Friday, September 30, 2005

Oops... Universiti Malaya Has Done It Again

I think I must have sighed a thousand times when I turned to page 11 of the New Straits Times yesterday to find University Malaya (UM) putting up a full page advertisement commemorating its centennial celebrations.

In a poorly worded statement littered with 'suspect' English - UM showcased its 'Alumni of Great Fame'. On the advertisement, you'll find pictures of almost half the cabinet ministers and 4 menteri besars. Interestingly, next to the larger picture of our Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Badawi, you'll find a large mugshot of our Minister of Higher Education, Dato' Dr Haji Shafie Mohd Salleh. Whoever did the Photoshop editing for the composite image should probably be shot.

The fact that the advertisement is an absolute waste of university funds should be bad enough. (See also earlier post on "Thick-Skinned Academics"). But you should read the statement and decide if UM have done itself justice.
For a century, University of Malaya has practised and will continue to practise a code of excellence in the pursuit of knowledge. It has contributed immensely to the building of this nation like no other. UM has produced more than one hundred thousand graduates in various fields, who have gone to serve the nation with outstanding achievements and dedications. The Prime Minister of Malaysia YAB Dato' Seri Abdullah Hj Ahmad Badawi tops the list. Almost half of the Cabinet Members and four Menteri Besar are UM Alumni.

Truly, the University of Malaya has and will continue to serve the country with excellence.
Then at the bottom of the advertisement, it was added that:
In 2004, UM was placed 89th in the 'University World Ranking' by The TIMES of LONDON. YAB Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year has challenged UM to be among the 50 best universities by 2020. To achieve this target, UM has to improve its position by 2.6 places each year. What is UM's position for 2005? Wait and see in November this year!!!
Either the university has received some inside information that its placement will improve in this year's university rankings table by the Times Higher Education Supplement (not “The TIMES of LONDON”) or its really setting itself up for a major Humpty Dumpty moment.

It’s just amazing how we have a culture of celebrating mediocrity by proclaiming it to be monumental achievements. Being placed 89th is a commendable achievement, but it’s definitely not something to shout out loud about. And that’s actually before, we analysed the “real reasons” why the university was placed in such “lofty heights”. The university officials should just cross their fingers that the ranking compilers at the Times Higher Education Supplement do not figure out the potential errors in the ranking of Malaysian universities to save themselves from some major embarrassment in just 2 months time.

Even if UM wants to scream at the top of its lungs the achievements of the university over the past 100 years, it should focus on its academic and education achievements. For example, what are the prestigious international awards it has received? What are the breakthrough scientific research produced by the UM academic and research community? What are the percentage of graduates gaining employment within a period of 6 months? Those will be regarded as the real achievements of a top university – and not whether the Federal Territories Minister, Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad is an alumni of the university.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Changes in Education System Down South

Once in a while it’s always good to have a look at what’s happening in the education scene down south for Singapore’s doggedness in achieving academic excellence at all cost is often, barring some exceptions, quite a few steps ahead of Malaysia. That way, we may be able to learn from some of the experiences, both good and bad, making them relevant to our very own education system.

So, it’s a welcome read, to see veteran journalist, Seah Chiang Nee writing about the changes in the subtler aspects of the Singapore education system in his article entitled “Stepping up gear to produce a thinking workforce” published in the Star on 25th September.

We have always known Singapore to be almost excessively academically focused, hardworking and disciplined, conjuring images of tiny tots carrying oversized rucksacks of text and work books. They also produced some of the most competent engineers and scientists in the region. However, they have always been criticised for extreme emphasis on examinations and rote learning. As a result, “multi-national corporations have complained that this breed of scholars, while excelling in data knowledge, lacks personal initiative and needs hand holding.”

So it was some eight years ago, that the Singapore government launched a whole new strategy to “inculcate thinking minds and entrepreneurial skills”. From the anecdotes provided by Chiang Nee, it appears that the policy has been achieving some commendable success. Here are some of the little successes quoted here:
  • At Hougang Primary, seven-year-olds share their classrooms with an assortment of insects, plants and skeleton frames. In all 11 classes are objects highlighting skills that include IT, science, music or languages. “The children can touch and play with them. They will have fun and maybe make a mess of things, but hopefully discover new things,” said the principal Goh Ek Piang.

  • From last year, Coral Primary children, working in teams, were given part of a long corridor to jointly plan and paint the wall as an ongoing art project. “The pupils take ownership of that corridor and feel responsible for that area,” principal Teo Bee Eng told reporters.

  • The courses are becoming more innovative. A nine-year-old student, for example, is CEO of her school library cafe, getting a real, first-hand lesson on running a business. Forty students in her Edgefield Primary 3 class operate it. They have elected a 15-member board, which in turn chose Dominique Sng as boss. She has four managers in charge of finance, inventory, operations and marketing.
It is also worth noting that these schools are not the elite schools in Singapore, but the suburban, neighbourhood schools – which means that the education authorities has been relatively successful in bring the “thinking” changes down to the grassroots, making them “a country wide phenomenon”.

It also appears that in the quest to improve the system, no stones have been left unturned. Sacred cows such as the ‘O’ Levels have also been slaughtered, now with certain schools allowed “skip” the examinations. My alma maters in Singapore, Raffles Institution (RI) and Raffles Junior College (RJC) have to a certain extent “re-merged” having moved to adjoining premises earlier this year – and students are permitted to bypass ‘O’ Levels at RI and proceed straight to the ‘A’ Level curriculum at RJC.

As highlighted in the article, even “during the worst of Asia’s economic recessions when most governments had cut their education budgets, Singapore stepped up spending in this
field”. Many of the above measures will not produce results immediately and their full impact can only be seen possibly a decade later. There continues to be a certain amount of criticism on the education system in Singapore (which I won’t dwell on here), but the key here is that major reforms have taken and are continuing to take place.

Education has in fact, been highlighted by visiting Prof Issac Ehrlich of University at Buffalo (part of the State University of New York) as the 'secret weapon' for continuous, self-sustaining economic growth. His comments were reported in the Business Times on 19th September, strengthening the case for Singapore’s aggressive investment in education.

Basically, the theory is that economic growth can only be self-sustaining if it is endogenous. And endogenous growth comes from increases in productivity, which is a result of technological advance. The simple conclusion to such a theory, as Prof Ehrlich puts it:
'But the question is what accounts for the fact that technology keeps improving? We know the secret: it comes from the accumulation of knowledge and knowledge is human capital.'
Prof Ehrlich argues that to explain that economic growth is a result of investment in education - and not the other way round (some argue that education increases due to increase in affluence) - by looking at the experience of the US over more than 140 years.
Prof Ehrlich postulates that a poor, post-civil war US managed to overtake the United Kingdom through massive investment in education with government measures such as the GI Bill - which offered returning US soldiers from Europe education aid - and the Morrill Act, which granted land to higher education institutions to be built in each state.
Hence, I totally agree with the policy in Singapore to expand the budget for education even in the toughest of times, for it will ultimately enable a country to "leapfrog" its peers in terms of performance and achievements. It is arguably the only panacea to achieve the quantum leap of the nation. Of course, it needn't be said that the expanded budget should be utilised productively and not be subject to profound leakage (such as appointing incompetent contractors to build schools).

Over at Malaysia, it may be too soon to attempt wholesale reforms such as that taking place in Singapore at this stage. It is most important for us to tackle some of the most basic issues that are plaguing our education system today, which appears to stifle our abilities to produce even competent graduates – whether in sciences, mathematics or languages. Our authorities need to remedy some of the “simple” shortcomings in our education system – the quality of teachers, the standards of languages, the state of school facilities and the impact of continued segregation in schools of the various ethnic groups.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"Are we turning our children into sissies?"

This article by Zainul Arifin in his "Intermission" column in New Straits Times makes a really amusing read. The first thing I thought was how am I going to highlight it in my blog and relate it back to education in Malaysia! But I guess, an article entitled above has to be related to the education we are giving our young, one way or another right? :)

The writer was quite rightly questioning the nature of society in the years to come whereby "despite our best intentions, producing a generation of sissies and weak-minded individuals to populate and power the nation in this 21st century?"

