Archive for March, 2007

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Warriot from Silicon Valley

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #62

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Warrior from Silicon ValleyAn Education System Worthy of Malaysia #62

This is the final installment of the serialization of my book. After a brief updating remarks next Wednesday, I will begin serializing my latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges of the Twenty-First Century. The first installment will begin on Wednesday April 11, 2007.

Chapter 10: Putting It All Together (Final Installment)

The professionals at the schools would set the curriculum, choose the textbooks, and assess the students. The ministry’s role would be to provide guidelines and to set the minimum standards for the core subjects. The schools would be expected to exceed those standards through their own unique ways. For vocational schools I would expect industry to set up the curriculum so students would learn what would be relevant for the marketplace.

I would revamp the entire Islamic stream, from preschool to university, by integrating it into the mainstream. There is no good reason for segregating Muslim students into their own separate and exclusive schools. If that were not possible, then I would at least integrate their curriculum with the regular stream. That is, Islamic Studies would now be only one subject and not the all-consuming curriculum. These students would still, like all other Malaysians, have to take the four compulsory core subjects. The current Islamic matriculation examination STAM would also be eliminated and students would have to take the regular STP with the four core subjects. Their additional two subjects could be Islamic Studies and Arabic.

The cause of Islam would be better served by having its future scholars and ulamas broadly educated and exposed to students of various backgrounds. These Islamic schools must also produce their share of the nation’s professionals, scientists, and executives. These schools should not become modern seminaries.

The undergraduate curriculum should be broad-based and liberal along the American tradition. Students pursuing a degree in the natural sciences must take some courses in the humanities; those in the liberal arts must be exposed to laboratory science and mathematics. Additionally, law and medicine ought to be graduate programs, that is, requirements for entry must include a baccalaureate degree.

My proposal calls for private sector participation at all levels. This would not only lighten the load on the public purse but also introduce much needed innovation and competition. There could be purely private institutions or those that are joint public and private sector partnership in the form of charter schools and universities. Charter institutions would receive state funding in the amount equivalent to what it would have cost the state to have those students educated in public schools and universities. Both private and charter institutions must have a student body that reflects the general society. This would be the best way to achieve greater integration and social cohesion. Private schools would have only one required core subject, Malay, while charter schools would have the same four core subjects as in public schools. Beyond that the school is free to chart its own course, including the freedom to choose its language of instruction. Conceivably there could be a school using Swahili if there is enough demand from a broad section of Malaysians. Charter schools would have its managing board made up of mostly parents and teachers.

We must actively discourage segregating the young. It should be a condition for issuing the operating permits of schools and other institutions that their student body must reflect the greater society. The government could encourage this goal by providing scholarships and grants. Having a diverse study body would greatly enhance the learning experience of the students. What better way to prepare them for the diverse global marketplace than to have them exposed to the different cultures during their student days? The remarkable enriching experience of an American undergraduate program is precisely because of this incredibly diverse environment, culturally and academically.

Teachers’ colleges deserve special mention. A well-trained teacher is the core of any successful system; hence the importance of these colleges. They should train teachers for preschool to Year 9. At high school, teachers should have a bachelor’s degree followed by a year’s training in how to teach. I disagree with the proposal of the National Brains Trust to making all teachers have a degree, as in America. Nor do I agree with the American system of training teachers where the emphasis is in the methodology of teaching (pedagogy) at the expense of expertise in a particular subject. I would prefer that teachers first be experts in their chosen subjects and then be trained to teach, at least for the high school level.

In recognition of the importance of English and also with the recent decision to teach science and mathematics in that language, I would convert many of the current teachers’ colleges into complete English medium institutions. I would also encourage greater specializations with some emphasizing the performing arts, others science and mathematics.

To attract the talented into teaching we must not only pay them better but also give them clear and varied paths for professional advancement. Teachers colleges’ must have opportunities in their curriculum so their trainees could sit for university matriculation examinations.

Thus when they finish their training they could also qualify to pursue a degree. With such opportunities we would be able to attract more of the talented into teachers’ colleges. This would be far preferable to upgrading all teachers’ colleges into universities, as in America.

We should instead upgrade the standards of our teachers’ colleges. The experience of the old British teachers’ colleges like Brinsford Lodge and Kirby is relevant. They produced high quality teachers; many of their graduates went on to pursue their degrees, including graduate degrees. On many local universities today we see many of these former teachers now with their doctorates. We should be replicating the Kirbys and Brinsford Lodges.

We should improve the pay scale for teachers; an increase of 25 percent would be appropriate. I would also have allowances for those with much-need skills, like teachers of English, science, and mathematics, and another allowance for those teaching in rural areas. Thus a science teacher posted to Ulu Kelantan would enjoy double allowances. With such incentives we would greatly reduce the gaping divide between urban and rural schools.

Additionally I would have incentives for poor parents to keep their children in school. These include paying parents to do so; by incorporating meal and health programs at school; and making the school day longer so these children would do their homework and extra studying at school. I would make their classrooms attractive by air-conditioning them and ending double sessions.

I call for markedly reducing the activities of MOE, specifically dispensing with DBP, LAN, and reducing the scope of the examination syndicates. DBP‘s translating and scholarly activities could be shifted to the universities, while its publishing and printing arm privatized. Similarly both LAN and the examination syndicate could be made into autonomous bodies and funded solely through the fees they charge.

With a major chunk of MOE‘s activities dispensed, it would become a much slimmer entity and be able to accomplish its core mission more effectively.

I also call for streamlining and consolidating the sponsorship of students studying abroad. We should send only our best, and then only to the top institutions. They should also be given the freedom to choose their own field of study.

The salient feature of my reform is that it does not entail major outlays of expenditures. In fact it would reduce the aggregate costs by more efficient use of present facilities and resources. Nor would my proposals require changes in the law; no new enabling legislations would be required to effect the changes I am advocating. The reforms could be achieved within the current framework. That cannot be said of the other competing proposals.

END

Next: Concluding Comments on the serialization


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #62

This is the final installment of the serialization of my book. After a brief updating remarks next Wednesday, I will begin serializing my latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges of the Twenty-First Century. The first installment will begin on Wednesday April 11, 2007.

Chapter 10: Putting It All Together (Final Installment)

The professionals at the schools would set the curriculum, choose the textbooks, and assess the students. The ministry’s role would be to provide guidelines and to set the minimum standards for the core subjects. The schools would be expected to exceed those standards through their own unique ways. For vocational schools I would expect industry to set up the curriculum so students would learn what would be relevant for the marketplace.

I would revamp the entire Islamic stream, from preschool to university, by integrating it into the mainstream. There is no good reason for segregating Muslim students into their own separate and exclusive schools. If that were not possible, then I would at least integrate their curriculum with the regular stream. That is, Islamic Studies would now be only one subject and not the all-consuming curriculum. These students would still, like all other Malaysians, have to take the four compulsory core subjects. The current Islamic matriculation examination STAM would also be eliminated and students would have to take the regular STP with the four core subjects. Their additional two subjects could be Islamic Studies and Arabic. The cause of Islam would be better served by having its future scholars and ulamas broadly educated and exposed to students of various backgrounds. These Islamic schools must also produce their share of the nation’s professionals, scientists, and executives. These schools should not become modern seminaries.

The undergraduate curriculum should be broad-based and liberal along the American tradition. Students pursuing a degree in the natural sciences must take some courses in the humanities; those in the liberal arts must be exposed to laboratory science and mathematics. Additionally, law and medicine ought to be graduate programs, that is, requirements for entry must include a baccalaureate degree.

My proposal calls for private sector participation at all levels. This would not only lighten the load on the public purse but also introduce much needed innovation and competition. There could be purely private institutions or those that are joint public and private sector partnership in the form of charter schools and universities. Charter institutions would receive state funding in the amount equivalent to what it would have cost the state to have those students educated in public schools and universities. Both private and charter institutions must have a student body that reflects the general society. This would be the best way to achieve greater integration and social cohesion. Private schools would have only one required core subject, Malay, while charter schools would have the same four core subjects as in public schools. Beyond that the school is free to chart its own course, including the freedom to choose its language of instruction. Conceivably there could be a school using Swahili if there is enough demand from a broad section of Malaysians.

