Thursday, February 04, 2010

Budget Cuts Eats In

In my "political life", one of my key themes is the fact that the Government is out of cash, and is desperately trying to raise funds via various forms of taxes, as well as sales of assets. However, the clearest indication of the shortfall of funds has to be the ridiculous nature of some of the budget tightening process at our Ministries.

It raises the question as to whether the Government knows what it is doing and whether it is just being penny wise and pound foolish. Officials appear to be concentrating on minor cost cuts eating into essential expenditure, instead of the big ticket items which are often wasteful, and are the real culprits to wasteful expenditure.

The opinion by former chief news editor of NTV7 and 8TV with regards to the cuts in our local boarding schools highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. Excerpts of his article are as follows.

Of schools, hostels and tight budget

...After the few early callers, a lady who was put on air. But instead of commenting on the topic she went on to say that her children who were studying in a boarding school have been told to go home every weekend. Reason being, the school (which she did not name) could no longer provide meals for the students during weekends.

Apparently, the days of giving hostel students meals seven days a week are gone. Why? Well the lady claimed she was told that the school’s annual budget had been slashed. Meaning the school is running on less money.


But it did not stop there. Several calls later, another listener called in to say that at the hostel his son was staying, students now had to do group study sessions in the canteen. They used to study in classrooms but not anymore. The lights in the classrooms are now switched off. Reason? Apparently to save on electricity bills, i.e., cut costs, i.e., austerity drive.


Over the weekend I bumped into an acquaintance who happened to be a hostel warden. He is a school teacher but, as warden, he is additionally tasked with looking after the well-being and security of students staying in his school’s hostel.

I asked him if it was true that students are now required to go home on weekends.

“Yes,” he said. Initially, all students were instructed to leave for home on weekends, he added, but the ministry then decided the go-home move could not be made mandatory. So students are “advised’ to go home on weekends. Most students do so, he said. Wonder why?

“Why this ‘nasihat’?” I asked. Why has it come to this?

“No money” was his reply. Well, not exactly “no money” but, rather, limited funds. Put simply schools are operating on tight budget.


Parents, coaches, teachers, students – many people are angry. Rightly so. The consequences of the budget cut are dire and many. We all know it, all too well. There’s no need to repeat ourselves. Suffice for me to ask again: “How come?” Why no money?

Then, there’s the 2008 Auditor General’s report highlighted by The Malay Mail recently. The AG report said the Education Ministry paid RM250 for each of six peacock flowers for a school. The market price for the plant is RM30.

The report went on to reveal the ministry had spent RM57,493 for the supply, sowing, gardening and maintenance of flowers and trees for the same school – 880 per cent higher than the most expensive quote available from local nurseries.

And it was reported also that the ministry had replaced doors in two schools at prices 56 per cent to 64 per cent higher than figures quoted by the Works Ministry.

Then there was the RM480 paid for a door when the Works Ministry quoted RM272.70.

There are more examples, of course. But enough said, lest our hearts ache further.

But I ask – why the big spending? How come there’s money to spend?


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The tragic tale of Malaysian education

by Lee Wei Lian

(This article is first published in The Malaysian Insider)

What do Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Malaysia’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s second richest man T. Ananda Krishnan and YTL chairman Tan Sri Francis Yeoh have in common?

The answer: all four studied at once famous schools that are now glaringly absent from the list of 20 high performance schools recently announced by the government.

Victoria Institution (Ananda, Yeoh), St John’s Institution (Najib), Penang Free School (Tunku Abdul Rahman) and others like Malacca High School and St Michael’s Institution are all storied schools that have been allowed to fall behind until they are no longer counted as among the elite educational institutions in the country.

Just imagine if Eton College in the UK or Raffles Institution in Singapore was not recognised as one of the top schools in their respective countries.

That is the equivalent of what has befallen what were once the most respected schools in Malaysia. Today, they do not even rate a mention on a list of the top 20 high performance schools.

It is a crying shame as these schools produced many leaders that were influential in the development of Malaysia and to a lesser extent even in Singapore.

