Sunday, June 08, 2008

JPA scholarships - who wins, who loses

Since some of our readers are not Mkini subscribers, I'll post my two articles in full here. Hope that Mkini doesn't mind. This is part 1. Part 2 will follow.

JPA scholarships - who loses, who wins?
Ong Kian Ming and Oon Yeoh | Jun 6, 08 12:59pm

Why this sudden increase in the non-Malay scholarship quota? What are some of the political implications arising from this policy change?
Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, announced last week that the JPA (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam or Public Service Department) overseas scholarships allocation would be changed from a bumiputera-non-bumiputera ratio of 90/10 to 55/45.

This is a subject which is close to the heart of Kian Ming, who runs a blog covering education issues, together with PJ Utara MP Tony Pua. In this first article, we discuss the political rationale underlying such a move and what the political impact might be. In the next article, we move beyond the racial and political rhetoric and discuss certain shortcomings of this scholarship, none of which have been brought up by those who are supportive or protesting against this policy change.

The allocation of the JPA overseas scholarship is of symbolic importance for the Chinese and Indian Malysians, since year after year, complaints about top SPM scorers who are of Chinese and Indian descent failing to obtain the JPA scholarships are always featured in our newspapers. Indeed, Malaysiakini has seen a deluge of such letters from disappointed students and parents in the past month or so. (The actual number of non-Malays affected by this particular policy is actually quite small when considering the number of SPM students in one cohort).

tunku abdul rahman tar college 290307 studentsThis is not the first time that the BN has shifted its policy on the racial allocation of the JPA overseas scholarship. It was widely speculated that after the 1999 general elections, the number of JPA overseas scholarships given to non-Malays were increased. But that was never publicised in the same manner as this policy change and the more than four-fold increase in the number of scholarships given to non-Malays took many people by surprise, including Kian Ming, who has been following issues to do with education in Malaysia for some time.

Why this sudden increase in the non-Malay scholarship quota? What are some of the political implications arising from this policy change?

A charitable view of this policy change is that the government finally succumbed to public pressure and to rejecting the large number of otherwise qualified non-Malays and listening to their appeals, time and again.

Of course, one can also see this as a political move to appease the non-Malay voter base which abandoned the BN in large number in the previous election. By changing a policy which has symbolic value in the eyes of the non-Malays, the BN is hoping to win back the hearts and minds and votes among members of these communities.

A more cynical and perhaps nefarious view of this policy change is that it is a subtle political strategy by BN, more specifically Umno, to create a climate of fear among the Malays that their rights are slowly being eroded because of the rise in the power of Pakatan. Of course, this would require a lot of subtle maneuvering on the part of the BN since they are the ones who actually approved this policy change and not Pakatan.

Protests from the usual suspects

To be fair to the government, there actually has been a subtle shift in the language used in defining education policy over the past decade or so. While we may debate the comparability of the matriculation course which is largely taken by Malays, and the STPM course which is largely taken by non-Malays as the entry requirements to our public universities, the word used to define the entry process has been ‘meritocracy’ in the past few years.

This despite the initial protests by Umno Youth which still surfaces from time to time. One does not anticipate that the meritocracy process for entering our public universities will be changed in the near future. Similarly, one does not anticipate this JPA scholarship policy change to be reversed any time soon despite the protests from some of the usual suspects including Umno Youth, Abim and GPMS, just to name a few.

But even the reservations expressed by Umno Youth were couched in terms that were more ‘flexible’, in a manner of speaking. Their representative did not ask for the quotas to go back to the 90/10 allocation but instead proposed that the total number of scholarships should be increased and the allocation quota revised to 70/30 so that no scholarships would be taken away from the Malays while giving an additional allocation to the non-Malays.

school students 220606 01Do we expect the non-Malays to respond to this policy change by swinging their support back to the BN? We think not.

It would take more than just one policy measure of this nature to win back the hearts and minds of the non-Malays. While this may have worked in the aftermath of previous elections when the non-Malay opposition parties performed well, we are in living in a different political environment. Pakatan can always respond to this by promising the non-Malays that they would implement a more equitable allocation policy across the board and not just for the JPA overseas scholarship.

One strategy used by PAS in past elections has been to ask voters and its supporters to take whatever goodies which the BN offers them, including free rice and the like, and then vote for PAS in the voting booth. It is not hard to imagine the non-Malays behaving in a similar fashion.

The reaction among the Malay grassroots has been harder to judge. Kian Ming senses a subtle and gradual shift in the Malay ground in terms of coming to terms with the eventuality of competing on a more level-playing field with the non-Malays beginning with the education realm. The fact that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Malays performing well at the SPM level has perhaps helped assuage the fears among Malays that they cannot compete with the non-Malays.

