Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Task Force for Maths Genius

Wah, the Ministry of Education has decided that it needed to form a task force to oversee the education needs of six-year-old maths wizard, Adi Putra Abdul Ghani.

The Star has reported that the ministry’s "planning and education research policy director Dr Salleh Hassan said his officers will identify a suitable school for the boy." This was probably a follow up to the comment made by the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein who argued that Adi should be exposed to "more challenging work."
“His special education package will take into consideration his age, ambition, education programme and the relocation for the boy and his family to attend the school,” he said yesterday.
Hey, how about the Ministry looks at a special programme for all special "geniuses" in the country instead of doing this piecemeal just because a single candidate has been highlighted in the press for his special talents? Wouldn't the effort of the task force to plan for Adi be just about the same, if expanded to include all other talented students?

There should be a special gifted kids programme to be carried out at selected top schools in the country so that the talents of these individuals are given the support, encouragement and facilities to blossom.

I'm not embarrassed to say that the idea is a simple copy-cat thingie from the Singapore education programme, for they have started the gifted students programme and have continuously expanded it since the (if I'm not wrong, 1983). There's nothing wrong with a copy-cat policy if the policy works, and it certainly did for Singapore. I have many friends who were from this programme and I can say that many are all deputy-directors and directors of the administrative service in Singapore, as well as senior managers of the large government-linked copmanies.

From the pool of UPSR candidates, the top say, 1% of the students should be offered additional aptitude tests to determine suitability towards the gifted education programme. They should be provided the opportunities to learn from the top teachers with the best facilities and environment to ensure that their respective intellectual faculties are given the chance to reach their full potential.

The Minister of Education has stated that his Ministry "was determined to cater to the needs of child prodigies as we “don’t want to lose them to the private sector or another country.”" I am certain that we are in agreement with the Ministers' comments. However, the way to achieve the objectives is not be taking up wiz kids on a case-by-case basis through some piecemeal policies but through thorough combing of our young talents and proper structured programmes to fit their needs.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

All About Gong Xi Fa Cai

Kian Ming and myself will like to wish our Chinese readers a very Happy New Year of the Dog - 新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le!). We hope that you will enjoy success in everything you venture - 万事如意 (Wan Shi Ru Yi).

For all you young students out there, old man Tony here would like to wish you leaping improvements in your studies - 学业进步 (Xie Yan Jin Bu) and taking bigger steps to achieve greater heights - 步步高升 (Bu Bu Gao Sheng)

And for all pursuing their careers as well as budding businessmen (and women), we'd like to wish you a prosperous and wealthy year - 恭喜发财 (Gong Xi Fa Cai) and enjoy fruitful successes in all your ventures - 大吉大利 (Da Ji Da Li).

And of course, for non-Chinese readers out there, we'd like to wish you happy holidays as well as happy visiting and feasting on your Chinese friends.

I'll leave you here with a note from Uncle Yap of BeritaMalaysia with regards to using the right terminology for the Chinese Lunar New Year :-)
The correct hanyu pinyin spelling for the Lunar New Year greeting is Gong Xi Fa Cai, but every year without fail, someone will make the boo-boo and I blame the advertising agencies for not doing their homework.

More than 25 years ago, one of my duties as Admin Manager was to order corporate greeting cards and that was about the time Hanyu Pinyin was first introduced to this part of the world following its adoption by the Singapore Govt. I took the trouble to buy a dictionary, got the correct spelling and used Gong Xi Fa Cai on our corporate greeting cards.

Carlsberg made thousands of banner two years ago with the last word misspelled as Chai. Today, more than 25 years after the introduction of Hanyu Pinyin, DBKL is using the same advertising agency to perpetuate the same error on hundreds of lamppost in KL. The RHB Bank had a full-page colour ad in today's Sun using the same misspelling.

So, here you go, Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Loans for Accredited Courses Only

In another funny deal, the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) has announced that it will only give out loans for accredited courses only, from July 1st on wards.

Eh er... why are we giving loans to unaccredited courses in the first place? And why are we extending the deadline for getting loans for unaccredited course by some 6 months so that students of those courses can still rush for last minute loans?

And guess what, according to our Minister of Higher Education, "only one-quarter of the courses currently approved for loans are accredited".
PTPTN was giving out loans for 2,225 courses offered at private institutions but only 564 of them had received accreditation from the National Accreditation Board.
What was interesting was the reason provided by the Minister for this apparent change in policy.
"Many loan recipients have refused to repay their loans as they say their qualification is worthless as it is not accredited by JPA even though it was approved by PTPTN.
So the change in policy is due to ungrateful students and not because the previous policy didn't make sense at all? So if there's another batch of ungrateful students who took up accredited courses but was unable to find employment which pays beyond RM1,000 per month, loans should be denied to these courses as well? Hmmm....

Lecturers to Pass Test

Hmmm... in a circular issued by the Public Services Department, lecturers of public universities are now required to pass a "standard of academic excellence" to be fixed by the university's board of directors in order to be promoted.
According to a circular issued by the Public Services Department, both the Higher Education Ministry and the universities will work together to set the criteria for the standard.
Err... you mean that prior to this, one doesn't have to pass any standards in order to be promoted? OK, let's not get too sarcastic before the Lunar New Year. :-)

Anyway, it was also interesting to read in the same report in the Star that even academics have to pass the "Efficiency Level Assessment Test" meant for the civil service. So we do have civil servants acting as academics after all... sigh.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Storm & Teacups @ Univ of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

In a story that is covered exclusively by Malaysiakini and not seen in the mainstream press, there appears to be some form of crisis brewing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC). I have previously written fairly favourably about the University (largely on its undergraduate programme here).

The entire episode was started by a possibly disgruntled senior academic at the Malaysian campus, Geoffrey Williams when he protested against an alleged discrimination against Malaysian MBA students at UNMC. I really won't go into the details here, but essentially Williams accused the examining body in the United Kingdom (UK) of lowering standards of marking in the UK home campus which in turn, resulted in a poorer performance amongst the Malaysian-based candidates.

It's actually an interesting accusation, for I would actually have expected a reverse in discrimination as a commercially oriented university as many from Australia have become would be keen to increase in-take in foreign campuses to become more profitable and hence may take actions which may make it easier to enrol into the college and secure its degrees. Interestingly enough, if the above accusation is true, then my perception of the UNMC MBA graduates will be raised further, as the quality of output is even better than the graduates from the home course.

However, equally possible is that the Malaysian students enrolled are just not up to par in general and was unable to meet the external examiners' marking criteria in the UK. The University's chief executive officer, Professor Brian P Atkins, made vague references to the above (probably vague so as to avoid stepping into another landmine :-)) while making a vague defense of the university.

However, for the current students as well as the prospective candidates of the MBA course at the University, I'm more concerned with regards to the reported "brain drain" from the University. UNMC’s Business School was reported to have allegedly lost more than half its senior faculty members including lecturers seconded from the UK.
Dr Geoffrey Williams, who quit in mid-December, said nine senior staff out of a total 14 have left the school for various reasons although the main grouse appears to be a “general dissatisfaction” with the university’s overall administration. He said the school initially had 18 staff but was soon left with 14, which has since dwindled further.

Over the last 18 months, he said the school has lost two professors, four associate professors, two assistant professors and the school manager - all of whom had either resigned or their contract not renewed.
This loss of staff may not have been surprising as a possible key issue is where the University is sited - in Broga, Semenyih. For many of the UK lecturers, being seconded from a university in the city to one in Broga, located some 90 minutes away from the Kuala Lumpur (KL) city centre, may be regarded as a hardship posting. Some might even construe such postings as constructive dismissals, if not done on a voluntary basis. Even Malaysians from urban KL will be unhappy at the thought of being posted to Broga, not to mention expatriates from Nottingham.

However, the above is an internal issue for the university to resolve with its staff. What's more important for prospective students is that the teaching quality may be affected by the severe loss of staff. To quote Williams:
“I mention this because the make up of the staff at (the UNMC) is now mostly Malaysians with no experience of the UK system, so students will get a very similar experience as that at any other Malaysian university although they pay many times as much for it in fees!”

