Archive for May, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #20

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Chapter 3: The Present System

Public Universities and Other Post Secondary Institutions

Until recently, all universities in Malaysia are public institutions. There has been a proliferation of new universities built to cater for the increased demand brought on by the expansion of the schools.

University of Malaya (UM) was the first. It began in Singapore in1949 with the merging of Raffles College (a liberal arts institution) and the King Edward Medical College. In 1959 it established an autonomous branch in Kuala Lumpur, and in 1962 it severed its link with Singapore, taking with it the original name. The University of Malaya that was in Singapore then became the National University of Singapore. Being a colonial institution UM used English as the medium of instruction. With the introduction of Malay as the sole medium of instruction in Malaysian schools, UM later switched to Malay. As it has a strong tradition and foundation of English, that language is still widely used especially in the professional faculties.

The first university established to use exclusively Malay was the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM–National University of Malaysia). It took its first students in1970, a year following the race riot. The institution represented the pinnacle of achievement of the Malay language nationalists. Up to this day the university remains the hotbed of these extremists.

All public universities except one are under MOE, and it keeps a very close tab on them. The minister appoints not only the governing board but also senior academic officers. No surprise then these institutions ended up as pale clones of one another. The mistakes of one are quickly replicated at other institutions.

The one university not under MOE is the International Islamic University (IIU). It was started and thus partly financed by the International Islamic Secretariat, and set up under the Companies Act, and thus came under the purview of, of all things, the Ministry of Trade and Industry! It uses English as the medium of instruction. This was the only way to circumvent the then national policy of using only Malay in all institutions under MOE. On paper at least IIU is an economic enterprise, not an academic institution. How ingenious!

Because of their superior English proficiency, IIU graduates are highly sought after by private industry. Its student body is also the most diverse in Malaysia or even Asia. It has the largest percentage of foreign students, attracting many from all over, including America.

Interestingly there were no howling protests from Malay language nationalists with IIU using English. For one, the Islamic cachet caught them at bay; they did not have the courage to criticize something with an Islamic label even if that institution grossly violated the stated national education policy. In Malaysia, Islam is a much more powerful symbol among Malays, much more than that of language or culture.

IIU also proves that when there is the political will, even the most stringent regulations and insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles can easily be bypassed!

Today Malaysia has over a dozen (15 to be exact, and counting) public universities enrolling a total of over 320,000 students (2000 figures). Hardly a day goes by without some officials announcing the planning of yet another campus to keep up with the growing demand. Obviously to them, the setting up of a university is a trivial affair, perhaps akin to building another kampong hut. The results show. Most of these new universities have the academic atmosphere of a junior college, at best. Because officials do not pause and learn from each experience, the same mistakes get repeated and amplified. It reminds me of the wise observation of the legendary American surgeon William Mayo to the effect that some surgeons make the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience. Malaysian officials unabashedly boast of their vast experience setting up new universities. In contrast, California, a state with considerably greater financial and academic resources, managed to build only a couple of new campuses in the last decade.

The mediocre quality of these new institutions led former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, himself a former education minister, to call them kampong kampus. Kampong is the Malay word for village, but idiomatically it refers to an insular state of mind.

As part of the general plan to allow greater autonomy, the government embarked on legally incorporating public universities. This began with UM, and thus far it remains the only one to be “corporatized.” The premise of the exercise is to allow these institutions to operate more as private entities rather than as government agencies. They would be able to raise funds independently and be given more room to innovate after being let loose from the tight strictures of the civil service code. Sadly like everything else associated with MOE, the reality is far different.

The plan was enmeshed with controversy right from the very beginning. Even though it was ultimately concluded and UM is now a corporation, in reality and ambience, nothing has changed. The key personnel remain the same and senior appointments are still made by the minister with no input from the faculty. The transformation happened only on paper; on the ground nothing changes.

Public universities in Malaysia are essentially, in the words of a foreign academic familiar with the situation, “teaching factories.” Their commitment to research is minimal. There are no special funds set aside to support such activities. Worse, those few productive scholars and researchers are not even appreciated. Professors in the sciences are rarely provided with funds for research and laboratory assistants. Senior academic appointments are given more to political types. Perusing the resume of senior university officials, one is hard pressed to discern their significant (or any) academic achievements.

In the last few years the older public universities are beginning to emphasize research and setting up their own graduate schools. Except for Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), most of the graduate degrees are in liberal arts and social sciences rather than the natural sciences.

Apart from universities, there are numerous other public institutions of higher education like teachers’ and technical colleges, polytechnics, and specialized training institutes. Most, like teachers’ and technical colleges, come under the purview of MOE, others under Health (nursing schools), Human Resources (various training institutes), Entrepreneur Development (various MARA training centers), Defense (Military College), Agriculture (Cooperative Colleges), and the various state governments.

The entry requirement for these non-degree granting institutions is usually SPM (Sijil Perseketuan Malaysia–Malaysian Certificate of Education, given at Year 11). There is minimal transferability between these institutions and universities; no formal mechanism for students to continue on to universities.

Malaysia has not succumbed to the Western habit of puffing up its other tertiary institutions into universities. In America what was once teachers’ colleges are now full-fledged universities. Britain too is doing the same thing with its technical colleges and polytechnics. Whether such moves enhance these institutions or merely debase the status of universities is debatable.

Public universities and other tertiary institutions are heavily subsidized. Tuition covers less than 10 percent of their operating costs. For teachers’ colleges and nursing schools, students are paid in return for their services on graduation.

In 2000, about 25 percent of the 17-23 age cohorts are in higher education. The government hopes to boost this to 25 percent by 2005, and 40 percent by 2010. By 2020 that figure should exceed 50 percent, and will place the nation in the same league as the developed countries, thus fulfilling the aspirations of Vision 2020.

Next: Private Sector Involvement

Modernize the Farmers, Then the Farms

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

Modernize the Farmers, Then the Farms

The Ninth Malaysia Plan calls for heavy investment in the farm sector. Modernizing agriculture lies less with the paddy fields and palm oil plantations but more with the classrooms and lecture halls. Modernize the farmers, and they would modernize their farms.

Modernizing means more than just having modern implements, it involves fundamental changes in attitude towards farming, and of the farmers.

The K-Economy and Theory of Endogenous Growth

Consider this fictional account of two farmers. Both Ahmad and Bakar have the same size rice fields that are of equal fertility. Their method of farming remains unchanged, and their yields comparable. The only way to increase their output is through increasing the traditional “factors of production:” land (cultivate more); labor (planting twice a year); and capital (fertilizers, high-yield seeds). These have their limits and points of diminishing returns.

