Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Alternative department rankings

Thanks to Nordina for pointing out this article to me. It's an alternative ranking system for individual departments in US universities that is devised by a for profit company called Academic Analytics. While every ranking system has its flaws as well as its strengths, this highlights the fact that we need some sort of internal ranking system for Malaysian universities, both public and private, so that we can have an idea of how these universities are doing vis-a-vis each other, even if the initial rankings / methodology has its flaws.

I think that a private company with the collaboration of a newspaper e.g. the Star would be best placed to do something like this. The government such as the MOHE can compel the unis to provide the stats but it is too encumbered with its internal politics and inefficiencies to produce something concrete. Remember the ranking / grading system for the private colleges? This was from September, 2006 and we still haven't heard anything from the ministry as of today.

Anugerah Academic 2006

I was told to check out this award by a friend. The details are below.

From the website:

AAN bertujuan memberi pengiktirafan kerajaan yang tertinggi bagi pensyarah Universiti/Kolej Universiti. AAN akan menjadi satu pelantar bagi mengiktiraf serta menyanjung para akademik negara yang telah menaikkan serta mengharumkan nama negara di persada kebangsaan dan antarabangsa.

There are 6 categories in these awards:

Anugerah Tokoh Akademik Negara
Anugerah Penerbitan Makalah Jurnal
Anugerah Penerbitan Buku
Anugerah Inovasi dan Pengkomersilan Produk
Anugerah Seni dan Kreativiti
Anugerah Pengajaran

I think it's a good move by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) to recognize the accomplishments of local academics who have done work that has gained national and especially international recognition. But it's not so encouraging to see the Ministry list among international accompolishments, winning 'prizes' at international exhibitions (such as I-TEX) which Tony has rightly critized, alongside more legit prizes such as the Carlos J. Finlay Price for Microbiology (UNESCO), the Young Scientist UNESCO and the King Faisal Award.

It is also encouraging to see that lecturers from private colleges in Malaysia are also eligible for these awards with the exception of the "Anugerah Tokoh Akademik Negara" award. Private colleges and university colleges can be / will be, in my opinion, as important as public universities in pushing the research agenda in Malaysia in certain fields and the accomplishments of their lecturers also need to be given due recognition.

One of the things that I don't quite like about the conditions of application is the need to obtain the approval of the VC / Rector / President of your college / university (atau wakil yang diperturunkan kuasa). While I can see that the intention was so that the highest authority in the university knows about the work of potential nominees and can back them, this also can create unnecessary bottlenecks as well as discouraging those academics who might not have such good relations with the VC / Rector / President and might not want to jump through this loop. Why not make the head of the faculty or of a department eligible to be one of the 'recommenders' as well since these people are more likely to know the impact and importance of the work of one of their peers / fellow lecturers?

While one should be careful not to turn this into a self-glorification exercise, I think awards such as these, if vetted carefully, can highlight important work to the larger public who otherwise might not have heard of such accomplishments.

I'll keep a close eye on this when the results are released. The applications closes today (Feb 28, 2007).

HPAIR Conferences 2007

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

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

This year, the event will be held between August 17-20th in Beijing.

HPAIR's international conference has emerged as the largest annual Harvard event in Asia and the largest annual student conference in the Asia-Pacific region, attracting a wide variety of distinguished speakers and future leaders as Harvard's student outpost in Asia. Past speakers at our conferences include former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Singapore President S.R. Nathan, Secretary-General of ASEAN Ong Keng Yong, and former Japanese Finance Minister Heizo Takanaka.

Both delegates and papers are welcome! The theme will be Engaging Asia: Discourse and Dialogue. More details are available on their website. You can also make your application online before March 15th.

The Workshop Topics include:
  • Economic Growth in Asia and its Effects on Society
  • Comparative Notions of Leadership
  • Understanding Security Issues in East Asia
  • Inequality and Social Policy in Asia
  • Asia's Information Society
  • Popular Culture in Asia
In addition, HPAIR Academic Conference will offer delegates opportunities to participate in field trips, visits to our host schools, and gala dinner.

For those interested, there is also a Business Conference (as opposed to the Academic Conference above) which will be held on 24th-26th August in Hong Kong, co-hosted by the University of Hong Kong.

The HPAIR Business Conference now invites all university students to apply to participate as conference delegates. Graduate students, post-graduate students and professionals are also welcome to apply as a regular delegate.

More information is available on the business conference website. Similarly, applications need to be submitted before 15th March 2007.

For any inquiries about HPAIR, please feel free to email Or alternatively, contact Sriram Krishnan @ sriramkri (at)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

USM moving ahead?

Another sign that USM is trying to move ahead of the other research universities? Report below taken from the Star, Feb 25, 2007.

Wooing the best brains

POSTGRADUATE studies and post-doctoral research are untapped areas of opportunities for international students in Malaysia.

And, according to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, the country needs to attract the best researchers and specialists.

“But to do this we need a better remuneration scheme.

“If we don't pay them world-class salaries as world-class scholars, no one will be interested in coming to Malaysia to do their research and those who do will quickly be demotivated,” he said.

This, he added, was essential if Malaysian universities were to nurture emerging areas of knowledge.

“In USM, for example, we are looking at developing brain science and we have the facilities and capabilities to set up a brain centre but we don’t have enough specialists in the area.

“And to attract the right people, the structure of university governance needs to be reviewed,” he said, adding that this is one of the issues being discussed with the Government.

“With more autonomy, we can break away from the public service salary band and lure the best experts.”

Last month, USM was named the top research university in the country by the Higher Education Ministry.

This is based on a five-year evaluation against eight criteria: research quality, research quantity, researcher quality and quantity, postgraduate quality and quantity, level of innovation, support such as facilities and human expertise, level of networking and internationalisation, and number of awards and recognition received.

According to Prof Dzulkifli, the university scored high marks in all eight areas used in the appraisal, which took place from 2000 to 2005.

USM received 100% for innovation, awards and recognition and at least 88% in most categories.

“More importantly, the evaluation highlighted our weaknesses and what is missing.

“We now need to do better in the next evaluation exercise. At the same time, we have to work towards meeting international research standards where the passing mark is higher.

“It gives us a good moving target in our journey to become a research university.”

USM is one of the four universities designated as research universities under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the others being Universiti Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

This status entails funding of RM153mil each for research, development and commercialisation activities.

The funds are scheduled for disbursement this year. USM is, however, already moving ahead under its own steam.

Plans to build a biotechnology park that will house incubation companies were announced recently. Estimated to cost RM30mil, it will boost the development and commercialisation of leading-edge biotechnology products at the university.

“The ministry is taking steps to move ahead with the initiative, but we can’t wait or we will miss the boat.

“So we are making do with what we have and leveraging on what we‘ve got. We hope such efforts will be a signal to the ministry of our seriousness,” said Prof Dzulkifli.

USM PhD scholarships

I got this application advertisement from a friend recently. USM was and is actually making marketing trips to the US to recruit potential PhD graduates to return home to teach in our local universities and now they are offering PhDs scholarships for Malaysians who have or are going to graduate from the US at the undergraduate level. Below are the details of the scholarship as well as the relevant link where you can download the application forms.

I received another excel sheet with the full details of the sponsorship scheme and it looks like a fair deal to me. The only thing I need to clarify is whether this sponsorship scheme lasts 3 years or 5 years. A few of my sponsored friends in the US have complained that many of the Malaysian PhD scholarships still assume that one can finish a PhD in 3 years in the US (like in the UK) which is obviously not the case. If you have any more information about such PhD scholarships, please let us know.

Universiti Sains Malaysia cordially invites suitably qualified candidates to apply for the USM Academic Staff Training Scheme (ASTS) in all areas of studies with the exception of Law. Selected candidates will be sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia and USM to further their studies to the Master’s and PhD levels at an institution recognized by the Public Services Department, Malaysia. Upon completion of their PhD studies, they will serve as lecturers at USM.


Tuition Fees, Subsistence Allowance for candidate and family (if applicable), Cost of Living Allowance (depending on the place of study), Return Airfare, Relocation Allowance, Winter Apparel Allowance (if applicable), Book Allowance, Equipment Allowance, Thesis Allowance, Final Year Allowance, Accommodation Allowance


1. Bachelor’s Degree (with a CGPA of 3.0 and above), or a Master’s Degree;
2. Candidates in the final year of their Bachelor’s or Master’s programs may also apply;
3. The maximum age for candidates applying to pursue both their Master’s and PhD studies is 30, while that for PhD studies is 38;
4. Candidates and parents must be Malaysian citizens;
5. Candidates must bring along original and certified copies of academic certificates and transcripts when they attend the selection interview.