Charter schools would have its managing board made up of mostly parents and teachers. We must actively discourage segregating the young. It should be a condition for issuing the operating permits of schools and other institutions that their student body must reflect the greater society. The government could encourage this goal by providing scholarships and grants. Having a diverse study body would greatly enhance the learning experience of the students. What better way to prepare them for the diverse global marketplace than to have them exposed to the different cultures during their student days? The remarkable enriching experience of an American undergraduate program is precisely because of this incredibly diverse environment, culturally and academically.

Teachers’ colleges deserve special mention. A well-trained teacher is the core of any successful system; hence the importance of these colleges. They should train teachers for preschool to Year 9. At high school, teachers should have a bachelor’s degree followed by a year’s training in how to teach. I disagree with the proposal of the National Brains Trust to making all teachers have a degree, as in America. Nor do I agree with the American system of training teachers where the emphasis is in the methodology of teaching (pedagogy) at the expense of expertise in a particular subject. I would prefer that teachers first be experts in their chosen subjects and then be trained to teach, at least for the high school level. In recognition of the importance of English and also with the recent decision to teach science and mathematics in that language, I would convert many of the current teachers’ colleges into complete English medium institutions. I would also encourage greater specializations with some emphasizing the performing arts, others science and mathematics.

To attract the talented into teaching we must not only pay them better but also give them clear and varied paths for professional advancement. Teachers colleges’ must have opportunities in their curriculum so their trainees could sit for university matriculation examinations. Thus when they finish their training they could also qualify to pursue a degree. With such opportunities we would be able to attract more of the talented into teachers’ colleges. This would be far preferable to upgrading all teachers’ colleges into universities, as in America. We should instead upgrade the standards of our teachers’ colleges. The experience of the old British teachers’ colleges like Brinsford Lodge and Kirby is relevant. They produced high quality teachers; many of their graduates went on to pursue their degrees, including graduate degrees. On many local universities today we see many of these former teachers now with their doctorates. We should be replicating the Kirbys and Brinsford Lodges.

We should improve the pay scale for teachers; an increase of 25 percent would be appropriate. I would also have allowances for those with much-need skills, like teachers of English, science, and mathematics, and another allowance for those teaching in rural areas. Thus a science teacher posted to Ulu Kelantan would enjoy double allowances. With such incentives we would greatly reduce the gaping divide between urban and rural schools.

Additionally I would have incentives for poor parents to keep their children in school. These include paying parents to do so; by incorporating meal and health programs at school; and making the school day longer so these children would do their homework and extra studying at school. I would make their classrooms attractive by air-conditioning them and ending double sessions.

I call for markedly reducing the activities of MOE, specifically dispensing with DBP, LAN, and reducing the scope of the examination syndicates. DBP‘s translating and scholarly activities could be shifted to the universities, while its publishing and printing arm privatized. Similarly both LAN and the examination syndicate could be made into autonomous bodies and funded solely through the fees they charge. With a major chunk of MOE‘s activities dispensed, it would become a much slimmer entity and be able to accomplish its core mission more effectively.

I also call for streamlining and consolidating the sponsorship of students studying abroad. We should send only our best, and then only to the top institutions. They should also be given the freedom to choose their own field of study. The salient feature of my reform is that it does not entail major outlays of expenditures. In fact it would reduce the aggregate costs by more efficient use of present facilities and resources. Nor would my proposals require changes in the law; no new enabling legislations would be required to effect the changes I am advocating. The reforms could be achieved within the current framework. That cannot be said of the other competing proposals.

END

Next: Concluding Comments on the serialization

Pseudo National Interests Blocking FTA

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

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Pseudo National Interests Blocking FTA 

Co-written with Din Merican

(From:  www.Malaysia-Today.net)

Prime Minister Abdullah has done it again, doing what he does best:  avoiding making tough decisions.  By failing to conclude the FTA negotiations by the end of this month, that important national decision has been effectively taken away from him.  Events will now dictate to him.  There will be no FTA with America in the foreseeable future and with that, another lost opportunity.  Abdullah is again sacrificing the nation’s future by pandering to short-term parochial interests.

His denials notwithstanding, Abdullah is eyeing an early election to stave off Anwar Ibrahims’s political re-emergence.  He is fearful that FTA could be viewed as anti-Malay and anti-NEP.  That is his failure for not reining in such ill-informed critics as his son-in-law.

By blandly declaring that he is not bound by the time constraint, Abdullah clearly demonstrates that he has not been negotiating in good faith with the Americans.  He soils Malaysia’s international credibility, and he is now attempting to blame the Americans for the failure.

Abdullah’s long career in government has numbed him of any sense of urgency.  On this crucial FTA issue, he again exposes his lack of vision and courage of his convictions.  He is utterly incompetent; his detached management style borders on dereliction of duty, a breach of faith with the citizens.

We should have been negotiating aggressively with the Americans right from the beginning and not be sidetracked by endless cabinet squabbles.  Even under the best leadership, his huge cabinet would be unwieldy.  Under Abdullah, it behaves like a classroom of rowdy third-rate students, the loudness of their opinions inversely related to their soundness.

Abdullah’s assurance that he would protect the national interest was trite and unnecessary.  Of course he should.  Now on to substantive matters!

To her credit, Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz recently publicly voiced her support for the FTA.  She rightly dismissed those nouveau nationalists and pseudo advocates of our rice farmers.  We wish others in responsible public positions would also voice their support, as did Yong Poh Kon, Chairman of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, and the equally seasoned corporate leader Adam Kadir.  Manufacturing is a sizeable sector of our economy; agriculture, in particular rice farming, is way down there.

Our Ambassador in Washington, D.C., should be apprising Abdullah of America’s political realities.  That is her job; instead she is intruding herself in the minutiae of the negotiations.  The protectionist Democrats would unlikely extend the current “fast track” provision, and they are also likely to take over the White House in the next election.

The claim of American time pressure is mischievous.  The decision to enter negotiations was made early last year, with both parties fully aware of the deadline.  Instead of diligently tending to this important matter, our leaders were consumed with useless symbolic matters like Islam Hadhari.

Reflecting his own ignorance, Abdullah leans on inept advisors like Second Finance Minister, Noh Mohamed Yaccop, and his untested son-in-law.  Noh Mohamed’s antipathy towards America is not surprising.  The Federal Reserve publicly identified him as a “state-sponsored rogue currency trader” when he was at Bank Negara.  That multibillion-dollar debacle, and his pivotal role in it, has yet to be accounted for.

Back To Basics

Amidst the pseudo nationalistic posturing of our self-serving leaders and pundits, it is good to revisit the basic principles of negotiations and the rationale for an FTA.

Foremost, you negotiate only with parties you trust.  If you feel the other side is out to exploit you, then do not participate.  The other consideration is that the agreement must be mutually beneficial, with each side being better off with than without the agreement.

FTA with America meets both criteria.  We do not believe that either side is out to exploit the other; and the ensuing increased trade would benefit both.

Trade is an effective instrument for development, economic and non-economic.  Today’s China is a positive example of that wisdom; Myanmar, negative.  The golden era of the Malacca Sultanate was related to the fact it was in the path of and active participant in maritime trade.

Our leaders recognize this, at least superficially, hence their trumpeting our trillion ringgit trade figure.  Trade with America is a major chunk of that.

With the exchange of goods and services comes the flow of ideas and people.  It is instructive that Islam entered the Malay world through trade.  Our significant bilateral trade with Singapore insulates the major irritations between the two countries.  America and China, once bitter enemies, are today major trade partners and with that, world peace is greatly enhanced.

We should encourage trade by dismantling its obstacles – the essence of an FTA.  It does not remove all obstacles, only the tariffs on exports and imports.  The ensuing increase in trade would more than offset the tax loss.  This is a not matter of faith in capitalism; it is empirically borne out.  The “non-tariff” barriers however, remain, and can be as long a list as human ingenuity can make it.

America is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and consistently in our favor.  We should nurture that and not take it for granted.  You always need to cultivate your best customers.

Currently America has FTA with Singapore; consequently expect American trade, investments, and other interests to preferentially flow there.  The stark reality of the marketplace is that once a pattern is set, it is difficult to change.  Once a market is lost, it is tough to recapture.

This crucial insight eludes Abdullah; he never had to meet a payroll.  Such grim economic realties are insulated from him and thus beyond his comprehension.

America already has FTA with four Muslim nations.  Again, Malaysia is surrendering her leadership role in this important bloc.

