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.


HC said...

couldn't agree with you more. I'm from urban area and studying local university now.i think the awareness is still not there.for secondary students in our country, even those who staying in urban area, we don't get a proper or enough information about where to continue our tertiary education.most of us merely know it's either continue with form6 so to end up in local university or colleges.

YK said...

I agreed absolutely. The information gap between the urban middle-class and the rural families are getting wider. It is easy to stand and blame people for being unaware, not trying hard enough, etc. If you think it is the people like Anucia's own fault, don't bother to comment/read this blog please. The ideologies are simply different.

Learn from history said...

Yes, it's all about awareness and opportunity. Given the right awareness and opportunity, everyone can use their full potential and achieve something.

The Asian student, Sean Koh (full name: Koh Chau Sean), mentioned in the winning team is a Malaysian. He did his SPM at a national type school in PJ, Selangor, and then his A-levels at one of the junior colleges in Sigapore under an Asean scholarship. He is a GIC scholar at the University of Cambridge.

Malaysian youngsters: be informative, be bold, be prepared to take challenges and grab opportunities, and be global.

Anonymous said...

Yup spot on, no doubt about, if you don't know about the opportunities out there, you just can't get in. I think this is also similar in every aspect of life. Example in business etc. It's the hard facts of life. Just so happened that Anucia woke up to that. Well at least she woke up to it. There are about many more out there that didn't even know till the time they retired! And that would be even more painful don't you think so?

Well, I suppose there should be some good people out there who can provide awareness for these people. I believe in Singapore, scholarship givers/universities actually go out of their to visit schools/colleges before they graduate to inform them about this availability. This is one way to increase awareness as well. Malaysia up to it?

Wei Jiet said...

I think some fault lies in the school counselors as well. For example, in my school, the teacher in charge of mentoring/counseling/career advice only exposed us to the basics of applying to public universities, matriculation, etc. Perhaps he or she could have actually spend more time searching for opportunities for us students, especially the ones with potential.

In short, I think that connections, family and friends are important to open our eyes to the vast opportunities out there. Its true, my mom is a teacher and ,my dad is a financial officer(considered middle class) yet most of the information on scholarships and college applications after SPM come from my part.

Ps: I don't blame them, they're my parents.

Anonymous said...

Most schools are commercialised and privatised nowadays so they would not be bothered about which university you went to as long as they earned profits from you. Secondly, counsellors are not immune to the lure of money and are not often generous enough to give good advice. If they did they would not be there in the first place. Third, can't help feeling we have all been taken for a ride by bureaucrats who just want to impose more tariffs each time we want to further ourselves. Finally, the paper chase makes us suckers in the rat race which comes to the final point can we survive the onslaught of the demise of the economy?

msleepyhead said...

Good ones John, ignorant is bliss as they say. A good way to keep the masses opiated.

This is out of topic, but I got these questions from my 'discussions' at the deminegara blog.

Seeing there are more students from vernacular schools here than there. Perhaps someone would be kind enough to answer them or point to the right direction.

Aku asked..
Now, in wanting to understand the Chinese in this country and the Dong Zong people clinging to SRJKCs, may I, in good faith, put the following questions to you:

1. What is the nature of the clan associations of the Chinese, the range of members, do the big towkays help the smaller businesses

2. Are all clan members ipso facto members of the associations, how much do they contribute to the SRKCs, are they per standard rates or according to financial ability

3. Are the SRJKCs run on clan lines, each SRJKC financed by the clan concerned

4. These may be sensitive ones but I'm asking in good faith: Are the clan associations and/ or SRJKCs connected to any of the secret societies and gangs. Are those secret societies and gangs run along clan lines.


It'd be great to get those from vernacular school's thoughts on the matter.

Coltz said...


I assume that the "clans" you are talking about refers to the "hometown associations" found in major Malaysian cities, divided largely along dialect and geographic lines (there are no other significant "clan-like" organizations other than your everyday trade guilds, by the way). Then these questions can be answered as such:

1. The clan associations used to be very significant, but are rapidly declining in importance in the recent decades. Today, membership has been mostly declining, and the financial aspects are mostly limited to scholarship for children of low-income members and cultural/festive associations.

2. No. And nothing clan-related. Hometown associations may help in organizing fundraising efforts of local schools, but the majority of school funds are either collected from students' parents as operational supplements on a flat rate, or raised directly abd voluntarily from local communities. DongJiaZong coordinates the testing and curricular standards of schools nationwide and sometimes coordinate fundraising efforts, but is large incapable of doling out funds itself.

