Friday, March 02, 2007

MSRMs beacons of progressive education?

Read this interesting column by Dr. Azly Rahman in I'll reproduce below and then add my own comments after that.

Let’s de-segregate our schools

“School is not preparation for life, but school is life,” wrote American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.

We need to begin a national project of desegregating schools. I propose that all schools and educational institutions now catering to one particular race - be they Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Kadazan or Iban - must be integrated systematically and reorganised along the principles of multi-cultural education.

We must create a new breed of bumiputera - the neo-bumiputera class.

I do not see any other way we can become a truly multi-cultural nation and create an egalitarian society based on the way we currently organise our educational institutions. We may have a grand design that will take to the year 3000, but without a conscious effort to educate students to become critical, creative, ethical and futuristic radical human beings, we will drown in the wave of globalisation.

We may have a hardware worth RM23 billion and a software plan in hand, but without a mind-ware powerful enough to help develop governors of a future republic of virtue and social justice, our schools will continue to be better camps for totalitarianism.

However, as the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire might say, there is a philosophy of hope, we can all explore.

I want to share the beauty of an effective philosophy of education that ought to now be experimented at a different level - true to our nation's commitment to create a Bangsa Malaysia.

It is a system that has benefitted many and produced excellent individuals that are now the movers and shakers of our economy. We have great professors, politicians, scientists, lawyers, corporate figures, surgeons, entertainment gurus, and even rocket scientists from a system that has helped the poorest of the poor ‘bumiputeras’. I am talking about the Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) system.

I believe that education is not all about following blindly but making changes and creating alternate realities. I believe that we must put the best resources we have into creating a new breed of Malaysian who will destroy the barriers of race and class.

Education at all levels must be desegregated and all forms of protectionist policies and strategies of racial containment must be abolished. If we failing to do, we will see increasing erosion of race relations. I believe, too, that education is about extending a helping hand to those less fortunate.

Progressive education

The MRSM of the 1970s especially was a good experiment in human capital revolution and social engineering. It had great dedicated teachers - Malays, Chinese, Indians, Americans - who served selflessly. May God bless them.

Not only was I a child of the MRSM ‘experiment’ and a ‘product’ of the New Economic Policy (NEP), but I went on to teach in the college for several years, consulted for it when I went on to teach in university, and wrote papers on it. Twelve years ago, I even went on write a Ph D proposal for Stanford University on MRSM and I still keep in touch with friends from the college. It is a good system that worked in the early years but lost its essence decades later.

MRSM taught its early students how to think critically and creatively, not to kowtow to leaders who abuse power and who are corrupt to the core. The philosophy was to create leaders, not followers. It was meant to transform the nation into an ethical polity, not destroy it beyond repair.

Because it is such a good system of education, because my interest is in the colour-blind profession of education, because education knows no discrimination based on colour, creed, or racial origin, and because the NEP and MRSM, in their hidden curriculum taught me about humanism more than racism, I think I have a better perspective now.

I believe the early MRSM philosophy can and should be used to educate the nation toward economic advancement and racial tolerance. MRSM should promote radical multi-culturalism, and produce great thinkers and doers and movers and shakers of all who call Malaysia their home and motherland. It should create leaders who are ethical, life-long learners, lovers of wisdom, and who will work for the poor of all races. After all, the government that funded MRSM is one for all races.

Not an elitist enterprise

We can no longer have segregated schools if we are to survive as a nation. This is the reality I have learned as I explore further the meaning of education. Looking at poverty and economic development in America, especially in New York city (Harlem, the Bronx, etc,) has taught me what is possible, humane, and socially just for children of all races.

Our children and grandchildren must be taught that education is not an elitist enterprise that only serves the rich and the privileged. The children of all races, especially from families of the abject poor must be taken out of their dehumanising condition, given the privileges of the bumiputera, educated by the best and brightest teachers who do not hold any prejudices, and groomed to become the ‘new bumiputera’ who will be committed to establish a new republic of virtue and social justice.

Imagine children of the poor of the newly arrived immigrants of different ethnic groups and faith, coming together in a system that teaches them what a living democracy means and about religious tolerance and peaceful solutions. Dare we create this new breed of bumiputera, with the mind of a 5th century BC Athenian?