He asked the question whether we are so protective of our children from all "bad influences" from "bad people", to "poor hygiene", to reckless drivers to misadventures, such that "we are slowly turning our children into nerds and space cadets, whose only connection to reality is through nature documentaries, and well, umm, reality TV."

This quote quite funny:
I read somewhere that a greater proportion of our children now have poorer hand-eye co-ordination — a skill developed from an early age by running around, climbing, kicking and throwing things about — than,say, a few decades ago. But I am sure many of them have superior thumb-eye co-ordination, owing to prolonged exposure to video games.
One of the most disappointing by product of the above protectiveness is the disapproval of sports.
Many parents these days disapprove of sports, especially contact sports like football, hockey or netball. Don’t even mention rugby. Notice how many of the former school rugby powerhouses can still hold their heads up high.

The reason, if I may speculate, is that parents have become overprotective of their children and are not supportive of organised sports, in case they break a sweat, or worse, injure themselves.
Having been exposed to rugby in secondary school in Singapore (yes, squeaky polished Singapore), I'll definitely insist that he picks up the sport (if and when I do get a baby boy!). And I'll make sure that Xin Ying, my baby girl will make a half-decent athlete at the very least!

The reason is clearly stated by Zainul in his article, and I couldn't agree more:
Sports, as we know, builds character. Winning, and especially losing, instills values — how to be gracious in victory and how to pick yourself up from defeat. Failures offer opportunities for comebacks. Sports encourages teambuilding and comradeship and also teaches children social skills and tolerance, values they will take with them for the rest of their lives

If we as parents show such fear and concern, what kind of impact will this have on the minds of our children? Don’t stay out of the house, it is too hot. Don’t play in the field, it is dirty. Don’t play games, you might be injured.
I believe that the whole protective thing plus the whole top-notch food and nutrition thingie is one of the major causes why our little boys and little girls today are not only becoming "sissies", but also becoming more than just a little overweight.

I suppose this is one aspect that our schools may only be able to do "so much" to increase the "resilience" in our children. In this case, it's really up to the parents to do the right thing, and find the right balance between healthy risks and practical learning and experience for our children. :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Oxford University: Should I Apply? (II)

Following the first post on some of the the typical questions that usually act as "barriers" to Malaysians applying to some of the top universities in the world, the following actually provides some nuggets of my personal experience at Oxford University.

I'm never going to be able to write my entire pre-application, my 3-year stay, my degree programme and other experiences in just one blog post (even if it's a long one like this). Hence, the focus of my writing will be on the nature of teaching and learning that's unique to Oxford and other similar institutions - which may be attractive to many of you out there. For the other readers of the blog from these institutions (I know you are out there), please feel free to add your personal experience, either to my personal email (which I'll then "re-publish") or in the comments column below.

Quick note: My experience below may have in a large part, to do with the degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) which I have taken. So students reading other subjects, particularly the science subjects will clearly have a different "experience". :)

1. Class Size

One of the most important facets of some of the top universities around the world is the small tutorial class sizes. Whilst in the first year, the class sizes may be as large as 8-10 persons, in my subsequent years, the class sizes were often no more than 3 persons.

In fact for certain subjects which are electives, for e.g., I took "Development Economics", I had 1-to-1 tutorial sessions. The small class sizes had certain implications for students. For example, it will be very difficult to evade doing your homework readings for it'll look really stupid when you are attempting to carry out a discussion with your tutor. You will obviously receive a lot of "personal attention", wanted or otherwise. :)

In addition, the small class sizes will ensure that you will have to speak up in the class. Asian students have a tendency to be timid, quiet and fairly non-participative in the classroom. However, when the classroom is only the size of 2 students, there's really very little space to hide from the tutor. I have always been regarded as a fairly vocal student in primary and secondary schools. However, when I was at Oxford, my Economics tutor actually wrote in one of my term reports that I was too quiet and needed to participate more during tutorial discussions!

That certainly plays an important part in honing one's quick thinking skills as well as the ability to express one's thoughts in the clearest manners.

2. College vs University

One of the oft quoted unique features about Oxbridge universities is the fact that the universities are basically made up of a cluster of semi-independent colleges. A description provided by the Oxford University website is quoted here:
One of the many advantages of studying at Oxford is the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a large international University whilst living in a smaller college community. Your college will be the focus of your academic life, where you will attend weekly tutorials, for most of your time in Oxford. Your college will also provide you with accommodation and food at reasonable prices, as well as being the centre for your social life, offering entertainment, sports, music and drama facilities and events.
Colleges and Halls
  • select their own undergraduate students;
  • are responsible for students' tutorial teaching and welfare;
  • provide accommodation, meals, common rooms, libraries, sports and social facilities and pastoral care for their students.
The University
  • determines the content of the courses;
  • organises lectures and seminars;
  • provides a wide range of resources for teaching and learning in the form of libraries, laboratories, museums, computing facilities;
  • sets and marks examinations;
  • awards degrees.

I was enrolled in Keble College (picture above), which is quite large by Oxford standards with some 400 undergraduate and 150 postgraduate students. Yes, that's "large". :) Something that many students are not used to, is also the fact that most student stay for at least 2 years, in the college itself. To get to 8 am tutorials in the morning, you just need to wake up at 7.45, wash up, gulp down some breakfast, and make a 2 minute dash to the tutor's room. Yes, most of the tutors stay in the college as well :)

3. Lectures vs Tutorials

The most unique thing I find about my degree programme at Oxford, for better or worse, is the "disjoint" between lectures and tutorials. Lectures are run by the university, while tutorials are managed by the colleges. And with some 30 colleges managing tutorial schedules, you will find that most of the time, the lectures do not "jive" with the tutorial subject schedules. Hence, you might find yourself attending lectures on particular topics in the first term, but the tutorials for the same subject only begins in the third term. And of course, vice-versa.

Due to the fact that tutorials are of prime importance, lectures often take a back seat. That usually means that as the term goes by, I'll be attending less and less lectures. I won't be exaggerating to say that I probably attended an average of maybe only 2-3 hours worth of lectures a week throughout my entire course!

4. Tutorials

Tutorials are probably the most important aspect of one's academic experience at Oxford. Tutorials are scheduled to be twice a week, one for each subject which is being taken for the term. There are 3 terms a year, and 8 weeks for each term. So, every term, I'll be having 16 tutorials a term, 8 on say, "Organisational Economics" and another 8 on say, "Moral Philosophy (Ethics)".

So what's so tough about the tutorials, besides the fact that it's a tiny class? In most universities I'm aware of, tutorials are where the tutors will do some "teaching", students will be taking notes and they may be required to do some question-and-answer type homework. Over at Oxford, threre's little or no formal teaching done during tutorials.

What's typically done is that all students will have to prepare an essay on a particular topic prior to the tutorial session. The essay question and lengthy reading list would have been provided in the previous week. The first week's tutorial came as quite a shock for me because I was to prepare an essay on the "failure" of French Fourth Republic with absolutely no clue about French political history (I would have thought Charles de Gaulle was a character from Asterix!) - no prior tips, lectures, classes or preparation by the tutors. With only the reading list as a guide, we'll pilfer through the relevant books to churn out an essay in preparation for the tutorial in the following week.

Depending on the tutor, you might be required to read the essay out aloud during the tutorials and open yourself to some serious vivisection by the tutor and fellow tutorial mates during the 1-2 hour sessions. Put in some rubbish, and you are done for! The exercise is repeated twice a week, and that means a total of 16 essays every term. That's a lot of essays to write, considering that most universities only require 1-2 term essays (albeit, likely to be longer ones) handed in as "projects".

What's the ultimate effects of such a tutorial system?
  • It's probably the ultimate version of anti-spoon feeding as there's actually hardly any "teaching", especially since I (and I'm pretty sure I attended more lectures than my fellow coursemates) attended only a minimal amount of lectures. Everything is to be discovered on your own through all the relevant reading materials. Tutorials are only meant more as "discussion" to ensure that you are on the right track, and to point out certain more pertinent points on a particular topic. It makes you ultimately resourceful.

  • The system makes your brain work the hardest because, very often, you start from absolute zero to becoming almost exam ready for that particular topic, all within a period of one week.

