Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Student's Perspective on Semesters for Form 6

One of my friends, Rajan Rishyakaran, has written a response to the lower six student's letter which Tony recently posted. Rajan, himself an alumnus of form six, said most of what I want to say about the issue, and I recommend reading it—this is perhaps the most incisive part of the piece:
If the Ministry of Education really wanted to move to a semester-based, coursework-heavy system, the better policy is to increase enrolment of non-Bumiputras in matriculation programs (though matriculation and Form Six are under different ministries). The cynic in me points out that would defeat the purpose of the dual-track system in Malaysia: as a tool of stealthish discrimination.
I want to tackle something else instead: the issue of time management.

As Rajan says himself, a lot of the people criticising the writer for their ostensible lousy time management probably didn't do STPM. I didn't do it either, but everything I know about it suggests that it is absolutely not a walk in the park.

In the first place, how does the school environment the writer describes train you to manage your time better? The writer is in school from 7.30am to 4pm, which is longer than the typical 9-to-5 workday. Even assuming most Malaysians work longer hours than that, it is unusual for people to bring work home with them and work at home.

Because our schools are so inferior, a lot of Malaysians now attend tuition classes outside school. Most lower six students will have even less time to attend tuition now. And even assuming there isn't tuition, most students will be studying in their spare time, especially for an exam like the STPM.

If you work it out, students operating under this new scheme will have basically little to no free time. What time is there to manage then, if you have to devote all of it to your studies?

A lot of the issues the writer mentions don't exist for pre-university students in other streams, because you tend to get a choice of what (if any) extracurricular activities to participate in, and have more spare time during the day. That's where time management is actually relevant.

Now, the writer obviously is rolling out a laundry list of problems with the school that to other people probably seem a bit ludicrous. Complaints about skin cancer and mamak food are relatively trivial compared to the other points the writer raises. But as Tony said, he or she is a 17-year-old, and in my experience, these complaints are almost ubiquitous amongst students of this age in school. Let's not focus on the trivialities of the writer's complaint: the real issue is that the Education Ministry is rolling out a poorly-thought-out plan, using the entire nation as its guinea pig — and on the face of it, the idea is ridiculous, because it means students are in school for longer than many adult workers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

New "Semester" Scheme For Form 6?

I've received the following complaint from a Form 6 student. I don't agree with the bits which said some of the activities are a "waste of time", but the concern over long school hours is very valid. When commenting, please remember that the writer is a 17-year-old.

I am a lower 6 student. A new system has recently been implemented in all schools with Form Six classes throughout the country. All Lower Six classes from 2009 will have to stay back until 4pm. This new system started in my school in early July.
I found out from the teachers that this batch (2009/2010) was used to try out the suitability of the semester-based system to be implemented in schools in the future. Unfortunately for us, our exams are still not semester-based.

Staying back till 4pm means we, Lower Six students will not have a chance to participate in the extra-curricular activities as all the club and uniformed body meetings are held after 1pm. What about our co-curriculum marks? We were told that 10% of the overall criteria to enter local universities is from our involvement in co-curricular activities.

Before this new system was implemented, we all could go for our co-curricular activities. With the new system in place, we are forced to stay back and could not involve ourself in such activities as the timing will clash with us as most activities are held after school. While co-curricular activities make up 10% of our total STPM grades, I strongly believe there must be other alternatives. I don’t think a person who has four distinctions, but without any co-curricular achievements will be selected to enter a local university.

So, why should we stay until 4 o’clock seen that such things we are doing now are no contribute any marks to our STPM?

The new system is a complete waste of time. The new system requires students to stay back after school until 4pm for activities. But the activities organised by the school to keep students until 4pm is not a good idea. The extra time that we are required to put in in school is used for nonsensical activities such as making posters, doing sketches, preparing for presentations and proposals and doing research and development (R&D).

Besides this , some activities are really of no use to us. For example, during cocuriculum , we even told to prepare food, play on the field under the hot sun from 2.40pm - 4pm and planning how to decorate this school. I do not see the teaching and learning value here as these activities are a waste of time! In addition, some students hate it so much that they decided to skip school altogether.

I understand that this system is a part of the Education Ministry’s initiative in boosting the level of confidence and enhancing communicative ability among school students while doing presentation. But please be rational and reasonable. Ministry need to take cognizance that we are humans too. All of us need more time to study and staying back till 4pm is just too much on our plates. The moment we reach home, most of us will be dead tired. By the time we get home, we will be exhausted because we have been in school since 7.30am. Many of us would be too tired after coming back from school and just hop on to the bed into dreamland even if they wish to study.

Furthermore, not to forget the amount of assignments given by our teachers and we have to complete everything on time. By then we would be too tired to study. Preparing for presentations and projects requires a lot of our attention and time, so we will struggle to cope with our studies. Our main priority is still our studies! Without time to revise, how are we supposed to live our dreams of attaining a 4.0 score?

But forcing us to stay back after school will deprive us of the chance to revise our lessons. An ample amount of time is needed for us to carry out constant revision. However with the time constraints, there is certainly no time for us to study at home! Even if we do have the time, we would suffer from fatigue. The ministry fails to see the light that whatever there doing is in fact making our lives even more miserable, stressful and very depressing. Will this result in good achievement in the STPM exams? Definitely NO!!!

Many parents decided to send their children to Form Six as it is the cheapest route to universities. But now not any more. We have to fork out our own money for our lunch expenses. By right, if the Education Ministry wants to carry this out, they should at least think about giving lunch allowances to us. Now, parents will need to fork out additional expenses for their child’s lunch. Not everyone is well-to-do. In these times where money does not come easy, forking out extra money will be a burden to them as the overall house expenditure would have increased as well.

Another woe is that we are only given an hour for our lunch break before we begin our presentation; it is impossible for students to head home to have a home-cooked meal, take a bath and have a short break and then rush back to school before 2 o’clock. Most of us will not be able to eat at home as we are not living nearby. Therefore, students are left with no other alternatives but to patronise nearby mamak stalls for their lunch. Needless to say, food sold at mamak stalls can be unhealthy and unhygienic. And since the mamak stalls usually serves oily and non-nutritious food, the students are not benefiting at all as it make us feel lethargic. With the lack of nutritious food, how are we to maintain a healthy body to study hard and achieve good result in STPM?

On the other hand, transportation is a major problem for most of us. Our parents are not free to send us home. Left with no other immediate solutions in sight, we have to rely on public transport like buses. Taking the school bus at odd hours costs extra as it is inconvenient for the drivers. Some of us are not living nearby and thus, walking back home will be out of the question and too dangerous for us students considering the disturbingly high number of snatch theft cases across the country.

Besides that, prolonged exposure to the afternoon sun could lead to skin cancer. Do we want to wait till years later to find out that many of our future generation who took Form Six were to suffer from skin cancer because of this new system? It is undeniable that life in the sixth form can be pretty daunting and challenging.

Not only are the students disatisfied with this new system, the teachers are unhappy. They could not express their feeling as they could risk losing their jobs. Almost every teacher I have spoken to, too, did not agree with this new system.They feel that the time spent in school is way too long! Forget about the students, even the teachers are grumbling! Teachers and students alike are exhausted by the end of the day.So, how do we expect teachers to perform their best when they are tired? Needless to say, students too have a hard time concentrating in the hot and stuffy afternoon classes.It is not fair for the teachers who teach the Form Six classes for they have to stay back for longer hours compared to their other colleagues. Wake up! The new system brings nothing but stress and red tape.

I acknowledged that some authorities would advice us to quit form six if we despise or hate the system. However, as far as I concerned, we are totally not being informed about this 4pm-stay-back system until a few week after we enrolled. We are the victims and we got no other better options than form six but as a student, we have the right to protect our right and express our feeling. The system will continue to be part of our lives for next years. So, we need to change. There is no point “testing” as the Malaysian education system is not a playground or lab where future leaders were “tested” with new policies. We as the students are not “guinea pigs”. If we were to continue to “test” policies on our children, our education system will be seen as a joke in the international arena.

Last but not least, I only hope next year we can revert back to the old system where everyone can go home like normal or 1pm. I sincerely hope you will help us. Thank you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bogus PhDs No More?

I took the opportunity to ask the Minister of Higher Education as to the steps being taken to prevent academics with dubious qualifications from being hired by our local universities during the Budget debate 2 days ago. The following was the relevant exchange:

Tuan Pua Kiam Wee [Petaling Jaya Utara]: Yang Berhormat Menteri, penjelasan. Minta maaf, topik tadi berkenaan mengenai PhD yang diambil oleh universiti-universiti tempatan. Saya ingin tahu, kita memang perlu meningkatkan jumlah pemegang PhD dalam universiti kita, tetapi saya mendapati bahawa memang ada juga yang pemegang PhD itu tidak mempunyai PhD dari universiti yang dikatakan sebagai recognized iaitu ada pemegang PhD di dalam universiti kita dan saya ada nama di mana mereka mendapat PhD mereka melalui correspondence course.

