Archive for February, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #58

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE   (Cont’d)

Dispense with Dewan

DBP is an independent agency with it own supervising board that answers to MOE. It was established in 1962 to spearhead the development of Malay language. Today DBP has become in addition, a major business monopoly involved in publishing, printing, and distributing textbooks as well as other extraneous activities.

Its first director was the economist Ungku Aziz. His successors were all either politicians of no particular repute or civil servants of the same caliber. Seasoned scholars and able managers they were not. Delays in printing and distributing of textbooks are perennial. Why the government chooses to have its own publishing and other businesses instead of contracting them out to the private sector is beyond me. Even back then there existed a thriving and robust publishing industry. Many of my textbooks in the 1950s were published by such private entities like Sinaran Brothers of Penang. Their books were cheap, well written, and most importantly, available on time. DBP figured that to maintain the status of Malay language, its textbooks must be just as expensive as the English ones that were imported. Dewan could not compete on price, quality, or availability; instead it aggressively and successfully lobbied the government to give BDP the monopoly. Being a typical government agency, DBP cannot deliver, but it is always ready with excuses, from shortage of translators to that of supplies.

My own experience with DBP back in the 1970s was instructive. I frequently gave lectures at the nursing school in Johor Baru and was appalled at the quality of the textbooks translated by DBP. Obviously they were done by individuals with scant knowledge of medicine or nursing. They had translated some ancient British texts, no doubt to save royalty fees. Consequently the pictures were of outdated instruments and equipment. The nursing instructor and I agreed that we could come up with a better text using local materials and examples.

We were very excited about this venture if for nothing else that the students would get a more modern text. We contacted DBP, and its representatives too were eager. All went well until I mentioned royalty and copyright. The representative knew nothing of either, or acted as if he did not know. He expected us to write the book gratis and then hand over to the agency the copyright! I demurred, and then began hearing nonsense about “patriotism” and “duty to country and culture.”

The incident prompted me to check on some of the books issued by DBP. Sure enough in almost all cases the translators’ or writers’ name was not prominently displayed. One had to look very hard to find it in the acknowledgment or preface. The one name emblazoned all over is the director’s. That episode effectively aborted my career as a textbook writer.

Earlier I visited DBP‘s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, located in a high-rent district. It was an impressive building, with an oversized and somewhat gaudy mural at the front. The agency had just finished an extensive and expensive addition. What astounded me was that a huge portion of the new addition was being used for nothing more than warehousing unsold overpriced books. When I suggested to a senior official that those books could be stored more cheaply elsewhere instead of in an expensive downtown office building, he professed not the least concerned. Nor was he impressed with my suggestion that the books be sold at a discount; at least then they would be read. Obviously to those officials, costs and wastage mattered little. Whenever they were short of funds they simply asked the government for more.

Malay language was a top priority; no one dared challenge the request. That would be, well, unpatriotic. DBP also publishes a number of popular periodicals ranging from the quasi-scholarly Dewan Bahasa (Language Forum) to the lay Dewan Masyarakat (Society’s Forum). Apart from providing valuable avenues for new writers, these magazines helped popularize Malay literature and language. It is a reflection of the mentality of DBP that these magazines do not carry advertising for the simple reason that for the agency, money is never a problem. It never occurred to them that advertising would spur interests in other publishing products and that in turn would stimulate the market for published materials in Malay generally. In the same vein, Dewan’s magazines and journals rarely carry reviews of books published outside of DBP. To the mindset of these civil servants turned publishers, letting private companies advertise their products would undermine DBP‘s own books and publications.

It did not occur to these officials that by getting advertising revenue they could lower the price of their products and thereby further increase their circulation. It is very hard to erase the ingrained civil service mentality.

I would shutter DBP and use the funds thus saved more productively elsewhere as in building single-session schools. Its publishing business could be contracted out to the private sector or better still, sold out. Textbook publishing is a lucrative business; there would be no shortage of bidders. Those private publishers could produce textbooks much more cheaply especially if we also introduce competition.

At present the publishing division is actually a cost item. I would also sell all of DBP’s publications. If publishers with far smaller circulation could make a handsome profit, I fail to see why those magazines could not rake in the revenues especially if they accept advertising.

As for the translating activities, that could be done by the legends of new academics. Those experts could do the translating more competently than the civil servants at DBP. Better still, contract out the translations, and to maintain productivity, pay the translators piece meal – no completed translations, no pay. By getting rid of these civil servant translators at DBP and using the saved funds to pay professors and experts at the universities to do the translating or writing, the ministry would get better and cheaper textbooks. This would also provide much-needed extra income for these academics. They are presently so poorly paid that this may well tip the balance to induce them to stay in academia.

As for the research and scholarly component of DBP, this too could be transferred to the universities. All public universities have huge Departments of Malay Studies; let them take over the academic function of DBP. Back in the early days I could see the rationale for having DBP, today it has been made redundant by the multitude of universities.

By dispensing entirely with DBP you could then rent out its massive headquarters and use the funds to improve the schools. Transfer all those civil servants back to the Sports or Tourism Ministries, and use the funds thus saved to hire or train more teachers.

I have never seen details of the ministry’s budget to see how much DBP consumes, but judging from the number of personnel and size of its headquarters, it must be substantial, expenses the ministry could do without. Getting rid of DBP would send a clear signal that the ministry would now focus its entire resources and personnel on its core mission – improving schools and universities.


Next:  Examination Syndicate


Reforming Higher Education: The Zahid Nordin Report

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Reforming Higher Education:

Critique of the Zahid Nordin Report

Langkah-langkah Ke Arah Kecemerlangan

(Steps Towards Excellence)

(First of Two parts)

With the recent release of Education Blueprint 2006-2010, Malaysians forget that the government had earlier commissioned a similar report on reforming higher education.

On January 17th 2005, the first Minister of Higher Education Shafie Salleh set up a commission to make Malaysia the “center of educational excellence.”  The twelve-member committee, chaired by Zahid Nordin, a former Director General of the Ministry of Education, submitted its report six months later, and it remained in the minister’s drawer for nearly a year.  It was only released after Shafie was later booted out following his public quarrel with one of the Vice-Chancellors.

There was no active academic or scientist on the committee except for Universiti Putra’s economist Noor Alam Hussein.  There was Khoo Kay Kim, but he is a long retired history professor.  There were four Vice-Chancellors, four civil servants (including the chairman), and two representatives from the private sector on the committee.

The committee did not do wide research as evidenced by the papers it cited.  It did not examine the large and very successful public university systems in California, Virginia, and others.  The members looked at individual campuses but not the system as a whole.  Nor did the committee study more recent efforts at reforming higher education in Britain and US.  In particular, the committee did not examine the very useful National Science Foundation Report on revamping undergraduate science education in America, and the equally comprehensive Allison Wolf report on Higher Education in Britain.  The committee did look at reforms in New Zealand, not a particularly relevant example for Malaysia.

The report wasted valuable space (nearly 100 out of its 306 pages) in listing universities, acronyms, and individuals who submitted their views.  Thsse readily available information does not add to the report.  It would have been more useful to have a small print appendix summarizing the pertinent views of the respondents.  There were only six pages of bibliography, and they were in large prints and double spacing between entries.  The actual number of references cited was very limited, and most of them were local government publications.  The committees’ intellectual horizon was not very wide.

I will not comment on the writing skills or editorial competence of those responsible for writing this report.  Instead, I will focus on its content (or what I think the report is trying to say!)

There is no clarification of what that oft-cited phrase “center of educational excellence” means in practical terms.  We are all for “excellence” and for being “the best.”  Vague terms have vague meanings, and unless there is greater specificity in the stated goals and objectives, they are less likely to be achieved.  You cannot reach your destination unless you know where you are going.  Unless you know where you are headed, any road would take you there, and that would be no achievement.

Here is my operational definition of what a great university is.  It must first be a great Malaysian university.  Meaning, it must meet the needs of the nation and be the university of first choice for our students (and their parents), scholars, intellectuals and scientists.  Equally, its graduates must be the first choice for our employers.

Before Harvard became the great university that it is today, it was first a good university to meet the needs of the “White Anglo Saxon Protestants” of its founders.  Then it became the institution of choice for WASPs in the region, later for all Americans in New England; much later, for all Americans nationwide, and now the world.

Once our universities become the first choice for Malaysian students, academics and employers, then others in the region would treat our universities likewise.  From there, it would be the continent, and then globally.   Only then would our universities have achieved excellence, if not greatness.

I will critique the following nine recommendations of the committee.  The first half of my essay will deal with the first two, the rest in the second.


  • Clear definition of terms
  • The 100,000 PhDs project
  • University autonomy
  • Moratorium on new and branch campuses
  • Rationalizing role of private sector
  • ICT on campus
  • Liberalizing undergraduate curriculum
  • Faculty Development
  • Preparing Students for Admission


Lack of Definition of Terms and Missions:

There is no clear definition of and mission for universities, university colleges, polytechnic, and community colleges.