Please note that degrees must be conferred by an institution recognized by the Public Services Department, Malaysia.

For further details, please contact us at
Tel: + 604 653 3366 or +604 653 3295
Email: or
Web Site:

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rogue Academics

In an aptly titled opinion piece, "The joke's now on Malaysia" by the Star's Group Editor in Chief, Datuk Wong Chun Wai, he cited many instances of religious over-zealousness by our country's administrators as well as the leaders of PAS which is making Malaysia the brunt of international jokes.

However, there was one example which caught my attention, which I've not picked up any where else (if someone has the full story to this, let me know ;)). Apparently a dean from the business faculty of a top Malaysian public university "makes alleged spot checks during lectures to check on the dressing of female students."
Students who he perceives are wearing tight T-shirts or blouses are singled out. At least on one occasion, they were asked to bend down to see whether parts of their bodies would be exposed.
OMG! In any self-respecting university of the modern world, the act will have constituted sexual harrassment which will only mean a disgraceful end to his career. Many have been fired for doing or saying much less!

As rightly pointed out by Datuk Wong, "a university is not a high school and it is not the dean’s job to worry about students’ dressing. It’s their academic performance and his – whether he has produced enough research and articles for international journals – he should be worried about."

Or maybe the dean is just performing research for his new business or management study on the impact of tight T-shirts and exposed bodies (after bending down, no less) on female purchasing patterns.

This Dean should certainly be sacked. And he should be made to apologise publicly to the students and university. Anything less will just be a disgrace to the Management and reputation of the "top university".

National Education Blueprint - Hiccups Already?

Ok, this is one time I can't find the reference back to the article which I read in the local papers a few weeks back. So, I'm going to blog it off my memory (if someone finds the relevant article(s), please let me know).

One of the key programmes to make National Schools an attractive choice for all Malaysians, particularly the non-Malay community, is the option of taking Chinese or Tamil language classes. This is clearly stated as a key objective in the recently launched National Education Blueprint for 2006-2010. In the Chapter 6 of the blueprint entitled "Strengthening National Schools", it was a key performance indicator that 150 national schools will offer Chinese Language as a subject, while 100 will offer Tamil Language programmes beginning 2007.

However, as reported in the local press, these targets are far from being met. Apparently, the Ministry of Education is still facing various problems in its implementation, including sourcing for the necessary teachers, preparation of syllabus etc.

This isn't the first time that the Ministry has announced a delay as well. The policy to offer the mother tongue languages in national schools did not originate in the blueprint, but much earlier in April 2005. Then, it was announced that the programme will actually commenced for all national schools on January 2006. However, as blogged here, the Ministry subsequently announced a postponement of the programme to a later date.

Now, despite the recently published Blueprint with a more modest objective of 150 schools, the Ministry of Education under the leadership of Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has failed to deliver again.

The plan to change the teaching of Mathematics and Science subjects to the English language was executed (albeit with plenty of teething issues) within a period of 6 months. Now after more than 20 months from the date of the official announcement, Chinese and Tamil language programmes are still cooking in the oven.

This raises several questions with regards to the Ministry of Education:
  1. Is the Ministry even serious about offering these subjects to attract more non-Malay students to national schools, making them the schools of choice for all Malaysians? The continuous delay does not give confidence to Malaysian parents that the Ministry is keen on such an outcome for it has shown little or no urgency.

  2. And if the Ministry is indeed serious about it, then surely, there needs to be a major revamp of the ministry leadership for they have then demonstrated absolute incompetence in executing their tasks and responsibilities.

  3. What then is the likelihood of success for the National Education Blueprint, if the Ministry officials cannot even get one of the key quantitative task done properly, when there are many more difficult qualitative goals to achieve? Some other problems was blogged here earlier. Other immediate key performance indicators for 2007 includes ensuring no one is left out of the education system (see Kian Ming's post on Primary School Enrollment), increasing the number of teaching assistants, extending the pre-school education system, strengthening the selection criteria as well implementing the "fasttrack" programme for headmasters and senior assistants.
As highlighted in a few earlier posts - the Politics of Reform and Initial Impressions, the critical success factor to the Blueprint, whatever its contents, will be in the implementation plan and delivery system. Without reforming the delivery system, putting in place proper "change management" programmes, no blueprint or reform agenda will ever be successful.
I've yet to see such a plan being put in place.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


OK, I'll much rather not having to blog about this for I fear stirring more controversies. It's certainly not the first time that we have been criticised as elitist, and I'm certain it's not going to be the last. However, the latest one in Kian Ming's post also raise quite a few other issues which certainly deserved a response, for I believing it will otherwise, certainly be detrimental to those whom we seek to assist.

The anonymous commentor (assuming its a 'he') argued that if he were to "tell all Malaysian STPM holders with straight As or GPA 4.0 to apply for admission to Oxford, more than 99% will be disappointed."

He's certainly wrong in this case.

I don't have the latest statistics at hand, but I wouldn't assume the data would have changed that much. In 2004, there were 12,235 applicants to Oxford University, 25.9% was accepted. Even with popular courses with Malaysians such as Law and Economics & Management, the acceptance rate was 19.1% and 13.8%, certainly a far cry from the alleged 1%. Science courses had significantly higher acceptance rates.

Similarly, in Cambridge where 14,682 applied that year, 22.4% were accepted. For Law and Economics, the acceptance rates were 15.1% and 14.7% respectively. Why should our best STPM students fare that much worse than the 'A' Level students in the United Kingdom?

In my case, the results for my 'A' Levels was certainly far from straight As. But that did not stop me from applying and getting in. Hence, why should our top students not bother applying to the top global universities?

If you'd like to argue that I had a decent dose of luck to get in, I'll not disagree either. But that is the very reason why Malaysian students should apply. If one doesn't even bother applying, one can't even "get lucky"!

This is very misconception about the top global universities which the bloggers here have been trying to debunk. It is not to say that all top Malaysian students should go to say, Oxbridge or Ivys. If you love Accountancy for example, you might be better off in London School of Economics (LSE) (it's not offered at Oxbridge) or if you prefer Agriculture, you might want to evaluate Nottingham or Reading. But certainly, if you think you'd like to study at Oxbridge, then certainly don't let their supposed reputation deter you from applying.

With that out of the way, there's only one other point to highlight. The commentor argued that he "will not be surprised if it is true that Tony and King Ming have been harboring discrimination against universities, which are less than their norm."

First, I dare say this on behalf of Kian Ming as well, we have no such prejudice. I've personally hired graduates from ranging from Oxford and LSE to Monash and Melbourne to UM, USM, UKM, UPM, MMU and UTM, and as far as I'm concerned, I have no issues with them at all.

So, why do we tend to focus a little more on the top schools? Very simply because we have been there and we would certainly like to help more Malaysians get there. We are realistic enough to know that we cannot help every single student in Malaysia (we try through the discourse on educational policies in Malaysia). Besides us, we certainly need others (including the Government) to play their parts and roles as well.

Tiara, for example, does a good job at trying to promote alternative education. If you have something useful to add to our readers, we'll be more than happy to publish it here (as we have done before). For us, we really just want to share our knowledge and experience (for what's its worth), to others who might find them useful. ;)

The limitations of collaboration...

While I think it's good that the UK is keen on fostering stronger ties with Msia in the higher education sector, collaborations should not and cannot be one sided. Probably as important, is that collaborations should not and cannot be driven totally by governments, or in this case, Malaysia's government.

The Star's education supplement reported, over the weekend, on the visit by UK's Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education Bill Rammell.

The highlight of his visit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to foster collaboration, partnership and exchanges in education between the UK and Malaysia. This MoU was co-signed by Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, whom Rammell also met with privately.

It was good to hear that Rammell hoped that the number of Chevening scholarships given to Malaysians would be doubled in the near future. I know that this scholarship has benefitted many Malaysians who would otherwise not have gotten the opportunity to do a Masters level degree in the UK.

