Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Interesting Jots by Josh

Josh Hong has been a Malaysiakini columnist for some time now as well as an activist in Malaysia and a good friend of mine. His recent column in Malaysiakini on education had some interesting points on the state of higher education in Malaysia which I thought are worthwile to highlight here.

First of all, he reminds us of the dangers of 'playing up' one's ranking in the THES when it is favorable and raising doubt about the same ranking's methodology when one's own position is in freefall.

"After all, there were no grumbling voices when UM was erroneously placed at 89 in the THES global rankings two years back, a mistake that THES readily admitted later. Instead, self-congratulatory banners were everywhere in the campus. I now wonder where have all the banners gone. Anyone can see we are a lousy loser."

He also points to some of the weaknesses in the THES rankings, which in my opinion are quite valid.

"The THES global rankings is not without its problems. For instance, among the top 200 universities, those from the English-speaking countries make up 105 (excluding the French-speaking Université de MontréalUniversity of Canada), a result of the fact that the survey draws heavily from universities and institutes that use English as research language."

"Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, UK’s authoritative science weekly, once remarked that the best research in Germany takes place outside of university system, such as the science-based Max Planck Institutes, and the majority of the research reports are only available in German, a core reason why only a handful of German universities are considered for world rankings of any kind."

But even the normally staid Germans are reacting to global trends in higher education, as pointed out in this article sent to me by Charis Quay, a physics doctorate student in Stanford.

Josh also brings in his own UK experience (he was a Chevening Masters student in SOAS, if memory serves) by showing the difficulty of comparing SOAS with Imperial College.

"And one will find if difficult to understand why the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a purely arts-based college, and the Imperial College, a world-renowned science and technology institute, have both made it to the top 200 list despite that they are poles apart on their fields of specialty. Perhaps a faculty-to-faculty comparison would be a more scientific and reliable methodology in this regard."

But it's some of his insights in regards to proposals to improve Malaysia's own higher education system that drew my attention. He points out, for example, that meritocracy is not the panacea that many think that it is:

"Meritocracy is a noble idea, but far from a panacea nonetheless. Otherwise we cannot explain why thousands of universities worldwide that recruit students on meritocratic basis are still facing the daunting task of narrowing the vast discrepancies in performance vis a vis Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford etc.."

Certainly, meritocracy by itself cannot solve the woes of higher education in Malaysia, whether one is refering to meritocracy in terms of hiring and promotion practices among lecturers or in terms of entry requirements into out local universities. Other issues such as funding, salaries, research budgets, creating a research based environment and providing the necessary incentives, political interference (or the lack thereof) are important as well. But certainly, one would not argue against the implementation of more meritocratic practices in Malaysian universities as a first step (or one of the first steps) towards improving our universities. It would certainly make it more attractive for good Malaysian researchers who are trained overseas to come back to our local universities as well as to retain good lecturers who are currently teaching in our local universities.

(Incidentally, the idea that the top universities in the US and the UK practice absolute meritocracy is a myth. Sometimes family lineage, ability for parents to make generous donations, minority considerations (read: African American and Hispanic), all count to different extents. The UK government also makes it a point to force Oxford and Cambridge to fulfill a certain 'quota' of students who are from a working class background)

Josh also 'half-rightly' points out that the lack of research in public universities are not directly connected to racial policies:

"Furthermore, the lack of research interest at tertiary level in this country has little to do with the currently raced-based quota system. One only has to look at the private colleges and institutes that have mushroomed over the last two decades. Free of the curse of the quota system they may be, their interest in academic research is anything but desirable. Many see them as a fast-track to career success rather than a place in which they can devote themselves to lifelong knowledge conservation, development and research."

Josh is absolutely right to call out the lack of a research culture among our private institutions of higher learning. The profit motive reigns supreme there. I say only 'half-right' because I think that there is potential for 3 or 4 good private research universities to develop (with the proper incentives and leadership) out of the current crop which we have (MMU is probably the leading example). I also only say 'half-right' because for those academics who don't see an administrative path for career advancement for whatever reasons (racial policies, differences of political opinion), they usually have to resort to taking a more research based path to 'force the hand' of the administration to promote them (read: Terence Gomez, Mustafa Anuar, KS Jomo, Zaharom Nain, Franis Loh, Azmi Sharom, P Ramasamy).

Finally, he points to the mentality of those who run the universities and their political bosses as a major stumbling block towards improving higher education in our country:

"The crux of the problem in Malaysia’s higher education lies in the fact that the government simply does not know why and whom is it for. Typical of a development-minded politician in other third-world countries, our government officials only want the universities to serve the development agenda of the nation and to pursue economic returns at all costs."

I think that the government and certainly, the current Minister of Higher Education, Tok Pa, realizes that the current status quo in our public universities cannot go on. He wants to see substantive change in the system but is also constrained by political realities.

It's encouraging to know there are many others out there like Josh and some of our readers who share similar thoughts as myself and Tony in regards to the state of higher education in Malaysia. It's also encouraging that people like Josh have good and valuable insights to contribute to this important debate. If only some of the policymakers will sit up and take note.

Monday, October 30, 2006

"Rempitized" Education System

With the attraction that Mat Rempits are attracting in our local media and politicians today, it was quite interesting when Dr Azly Rahman wrote in his column in Malaysiakini of a "rempitised" education system.

Dr Azly offered a fairly complex definition of "rempitise", and it's application to economic and education systems:
Rempitism (noun; also concept and ideology borrow from the neo-Malay word rempit) - a Malaysian phenomenon in which youth uses the public road system to break the speed limit with customised motorbikes in illegal, past-midnight drag-races that rob the restful sleep of peaceful citizens; a phenomena akin to a capitalist economy of a struggling showcasing Third World nation such a Malaysia that hypermodernises beyond the ability of its people to cope with its sensationalised designs of ‘economic miracles’.

A ‘rempitised’ economic and education system ‘rams’ human beings into different ‘pits’ (hence the term ‘rempit’) of the conveyer belt of the capitalist production system; creating what looks like a natural progression of meritocracy in education and social evolution. The foundation of this system is neo-colonialism, structural violence and the alienation of labour.
I wouldn't claim to fully comprehend the above definitions, so I'll provide my own lay man understanding of it. We currently have a declining and clearly inadequate education system at all levels from primary to tertiary levels, as demonstrated by the illiteracy levels as well as the poor performance of our universities in all global rankings. At the same time, for the purposes of political expediency, akin to the egos of the Mat Rempits, we would still like to be seen as "world class". Hence, to rempitise our education system is akin to the haphazard attempts to adopt modern and progressive-like Wesern attributes in a almost reckless manner, without fully contemplating the consequences for themselves, the public and the country's future.

What however, I thought was an extremely key question asked was "Do we have people in the education ministry well versed enough in analysing the phenomenon of our rempitised economy (speeding it up illegally) and how this is directly related to how we are ‘schooling’ our society?"
...how do we deal with the leadership of the public education system? We need to start by selecting only those who are well-versed in the entire spectrum of education.

We have ministers, educational experts, specialists and educational representatives who either have minimal classroom experience or none at all - let alone have much-needed knowledge in the history, theory, post-structurality and possibilities of education.

We place them in this ministry based on political considerations. They mess things up and show their inability to understand where our youth are heading, or how to design an education system good enough to reflect the dream we have - a dream of a just, equitable, environmentally sustainable, intellectual and ethical society.

We are more concerned with having our students and teachers pledge blind loyalty to the signs and symbols of power; one-dimensional thinking; and politically correct behaviour instead of developing, celebrating and further grooming good teachers who can radicalise the minds of the youth of tomorrow... We do this against the backdrop of our speeded-up, hypermodernised economy - one we rempitised in the name of the New Economic Policy.

The question for us now is: how do we de-rempitise our society?
How do we do that indeed.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Elitism in Singapore

Heh heh. I was flayed by some in my earlier post on "The Singaporean Graduate" - for example, "This is one of the lousiest post I have read on your blog Tony." Well, here's a bit more of the same, on the type of graduates Singapore seems to be producing.

But before I proceed and get myself flamed again as making "sweeping statements", please note that this is a commentary on increasing significant trends. It is not however an observation that all or even a majority of Singaporean students or graduates are described as follows.

I was in Singapore for a couple of days over the end of last week for my company's board meeting (possibly one of my last ;p) and other business matters (hence the lack of posts). One of the biggest furores playing out in the local section of The Straits Times was a blog entry by the daughter of one of Singapore's newest Member of Parliament, Wee Siew Kim. Mr Wee is part of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Group Representation Constituency (GRC) team in Ang Mo Kio. I can't make any online references to the articles because the Singapore press isn't free, but I'll try to outline the background here.

