Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

A long column in Malaysiakini on education reforms by a Malaysian Professor who is currently teaching in Qatar. I agree with many of his points such as the need to appoint a proper search committee for the VCs of our public universities and the need to bring back English into the public universities. But the elephant in the room in terms of educational reform, especially in our public universities are left out. I'm speaking of the policies of racial preference, particularly in the recruitment and retention of academics. I'll talk more about this in a subsequent post. In the meantime, the column is reproduced below.

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Our education system: Time for radical change
Mohamed Zain | Apr 3, 08 1:31pm

It is quite obvious now that Malaysia is heading towards a two-party system. This is certainly good for the country. There will more checks and balances. The winning and ruling party cannot do things according to their whims and fancies without worrying about the possibility of losing the next election.

Thus, as the country is heading towards a political maturity some drastic changes in our education systems are called for and perhaps are becoming inevitable. It does not matter which of the two eventual political parties rules the country. But the changes that I would like to suggest here are for the benefit of the country.

It is imperative that in this era of globalization and the fact that we want to make Malaysia more competitive as well as to make it a regional educational hub for attracting foreign students, we need to improve the quality of our education so that it is comparable if not better than the best in Southeast Asia.

Let me start first with our school systems. The outputs of the schools are the inputs of the universities. Thus, if we want to produce good products the raw materials must be of good quality as well. Every citizen of the country must have access to education. Hence, it must be made mandatory that every child attends school at least up to the lower secondary level. Thus, the school
education in this country must be free for all. And it must be fee all the way up to the high school level.

Next, we need to have good and qualified teachers for our schools. Thus, most if not all the teachers, must have a bachelor’s degree in education. Those without a degree majoring in education need to also have a teaching credential such as the one-year diploma in education offered by some of the local universities.

Lately, we have heard a lot about the need for the country to have a meritocracy system. This can only happen if we have a level playing field for all our school children. Thus, if we are really serious about implementing such a system facilities of the rural schools must be comparable to those of the urban ones.

All schools – whether urban or rural-based - need to have, among others, good Internet access, instructional aides, library, sport, and other facilities.

While there is a need for us to have a common national language so that all our citizens can communicate with each other in our multi-ethnic country, it makes a lot of sense that our children are multi-lingual as well. The current situations that most Malays can speak Bahasa Malaysia and perhaps English, but most on-Malays can speak at least two and perhaps three or more languages.

Hence, this imbalance needs to be addressed. Malay students should be encouraged to learn Chinese or another local language as well. Once our students have the choice to choose their additional language (especially their mother-tongue) in addition to the national language in the national schools, then the need to have he separate Chinese and Tamil schools (vernacular schools) in the country will disappear.

The presence of these vernacular schools in the country goes against he spirit of national integration. Of course, the offering of other languages for our students must be based on demand and it must be cost effective. More third language teachers must also be trained.

Bringing back English

Later, I will talk about the need to reintroduce English as the medium of instructions in universities. Thus, to prepare for this, the teaching of the English Language in schools need to be upgraded so that when the students enter universities, they will not be handicapped. Hence, more English language teachers need to be trained in the country.

Last, but certainly not the least, we need to introduce a semester system in all ur schools. This system needs to be standardized and synchronized with those of the developed world. In other words, our schools should have fall, spring and summer semesters where most students will go to school during the fall and spring semesters and they will take a vacation during the summer semester.

During the summer the older children, particularly those in cities and towns can start learning to earn money by taking up part-time or short-term employments in such places as fast-food restaurants or shops in the shopping malls. Of course, the system needs to be synchronized with the university system as well, so that on graduation, they will not be idle too long while waiting to enter universities.

I will now talk about the required reforms for our universities.

Universities are excellent places for our country to train its citizens and future leaders in its efforts to fulfill the needs for skilled and knowledgeable human resources. University students are excellent change agents for the country. Thus, first and foremost we need to amend the Universities and Colleges ct of 1971 (UCA). The clauses that prohibit or restrict the independence of cademics and students must be removed.