It is sometimes easy to see that for many of these so called 'collaborations' to turn into a one sided deal, usually benefitting the UK counterparts more than the Malaysian counterparts.

For example, while twinning programs has opened up many opportunities for Malaysian students to obtain a UK degree at a reduced cost and / or not to leave the country at all, UK universities basically gives out these 'licenses' to print degrees at little expense to itself, in return for much needed revenue for themselves (which they cannot raise domestically from their British students).

Also, having Malaysian students do their PhDs in the UK gives them the exposure to more established research cultures but is a massive drain on government resources since many, if not most, of these students are government sponsored.

I think that there are two principles which the Malaysian government should keep in mind when thinking through these collaborations:

1) The UK government doesn't have as much 'coercive' power as the Malaysian government in higher education matters
2) Much good can come from private rather than government collaboration

Firstly, it is important for our government officials to keep in mind the fact that the UK government does not have the same kind of control over their universities compared to the situation in Malaysia. The 'coercive' power of the UK government over decisions such as university curriculum and the appointment of VCs or their equivalents are almost non-existent compared to their Malaysian counterparts. While they do have some budgetary oversight over the UK universities (school fees for UK students are subsidized by the government), this component is decreasing in its importance as school fees (or Top Up fees) increase for UK students and the % of fee paying students from abroad (mostly from Asia) increases.

So, for example, it is much harder for the UK government to implore its top universities (such as Oxford or Cambridge) to, for example, accept less than stellar PhD candidates from Malaysian universities or to offer subsidized school fees for these candidates. In Malaysia, it is much easier for the government to allocate funds to subsidize students from, let's say, the Middle East or Bosnia, and to ask our local universities to accept some of these students as PhD candidates even if their academic standards fall short.

The worst thing the Malaysian government can do is to throw money at these UK universities in the hope that some of this money would somehow 'rub off' on the Malaysian public universities. For example, making a 500RM million 'donation' to the University of Cambridge from government coffers would be a terrible misallocation of valueble public resources.

Secondly, the Malaysian government has to recognize that perhaps the best thing it can do is to empower private actors to collaborate and produce results instead of trying to 'drive' the results by itself.

For example, I happen to think that the decision by the Msian government to allow the University of Nottingham in Malaysia was a good one. In fact, it's probably better, in the long term, than having all these twinning programs because having a full fledged research university based in Malaysia has more potential to build up a research environment within the country and has more possibilities of 'leakage' or 'spinning off' into the local economy / education / research sectors.

So while having this long list of potential collaborations under the MOU might look good, the Ministry and Minister of Higher Education would do well to know the limitations of the UK government as well as its own limitations.

Forms of collaboration
- Exchange of educational staff, experts and students
- Encouraging students to study in the other country through providing more scholarships
- Developing bilateral programmes in technical, vocational and higher education fields
- Facilitating the training of educational administrators and teachers
- Studying opportunities for credit transfers between recognised institutions of higher learning in both countries and mutual recognition of academic, professional and vocational qualifications
- Exchange of educational materials as well as organising relevant exhibitions and seminars
- Providing mutual assistance in the fields of information and communications technology, language teaching, mathematics and science
- Exchange of ideas and experiences in educational policy between advisers, officials and legislators

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Politics of Reform

I've written recently the importance of "delivery" with regards to the success of the National Education Blueprint 2006-2010. Well, Prof Joan Nelson, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre of the Smithsonian Institution, who specialises in the politics of policy-making, policy reforms and institutional change, pretty much agrees.

Prof Nelson, who is also currently the Pok Rafeah Distinguished Chair in International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia argued that while it's "heartening" to know that we are making efforts in upgrading our education system,
"[the] history of efforts to reform and improve education is replete with cases of well-meaning, well designed measures that were implemented only partially, or were seriously diluted in the course of implementation, or were put in place but later reversed."
Hence while stakeholders recognise that better education is top priority, many of those "directly involved in the public educatino system - bureaucrats, teachers, headmasters and principals, and also much of the higher education establishment - oppose reforms that would shift control over resources, change relationships, or increase pressure to perform."

Of course, politicians adds to the already complex situation. They face a "time consistency problem" as the cost of reform is usually immediate while the benefits come much later. This has clearly been the case in Malaysia where the education reform programmes changes as frequently as the changes in Ministers.

The latest National Education Blueprint replaces the former plan by the former Minister of Education, which was also meant to stretch to 2010. At the same time, the recently appointed Minister of Higher Education, did not hesitate to dump the report completed no more than a year before his tenure to conduct a brand new study.

Hence as rightly pointed out by Prof Nelson:
...realistic and effective means of carrying out institutional change often receive much less attention than goal setting and the design of policy.

The most widespread solution is to throw more money into the system - hiring more teachers, and buyin gmore books and supplies. But money is not enough; institutional changes are crucial.
Our respective Ministers in charge of our education could do well to take heed of Prof Nelson's advice. The question then is, whether the strength of the political will required is there to make the necessary and often difficult institutional changes to ensure that our goals and targets are met.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Research Centres in the UM

This post is inspired by one of the comments in Tony's post regarding the recognition of degrees from Beijing and Tsinghua universities by Malaysian authorities. The comment was:

"The 'Institute of China Studies' just outside the UM is just an almost empty building for years! I passed the building everyday to work and see almost no cars or inhabitants inside!There are many such CENTRES sitting in the campus doing nothing...just a FORM but no substance"

My impression of many of these centers is that they were set up for political rather than academic reasons. For example, the Institute of China studies was set up for the following reason and this was obtained from its website:

"The setting up of the Institute of China Studies (ICS) was proposed by the present Prime Minister of Malaysia Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after his visit to China as the Deputy Prime Minister in September 2003. The Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia then directed the University of Malaya to prepare a proposal, leading to the establishment of the ICS on 5 December 2003."

In scrolling through the 32 research centers at the UN which can be found here,
I noticed a center call the 'National Antarctic Research Centre (Antarctica)' and that it was established sometime in 2002. I also recalled Dr. Mahathir visiting Antartica before he retired and segments of his own handheld video was made into a National Geographic documentary. When exactly did he visit Antartica? You guess it, 2002.

The following is a 'quick and dirty' way of assesing whether these research centers are 'active' or not. I checked through all 32 research centers on the UM website and tried to locate weblinks for each of these centers. While having its own website is not necessarily a good prediction of research work, it does give an indication about how serious this center is in promoting itself and the work which it is doing.

The UM research center website only produced 3 weblinks to 3 research centers out of 32 (Centre for Biotechnology in Agriculture Research (CeBAR), Centre for Civilisational Dialogue, Institute of China Studies) and the link to the Center for Civilisational Dialogue doesn't work.

For an additional check to see if there are websites for these individual centers which might not be listed in the page I was looking at, I googled these individual centers. I found 4 more centers which had their individual websites - the Clinical Investigation Centre, the Centre for Nanotechnology, Precision and Advanced Materials, the Centre for Research in Applied Electronics and the Centre for Xenobiotic Studies (SUCXes).

In regards to the content / quality of the research highlighted by these websites, I leave it to the better judgement of the experts in these areas.

I also found websites which were under construction for 6 of these centers, all under the Center of Research in the Faculty of Engineering:

The Centre for Emerging Biomedical Technology (CoEBET), the Centre for Energy Sciences, Centre for Innovative Construction Technology (CICT), the Centre for Signal & Image Processing, the Centre for Separation Science and Technology (CSST), and the Centre for Transport Research (CTR).

Which means that out of 32 research centers, only 6 have their own websites which are up and running. In fact, the Institute of China Studies, by its website at least, seems to be the one center which actually does produce some research. It has a bunch of visiting scholars there and the two guys running the show (Dr. Hou Kok Chung and Dr. Yeoh Kok Kheng) have a list of related publications out or in the process of being published.

This just goes to show that we are very good at launching many of these centers with great fanfare (usually with a big name politician or two) but not so good at doing the follow up work which is to conduct ACTUAL RESEARCH! Which reminds me, when exactly is Jeffrey Sachs going to come to Malaysia to take up his position as the first Royal Ungku Aziz chair in Poverty Studies?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Supporting Descartes on Facebook

Thanks to Sriram (NUS) for starting the following group on facebook - "Support for the Descartes Education Counselling Centre in Malaysia". You can search for it in the 'organization - non-profit' section or just cut and paste the name of the group above. So for those of our readers who are on facebook, please join the group. Maybe Tony should also get a facebook account now that non-students can also join?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jaguh Kampung and Boring Students

I came across this column in the NST by Zainah Anwar today and I thought that I should reproduce it for our readers to read now (and also for later when the NST link expires, hope I won't be sued for this).

