Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Go East Young Man

We've been particular biased towards Western universities in most of our discussions in this blog. This is not surprising given that both Tony and I studied in the UK and I'm now studying in the US. But we often forget that there are opportunities to study abroad nearer to home and I'm not talking about Singapore or Australia or New Zealand. I'm referring to Japan.

I've always known that there were and are scholarships being offered to Malaysians to study in Japan. A lay preacher in a church I attend in Malaysia went to Japan in the 1970s on a scholarship offered by the Japanese government. More recently, a friend of mine, Ronnie, went to Japan for an MBA on a similar scholarship. Tony and I were recently alerted by Adriene (thanks for the heads-up) that the Japanese embassy in KL will be accepting applications for their MONBUKAGAKUSHO:MEXT scholarships at the undergraduate as well as post graduate levels. Applications are for the 2007 academic year (next year) and will be open from the 27th February to 31st March 2006. Tuition and matriculation fees are paid for and you get a monthly stipend as well.

I think there are many good things that can be said about studying in Japan. Firstly, you'd be able to learn a new, global language spoken by more than 120 million people in the world's 2nd largest economy (for now) and whose multinational companies dominate certain key industries (consumer electronics, car-making, robotics). You'll be learning this language in a setting where you can practise it on a daily basis and with people who speak it fluently (as opposed to learning it in Malaysia).

Secondly, you'll be studying in some of the top universities in Asia, if not the world. Tokyo University is probably the best known university in Japan. Kyoto, Waseda, Hokkaido and Nagoya are some of the other highly ranked universities. You probably would have access to good resources in terms of studying materials (books, online content, databases etc..), well-trained professors, and physical infrastructure (state of the art labs and libraries, the latest technology etc...).

Thirdly, as Japanese universities are becoming more internationalized, you probably would get opportunities (depending on the course and university, of course) to take some courses in English. This would make the transition easier for those who might not pick up Japanese as fast as they would like.

Fourthly, I think that there's a lot of character building to be experienced when studying and learning in a foreign environment. In the English speaking countries and universities that we are more familiar with, it is not that difficult to learn and live there. There are often many other Malaysians who are there with you. You often have good Asian food in many of the cities where these universities are located. And you won't have much trouble buying groceries, going to restaurants and travelling around the country because the main language of communication is English. The same can't be said of Japan.

Relatively few people speak English there. If you live in a big city, your living quarters will probably be 1/4 of the size that you are used to back home (if you are lucky!). My impression is that Japanese people are not particularly open to outsiders or 'gaijin' (though that attitude would probably differ across generations). You'll have to learn new customs and social norms that you might not be particularly comfortable with (like lots of bowing). If you can overcome these obstacles and still get a decent education experience, I think you'll come out of it a better man or woman.

There's quite a lot of information out there on studying in Japan. Visit the JASSO website on scholarships and the Japanese equivalent of MACEE in Malaysia for more information.

I'm too old now to apply for this but I certainly won't mind spending a few months in Japan on a study tour just to learn more about their culture, language and way of life (subject to approval from my wife, of course :))

Open Discrimination

Okay, one more university goes down the respectability bin. I didn't know that the Open University of Malaysia (OUM) derived its name from practising "open discrimination".

Thanks to a post by Sdr Lim Kit Siang, we get to see an advertisement for a Corporate Secretary Certificate course by Institute of Professional Development of OUM which blatantly discriminates between bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras.

Basically, the enrolment requirements for potential students is differentiated according to whether you are a bumiputera or non-bumiputera. If you are a bumiputera, only 12 months of working experience is as a prerequisite. However, if you are non-bumiputera, the prerequsite working experience can vary between 18 months to 2 years, depending on whether you are working in a related field. What type of justification can OUM come up with to require such prerequisites?

OUM was set up with one of its principles to utilise "the latest technologies to improve the delivery systems. One of the emerging delivery systems much talked about is Open and Distance Education which is fast becoming the way of providing education to the masses."
As a result of this new phenomenon, in August 1999, the Minister of Education invited Multimedia Technology Enhancement Operations Sdn. Bhd. (METEOR), a consortium of 11 public universities in the country, to set up an open university. The move by the Minister led to the establishment of Open University Malaysia (OUM) in August 2000 followed by its official launching on 26 August 2002...
It is laughably hypocritical when it is proudly stated on the OUM website that
OUM adopts the motto “University for All" which is consistent with its philosophy on democratisation of education. This philosophy underlies the belief that education should be made available to all, regardless of time, place, age and social economic background.
Clearly one of OUM's missions to "democratise education" is subject to ridicule with discrimitory policies such as the above. OUM also claims to have the "shared values" of "Integrity", "Professionalism" and "Caring". I can see clearly, a lack of "integrity", total absence of "professionalism" and little in terms of "Caring".

To quote Sdr Lim:
How can national unity make headway when educational institutions, in particular tertiary institutions, become hot-beds of discrimination, division and disunity, as in the case of OUM-IPD course and advertisement mentioned.

Many administrators and academicians in tertiary education institutions have lost sight of the Rukunegara philosophy and principles, which see Malaysia’s ethnic and religious diversity as an asset that should be taken advantage of to create a united, just, democratic, liberal and progressive society.
In most other professional institutions overseas, the vice-chancellor would have had to resign for permitting such discriminatory practices. I would strongly encourage the new Minister of Higher Education to publicly reprimand the university for carrying out such unjustified racial discrimatory practices against Malaysians.

The entry requirements outlined by OUM for its course is just absolutely disgraceful!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Medicine: A Calling

Ask most Malaysian parents what they want their children to become, a substantial majority will want them to become doctors. To quote a prominent Indian lawyer-politician in a forum which I attended last year, "every Indian wants a family of doctors".

However, wanting to be a doctor, having "rights" to pursue an education in medicine is absolutely different from being qualified to become a doctor. Sometimes, as reported in the Star, "students apply for medicine not because they truly want to join the profession, but due to parental pressure or the thought that doctors make pots of money."

As highlighted in my earlier posts, "What's Up Doc?" and "No Cure for Medical Schools?", I've been wanting to write about this topic for the longest time. My best friend and best man is a specialist pediatrician based in Singapore (who is a Malaysian from Johor Bahru, by the way). He has served more than his full term with the Ministry of Heath in Singapore and will be out in private practice starting next month. I am certain that after years and years of hardwork, it will finally pay off financially for him.

Having seen him perform his service with the amount of dedication, and the number of regular long and difficult hours, I can say with certainty that being a doctor is one mean task. Hence when I read in the papers that the number of doctor wannabes who went for the career talk on medicine at the Star Education Fair had increased four-fold, almost causing a pandemonium at the venue, I thought - do they really know what they were getting into?

The Star reported that more than 2,000 students and their parents turned up for the session, with hundreds queuing outside the conference hall an hour before the 4.30pm talk!

Top students, who have the right foundation and quality should be given every opportunity to pursue a career in medicine. However, I worry when many third and fourth rate students seek to pursue a career in medicine at all cost. The demand from such candidates is so strong and lucrative that there are many profit oriented agencies which were set up solely to help these less qualified candidates gain entry into any institution which will accept them as students. These institutions are usually located in Indonesia, Turkey, India and Russia.

To a certain extent, these overwhelming demand for an education in medicine has encouraged the mushrooming of private medical colleges in Malaysia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, when the pioneering batches of students are graduating from these private institutions, we find that many of them are not qualified to become doctors - for they are either half-baked or have received a half-baked education!

To me, what the point? Why do students whose results for STPM don't cut it "die-die-also" want to be a doctor? Some of you might remember the controversy over the recognition of students from Crimea Medical State University (CMSU) whereby certain Arts students with average results and no foundation in Biology or other sciences have been accepted to pursue medicine. The fact that these students are accepted immediately tells you the probable quality (or lack of) in these "universities".

Do these students actually know how much medical officers are paid and how long it takes before one will finally have the opportunity to come out into private practice? Even in Singapore, I know that my friend was underpaid for years, earning income significantly below that of all our peers (particularly those from the legal profession, by the way). And I know that the situation is worse in Malaysia.

