Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another take on the JPA policy change

This letter was written by a friend of mine, the astute Neil Khor. Many good points raised by him.

Have merit-based system for scholarships
Neil Khor | Jun 9, 08 2:48pm

I refer to the Malaysiakini report PSD scholarships: Publish names, results.

There are many reasons why everyone should be given a scholarship. A student with 11As, who comes from a poor family living in rural Malaysia is definitely someone who deserves support. The government or charitable organisation that supports such a student is uplifting not only an individual but also his family, helping them out of poverty. That is what a government scholarship should ultimately do - better all lives not just the individual.

Which brings us back to the issue of the contentious 45% quota for non-Malays, an increase from 10%. Here is a case of knee-jerk reaction. If urban, mostly non-Malay constituents have rejected the BN, the government - with its great compensatory power - now wants to buy back their votes by giving more non-Malays scholarships. At the same time, this creates an opposite reaction from certain Malay groups, losing them Malay voters.

If the government really wants to take the wind out of the opposition’s sail, they should simply do away with race-based quotas all together. The criteria should be purely merit-based. There must be clear and objective methods of measuring how disadvantaged a student really is. If he or she comes from the rural area, it must be ascertained that the individual deserves the scholarship because of the lack of resources, not merely financial but also infrastructural - lack of good teachers, library etc.

However, if the individual lives in the big city but is the son of a hawker and has to help out in his/her parents, then the individual also needs to be assisted because urban poverty has denied him/her access to the library or facilities at school. Here again, a merit-based system can be implemented. The level of rural or urban poverty can be indexed.

Luckily, Malaysian men are such poor academic achievers and we may not need to provide similar handicaps for Malaysian women, although many deserve such extra help because we still live in a patriarchal society. Attitudes toward female education has changed and here the government can really take some credit for improving the lot of women.

But most importantly of all is quality of distinctions. The education ministry might want to make examinations more stringent to avoid giving the impression that all students are deserving of a scholarship. This does not mean that everyone has to fail but rather the award of a distinction must be of the same quality through time. An STPM distinction in 1992, for example, was regarded as much more valuable than a distinction in the A-Level Examinations in the UK at the time. Similarly, a UM degree of 1996 was acceptable to the Cambridge University for entry into its postgraduate degree programmes.

As for extra-curricular activities, they make for a more rounded individual. But one must be careful not to push people into activities they would otherwise not join simply to earn merit points. Extra-curricular activities give us an impression, particularly at the interview session, of the candidate's maturity and commitment to excellence. The scholarship board can then judge for themselves whether or not the candidate has the right qualities that will ensure he/she actually finishes the degree course.

The BN has to take bold steps to reform Malaysia. No body or organisation will deny a Malaysian a scholarship if he/she has the grades, comes from a disadvantaged background, is an all-rounder and has the track-record of delivery. We are now entering a period of belt- tightening, with less money to spend on development or education as all our resources are channeled to combating inflation. It might be wise for the government to implement a merit-based system that does justice to this new generation of Malaysians.

As for all the various race-based organisations and their detractors, they can still go about promoting race-based scholarships. All they need to do is to set up their own scholarship funds and finance worthy students through those funds. Now that the government has limited resources, it is time to ask ‘what you can do for the nation’ rather than demand for primordial rights. For ‘nothing comes of nothing’ thus by demanding without actually deserving or giving, does more harm than good. There is nothing wrong in wanting to help but it is not right to take away from others just because of the colour of their skin.


Anonymous said...

BN - Bias Neverendingly

Anonymous said...

The point that I overwhelmingly agree is that the government should first fix the quality of distinctions.

Alternatively, if the authorities insist there is no shortcoming in the quality of distinctions, there should be higher level of exams where scholarship applicants need to sit to vie for the limited scholarships. Otherwise, it would only create unhappiness when students think they are "deserving" when there are so many other such "deserving" students around.

Second, a truly meritocratic system will be difficult to sell, for now... but it's ok to continue believing. We need such people around to help us fight for causes.

Third, on using income as a selection criterion. I don't know ... income declaration is an art, where to get reliability?

It will also be difficult to set the appropriate limit that is deemed equitable. Don't forget many middle income households also cannot afford to send their children overseas. Do we consider the size of the family? A family with 5 children have higher expenses than a family with 1 child.

Even if we forget about implementation issues, I am not totally convinced that the purpose of a scholarship is to help the poor. For such purposes, there are bursaries or financial aid.

A scholarship, to me, is a form of recognition of the highest calibre to talented individuals. It does not matter if the person comes from a wealthy or poor family.

Before you protest, let me add, that for the JPA scholarship, because it is funded by tax-payers, the reasonable thing to do is to have a bond on the scholarship-holder to work in the civil service for a number of years to repay the country. The country should benefit if we have chosen and groomed these scholars well.

If there is a bond, I believe many people who can afford it, will not want to apply for the scholarship.. so there is something like a natural selection mechanism built-in to cater to those who cannot afford it. Of course there still may be some who are wealthy and talented and are truly patriotic and want to contribute to the country when they graduate.... if there are such people, we should of course welcome them. No reverse discrimination.

P/S: When I say a bond, I mean a legally enforceable bond. And that the administrators must have the will to enforce it to the end of the earth.