“I understand they have recruited an associate professor from Universiti Malaya and an assistant professor from Monash (Malaysia).”
Hence students expecting to be taught and lectured at UNMC may suffer from a lack of fulfilment in terms of the experience of learning from senior academics from the UK. Personally, I actually believe that the problems will be resolved over time as the campus is still fairly new, but immediate prospective students to the university may want to review their options with greater care. Most importantly, obtain details of the teaching academics at the faculty, conduct the necessary research on their background before signing up for the programme. For that matter, do that exercise for all the universities you intend to sign up to, for while there is a little storm over UNMC at this point of time doesn't make the other colleges necessarily better.

Good luck! And thanks to Anne for the heads up. :-)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Making Complaints Working?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm personally very sceptical with regards to the quality as well as many of the programmes currently being offered by the tens of private colleges in this country. One of my early "seminal" pieces written on this blog was the criticism with regards to the private colleges which have a tendency to advertise themselves as "world-class" despite being no where near the required standards. To date, It's still by far the most popular post on the blog, having been accessed more than 8,000 times. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when the post was quoted by the Sun, as part of their Dialogue on Education feature, when Tan Sri Yahaya Ibrahim, the pro-chancellor of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, founding president of the National Association of Private and Independent Educational Institutions Malaysia, and a past president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities was required to defend Malaysia's twinning programmes.

Well, it appears that making the displeasure known with regards to the manner in which these colleges have been conducting themselves in their marketing and promotion campaigns might just be having an impact. It was reported in the New Straits Times on Saturday last week, that the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Fu Ah Kiow said the ministry was considering punitive action against operators of colleges and universities who publish or broadcast "misleading or deceptive" advertisements.
The ministry, said Fu, has been receiving an average of 20 complaints a day, mostly about private institutions of higher learning.

"The current procedure is to issue a directive to stop the misleading advertisement by withdrawing or amending the advertisement immediately... Usually they will comply and that’s it; no action is taken against them. We cannot continue to be so lenient because then they will never learn their lesson. We have to act, especially against repeat offenders."
It was made known that under the Private Higher Education Act, offenders can be fined RM50,000 or jailed six months for offences such as promoting higher learning institutions without approval, making false sensitive statements and providing false and misleading statements during promotions.

It is great to hear that the Ministry is planning to act against the offenders, and I do hope to seriously see action being taken for I've seen too many advertisement in the past 2 months of student recruitment that I was getting a tad nauseous.

On top of that, it is hoped that the Ministry will take a more pro-active stand in determining the definitions of when a college can use the terms such as "world-class" in their promotional materials. As far as I'm concerned, almost every single private college in Malaysia have the term describing themselves in one way or another. These colleges should not be allowed to get around promotional guidelines by using terms which are difficult to verify and are meant solely for the purpose of recruiting more guillible students.

The main concern I have in this case is the fact that the Ministry of Higher Learning is playing an increasing role in promoting the private education sector in order to attract a greater number of foreign students into the country. Such a role appears to be in conflict with a clampdown on potentially misleading and deceptive advertisements as it is likely that the inistry will tolerate a certain level of "creative" marketing in order to promote Malaysia as a "world-class" education sector.

I don't have an answer to how the above conflict can be resolved. However, I'm of the opinion that the importance of ensuring that our Malaysian students are not misled is of greater importance than that of increasing our foreign student population by another 50,000. It is also possible that the "commercial" promotion of the private education sector to foreign students by led by the Ministry in charge of Tourism, like the apparent policy in Singapore. Irrespective, let's hope to see progress in the regulation of the private sector education market in Malaysia.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Education Reforms: Forwards or Back?

It's actually interesting that the New Straits Times (NST) seems to be able to get better access to the Ministries of Education and Higher Education with regards to policy issues. For example, there was no noticeable reports of the changing of guard at the various universities recently in the Star. Now, it was reported a week ago by NST that there appears to be some significant education reforms under way as part of the 9th Malaysia Plan which is in the midst of being finalised.

Some of the important but incremental piecemeal actions to be taken which was announced by the Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein are:
  • Building and upgrading more schools, as well as repairing those which need a facelift and are in dangerous condition due to termite attacks or floods;

  • Major inventory-taking and consolidation of the ICT initiatives in schools;

  • Remedial and intervention programmes to ensure students mastered Reading, Writing and Arithmetic skills;

  • Expanding Special Education programmes; and,

  • Strengthening the national language.
However, it is in the context of making significant reforms in the education system which I found interesting reading. The Minister of Education emphasised the need for Malaysia to adapt to the various education policy changes and developments around the world.

"The way we assess our children’s achievements in learning must be in response to developments and changes in the world... We can also assess our students’ achievements through examinations conducted by bodies such as TIMSS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)."

TIMSS is an organisation which provides "reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of American students". While I'm lauding the effort of the Minister to look at global trends and learning from their successes and failures, I'm a little concerned with regards to the fact that we may be looking at the wrong country for the education of mathematics and science policies.

While the United States (US) may be a developed country and a global leader in technology, it has been apparent in many studies conducted in recent years that the quality of Mathematics and Science education received by the average student receives has been on steep decline. In a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2003 on 15 year olds, the United States was ranked a poor 25th-28th out of 41 countries surveyed for Mathematics. For Science, US was ranked 20th-27th. The countries which topped the rankings were Hong Kong, Finland, South Korea and Japan. (For those who are curious, Singapore was not included in this study.)

To quote the American Institutes for Research (AIR) which conducted a studyin 2005 funded by the US Department of Education:
Despite a widely held belief that U.S. students do well in mathematics in grade school but decline precipitously in high school, a new study comparing the math skills of students in industrialized nations finds that U.S. students in 4th and 8th grade perform consistently below most of their peers around the world and continue that trend into high school.

U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades.
In fact, in another study by AIR, we actually do not have to look far to seek help and assistance in advancing our teaching in Mathematics and Science. The AIR report entitled "What United States Can Learn from Singapore's World Class Mathematics System" (available in full PDF here, and a summary here). This study, also financed by the US Department of Education, was released in January 2005. The AIR has found that
...comparing the teaching of elementary school mathematics in the United States and Singapore has found that Singapore’s textbooks and assessment examinations are more demanding and their teachers more skilled mathematically but that U.S. approaches often put more emphasis on certain important 21 st century math skills.
Singapore is a recognized leader in mathematics achievement. Singaporean students ranked first in the world on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study-2003, while U.S. students ranked 16th out of the 46 participating nations. Scores for U.S. students were among the lowest of all industrialized countries.

“It is unreasonable to assume that Singaporean students have mathematical abilities inherently superior to those of U.S. students; rather, there must be something about the system that Singapore has developed to teach mathematics that is better than the system we use in the United States. That’s why it’s important to take a closer look, and see how the U.S can learn and how the U.S can improve,” says Steven Leinwand, the lead AIR author.
As part of the detailed study, AIR conducted four pilot programs that using Singapore's mathematics textbook involving students in Baltimore, Md., Montgomery County, Md., North Middlesex, Mass., and Paterson, N.J.
The study found two pilot sites produced sizeable improvements in student outcomes, but overall the study observed mixed results because “the pilot sites, to varying degrees, encountered problems with teachers who lacked the educational preparation needed.”
In fact a detailed study must be conducted of the Singapore system which was evaluated by TIMSS as part of the 15-year old survey conducted on a 4 yearly basis in 28 countries. Back in 1995, Singapore was ranked joint 1st with South Korea for Mathematics, and 9th for Science. In 1999, it improved its rankings to 1st and 2nd respective. And for the most recent study conducted in 2003, Singapore topped both the Mathematics and Science categories.

More controversially, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein may be stamping his mark on the education system by commenting that:
...the ministry would study calls to reduce the number of subjects in public examinations and only test pupils on certain subjects.

"The 9th Malaysia Plan period can be used to see if we can change the emphasis in public exams from being too content-based to a more skill-based one, or from achievement tests to tests on general ability".
Contrary to many educated opinion that I know exists out there - I'm of the opinion that the issue with our education system is not so much with the examinations system, but with the way the subjects are taught, which in turn is a function of the textbook, the quality of the teachers and the quality of the assessors.