Pihak yang mengambil PhD memang tidak ada PhD yang credible boleh didapat di
correspondence course. So, apakah langkah yang diambil oleh kementerian supaya pemegang PhD seperti ini tidak dilantik dalam universiti kita.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin: Pertamanya kementerian sedang dalam peringkat untuk memperketatkan lagi peruntukan yang ada dalam undang-undang khususnya
undang-undang Akta Institut Pengajian Tinggi Swasta (Akta 555) untuk tentukan kita berkuasa untuk mengambil tindakan terhadap kes-kes yang sedemikian. Keduanya seperti kata Yang Berhormat ada tenaga akademik yang mungkin mempunyai PhD yang sedemikian tetapi kehadiran mereka dalam IPT atau pun universiti mereka masing-masing mungkin berasaskan Ijazah yang lain sama ada masters dan sebagainya.

Oleh kerana sesuatu PhD itu tidak diiktiraf, ia tidak di ambil kira. Saya percaya kalau pun ada nama dan saya juga mengalu-alukan kalau nama itu dapat diberi, kita boleh menyiasat dengan lebih teliti mengenai kedudukan pensyarah yang sebegini. Akan tetapi daripada laporan yang saya dimaklumkan, kalau pun ada pensyarah yang memiliki ijazah dan juga sarjana dan sebagainya, mereka juga membuat dan mendapat PhD mungkin melalui correspondence sebahagian daripada khususnya universiti awam, kalau PhD itu tidak diiktiraf, memang ia tidak diiktiraf dan mereka tidak mendapat apa-apa tambahan atau kebaikan daripada kedudukan mereka sebagai anggota tenaga akademik.

Tuan Pua Kiam Wee [Petaling Jaya Utara]: Akan tetapi dalam resume mereka, dalam laman web, semua letak Doktor. So ini agak mengelirukan dan tidak baik untuk penuntut kita di universiti juga. Terima kasih.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin: Saya akan memberi nasihat dan makluman kepada semua dalam kes yang mana boleh guna profesor, boleh mengguna nama Doktor dan
sebagainya. Jika Yang Berhormat boleh bekerjasama dengan kementerian memberikan saya
nama-nama itu, kita akan follow up dengan pihak universiti dan kerana kita tidak kompromi dalam soal-soal yang boleh menyentuh kesan penjanaan tenaga akademik dalam universiti kita.

Minister's Reply on Action Against Students at UM

The issue of students being called up by the Disciplinary Board of various universities for offences such as inviting prominent politicians to be judges at a debating competition was raised during the recent budget debate, and the Minister of Higher Education 2 days ago.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nor: Untuk makluman Ahli Yang Berhormat di bawah aspek perundangan, Akta Universiti dan Kolej Universiti (AUKU) yang dikuatkuasakan pada 1 Februari 2009 telah membuat perubahan besar kepada sistem tadbir urus, kebajikan pekerja, dan juga hak pelajar universiti merangkumi juga kebebasan akademik.

AUKU sebenarnya tidak menyekat kebebasan berfikir dan kreativiti tenaga akademik dan pelajar universiti. Malahan mereka diberikan kebebasan untuk melahirkan pandangan, pendapat, cadangan dan sebagainya Akan tetapi mesti mengikut saluran-saluran tertentu demi mewujudkan suasana kondusif dan sihat dalam melaksanakan aktiviti pembelajaran dan pengajaran yang berkualiti.

Berkenaan dengan tindakan Universiti Malaya membawa lapan orang pelajar ke prosiding tatatertib. Untuk makluman Ahli Yang Berhormat yang telah mengemukakan mengenai perkara ini iaitu Yang Berhormat Padang Terap dan juga Yang Berhormat Serdang, tindakan yang diambil oleh pengurusan Universiti Malaya merupakan prosedur biasa bagi mendapatkan maklumat di atas beberapa tindakan pelajar tersebut.

Ini adalah disebabkan oleh tindakan mereka yang menjemput VIP di dalam majlis mereka tanpa mendapatkan kelulusan pihak pengurusan universiti. Kementerian akan sentiasa memantau secara dekat setiap kes yang berlaku di IPT. Namun berkeyakinan kes ini akan dapat diselesaikan oleh pengurusan Universiti Malaya dengan baik berdasarkan peruntukan perundangan dan peraturan sedia ada.

Puan Teo Nie Ching [Serdang]: Minta penjelasan. Terima kasih Tuan Yang di-Pertua. Terima kasih Yang Berhormat Menteri. Saya hendak bertanya sedikit. Sekiranya prosiding tatatertib ini adalah satu prosiding yang biasa untuk mendapatkan maklumat daripada kelapan-lapan pelajar ini. Jadi soalan saya, kenapakah prosiding ini ditangguhkan sebanyak dua kali?

Sekiranya memangl pihak universiti mereka hendak mendapatkan maklumat, informasi daripada pelajar-pelajar ini, prosiding ini boleh diteruskan. Akan tetapi nampaknya hari ini mereka memanggil pelajar-pelajar untuk datang menghadirkan diri dalam prosiding tetapi selepas pelajar-pelajar itu menunggu sehingga dua jam, prosiding ini ditangguhkan.

Ini bukan berlaku kali pertama, ini berlaku sebanyak dua kali. Jadi saya hendak meminta penjelasan daripada Menteri, adakah ini satu cara sebagai sesuatu penyeksaan mental kepada pelajar-pelajar ini. dan saya mengharapkan bahawa pihak universiti mestil lebih profesional dalam mengendalikan peristiwa seperti ini.


Tuan Pua Kiam Wee [Petaling Jaya Utara]: Tan Sri Yang di-Pertua, soalan saya senang sahaja. Penambahan ke atas apa yang telah disebutkan oleh Yang Berhormat Serdang. Saya ingin hendak bertanya Lembaga Tatatertib, kerjanya adakah mengadakan satu hearing untuk mendapatkan maklumat? Saya rasa itu agak ekstrem. Hendak mendapatkan maklumat, panggil sahaja penuntut-penuntut tersebut, datang ke bilik dan jelaskan. Tidak perlu panggil satu hearing tatatertib untuk mendapatkan maklumat. Jadi saya agak yang penjelasan itu seperti tidak berapa elok. [Ketawa] Terima kasih.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin [Pasir Gudang]: Beliau... Tan Sri Yang di-Pertua...

Tuan Mohd. Nasir bin Zakaria [Padang Terap]: Yang Berhormat Menteri. Isu yang sama. Terima kasih Yang Berhormat Menteri, Tuan Yang di-Pertua. Saya membangkitkan isu berkaitan dengan AUKU ini. Kita telah menyatakan kebimbangan kita semasa pindaan dibuat dalam Dewan ini dalam dua sesi yang lepas. Menteri memberikan jaminan kepada kita mengenai dasar kita mengamalkan maklumat bersuara dan sebagainya.

Isunya ialah bagaimana pelajar-pelajar ini atau mahasiswa-mahasiswa ini ingin mendengar pandangan balas yang kedua daripada pihak yang lain untuk memantapkan pemikiran mereka.

Pada masa yang sama kita melihat berlaku ketidakadilan apabila yang datang itu adalah daripada pandangan yang berbeza, maka pelajar-pelajar ini dipanggil untuk berdepan dengan lembaga tatatertib. Pada masa yang sama sehari ataupun dua hari sebelum daripada itu, ada daripada UMNO masuk, daripada parti pemerintah masuk dan tidak ada apa-apa tindakan. Pada masa yang sama tidak silap saya, ketika di tangguh buat kali yang pertama, ia bertepatan dengan lawatan daripada seorang pemimpin politik masuk ke dalam Universiti Malaya dan kemungkinan itu menyebabkan protes untuk hearing itu ditangguhkan. Adakah benar dan bagaimana dengan janji yang dilafazkan dahulu ketika tuan masih lagi sekarang menjadi Menteri Pengajian Tinggi?

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin: Tuan Yang di-Pertua, terima kasih kepada perkara-perkara yang dibangkitkan. Isu yang timbul mengenai kes kelapan-lapan pelajar ini ialah, walaupun program yang dianjurkan itu diluluskan oleh universiti, tetapi permohonan oleh persatuan pelajar ini tidak menyebut siapa yang mereka hendak jemput dan itu sebenarnya yang menjadi isu kepada kes ini. Ini kerana setelah diluluskan permohonan menganjurkan program itu, maka didapati ...bahawa mereka telah membawa ataupun menjemput VIP yang tidak pun dimaklumkan kepada pihak universiti. Maka atas sebab itulah prosiding ini diadakan oleh pihak universiti untuk mendapat maklumat... ataupun laporan yang lebih lanjut daripada pelajar-pelajar yang sedemikian dan penangguhan prosiding ini saya difahamkan, bahawa oleh kerana buat ketika ini pelajar-pelajar sedang melalui peperiksaan. Maka atas sebab itulah prosiding ini telah ditangguhkan.

Puan Teresa Kok Suh Sim [Seputeh]: Minta penjelasan.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin: Okey.

Puan Teresa Kok Suh Sim [Seputeh]: Terima kasih Yang Berhormat Menteri. Tadi kes yang dibangkitkan oleh Yang Berhormat Serdang itu, sebenarnya dalam perbahasan itu saya dijemput pergi sana. Saya difahamkan, kerana kehadiran saya di kampus Universiti Malaya itu yang menyebabkan semua pelajar menghadapi masalah. Akan tetapi, saya bukan ahli politik sahaja. Saya pergi sana menjadi seorang hakim untuk perbahasan bekas-bekas debater dahulu dan saya juga bekas graduan Universiti Malaya. Saya dapat Master saya di sana.