The noticeable silence among the Pakatan parties will probably help in not making this issue one which the BN can capitalise on. DAP has not made any statements either in support of this policy perhaps because they do not want to give undue credit to the government, and PAS, not wanting to incite the Malay ground, has not made any statements critical of this policy.

Pakatan has also been helped by the fact that this issue has been overshadowed by other more demanding and headline grabbing issues such as the petrol price hike and the on-going speculation of political crossovers. Under more normal political circumstances, this policy change would have had much more political coverage.

Even more changes to come?

Is this a sign of the things to come, that there will be similar liberalisations in racial quotas in other areas be it in the education or the economic realm?

We are more guarded in this respect. As mentioned before, the push for more ‘meritocracy’ has been an ongoing initiative in the education realm. It would be a stretch to extend this to the business and economic realm, for example, at least in the near future. One would not expect government contracts or top government positions to be suddenly allocated in a more equitable fashion, many of them which currently are not even distributed according to a 90/10 ratio.

One also cannot discount the role of government agency here. Nazri has been consistently unpredictable in his policy statements and decisions but one thing that has been consistent about him is his desire for publicity. He could have pushed for this policy change not only because he felt that it might have been the expedient thing to do but that it would also garner him positive publicity, especially from the non-Malays. Other Umno politicians, who might not want to stick their necks out on the chopping block, would likely not do the same in other policy areas.

To summarise, the significance of this policy change should not be discounted, even if it is limited to one small area of education policy in this country. It is part of a more gradual shift in defining the terms of competition, at least in the education realm. Whether this will translate into the business and economic realms is harder to predict.

While the non-Malays would welcome this policy, the political circumstances of the day will limit the swing in their support back to the BN. The effect on the Malay ground is harder to judge but so far, the grassroot reaction seems slightly muted. It probably helps that the hike in petrol prices quickly knocked this particular issue of the front pages and minds of voters.


Anonymous said...

I hope that this relaxation of racial quotas will not have an unintended impact on the outcome of the policy to use english to teach maths and science.

Let me explain. If this move to give more scholarships to non-bumi is seen as taking away something from the bumis, then the ministry might want to do something in return for the community.

Thus, the ministry might then decide to allow the continued use of BM for the two subjects. This will cheer up the largely bumi rural folks. [Altho it is noted that some chinese education groups also oppose to the use of english for math and science, my feel is that over time, they have become more amenable to the idea.]

I am not saying that I do not empathise with the rural communities on the difficulty of learning math and science in English. I do.

My point is just that very often, education policies seem to be formulated from political angles. I hope I am wrong.

I am waiting to hear the ministry announce their decision on this policy. I dearly hope that there is sound justification for whatever decision they make. That's all I ask.

xenobiologista said...

I hope this doesn't backfire and result in a lot of non-Malay scholars choosing to break their bonds and remain overseas to work - where they can earn enough to pay off the nominal fine for doing so quickly.

A Singaporean friend told me that the reason fewer S'porean scholars just cabut the way ours do is that the fine for breaking a scholarship bond in S'pore is astronomical. The JPA should take care of this issue to ensure that it's not just throwing money at defaulters.

cyan said...

Hi..well done for this post.i just drop by this blog..well.. for me, 55:45 for the
scholarship is unreasonable.Why the quotas need to be increased for non-malay?
Don't ever think the 90:10 shows that non-malay treated as 3rd class.
Think first..think it base on the population of malays and non-malays.
Who deserves to get more quotas?If you did well in maths,you might think
it rationally why did this figure (90:10) given to the bumiputra techically.

If you really clever, think about this example.
If there are 3 families:A has 13 children, B has 5 children,C only 2 children
and you are the one who have to give the money(maybe RM 1 million) to these families,
how do you want to divide it so it's fair.
Just have a try, and compare with this quotas issues.The ratios for A will be higher rather
than B and C because of the no of people in the families.Same as the malays,the population
is much larger than non-malays.It will be unfair especially for A if you want to make the
ratios equally,or just a bit lesser than.Furthermore,the non-malays mostly have much money
to get the best education using their own spend.

The previous leadership make it fair,so that nobody will be left behind to get the opportunity.
But nowadays,just because of the political tricks,our education system totally messy.
In the end,the innocent future generation will then be the one who are caught into this situation.

Dear non-bumi,if you think that for entire of your life have been treated as 3rd class,
we will also feel that way if all the quotas as well as other speciality taken away from us.
Read the history and also what has been agreed by all 3 major races when we want an
Independent frm the British.If you want to provoke of what we have,we will also could do so
of what you've been here.Think about it before you act.

And also to those malay leaders as well as the malays who are
just follow like a bull was pulled think about your own legacy.Don't be selfish coz it will
ruin your own generation.Don't think to get power for yourself,but for your own children,
the future leader for this country.What you act will affect the next generation.What you do today
will be the future for them and for us as well.