It all started when Ms Wee Shu Min, an 18 year old Raffles Junior College student (yes, that's both Kian Ming's and my alma mater), responded to a post by a Mr Derek Wee (unrelated to Ms Wee) on "The Future of Singapore". Mr Derek Wee was lamenting the fact the ultra competitive society in Singapore whereby you are regarded as "over the hill" once above the age of 40.
Taxi drivers are fast becoming “too early to retire, too old to work” segment of the society. I like to talk to taxi drivers whenever I am heading for the airport. There was this driver. Eloquent and well read. He was an export manager for 12 years with an MNC. Retrenched at 40 years old. He had been searching for a job since his retrenchment. Although he was willing to lower his pay expectations, employers were not willing to lower their prejudice. He was deem too old. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have another No. 1; having the most highly educated taxi drivers in the world.
Derek Wee's post might just have been lost in a sea of many such posts abound in Singapore's blogosphere, if not for a vicious and callous blog response by Ms Wee on her blog, which has since been shut down. Here are some excerpts of her blogpost, thanks to Singapore Election Watch.
mom's friend sent her some blog post by some bleeding stupid 40-year old singaporean called derek wee (WHY do all the idiots have my surname why?!) whining about how singapore is such an insecure place, how old ppl (ie, 40 and above) fear for their jobs, how the pool of foreign "talent" (dismissively chucked between inverted commas) is really a tsunami that will consume us all (no actually he didn't say that, he probably said Fouren Talern Bery Bad.), how the reason why no one wants kids is that they're a liability in this world of fragile ricebowls, how the government really needs to save us from inevitable doom but they aren't because they are stick-shoved-up-ass elites who have no idea how the world works, yadayadayadayada.

i am inclined - too much, perhaps - to dismiss such people as crackpots. stupid crackpots. the sadder class. too often singaporeans - both the neighborhood poor and the red-taloned socialites - kid themselves into believing that our society, like most others, is compartmentalized by breeding. ridiculous. we are a tyranny of the capable and the clever, and the only other class is the complement...

...dear derek is one of many wretched, undermotivated, overassuming leeches in our country, and in this world. one of those who would prefer to be unemployed and wax lyrical about how his myriad talents are being abandoned for the foreigner's, instead of earning a decent, stable living as a sales assistant. it's not even about being a road sweeper. these shitbags don't want anything without "manager" and a name card.

please, get out of my elite uncaring face.
Shocking? You've got it. But it certainly is a way for an 18 year old to gain national prominence, and possibly cost your parent a stillborn political career.

In an initial statement to the press, in response to the fierce criticisms received by his daughter, he offered his qualified apology a la Lee Kuan Yew.
What she said did come across as insensitive. The language was stronger than what most people could take. But she wrote in a private blog and I feel that her privacy has been violated. After all, they were the rantings of an 18-year-old among friends.

I think if you cut through the insensitivity of the language, her basic point is reasonable, that is, that a well-educated university graduate who works for a multinational company should not be bemoaning about the Government and get on with the challenges in life.

Nonetheless, I have counselled her to learn from it. Some people cannot take the brutal truth and that sort of language, so she ought to learn from it.
Now if that isn't condescending, then I don't know what is. The apology that wasn't led to an even bigger furore amongst Netizens. "Wee Shu Min" topped Technorati for a couple of days, equalling the feat achieved by several other Singaporean girls for equally infamous incidents. It led to a second apology two days later, probably under instructions from his political masters, which essentially took back what he said in his first "apology".
I am sorry that my statements carried in The Straits Times of Oct 24 offended some readers. I should not have said what I did about people’s inability to take the brutal truth and strong language.

I have also counselled my daughter Shu Min. She is fully aware and remorseful over her tone, insensitivity and lack of empathy. I have advised her to learn from this.

We both apologise to the people whom we have offended, and especially Mr Derek Wee.
That, in brief is the long and short of the entire saga. Without going into the political impact on Singapore's society (you can read that here) as that isn't the objective of this blog, it tells a little about the education system in Singapore, particularly in relation to children belonging to the upper middle class.

Ms Wee is a scholar (10 A’s in O-level, strong bilingual, French), the sort that is "earmarked for an easy road to high office". Clearly, the Singapore education system is able to produce top academic scholars who are intelligent and eloquent. However, it is quite clear that the system's ability in inculcating the emphathy for the plight of the less fortunate, humility, a sense of social responsibility, obligation and community spirit is left desperately wanting. It is all the more disappointing that it is the more intelligent (yes, from Ms Wee's blogpost, you can tell that she has some brain matter in between her temples) and likely future leaders of Singapore, who are proving the system's shortcomings.

Some will place blame on an "elitist" education system. I beg to differ. I believe that an "elitist" education system, in the attempt to provide the best education to the minds and brains for the country is not mutually independent from a caring and compassionate society. This means that an "elitist" education, with all its supposed negative connotations, does not necessitate an elitist "class" mentality. I'd like to think that I was educated in the top schools in Singapore, and subsequently at a top school in the United Kingdom, without them making me a heartless bourgeois. In fact, I believe that a elitist education coupled with the right balance of moral upbringing (both at home and in school) will make a person better equipped to make more fruitful contributions to society in subsequent years.

In 16 years' time, should my Xin Ying grow up and write like Ms Wee, please do not hesitate to tell me in the face that I have failed miserably as a parent. I will definitely retire from whatever I am doing at that point in time and probably spend a couple of months in a monastery to serve my penance. This is my personal opinion obviously, but I believe the real failure here is Mr Wee Siew Kim.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Primary School Enrollment Drops

In the midst of all the debate regarding higher education in Malaysia, we musn't forget that other aspects of educational policy are important as well. This recent report in the Star caught my attention. It referred to the "Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report 2007" issued by UNESCO which noted that 'Malaysia lost ground in its primary education enrolment during the period under report, falling from 98% in 1999 to 93% by 2004'.

I've always assumed that Malaysia had achieved 100% (or almost 100%) primary school enrollment rate for quite some time. The fact that this % has dropped to 93% is certainly worrying.

According to the EFA monitoring team's policy analyst Dr Nicole Bella, 'She said this could be attributed to the increase in the number of children of school-going age, as the total enrolled in primary education nationwide had remained the same, at about three million.' In other words, the number of children attending primary school has not changed by much but the number of children of primary school going age has increased.

It highly likely that the drop in primary scholl enrollment is due to children from marginalised families not attending school. Indeed, the report cites as much - 'In Malaysia’s case, it cites the difficulty of attracting and retaining marginalised children as a reason for the high number not reaching the last primary grade or moving on to secondary school.'

But my question is this - if 'at risk' or 'marginalized' children were attending primary schools previously (when enrollment was at 98% or higher), why are less of them attending primary school now? Have there been changes to the economic condition of marginalized families which have forced parents to take their children out from the primary school system? Are these marginalized children more likely to be from immigrant families who don't have the same expectations of sending their children to attend primary school as other Malaysians do?

Although not discussed often in this blog, the statistics for drop out rates after Primary Six and after Form 3 are pretty scary especially for a country that has aspirations to become a fully developed nation by 2020.

A consequence of this will be a growing section of an 'underclass' which will be denied ample employment opportunities and might be forced into illegal activities such as crime and drugs.

There are no simple, clear cut solutions to this complex problem but a good start would be to identify the symptoms and causes of why such a phenomenon is occuring and why it is becoming more serious.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A World-Class Research University for Malaysia

Ong Shien Jin and Charis Quay Huei Li are doctoral students at Harvard University and Stanford University respectively. This article was originally submitted to the New Straits Times and The Star on 7 October 2004 as a Letter to the Editor, but was not published in either paper. I think that they raise excellent points in this article and that it was a pity that either paper didn't publish their letter. We've gotten permission from the authors to post their letter on this blog. Note that this was written in 2004 and that recent developments in the education scene in Malaysia may have changed the opinion of the authors on this issue. Enjoy the read!

We applaud the Prime Minister's recent announcement of the government's intention to make conditions in Malaysia conducive to research and development efforts and thus to attract home Malaysian scientists and researchers abroad. Malaysia has industrialised rapidly over the past few decades, but she cannot rely on manufacturing forever; therefore, this move to strengthen R&D is timely.

The 'brain drain' of the most talented Malaysians to other countries is no accident. The failure of our universities to attract and retain the best talent stems from the following factors.