Jadi, saya seharusnya diangkat sebagai seorang bekas graduan Universiti Malaya. Kalau ini pun menyebabkan Persatuan Tionghoa itu menghadapi masalah, macam mana kita boleh mengharapkan yang pelajar kita di universiti ini boleh mempunyai minda yang lebih terbuka? Ini kerana universiti memang masih melayan mereka seperti budak kecil, macam kindergarten student. Saya juga hendak tanya yang pindaan UCA, University and Colleges Act itu. Bukankah kita telah pun memberi lebih ruang kepada para pelajar untuk menganjurkan aktiviti, menyertai aktiviti dan sebagainya? Kenapa hanya kerana saya hadir dalam kampus Universiti Malaya, selepas itu persatuan itu menghadapi masalah, pelajar-pelajar semua dipanggil untuk ke disciplinary board?

Jadi, saya hendak minta Menteri boleh tolong merekakah? Kerana saya rasa ini bukan tujuan yang kita hendak shape mindset pelajar kita di universiti. Terima kasih.

Tuan Loke Siew Fook [Rasah]: Terima kasih Tuan Yang di-Pertua. Terima kasih
Menteri. Semasa kita membahaskan pindaan kepada AUKU pada tahun lepas, pihak
kementerian telah memberikan jaminan bahawa pemimpin-pemimpin politik walaupun daripada pembangkang akan dibenarkan untuk masuk ke dalam kampus untuk memberikan ucapan dan sebagainya kalau dipelawa oleh pelajar.

Soalan saya ialah, mungkin saya rasa dalam hal ini pihak kementerian memang tidak
ada masalah untuk memberikan pemimpin-pemimpin pembangkang untuk masuk ke kampus. Adakah dalam hal ini kemungkinan pihak pengurusan universiti yang go against dasar pihak kementerian. Ini kerana saya rasa ini perkara yang remeh-temeh. Hanya menjadi pengadil.

Adakah perlu persatuan pelajar setiap permohonan itu ataupun pelawaan itu harus mendapatkan kelulusan daripada pihak universiti? Saya rasa ini mungkin pihak pengurusan universiti yang telah bertindak di luar dasar yang telah ditetapkan oleh pihak kementerian. Terima kasih.

Puan Teo Nie Ching [Serdang]: Saya hendak tambah sedikit sahaja kerana saya hendak membuat satu pembetulan. Saya difahami daripada pelajar-pelajar, memanglah pihak universiti telah mengeluarkan satu surat kepada mereka yang dalam surat itu syarat-syarat yang dinyatakan adalah bahawa pelajar-pelajar di universiti dan juga orang-orang luar boleh dilibat ataupun melibatkan diri dalam debat pada hari itu.

Jadi saya rasa memanglah itu satu kebenaran dari pihak universiti. Ini kerana dalam
surat itu juga tidak nyata bahawa pelajar-pelajar ini tidak boleh mengajak Yang Berhormat Seputehkah atau ajak siapa-siapa pemimpin-pemimpin parti politik. Jadi saya rasalah alasan yang diberi daripada universiti ini memanglah langsung tidak munasabah dan saya memang harap bahawa Menteri bolehlah campur tangan supaya kita boleh tahu, kita boleh dapat satu jaminan, bahawa selepas peperiksaan pelajar-pelajar ini, mereka juga tidak akan dipecat dan diberi amaran keras kerana saya rasa tindakan mereka adalah langsung tidak ada salah.

Dato’ Seri Mohamed Khaled bin Nordin: Okey, Tuan Yang di-Pertua. Memanglah setiap universiti akan menetapkan prosedur bagaimana soal-soal aktiviti yang dibuat oleh pelajar, oleh persatuan dan sebagainya. Semua persatuan di universiti perlu melalui prosedur yang telah ditetapkan oleh universiti tersebut termasuklah kes yang sedang kita bahaskan pada hari ini.

Sebagaimana yang telah dinyatakan bahawa semua pihak termasuklah pemimpin daripada parti pembangkang boleh dijemput sekiranya sesuatu majlis itu berkisar kepada soal-soal yang ada hubung kait dengan hal-hal akademik... Soal-soal, syarat dan segala perkara yang perlu bagi menjayakan sesuatu aktiviti oleh persatuan ataupun pelajar akan ditentukan oleh pihak universiti mengenai peraturan dan sebagainya. Mana-mana pemimpin parti politik, sememangnya dibenarkan untuk menyertai sekiranya ia melibatkan hal-hal yang ada hubung kait dengan soal-soal akademik.

Akan tetapi dalam kes ini malangnya, tidak dimaklumkan kerana Yang Berhormat yang terlibat adalah merupakan pemimpin bagi sesebuah parti politik sepatutnya saya difahamkan, saya dilaporkan begitu, persatuan pelajar itu memaklumkan siapa yang dia hendak jemput dan sebagainya. Jadi di situ masalahnya timbul, kerana tidak dimaklumkan terlebih awal dan jika universiti tidak mempunyai peraturan sebegitu, maka mungkin universiti berpendapat ia akan hilang kawalan sekiranya kes yang sama berlaku, berulang bukan sahaja oleh persatuan ini, tetapi juga oleh persatuan-persatuan yang lain.

Jadi atas sebab itulah pelajar-pelajar ini telah dipanggil oleh pihak universiti untuk menentukan mengapa perkara yang sedemikian boleh berlaku dan kita tunggu apa keputusan yang akan dibuat oleh pihak universiti dan seperti yang telah saya nyatakan kementerian akan sentiasa memantau secara dekat kes-kes yang berlaku di IPT seperti ini.

Namun, kita yakin kes ini akan dapat diselesaikan oleh pengurusan universiti termasuk UM dalam kes ini dengan baik berdasarkan peruntukkan perundangan, peraturan dan juga semangat AUKU yang telah pun kita pinda. Jadi, saya percaya setakat itu yang hendak saya nyatakan mengenai kes ini dan penangguhan kes ini adalah kerana pelajar-pelajar sedang menghadapi peperiksaan buat ketika ini.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Doing due diligence: finding educational opportunities

The case of Anucia, which Tony blogged about last month, seems to have struck a chord with you all: there are over 60 comments and counting on the post. Many are critical of Anucia's failure to research the government's requirements for a teaching post. A lot of people seem to have missed the critical point: if we want better teachers, we need to recognise more good universities. That's basically it -- as for what Anucia should do in her personal situation, the answer is fairly obvious: look for a private sector job, be it here or overseas. But what I want to draw more attention to is the important issue of information when it comes to education; there is an immense knowledge gap which often makes a huge difference in where people end up, and not enough people seem to have this in mind.

My father comes from a rural New Village. The fact that he has a PhD from a prestigious foreign university is almost a fluke. He was fortunate that my grandparents earned enough to put him through university overseas; he tried to apply for a government scholarship, but received what he thought was a rejection letter. Looking back, he realises now that he could have gotten a scholarship if he'd tried harder -- and if not for my grandparents' good fortune and hard work, he might not have gone overseas at all.

Tony and Kian Ming both went to Singapore for secondary school -- like many other middle- to upper-class Malaysian students, they escaped our rapidly-deteriorating public school system. But not many Malaysians know about these kinds of opportunities -- I was only vaguely aware of them when I was in school, and I am in a solidly upper-middle-class area. A lot of times, the question of who gets what opportunities is pretty much up to the roll of the dice, because so many people are not in a position to know what opportunities are out there.

In my part of Petaling Jaya, many students from SMK Damansara Jaya and Damansara Utama go on to attend one of the prestigious United World Colleges for pre-university. Are the students at DJ and DU particularly smarter than their peers elsewhere? Not particularly -- it just happens that a few DJ and DU alumni found out about the UWCs, applied there, got in, and then told their juniors about the opportunity. I never even heard of the UWCs until I went to university.

One of my friends, who is now working, applied on a whim to Bates College -- one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US -- because one of her best friends applied there. He applied there because many of his family members went there. Because she applied, her friends applied as well. For several years, the Malaysian population at Bates was almost entirely comprised of this motley crew. There's no particular reason that this should have been the case, except for simple information asymmetry.

If all Malaysians knew about the UWCs, or about American liberal arts colleges, the situation would be quite different, I am certain. But nobody really seems aware of just how important awareness is. Knowing is easily half the battle here -- you can't apply to Harvard if you've never heard of it. You can't get financial aid from a liberal arts college if you don't even know what financial aid is.

One commenter on Tony's post wrote: "I feel that being young (a subjective measure of age) and having parents that are not well-educated (as you have assumed) are not valid factors that contribute to [Anucia's] predicament now." This is flat-out wrong. If Anucia were older when she applied to do her degree, and if she had come from a more educated family background, she would have more information about how the education system works and what sort of opportunities are out there. That's about as straightforward as you can get.

People in urban areas and from upper-income backgrounds often underestimate how much luck can play a role in securing a good education. People from rural areas and from poor backgrounds simply do not have the educational resources or practical experience to make the right decisions, and this is a major reason why so many Malaysians do not get as good an education as they could have. Blame them for their predicaments all you want -- that will not solve the problem.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Action taken against PMIUM and UM students

This is really sad. Another reason why the UUCA should be revised. These students were not taking part in political activities. They merely invited politicians, some of whom happened to be from the opposition party, to some of their events. Sadly, the provisions of the amended UUCA probably can be interpreted in such a way as to make a case for these students to be punished.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wants to Teach, but Degree not Recognised

The following is a letter I've received from Anucia with regards to the recognition of diplomas and degrees from some of overseas universities.