But what happened to these academic icons? Was it merely a case of these venerable institutions being surpassed by more ambitious upstarts? Was it merely oversight that they were left off the list? Or was it a result of deliberate attempts over the years to sideline these institutions because they were founded by the British and/or missionaries?

Or was it sheer mismanagement on the part of the government that these once most prestigious names in Malayan/Malaysian education were allowed to fade along with the general perception of the quality of education in the country? Did, like so much else that is wrong with Malaysia, politics get in the way of academic stewardship?

Just consider the contributions these schools have made to society and business. Besides Tunku, the Penang Free School also nurtured the likes of Tan Sri P. Ramlee, actor and director extraordinaire, Danny Quah, a prominent economist and head of the department of economics at the London School of Economics who also sits on the National Economic Advisory Council which is formulating Malaysia’s new economic model, and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Apart from the prime minister, St John’s groomed one of Asia’s top bankers, CIMB CEO Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, one of the world’s top central bankers Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz and the former vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore, B.R. Sreenivasan.

Methodist Boy’s School produced the chairman of the Genting group, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, the chairman of the OCBC Bank and former CEO of Singapore Airlines, Dr Cheong Choong Kong, the vice chancellor of UKM, Professor Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, Tan Sri Tay Ah Lek, managing director of Public Bank, and Singapore’s former Minister of Education Ong Bang Poon.

Besides Ananda and Yeoh, Victoria Institution also educated the one of the world’s richest men, the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam, as well as some of Malaysia’s most legendary sportsmen, footballer Mokhtar Dahari and all four Sidek brothers.

Even if there was no list of top 20 “high performance schools” there would be little disagreement that these schools are now just a shadow of their former selves and can no longer command the respect they once did.

What does it then say about a government that allowed such historic and educational gems, some that date back nearly 200 years, to slip down the ranks in less than 50?

A closer look at the list also reveals something of the government’s apparently negligent attitude towards heritage conservation. Seri Bintang Utara made it to the list as a high performance school despite having to survive the demolition of its premises in Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur where the “ginormous” Pavilion mall now stands and what appears to be attempts to wipe out its identity as it was formerly known as the Bukit Bintang Girls School, or more popularly BBGS.

To this day, while I like and enjoy the high quality of the Pavilion mall, I still feel a wave of disgust every time I set foot in it that seemingly nothing of BBGS, Kuala Lumpur’s oldest and one of its most prestigious schools, was preserved in the construction of the mall and that the government did not see fit to mandate any preservation either.

And all this is more than an academic shame as these schools are reminders of a time when students of all races grew up in school together and were taught to discard their racial lenses and be Johannians and Victorians, a truly depressing contrast to the current situation where Malays grow up in national schools, Chinese in Chinese schools and Indians in Tamil schools.

Can the Najib administration reverse the decline of these once prestigious schools? Anything can be achieved if there is sufficient will so the bigger question is, do they even want to?

* Lee Wei Lian attended the Bukit Bintang Boys School in Petaling Jaya. Nisi Dominus Frustra.

Addendum: The list of Malaysia’s 20 high performance schools are: Sekolah Tun Fatimah (Johor Baru), Sekolah Dato’ Abdul Razak (Seremban), Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Sekolah Seri Puteri (Cyberjaya), Sekolah Menengah Sultan Abdul Halim (Jitra), Kolej Tunku Kurshiah (Seremban), Kolej Islam Sultan Alam Shah (Klang), Sekolah Menengah Sains (SMS) Tuanku Syed Putra (Perlis), Sekolah Sultan Alam Shah (Putrajaya) and SMS Muzaffar Syah (Malacca), Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) (P) Sri Aman(Petaling Jaya), SMK Aminuddin Baki (Kuala Lumpur), SMK Sultanah Asma (Alor Star) and SMK (P) St George (Penang), Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Seri Bintang Utara (KL), SK Taman Tun Dr Ismail 1 (KL), SK Bukit Damansara (KL), SK Zainab (2) (Kota Baru), SK Convent Kota (Taiping), SK Bandar Baru Uda 2 (Johor Baru).