The same lawyer-politician I referred to earlier argued that every student should have a "right" to pursue a degree in medicine. I completely disagree. With obvious scarcity of resources to conduct the medicine course with sufficient quality, places must be reserved only to candidates with the necessary foundation for their secondary education as well as qualifications in terms of their performance. In fact I'd go so far as to argue a case that students who don't meet the minimum subject and performance requirements to pursue a degree in medicine should be "banned" from taking up the occupation, at least in Malaysia anyway. If not, are we not just taking a huge risk and endangering the future generation of Malaysian patients who may come under their care?

Being a doctor is an extremely honourable profession. But the same honour should apply when one should know the limits of one's own academic and intellectual capabilities. The same honour will be smeared, if one actually "qualifies" to be a doctor and is unable to carry out the job functions in a competent fashion - which in this case, may threaten the lives of individuals out there.

Hence, when it was raised by Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh, the previous Minister of Higher Education, that an additional "Medical School Admission Test" be conducted before students are admitted, I thought it was a good idea (given the circumstances). The test which was to include videos "on the life of a medical student and doctor", attitude tests as well as a written examination should hopefully act as a better filter on the right quality of students as well as the right motivations. To a certain extent it might resolve the annual controversy over the admission criteria for matriculation vs STPM students with the common entrance examination.

However, typical of the civil service response time, "the test has yet to be implemented due to a lack of time". I do hope that this test can be carried out soonest by the new administration for the next batch of graduates, in a fair and equitable manner. In addition, I hope that the examiners for these tests are not officials from the Ministry of Higher Education but practising doctors and academics in our hospitals.

So for students aspiring to be doctors out there - think twice, think thrice, think very very hard. And if your grades just don't cut it (anything less than 2 or 3 'A's for your STPM with the required subjects), seek out a new career which you might excel better in. Medicine is not the end of the world.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Going 'Banana'

I'm probably threading on thin ice here, so I can only hope that readers will take this discussion in the most open manner. Where disagreements persist, and I'm certain they would for some, lets politely agree to disagree. :)

I believe that a substantial number of readers of this blog are Chinese readers, and they have expressed their strong opinions (sometimes politely, others offensively) with regards to the importance of learning Chinese to preserve one's racial and cultural identity. The comments have included here:
It is indeed shameful when you bare a Chinese surname but do not know any Chinese.
And here:
I totally agreed with the argument that every chinese must at least have six years of chinese education. Personally I do not agree to send my kids to international school at the primary level just because want to master in English, as you still can learn english even you are stufy in the local school. Remember, do not be proud if you are fluent in English and it is really shameful if you know nothing in Chinese ('banana' man).
Hence when Anita Anandarajah-Lee wrote in the New Straits Times on the 21st February about "Losing Our Tongues", I thought it relevant to pen down some of my personal thought about the issue. By the way, February 21st is the International Mother Language Day as observed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. It is celebrated to promote the recognition and practice of the mother languages of the world, especially those of minorities.

I remember when I was 15, I actually laughed at a friend, a fellow Asean scholar for not being able to even write his Chinese name properly. And I believe I was as patronising as some of the quotes above, that a "banana" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) man is to be looked down upon.

Looking back, I clearly regretted the incident and I'm proud of the fact that I no longer have such bigoted opinions. While I do not yet think that we are living in a world without borders, I do think that framing the context of our society and community purely in terms of race and language (and religion) is a decidedly reactionary view of us as a nation. I strongly believe that these same views contribute significantly towards preserving the way politics is shaped in our country, whereby parties and government positions are distributed by "race" factors.

Make no mistake, I do believe that my kid should pick up the Chinese language and be as proficient in it as she possibly can. However, that doesn't mean that she must attend a Chinese primary school. Neither does it mean that other Chinese children who do not pick up a Chinese education is any less Chinese, or worse, any less "human". In fact, the yardstick in which I would judge a person as a "worthy" Chinese is purely in his character and deeds. If a person is generous, kind and contributes immensely to the society in a just and equitable manner, then he or she will be a model Chinese, and not his or her proficiency in Chinese.

Parties who are particularly militant with regards to preserving the language and culture also fails to take into consideration that culture evolves over time constantly infused by new practices as a result of globalisation and changing trends. One only have to pay a visit to different parts of China to realise how "different" these Chinese are from one another and from us in terms of cultural practices or even languge norms. I, for one, am a believer of "culture" being what we want to make of it, rather than what should be shoved down our throats. I am certain we can all cite a fair few "Chinese" practices, cultural or otherwise, which we are more than happy to see dumped to pages of forgotten practices.

For Malaysian Chinese, we just so happened to have been "migrated" from China in large numbers to be able to "preserve" a larger portion of our cultural and language practices. How about those Chinese whose ancestors migrated to further a far where a Chinese education is non-existent - Europe, South Africa, America etc.? Are they then not Chinese?

There are clearly those who believe one should receive no less than a 100% Chinese-based education for six years (actually, why not the full 12 years or more?) and there are of course those who are not as rigid in terms of Chinese requirements and there are obviously those who think that there is no such need at all. My personal opinion obviously lies in the centre but that is not to say that there is a clear cut right and wrong answer to the above question. What's probably more important is the availability of Chinese language education to Malaysians.

To quote Anita:
It is vital that the learning of another language is not seen to threaten our national language. Preserving the multitude of cultures would create security amongst the races who know that theirs is a caring government.
To put it simply, the quality of education (and that's not just purely academic) which my child will receive will definitely be more important than if the education is purely in Chinese. See also my post on "The English Language Debate Continues (II)".

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Harvard Project for Asia & International Relations

The Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) invites you to participate in their annual summer student conference in Asia.

HPAIR is a partnership between the students and faculty of Harvard University, offering a sustained academic program and a forum of exchange to facilitate discussion of the most important economic, political, and social issues relevant to the Asia-Pacific region.

HPAIR's international conference has emerged as the largest annual Harvard event in Asia and the largest annual student conference in the Asia-Pacific region, attracting a wide variety of distinguished speakers and future leaders as Harvard's student outpost in Asia. This year it will be held in Singapore. This conference usually attracts around 600-700 student delegates (who are screened from around 1200 applicants) from all around the world.

Past speakers at our conferences include South Korean President Kim Young Sam, Governor General of Australia Peter Hollingworth, Singapore President S.R. Nathan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Both delegates and papers are welcome! Applications for both are online and located here.

The theme will be:

Redefining Asia: Visions and Realities

Our HPAIR 2006 workshops will focus on the following six topics:
  • The Political Economies of China and India: Trends, Trade and Tomorrow's Asia

  • Environmental Management in Asia: Writing Tomorrow's Textbooks Now

  • Diseases and Disparities: Improving Health Outcomes for All

  • Impersonating Asia: Performing Arts and Film in Contemporary Perspectives

  • Boundaries in Flux: Religion, Nation, and Identity in Asia

  • War, Domestic Conflict, and Interdependence: Peace and Security in East Asia

Thanks to the chairperson of the Host Country Organising Committee for the Project, Sriram Krishnan for the update. Interestingly, he's currently an undergraduate studying in the National University of Singapore who hails from Petaling Jaya.

Recruitment Opportunities for Local Varsities

Both Tony and I have highlighted, here and here, that our local universities have expressed the desire to recruit more lecturers from overseas. Many have been skeptical as to why good quality academics would want to come to teach in Malaysian universities which are poorly resourced and vastly underfunded compared to the top universities in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK. Let me propose one reason why academics who have been trained overseas, but more specifically in the US, would want to teach and conduct research in Malaysia - the shoddy treatment which non-American academics have been subjected to by the immigration authorities in the US.

I was alerted to the case of a Stanford Malaysian doctoral student, Rahinah Ibrahim, by a posting on the Malaysia Forum newsgroup. Here's a portion of the newspaper report which highlighted her case:

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford University doctoral candidate, said she was at San Francisco International Airport last year ready to fly to her homeland of Malaysia for a conference. Then she was told her name was on the government's terrorist no-fly list. Then she was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. Then she was told it was all a mistake and her name was off the list. But the next day she was told again her name was on the no-fly list.
When she finally got to Malaysia and tried to return to finish her doctorate, she was told the U.S. Embassy had pulled her visa. She hasn't been back since. But she's fighting back from afar.

