Chapter 7: Strengthening Our Schools (Cont’d)
Matrikulasi was originally meant to supplement Sixth Form but its very success ended up emasculating Sixth Form. Today even leading residential schools have dispensed with Sixth Form. Matrikulasi is a major and very expensive program. On some universities nearly half of all new enrollees are made up of matrikulasi students.
It is time to rethink the issue. Our universities are squandering their valuable academic and physical resources doing something that could be done more efficiently and cheaply by schools. Universities should be doing only those academic activities that cannot be done elsewhere, that is, education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.
Under my reform, there would be no need for matrikulasi. The program has acquired an influential constituency especially among the political establishment. Recently UMNO Youth successfully reversed the decision to close UM‘s matrikulasi. If the authorities insist on maintaining the program, then it should be used strictly as an outreach program and restricted to Bumiputra science students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students currently attending well-equipped urban or residential schools should not be admitted. By being restrictive in this manner, the center would truly augment the pool of Bumiputra science undergraduates.
In an interview with Utusan Melayu, the UM professor in charge of its matrikulasi bragged about the center having trained children of many prominent Malays. These are precisely the students the center should not admit. They should be able to take care of themselves and not crowd out those kampong kids who truly need the extra help provided by the center.
Nor should the university use its precious PhDs to teach these classes, instead it should employ those with masters or good honors degrees. Leave the professors to do research and to teach at the degree level. This would optimize the use of valuable and scarce academic resources.
I would also revamp the curriculum, making English compulsory and taught daily. To improve the students’ verbal skills, I would have them take part in small group seminars in English where they would participate in class discussions, similar to the freshman seminars at top American colleges. Additionally the students would have to be computer literate.
While I am in favor of closing down matrikulasi entirely, I can be persuaded to keep it
In addition to the national and national-type schools, there is another parallel stream – Islamic Schools. Religious schools have a long history in Malaysia. Learning in traditional Malay society consisted primarily of reading and memorizing the holy Qur’an as well as instructions in performing prayers and other rituals of the faith. These usually took place at the home of the Imam (religious teacher) or at small suraus (prayer houses). These later developed into madrasah, the village equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse. Some became bigger with living quarters for instructors and students. These schools were usually funded by the community and supplemented by modest contributions from the students.
The pedagogical skills of the teachers are marginal at best. The madrasah is no place for the inquisitive mind. Any questioning or otherwise expanding of the thought processes is actively discouraged. Worse, it is regarded as the machination of the devil. I briefly attended one such school; my parents wisely took me out before I would have to spend more time in purgatory. My memory of that experience was the mindless rote recitations and endless memorizations without my understanding any word. About the only kind thing I can say is that it prepared me well for my later years in medical school when I had to memorize all those anatomical terms.
These religious schools were basically neglected and ignored in colonial times. Now the federal government, eager to prove its Islamic credentials and to “out Islam” the opposition PAS, has taken over many of these schools and vastly expanded the system.
Islamic educational institutions run through the entire spectrum, from preschool to graduate and professional schools. Apart from the federal government, state governments (especially those controlled by PAS) as well as Islamic organizations are also actively setting up these schools. These religious organizations have done a significant public service by placing their schools, especially preschools, conveniently in residential areas. There are preschools in the villages as well in urban squatter areas to attract the poor. There is tremendous community support and involvement with these schools. But even in their modern versions, the intellectually oppressive ambience of the old madrasah still exists.
This notwithstanding, more and more Malay parents are sending their children to religious schools, both the government as well as private ones. The Islamic cachet, as usual, sells with Malays. While in the past these schools attracted primarily academic dropouts and those unable to afford the regular schools, today this is no longer the case. Often they are the school of first choice. The dropout rates are much lower, in fact non-existent. There is a palpable missionary zeal attached in attending these schools, and this is reflected both in the teachers’ as well as the students’ attitude. To be absent from school meant not simply playing hooky but also committing a major sin. Besides, Allah is always watching and All Knowing! There is a firm belief that they – teachers and students alike – are doing God’s work. Consequently there are few disciplinary problems. There are certainly no drug problems – a significant accomplishment these days.