  • Your writing techniques and skills improves tremendously as you are required to produce top quality essays in the shortest possible time (usually just a couple of hours, because you'd have spent the rest of the prior week gathering and browsing the reading materials). It certainly helps with maintaining a blog like this while having a busy day job! And I can tell you from experience, this is one of the greatest assets to possess when writing reports, analyses, presentations and proposals.

  • Your reading skills as well as the ability to sieve out key and relevant information is honed to near perfection, because some 70% (or so) of reading materials are not directly relevant (or are repetitive) and it's important to be able to tell them apart from the relevant points early. Otherwise, you'll never finish the reading list (some books on their own may take 3 weeks to complete!). You have only one week after all, not to mention that you'd still have to produce the essay.

  • The active tutorial classes and the openness of debate allows one to hone your expression and debating skills, for not only you need to know what you are talking about, you will also need to know how to express it such that your tutor and course mates can understand you.
For some, such a system will be extremely stressful for practically everything is reliant on the self, and there's really a lot of reading and writing to do. On the flip side, and one of the key reasons why I really really enjoyed my time over at Oxford is that the system provided me total independence to how I want to do my work, organise my time and most importantly, the space to "think", for there's only 5-6 hours worth of official lesson time a week (average of 3 hours of lectures, and 2-3 hours of tutorials).

The system is a complete contrast to say, National University of Singapore (NUS) which I had the privilege of attending for 2 weeks before I took off to Oxford back in 1991. The time-table at NUS is almost perpectually packed where students rush from lecture halls to tutorial rooms and back to lecture halls on a daily basis. If I don't recall wrongly, there's some 24-30 hours of official lesson time a week for a Bachelor of Arts degree at NUS (and they have longer term time of 10-12 weeks).

This is not to say that the Oxford tutorial system should be adopted by all universities. Certain students perform well in the NUS-type environment, while people like me definitely feels more "liberated" with the Oxford system. I know that in NUS, students are likely to be "screaming" that a lecturer is not doing his/her job if he/she did not provide lecture notes or handouts to accompany the lectures. He or she may even be reprimanded. However, at Oxford, no lecturer worth his salt will provide handouts during a lecture for you will be expected to listen and pick out the relevant points for your own consumption.

So at the end of the day, if you have a keen interest in challenging your thinking and writing skills with a lot of self-effort, then Oxbridge universities will definitely be the place for you.

5. Extra-Curricular Activities

Contrary to popular opinion that Oxbridge is all work and no play, it has an extremely vibrant non-academic environment. You are bound to find a society or interest group among more than 400, to match your own whims and fancies. If you can't find one that matches your interest, you are encouraged to set up one yourself. Yes, there are clubs dedicated towards the resurrection of King Arthur's Camelot.

With only 5-6 hours of official lesson time a week, I thoroughly enjoyed myself with various sports from rowing for a term, representing the college in the very active university hockey league over 2+ years as well as badminton and table-tennis. I took part in clubs such as the Laissez Faire Society and of course, the obligatory functions at the Oxford Malaysia Club (OMC) and Oxford University Malaysia & Singapore Association (OUMSA). Sometimes, I actually wonder back to try to figure out how I actually found time to study!

As highlighted at the start of this post, the above are just be nuggets of my experience during my 3 eventful and thoroughly enjoyable years at Oxford University. I hope to provide readers, and in particular, hopeful students a glimpse of life at Oxford and encourage more applications from Malaysians to these universities. I'm certain that I'm not the only one who has enjoyed myself, and I would encourage fellow alumnus as well as current students there to share your perspectives of the experience at Oxford.

The next update will be on the application process. A gentle reminder that the closing date of applications will be on the 15th October, for 2006 undergraduate entry. You need not wait for my update, go check out the Oxford admission site yourself!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Matriculation vs STPM?

The debate over the use of matriculation examinations as entry requirements into local universities as opposed to the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) will continue to plague our higher education system unless the educational authorities are able to be transparent about the entire process.

The officials at both the Ministry of Education, as well as that of Higher Education have continued to almost "robotically" deny and dispute any differences in the relative standards between the matriculation and STPM examinations.

In response to a letter from a reader at the Star who requested for a single examination to determine entry into the university, Pn Rubaayah Osman, the Public Relations Officer of the Ministry of Higher Education responded on 28th August that:
Although there are two entry examinations – Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and Matriculation – used for entrance to public universities, both are on par in terms of standards, curriculum and credit hours. It is not true that one is tougher than the other. This is a matter of perception.
At the same time, the Deputy Education Minister, Datuk Mahadzir Mohd Khir responded to public feedback that the assessment for matriculation should be made transparent, like that of STPM by arguing that:
[The] assessment of matriculation exams should not be questioned as the papers are marked by local university academicians.

“I dispute those who say the matriculation programme is substandard. The process may be different from STPM but the students’ achievements are the same.”
The key problem why the public are clearly unconvinced by both the above arguments are strictly because they are not "arguments" at all. The statements were in effect saying that "if I said that A is equivalent to B, then A must therefore be equivalent to B, how can it be otherwise?"

Both parties in their statements will try the age old tactic of incorporating irrelevant analogies or arguments to digress and detract from the main issues.

Pn Rubaayah argued that "if every one is convinced about the fairness and effectiveness of one system, then it should be applied to all including having a single type of school rather than National, Chinese and Tamil schools."

Datuk Mahadzir on the other hand, said that "many people continued to be negative about matriculation programmes even though many moves had been made to improve them, including opening the programmes to non-bumiputras."

How is it that a single and fair entry examination into the local public universities analogous to "a single type of school"; or how "opening the [matriculation] programmes to non bumiputras" is an improvement on the assessment system is absolutely beyond me - and I'm sure it's beyond many of you readers out there as well.

The Malaysian education system do not require strictly, a single type of entry examination. However, it is critical that the various entry examinations are of transparent standards and equally accessible to all. The fact that matriculation assessments are "marked by local university academicians" does not give any confidence nor justification that the markings are fair, or are of high standards or are equivalent to STPM.

To ensure transparency, the easiest process is really to conduct a study by a reputable international institute on the various entry examinations in Malaysia and identify the differences in standard, if any. It shouldn't be very difficult to compare between the assessment papers of the students in the matriculation program versus that of STPM students.

In addition, the real telling point with regards to potential differences in standards between the two is by studying the effects of the two different pre-university streams on the results of the students in the public universities. I will have happy to contribute my expertise on statistics to help the authorities come up with the necessary regressive studies on the impact of matriculation studies versus that of STPM for Malaysian students. Should there be a wide disparity in standards between the two groups of students, there clearly something should be done. If there isn't, then publish these results and I'm certain the public will then be appeased.

It is my belief that in the interest of promoting the academic abilities of Malay students in the fastest possible manner, it is critical that they be exposed to the highest standard of academic competition (and not be protected from it). If a comparative study of the 2 systems do show a result whereby the matriculation students are significantly weaker, then my argument will be to abolish the matriculation colleges so that the Malays will be able to achieve better results in the universities through better preparation in the STPM courses. The faster the authorities recognises this, the better it will be for the bumiputeras.

For those interested in reading further with regards to my take on matriculation colleges, click here.

Oxford University: Should I Apply? (I)

Well, here's something that I've been longing to write about ever since I started the blog. However, due to the non-stop issues plaguing the Malaysian education scene for the past few months, I kept procrastinating on writing about my alma mater. But I thought I shouldn't put the above aside any more because, the closing date for 2006 undergraduate degree applications to Oxford and Cambridge Unviersities in the United Kingdom will be closing on the 15th October 2005 (that's about 3 weeks time).

I will be writing on the current topic over 3 parts, the first here will answer some common questions asked with regards to applying to the top universities, the second will cover my experience at the university (what's life like there) and the third, covering the application process (and hopefully, some useful tips). The objective behind the posts is really to encourage bright Malaysian students to apply to Oxford University, or for that matter, other top universities around the world.

Throughout my experience, I have found that often, Malaysian students do not attend the top universities of the world - which I regard as the top 5-10 in the United Kingdom and the top 10-20 in the United States, largely due to lack of information, guidance, confidence and most of all, mis-perception. I hope that by posting here, it'll play a little part in encouraging more young, bright and talented Malaysians to apply, for it is my believe that more Malaysians are fully qualified for these universities than there actually are making the applications.