I believe Islam and all religions do not approve educational apartheid. We need to ride the wave so that we may not be drowned in a tsunami of our economic contradictions. Therefore, let the successes of MRSM be replicated to help children of all races succeed.

In the early 1970s, MRSM had great teachers of all races who taught many what humanism means. In a similar vein, we must work together to gradually but surely dismantle schools and educational institutions that perpetuate the hegemony of one race over others.

Let us think of declaring educational segregation as unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court ruling of Brown versus Board of Education taught Americans what humanism in education means.

Dare we create a new Malaysian social order?

Let me ask a few clarification question.

First of all, Dr. Rahman was talking about the MSRM's in its early days. My impression of MARA nowadays seems to be quite different from what Dr. Rahman was talking about. Perhaps things have changed dramatically since when Dr. Rahman went to school there. But could any of our readers out there who was in a MARA system in the 70s and 80s tell us about how it was like back then? Was MARA multiracial? Was was the ethnic breakdown among the students there? Were the schools as progressive as Dr. Rahman described them to be?

I noticed this portion in his column in regards to the MSRMs:

It is a system that has benefitted many and produced excellent individuals that are now the movers and shakers of our economy. We have great professors, politicians, scientists, lawyers, corporate figures, surgeons, entertainment gurus, and even rocket scientists from a system that has helped the poorest of the poor ‘bumiputeras’.

I wonder what he means by the poorest of the poor 'bumiputeras' (in inverted comas)? If MSRMs are supposed to show the way in terms of desegretation, why then did they only benefit one segment of society back in Dr. Rahman's day? This puzzles me.

Secondly, Dr. Rahman seems to allude to but did not come out to say that the standards of the MSRM today are not the same as they were back in his day. If this is the case, what can possibly account for this fall in standards? What lessons can we learn from this if we are to implement a system of desegregated learning that is similar to the MSRM (now and back in the day)?

The MSRM's comprise a part of Malaysia's education system which I'm very unfamiliar with. I know that they are full time residential colleges and as far as I know, these schools comprise largely of Malay students (perhaps as high as 90%). I know they comprise of students from the secondary school up to pre-university levels. And that's about it.

I got to know a few MARA scholars when I was studying in the UK. They did their A levels in MARA because it guaranteed them funding to go overseas after A levels. They were the few non-Malays who were in the MARA system then (this was the mid 90s). They told me that there was little mixing between the races in their MARA campus (this was in Cheras) and that the academic standards of their Malay counterparts, on the whole, were lower than theirs. My suspicion is that the top notch Malay students have already been sent overseas for pre-university or absorbed into other non-Mara type programs / colleges. My friends complained that the lecturers / teachers could not teach properly and the facilities in their school were inadequate (their makeshift hostel was built on a parking lot). Their experience didn't really inspire confidence in my in regards to the standards of education in the MSRMs.

Perhaps some of our readers who are more familiar with the MARA school system can enlighten us?


coleong said...

I’ve the same question about MSRM as KM did. I always thought that MSRM is only open for bumiputra and not other races. May be I’m wrong. Anyway, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to supervised a few MSRM students for their short term science project while I was doing my undergrad. I must admit that they do have a very good inquiry mind about their subject compared to student in the mainstream school which mainly spooned fed. If MSRM has been proven to be such good system, why isn’t it being adapted to the mainstream school that could benefit even more students around the country ?

Andrew Loh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Loh said...

i don't know too much about MRSMs but i'm kind of disturbed by some things some people post.

they range from blaming others for not winning debating competitions, calling the judges racist, and other ad hominem attacks. (it's supposedly bad to have an american accent.)

some other posts are quite inspiring and rational, though, so i don't know whether that sense of (competition) deprivation is representative or anomalous.

mostly it's that they wrongly attach causation. (losing a debate - not to not being good enough, but to inherent racism in all judges)

Anonymous said...