First, the salary offered to lecturers is not competitive. A junior professor's salary at US research universities start at about RM20,000 a month. [1] Factoring in the difference in cost of living, this figure is equivalent to almost RM9,000 in Malaysia, much higher than the RM3,000 currently offered to starting lecturers. [2]

Second, there is inadequate research funding available. The setting up of IRPA (Intensification of Research in Priority Areas) under the 7th Malaysia Plan (1995-2000) was a step in the right direction, but the yearly average of around RM100 million allocated for R&D is not enough to be globally competitive. [3] Countries like the United States and Japan that have benefited significantly from R&D spend billions of dollars a year on research. [4-10]

Third, there is too little emphasis on research. Local university staff teach up to twenty in-class hours a week and do much of their own marking. This leaves little time to do research. By way of contrast, science department staff at US research universities usually teach three in-class hours a week, with some junior staff given a lighter teaching load to enable them to concentrate on research. In addition, almost all the marking and tutorials are conducted by postgraduate teaching assistants.

Fourth, the Malaysian research community does not have a critical mass of researchers and is not integrated into the global community. These factors are vitally important given the increasingly collaborative nature of scientific research. In the simplest case, this occurs in the form of sharing expensive equipment which no research group could afford by themselves. [11] It has also become increasingly common for new technological developments to require the expertise of researchers from more than one field, often from more than one country and across the industry/academia divide. [12] In addition, few researchers have achieved major breakthroughs without intellectual input from friends and colleagues.

Finally, recognition of talent is lacking. Almost all university lecturers are guaranteed lifetime employment regardless of performance. Furthermore, to our best of knowledge, job performance, namely performance in research and teaching, is often not the main criterion for promotions and for the awarding of research funding.
Transforming all the universities in Malaysia into world-class research institutions is both extremely difficult and requires enormous amounts of money. We therefore propose, as an initial step forward, that the government focus its efforts on developing a single world-class research university.

A single world-class research university is far better than multiple mediocre universities. It will be able to contribute to the bulk of the nation’s R&D effort and lead Malaysia into becoming a developed nation. For instance, it is the few top universities in the United States that have made the most of the breakthroughs in research, thus enabling the United States to be the world leader in science and technology. In contrast, Europe's egalitarian funding policies have been cited as a contributing factor to their comparatively weak R&D sector. [13]

What do we envision for this world-class research university?

A world-class university needs world-class professors. In this regard, we should not only focus our efforts on attracting talented Malaysian researchers abroad, but also on brilliant researchers of other nationalities. Most expatriates love living in Malaysia, but unfortunately this fact is not well-known. Also, as our PM has noted, other countries have been tirelessly recruiting Malaysian students at top universities worldwide. Their recruiting agencies employ various techniques, e.g. having information on government initiatives readily available on well-designed websites, offering to meet with prospects, wining and dining them at receptions graced by high-ranking officials, and placing advertisements in alumni magazines and publications of professional societies. Some of these tactics are perhaps extravagant and unnecessary, but we would do well to discern and adopt the practical and efficient ones.

In light of the importance of connections and collaboration in scientific research, the initial-stage hiring should focus more on established researchers than on freshly-minted PhDs. Many countries that have recently built up their R&D sector have done precisely this. Notable examples include Nobel laureate Yang Chen Ning's return to Taiwan and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology's recent recruitment of Robert Laughlin from Stanford, also a Nobel laureate. [14, 15]
In order for the first-class brains to go about their work, this world-class university needs significantly more research funding. Basic research should be the major focus, because most significant scientific progress relies on basic research.

In addition, while salary is not the utmost concern for many researchers, most talented people would like to be fairly compensated according to prevailing market rates. It is unrealistic to expect a world-class professor to relocate to Malaysia if he or she is being compensated much less than he or she would be overseas.
Furthermore, promotion and distribution of research funding need to be fair and transparent. Our public universities are entrenched in the procedures of the Civil Service, which are unsuitable for research universities. One of the more obvious problems is the concentration of the power to promote or deny promotion in the hands of one or two of a civil servant's direct superiors. This leads, among other things, to the non-promotion of capable people who are perceived as threats to their superiors' positions.

We therefore propose that our world-class university adopt world-class hiring and promotion procedures. We are most familiar with the US system, where promising young people are hired as junior faculty and given 6 to 8 years to prove themselves. After that period of time, they are subject to external peer review and only the outstanding professors who have done world-class research are retained. [16, 17] While this system works well in the US, applying it to our universities immediately suggests many practical difficulties. We strongly urge the government to study hiring and funding practices at research powerhouses in Europe, the Commonwealth and Asia.

Running a world-class university is a costly venture, but it is nonetheless worthy of a long-term national investment.

It is necessary for the government to provide the initial funding but when the university is successful, contributions from private companies and alumni could supplement a significant portion of the required expenses. In fact, this is the case with many top US universities, such as MIT and Stanford University, where private industry funding increased significantly after these universities proved to be capable of supplying valuable knowledge to the private sector.

We expect the 21st century to be an era where rapid advancements in the sciences will result in unprecedented improvements in living standards. Advanced scientific knowledge will be highly valuable and nations that invest in this scientific revolution will gain significant a advantage over those that are reluctant to do so.

Note: references for this article have not been included.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Quality of Postgraduates

Kian Ming wrote on the additional grants to our four of our leading universities to promote research, development and postgraduate studies as well as the implications of more postgraduates at Universiti Malaya (UM). It has obviously stirred some interest (I can only say that many of you are actually related to the academia in one way or another), so I thought I'll add my two sen here, particularly with regards to some comments made on the post.

I'd just like to comment on the quality of the postgraduate students who has made applications to positions within my company. My recruitment advertisements are usually for fresh graduates, but I do receive the occasional postgraduates applying for the positions. They do not however, receive any preferential treatment over the typical fresh graduates. Before I proceed with my two sen, I do want to emphasize that my experience is pretty much anecdotal and I've not done a thorough study which will prove or "rubbish" the findings :)

I find the quality of the local postgraduate programmes extremely unreliable. I'm not familiar with the local postgraduate quality control and entry requirements, but the impression I get is that they are either absent or very low. When I review the results obtained by the postgraduates, there usually is a huge disparity between the results obtained from the Masters and their undergraduate studies.

As an example, I will get a candidate who received a CGPA of 2.6 for their undergraduate studies, receiving a score of 3.7 a year later for their Masters. And I get these cases pretty often. I find the disparity in results just unbelievable. It almost appears as if, the Masters programmes are tailored specifically for students who did poorly for the undergraduate programmes to achieve a better score for themselves!

Hence my concern with the idea that the local research universities seek to substantially increase their future postgraduate intakes. I'm not familiar with the entry mechanisms and criteria for postgraduate studies, but I certainly think that they need to be set much higher than it is at the moment. Maybe Kian Ming can share his application process to Duke, and that can be compared against the typical application process to a local institution.

Certainly it will be a self-defeating policy of increasing research and development funds but then throwing them to a larger number of unqualified candidates. And these are the very candidates who may decide to remain in the academia to teach and pursue their PhDs.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"You Left, We Stayed"

Heh heh. I thought this "insight" by Patricia John in the Sunday Star was particularly amusing. And it just about sums up my personal thoughts on staying back in Malaysia instead of migrating overseas. Well, besides the fact that I'd like to make a difference in this country at some point in time.

We have read many letters such as the "very frightened Malaysian" complaining about the discriminating environment as well as the many brain drain cases which find their talents better appreciated overseas. Of course, there are plenty more, as shown in the commentary sections of this blog, who will seek and advocate migration overseas at all costs.

So Patricia wrote on her cousin who has migrated but kept sending her Malaysian "bad news" as if she's an absolute sucker for staying back.
So, from this great and privileged place where they are, they send us stuff of how bad things are in this land where WE choose to live.

My question is this: Are you saying that your Howard is so great? Is he clean and just and honest? Is he intelligent and far-sighted and doing everything right for Australia? Or perhaps your ideal is George W. Bush or Tony Blair? Words fail me when I try to go there!
Her point wasn't so much to criticise the other countries as to make a point that different people are likely to make different choices, and there's probably no right or wrong to it.
I respect the choices people make. I respect their need to leave this land and go find their fortunes elsewhere. It's in our genes anyway - we're the offspring of peoplewho left China and India and came here. I'll understand when my children say they want to work in Canada and Europe and the United States. I understand the need to go seek new things and learn how the rest of the world lives.

But I also understand that paradise is where you make it. Running to another land is not where its going to be. It is here: with the man you love, your daughter, your son, your dogs; with your mum and your wonderful sisters; with your lovely home and garden and with your friends.

If you know who you are and what you want, then you will be happy. There's no need to fly away. Listen with your heart and you will find it's been here all along, and you never knew. I've always known. Always. And life is good.
I'll just add that life is indeed good, but that doesn't mean that it can't be better. We'll just have to do our little parts to help make the "little paradise" of our own, wherever that may be, a better place for you and me, and our future generations to live in. :)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Prof Lim Teck Ghee: Leaving Malaysia Again?