Usually, before one even gets to the point of seeking out more information about the respective top universities (e.g., reading up on the relevant prospectuses etc.), there are several questions which poses as "barriers" to the application process. These questions often discourage prospective candidates from applying to these universities. I shall attempt to provide some of my thoughts to these common questions here.

1. Am I Good Enough?

I can safely say that the number one question posed by aspirants to the top universities will always be "Am I Good Enough?". Barring the exceptional confident few, there will always be the fear that we are not good enough for the top universities of the world. The source of the fear, or lack of confidence, may have something to do with the fact that we originate from a third world country with an "average" type education system - what makes us think that we can fit in and be accepted by the best in the world?

Let me state here unequivocally - if you are the cream of the Malaysian education system (and by cream, I don't mean just the number 1s and 2s), then you are likely to have a decent shot at obtain entry into these top institutions.

If you have read my profile, you'd have known that I was fairly fortunately to have been enrolled into the top schools in Singapore as well as the United Kingdom. However, both these chances didn't come strictly because I was a "straight As" student - I was not. I was an above average student who was sort of "hovering" near the top, but never once, on top in terms of academic results. In primary school, my results always ranked me consistently between 5th to 12th, while in secondary schools in Singapore, I never got the straight 9A1s for 'O' Levels, or 3-4As for my 'A' Levels which I've always aspired to achieve. But in both instances, I've always thought that there's never harm in "trying", first by applying for ASEAN Scholarship in Primary 6 to study in Singapore, and later, by applying to Oxford before my 'A' Levels. On both occasions, I was extremely fortunate to have been successful.

The simple moral to the story is that if you are accepted, then you are good enough. And you are never going to know if you are going to be accepted if you do not apply. My advice to prospective candidates have always been not to allow them to judge themselves (which often discourages applications) but instead to let these scholarships or university admission bodies do their job. I mean, what's the very worse that can happen - you receive a rejection letter, and that's no different from the state you will be in (apply to other universities), should you have chosen not to apply to the top universities.

2. Why Should I Apply to the Top Universities?

Yes, it sounds a tad like a silly question, but it has been asked often enough such that I thought I should address it here. I won't be exaggerating to say that graduating from the top universities will often (although not always) let you walk into the jobs that you are keen on. Rightly or wrongly, you will be looked at, and treated differently.

Of course the other reason to join the top universities to receive the best education the world can offer - but that's saying the obvious.

3. What if I Can't Afford these Universities?

My answer to the above is quite simple. Worry about funding after you have received your offer letters to enrol into these universities. If you get accepted for a place at Harvard University, I'm certain, there'll be no short of scholarship offers or loan programmes available for you.

My parents definitely could not afford my education at Oxford - at that time, some 14 years ago, it still cost some GBP10,000 per annum in tuition and college fees alone. I was fully prepared to enrol into National University of Singapore (where I've managed to secure a place) should I fail in my quest for a scholarship. Persistence paid off, and I was finally successful in obtaining a full scholarship from Malaysia Tobacco Company (now, British American Tobacco) Foundation - yes, thanks to the Benson & Hedges smokers out there - after receiving many many rejection letters, particularly from Singapore companies which offered scholarships.

Once again, what's the worst that could happen? If you didn't manage to secure your financial assistance to the top universities, at the very least, you have the knowledge that it wasn't the lacking of brain-matter that hindered your progress. In addition, very often these universities will permit a deferment in the entry year as well - which will provide additional time for you to source for the necessary funding.

So, all you top 'A' Level and STPM students out there - there's really nothing which should stop you from applying to the top institutions in the world. You don't have to be a genius to be accepted into these colleges, and the top Malaysian students definitely have the capability to qualify. This is where the cliche comes in, "Just Do It!".

Quick Note: For those interested in applying to Oxford University before I post my subsequent updates, please visit the university admission pages here.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Learning Chinese Vital"

This writer has spent a great deal of time lamenting the poor standards of English among many of our Malaysian graduates (irrespective of overseas or local). However, it should not be taken that English is the ONLY language of importance, and that the education system need not place emphasis on the other key languages in Malaysia, namely, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese.

Bahasa Malaysia is important purely because it's our national language, and it's the language of the majority of Malaysians. The language will play a huge role in ensuring national integration and unity amongst Malaysians of various races.

Chinese however, is important for other reasons. For those of Chinese ethnic origins, it's important obviously because it helps us trace our roots and understand our culture - or what is commonly regarded as "mother tongue education". Today, on top of that, as highlighted today in the Star, by MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, "Chinese [language] has emerged as one of the important international languages after China started to play a prominent role in the global arena."

Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting was discussing the merits of a Chinese education at the media launch of the Tiger-Sin Chew Chinese Education Charity Concert.
“Chinese education has also progressed well due to the immense contributions of the Chinese community and other supporters over the years,” he said. He described the move to support Chinese education as “worthwhile”, saying that such efforts must be continued.
Currently, the chairman as well as a major shareholder of my company is a Chinese national based out of Zhuhai and Beijing. The company has begun placing a greater emphasis in the Far East, now that we have operations in Hong Kong, and clients in Guangzhou as well as Macau. However, due to the total absence of the English language competence amongst practically all Chinese businessmen, it was absolutely critical that I was at least marginally competent in the spoken and written Mandarin to build the necessary close rapport and relationship with my chairman, business partners as well as clients. Hence I can definitely attest to the importance of a decent "Chinese education".

However, it is critical for the authorities and policy makers to maintain the necessary balance in our unique education system. While I support the provision of Chinese education, I must say I've yet to be convinced that the current vernacular school system is the best way forward for both the Chinese community, as well as Malaysians in general. While the Chinese educationists (and to a certain extent the politicians) have done commendably in protecting and entrenching the Chinese vernacular school education system in Malaysia, it is my belief that this has come at the unnecessary expense of both English and Malay language competence.

Many may argue that the ability to do business in China, makes Chinese education the greatest priority relative to other languages and subjects. However, it should be noted that the likelihood of a person born in Malaysia to "do business" in China, in one form or another, is going to be very small. We are probably talking about at best, 5-10% of the Chinese population. Most Malaysians will first have to gain employment locally before even the opportunity to venture overseas arise. Hence it is critical for the Malaysian students to have a decent command of the Malay and English language to ensure that they will be able to secure bright prospects in Malaysia, or even Singapore.

No doubt, a Chinese education needs to be pursued and provided by the Malaysian education system (although not necessarily in its current form and structure). However, my argument has always been that over-zealous emphasis on a particular language and the neglect of the other languages will not, at the end of the day, be in the interest of our Malaysian students.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Local University Rankings... Soon!

A few days ago, the Star reported that the Quality Assurance Division (QAD) of the Ministry of Higher Education will have it's first rating of public and private institutions of higher learning to be completed by the end of 2006.

According to the department head Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin, the criteria for the ratings will include academic staff, educational programmes, student selectivity, educational resources and governance. She also added that as part of the rating scheme, peer reviews would be carried out online.

I'd very much look forward to analysing the results of the rating scheme to see how good the methodology will be. As per all rating and ranking schemes, it is bound to create controversy, with the top ranked universities proclaiming excellence, while the lower ranked ones proclaiming flawed methodology. :)

It will also be interesting to see how certain universities such as Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) fare, as these universities are restricted to local bumiputeras. In addition, there will definitely be controversy when one compares between the likes of UiTM and other say, non-Malay dominated institutions such as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman - irrespective of the outcome (i.e. it doesn't matter who come up on top - the hornet's nest will be stirred).

More importantly, to avoid as much unnecessary controversy as possible, it is critical that the rankings and ratings study be conducted by professional independent individuals or firms, instead of officers within the Ministry itself. This will ensure that the study will not be tainted, whether perceived or otherwise, by allegations of impropriety, bias and vested interest. Such allegations will often discredit the rankings system and will ultimately defeat the purpose of the whole ratings scheme.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Thick-Skinned Academics

Sigh. There's just an incredible need for our civil servants, politicians and academics to make themselves "look" really "good". First, we get "brown-nosing academics" and now, we have really "thick-skinned academics". Thanks to a reader at Sdr Lim Kit Siang's blog, we get a picture of the UM academics loudly proclaiming their "achievement" of world class university status. See picture below:

And of course, the largest picture belongs to the Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor, Dato’ Professor Hashim Yaacob (far left) - who was recently embroiled in the debacle involving Dr Terence Gomez.