We should emulate California’s widely praised tiered system, with the University of California (UC) system (with its nine independent campuses) at the top, being research universities that offer doctoral, professional and wide breath of undergraduate programs. The next tier is the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system offering only Bachelors and limited Masters, but no professional or doctoral programs. Then there are the community colleges that offer diploma and sub-degree programs only.

Despite the three distinct systems, there are mechanisms enabling students to transfer from one system to the other.

The UC takes the top 1/8 of students, the CSU the top third, and the community colleges, any high school graduate.

Our universities should offer UC-like programs:  range of undergraduate as well as doctoral and professional (like medicine and law) degrees.  Next would be “University Colleges” (equivalent of CSU), offering only bachelors and some limited masters program.  The polytechnic and community colleges would offer diploma and sub degree courses only.

Private institutions must also follow this stratified definition.  For Monash University in Malaysia to maintain its label of “university,” it must offer a breath of undergraduate as well as professional and doctoral programs. Give these private universities a phase-in period of 5-10 years to accomplish this mission. If they do not offer professional and doctoral programs within that time, they will lose their university status and be termed “university colleges.”

Similarly with public universities, if within ten years its faculty does not produce scholarly output and academic programs worthy of a full university, then it should be classified as a university college. Half of the current public universities like Universiti Utara and Tun Razak University should more accurately be called university colleges.

These small and limited institutions currently labeled as universities may want to focus on teaching rather than research, and thus voluntarily opt for the university college designation and be spared the added complexities of running graduate and professional schools. In America, there are many degree-granting colleges (Amherst, Williams) that have excellent academic reputations far surpassing many full-fledged universities. Labels should not be an indicator of quality, only the breadth of academic offerings.

The committee suggests (Recommendation 4.2) that the five leading public universities (UM, UKM, UPM, USM and UTM) be designated research universities and be the foci for centers of excellence. I am against such targeting. Instead, specify the criteria (percent of graduate students, number of graduate degrees awarded, etc.) then let any university that meets those criteria be so designated. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel. It could adopt the standards developed by the American Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

I would remove the matrikulasi program away from the universities and put it either at community colleges (preferably) or university colleges (less preferable).  Best of all would be to get rid of matrikulasi and re-institute Sixth Form.

Having such a tiered system would best reconcile the seemingly incompatible twin goals of excellence (which necessarily must be elitist in nature) versus democratization of higher education.

Project My Brain 15 – 100,000PhDs in 15 Years

The goal of 100,000 PhDs in 15 years (Recommendation 130) is too ambitious! I would concentrate instead on producing PhDs in the key and desperately needed disciplines like sciences, technology, English, and economics. If we do not specify this, the temptation towards the end when the goal is not reached would be to produce a glut of Malay and Islamic Studies PhDs just to get the numbers. If today we have unemployable bachelors degree holders, a decade hence it will be unemployable PhDs.

The market for PhDs is limited. Aim for a more modest and achievable 25,000 target, but concentrate on the critical subjects mentioned above, and fund them well. Encourage local fresh PhDs to pursue post doc abroad to “round up” their experience.

These doctoral candidates could pursue their studies locally or abroad. There is considerable merit in supporting and expanding graduate programs on local campuses, as that would enhance their overall academic quality including and especially the undergraduate studies.

In addition, I would encourage freshly minted PhDs to undertake post-doctoral experiences abroad.  Far too often they are recruited directly to the faculty when they have not yet quite absorb the research “bug,” skills, or culture. Once they become faculty members, the local academic culture is such that they become less amenable to being mentored by their senior colleagues.

Sending local PhDs abroad would be a good way to assess the quality of our graduate programs.  If our local PhDs could secure post-doctoral appointments at leading institutions abroad, that would be a good indicator of the quality of our programs.

Next:   Part Two:  Rest of the Recommendations

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #57

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE  (Cont’d)

Sponsoring Students Overseas


In the heyday of pre-1997 economic crisis, Malaysia sent literally hundreds of thousands of students abroad for further studies. The buoyant economy made an overseas education affordable even to middle class families. The crisis, and the accompanying devaluation of the ringgit, dramatically changed that.

I do not quibble with private students; what they and their parents do with their own precious cash is for them to decide. My focus here is on government-sponsored students, and the overwhelming majority of them are Malays. Most ended up at third-rate universities taking courses which are readily available in Malaysia. I do not see the wisdom of spending precious taxpayers’ money on such exercises. Those resources could be better spent improving local universities. I wrote a long letter to the director of JPA describing the tremendous wastage and the poor selection of candidates. I also suggested improvements, but of course did not get a reply. I subsequently published part of the letter as an article in a mainstream paper. Still nothing happened. With the economic crisis the government was forced to downsize the program, sending only the most qualified students and then only to selective institutions. I could not knock any fiduciary sense into our officials, but the harsh economic reality did it for me. The program is now considerably better although it can still be improved.

The various government entities, statutory bodies, and government-owned corporations have their own separate program for sponsoring students. These disparate programs are duplicative, inefficient, and very costly. At one time the consulate in Los Angeles had three student advisors – one for JPA, MARA, and Petronas. The cost of maintaining each one of them is substantial. Despite the numerous advisors we still hear horror stories of students being stranded and stipends missed.

I have met many of these advisors and have yet to be impressed by any of them. They are appointed simply to reward them with a plump overseas posting prior to their retirement. Their typical assignment is for two or three years. The first year is wasted with the officer distracted and consumed with such personal matters as settling their own children in school. By the second year they are already busy buying and accumulating household items to be shipped home. They hardly have time for their primary responsibility–looking after the welfare of the students. To make matters worse, many of the advisors are graduates of Malaysian universities; they have absolutely no clue about education in America, nor are they eager to learn.

Petronas has been remarkably successful in recruiting the brightest students. But even this superior program suffers from many deficiencies. I have talked to many Petronas scholars and it is the rare individual who is pursuing a course of study that is his or her first choice.

Many are doing it for the opportunity to go abroad. There are many aspiring engineers taking accountancy; would-be filmmakers taking business, and wannabe lawyers taking engineering simply because those were the scholarships being offered. What a sad mismatch of talent and wasted potential. Imagine had these bright and talented young Malaysians been given the freedom to pursue their own dreams!

An example will illustrate this madness. An aspiring nuclear physicist was given a scholarship to study medicine because it was deemed to be the greatest national need at the time. Of course the young man took it. The following year his sister was also given an award to go abroad, but this hopeful doctor was given one for…biology – the flavor of the year! Again supposedly in the national interest! How could the nation’s priorities changed so quickly? I met both of them years later and suggested to the now young doctor that he could still combine his interest in nuclear physics and medicine by becoming a radiation oncologist. And being a bright doctor and a graduate of a top medical school, he was readily accepted to an American program where the hospital would pay him. Guess what? The government would not release him from his bonds! As for his sister, I advised her to come to America, do her graduate work, and then apply to medical school. She found my suggestion incredulous until I told her that it is quite commonly done in America. She may yet become a doctor if only she could also be freed from her bonds. Those bureaucrats have again thwarted the dreams of two bright young people. Of course those officials looked at the situation differently; those students ought to be grateful for what they had been given. Isn’t that the Malay way?

I suggest that all publicly funded study awards be disbursed under one agency. We would serve our students best by this consolidation.

First, those responsible for selecting the students could enhance their talent-picking skills. They would also become more knowledgeable and familiar with the qualities and requirements of the various universities.

Then we would not have the specter of MARA sending its students to unrecognized institutions as had happened previously. As these interviewers develop their skills and expertise, they could hire out their services to private companies and other entities.

Second, with a centralized and computerized office, we could better monitor the students and get accurate follow up data on their performances, thus ensuring that no one would fall through the cracks. Problems could also be spotted earlier and handled more effectively. With their accumulated expertise and experience these experts could then help advise our schools on how best to prepare students for top universities.

The most important reason for consolidation is that students get to choose the field of study that best suits their interest and aptitude, instead of being forced to take one chosen by the sponsoring agency. This alone is reason enough to change the present system.

On completion of their studies, these students could then be matched with the various departments. If a student has done research and is interested to pursue this he could choose to be with the universities or research institutes instead of being forced to teach raw recruits simply because he was sponsored by the Defense Ministry. There was a plight of an honors mathematics graduate (still a rare qualification for a Malay at the time) who was given an opportunity to continue his doctoral studies under a fellowship awarded by his university. Again his sponsor would not relent, he was needed back home, in the “national interest!” The good news was that in the long delays while negotiating with the authorities in Malaysia he managed to extend his stay for a year and completed his masters. On his return however, those bureaucrats got their vengeance. While he was expecting to be seconded to a university or at least posted to RMC or similar institution, he was asked instead to teach raw recruits, a job that could have be done by a graduate of teachers’ college. He had to stay within the defense ministry as it sponsored him.