I'll just make a few points of my own in reponses to some of her comments:

Firstly, I think that she's spot on in regards to the Malay 'kampungs' that sprout up not only in the Midwest universities (I'm thinking Purdue, Indiana, Illinois at UC, Wisconsin) but also any large state university in the US which has a sizable Malaysian population (USC in California comes to mind). I can probably think of universities in the UK which are like that - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Warwick, Nottingham, Sheffield and most London universities come to mind. But it's not just Malay 'kampungs' but also Malaysian 'kampungs' especially in the universities where there is a sizable population of non-government sponsored(read: non-Malay) Malaysian students.

But I don't think that these 'kampungs' are necessarily bad. It's much easier to interact with fellow Malaysians in a foreign country than a foreigner. It's also much easier to ask for help, stay or room with, makan with, travel with, a Malaysian than a foreigner. And, for the more diverse universities, it's probably one of the few times when students of different races can unite behind a Malaysian 'identity' since the issues of racial differences seem to be less pronounced abroad compared to at home. I remember how showcasing various aspects of Malaysian culture during a Malaysian 'nite' at the LSE gave me a sense of pride in regards to being Malaysian.

Where I think these 'kampungs' can have a detrimental effect is when it prevents us from interacting with non-Malaysians and getting to know the culture and the people of the country which one is studying in. This effect is particularly detrimental at the PhD level when interacting with colleagues in the field, regardless of nationality, becomes very important in developing one's ideas and for future research collaboration. It would not surprise me if a Malaysian PhD student who goes to Liverpool with his family (wife and two kids let's say) can settle in very comfortably in one of these 'kampungs', have minimal interaction with non-Malaysians including one's fellow PhD students and professors in the university, come back home to Malaysia after three years with a PhD but still has a poor command of English, have not had any research collaborations with other non-Malaysian colleagues in the university, have not travelled anywhere outside the UK, have not eaten in an English pub, and so on. To me, this really defeats the purpose of going to a university abroad.

While my experience in the UK and here in the US wasn't necessarily an exemplar of 'internationality' (if there's such a word), I did make it a point to get to know non-Malaysians. I was in the Christian Union at the LSE and went to a very diverse church in the middle of London and got to know many Brits and other internationals through these settings. I got to know quite a few British Muslims who were of South Asian descent as many of them were actuarists and one of my Malaysian roomates was an actuarist. I would go down to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park occasionally to listen to the diverse array of speakers there. I travelled as far east as Turkey and as far north as Iceland.

Here in the US, I've spent time hanging out with my fellow PhD students, some of whom are American, others who are not. I don't really have the option of being in a Malaysian 'kampung' here at Duke given that there are only 2 other Malaysian graduate students and something like 10 undergrads, who are spread over different parts of the campus and who do their own thing. I've been to my fair share of Duke basketball games, watched the Superbowl on TV, watched a couple of NBA games live (I'm a sports junkie), travelled to the US heartland (anyone been to Tusla, Oklahoma?), been to DC tons of times to do work with a research collaborator there, and so on.

This certainly has made my life 'richer' and allowed me to learn more about different cultures and different ways of thinking and of doing research.

But are there any policy 'prescriptions' which can try to correct this mentality? I think there are.

Zainah correctly points out that the culture of 'surveillance' among these kampungs are detrimental for encouraging people to think beyond critically. I've also heard that there are 'indoctrination' programs for JPA scholars before they go aroad to inculcate the feeling of 'loyalty' to tribe and country. Instead of running these kinds of programs, why not try to instill the sense of 'adventure' and 'interaction' for these scholars? Or at least not try to indoctinate them into thinking that there is only one way for them to think and act.

For PhD students, instead of requiring them to come home immediately after they complete their studies, why not allow them to take a few years of no pay leave to do postdoctoral work in the countries where they obtained their PhDs? This way, they can be encouraged to build research networks and benefit from an overseas research culture before they come home (assuming that they do want to come home after experiencing academic and research life in an overseas institution).

I'm sure there are others but I'll stop here for now. Enjoy Zainah's column below:

Zainah Anwar on Friday: Don't curb students' enthusiasm
09 Feb 2007

OUR students in the UK are, oh, so shy, so unassertive, they keep to themselves, they don’t mix? I am surprised that the Minister of Higher Education is surprised. This is not a new problem.

When I was studying in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, there were "kampung Melayus" sprouting on campuses in several universities in the Midwest. Friends complained of surveillance, peer pressure and anonymous letters slipped under their doors or sent home to the Public Service Department by fellow students if they were seen to be too close to too many Americans.

Even in Indonesia, our students don’t mix. A friend teaching at the Islamic University in Jogjakarta says the Malaysian students on her campus are so totally unassertive and disinterested and pursue the easiest of courses taught by the easiest of lecturers.

They avoid the many discussion groups that flourish on and off campus which bring together students and activists to discuss the latest books, ideas and debate on current issues. They would not take part in the many training sessions on human rights, democracy and women’s rights.

Actually, we the taxpayers are not getting value for the millions of our tax money spent on scholarship for these students who might as well remain in Malaysia if they only want to be "jaguh kampung".

Our young adults are losing out in a competitive world that is hungry for talent. In the end, it is Malaysia that will lose out.

In 1980, I wrote about racial polarisation on our university campuses and how some of the bright and articulate students I interviewed at the University of Malaya called it the Pantai Valley High School.

It was not the exciting, enriching university life they envisaged, but a life restricted and regulated by the Universities and University Colleges Act. In school, they had freedom to write letters to whomever they pleased, be it to make a school visit to a factory or a palace museum.

Imagine their shock when they found out that at university, all letters needed to go through the Dean of Student Affairs. And they were often reminded lest they were hatching rebellions, any unauthorised gathering of more than five constituted an offence. How to be assertive?

And the racial polarisation; everywhere on campus Malay students were with Malays, Chinese with Chinese and Indians with Indians — be it at the canteen, at the library, walking the streets from class to hostel and back.

The students spoke of how they were corralled into racial blocs by their seniors the moment they stepped into campus.

Woe betide those who stepped out of the box. An anonymous letter would be slipped under their door "condemning" them to hellfire and damnation.

My editor was so shocked by my findings that he decided not to publish the story. It does look that after 26 years, nothing much has changed.

When I recently told this story to a professor at the University of Malaya, she said she would be so lucky today to find a student astute enough to even make a remark about a campus life that is more akin to secondary school.

Most days, she says, she feels like pulling up her students by their collars to breathe life into them.

So dear minister, they are, oh, so shy, so unassertive, so not mixing with others on home ground as well. And it’s been going on for over two decades.

There is obvious awareness and concern by the country’s leadership that much has gone wrong with our education system, our socialisation and politicisation that have produced these unassertive, inarticulate, intellectually and socially disengaged, racially segregated and unemployable graduates.

Much hope is placed on the recently launched National Education Blueprint and its many promises, including the promise to produce well rounded students who will think out of the box.

A friend runs a programme that exposes students to literature, music, art, critical thinking and public speaking before they spend more of their parents’ hard-earned money to study abroad.

These are straight A students, whose parents woke up one day to realise that darling Johan and Janine who scored 11 A1s in SPM actually lack the cultural literacy necessary to succeed and get the best out of university education in the West.

My friend and her team of trainers were stunned that these students did not know a single fairy tale. An exercise to rewrite Hansel and Gretel from the witch’s point of view drew a blank; when asked if they knew other fairy tales, they did not. They had not heard of Winston Churchill even though they all got A1 for history.

They had never seen nor met a person in a wheelchair; they had never been to an art gallery or a museum, in spite of living in Kuala Lumpur and enjoying annual holidays abroad. One boy was passionate about studying aviation engineering and wanted to own an airline, but had never heard of Tony Fernandes.

Life for these kids revolved around school, tuition, shopping malls and computer games. What they did not know, they felt they didn’t need to know.

And yet, they wanted to go to Cambridge or Stanford and wanted to do well in their interviews and essays; but they had nothing much to say about themselves and their interests beyond the string of A1s for which they were rewarded and their parents applauded. Eleven A1s and not an ounce of zest to spare does not a successful life make.