It is clear that the honourable vice-chancellor is basing his loud proclaimation on the 89th placing achieved in the World Universities Rankings table compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES). Readers of this blog will be well aware of the discussions surrounding how the 89th placement was likely to have been achieved based on invalid assumptions.

I cannot help but wonder, which other world class university in world actually puts up large bilboard advertisements with the faces of the senior academics to proclaim themselves "world-class". I certainly do not see it at our neighbouring universities, National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), ranked 18th and 50th respectively by THES. And I can say with certainty that no Oxford don worth his salt will ever want to have his face plastered on such an embarrassing bilboard of self-praise, even though they are ranked the top 5 in the world.

Instead of doing the nation proud, the bilboard will merely make a laughing stock out of Malaysia's premier university. The whole episode brings to mind a bucketful of meaningful Malay idioms.

Gedang sebagai dilambuk-lambuk, tinggi sebagai dijunjung
. The honourable vice-chancellor has been proudly praising the "world-class" achievements of Universiti Malaya, whilst they were most likely totally absent.

The honourable vice-chancellor should instead pay heed to the idiom - subur kerana dipupuk, besar kerana diambak, for one's status and achievements in society is not based on one's own proclaimations, but on the recognition by all peers and followers.

On top of that, given that THES is likely to revise their methodology and make adjustment for errors made in the first edition of the world university rankings table, it is very likely that Universiti Malaya will find itself on a free-fall on the rankings table. What will the honourable Vice Chancellor say then? Will he take down the bilboard proclaimation? Hendak harum terlalu hangit.

Akujanji “Prayers”

Recently there has been a renewed interest in the academic freedom being granted by the Government to the academics of Malaysian public universities.
  • In June, Dr Terence Gomez was “forced” into resigning from Universiti Malaya because his unpaid leave application to join the United Nations for 2 years was rejected by the Vice Chancellor. Fortunately, our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi intervened to ensure that Dr Terence Gomez gets to keep his position in Universiti Malaya.

  • In August, it was reported that Prof P. Ramasamy had his contract with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia terminated arbitrarily. Prof P. Ramasamy has argued that his termination was largely due to his active participation in international activities such as the Sri Lanka and Aceh peace process.

  • Recently the plight of husband and wife, Dr Azly Rahman and Dr Mutiara Mohamad, who are currently residing in the United States pursing their higher education with University of Columbia, were highlighted. Their teaching contracts were not renewed with Universiti Utara Malaysia because they were reluctant to sign the “Akujanji” letter in its current form.
Malaysiakini has been extremely active in reporting, analysing and highlighting these issues to the public. They have recently caught up with the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Mohd Shafie Salleh to inquire further to the status of the above academics as well as the “Akujanji” letter. Dr Shafie however, rejected any need to review the compulsory endorsement of “Akujanji” for all academicians attached to local public universities. Interestingly, Dr Shafie argued that:
"Akujanji is just to show that you are loyal to the university in the sense that you have to teach according to the schedule."
He even argued that the Akujanji letter is comparable to being employed by “any organisation [whereby] you must follow the schedule (rules) of that organisation.”

There are three very simple but important issues with regards to Dr Shafie’s claims that “Akujanji” and its similarity with employment “rules”.

Firstly, if any sensible person who read the "Akujanji" pledge will tell you that it's not about the fact that "you have to teach according to schedule"!

Secondly, I’m pretty certain that if I insist that all my employees sign a “Akujanji” letter as part of their employment conditions, I would find myself defending the company in the labour court for breaching Malaysian employment regulations! For example, clauses such as follows are clearly unclear in terms of subject and intent, and is open to abuse. Hence, the analogy is clearly fallacious.
(viii) will not bring any form of outside influence or pressure to support or further my demands or other officers involved with or towards University Utara Malaysia; and

(xi) will not disobey or behave in any way that can be interpreted as disobedience.
Thirdly, Dr Shafie should attempt to survey the top universities in the world whether there is actually such a document such as “Akujanji” which they require their academics to sign before gaining employment. As far as I’m concerned, there are no “world class” universities in the world – whether in the United Kingdom, the United States or in Australia whereby academics are required to sign any “conformance” agreements. Obviously, the absence of such letters did not in anyway hinder the ability of these universities from excelling. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that by imposing the “Akujanji” conformance, it hampers the ability of Malaysian public universities from attaining “world class” status.

Dr Shafie as expected, denied that the critics’ claim that “Akujanji” restricts academic freedom, which will ultimate affect academic teach and output quality as the clauses within “Akujanji” were (almost intentionally) vague. Lecturers and students may face action under the pledge especially when they criticise government or university affairs – irrespective of whether such criticism were positive, valid or otherwise. His denial was absolutely diabolical (and I couldn’t make sense of it).
“…Akujanji is like prayers for Muslims. When we pray, it becomes our Akujanji (to God), not only once but five times a day.”
Huh? Hello?

Our Prime Minister, Pak Lah has recently during the 9th Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) International Advisory Panel meeting said that a reform in the education system is a prerequisite for the MSC to “encourage creativity and risk-taking”. As reported by the Star on the 10th September, he also wanted the Malaysian students to “adopt a discovery-oriented outlook”.

The problem is, it appears that what our Prime Minister has envisioned is apparently not shared by his Minister of Higher Education. Dr Shafie has clearly decided that it is in the better interest of the country for academics and students to be restrained by a “Akujanji” leash. What does our Prime Minister actually need to do in order to ensure that his visions and messages actually trickle down to the members of his administration?

The Economist Survey on Higher Education

[Posted by Kian Ming]

The Economist, a reputable newspaper with a worldwide circulation has published a survey of higher education in its latest issue (September 10th to 16th, 2005) entitled ‘The Brains Business’.

Because of the myriad of issues tackled in this survey, Tony and I thought we make the debate more interesting by separately commenting on different points of interest. Questions such as the funding of schools, the nature of competition, the effects of globalization, the increase in the % of the populace entering into higher education, the rise of the knowledge economy, the rise of China and India, all merit at least some attention. Most importantly, we want to draw the debate back to implications for the state of higher education in Malaysia.

I’ll start the ball rolling by commenting on what I’ve been recently exposed to – the US university system. The Economist survey highlights the Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking of Top 500 universities to illustrate the dominance of US universities at the top of the rankings. Interestingly, despite being a London based newspaper, it chose not to use the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) as part of this survey. UM does not appear in the Shanghai ranking though it appears at no. 89 on the THES survey. This issue was discussed Harvard University has an endowment of US$22.6 billion dollars. Even if we assume a relatively conservative return of 10% per annum (those who manage Harvard’s endowment have routinely generated returns in excess of 20% per annum), we’re talking about an income stream of US$2 billion a year. Not to mention additional funds from wealthy alumnus, fees and external grants. These funds can be used in a variety of ways – financial aid to good students, infrastructure improvement, recruitment of the best faculty, funding ground breaking research projects etc…

It is remarkable that large endowments are not only restricted to private universities but extend to public universities as well. The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, both world class public universities, have endowments exceeding US$4 billion dollars.

Having a generous endowment certainly helps but it needs to be combined with strong, visionary leadership on the part of the university as well as a shrewd and careful allocation of resources. My own university, Duke, was officially ‘founded’ only in 1924 with a large endowment from James B Duke, a tobacco baron. Slowly but surely, it made steady strides forward in its academic reputation. It was probably only in the last 20 years that Duke became ranked among the elite universities. In the latest US News and World Report PTPTN is already doing something similar) The notion that we are entitled to a free public higher education regardless of our financial standing needs to be abandoned.

Many foreign universities are supplementing their income by increasing the intake of fee-paying overseas students. One of my alma maters - the London School of Economics (LSE) – has a non-UK undergraduate population that is close to or over 50%. Monash’s non-Australian undergraduate population is probably close to 30%. Will the public universities be open to admitting a larger number of higher fee paying foreigners? (Assuming that the current number of foreigners in UM and USM is not as high as indicated by the THES survey) Especially given the political ‘sensitivity.’ of places in our public universities in regards to the racial makeup?