One day Ahmad noticed that a good portion of the seeds he sowed were eaten by birds. He reasoned that if he were to sow in the evening, by morning the seeds would be swollen by the dew and hidden beneath the moist soil, thus escaping the birds. He followed his intuition, and was duly rewarded by an increase in harvest.

Meanwhile Bakar stuck to tradition; who was he to change the ways of his forefathers. On seeing Ahmad’s success however, Bakar followed suit and was equally rewarded.

Ahmad went further. He discovered that by soaking his seeds in water impregnated with some bitter root substance that would deter the birds, his yield was increased even more. Soon he was selling his concoction. The more farmers use it, the greater the total village yield; there is virtually no limit to the increase. Everybody wins; the law of diminishing returns being inoperative. Such is the beauty and promise of the new “economic theory of endogenous growth.”

It is appropriate to reflect on what made Ahmad do what he did. He could be like Bakar and observe the practices of his ancestors. There is more than merely one defying tradition, and the other, a stickler to it.

Ahmad observed and learned from his environment. He noticed the birds and the dew, and their relationship to his seeds. He synthesized his observations, and then went ahead with a trial of his new insight. He was proven right and reaped a bounty. Intuitively, Ahmad is following the scientific method.

The question remains: How do we get more farmers to be like Ahmad? The assumption is that Ahmad and Bakar are not born with their traits. We can train farmers to be like Ahmad, to be innovative and productive, or to be like Bakar, resistant to change and unquestioningly accepting the status quo.

If we teach our young to be obedient to precedence (taqlid), follow tradition, and not to question established ways, then we are likely to get farmers like Bakar. The madrasahs are good at producing future Bakars. If we send our young to schools where they teach you to be observant, record your experiences, try to modify them and study their effects, that is, schools that emphasize the sciences, then we are likely to get Farmer Ahmad.

Then there is the role of culture. Things might not have worked out so wonderfully for Ahmad. His seeds could have been destroyed by mildew; and he would the butt of the villagers’ scorn. “See what you get for defying tradition!” Were that to happen, then it would discourage future budding Ahmads.

If the society were nurturing and supportive of change and had responded encouragingly, “It was a good idea though, what went wrong?” then it would more likely encourage future Ahmads. A Bill Gates would not likely emerge in a culture where dropping out of college would be considered a great shame on the individual and his or her family.

Productivity of American Farmers

American rice farmers drive luxury cars and vacation in exotic tropical isles while their Malaysian counterparts lead a subsistence living. Why the gap? Productivity!

The insight of modern economics is that knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge, trumps the traditional factors of production in enhancing growth.

American farmers are unbelievably productive. They usually have a degree from one of the A&M universities, and are well supported by intensive extension services from the Department of Agriculture and local universities. Its commitment to WTO notwithstanding, America provides generous subsidies.

Contrast that to Malaysian farmers. The rural schools they attend rarely offer classes even remotely related to farming. Worse, these schools are heavy on religions and light on the sciences.

There are very few vocational agricultural schools. It reflects the government’s shallow commitment to improving agriculture that these schools are not in the educational mainstream. Their students could not aspire to greater heights (like entering college or university); hence they have little motivation to excel.

Malaysia used to have the Agriculture College offering diploma programs. That institution is now a university, and there is a gap in the training of sub-professional personnel. Few of the public and none of the private universities offer farm related courses.

There is no institution devoted to training future farmers. Like every other human endeavor, practitioners in agriculture must be formally trained. The vast and substantive body of knowledge can no longer be passed from father to son as with subsistence farming. Future farmers must be as formally trained as future physicians.

The USDA has a fine stable of research facilities and its personnel heavy with science-trained individuals. The Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture is full of science-illiterate bureaucrats.

The US Secretary of Agriculture and his deputy are professed “farm boys.” Secretary Johanns describes himself as “a farmer’s son with an intense passion for agriculture.” It is doubtful whether his Malaysian counterpart could claim the same zeal.

Malaysia’s effort at modernizing agriculture thus far has been for the minister to endlessly exhort those poor and illiterate farmers to exploit the rich European markets. That reflects how far detached he is from the reality in the villages.

Modernizing Malaysian Agriculture

A good start at modernizing Malaysian agriculture would be to initiate a national tractor project. We have one for cars and motorcycles, why not tractors? That would boost the productivity of farmers. Failing that, the government could remove all taxes for farm equipment. At the very least, the Agriculture Department should have facilities where farmers could rent farm equipment cheaply. They used to have that under colonial rule.

To attract bright and enterprising individuals to agriculture, I would give scholarships to those who pursue it at university. I would scrap all scholarships for Islamic and Malay Studies and divert the funds to funding students in agriculture.

I would continue the support beyond graduation through subsidized loans and free public land if they promise to develop it for agriculture.

Then I would fund extensive extension services to support these well educated modern farmers. That is the only way to modernize agriculture. Anything less would be wishful thinking.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #19

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

Chapter 3: The Present System (Cont’d)

Malaysian Schools Today

Education in Malaysia is federal responsibility. It is highly centralized with MOE controlling every detail of the system, from the curriculum and syllabus right down to the choosing, printing, and distributing of textbooks. At one time the ministry also had its own architectural and public works department responsible for designing and building schools. State governments do not partake in education except for some religious schools in PAS-controlled Kelantan and Trengganu.

This may change soon, as there are other states like Selangor and Negri Sembilan that are planning to have their own universities.

Malaysia provides for 11 years of free but not compulsory schooling; 6 primary, and 5 secondary. As of 2003, primary schooling would be compulsory. There are preschools for 4-5 years old, mostly run by private entities and as expected, located mainly in urban areas. There are some public ones run by MOE as well as the Ministries of Rural Development and of Unity and Community Development.

The term “free schooling” requires clarification. It means only that there are no tuition fees, but parents still incur other expenses for sports and other extra curricular activities, in addition to books, transportation, uniforms, and lunches. These are substantial. For rural students, transportation can be a major cost although now with many schools built in villages, this is becoming less a significant factor.

After preschool, children enter primary school at age six, and after six years move on to five years of secondary schooling. This is the national stream where the medium of instruction is Malay. English is taught only as a subject, and although it is taught at all levels, it is not a compulsory subject in the sense that students need not pass it.

To cater for the needs and sensitivities of the vernacular groups, there are the “national-type” schools at the primary level where pupils are taught in their mother tongue (Chinese or Tamil), with Malay offered only as a subject. After Primary 6, the pupils would spend a year in Malay immersion class (Remove Class) prior to entering the regular “national” stream for their secondary education. The old Chinese secondary schools still exist physically but they now use the national curriculum with Malay as the medium of instruction.