As rightly pointed out by Kian Ming, the Professor Lim Teck Ghee's research proposals for the Government have surprisingly dominated the online and offline media discussions over the past two to three weeks. Specifically, there was controversy over the claims that bumiputera equity ownership in Malaysia has significantly exceeded the target 30% set by the Government for the New Economic Policy (NEP). It also directly contradicted the Government's claim in the 9th Malaysia Plan (9MP) that bumiputera equity has stagnated at 18.9%.

Whilst the issue itself isn't directly related to education, there are some serious underlying implications to our academia arising from the controversy. I thought that they are certainly worth some analysis and commentary here, beyond just our statement of support for Prof Lim blogged here earlier.

For those interested in finding out more about Prof Lim, I would strongly encourage you to read the full interview published in last Tuesday's copy of the Sun's Conversations column. It's an extended piece and is now available online here. I must also give praise to the Sun's editorial board for playing a part in first highlighting the forum in which the study was publicly discussed for the first time, as well as giving the issue the room it deserves in the public space for mature and rational discussion. It should be noted that other English dailies, The Star in particular, has avoided the issue like plague demonstrating its ownership and partisan bias.

OK, back to the core education issues raised by the entire controversy.

Firstly, as blogged frequently here, the type of irrational and emotional response by some of our government leaders to the assertions of the study proves the failure of our education system, particularly in our pre-tertiary schooling programme in promoting national unity. As argued by Prof Lim:
The longer the country delays the reform of our educational system to enable our young to interact directly and build friendships cutting across race, the more the nation is laying down the seeds of polarisation and social breakdown. In this connection, we applaud the recent move by the Ministry of Education to improve the standard of mother tongue education in national schools as this will help encourage a more balanced student intake. Much more needs to be done.
It is obvious from the type of responses received by senior government leaders, particularly those from UMNO and the deafening silence from the non-Malay component parties (with the exception of retiring Dr Lim Keng Yaik and Dr Toh Kin Woon of Gerakan), we are faced with some serious polarisation in the country, which if left unchecked, can only lead to social breakdown.

I agree with Prof Lim's call to seek "reforms in national and national-type primary schools to ensure they reflect our cultural and racial diversity."

Secondly, and possibly more immediately urgent, the controversy demonstrates, contrary to the Government's official position, the lack of tolerance for academic integrity and independence.

Prof Abdul Rahman Embong, a sociologist and researcher, is principle fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) at University Kebangsaan Malaysia was interviewed by Malaysiakini for his views. He is also the president of the Malaysian Social Science Association (PSSM).

Prof Abdul Rahman was asked if he thought "academics now are going to ‘self-censor’ their reports and studies that have political ramifications?" His reply was probably as politically correct as it could be in criticising the Government's approach to the academic study without being overtly seen to be doing so.
Malaysia wants to move forward, and Malaysian universities want to be on the international radar screen. For that purpose, four Malaysian universities have been identified to be research universities. To achieve this, among others, we need to strengthen our research culture, promote good quality research, and uphold a conducive environment for freedom of enquiry.

I think researchers have to be ethical and truthful to their vocation by presenting the findings as they have been discovered. We will be doing a disservice to the profession and to the nation if we don’t do that.

Whether a researcher will self-censor or not as a result of the present Asli episode is a matter of personal choice. But a conducive environment for serious enquiry needs to be promoted and protected if we want good quality research that is useful for the universities,the government and the country.
Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim of Universiti Malaya, was however, not as kind in his remarks on the episode. He warned that if the matter were to be left unresolved, it would result in increased difficulty for academicians to conduct their studies.
“It has become very difficult for people to carry out research as they are not able to obtain formation or source materials. It results in a lukewarm approach to any research project carried out in the country. They are not able to discuss the subject meaningfully. They can only discuss it through the political prism, which is not good.

For example, if you beget the question to students, ‘Why is foreign direct investment (FDI) not coming our way?' they are not able to follow because they have no information to build their own opinions on.”

Khoo added that there is a tendency for pertinent economic issues to be racialised.

“That is the problem with this country. Very often, when we have a problem, it becomes a racial issue. And then you cannot proceed from there, you cannot further discuss it, because it already sensitive.”

“They (politicians) should be showing better example. What's the point of having Barisan Nasional (BN) with so many parties if they cannot discuss among themselves, and then get the public involved,” he added.

“UM scholars used to be the among the best in the world. Now it has practically stopped becoming a university that is well-regarded internationally. Now we’ve stopped trying. We published materials for local consumption, not international.”
Interestingly, just as former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore triggered public anger with his uncouth remarks as a guest of the country back in the late 1990s which resulted in a spate of public advertisements placed by prominent individuals, this episode has done just the same. Advertisements has been placed in the local vernacular press (the Star has purportedly rejected the advertisement) by concerned distinguished members of the academia and the public.
The first advertisement resulted from a collective effort by a group of graduate students who felt strongly about the issue and wanted to protest the “triumph of politics over intellectual freedom”, as well as the lack of freedom of speech in discussing important issues such as New Economic Policy.

The second advertisement was by a group of intellectuals including 39 Chinese association leaders, commentators, journalists, lawyers and politicians.
Their concerns are certainly valid concerns. And addressing these concerns is critical in ensuring that the standards of our local universities are raised in our "attempts" to climb the global rankings. Without even looking at the merits of specific research by our local academicians, the way in which our government patronise independent research will only serve to taint them with the negative brush.

To quote Prof Khoo again:
“There is probably a serious consequence on research studies now ... we have very few economists left in universities. Do you know that UM currently does not have a professor in economics?”
Unbelievable isn't it? No professors in Economics at our premier university!

Prof Lim has stated that he'll like to "continue researching and would like to teach at one of our universities. But it could be that they may not find my presence and expertise convenient or appropriate."

Datuk Rafiah Salim, you have pledged to raise the standards of our Universiti Malaya (UM). You could do no wrong by making a personal call to Prof Lim to head our Economics department. After all, his international credentials are impeccable, and it'll probably help UM collect a couple more points in the research and publications criteria for global rankings. This is a golden opportunity to both improve our local standards of tertiary education, as well as retaining one of our exceptional talents who only has the interest of the country at heart.

Ironically, for the Government, Prof Lim's interest has always been on "researching issues of Malay poverty and under-development, an area which [he] worked on in the 70s and 80s in Malaysia". Surely, his efforts can only contribute positively toward alleviating poverty, particularly of bumiputeras in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, if no sincere attempts are made, in Prof Lim's own words, "I will probably leave the country again. Finding another job and leaving the country for me - like for many Malaysians presently abroad - is really the last option. We cherish our country, we are in for the long haul and want to contribute to a better society."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

4 Designated as Research Universities

It was reported here and here that the following 4 research universities - USM, UPM, UM and UKM - will be designated as research universities. One of the perks of such a designation is an additional 100million RM for each university for research, development and commercialisation activities.

I think that this is a good move on the part of the MOHE. It is a sensible compromise between focusing a large proportion of government funds and resources on just ONE university and spreading out the cake to ALL public universities in the country. It would have been unfair, not to mention risky, to put most of our resources into just ONE university, especially given that it would be hard to choose between UM, USM or UKM, arguable the top 3 public universities in Malaysia, in my opinion. (I'm a little more agnostic about UPM) It would also have diluted our resources if our hard earned tax dollars were to have been spread out over the 18 public universities in our country.

Directing these resources to the 4 designated research universities is certainly a better use of public funds compared to the purported RM500 million that supposed to be heading Cambridge's way.

Does this mean that the other public universities such as UUM, UNIMAS and UITM will be left out and left behind? Yes and no. Yes because these public universities won't be receiving the RM100 million that the other 4 research universities will be getting. No, because there are other ways in which these universities can continue to seek funding. IRPA grants which are research grants given out by MOSTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) are open to to all academics in public universities. Perhaps, this will force some of the universities which have been left out to seek alternative private sources of funding including companies and wealthy benefactors and alumnus.

Tok Pa seems to be following a focused and consistent approach towards rebuilding our public universities. While throwing research money will not necessarily reverse the trend of declining standards at our public universities, my hope is that the other steps taken by Tok Pa, the MOHE and the VCs will together, arrest this declining trend. Only time will tell.

Happy Deepavali & Selamat Hari Raya

Here's wishing a very happy Deepavali to all our Hindu readers and friends as well as a Selamat Hari Raya to all our Muslim readers and friends. We hope that everyone will find this unique joint celebrations an opportunity for Malaysians of various religion and ethnicity to understand each other.

And I'm certainly looking forward to all the rendangs and lemangs from my family's neighbours and friends back in my own kampung in Batu Pahat. Yummy :)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

RM500m for Cambridge?