Malaysian universities cannot hope to match the endowments or the financial resources of the top universities in the US. That is impossible given the small size of our country in terms of GDP as well as population. But we can at least start thinking of ways to diversify and increase the income stream of our public universities as part of a larger reform agenda to improve the dismal state of higher education in our country.

Next issue on the agenda – competition.

Note to earlier readers - due to a technical complication with the earlier post, I have "re-posted" this article. As a result 2 comments were "lost". Apologies for the error.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Education vs New Economic Policy

In a surprisingly enlightened speech by our former Finance Minister, Tun Daim Zainuddin as reported here by Bernama - he argued that the transformation of the Malays hinges on education and not so much on accumulation of wealth.
"The natural second phase to social and economic transformation of the Malays is only through education, not equity participation. You take care of education and they will have enough to participate in the capital market," Daim said in his speech on "Issues Facing the Malays".
You know what, as much as I may have disagreed with some of the financial and economic policies carried out by Tun Daim during his years as the Finance Minister of Malaysia during the 1980s and 1990s - this argument is something I wholeheartedly agree with without a single iota of reservation.
"The NEP (New Economic Policy) has always concentrated on equity participation of the Malays. The poor Malay's route to success will not be through having shares in the KLSE (Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange, now Bursa Malaysia).

"(But) it is through education. The obsession with equity figures have eclipsed the true success story of the NEP. The vast numbers of educated Malays produced since the 70s, they have contributed to the expanding middle class."

It is worth noting that I am in agreement with the above statement not because it will mean that the NEP as it is understood today will be "repealed" and a new policy more equitable to the non-Malays in the country will instead be put in place. The above is in no doubt, a benefit. However, I'm in absolute agreement with Tun Daim because a good education will be the only way for Malays to truly achieve relative parity status in terms of economic wealth in Malaysia.

The analogy is pretty simple and is oft used. The way to help the plight of the poor is not to give him a wad of cash. The way to help them, and their (future) children is really to teach them how to fish or farm, so that they will learn the methods to take themselves out of poverty. Hence, the process to ensure that the Malays will achieve relative economic parity with the other racial groups within Malaysia, is really to ensure that Malays receive a proper quality education.

What then, constitutes a "proper quality education" for Malays? Tun Daim and the education authorities need to take it a step further and decide that to provide such education to Malays is not equivalent to creating institutions which are privileged for Malays alone. Examples of such institutions include the Maktab Rendah Sains Malaysia (MRSM) matriculation colleges or Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). It is my argument that these colleges not only fail to provide the environment to help the bumiputeras achieve their fullest potentials, they actually serve to retard that process.

But first things first, Tun Daim have correctly argued that equity participation (economic handouts) will not serve the interest of the Malay community in the longer term. It is education which will ultimate help the Malays achieve relative economic and social parity with the non-Malays in Malaysia. The question then is, will the policy makers and education authorities sit up and listen?

Busy Busy Busy...

Apologies for the "long" absence! I was forced into some "crazy" last minute travel arrangements towards the end of last week which left me no chance to post to my favourite blog :). Took me the entire Sunday to recuperate... pant! pant!

Anyway, I'm back! :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Introducing a New Contributor

It was two days ago, when I realised that I've just posted more than 100 entries onto this blog. Given my modest expectations on the blog, that was an achievement, for it was only over a period of 21 weeks. I found myself possessing better knowledge and understanding of the education system and its issues in Malaysia. And worse, I found myself terribly engrossed with these issues, often having to restrain myself from trying to have an opinion on everything! I also found myself spending a lot of time thinking about, as well as writing for this blog. As a result, something had to "give" - I'm now a weaker golfer than I was before I started the blog :) Someone even commented that my golden brown tan has disappeared!

At the same time, the popularity of the blog has increased significantly (although its in no way comparable to some of the blogging pros out there), with a lot of help from Jeff Ooi in June and Sdr Lim Kit Siang this month, plugging the site. I'm expecting some 7,000 visits and 15,000 pageviews this month, compared to less than 4,000 visits and 7000 pageviews in June (even less in May). With the increased visits, the self-imposed "pressure" to produce more relevant and better written articles, naturally increased.

So I thought it's about time for someone else to be "sharing" my "burden" in contributing to "Education in Malaysia". I suppose the objective of the blog has never been strictly to only broadcast my personal point of view per se, but to raise important (and sometimes, interesting) issues facing our education system and if possible to encourage a frank, reasoned and open discussion on these issues. And the task is actually a lot bigger than one person, blogging part-time.

Ong Kian Ming, a former senior policy analyst with the Socio-Economic Development and Research Institute (SEDAR), current pursuing his doctorate in political science at Duke University - has kindly agreed to contribute his thoughts on Education in Malaysia. (For those interested, Duke University is consistently ranked among the Top 10 Universities in the United States by US News & World Report over the past 10 years.) Kian Ming also happens to be an ASEAN Scholar a few years my junior during my secondary school years in Singapore.

I am certain that given his background and qualifications, he will become an excellent contributor to the blog, to make the blog richer and more relevant for Malaysians. His contribution will also add diversity to the opinions expressed on this blog, and hopefully that will lead to greater and more enlightened discussions to issues faced in the Malaysian education scene.

I'll let Kian Ming introduce himself in greater detail in his subsequent writings as we figure out how to do this "team blog" thingie. In fact, his first contribution to the blog was in this post, posted through me. I'll look forward to having his first official post out on the blog (I know it's ready to go).

For the new and loyal readers out there, thank you for visiting and we hope to make this blog a site where you can understand, highlight, discuss, propose and contribute to making education in Malaysia better, in a reasoned, open and collected manner.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Language Nationalists - Nation's Asset or Liability?

Just as quick as our former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad emphasised the importance of English language, the response of the language protectionists were immediate.

In an unlikely pairing, between the Youth wing of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party and Dong Jiao Zong (DJZ), the Chinese educationist movement, they held a joint press conference calling to "reverse [the] policy on English", as reported in the New Straits Times on Saturday.
...DJZ which felt that it will erode the characteristics of national-type Chinese schools and ultimately spell the end of Chinese schools in the country.

... Dong Zong treasurer Chow Siew Hon said the movement was not against using the English language, but feared that Chinese schools risked losing their characteristics.
While I believe that the intent of these Chinese educationists are noble, I believe that their ultra-defensive stance to the use of the English language in Chinese schools have become a tad irrational. If you have ever stepped into a Chinese primary school, the only language ever spoken in these schools are Mandarin and certain Chinese dialects, depending on location. The use of English to teach Mathematics and English will not in any way significantly alter the "characteristics" of Chinese schools. I may understand their apprehension if the government is forcing these schools to teach more subjects in Bahasa Melayu. However, in this case, it's a genuine attempt to improve the standards of English among all students in the country.

PAS Youth deputy chief Idris Ahmad, on the other hand, said the move was arbitrarily implemented without any preliminary studies on its effectiveness
Idris said the Government risked creating a wide gulf between the people if it failed to take into account the education needs of all races.
I have to completely disagree on the above. It is my opinion that should the Government reverse the policy on teaching Mathematics and Science in English, it will be the reversal which with risk "creating a wide gulf between the people". The children who happen to be born in well-to-do families will speak more and better English, and those who are not so fortunate will not have sufficient exposure to the language from a young age to gain a foothold in the language. The gap will just become wider and wider.

We live in an unequal world and society, and I do not expect to be living in one other than just that. However, in the world of inequality which often boils down to the family, country and race in which a person is born to - the key opportunity to equalise the inequality is through a good education. If the misguided interests of the language nationalists prevents our young Malaysians from picking up critical skills such as the English language - then they are risking the perpetuation of inequality in our society.

Monday, September 12, 2005

"Brown Nosing Academics"

In a blog that I should visit more often than I actually do, Mack of highlighted an extremely laughable picture of the manner in which some of our senior academics at our local public universities attempt to portray their political loyalties to their political masters.