I know some of the folks at the US Embassy in KL through work and also through my Fulbright scholarship application and they are good people with the good intention of building strong ties between the Malaysian government and the US government but also between Malaysians and Americans more generally. I'm sure they do not welcome negative publicity from such cases like Kak Rahinah's. But I think they are mostly powerless to deal with such cases because the creation of such 'black lists' is in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security of which the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) department is part of.

I'm sure that Kak Rahinah's case is not the first time (or the last time) something like this has happend to an academic, especially one who happens to be Muslim and / or is from a Muslim country. When I first came to the US on my J1 i.e. Fulbright sponsored visa, I was asked to go and wait in a holding room together with a bunch of other people who were suspected of wanting to illegally immigrate to the US. I wasn't given any indication how long the wait was going to be (I almost missed by connecting flight because of this) and was made to feel like an illegal immigrant (even though I was being sponsored by a US-federal government scholarship).

In 2004, renowned Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was appointed to the position of Professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame, had his work visa rejected under the guise of the US Patriot Act. He subsequently resigned from his position at Notre Dame.

I'm sure that there have been many other reputable scholars in various fields who have had their work visa to the US rejected because of 'security' reasons. I know that this kind of uncertainty has dissuaded some students from countries like China to apply to do their undergraduate and graduate studies in the US and many of then have subsequently applied to go to countries like the UK and Australia instead.

I'm not criticizing the role of the US universities in these kinds of episodes. Indeed, many of the US universities are working hard to ensure a more open-minded visa policy for scholars and students so that they can continue to attract the best brains from all over the world. The Department of Homeland Security obviously has other priorities in mind when it comes to dealing with the same set of scholars and potential students.

Here is an opportunity for Malaysian universities to step in. They can step up their recruitment efforts among Malaysian PhD students in the US who have received this kind of shoddy treatment in the past and are fearful of future backlashes against citizens from Muslim countries. They can also step up their recruitment efforts among the bright non-Malaysian academics in the US or in other Western countries who feel that Muslims are somehow second class citizens and / or have been subjected to mistreatment from the authorities in these countries.

I'm sure that there are very bright scholars out there (especially here in the US) who would consider coming to teach in Malaysia because of fears of alientation in the US and in other Western countries. Here's where Malaysia has some comparative advantage. These scholars don't necessarily have to be of the 'Anglo-Saxon stock'. They could be from India or the Middle East or second and third generation immigrants living in Europe, Australia and / or the US.

The first challenge is to attract these scholars (Malaysian and non-Malaysian) to come (or come back) to our shores. The second challenge is to retain them within the system. The first challenge might not be that difficult to overcome, given the proper incentives. It is the second challenge that requires longer term and structurally more painful changes to overcome.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Restricted Thoughts & Inquiry

According to William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), the leading American advocate for a free trade industrial society as well as a professor of sociology at Yale University, he defined "critical thinking" as "the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not... It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances."

Malaysiakini which covered the second public hearing by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Integrity, heard the grievances made public by a senior lecturer of political science at a local Malaysian university with the administrators' overt attempts to stifle critical thoughts and inquiry.
Alleging blatant discrimination, the lecturer with 25 years service at a local university claims to have been dumped in cold storage for teaching her students to critically evaluate national policies.

"I'm a political scientist. How can I not teach students to critically evaluate national policies? I don't simply criticise and do highlight the good and bad points," she said on condition of anonymity.
Apparently, (but unsurprisingly), faculty members were also told to remove Far Eastern Economic Review as well as the Aliran monthly from the list of reading material for students. The question then is, what type of sanitised "political science" are our Malaysian students being taught at the local universities? That there cannot exist contrarian and diverse views?

Political science was one of my degree subjects as part of my Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) course. Many have asked how the subject is relevant to the "real world" unless one is interested to become a "politician". My answer has always been straightforward. Political science gives a student plenty of diverse views from the presence of various political institutions around the world to various political and socio-economic theories such as Marxism and Democracy. Reading Marx and Engels (and enjoying it) doesn't make me a Marxist or Communist - instead it broadens my mind and exercises my thought faculties to analyse in depth the strengths and weakness of the various arguments, theories and assumptions.

Kian Ming is working towards his PhD in Political Science at Duke University. I'm certain that he is reading plenty of materials which may be regarded as harmful to national sensitivity and security, as defined by some of the vice-chancellors of the local universities. However, I'm certain that his degree with definitely be worth a fair bit more from those who graduate from the local universities purely from the fact that he will be exposed to a wide and diverse range of quality thought, instead of being restricted to propaganda on American democracy and political institutions.

Without alternate views, students will just no longer be challenged, which in turn, makes a mockery out of the political science degrees granted by the university. Sigh, no wonder we have idiots as "elected" student leaders who will happily tell the country's political leaders that they should be kept in a tight leash and be fed dog food for the country's leaders are omnipotent.

On a side note, it was also interesting to read the accusation the lecturer made that she has discovered a "second admission list" held by the vice-chancellor himself. Too bad, we are unable to find out more about this. I wonder which university we are talking about.... hmmm..

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Education: The Root Cause of National (Dis)Unity?

I remember studying the authoritative books written on the History of Malaya by Professor Khoo Kay Kim, Professor Emeritus at the History Department of Universiti Malaya. I would not be wrong to say that he is one of the most respected academicians at our local universities today. While I do not know him personally, I have huge respect for Professor Khoo for staying back to educate young Malaysians instead of venturing to teaching overseas, where there would almost certainly be abundant demand for his services.

In an interview with the New Straits Times on Sunday, Professor Khoo who was one of the architects of the Rukun Negara after the race riots of May 13th, 1969 expressed his disappointment that "race relations between Malaysians are at their most fragile in nearly 40 years."

This clear cut statement from one of Malaysia's most respected academics clearly carries weight and it runs contrary to the perpetual feel good messages which are political leaders are prone to spew, particularly during the festive seasons.

More importantly, he sees one of the root cause of disunity amongst the various ethnic groups in Malaysia as "a national school system that has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status".
He blames the education system which has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status for the growing division between the races. Khoo, 69, says politicians planned their strategies according to the actual situation and hence fed on the problem.
"They feel that if they strengthen the position of the Malays, the Malays will think as one, and then they will always get votes from the Malays," he said.
The response from various parties came fast and furious. From some, it was the predictable "same old, same old". In a follow up report by the New Straits Times the very next day, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Dr Maximus
Ongkili who is in-charge of national unity, gave the predictable spew on how pretty the picture of race-relations are in the country.
I disagree with Khoo’s statements. The tolerance level and maturity among Malaysians have increased, although sensitivity about certain issues remains high.

In a multiracial society, what’s required is appreciation of diversity, tolerance of differences and full commitment by all parties to eliminate obstacles to unity.
It is unfortunate that our government leaders continue to act like the Emperor with his new "clothes".

I am further impressed by the fact that Professor Khoo places the need to be a Bangsa Malaysia first, and Chinese second. After all, we are all Malaysians.
"If I were very much a champion of the Chinese, how could I get across to the Malays? What we need today are more bridge builders, not ethnic champions."
Professor Khoo, being an educator by nature calls for the teaching of "cultural history" to help bridge the race-relations gap. He believes that the teaching of history in Malaysia is "too political" and hence probably faces high levels of revisionist pressures, "preventing children from learning more about other cultures".

Hence by teaching "cultural history", there may be less revisionist pressures on the text and children can be exposed to "cultural reality". It will not be easy in todays world of increased religious sensitivity though. By teaching on Chinese cultures, without will inevitably deal with the semi-religious practices which is part and parcel of events like the Mid-Autumn Festival or Vesak Day, there will be segments of the communities who will argue that the teaching of such will violate the sanctity of their religion.