Students sit for standardized national tests at the end of Primary 6; Form 3 (Year 9); and Form 5 (Year 11).

There is a separate parallel Islamic stream, starting at preschool and going all the way up to Year 13 and the university. Here as expected, the emphasis is exclusively on Islamic Studies. These schools claim that they also teach other subjects like mathematics and science; in reality those are being taught at the most elementary level. Their laboratories (only in the most generous way can they be called as such) would be lucky to have a few test tubes–for demonstration purposes only! The Islamic stream has its own matriculation examination where only Islamic Studies subjects are tested.

This education dualism of two separate and mutually exclusive streams operating independently is the dilemma facing Malaysia today, especially when the philosophies and goals of the two streams contradict each other. One is essentially secular, the other religious. One tries to be inclusive and integrative, the other is exclusive and prides on its insularity. The divisive potential of this dualism is finally dawning on policymakers, but because of the powerful symbolism of Islam, the challenge of reconciling the two would be immense. Worse, there has been little or no attempt at doing that.

There are also special education schools, few in numbers, to take care of those with special needs. In addition some of the regular schools also have limited facilities to handle these students.

For Bumiputra students, the Year 6 examination is critical as the top scorers are offered the opportunity to continue their secondary education at residential schools where tuition and boarding are free. The Form 3 examination is also critical, as students would be streamed to enter the academic, technical, or vocational stream at the upper secondary level. Students chosen for the academic pathway are further streamed into Arts or Science.

Beyond Form 5 the system gets messy. Students either leave to enter the workforce, enter two years of pre-university class (Form 6–Upper and Lower), or seek further training at teachers’, technical, and other colleges. As expected, those chosen for Form 6 would be the top scorers.

Within the last two decades Form Six has been emasculated, with students now increasingly choosing the faster path of matriculation classes (matrikulasi) run by local universities. Matrikulasi, designed specifically for Bumiputras, is popular as it cuts the pre-university years to one. Non-Bumiputras too are shying away from Sixth Form; instead they enroll in the many private colleges and sit for foreign matriculation examinations. Of the 350,000 candidates who sat for the Form V examination in 2001, less than 30,000 continued on into Sixth Form.

Most schools are day schools, with some providing limited hostel facilities for students staying far away from campus. The government also operates a number of fully residential secondary schools both under MOE as well as the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development (through MARA). There is also one under the Defense Ministry (The Royal Military College). The oldest is the all-boys Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), established in 1905 by the British to educate children of royal families and nobility to prepare them for junior positions in the colonial civil service. Such modest goals notwithstanding, to Malays that school is revered as Babut Darjat (Gate to Heaven). Evidently Malays then (and perhaps now too) did not have high aspirations; they were easily satisfied with the crumbs handed to them by the British.

After independence the college began admitting those from the peasant class. This was not an attempt at meritocracy or democratization, rather a reflection of the dwindling numbers from the upper class who could benefit from the college or could fill the classes.
Despite the moniker college, MCKK is merely a residential school. During the 1960s and 70s with the influx of talent beyond the royalty class, the college did produce some luminaries. Its top students routinely matriculated into elite universities. Come the1980s with the general emasculation of Sixth Form, MCKK also dispensed with its Sixth Form. Its graduates now have to spend an additional year or two elsewhere for finishing school prior to entering university; a definite step down in mission.

A comparable institution for girls, The Malay Girls (now Tunku Kurshiah) College (TKC) was set up in 1949. Like their counterpart at MCKK, TKC graduates too now have to go elsewhere for matriculation.

Following the successes of these two schools in the 60s and 70s, the government expanded the program and set up dozens more. This substantially increased the number of Malay undergraduates. One of my recommendations back in the mid 1960s was precisely to expand these residential schools, but to limit them to children of disadvantaged Bumiputras. Today these schools are a mere shadow of their former glory. Few prepare their students for matriculation, the rest like MCKK and TKC goes only to Form 5. The few exceptions include the MARA Junior College in Banting that prepares students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The government is committed to expanding these very expensive schools. The Eighth Malaysia Plan calls for building at least a dozen more such schools. These schools cater exclusively for Bumiputras, but in March 2002 the government announced as part of a general plan to introduce meritocracy and greater competition, that 10 percent of the slots be allocated to non-Bumiputras, at least for MARA residential schools. The residential schools emphasize the sciences, all part of the national effort to increase the number of Malays in the sciences.

The figure that is most interesting is that less than 5 percent of Chinese students choose the national schools, and that number is fast declining. The figures for Indians are only slightly higher. Thus national schools are essentially schools for Malays. In contrast, in the last few years there is an increasing tendency for Malays to choose Chinese schools. Additionally many more Malays are opting out of the national stream into religious schools.

The much-vaunted national schools are now losing students from both Malays and non-Malays. The Razak Plan, tinkered once too many, is finally unraveling.

Other relevant statistics to ponder are these. Out of a population of over 23 million, there are about 2.9 million students in primary and 2 million in secondary schools. There are over 6,000 national primary schools and 1,700 secondary ones. The Chinese and Tamil schools number 1,300 and 530 respectively. The pupil to teacher ratio at the primary level is 19:1; at secondary, 17:1. These ratios look impressive but I have yet to see a class with less than 40 pupils. These figures, like others emanating from MOE, are suspect.

Next: Public Universities and Other Post Secondary Institutions

Ending Subsidies and Changing Behaviors

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

The recent public outcry against reducing the petroleum subsidy underscores the difficulty in changing established patterns of behavior. If we have problems with a 30-sen per gallon reduction in subsidy, imagine how formidable the opposition would be to removing other major subsidies, like special privileges. Those who call for dispensing with NEP “crutches” would do well to heed this caution.

For a study in contrast, gasoline prices tripled in the last few years in America, yet there was no protest. Nor were there any discernible changes in the behaviors of the public. Gas-guzzling cars still sell, the highways are perpetually jammed, and buses and trains remain empty.

If we believe in basic economic assumptions, such increases in price should result in concomitant reduction in demand. That it does not, reflects the difficulty in changing habits and attitudes.

Changing Human Behavior

This does not mean that human behavior cannot be changed; it can, often quickly and dramatically.

The Arab oil embargo of the 1970s precipitated widespread changes in the collective behaviors of Americans. Thermostats were turned down in winter and up in summer, motor homes remained unsold, and people took to wearing sweaters. Four cylinder cars, hitherto a rarity, suddenly became popular. Highway travel was reduced, and people drove slower to conserve gasoline. An unanticipated benefit was the dramatic drop in highway fatalities.