 

 

Basis For Negotiation

A contentious issue is the government’s procuring and competition policies.  We believe that major projects must be open to international bidding, with the criteria transparent and where only cost, quality, and transfer of expertise and technology would be the major considerations.  This lack of transparency goes to the heart of the pervasive corruption within UMNO.

The big losers with greater transparency would be those high-flying UMNO cronies whose particular expertise is in procuring lucrative public projects through “negotiated contracts” at bloated prices which they then quickly dispose for a fat, quick and dirty “commission.”  They do not bring value to the venture; on the contrary, they add unnecessary costs.  Worse, they give Malays and Malaysia a bad name.

If FTA with America would end that, we are for it.  They of course would be the first and loudest in disagreeing with us, portraying themselves as nationalists, and us, American stooges.  Only an informed public could disabuse them of their delusion.

Nor do those practices protect our GLCs.  If they are to compete effectively globally, they must be able to meet competition at home.

America readily understands our racial dynamics; after all it shares many of our social dilemmas.  America had its affirmative action long before our NEP.  Besides, the Americas are not pushing on the competition issue; what they want is transparency.  So should we.

The competition policy would grant American and foreign companies similar access, as opposed to privileged positions for our GLCs.  Reciprocally, our GLCs would receive comparable opportunities in America, a market that could amount to in excess of US$250 billion.

To be sure, there will be dislocations with FTA and adjustments have to be made for those negatively impacted.  I refer here specifically to our padi farmers, not those ersatz capitalists and their champions within UMNO.  In championing the padi farmers, FTA critics like Khairy Jamaluddin are hiding behind their nationalist façade.  They and Abdullah are being dishonest in portraying those needed adjustments as being an infringement on our sovereignty.

Of the readers who responded to an Utusan Melayu on-line poll recently, less than 14 percent thought that an FTA with America would benefit Malaysia.  Amazingly, nearly half (45 percent) felt that the issue “needs further study.”  This again reflects the failure of leadership in government, media, and academy.  These issues are well laid out in the websites of MITI as well as the US Trade Representative’s Office (USTR), but our leaders have not done their homework.

We have yet to read any editorials in the mainstream media on the issue.  Our academics, in particular our professors of economics, have also remained curiously silent; likewise our Members of Parliament.  Only in the much-maligned blogosphere could one find robust discussions on the matter.

This need for ‘further study’ hides a greater underlying public unease.  Having seen the debacle over Johore’s crooked bridge, Malaysians have minimal confidence – justifiably so – in our officials’ ability to conduct complex negotiations.  Devoting more time to “study the issue” would not help.  What we need is expert outside help.

When Chile negotiated its FTA with America, it hired the best, yes, American talent to help it get the most from America!  This may be incomprehensible to Malaysians who may consider that akin to treachery, but in the world of business, you put your clients’ best interest first.  After all they are the ones paying you and your family’s bills.

There is no lack of transparency in the current negotiations as alleged, rather lack of attention, diligence, and initiative among our political and intellectual leaders.  We can blame only ourselves for that, not the Americans.

Din Merican is Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, and Visiting Professor, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  (dmerican@yahoo.com).  The views expressed do not implicate these institutions.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #61

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Chapter 10: Putting It All Together

Educational institutions should educate as well as integrate Malaysians. It is assumed that national unity would best be achieved through a rigid and uniform school system enforced upon all. This was the basis of the Razak Report. Today the consequences of that premise are obvious. Malaysians remain even more segregated, and these institutions have done a lousy job in their basic mission of educating the young. Malaysians today are severely wanting in their English skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy, severely handicapping them in the modern marketplace.

Malaysia can have a system of education that would both prepare its young for the competitive world and at the same time bring them together. For this we would need a system that is the very opposite of the present. Whereas the current system is rigid and uniform, my proposed system would be flexible and diverse, with just enough core commonality to identify us as Malaysians. Achieving this calls for a Ministry of Education that is radically different from the present form.

Whereas today’s ministry is highly centralized, with strict top-down command and rigid controls, I call for a more democratized structure with power and responsibilities delegated to lower levels, in some cases right down to the individual institution. The leadership role of the minister is less that of a drill sergeant barking out orders to frightened raw recruits, more of an orchestra conductor coaxing the best from his highly skilled musicians.

This flexible and diverse system would best meet the varied and differing needs of a plural Malaysian society, and at the same time promote greater unity. Getting there does not require major changes in the current basic pattern, more of a shift in attitude and mindset, away from rigid control and regimentation to that of consultation and collaboration between the center and the periphery.

Reform does not occur in the minister’s office or with some high profile committee of esteemed citizens. Nor would it be achieved simply with the issuance of some thick glossy reports accompanied by glittering ceremony and pompous speechifying. Rather it takes place in the classrooms, beginning with each child and individual teacher. The central and essential element of a good learning environment is still the skillful teacher who can capture the imagination of his or her pupils.

The essence of my reform is to get those teachers and then do everything possible to make their job easier and more enjoyable. This means providing them with an environment conducive to learning, and compensating them adequately.

Reform will fail or succeed in the classrooms. President Bush appropriately named his monumental education reform legislation as the “No Child Left Behind Act Of 2001.” The emphasis is rightly on the individual child, and on maximizing his God-given potential. The individual child is the central focus of education, not the politics of language, culture, or race.

When we single-mindedly focus on this basic theme, all the other peripheral elements and goals that are commonly associated with education would fall into place. If we educate our young well, they would become better citizens of not only the nation but also the world. And national unity would be that much easier to achieve. If we burden our schools with extraneous missions, then we dilute and blur that central mission. And when schools fail, that failure would spill over to and be amplified in other arenas.

In his A Nation At Risk, David Gardner reaffirms the principle that all, regardless of color, race, or economic status are entitled to a fair and equal chance to develop his or her potential, and when that is done, the benefits would accrue not only to that individual but also to society. The report defines excellence in education from three perspectives. For individuals, it would be to enable them to perform at the boundary of their ability, and then to test and push back those personal limits. For schools and colleges, it would be to set high expectations and goals for all learners, and help them achieve those goals. For society, it is to adopt those policies that would enhance those goals for individuals and institutions. My reform reinforces Gardner’s themes.

What I am proposing is not revolutionary or radical, rather evolutionary and incremental. I have not changed the basic premise such as the number of school years, the paramountcy of Malay language, or the basic funding mechanism.

In making my proposals I am guided by the following assumptions. Recognizing that Malaysia is a diverse nation, there is no “one size fits all” system. We should expect and indeed encourage different models. A school that would be suitable for rural and poor Ulu Kelantan would be grossly inappropriate for urban and affluent Ukay Heights. We must also have parental choice. We cannot force a system down any parents’ (or their children’s) throat. Give parents the freedom to choose what is best for their children. Parents know (and care about) their children better than any civil servant or politician. We should recognize that educational wisdom is never the exclusive preserve of government officials and bureaucrats. Nor is the government the only entity that can provide quality education. Thus I call for private sector participation in education at all levels.

Amidst the diverse models there must be a core of commonality. All Malaysians must study Malay, English, mathematics, and science, and the student body of all our institutions, private and public, must reflect the greater society. A nation that studies together stays together.

We must encourage schools to achieve this goal. Schools whose student body reflects society must be rewarded with enhanced state support; conversely there should no funding for those catering only to a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group. This applies both to vernacular as well as religious schools unless they open up their enrollment to attract a more diverse student body.

When our institutions enhance their standards and have high expectations, our students will respond. Success depends on continually elevating the bars and challenges, not in lowering them. We must also recognize that success in schools has other correlates outside of education, in particular, parents’ socioeconomic status and educational attainment. While we cannot do much to alter these factors, we can, through effective and imaginative policies, intervene and negate their impacts on the children.

My reform seeks to improve the evident weaknesses of the current system and build on the proven successes. I deal only with the broad framework and leave the pedagogical details of what and how to teach to teachers and educators. They are the ones who are trained and qualified to make those decisions. More importantly they are the ones who see the children everyday, not the politicians or policy makers. Those closest to the students–their teachers–should make decisions regarding details of the curriculum, pedagogy, class scheduling, and other educational matters.

I would change the present school years of K-6/3/2/2 (preschool-primary/lower secondary/upper secondary/pre-university) to K-6/3/4 (preschool-primary/middle/high school). I would incorporate preschool with primary school and lower the admission age from the current five years to four. There would not be much change in the curriculum except that there will be only four core subjects: Malay, English, science, and mathematics. These core subjects must be taught daily, and except for Malay, they would be taught in English. Passing them would also be mandatory. Beyond the core, each school is free to choose whatever subjects in whatever language to fill in the rest of the school day.