I am a student almost completing the Graduate Diploma in Education in the University of Western Australia and have been very much looking forward to serving the country. I completed my undergraduate Science degree in USM Penang and opted for an internationally recognised teaching qualification for security purposes. Before I go any further, I would like to apologise if this piece comes across as emotionally driven.

I recently applied online on the Ministry of Education’s website for the Guru Sandaran Terlatih position and have been regularly checking the site for updates since getting through to a person I could speak to about my circumstances has proved to be very hard.

I managed to speak to an officer from the ministry last week and he informed me that the route to a permanent post is via the same route, ie initial probationary period subject to confirmation, and that it was the same for teaching students from public and private colleges. He however could not offer me more information and suggested I call back at another time. Today I spoke to someone else in the office about the process and she told me that I would need my qualifications recognised by JPA before I could be granted an interview and she did not know what should be done after obtaining the JPA recognition.

Anyway, I duly called JPA and was curtly told that my qualifications are not recognised, never mind that it is internationally recognised. I was too distraught to proceed with further questions like where do I go from here, etc. I do not mean to sound pompous, but my practical reports and academic results have been outstanding and I have even been offered a teaching position overseas. I however declined because I wanted to come home to serve my country. To be presented with such news is disappointing and shocking among other things. I guess I can still apply to local private schools but my desire is to make a positive difference in the public education system – a system that I am proudly a product of.

Now I need to figure out what to tell my parents who have funded this course with their life savings. I know I will be faulted for not finding this out before enrolling but really, who would have thought that an internationally recognised qualification is not recognised in Malaysia. Which part of 'international' does Malaysia not fall under? Needless to say I am disillusioned and extremely disappointed that my qualifications and big dreams have no place in Malaysia. Do we even need to wonder why young people are forced out of their own country?

What next? I really don’t know.

Anucia Chacko

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

UiTM student on the BBC

I'm not asking this question rhetorically. Is it possible for a university that restricts its student to intake to members of one community be compatible with the ideals and even a definition of a university? Can such a university aspire to be a 'world-class' university? Will opening 10% of places in such a university to students of other races change the underlying structure and founding philosophy of such a university? In many ways, I don't blame this UiTM student leader featured in this BBC video for speaking his views. My sense is that he is a produce of the environment in which he is studying in (perhaps aided by his VC who is a regular BTN speaker). But it is a sad indictment on what some students in Malaysia think universities are for - an instrument of social policy rather than a place for expanding one's mind and learning new ideas.

Friday, September 18, 2009

HK PhD Fellowship Scheme

Those interested in doing a PhD in Hong Kong should check out this fellowship. Looks like a pretty attractive offer.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How much of the achievement gap is in our heads?

The overwhelming perception in Malaysia is that Chinese schools outperform national schools, and that Chinese students outperform others. This isn't something we (by which I mean Malaysians) like to talk about, but reading this report on a study of self-esteem and stereotyping in America, I couldn't help but think of the situation here.

Problematically, I think these perceptions of Chinese superiority have some basis. Maybe Petaling Jaya is an outlier, but amongst the primary schools, Chinese schools generally do better when going head to head with national schools. Over 90% of Chinese parents choose Chinese vernacular schools, and I think it's well-established by now that a lot of these parents do this purely because national schools aren't delivering the quality of education they want.

The issue of Chinese students is a trickier one, especially because I'm not sure what data is publicly available on this. The anecdotal evidence I have strongly suggests that the Chinese are disproportionally represented among top performing students.

It does not help public perception at all that our government tends to further this, with officials' not-so-subtle lamentations about how Malay students need more help to compete against their peers. This perception has been around since independence -- Tunku and Tun Dr Ismail both talked a lot about how the Malays would need help to compete against the Chinese academically and professionally. Tun Dr Mahathir took this rhetoric to another level, both in his statements and his policies.

But a lot of academic literature suggests that it is precisely these kinds of stereotypes which become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because we think the Chinese are more academically-inclined, Chinese students perform better. Because we think the Malays need help, they become demotivated in school.

Even if we aren't consciously aware of these effects, I wouldn't be surprised to find them here. Other studies which have attempted to account for stereotyping often find such unconscious effects. A common experiment is to make students read a passage about stereotyping (e.g. in the US one might ask a class to read about how East Asian men often outperform other demographics on mathematics tests), and then make them take a test where that stereotype applies. When the stereotype has been "primed," students from the underperforming groups (such as white males or women, in our example of supposed East Asian aptitude for maths) do poorer compared to a control group, where no stereotypes have been primed.

It would be interesting to see if we can carry out a counterpart to that American study here. The study I mentioned earlier showed that simply encouraging black students to think about themselves positively through a writing exercise slashed the white-black achievement gap by 40 per cent. A follow-up study two years later shows that the benefits remain.

Living in Malaysia, you can't help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes everyday. I think a lot of us are constantly primed for exposure to particular stereotypes, especially in urban areas. It would be interesting to study how much of this achievement gap we perceive between different demographics can be narrowed purely by accounting for and neutralising these stereotypes.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dodgy Degrees

Comprehensive write-up in the Star on dodgy degrees, a topic which we've blogged a lot about on this blog. Buyers beware!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Youth to Youth Forum

Hey guys, check out this upcoming forum. List of distinguished young leaders in Malaysia sharing their thoughts on a variety of topics.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Congrats to Datin Seri Rosmah for her Honorary PhD!

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the wife of our 6th Prime Minister, Datin Seri Rosmah, for receiving an Honorary Doctorate from UiTM in recognition of her contribution towards early education.

"In his speech, vice-chancellor Datuk Seri Prof Dr Ibrahim Abu Shah said Rosmah’s diligence towards propagating early education had resulted in the formulation and formalisation of policies in the area.

He said Rosmah had launched the Permata Project to raise the quality of early education programmes and to make it available to more children, especially those in the rural areas, through the setting-up of Permata centres nationwide."

Friday, July 31, 2009

UiTM Professor Seeks PhD Students

A professor from UiTM in the faculty of chemical engineering has informed us of an opportunity for students looking to pursue their PhD in the field. We are publishing this notice as a public service for interested students, and this should not be taken as an endorsement of the programme. The details:

Ph.D. studentship opportunities

Master's degree holders interested to pursue Ph.D. in any of the following research themes at Faculty of Chemical Engineering, Universiti Teknologi MARA are invited to forward their CVs to and A stipend will be provided for the suitable candidate to support his/her study.

The research themes are:

1) Hazardous waste treatment (e-waste; soil, water and air decontamination).
2) Synthesis and application of nanoporous materials.
3) Life cycle assessment
4) Clean technologies
5) Brownfield management

Candidates that show excellent progress during their study shall be considered for paid short-term research placements in either Japan, South Korea, Australia or Germany. The selection criteria for this Ph.D. studentship are listed in the following:

1) Good written english;
2) Published at least an ISI-indexed journal article as the first author (preferably - not essential);
3) Graduated either cum laude or has at least an Upper Second Class Honours undergraduate engineering or science degree.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Admissions Workshop for Top US Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges

If you missed the DECC info session on top US institutions this past Saturday, Yeoh Chen Chow (Cornell '05) is organising a three-day workshop to walk students through the exact process of applying to the best schools in the US.

All eight Ivy Leagues will be represented by alumni or current students at the workshop -- I'll be there for Dartmouth -- in addition to 11 other prestigious institutions (if you haven't heard of schools like Brandeis or Mt. Holyoke, look them up on Wikipedia). Interviewers for Harvard, UPenn, MIT, and Cornell will be there as well. This Saturday a lot of us were talking about how we wished this sort of resource had been available when we applied, so if you're thinking about the US for your undergraduate studies, we really hope you'll attend this workshop.


Date:- 1st Aug 2009 (Sat), 2nd Aug 2009 (Sun), 15th August 2009 (Sat).
Time:- 10am to around 5pm/6pm for each day.
Venue:- Taylor's University College, Subang Jaya
Cost:- RM25 for all 3 days (Payable by cash on registration in Day 1)

The fee will be waived or reduced if you have financial difficulties. To sign up for the workshop and for more information, visit

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Register for MSLS 09

The Malaysian Students Leaders Summit 09 is taking place on the 8th and 9th of August in KL. Click here for further details. I'd encourage all our readers who are students and are back in Malaysia to attend this for 2 reasons. Firstly, it's a great opportunity for you to hear directly and possibly meet many prominent Malaysian business and political leaders. Who knows, you may even hear them say things which are not 'on the record' and show a side which you've not seen before. Secondly and more importantly, it's a good chance for you to meet other students who share similar interests be it in politics, business, the environment, education etc...

For those who have already signed up, I just have 2 pieces of advice for you. Firstly, keep an open mind. Try to interact with as many people as possible including other students. Don't try to just hobnob with the politicians or students who are from Oxford or Cambridge or one of the Ivy league schools. Cast your net wide. You'll learn more this way. Secondly, don't be afraid to ask questions especially those which you don't know the answers to. Don't be afraid to push the speakers especially in areas in which you think they may not feel comfortable to venture.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Science & Maths in BM Again II

Some on this blog has called for my comments on this issue. Some have even emailed me privately to "declare my stand". Well, I wrote on my Facebook early today a short note on my position, which I copy below. I've also taken the liberty to also include some of the 40+ comments on this issue so far in this post.
"Tony Pua hopes that schools in urban areas where the students, teachers and parents are keen to retain English as the medium for Maths and Science will be given a choice to opt out of the switch back to BM/BC, especially in secondary schools."
I've also made the following short comment to another Facebook friend who had asked the same:
"My stand is that PIBG should have a say/choice in the language use, particularly in urban areas where competency in English is already fairly high and in demand. You/we should push for this.