The Japanese occupation of Malaysia also precipitated seismic changes in behaviors and attitudes. For one, it shattered the myth of the White Man’s superiority.

There were other mundane changes. As portrayed in the movie A Town Like Alice, those “mems” hitherto used to having their every need tended to found that they too could scrounge barefooted in the villages with the natives in order to survive. My father, who had difficulty learning the much easier English language, found that he could speak Japanese and write kanji in a matter of months! The Japanese had a ruthless – and very effective – teaching technique: Learn, or you will be punished, and punished severely.

Ending Subsidies

There is a useful lesson here for those who bravely talk of ending the NEP “crutches” and other subsidies.

Take oil subsidy. If the objective is to stem the hemorrhage from Treasury, it would be wise to have slow incremental reductions. They would more likely be taken in stride, as the Americans demonstrate. If the objective is to wean off the cheap-oil lifestyle, then you would need “shock” treatment akin to the oil embargo.

Assuming the first objective, a 10-sen increase every few months would eliminate the subsidy in a few years while allowing for consumers to adjust. To cushion the impact on the poor, subsidize their season’s bus and train tickets, and hand out coupons redeemable for cooking gas. Additionally, reduce the tax or give tax credits for taxi owners and bus operators.

Regardless of the objectives, it certainly would not be wise politically and economically to reduce the subsidy and simultaneously announce a massive bailout for Malaysia Airlines.

Shock Therapy to End Subsidy Mentality

Ending the subsidy mentality among Bumiputras would involve major cultural and behavioral changes, thus requiring “shock” strategy. The objective here is less with reducing public expenditures (though that would be a significant side benefit) and more to changing societal and citizens’ attitudes and values.

A gradualist approach would not work, it would let people adjust and outsmart the system. Never underestimate human ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

Clinically, shock treatment is used for treating depression and in aversion therapy; in the hands of amateurs, it could kill.

Socially, if “shock therapy” were indiscriminately and unskillfully applied to end special privileges, there would be riots. The nation would be ripped part from the turmoil, negating whatever potential benefits that could be gained. Skillfully applied however, it could be socially and economically transforming.

One strategy would be to “shock” only the segment of society that could bear the pain most, and whose behavioral and attitudinal changes would influence the rest.

Imagine if henceforth Bumiputras who earned or have assets beyond a certain value were denied special privileges. The criterion should be such that the group would include members the royal family, ministers, members of parliament, business tycoons, professionals, and senior civil servants.

Consider the immediate positive effects. Knowing that their children would not get scholarships and other special treatment, they would now curtail their ostentatious lifestyles and save more. This would add to capital formation in the Bumiputra community, with the consequent positive economic impact. With the rich now off the public trough, more resources could then be diverted to the truly needy.

Similarly, instead of having ministers and politicians decide who would be blessed with timber concessions, Approved Permits for importing cars, and other valuable licenses, auction them off to the highest bidders, and use the proceeds to improve rural schools.

Likewise with the award of public tenders; there would now be competitive biddings to involve not only non-Bumiputra companies but also foreign ones. Bumiputra companies would then have to strive very hard to be competitive. Their principals would have to pay more attention to their businesses and less time lobbying politicians. The government would also realize immense savings, spared from paying the unnecessarily bloated costs as with the present practice.

On another level, the next time a vacancy occurs at the highest echelon of the civil service, public universities, and Government-linked companies, if the government were to use a reputable “head hunting” firm to recruit widely (including abroad) for a replacement, imagine the shock waves that would thunder through the establishment! That would be far more effective than the endless exhortations of gemilang, terbilang and cemerlang (excellence, glory and distinction).

Yes, there would be a political backlash from those grown gluttonous on the present system. However, the many more poor Bumiputras who would benefit from the changes would easily outvote the deprived rich ones!

Imagine the transforming effect to such a selective shock therapy. All Bumiputras would now strive hard to be competitive and less dependent on the state. The results would only be good, for Bumiputras as well as for Malaysia.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #18

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

Chapter 3: The Present System

The present system of education is based on the Razak Report of 1956. There had only been minimal modifications at the periphery since then. The core assumption of that report is that Malaysians should have a uniform system of schooling with a common curriculum so as to foster national unity.

Prior to the Razak Report, Malaysian schools were based along the British model. There were essentially two systems: English and vernacular schools. English schools were mainly in the major towns and catered mostly to urban dwellers. These happened to be mostly non-Malays at the time. Some were missionary schools, and with such names as The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus they not surprisingly did not attract many Malays. The curriculum was entirely British, right down to the choice of textbooks, with no attempt at modifying to suit local conditions.

These schools were not free; in addition to tuition fees there were other incidental expenses for sports and library for example that added up quickly. Then there were the textbooks and uniforms. Even students’ exercise books were imported, making them very expensive. Students were not allowed to use the cheap local variety. For rural children, an additional significant cost was for transportation. Not surprisingly many dropped out; their families unable to afford to keep them in school.

The British tried to accommodate rural children by having hostels attached to these schools. It also gave scholarships to promising Malay students based on need.

Malay schools were state supported and free. They were also conveniently located in the villages. There were no additional assorted fees and expenses; the pupils need not even have uniforms. Many were barefooted. Such schools were referred to as sekolah kaki ayam, schools for the chicken-footed (barefooted). The school years did not extend beyond six, most only for four – very elementary. The pupils learned only the minimum of arithmetic, reading, and writing, all in Malay.

The brighter graduates would have a chance to undergo two years of teacher training and then they were let loose to teach. My parents were two such teachers. Teaching was the only avenue of employment for the lucky few. A few more could find employment as police constables, the armed services, or as petty clerks in the civil service. The vast majority would continue with their village life as before; nothing would have changed for them. As Roff noted, from the point of view of utility alone, many Malays saw little advantage in vernacular education.

In 1903, of the 2,900 boys who passed Malay schools in Perak, 24 became domestic or office servants, ten schoolteachers, one a clerk, and another a policeman. That pattern persisted throughout the entire British rule.

Tamil schools were just as sorry. Chinese schools were much better as they were better funded by their community. They also provided education up to the upper secondary levels. They essentially used the textbooks available in China. Because these schools emphasized mathematics, their students were able to transfer their skills readily to the marketplace.

These vernacular schools were left entirely to their own devices, the colonial version of benign neglect. Consequently they developed along divergent paths. Students in Chinese schools learned more about China and Mao Zedong than about Malaysia and Malaysian heroes. Students in Tamil schools were more concerned with events in India and knew more about the Indian independence movement than Malaysia’s own history.