There is also an urgent need for us to abolish the mandatory requirement for the employees to sign the ridiculous and silly “Akujanji”. University employees, particularly the academics, should not be made to obey the instructions of the overnment or political masters’ blindly. Instead, intellectual discourse should be encouraged because it can be a good source of creativity and innovation for the country.

Top and senior management are crucial to the success of any organizations. In the past, the appointments of university vice-chancellor and his/her deputies re made or at least required the approval of the minister.

This practice has not to stop because most appointments were based on the candidates’ political affiliations or inclinations rather on merits. Appointments of someone to these posts should be made based on the suitability and the capabilities of the candidates for the jobs. They should be made by a search committee instead.

Revise salaries

In a big company or a corporation the appointment of the chief executive officer is made by the board of directors. Therefore, the appointment of the vice-chancellor or the president of a university should be made by the board of regents or a similar body. Of
course, some of the members of the committee can be appointed by the minister.

Similarly, the appointment of deans can also be made via a search committee. Vacant positions for deans or even departmental chairs could also be advertised and relevant media such as newspapers or websites like the Chronicle of Higher Education to invite more capable candidates.

The salaries of academics should be revised. The current salaries for academics, articularly the starting salary for an assistant professor (someone with a PhD) s pathetically low and very unattractive and need to be increased to a level that is comparable to those in Singapore.

The salary scales of academics should also be different from those of other government servants. After all, the nature of their jobs and the required cademic qualifications are different. The current practice where the salaries or academics are decided by the Public Service Department officers always favour the civil servants, particularly the so-called PTD (administrative and diplomatic services) officers and not the academics.

Attractive salaries will not only attract the best candidates but it will also attract more top graduates to be interested in becoming academics by opting to become tutors after their first degree and to pursue their graduate degree leading to a PhD in their field. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.”

Government should also set aside funds to enable our best graduates from universities who are interested in becoming tutors to get enough stipends and scholarships to carry out their graduate research at the research universities in the country. This will help the country save money by not having to send them to foreign universities.

Nevertheless, top graduates should also be sent to study abroad but they should only be limited to those who manage to secure laces in the top universities of the world or in those areas of expertise that are lacking in the country.

If we look at the list of academics in all our universities, we cannot help but otice that a substantial percentage if not the majority of them are holders of only a master’s degree instead of a PhD. This deficiency needs to be urgently ddressed. Once the salary scheme is revised appropriately, this problem can be overcome gradually as more top students will be interested in pursuing research which culminates in a PhD degree.

We should be aware that before anyone, especially a prospective foreign student, begins to apply for a place in a university, s/he will first visit the niversity’s website and among the first information they will seek is the list of academic staff of the prospective department where s/he plans to study.

Thus, well qualified teaching staff will attract more students. Hence, this should bode well towards making Malaysia an education hub for the region by attracting more foreign students from all over to enroll in our universities, particularly the private ones.

The academic ranking of positions in universities should also be standardized across all the universities in the country. It should be based on academic qualifications and experiences in teaching, research, and community work.

A person with a master’s degree should only be given a position of a lecturer. Those with a PhD should start as an assistant professor. As s/he gains more experience and produces more outputs in those three areas of work s/he can gradually climb the academic ladder to associate professor and eventually to the rank of a full professor.

The English language is now regarded as the international language. Just look at he availability of television networks across the world which broadcast free rograms in English via the satellites in their efforts to reach international udiences.

The major and common ones from among the countries whose native language is not English includes Al-Jazeera International (Qatar), DW TV Germany), Euronews (European Union), France 24, Russia Today, CCTV9 (China), and Arirang TV (Korea).

Thus, there is no doubt that our citizens now need to be proficient in English. And the best way to do just that is to revert the teaching of our students in our universities, especially in important fields of specializations such as business, economics, sciences, and engineering to English. After all, most of the text books in these fields are in English.

