay Agenda", and relating to it - our educational policies, particularly with regards to the issue of meritocracy and its impact on the Malay community.

I've compiled below quotations by various parties with regards to their viewpoints.

Our Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted in The Star:
... the spirit of the NEP would be part of efforts to ensure that education was set on a level playing field.

The ministry will ensure that the gap between rural and urban schools would be reduced to an extent that both enjoyed equal status in quality teachers and infrastructure.
The statement seems straighforward enough. I'm happy that the Minister, who is also the UMNO Youth head, is interpreting the New Economic Policy (NEP) as having one of the objectives the need to narrow the gap between the rural and urban schools.

However, as per usual, there will always be the mavericks in UMNO Youth who will always make silly demands such as that by Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir here:
... Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar) should be upgraded and re-named Umno University as the university was built in honour of Tun Abdul Razak, a great Malay and national leader. We don’t want the university to have an uncertain future. It should be a centre of excellence in education for Malays.”
Err... how is it that by renaming a university, it gets instantly "upgraded"? And as rightly pointed out, Tun Abdul Razak was a national leader, so shouldn't then the university be a national university, instead of being one for a specific community? Unless of course, Datuk Dr Zambry's intention was to create an institution whereby children of UMNO members who failed to do well in their secondary education will get a chance to "further" their studies - in which case, the university should be renamed University Malaysia for No 'opers.

Senator Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi from Johor, on the other hand, made some relevant points here:

“If our mothers and fathers could sell off their jewellery and other valuable items to enable our leaders to go to London to negotiate for independence, I don’t see why we cannot make similar sacrifices for the future generation.”

The floor gave a loud “aye,” to his suggestion that each party member gave RM10 to start a fund to help poor Malay children pursue their studies. This gesture, he said, could help Umno kick-start its education jihad by setting up a Malay Education Fund, which could draw RM33mil. “The money can be used by the children of trishaw peddlers, fishermen, farmers and labourers to further their education,” he said.
I'm actually all for the proposed "education jihad", and I believe that each community has the responsibility to assist the less fortunate ones within the community. However, he went on to debate on the merits of meritocracy, arguing that:

... meritocracy could only be implemented if students were on a level playing field, adding that it was unfair for students from rural schools at Ulu Tembeling in Pahang or Gua Musang in Kelantan to compete with those in schools in Sri Hartamas in Kuala Lumpur and Subang Jaya, Selangor. “This is because students in urban areas go to schools with better equipment and more qualified teachers”

In the Bernama article of the same, entitled "Scrap Meritocracy if Malays are Losing", he propounded the views raised by Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, the Johor Menteri Besar (see blog post here) that:

The meritocracy system for the intake of public university students should be abolished if it causes a decline in the number of Malay students in critical courses.

Unfortunately, this point of view is not logical and the proposed solution to remedy the problems faced by the Malays are self-defeating. By proposing to scrap meritocracy, Datuk Dr Puad is basically asking for the Malays to be evaluated on easier evaluation system. Hence a student who would otherwise have failed an examination paper, would be given the opportunity to "pass" if he or she was a Malay. Similarly, a student who would otherwise not be qualified to study medicine, the standards will be lowered for him to qualify if the student is a Bumiputera. The fact of the matter is this - if the candidate do not qualify to study medicine because he's unlikely to be able to cope with the subject will likewise become a poor doctor (or fail altogether).

Lowering standards will not make the Malays students automatically smarter. In fact, by lower standards, there will then be greater disincentive for the students to work harder and become smarter. The way to improve the lot of the rural students is really, as suggested by Datuk Seri Hishammuddin above, but improving the infrastructure, the learning environment as well as the teachers for rural schools.

Thankfully, we currently have a Prime Minister who, while being sensitive to the views of the grassroots of his party, is at the same time fairly firm in his vision. The following are some relevant excerpts of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi's UMNO general assembly speech which are related to education:

...we will reduce the income gap. We will work to reduce the gap between Malays and non-Malays, amongst Malays and between the low income group with the middle class through the enhancement of cultural capital. The income gap between the urban and rural populations and between the different regions must be reduced via making appropriate allocations to develop rural areas by way of providing basic transportation and communications infrastructure, the supply of electricity and water and the provision of educational and healthcare institutions.

Education and training based on the latest knowledge and technology – That is the focal point of the Malay development agenda. This agenda must emphasise content and software to improve the quality of life.

Malays should never stop pursuing knowledge and skills. Malays must embrace lifelong learning.We will continue to provide entrepreneurial, professional and employment opportunities for Malays, but it will be necessary to revise procedures to ensure opportunities are given to Malays who are truly qualified and capable, Malays who adopt good work and business ethics.

The most durable foundation to succeed is to have desire, skill, expertise, knowledge, resilience and industry. If all these aspects can be inculcated in Malays, God willing, we need not worry.