Rural areas can't help it, especially with teachers who can't even string a sentence together in English."
The above is my personal and public position which I will highlight in parliament. I've also written on the same in my Chinese column in Oriental Daily a few months back.

DAP's position, for those who are interested, is that urban national primary and secondary schools should be given a choice by the parents on the language to be used. Some have accused the party of staying silent on the issue. I beg to differ. Both Chong Eng, MP for Bukit Mertajam as well as the party Secretary-General, Lim Guan Eng has made the party's stand known for a while now. But if the press doesn't print (or print it often enough), there's little we can do.

Selected comments from my Facebook update:
  • Vivian Chiang at 10:13 on 09 July
    i totally agreed that ..hopefully

  • Bee Hui Chuah at 10:21 on 09 July
    yes... agree!!! especially secondary school!!! Education, is not Experiment!!!

  • Justin Wee at 10:22 on 09 July
    It's a silly thing to scrap of, the malay lingu 'experiment' was conducted ever since the early 70's, & it's almost 30 years project. For a mere less than 10 years project on english medium being scrap of, it's not a pronounced fair campaign

    We cant compare our so called 'looking at other nation', whereby the japanese still maintains their language, and the french themselves. but bare in mind that these nations have 'comparative advantage'.

    Japan has their advantages on technology, and the nation is a pioneer export to America, so they eventually 'do not have to worry on language', but anyways, they do learn english, but i bet their learning is WAY better then here itself... Read more

  • Kong Chia Yew at 10:25 on 09 July
    You should put this suggestion up to Parliament if you get a chance. Will be a pain in the ass for administrators of the policy but then the old maxim takes over "it'sfor the best of us"

  • Steven Fung at 10:29 on 09 July
    can they do that?

  • Lim Yong Keat at 10:31 on 09 July
    what is the ministry doing? we are not like Japan or US or Germany.

  • KhengTeong Goh at 10:32 on 09 July
    In a LOCAL university. Some of the lecturers allow us to answer in English although the questions were in BM. In final year, we are strongly encouraged to write our thesis in English. And our exam papers were in 2 languages, English and BM....

  • Eoh Teng Kor at 10:32 on 09 July
    why not creating english medium school for the option no 4. since we can allow "international school" , i dont see why we cannot have one more option.

  • Terrassie Lau at 10:40 on 09 July
    At the end of the day, for the younger generations, it is again ' head you win, tail I lose" We may soon ended up without english lessons too if the money spent do not generate good english teachers, in accordance to the DPM's silly statement. Just scrap english la.

  • See Hong at 10:48 on 09 July
    Actually good result not related wt language. Japanese, Germany, Italian, France ppl also not study in English, but today they still advanced country. It is the matter of education system. Correct way is study in mother language in Primary, English in Secondary. Since so good why need to wait another 3 yrs ? To prepare for the changes & objection of TDM ~ the idiot who initiate this plan few yrs ago ?

  • Felix Leong at 10:59 on 09 July
    Japan, Germany, Italy and France ARE PART OF G-7! They are the world's economic power house and their domestic markets are huge! What are we ???

  • Albert Tan at 11:00 on 09 July
    For those in Form 1 now should be allowed to use English in Form 4 and Form 5 in 2012 and 2014 so that continuity is maintained.

  • Claire Khoo at 11:05 on 09 July
    eh hello ... to implement immediately, where to find books? Excuse me, you wanna scold the gohmen also think before you scold can? its like the Dong Zong head who said we should implement this immediately. Buku mana nak cari? Guru mana nak cari? (I think our education system really failed, that's why obviously malaysians don't think before they comment.)

  • Leroy Ng at 11:13 on 09 July
    The decision is political and politically backward mindedness. Unfortunately PKR's Anwar Ibrahim and PAS support this decision. Why DAP kept silence b4 decision made?

  • Chin-Huat Wong at 11:21 on 09 July
    revive English schools as a form of mother tongue education!!!

  • JooLee Tan at 11:27 on 09 July
  • I believe that DAP is also in favour of this reversal. Tony, I think it's futile to even suggest an option that hasn't been discussed. Frankly, the whole exercise has been futile and our children and grandchildren will be paying the price for generations to come.

  • Eoh Teng Kor at 11:31 on 09 July
    Agreed with See Hong, it is about system. We just allow BM/BC/BT/English medium in Science and Math. Let parents have a choice/option. Let parents decide which is suitable for their kids...

  • Lillian Danielle Khoo at 11:36 on 09 July
    I am surprised the DAP was in favour of the reversal. Meanwhile UAE has just announced that they plan to teach Math & Science in English.

    It just seems like Malaysia is taking 1 step forward and 3 steps back in our education system. They made a good decision to make it compulsory in passing English - I couldn't believe that it was optional to pass in the first place. Then they decide to revert Math & Science back to BM. During my studies, I had the opportunity to share classes with ...

  • Cheryl Witha at 11:52 on 09 July
    what's new with the education system? Student have always been lab rats, they constantly change the system to suit whoever is currently in tht position(at their whim and fancy). It has always been absurd and still is. They never think things through, ever. What is to happen to our education system, I feel very sad as an educator..

  • Fok Kuk Fai at 12:00 on 09 July
    I agree with using mother tongue as teaching medium at the primary school level. But I strongly advocate to shift it to English medium in secondary school level and above. This is not only for enhancing English proficiency, but also for the future generations to easily access to the science and technology as well as social science knowledge pool ...

  • Juliana Yoong at 12:00 on 09 July
    What a shame! I totally agreed...

  • Cheryl Witha at 12:07 on 09 July
    I teach at college level and every batch that comes in..well most of them can't even speak English let alone write a simple application letter. What is to become of them in the future?

  • Chong Hou Yin at 12:22 on 09 July
    learn from singapore please, stupid najib

  • Joseph Ng Swee Wan at 12:28 on 09 July
    malaysia will be back to those 1970's day ...... we are going backward and not forward. let's see in the next 6 years, where are we heading? oh, maybe by then DPM wil be out of job and poor PR has to take over this baby and to answer to everyone for such absurd policy.

  • Ho Kok Kuan at 12:28 on 09 July
    All for PPSMI to be retained. Dual languge in primary, follow by full English in secondary school. Person will be fully equipped when leaving for uni/college.

  • Marsha Maung at 13:21 on 09 July
    YES PLEASE!! I am so sad with the switch to BM/Chinese!

  • Walinong Sari at 13:28 on 09 July
    No. Follow the MOE directive.

  • Alwin Lim at 13:38 on 09 July
    Havent we done enough damage to our brilliant childrens ?

  • Steven K C Poh at 13:58 on 09 July
    I'm bewildered by this news. We have a flip-flopping government that's playing Russian roulette with our children's future. What now? How can we stop this madness?

  • Lee Wei Jie at 14:02 on 09 July
    secondary schools should retain English as medium for Maths and Science so that pupils can have a bright future to study overseas and be linked to the world is good to switch back mother tongue for primary school level as it is a good way to build up the basis of children, let them hv a effective learning process and happy childhood...

  • Ooi Beng Sun at 14:21 on 09 July
    agreed with Lee Wei Jie. secondary students should be given the choice to choose the medium of instructions. we should not deprive our gifted students who are proficient in English acquire more knowledge to pursue their career. reverting to malay is like chaining our children with big stone, stop their progress, making them going backwards to the dinosaur age!!!

  • Daniel Hong Aan Lee at 14:22 on 09 July
    YB, I believe that Science&Maths for primary education should be taught in mother tongue (esp for SJK(C)/SJK(T)), however secondary schools should teach their science&maths in english, so that the Malaysian english teaching system will not deteriorate.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Science and Maths to be taught in BM again

Thank you to the anonymous commenter who brought this to our attention; I am sure Tony and Kian Ming will have a lot to say about this. Here is the story from The Malaysian Insider, and here are some graphs from The Star. My take is as follows:

This is horrible. But anything which had a realistic chance of happening would be almost as bad.

In a perfect world, students would be learning all subjects in the best language for them individually, and also learning Malay and English perfectly fine regardless. But we do not live in that perfect world. In the next best world, we would have a consistent policy (sticking to either English or Malay for Science and Maths, if not all subjects) and competent teachers able to implement this policy.

This being Malaysia, and our politics being our politics, what we got was a silly compromise that made nobody very happy, and a paralysed bureaucracy uninterested in making this policy work. One of the most telling graphs in the link to The Star above is the last one, which shows only 20% and 10% of secondary and primary school science and maths teachers respectively scored 67 or higher on an evaluation of their English proficiency.

The fact is, this policy failed. But was the old policy working? As far as I can tell, no. That's why we tried this policy in the first place. Our students were not doing as well as they could in science and maths, and their English was atrocious. So our politicians got this bright idea to try teaching them science and maths in English.

But the execution was fatally cocked up. The Education Minister says that now they will try a different approach to enhance English learning: English literature will be reintroduced as a subject, along with grammar and composition. (I wonder if that is a misquote by The Star, because that would make a total of four subjects for the English language alone.) The Minister also said that they would rehire retirees and foreigners if necessary to supply more English teachers.