Here, I am assuming that our school children who graduated from high schools are lready proficient in our national language, in addition to one or two more of ther languages. We cannot compromise on this for the sake on peace and harmony n our country.

Malaysia needs to improve its competitiveness level in order to face the challenge of globalization and to remain relevant in this world. In this globalize world our citizens need to participate meaningfully in whatever international activities, be it business, economic, social, political, legal, or governmental. Thus, they must be proficient in English. Period.

Many universities in the Middle East and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain) countries have already switched heir medium of instructions, especially for programs in business, economics, sciences, and engineering, from Arabic to English. It is not too late for us to do the same.

Exchange of academics

The current practice in the country of allowing private universities to offer academic programs in English while not allowing the government ones to do so is ot only discriminatory but it is also disadvantageous to those who graduate rom the government universities since they will be less conversant in English nd thus making them more difficult to find jobs in the industry where English is very much in use.

These graduates will depend more on the government for jobs. The current situation where there are many unemployed undergraduates is probably the result of this practice.

Last, but again certainly not the least, there is a need to for the country to introduce the semester system into our universities. Just as I proposed for our chool system above, our universities need to adopt a semester system as practiced by the universities in other countries. Most universities in other, particularly developed countries have a tri-semester system comprising Fall September-January), Spring (February-June), and Summer (June-August).

By having a standardized and synchronized system with other countries it will facilitate exchange of academics between our universities with their foreign counterparts. It will also enable foreign students to enter our universities ithout having to wait too long after they graduated from their high schools. This will again help promote making Malaysia as the education hub.

During the summer holiday, summer classes can be offered to those students who want to graduate faster and the academics who are willing to teach classes during that time can earn extra income. Those students who do not take summer classes can take part-time or short-term employments in the town and cities, just like the case for older school students mentioned above, giving them an
opportunity to earn and save some money before returning to their school.

Those are some suggestions which I would like to propose to the government in order make Malaysia a better and a more competitive country.

DR MOHAMED ZAIN, PhD is Professor of Technology and Strategic Management in the College of Business and Economics of Qatar University, Doha. He can be reached at or


Anonymous said...

Kian Ming,

I look forward to the next post and I do agree the problem needs to be addressed sooner or later, though I am still ambivalent as to how 'head-on' and drastic this needs to be.

In Malaysia we often focus so much on internal problems that we forget to think about what the world thinks about us, which will in turn affect the possible directions of our country and our universities in future. So one thing I want to note here is that this problem is quite obvious to and recognised by people outside our system.

Once I was talking to a senior academic in my field about possible career paths. This is someone whom I (and many others) respect very much as a scientist and who has always shown a strong concern for my personal well-being and career development. I say this only to make clear the background and motives for the comments below. We were browsing the webpage of a certain Malaysian physics department (where there was painfully little information). This person said 'Hmm...all the names are...[from a certain group].' Does this mean that nobody else applied? Or that many applied but they were rejected? How will they treat you if you really go there?'

Regarding these questions, as you know I try to keep an open mind, but the point I want to make here is that certain features of our education systems emerge to the outside world after five minutes' browsing of university websites. We should think about the effect this has on the success of policies we try to implement.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charis,
Quite a number of years ago, I had to make the decision to come to Silicon Valley or go back to Malaysia. I went back to talk to people in charge in the department I was interested. They convinced me to move on.
Few years ago, a senior manager who used to work in the company I help started had to select an Asian site for his new company's expansion. I analyzed the options and the advantages of having the plant in Malaysia. The company has since had a plant in Malaysia.
This is just an example, you can help Malaysia in many ways, but keep in mind that we are part of the global economy. You should look beyond Malaysia.
Please go to the place that is best in the field you want to be, get yourself establish first, then you can bring real skills back.

Good Luck,

Anonymous said...