I'm personally a product of the "examination system" from primary to tertiary education. I've sat for exams which are overly content oriented as well as exams which test the candidates analytical and critical thinking skills of the contents learnt during the specific course. I find that the problem is not with an examination system (which I regard as critical) and tweaking with experiments like taking fewer subjects, but in changing the approach to examinations - beginning with the teachers and the examination questions. Let me give an example of comparative question from the much maligned subject of history. Compare the following three questions:
  1. What are the events leading to the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

  2. What are the factors which caused the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

  3. Was the fall of the Melaka Sultanate inevitable?
The questions to me, represents different degrees of thinking and analytical skills despite dealing with the same subject as well as probably comprising the very same content in the answers. The approach to the first question probably involves a semi-chrological listing of the events leading to the fall of the sultanate with cursory linkages to the reasons behind the fall of the sultanate. The approach to the 2nd question will be slightly more analytical as the student will have to discern and derive the factors behind the fall, from the actual historical events. However, the 3rd question is probably the hardest as it requires the student to think and analyse hardest as to the inevitability of the fall of the sultanate given the events and factors. However, you would note that the students, irrespective of the question are required to learn and know in hand, the facts with regards to the fall of the sultanate.

Hence, my brief argument in an issue which can spawn volumes of theses, is that there is nothing wrong with examinations per se, as well as learning facts and figures as part of the curriculum. However, what is important is for the educators to take the next step and inculcate analytical and critical thinking skills for application on the facts and figures learnt. This is in order for students to cope with a movement of the examination system which tests analytical and critical thinking skills on top of knowing ones' facts. Changing our examination system from a more "content-based to a more skill-based one" is not the answer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Maths in English? Sue the Government!

In what I would call a clear case of students with really nothing better to do, the Star reported that four students have filed a suit against the Government over its policy to teach Science and Mathematics in English.
The students – Mohammad Syawwaal Mohammad Nizar, Mohammad Fadzil Nor Mohd Rosni, Nur Najihah Muhaimin and Syazaira Arham Yahya Ariff – are seeking to declare two circulars on the execution of the policy dated Nov 27, 2002, unconstitutional, null and void, and of no effect.

They are also seeking a declaration from the High Court that the Government had no power and privilege to introduce, enforce and implement the policy stated in the two circulars.

Apart from that, the students also want the High Court to issue an order to compel the Government to change or restore the policy stated in those two policies according to the provisions of the Federal Constitution and written laws regarding the matter.
These students are basing their suit on the provision of laws like the National Language Act 1967 and the Education Act 1966, as well as Article 152 which enshrined the Malay language as the national language.

More incredulously, they claimed that due to the different teaching policy for the subjects in the national schools as compared to the vernacular schools, the government is practising discrimination and enforcing inequality.

I actually wonder what type of inequality they are referring to, for I can think of a fair few other types of inequality one can file suit in our courts with better legal grounds. I suppose the court should just strike out the suit with a "reprimand" for making frivolous use of the court's time, creating further backlog in our already inefficient court process.

The kids would probably not know what the heck they have been doing without instigation from their parents or even possibly their teachers. I really wonder what vested interest these parties have in filing the suit. Who knows, I might just get a lawsuit against me for promoting the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English as well... :-)


In one of my earlier post, I wrote blogged a TuitionHamster.com providing free tuition matchmaking services. Well, looks like the mainstream newspapers have caught on to the new service as The Sunday Star did a little write up on it, "Match me a Tuition Teacher" last Sunday.
Timothy Tiah Ewe Tiam, 21, Edward Boey, 22 and Wilson Quah Jing Qi, 21 are the Internet entrepreneurs responsible for introducing this system of meeting tuition needs to IT users in Malaysia at no charge... Through the search engine, students can look for tutors in their neighbourhood who can provide tuition in the subjects they require. Similarly, tuition teachers can search for students as well.
And for those who are interested in finding out more about their origins, the article has some answers for you.

Why TuitionHamster?
"The school/college may have the best teachers but nothing can substitute personal attention from a teacher,” says Tiah, a final year student in Economics at University College London.
Why Hamster?
“When we were trying to think of names for the website, we didn’t want something conventional like TuitionLink which is very forgettable. With a name like Tuitionhamster, people are intrigued. The name sticks in your head.

“Besides, hamsters are cute and I used to stay with a family that had a lot of hamsters in their house.
Other services available on the website includes a "Hamster Library" as well as "Bounty Hamster". The library service provides a database of e-books which can be downloaded for free - including classics, novels, short stories and more. "Bounty Hamster" on the other hand, is for entrepreneurial spirits out there who would actually like to collect a fee to help secure students for tuition teachers.

As a footnote, on top of my previous posts here, here and here on the supposed RM4 billion tuition market in Malaysia, my personal thoughts on tuition is that there isn't any harm to it, as long as it is taken in the right spirit and for the right reasons. :-)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Universiti Malaya - Carnegie Mellon U Tie-Up

In an interesting development, Malaysian students will be able to enrol for a master's degree programme in information technology management at Universiti Malaya (UM) offered by the Heinz School of Public Policy Management of Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU).

Avid movie fans may recall the movie, "A Beautiful Mind" starring Russell Crowe as the often misunderstood genius, Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, Jr., famous for his groundbreaking work in Game Theory economics. One of the basic game theory principles was also named after him, the Nash Equilibrium. Well, CMU is where John Nash graduated with his Masters and Bachelor's in Mathematics. It is also currently the 22nd ranked university in the United States according to the US News.

In a press release publised at Bernama as well as the iCarnegie website:
The Master of Science in Information Technology, Managing Systems Development, or MSIT-MSD degree, is designed to meet the demand among employers and employees in Asia and worldwide for the most modern technical management skills. This professional degree provides and demonstrates a high degree of preparation and knowledge in the modern technical, organizational, and managerial capabilities required by most organizations today, especially those whose business depends on IT.

The MSIT-MSD degree offered in Kuala Lumpur is the same credential received by Carnegie Mellon students who study at the Pittsburgh campus. Students in the program will be registered as Carnegie Mellon students.
Who is this programme targetted at?
Ultimately, the program is intended to enhance the competitive advantage of students and their employers in today's increasingly global market. The degree program is designed for students who seek rapid career advancement in IT-related areas, in a variety of organizations. It will be offered in a part-time mode, allowing currently employed individuals to obtain a degree while continuing to advance their careers, and immediately putting what they learn into practice. It is anticipated that some companies may wish to sponsor employees for matriculation into the program.
This venture between UM and CMU is facilitated by CMU subsidiary, iCarnegie. While the actual facilitation role of iCarnegie isn't exactly clear from the press releases so far, we do know that it focuses on commercialising CMU's teaching through franchise and licensing programmes worldwide.
iCarnegie is now an independent company that continues to work with Carnegie Mellon faculty to develop and maintain exceptional curriculum and professional IT skills certifications in Computer Programming and Software Systems Development. The curriculum is delivered by licensed education partners, which receive additional support services from iCarnegie in the areas of rapid faculty preparation, ongoing instructor support and mentoring, data analysis, program management, and marketing
Nevertheless, it is good that this programme is now on offer in Malaysia although understandably, the course will a costly one, setting you back by some RM138,000. Thanks for Anon reader for the heads up.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Economics & Education

I did a conference paper about 2 to 3 weeks ago with regards to the Malaysian Economy: Its Threats & Challenges. I thought it might just be useful to write a little about it here on this blog. So, how and what has the Malaysian economy got to do with education? Well, there's actually plenty to do with our economy, particularly in the future.

The diagram which I put up above probably summarises the entire gist of my presentation.

The Graph charts the growth path that Malaysian intends to pursue. For many years in the 1980s and early 1990s, Malaysia grew at a rapid rate of between 8-10% annually. Those would be the years that many businessmen will recall with fond memories. Unfortunately, by the time I started my own business, the boom years were a thing of the past.

Today, it appears that the structure of the Malaysian economy is only able to cater to growth in the region of 3-6%, with anything above 5%, we appear to be extremely thankful. Some of the tools that the government has to fine tune the 3-6% are highlighted in the bottom part of the chart. They include manipulating interest and exchange rates, the restructuring of government linked companies, tax and investment incentives etc.