Now that the local universities are directed to increase the percentage of foreigners in the teaching staffm the result is:
1 The foreign lecturers do not come from well developing nations such as UK, USA, Canada, Germany, Australia but from " dark skinned " countries such as The middle east countries. These :international " lecturers came here initially to do their Masters in the local universities but by luck end up as Foreign lecturers in our universities.

I dont think this was what is meant by increasing the % of foreign lecturers??

Even so these lecturers are bred from the same stagnant pool of the local academia. Would you think they would become assets or liabilities in our universities quality??

Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to attend an MRSM from 04-05, and I must say that a large portion of what Dr. Rahman wrote is still true.

Things might have changed dramatically since when he went there, but still, some fundamentals of the MRSM system is very much in practice.

Firstly, we have to realise that the MRSM was modeled after The Bronx School for the Gifted in Science in New York City, among others. Hence, their goals were to focus on maths and science. Another specialty in this system is the implementation of The Enrichment Triad Model
[], among others.

I would argue that there is a fall in standards in the MRSM, but only because of the fall in standards in the national education level. The MRSMs generally try to make their curriculum harder than the national syllabus, but the problem is, when the national syllabus is already at such a low level, a little higher is nothing in relation to the world.

Also, one must realise that not all MRSMs are equal too. Amongst the upper form MRSMs, there exists 4 elite Program Khas Pendidikan (PKP) [ Special Education Programme] which do enjoy extra privileges (more fundings, more Guru Cemerlangs/ Pakar, etc). Hence, even amongst themselves the standards of the MRSM is unequal.

MRSM however, is not useful as a tool for desegregation. Nowadays MRSM is almost 100% malays, although some do have a small percentage of non-Malays, albeit around 10%. It does however, put together Malays from all stratas of the society (I am basing this on my MRSM, and would suspect it is similar elsewhere too.)

Of course we had the sons of Datuks and Tan Sris, but they were greatly outnumbered by the people from the small towns. I remember in my years, only about 30% of the people came from big cities.

I must say that some of the people I met at my MRSM were actually some of the smartest people I've met in my life, and a lot of them have justly been awarded scholarships. (of course there are injustice too - around 35% of the students in my year of 450 received some form of scholarships!)

MRSM Jasin 04-05
[now known as MRSM Tun Ghaffar Baba]

Anonymous said...

Dear LYL,

Glad to hear that. But can i ask something (maybe offensive), how was the relations between Malays (90%) and non-Malays (10%)? Did you interact easily with all groups or you faced certain kind of barrier that you find hard to penetrate? The reason being, you are saying that a big proportion of MRSM students aren't from big cities, which makes me curious.

I participated in a camp few years back. While passing through a kampung on legs, the children was shouting "...Cina b*b*.." when they saw us. I noticed there were some adults nearby (presumed to be their parents), but they did nothing except smiling.

My judgement is that, if certain type of "thinking" or culture has been instilled in the mind of children since young, it is very likely that their behaviour will tend to what they were taught when they grow up. (This is a generalisation based on studies and may have exceptions.) What puzzled me is that why and how in the world those children of 12 to 14 years old learnt the words from? Has it got to do with primary socialisation (family) or the second type (school)?

PS: KM, you may remove this if you found it offensive. I am just interested in social behaviour.

Monsterball said...

Hi Kian Ming,
I didn't attend an MRSM. I attended a fully Residential Sekolah Menengah Sains, which had similar objectives, back in the 1970's. It is open to all races, though the student population was overwhelmingly rural Malay in origin.

I'm one of a minority of Chinese students who went through the Residential school system in the 70's.

I graduated 1st Class Honours from the University of Melbourne, and Masters from the University of Sydney, and I work as a senior manager in industry, not bad for a kid from a Malay kampung.

I grew up in a small rural community in Johor, I think we were one of just 2 Chinese families in the Malay kampung. I was the best pupil from the nearby Sekolah kebangsaan, and got the offer to attend a Sekolah Menengah Sains in another state.

I must say that I do very much appreciate what the Residential school had to offer. My parents were not poor, but I was definitely disadvantaged in terms of education. The nearest town was 12 km away, and the secondary school there wasn't well regarded. I was (still am) a bookworm, so my parents would drive to Johor Bahru, some 3 hours journey away to get to a decent book shop.