I agree that one problem is the low salary. It is suicidal for any established prof to come back to Malaysia if he/she has financial obligations in the US or other western countries where salaries are much higher. The financial trade-off is just not attractive unless one has no permanent job in the US or other countries.

But, the major problem is the hiring practice. Giving higher salaries but not hiring the best candidates globally would only benefit the present faculty members and still will not improve quality.

I see a real fear in the local universities to hire strong established candidates from overseas, and mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

Education in Malaysia has many flaws. It will be endless if we want to talk about it. So, let us look into this one at a time.

I am of the opinion that 'remuneration packages' to teachers in primary and secondary schools need to be more attractive so that to stimulate good quality people to choose teacher as their career. At present, many teachers are not up to the standard. Shortages in teachers could also be solved if the remuneration packages can be more attractive.

Once this quality and quantity of teacher solved, only then we can look into other problems facing by the education system. It is no point talking about other problems if quality and quantity problem still remained unsolved.

Anonymous said...

I specifically want to take up 2 points from the comments by Mohamed Zain and True Malaysian ;
1. That teachers need a degree in education and/or a post-graduate qualification in education from a local college.
This is already being done in our local education system. The problem is not with the "system" rather it is with the implementation and quality of training that these teachers recieve at the local teacher training colleges. There is no push to "educate" teachers on the latest pedagogy , teaching-learning ideas or even benchmark the qualifications recieved against other internationally recognized teacher training programmes. Lets not even get into the quality of academics training these future teachers !

2.Salary revision for teachers.
YES !!!! In no uncertain terms this has to be done. However, it may be interesting for all concerned to read the McKinsey Consultancy report which is a comparative study of successful education systems in the world.(am attaching the link to the report here)

McKinsey looked at primary and secondary school systems in the world and noted that the countries with successful schools (South Korea,Norway, Singapore etc etc) were NOT those who paid their teachers the highest salaries. While teachers were paid well in these systems, other factors such as prestige attached to the job, high bar to enter the profession, effective measurement and evaluation mechanisms in schools were equally critical.

Our education system needs and overhaul NOW! Lets look at the best systems in the world and the existing body of knowledge and research and move forward. No need to commission another study and waste time etc etc.
Lets get moving.

Anonymous said...


teaching is just not a well respected proffesion in malaysia. if you say ur a doctor, engineer ,lawyer, etc ppl tend to give you some measure of respect. tell them you are a teacher and they automatically assume that u r a teacher because you couldnt be anything else, i.e a profession of last resort, and in many cases this is true. can you please tell me, how we are going to attract capable ppl into the teaching field when this is the case?

Anonymous said...

On assumption that quality and quantity of teachers being solved, then we should look into :-

Introducing an educational system that is more superior than Chinese school and national type school.

The language medium of this new system should be in a language acceptable to all races (preferably English), not religious overtone (ie no doa during school functions)& mother tongues are taught.

If such system prosper, then other school like Chinese & Tamil school will not be in favour. These schools will walk into history and a single school system will ultimately evolve. Then, this will lead to common place for all races to grow up together and promote understanding, friendship and trust among Malaysians.

I think this is a logical step for Malaysia to take as we cannot just close Chinese & Tamil schools overnight as such schools, especially the Chinese schools are still great in demand.

Assume this happens, teachers in Chinese schools can be absorbed into 'new' schools to teach mother tongues and other subjects. In addition, these Chinese and Tamil school premises can be used for the 'new' schools.

Just look back our education system before the change over to Bahasa, racial polarisation were not exist then and its quality command high standards.

But again, this change will be all depend on the will of the Malays, which form the majority race in Malaysia. I hope Pakatan Rakyat will look into this seriously.

Anonymous said...

Anonymouses (Anonymice?), do take a look at the present renumeration scheme for teachers. There has been a huge pay rise the last few years so that teachers are almost as well paid now as doctors and dentists working for the government. From what I hear, it is very, very difficult to get into teachers' training (Dip. Ed.) now and also very difficult to get a teaching post after that. Depending on the path you took to Dip. Ed., a teaching post is not necessarily guaranteed. Even engineers are being rejected from Dip. Ed. More and more primary school teachers are graduates. What you say was true maybe five years ago. Not any more. Perhaps someone in the teaching profession would like to comment? All the info I have is just hearsay from various sources.