The sooner pupils are taught multiple languages the better. The benefits would spill over into other intellectual areas like the ability for abstract thinking and to sift the core data from the surrounding noise.

There are numerous clinical studies supporting my contention. We should capitalize on this scientific insight. Students would sit for only three national examinations: at the end of primary 6 (UPSR); middle school (PMR); and high school (STP).

The UPSR and PMR would test only the four core subjects. Further these examinations would contribute only 70 percent of the student’s final score; the rest would come from the teachers’ yearlong evaluation (the students’ GPA). For USPR, the student’s GPA at Years 5 and 6 would each contribute 15 percent to the final score. For PMR, the students GPA in each of three years of middle school would contribute equally (10 percent each) to the final score.

With the reduced load the examination syndicate could release the results much sooner and there would be no need to have these examinations held so early in the school year and thus taking away valuable teaching time. They could be held in late November with the results out by late December, in time for the students to begin their new school year the following January with minimal interruption.

There would be minimal changes to the present primary national-type Chinese and Tamil schools. They should be viewed less as vernacular schools and more as schools that happen to use Mandarin or Tamil as the medium of instruction. Thus I would make them even more welcoming to others outside their particular racial group. To a certain extent the national-type Chinese schools are already successful in this. More and more Malay parents are sending their children to such schools. More can be done to make these schools Malay-friendly, like offering Islamic classes (taught in Mandarin) and having Malays on the governing board.

After middle school the students would be streamed to enter academic, regular, or vocational stream. This streaming would be based both on the PMR scores as well as the GPAs for all subjects. I envisage the top third to be in the academic stream, and I would encourage a similar number to pursue the vocational, the rest would continue in the regular stream. There should be sufficient flexibility so students could switch during the first two years, based on their performance and teachers’ recommendations. The academic schools would prepare students for universities. The regular stream would prepare students to enter directly into the job market or for entry into non-degree granting institutions.

For the Year 13 examination (STP), students would take six instead of the present five subjects. Four would be the core mandatory subjects mentioned earlier. Again, as with the reformed UPSR and PMR, the final examination would contribute only 70 percent to the final score, with the rest coming from the student’s GPAs as per the following formula: 5 percent each for the first two years of high school, 8 for the third, and 12 for the last year. My proposal would dispense with both MUET and the General Paper.

The dramatic change from the present is that the student’s final grade would not be dependent exclusively on that one final end-of-year examination, rather it factors in the student’s year round performance. This would give a better evaluation of the student’s true ability and potential. Interschool variations in GPA standards could be adjusted using modern statistical tools.

Next: Final Installment

Discerning the Magic of Micro Lending

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

Discerning the Miracle of Micro Lending

M. Bakri Musa

 

A slightly shorter version titled “Money Isn’t Everything:  Poverty and Microcredit” was published in the Op Ed Page of the International Herald Tribune, February 14, 2007.  Reposted with permission.)

 

 

Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, is widely lauded for uplifting millions of Bangladeshi peasants out of poverty through his micro lending initiative.  He awes his audiences with stories of how a loan of just a few dollars could be so consequential and life transforming to its recipient.

Yet attempts at replicating this wonderful idea elsewhere have been less than successful.  Malaysia has a similar governmental program, with individual loans a thousand-fold larger, but its impact on poverty reduction has been unimpressive.  Instead, the program breeds gross corruption, rent-seeking behaviors in its recipients, and a pile of dud loans.

Grameen’s success has less to do with the amount of credit extended, rather with the accompanying behavioral changes that the bank demands of its borrowers.  Its success has less to do with the wonders of micro lending and everything to do with the miracle of effecting social and cultural transformations at the grass root level.

Using micro loans as the stimulus as well as the instrument, Yunus successfully changed the cultural activities and attitudes of his fellow citizens, from being inimical to productive economic pursuits to encouraging them.  This in turn would require those peasants to need the services of a bank.  That is the monumental achievement, not the miniscule value of the loans disbursed.

This caution is needed, as his winning the Nobel Prize for Peace would inevitably inspire others to emulate his program.  Already various governmental as well as non-profit and even commercial entities are entering the field.  There are even E-Bay-like enterprises linking borrowers and lenders.

These well-intentioned endeavors would fail as with the Malaysian experience if they were to focus only on the lending, and not on changing underlying attitudes and behaviors.

Grameen’s borrowers must commit to its “Sixteen Decisions” that include family planning, educating their children, not accepting or giving dowries, and “discipline, unity, courage and hard work in all walks of our lives.”  Those are great values; they would help steer one away from the poor house.  How many Bangladeshi families have been doomed to poverty because of large families and extortionate dowries?

The most important stipulation is that the loans must be for income-producing activities, or to use modern economic parlance, for productive purposes, not for consumption.  That is wise advice, and not just for poor Bangladeshi peasants.

The useful lesson from Grameen is that cultural values, even those long entrenched, can be successfully modified.  Grameen’s achievements are even more impressive considering that Bangladesh is a Muslim country, where concepts such as interest and contraception are considered “un-Islamic.”

The operational details of Grameen are equally noteworthy.  By requiring weekly repayments, borrowers are constantly being reminded of their obligations.  The close relationship between borrowers and lenders means that they know exactly the consequences of non-repayments:  other potential borrowers (their fellow villagers) would be deprived of their opportunities.

Contrast that with the attitude of contemporary bank consumers.  When missing their payments, the impact on other borrowers or the banks’ profitability never enters the borrowers’ consciousness.  There is no perceived commonality of purpose between lender and borrower.

Grameen “bankers” meet their clients at their homes.  Apart from bringing “personal banking” to a whole new level, the bank is spared the unnecessary overhead expense of branch facilities.  Such personal visits would also enable Grameen lenders to sniff potential delinquent loans long before that first missed payment.

A medical metaphor will illuminate my point.  Imagine an overweight, chain-smoking couch potato urban dweller seeking medical advice for his poor health.  He was advised to lose weight, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, quit smoking, and then prescribed expensive medications to lower his blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  He followed the advice religiously and lived to a happy old age.  When asked for the secret of his longevity, he gratefully attributed it to the miracles of modern medications, to the extent of even enthusing about their high price.  Had he pursued a healthy lifestyle to begin with, he would have had little need for those pricey wonder drugs!

Grameen’s sensible covenants alone would ease the escape out of poverty; they might even have spared the peasants from such a fate in the first place.  Muhammad Yunus’ miracle is in using those micro loans as a social stimulus to effect needed changes in personal behaviors and cultural values, with Grameen Bank being the enabling institution.  This key point is often missed by those enthusiastic in replicating the bank’s success.

 

 

Covenants For Lenders and Borrowers

 

If I were to resurrect Malaysia’s failed micro lending program, I would insist on a comparable “Sixteen Decisions,” except that I would reduce them to ten, six for borrowers and four, lenders.  I do not have the literary talent to make my “Ten Decisions” match the brevity, clarity, or gravity of the Ten Commandments, so here goes.

 

Decision One – Productive pursuits:            As a borrower I will use the loan for productive pursuits only, and create enough value so as to cover its costs (interests and principal payments) and some left over for me, in that order.  I would buy a truck ahead of a car so I could transport my goods to the market and thus create value.  A car would too, but only if I use it as a taxi and not for ostentatious display.  And I would buy a tractor ahead of a truck, as that would bring even greater value as I could then cultivate more land.

 

Decision Two – Modest and moderate lifestyle:            I would not accept or give dowries for my family or myself, except token amounts as specified in my faith.  I would not have multiple, elaborate, and expensive wedding ceremonies for my children or myself.  One simple ceremony would do; with no separate celebrations at the bride and groom’s place, or additional feasts for betrothal, wedding and bersanding.  I will not have multiple wives, instead love unto death the one I now have.  In short, I will follow the example of our Holy Prophet, “Above everything, be moderate!”

 

Decision Three – Education:            I will educate my children and ensure that they attend school regularly, help with their schoolwork, and participate in their school activities.  I will turn off the television at home during their specified study hours and read to them before their bedtime.  I also commit to lifelong learning on my part.