Oh dear. Let me just say that this news which was highlighted by a reader here is yet to be substantiated. However, the source is none other than our former deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. It appears that our generous Government is ready to make a donation of RM500m to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom (UK).
Kerajaan telah bersetuju untuk memperuntukkan lebih setengah bilion ringgit kapada Universiti Cambridge. Petronas dan Khazanah Nasional masing-masing telah menyerahkan 190 juta ringgit sementara bakinya akan dikumpul dari sumbangan bank-bank asing yang berpengkalan di Malaysia.
If this "little" piece of news is indeed true, than sure, our Government has gone a "little" bonkers in its desperate attempt to raise the standards of the Malaysian universities. I believe that I've blogged here some time earlier this year that our Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed has announced upcoming potential collaboration between our leading universities with Cambridge to prove that our universities, despite their miserly global rankings, has the pulling power. We have waited with unabated breath for subsequent announcements on the hints provided.

Again I emphasize, if this "little" nugget of information is true, then this Government is clearly at a lost of how to dramatically improve the standards of our local varsities and finds itself needing to buy itself, at outrageous prices, the opportunity to collaborate with some of the top universities of the world. The relevant question then is, where is the money going to?

Giving grants to top foreign universities is not an unheard of practice. The leading centre of education in this region, Singapore has often given generous grants to foreign universities. However, they were given on the basis that the funds are utilised to set up branch campuses in Singapore, and the institution itself is committed to spending at the the equivalent amount in the investment.

Are we expecting Cambridge to be setting up a branch campus or college in Malaysia? I certainly do not think so.

In the most recent budget, the higher education sector received an allocation of RM10.4 billion in terms of operational and development expenditure, of which approximately RM2 billion is for development expenditure. By "donating" the sum of RM500m or RM0.5 billion, that works out to a significant 4.8% of the overall budget or a shocking estimate of 25% of this year's development expenditure! The annual grant to Universiti Malaya works out to just above RM300 million (2004). The funds may be coming from Petronas or Khazanah, or even foreign banks, but surely, there must be much more productive ways of improving the local higher education sector with RM500 million!

There are obviously plenty of questions spinning around in my head - including what the funds will be used for, to secure postgraduate places at Cambridge for Malaysians? Or whether Cambridge will second top dons to be deans of our local faculties? Or for that matter, whether Cambridge will provide unfettered access to their research capabilities by our local Malaysian academics? I cannot as yet, justify to myself the worth of RM500 million in donation to Cambridge.

I'd like to call upon the Minister of Higher Education, or even the Prime Minister himself to declare if such plans are indeed underway, and if true, what is the justification for such an act of generosity. I certainly hope that it is not another hare-brained scheme like the one by the Ministry of Youth and Sports which intended to "invest" a similar amount in a "High Performance" training centre in the UK.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Headmasters' Abuse of Power

Mr Ong Koh Hou sent two boxes of evidence, gathered from, among others, school committees, parent- teachers associations and parents, were handed to the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) back in May this year. It appears that to date, nothing at all has been done by the ACA to tackle the above issue. Either they view the issue of siphoning millions of ringgit in funds a trivial issue, or that they like the Minister of Education, view it as “not my problem” or that they are just plain inefficient.

Obviously, for someone who has put in so much effort, Mr Ong is a frustrated man. Today, he has launched another campaign to seek redress in the above issues raised since early this year. The following is his press release in full, which was advertised in Malaysiakini:
Setiap hari para pelajar Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina (SJKC) di seluruh Malaysia mengangkat beg sekolah yang sangat berat dan membuat kerja rumah yang banyak kerana mereka telah diwajibkan untuk membeli pelbagai jenis buku latihan termasuk untuk mata pelajaran bukan teras. Di samping itu mereka juga telah diwajibkan untuk menyertai kelas komputer berbayar yang diaturkan sebagai mata pelajaran tetap. Masalah ini timbul akibat segelintir Guru Besar (SJKC) yang secara terang-terangan telah melanggar peraturan Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia dalam menguruskan hal-hal yang dinyatakan di atas.

Sebagai ibubapa, kami telah tertipu oleh tingkah laku para Guru Besar SJKC yang telah menyalahgunakan hak mereka untuk menguat untung melalui kegiatan yang tidak sah. Memandangkan tahun persekolahan 2006 akan berakhir tidak lama lagi dan tahun persekolahan 2007 akan bermula, Persatuan Ibubapa SJKC Malaysia (PIBM) menyeru ibubapa yang terlibat di seluruh Malaysia untuk bermula mengambil perhatian dan tindakan agar kita semua dapat mengawal, mengambil berat tentang pendidikan anak-anak kita dan membantu dalam pelaksanaan “Sistem Pengawalan SJKC” secara giat di seluruh negara. Persatuan juga mencadangkan agar Ahli Lembaga Pengarah membentuk "Bahagian Pengurusan Koperasi" yang akan bertanggungjawab untuk berurusan dengan pihak pengedar berkenaan semua pembelian untuk pihak sekolah.

Usaha ini akan mampu menghalang para Guru Besar yang terlibat daripada terus menerima rasuah dan menyalahgunakan hak mereka. Ianya juga akan meringankan beban ibubapa serta pelajar dan seterusnya mampu mencapai taraf pendidikan yang berkualiti.

Sekiranya anda mengetahui sebarang kes tentang sekolah yang telah melanggar peraturan pihak Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, kami menggalakkan anda untuk membuat aduan ke Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia di seluruh negeri!
According to information which Mr Ong has received, the Ministry of Education has issued 7 circulars within a period of 10 years directing Headmasters not to use workbooks for all but the core subjects. It was also emphasized that these books are meant to be additional guidebooks only. In addition, according to the rules set by the Ministry, computer classes can only be held outside of formal school hours and are optional in nature.

He also stressed that parents have the right to insist on official receipts from schools for the purposes of claiming tax rebates and exemptions when purchasing textbooks, workbooks, guidebooks and other forms of reading materials.

Mr Ong has made ready for those of you who are parents of children studying in schools which have clearly breached the regulations set by the ministry. You can check out the main Persatuan Ibubapa SRJK(C) Malaysia Chinese website, or download the letters from the links below.
Let's hope that ACA will soon take the necessary actions or at least provide the necessary updates on the reports which have been submitted by and through the thankless effort from Mr Ong Koh Hou.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Attracting Talent

The issue of attracting and retaining talented people has been a key concern among Fortune 500 companies and is now trickling down to universities, governments and other smaller companies. Talented people are becoming more important as countries and companies move towards a 'knowledge-based' economy. Malaysia has pretensions of wanting to become a knowledge based economy and our leaders would do well to read the latest Economist survey on Global Talent.

From the Economist survey:

With opportunities at home running dry, the hunt for talent has gone global. Over the past decade multinational companies have shipped back-office and IT operations to the developing world, particularly India and China. More recently they have started moving better jobs offshore as well, capitalising on high-grade workers with local knowledge; but now they are bumping up against talent shortages in the developing world too.

Even governments have got the talent bug. Rich countries have progressed from simply relaxing their immigration laws to actively luring highly qualified people. Most of them are using their universities as magnets for talent. India and China are trying to entice back some of their brightest people from abroad. Singapore's Ministry of Manpower even has an international talent division.

I completely agree with Tony when he says that we have a very poor track record of optimizing talent especially compared with our neighbors down south. We also have a very poor track record of maximizing our talent by sending them out to the best schools, attracting them back to Malaysia and then retaining them in local GLCs by optimizing their talent. (When I say "we", I'm referring to the government and the government-linked companies)

Tony's earlier post on the NEP and education referred to Tunku's Aziz remark of not even meeting one Malay student when he was giving a talk in Harvard. I think we have a very poor track record of sending our students to top schools in the US regardless of race. On a per capita basis, Singapore sends a much higher number of government scholars to the top US universities. Indeed, in some of these schools, the number of Singaporeans outnumber the Malaysians, by a margin of 5 to 1, if not more. There are approximately 50 Singapore undergrads here at Duke (most of them government scholars) compared to approximately 10 Malaysian undergrads (half of them are government scholars).

The success of Singapore's junior colleges is such that it warranted a special mention in the aforementioned Economist survey.

One of the most successful schools at getting students into American Ivy League universities is Raffles Junior College in Singapore.

(Disclaimer: Both Tony and I went to RJC or Raffles Junior College for our A levels)

I understand that JPA is making efforts at getting more of our scholars into top US universities by having specialised programs for its scholars but we're probably 10 years behind Singapore.

In terms of attracting talent to Malaysia, we don't have an equivalent of Singapore's Ministry of Manpower. While Singapore is reaching out to hire talented foreigners, we're having problems attracting qualified Malaysians who have studied and / or worked abroad to return home. And even when these Malaysians return home, they usually are channelled into the private sector without having the opportunity to 'serve' in the public sector or GLCs in any meaningful way.