For lecturers, the salary does need to increase.

Anusia Senthe, as for updating on pedagogy etc. teachers seem to go for more and more 'kursus' all the time. I don't know if they are helpful, but if they are implemented in the same spirit as the PTK (which has been a huge waste of resources and time), then probably not. Again, all the right things are in place, but none of these are the root problem.

The 'elephant in the room' in our schools and universities is I believe lack of critical thinking and this to a large extent stems from the larger political context in which we live. In the aftermath of 8 March, it has emerged for example that schools have generally felt compelled to invite VIPs only from certain political parties for school functions. This is just the tip of the iceberg. In arts subjects where a certain kind of critical thinking conducive of future involvement in civil society, responsible citizenship and creative problem solving could be cultivated, teachers are afraid to discuss certain topics for fear of being punished with, let us say hypothetically, '24 hour transfer to Gerik'.

In the universities, this lack of freedom is embodied in the UUCA.

The government thinks that it can foster 'creative scientific thinking' to fill the market for capable IT graduates, move the economy up with value chain etc. but that at the same time 'critical thinking' can be restricted to this area. It is my opinion that this is simply not possible. Human beings must be thought of as whole creatures. You cannot say to someone 'You are free to do science and to innovate in agriculture, but you are not free to question anything done by your MP because he belongs to the divinely appointed party which can do no wrong.' It doesn't work like that. If people are stunted in one area of their thought, all of their thinking suffers for it. We are depriving our university students of many opportunities for learning and for developing their potential for tackling difficult issues by telling them to 'study only'.

Therefore, I believe that if restrictions on freedom of thought and speech are not removed, our education system will continue to stagnate and we will get nowhere no matter how much we pay our lecturers/teachers, no matter how many kursus we make them attend, and no matter how much we 'evaluate ' them (though all of these are necessary if well-implemented).

May I suggest that the 'implementation' problem is precisely due to the fact that the 'implementors' we are seeing are now increasingly products of an education system that did not teach them how to solve problems creatively? We have therefore a small window of time in which to reverse the damage...otherwise, things do not look good.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming and Tony, good read. but again, general sweeping statements without sufficient depth.

1 - Language switch. Do we have enough teachers to do this? Where are we going to find resources?

New Zealand Police has signed an MOU to hire retiring Singapore Police to work in the NZ Police force. Maybe we can get their teachers?

2 - Training for teachers. Do we have the resources? What to we do while we build up our capabilities?

I would say, negotiate with Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE), their teacher training institute. Send our teachers there for training. Then build up our own training guys from there. Time to build up good bilateral relations. Their NUS has been good to us all these times, let's not suspect them now.

3 - Universities. Academia wise, we can hire from the world over. Administrator wise, I say, we headhunt the NUS admins to head our admin departments. It will be more affordable, and less cultural adjustments for our Universities. Yes less, because our staff are lousy already, it will be great adjustment if we want to upgrade to global level.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with doing away with the Chinese and Indian schools.

While we are eager to have a common platform, let us take a lesson from Singapore. The "ultimate success" of a single platform.

They have "destroyed" almost all other streams of education, except the Government route. What happens now? They are telling their schools to differentiate and form niche areas. They also have "special stream" schools which teach the mother tongue as first language with the cultural context.

Why? Isn't a strong uniform platform their strength?

Well, because, every person learn differently and is born with different talents. The world around us is also complex and multi cultural.

Our country is blessed with multiple streams of expression of talent and training. Let's not eliminate our richness just to copy what another country is already discovering holes in. We should be strengthening all routes, and let our talents shine.

Anonymous said...