Conversely, if these components are missing, then success will not come knocking. Let us begin now, with all the political will and political strength that Umno has, by focusing on education and training to develop our human capital and enrich our cultural capital.

Pak Lah also added the following comments in his post-General Assembly press statement:

"We will be fair to all Malaysians. We will not take away the rights of any race. We have never done it and never will." This was the pledge made by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the three-day Umno general assembly, which saw delegates demanding for the reintroduction of the New Economic Policy and doing away with meritocracy.

During a press conference at the conclusion of the general assembly, Abdullah said the proposal was not an extended “crutch” for the Malays but an effort to enlarge the cake for everyone to enjoy. He said it was a challenge for Malays to prove themselves and to accept government policies, including meritocracy.

I am thankful that our Pak Lah has remained steadfast in his views that "crutches" are a thing of the past. I am also fairly confident that Pak Lah, in "agreeing" with the need to review and extend the NEP, which provides many of the affirmative action policies of the past to promote the Malay Agenda, will actually look to implement an NEP that is probably significantly different from the previous version. This way, Pak Lah will be able to kill two birds with one stone - by appeasing the Malay "protectionists" who seeks to extend the NEP, but at the same time, substantially modifying the substance of the NEP to be one which is "incentive-based" rather than a hand-out policy. Note the frequent references to the "spirit of the NEP", and not the past policies advocated by the NEP.

This is not to say that the existing education system is already 100% meritocratic. There are clearly plenty of issues which many of the non-bumiputera community are unhappy about - some of which are blogged here. However, I'm happy that the little progress made to date - the fact that UMNO is debating about "meritocracy" - will be "protected". Hopefully as the concept "sinks in", the goals of meritocracy will be further advanced.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

PSD To Review Scholarship Criteria

As reported in The Star on the 20th July, "[The Public Service Department (PSD)] hopes review will put an end to scholarship issues". PSD Director-General Datuk Ismail Adam was only recently appointed and it's good to hear him making a press statement giving priority to the Malaysian annual scholarship soap opera.

He said the department would be working with the Education Ministry to review and better manage the selection of students to ensure that the awarding of scholarships was done in a just and fair manner.

“Students applying for PSD scholarships should also realise that there are many professions to choose from and they should not just keep focusing on one or two professions, like medicine, for example. They have to understand our resources are limited and there is intense competition for scholarships,” he said.

... it is hopeful of making the students less unhappy with the ongoing review of its procedures and selection criteria.

Update: Read also good article in the Sun which asked for the disclosure of selection criteria for PSD scholarships.

When there are set principles based on merit, the selection becomes a routine exercise. But if other factors and unseen hands come into the picture, critics are likely to have a field day.
I'd strongly suggest that PSD obtain professional feedback from the public and the community in order to improve and make transparent all the relevant criteria and processes in the application and award of scholarships. In addition, PSD should also review the colleges and universities which they are sending our Malaysian students to - many of which are unfortunately, second and third rate. We should seek to improve our award standards by only awarding scholarships to candidates who have successfully applied to the world's top universities.

As much as we do not particularly enjoy "copying" from our neighbours, Singapore has done will in attracting and awarding the top students of the country (and region) to pursue their higher education in the top-top universities in the world. When I was at Oxford, I could count the number of Malaysians who pursued their education there with just about one hand every year. However, I would know of at least 20-30 candidates entering Oxford University from Singapore on a yearly basis - achieved pretty much with the support of the Singapore Public Service Commission (PSC) as well as it's government linked companies scholarship schemes. I am certain that Malaysian students do not fare worse than our counterparts across the causeway.

For more scholarship stories - read my posts here, here, here and here. :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Girls Smarter Than Boys?

In the TV1 Debat Perdana of the theme “Talking Points, Youth and the Future of the Nation” aired on 17th July 2005, DAP Deputy Chairman, Dr Tan Seng Giaw noted that from 1995 to 2005, the number of women in public universities is 472,279 (59.2%) compared with men 326,024 (40.8%). That’s actually a whopping 150,000 difference between the two genders over the past 10 years. This is probably not taking into consideration the fact that the gender gap is probably worse today than it was back in 1995.

I have a confession to make – my Malaysian office of approximately 60 employees is made up of approximately 70% ladies and 30% men. So, many clients as well as my staff often poked fun that I’m totally biased in my recruitment process – that I only like to hire girls. And they liked to do that when my wife is around!

I’d often argue profusely that I make absolutely no gender distinctions in my recruitment process (its true!). I’m pretty transparent about my recruitment process:
  1. Most of the time, I use to advertise for candidates. I like Jobstreet because the website actually allows me to have an immediate overview of all candidates via a summary table with the key information. I’d shortlist and reject candidates immediately using the summary table by ticking the relevant checkboxes. The key evaluation criteria at this stage is the university the candidate attended, the grades achieved as well as the replies to my customised online tests. I’d only review the candidate’s complete resume at this stage if his grades/university falls into a “grey” area (in which case, his replies to the online questions and tests as well as his extra-curricular activities becomes crucial).

