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).


Anonymous said...

Hello Lee.

Where can I get hold of old BB school magazines re: 1972 to 1976.

Anonymous said...

Education in Malaysia is all about strategically positioning yourself for the trickling down of money to your profession or line of work.

Under Old Doctor Tun, he sways trillions of ringgit into infrastructure construction and property development industry -
so study engineering especially civil,electrical,etc..and to be in construction line.

Bankers love property developers!And property developers like YTL loves consultant engineers,contractors,etc...

Even Towkay-towkay Kapitalist Cina batu dan pasir love that old doctor Tun.

Then we have ICT, study ICT, MSC going to propel Malaysia into developed nation status. Cinta IT,suka IT, belajar IT.

Again, bankers love IT consultants to fully computerize their banking system..easy to get money from abroad...efficient wire-transfer..

Biotechnology!??Again we need to sway more young Malaysians into this field....

If not, study business, economics, accounting, finance and become a banker.

Learn how to create money out of thin air and loan them out!!

For merchants and traders, cunning is your best weapon to elevate oneself to the top of human food chain.

Nor Izzatina Abdul Aziz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ivan said...

It is sad to see such schools not make the list. Sadly the cream of the crop may not even be studying in these schools anymore.

Anonymous said...

Tan Cairong said ...
There is no point in making comparison with old time greats. The measures of excellence are based on different criteria. While the former greats may be compare to the likes of Eton, today's greats gain distinction not by comparing themselves to great schools on the world stage. Unlike Harvard and Oxford which pride themselves in producing the number of American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, our 20 high performance schools make the cut by producing the most number of As in PMR and SPM. Things that would mean nothing abroad. You will never see a British newspaper interviewing and praising top GCSE or A-levels students. Indeed nobody there know who scored 17 A1s. Only in our culture that on result release day, this is treasured as top news of the day. We now go for instant gratification, better than waiting 20, 30 years to see if their students eventually become great leaders accepting credit as excellent institutions.

Coltz said...

Mourning the general decline in educational quality is fine, so is mourning the downhill path that these icons have gone through. But, when one feels discomfort towards these schools "losing their top 20 spot", it's simply disturbing. What gives these schools any priviledge to rise above their peers?

I'd be just as happy if the Sekolah Tun Fatimahs or even Chinese "Vernaculars" (as the haters call it) can live up to the standards of the old greats. If that happens, we can merrily let the vultures of free market take care of the old carcasses - sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening yet.

Abu Abdullah Anas Al Banji said...

Hi guys

To sum up that high performance schools equals prominent Malaysian captains is a bit far-fetched, don't you think?

Hence, the measure of academic results should not be taken as a measure of progress or decline of schools.

Unless a SETARA-like measure is implemented in all schools, one should not compare apples with oranges.

What Mr Lee did is just that.


AI said...

@Nor: I think what the author is trying to convey, though perhaps could have articulated it better, is that there used to be schools in the Malaysian education system which was relevant. You can see the growing trend of parents sending their children to expensive private and/or international schools for primary and secondary education.

Damian Marcus Podtung said...

This school ranking system under the NKRA is a mockery to the underprivelege schools that face acute shortage of basic facilities that the urban schools enjoy. We just cannot compare and claim credit between two schools with different background. How can a school with only 100cc races against a car (school) with 3,000cc install with turbo engine comapared to school without basic infrastructure and do not even have a train (optionist) teacher e,g English teacher? Sabahan needs to have its rights accorded at par before we venture into this competition!

Anonymous said...

A digression here, perhaps. Schools like Eton College, Harrow, Winchester and St Paul's are independent boys' schools of the English public school tradition. They have absolutely no government funding and are elitist and they exclusively serve the upper and upper middle classes. The current annual fee per boy at any of these schools is between GBP29,000 to GBP30,000 and rising. Whereas, Singapore's Raffles and our venerable VI, St John's and Penang Free School are government schools and are run by the MOE and virtually free for Malaysians. But, agreed, they(our Malaysian schools) should be improved or be as glorious as they were in the past.