 

Decision Four – Health:            I recognize that health is the ultimate wealth, and I will commit to a healthy lifestyle.  I will not smoke or take illicit drugs and ensure that my household members sleep under mosquito nets to protect against malaria and dengue.  When working in the sun, I will be appropriately attired, with long sleeves and a hat or umbrella.  The harsh Malaysian sun tires and dries me out quickly, decreasing my productivity.  Likewise my household members must wear footwear like a simple wooden sandal to avoid worm infestation.  When I am healthy I will be productive and be able to repay my loan.

 

Decision Five – The Environment:            A clean beautiful environment contributes to my health, wealth, and happiness.  I will plant trees especially fruit trees in my compound.  If I live in an apartment, I would cultivate plants like lemon grass or roses indoors.  I will keep the area around my house properly drained with no puddles for insects to breed.  I will dig latrines so as not to soil my environment.  I will have garbage bins conveniently located in my home and property, and empty them regularly.  Likewise, I will regularly cut the grass and trim the bushes.

 

Decision Six – Zakat:  Zakat is a major pillar of my faith, ahead of the Hajj.  To be able to give zakat, I must first have wealth.  Implicitly Allah commands me to create wealth.  I will use this loan faithfully to create wealth so I could give zakat to benefit my fellow human beings.  I will consider not repaying my loan as a breach of the faith others have of me, and that will be a sin in the eyes of Allah.

 

Decision Seven – Precious Funds: As a lending officer, I will treat the funds as precious and treat them with the same prudence as if they are my own.  I will loan them only to those most worthy and who could use them most productively without regard to political or other persuasions.

 

Decision Eight – Corruption:            I will not tolerate corruption in any guise in disbursing the loans.  If I suspect corruption, I will report it to my superior, and if they are corrupt, to expose it publicly.

 

Decision Nine – Borrowers’ Advocate:            My duty extends beyond credit assessment and loan disbursement.  I will be a vigorous and effective advocate for my clients to ensure the success of their ventures.  If they are successful, then I am too.  I commit to use the clout of my institution as well as my personal and professional skills to extract group, fleet and other discounts and then pass on the savings to my borrowers.  I would arrange for them to form groups and co-operatives so they could leverage their collective actions.

 

Decision Ten – Seek out Borrowers:            I will actively seek out potential worthy borrowers to support their deserving enterprises.  I will use current borrowers as leads as well as do my own scouting.

 

The six covenants for borrowers are useful advice to anyone whether or not they are contemplating borrowing.  Those were the advice my parents gave me and they have withstood the test of time and culture.  They are as useful to me in Malaysia when I was growing up as they are now in America when I am raising my own family.

 

Living in Kasar Times

Friday, March 16th, 2007

Living in Kasar Times

Farish A. Noor

(This article first appeared in Off The Edge, Issue 26, March 2007. Re-posted by kind permission of the author.)

Its quite rare for a talcum-powdered, linen-clad bloke like me to get angry in public, and so I write this piece with a hint of embarrassment to begin with. During one of my antique hunts around Central Market recently, I experienced something that raised my blood pressure high enough to warrant an article being written about it.

While trawling through the mountains of made-for-tourists kitsch that passes as contemporary Southeast Asian folk art and handicrafts (nursing the futile hope of actually chancing upon something worth buying, in vain), I overheard a conversation among some young kutu (petty traders) types. They were looking at some wayang kulit (shadow play)puppets hanging by the door of one of the shops in the market, and pointing to the figures of the Mahabharata heroes Yudistira and Arjuna, two of the five Pandawa brothers of lore. The punk-headed kutu said to his skin-headed friend with a ring in his nose: “Apalah hero wayang ni. Kurus, ramping macam mak nyah lah. Tangan tak de muscle pun, macam mana nak jadi hero? Nampak macam bapok saja!”  (What hero?  Thin as a damsel and without any trace of masculine fiber!)

Under normal circumstances I would have let such an untutored remark pass. If Malaysians can’t be bothered to read a little bit more about their own culture and history, then why should we feel offended when tourists say similar things and think similar thoughts? Who would care to explain to the kutu braders why the heroic figures in the Nusantara rendition of the Mahabharata were and remain so slender, so fine, almost feminine? And even if I had set up my soapbox to deliver an impromptu lecture of Southeast Asian masculine aesthetics, who would have listened? I cursed my luck for not being able to find a single decent piece of nyonya (Straits Chinese women) jewelry instead…

But one month on, events have prompted me to go back to that episode. Like some pathetic gesture of trying to regain lost time, I regret that I had not stood my ground and defended the slender arms of dear ol’ Arjuna, he of the long eyelashes and warm pouting lips. I regret the fact that I had not defended the value of halus (finesse) against the unwavering, relentless, smelly tide of kasar (coarseness) and kasarism instead. For indeed, we live in kasar times.

Signs of kasar-ness are all around us today: Politicians lose their cool and reach for their daggers, shouting slogans of blood and triumphalism as soon as they see a microphone. Powerful men on the make assume that their powers are so limitless that the mansions they build have to reflect their largess as well, to the point where their homes rival the palaces of kings both in size and vulgarity. Arguments are no longer met with counter-arguments, but with lawsuits or death threats instead. So much for our beloved ‘Asian values’ that are supposed to be ever so halus, refined and sophisticated.

But a reading of the Hikayat Pandawa Lima (The Epic of the Five Pandawas, the Malay rendition of the Mahabharata) points to another age when power was seen and understood not in terms of violent pyrotechnics; but rather the opposite: As restraint, control, poise and demeanour. The figures of Yudistira and Arjuna embody this aesthetic and moral ideal in its essence. In the Hikayat Pandawa (as is the case of many other ancient Nusantara epics) the ideal hero is the man who restrains himself, rather than let his ego and libido run riot. The ideal hero meditates (there are often long episodes of meditation in caves and mountains, making for good scenic shots), eats little (hence the slender waistline, nothing to do with pilates), speaks even less (another Bergmanesque touch, ideally filmed in grainy black-and-white) and when he has to fight is often forced to battle with his conscience before, during and after the bloody deed.

While the ugly, pug-faced, muscle-bound, lumbering baddies are the first to reach for their kerises, the ideal hero unsheathes his weapon with all the finesse of a tea ceremony, fully aware of the consequences of the act he is performing and the cost of his actions soon after. That is why all of the bad characters we see in the wayang performances tend to have bulbous eyes, thick lips, exaggerated noses, pot bellies, heavy muscular arms and legs, thick wrists and ankles: Practically everything about them and their bodies speaks the language of excess and overkill: Too much passion, too much anger, too much testosterone, too much facial hair, too much chili in their diet.

Halus versus kasar: The moral dialectic of the Southeast Asian universe was staged on a number of registers, including aesthetic, moral and political. The Kasar villain oppresses, bullies, intimidates, pushes his weight around, doesn’t listen to others. The modern equivalent shares surface similarities: he hogs the road, his palatial home dwarfs that of his neighbor’s, his Krakatoa-strength karaoke set leaves his friends deaf and dumb, his SUV and bling-bling make gangsta pimps look like Church wardens.

Conversely, the Halus hero resists, and finds his strength in consistency, persistence and quiet determination. While the marauding kasar armies rape and pillage, he meditates on the rock, concentrating all the power of the universe in his little finger, waiting to unleash his slender feminine keris that will fly through the sky and lay waste to the unwashed horde. The modern equivalent would be the politician who holds his tongue, who tempers his discourse, who calms the crowd – rather than revving up the hate machine. The modern halus hero knows that what matters to the nation is not another fat ugly mega mall or skyscraper, but clean accounts and efficient auditing instead. He knows that it’s not what sort of car he drives that matters, but rather how he drives it.

We were once a people who were halus. (Well, not all of us were I’m sure, but I’m trying to be generous in self-flattery here.) This was a region where power was seen not through the prism of violence and bloodshed, but was demonstrated through calculated restraint that evolved and expressed itself in a manner that was elegant, dignified, civilized. Damn, we had class then.

Now our halus heroes are dismissed as bapoks, Mat Rempits have become patriots overnight and hysterical demagogues and hate-mongers become public figures instead. What a low blow to a nation that could have aimed higher. We live in kasar times, and everything seems so koman (trivial) and chekai now

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #60

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Chapter 9:  Moe Down Moe (Cont’d)

Land LAN Elsewhere

The National Accreditation Board (Lembaga Akreditasi Negara – LAN) was set up in1996 to monitor private institutions of higher learning. It accredits only private institutions; the assumption being that public institutions do not need such monitoring. How that grand leap of faith comes about I do not know.