The Residential School had good facilities - science laboratories, excelent library , and a good teaching staff. I had very good teachers, there were a lot of smart kids there. The School was still run as an English school at the time, and generally had high standards. If you attend one of the good secondary schools in KL or Penang, this would have been taken for granted, but for a kid from rural village, this was a special privelege.

The other students were almost all Malay, but given the environment I grew up in, it wasn't a problem for me. I just miss never having the chance to learn to read and write Mandarin.

Sadly, the Residential schools are not the same any more. My old school, like the rest of the National school system is now simply a Malay-Muslim school. Enough has been said elsewhere of the drawbacks of the National School system, I don't need to add to it here.

Anonymous said...

I come from an ordinary national school, I was never a racist until I left school (to compete) for higher education and realised how inadequate racial policies are in the country. It is not the education at fault, but the inadequacies at the highest level gradually filtering down to the common people. No amount of work on education for small children can compensate for NEP mentality of adults.

p.s. how practical is it to have MRSM for everyone anyway?


Anonymous said...

To anon @ 3/04/2007 09:38:00 AM,

The relations between the Malays and the non were on the surface, very good. Basically those who want to communicate with us will take the initiative to.

On a personal note, I interacted mainly with a group of liberal thinking, intellectual bunch. Of course there were also other people, but this was mainly my group. And I was the only Chinese in this group if you care to know. I must admit sadly that most of the Chinese and Indians tend to stick to their own and communicate in Mandarin and Tamil, as almost all of them were not well versed in English. Again, this arise from their upbringing in rural areas, amongst other factors.

I must also admit that there is a sense of Islamisation in the school, where the Ustazs decree is implemented in a lot of the rules.

As for your social observation and experience, I don' think you can have a blanker generalization. There might exist some people like that in my year, but they were not vocal about it. Hence we were not exposed to it. Also, surprisingly, you will be very astonished to know that amongst those liberal thinking people, there is also a general opinion of meritocracy, and not depending on crutches and whatsoever.

As for how practical is it to have MRSM for everyone... well... I hope that their programs of Enrichment Modules will someday be introduced into the national education sytem, and their emphasis and standards of Science and Maths to the science stream too. In the meantime, a revamp of our humanities and literature is needed.

Amir Dina said...

Its good to hear that Dr Azly has something good to say about MRSM. Yes, I like him is a product of early (not pioneers) MRSM system- 1985-89. Where the whole philosophy is about creating a well rounded person. We were thought about De Bono creative thinking at 14.

There was the time where, classes are full during prep-hours or other free hours and playing also full at playable (knowing our weather) hours. Ppl. are serious about what they do.

Most of my colleagues come from average to lower income family. In fact the Tan Sri/Datuks children are placed in special MRSM. Yes, we studied hard as possibly can for most of us, we are their only links to get out of from the circle of poverty.

Its a different scenario now. gone are the days of well rounded individuals, but it is changed into solid A's scenario (student should know whats A's is for - Student also cannot take more then 10 subjects). Minimum intake of non-bumiputras - 10%. Strict regulations on income still applies.

Anonymous said...

Paolo Friere, John Dewey and progressive ed equals a pure Chairman Mao brand of Marxism. It is a code or cover for a classless, fascist society where everyone is forced to smile. This guy is nothing but a Commie, and this comment is coming from a liberal with a Ph.D. The good news is that the powers that be know what is going on, and there is talk of a counter-revolution ("like a whisper"). My feeling is that consrevatives are allowing this to happen, allowing these dumb cultish schmucks to do their dance, until they go too far. Once that happens, a coup is inevitable. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of fascisti.

anak jati trg said...

The author said, "Education at all levels must be desegregated and all forms of protectionist policies and strategies of racial containment must be abolished. If we failing to do, we will see increasing erosion of race relations". By segregating the education will not necessarily help the nation to reduce racism, if the teachers are not trained,or the parents do not take their parts. I am not sure whether the author is trying to propose a new solution for a so-called "racial containment" or it is just a propaganda used to 'reconstruct' the MRSM system, which is obviously helping the bumiputeras?