With my proposed consolidation, these changes could easily be accommodated, as would any alterations in the students’ plan or departmental needs. If a graduate is not needed by any public agency, he or she could be “auctioned off” to the private sector, enabling the government to recoup some of its costs. Doing this would also circumvent the current popular trick (unbeknown to the bureaucrats) where those with highly marketable skills and desirable qualifications from prestigious universities purposely flunk their Malaysian placement interviews and thus would be rejected and released from their bonds. This happened to a bright young man I knew in California. He purposefully bombed his Malaysian interview and consequently was rejected. He laughed all the way back to Silicon Valley. He could not help it if his interviewers could not tell the difference between Stanford and Stamford. That young man was smart enough not to play smart!

I propose simplifying the various study awards into three categories:  scholarships, grants, and loans. These awards should cover all expenses, and would vary in value with the cost of tuition and living expenses.

Scholarships would be for those accepted to the prestigious universities like the Harvards and Stanfords of America, the Oxbridges of Britain, and the McGills and Torontos of Canada. As these scholarship winners would be our best and brightest, they should be given the freedom to choose their own course of study and career. Surely they would know better than any bureaucrat what is best for themselves. We should also give them the latitude to proceed to graduate work if they so desire, or to work abroad for an extended period of time to gain valuable experience. By granting them these privileges we would encourage others to apply to these outstanding universities.

The grants would be for those accepted into the next tier–but still very selective–universities. They must however pursue courses that are needed by the country (natural and applied sciences, English, business). Unlike scholarships, their parents would have to contribute a portion of their taxable income (I suggest 10 percent) towards the award. For needy students, the grants would have the same value monetarily as scholarships.

The third level of award is study loan. It would be tenable only to the same caliber institutions as the grants. Like grants, parents too would be assessed a similar percentage of their taxable income, but unlike grants the students would have to repay the loans less their parents’ contributions. The advantage of loans over grants is that students would be free to choose their own field of study. These loans would have to be repaid in the traditional way, monthly following the student’s graduation, with a defined interest rate and amortization period.

Alternatively the loan could also be repaid based on the graduate’s monthly income for a defined period. I propose 10 percent for a period twice that of his study loan duration. In this way if the candidate chooses a highly lucrative job, the government could conceivably make a tidy profit on its investments. The student would choose the repayment option at the time the loan is being given.

This second novel scheme, the Income Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan, is the brainchild of the American Nobel laureate in economics Milton Friedman. It would free the graduate to choose a career that suits his interest rather than be concerned financially because of the loan. We might be able to attract top talent into teaching with this scheme.

ICR was implemented at Yale in the 1970s by the economist James Tobin, where for every $1,000 the student borrowed from Yale, he or she would commit to repay 0.04 percent of his or her income for 35 years, or when the whole class has paid off its aggregate debt, whichever is sooner. The program was terminated after howling protests from highly successful alumni who complained about having to fork out huge sums of their income to their alma mater. ICR is still an option with the Federal Student Loan in America and has also been adopted in Australia. Canada briefly toyed with the idea but gave up for fear that it would unnecessarily lead to hikes in tuition fees. We should also have built-in incentives similar to existing ones where if the students excel, their grants could be converted into scholarships and loans to grants.

As the cost of studies abroad is expensive, public funds should only be used to send our brightest students, and then only to the top institutions. We should send them only to the top 50-100 universities in America, and the top half a dozen each in Canada, Britain and Australia. The operating principle should be: Malaysia sends her best, to the best!

In the 1980s and 90s Malaysia had the Top Ten American University program. The sad aspect of that program was that these students had to be sent abroad for their matriculation first. The fact that our schools are not preparing their students for top universities is again another sad reflection of the system.

By streamlining the process, making the rules explicit, and procedures transparent, our students could concentrate on preparing themselves academically instead of busy navigating the bureaucratic maze. Students would assume the responsibility of getting accepted to top universities. They would choose whichever path which best prepares them–Sixth Form, IB, GCE A level, matrikulasi, or twinning programs.

The sponsoring agency would also be freed from the administrative details of selection, filing applications, choosing the universities, and instead concentrate on giving information, providing guarantors’ letters, helping with the applications, and generally being a facilitator and counselor. The government would have a committee of graduates of leading universities to choose the institutions where these awards would be tenable.

By not being involved in the decision, the sponsors protect themselves against charges of favoritism and unfair practices. The decision is open and the process student-driven. Get accepted to Stanford or Princeton, and you will get a scholarship no matter how rich your parents are or what esoteric field of studies you choose. Choose the University of Oregon and you would get a grant if you pursue engineering, a loan if you take sociology. If only Podunk State University accepts you, tough luck, your parents would have to finance your studies.

By being more efficient and selective, we would achieve more with our precious monetary and intellectual resources. And by injecting competition we would ensure that we get only the best students.


Next:  Dispense with Dewan


Towards A Fiqh Al Nisa (Legal Framework on Women’s Issues)

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Wishing all my Chinese readers Gong Xi Fa Cai! May the New Near bring you personal peace, good health, and much prosperity.

Towards A Fiqh Al Nisa (Legal Framework on Women’s Issues)

Book review: Understanding Women In Islam: An Indonesian Perspective

Syafiq Hasyim

Solstice Publishing, Jakarta 2006.

ISBN 9793780193 US$12.95 203 pp

No contemporary issue incites more passion and evokes uglier prejudices than the role of women in Islam. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have deeply held myths, views and convictions on the matter. These serve more as barriers rather than elements upon which to build greater understanding.

Syafiq Hasyim’s Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective demolishes many of the legends that have been erected and used as excuses to keep women subjugated throughout much of Muslim history and world. Many of these beliefs have become so concretized over the centuries that they are now viewed as the very foundation of the faith.

A great faith however, cannot be so readily adulterated; its truth, compassion, tolerance and justice would eventually emerge. Nonetheless it would take monumental intellectual, educational and other efforts to chisel away these false foundations.

Syafiq Hasyim makes two key points. One, the role of women in Islam must be viewed in the broader context of other faiths and cultures. Two, we should take a longer historical perspective.

Cultural and Historical Perspective

Despite the glaring misogynist beliefs and practices in Islamic societies throughout much of our history including and especially today, it is good to be reminded of certain realties. For instance, while America is only now celebrating its first female Speaker of the House (second in line to succeed the President) and contemplating nominating its first candidate for President, a female executive head of state is no longer a novelty in the Muslim world.

For another, the Muslim world has been spared such gruesome practices as wife burning (satee) and female infanticide. China and India’s lopsided sex ratio and what Amartya Sen calls the “missing women” reflect a far sinister denigration of women. The difference between female infanticide and the “free choice” of aborting female fetuses (made possible through sex determination via ultrasound) is only a matter of weeks. The underlying repulsive mindset remains the same.

Even the West, where gender equity is pursued to the point of denying even the inherent biological differences between males and females (hence women combat soldiers), is not spared. Pornography, which represents the ultimate degrading of women, is a multibillion dollar industry in America, and fast growing.

Then there are the ubiquitous beauty pageants, even for cute little girls as portrayed in the movie Little Miss Sunshine, and so tragically lived through ever so briefly by the pathetic “beauty queen” Jon Benet Ramsey. She was only six when brutally murdered during presumed sex abduction.

Historical and Cultural Perspectives

A prerequisite to understanding the issue of women in Islam is to first examine it. This is where the problem begins. Discourses on Islam in much of the Muslim world are severely constrained. The faith has been effectively co-opted by the corrupt and authoritarian state. As such, the views of the authoritarian rather the authoritative, to borrow Khalid Abdul Fadl’s phrase, prevail.

Those with views at variance with the state or who dare challenge accepted orthodoxy are forced to publish their works elsewhere. Increasingly that means the West and in English. That language is now the most important in Islam, next to Arabic.

Such scholarships risk being dismissed as tainted with “Orientalism,” of currying “Western agenda.” Traditional scholars are not the only ones leveling those charges, so too are Western educated professionals and scholars who ought to know better.

Syafiq Hasyim’s book and research institute, The International Center for Islam and Pluralism, are funded in part by an American outfit, the Asia Foundation. It does not surprise me then that he is not getting much attention in the Muslim world.

The other negative consequence is that as traditional Islamic scholars are for the most part English illiterate, they are deprived of these innovative ideas. The tendency is to denigrate such new thinking as bida’a (adulteration of the faith), the convenient fallback of those with a closed mind.

Syafiq Hasyim notes that women played major and pivotal roles during the Prophet’s time. His wives Khatijah, and later Aishah, together with others were actively involved in spreading the word. It was only subsequently when the luminaries were formulating their various schools of jurisprudence (Fiqh) were women systemically excluded. Whether by design or a reflection of the prevailing cultural norms is immaterial, the results are the same: a Sharia insensitive to women’s concerns.

While there are Quranic verses alluding to the lesser value of witness accounts of females and the favoring of sons over daughters in matters of inheritance, there are also clarion calls on the equality of all before God. Only virtue and piety are worthy of Allah’s attention, not our sex, race, or skin color.

Pursuing the issue of inheritance, it is well to remember that prior to the Prophet’s revelations, women had no inheritance at all, they were the inheritance, chattels of their husbands. Seen in this light, the Quran and Sharia represented a quantum leap in intellectual advancement. Also to be noted, this anti feminine bias of the period was not limited only to Islam.