On the left and right of the chart, you'll find the twin threats to the Malaysian economy as well as the largest factors keeping our growth rates capped at below 6%. First of all, we have China who have over the past decade emerged as the fastest growing economy in the world. As a result, China is sucking in all the foreign investments away from Southeast Asia - in manufacturing sectors from electronics to soft toys. Malaysia and Southeast Asia are no longer the "preferred" manufacturing base for foreign multinational companies.

On the right, you will have the sky-rocketing oil prices which may in the near term serve as an economic dampener to the global economy, which will in turn retard our growth. While the negative oil price impact on Malaysians will be negated somewhat from the fact that we are net exporters of oil, many other richer countries which dominate the global economy are not so lucky. As a result rising prices will result in a reduction of demand, particularly on electronic consumer goods. It's worth noting that manufacturing contributes to some 30% of the Malaysian economy, and the bulk of it is electrical manufacturing.

Hence the strategy of many nations like us today is really to diversify from industries in which China has an increasing (if not overwhelming) competitive advantage and focus on more intellectual property driven sectors. These "new" knowledge economy sectors as indicated in the top part of the chart, are meant to take Malaysia to the next level, hopefully a return to the glory days of 8-10% growth per annum, represented by the top arrow in the chart. You would have noted that the Malaysian government has "promoted" heavily in these "new economy" sectors such as information technology through the Multimedia Super Corridor and biotechnology through projects such as the BioValley and its corresponding tax and investment incentives.

However, try as hard as the government to promote these sectors, the rate of growth and development has been to date, a little disappointing. The underlying reason for the failure is extremely simple. While attempting to promote the "new economy", the regime is still pretty much focused on the "old economy" mechanisms. When Malaysia grew rapidly in the 1980s led by the manufacturing and industrial sectors, the key policies were to allocate land, provide pioneer and tax incentives, supply a pool of labour sufficiently literate to understanding assembly plant operations, and investors "flocked" to the country.

The same strategy appeared when Malaysia tried to move into the new economy. Promotions and incentives were given to geographically designated zones coupled with a liberalisation to import "knowledge workers" into the country.

What the government has failed to take into consideration really, and the real reason why these policies have not set the world alight, is simply "education". The knowledge economy is termed as such precisely because it relies almost entirely on top quality educated population. Practically everything else plays a supporting role. There is absolutely no short cut to the process. The "new economy", so to speak, is all about what's in the head, and not about competent workers operating machineries.

Only with the right amount, quality and level of education for the Malaysian population, can Malaysia hope to make the "jump" in growth rates from the unexciting 3-6% annually to anything above the 8% mark. Singapore is facing the same challenge as Malaysia in moving from a electronics-based manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. However, their efforts, particularly in the biotechnology sector appears to be bearing fruits as the pharmaceutical based industries in Singapore helped pushed Singapore's growth rate last year to almost 7%, after "languishing" below 6% for a few years.

What's the difference in this case between Malaysia and Singapore? For me, it is in the difference between the educational institutions. This "education gap" is epitomised by the fact that the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are both world-class institutions. For those interested in rankings, they are ranked 22nd and 48th respectively by the Times Higher Education Supplemnet (THES).

Probably more significantly, they are rated even higher for the new economy subjects, tecnology, science and biomedicine - which are critical inputs into the knowledge-based economy in the areas of information technology, high-end industrial design, biotechnology etc. Their rankings for these sectors are summarised below:
  • Technology - NUS (9th) and NTU (26th)
  • Science - NUS (34th) (There is no science faculty in NTU)
  • Biomedicine - NUS (15th) (There is only a biological sciences school in NTU, no medicine faculty)
Comparatively, Malaysia, despite having 17 public universities and 10 local private universities, as well as 11 "university colleges", none feature prominently, if at all, in the global university rankings. The best that Malaysia could achieve was a 169th ranking for Universiti Malaya overall, with none featuring in the top 50 for the 3 fields above. Malaysian universities are not featured at all in the other respected Shanghai JiaoTung University Top 500 universities rankings list. I've also written previously on the attitute and response of the interested parties of the two systems here.

It appears quite obvious that Malaysia has decided to place greater importance of quantity over the need for quality. 3 universities serves the interest of the 4.4 million population in Singapore, while 38 similar institutions are serving the needs of Malaysia's 25.6 million. That means that Malaysia has more than double the relative ratios of universities. The ratio will only increase further as Malaysia has plans to add another public university in Kelantan soon and are upgrading more private colleges to "university college" status.

The fact that we have tens of thousand of unemployed graduates only serves to provide empirical evidence to the fact that we are over-producing degree graduates, the bulk of which do not meet the necessary standards to partake in the new economy. It was unsurprising that despite the shortage of labour to meet demand for computer engineers and programmers in the country, a large proportion of these unemployed graduates are actually from the computer science faculties of the local universities.

In the past, our manufacturing industries have been driven by "raw materials" which we have in abundance - land, commodities and affordable competent labour. The competitive advantage in these sectors have been eroded in the past years by "emerging" China and may one day, disappear altogether. However, despite the earnest in which the government is promoting the knowledge economy, we have not done enough to provide and supply the necessary "raw materials" for the new economy - a large enough and competent talent pool of graduates produced by top quality universities.

It is my humble opinion that, until the Malaysian government hardens its resolve to dramatically reform the education system from primary to tertiary in Malaysia to raise the quality output significantly, Malaysia's dreams of having the 'knowledge economy' to help boost growth in the country will not be achieved anywhere in the near future. I would call on the Government to spend the windfall income derived from the high and rising oil prices on improving the quality of education in Malaysia to leave an enduring legacy for the country. That is why, education is intrinsically and critically related to the future economy of Malaysia.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

More Creative Degrees

Before this post gets taken as an advertisement for LimKokWing University College of Creative Technology (LUCCT), let me emphasize that it is not the case. But I must compliment the school administrators for living up to their "creative" name by coming up with some of the most "creative" degree programmes to attract the possibly still naive and blurry eyed Form Five students.

However is this creativity to come up with the hip-sounding degree programmes really a good thing for the prospective students? This is not the first time I've written about LUCCT's creative advertising programmes. Check out "Mindpower is more Powderful" and "Unmatched * Unequalled * Unrivalled". I suppose, I've picked on their advertisements to write about more frequently than other private colleges (who are often equally guilty in creative advertising) is because LUCCT probably spends the most in media advertising, and their ads are indeed while not graphically creative, are content-wise most "creative".

Having Bachelor's Degrees in subjects such as Mobile Computing, Animation, Event Management sounds exciting on first glance, and certainly gives the impression of being "innovative". While there is definitely a demand for candidates with skills in mobile computing, animation etc. as per the "appropriately" named degree programmes, I have grave reservations as to whether such niche programmes should be a "degree" programmes in the first place.

Should we for example, have a degree in "Word Processing" or "Financial Spreadsheet Management" or for that matter "Secretaryship" just because these skills are "in demand" in the marketplace? I've written some eight months back with regards with graduates with "Neither Here Nor There Degrees", would the above be such degrees?

If I'm a graduate with an Animation degree, what are my job prospects in the market? What will be the growth and career path which I am able to take over a period of 10-20 years? For that matter, how much is an "animator" paid in the market and what's the typical market increment like annually?

With a degree in such a specialised subject such as Animation, am I not limiting myself in terms of career and personal growth prospects? Will I remain an animator for the rest of my life?

I have no disrespect to animators, and I'm certain that there are well-paid animators in the market. My concern is, should degree programmes be this specialised and so focused on skills, instead of focusing on broader aspects such as critical thinking, analytical skills etc.? After completing a more all-rounded degree programme, then the candidates may choose a more specialised occupation as "animators", and they will be better employees as a result.

Shouldn't for example, mobile computing be a topic or subject within a degree programme for Computer Science instead of being a degree on its own?

The larger underlying question for both the students and authorities to ponder over is what is the role of a university, as opposed to more skills based institutions such as polytechnics. It is my core belief that polytechnics and institutes should be focusing more on skills such as "industrial design" or "secretaryship" and issuing diplomas (or certificates) for the relevant subjects. Universities instead should focus on broader subjects which exposes students to a wider variety of topics, which in turn tests the candidates for their critical thinking and analytical skills. A degree in say, "Animation" does not do that. I'm not sure what do students actually learn for 3 years of "Animation" for the degree.