In terms of optimizing talent, I've heard so many stories of JPA scholars who return home and wait 6 months before being 'called up' by them. Many of these scholars hope that JPA 'can't find' a job for them so that they can be released from their bonds. There's no systematic program within the JPA to effectively channel and manage their scholars. From what Tony has said, it's probably the same for the Tenaga, Telekom and Petronas scholars as well (though my impression is that Petronas probably has a better HR management program).

If we're really serious about moving into a knowledge economy, we need a serious rethink about how we manage the most important resource in a knowledge economy which is our human resource.

More Postgrads for UM - implications?

It's been a slow week for education issues. The reaction to the ASLI report has been dominating the headlines. I'll refrain from commenting too much on that issue for now, given our concentration on matters to do with education. The latest newspaper report to grab my attention is the UM VC's announcement that the number of post graduate students at UM will be increased.

This latest report in the Star is not something new. It announced that:Universiti Malaya plans to take in fewer undergraduates but would increase the number of postgraduate students in line with its status as a research university. Vice-chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim said the university had about 18,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 masters and PhD candidates.

I blogged about this as early as April of this year. It is in line with the Ministry of Higher Education's policy of having a three fold increase in the number of post graduates in public universities.

While an increase in the number of post grads is probably necessary if one wants to become a research university, it is not a sufficient condition. I asked in my earlier post the following questions:

- Can our public universities sustain such a dramatic and large increase in the intake of post grads?
- Do we have enough PhDs among our academia who are sufficiently trained to teach these new post grad students? (Currently only 30% of our academic staff have PhDs, the MOHE plans to increase this to 60%)
- Will we compromise on the standards newly hired academics to cope with this increase in the number of post grads?

These questions are still relevant. I doubt that we have the infrastructure (physical hardware and software) to support this level of increase in the number of post grads. But I can be convinced if I see substantive changes in the way resources are allocated within the universities, the way in which academics are hired and promoted and the way in which post grads are trained and supported.

What was interesting about the most recent newspaper report was the the UM VC stated that the number of undergrads accepted would be decreased. While I always thought that the number of post grads would increase over time in our public universities, I've assumed that the number of undergrads would also increase given the high and increasing demand for affordable higher education (albeit at a slower rate compared to the post grads). This surprises me somewhat.

While I think there are genuinely good reasons why the number of undergrads should be capped or reduced (more resources can be diverted to the post grads and academics), I'm wondering whether part of the motivation behind this is to increase UM's faculty / student ratio (since QS calculates only the undergrad population and not the post grads as students, as far as I know) score and hence increase its THES ranking.

I would also like to ask the UM VC the following questions:

- What is the breakdown between Masters and PhD students among the post graduates now and what is her targetted breakdown for the next 10 years?
- Are there certain faculties like the sciences and engineering which would be given priority in terms of expansion and if so, what the underlying rationale?

If given a chance I would love to have an opportunity, together with Tony, to interview the new UM and UKM VCs and ask them these and other tough questions, together with questions given to us by our readers. Maybe this could be my summer project when I come back next summer?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Kudos to Dr. Toh

The first, and perhaps the only, BN politician to come out in defence of Dr. Lim Teck Ghee is Penang State Exco and Machang Bubuk State Assemblyman, Dr. Toh Kin Woon. It was reported in the Star today that Dr. Toh, in a statement, remarked that “This is indeed a sad development and seems odd with the Government’s professed aim in wanting to make our country more open, transparent and liberalised,” .

I think that Dr. Toh's statement is worth reproducing here because it is rare that someone within the BN would be so forthcoming in his criticism of certain government policies.

Dr Toh, who is a Gerakan central committee member, said the controversy would not have arisen had the Government been more open to views challenging its own findings.

“The Government could have instructed the relevant agencies to be more transparent on the data and methodology used to compute the bumiputra equity ownership,” he said.

Dr Toh lauded Dr Lim Teck Ghee for his principled stand to resign as the director of the Centre of Policy Studies.

“His decision to resign rather than meekly toeing the line of his superiors is indeed exemplary and ought to be emulated by all,” he said.

The resignation is because of the rather unprincipled position taken by Asli president Datuk Mirzan Mahathir that the study was based on “faulty” assumptions and hence, its conclusions were “faulty” as well, Dr Toh said.

He said Dr Lim’s stand was a refreshing departure from the culture of compliance and subservience that the ruling elites in the country attempt to cultivate.

I've had many interactions with Dr. Toh and I've found him to be a humble man who is dedicated to his principles and stands by his convictions. He's a former academic who has the respect of many within the opposition and also within the BN for his principled stand against what he saw as injustices and unfair practicies on the part of the BN. He's one of the few BN politicians who is capable of self-critique and GERAKAN, the party he belongs to, has given him the space to air these views even when other leaders within the party are not willing to stand up beside him and share his views.

Sadly, for health reasons, I think it's very likely that he'll step down from his exco position as well as his state assembly seat in the next elections.

Worried about IPTS "Grading"

It seems that there are some university administrators out there who are worried about the impending "Grading" of the IPTS by the Ministry of Higher Education. Do you think their worries have any basis? Let's look at some of the responses in this opinion piece by NST reporter Chok Suat Ling.

Part of these worries stem from the fact that the Ministry has not been consistent in message to the private colleges. The NST piece has this to say:

In 2001, it was announced that institutions would be categorised under Grade A, B or C, depending on facilities and lecturers, among other things.

Two years later, the then minister said ratings would be given to IPTS courses from 2005, based on lecturers, curriculums and facilities, and courses would be categorised as "very competitive" and "competitive". This year, the ministry appears to have reverted to its 2001 position.

There was also confusion as to whether the ranking or grading system will be applied to public universities first or to the private colleges. From the same report:

Before this, he says, IPTS were told there would be a ranking, not grading.

"Late last year, the ministry said it was not ready for ranking but would have a rating instead. But the rating will start with the public institutions. Now, suddenly, there is a grading exercise, supposed to start with the private institutions."

The mixed messages being sent is part and parcel of the reality that Ministers in our political system frequently change portfolios. And when these changes occur, the policy direction of the Ministry can and usually will change as well.

While I think that there are good reasons for private colleges to be ranked or graded, I think that it is equally, if not more important, for our public universities to be graded or ranked (I would prefer a ranking system but as long as the method is transparent and the information available to the public, either would be a good start).

In my opinion, any collection and release of such data (faculty-student ratio, library resources, post graduation performance of students etc...) will help parents and students in making their decision as to which college to attend. I believe that such ranking or grading systems, if designed properly, can also help to spur competition among private colleges. I was quoted as saying the following in the same report:

Ong, who co-writes a popular blog on Malaysian education, says, however, that if implemented well, grading can help create more competition among private institutions of higher learning.

"Those in the C cateory will be forced to improve their infrastructure — both hardware and software. Those in the A category would also want to find ways of differentiating themselves from the other institutions in the same category.

"One of the by-products, hopefully, of such a grading report will be more information on student-teacher ratios, the percentage of lecturers with Masters or PhDs, the quality of the library and computer facilities, so that parents can make more informed choices."

Perhaps I'm too influenced by similar grading or ranking systems among secondary schools and junior colleges in Singapore. One of the good things I found in regards to the Singapore schools ranking system was that they separated schools into many categories. One would not be too surprised to find that schools such as Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls School, Chinese High and Dunman were consistently ranked among the top 5 secondary schools in Singapore.

But Singapore's Ministry of Education also recognized the fact that it was not fair to compare a Raffles Institution with a neighborhood school since the entry cohort for RI has a much higher PSLE (Singapore's equivalent of our UPSR) score compared to a neighborhood school. So they added new categories such as the 'value added' contribution of a school in addition to the raw O level scores. This means that neighbourhood schools which produced O level results which were, on average, better than what was expected of that cohort's entry level, were also recognized. This means that teachers and headmasters at these neighborhood schools also were incentivized to get the best out of their students, instead of pleading deference to the likes of RI and RGS.

This was more than 10 years ago. A quick check of the MOE website finds that they've moved on to more holistic ways of defining the 'success' of a school. From this MOE link, Singapore's MOE has made some recent changes in the way it ranks secondary schools:

A shift from ranking on exact academic scores, to banding schools with similar academic performance.

The expansion of the number of domains under which schools' achievements are recognised, so as to provide a broader picture of schools’ performance in various academic and non-academic domains. School Achievement Tables, which replace ranking lists, highlight schools’ achievements in terms of Academic Value-Add, Character Development, and Physical and Aesthetics Achievement.