Gods and Goddesses

Before the age of the alphabet, the deity was always portrayed in the feminine form, as seen in various cave drawings and ancient paintings. God was the mother figure, nurturing, protective, and from whom we draw sustenance. The masculine God, the Punisher and the Controller, came later with formal religion and a clergy class made up exclusively of men.

The San Francisco surgeon Leonard Shlain makes an intriguing observation in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Before the written word, communication was primarily through drawings. We draw with both hands and thus use both sides of our brain, the left (rational, linear and masculine side) and the right (emotional, non linear and feminine). In writing however, we use primarily the right hand and thus the “left male” brain; hence the increasingly masculine God in the culture of the written word.

In this computer age with the keyboards and multimedia graphics, we are again communicating using both hands and sides of our brain. With that would come, we hope, a greater appreciation of both our feminine and masculine sides.

Concept of Naskh (Abrogation)

In reconciling the apparent contradictions of the Quran, it would help if we were to remember that its central message (and that of the prophet’s teachings) is one of justice, tolerance, and mercy.

The ancient scholars reconciled the apparent inconsistencies by emphasizing certain Quranic verses over others, in particular giving more emphasis on the later Medinah verses over the earlier Meccan ones, using the concept of naskh (“abrogation”). Generally, the Meccan verses express the universal values and ideals of Islam while the Medinah revelations dealt with the practical realities of daily living.

Through naskh, they were able to craft the Sharia and the various schools of jurisprudence (Fiqh). Syafiq Hasyim suggests that we too should today fashion our own Fiqh al Nisa, an Islamic framework (meaning, based on the Quran) to address women’s issues. Fiqh al Nisa should be by, for, and from women, that is, the discourses must be inclusive to also include Muslim women especially those schooled in disciplines other than Islamic theology.

Emory University’s Abdullahi An Naim goes further and calls for a total review of the Sharia to take into account current norms of human rights, gender equity, and constitutional law. I look forward to his soon-to-be-published The Future of the Sharia. Beyond calling for a Fiqh Al Nisa, Syafiq does not formulate his own ideas on the matter. I hope he does so in his next book.

These innovations from the periphery of the Islamic world follow in the grand tradition of our faith. After its initial flowering in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam again blossomed in Andalusia Spain, and later, the Indian continent and Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. Islam is today one of the fastest growing faiths in the West, and with that the potential of Islam’s renaissance.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #56

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE
The Ministry of Education (MOE), like the rest of the Government of Malaysia, is highly centralized, with strict hierarchal top-down command and a penchant for total control. Nothing happens in the schools, universities, or anywhere else in the vast education land without the ministry and its bureaucrats knowing and approving of it. In character and ambience the ministry resembles the old Soviet system. We all know what happened to it. The West would like to claim credit for the collapse of the Soviet empire; in reality it would have imploded under its own weight anyway.

A similar fate awaits MOE unless it changes. There need to be a radical change in the mindset of the senior personnel. Sadly I do not see this happening. MOE would not have lasted this long had there been a countervailing force. In communist and socialist countries (they are the only ones with a penchant for an authoritarian state) the government is held in check by a powerful party and workers’ union. The natural check for MOE would have been the teachers’ unions but they, like the rest of society, are divided along racial lines. They cannot seem to bond professionally; teachers of Chinese schools feel little kinship with those of Malay schools. Consequently the power of teachers is diluted and fragmented.

Only the Malay teachers’ union is powerful and influential because their members are also the backbone of UMNO. For a long time the ministry (and government) was beholden to this union. The other powerful element that exerts control on MOE is the party – UMNO. Thus Malay teachers exert their influence doubly: through their union and UMNO.

UMNO has seen better days. In the 1999 general election its wings were severely clipped, with the party losing a state government and many of its prominent ministers. Najib Razak, then Minister of Education, barely squeaked by. That was symbolically significant, both personally and politically. Personally because Najib had only months earlier been returned as one of UMNO’s Vice-President, securing the highest number of votes; politically because MOE is very prestigious.

The Malay teachers’ union today is leaning towards the opposition, especially since the ousting of its hero, Anwar Ibrahim, who held MOE’s portfolio from 1988-1991. William Roff’s The Origin of Malay Nationalism chronicles the central role of Malay teachers in the emerging nationalism before and after World War II, in particular the pivotal part played by the teachers’ college where they were trained, SITC. The British established SITC at about the same time as MCKK. For many years both institutions took in students from vernacular rural schools, although MCKK was primarily for children of royalty and nobility. Although both began in the same era and catered exclusively to Malays, their products could not have been more different. While SITC graduates were intensely nationalistic and virulently anti-British, those of MCKK were unabashed anglophiles, Mat Salleh wannabes. Why the difference, I do not know. At both institutions young Malays came under the direct tutelage and guidance of colonial Britons; in one the Brits managed to make their protégés eager imitators, in the other, loathsome enemies.

As with all generalizations, this one has many exceptions. The brain behind UMNO was no less than Tun Razak, a product of MCKK where he was legendary for his extraordinary brilliance. There were also many anglophiles among SITC graduates, closet ones to be sure, my father being one of them. His high regard for the British dimmed only slightly with their embarrassing performance during the Japanese invasion.

In his later years when he noted how well the country had done since independence, he wistfully imagined where Malaysia would have been had it been independent sooner. That gradual realization significantly eroded his earlier admiration for the British.

My father admired the British because of what they were able to accomplish for him at SITC. My father was not good at learning English so he was not able to learn much about history, philosophy, or whatever academic subjects they were teaching him. But he could communicate with his lecturers through music. They successfully introduced this village kid who had never touched a musical instrument in his life (unless you count the handmade rice stem reeds) to the wonderful new and magical world of music. He took to the violin with a vengeance, the only toy he ever had, taking it wherever he went, and learned everything he could from his teachers. They were enthusiastic instructors, he an eager pupil. He was totally consumed with music such that he had to sleep outside his dormitory so he could practice late into the night. During holidays he stayed back on campus to practice his beloved violin. (It belonged to the college, so he could not take it home). Besides, there was nothing to do back at the old kampong anyway.

The Brits first taught him the basics and then introduced him to the great works of the masters. He was in complete awe, as anyone would. Through the universal language of music, he bonded with his teachers. He was so consumed with his new passion that he barely passed his other courses. He later confided in me that he may have failed them and would have been kicked out but for the vigorous advocacy of his music lecturers. He was good enough for the British to make him the bandmaster of one of its military units during the war.

Such impact and legacy at the personal level did not go away easily or be readily poisoned by the otherwise ugliness of politics and racism of the time.

This British legacy did not end with my father. He in turn brought music to a generation of his village youths. I did not realize his impact until I met a popular musician who told me that he learned all his music from my father. Strangely enough when he was teaching those village kids, he would shove my brothers and me away. He feared that we would be consumed with music to the detriment of our studies, just as he was at college. I dearly wished he had been more generous with us with his talent! As a parenthesis, a generation later when I told him that my daughter, then an aspiring lawyer, was enjoying her choral music in college, he cautiously warned me of the possible dangers lurking. Old habits die hard!

Today it would be hard to find lecturers at our many teachers’ colleges with the same kind of passion and dedication demonstrated by those British at SITC. Some of my father’s pro-British sentiments rubbed off on me as a youngster. By the time I went to MCKK in 1961, they had become ingrained in me. But by this time MCKK had changed to become a hotbed of Malay nationalism. And like many who find their faith late, the collegians were exuberant converts to the extent that it negatively impacted their studies. Many felt they had nothing to learn from the British or through English, and thus neglected their studies.

I was definitely in a minority in my political conviction, but I had a crude and effective rebuttal for the diehard nationalists. If they think that they could not learn anything from the British or in English, then why not leave MCKK and return to their villages? Of course none took my challenge, which effectively shut them up. At the end of the year, nationalist or not, the chance to go abroad to the English-speaking world was still the most coveted goal. Nationalistic frenzy was one thing, but not if it prevented one from going overseas. This only made those unsuccessful to go abroad even more nationalistic!

Although Malay teachers formed the backbone of UMNO, their Malay education severely handicapped their political careers even though they were the party’s workhorses. This frustrated many who thought that they could reach the top merely by being political activists. Few did scale the heights; Ghaffar Baba (an SITC graduate) was briefly the Deputy Prime Minister.

What Malay teachers lacked in education and learning, they more than made it up with their passion. They championed passionately the cause of Malay language and nationalism. One of their leaders, Syed Nasir Ismail, later headed the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP–Language and Literary Agency). A SITC product, Syed Nasir personified that fervor best, albeit misguidedly. He stridently called for Malay language to be used at all levels, including the university. When it was rightly pointed out the practical problems of lack of qualified instructors, Syed Nasir, Ghaffar Baba, and other ardent SITC graduates proudly proclaimed their competence to teach at those lofty heights. Never mind that they had at most only two years of post-primary education!

Fortunately UMNO‘s leadership at the time was in the hands of sober men like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak. They quietly shot down those silly grandiose pretensions.