The "contrived" picture above appeared in Mingguan Malaysia, the Sunday Edition of Utusan Malaysia, (Page 12, 14 August 2005). It depicts the Vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Dato' Seri Prof. Dr. Ibrahim Abu Shah as he speaks on the issue of UiTM achieving international standards.

Read Mack's blogpost for a full "commentary" :)

"There is a Need to Master English"

And this advice is coming from none other than our former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He believes strongly that a simple acquaintance with the language alone is not enough for new technologies to be learnt.

We share the same sentiments when we fear that the language nationalists and protectionists attempts to reduce the role played by the English language in a misguided attempt to "preserve" the mother tongue languages.
"It is unfortunate perhaps for the language nationalists but that is the reality today. They must not blight the future generations by objecting to the mastery and usage of the English language. They must not obstruct Malaysia’s progress and development."
In the report published by the New Straits Times, Tun Dr Mahathir also commented on the "lack of self-confidence among graduates" as well as their "poor communication skills".
"Their communication skills are so poor that sometimes they cannot even relay what they want to express in their own language. There is absolute silence when an interviewer asks them questions... how is anyone going to employ people like that?

"If you show a blank face to the person who is interviewing you, then you are not going to get the job... it will not matter if you have a Master’s degree."
I definitely cannot agree more. There are a significant number of strong candidates of which the above issues do not apply. However, unfortunately, it applies to the large majority of graduates in Malaysia - irrespective of whether they originate from local or foreign universities. Even many of the top students, including those that I employ (who are excellent in their technical skills, by the way) are very poor in their language and communication skills. My managers will often "complain" to me that they cannot understand the emails from these graduates.

Tun Dr Mahathir lamented that the poor communication skills is "almost cultural" - and I will tend agree. Unfortunately, I also think that this "culture" is one of the serious negative side effects inculcated by the authorities in their attempt to curb dissent and open discussions at our Malaysian schools and universities.

The constant attempts by the education authorities and university administration to restrict the activities of the students, both political or apolitical have resulted in the culture whereby it's "better" for students to keep their opinions and voices to themselves to avoid unnecessary issues and complications that may disrupt their pursuit for their degree qualifications.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

HSBC Young Entrepreneurship Awards 2005

For all the budding entrepreneurs in our local universities, you may be interested to know that the HSBC Young Entrepreneurship Awards (YEA) is once again open for applications.

HSBC Young Entrepreneur Awards is a regional business plan writing competition, inviting talented post-secondary students from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand to display their creativity and business acumen.

The local competition will take place from September 2005 to March 2006. Gold Award winners from each country or territory will compete for the Best of the Best Awards in Hong Kong in June 2006, following by a rewarding US study tour.

As reported in the Star, "undergraduates from public and private institutions of higher learning are invited to submit innovative and commercially viable business ideas that have the potential to become successful ventures."

The competition is divided into three rounds and is open to undergraduates aged between 17 and 25 who must form teams of no more than three.

For Round One:
  • The team must submit an outline of an innovative business idea that addresses the existing market needs or explores the new market niche. The business idea can be based on a product or a service or anything that create income or value. The idea will be judged based on the originality of the idea, a creative approach in the business strategy, commercial viability and prospect of growth.

  • Business idea in Round 1 must be submitted ONLINE via Official Website,

  • It should be written in English only and be of a maximum length of 1,000 words.

  • Deadline for submission is 10 November 2005.

  • Only 30 teams will be short-listed for Round 2.

The online registration form is to be submitted via the official YEA website. The closing date for Round One submissions is Nov 10.

I would strongly encourage the local undergraduates to take part in competitions such as this. The shortcomings of these types of competitions are that they may not be well-judged and less deserved candidates may end up winning the top prizes. However, the entire exercise of working with a team, harnessing each other's strengths to come up with the most fine-tuned business ideas as well as the practice to write a business plan will certainly play a positive part in an undergraduates' personal and professional development.

For those interested in setting up teams, and who are interested in a informal mentor, I'll be happy to help - assuming that there aren't too many groups. :) Don't expect me to write or edit the business plans for you (you wish!) but I'd certainly be more than happy to read your works and provide my personal feedbacks on the plans and ideas, to help you improve them further. Email me if you are keen.

Good luck!

British Chevening Scholarships 2006

For the high achieving students in Malaysia, particularly those who have completed their first degrees and are keen to pursue their further education in the United Kingdom - the British Chevening Scholarship is now open for application for the 2006/7 intake.

The objectives of the Chevening Scholarship scheme is stated as follows:
These scholarships enable future leaders, decision-makers and opinion formers from around the world to become familiar with the UK, to gain new skills or update current professional skills. The ultimate objective is that Chevening scholars benefit their countries on their return.
The Scholarships are awarded for studies of up to one year and will cover tuition fees, a monthly living allowance, a modest allowance to help with settling in the UK and to cover books and warm clothing, a return airfare to the UK and a gratis student visa. However, for business school programmes the tuition fees' element of the scholarship is capped at £14,400. It appears that, unlike in the 1990s, this scholarship is no longer applicable for undergraduate studies.

For interested applicants, you may download your application form here. As a gentle advice, you might to focus your attention on the questions 10 and 11, where you are asked:
10. Describe your reasons for applying for the course you wish to follow and explain how it will help you with the work you expect to do on your return to Malaysia.

11. Please provide an outline of your ambitions and career plan. Also describe your most outstanding non-academic achievement involving other people where you demonstrated leadership potential (you may describe an extracurricular/sport/community/professional activity or an assignment).
This is the sections which you will be able to demonstrate to the selection committee and the interviewers why you should be shortlisted. For some quick tips, particularly on examples of what not to do, see this blog post on "Teaching English Writing".

The closing date is 31st October 2005. Good luck!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

History @ Bangsar Shopping Centre

For those with not much to do over the weekend, drop by the Bangsar Shopping Centre for a quick trip down the memory lane on the birth of Malaysia, the nation.

I'd strongly encourage parents to take their kids for a visit to the visual exhibition on "The Road to Nationhood", before they adjourn to the comic bookshop and the playstation gaming centre located on the 3rd floor :) It might just give them that little bit more sense of patriotism and loyalty to the nation.

In the words of Koh Lay Chin of New Straits Times, who felt a tingle down the spine revisiting the events leading to our nationhood:
Going through the grainy but beautiful black-and-white photographs, I had no idea, for example, that Malaysia’s third Prime Minister had once been "Captain Hussein Onn", leading the first Johor Jungle Squad which clashed with communist terrorists in Sungai Pendas, Johor Baru in 1948.

It was fascinating to see photographs of women volunteering for the Home Guard, the stony faces of people waiting for rations during the Emergency, a panoramic view of 15,000 people protesting against the Indonesian Confrontation, and the jubilant faces of Malaysians waiting to countdown to Merdeka.

Hurry, the exhibition ends this Sunday and it's free :).

All Schools to be Smart Schools...

In the same speech our Prime Minister gave at his alma mater, High School Bukit Mertajam (HSBM), Pak Lah highlighted that he has given instructions to our Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein that all schools nationwide, should be converted to "Smart Schools".

For those who are not familiar with the concept of "Smart Schools":
The Smart Schools initiative is one of the seven flagship applications that are part of Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project. The Government of Malaysia aims to capitalise on the presence of leading-edge technologies and the rapid development of the MSC’s infrastructure to jump-start deployment of enabling technology to schools. This will be done by creating a group of 90 pilot Smart Schools by 1999 that will serve as the nucleus for the eventual nation-wide rollout of Smart School teaching concepts and materials, skills, and technologies. By 2010, all 10,000 of Malaysia’s primary and secondary schools will be Smart Schools.

[Source: Official Malaysia Smart School Website]

According to the same source, "[t]he most distinctive feature of the Smart School will be a teaching and learning environment built on international best practices in primary and secondary education. This entails aligning the curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and teaching-learning materials in a mutually reinforcing, coherent manner."

With Pak Lah now requesting, as part of his drive to "Provide Quality Education for All", for all schools to be made "smart schools" - our Minister of Education was reported to come out all guns blazing by announcing that the "Smart school goal [is] achievable", as reported in the New Straits Times today.

But from what I understand, there's an interesting catch to what he claims is an achievable objective. Datuk Hishammuddin highlighted that 95% of all schools will have the necessary hardware to become smart schools by 2010.