  2. The shortlisted candidates are typically around 4-8% of the all the resumes I received. So, for 300 applicants, I would expect to shortlist approximately 10-20 candidates. These candidates will be invited for an interview. Some 10-20% of the shortlisted candidates will not attend the interview for a variety of reasons (usually it’s because they have accepted another offer already). It is usually during the interview stage that I find out about the gender of the candidates.

  3. Out of the 8-15 candidates interviewed, offers will typically be made to 2-6 candidates, of which then another 1-2 candidates will reject the offer.
The process looks simple enough, and the only opportunity which I might have to be gender-biased will really be during the interview stage. Thankfully, the underlying statistics comes to my rescue.

I realised that after shortlisting the candidates from Jobstreet based on my criteria above, the gender ratio is already skewed typically to 60% females (or more). On top of that, from experience, I find that the likelihood of skipping an interview, rejecting a job offer as well as switching jobs within 1 month of employment is higher among guys.

Hence understandably, there are occasions whereby in a recruitment exercise, I may very well end up with no guys, and three girls. Absolutely nothing to do with any bias on my part!

Now, with this new statistics in hand made available by Dr Tan Seng Giaw, I’m now armed with another piece of reason as to why I end up with more ladies in my office, and totally absolves me of any gender bias – Girls are more intelligent, more hardworking than Guys!

Monday, July 18, 2005

Johor Menteri Besar Is An Ex-Don

Further to my blog post on "Johor Menteri Besar Gone Bonkers", I've just found out that Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman was actually an ex-university don! Read The Star article here.

Joceline Tan, the writer was surprisingly kind in her remarks:
His speech had the intellectual depth that this university don-turned-politician is known for but it was his take on the potential impact of the government’s meritocracy policy on Malays...
His message that "Meritocracy is a form of Discrimination" had only intellectual despair and no depth. Any university don worth his salt will not let his personal reputation be so tainted by a statement labelled as an oxymoron by even our own docile national press!

I've also found out that he was a former dean of the Economics faculty in University Malaya. I will certainly be worried about the nature of Economics he taught. And I will also be very curious to find out whether he gave extra marks to students based on race, since "meritocracy" will discriminate against the bumiputeras.

Meritocracy @ UMNO AGM

Looks like the meritocracy debate will continue unabated during the UMNO annual general assembly season. So there'll be plenty to blog about for this "controversial" issue to all communities for the coming days. Who wins the battle at UMNO will have a significant impact to the direction of our education system, and consequently affect all students in Malaysia.

In all the pre-AGM rhetoric, I'm happy to hear our Prime Minister remain steadfastly progressive, and delivered the strongest statement to date that the "meritocratic" policy to set to stay. Many in the non-bumiputera community will always lament the fact that the existing "meritocratic" policy is not "meritocratic" enough. However, it's probably asking for too much for the ultra-sensitive policy of ethnic-based affirmative to be reversed in the most drastic manner within the shortest period of time. For the moment, I'd be pleased that the direction in which our education system is moving remains in favour of the meritocratic-like policies.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi's statement yesterday is reported in Bernama and The Star, entitled "Meritocracy Not A Victimisation Of The Malays - Abdullah" and "Fear Not Meritocracy, Malays Urged" accordingly. Compared to his more diplomatic response to the meritocracy debate raised by the Johor Umno last week (read about how the Johor Menteri Besar went bonkers here), this latest statement is stronger and more forthcoming. Excerpts of his statement are quoted here:

"We have to use a benchmark, don't be afraid of harder... how else can one succeed if not through hard work. View it as a challenge to be surmounted instead of pushing to back down"

He said it was no longer true that the Malays today depended fully on government aid. "The majority still depends on aid. There are already those who pay for themselves... the Malay agenda is to take care of the needy"
"There is no reason for Malays to fear meritocracy". The Prime Minister said he did not believe
that Malays were so weak that they would not be able to achieve success under such a system.

We will continue with such a policy,” he said.

Responding to a question on some Umno leaders who were against meritocracy, Abdullah, who is also Umno president, said: “I do not agree with the assumption that meritocracy is a betrayal of the Malays.”

If we want success, what other way can we achieve that except to work hard?

For those who has been critical of Malaysia's ethnic-based affirmative action policies, now is the time to come out in support of our Prime Minister to ensure that the "rent-seekers" looking for an easy ride will not win in their battle.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

"Mother Not Die Yet"

This anecdote from the NST editor in chief, Datuk Kalimullah Hassan in his Sunday Column is really funny. He was quoting deputy group editor-in-chief Datuk Hishamuddin Aun:

Hisham: How many are there in your family?