3 - Universities. Academia wise, we can hire from the world over. Administrator wise, I say, we headhunt the NUS admins to head our admin departments. It will be more affordable, and less cultural adjustments for our Universities. Yes less, because our staff are lousy already, it will be great adjustment if we want to upgrade to global level.

Do I detect some sense of superiority in this statement?

Honestly, I have been to NUS, Yale, Harvard, etc. I still find NUS admins to be most efficient, and sincere. The Caucasians may be better at protraying themselves to be good, but I say NUS admins are as world class as them, and sometimes, even better.

We should not be looking down on Singapore because they are down South. This has been one of our major failings, which has led us to our current predictment.

Respect, begrets respect.

Anonymous said...

What our institutions lack, are external audits. Proper, professional audits.

Are our curriculum up to date? In our Government schools, in the Chinese schools, in the Indian schools. How can they improve? Are they accredited overseas?

Let us provide some benchmarking, every 3 years so our systems are good. And let us provide all the Government, Chinese, Indian schools with the means to do all these. Budget for everyone. If cannot all do together same year, then do 1 every year, spread out the expenditure.

Anonymous said...

I have travelled and now work in Russia.

I have been to Singapore and done some work for NUS too.

If you want to hire their admin, here is my take.

Do not hire becuase the person has some big title. Like Director, Senior Manager, Manager. Their titles do not indicate experience or even level of work many times. And their sometimes higher post people are just normal talents.

Keep a look out for their real workers, who think. These are the gems who have been hidden in their system, whose credits are claimed by department pets and big title people. Just like in our own system.

Headhunt their thinkers. They are often underappreciated and have lower loyalty to NUS. And are less likely to haggle too much with you unlike those mercenaries at the top. I heard NUS has a huge turnover in admin staff every year under their outgoing President because NUS illtreats them.

They took some of our talents, I think it is only fair we take some of theirs? But let us take only the really good ones, who they have not treated well anyway.

Anonymous said...

To all the Anonymous above :
Recruiting from NUS and NIE :
As a product of BOTH those systems and a teacher from a Singapore school, while its a great idea am going to suggest some possible pitfalls.
- CULTURE & MINDSET : Bringing Singapore academics into the Malaysian system is akin to change at the top when everything else in the system is rotting.
The Singapore educational system works because of YEARS of driving at the same end goal, with an unending obssesion for quality.
There is merit and reward for all equally based on performance and similarly punishments for all based on lack of performance.
You can't just transplant the top without undertaking to change the whole.

- Auditing and Benchmarking ! Can't agree more ! In the Singapore school system which I worked in Schools conducted Internal audits annually, subject to external audit once every 3 years, benchmarked against local and international schools. Ranking of schools was done anually in the newspapers for ALL to see.
Teachers were ranked based on performance openly and rewarded in the form of performance bonuses according to performance.
It is going to take Culture Change for us to move in that direction , in addition to system change!

Right on about the lack of thinking in our schools and people. Its reflective of a faulty curriculum and system.
With regards to training - again teachers in Singapore have to do a mandatory 100 hours a year as Professional Development. Am in agreement with your point , which was what I was trying to say about pedagogy change. Its not about the quantity but the quality of the implementation.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I taught at UM previously and I got to know a number of great Non-bumiputra lecturers/AP/Profs. They got into this Tutor program while they were still undergraduates. They were amongst the top students of their time (actually around the time when Anwar was at UM). Because of race, they were left in the closet so to speak but in the last 3 years things have improved a lot for them. I am even told that UM is more open now when it comes to hiring non-bumiputra academic. Sure, pay is still peanuts but my time there was well spend as I got to learn from others who gone through the system so to speak. I have also taught a number of teachers who merely wanted to get a degree. My take on this is that such paper chase is actually unproductive. The degrees that they had chosen had nothing to do with education, at least not at secondary levels. But then with the increasing number of universtities in this country, there is no doubt a need to see government funded students to shore up their financing and getting a degree is a fair game.