At the other end of the scale, I do meet students and young people who are far from shy and disengaged. They have friends from different races and different countries, they read voraciously, they go to museums, concerts, plays, they backpack to the islands off Malaysia and Thailand and through God-forsaken countries of the world, they listen to world music, they speak their minds.

I meet young university students who dare to organise events outside the campuses, campaigning against the UUCA and dirty student elections, giving free tuition to squatter kids, cooking free food for the homeless, hanging out with non-governmental organisation activists and theatre practitioners.

These young people live their lives to the full, ever teetering on a fine balance between family, friends, fun and studies or a budding career of their choice.

What makes them different? For some, it might be class, but for most others, it is exposure.

Whether growing up in a family that eats, reads and talks together, or getting exposed to the works of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou in English class, or having a lecturer who loves the theatre and drags his students to all the plays in KL, or meeting an inspiring aging ex-student leader who wanted to join the university social club but ended up in the socialist club.

By design or by accident, it is exposure to adults who opened up their minds to other possibilities in life that made a difference to the lives of these effervescent young people.

A friend’s 15-year-old daughter complained how the teachers at school (a premier school, mind you) say no to everything suggested by the students — be it to organise a talentime (what would parents say if you kids wear sexy clothes), a Halloween party with the neighbourhood children (oh no, it’s Western culture), dance and music classes (cannot, must "jaga diri"), regular field trips to museums, orphanages, school for the blind (too many permissions to ask, forms to fill and transport to organise).

That many of the shy, unassertive students and young graduates have potential is without doubt.

The tragedy is we adults have failed them as we pour cold water over their ideas or just remain indifferent to their natural instinct to explore, discover, innovate, take risks, be different. It is our fault because we shut the doors and windows on them.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Descartes Education Counselling Centre

It was a little more than a year ago in December, when I first mooted the idea on this blog of setting up a "non-profit organisation for education in Malaysia". I've always toyed with the idea of setting up such an entity, a non-profit organisation relating to education for Malaysians to help "ease" some issues such as helping students in the aplication process to the top universities overseas, providing guidance on degrees to pursue as well as career or employment advisory services.

Well, now that I've disposed of my stake in the company which I formerly owned and founded, the project is finally getting off the ground. I'm setting up a non-profit entity, named (subject to approval from the authorities) Descartes Education Counselling Centre and it should be up and running come March (this year!).

For those who are not familiar with the name 'Descartes' (pronounced 'day-Kart'), he's often regarded as the father of modern philosophy. As described in the Wikipedia:
RenĂ© Descartes (March 31, 1596 – February 11, 1650), also known as Renatus Cartesius (latinized form), was a highly influential French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and writer. Dubbed the "Founder of Modern Philosophy" and the "Father of Modern Mathematics", much of subsequent western philosophy is a reaction to his writings, which have been closely studied from his time down to the present day. His influence in mathematics is also apparent, the Cartesian coordinate system used in plane geometry and algebra being named after him, and he was one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution.
You might be interested to know that he was the man behind the maxim "cogito, ergo sum" or loosely translated at "I think, therefore I am (or I exist)". And his philosophy was key behind the Hollywood reincarnation of The Matrix. (Yes, philosophy can be that exciting! ;))

OK, before I get too turned on and carried away by the philosophical discussion of The Matrix, let's get back to the counselling centre.

Although I see the potentials of this non-profit organisation as immense, the immediate objectives of the centre will be fairly modest. And really, how the centre grows and how many people the organisation can assist, will really depend on how much help we can get.

One of the immediate activities which I hope to organise will be to hold plenty of talks, or better described as "information sharing sessions". There'll actually be an auditorium which fits about 100 people within the premises located at Damansara Utama (the place is currently under renovation).

Examples of talks which we will be actively holding will include:
  • Talks by alumnis of some of the top global universities in UK, US, Australia etc. These Malaysians will help by sharing their experience in those universities, their application process as well as anything else which prospective students would like to find out.

  • Talks on generic topics such as entrance examinations (e.g., SAT) or essay writing techniques by successful candidates to these universities.

  • Talks on picking the right subject choices from students themselves who have taken these subjects. This is also to eliminate the perception that the only courses worth pursuing are medicine, law or accountancy ;)

  • Talks on scholarships, applications process and other related issues.

  • Talks about maximising opportunities with regards to getting employed, such as interview and resume writing skills.
There are already in existence some of these talks by colleges and counselling centres. However, these talks are often not impartial as these colleges will want you to enrol into their programmes, while the for-profit education counselling centres today collects referral fees from the colleges for 'successful' applicants. (And we know that the top schools do not collect referral fees.)

I feel that it is important to have a non-profit, impartial and independent counselling centre so as to provide the most balanced of views to the prospective student. That way, he or she can make the right choices for him or herself, based on their personal academic strength and abilities.

Moreover, I envision that the experiences shared by current and former students of the relevant universities will be way richer than the "advice" provided by "employed" counsellors, who may have the tendency to make sales pitches.

Secondly, I hope to gather enough materials to create a useful resource centre for top universities overseas. Materials such as prospectuses are often lacking, and it is my hope prospective students will be able to browse all the relevant information in the small library which I'm setting up. Of course, I will require a little effort from all of you studying overseas today to acquire the latest collateral and send them to me to stock up the library.

Finally, I'm more than happy to have the Centre act as a sort of secretariat office for any student or education-related organisation to carry out their meetings and activities. Those who are funded can help defray some of the Centre's operating cost (we are non-profit after all), while for other volunteer organisations, we can always work something out. ;) It's also an office (when we can afford to get staff) which can help co-ordinate activities such as last year's very successful "Experiences '06" event.

Now, getting back down to earth, it's back to the earlier point on how much we can achieve in helping Malaysian students will really depend on how much help we can get. I will certainly not be able to do all of the above alone. Hence, I'm now calling for volunteers who have benefited from top notch education overseas to help more Malaysians enjoy the same experience. How much time one wants to contribute is really up to the individual, but any amount of contribution is highly valued. I believe strongly that every little bit counts. Here are some of the areas (the list isn't exhaustive) which contributions are welcome:
  • Alumni of top universities sharing their tertiary education experience (current students are more than welcome to chat with prospective students while on summer vacations)

  • Subject matter 'experts', providing guidance on the subject detail as well as career options (Why should one study "History", for example)

  • Professional leaders providing guidance on industry domain knowledge (What's a career in Oil & Gas Trading all about?)

  • A pool of advisors who I can turn to, in the event information is required by a student, of which answers I do not yet possess. (For example, if someone asks about the Fulbright Scholarship, who can I write to or call to obtain more information?)

  • Students overseas who can help secure university information collaterals, such as prospectuses and application forms.

  • And most importantly, those who really believe in the cause and would like to dedicate a bit more time helping out to run the centre, organising activities, creating new ideas etc.

  • Of course, sponsors to help keep the Centre up and running will be more than welcome too. I'm obviously footing the start up cost of the centre myself, but any help with keep up with the operating costs will certainly be warmly appreciated.
For those interested in helping out, for those who care, and for those who wants more information, please do not hesitate to contact me with your details and what you'd like to contribute at I believe that a little bit of contribution from everyone will certainly have a very large impact on the future of bright young Malaysians.

The Centre will be located at 55A, Jalan SS21/1A, Damansara Utama, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. It's along the same row as Kedai Telekom, facing the residential houses.

I look forward eagerly to hearing from you guys! ;)

China Universities to be Recognised?

The Malaysian government appears to be finally lookiing to recognising qualifications from the top 2 universities in China - Peking and Tsinghua University. It was reported in various local dailies last week that the Cabinet has agreed "in principle" to recognise the academic qualifications of the two renowned universities.

Based on the global universities ranking by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), both universities are in the top 50 in the world. Peking University is ranked 14th while Tsinghua University is 28th. A separate ranking system by the Shanghai Jiaotung University, placed them in the 150th-300th bracket but still within the top 40 in the Asia-Pacific region. Note that the latter system had no Malaysian universities present in the Top 500.

Hence it has always been an anomaly that degrees from established Chinese universities are not recognised by the Malaysian government. This is despite the fact that Malaysia is fairly liberal in giving recognition to much lesser universities from developing countries. For example in the medical profession, degrees from Uganda, Burma, Pakistan and Iraq are given recognition.