3. No.

4. No. And it would be hard to imagine the seniors killing time with mahjong in the association buildings will be involved in any serious gangs, anyway.

Using the word "cling" might not be a good idea if you want to ask "in good faith", by the way. The questions are amusingly anachronistic, and I do wish you success in spreading the facts to people unaware of them.

msleepyhead said...


A big thanks there for the clear explanation. Those in favor of a one school system now has an outlet called the SSS, as I'm sure may of you have heard of, and they are pushing for a referendum on the matter. Whether the gov of the day will adopt it, is another matter, but it is time to give it a serious thought, the sole objective of the SSS is a one school system but the whole package asks for a review of the whole education system, taking into account sufficient attention is paid to mother tongue and other respects of the teaching curriculum.

Check out the conversations here at DN:

Many thanks again.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons for not sharing is selfishness. The more people know the more competition there is!
Would be wonderful is some NGOs could provide awareness for these students.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony, Kian Ming, John Lee and everyone here,

what are chances of a sek.keb.cina kid getting a shot at these opportunities or even aware of these opportunities(assuming the kid did good at school).

wondering still should we send our kids to chinese schools or kebangsaan (from the example mentioned on SMK DJs / DUs)?

Anonymous said...

This may sounds out of topic but it is an interesting tale that I like to share over here.

A man several years back told me of his experiences in which he looked and searched hard for math&science tuition teachers within 100 km radius from his home for six months.

He said he is doing this for his two children still in primary school.

He told me the results. Some engineering background people willing to become tuition teachers, mostly with bachelor and several with masters.

No people with medical background would want to do this job even as part-time tuition teacher.

He also said he could find a few master in science graduates working as tuition teachers but he couldn't find anybody with PhD in science or engineering qualification.

I replied and said that if he could find one PhD graduate in science, he may as well run for politcal office in general election representing his hometown constituency.

"Why is that so" he asked and I said, "Go and read Romance of Three Kingdoms historical novel".

He kept quiet, nodded his head and beginning to understand what I meant.

msleepyhead said...

Regarding sharing of resources, back when I was applying for the local uni's I remembered there were guidebooks in Chinese for entrance into local unis. They gave details such as cut off points for the main courses and other stuff so that those with certain grades know what their best chances are to get into the courses they desire.

Don't think they have the same for foreign uni's as that would require too much data in some way, and the 'Chinese system' of 'understanding' the system and 'taking advantage' of it would not work for admission into places like Harvard and so on I presume.

How else could you explain the preoccupation with observing trends for past year results, questions, forecast and so on?

Coltz said...


Glad that helped!

The article that you linked to is filled to the top with Malay Supremacists in the comment thread (ditto for the author, but that's another story), I do not think it's worth my effort to debate them.

Reading Utusan lookalikes on the web is sobering, in that we are reminded that there are lots of people in this country still subscribing to such blatant discrimination against fellow citizens. Sometimes we all wonder how the "fake-citizens" of Malaysia become so disheartened with the country, no? How the vision of Dato'Onn and TAR was trampled by the mob, no?

The main reason the famous foreign universities do not use a cut-off system is that they at least attempt to maintain a system of "holistic evaluation" - that is, the student as a person is evaluated from all practically observable aspects, instead of mechanical, standardized tests that can be utterly dehumanizing. It's less of a requirement on data issue than simply putting more effort into admissions. In fact, the obsession for test-related strategies is precisely the consequence of a test-based system - it's ugly and should be avoided if possible, but it does cut down costs significantly, and in many cases is the least evil of all options (see also: racial quotas). Note that the more test-centric a system is, the more obsessed a society becomes, hence the world-famous Japanese testtakers.

Anon 0804,

Purely anecdotal: I graduated from a world-class US university, and is currently in a much smaller, no-less-well-known graduate school. My apartment mate happens to be from the same school system I'm from - Malaysian Chinese "Vernacular".

The Chinese Independent Secondary Schools, surviving under competitive pressure, actually do relatively well in informing their students of academic opportunities. Of course, that is relative to the overall average, and is by no means comparable to the very elite schools in this nation.

Abu Abdullah Anas Al Banji said...

Hi guys

I am in the higher education industry and I do not totally agree that it all boils down to having access to 'opportunities'.

How does one know an 'opportunity' when he sees one?

I believe maturity and presence of mind come into the picture as increasingly I observe that youths are less conscious about what happens around them.

Anyways, I believe education is a big ship where all the stakeholders need to play their roles.


Unknown said...

I can't see how recognizing a potentially bad institution changes anything. Just because the university is in Australia, means nothing. I don't think Australian education really amounts to anything great.