We cannot have leaders who continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that our education system is creating a significant racial rift in our Malaysian communities and continue to claim that everything is well. Not only is the system not helping the integration process, with racial markers present all over our education system e.g., vernacular schools and Mara Junior Science Colleges, we are helping the disintegration process as well.

Read also "The Separation of Races" and "Our Education, Our Future".

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Last Words for Dr Shafie

Outgoing Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Salleh received his final words of polite and kind praise from the incoming new Minister, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed. This was as per the short report in the Star on the today.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed praised his predecessor Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh for having single-handedly set up the ministry in 2004.

“It is not easy creating something out of nothing,” he told reporters after Dr Shafie briefed him on the ministry yesterday. “I hope the ministry’s staff, who have been working so hard for Dr Shafie, will continue their good work for me.”
Well, we here at "Education in Malaysia" would like to bid our "fond" farewell to Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Salleh as well, for he has given us plenty to write, comment, discuss, criticise, suggest and entertain ourselves over the short period of one year since this blog started.

We do hope however, his successor will indeed move this blog to a "higher plane" producing less criticism and creating a more positive environment in the discussion of our future in higher education.

What A Week!

I must apologise to regular readers of the blog for being practically silent for an entire week. Despite having written a note earlier to expect an erratic schedule from me, I didn't expect to be that quiet.

From being a little under weather, it became a mini-storm as the kid's flu symtoms got a tad worse, making her totally cranky at night (which means little sleep) followed by the mother catching the same flu bug which mutated into an ugly vomit-inducing stomach flu. And without a nanny, and going to play-school being out of the question, that just leaves me to babysit the kid to make sure poor mummy gets sufficient rest.

That plus me having to travel for a couple of days to Singapore, with kid and mummy tagging along, plus dealing with several project proposals and preparation for a board meeting earlier this week as well as answering polite questions on the not particularly impressive set of results, really makes it one particular week I would love to forget quickly. Of course I blamed the "not particularly impressive" performance on my blogging activities! ;-p

Well, anyway, everything is creeping back to normality now, especially with grandma popping up to KL to help out with the kid. I have one week's worth of news to catch up on, some 40+ new resumes to review and plenty of comics to follow up on. Hopefully, the blogging cycle will return, and so will you :)

Thank you for your patience :)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fresh Graduates Galore

'Tis the season for recruitment of fresh graduates in Malaysia. And although there are many students graduating all around the year with presence of so many universities and colleges as well as batches, most graduates of the public universities will be, or are going through their final year examinations at this point of time and will be seeking employment by April.

For me as usual, I'd put up my advertisements in Jobstreet in the hope of attracting the top talents from the local universities. And as usual, I will get the fair share of applicants who can't be bothered to give answers for simple questions or who give short abrupt answers or those like the one below.
1. Why do you think you can make a difference in this position?

First of all, I am a monash gradutes who studying in Business and Commerce degree majoring in e-Business. With the knowledge that I get from the degree, it is enough for me to make the difference in this position by using technology to improve the operation by shorter the time, reduce the cost and increase profit of the particular company. As for the customer, with the advancement of technology it can help the company to provide better customer service like providing 24 hours helpdesk service to the customer where there will be computer which assist the customer to solve the probelm and not the human. On the other hand, other than the business subjects, I also taken up other programing subject such as vb.net, ASP.net and so on which equipe me with more idea in improving the business operation by usinr technology, web content and so on. Other than that, the eperience that I get from my previous employer is that, even the company is running is a lost, with some restructuring being carried in the company, sime investment on technology must be used to cut down the cost of running the business, for example by replacing workers with the networking system which link the front-end office with the back end office, which it can help the company to cut down cost on human resource by fire off the internal office boy as well as the back end manager and front end manager. With the network system that is available, the front end manager can control the whole business operation which including the back end office operation, and the boss can deal with one manager instead of two manager which help the company to save the cost. Besides that, it also help the company to reduce the time, where it is believe that time = money, with the network that is available in the company the document and other Private and confidential document can be handle properly in the shortest time as everything is through compnuter and no third party can ready the content.
I will not fault the candidate for effort, for his reply was one of those with a decent length. But typical many many candidates, the candidate was weak on two "simple" things:
  1. Long as the answer may be, if the reply does not "answer" the question posed, then the answer is as good useless. The above candidate spent a great deal of space giving a lecture about "office operations" instead of telling me why he can make a difference, simple as the question may be.

  2. The candidates English is no where near the worst of the lot of resumes which I have received (more than 200 in total for 2-3 positions). But I definitely have difficulty fully understanding what he is trying to say. There are obviously critics of my occasional lapses in English as well, but I believe its fair to say that I did not have language error(s) in practically every single sentence like the above composition.
So for prospective candidates out there, if you are serious about the application, think long and hard on the answers, and if you are weak in English, make sure somebody else good at it checks them too. There's no point getting knocked out before the interview stage when you might have a better chance to "defend" yourselves.

For more tips and tricks, read here and here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New Ministers

Yes! After a prolonged speculation period since last October, the cabinet is finally finally reshuffled. Despite the overall changes being not particularly drastic (nor impressive), we do have a few new ministers for education.

Dare I say thankfully, that one of the most prominent changes to the cabinet is the exclusion of Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh from not just retaining his portfolio as the Minister of Higher Education, but from the cabinet altogether. Speculation has been rife since last year the he has been one of the underperforming ministers (albeit not the only one) and clearly his recent attempts to "assert" his influence through a series of media announcements on issues such as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, inter-varsity graduates etc. have failed to impress. And our Prime Minister has decided that he hasn't been doing his job, despite his recent request of "bagi saya chance".

The replacement for Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh, whom you'll probably hear less on this blog from hence on, is surprisingly, Datuk Mustapha Mohamed, formerly the second Finance Minister. Definitely, on paper, he is a much stronger candidate for the Higher Education portfolio - although I'm surprised he is given the appointment as he has often been touted as "finance" man. However, his appointment could signal that Pak Lah has decided that the portfolio deserves a heavyweight minister who could do the job with the necessary intelligence and efficiency. I do have confidence that Datuk Mustapha Mohamed will do a significantly better job than his predecessor.

On top of the new Minister of Higher Education, we also have a new deputy for the ministry - Datuk Ong Tee Keat, who is also the former chief of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and a current Vice-President of the party replacing the colourless Datuk Fu Ah Kiow. Being one of the more outspoken members of MCA, as well as one of the party's leaders I actually do have some respect for, I believe that his appointment bodes well for the Ministry. Instead of Datuk Fu, who belonged to the old school of quiet compliance to the UMNO superiors, Datuk Ong may just not (hopefully) be so mallaeble.

Hence all in all, I think the above are excellent appointments (given the cabinet talent pool we have) to the Ministry of Higher Education. Let us hope for much better news for higher education in Malaysia from now onwards.

For the Ministry of Education, we see one eye-opening change, that is the retirement of Datuk Dr Mahadzir Mohd Khir but the appointment of Datuk Noh Omar, formerly the deputy internal security minister. Yes, the very same one who asked all foreigners unhappy with Malaysia's police treatment to "go home". That's the same one who put Malaysian on the world map with the news of his comment travelling to all four corners of our planet! It is indeed more than a tad disappointing that he is even retained as a minister in our cabinet. Sigh.

Oh, one more little thing of note, the neither here nor there position of a special envoy for higher education with ministerial status held by Datuk Dr Mohd Effendi Norwawi is no more (phew!). Datuk Dr Mohd Effendi Norwawi has now been reassigned as a minister in the Prime Minister's office to meet the quota for Sarawak ministers.

With two years left to the elections, let's hope these new team of ministers are up to the task of improving the quality and standards of education in Malaysia.

Erratic Schedules

The return from the Chinese New Year holidays have been extremely busy and frantic for me, particularly with regards to business at the company. Hence, my blogging activities have been a tad erratic. My sincere apologies to the loyal readers out there.

It's not helped by the fact that I'm quite a bit under the weather due to taking care of the little one who has caught some bugs from play school and decided that her parents deserved a dose of it too. :-) Hence it has been early to bed for the past couple of days to stay alive during the day.