The introduction of a web-based interactive system to allow parents and students to generate comparative lists of schools based on features they consider important – e.g. schools in a certain geographic vicinity, strength in the arts or sports. Detailed individual profiles for each school are also provided.

The economist in me says that more information is always better than less. Well thought out ways to interpret and present this information is even more important.

We're a long way behind the foresight and experience of Singapore's MOE. While there will be teething problems in the initial "grading" process of our private colleges, I think it is a necessary first step. In the same NST report, I was quoted as saying:

"The ministry, hopefully, will respond to the feedback, give clarifications and improve on its methodology. The ministry would do well to examine ranking systems used in the US and Britain and adopt best practices to suit the local context."

I think that Tok Pa will be open to suggestions as to how the grading system can be improved over time. Hopefully, the "grading" or "ranking" of our public universities is not too far behind. I wouldn't protest too much against the "grading" of our secondary schools as well but I think that would be asking too much at this point in time.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Optimising Scholars

Besides the obvious cases of brain drain as well as marginalisation of top academics who present views inconsistent with the Government's position which clearly indicates Malaysia's absolute lack of ability to retain its talent, there is also the issue of its ability in optimising the use of talent, particularly of scholars.

A reader has recently posted the following comment in an earlier post:
I like to bring forward another topic that you could highlight in your future posts. I had the opportunity to befriend a TM scholar recently. After getting straight A1s for his SPM, he managed to secure a TM scholarship to further his studies in US. Based on his SAT exams, he was offered to study computer engineering at Brown University (an Ivy league uni, unlike some of his colleagues at preparation programme who could only manage to enter second tier unis). At Brown, he double majored in computer engineering and economics and graduated with a 3.7 CGPA. After 4 years, he was ready to come back to Malaysia and serve his 10-year bond with TM.

To his dismay, he was placed in a department not of his choice. In addition to this, he was placed on the same level as a diploma graduate. The slow management and bureaucracy at TM only adds to his frustration. He tried to escape from TM only to discover that if he wishes to do so, he has to pay back the full amount of scholarship (not surprising). His colleagues however (MARA scholars and JPA scholars, the second tier uni grads) were free to go.

The above example Tony is just an example of another form of 'brain drain'. Yes, my friend came back to Malaysia, however the knowledge and skills learnt when he was in US were unrecognized and more importantly unutilized. And his case was not an isolated one; several of his other friends who went to Brown and other top tier unis in the US i.e. Carnegie Mellon, UMichigan at Ann Arbor were facing the same dilemma as him. Upon hearing his story, I personally feel that this situation can also be considered part of the nation's 'brain drain' problem. We have talented and skillfull ppl here in Malaysia (although limited) but due to mismanagement, bad policies and other external problems, we failed to recognize the potential that these handful of ppl could do to the country.
Unlike our neighbours in Singapore where there is clearly proper planning in maximising the returns on investment in its scholars, there appears to be clearly none in Malaysia. Having studied in Singapore and having plenty of Malaysians and Singaporean friends receiving scholarships from the Government as well as the Government-Linked Companies (GLCs), they clearly do not provide scholarship for students just because they felt charitable.

The progress of government scholars in particular, are tracked closely whilst in universities. Upon graduation, they are "enrolled" into special fast track programs whereby they are given a rotation of responsibilities into various Ministries for government scholars, and departments for GLC scholars. Upon completion of the job rotation, they are often immediately given specific important tasks and functions which positions such as Deputy Directors of departments within the Government agencies. Their progress and career path continues to be tracked extremely closely to ensure that their responsibilities commensurate with their talents and performance. With strong performance, these candidates are promoted quickly to lead the various organisations.

My primary school best friend from Batu Pahat, who entered Raffles Junior College a year my junior as an A-Levels ASEAN scholar succeeded in securing a scholarship from Neptune Orient Lines (NOL), Singapore's largest shipping firm to pursue the same degree as I did, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) in Oxford University. He rose to prominence very quickly and became the Country Manager for Vietnam by the time he was 32. (I'm envious as he is living life in luxury as a pampered expatriate in Ho Chi Minh.) And in between he completed his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in Stanford University sponsored fully by his paymasters.

Another fellow ASEAN scholar who originated from Petaling Jaya received the Singapore Airlines (SIA) scholarship to pursue Accounting & Finance at London School of Economics and he has completed assignments as Station Managers in Europe and North Asia before the age of 30! He has since then served extended stints as special assistant to the Chairman of SIA.

My coursemate in PPE who was a Singapore Public Services Commission (PSC) Scholar was a Deputy Director at Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and has since left and recently promoted as the Senior Editor of Money Desk of The Straits Times. Even a Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) scholar 2 years our junior (also in PPE) is now a Deputy Editor. This are just some examples who I can recall off-hand. I'm absolutely certain that there are many more. In probably a few years' time, my peers would have risen to powerful positions in the government as well as GLCs in Singapore, and they will all be well under the age of 40!

And how do the Malaysian government and GLCs treat their top scholars? Unfortunately, they pretty much leave the task of allocating their returning scholars to the incompetent human resource departments. The examples cited by the reader above aren't the only ones.

The daughter of one of my angel investors graduated with a law degree from Oxford under Phileo-Allied Bank scholarship before it was acquired by Maybank. Upon returning to Malaysia, Maybank placed her in the human resource department to handling employee-related legal issues after not knowing what to do with her for a fair few months.

Another returning TM scholar from Oxford who graduated with Masters in Engineering was placed in a network division which was clearly under-utilising his talents and intelligence. After a bit more than a year of serving his bond, and multiple attempts to seek a more appropriate position, he negotiated for a discounted repayment of his scholarship. I was fortunate that he joined my company as an Analyst. Apparently the scope and responsibility which we provided him was that "good" that within 3 years, Proctor and Gamble, known for its strict recruitment criteria snapped him up as a manager based on his experience with us (sigh...). :)

Unlike 15 years ago where it was practically unheard of for the private sector companies to be offering scholarships for undergraduate studies, it is fairly common today with TM, Tenaga Nasional, Petronas, Gamuda, Astro and many other large corporations offering overseas scholarships. However, it is clear that many of our local corporations have placed much importance in harnessing the talents and skills of the returning scholars. Needless to say, for most of these organisations, a fast track career path for performing scholars is non-existent. It is interesting the these corporations are using shareholder funds to perform public relations driven national service and not to maximise the prospects of growth for the respective corporations.

It is also interesting to note that despite not having a programme to tap the organisations own talent pool, many of these scholars are slapped with a ridiculous 10-year bond which will mean most of these returning scholars will be 32 or 33 by the time their are "released". Comparatively, Singapore today bonds its overseas scholars for 6 years.

There is hence clearly a need for the top management of large local corporations offering scholarships to start taking an interest in harnessing the talent of its scholars instead of letting them rot in the storeroom. And if you are unable to fully tap the potential of these returning top scholars, then it will only make sense that you release them from their obligations to ensure that they can then contribute more positive to the overall well-being and economy of the country.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Expression of support for Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

While this isn't directly related to the issue of education in Malaysia specifically, it is a sad reflection of the wider intellectual environment that currently exists in Malaysia. It was reported in the Star today that Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, the director of ASLI's Center for Public Policy Studies, is resigning over disagreements with ASLI's President regarding ASLI's controversial report on Bumiputra equity ownership.

I've met Dr. Lim once, over the past summer when I returned to Malaysia for my summer break. He came across as an intelligent, capable and sincere person with a conviction of wanting to make a difference in Malaysia by trying to influence public policy. He is immensely qualified having worked on a variety of development issues in the region, is extensively published (just search his name on scholar.google.com and has a breadth of international experience (his previous attachment was with the World Bank).

While I may not agree totally with the methodology of calculating bumi equity ownership in the ASLI / CPPS report, I think that this issue needs greater publicy scrutiny and debate, which did occur as a direct consequence of that report.

It is sad to see when an accomplished academic and thinker such as Dr. Lim is not given sufficient space to advance scholarship and contribute to public debate, at least not within the confines of ASLI / CPPS. I wish him well and hope that he will remain in Malaysia and continue to contribute to scholarship and public debate.

Chevening Deadline approaching

The deadline for this year's Chevening Scholarship application is fast approaching - Oct 31, 2006 (Oct 13 for JPA candidates). Thanks to Adriene for the headsup. It's a great scholarship especially for those who have not had the opportunity to study abroad, specifically in the UK. I know of many good people who received this scholarship and had a great learning experience in the UK. Good luck to all our readers who are intending to apply! For more information, click here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why Duke shouldn't be ranked 13th in the THES rankings

We've often aimed the spotlight at our public and private universities in Malaysia. For good reason, since our blog is called www.educationmalaysia.blogspot.com. But sometimes, a fact that is called to light must be clarified, even if it involves a non-Malaysia university. In this case, the university in question is Duke University, located in Durham, North Carolina, USA, and coincidentally where I'm currently doing my PhD in Political Science.