Applicant: I number three.

Hisham: What does your father do?

Applicant: Father die already.

Hisham: What does your mother do?

Applicant: Mother not yet die.

His article entitled "Do you speak England?" was lamenting on the standards of English today as well as reminiscing on the good old days. His experience obviously concurs with mine, having blogged here on the same topic.

There are some other pretty hilarious examples:

In 1993, at the height of the battle for posts in Umno, a colleague from the Far Eastern Economic Review, Michael Vatikiotis, interviewed a senior Menteri Besar (since retired) who said: "We will win because of our prestation."

"Prestation?" Michael asked.

"Ya, ya… prestation. You know, prestasi (Bahasa Malaysia for performance)."

And another:

A few years ago, another Menteri Besar, at a dinner with senior editors, slapped his thighs excitedly at one point during the conversation, and said: "That’s the reason is…".

It was, of course, a direct translation from Bahasa Malaysia’s "itulah sebabnya".

He did come up with some important suggestions on moving forward and we hope that coming from the Chief Editor of NST, the authorities will take serious note. In his own words, which I totally agree:
We have to face it. We blundered when we started treating English a just another subject in the mid-1970s and made it non-compulsory to pass for examinations. Today, in a keenly competitive world, where English is the major language of knowledge and communication, one generation of Malaysians is paying the price for that blunder.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Student Unity: Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

I must say, that I'm extremely pleased to hear the NST and Star reports this week which emphasised on some of the plans by our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad and his current administration to promote racial integration and student unity in our schools.

As repeatedly emphasised in my blog post "National vs Chinese School" Part I and Part II, as well as the International Herald Tribune report on unity in schools, national integration and racial unity is a key foundation stone which MUST be laid in our primary education system to ensure a successful, peaceful and harmonious Malaysian community for the future. At the individual students level, it'll promote better language communication, greater tolerance and understanding for the various ethnic practices as well as greater respect for each other - universal values which will make a better person.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi made the remarks in his speech to lauch the Racial Integration and Malaysian Unity Programme (RIMUP) in Seremban. RIMUP is a programme which encourages co-operation between students of national and vernacular schools in sports, co-curriculum activities and information communication technology. The activities are done outside school hours and schools will take turns organising them.

The key objectives of RIMUP are:

  • to encourage teachers and students from pre-school to pre-university to participate in these activities;

  • to instill a sense of co-operation, understanding and awareness among the students;

  • help create tolerance among the various races; and to learn how to share.

The objectives of the above programme are noble and should be supported by all parties - the education authorities, the government and opposition political parties, the teaching community and most importantly, the parents. The activities and scope of RIMUP are not overly ambitious (like Vision 2020), and appears to be less politically motivated compared to certain other previous programmes. This will provide the programme with the greatest chance of success and achieve measureable results and progress.

Quoted excerpts from the NST:

If Malaysia is to remain a peaceful and prosperous country, children of different races must eat, live and play together"

Teachers had to make sure that integration was the main thrust of the education system.

"If parents themselves keep their children from mingling with children f other races, this united, peaceful environment that we live in now will not last forever.

He said there should be more activities and programmes to enable children of different races to mix more freely.

Quoted excerpts from the Star:

"Unity should be the main thrust of Malaysian schools to ensure the nation’s continued peace and stability"

... the younger generation must be given early opportunities to understand the meaning of unity through ways and practices that would ensure the people were united and lived in harmony

.... unity must be imbued at an early stage, as today’s younger generation still had no prejudice against friends of different races and religions.

[Abdullah] ticked off parents who poisoned the minds of their children with unhealthy sentiments but said not all were responsible of such acts. He added that parents should support their children in activities that were aimed at promoting unity.

He said the older generation had long imbued the spirit of tolerance and avoided creating
uneasiness among races, and this approach was adopted by the Government in various programmes aimed at promoting racial unity.

Let's hope that this administration will have the necessary political will to be successful in the above programmes, which to be fair, will not be an easy process - facing challenges from parochial politicians, ultra-conservative religious leaders, over-protective misguided parents and not to mention, under qualified and equally misguided teachers.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Bureaucratic Bungle @ MMU? (Update)

Thanks to a quick note by a sharp reader on my blog post, I am now informed that MMU has officially replied to the letter by Mr Tom Tw Ooi. Please read Nalini Pragasam's (Head, School Relations and Programme Promotion Unit, Multimedia University) reply letter. Excerpts are here:
I would like to clarify what was told to Ooi at the education fair at Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur was indeed true, ie, the correct foundation to enroll into for a Financial Engineering degree is Foundation Information Technology (IT). Hence, the information given to him at that juncture was correct.