Teachers have absolute control over their students. Going against the teacher is not just being naughty but going against the representative of God. Awesome! There will hellfire to pay later, if not sooner. Visiting these schools I am always struck with how very well behaved the children are, very polite and dutiful. Despite the less-than-professionally trained teachers, these students do learn. When visiting my village I am simply amazed of the glowing stories from parents about their children who had done poorly in regular school only to shine when sent to a religious one. One parent in particular boasted how his son was able to read and speak Arabic fluently in only two years. More recently I am hearing these favorable comments from Malay parents I meet in America. These are highly educated Malays who have been exposed to and benefited from Western education.
There are two possible interpretations. One is that the national stream has degenerated to such a level that the previously lowly religious schools have now become highly regarded by comparison. Two, these religious schools have really improved. After visiting both schools, I believe the first.
These religious schools, especially the private ones, have achieved much with their meager resources. There is a lesson here. All is not well however. The teachers and headmasters may think they are doing God’s work and that God is on their side, alas these mortals clearly have been negligent in their worldly responsibilities. Every so often we read of students being killed when their dormitories caught fire. The safety measures on these schools are nonexistent – no fire alarms or extinguishers, and no regular fire drills. Students sleep without mosquito nets, a severe health hazard in view of the endemicity of malaria and dengue. These schools often lack electricity; students study by the old kerosene lamps. And with their loose clothing and flowing headgear, these are dangerous firetraps.
The personal hygiene of the canteen personnel leaves much to be desired. I could hardly contain my professional concerns when I see the kids gulping the canteen food. Newspapers carry almost daily headlines of food poisoning at these schools.
The Islamic stream is an anomaly; its goals are the very opposite of the national aspirations. While the national stream seeks to integrate Malaysians, religious schools purposely keep them apart. While national schools are inclusive (or at least try to), the religious schools are explicitly exclusive. No non-Muslims need apply. While the curriculum of national schools is geared towards equipping Malaysians with relevant skills, religious schools are consumed with seeking rewards in the hereafter. While I criticize the national schools for their narrowly focused curriculum, the religious schools are even worse. One could say that the students are streamed right at preschool to pursue a religious path.
Graduates of the Islamic stream have extremely limited job opportunities outside of government or even within the public sector. Perversely, the government implicitly encourages young Malays to pursue religious studies when it expanded the religious establishment. Apart from the vastly expanded religious department, the government also has specialized units like the Institute for the Understanding of Islam. Every government agency, including embassies and consulates, has a resident imam. I fail to see what functions he serves, except as a massive public work scheme to employ these graduates. There is a limit to such expansions and today we have reached the saturation point. Meaning, employment prospects even in government are now significantly reduced.
Part of the difficulty the government is having with the Malay masses is precisely because huge numbers of these Malays with qualifications in Islamic Studies (and liberal arts generally) are unable to find employment. They rightly feel betrayed, and their numbers keep growing.
Thus the irony of these graduates being hostile to the very government that champions the cause of Islam. Recently the government advertised for 100 vacancies for Islamic teachers and was stunned to receive over 4,000 applicants. Imagine the fate of those not successful, and think further that the universities would be producing more of their kind every year. It is finally dawning on the government as to the potentially explosive nature of this mess.
Yet to date precious little is being done to reduce the numbers. To be sure this problem has been building up for years. What surprises me is that it is only now that the government is aware of the problem. As is typical with MOE specifically and of Malaysian officialdom generally, everything has to reach a crisis point and blow up in their faces before they recognize that there is indeed a problem. And then a few more years would elapse before they would begin thinking of a solution. Perhaps a decade later when the problem has become overwhelming would something be done to resolve it.
The narrow curriculum of the religious stream means that its graduates have limited flexibility in employment or furthering their studies. There is also the question of academic rigor. Education Minister Musa Mohamad recently revealed that less than 25 percent of Sixth Formers from religious schools qualify for local universities, compared to over 90 percent for secular schools. This is a national disgrace. To me the more scandalous part is that it took him this long to find out, and then all he did was merely acknowledge the appalling statistics. A national workshop of local academics convened to address the issue was no better. Its deliberations were tediously long on description and woefully short on prescription.
Next: Reforming Religious Schools