The country’s first Minister of Education, Tun Razak, quickly grasped the potential danger to the new nation with the young being educated separately. His bold plan called for the setting up of national schools, a fully integrated system with a common curriculum and language, Malay.

Chinese educationists strenuously opposed Razak’s plan. During the first few years following its adoption of the plan, Chinese schools were hotbeds of protests and student radicalism. These groups appeared at times to hold the government and the nation hostage. Only the resolve and firm handling by Razak prevented the issue from tearing the young nation apart. Today nearly five decades later, all acknowledge the wisdom of Razak’s premise and approach.

Next: Malaysian Schools Today

Our Schools and Idle Youths

Sunday, May 14th, 2006

SEEING IT MY WAY May 10, 2006

From December to June, thousands of our young idle their time in the malls and elsewhere while waiting for their SPM (Form V) examination results. Then they wait whether they would be accepted into Sixth Form or matrikulasi (matriculation).

Those who can afford it, or have freed themselves from the dependency on the government, have wisely abandoned the system. They enroll their young in private institutions that prepare for foreign matriculation examinations.

The poor, and those who cling to the notion that the government knows best and are therefore psychologically dependent upon it, wait passively. They wait patiently for the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education to determine their fate.

This being Malaysia, the race factor is never far. In the first group are mainly non-Malays; the second, Malays. That being the case, we should expect the Malay-controlled government to solve the problem long ago, as the beneficiaries would clearly be mostly Malays. It is both a paradox and a riddle that that is not happening.

In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I advocated de-emphasizing the SPM and extending the school years to Sixth Form for all.

SPM should merely be an in-progress report card, not a terminal examination. The areas tested should also be reduced to only the core subjects of English, Malay, science, and mathematics. This idea that students should be sitting for up to 15 subjects is ridiculous.

There will be some non-core elective subjects. These would be evaluated by the individual schools and teachers. Using statistical techniques to compare the schools’ composite SPM scores, it is possible to reduce considerably interschool variations in evaluations.

Revamp and Expand

The Sixth Form would have to be revamped and expanded away from only preparing students for university. That would still be the objective of the academic stream. However, there would also be vocational and general streams Sixth Form to cater for those not university bound.

Subjects like wood working, cooking, book keeping, and auto mechanics should be taught at vocational Sixth Form, just as they are being taught at American high schools. The curriculum could be integrated with the apprenticeship programs so that when the students completed their Sixth Form, they would be certified journeymen.

The general stream Sixth Form would prepare students for non-university institutions like nursing schools and teachers’ colleges. Even if they were to forego further education and enter the work force directly, they would be better prepared for having had the two extra years of schooling.

The academic steam would continue the current pattern of preparing students for universities.

I would broaden the curriculum to six subjects, with the four mandatory ones, and scrap the useless General Paper. The rigors of the subjects would have to be modified. The mathematics of the academic stream would include calculus and statistics, for the vocational stream, “consumer math.” Those pursuing the sciences would take physics, chemistry and biology; those opting for liberal arts, physical or life science; and in the vocational stream, general science.

Those in the Islamic stream too would have to take the four core subjects, plus their Arabic and Islamic Studies as the other two subjects. This would broaden the students’ intellectual horizon and career options. Even if they were to end up as religious officials, they would have a wider view of the world for having had a broad based education. That would be good for them and Islam.

All students, regardless of their ultimate career choices, would have 13 years of schooling and instructions in the four core subjects. That should prepare them well.

Cheaper Proposal

My proposal is also cheaper. Matrikulasi is expensive; scrap it and divert the funds to expand Sixth Form.

I would encourage through tax incentives and grants for private industry to sponsor or start their own vocational stream. Proton could start one preparing students to work in the auto industry. A group of hotels could start one focusing on the hospitality industry by training students to be chefs and waiters. A consortium of construction companies could start schools to train plumbers, welders and wood workers.

With the SPM testing fewer subjects, we would not have to wait months for the results. The transition from Form V to VI would be as smooth as from Form IV to V, with students starting their classes in January instead of six months later. With the non-core subjects evaluated continuously throughout the year by the schools, this would give yet another independent assessment of the students to complement the SPM.

There is no reason for our youngsters to waste the six to seven months from November to June. Similarly, our younger students are wasting their valuable time waiting for their SRP and UPSR results. These tests should be held done late in November so as to maximize the instruction hours. There is no reason why the Examination Syndicate (that conducts these public examinations) could not be more efficient. I am appalled that their staff are allowed to take their annual holidays at the end of the year, when that should be the busiest time of the year for them.

The present system has been in existence for decades; it is time for to examine it critically. At the very least my proposal would get rid of the current “mall rats;” at best, it would extend the instruction days and would make our young, and our nation, more competitive.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia # 17

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Chapter 2: It’s More Than Just Education (Cont’d)

Education, The Economy, and Demographics

The two most important factors that bear on the quality of education lie outside its sphere: the economy and demographics. Stated differently, Malaysia cannot have a strong education system with a weak economy, nor a First World standard of education with Third World demographics. If we look at countries that have superior education systems, the remarkable correlates are that they all have healthy economies and low birth rates.

A strong economy does not guarantee a superior education system. Indonesia had an impressive economy under Suharto, but it squandered that golden opportunity by diverting it away from improving its schools. The Indian state of Kerala has a much superior education system and other social services despite an economy one hundredth that of Canada and a population of comparable size. Kerala’s literacy rates and educational attainment are the highest in India and near that of the First World. Similarly Cuba, despite a crawling if not stagnant economy, has universal literacy and high caliber education. Because of that it is a major force for biogenetic engineering, producing such sophisticated products like Hepatitis B vaccine.

A robust economy enables the nation to devote the necessary resources to improving its education system. Superior schools and universities in turn help buffer and sustain the economy. Much has been written on the rapid recovery of South Korea, Taiwan, and to a certain extent Malaysia following the 1997 economic crisis, but I venture that a major contributing factor is their superior education system. Indonesia and Thailand did not bounce back fast because their education system is that much more inferior.

The other important correlate of a superior education system is low population growth. Cuba and Kerala may have moribund economy, but their slow population growth enables them to devote their resources towards improving their social services instead of just trying to keep up with the population growth. China will leapfrog into the First World simply because it has tackled the most important factor, that of reducing its previously horrendously high birth rates. This together with a rapidly expanding economy ensures that China would be a major power soon. Indonesia and India on the other hand are still struggling merely to keep up, whatever gains they have in their economy are quickly absorbed and diluted by a rapidly expanding population.