Anyway, it's always better late than never, and we wait to see when the "in-principle" approval gets actually "approved". ;)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

'Pool of Doom'?

Ah, finally our Minister of Education recognises the fact that blueprints, however pretty, will be nothing more than just a blueprint, if it isn't implemented accordingly via our delivery system. After comments by various parties, including for director-generals of the Ministry of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein released a warning to education officers and teachers that they will be left in a "pool of doom", if the new National Education Blueprint isn't implemented well.
“There is no place in our delivery system for those who don’t perform. If there is a need for us to create a pool to place teachers and officers who don’t perform, we will do so,” he said.
I've written earlier on how there has to be penalties for officers to be "punished" for taking actions detrimental to national interests. The main reason for that is really to deter other wayward officers from doing the same. Hence it is a good that that the Minister has come up with this statement. The question then is, is it sufficient to work?

There are two "critical success factors" for such a policy. Firstly, the punishment must be a sufficient deterrent to other potential wrong-doers from committing the same offences. Secondly, there must be clear guidelines on what constitute such offences against national unity and national education interests.

So is placing officers and teachers in a "pool of doom", as damning as it is made out to be?

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin stated that "[i]n our system, it is hard to fire someone. If I can’t sack them, they can stay in the pool until they retire." Now, will such a statement send fears down those who are prone to deviate from the objectives of our national education system?

First of all, it's an outright admission that there is practically nothing the Government can do to "remove" him from service.

Next he assured them that they can stay gainfully and economically employed, even if they are found guilty of breaching the interest of the nation. From this angle, the pool can hardly be labelled one of "gloom", isn't it? These guys will be able to live out the rest of their careers without the necessary responsibilities, and yet continue to collect their paychecks. I'm not even sure if that isn't actually an incentive for these officers and teachers to ensure that the blueprint doesn't get implemented!

This issue is clearly compounded and perpetuated by the fact that the teaching and civil service have become the dumping ground for the less employable graduates being churned out by our education system.

The second critical success factor is to have a clear and distinct guideline for these teachers and officers as to what is "can do", and what is "out of bounds". I've taken some time to read through the National Education Blueprint, particularly the key chapter on "Strengthening National Schools". Kian Ming has written recently on "national schools and national unity", and I plan to write one on "strengthening national schools".

But suffice it for me to say for now, that there are major gaps in the plan to strengthen national schools, despite national unity being one of the key thrusts of the blueprint. There was no mention of the critical issue of principals converting national into religious school wannabes. There was no mention of the need to strictly enforce a no-quota policy in national schools - after all, the top bumiputera students would have been sent to MRSM boarding schools.

Without such clear guidelines for the education officers and teachers, it can hardly be expected that they will necessarily implement policies in the interest of national unity and education system?

It is great that the Minister of Education recognises the need to whip his department officers and the teaching profession into shape. However, the "whipping" mechanism certainly still needs plenty of work to be truly effective.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

50 most influential blogs in Malaysia came up with a list of the 50 most influential blogs in Malaysia based on statistics from This blog is listed at no.43! Thanks guys for all your support (especially those of you who have links to our blog). Sometimes, Tony and I get swamped with work or don't have the material or energy or the inspiration to blog. It's the fact that we have readers out there who value our posts (whether or not they agree with us) and give us feedback that keeps us blogging. Thanks again!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Good writeup on the JPA application process

Thanks to Chen Chow who wrote this comprehensive guide to applying for the JPA scholarship. You can read in on tinkosong.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

National schools and National unity

This post is in response to some of the comments from my previous post on primary schools in Malaysia. I specifically want to address the notion that vernacular schools such as the SRJK(C) and SRJK(T) necessarily leads to less national unity (or more national disunity). This is probably going to be a longish post and slightly controversial. But I want to address this question by sharing some of my own experiences in a national school setting and how those experiences didn't exactly enhance my 'desire' for greater national unity. So please be patient and reserve your judgement until you've finished reading the entire post.

I attended La Salle PJ primary and secondary in the late eighties and I was there for 6 years of primary school and 3 years of secondary school before leaving to go to Singapore on an Asean scholarship (after Form 3). There was a good mixture of races at both the primary and secondary levels as is commonly the case in most national schools in PJ (Assunta, Sri Aman, Sultan Abdul Samad, Bukit Bintang, just to name a few).

At the primary school level, I mixed around with all the kids, regardless of race. I was probably closer to a few Chinese and Indian kids since many of them lived in the same area in PJ and our parents got to know each other. My brother was pretty close to our neighbors' kids, 3 Malay boys who went to La Salle, one of whom he's still in touch with fairly regularly. (We used to play sepak takraw and badminton together but I was usually left out because I lacked 'sporting prowess', to put it euphemistically). Issues of race didn't feature prominently at that age although we were always aware that there were differences between the races. The differences, by and large, just weren't salient enough at that age.

These differences were to become much more salient at the secondary level.

What I distinctly remember about the transition from the primary to the secondary level is that while the racial profile of the students didn't change sigificantly, the profile of the Malay students certainly did.

Many of the smart Malay kids at the primary level left the system at the secondary level for a variety of reasons. Some went to on to study at the prestigious MCKK (which is open only to Malay students, as far as I know) or other boarding schools which were open mostly to Malays only or they went overseas, usually to boarding schools in the UK (either on government scholarships or father/mother sponsorship or a mixture of both) and elsewhere.

Most of my Chinese and Indian friends who went to primary school with me also went on to secondary school with me. So any ties that I might have had with my Malay friends who had the opportunity to study elsewhere at the secondary level was severed and I was left mostly with the friends I was familiar with i.e. the Chinese and the Indians.

(My neighbor, who went on to become a director and chairman of a few listed companies, soon moved away to a bigger house and his sons left La Salle PJ at different stages at the secondary level)

My interaction with the Malay students at the secondary level can be largely divided into three typologies.

Firstly, the few remaining Malay students who were mostly middle class, spoke a substantial amount of English at home, and for some reason or other, chose not to leave the secondary school system in PJ for greener pastures elsewhere. I got along fairly well with this group given the similarities in background and interests and I had respect for them for their diligence and hardworking attitude. They performed well academically but were never in the top 10 or top 20 in the cohort rankings (out of about 350 or so in a cohort). The top 10 or 20 students were almost invariably Chinese or Indian students. (And I can say with some level of confidence that this was also commonly the case in many schools in PJ)

Secondly, the substantial group of Malay kids who were from the poorer parts of PJ (close to Taman Medan), clearly didn't speak much English at home (or elsewhere, for that matter) and performed so dismally in class that they often bore the brunt of our jokes when the exam marks were read out. (To illustrate this point, I still clearly remember the names of two consistently unperforming students, Hishamuddin and Nazri, who were happy if they obtained a mark above 40 for any exam. Their average was somewhere between 20 and 30 marks out of 100)

Thirdly, a significant minority of Malay kids who were from the asrama schools. They were mostly not from Selangor or from urban areas but were brought in from 'outstation'. They stayed in asramas (or hostels) which were 100% Malay, were very religious and were probably the most racist group of Malays out of the three groups I've classified. Some of my experiences with this group was so disturbing that I still remember the name and face of one of them - Syamsul - who used to spout hatred and stinging indictments on the non-Malays especially the Chinese. He would openly address the Chinese students with perjoratives (Cina makan babi and such) and would often instigate other Malay students not to join the non-Malays in any activities. He would often use religious language and justifications to slander the non-Malays. My suspicion is that a lot of this hate was probably encouraged, if not taught, by some of the residential advisors or 'ustazs' in these asramas.

So, where did that leave me?

In an environment where 'national unity' is supposed to be strengthened, I was faced with a situation where:

(1) The few good Malays (group 1) were consistently and significant outperformed by the non-Malays
(2) A large majority of Malays (group 2) couldn't speak decent English and had trouble passing exams on a consistent basis
(3) A significant minority of Malays (group 3) were being taught in their asramas or were in an environment where it was encouraged to denigrate non-Malays for religious and other reasons

Is this the national unity that some of our political leaders are talking about when they mention how vernacular schools are creating national disunity and how enrolment in national schools will lead to more national unity?