In March 2005, the Multimedia University made a decision to change the foundation for the Financial Engineering degree course from Foundation IT to Foundation Management. Since counseling activities had been carried out since November 2004, we knew that many students who were counseled earlier would not have known about this change.
The explanation sounds a tad "contrived", and obviously the change could have been managed better, but at least the "bungle" has been resolved. :) Make your own judgement.

Bureaucratic Bungle @ MMU?

Thanks to Jeff Ooi for highlighting this letter/issue on his blog.

Read up on the bungle by Multimedia University (MMU) on the enrollment application by Mr Tom Tw Ooi's son in his letter published in dated June 22nd.

highlights are quoted here:
[My son] consulted with a counsellor from the MMU. My son was interested in the B.Sc in Financial Engineering (FE) offered by the university. After reviewing my son's result, she confirmed that he was qualified for the degree course with the proviso that he undertakes the foundation course in Information Technology first.

Then on June 10, at a briefing by the university’s head of Foundation Studies and the dean of IT, he was told the foundation course in IT would not lead to the degree in FE. The correct foundation course was Management.

My son then approached the counsellor he first consulted and instead of righting her wrong, she sent him to the head of admissions. This irked me and I reproached the counsellor by phone. Her reply was: ‘Look, I have thousands of students to look after ... not just your son alone. If you are not happy you can complain to the president of MMU for all I care’.
I think Mr Tom Tw Ooi should just publish the name of the relevant counsellor. Why protect her name when she clearly deserves to be "outed" in public for this terrible attitude?

Important note: Please read update on issue here.

On a separate topic, is
B.Sc in Financial Engineering (FE) one of the fancy degrees I blogged about here?

NST Speaks Some Sense Too

Hey, after the recent hoo-ha raised over the comments made by our Johor Menteri Besar, our very own New Straits Times covered the same thorny topic in Syed Nadzri's column HARDCOPY here. I must say, the first couple of paragraphs sounds exactly like what I posted here on "Johor Menteri Besar Gone Bonkers" :)

Some of the more pertinent comments made:
MERITOCRATIC discrimination? That’s probably one of the worst oxymorons we’ll ever hear. But it came over the weekend from Johor Umno — yes, the same group that urged the Umno headquarters a fortnight ago not to publicise the names of those found guilty of money politics.

... it is wrong to say that meritocracy — a system based on ability and not on racial quota — is discrimination, let alone oppression. If Bumiputera students are not doing well in rural schools because of lack of access to proper facilities and quality education, then there must be something wrong with the education development and implementation system.

Let’s not take two steps back for the sake of political expediency.

In [Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob] speech at the Pahang Umno convention on Sunday, he quipped: "I would prefer to go to a doctor who entered a public university based on merit rather than someone who gained entry because of his Bumiputera status."
The biggest favour for Bumiputeras is to build up their competitiveness and confidence so they can soar higher — not to get the bar lowered.
It's comforting to see media columnist coming out strongly against some of our political leaders' misguided opinions to ensure that common sense prevails. Although, I must add that Syed Nadzri's opinion that trash literature and Akademi Fantasia are more important things to be addressed sounds a bit awkward too:
... the preoccupation of some Malays on trash literature and Akademi Fantasia, are some of the more urgent things that need to be addressed rather than going the other way with that fixation on doingaway with meritocracy.
I'm certain there are many other issues that deserves more attention than Akademi Fantasia!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"School trends reveal cracks in Malaysia's unity"

In a long article by Vaudine England in the International Herald Tribune on June 7th, she discussed some of the issues facing the Malaysian education sytem today, particularly the dichotomisation of the national and vernacular type schools.

This article is particularly relevant with my on-going blog discussion on the "National vs Chinese School" Part I and Part II to date. I do not totally agree with all the views in the article, but some of the points raised were fairly relevant, which I've taken the liberty to quote here:

The story of Steven Gan, of Malaysiakini fame:
When [he] went to school, it was perfectly ordinary for Malaysians of all races to attend a government primary school. "We got a good education then at state schools, and it was genuinely multiracial," Gan said. The language of instruction was English until race riots struck the nation in 1969; after that, instruction was in Malay. Gan feels that he was among the lucky ones - part of the last generation to have enjoyed such a rounded education in a shared language. Not only were his fellow students of all races, but his teachers were, too.
Some of the issues we face today:
Things are different now. Deciding on a language of instruction for their children - whether it is Malay, Chinese, English or Tamil - has become a conundrum for many families. It goes to the core of a larger question that nags this multiethnic nation: What constitutes Malaysian identity?