Malaysia has the typical Third World demographics, with a pyramidal age distribution, in contrast to the more cylindrical First World pattern. Meaning, Malaysia has the greatest proportion of its citizens in the lower age groups. Additionally it is also at a dangerous transition with a rapidly increasing aging population to boot, thanks to its improving health care. Graphically the apex of the pyramid is broader, meaning more resources would have to be diverted to serve the needs of the elderly and consequently less for schools.

Assume an inflation and population growth rates of 3 percent each. This means the government would have to spend 6 percent more every year just to maintain the status quo, with none going towards improvement in quality. Every year Malaysia spends millions more on education, but these additional funds are simply consumed with building new classrooms and training new teachers just to keep up with the number of additional new school children.

I estimate that the number of births in Malaysia last year was around 600,000, and increasing at 3 percent annually. That means that country will have to build classrooms and find new teachers for 18,000 new children every year until those children finish their schooling 11 years later. The following year we will have to repeat the same process all over again. The cumulative costs are astronomical. But if we have an effective family planning program and manage to keep the number of new births constant, we do not need to build those extra classrooms and train those new teachers. Or if we do, then we could use the extra resources to reduce class overcrowding and pupil/teacher ratio. This would inevitably lead to improvement in quality. If we go beyond and reduce the number of births by only 1 percent, then we could use the resources currently used by the 6,000 fewer children to further benefit the rest. Note these savings would recur every year and be cumulative and additive.

Seventeen years later we would see even greater savings when we do not have to provide the additional spaces at the colleges and universities.

It is not enough to merely stabilize the fertility rates as you would then still have a steady increase in the number of births because the present cohort of childbearing women would continue to increase for at least the next 30 to 40 years. Thus Malaysia must go beyond and actually reduce the number of new births. To do this it has to markedly reduce the fertility rates to compensate for the increasing number of childbearing women now already in the pipeline.

Countries like Singapore and Ireland have improved their education system immensely not so much because their leaders are particularly smart or astute but because their nation’s birth rate has plummeted. Thus they can devote their resources to improving the quality instead of merely trying to cope up.

It is beyond the scope of my book to discuss ways to curb population growth; suffice to say that that is an important strategy to improving the quality of education and other social services. Malaysia can significantly reduce its population growth by making family planning readily available. It does not have to resort to the crude and intrusive ways of the Communist Chinese. Unfortunately Malaysia has the perverse policy of pursuing increased population growth rate with its misguided 70 Million Population program. This will make attaining the goal of a quality education that much more difficult to achieve.

Next: Chapter 3: The Present System

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Reposted from the Sun May 4, 2006

You can tell much about a culture by how it treats its gifted and talented, and whom it honors and celebrates. It is for this reason that I am pessimistic about the future of our giant neighbor and kin, Indonesia.

Its gifted son, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, died on Sunday, April 30th, 2006 at 81, after a long illness. Vice-President Jusuf Kalla reportedly sent some flowers, about the only official tribute to this great man.

Pak Pram would have preferred it that way, for every time the Indonesian authorities paid any attention to him, he ended up paying dearly for it. It did not matter who was in charge.

The Dutch incarcerated him during the dying days of colonialism. Sukarno did his part in 1959. That must have hurt Pram immensely for he had the highest esteem for Sukarno for uniting that polyglot archipelago. Pram suffered the longest, and most brutal, when Suharto banished him to Pulau Buru from 1965 to 1979. Even when Pram was released from Buru, he was not free; he was under house arrest.

Suharto banished Pram for an indeterminate period, with no formal trial or charges. That reflected the contempt Suharto and his ilk had for the rule of law. Pram and thousands of others paid a high price for that callousness.

In his Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), Pramoedya paid tribute to his fellow prisoners. He listed those who had died, lest the world would forget them. It is a long and mournful list.

Knowing the appalling conditions, as Pramoedya so graphically chronicled, each of those deaths must have been unmercifully cruel. Whatever sins those poor souls may have committed, surely a Merciful Allah would look kindly upon them.

If the intent was to destroy Pramoedya, then Suharto had grossly underestimated the inner strength of this mortal. It reflects the Justness of Allah that today Suharto faces charges of corruption and possible war crimes while the rest of the world lauds Pramoedya. In his homeland however, they still ban his books.

Knowing full well that he was a writer, the authorities at Buru deprived him of pencil and paper. Undeterred, he would compose his stories in his head and re-told them repeatedly to his fellow prisoners. With each telling he would refine the language and narrative. By the time he was released, he had the full four-volume series completed, polished, and ready to be committed to paper. It did not take him long to complete that mechanical part of writing. He published in quick succession his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (This Child of Mankind), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps), and Rumah Kaca (The Glass House) to international acclaim.

That was my introduction to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, through the superb English translations. I resolved to collect his entire works in the original Bahasa Indonesia; I am not there yet.

It is a sad commentary that I have difficulty getting his books; Malaysian bookstores do not carry them. Worse, their personnel did not even know who Pramoedya was. Shame on them!

Reading the original in Bahasa after reading the translated version did not in any way diminish the pleasure or anticipation, surely the ultimate tribute to the skills and fidelity of his translators.

Pramoedya was on a North American tour in 1999, sponsored by his American publisher. My greatest regret was not being able to attend his public lecture at Berkeley. It took intense international pressure on Suharto to release Pram for his international tour.

The University of Michigan may have conferred an honorary doctorate on Pramoedya, and the Magsaysay Foundation its highest honor, but no Indonesian or Malaysian university has seen fit to recognize this great figure of Malay literature. His works may have been translated in over 40 languages and enjoyed by millions worldwide, but they have yet to reach the Malay masses.

I am sad for Pram and his family; I am even sorrier for Malay culture. A culture cannot hope to aspire to great heights if it does not value the talented and gifted in its midst.

I re-read Bumi Manusia for solace upon hearing of his death. Pramoedya’s courage, passion and wisdom again came to life through his prose. A hundred years from now, not many very remember Sukarno and Suharto, but Pram’s writings will continue to touch the hearts of his readers. In our language, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was truly “Anak Yang Soleh.” May Allah bless his soul!

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #16

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Chapter 2: It’s More Than Just Education (Cont’d)
Education and Technology (Cont’d)

Numerous studies show the benefit of early musical education. I would thus provide musical instruments and music classes ahead of computers. Music lessons are also much cheaper. Music would teach these youngsters the concept of symbols and abstractions, and also teamwork. Very few Malaysian schools now have music programs.