Hopefully, I'd get all the key business activities out of the way by the end of the month (or maybe sometime in March) - which means some lucrative contracts secured (cross your fingers for me) - and I'll get to spend a bit more valuable time on research, this blog as well as concrete practical steps to help students in this country.

So in the mean time, do bear with me while I secure the future of my 60 staff in the office for the year. :-)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The King Says...

Hey hey hey, even the King, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail is putting on the pressure to the higher education community to reform itself to improve quality and standards. As reported by Bernama, His Majesty asked university administrators to be prepared to listen to ideas from others although these might not be in line with their aspirations.
"A silent culture is not a healthy culture in an institution of higher education. The ability to view ideas or grievances should be cultivated as this is a platform to practise expressing views at the international arena."
Yang di-Pertuan Agong also asked the local universities to be benchmarked against other established universities (National University of Singapore, anyone?). And in what is can be regarded as a public chiding of our universities:
"Integrity and accountability can be jeopardised by issues such as leadership without clear visions, submission to external pressure, not practising knowledge culture, poor service providers, bribery, breach of trust and graduates who are not competitive and marketable. These issues need to be addressed before any institution can claim its place in the world ranking"
The Minister of Higher Education Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh was present at the event. But was he listening?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hear Prof Wang Gungwu Speak

As part of Sunway University College Distinguished Speakers' Series, Professor Wang Gungwu will be speaking on: Understanding China's Present Economic Transformation. The details are as follows:
Date: 15 February 2006
Time: 1700 hrs
Venue: Lecture Theatre 6, 4th Floor, Sunway University College
Admission is Free.
Due to limited seats, booking is encouraged. Contact Marilyn/Jacqueline @ +603 7491 8622 ext 8141/8172.

Because China's rapid economic growth continues to amaze the world, some of us may forget that China took 1.5 century (from the Opium War onwards) to get her economic act together. Wang Gungwu, Asia's eminent China scholar, will look at China's Long March toward the market economy, how and why it was adopted and the vast energies it has unleashed. He will also discuss the problems that rapid growth has created and the challenges facing China as she moves into the 21st century.

Professor Wang Gungwu is currently the Director of East Asian Institute & Professor at Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences in the National University of Singapore. Professor Wang's impeccable credentials include a PhD from London University, Professor of History at Universiti Malaya, Far Eastern History at Australian National University, Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University as well as Vice-Chancellor of University of Hong Kong.

Professor Wang is often one of the losses of Malaysia's academia who we always talked about. I'm not sure if he is still a Malaysian today. Maybe someone should ask him if he is interested in the postion as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya. :-)

Singapore Management University

If there is a country which we should emulate in terms of setting the right foundations for a new (to be) world class university, it will be (unfortunately for some), Singapore.

Most of you would have heard of the two premier universities in Singapore, the National University of Singapore as well as the Nanyang Technological University, both regarded as top 50 universities in the world, according to the latest Times Higher Education Supplement survey.

However, there is a "new" university in Singapore (although possibly not so new in the sense that it absorbed certain established institutes and colleges) in a spanking new campus right in the heart of Singapore's Orchard Road - the Singapore Management University (SMU). Interestingly enough, the local New Straits Times did a thorough and complimentary review of the University today. Here are some snippets of the review:

While most universities conduct classes in huge lecture halls, SMU limits its students to a maximum of 50 per class. They don’t usually take down notes because materials would have been posted on the Intranet a few days before class.

"It is a state-of-the-art campus. But most importantly, we adopt a different pedagogy in educating our young minds. Our students don’t attend lectures and tutorials. They learn through small-group seminars which stimulate interaction. As a result, students become more bold, confident and articulate and are much sought after," says Hanson [Assistant Director of Corporate Communications].
Job Prospects
A survey conducted last year revealed that all of SMU’s students landed jobs within six months of graduation. About 60 per cent of them were offered jobs even before they finished their studies while 75 per cent have received at least two or more job offers.
Teaching Assessments
The university has a unique system where students, at the start of each term, are given "e-dollars" to bid online for courses, preferred professors and time slots. And while professors grade students for their course work, students rate their lecturers on their teaching and mentoring capabilities.
[Try doing this in Malaysian universities, and there might just be a revolt by the lecturers.]
Quality of Lecturers & Academics
More than half of them come from outside Singapore while 90 per cent of them obtained doctoral degrees from Ivy League institutuons [I'm extremely impressed! Compare this against only 30% PhD holders in Malaysian universities from don't know where] and are familiar with the American education system.

"In the education business, it is important not to compromise on the quality of professors. We don’t employ people who are looking for jobs. Instead, we go headhunting for the best brains and offer them a package that would attract them to Singapore," says Goh [Director for Undergraduate Admissions].

Malaysian-born Chua is an example. The 26-year-old who completed his bachelor and doctoral degree at the prestigious Wharton School in just five years is now SMU’s youngest assistant professor. He has been with the university since 2003.
Well, that's a real example of focusing on quality and not quantity. I'd not be surprised if SMU climbs the world rankings table quickly in the next few years.

No Fancy Spectacles

First we have the controversy of taking mobile phones to schools (which I never got round to blog about), and now some schools are clamping down on fancy spectacles. Hmm...

In a frontpaged report by Nanyang Siang Pau, two secondary schools in Penang – the Penang Chinese Girls High School and SMJK Heng Ee – have barred students from wearing “peculiar” and colourful spectacles to class.

The ban is apparently to "prevent" students from following ("跟风") the latest trends of some of their hippier classmates, and spending extravagant amounts of money on the fancy frames. The principal of Penang Chinese Girls High School, Yeoh Eng Sim was quoted to have said that "stern action will be taken to put a stop to this before it gets out of hand".
The principal also added that the thick and multicoloured frames is totally unbefitting for a student's image - "完全不符学生形象".

I can understand the disruption that mobile phones can bring to the a student's attentiveness as well as the conduct of classes - but "fancy" spectacles a "major" disciplinary issue? I would have thought that's the business of the parents, not the school. Next, they will regulate what type of school bags designs you can bring to school and possibly the type of stationery (designer pens versus 50 cents ball point pens) etc. etc. etc.

Loosen up! It's no wonder there are those who think that without UUCA, there will be daily riots and demonstrations by students.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Abolish UUCA?

There's a forum organised on the controversial Universities and University Colleges Act:
"Abolish the UUCA - Give New Life to Students"

Date: 11 February 2006 (Saturday)
Time: 9.30am - 4.00pm
Venue: Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Kuala Lumpur
Admission is Free
Unfortunately, my day trip to Singapore has been extended to the weekend. Hence I'm unable to make the forum. For those interested in finding out more about the UUCA or understanding what you can do about it, do take part :-)

The forum is divided into 2 sessions, with the details as follows:
Session I: IPT without UUCA - Is it Possible?
(moderated by YB Su Keong Siong, ADUN for Pasir Pinji)

Yusri Mohamad (President, ABIM)
Datuk Paduka Ibrahim Ali (Former MP for Pasir Mas)
Sdr Amer Hamzah (Lawyer and Human Right Activist)
YB Loke Siew Fook (ADUN for Lobak)

Session II: Activist Perspective on UUCA
(moderated by YB Fong Po Kuan, MP for Batu Gajah)

Sdri Soh Sook Hwa (DEMA)
Sdr Helman Sanuddin (Student Activist)

Discussion and formulation of memorandum
(chaired by YB Loke Siew Fook)
Kindly contact Carmen or Lau at 03-79578551 for registration.

Read also Kian Ming's post on UUCA as well as my little write up here for context.

Oh, and also, if anybody would like to do a "report" of sorts on the above forum and post it here, email me. Have fun!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Think global, Act global

As per Tony's most recent post, I think it's commendable that UTM is looking at hiring professors from the West in its efforts to improve its 'branding' and international 'image'. Hopefully, the lecturers that are employed will be of a decent standard and are able to boost teaching and research standards in addition to the 'branding' effects. (How UTM are going to attract these academics is another story since I can't imagine any world-class academics currently teaching in world class universities wanting to transplant themselves to UTM). But at least the UTM VC, Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli Ghazali, recognizes the changes currently taking place in the higher education marketplace and is trying to respond to it to the best of his ability.