In my previous post with regards to neither here nor there degree programmes, I gave the example of a degree programme in multimedia design and technology. The bulk of the course work is unfortunately focused on utilising software applications available in the market like Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Authorware, Flash and Fireworks, and a mix of user-interface development tools such as Dreamweaver or Frontpage etc. If you ask me if these skills are useful, I'd definitely say "yes".

But if you ask me whether these tools are difficult to pick up, whether they should be taught as part of a degree programme, I'd give a definitive "no" as the answer. The only difference between Photoshop and a Wordprocessor like Microsoft Word is one deals with images, while the other deals with word documents. Should we be having examinations contributing to the students' overall CGPA for Microsoft Word? No!

Such tools are incidental to the subject which is being taught and students should be expected to pick up those skills on their own as part of projects submission or as a "Certificate" programme.

So, prospective students of tertiary education out there really need to keep their eyes wide open with regards to the fancy degree programmes. Unfortunately, our higher education authorities do not possess the necessary competency to differentiate between the quality of courses to regulate the industry in the required fashion. Hence, as a result,
it is pretty much left to the students themselves to differentiate the real stuff from the hype to prevent enrolment into a wrong course (or institution), possibly putting waste a valuable 3 years of one's life in education.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In Pursuit of Degrees...

The Sunday Star two weeks ago had a very well written commentary piece with regards to the pursuit of education and degrees. These are definitely words to remember for anyone intending to take education for what it should be instead of the "corrupted" version many in our society take it for.

On education fairs and marketing hype:
Education fairs and college open houses are in season and it is hard sometimes to distinguish a real deal from a sales pitch.
Of Degrees & Employment:
Tertiary education is no longer the preserve of the select few. There are many options available at home and abroad. The majority of those seeking a degree are mindful of the vocational pursuits available to them once they graduate.

But, as recent trends have shown, a degree is not necessarily a passport to a better job. With a bigger pool to choose from, employers can be more selective. Soft skills become a premium. A first class honours without the all-round skills will definitely not put you at the top of the career shortlist.
On Critical Thinking & other soft skills:
Interact with your lecturers. Challenge their viewpoints. Broaden your horizons. Throw in all the extra-curricular activities and you will be able to hone those skills that are very much in demand in the real world.
On Parents:
... parents must encourage their children to make full use of their potential and take on their pursuit of education with renewed zeal. Otherwise, all they will have after this journey is nothing more than a piece of paper.
Take heed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

All Schools Are Not Created Equal

According to the Director-General of Ministry of Education, Datuk Ahmad Sipon, there is absolutely no difference between attending a neighbourhood school as opposed to schools in urban centres. Hence, parents should not attempt to register "children only in schools with a good reputation results in overcrowding at these schools and could adversely affect the learning environment".

It is in fact better for the parents, as the key consideration should be that "you will not have to waste time sending your children to school." Other considerations are secondary.

What's more, "all schools had the same facilities and the ministry had worked to ensure they all had good teachers. Therefore, every school was a good school..."

Who is the Director-General trying to kid? Aizuddin Danian, unsurprisingly, described the above statements as "bullsh*t".
Have you seen the quality of some schools in elite areas such as Sri Hartamas, Bukit Damansara and Taman Tun Dr Ismail? They are freakin' amazing. My alma mater in Bukit Damansara has a state of the art running track, a meticulously cared for lawn, and an air-conditioned hall... Schools are not all the same. Datuk Ahmad is lying or terribly misinformed.
Let me give you a little bit of my personal experience. My kampung in Batu Pahat, along the Tanjong Labuh-Koris Road is some 15 kilometres from the town centre. There are at least 2 neighbourhood schools which are probably within a 5 kilometre radius from my home. My dad, who only completed 2-3 years of formal education, decided that the school that I should attend is the top national-type primary school in Batu Pahat right in the middle of town, Montfort Boys Primary School.

However, entry was not straightforward as the officials tend to allocate students to schools closer to home, especially when Montfort is extremely popular amongst parents. The only assured way of enrolling into Standard One, and be assigned to the top class at Montfort is if you are a graduate from the privately run kindergarten at Montfort which takes in only some 30+ students.

Hence, my dad tried to register me at the kindergarten before the registration period and got turned away. He tried to register me when the registration opened and got asked to return another day. And when he returned on the specified day, he was informed that registration was closed as all the seats were taken up. Knowing that the headmaster of the school has a tendency to register only children from well-to-do families or those whose parents are teachers, my dad got extremely upset with him. I can only assume that my dad, being twice Mr Malaysia and once Mr Asia in bodybuilding, managed to convince the headmaster that I should be given a place in the kindergarten :-)

And here I am today. To cut a long story short, if not for the fact that my dad managed to enrol me into the premier school in town, I definitely would not have received the Asean scholarship to study in the top school in Singapore, which then led to the opportunity to pursue my education at Oxford.

I was not the only one. My best friend in primary school was the son of a retired locksmith who lived in a squatter zone. He took exactly the same route (except he went to Singapore at a later stage) and ended up in the same college as me in the United Kingdom. He is now the Country Managing Director for Singapore's premier shipping company in Vietnam.

Unlike many who were born to educated parents, we had only our teachers in school to rely on in education as our parents were not able to assist us with my homework (etc. etc.) besides providing us with moral support. I"m not sure about this friend of mine, as he's definitely the smarter one, but had I been enrolled into my neighbourhood schools, I am dead certain that I'll not have achieved as much today. All schools are definitely not created equal.

Go See China

Check out the China Synergy Programme which will take you on a familiarisation and networking tour of China for 3 weeks in July.

As part of the 7th China Synergy Programme For Outstanding Youth, you will visit Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong, Xian, Beijing and Shanghai. The Programme includes meeting with top government officials, meeting with outstanding youths and prominent leaders, visiting major universities, participating in exchange activities with local university students and of course, elements of sightseeing.

Find more details on the official website.
This annual China Synergy Programme for Outstanding Youth consists of a series of exploration and exchange activities, which will be held in various major cities in mainland China. As our motto states “Learn More About China and Chinese Culture”, the Programme aims at providing an opportunity for outstanding Chinese youths to learn about the current socio-economical, technological and cultural development of China. During their sojourn in the Chinese cities, delegates will have chances to meet people from different circles, ranging from distinguished persons to local residents. Their knowledge of the history and traditions of China will be much enlightened.
The candidates are to be of ethnic Chinese origin (paternal or maternal) as well as current full-time undergraduates or postgraduates in universities anywhere around the world.

Thanks to Yeoh Chen Chow who wrote up about and highly recommended the programme on TinKosong. Read about his personal experience with the programme 2 years back here. You can also take part in discussion forum on the programme at ReCom.Org, a worldwide Malaysian students' network.

Successful candidates have to foot a nominal US$200 fee as well as the return air ticket to Hong Kong. All other expenses such as accomodation, internal transfers as well as meals are cared for by the programme itself. In order to encourage applicants amongst top performers of the lower income group, I'll be happy to help sponsor up to 2 students with the fees and air tickets. The only condition is to do a full report of your experience in China within a month of your return.

To apply, click here.

Monday, January 16, 2006

UPM: Top 80 By 2010

The year has started with many loud and bold proclamations in our press. You would have followed the boast of some self-endorsed multibillionaire who promised to donate some RM1 billion to the National Cancer Fund (MAKNA), of which I'm also a donor.

Then, I also read in the New Straits Times that Universiti Putra Malaysia seeks to become a top 80 university in the world in 5 years' time. The newly Universiti Putra Malaysia Vice-Chancellor, Prof Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah, after the controversial resignation of the previous vice-chancellor, wants world ranking for the institution.
His dream is for UPM to be among the top 80 universities in the world and top 20 in Asia. Nik Mustapha said these were attainable using the institution’s eight-point plan that began in 2000 and ends in 2010.
The new vice-chancellor went on to boast that "62 per cent of our 2,400 academic staff have doctoral degrees. Seventy-five per cent of our graduates gained employment upon completing their studies."