While we have been bludgeoned with the mantra that information is power, in truth it isn’t. As Stoll so rightly points out in his book, librarians are famous for having the most information, yet they lack power. Politicians on the other hand have no or very little information, yet they are very powerful. Having the information is only the first step, the more important issue is how to evaluate that information and put it in the proper perspective. That requires a faculty for critical thinking, rational reasoning, and a high degree of skepticism.

Again comparing with the car, the skills or level of understanding needed to use one is very simple. Start the engine (two seconds instructions: insert and turn key) and then practice steering and braking.

With those simple instructions you could drive the car safely on a deserted road. But if you want to take the car on the freeway, then you will need more skills lest you become a menace to yourself and others. You would need to improve your steering and braking, and learn defensive driving and rules of the road. If you want to fix the engine then you would need to learn to be a mechanic. Going further, if you want to design cars or build a better suspension system, then you would need to go to design or engineering school.

Likewise with computers; if you want to write software, then you would need to learn one of the programming languages. But for the vast majority of users, all you have to know is which key to punch to get a certain result on the screen. That is all. The most frequent question asked when I was learning the computer was, “How do I do…?” You do not need special classes in the school curriculum to teach how to use word processor and e-mail, connect to the Internet, or access data from the Web. A visitor from Malaysia learned all these in one evening, and by the time my wife was ready with dinner, he had already sent his first e-mail. Yet this gentleman and his colleagues back home had been clamoring for the government to set up special computer classes for senior civil servants! If you want to get fancy, you could learn other slightly involved software like spreadsheet (good for accounting), PowerPoint (for slide presentations), and web authoring. Once you have the basics and are comfortable with computers, then you wonder how on earth you coped in the days before word processing! Today I rarely compose an essay on paper anymore, I do it straight on the keyboard, editing as I go along.

While learning how to use word processor is easy enough, writing is not. That requires a patient teacher, frequent exercises, and the availability of good books. If your prose is of the variety, “It was a dark and stormy night…,” no amount of fancy fonts and jazzing up on the word processor will improve it. Had you written, “I could barely make out his wet face amidst the rough rustling of the reeds…” then regardless whether you have fancy fonts or merely scribble it on a yellowing piece of paper, your readers would know that it was a dark and stormy night.

More importantly, they would likely to continue reading. It is more important to teach students how to write using the word processor rather than simply teaching them how to use the software. Likewise it is better to teach them how to collect, present, and interpret data using the database and spreadsheet rather than simply teaching them about the software.

The government has a high-level committee looking into bringing IT to the schools. I agree that schools should have computers, but before spending billions in wiring our schools, I would first attend to the basics. Having done that then I would introduce IT, starting at the upper levels, the universities. I would provide every faculty member with a free computer and unlimited Internet access. I would also ensure that the campus is “wired” and encourage the faculty to post their class assignments and reading lists online. Students too should be encouraged to submit their assignments electronically. All incoming students must be computer literate. I do not mean that the university should run word processing classes rather students would have to spend the months while waiting to enter the university acquiring those skills. There are plenty of proprietary classes where they can do this.

Even the mosque in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, has such classes. There is no need to waste expensive university personnel or resources for students to acquire these basic computer skills.

Having computers in schools would be useless if there are no changes with the present Internet hook up fee structure. In America there is a fixed fee for unlimited access; in Malaysia it is hourly rates. Thus users are inhibited from reaping the vast potential of the Internet because of the additional costs incurred.

Deputy Prime Minister Badawi in a fit of enthusiasm recently proposed that IT be taught in schools. The curriculum is already crowded. Besides, I do not know exactly what he meant by it. Teach programming, software writing, and website designing? Surely our students have plenty of time acquiring those skills after they have mastered the basics and developed critical thinking. But if he means that students should be able to use computers and be comfortable with them, then you do not need to have a separate subject for that; it can be done in computer clubs and as extracurricular activities. Frankly I do not think Badawi himself knows what he is talking about. To him IT is only the latest buzzword to sprinkle his speeches.

The government demonstrated its commitment to IT by funding it massively, nearly a billion ringgit for 2003. In contrast, only RM 850million for implementing single session schools. The amount allocated for teacher training was considerably less and did not merit a separate line item. The prime minister is deluded into thinking that teachers could be mere facilitators, their job reduced to turning on the computers and letting the students learn via electronic modules. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have to differentiate computer literacy from computational literacy. The former as it is commonly understood means the ability to use the computer; it is a tool. In a way this is a misuse of the word literacy. A better term would be computer familiarity or facility. Computational literacy on the other hand is the ability to use programming language and to think, visualize, and extrapolate concepts in that medium. An illustration and comparison with text literacy would clarify my point.

Text literacy means more than just being able to read and write. It is a basic instrument to understand and communicate with the written word. Text literacy produces the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck, and also the countless memos, letters, and little notes we write each other. It is a basic tool: an intellectual infrastructure. Through it we can communicate our deepest thoughts and emotions, a significant advancement over communication via cave wall drawings and oral traditions.

The discovery of the printing press brought a quantum leap forward in enhancing the utility of and democratizing text literacy. It brought literacy to the masses.

Computational literacy is also an infrastructure, and computers enhance it in much the same way that printing presses do to text literacy. With our understanding of the language of computers we would be able to think and project our messages and thoughts or otherwise communicate in this new medium.

Andrea di Sessa (the man who coined the term computational literacy) in his book Changing Minds describe an experiment with computational literacy using his Boxer programming language to teach the physics of motion and other abstract mathematical concepts to Grade 6 students. The students were asked to picture someone on a roller blade sliding down the street with a tennis ball in his hand. He then dropped the ball from his chest while skating. The class was asked to visualize the motion of the ball from three perspectives: the skater, a miniature man looking up from the skateboard, and an observer standing by the roadside. This was an exercise on relative velocity, a difficult concept to teach.

The student who was asked to present the view from the skateboard explained his very simply. He pressed a function key and a small dot appeared in the middle of the computer screen. This then rapidly enlarged to fill the entire screen. He had to write only a line of codes in the program to effect this, and it captured accurately in a visual and concrete manner the image of a ball dropping and landing directly on the eye of the miniature observer on the skateboard. It would be tough to explain the motion of the ball using conventional text literacy or even standard mathematical formula. With computers, the message and the concept are readily grasped – very graphic representation and easily understood.

It is this ability to look at concepts differently that is so promising about computational literacy. At its most optimistic level, computational literacy would have the potential to do what text literacy and mathematical literacy do to our present understanding and level of communication. Galileo’s theory of motion took pages to explain in texts but only a few crisp lines of formulas to explain fully using modern algebra. He took that long because algebra was not yet invented in his time. Similarly with calculus; we could not begin to describe such concepts as acceleration without it. But with calculus, acceleration is merely a differential of velocity (dv/dt), or in words, the rate of change of velocity. Today calculus is taught at high school and is widely used to describe relationships and phenomena in the social as well as natural sciences.