All these are things which should have been done before! In particular, it's not like the government had no idea our science and maths teachers were so fatally flawed in the English department. Rather, they completely ignored this, and rammed through this ill-thought-out policy anyway.

Maybe teaching science and maths in English is a fatally flawed idea, but we have no way of telling that from this six-year experiment, because the government so thoroughly messed up its implementation! (There is also the counter-argument that teaching these subjects in English worked perfectly fine for thousands of schoolkids before we switched to Malay as the national medium of instruction in the 1970s.)

What really angers me about this decision is that the government virtually knowingly had this cock-up of a policy going for six years, when they should have bloody well known their science and maths teachers could not teach in English. So we had a whole generation of students undergoing this massive change, all for naught. And now we will have another generation of pain as thousands of kids get stuck in educational limbo while the government phases out this failure of a policy.

All this was completely unnecessary. The government could have at least tried to make PPSMI (Pelajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Math dalam Bahasa Inggeris) a success by not virtually sabotaging it, but they did not. They could have increased the allocation of time to English, refocused the curriculum, and hired professional English teachers six years ago, but they did not.

More importantly, the government could have avoided all this and successfully transitioned to teaching science and maths in English if only it had been patient and first prepared the teachers to use English in the classroom. But they did not. They pushed through the policy when it was plainly not ready.

In short, we spent six years spinning our wheels doing absolutely balls, and we have nothing to show for it. It is infuriating, but I don't blame the government for ending this now. I do blame the government for keeping up this ridiculous charade for six years, when it was obvious to almost everyone -- even people who might have otherwise favoured this policy -- that this could never have worked with the way they rammed it through.

Introducing Top US Universities & Colleges

Descartes Education Counselling Centre (DECC), a non-profit organisation will be organising a talk by former and current students from some of the top universities in the United States on getting into these schools.

The panelists will comprise alumni and students from Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale and Cornell, as well as other top liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore, Middlebury, Bates and Colby.

Therefore all students interested in top universities and colleges in the US for undergraduate study or those who are still figuring out what to do for their tertiary studies, come join us for the talk at:
Introducing Top US Universities & Colleges
Date : 25th July 2009 (Saturday)
Time : 11am-4pm
Venue : Auditorium, Sunway University College
Confirmed panelists include:
  • Nathaniel Tan, Harvard University ‘03
  • Yeoh Chen Chow, Cornell University ‘05
  • Hwa Yang Jerng, Bates College ‘03
  • Emily Chan, Colby College ‘11
  • Ng Eng Han, Dartmouth College ‘10
  • John Lee, Dartmouth College ‘11
  • Andrew Loh, Swarthmore College '10
  • Anand Pillai, Northwestern University '04
  • Joan Low, Middlebury College '12
  • Lim Su Ann, Columbia University '12
  • Philip Loh, Olin College '13
They will share their personal experiences with the US education system – a system that reputably produces very employable graduates and world leaders with great competency and capabilities. They will also provide interested students with valuable information about selecting the right university, obtaining financial assistance, completing application forms and other practical information on gaining places in these schools.

Students will also learn about the unusual perks and opportunities offered under the US education system (foreign study programmes, self-designed curriculums, freedom to explore personal academic interests, etc.), aspects of a vastly different culture, and student life. To top it off, we have an interactive session, where you can mingle around and talk with the students and alumni yourself personally.

All are welcome and attendance is free.

For more information, please contact Ms Teh Joo Shin @ jshin48 (at) gmail (DOT) com.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Richard Feynman on Learning

Richard Feynman was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He was an eccentric figure, and quite a few books have been written by him and or about him on the subject of his life. One of the most famous, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is now available for reading online, absolutely free. (If reading online gives you eyestrain, there's always Amazon.)

The book deals with a wide range of fascinating topics, from sex to business to art, but because Feynman spent most of his life in academia, it focuses on education. The book is primarily a collection of loosely-related essays, so you can skip the irrelevant parts if you don't find them interesting, but I recommend you read the whole book anyway. The following essays are especially relevant to education:
  • Lucky Numbers
  • O Americana, Outra Vez!
  • Judging Books by Their Covers
Lucky Numbers has a very interesting twist on the standard litany about the evils of rote memorisation. Feynman describes how he was able to best a Japanese man armed with an abacus because he had memorised more combinations of numbers and operations:
I realized something: he doesn't know numbers. With the abacus, you don't have to memorize a lot of arithmetic combinations; all you have to do is learn how to push the little beads up and down. You don't have to memorize 9 + 7 = 16; you just know that when you add 9 you push a ten's bead up and pull a one's bead down. So we're slower at basic arithmetic, but we know numbers.
Feynman's point is that it's understanding which matters the most, and that there is not always a conflict between understanding and memorisation. Sometimes, you need to memorise something to understand it. The abacus salesman had merely memorised how to work an abacus, without internalising any understanding of numbers and how they relate to one another. Because he worked with numbers, day in and day out, Feynman knew them like the back of his hand.

O Americana, Outra Vez! is a meandering essay on the time Feynman spent lecturing in Brazil, but it is absolutely worth reading because of its emphasis on the need for the right philosophy of learning. Much of it is still very applicable to the Malaysian education system:
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard "light that is reflected from a medium with an index," they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. They didn't know that the "direction of the light" is the direction in which you see something when you're looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words.
This particular discussion caught my eye because it reminded me instantly of all the revision books students buy to supplement their textbooks and lectures:
So I came in, carrying the elementary physics textbook that they used in the first year of college. They thought this book was especially good because it had different kinds of typeface -- bold black for the most important things to remember, lighter for less important things, and so on.


I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..."

I said, "And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature -- what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.
Feynman hated the way Brazilians taught science; he refused to call it science at all. He felt the students were not learning anything meaningful about the natural world around them; they were just memorising words and numbers without learning how to relate these abstractions to the real-world concepts they represent.

Judging Books By Their Covers describes what happened when Feynman served on a board of parents and educators preparing the list of approved textbooks for the state of California. Feynman again found himself infuriated by the books, because they explained everything in a completely unrelatable manner:
I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There's no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind "energy." Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.
The whole book is a thoroughly entertaining piece of literature, and there is more to learning and academia in it than the bits and pieces I have just quoted. The opening essays which deal with Feynman's childhood in particular show how he himself first learned and developed an interest for science. I hope you find this book useful in thinking about the purpose of education, and how we should go about fulfilling this purpose.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pakatan's Education and Higher Education Cabinet Committee

Hot off the press. The following opposition MPs have been put on the cabinet committee for the Education portfolio: Yusmadi Yusoff (PKR), Che Uda Che Nik (PAS), Chong Eng (DAP) and for the Higher Education portfolio: Zulkifli Nordin (PKR), Salahuddin Ayub (PAS), Tony Pua (DAP).

I think it's high time that the Pakatan coalition formed its own version of a shadow 'cabinet'. Hopefully this will mean a more structured focus on the part of these MPs, especially those which have been allocated the Education and Higher Education portfolios.

These six MPs are an interesting and mixed bunch. Yusmadi Yusoff is a young, idealistic PKR MP for Balik Pulau in Penang and I've had the opportunity to interact with him a few times. He was a Hubert Humphrey fellow for a year here in the US and is a lawyer by vocation. I'm sure he'll bring fresh ideas and perspectives to his portfolio. Chong Eng, an experienced MP from Bukit Mertajam, is a fiery and passionate DAP MP. She's been very outspoken on women's issues as an MP. I hope that she will do more than just highlight the plight of Chinese and Indian schools but look at how the Education Ministry can do a better job, perhaps in examining how some of their policies may effect girls and boys differently. The gender gap is becoming more significant at the university level (in favor of women) and I think there must be some steps which can be taken at the pre-university level which can arrest this trend. I don't know much about Che Uda Che Nik from PAS except to say that he's the PAS MP for Sik, Kedah.

We're all familiar with Tony's work as the MP for PJ Utara and on this blog. Hopefully, being allocated this portfolio will free up some time for Tony to put forth some of his ideas on Higher Education in Malaysia. I'm sure he'll have an interesting time working with Zulkifli Nordin of PKR, MP for Kulim, who is more well known for his tirades against Sisters in Islam and for protesting the Bar Council forum on religious conversions, than for his view on Higher Education in Malaysia. Salahuddin Ayub, PAS MP for Kubang Kerian, was the former PAS Youth chief and is a seasoned politician. It will be interesting to hear his views on the state of Higher Education in Malaysia since I've not heard him speak on this before.

Hopefully, having these cabinet committees will increase the quality and level of debate in parliament especially when it comes to the Education and Higher Education portfolios. Congrats and all the best to Tony!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'New' JPA scholarship next year?

Read this in the Star last weekend. "A new category will be established starting next year for scholarships under the Public Services Department scheme to be awarded purely based on merit, regardless of race."

PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun razak said he was sure that such a category would be welcomed by all communities, including the Chinese.

“We are re-studying the distribution of scholarships under the Public Services Department scheme to introduce a new category.

“Starting next year, we will see the distribution of scholarships based purely on merit, regardless of race.

“We will announce it next year and with the plan to limit to 10 subjects, we expect to see a more level playing field,” he said in his speech at a dinner organised by both MCA and the Associated Chinese Chamber of Industry and Commerce here Saturday.

Najib said this would allow Malaysia’s best students to get aid to pursue higher studies.