I'm really not sure if the above numbers are anything to be proud of. Maybe Kian Ming will have a better idea - as he's more of an academic than I am :-). However, if only 75% of UPM graduates "gained employment" upon completing their studies, that actually means that UPM is contributing some 3,000 graduates annually to the unemployment pool!

I would suggest that the new vice-chancellor set more realistic targets to be achieved within the next 5 years instead of one which is meant to please his political master. We have already seen how the vice-chancellor of Malaysia's premier university fall flat on his face in the rankings debacle at the end of last year, so we really do not need another "leading" university in the country to perform another stunt like that.

More interestingly, he announced in the Star that "I will continue with the policies of my predecessor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zohadie Bardaie." This however, begs quite a few questions. If the policies of the predecessor is worthy of continuation, why did the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh choose to have him "removed"? In addition, would a continuation of the previous vice-chancellor's policies help UPM achieve a top 80 ranking in the world university's league?

UPM is celebrating it's 75th anniversary this year, and it appears that the vice-chancellor is taking a leaf of the book of his peer, Datuk Kapten Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob, who launched in a grand scale Universiti Malaya's centennial celebrations last year.

The new vice-chancellor plans to build a new clock tower, estimated to cost RM1mil, will be built on the campus, near the administrative building.
“We hope to have the ground breaking ceremony during the official launch... Tiles will be sold to the public. Students will pay RM75 for each tile to be placed on the clock tower while staff members and alumni will pay RM175 and corporate sponsors RM1,075.”
I am brimming with confidence about the new leadership in UPM already.

Prof Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah's contract runs out at the end of 2008, a year or so before 2010. Maybe if UPM doesn't achieve the remarkable Top 80 rankings, the blame can be placed squarely on the next vice-chancellor.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Mother Tongue in National Schools?

In an April announcement which I had supported wholeheartedly by the Ministry of Education (MoE) last year, Mandarin and Tamil were to be taught in national schools commencing the current academic year. It is everyone's believe that if implemented successfully, it may arrest the steep decline in enrolment from non-Malays to the national schools. It is a well-known statistic that 90% of non-Malays are enrolled in vernacular schools today, which leaves national schools comprising of 4% of non-Malay population.

However, much like the many well-intended policies of the Malaysian government, the delivery system of our national policies leaves much to be asked for. Despite having at least eight months after the announcement, and possible more prior to that, MoE has failed to deliver. As reported in the New Straits Times (NST):
Parents who may have wanted their children to benefit from the move will have to wait until 2008, when the Education Ministry will be better prepared for the move. This will entail, among others, more teachers, a proper syllabus and a viable implementation strategy... The ministry plans to introduce the actual subjects after the manpower, syllabus and textbooks are in order.
Eight months is a long time to get prepared for the new subjects in schools. The implementation of teaching the subjects, Mathematics and Science in English for our primary and secondary schools concurrently, which will clearly be infinitely more complicated, was done within a shorter period of time.

One can only hazard to guess at the level of incompetence of the civil servants at the Ministry of Education, probably compounded by a lethargic attitude, where "everything can be done tomorrow". I'm not surprised then, that the majority of the public translates the above inactions, rightly or wrongly, into a belief that the government is not sincere in its objectives to make national schools the preferred choice of schooling system for all Malaysians regardless of race or religion.

Compound the above with the slow but sure metamorphosis of our national schools into proto-religious schools as blogged here and here, it appears unfortunately that both the religious and vernacular educationist will have their way in dividing the Malaysian education system at the expense of national unity.

Attracting More Foreign Students

It's reported in the New Straits Times last week that the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) has set up a promotion and marketing department to attract more foreign students and to counter growing regional competition.
Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Fu Ah Kiow said Malaysia needed more promotion offices in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Middle East.

"There are still many rewarding markets to tap in these countries. Many people there are still not aware of Malaysia’s services and opportunities while considering their education options."
I've written previously on the steps taken by the Singapore government to promote education in Singapore, and it appears that MOHE is attempting to take similar steps.

The Deputy Minister of MOHE, Datuk Fu Ah Kiow listed the various "attractive" bits about pursuing education in Malaysia.
"Our strength is the stringent quality control imposed on higher learning institutions in the country. In addition to the relatively lower course fees and affordable cost of living, our key attraction is that our learning environment is mainly conducted in English. Foreign students here also appreciate the safe, comfortable and harmonious nature of our multiracial environment."
The above is well and good as "marketing hype", but in reality, the MOHE needs to significantly improve the quality of education at our institutions of higher learning, both private and public. What is the point of harping on the quality of Malaysian institutions when the various international measures rank our universities poorly? The only people we will be kidding will be ourselves.

Currently the private education institutions in Malaysia are able to attract students largely because we are still a fair bit ahead of many third world countries in Africa and Asia. In addition, the quality of students enrolled into these schools are often not the most refined as they are probably unable to qualify for better universities overseas in Europe or United States.

Hence, from a purely commercial perspective in the short term, Malaysia should do well in this sector. However, from a quality output perspective as well as medium to long term sustainability of the education enterprise, plenty of work still needs to be done. MOHE should take an honest appraisal of the system (instead of the constant happy backslapping) and seek to take our private education system to a higher level. To quote Datuk Fu Ah Kiow again,
...higher learning institutions in Malaysia must raise their competitiveness through quality programmes recognised internationally.
It's time to walk the talk.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

More Religious National Schools

Hot on the heels on Tony's posting on religious billboards in a Kajang High School, the Star has reported a story in Batu Pahat, of a Punjabi student being asked to shave his beard, moustache and sideburns.

These stories and others like them point to an underlying problem that needs to be probed further. How much autonomy are school authorities given at a local level? According to the Star article, "State Education Department Mohamad Zakaria Mohd Noor said Ranveer Singh could write to the director of schools unit under the Education Ministry to be permitted to keep his facial hair and side burns."

I've always thought that education was largely a federal issue. Teachers in national schools are paid out of the federal budget. They are employed by the federal government. The policies that are followed are ones that are produced by the federal government. And yet, there is also a state education bureaucracy. I've never been clear as to what jurisdiction state education officials have over our primary and secondary schools. Is it confined only to religious matters? Or matters to do with the local municipalities or land use and such? From the comment of the state education officer above, it doesn't indicate that the state education officers have jurisdiction over the rules and regulations of a specific school. That jurisdiction remains at the federal level with the Ministry of Education.

So, how much autonomy are the school principals given in regards to setting school rules? I'm sure that a principle has at least some authority in running a school. For example, I don't think there is a set format that school assemblies have to follow. Or how school halls can let out for members of the community to use. Or the relationship between the school and its alumnus organization. There are bound to be many grey areas in which there is nothing set in writing in regards to what a principal should or should not do. And this is probably where matters such as the two raised above arise.

Principals who are overzealous in promoting one kind of policy / direction over others will inevitably create situations where he or she has overstepped a boundary. Note that this kind of overstepping can occur in many ways. For example, the principal who forces each student to sell a minimum number of canteen day coupons is as guilty of overstepping that boundary as the principal who has given an ultimatum to Ranveer to shave his facial hair. But the difference is in the effects of different acts of overstepping. Acts which can and are interpreted as religious overstepping are likely to have more serious national consequences than forcing students to sell canteen day coupons. Such acts only add fuel to the fire that national schools are being 'Islamized' by overzealous principals even if such principals constitute only a small minority among all principals.

It is good that the NST published Kahisan's letter regarding the religious billboards at his alma mater, the Kajang High School. It is also good that the Star published Ranveer Singh's story. The media is an important medium in which such overstepping can be highlighted and if possible, corrected. The Ministry of Education can do much to assuage the fears of non-Malay parents (and even some Malay parents, I think) if they would deal with such situations effectively.

In the longer run, the Ministry can prepare more concrete guidelines in regards to what principals can and cannot do especially in the area concerning religious practices.

Groups at the local level, especially Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), can also make their views known to the principals who have overstepped certain boundaries.