My father simply laughed off the claims of the likes of Ghaffar Baba and Syed Nasir. He had good reasons to. When I was in secondary school he always looked over my schoolwork. He did not understand any of it but he was nonetheless very curious what it was I was learning past primary school–the only level he had. He was particularly fascinated with science and mathematics, especially algebra and geometry, subjects totally alien to him. He rightly thought that if what I was learning was the difference between primary and secondary education, imagine the difference between school, university, and postgraduate levels. He remembered only too well the vast gap between the elementary music he learned initially and the great compositions of the masters he would later be exposed. He was understandably more modest in his claims on what he could achieve with his SITC education.

There is a saying in Central Asia that there is a limit to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness. This was more than amply demonstrated by the politically minded graduates of SITC.

Back to MOE, events were already overtaking it. Its Blueprint for Development 2001-2010 was quickly made irrelevant by developments elsewhere. The most significant–the teaching of science and mathematics in English – originated outside the ministry. The minister and his bureaucrats were reduced to mere passive observers in this evolving drama. On another front public universities, which are under the direct control of the ministry, are fast losing their luster. Standards have declined precipitously. To be sure this has been going on for more than a decade but no one noticed it. But with the establishment of private universities, the inadequacies of public institutions quickly became exposed and glaring. With the tightening of the economy and the job market, graduates of local public universities were squeezed out. The market has given its evaluation, and that cannot be ignored any longer.

With globalization Malaysia can no longer insulate itself. Two trends emerge consequent to this. One there is no longer a local standard. Good enough for Malaysia isn’t. While in the past local universities may have produced graduates “good enough” for Malaysia, today these graduates are being judged by international standards. Private employers now have a choice, with thousands of Malaysians trained at foreign universities and private local ones that meet international standards.

As a result private companies employ graduates of local public universities only as the last resort. As most of these graduates are Malays, it is easy to fall for the old bugaboo of a grand conspiracy against Malays. Before falling for that however, I would submit that there are other more relevant explanations, like their low English proficiency.

The second consequence of globalization is that Malaysians are becoming very much aware of prevailing global standards. While the government may control the local media and other sources of information, the Internet is free of censorship. More and more Malaysians are turning to it as a source of alternative news. Malaysian leaders may yell from the top of the highest coconut tree that the country is the center of excellence for education or health care, but ordinary citizens can judge that for themselves. Education and health care may or may not be superior elsewhere, but what is important is that Malaysians are now free to make that judgment for themselves.

Parents are free to send their children to schools and universities elsewhere if they feel that that is in their best interest. Telling them that it would be unpatriotic or local institutions are just as good would not dissuade them. They have made their own decision based on the information they have – government propaganda be damned!

So instead of the minister declaring ad nauseam that the country is the center of educational excellence, he would do well to spend his time and energy to achieving that goal. Merely wishing it would not do.

To begin with, the ministry must reengineer itself and completely change it mindset from one of total control to mutual consultation. Its leadership style would have to change from that of a drillmaster barking out orders to his raw recruits, to a symphony conductor extracting the best out of his talented musicians. The ministry should move away from the Soviet model to that of aWestern democracy, from top-down command and central control to equal participation and consultation with the periphery.

If MOE concentrates on its core mission of education and dispenses with its other extraneous activities, it would more likely do a better job. The ministry has no business doing translations when there are over a dozen universities that can carry out those functions more efficiently and competently. With a robust publishing industry, there is little justification for MOE to have a publishing arm. I can think of many other activities the ministry could discard and leave for the private sector.

In this chapter I will review three activities the ministry could dispense with: its Literary and Language Agency (DBP); the two examination bodies; and its accrediting agency, Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (LAN–National Accreditation Board). Before doing that I will critique the present policy of sponsoring students for studies overseas. This is not the responsibility of MOE rather Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA–Public Service Department) and a number of others including MARA, ministries like Defense and Agriculture, as well as state governments and statutory bodies. This jumbled mess is reflective of the general lack of streamlining and the inefficiency of the entire machinery of government.

Next:  Sponsoring Students Overseas

Maximizing the Benefits of a FTA with America

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Maximizing the Benefits of a FTA with America

(First posted on February 12, 2007)
I applaud the Abdullah Administration in pursuing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with America.  That would lead to increased trade with and investments from America, as well as give Malaysians access to the largest and most lucrative market.

Under current “Fast Track” law, Congress has 90 days to approve or disapprove the final agreement in a straight up and down vote.  That provision will expire this July, and with current sentiment, it is unlikely to be renewed.  Without the “fast track” provision, negotiations would be drawn out and the final agreement nit-picked beyond recognition by Congress.  Malaysian leaders should therefore conclude the current negotiations promptly and not be distracted by threatening comments from the likes of Congressman Tom Lantos.  After all, public posturing is not an affliction peculiar only to American politicians.

Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz and other Malaysian leaders would be better off paying attention to the negotiations instead of responding to these American politicians.  If she thinks negotiating with the professionals of the US Trade Representatives tough, imagine dealing with over 500 American politicians if she does not seal the agreement quickly.

Nor would it be fruitful to engage in an exercise of predicting who would benefit more.  Of course a FTA would also benefit America, otherwise it would not have bothered to pursue it.  Each party brings different sets of values and expectations to the negotiation.  The appropriate benchmark should be whether each party is better off with or without the agreement.  We should not let the promise of a perfect agreement block the pursuit of a good one.

Negotiating in a Less-than-Ideal World
In an ideal world such agreements would best be negotiated under international auspices, but the WTO is moving at a glacial speed.  Next best would be for small nations to negotiate as a group for maximal leverage.  ASEAN would have been the ideal vehicle, but that proved to be a futile hope.  Fortunately such constraints did not preclude Malaysia from successfully negotiating FTAs with major countries like Japan, despite the “asymmetry” of the corresponding economies.

America too has concluded FTAs with countries that have even smaller economies than Malaysia’s.  Chile for example does not feel disadvantaged by the lopsidedness of its negotiations with America.  Thanks to their FTA, Chilean grapes are now readily available in American supermarkets in midwinter, much to the joy (and benefit) of American consumers and Chilean grape growers.  The reverse is equally true; Chileans get to enjoy American grapes in July (their winter).

Malaysia cannot change the reality of the American economy being developed and 20 times larger, or that the Malaysian economy is still Third World.  Malaysia should learn from the smaller nations that have successfully concluded a FTA with America.

There is something else that is within Malaysia’s control.  It could ensure to have the most skillful lawyers, economists and negotiators on its side.  International trade is a complex issue, especially when dealing with the world’s largest and most complex and sophisticated economy.  The good news is that we have many such Malaysians; the bad news is that they are not in the civil service or may not even be in Malaysia.  The government must therefore be willing to pay a premium price to secure their expertise.

To rely exclusively on in-house talent would be foolish; consider the recent debacle over the crooked causeway bridge.

Malaysia should focus not on her differences with America, rather on the commonalities.  The American economy is as diverse as Malaysia’s.  Cheap oil may be a bane to the American Northeast but boon to the Southwest.  Outsourcing jobs may anger factory workers in the rust belt of mid America, but the resulting cheap imports from China is cheered by American consumers.

Likewise with Malaysia; cheap imported American rice may be detrimental to Malaysian rice farmers but good for consumers.  FTA with America will not break Malaysian rice bowls instead they will be filled with cheap nutritious American rice.

The diversity of the two economies, each with its own conflicting internal demands, gives both sides a better appreciation of each other’s dilemmas.  The fact that the American economy is developed while Malaysia is still developing should not be a barrier, as evidenced by America’s successful FTA with Mexico through NAFTA.

A major obstacle is Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, specifically the government’s procurement practices.  Americans too have their own preferential policies; thus it should not be too difficult for them to appreciate the particular Malaysian sensitivity and agree to a separate “side agreement.”  Malaysia is already committed to greater transparency and competitive bidding anyway.

Besides, opening public tenders to international bidding would ensure the government getting the best price and service.  There is little reflected national glory if local companies were given contracts and the resultant work shoddy and cost inflated.  Petronas Twin Towers was designed and built by foreigners; that did not in any way diminish Malaysia’s pride in it.

Those foreign companies after all employ Malaysians.  American corporations in particular have already proven that they are the best and most enlightened employers locally.

As for the presumed impact on our rice farmers, it is well to remember that at present they are not competitive even in Malaysia.  The solution for such inevitable dislocations from a FTA and globalization generally would be to equip our citizens with modern skills.  Given a choice, those farmers would readily abandon their rice fields for the factory floor.  Rice planting in the Malaysian way is brutal work; I have done my share of it.  There is no point in romanticizing the chore.

Malaysia should instead invest in ensuring that its future farmers, like their American counterparts, be knowledgeable in modern farming skills.  A FTA with America, by creating wealth through increased trade and investments, would enable Malaysia to achieve this objective much sooner.

China is currently attracting the bulk of foreign investments.  American companies, like others, are now contemplating a “China plus one” policy should China again convulsed with another Cultural Revolution or similar mass madness.  With a FTA, Malaysia would stand ahead of India, saddled with its lumbering bureaucracy.  Compared to Vietnam, another emerging favorite, Malaysia offers superior English proficiency.  Malaysia in return would also offer America a beachhead into the fast growing Southeast Asian and greater Muslim economies.