As of today, he reported that 4,500 schools have computer labs under the Computers in Education programme and 8,120 schools have broadband connections under the School-Net programme.
On top of that, all schools have laptops and LCD projectors to assist them in the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English. They are also entitled to take part in the TV Pendidikan (Educational TV) programme.

"If we define smart schools based on how well-equipped they are with IT appliances, then we can say that almost all schools are smart schools.
Datuk Hishammuddin did of course, added that "...if we define [Smart Schools] according to international standards, like the Multimedia Super Corridor smart schools, then we are not there yet."

The question is, what is the point of defining "Smart Schools" as schools with:
  • a "computer lab" (of which, I'm not sure how many are functioning properly and how frequently they are utilised)

  • a "broadband connection" installed (of which, I'm not sure if they are utilised for there are >8,000 connections, but only 4,500 schools with labs!)

  • a multimedia projector (?!)

  • computer notebooks for teachers (of which, many I understand are unutilised - bagaikan si monyet diberi cincin; or some of which are taken home by the teachers as they were unutilised in school, so that their children will be able to make better use of them - one of my staff had this privilege); and

  • being "entitled" to be part of TV Pendidikan provided by Astro (which was reported this earlier year to be severely under-utilised due to missing or malfunctioning television sets, lack of electricity or school administrators who weren't too bothered. And for those interested, this TV Pendidikan service costs RM18 million to set up, and RM400,000 annually of the tax payers monies.)
Even if all the above are working in proper order, and fully utilised by the schools, they schools should not be in anyway be defined as "Smart Schools". That's in effect, enlarging the goalposts by a mile, so that you can never miss the target! The Ministry of Education had defined the Smart School concept (which is still available on its website) and it should definitely abide by its own definitions.

A "Smart School" should never be defined as just hardware and infrastructure. As elaborated in the Smart Schools blueprint, it involves creating an enriching curriculum which will enhance critical thinking skills; a pedagogy that seeks to make learning more interesting, motivating, stimulating, and meaningful; a holistic assessment system and teaching-learning materials which will accommodate students’ differing needs and abilities.

Datuk Hishammuddin should instead conduct a thorough and honest study of the implementation of the Smart School project which was awarded to Telekom Smart School Consortium in 1999. Did we meet the above objectives even for the 90 pilot "Smart Schools" which we have built (are there actually 90 built?)? What were the short-comings and what are the steps which must be taken to make sure that the short-comings are rectified? The Smart School concept is noble in principle - unfortunately, it appears that the actual execution of the project by the responsible parties were just not up to scratch.

I'll try to provide more updates to the Smart School project here. Watch this space! :)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Pak Lah's Early Schooling Experience

I've written on many individuals reminiscence on the 70s and early 80s national school education system. But this is probably the first time, I've heard details about our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi's detailed personal education experience - and it's really feels good to know.

Pak Lah was at his old secondary school alumni, High School Bukit Mertajam (HSBM) to launch the HSBM Alumni Malaysia Students' Welfare Fund where he recounted his experience in early education. This was reported in the Star today. I've quoted below, a large chunk of the article here, because I can't find words which will make the message any clearer.
The Prime Minister spent the first four years of his primary education at a madrasah before being sent to the English school where he was placed in the Special Malay Class 1 (SMC 1) as he could not speak in English back then.

That year, the headmaster decided to change the system and let a non-Malay teach that class.

“Imagine how I felt, I didn't understand anything he said,” said Abdullah, who added that he had no one at home to teach him English. But that was the best change the headmaster made. He felt that if we were to be given a good foundation in English, our teacher should be someone who did not speak Malay. Soon, we were speaking better English than those in SMC 2.”
In hindsight, Pak Lah realised that the ability to speak good English provided him with an edge for many of his future classmates spoke only English.
“Our good foundation in English helped us to communicate with our new friends. Language became the tool that brought us together,” he said, adding that he then made great friends with many non-Malays. Abdullah said his two good friends, fellow alumnus Datuk Lim Chee Wah and P. Kanason were Chinese and Indian, but the fact that they were from a different race and religion was never a conscious factor to him.

“It was an excellent opportunity for me to mix with students from other races and it taught me a good lesson on how to respect and tolerate my friends who are non-Malays. Because of this experience, I learned to respect the non-Muslims and non-Malays,” he said.
Pak Lah needs to recount these stories more often to the nation for these are the stories that will hopefully over time, shift the mindset of the language nationalists (of all races) to understand the importance of the English language.

More importantly, and more subtly, the message emphasises the key importance of racial integration from young. It is only through regular interaction, will one learn to "respect and tolerate" the "non-Muslims and non-Malays" (and of course, vice versa). However, contrary to Pak Lah's experience in the 50s, the education system in Malaysia has evolved over time to become more racially centric (see blogpost here), particularly at institutions of higher learning where regulation specifically prevents a mixed racial education. Many Malay students, particularly the top performing ones, are strongly encouraged to join the Maktab Rendah Sains Malaysia (MRSM) matriculation colleges. There are of course also "institutionalised" racial and political universities such as UiTM for Malays and UTAR for Chinese.

I believe that Pak Lah is sincere in wanting to see a racially integrated and harmonious education system and society in Malaysia. However, the question is, what does it take for the rest of his administration to put aside short term political posturing to share his vision for a truly united Malaysia.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Provide Quality Education for All" (II)

Following yesterday's story on the 12 year old boy who was caught stealing for the umpteenth time, whose mother was contemplating placing him with the welfare department, it's heart warming to see someone else who was reported today in the Star to beat the odds and shine.
Coming from a broken home and living in hardship, many would have little inspiration to succeed. But that is not the case with N. Shamilin, 20, who was sent to a welfare home after her father walked out on the family when she was just a baby.

Shamilin kept the faith, and took up graphic design at the Montfort Boys Town. And on Sunday, Shamilin walked tall when she was presented the Best Graphic Designer Award and the Brother Henry Award for “Creativity Talent” at Montfort's graduation ceremony.
Like many others, Shamilin could easily have ended in the streets with little future ahead of her. Fortunately, Montfort provided her with an avenue for her to make full use of her latent talents which will now give her the opportunity to chart her own destiny.

Much credit must be given to Montfort Boys Town for providing these individuals with a brighter future. Shamilin was among the 143 students who graduated with Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia certificates. To quote Shamilin:
“What I like most is that it provides holistic education. You don't only learn a particular skill here. Focus is also given on character formation, communication and living skills.”
To give a bit of a plug to Montfort, it was first established in 1959, founded by four Brothers of St Gabriel's congregation at an abandoned rubber estate located at Batu Tiga, Selangor, Malaysia. The four Brothers had a special dream; a dream that there must be a home for underprivileged boys. In the eyes of many, these boys are worthless and good for nothing. But for these pioneering brothers, they are very special.

The name Montfort is in the honour of St Louis Marie de Montfort (1673-1716) of France, whose love for the poor is epitomised by the quote "Those whom the world rejects must move you the most".

Montfort Boys Town is an Institute of Public Character and is dependent on public donations for its operation. It costs Montfort more than RM2 million a year to operate. The bulk of the funds raised are through public donations. Public donations make up 75% of funding for Montfort, while the government grants make up only 10%.

Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Ong Tee Keat was the special guest at the graduation event.
Ong said the Government was grateful to Montfort for giving hope to people from needy families and orphans, and pledged to forward its request to exempt its students from national service to the Government.
But I think the Government needs to do more than that - not just being "grateful". The government needs to see that there are the poor and forsaken in Malaysia who requires serious help, particularly an opportunity to acquire quality education for individuals such as the boy highlighted yesterday. Shamilin was fortunate, for Montfort was there for her. There are probably many many others who do not have that fortune. Institutes such as Montfort need greater support from the government, and these will be worthwhile expenditure for it will be spent on building a future for our youth, giving hope to the poor.

Malaysians should be provided assistance, irrespective of race, religion or creed and the education policy for the Malaysian Agenda must be drafted as such. Only then will the government be paying heed to the declaration provided by our Prime Minister, to "Provide Quality Education for All".

Note: You can donate (tax exempt) to Montfort Boys Town by printing out the donation slip.