Parents complain that the quality of state-run schools has dropped while Islamic content has increased. Some Malay parents send their children to Chinese-language schools, although they are more expensive because of a lack of government support.
The story of Dr Abdul Razak Baginda, an executive director of the privately funded Malaysian Strategic Research Center:
[He is] proud to have benefited from multiracial state schools. But when he sent his daughter to one, she became uncomfortable with pressure to observe Islamic tradition and wear a head scarf. "My daughter told me the religious teachers are the culprits," Razak said. "They inculcate very negative views of the other religions. They always have a them-and-us attitude that is very destructive, I think. And the standards have really gone down." He added, "That feeling that standards have gone down and racial polarization is far worse today than ever before - you can attribute that to rising Islamization, which is pretty obvious."

The government has trouble providing schooling for everyone because it is perceived to be offering lower-quality education. More difficulties arise when Muslim headmasters want to advocate Islamic values by limiting physical education or other activities in which boys and girls might mix, reading the Koran through the public address system, putting boys into long trousers instead of shorts, segregating classrooms and banning school concerts.
I'm thankful that these issues are receiving greater media attention today, and some of the authorities appear to be interested in taking the necessary actions to rectify some of the major weaknesses in our education system. Let's hope they don't take too long to do it.

At the same time, I'd like to note that while it's easy to generalise about schools, there are often exceptions in specifics. For example, while many lament the academic standards in national type schools, there's probably a vast difference in standards between a top national school in Kuala Lumpur, when compared to one in say, Mentakab. Rational Thinker highlighted in a comment on my Part II post that "Some examples of good national schools around klang valley: Victoria Institution, SMK Damansara Jaya, SMK ammunidin baki, BBGS (Sri bintang), smk assuntha etc."

Metropolitan College Feedback

Rosalind posted some of her frustrations with college. Read her post entitled "Pissed Off Bat", written a while back in March:

Metropolitan College has got to be the most disorganized college in Subang Jaya! They're not sure about everything and caused so much problem for me. They do not inform the students beforehand about anything... To think that they have almost more than 11 years of experience is pure horsesh*t.

My A Levels Law lecturer in Inti was even better than the one I have now. He beats round the bush and repeats one topic twice and pause for a few minutes thinking of what to say next. He waste alot of student's precious time. One small topic can be covered within a span of an hour but he used 2 whole hours explaining unnecessary things.

Curtin is a good university but Metropolitan is not a good uni to do the twinning prog with... I won't wanna do my majors way!

I did have friends who has studied in Metropolitan - I think they had a decent experience. But that was oh so long ago... things are likely to have changed, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

National vs Chinese School (II)

Where should I send my daughter to school?

Part I of my blog post on the above topic dealt with the four key criteria used to decide which type of school (primary level) I will send Xin Ying, my daughter (now only 6.5 months old) to. They are:

  • Academic standards
  • Mother tongue education
  • English language competence, and
  • National integration

How would the national and Chinese schools fare against the above criteria? Note that the evaluation assumption is on a “generalised” basis. That means that it’s never going to be every Chinese school better than every national school (or vice versa) for any of the relevant criteria.

1. Academic standards

From the various feedbacks I’ve received, the Chinese schools appear to have an edge in the academic standards. They have always been stronger in Mathematics and Science, and this is recognised even by our government leaders. You will find more winners in Mathematics and Science competitions from the Chinese schools. Hence, strictly from an academic standards perspective, it will be best to send Xin Ying to a top Chinese school. Everyone in KL talks about sending their child to SRJK (C) Kuan Cheng along Jalan Syed Putra in Kuala Lumpur.

2. Mother tongue education

The best mother tongue education will obviously be achieved by enrolling Xin Ying into a Chinese school, whereby all subjects are taught in Chinese, with the exception of Mathematics and Science in English, and of course, Bahasa Malaysia. In the national schools, there is currently little or no teaching of mother tongue languages although there are now plans to introduce them as second languages for the next academic year.

3. English language competence

I have seen first hand, the quality of English language competence by some of the top graduates whose origins were Chinese primary schools. It is really a sad state of affairs. And this is an opinion from someone who didn’t manage to obtain an ‘A’ in English for his ‘O’ Levels (sigh). Unless the students happen to be from a English speaking background, the quality of English competence is just deplorable. I have hired many of these candidates as computer application developers (and they are good) but almost none of them can write a short paragraph in English without committing very simple grammatical errors. Their lack of competence in oral English is such that their main language of communications among themselves is Cantonese and Mandarin. This is also one of the main reasons why I cannot understand some of the Chinese educationists object so vehemently to conducting Mathematics and Science classes in English.

The students from the better national secondary schools tend to fare a tad better in their command of English language. This could be limited to several schools whose tradition of teaching in English is stronger. It could also be due to the fact that many parents whose main language is English send their children to these schools, hence enabling a more English oriented environment. With the exception of the above schools however, the standards of English language education is largely indifferent between the Chinese and national schools.

Hence, strictly from an English language competence perspective, I should be seeking out top national primary schools who are likely to have teachers competent in the language as well as English speaking parents who are more likely to enrol their children in these schools.