There were many quality private institutions long before LAN. Colleges like Taylor and Stamford do not need LAN‘s imprimatur. Parents and students already knew of their quality by their products. Taylor sends more students to elite universities than any other institution in Malaysia, private or public. LAN was established in anticipation of the rash of new private institutions expected with the amendment to the Education Act of 1996.

Despite LAN, newspapers still carry horror stories of colleges and medical schools set up without adequate laboratories and other ancillary facilities. The question arises as to how these institutions were granted permits or accredited in the first place. When you read LAN’s mission statement and manual, they are replete with such minutiae as the number of reference books the libraries must have. LANS’ board of trustees is filled with former academics. Even though technically LAN is an independent statutory body under MOE, functionally it is nothing but a department within it. LAN is still bound by the civil service rules and protocol.

To complicate matters, there is yet another division within the ministry that regulates private institutions. Precisely where the jurisdiction of one ends and the other begins is not clear. I would have thought that a university or college that is not accredited should not be allowed to operate. Nor should any new institution be given a permit unless it can show that it has the resources – academic, physical, and financial – to meet accreditation requirements. That seems elementary. Similarly an unaccredited institution should not be allowed to admit any students, local or foreign, but then we found out that the authority to grant colleges the authority to recruit foreign students rests not with LAN but with that other agency. Again when there is duplication of services, matters and responsibilities easily slip between departments.

LAN should be independent, funded entirely by the fees it charges institutions seeking accreditation. All institutions must be accredited. The same standard must apply to both public and private institutions. The public must be assured of quality with all institutions.
The government’s argument that there are enough regulations to monitor public institutions and thus they do not need to be accredited does not wash.

LAN’s governing board must be made up of representatives and experts from the major universities, private and public. It should also invite foreign experts to be among its surveyors. They must not be full time employees rather part-timers contracted from active practitioners in the field. If they become fulltime surveyors and reviewers, they will forget their primary professional expertise as educators.

LAN must develop specialized expertise so it could credibly evaluate and accredit professional faculties like business, engineering, law, and medicine. If any institution, private or public, cannot meet those standards, then it should not be allowed to operate. LAN should learn from the accrediting bodies of advanced countries both on the mechanics of accrediting and also on the more important issue of enhancing quality and standards.

I work in an accredited institution. Months before the survey, the accrediting body would send out a detailed questionnaire to the hospital. These cover basic housekeeping issues as well as policy matters. The actual survey usually takes two or three days, with the surveyors divided into teams to inspect their particular area of expertise. Some would focus on the “hardware” of the hospital (from lights and fire extinguishers in the hallways to the reliability of back-up power systems), others on the “software” (policy manuals dealing with infectious diseases to mechanism of handling public complaints). On the last day of inspection, the surveyors and key hospital personnel would gather in a large hall to listen to the comments and findings, and yes, to challenge those findings if need be. At that summation hearing the hospital would know whether it gets its accreditation. No prolonged waiting or hearing the news through the media. The summation hearing is also a time for both sides to learn from each other. A few weeks later the hospital would get the formal report. If there were to be any bad news, the hospital would hear it first and directly from the surveyors.

In Malaysia institutions often become aware that they have failed their accreditation only through the press. This would then be followed by a series of conflicting “clarifying” remarks from officials that resulted in further confusion.

The other pertinent point is that the surveyors and reviewers are made up of working professionals from comparable institutions. There is no point in sending an expert from a university hospital to survey a small community hospital. The problems and issues would be entirely different. Likewise with surveying an educational institution; it would be pointless to send a law professor to survey a technical institute. Even though the hospital’s accrediting body is independent, during the survey there are participants from the state department of hospitals as well as the federal government’s Medicare agency. They too perform their own survey in tandem with the accrediting body to avoid duplication of efforts. Likewise LAN could conduct its survey together with representatives of the ministry or even the immigration department, to avoid duplication.

In surveying colleges and universities it is important not only to evaluate their “software” (course offerings, lecturers’ qualifications, libraries) but also the “hardware,” (lecture facilities, students’ amenities, and laboratory capabilities). This idea that you could run a university in a shopping mall or over some empty shop lot is ridiculous. Accrediting agencies in America are now also factoring diversity of students and faculty in recognition of their value in the students’ overall college experience.

A good place for LAN to start would be to clarify the definitions of various terms like institute, college, university or even university-college. Have clear statutory delineations so the public would not be confused. The other major issue for LAN and the ministry to confront is the plethora of academic offerings of the various institutions. Should an institution be allowed to offer a mechanics certificate right up to a master’s or PhD degree? More importantly, can that institution do justice to its various constituents? I seriously question the competence and wisdom of an institution having such a smorgasbord offering of educational diplomas on its menu.

By eliminating such ancillary functions as publishing, translating, and testing, MOE could focus on its core mission of taking care of the education of Malaysians. That by itself is a formidable responsibility; there is no need to seek additional ones. Teachers already make up a third of the civil service, and the ministry routinely gets the biggest budget allocation. Thus even after dispensing with these extraneous activities, MOE has enough on its plate and then more. MOE should concentrate on doing only the essentials, and doing them better.

Next: Chapter 10 (Final Chapter): Putting It All Together

Obsession With Trivia

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Our Obsession with Trivia

Malaysiakini.com March 8, 2007

Editorial lead: All one could achieve by endless chanting on prayer beads is to put everyone to slumber. God knows, our leaders are already doing enough of that!

It is a sure sign that a society is on the decline when it is consumed with trivia. You would not know of the decline of the Roman Empire from the attendance at the Coliseum during the dying days of Imperial Rome.

Today, Muslim societies in general and Malays in particular are obsessed with inconsequential issues. There is much discussion on the wearing of chastity belt and the tudung to protect the purity of our women. In the same vein, the state of Kelantan mandates separate checkout lines for men and women at the supermarket, and a stadium exclusively for women.

This obsession intensifies under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. He is intent on aping the great Caliphs of yore, hence pictures of him as Imam leading his ministers in prayer. Last year his Angkasa (Malaysian Space Agency) convened an academic conference on “Islam and Life in Space.”

Among the major concerns were on performing prayers in and the direction of Qiblat from outer space! I thought they would instead marvel at the miracle of humans in outer space, and the scientific endeavors that made it possible.

One UKM engineer ingeniously designed software to determine the direction of Qiblat from outer space. His paper was the most widely quoted in the lay press, locally and abroad. I am sure he has a huge potential market for his invention. At last count, there was only one Muslim astronaut, and Malaysia hopes to triple that number soon.

The only astronomical aspect to that venture (of sending Malaysians into space) is the cost. We are led to believe that the whole thing is gratis, the benevolence of the Russians after we paid a highly inflated price for their outdated military jets.

Meanwhile right here on earth, there is an ongoing raging controversy on the “right” direction of Qiblat. Muslims in Alaska could pray facing southeast if using the Mercator projection of wall maps as their guide, or northwest, that being the most direct path as per the satellite image of Earth. At Mecca’s antipodal point somewhere in French Polynesia, Muslims could face either northeast or northwest and still face Mecca.

Many a temper had been lost in discourses to resolve this intrinsically unsolvable dilemma, not to mention the acres of forests sacrificed to publishing the ensuing treatises. Never mind the Prophet s.a.w. had once, upon revelation, changed the direction of Qiblat. The intellectuality of such debates would be akin to arguing about how many angels would fit on the head of a pin. In terms of utility, or ability to effect change, it would be like discussing the weather. It gets us nowhere.

No Shortage of Serious Problems

Yet there is no shortage of serious problems facing the ummah today. In Malaysia, there are the daily headlines of incest, spousal and child abuse, corruption, breach of trust among leaders, and underdevelopment of our human capital as evidenced by high illiteracy and poverty rates.

In the cradle of Islamic civilization, the Sunnis and Shiites are hell bent on slaughtering each other, with the rest of the Muslim world in particular the OIC chaired by our own Abdullah Badawi, remaining strangely detached.

A few years ago the United Nations commissioned a study on the state of human development in the Arab world. Among its shocking findings is this: Spain produced more books in one year than the entire Arab world for the past 100 years! Another, the Arabs’ contribution to the world’s economy is under five percent, and overwhelmingly related to their oil at that. Without that accidental bounty of nature, their contribution would be zilch.