But still, I wouldn't necessarily call myself an ethnic extremist. I didn't and still wouldn't go around spouting ethnic extremisms and resort to public name calling and denigration. Till now, I always make an effort to get to know more Malay friends and to try to understand their culture, religion, background and struggles.

My experience up to the secondary level was such that I associated, to put it honestly, Malays with religious extremism and academic underperformance.

Things didn't get any better in Singapore given the smaller % and number of Malays in the country and an even smaller % and number in the schools which I went to. In a class of 40+ students in Raffles Institution, there were no Malay (or Indian) students. In a class of about 20 in Raffles Junior College, there was only 1 Indian student.

There was only 1 Malay Asean scholar in my batch (She's probably one of the smartest people I know and she later went to Oxford to read law and is currently a lawyer in one of the biggest practices in the world). The other interactions I had with Malays was on the sports field and in Malay class.

It was only at the university level when I re-encoutered Malay friends who were bright, articulate and diligent. There was (and still is) a large Malaysian contingent at the London School of Economics (LSE) and there were a number of outstanding Malays there (who shall remain nameless since they are or will be in positions of prominence and probably wouldn't want to be associated with me) whom I got to know.

I also visited Cambridge and Oxford on a regular basis and it was there that I got to know more Malay students including arguably one of the most articulate and smartest Malaysians whom I personally know - Adlan Benan Omar. I mention him in name only because he's relatively well known, especially among the Malay elite in Malaysia. I was told that he had memorized the Malaysian constitution by the time he was 13. He studied History in Cambridge and if you had an opportunity to engage him on an intellectual level, I'm sure you'd be blown away. (And he's pretty funny too!)

For all the criticism directed him (fairly and unfairly), Khairy Jamaluddin, that famous or infamous graduate of Oxford (Tony's alma mater) is tremendously sharp in his thinking, creative in his methods and as articulate as they come.

The number of smart and intelligent Malays whom I got to know (or know about) in Englad are just too numerous to mention so I won't. My time in the UK reversed some of the negative memories of my secondary school days.

When I returned to Malaysia from the UK, the workplace and the public space also afforded my many opportunity to interact with many Maly professionals whom I have utmost respect for. All of my Malay colleages in the Boston Consulting Group, KL, were top notch people, graduates of great universities and tremendously creative, bright and inspiring. Many of my Malay friends in PROMUDA, an association with young professionals are among the smartest and brightest in Malaysia.

My point is this - the fact that I went to a national school didn't really help me personally to get along with, not to mention, respect other races, primarily the Malays. I would probably only have gotten the desired interaction if people Adlan Benan Omar or Khairy Jamaluddin went to and stayed in the national school system.

Where did Adlan Benan Omar go to school at the secondary level? MCKK.

Where did Khairy Jamaluddin go to school at the secondary level? UWC in Singapore (only one of his stops since his father was a Malaysian diplomat).

Let me give you another example of an up and coming young man in the Malaysian political scene. His name is Nik Nazmi, an articulate and bright young man who graduated with a law degree from King's College in London and is currently active in opposition politics. You can read about his at this blog. He is an alumnus of La Salle PJ, like myself (except a few years younger) and was obviously an exceptional student. Where did he go after that? You guessed it - MCKK.

Let me state another point for further food for thought.

In all humility, I would probably say that most Chinese (or non-Malay) students who went to the national school system at the secondary level (and this would be almost all Chinese with the exception of those who attend the Chinese independent schools) would probably not have had the opportunity to interact with as many outstanding Malays as I've had, during my university and post university days.

How do you think they would feel about their secondary school and post secondary school experience in regards to 'national unity'?

Furthermore, consider this: I wasn't personally 'hurt' by many of the affirmative action policies in Malaysia. I managed to obtain a scholarship to study in some of the top schools in Singapore. I was lucky enough that my parents had saved enough to afford my an education in two great schools in the UK. I was lucky enough to obtain a couple of scholarships to pursue my PhD here in the US.

What about other middle class Chinese and Indian students who didn't have these opportunities? What would they have said when their Malay friends in secondary school went on to obtain government scholarships and places in desired subjects in public universities even as they were left by the wayside or forced to take less desired subjects at the public universities or go to the private colleges where again there is little interaction with other Malay students?

I distinctly remember the experience of bumping into a former La Sallian when I was back from my summer holidays while studying at the LSE. I was with two of my ASEAN scholar friends from La Salle at Stephen's corner, a mamak place in OUG just off Old Klang Road. (One friend was one year my senior at LSE, the other was studying medicine in Australia)

I can't remember the name of the former La Sallian but I still remember his face and what he said to us. In secondary school, he was slightly chubby, had a clean cut face and was very well behaved and quiet in class and was a diligent student. He was a good student but not a brilliant one. He would consistently rank in the top half of our class (between 10 to 20 in a class of 40) and would periodically crack the top 10. When we saw him sitting at a nearby table (this was 5 or 6 years after we had left La Salle in Form 3), we could hardly recognize him. His face was gaunt and thin and he looked as if he'd smoked too many cigarettes and had too many late nights. He looked at us with some level of recognition and we said hi and exchanged pleasantries. We asked him what he was doing and he told us that he was working in sales. (Keep in mind that the three of us were still in university at this time) I was slightly shocked since I assumed that he would be either a public university or a private college at this stage of his life (we all remembered him as a good student).

Then he said something to us that I remember to this day. He said, "Not everyone is lucky enough to go to university, like you guys".

I wonder to this day whether he was more bitter towards people like me and my two Asean scholar friends whose parents could afford to send us to universities overseas or towards the government for giving other people the chance to attend university despite them not doing as well as he did in school.

(In case it wasn't clear, the former La Sallian is a Chinese)

To end this post, I'd just like to use my own personal story to show that the notion that we can 'restore' national unity by abolishing Chinese and Tamil type primary schools is a myth that deserves to be debunked. I'm all for strengthening the national school system - improving the quality of teachers, making them less Islamic, better teaching of Pupil's Own Language (POL) and so forth. But unless many of the other entrenched institutions in this country (such as elite all Malay or almost all Malay secondary schools and boarding schools, inequalities in the allocation of scholarships and university places, and so on) are addressed concurrently with the issue of Chinese and Indian primary schools, we are being unfair in placing all or most of the blame on Chinese and Indian primary schools as the main cause for national disunity.

I'm sure many of our readers have their own personal anecdotes to share as well, perhaps from other cities or states (Kota Bahru, Batu Pahat, Penang), some negative, some positive.

I'm especially interested to know the views of our Malay readers who have either gone to all Malay schools boarding schools such as MCKK or to national secondary schools with a significant number of non-Malay students (mostly in urban areas) or even to the asramas (is hatred towards non-Malays something that is inculcated) since these are views which people such as myself (and many of our readers) are unfamiliar with. Let the comments begin!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bakri Musa's thoughts on the Education Blueprint

You can read Bakri Musa's blog here. I've reproduced his latest letter on Malaysiakini which raises some interesting points about the new Education Blueprint. Let us know what you think!

SEEING IT MY WAY, Malaysiakini Feb 2, 2007
M. Bakri Musa

Blueprint For Continued Mediocrity

When Prime Minister Abdullah unveiled the new Education Blueprint
2006-2010 (Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan 2006-2010) last month,
the Ministry of Education had already posted the entire document on its
website. That was a welcomed change, considering that the earlier
Education Blueprint 2000-2010 was soon made unavailable within only a
few months of its release. Those Ministry folks do learn after all.
Beyond that however, I am unable to discern any other improvement.

Poor Presentation

The report leaves much to be desired in its presentation. I had
expected an English version so I could assess the English competency of
ministry officials, but none was available. After all, if they expect
our students to master English, then these officials should at least
demonstrate their own competence.

Apart from the two forewords by Abdullah and Education Minister
Hishamuddin, there were no other introductions or acknowledgements.
The writers and contributors chose to remain anonymous. They must have
consulted numerous experts in making thse report, but you would not
know it. Now I know why; no one wants to get the blame for this shoddy
paper. There was not even an executive summary.

The first few chapters were devoted to general discussions on
education. Many of the ideas were definitely extracted from other
publications, yet there was no acknowledgments or references. This
omission of standard practice is unacceptable. Readers who may wish to
pursue a particular topic cannot look it up.