4. National Integration

Finally, where can I send Xin Ying to ensure that she will be culturally integrated to the racial and ethnic diversity of Malaysia?

Certainly not Chinese schools, I would say. After all, Chinese schools are only populated with 7% non-Chinese. However, at the same time, it appears that national schools are also losing their multicultural identity with non-bumiputeras accounting for only some 10% of the student population, much lower than the 42% representation of the total population.

I do not think there’s a clear cut answer as to which is the better school for the purposes of national integration. There is not much point sending her to a national type school and she ends up being discriminated against, due to the lack of interaction with the other races. However, I do know that the end result from sending her to a Chinese school isn't going to be favourable as well.

I employ and interview many graduates from Chinese schools and I'm not particularly proud of my experience. Here are some of the general observations (barring exceptions):

  • They speak little or no Malay language beyond possibly ordering food items from mamak stalls. Language unfortunately is one of the key factors to enhance and ensure integration amongst the various races in Malaysia. I'd definitely want Xin Ying to be part of this integration.

  • Many display racially biaised tendencies without even realising that they are racially biaised. I do not want my daughter to grow up possessing a racial superiority complex.

  • It is an unfortunate fact that the Malay and Chinese employees do not mix socially in my office, and I assume the same may be said of many offices. This is not so much because they do not like each other, but more to do with the fact that they are unable to communicate fluently and find common interest with each other. Part of the reason is the racial cliques which arises out of primary schools through to universities in Malaysia, not helped by Chinese vs national school dichotomisation. The blame lies to a larger extent with the Chinese employees as the Malays, being the minority in my office need to feel wanted.

  • Finally, I find that the lack of interaction and integration in schools have resulted in culturally insensitive behaviours, something I definitely do not want Xin Ying to pick up. For example, we may be conducting a project meeting with a "multiracial" crowd but you will still find some of the Chinese graduates to carry out part discussions with each other in Mandarin or Cantonese, which to me, is absolutely rude.

Hence, from the above, I'm thankful that I do not yet have to commit Xin Ying to a Chinese or national type school as at this moment in time. It'll probably be another four to five years, before I seriously need to worry about her primary school education. From the thoughts above on the various pros and cons of the school types, you should be able to tell that neither system fulfil more than 1 or 2 of my key criteria.

I'm also thankful that I'm beginning to see some positive changes, at least from a policy perspective on our education system which may make the decision-making process a less strenous one. Moves are being made to make the national schools more attractive again by improving standards and introducing mother tongue language education. The results of the various new policies should be more apparent in a few years' time. The next part of this blog post (Part III) will discuss in greater detail some of these policies, as well as other policy changes which needs to be carried out to ensure a better primary education system for the future of our children.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Pahang Menteri Besar Talks Some Sense

In an apparent snipe at the remarks made by the Johor Menteri Besar (MB) which was also derided in my post yesterday, Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob thankfully spoke some sense!

Meritocracy should be a catalyst to spur bumiputra students to do better and not take things for granted, said Pahang Umno chief Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob.

“The system is good because bumiputra students would have to work hard to enter public universities,” Adnan said in his speech at the party convention here yesterday.

“I would prefer to go to a doctor who entered a public university based on merit rather than someone who gained entry because of his bumiputra status.”
Hear! Hear! There is hope yet! (Is the Pahang MB a spokesperson for Pak Lah, our dear Prime Minister?)

Pak Lah clearly disagreed with our Johor MB, but was more diplomatic in his direct response, as reported by Bernama here, Berita Harian here and Utusan Malaysia here.
"Tidak ada tujuan untuk menindas mereka, tidak ada langsung. Dan kalau ada masalah yang dilihat berlaku apabila sistem (meritokrasi) itu dilaksanakan, maka pada saya pandangan-pandangan berkaitan masalah itu perlulah disampaikan kepada mereka yang berkenaan.''
Let's hope Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman will now sit down quietly with his tail between the legs, and learn the error of his ways...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Johor Menteri Besar Gone Bonkers!

In an article headlined "Johor Umno Says Meritocracy A Form Of Discrimination" reported at Bernama:

The Johor Umno Liaison Committee Saturday criticised the meritocracy system introduced by the government, saying that it resulted in a fall in the achievement of Malay students and is a form of discrimination and oppression.

Its chairman, Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, who is also the Johor Menteri Besar, said it had adversely affected tens of thousands of Bumiputera students in the rural areas who had been denied quality education in view of the "uneven competitive field".
What? Hello? Does this statement even merit a response? Can the argument be any more oxymoronic?? Gosh... and that's all my respect for the Johor menteri besar (MB) down the drain (not much of it left anyway, since his recent comments on UMNO money politics).