I recently read this advertisement in the Feb 4 edition of the Economist newspaper. NTU was asking for applications for the position of the provost of the university. The ad describes the provost positon as the 'University's Chief Academic Officer' and reports to the University's President. It describes NTU as an institution with 'an undergraduate and graduate population of over 25,000 from over 50 countries, with an international faculty of over 1,300.' It also emphasizes that English is the medium of instruction and administration.

The fact that it put up an advertisement in the Economist shows that NTU is clearly trying to spread its net to an international audience. The fact that it has employed Heidrick and Struggles, an international executive search agency, to undertake this job search also shows that they are serious in compiling an interview list that is international and internationally competitive.

The possible hiring of someone with international experience not only brings the direct benefits of having the abilities and capabilities of a foreign provost but the fact that NTU shows that it is searching for international talent also boosts its image in the eyes of academics, journalist, leaders and thinkers all over the world. They are clearly ahead of the 'branding' game and their playing field is clearly in the international rather than the local or even regional arena. They have a clear strategy to reach the achievements that they are striving for and I would not be too surprised if NTU becomes a premier reseach university in Asia in the not too distant future and perhaps internationally as well.

I'm glad that some of our VCs recognize that the higher education playing field can no longer be a localised affair and that they are trying to do come up with some coherent responsese. The NTU advertisement puts it perspective, for me at least, how far we have to go to even catch up to them, to say nothing of trying to be like Cambridge or Oxford. (On this last point, I wonder if the UTM VC really thinks that Cambridge and Oxford are the two best universities in the world in terms of research or if they have the best brand names in the world. I say this because Oxford and Cambridge are looking at the best practices of US universities and I would say that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and other top US universities are probably at the cutting edge of most of what is ground-breaking in research)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Looks West

Well, there's two pieces of interesting news in this single report by the Star entitled "UTM to hire dons from West".

Firstly, of course, as the title suggested, the vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) said that "the university would recruit at least 30 top professors from the West and Australia".

Secondly, and more interestingly - an surprising not covered by the New Straits Times who did the earlier story - apparently the contract for the incumbent vice-chancellor, Prof Datuk Mohd Zulkifli Ghazali who was reportedly not renewed - has been renewed! But since it's quite "out of topic" for this post, I'll blog about it in the next one :-)

The newly "re-appointed" vice-chancellor celebrated the new lease of life by making a move to "re-brand and internationalise" UTM.
“These professors will help to lift the name and status of the university and make it more well-known,” he said, adding that each faculty will have at least three top professors. The professors, who include those from France, Italy, the United States and England, will serve in all 10 faculties of the university.
Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli even went so far as to say that he would like UTM "to be like Oxford or Cambridge". One of the first moves, probably more symbolic than anything else, is to have all sign boards to have English versions in addition to Bahasa Malaysia.

More interesting, good news for the students, but bad news for laggards of the English language in the university's academia - the vice-chancellor announced that "our professors will also have to adapt to having discussions or meetings in English".

Nevertheless, the vice-chancellor seems to have started on a spirited note. Lets hope that the move to recruit foreign academics is a serious attempt to boost our teaching faculties as well as research capabilities and not something silly like boosting the international teaching faculty to improve rankings.

The vice-chancellor should take the recruitment process one step further. Whoever recruited should have their academic resume published for public analysis to establish their credibility as indeed being "top academics" from the West.

Lecturers Can't Speak Inggeris

Further to an earlier article published in the Star a few months back and blogged here, the Star reported today that lecturers at our public universities continue to be using Bahasa Melayu to conduct lectures for science subjects despite practically the entire secondary school syllabus using English to teach the relevant subjects. The first batch of the English policy-based students have already enrolled into our universities this year.

If the primary and secondary school system can go cold turkey with the conduct of lessons in English, I cannot understand it when universities need to implement a snail-paced policy of conversion of Mathematics and Science programmes to English - with the most convenient excuse being the students are not ready for it.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin said that because of various constraints, implementation would be gradual.

“Our target is to have at least 30% of the first-year Maths and Science degree programmes in English, gradually increasing to 50% and then 100%. It was never going to be entirely in English from the beginning as our students come from various backgrounds.”
However, a survey of several undergraduates in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), UKM and Universiti Malaya reveal that "some lecturers' English is so weak that what they say is practically incomprehensible", the lecturers were politely requested to teach in the national language instead.
At the start of the first semester, students had asked two lecturers to teach in English, but their command of the language was so poor that the students implored them to revert to Bahasa. “We couldn’t understand half of what they said,” a student said.
This probably relates back to one of the criticisms by Dr Ng Swee Choon blogged here earlier that the conduct of lectures in Bahasa Melayu instead of English for the medicine faculties is affecting the quality of the graduates as practically all materials and advances in medical science is published in the English language.

In my earlier post, it was reported that UPM had invested some RM1 million to train lecturers to conduct lessons in English as long as 3 years ago. It is clear that the outcome of the training appears to be ineffective.

I cannot understand how these lecturers were appointed in the first place as practically any credible masters or PhD degrees in science and mathematics from reputable universities around the world would have been conducted in English. It does present a fearful picture about the quality of lecturers we have at our local universities and their academic intellect - do they even read?

Maybe instead of passing the irrelevant civil service "Efficiency Level Assessment Test", as well as the new arbitrary "Standard of Academic Excellence Test" for university lecturers (blogged here), all lecturers and academics must pass the simple 'O' levels English test to determine recruitment and promotion prospects. And for those who don't obtain at least a 'D' - a pay cut!

Monday, February 06, 2006

No Cure for Medical Schools?

The response the expose made by the Director-General of Health Datuk Dr Ismail Merican, blogged here earlier, has been pretty extensive. In fact yesterday, the chief editor of the New Straits Times, Brendan Pereira gave our Deputy Minister of Higher Education Datuk Fu Ah Kiow some rarely witnessed public verbal slapping in his regular column Plain Talk.
Dr Ismail was doing Malaysians a great service by calling attention to this problem of theory-only doctors walking the corridors of hospitals here. He knew he was opening himself up for attack.

Just like clockwork, Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Fu Ah Kiow hit back with the language of a schoolyard bully. He said: "He should know better than to make sweeping statements."
Ouch. As Sdr Lim Kit Siang suggested, Datuk Fu might just be taking the knife for his boss (whose, if anyone has noticed, silence is just defeaning).

To add additional credibility to the case, Dr Ng Swee Choon, a cardiologist at the Sunway Medical Centre, who started blogging just this year at the Heart of the Matter, wrote a damning post with regards to the state of medical education in Malaysia. Dr Ng highlight three key issues leading to the falling standards of medical education in Malaysia - the politicisation of medical education, the removal of English as the medium of instruction at medical schools as well as the privatisation of medical education.

Just like the fact that the Kelantanese were promised a University in the event of the last by-elections victory, there appears to be a desire to have a medical college in every state hence the recently set up private colleges such as the Perak Medical School, Melaka-Manipal Medical College as well as the Penang Medical School.

More critically, Dr Ng alleged that there were medical colleges which were started with just one lecturer in each major field or department, with curriculum and facilities "planned [and built] as they go along".

One of the recent policy changes which I believe that the Government did right was to switch the medium of instruction for mathematics and science to the English language. However, as highlighted in an earlier post, the teaching of the science subjects at universities continues to be taught to a large extent in Bahasa Malaysia. To quote Dr Ng, once one is not fluent in the English language, one will "lose out in all the medical advances and progress".

And the first come, first served basis of setting up private medical schools have resulted in drastically lower standards in medical education.
Private medical schools are approved, without due study, but on "who is asking" to build basis. Everybody with a college wants a Medical school as it is prestigious. It's okay, even if we lower our standards, have part time lecturers, shared facilities, or scrape by with the barest minimum in facilities.