“So we will get the best of best and the creme de la creme getting aid for higher studies.

“I believe this will be accepted well and it will allow each individual a fair chance to realise his full potential,” he said, adding however that he was not “letting the cat out of the bag” just yet on the scheme.

Najib said contrary to common perception, not all Chinese were rich.

“Like all Malaysians, they also want to see their children have good education and become successful. All this involves costs,” he said, adding that every race had its needs and if the Government could bring policies that were fair, the Chinese would continue to support Barisan Nasional.

Najib said the Chinese was not against Malays succeeding or opposed to efforts to help the Bumiputra but that they wanted policies that looked at the needs of all Malaysians fairly.

“And that’s why I included it in the 1Malaysia concept,” he said, adding that he would also look into MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat’s request for more government land to build Chinese vernacular schools.

Najib added that during his trip to China, the Chinese government had also promised to bring more investments into Malaysia in the term of equity investments.

“I’m told they are preparing a loan fund if we need this as a sign of their commitment to us. I believe there is an opportunity for China to make an economic boost in Malaysia in terms of development that will include banking as well,” he said.

“I looked into the needs of the local Chinese community when I introduced the 1Malaysia plan, which looks into the needs of every community regardless of the colour, ethnicity and culture.

MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat said in his speech that the dinner was not just to celebrate the appointment of Najib as Prime Minister but to also show that the Chinese community would always be with the Government and his leadership as it strived to overcome the current economic problems.

A few comments:

(i) There is already a portion of the JPA scholarships which are allocated by merit (20% out of 2100 foreign JPA scholarships). Read this previous entry for more details. How will this new category of JPA scholarships be any different? Will they be restricted to those students who only take 10 subjects at the SPM level? Will there be a separate application and interview process?

(ii) Nothing is said here about the process by which these students will be bonded to the government. I've said this time and time again - most JPA foreign scholarship holders do not come back to serve the government, if they come back to Malaysia at all. There's no use giving out a new scholarship that is merit based if these students are not made to come back to serve the government in some capacity.

(iii) Nothing is said here about how the civil service will be restructured to cater to these scholarship holders. Again, I don't put the entire blame on these JPA scholars because the civil service is reluctant to take in these JPA scholars probably because they know that these high achievers will probably be bored by the career path taken by most civil servants.

I'd prefer the PM to focus on ensuring that JPA scholars are held accountable and the civil service is restructured so that these JPA scholars can come back to serve the government instead of creating another category of scholarships at taxpayers' expense.

Thoughts on the university admissions process

A friend of mine, Rajan Rishyakaran, has written a good blog post critiquing the Malaysian university admissions process. While I don't know enough about local universities to comment on many things he raises, there are a couple of points which I think are worth emphasising: the difference between policy in theory and policy in reality, and the importance of decentralising some decisions.

There are many illustrations of the difference between something in theory and something in practice, but Rajan's example of coursework is as good as any. In principle, adding coursework to the evaluation process for university admissions would be a good thing.

After all, a major problem with our education system is that it focuses a lot on examinations which only assess students at one point in time, and often encourage rote memorisation instead of actual learning. If you fall sick during exam period, it can dramatically change your life's course, because you might not get into the university you otherwise could, or not pursue the degree you otherwise would attain. And because the format and style of exams is so predictable, all you need to do is practice with enough exam papers from previous years to be prepared -- you don't necessarily need to understand anything on the exam (I have found that understanding too much can actually be detrimental to your marks in some Malaysian exams).

If we emphasised coursework more, then one-off incidents which might negatively impact your exam performance would matter less: you have a substantial amount of time to do your coursework. Because the key element of your coursework is usually a report on something you have researched, you actually learn something useful: you learn how to write academically, and you learn some basic research or factfinding skills.

That's the theory; the practical reality is something else altogether. When I was in school, nobody took coursework seriously. Or rather, they took it the same way they took an exam: they figured out the best way to game the system, and they did it. Everyone would Google their topic, and instead of writing up a report about it, they would plagarise the most relevant websites. If they were too lazy to do this, they would plagiarise from one another very openly -- there was no stigma to copying or cheating off someone else's work.

It's not that they were lazy; it's that they knew this was the most efficient way to get things done. Teachers don't really care if the material is obviously plagiarised -- to them the coursework system is often a burdensome imposition on them because they have to read through dozens, if not hundreds of reports. Students know this, so they intentionally put a lot of work into making their reports more burdensome on teachers. One teacher's son told me that he intentionally put lots of irrelevant diagrams and photos in his coursework because this would discourage the teacher from looking too hard at his work -- she would see he had obviously worked hard on the report, and give him high marks.

The problem with coursework is that it is an arbitrary, artificial system of evaluation imposed by the central government with little thought as to what the schools and teachers can do, and little thought for what universities want to see. As Rajan notes, our university admissions process is extremely centralised -- everything is boiled down to a couple of numbers, which are then fed into the government's system. The government then tells you what university you will attend, and what degree you will pursue.

Likewise, with coursework, the government tells schools how to grade students' work, and it tells universities how these grades must translate into admissions decisions. There is no room for a teacher to assess students in his or her own way, to try something different. Neither is there room for a university to assess students in a different way, such as through tailored interviews or personal statements.

Obviously, there are pitfalls to granting educators more autonomy. But I don't think there is any question that at the moment we err far too heavily on the side of ridiculous centralisation. The government has attempted to standardise the education system to an extreme, and the result is something easily gamed by the pretence of ability, instead of actual demonstrable results. The government needs to grant universities more leeway in making their admissions decisions, and at the same time experiment with giving schools more freedom in coming up with alternative methods of assessment.

Missionary schools model for 1 Malaysia?

Malaysia's 6th PM, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, is a product of St. John's Institution in KL. Recently, he went back to his alma mater and proclaimed that the missionary school model represents what he sees in his 1 Malaysia vision. I'll reproduce the full article from the Malaysian Insider below and comment after that.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 27 — A visit to his Christian alma mater was used today by Datuk Seri Najib Razak to drive home his vision of 1 Malaysia which was officially launched at Dataran Merdeka earlier this morning.

The prime minister, who officiated the opening of the Conference of Christian Mission Schools in Malaysia at the St John’s Institution here, paid tribute to mission schools and their role in nation building.

He said mission schools had a special ethos which promote unity, very much like his vision of 1 Malaysia.

Najib is led by the school captain, as he walks to the St.John's school hall for the conference.
“The ethos of mission schools shaped the values and beliefs of students which is in line with 1 Malaysia.”

He said that part and parcel of the concept of 1 Malaysia was to accept diversity and a plural society as a heritage and strength instead of a source of problems.

“1 Malaysia goes beyond tolerance but accepts diversity,” he said, adding that it would be achieved if Malaysians could look beyond race, colour and religions.

“I am convinced it we continue on this path Malaysia can be stronger.”

Najib said that St John's had provided him the sound grounding which eventually made him the prime minister of Malaysia.

He said that returning to the school had brought back special memories, including the times he walked up the hill (Jalan Bukit Nanas) to the school with his heavy bag and playing pranks with his friends.

He also joked that his father gave him a promotion, enrolling him straight into Standard Two at St John’s Primary School, where he spent five years, and a further three years at St John’s Secondary.

He paid tribute to the former and present teachers of the school and even called out to a La Salle Christian Brother in the crowd, who was his former teacher.

This was the scene earlier when Najib entered his alma mater accompanied by the famous St.John's school band.
Najib also took the occasion to have a swipe at Victoria Institution, the traditional rivals of St John’s.

“We are even better than the ‘other school’ in KL,” he joked.
He closed his speech with a special announcement, saying that he would officially declare his old school a National Heritage Site on July 12.

I won't go into the debate on what 1 Malaysia means exactly.

Rather, I want to make a couple of observations:

(i) I think it's a good thing that Najib is planning to declare SJI as a National Heritage Site next month. Hopefully this means that the school will not be torn down to make way for a shopping center, the way BBGS was torn down because it was located in prime real estate.

(ii) More importantly, I think the spirit and nature of many of the missionary schools in Malaysia, including SJI, has changed since the time when Najib was in school. The 'nationalization' of these schools which includes putting in headmasters and headmistresses which have no conception of the philosophy of the missionary schools or the La Sallian tradition and many attempts by MOE officials to 'de-Christianize' these schools have led to a drop in standards, both academic and disciplinary.

It is not enough to just say that the philosophy of the missionary schools capture the spirit of what 1 Malaysia means but Najib has to act in such a way to ensure that this spirit is returned to the missionary schools and promoted in other national schools.

One possible way, which Dr. Goh Cheng Teik has recommended, is to bring back the brothers into the school boards of the various La Salle schools to that their influence is still felt.

Other ways include emphasizing a culture and spirit which respects diversity and inclusiveness in the teacher training schools so that the teachers and headmasters can teach as well as practice what it means to respect all religions and races.

I'm not sure about the educational background of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the current Minister of Education, but hopefully he can pick up on what Najib has said and will make this an important priority in his agenda.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The future of La Salle Schools?

Well written letter in the Star by Dr. Goh Cheng Teik on the future of La Salle schools in Malaysia. I think his suggestion of handing back the administration of these schools to the 'brothers' is interesting but I'm not sure if there are enough 'brothers' around to administer these schools. I'll reproduce the letter in full below. (BTW, I was from La Salle PJ, primary and secondary, until Form 3)

Thursday June 18, 2009
Hand back ‘Saint’ schools to the La Salle Brothers

YOUR report “An end of an era for La Sallians” (The Star, May 1) stirred deep emotions in the hearts of those who had studied at the 50 La Salle schools in the country. The exit of Bro Paul Ho, the last Brother Director from St Xavier’s Institution does look like the end of an era.