Datuk Abdul Ghani's contention was that "the system had resulted in a fall in the number of Malay students inmedicine, engineering, pharmacy, dentistry and other competitive fields... citing the situation at the University of Malaya where the number of Bumiputera students who studied medicine, pharmacy, law and buisness had declined." He added that:
"Although there was an increase in the number of Malays in accountancy, architecture, law and other fields from 1970 to 2002, the Bumiputeras account for only 20 percent in accountancy compared to the non-Bumiputeras, medicine and dentistry (36 percent), engineering (26.5 percent) and registered lawyers (35 percent). Hence, Malay graduates who were jobless or working below their capacity had increased in 2003."

Let's get a few facts straight:
  1. If a student, irrespective of race, is unable to obtain the necessary grades to qualify for a "complex" faculty, for e.g., medicine, even if granted special exemptions, will likely perform poorly and become a lousy, say, doctor.

  2. Similarly, if these poor "jobless" graduates (who are likely to have obtained a degree from the Business, Social Science and Computer Science faculties) can't get a job in a fairly decent job market, putting them through to medicine and dentistry will just likey make them drop outs - or worse, incompetent dangerous "doctors".

  3. Meritocracy in itself, does not and cannot cause "a fall in the achievement" of anybody, whether a Malay or an Indian or a Chinese! Meritocracy is defined as "a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement." Instead, the fact that Datuk Abdul Ghani recognises the concept of "achievement", is acceptance of the definition of Meritocracy.

  4. How in the world does Meritocracy cause "discrimination and oppression"? If Datuk Ali Baba is a good businessman, he makes more money than a less astute businessman, Mr Harry Lee, is that "discrimination and oppression" against Harry? Datuk Abdul Ghani is obviously an achiever, and hence he is the MB of Johor, but does that mean that its discrimination and oppression against Datuk Shahrir Samad who remains just an MP of Johor Bahru? Is Datuk Abdul Ghani now promoting the socialist-communist concept where "all animals are equal" irrespective of talents, achievement and intelligence?

  5. Even the Johor MB's use of statistics is selective. Read my blog post "Some Interesting University Entrance Statistics" to see that Bumiputeras easily outnumber non-bumiputeras in courses such as medicine. In addition, the rate of increase in Bumiputera intake is much higher than that of non-bumiputeras.

  6. What's this "uneven competitive field" that Datuk Abdul Ghani is talking about? The fact that the Bumiputeras enjoy special privileges which makes access to the public universities easier, such as through the matriculation colleges, does indeed make our education system an "uneven competitive field". But it's definitely not in the favour of the non-bumiputeras. Does Datuk Abdul Ghani want to make "even" the competitive field by lowering marks for bumiputeras to obtain "A" grades, and making it more difficult for non-bumiputeras to obtain a even a "C"?
I have many progressive Bumiputera friends who have received education from world class universities through their own merit and achievements. They would not want to demean themselves by hiding under the government's protective skirt. Many of them are in fact ashamed that they are often perceived to be tainted by the brush that their achievements were not "real" because of the Bumiputera special privileges.

Make no mistake - I do recognise that there are limitations to a 100% meritocratic system - for e.g., I believe that students from low income backgrounds should be given certain privileges. If these "tens of thousands of Bumiputera students from rural areas" are from the low income backgrounds, they should be provided with special assistance for their primary and secondary school education to enable them to compete for university placements. I would even go so far as to endorse a minimal affimative action based on race to ensure that all races will be significantly represented in our public university system.

But what Datuk Abdul Ghani is whining about just flies in the face of what both our Prime and Deputy Prime Minister have been preaching in recent months - "Don't blame fate for failures" and "Don't be mere brokers".

We can only hope that the Prime Minister who is expected to close the two-day Johor Umno Convention attended by 579 delegates from 26 divisions in the state, will knock some sense into the Johor MB.

Congrats to Malaysian Students in Paris!

As reported in the Star today, the "Osirians" from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia proved to the world that Malaysian students can do well in international competitions.

This year’s contest saw Loh Kok Hin, Tan Hui Woon and Jessica Lim competing against 31 teams from 31 countries. The undergraduates not only left a mark on the judges and fellow students with their original marketing campaign for Studio Line, L’OrĂ©al’s brand of products for styling, but also impressed with their boundless energy and confidence.

The team of 3 from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was ranked best in Asia, third in the world! As reported in the Star, "Not bad for three students who, six months ago, knew next to nothing about marketing or business."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Back to Blogging

Ah... from entertaining guests from the Far East to a short trip across the causeway to a last minute trip to Macau & China all within 7 days, I'm having serious blogging withdrawal symtoms besides of course needing plenty of rest this weekend. :)

Looking at my various half-completed posts now... so should be back posting soon!

Friday, July 01, 2005

Visitors from overseas

I'll be having (and entertaining) some visitors from overseas for the next 2-3 days, so won't be posting til Sun/Mon :)