The odds are stacked against the Ministry of Education in its task of attracting more non-Malays back into the national school system. There are not that many non-Malays like Tony who are willing to send their kids to a national school. I, for one, while treasuring the importance of multicultural exposure, would choose to send my kids (when I have kids) to a Chinese primary school to reap the benefits of learning Chinese, and then send them to a national secondary school. I think there are still many decent national secondary schools in the PJ area which have not been overtaken by principals who are intent on 'Islamizing' our national schools. But if more and more stories like the two highlighted here keep popping up, it will be difficult to convince others that this is not the case.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Religious National Schools

In a letter published in the New Straits Times yesterday, Kahisan wrote about the perceived conversion of national schools to religious institutions.
I am an old boy of Kajang High School and feel compelled to express my concerns in relation to the current situation at the school. I recently went to the school and noticed seven new signboards with religious verses put up at some expense. The image conveyed to anyone driving up to Kajang High School is that one was entering a religious school.
I have written earlier with regards to where to send my 1 year old girl when the time comes for her to go to school. While it may not be as important to many other parents, one of the most important consideration for me is to ensure that she is exposed to the multiracial culture and environment in Malaysia from a young age. However, if the progressive conversion of national schools to religious schools continues unabated, the day will come whereby I will have to reluctantly decide that national schools will no longer be an option for her.

Given that these "conversion" activities carried out often independently by the school administrators are well known to the Ministry of Education, the latter should take up the responsibilities of issuing the guidelines to these schools to ensure that the character of national schools are not altered for the wrong reasons. As Kahisan rightly pointed out:
Clearly the school administration had given little thought to the impact the signs would have on the non-Malay student population and their parents.

The Education Ministry, as a stakeholder in the national education system, has to ensure that schools are equipped to handle the expectations of students of every race who enrol in national schools. The ministry should also do its part to foster national unity and ensure schools appear friendly to all ethnic groups in the country.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, our honourable Minister of Education, I have heard you extol your vision of the national school system being the de facto preferred education system for all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion during on of the Oxbridge society organised forums. I implore you to walk the talk, and take the necessary measures to protect our national school culture which even our dear Prime Minister is reminiscing to ensure that it remains the fertile ground to foster national unity for young Malaysians instead of one which openly preaches seggregation.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

MIC-MARA University in India

It was announced on Monday that the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) headed by its president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, in collaboration with Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) will be looking to set up a university in India.

Datuk Seri Samy Vellu announced this during his visit to Hyderabad, after receiving the idea from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who suggested that overseas Indians could set up universities in the sub-continent.

Datuk Seri Samy Vellu argued that it is "cost effective to construct the university in India where teaching expertise and materials were easily available". In addition, the new university will cater to Malaysians to seeking to pursue studies overseas, particularly in medicine, as the existing institution set up by MIC, the Asian Institute of Medical, Science and Technology (AIMST) in Kedah is unable to cope with growing demand.

But this is where I cannot fully comprehend the logic or economics of the proposed exercise. How is it more cost-effective to build a university from scratch in Hyderabad instead spending the money in improving the facilities of existing universities in Malaysia? How is it that we must actually build a physical university in Hyderabad to employ the "teaching expertise and materials" available in India, instead of just paying a premium for their services to teach in Malaysia, which I'm certain will still be infinitely cheaper?

Could it then be a commercial exercise? I have no problems if commercial private educational institutions, such as Sunway and Inti, decide to set up operations and branch campuses overseas for it is their prime objective to maximise profits in a world without borders. However, for organisations such as MIC and MARA whose objectives is socio-political, why should they be involved in a commercial project out of the country with little trickle down benefit for Malaysians?

For all you know, the only parties who will benefit commercially from the project will be the party who will be selling or renting the piece of land to MIC, and the contractors who will be given the task of building the new university. If the venture doesn't become commercially viable, the it will be MIC's and MARA's folly, and ultimately putting to waste the monetary contributions from Malaysian citizens and government in a country that is not even ours.

Let's hope that the team at MARA is a little more enlightened than the MIC counterparts and dismiss the idea as non-beneficial to Malaysians (in general).

Education for Yang Berhormats

[Updated 12 Jan 06]

There was a letter published in the Star last Friday entitled "The Value of Education". It was written by Datin T. D. Ampikaipakan, where she lamented on the state of education in Malaysia today which apparently fails to focus on "values".
When I was in school, I had no clue that I was an Indian and my dearest friends were Chinese and Malays. Our teachers never made any reference to our race. It was always what we could do. When we held concerts in school, I was often a participant in the Malay dances and the others practised Indian and Chinese dances. There was never a time when we segregated ourselves and that has been the practice in my home.

What is the story now? Are we now becoming a nation that is bankrupt of values?
Although I was never appointed to leadership positions by teachers (I think I had a problem with teachers) in primary and secondary schools as Datin Ampikaipakan has pointed out in her letter as the means to be "taught leadership skills from an early age", I was personally (hyper) active in school activities from sports to non-sports activities.

I took part in Malay quiz competitions, Malay language debates in primary and secondary schools (even won best speaker once!) and participated in dikir barat performances during my 'A' Levels (I was the only Chinese in the contingent). The experience has definitely shaped my perspectives on education today and its reflected in my writings, for example, my posts here and here.

However, back to Datin Ampikaipakan's letter. I was rather tickled by one of her examples of "bankrupt values" in Malaysia:
...the Yang Berhormats have a lot of salvaging to do with regard to their dignity in and out of Parliament. We need to take strong measures to send the message home. If we punish schoolchildren for bad behaviour, our YBs need some censure to shape them up. It should be possible to insist that only people who learn and practise good manners are allowed to stand for public office. Some feel that if you want to make a point you must be rude, arrogant and obnoxious.

[Update] Even Marina Mahathir appears to have the same thoughts as she wrote in her "Musings" column in the Star on Wednesday. She wrote about ten things which peeves her the most particularly in the past year, of which at no. 8, we have her asking:

Can't we have basic IQ tests for MPs? How about one standard test for when they become MPs, and then an even higher one if they get made Ministers? I shudder at the thought of any of them meeeting any foreigners! I'd just like to go through a year without having to feel embarrassed.

Well, it appears that the Malaysian education system not only needs to take care of school-going children, but also the YBs too. Maybe, it's time for the YBs to take the "Whip" more seriously. :-)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tuition Extortion

I've written about the tuition "crisis" in Malaysia earlier after the New Straits Times (NST) postulated that the tuition market is worth some RM4 billion (!) per annum. I'm sceptical about the actual amount spent, but agreed with the general arguments raised about "too much tuition".

The tuition debate continued in the NST which was blogged here in "More Tuition Tales". But for the very first time in the published press - it was cited that "teachers [are] not doing their part". One of the parents, En Hamidi Osman, a construction worker from Selayang actually described tuition classes as "a form of extortion"!
He claimed the teachers would perfunctorily go through their lessons during school periods, only to end the session with something amounting to a sales pitch: "If you want to learn more, then come to my tuition class after school."

"This is what they told my son and his classmates and what it means is that they would have to pay extra money for what should have originally been taught in class." Hamidi said the teacher, and others like him at the same school, would charge RM25 per subject per student per month for two extra sessions a week which are conducted after school.
En Hamidi didn't think that his son's grades improved with the tuition classes either. "It seemed like he was not really getting any extra coaching, but only the rest of the class lesson," he said.

En Hamidi isn't the only one who is complaining. Apparently he is one of some 50 parents who have complained to the Umno Youth Public Complaints bureau about this issue. As the bureau head, Datuk Subahan Kamal rightly pointed out:
"What we are afraid of is a conflict of interest in these teachers. They teach the bare minimum in their class lessons. Then they say they will charge for extra lessons in the same subject. Should not these extra lessons also be taught in their class at school?"
"But what of those parents who cannot afford such extra classes? Does this mean that their children will be automatically left behind? And what is the purpose of paying annual school fees and taxes if their children can’t get the full lesson in class?"
Tiara, a passionate advocate of 'alternative education', wrote recently on her blog, "EducateDeviate, Learning Without Boxes" about the similar situation faced by her in school.
...one of the administrators came to our class and tried to compare our tuition attendence to our mid-year grades. Grades were pretty similar (low) for everyone else though she picked on those who, like me, skipped the tuition classes. She then got to me and noticed that I was top of the class and had better grades then everyone. She looked at me and said that my grades would be so much higher - if I came to those tuition classes.
The secretary general of the National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP), Loke Yim Pheng have clarified that such practices were forbidden in a circular issued by the ministry some 10 years ago. But the circular probably isn't enough if there isn't active enforcement.