Computational literacy is still rather primitive, or to use the ubiquitous phrase of the web, “under construction.” Past attempts at teaching programming in schools using first BASIC and later, LOGO, have floundered. But with better programs like Boxer, developed at the University of California Berkeley and tailored specifically for learning purposes and not to write applications, computational literacy may yet prove to be as infrastructural as text literacy. Malaysia must participate in these leading edge trials at selected schools but only under strict research protocol. But this is a totally different idea than the current mindless agitation for teaching IT in schools.

I am cynical of the current move to bring IT to the classrooms and provide teachers with laptops. This has less to do with enhancing the quality of education and everything to do with business. If it were the former, I would expect the ministry to provide computers to university lecturers and teacher trainees first; they need them more. Think of the billions worth of contracts, enough to make any executive drool at the prospects. Not to mention interested politicians who would gain by being the lucrative intermediaries. The whole scheme is business driven and corrupt, the pupils’ interest is only incidental. This program will end up like the computer ownership scheme sponsored by the Employees Provident Fund. It failed because EPF did not get substantial discounts or wholesale prices. Instead there were significant markups because of the “commissions” paid to politician middlemen. Likewise the schools and teachers will end up paying highly inflated prices.

The literature on the effectiveness of computers in classrooms is mixed and contradictory. Where they are successful it is because the authorities have clear and definable goals, and the efforts initially focused on few demonstration projects where the kinks could be ironed out. Once the project is running smoothly then it can be replicated and expanded. In choosing the software, teachers must have clear goals: computer assisted learning (CAL) as with self-directed drills in mathematics and language learning; for simulation and exploration; as computational tools as with word processing, spreadsheet, and Power-Point; part of a communication network; or merely as pedagogical administrative tool to keep track of students’ achievements.

Once the objectives are clear and agreed upon, key personnel can then be trained. It is better to concentrate the effort initially, once we can have a nucleus of competently trained experts, they can then spread their skills. The most logical place to start would be the teachers’ colleges and with teacher trainees. Once these are done only then could we consider selecting the hardware. With the goals and objectives clear, the hardware and specifications would be that much easier to define.

In 1999 Malaysia embarked on an ambitious “Smart School” project of bringing IT to selected schools. This program had yet to be digested and its lessons learned when the government embarked in its current and more massive project of providing laptops and LCD projectors to all schools. This is exactly the wrong approach. First, the teachers have yet to be trained and two, the objectives are not yet be clearly delineated. By next year all those expensive gadgets would be stored untouched or more likely be reported “stolen”. The students would be no further ahead.

There is one place where computers would be useful, and that is to help with the administrative chores like monitoring student attendance, payroll, accounting, and keeping tabs on supplies and budgeting. Not only would this be very efficient and accurate but it would also force the headmasters to be familiar with computers.

While it is easy to teach students how to use computers and surf the Net, the more difficult part would be to teach them the limitations and dangers lurking in cyberspace. The Internet is not filtered or censored; Einstein would have the same prominence in cyberspace as the simple villager. Those using the ‘Net must have the ability to think critically and be skeptical of the materials they get. The age of IT calls for even more emphasis on such traditional higher order intellectual activities like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, and information processing.

These can only be learned with the help of a good teacher. This point was illustrated to me recently when my readers asked me which websites they should look up on some questions about Islam I had discussed in one of my essays. How could they be sure that the information is genuine and the site authentic, and not the work of some anti-Muslim groups masquerading as believers? The answer is, you cannot be sure. Thus you must be able to evaluate critically the information as to its veracity and validity. There is nobody out there in cyberspace who will put a stamp of approval or to check the facts. The web is uncensored; that is its beauty.

This fact is extremely pertinent especially with medically related web sites. If someone suggests taking arsenic as a cure for baldness, you take that advice at your own risk. One needs to use one’s judgment. There is a lot of what is called “noise,” that is, irrelevant and nonsensical if not downright dangerous materials on the web.

There is also much hype on using IT for distance or e(electronic)-learning. I am in favor of this to a point. The Internet is much better and more efficient than the old correspondence schools. It is immediate; you do not have to wait for the mail and you can post your questions and have them answered immediately. It is also cheaper (after you invest in the computer) as there are no postages and papers. But this does not mean that e-learning could replace traditional classrooms.

There is much more to learning than the mere transfer of information from teacher to student. The class discussions and the social interactions are also very important. In a classroom you learn to relate with those you like and tolerate those you don’t – very important lessons in life. You cannot get that sitting alone before a computer screen. We must appreciate what can be achieved through e-learning as well as the limitations. I use e-learning for my continuing medical education (CME) but only as a supplement. It does not replace the live conferences and seminars.

The best e-learning programs are precisely those that combine distance learning with in-depth and intensive face-to-face class and residential experiences. One of the best executive e-learning programs is that of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Students gather every two months at various locations around the world for concentrated “live” sessions with their fellow students and instructors. In between they communicate and receive lessons via the ‘Net. Such programs are ideal for working executives who would have difficulty taking long stretches of time away from their jobs.

My small hospital has an electronic hookup with a tertiary medical center where we could participate in live CME conferences. Through a two-way cable hookup we can see the speaker and he could see us, and we could communicate in real time as if we are in the same room. This is entirely different from e-learning via the computer. Such hookups via satellite would be ideal to connect a Third World university with an elite institution in the West. MIT has a similar program with the two public universities in Singapore to conduct joint “real-time” seminars.

Malaysian universities should have similar links. With the 12-hour time difference, an early morning lecture would be an early evening one in Malaysia. There is a great potential for IT in enhancing the learning experience, but in our enthusiasm we should not forget that the basics remain the first priority.

The second more important issue of how well the education system prepares Malaysians for the age of IT can be turned around by asking the more fundamental question: What are the skills required to thrive in this age of IT? The specific and basic skills required are English fluency, high mathematical competency, and science literacy. Our students must also be adept at critical thinking and higher-level reasoning. They must have flexible and transferable skills. We should also inculcate early the need and importance of life-long learning.

It is in all these areas that our education system has failed miserably. The good news is that the government is finally waking up to this fact, forced by the overwhelming evidence that it can no longer ignore. The entire premise of my reform is to prepare Malaysians for the competitive era of IT and globalization.

Next: Education, The Economy, and Demographics