If I were to do a similar study on Malays, the results would be equally disturbing. We constitute half of the population of Malaysia, but our contribution to the economy, intellectual, scientific and artistic life does not match our numbers. On the contrary, we are over represented in the dysfunctional category (drug addictions, HIV infections, and the Mat Rempits and Mat Skodengs as well as the unemployed).

I am ashamed of this but I point it out merely to note that there is no shortage of challenges that demand to be solved. Issues like the direction of Qiblat and wearing of tudong should not clutter our radar screen.

Malay leaders, intellectuals and pundits have no clue on solving these pressing issues; hence their preoccupations with chastity belts and spouting pieties. When they are not so doing, they are content with recalling the glorious days of Andalusia and the supposedly golden era of the Malacca sultanate.

Changing Mindsets

We lack the necessary humility to learn from others; we already know it all. Sombong, as we say back in my old village. We regard ourselves as “special,” content with our privileges.

Yet our problems are neither unique nor insolvable; others have successfully overcome them. We could too, if only we are willing to learn from them. If we look east, there are the Koreans who despite once being brutally colonized by the Japanese are now besting them. If we look west, there are the Irish, who like us were once colonized by the British. Despite its small population, Ireland is today a force within the EU.

Our mindset to solving problems must change. If I were caught in a house during a rainstorm and the roof was leaking, it would not do me any good to keep chanting on my prayer bead, “The room is dry! The room is dry!” However, if I were to go out and tie a tarp over the roof, it would definitely be more effective. Yes, I could chant and sing while doing so to make the chore more fun. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said it best, “First tie your camel, then pray it does not stray!”

In facing the problems of our ummah, our leaders are content with chanting and praying but not in exerting themselves in tying a tarp over the roof or securing the camel. Instead of being obsessed with the tudong and chastity belt, we should focus on education and economic development. Those are the surest ways of uplifting our people, the proven way out of poverty. Once we are no longer mired in it, we are more likely to be on the straight path. As Hamka so wisely noted, “Kemiskinan medukoki kefukuran!” (Poverty invites impiety). There is little piety or virtue in poverty-stricken Indonesia. It is not a surprise that incest as well as child and spousal abuse are highest in the poorest states of Malaysia.

Not just any education. If we continue with our present system that emphasizes reverence for precedence and mindless memorization, that would only produce zealots who think that killing and destroying would secure for them a place in heaven, with a generous supply of virgins thrown in. Our education should emphasize the sciences as well as quantitative and language skills. Our teachers should encourage critical thinking, not meek acceptance and blind obedience.

If we continue with the present system heavy on revealed knowledge and obedience to authority, then we should not be surprised if our people could only chant rather than tie a tarp over our roof, or forever praying to find their lost camel as they have not learned to tie it properly.

As for economic development, we should emulate our prophet by engaging in its activities. Before anointed prophet, he was a highly successful trader, engaging in the most elemental form of economic activity. The advanced societies achieved their status through encouraging trade and entrepreneurial activities among their citizens. If our society aspires to join their ranks, then we too should encourage similar activities among our citizens.

Our Quran commands us to go forth and seek a livelihood after our prayers; we are not to confine ourselves in our mosques as monks in their monasteries. Our heroes should be the satay sellers and other entrepreneurs big and small who in serving their fellow men are also serving Allah, and earning an honest living at the same time. Paraphrasing the wisdom of our prophet, it is better to be giving a paycheck than to receiving one, meaning, better to be an entrepreneur than a salary man.

We have outdone ourselves in rent seeking behaviors and extracting bounty from state welfarism. As for salary man, look at our civil service, overwhelmingly Malay. Success and excellence are not achievable by everyone, only those willing to work hard and strive for them. As for those content only with endlessly praising the wisdom of such endeavors, their fate will not change. All they would achieve by their endless chanting on prayer beads is to put everyone – leaders and followers alike – to slumber. God knows, our leaders are already doing enough of that!

We should heed the command of our Quran, “Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves!” (Surah 13:11 – approximate translation.)

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #59

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE  (Cont’d)

Examination Syndicate

The ministry is also involved in the testing business. In the past the private Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate undertook such activities. Since independence, as a manifestation of the merdeka (independent) spirit, the ministry felt that it could do the job better.

When I took my Form V examination back in 1960, I do not remember the cost but it was certainly not substantial as it did not impose a particular burden on my parents. And the examination results were released in late February or early March at the latest. Today we read stories of school children unable to sit for the test because of lack of funds, and the results not published until late May (there has been some improvement in 2002). From late November until the results are released six months later, students are left in limbo. These are the youths one sees loitering in the shopping malls or otherwise unoccupied. They have nothing to do but wait. Parents who are smart or can afford it enroll their children at private institutions. By the time the examination results are released they would have completed over a semester’s course work.

The Year 6 examination takes place in early September. From then until the beginning of yearend vacation (early December) these pupils are essentially wasting their time. No learning takes place; those precious long months are simply wasted away.

The ministry has two examination bodies: Malaysian Examination Syndicate (Lembaga Pepereksaan Malaysia – LPM) that runs the tests for the end of Years 6, 9, and 11, and the Malaysian Examination Council (Majlis Peperkesaan Malaysia – MPM) that administers the Form 6 examination and the Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET).

Why two entities? My cynical view is that there would then be two departmental heads and doubling of the establishment. Many more top jobs for civil servants!

The excuse given for the late release of results is that there are now so many more candidates. True, but the American College Board administers SAT to millions worldwide and releases the results in weeks not months. The delay is due to other more mundane reasons.

Once while vacationing in Malaysia during December, I met a senior official from the Examination Syndicate who was also on holidays. I was surprised as I expected December to be the busiest time for him, being after the school examination season. I inquired why he took the vacation then, and his answer was as direct as it was frank. It was precisely because his department was busy that he took time off. No point taking a vacation when you are not busy at the office, he rationalized! It is such an attitude that accounts for the delays, not lack of staff and money, or too many candidates.

Civil servants staff both bodies; they lack professional training in the psychology of testing, testing methodology, or statistical analysis. There are no studies assessing the reliability, predictability, or even internal consistency of these tests. The general public has little confidence in these tests, with speculations that the results are often tampered, and the authorities have done little to allay those misgivings.

The recent scandal over the examination for lawyers (administered by another body) heightens those suspicions. The central figure in that scandal (now awaiting trial) was the former deputy dean of one of the public law faculties. That such a prominent academic could be involved with something so slimy is unnerving.

The rules for examinations too are not without controversy. One is the silly requirement for candidates to state their race and religion. This adds to the general unease and suspicion that such information would be used for sinister purposes. Get rid of that unnecessary data.

These examination bodies have not done any research to validate their tests. There are no longitudinal studies correlating students’ performances on these tests and their later college careers. Nor are there studies to validate the internal consistency of the tests, or correlating them with class performance. Similarly there are no detailed analyses of the questions to differentiate between the truly discriminative ones from those that are not. The best questions are obviously those that are answered correctly by the top scorers; the worse or least discriminative are those answered correctly at random. The only way to discover this is to subject each question to statistical analysis. Such analyses would help the examiners get rid of useless, non-discriminative questions and enhance the overall quality of the tests.

            Examination bodies can do more than simply grade students and be their gatekeepers. The data they generate could help parents in making their choices; schools in monitoring their performances; and the ministry to guide where to focus its resources.

Next:   Land LAN Elsewhere

 

Reforming Higher Education: The Zahid Nordin Report

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

Reforming Higher Education:

Critique of the Zahid Nordin Report

 

Langkah-langkah Ke Arah Kecemerlangan

(Steps Towards Excellence)

(Second of Two parts)

 

 

University Autonomy and Governance

 

Autonomy should extend beyond academic matters to the practical governance of our universities.  The government should exert control only at the macro level and indirectly through the budget process and governing board.  Universities should manage themselves independent of the ministry.  They should get a global budget based on defined goals, like the number of students and programs, plus bonus funding as specific incentives like the number of Bumi students in the sciences and graduate studies or the number of new patents secured.

How the university spends its money is up to its VC and governing board.  Likewise, the board hires and fires the VCs, deans and department heads.

The committee makes the sensible recommendation that the selection of VCs be made in an open manner and widely advertised to attract the best candidate (Recommendation  #24).  It does not specify whether that the post be advertised globally or only locally.  The committee reaffirms the role of the minister in selecting the VC (9.2.9); this robs the entire meaning of autonomy.  I am not opposed however to the minister having veto power.  The committee further weakens its recommendation by making the initial appointment be for only two years!  No serious academic would consider dislocating himself and his family for such a short initial contract.

