Chapter 2: It’s More Than Just Education (Cont’d)
Education As A Political and Cultural Symbol
Education is a very powerful political and cultural symbol in Malaysia. This unfortunate association proves to be a major distraction. Major efforts are expended in the name of education not on improving it, rather on scoring political points and furthering the objectives of ambitious politicians.
The consequence of this mindset is that initiatives in education are first analyzed in terms of which race or community “won” and which one “lost.” The corollary to this destructive thinking is that what is good for one community must be at the expense of the other–a “zero-sum” mentality. Chinese parents consider teaching Malay to their children a sop to Malay nationalists rather than as an asset in of itself. Fortunately, this negative attitude is fast receding. Malays however, are still trapped by the bugaboo of colonialism. Many among the educated and enlightened, as exemplified by Nik Safiah Karim, consider learning English as glorifying the colonialists or worse, of wanting to be a Mat Salleh (Malay epithet for the English, an idiomatic equivalent of Uncle Tom). It never occurs to them that English fluency is a highly useful skill.
Because of this powerful political symbolism, Ministers of Education with rare exceptions have been politicians known best for their ability to “stand up” against non-Malays. Such leaders also have a singularly insular view of the world, in addition to their thin managerial and other talents. The degradation of Malaysian education can be blamed in large part to the appointments in the past of such mediocre personalities as Rahman Talib and Khir Johari as Ministers of Education.
Their more recent successors are not much better. The sinister aspect to this politicization at the highest level is that it filters down to poison the atmosphere at lower levels. When I was associated with UKM, I had a competent pathologist colleague. He was enthusiastic, hardworking, and very effective; definitely an asset to the university. Imagine my anger and surprise when he approached me one morning with the news that his contract might not be renewed. Only then did I know that he was not a Malaysian. I brought his plight to his departmental head. He assured me (and I believed him) that he was indeed trying very hard to reverse the decision. Unfortunately the hierarchy at UKM was particularly chauvinistic (still is). To them the presence of every foreigner on the faculty is a reflection of the inadequacy of native talent. In the end, the man’s contract was not renewed. I am sure that those in charge did not even consider the effect of their decision on the students and teaching program.
The challenge for Malaysia is how to de-politicize education. This does not mean that it should operate outside the political realities. Far from it! The successful minister must have the necessary political finesse to balance the conflicting demands of the various constituencies.
What he should not do is have his every decision governed by politics. Aware of the heavy political significance of the portfolio, many ministers have used it to further their personal political agenda. Politicians are inherently ambitious creatures; they cannot fail to note that all of the nation’s prime ministers (except of course the first) had been Ministers of Education. This emboldened those ministers coming later that they too were destined for higher calling.
Anwar Ibrahim, who held the portfolio in the 1980s, was the most obscene example of this crass ambition. His successor Najib Razak also exhibited this tendency, albeit more coyly. But their performance as Minister of Education was nothing but a running record of ineptitude.
The hubris of Anwar was his arrogant attempt to dictate how Malay should be spoken – his famous dictate on the artificial Bahasa Baku (original Malay), now thankfully ignored. Najib’s legacy was in permitting private colleges and universities. He was very good at it, approving in the space of couple of years hundreds of institutions! He must have had an inflated sense of his (and his subordinates’) ability to monitor them all. I have a more suspicious take (pardon the choice of word), for later in 1999 Najib was returned with the highest number of votes as one of UMNO‘s Vice-Presidents. He ran a very slick and, I might add, a well-financed campaign. The consequence of that flurry of approvals is that today’s headlines carry stories of colleges set up by fly-by-night operators and a medical school approved that did not even have a laboratory. Yet this character has the gumption of thinking that he is competent to be a future prime minister!
In a dramatic departure from tradition, in 1999 Prime Minister Mahathir for the first time appointed a non-politician as Minister of Education. Musa Mohamad was trained as a pharmacist, and was previously the vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), remarkable for someone lacking a terminal qualification in his field and without an iota of scholarly contribution. No surprise then that as minister he has been fumbling from one crisis to another.
The most recent was over the teaching of science and mathematics in English. When the government first announced it, there was considerable opposition. The Chinese objected because their schools were already doing a good job, they saw no reason to change a working formula. Malays viewed such measures as further widening the gulf separating urban from rural (and thus Malay from non-Malay) schools.
Online polls conducted by the mainstream media and read mostly by urbanites overwhelmingly favored the proposal. But a similar survey done by Harakah, a publication of the opposition Islamic Party PAS, the results were the exact opposite. The mainstream media (owned by the ruling political party) carried little or no coverage of those opposing the scheme, thus giving readers the false impression that the initiative was universally welcomed.
Had the government concentrated on providing well-trained English teachers to rural schools, the measure would not have generated such hostile responses. Indeed had the government done that, rural (read: Malay) students would have high levels of English fluency and the problem would not have risen in the first place.
This close linking of politics and education means that the ministry’s basic mission of providing quality education often gets tangled with and distracted by extraneous considerations. In 2001, as part of the government’s economic recovery plan, over RM2 billion were allocated for the building of schools. But because of race politics, these contracts were given only to Bumiputras, thereby effectively ensuring that the costs would be jacked up because of the limited competition.