The report is full of data and figures presented in endless monotonous
tables. Many could have been better presented as bars, line graphs,
and pie charts. The authors were obviously “graphic-challenged.” Many
of the figures and data are presented without their proper context.
For example, the ministry proudly notes the increase in the number of
new schools over the years but fails to put that increase in
perspective. Did it match the population (specifically, the
enrollment) growth?

With the crowded tables, key figures and trends are easily missed, as
with the declining participation rates at all levels (except for
preschool) since 2000. This alarming trend would have been picked up
easily had the figures been presented as line graphs. As the trend was
missed, this important issue was not addressed. Had ministry officials
analyzed this declining participation rate, they would have discovered
that the figures for non-Malays in South Johore had declined even more
precipitously. These Malaysians have essentially abandoned our schools
for the more superior ones across the causeway.

The page layout has two columns, with one inexplicably twice as wide as
the other. At first I thought the narrow column was a summary, but it
was not. The rationale for this difference in column breadth escapes
me; it makes the layout visually distracting and irritating.

Long on Diagnosis, Short of Prescription

The report duly lists the obvious deficiencies of our schools. No
marks for that! The Ministry does finally acknowledge one salient
point: in education, one size does not fit all. This is true with
much of everything else, except perhaps with condom manufacturing!

The ministry wants to encourage “clusters of excellence,” but does not
elaborate on how to achieve that goal. In tandem with its
one-size-does-not-fit-all philosophy, the Ministry would like some
schools to offer the International Baccalaureate. I am all for that,
but then the report does not address the fundamental issue: Does that
mean that some schools can be English medium?

Where the report rightly identifies the problems, it offers the wrong
solutions. It acknowledges the declining quality of teaching and
suggests making the recruiting of teachers more rigorous. That is
putting the cart before the horse. The problem is more upstream.
Teaching no longer attracts the bright and talented for among other
reasons, the pay is lousy. Toughening the recruitment criteria would
do nothing to change that reality. The pay would have to be increased
substantially to make the profession competitive. Once you have a
surplus of applicants, then you could be choosy and have higher standards.

The report duly notes that non-Bumiputras are abandoning the national
stream. The government hopes to attract them back by offering
electives in Mandarin and Tamil. That however was not the reason they
are abandoning national schools rather that these schools have become
Islamic institutions, and thereby turning off non-Muslim parents.

Had Ministry officials conducted surveys, they would have discovered
this crucial fact. This brings out another weakness of this report:
it lacks empirical data and findings to support its recommendations.
Its recommendations have that seat-of-the-pants quality.

A major failing of Malaysian schools is the curriculum: too
examination oriented, emphasis on rote learning, and not enough
emphasis on science and mathematics. Thus one would expect the
Blueprint to have substantive recommendations on the matter. Instead
curricular reform would have to wait till the next blueprint on some
indeterminate future date. As an aside, it is pathetic that four years
after introducing the teaching of science and mathematics in English,
it is only now that the Ministry is assessing the English competency of
the teachers!

Ministry officials have obviously not learned from reform efforts
elsewhere. For example, Malaysia gives stipends so poor children can
attend schools. Why not tie it to actual school attendance, meaning,
you would get paid only if your children were in school, as with
Mexico’s Progressa program. Similarly, Chile offers many workable
models for private schools as well as for school-based management.

National Schools With Various Languages of Instruction

Malaysian schools are deepening instead of reducing the racial divide.
They are designed to appeal to racial identities. In my book An
Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested that Malaysian schools
should instead focus on their language of instruction. Thus instead of
Sekolah Kebangsaan Jenis China (National-Type Chinese school), meaning
a school primarily for Chinese, characterize them as national schools
that use Mandarin as the language of instruction. That would
immediately change the focus. Such schools could then attract
non-native Mandarin speakers like Malays by for example, serving halal
foods and having Mandarin-speaking Malay (or at least Muslim) teachers
to serve as role models. There are millions of Muslim
Mandarin-speakers in China who would gladly teach in Malaysia. We
could also have French- or Swahili-Type National Schools, meaning,
schools using those two languages as their medium of instruction.

As for the obvious poor physical conditions of our schools (as
evidenced by double sessions), the report suggests nothing beyond
recommending more funds be devoted. That does not address the root
cause. Our schools are in such a poor state because the funds are used
less to improve the facilities more to provide jobs for favored
Bumiputra contractors. Apart from unnecessarily inflating the costs,
such constructions are often shoddy and dangerous, as attested by
buildings collapsing soon after their completion. Unless the tender
mechanism is revamped to ensure that only the most qualified and
efficient contractors get the job, we will never improve our school
facilities no matter how much money we pour on the problem.

The Education Blueprint preceding this one had a shelf life of only a
few months. This one would also be soon forgotten, and a good thing
too for this Education Blueprint 2006-2010 is nothing more than a
blueprint for continued mediocrity.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Primary Schools Comparison

I think we need to move on from the previous post, despite the record number of comments. I've been slowly reading through the new Education Blueprint and I want to start by examining the number of primary schools, in particular comparing the national primary schools and the national type primary schools.

For those who are not familiar with some of these statistics, let me lay them out. The number of national primary schools have increased from 4844 in 1990 to 5761 in 2005, an increase of 19%. In comparison, the number of national type Chinese primary schools (SRJK) have actually decreased from 1288 to 1287 in the same time period. The number of national type Tamil primary schools (SRJT) have decreased from 538 to 525 in the same time period. In other words, funding for new primary schools for the past 15 years have gone almost exclusively to national type schools. (There might have been some new Chinese primary schools built e.g. Wawasn or Vision schools and relocated Chinese primary schools such as Pei Chai and Tropicana)

In the same time period, the enrolment in national schools have increased from 1.8 million in 1990 to 2.4 million in 2005, an increase of 35%. Enrolment in national type Chinese primary schools (SRJK) have also increased by 11% in the same time period, from 580,000 to 650,000. Enrolment in national type Tamil primary schools (SRJT) have also increased, but only by less than 3% from 96,000 to 99,000.

While one can justify the increase in the number of national primary schools because of the large increase in the number of students enrolled in them, it is much harder to justify the lack of an increase in the number of national Chinese type primary schools given that enrolment in these schools have also increased. To think about it another way, there have been an increase of 70,000 students in the national Chinese type primary schools with no increase in the number of schools. While this 70,000 number doesn't seem large given that it amounts to roughly 50 additional students in each of the 1287 schools, it is important to realize that overcrowding in national type Chinese primary schools is a serious issue.

The new Education Blueprint also provides the number of low enrolment schools or 'Sekolah Kurang Murid (SKM)' which it classifies as schools with less than 150 students.

There are 1642 SKM for the national primary schools, 530 such schools among the national Chinese type primary schools, 329 such schools among the national Tamil type primary schools.

So what I did was to estimate the number of students enrolled in these SKM schools and take away these from the total enrolment of students in each type of school - national, Chinese and Tamil. I then divided these numbers by the number of schools for each type minus the number of SKM schools. I wanted to do this to get a sense of the average number of students per school for the schools with normal enrolments.

What I found was the following - There are approximately 520 students per school for the national schools, approximately 750 students per school for national Chinese type schools and approximately 250 students per school for national Tamil type schools. (not including the SKMs)

When I examined the number of teachers per school type (including the SKMs since the data doesn't distinguish between number of teachers in SKMs and non-SKM schools), I found that the average number of students per teacher was 20 in national Chinese type primary schools versus 16 in national schools and 14 in national Tamil type schools.

I don't know about our readers, but I find this situation at least a little lopsided. Shouldn't those tax-paying parents who send their kids to national Chinese type primary schools at least be given their fair share of government expenditure at the primary school level? (I'm not even going to discuss the situation at the secondary and university level yet)

Perhaps, I'm making a lot out of nothing given that the results that are being produced at the national Chinese type primary schools are still pretty good despite the large number of students per class (many over 50 and some even over 60 in certain areas). (One should remember that approximately 60,000 or 10% of the student enrolment in these Chinese type primary schools are non-Chinese students so I'm not only talking about Chinese parents)

But is the current situation of an increasing number of students in Chinese type primary schools but without any increase in the number of Chinese type primary schools sustainable? How many of the SKM Chinese type schools can one 'transfer' to urban areas where demand continues to be high?

Lastly, I think that Tamil schools have the most to worry about in the sense that these schools are the most poorly resourced and have the least amount of government as well as community support.