I have to thank Richard Holmes, a regular commentator on this blog and someone who has kept a very close eye on the THES rankings, for his expose on why Duke shouldn't have been ranked so highly on the THES rankings in 2005 as well as in 2006. You can read the details here and here.

I'll briefly summarize Richard's findings. He found that QS has once again made an error by wrongly inputting the number of undergraduate students at Duke into the figure for the number of faculty at Duke. The result of this was that Duke obtained the highest score in the faculty-student ratio category in the 2006 THES rankings and every other university's score was normalized against Duke's.

So the question now is this - where would Duke have ranked if the number of faculty was corrected inputted as 1,595 as opposed to 6,244?

I compiled the faculty-student ratio for all the universities in the top 200 based on the 2005 THES rankings from the following THES website and recalculated Duke's score with the right number of faculty inputted. Instead of the 66 points it scored in the 2005 rankings, it should have scored a 17, giving it an overall score of 44.2 (normalized against Harvard) instead of 58.7. This would have dropped Duke from being placed 11th in 2005 to 35th, just above University of Michigan and below Manchester University and UMist.

How about for 2006? I don't have the detailed faculty-student ratio for all the universities in 2006 (THES has not released this information yet) but according to the 2006 rankings, Yale was ranked second to Duke with a score of 93 out of a 100. Yale, according to the 2005 data, has a 0.33 faculty-student ratio (or about 3 students to a faculty member) while the correct data for Duke shows a 0.13 faculty-student ratio (or about 8 students to a faculty member). Hence, Duke has approximately 40% of Yale's faculty-student ratio.

Taking Yale instead of Duke as the top scorer in the faculty-student category and recalculating Duke's score to reflect that it has approximately 40% of Yale's faculty-student ratio would give Duke a score of 40 in this category as opposed to 100 previously. This would drop Duke's overall score (normalized against Harvard's) from 68.3 in 2006 to 50.9. This means that Duke would drop from being ranked 13th to being ranked 40th (a drop of 27 places) to just above Manchester University and just below Geneva University.

Given this gross error on the part of THES / QS, I think it is only appropriate that they own up to this and recalculate their overall scores and ranking.

Does this mean that I personally think that Duke is not such a great university or that it is only slightly better than Manchester University? Of course I don't!

Duke scored an inconceivably low score of only 39 in the peer review category which accounts for 40% of the overall score. When compared to other similarly ranked US universities (according to the US News and World Report), this score seems pretty implausible: Cornell (60), U of Chicago and Columbia (both 57), Princeton (68), Yale (72), Stanford (82) and Harvard (93). My subjective score for Duke would be somewhere in the range of 60 to 70. Even with the corrected faculty-student ratio score, with a peer review score of between 60 to 70, Duke would easily make the top 20 universities according to the THES rankings.

Having studied at two other top 20 universities (according to the THES rankings) - the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge - I can say that my experience at Duke in terms of faculty, resources and colleagues have been as good as and in many ways better than my experience at LSE and at Cambridge.

Any ranking system will have its share of shortcomings and will usually be subject to intense scrutiny and criticism (just google "US News and World Report Rankings Shortcomings" for a sample). The relatively new THES worldwide university rankings is no different. Hopefully, THES will be open to some of these criticisms and be transparent about the way it collects its sample / responses and tabulates the final results. And hopefully, university administrators would stop for a moment to examine the details contained in these ranking systems before rushing to claim credit for obtaining a high ranking. A 'correction' within a single category can easily lead to egg on one's face.

VC Comments: Do they make sense?

As promised, more on the local reaction to the latest THES rankings. The VCs from UM, UKM, UPM and the deputy VC from USM all came together for a press conference to give their reaction to the rankings. It's time to dissect and take apart what they were reported to have said and to see if what they said made sense.

First of all, let's look at what didn't make sense. From a Star report:

USM deputy VC (academic and international affairs) Prof Datuk Rosihan M. Ali, who represented the VC Prof Datuk Dr Dzulkifl Abdul Razak who was out of the country, said that public universities were “probably disadvantaged” by the student-staff ratio criterion, which carries a 20% weight.

I don't know why USM keeps resorting to this excuse. It's not as if the student-staff ratio in USM is that much different compared to other public universities like UKM and UM. Tony highlighted in this post during the same time last year that the student-staff ratio was not the main reason why USM fell so dramatically.

UKM and UM scored 25 and 24 respectively on the student-faculty ratio in 2006. USM figures were not available as it did not make the top 200 in 2006 but it had the same score as UM in the 2004 rankings thus making the student-staff ratio excuse a rather weak one. Furthermore, UKM and UM actually scored higher on this category than the following universities which were ranked in the Top 50 in the overall rankings: NUS (22), University of Toronto (15), University of Texas at Austin (19), Sydney University (23), Monash University (21), University of New South Wales (20), Queensland University (18), University of British Columbia (19). Certainly, one cannot say that UKM, USM or UM are overly hampered by their respective student-staff ratios, which are probably very similar. If the VCs were to examine the comparative scores in the individual categories, they would find that this particular score was not responsible for the relatively low rankings of our public universities.

Surprisingly, the other comments and responses of the VCs seem well thought out and show that they have a better understanding of how the ranking system works.

From the same Star report:

USM's Deputy VC, Prof Rosihan pointed out that the scores of universities ranked from 100 to 200 tended to be very close, sometimes as low as 0.2%.

This of course calls into question whether one can say that a 150 ranking is substantially better than a 200 ranking or that a 250 ranking is substantially better than a 400 ranking. Tony has highlighted this previously.

“The position is derived from a relative score and the rank therefore depends not only on one's performance but also in relation to the performance of other universities and whether the ranking criteria and weights have changed.

“Thus, even if a university were to perform better than 2005 in each of the component, the ranking may drop if other universities perform even better.”

Again, very true. UM's score, normalized against Harvard's, actually improved from 23.5 in 2005 to 28.6 in 2006. UM scored better in the recruiter's review (from 0 to 14), in the international faculty score (from 12 to 14) and in the faculty-student ratio (from 8 to 24). Whether these increases are due to changes in methodology on the part of QS (for example in the sampling of recruiters, calculation of who is a faculty member) is still uncertain but the fact is that UM's score did increase. The problem was, as correctly identified by the VCs, is that the scores of the other universities increased as well and in UM's case, increased by a greater margin compared to UM.

Again, USM's Deputy VC:

“Getting into the top 50 will be a difficult feat, we need to focus on the peer review, number of citations and the recruiter review for us to be in the top 50,’’ he said.

The citations per faculty score comprises 20% of the overall score and UKM and UM scored a 0 and 1 respective on this count. To have any hope of breaking into the top 50, this score has to rise which means more publications in internationally renowned journals (which means publishing in English).

The peer review score, which comprises a massive 40% of the overall score is key towards improving one's overall standing. If our universities can improve its public standing vis-a-vis other universities in Asia, then these scores can rise since the sampling of respondents seem to take on a regional dimension when it comes to tabulating this score.

It is also important to note that the VCs themselves have downplayed somewhat the importance of these rankings and saying that there are other criteria that needs to be examined. But at the same time, they did not run away from the implications of these rankings. This particular statement seemed enlightened by Malaysian standards:

“We may question the validity and reliability of the data on international students and faculty, but we cannot ignore the data on peer review, employer or recruiter review, faculty-student ratio and the citation index.

“Public universities may not be able to increase their international students because of government policies but we certainly can do a lot to improve the performance on the other four criteria,'' said the universities.

Finally, I think the most positive note we can take from the press conference were the following 'action points' outlined by the VCs:

Encouraging academics to maintain a high profile amongst peers in their discipline by publishing their research in high impact journals, presenting papers at regional and international meetings

Rewarding academics who increase the reputation of the university when invited as keynote speakers, expert group members or to be part of an international research group and those who produce research products which are patented or commercialised.

Developing a database of active researchers and directory of expertise and keeping the websites current

Enhancing the perception of employers by strengthening university-industry linkages, improving the proficiency of English among students and encouraging students to master at least one other language, reviewing the curriculum to emphasise soft skills, intercultural studies, industrial attachment and international credit transfer

Forging international linkages, networking and joint projects such as double and split degrees among universities

While I am question the efficacy of certain details in the above action plan, I think that taken as whole, the thrust of the plan is positive and forward looking.

While we continue to question some aspects of the THES rankings (including why my own university, Duke, shouldn't have been ranked so highly because of a wrongly entered score - Thanks to Richard Holmes for this observation), it could have acted as a catalyst towards kickstarting substantive reform in our public universities. Or perhaps I'm too much of an optimist?