It is therefore not surprising to find that we have doctors who can't write medical reports, or make a clinical diagnosis. Some cannot conduct a proper medical examination, and some cannot treat. Have you seen doctors who perform surgery with a textbook openned next to him for step by step reference?
Ewww.... that's a really scary thought. But all these problems are not new, nor were they just highlighted recently. Trawling back the archives of statements made by Sdr Lim Kit Siang, you would find that he has called for a 10-year medical education masterplan almost 4 years ago when the then University Malaya Vice Chancellor Prof. Datuk Dr. Anuar Zaini Mohd Zain sounded the alarm over the decline in teaching standards in public and private medical schools, warning that a lack of qualified academic staff was affecting medical education and the quality of doctors produced.

Even then, Prof Datuk Dr Anuar have argued that the ratio of medical lectureres to students is too high at 1:16 when it is 1:5 in Singapore. If it is 1:16 at our top medical school, I can only expect much worse at our local private medical colleges. What is worse is that we are dealing with the shortage by importing foreign medical academic staff from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar - with apparently one college solely depending on these group of lecturers!

And not to mention the fact that we have a private medical college set up recently, Allianze College of Medical Sciences (ACMS) - whose website is inaccessible for weeks by the way - which is "twinning" with a less than assuring North Sumatra Medical University.

ACMS which is located at Menara Umno in Penang, was one of the institutions which "offered" places to 50 out of 99 students who scored 4As for the STPM who were denied places in the medical faculties in the local public universities. Unsurprisingly, only 4 accepted the places which meant the first 3 years of study in Medan, before returning for 3 years locally. Yes, that was how the Government "resolved" the top students denied entry controversy - by sending them to dodgy private colleges twinning with universities from a country with a poorer reputation in education than Malaysia.

While I may not agree with some of the recommendations made by Sdr Lim, his call for a concrete and specific policy to enhance and maintain the quality of medical education must be heeded. Unlike the other fields of the education, medicine is probably the most critical of courses to be dealt with, for it deals with human lives, and Malaysians' health should not be made to suffer for its bureaucratic incompetency.

We can only conclude that our medical education system is in need of surgery, and hopefully our policy makers can come up with the cure soon enough.

The Learning Connection

I thought I would put up a plug for an education venture - The Learning Connection, opened by a friend of mine, Sara Brennerman at Mont Kiara. The Sunday Star did a little write up about the centre yesterday as well.

Unlike the typical learning centres you'd find out there, The Learning Connection targets children who have learning problems or disabilities, including dyslexia or attention deficiency.

Sara is a learning specialist in special education in the United States before coming over to Malaysia to teach at Mont Kiara International School. She has since decided last year to resume her work with children with learning disabilities. As per the write up in the Star:

Right now The Learning Connection has just a few kids and part-time teachers. Brenneman hopes that the number of students will increase over time. Although Brenneman says she would rather work with preschool children, she does accept and help children up to the age of 10.

Now, The Learning Connection offers a preschool programme for children aged between four and six years. There is also tuition for students with learning disabilities where one-hour individualised sessions are planned according to the student’s needs.
For more information, call 03-2094-5917, e-mail sara@learningconnection.com.my, or go to www.learningconnection.com.my.

World Bank Wants Practical Ideas

Yes, they want practical ideas from you, that is if you are aged between 18 to 25. Unfortunately I'm too old to take part :-)

The World Bank organises yearly international essay competitions, and they are ready to accept submission for this year. Together with its partners, they would like to invite you to participate in the International Essay Competition 2006 to share your experience and ideas on community work and participation in public life. The deadline of submissions is on the 2nd April, and finalists will be invited to present their case and their essays to the Jury at a conference in Tokyo at the end of May.

To participate, one has to write an essay of no more than 10 pages (4000 words), including a one-page abstract, on one of the two topics:

* How do you contribute to solving community problems?
* How do you influence decision making?

Essays will be graded on originality, clarity, and the use of concrete examples and proposals. The jury consists of people from various world-class universities and development councils, including the University of Texas - San Antonio, Cairo University Egypt and AIESEC International.

A quick note for the high achievers and students with ambitions out there. I've previously posted a couple of events and competitions here on the blog and have offered help and expertise to those who may require them. However, I noted that response has always been pretty dismal which either demonstrates that this blog doesn't reach the targetted audience or the readers often just can't be bothered. Do note that these events and competitions are often extremely enriching and often, even if you don't get to win, you will benefit significantly from taking part in the exercise itself. For those seeking to differentiate yourselfs, and particularly for those interested in enrolling into the top universities of the world, the experience will add significant weight to your application. I have often been asked by graduates on how they can add "oomph!" to their resumes, and taking part in these competitions in earnest would definitely be one of the methods.

You can find out more about the previous year essay competition and its winners here. Thanks to Tiara for the alert on her blog.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

United World College Scholarhips

There are many who have asked - what are the options for students who have just completed their SPM besides the traditional STPM, or 'A'-Levels. Well, there's the less conventional but increasingly popular International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, which I've yet to write about, which is also offered at the United World Colleges.

So if the picked up the Star Education today, you would see an article introducing the 12 United World Colleges (UWCs) around the world and the scholarships being made available for Malaysians.
For the academic year 2006-2008, Malaysia has been offered places for SPM/ International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) holders at UWC in Hong Kong, India, Norway, United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Two places are offered at two new colleges: UWC Costa Rica and UWC Bosnia. For the first time this year, Malaysian students with good SPM or equivalent results can also apply for the UWC of the Adriatic in Italy with the view of specialising in Physics or Music at tertiary level.
Prospective candidates will need to know that the selection criterias are highly competitive and stringent and only students with "at least six distinctions at SPM or 50% A/A* at IGCSE with good co-curriculum records should apply."
Successful applicants must be committed to community service and have a passion for music, drama or sport. The selection process looks for candidates with an open mind and the personal qualities which will enable them to live and study for two years in an intensive multicultural environment.
For more information as well as application forms, you may contact the Malaysian National Committee secretariat at infomy@uwc.net or call +603 7880 5455/66.

For those interested in first hand accounts of experiences as a student at the UWCs should visit TinKosong. Nithiya, a current a first year at UWC-USA, New Mexico, wrote a nice little piece of his experience as well as providing a background to the history of UWCs.
... 200 students from over 90 countries in a setting that facilitates cultural, political, and socio-economic exchange. I’ve only been in the UWC-USA, New Mexico, for about 5 months, and my world-view has experienced an incredible shift. Imagine, walking to the cafeteria and sitting at a table with students from 6 other countries, discussing the latest elections results in Liberia, with each region bringing a completely different mode of thought, or, staying up till 2 in the morning discussing the virtues and pitfalls of Marxism. It’s all very intellectually stimulating.
One of co-hosts of TinKosong, Ng Eng Han is also currently a student at UWC-USA, has received his admission into Dartmouth College via early admission. He has also written a short piece on the IB diploma programme - what it's about and where it's offered - yes, it's actually offered in Malaysia as well.

The guys at TinKosong runs an active conversation thread at the site for any prospective students interested in finding out more information with regards to either the UWCs or IBs or for that matter, about getting into the top schools in the United States.

Good luck! And thanks to LYL for the alert.

Beating All Odds II

You would have read about the previous blog posts (here and here) about a Priya who beat all odds to score straight As in her UPSR examinations. But we all know that Priya isn't the only one doing that in Malaysia. The Star Education segment today covered a few stories about three different students facing their respective challenges in their life, and yet performed incredibly well for their education and school examinations. Read more about Hoe Sing, Moganesri and Nitiakaran.

The reason why I like to hear these stories and of course, to write and spread their stories (after all, how many of you actually read the Sunday Star Education segment?) is to instil the belief that no matter what the background of a child is, there is every opportunity for him or her to do well in education. And if they were to do well in education, that is the ticket for them and their families to break the poverty cycle and jump out from the poverty trap.