What the government should have done was to open the bids to all, including foreigners, and then accept the best price. In this way it would be spending the scarce resources prudently and would be able to stretch them even further, thus benefiting more students.
I estimate that such restrictive contracts boost the costs in excess of 25-50 percent. In one example, the government spent RM50 million to build a MARA residential school. I visited the site during its construction with a contractor friend who had done many similar projects.
We looked at the blue print, talked with the workers, and scouted around for the cost of the land. My contractor friend confidently said that he could have built the same for under RM30 million and still would have made a handsome profit. And by modifying the design to get rid of the extraneous and expensive arches and fancy roofs, he could have brought the price down to under RM25 million, about half price!
Had there been open bids, the government could have built two such schools for the price of one. With the current practice, the government may have helped its favorite Bumiputra contractors, with the second it would have helped thousands of young students.
In another instance, the ministry embarked on an equally expensive project of building computer labs at schools, a laudatory enterprise. Again the similar restrictions, and as a result less than 10 percent of the projects were completed on time. Appalling! The ministry was saddled with the twin problems of cost overruns and abandoned projects, all because of such favoritism and cronyism. Minister Musa made some seemingly brave statements about penalizing the errant contractors, but in the end nothing was done. The practice continues.
To be fair, such inefficiencies occur regularly in America. In California, every school must be designed from scratch. Obviously the architects’ lobby inserted that clause! And only unionized workers are to be employed, thus ensuring at least 30 percent hike in labor costs. There are also other rules purportedly for safety. Consequently public schools in California cost nearly twice that of private ones. It can be argued that California is rich and can afford such featherbedding practices. Not so Malaysia.
Another egregious example of prodigious waste was the sending of thousands of Bumiputra students abroad, mostly to mediocre institutions. The 1997 Asian economic crisis thankfully put an end to that profligate practice. While these precious funds were being wasted, local institutions struggled with meager resources. When I queried a senior official about this, his reply was as frank as it was frightening. By sending these students abroad and away from local public scrutiny, the government was hiding the fact it was spending billions on them. I would rather that the government been more prudent and sent only the best students and save the rest of the money to improve rural schools and local universities, thereby helping even more Bumiputras.
The quality of the students sent was such that when a team of officials from USM came to America to recruit potential lecturers among these students, almost all the applicants were rejected for the simple reason that few could communicate well in English. This raised the more fundamental question of why they were sent abroad in the first place.
When I encountered the first few students who had academic difficulties in the early 1980s, I blamed them for being lax and lazy. But when I later discovered that there were many more in the same sad shape, I knew then that it was not individual weaknesses, rather a system failure. I visited the centers that prepared these students and was appalled at both the lack of discipline and sense of purpose among the staff. No wonder few of the students were accepted to good colleges.
When I suggested that the selection be more rigorous, the officials replied that none would then qualify. They had such low expectations.
I heard every stereotype and caricature of the “lazy and dumb” Malays uttered by these officials who incidentally were also Malays. They further assured me that these students were the best they had. Note, the remarks were from the principals and senior administrators.
Lest I leave a negative impression, I will relate my experience with the teachers. First they apologized for their administrators’ dismissive treatment of me. Then they showed me the latest circular from the ministry asking them to further cut their syllabi. In physics they were to completely eliminate the whole section on optics. In chemistry, a number of experiments were now to be demonstrated only, not to be done by the students. When I queried why the ministry was doing this, they could not offer any explanation except to suggest that the ministry was pressuring the centers to pass as many candidates as possible, and to cut down costs.
I met with their biology teacher, and our conversation drifted towards teaching microscope, especially the ones with video and computer attachments so images could be stored on discs and projected onto the screen for the whole class to see. He said that he had been trying to acquire the equipment for the past three years but his request had been consistently deferred. My son’s school had just bought similar equipment. The cost? Less than 10 percent of what the Malaysian teachers were quoted! That reason? The school had to buy through the government-approved vendor and thus the consequent horrendous mark up.
Multiply such incidents and the aggregate wastage is truly staggering. Politics have corrupted the procurement process, driving up costs. The more sinister aspect to the intrusion of politics into education is that standards have gone by the wayside. Officials are impatient to get “good” results to prove a political point, thus they lower the standards.
Had they raised the standard, Malay students would have responded. There may be a year or two of bad results until the message gets through, but in the end they will respond.
Further, had such poor results persisted they would have elicited howling protests from the public and would have forced the ministry to rectify the inadequacies of the system. But by lowering the standards, more Malays appeared to be qualified and everyone was happy – until the day of reckoning.
Malaysian schools are also fast becoming the favorite hobbyhorse for ambitious politicians. In his zeal to prove his presumed piety and religiosity, Anwar Ibrahim instituted more teaching of Islamic Studies.
Later another politician, not to be outdone, pushed for teaching entrepreneurial studies, no doubt to boost his credentials among Malay business types. And a third was advocating his pet subject – tourism!
The latest is the Deputy Prime Minister pushing for IT. These politicians forget that there are only so many hours in the school day.
The current appalling standards of education at all levels are the consequence of having ignored the problems and letting them fester. A good start at reform would be to divorce as far as possible politics, especially the race and party variety, from education. Doing so would enable those involved in our schools and universities to focus on their basic mission of providing quality education to all.