Malaysia should seize this unique opportunity and conclude a FTA with America by March of this year.


An Eduction System Worthy of Malaysia #55

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Private Colleges and Universities
In a rare display of enlightenment the government amended its Education Act in 1996 to allow for private universities. To be truthful, the government was forced to do this because developments in the industry were fast overtaking the government’s ability to regulate it.

The government had always allowed private colleges to cater for students who finished Form 5 but were unable to enter Form 6. Private colleges like Taylor and Stamford prepare students for foreign matriculating examinations like the GCE “A” level. Indeed they offer superior programs, completing them in 12 to 18 months. Further, these colleges use English, a plus for those planning to go abroad.

Until 1996 no private entity could offer a degree. But as is often the case, private sector ingenuity easily overcomes the government’s prohibition by developing “twinning” programs with foreign universities where students would spend their first two years locally and then go abroad to the host university for the final two years. Later that was modified to a 3+1 program where they would take the first three years locally. You could see the trend developing where the students would complete their entire education in Malaysia and then go abroad merely to collect their degree, thus effectively circumventing the government’s prohibition.

The government had to amend the Act to prevent matters getting out of hand. Unfortunately as is typical of the government’s actions, it did so without much thought or scrutiny. Within the first two years it approved nearly 500 applications, about one on every working day! There was no way for the government, given its limited resources and expertise, to adequately monitor the applicants. All too often they were approved without there being firm plans for financing, no key academic personnel selected, and no agreement for a physical site. All that existed were glowing promises and even more grandiose plans. The results were predictable: medical schools approved without laboratories or professors, and universities that exist only on paper or in shopping malls and above shop lots. Such institutions will not lead the nation to educational excellence. Our students and nation deserve better. Malaysia did successfully attract the occasional quality institutions like Monash and the University of Nottingham. Thus far they are the exceptions.

Private Malaysian universities, even local branches of good foreign ones, have a long way to go before they could rightly be considered as truly a university in the traditional sense. Not only do they lack a formal campus and associated amenities, their academic offerings leave much to be desired. None of the private universities have a core of the liberal arts and sciences. Imagine having a university without such basic academic departments as English, history, philosophy, and the basic sciences. Most of the courses offered are the glorified business courses like management and other commercial subjects like accounting and the old standby, law. These subjects can be offered cheaply and from the commercial sense, most profitable. In the past these were the core offerings of correspondence schools.

Another popular course is IT. Every private institution on every corner is offering this. The reason? IT sells. Although these colleges and universities may have seemingly impressive IT courses, the contents leave much to be desired. So too are the quality and competence of the graduates. An IT executive for a major company advertised for software engineers. Out of a total of 122 applicants, mostly fresh graduates of local institutions, less than a handful were competent to perform the work required. Many companies still have to recruit expatriates because local graduates lack basic skills, their paper qualifications notwithstanding.

In a competitive academic environment like Singapore these private universities would not stand a chance. Thus while many view the presence of so many private universities in Malaysia as a reflection of academic vigor, to me it means just the opposite. It is a reflection just how bad local public institutions are such that a branch of a provincial British university looks good by comparison.

For models of successful private universities we should look to America. It is unique in that the majority of its elite universities and colleges are private. In the rest of the world private universities are rarely among the best.

Private American universities, like their public counterpart, receive significant governmental funding and tax subsidies, together with student loans and scholarships. In return these private institutions agree to certain public policies, like subscribing to the federal non-discrimination and affirmative action policies.

The prestigious private universities like Harvard are not private in the same mold as IBM or General Motors. They are nonprofit entities. Unlike private companies, they do not declare dividends or are concerned with profits in the commercial sense. The government, recognizing their nonprofit status and the socially beneficial value of their activities, exempts these institutions from taxes and regulatory burdens that apply to proprietary corporations.

There are private, for profit colleges and universities in America; few are good, and none among the elite. In planning for Malaysia’s private universities we should emulate the highly successful American nonprofit models, with modifications to suit local circumstances.

Like America, Malaysia should actively support private universities both directly and indirectly. Directly by giving grants; as precedent the government gave grants to foreign institutions for taking in Malaysian students. Indirectly the government could provide loan guarantees for capital expansion. Private lenders would underwrite such loans, the government merely acting as a guarantor, thus ensuring favorable interest rates. For the government, such loans should be safe, secured as they are by the universities’ assets.

The government could also exempt them from property and other taxes, and declare gifts to universities as tax deductible. Additionally it could provide scholarships and study loans for the students. In this way the universities could afford a “need blind” admission policy, just like American institutions.

The government provides tax relief and other subsidies to industries, why not to private universities? Like private industry, a university is also a major employer and potential foreign exchange earner through its admission of foreign students. Also like industry, a university would spawn many spin-offs. It is not accidental that Silicon Valley is near Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Similarly, the Research Triangle of North Carolina is surrounded by Duke and the University of North Carolina. A quality private university in Malaysia would also spawn similar commercial spin-offs.

In return for governmental support, the university could agree to some mutually beneficial guidelines. One would be for the university’s domestic student population to reflect the general society. This sensible policy would not only ensure greater diversity of student body but also prevent the university from becoming the exclusive enclave of a particular ethnic or social group.

Student diversity would have other benefits. What better way to prepare graduates for the global marketplace than to expose them to cultural and social diversities as undergraduates? Besides, in a plural society like Malaysia, it would be extremely unhealthy were local institutions to be segregated racially.

Harvard and Stanford are held in high esteem today in part because children of the rich and poor, whites and blacks, local and foreign can aspire for admission. Harvard could easily fill its slots with bright white kids from the private prep schools as it did before the1950’s, yet it aggressively recruits worldwide. Harvard today is much more highly regarded than in the past when it was the exclusive preserve of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) crowd.

A student body that reflects society would also create a sense of cohesion and pride between the university and the community. In many Third World countries, the private universities are the first to be attacked by the citizens during an economic crisis because they view such institutions as havens for the rich and privileged.

Malaysia’s private institutions, even the excellent ones, are dangerously segregated not only racially but also linguistically and along socioeconomic class. The government could help alleviate this problem by providing study grants for Bumiputras to enroll, and rewarding those institutions that have a diverse student body.

I am terribly disappointed with the latest entry, University Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR). It fails utterly in attracting Bumiputras. Before UTAR can aspire to be a great university, it must first be a great Malaysian university, meaning it must attract all Malaysians. The luminaries on UTAR‘s Board of Trustees have impressive degrees from prestigious Western universities, but scratch a bit and the trustees’ clannishness oozes out. I would have thought that UTAR‘s trustees would have emulated their great alma maters by having a more inclusive board. Can they not find some capable non-Chinese? I do not suggest that having few Malays on the board would automatically solve the problem. Many private institutions go out of their way to employ prominent Malays to be on their board, yet those institutions still do not succeed in attracting Malay students. At least then you could not fault the owners, they have tried and made an effort.

The blame goes directly to those seemingly distinguished Malay directors. They (their impressive degrees and titles notwithstanding) are content merely in drawing their director’s pay. They do not help guide their colleges to be more attractive to Malays. If those directors would visit the residential schools and actively recruit those students, these colleges may well attract more Malays. Not to mention that those directors would then actually earn their keep. Those Malay directors come in handy only when it is time to renew the institution’s operating permit. Shame on them! It is sad that these highly educated Malays are behaving just like the typical Ali of Ali Baba partnerships. It proves my point: it is easy to get a PhD; more difficult to eradicate the Ali Baba mentality.

There are other sensible rules that both the university and the government could agree to that would enhance the quality of private institutions.

One would be to make a year of Malay Studies compulsory. It would be absurd for one to earn a degree from a Japanese university and yet not speak a word of Japanese. Elite American universities have core curriculum of American history and Western civilization. The American University in Paris as well as the one in Cairo and Beirut use English as the medium of instruction. Yet all students have to take a year of French or Arabic as the case may be.

Our government should rightly insist on certain safeguards. Thus foreign governments or their agencies should not be allowed to set up a university. Because of the particular social and political sensitivity, the same prohibition should also apply to religious bodies.

We should encourage private universities to attract foreign students. Besides contributing valuable foreign exchange, these students would serve as a barometer for the quality of the institution. They would also enhance the educational experiences of all students.

We have to be careful that these student visas are not abused and used as a means for Third World residents to enter Malaysia to work.

My suspicion is that many of the visas issued to Chinese and African students are diverted for these illicit purposes. The current daily headlines merely affirm my suspicion. The only way to prevent this is to make sure that these visas are issued only to bona fide students as attested by their having qualifications acceptable to Malaysia. Additionally these students must post performance bonds or somehow demonstrate their ability to finance their study. Malaysia can learn much from Britain and Australia on how to monitor foreign students effectively.

We can extend my earlier concept of charter schools to universities to create joint public/private sector joint ventures. The government could give grants to these charter universities for every Malaysian student they enroll. The amount would be equivalent to what it would cost the government to educate these students at a public university. In return for governmental support, these charter universities should agree to have their domestic student population reflect the greater Malaysian society.