But Old Xaverians and Old Lasallians do pray that Bro Paul’s retirement would not be the end of the involvement of Christian Brothers in Malaysian schools. At the recent Yayasan La Salle Board meeting on June 6, former UPM Vice Chancellor Tan Sri Syed Jalaluddin, an Old Xaverian, made a passionate plea for the Christian Brothers to stay engaged in Malaysia. The meeting was chaired by Tan Sri Kamarulzaman Shariff, another Old Xaverian and a former Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, who mandated Syed Jalaluddin to sketch out a road map for the coming years.

Old Lasallians like Syed Jalaluddin and Kamarulzaman value what the Brothers have done and wish that they can do more. Unfortunately, the congregation of La Salle Brothers worldwide has shrunk. F

ewer and fewer youths in the modern world are prepared to embrace the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for the sake of educating children from impoverished families. The Brothers have to conserve their manpower and deploy their resources smartly.

The present thinking is that Old La Sallians who have friends in high places should convince the Government to hand back two schools, St John’s Institution and St. Xavier’s Institution, to the La Salle Brothers to manage and administer. At the same time, the Government should convert both schools from being sekolah bantuan modal into sekolah-sekolah bantuan penoh.

Schools like St John’s and St Xavier’s have shown that they have withstood the test of time. After all, St John’s has produced Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the present Prime Minister; Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Home Minister; Datuk Sri Nazir Tun Razak, the banker and younger brother of Najib and Raja Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak.

St Xavier’s has produced Karpal Singh, the opposition leader; Tun Hamid Omar, the former Lord President; Tan Sri Nor Nor Mohamed Yakcop, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Both schools can be depended upon to make proper use of the financial resources and enhanced powers given to them. They should be challenged - at the right moment - to bring back the academic and extra-curricular excellence that they had enjoyed in the past. These include competency in the English language, both written and spoken.

I believe making St John’s and St Xavier’s fully-aided schools and mandating the La Salle Brothers and the respective boards of governors to administer them is the answer. Taking both schools private sounds great in theory but in practice, funds would have to be raised all the time. Fees have to be charged and revised upward regularly.

Those students who cannot pay would have to be barred from attending classes. The La Salle Brothers would not be comfortable with a fee-based regime. Their philosophy is to provide education to those who need it, not only to those who can pay for it.

Syed Jalaluddin’s mission is delicate and important. As someone who had studied in a La Salle school and who had worked as a Vice Chancellor of a public university, he can bridge the communication gap between the La Salle Brothers and the politicians and civil servants.

He can get a dialogue going. For all you know, he may find an ally in the person of the PM since Najib is an Old Lasallian.


Kuala Lumpur.

Making sense of the JPA numbers

Read this article in the Star about a question directed to Nazri in parliament in regard to JPA scholarships. I'll reproduce it in full below since it has a lot of numbers in it. My comments follow.

68% of merit scholarships went to non-Bumiputra

KUALA LUMPUR: Nearly 68% or 280 of the Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships under the 20% merit-category were awarded to non-bumiputras, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.

He said only about 32% or 135 scholarships were awarded to bumiputra in the latest round of applications for the PSD's overseas degree programme.

"This proves that the award was not based on skin color, that the Government is fair in the selection of the 20% without looking at race, culture or religion but based on academic excellence," he told Lim Kit Siang (DAP - Ipoh Timur) in Parliament Tuesday.

He also said that PSD scholarships looked at academic excellence based on nine subjects chosen by the student relevant to the degree of their choice.

"This limit was set to ensure all students were on an equal playing field because not all schools had the same facilities and teaching manpower," he said in reply to Tan Ah Eng (BN - Gelang Patah).

At the Parliament lobby, Nazri said: “We do not do things without referring to the Federal Constitution, which means that we cannot give all for merit,” he said.

Out of 2,100 PSD scholarships for students to study abroad this year, 20%, which is 417, was reserved for those with merit, regardless of race and religion, he said.

Of the 417, almost 68% were given to non-bumiputras based on merit and only 32% for bumiputras, he said.

On complaints by those with 13As and 14As and did not get scholarships, he said he could not give them because it was not fair since some schools did not allow students to take more than 10 subjects.

That was why the Government wanted to base it on 10 subjects only, he said.

Inside the dewan, Nazri said for year 2009, PSD offered 1,176 scholarships to Bumiputras and 924 to non-Bumiputras.

He also said that more than RM2.8bil in Public Service Department (PSD) sponsorships for overseas degree courses were given out between 2000 and 2008.

The sum was given to 12,485 recipients where 9,160 were bumiputera and 3,325 were non-bumiputera.

The breakdown of table showed that allocation for scholarships increased from RM109mil in year 2000 to RM659mil last year.

Similarly, the number of students also increased from 748 in year 2000 to 2,000 last year, while 598 Bumiputra students getting scholarships in 2000 and increased to 1,100 last year.

For non-Bumiputra, number of students in year 2000 was 150 and had increased to 900 last year.

From Jan 14, 2009, the awarding criteria of the Overseas Degree Programme was divided into four categories, he said.

The first was based on academic excellence without counting race and socio-economic backgrounds where selection was based on academic results (85%), co-curriculum (10%) and interviews (5%).

The category was based on current racial population ratios where one race's allocation would be divided to others if it was not used.

"Selection is also made based on academic excellence with at least A2 in all core and elective subjects.

"At the same time, the candidates were also selected based on their secondary school co-curriculum participation, families' socio-economic backgrounds and interviews," he said.

The third category, he said, were for Sabah (5%) and Sarawakian (5%) bumiputra.

The last category was given to socially disadvantaged students from rural areas with limited facilities and from low-income families.

Nazri added that applicants in categories three and four also had to have at least A2s in all subjects relevant to their degree of choice, which made up 65% of the selection criteria.

He said students under the programme were sent for first degrees in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Russie, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, Jordan, India and Indonesia.

Some general comments:

According to Nazri, 1176 out of 2100 overseas JPA scholarships were given to Bumiputra students while the rest went to non-bumi students. This is very close to the 55 / 45 ethnic quota which the government promised in June 2008.

The composition of these scholarships is as follows:

60% allocated based on 'excellence' as well as the racial composition of the country.

20% allocated purely on merit without considering any ethnic quotas.

10% allocated to students from Sabah and Sarawak (which is not the 20% promised earlier)

10% allocated to students from disadvantaged backgrounds (no ethnic quota specified).

If 280 non-bumi students were allocated the JPA scholarship from the purely merit based portion, this would mean that a balance of 644 non-bumi students were given the JPA scholarship from the other two allocations i.e. the 60% allocation based on 'excellence' and racial composition of the country and the 10% allocation based on the background of a student.

Questions of ethnic quotas aside, this kind of reply from Nazri doesn't really give me any more confidence in the way in which these JPA scholarship recipients are chosen. For example, how is the pool of 20% purely merit based students selected? How are they different from the group of 'excellent' students from which the 60% allocation is given? How is a 'disadvantaged' background determined?

Unless there is more transparency in regard to the criteria for giving out these scholarships, beyond the superficial information of 60%, 20%, 10%, 10% allocated to whom and what, the questioning of the JPA scholarship allocation will continue to rage on and on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Making an English SPM 'pass' compulsory

Much has been made of the fact the DPM and Education Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin, did not know that it was not compulsory have a 'pass' in English at the SPM level. Later UMNO Youth came out to support making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level, subject to some caveats. I have some reservations about making a change to the current policy and here's why.

Firstly, this proposed policy change (making an English SPM pass compulsory) is premised on the false assumption that the standard of English will increase as a consequence of this policy change. Without any changes in the quality of teachers who teach English, especially those in the rural areas, or other resources aimed at improving the standard of English in our schools, all things being equal, this policy will only result in an increase of those who will fail their SPM because of failure to pass the English exam.

Secondly, this proposed policy change will increase the incentives to make the English exam even easier than it already is as well as to decrease the passing mark for the same exam. The bureaucrats at the MOE do not want to have political heat on their backs as a result of the protests of many parents whose children did not manage to pass their SPM English exam. The path of least resistance would be to either make the English SPM exam easier or to decrease the passing mark or to do both!

Thirdly, this proposed policy change presupposes that every SPM holder requires a passing level of English to get on with life. Sure, it would be difficult to read English textbooks and articles at the university / college level without a proficient understanding of English. But if the medium of instruction in our public universities continue to be in BM, then I see no reason why not having an English SPM pass should be the basis for denying a student entry into one of the public universities or a matriculation program. Furthermore, there are many career paths which are open to Malaysians which require only a minimal level of English proficiency. I don't see why Malaysians who choose to pursue these career paths should be denied an SPM certificate just because they fail to pass their English exam at the SPM level.

This is in no way an argument to diminish the importance of English. Most of the top jobs in the private sector require a high proficiency in English. Most of the top jobs in the civil service require at least a decent level of spoken English. But I think having this policy change distracts from the more important and pressing objective of improving the standard of English in Malaysia. Making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level is the easy part. Making substantive changes to the way English is taught in our schools in the much harder and more important challenge.