While he argued that parents should complain to the school authorities with regards to such cases, the matter is actually a lot more complex than that. Parents who lodge a complaint with the school, but is not successful with having actions taken against a particular teacher may just have their children incur the wrath of the teacher resulting poorer teaching and bias against them. It is also not inconceivable that the school authorities like the headmaster is sympathetic towards the teachers (for various possible reasons) which will result in a tougher time for the student whose parents have made a complaint.

The Ministry of Education needs to take the entire complaint exercise seriously and treat each complaint with the necessary respect and confidentiality. Malaysia, at this point of time, lacks a culture of transparency as well as one which protects whistle-blowers. Until such a time where both transparency as well as protection for whistle-blowers are in place, and the public trusts the system, parents and students are likely to have to suffer in silence and be at the mercy of mercenary and unscrupulous teachers.

UTM vs Minister of Higher Education

As blogged earlier, the vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli Ghazali has not had his contract renewed for another term by the Minister of Higher Education (MOHE), Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh, who appears to be flexing his muscles.

However, it appears that the university itself is not giving in to the wishes of the Minister without a "fight". As reported here and here by the New Straits Times on Friday and Saturday last week, more than 30,000 students, lecturers and staff of UTM are apparently planning to submit an appeal to the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, "to extend the contract of the varsity’s former vice-chancellor". The representatives from UTM’s two campuses in Johor Baru and Kuala Lumpur hope to submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister’s office earlier this Monday.

The Higher Education Ministry, which appoints vice-chancellors of public universities, has not announced a successor or an acting V-C.
UTM Student Council president Saiful Islam Mat said 26,000 students from the Johor Baru campus and some 3,000 more from the Kuala Lumpur campus had signed a petition to re-instate Zulkifli until his retirement in 2007.

Five presidents of UTM staff associations have also endorsed the memorandum. They are claiming that Shafie had acted unprofessionally in leaving the university without a leader by not naming a successor or an acting V-C.
It is unfortunate that our universities appears to be governed by moods and sentiments, instead of professional integrity. It has been widely alluded and reported that "Zulkifli’s contract was not renewed due to his difficult relationship with Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh."

If the contract with the former vice-chancellor was not renewed due to issues of competency and performance, the non-renewal will be perfectly valid and justified. However, if it's an issue of personality and whims, then the non-renewal is disgraceful.

As it is, UTM is without a vice-chancellor or acting vice-chancellor and no timeline has been given as to when such appointments will be made. From the experience of the method in which the new vice-chancellor was appointed at Universiti Putra Malaysia, it doesn't give us much faith that the new vice-chancellor for UTM will be selected based on openness, transparency, merit and credibility.

Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh, please prove me wrong.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Remember the 7As Priya?

I blogged a little about R Priya Sanjini a while back when the Star highlighted her inspirational achievement in her UPSR examinations despite coming from a hardcore poor family. Well, her life has now changed significantly, thanks to generous donors and well-wishers, as reported in an update by the Star on Sunday.
While she once walked 15km to school and sometimes had to go hungry, R. Priya Ranjini now rides pillion on her mother's motorcycle and eats regular meals.
“I don’t have to walk long distances any more and there is ample food on the table. I also get to study in a lit space at home and not under a lamppost. Thank you everyone for giving my family and me a better life,” said a happy Priya, 12, who has just started Form One at SMK King George V (KGV), a premier school here.

A trust fund was also set up for Priya by Astro operated Tamil radio station THR Raaga, with monthly aid disbursed for her education needs. Priya, who has become a role model for other students, has been invited to give motivational talks at tuition centres and at seminars here and in Kuala Lumpur.
Thankfully, Priya has appeared to have planted her two feet firmly on the ground as she stated that her priority is to ensure her siblings also do well in their studies and she continues to coach them in their schoolwork every evening.

She has also expressed humility and determination when she said that:
“I also want to continue to excel in my studies as I do not wish to disappoint my mother and those who had come forward to help me.”
Good for her. Let us all hope (and pray) that she keeps her head down, put in the necessary hardwork and not get complacent with her progress. If so, I'm pretty certain she'll go far and will serve as a perfect example for my philosophy that education is the equalising factor in society.

Wawasan University vs Universiti Malaya

I wrote about Wawasan Open University College (OUC) a while back while commenting on political universities. Well, the Parti Rakyat Gerakan Malaysia (Gerakan) sponsored OUC will start enrolling students by September this year.

It is announced as Malaysia's first private but non-profit open distance learning institution for working adults who did not have the opportunity to pursue tertiary education. As reported by the Star on the 6th Jan,
The university college's vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Emeritus Gajaraj Dhanarajan said the university would provide opportunities for some nine million working adults who have had less than 11 years of schooling. “Homemakers who wish to improve themselves are also welcome,” he added.
Wawasan OUC will initially have three faculties – Science and Technology, Business and Administration and Foundation Studies – offering 11 degree programmes. The OUC is based at Homestead, a heritage building designed in 1919 and donated by the Yeap Chore Ee Charitable Trust and the Yeap Chor Ee Endowment Trust.

What's interesting is not so much the opening of this new university but in the subsequent comments by the current President of Gerakan, Datuk Seri Lim Keng Yaik. Apparently, he was responding to some unreported scepticism or criticism with regards to "open university" type degrees.
Many people who do not understand the concept of open universities have the misconception that they are offering second-class degrees, Gerakan president Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik said. He said these people were sceptical how students could study without entering university.
He justified his argument by comparing itself to the Open University of the United Kingdom, which was apparently ranked 5th best in Great Britain. Datuk Seri Dr Lim went further to proclaim that Wawasan OUC will overtake Universiti Malaya in terms of quality within 5 short years!
“Give us five years to put Wawasan in front of Universiti Malaya (UM) which presumably is the country’s best university. That will be our benchmark,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang interpreted the above remark as a major slight (or even contempt?) on the premier university in Malaysia. In fact, I would go further as to argue that it's a major slight on all existing institutions of higher learning in Malaysia.
If a new University College can talk about besting the nation’s premier university, which had only recently celebrated its centennial, in a matter of five years in terms of quality and academic excellence, what does it say about University of Malaya?

If the best of the 17 public universities is held in such low esteem by the Barisan Nasional top movers and shakers, what does it say about the quality and standards of the other 16 public universities (with another one, the 18th university, already in the pipeline) and the tertiary education system in the country?
To be fair, I think Datuk Seri Dr Lim may have displayed a little youthful over-exuberence in his remarks and challenge.

Firstly, I'm unaware of the survey which has placed Open University as 5th in Great Britain. Both the surveys which I refer to (The Times and Guardian) for the ranking of universities in the United Kingdom do not place Open University. It's unplaced not so much because it is not a quality institution, but because comparing the Open University to other traditional universities is like comparing apples to oranges. To quote the Times Good University Guide:
The Open University, though Britains biggest university, with 75,000 students, could not be included because most of the measures used in our listing do not apply to it.
And rightly so. As stated by Wawasan OUC's vice-chancellor, it target the nation's 9 million working adults with less than 11 years of formal education as well as homemakers. With a major difference in entrance requirements as well as methods of instruction and delivery, it will be impossible to gauge the standards of the two universities sensibly.

Secondly, 5 years is an extremely short time to deliver the best of education quality. With all due respect to the academics and administrators at Wawasan OUC, but Datuk Seri Dr Lim may have just set an impossible bar for the university to meet to match itself against an institutions with some 30,000 students and faculties numbering hundreds.

But that is the problem with politicians attempt to join the fray in the setting up of universities and colleges. Political upmanship comes into play and the rightful objectives of the institutions are often bent towards meeting political objectives, instead of a complete 100% focus on delivering quality education irrespective of political, social, racial and economic backgrounds and opinions.

Maybe, Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik or Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting will like to join the fray by rubbishing Datuk Seri Dr Lim's claims and declare Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) as the rightful No. 1 university in Malaysia in 3 years' time? :-)