With proper planning and appropriate support, Malaysia too can have fine private universities that are worthy of our pride.

Malaysia has passed the stage of most Third World countries in that it has successfully taken care of the basic need of providing primary and secondary education. To launch into the next trajectory of development, Malaysia must now enhance its tertiary institutions, to make them on par with the developed world. There is no longer a “local standard” for knowledge in a globalized world.

Next:  Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE



A Blueprint or Continued Mediocrity

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

A Blueprint For Continued Mediocrity

First posted on Malaysiakini February 2, 2007

On the day when Prime Minister Abdullah unveiled the new Education Blueprint 2006-2010 (Pelan Induk Pembangunan Pendidikan 2006-2010) last month, the Ministry of Education had already posted the entire document on its website.  That was a welcomed change, considering that the earlier Education Blueprint 2000-2010 was soon made unavailable within only a few months of its release.  Those Ministry folks can learn after all.  Beyond that immediate posting however, I am unable to discern any other improvement.

Poor Presentation

The report leaves much to be desired in its presentation.  I had expected an English version so I could assess the English competency of ministry officials, but none was available.  After all, if they expect our students to master English, then these officials ought to at least demonstrate their own competence.

Apart from the two forewords by Abdullah and Education Minister Hishamuddin, there were no other introductions or acknowledgements.  The writers have chosen to remain anonymous.  They must have consulted numerous experts in making the report, but you would not know it.  Now I know why; no one wants to get the blame for this shoddy paper.  There was not even an executive summary.

The first few chapters were devoted to general discussions on educational philosophies and government’s non-educational policies.  Many of the ideas were extracted from other sources, yet there was no acknowledgments or references.  This omission of standard practice is unacceptable.  Worse, it handicaps readers who may wish to pursue a particular topic further.

The report is full of data presented in endless monotonous tables.  Many could have been better presented as bars, line graphs, and pie charts.  The authors were obviously “graphic-challenged.”  Many of the figures are presented without their proper context.  For example, the ministry proudly notes the increase in the number of new schools but fails to put that increase in perspective.  Did it match the population (specifically, the enrollment) growth?  It took some effort and much searching to compare the two figures.  No wonder!  The seemingly impressive increases in physical facilities no longer look so as they do not even keep up with the enrolment expansion.

With the crowded tables, key figures and trends are easily missed, as with the declining participation rates at all levels (except for preschool) since 2000.  This alarming trend would have been picked up easily had the figures been presented as line graphs.  As the trend was missed, this important issue was not addressed.  Had ministry officials detected this declining participation rate and analyzed it further, they would have discovered that the figures for non-Malays in South Johore had declined even more.  The reason?  They have abandoned our schools for the more superior ones across the causeway.

The page layout has two columns, with one inexplicably twice as wide as the other.  At first I thought the narrow column was a summary, but it was not.  The rationale for this difference in column breadth escapes me; it makes the layout visually distracting and irritating, making for a hard read.

Long on Diagnosis, Short of Prescription

The report duly lists the obvious deficiencies of our schools.  No marks for that!  The Ministry does finally acknowledge one salient point:  in education, one size does not fit all.  This is also true with much of everything else, except perhaps condom marketing!

The ministry wants to encourage “clusters of excellence” among our schools but does not elaborate on how to achieve that goal.  In tandem with its one-size-does-not-fit-all philosophy, the Ministry would like some schools to offer the International Baccalaureate.  I am all for that, but then the report does not address the fundamental issue:  Does this mean that some schools can be English medium?

Where the report rightly identifies the problems, it offers the wrong solutions.  It acknowledges the declining quality of teachers and suggests making their recruitment more rigorous.  That is putting the cart before the horse.  The problem is more upstream.  Teaching no longer attracts the bright and talented for among other reasons, the pay is lousy.  Toughening the recruitment criteria would do nothing to change that reality.  The pay would have to be increased substantially to make the profession competitive.  Once you have a surplus of applicants, then you could be choosy and have higher standards.

The report duly notes that non-Bumiputras are abandoning the national stream.  The government hopes to attract them back by offering electives in Mandarin and Tamil.  That however was not the reason they are abandoning national schools in the first place, rather that these schools have become Islamic institutions and thereby turning off non-Muslim parents.

Had Ministry officials conducted surveys, they would have discovered this crucial fact.  This brings out another weakness of this report:  it lacks empirical data and findings to support its recommendations.  Consequently its recommendations have that seat-of-the-pants quality.

A major failing of Malaysian schools is the curriculum:  too examination oriented, emphasis on rote learning, and not enough emphasis on science and mathematics.  Thus one would expect substantive recommendations on the matter.  Instead curricular reform would have to wait till the next blueprint on some indeterminate future date!  As an aside, it is pathetic that four years after introducing the teaching of science and mathematics in English, it is only now that the Ministry is assessing the English competency of the teachers!

Ministry officials have obviously not learned from reform efforts elsewhere.  For example, Malaysia gives stipends so poor children could attend schools.  Why not tie it to actual school attendance, meaning, you would get paid only if you were in school, as with Mexico’s Progressa program.  On another area, Chile offers many workable models for private schools as well as for school-based management.

National Schools With Various Languages of Instruction

It is a national tragedy that today Malaysian schools are deepening instead of reducing the racial divide.  They are designed to appeal to racial identities.  In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested that Malaysian schools should instead focus on their language of instruction.  Thus instead of Sekolah Kebangsaan Jenis China (National-Type Chinese school), meaning a school primarily for Chinese, characterize them as national schools that use Mandarin as the language of instruction.  That would immediately change the focus.  Such schools could then attract non-native Mandarin speakers like Malays by for example, serving halal foods and having Mandarin-speaking Malay (or at least Muslim) teachers to serve as role models.  There are millions of Muslim Mandarin-speakers in China who would gladly teach in Malaysia.  We could also have French- or Swahili-Type National Schools, meaning, schools using those two languages as their medium of instruction.

As for the obvious poor physical conditions of our schools (as evidenced by double sessions), the report suggests nothing beyond recommending more funds be devoted.  That does not address the root cause.  Our schools are in such a poor state because the funds are used less to improve the facilities and more to provide jobs for favored Bumiputra contractors.  Apart from unnecessarily inflating the costs, such constructions are often shoddy and dangerous, as attested by buildings collapsing soon after their completion.  Unless the tender mechanism is revamped to ensure that only the most qualified and efficient contractors get the job, we will never improve our school facilities no matter how much money we pour on them.

The Education Blueprint 2000-2010 (the preceding one) had a shelf life of only a few months.  This one too would soon be forgotten, and a good thing too for this Education Blueprint 2006-2010 is nothing more than a blueprint for continued mediocrity.

In Memoriam: Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas, Myth Breaker

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

In Memoriam: Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas, Myth-breaker.

Malaysia Has Lost One Of Her Greatest Intellectuals

Farish A Noor (

For an entire generation of younger Malaysian academics and intellectuals who were born during the postcolonial era, Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas was very much a mentor-figure, a model public intellectual and an example of what the academic world could do if and when academics applied their intellectual faculties to the pressing needs of the times. His name and reputation as an activist-oriented sociologist was not confined to Malaysia alone, but had spread across the world from North America to Europe, the Arab world, Africa and many parts of Asia. Though the pace and tenor of his life was not as hot and racy as his contemporaries elsewhere such as Franz Fanon or Albert Camus, his works and ideas reflected concerns that were common to theirs; namely addressing the historical baggage of the colonial past while also having to face the impending crisis of governance in a post-colonial state rapidly floundering.

I, like many of my generation, came across his works while studying in London in the 1980s. A chance encounter at a book fair landed me with the prize of possessing his work ‘Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?’ (1972) where the younger Syed Hussein was taking a few well-aimed jabs at bringing down the colonial construct of Stamford Raffles as the ‘benevolent’ colonial functionary who was busily ‘civilising’ the natives of Asia purely for the sake of altruism. A closer reading offered by Syed Hussein showed that the man revered by many as a forward-thinking ‘benevolent colonialist’ was little better than an operator on the make, working often outside the boundaries of the law of the East India Company, and more often than not motivated purely by personal gain and ambitions. I was hooked to the book, and the Professor who wrote it from that day on.

While preparing my own notes for my first teaching course on the history of the decolonisation process in Asia, Alatas’s works were rudimentary and essential. Among his works that remain on my top shelf are ‘The Sociology of Corruption’ (1968), ‘Modernization and Social Change in Asia’ (1972), ‘Intellectuals in Developing Societies’ (1977) and of course, his magnum opus, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to 20th Century and Its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism’ (Frank Cass, 1977).