23 year old Hoe Sing, one of five siblings cared for by their rubber tapper mum for example, still remembers his late father’s words, which was told to him when he was in kindergarten.
“My father told me the only way to escape poverty was to study hard,” says Hoe Sing, who was born with a cleft palate and harelip.>
Hoe Sing worked very hard to improve his prospects via education. Hoe Sing is currently pursuing a degree in accounting at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman on a full scholarship after scoring 3As and a B for his STPM. And the spirit I like best about Hoe Sing:
“I intend to repay all the help I’ve gotten from everyone, not necessarily in monetary terms, but by doing what I can for others. When I’m financially stable, I plan to contribute as much as possible to society – that will be my way of showing everyone how thankful I am,” he says.
Moganesri also demonstrated that it's never too late to start the "serious" pursuit of education process. From no 'A' in PMR, to only 1A for her SPM, she scored straight 4As for her STPM.
“My life took a turn when I went to Form Six. I started to really enjoy my studies, which helped me concentrate more. I also decided that I had to set a good example for my younger siblings,” says Moganesri.
I wouldn't advise one to leave it to that late to "turn things around" though. I do believe that STPM is probably the "last chance saloon" for one to do well and gain entry into a reputable university, which unfortunately is critical in providing quality further education as well as markly improving career prospects post-graduation.

And finally to quote what Nitiakaran's mother constantly emphasized to him - "Education is the only wy to achieve a better life". Hear! Hear!

What's Up Doc?

Well nothing too much actually, besides more visiting and hosting an open house for my long-suffering employees :-) Apologies for the lack of posting over the last 2-3 days - for those that are concerned, no, I've not been put in lock up for meddling with firecrackers (my friend did though) nor have had my head shaved bald for shuffling numbered tiles. :-)

There have however been no shortage of issues to write about though - which means an even longer backlog of blogs to write. There is however, one particular issue, which I've been meaning to write for the past 8 months or so, but for one reason or other have not gotten around to it. It has to do with the fact that everybody have the irresistable urge to become a doctor. Well, either that or they would like their sons and daughthers to become one.

Well, I think I've got enough materials to put up at least 3 separate posts on the issue, especially now that something unsurprising but critical has been "exposed" with regards to medical education in Malaysia. And not surprisingly with me warming my butts for a couple of days, Sdr Lim Kit Siang was the first to the post to blog the issue.

In a fearful frontpage report by the New Straits Times, the Director-general of Health Datuk Dr Ismail Merican said that there are many doctors in hospitals "who did not have clinical skills such as patient care, familiarity with the signs and symptoms of diseases, diagnosing illnesses, and doctor-patient communication."

He asked the simple question of "Who do we blame when we get doctors who do not have the necessary clinical skills?"

Ouch. Obviously the Ministry of Higher Education felt the pinch for the Deputy Minister, Datuk Fu Ah Kiow replied with all guns blazing.
"There is no reason why we cannot produce competent doctors with enough clinical experience when their syllabus is checked by the Malaysian Medical Council, which is chaired by Dr Ismail, and by academicians... We only give out medical degrees when the college and the degrees are recognised by the MMC. With this condition in place, I cannot understand why Dr Ismail has to say that the doctors produced are lacking in clinical skills."
The focus of the criticism by Datuk Ismail appears to be with the private medical colleges who were unable to provide sufficient (if any at all) clinical training for the medical students. There was even an accusation somewhere which alleged that certain private colleges were conduct medical classes out of rented shoplots, which was true for Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (AIMST) as a temporary measure prior to moving to their new campus in 2005.

For those interested, there are only a total of 12 medical colleges in Malaysia, 7 and 5 government and private medical colleges respectively. The other medical colleges are International Islamic Medical College (1995), Penang Medical College (1996), Melaka-Manipal Medical College (1997) and Perak Medical College (1999).

As rightly pointed out by Sdr Lim Kit Siang, pin-pointing the exact fault contribution between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Higher Education will not be a particulary fruitful exercise. What is important now, is how will we resolve the critical issue of incompetent doctors in our public hospitals.

The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) has raised, as far back as 2002, concerns with regards to the rapid increase in private medical colleges in Malaysia.
Owing to the increase in the number of medical colleges within a short period, the MMA is very concerned that standards will be compromised if the following issues are not addressed.
  • Lack of trained and qualified lecturers

  • The ratio of lecturers to medical students should be transparent. In the medical faculty of the National University of Singapore, it is 1:5

  • The curriculum now varies from traditional to problem-based learning (PBL) and there are 10 different examinations conducted by 10 different colleges. To maintain a uniform standard, it is advisable to have the same curriculum, and one common examination

  • Attaching private medical college to an existing government hospital may put a stress on existing manpower resources, and also the physical facilities may not be adequate. Private medical colleges should build their own teaching hospitals

  • Selection of students in all private medical colleges should be supervised by the Ministry of Education and minimum criteria for admission should be met
Obviously the suggestions made by the MMA have not been heeded by the Ministry of Higher Education.

The problems faced in private medical colleges is not any different from the other private colleges. The only difference is that one deals with the lives of the people, which makes it critical, while others will just be unemployed. When private college churn out computer science degree holders who had little or no practicals in programming, I just don't recruit them. However, I believe that the local public hospitals are actually obliged to employ these doctors upon their graduation, irrespective of their abilities.

While the case involves the quality of medical students our private (and possibly public) colleges and universities are producing in Malaysia, the bottom line is something which I've harped about consistently over the last couple of months. The uncontrolled liberalisation of the education sector and the mushrooming of private colleges with the necessary regulation and quality enforcement has resulted in the predictable steep decline in standards.

It is not difficult for the Ministry of Higher Education to enforce some of the sensible proposals made by the MMA. How difficult is it to ensure certain minimal qualifying criteria to study medicine and standardise examinations? It is obviously difficult as it will affect the viability of these colleges as they may not be able to attract sufficient students to these courses. And with standardised examinations, students from weaker colleges will fail badly which will in turn objectively tarnish the reputation and hence the financial viability of the college.

The clear question to ask then, is whether there is a conflict of interest in the Ministry's attempt to increase the number of private colleges and it's objective to set Malaysia as a commercial education centre for foreign students with the need to maintain and raise the standards of higher education in Malaysia.

Will it come the day when the first question we ask the doctor, is where he obtained his degree? There'll be a few more posts on this topic.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Malaysian Qualification Agency

It has been reported that the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) will be established in June and will take over the functions of the National Accredition Board (LAN).

How is the MQA different from the LAN? Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin, who is the Chief Executive Officer of LAN as well as the head of the provisional MQA team gives us some clues in the article by the New Straits Times.

At present, approval for the conduct of particular courses at the institutions of higher learning is a separate process from its accreditation. Hence you actually can have courses which are approved but are not accredited with the LAN.

Ah... is this a case of the right hand of the same ministry not knowing what the left hand is doing? Looking at the statistics, it appears that unaccredited approved courses outnumber accredited ones by more than 3 to 1 (2,646 to 727). Hence it appears that a student in the higher education sector in Malaysia is more likely to be pursuing an unaccredited programme than an accredited one. Would that explain the reasons why student loans are currently granted to unaccredited programmes?

We now also learn that accreditation is a voluntary exercise by the respective educational institutions. This means that upon receiving approval for the courses, the institutions have no obligations to have the course accredited by LAN. Then, at this point of time, "approval" by the Ministry of Higher Education is the only point in which the "quality" of the courses are vetted. Or is it?

Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin admitted that currently, the Ministry only does a cursory check on the programme outline before giving approval. Hence current students should take note that the stamp of "approval" from the Ministry is not in anyway to be taken as a stamp of a course which has met even the minimum quality benchmarks set by agencies such as the LAN.

Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin did add that with the merger of the approval and accreditation functions in the new MQA, the process will become synchronous and all courses will undergo the accreditation process in accordance to the new quality framework. But it does send shivers down the spine to think that all this while, colleges, mostly private ones, are probably able to come up with poor programmes and yet still obtain the necessary approvals from the Ministry.

The MQA Act is expected to be tabled and passed in Parliament in June, to replace the LAN Act. As always with many government acts and regulations which are noble in intent, the biggest questions concerning the MQA will be whether it will be substantive enough and whether it will set the quality bar high enough to ensure that the courses accredited do indeed possess the attributes of a half-decent programme.