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.