Among all of these, Prof Syed Hussein Alatas will probably be best remembered for his path-breaking ‘Myth of the Lazy Native’, an analysis of the modalities involved in the construction of stereotypes of the ‘native Other’ seen from the point of view of the colonial metropole, that was designed to epistemically arrest the constructed Other while disabling and disempowering the colonised subject at the same time. Never before had any Malaysian scholar attempted a work such as this, which employed a range of analytical tools from sociology to history to discourse analysis and a critique of racialized capital; and never before with such deconstructive effect. Today, a younger generation of students and scholars are impressed still by the ideas and writings of luminaries such as the late Edward Said, and critical theorists of the school of Subaltern studies, diaspora studies, cultural studies and the myriad of new disciplines that have sprung forth following the gradual collapse of the old schools. But it has to be noted again here that Syed Hussein Alatas’s work then was not only singularly unique in the Malaysian context, it was truly ahead of its time.

In The Myth of the Lazy Native, Alatas pressed home several important points that should never be forgotten by any scholar working on political history: First, that identity politics and the construction of racial categories and racial stereotypes are never accidental but are processes fundamentally wedded to the working of (racialized) power. Second, that the colonial enterprise required a moral pretext that was granted by the construction of convenient ‘instrumental fictions’ (to borrow Edward Said’s phrase) that helped to justify such an enterprise. Third, that the perpetuation and reproduction of such categories of identity and difference were running parallel to the workings of racialized colonial capitalism and that the two sustained each other, thereby helping to create the highly divisive and uneven ‘plural economies’ so common in many colonial settings. And fourth, that the legacy of colonial capitalism, having embedded itself in the racialized politics of difference and sectarianism in many colonies, would be hard to eradicate even after the departure of the colonial power for the local native elites themselves would have, by then, come to learn that the very same tools of divide-and-rule could be used by them to perpetuate such power differentials in the future.

In the same work Alatas proceeds to illustrate the last point clearly when he critically debunks the racialized stereotypes that were found in Malaysian works such as Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma (1970) and Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution), a compilation of essays edited by the then Secretary-General of UMNO. Syed Hussein exposed how in these works, written so late in the post colonial era by a new generation of post colonial leaders, the colonial mindset that saw Malaysian society as being fundamentally divided along racial lines was still sadly prevalent. What is more he lamented the fact that even up to the 1970s the generation of Malay ethno-nationalist leaders in the country could not help but base their appeals for privilege and power based on colonial clichés and stereotypes of the Malays as a ‘backward’ and ‘lazy’ race that had to be protected.

By then Prof Syed was no longer alone in his academic endeavours. Malaysian scholars like Chandra Muzaffar were also taking up his lead, questioning the logic of racialised patronage and the culture of neo-feudalism in Malaysia at the hands of UMNO in his work ‘Protector?.  A younger generation of Malaysian economists like Jomo Kwame Sundaram were also labouring hard to question the working of racialized capitalism that had by then been normalised in the country. But many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Prof Syed himself, who led the way and who maintained an approach that was critical, objective, fundamentally rational, positivist and unencumbered by the accoutrements of false ideology, racialized essentialisms or politically expedient revisionism.

Prof Syed will be remembered by his colleagues and students as one of the pioneers of critical theory in Malaysia, even though the term ‘critical theory’ had not been en vogue during his time. Much of his work and the focus of all of his intellectual energy was towards critically questioning and deconstructing many of the staid comfortable assumptions upon which both the colonial and post-colonial order of knowledge and power were based upon; demonstrating that academic work does not only have social and political relevance, but also that such critical thinking was politically necessary. In the words of Prof. Noraini Othman of the National University of Malaysia:  “His passing marked the end of an era in terms of Malay and Malaysian intellectual culture and scholarly tradition. Prof. Syed Hussein was a globally-known social scientist whose work focused on Malay society, culture and politics.  He was a fierce critic of Malay political culture – using the term “bebalism” as a concept to describe the inability of Malay intelligentsia and politicians to cope and engage with the forces and challenges of rapid social transformation, modernization, cultural change, and “westernization.”  Yet it was he who also fiercely defended Malay society and culture against the prejudices of “colonial perception and view of the lazy native.”

Prof Syed Hussein Alatas was born on 17 September 1928 in Bogor, Indonesia. He passed away at his home in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur, on the evening of 23 January 2007, after suffering a heart attack. He began his academic career in 1958 as the head of the research department of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in Kuala Lumpur. Between 1963 to 1967 he taught at the University of Malaya (UM) and from 1967 to 1978 he served as the Head of the Malay Studies Department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Between the late 1960s to the 1970s, he played an active role in Malaysia’s political environment, helping to form the multi-racial Gerakan Party in 1968. In 1972 he helped to form the Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia (Malaysian Social Justice Party, Pekemas). In 1988 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. From the mid-1990s he spent the last decade of his academic life at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of the National University of Malaysia (UKM), before moving on to serve as Professor and Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) at the same university.

Goodbye and thank you for all that you have taught us, Professor.  We have been, and remain, your students.

Farish A. Noor

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #54

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education  (Cont’d)

Other Post Secondary Institutions


While universities create, disseminate, and apply knowledge, we need other supporting institutions like teachers’ and technical colleges to extend these functions. We should not focus only on universities to the detriment of these other equally important institutions. After all for every engineer, we need four or five technicians and draughtsman; for every doctor, a dozen allied health care workers like nurses, technicians and therapists.

To its credit Malaysia has not neglected these other tertiary institutions. Unlike many nations, Malaysia has not succumbed to the fad of “upgrading” its teachers’ and technical colleges into universities. The one exception thus far is the recent conversion of SITC into a university. I will discuss only teachers’ colleges, but my underlying theme of trying different models, being flexible, maintaining quality, decentralization, and the importance of industry input apply to all other institutions.

I select teachers’ colleges for yet another reason. Next to the family, the most important predicator of a child’s success in school is the quality to his or her teacher. And quality teachers come from quality institutions.

The teaching profession must not only attract the talented but also provide them with the best training initially, and then regular continuing professional development as well as defined paths for professional growth so as to retain them. Good teaching skills can be taught, and those skills like those of other professions must be periodically updated.

Malaysia has 27 teachers’ colleges; most, like the universities, are of recent vintage. A few like the ones in Kota Baru, Malacca, and Tanjong Malim (now a university) have long distinguished histories, having been set up during British rule. They prepare teachers for primary and lower secondary schools. I disagree with the National Brains Trust recommendation that all secondary school teachers have baccalaureate degree. This does not mean that those currently with diploma should not be given every opportunity to pursue their studies towards a degree and to remain teaching at the same level (with added pay of course). At the upper secondary levels however, we must have teachers with a degree, even graduate degrees especially for Sixth Form.

There must be room for innovations and the trying of new models. With the current emphasis on English and the teaching of science and mathematics in English, I propose converting many of these colleges into entirely English medium. These colleges should also specialize to develop greater expertise. Some could concentrate on English, others on science and mathematics, and a few on the performing arts.

Similarly, the current effort to bring IT into the classrooms should begin at the teachers’ colleges. Before supplying computers to the classrooms I would first start teaching IT and giving computers to the teacher-trainees. They would then form the nucleus of expertise who will spread IT to the schools. Such a strategy would be slower but more likely to be successful than the present rushed and scattered method.

A major problem with teachers’ colleges and teaching generally is that they no longer attract bright and motivated students. Teaching is fast becoming the profession of last resort. This is an unkind statement to make considering the thousands of smart and dedicated teachers out there, but that is the reality. These dedicated teachers too are frustrated in having so many of these less-than-committed colleagues.

One solution to attracting talent would be to raise the pay. Malaysian teachers are grossly underpaid; a hike in the order of 25 percent would be appropriate. There must also be special allowances to entice teachers to rural areas as well as for teaching English, science, and mathematics. Earlier I suggested building teachers’ quarters for rural schools. Thus science teachers posted to kampong schools would get double allowances (rural and science), plus living quarters to boot. That ought to spark some interest.

In November 2002 MOE announced that science and mathematics teachers would get a 5 to 10 percent incentive allowance. That’s a beginning; to be effective the figure has to be at least 25 percent.

We must recognize that teachers are like members of other professions; some are better and more effective and productive. There must be a mechanism for identifying such superior performers and rewarding them accordingly. Giving the same bonus to everyone or giving undue reverence to seniority would not differentiate or motivate them. There must be merit pay increases, and I would let the teachers define merit and select their outstanding colleagues.

Others have advocated giving teachers more respect. I agree, and paying them more is one tangible way of showing this respect. I am uncertain of the value of such high profile activities as celebrating teachers’ day and having national teachers’ awards.

Another way to attract brighter candidates is to broaden their path of advancement. Thus I would provide opportunities for those in teachers’ colleges to sit for matriculating examinations like STM and SAT. Of the two, SAT would be more easily accommodated into the curriculum, especially for the colleges that specialize in English and mathematics. Thus when these trainees graduate they would also qualify to enter universities. I would fund a few to go for their degree in return for their returning to teaching.

Teachers’ colleges must work closely with universities; indeed there should be formal links. Lecturers at the colleges should be encouraged to take university courses for professional development. Those lecturers with higher degrees could be made adjunct professors at the university. Without those links these colleges risk becoming isolated intellectually.

The consumers of teachers’ colleges are MOE and the schools. I would ensure that each college has a board of visitors consisting of headmasters and senior teachers who could give valuable feedback.

Next:  Private Colleges and Universities