I would make the VC a terminal appointment, meaning once appointed he or she would either retire, resign to pursue other goals, or be ousted for nonperformance.  The present practice of short-term appointments of only a few years is destructive.  They reduce the VCs to be seat warmers.

There is no need to change the University Act that says the minister shall appoint the VC in consultation with the governing board.  It is enough for the minister to give due deference to the decision of the board, meaning, extend the meaning of the word “consultation.”

The VC is not the only critical academic intellectual leader; there are the deans, departmental heads, and institute directors.  That these other positions are rotated (11.3.1) cannot be good for the university.  The diligence in appointing a VC should also be given in appointing deans and the various heads.

In addition to a global operating budget, there should be a separate capital budget for developing new programs and fund expansions.  The minister also controls this budget allocation, giving him yet another leverage over the university yet not micromanage it.

The level of autonomy would be less for university colleges, and even less for community colleges.

The ministry would be reduced to running common administrative chores like central application for students and the staff pension plans.  Each university would select its own students and faculty, with the ministry setting only broad policies and goals.

Besides exerting controls through the budgetary process, the minister could also influence through appointments to the governing board.  I would discourage appointing sultans to university boards.  Malays are still feudal (even and especially highly educated one), and with sultans chairing meetings, no robust discussions could ever take place.  Everyone would be excessively deferential.

 

 

Moratorium on New and Branch Campuses

 

I agree with the committee that no new (or even branch) campuses be built until we clear up the present mess.  The committee however, dilutes its message by recommending that the present Maritime Institute in Melaka be upgraded to a university (Recommendation #68), and a Palm Oil University be set up!

There is a difference between a university and a trade school, and between a university and a research institute.  A Palm Oil University sounds very much like a “souped up” trade school rather than a university.  Tourism contributes more to the economy than palm oil, why not a Tourism University?  Again, muddled thinking!

There should be enrollment limits per campus.  Once it exceeds 25,000, there is a quantum leap in the complexities of managing it.  Staff resources would be diverted just to running the institution.

The same applies to branch campuses.  Discontinue them, and convert existing branch campuses into independent universities or university colleges, or even junior colleges.

The committee’s recommendation (#89) for having various Academies, including a super National Academy, is unwarranted.  That would add another layer of costly administrative structure.  We should be breaking down walls, not create new ones.  If those academics and scientists working in the frontline feel that they need an academy, they would form one, as with the current Academy of Medicine.  There is no need for a directive from the Ministry.

 

 

Rationalizing Role of Private Sector

 

The report does not rationalize the role of the private sector.  Nor does it address the many glaring issues and unhealthy trends in our private colleges and universities like the dangerous racial and social segregation.  The government could ameliorate this directly by giving grants based on the number of Bumi students these private institutions enroll (more if in the sciences), and indirectly by giving scholarships to poor Bumis who enroll.

If private universities have the same racial composition as public universities, then they both should get the same amount of funding.  That should be an incentive for private institutions to attract Bumis.

I would encourage collaborations between universities and research institutes but their mission should remain separate and distinct.  These PhD researchers at PORIM and RRI for example could be given adjunct academic positions by the universities so they can give lectures and take students to work in their labs.  If you convert research institutions into universities (as recommended by the Report), you risk destroying their research mission and capabilities.

Similar adjunct appointments could also be given to private practice professionals (lawyers, physicians, business executives).  This would augment the teaching staff and give the curriculum much-needed practical relevance.

Likewise, the mission of the Maritime Institute is to produce captains and seamen, not the academic study of the ocean.  If you want to award degrees for such programs as is being done in the US, make the institution into a university college, not a university.

 

 

ICT on Campus

 

The report devotes over 18 pages to details of ICT.  This is a rapidly changing field, and the committee lacks technical expertise in the area.  Why not simply commit to have a fully “wired campus” and then put out the bids.  Let the experts at IBM, Sun Microsystem and others solve the problems of security, redundancy, etc.  Why duplicate or replicate what private industry already has on the market?

I would give all faculty members and students (to be included in their tuition fees) free laptops and wireless access.  Through group purchasing, laptops (Wi Fi equipped) could be had for under RM 1,000.  I would encourage professors to give their assignments, reading materials and notices on-line.

Once students have access to broadband, you have in effect given them entry into the world’s great libraries.  There is no way for Malaysia to equip its libraries with all the journals and books, but by having broadband access, your students can get all the articles they want.

Additionally, many leading American universities including MIT and Yale are putting their lectures (video and audio) on the Web and available for free.  There is nothing stopping an enterprising professor from Malaysia to arrange for his or her students to listen to these lectures and then have a weekly videoconference for questions and answers session with that Yale professor.  That could be done cheaply over the Internet using existing technology (simple Web cameras and Skype phones).

To benefit from the Internet however, our students must be conversant in English, but more on that later.

 

 

Liberalize Undergraduate Curriculum

 

The undergraduate curriculum must be liberalized so students would get broad based education regardless of their ultimate career choices.  The committee suggests students be well versed in three languages but does not address how to achieve that laudable goal.  Besides, that objective is again overly ambitious, although many non-Malay students are already effectively trilingual (mother tongue, Malay, and English).  I would be happy with the more modest and achievable goal of being bilingual, in Malay and English.  To achieve this, I would make a pass in English (MUET) compulsory and emphasize the subject much earlier in our schools.

Broad-based liberal education means that all undergraduates should take a year of English, science and mathematics, and for science students, the humanities and social sciences.

 

 

Faculty Development

 

The Report does not address the crucial issue of faculty (academic staff) development.  I suggest that universities should aim for all its faculty members to have doctoral or other terminal qualifications, while university colleges should aim for at least half.  Additionally, those seeking appointments to universities must be top caliber PhDs, meaning they must have some post-doctoral experiences and published works.  Appointments to university colleges need not have such rigorous qualifications.  For community colleges, a masters degree should suffice.

All VCs, deans, and department heads should seek out their top graduates and give them extra coaching and tutorials to enable them to excel at the GRE for applying to graduate studies abroad especially in America.  In particular these top students should be given extra classes in English.  They will be the future faculty members, the university’s academic seeds.

Such a scheme would require active collaboration between JPA, MARA and other agencies to defer these students their bonds requirements while doing graduate work.

 

 

Preparing Students for Admission (Matriculation)

 

The committee did not address how to prepare students for university admission (matriculation).  There is much debate on the quality and unfairness of matrikulasi versus Sixth Form, made worse by the fact that the former is essentially for Bumis.  I would bring back Sixth Form but with a difference.  The students would sit for more subjects (six instead of the present four, and eliminate the useless General Paper) along the International Baccalaureate pattern.  IB has the correct balance between depth and breadth.  Again, science students have to take an arts subject, and arts students have to take math and science, and all have to take English.  The current STPM, like the GCE A level, lacks breadth.

Have the Sixth Form entrance examination early in the year so the results would be known by December, with students entering Sixth Form right away in January without wasting precious months waiting for their SPM results.

            I would eliminate the religious stream’s STAM; again it is too narrow.  Islamic Studies should be only one subject instead of the entire curriculum.  These religious stream students would take only one subject in Islamic Studies, another in Arabic, and the rest be filled with mathematics, English and at least one science subject.  This would broaden their intellect as well as options for further studies and employment.  As he Islamic stream is made up of exclusively Malays, I would discourage indeed prohibit the taking of Islamic Studies with Malay Studies.

 

 

Update

 

The release of the Zahid Nordin Report followed the typical Malaysian pattern:  much initial hullabaloo and then just as quickly forgotten.  The first Minister of Higher Education for no good reason kept it from the public for nearly a year.  Today there is scant public discussion of the report.  Presumably it is now filed somewhere and conveniently forgotten.

The new minister Dato Mustapa, after bravely releasing the report soon after his appointment, reverted to the usual Malaysian stance.  He had two opportunities to stamp his mark, in the appointments of the new VCs for Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan.  In both instances he paid mere lip service to the need for wider consultation and opening up the talent pool.  The vacancies were not widely advertised and he did not secure the services of a search firm.

This Zahid Nordin Report, like the later Education Blueprint 2006-1010, is not a serious attempt at remedying the undeniably horrible state of Malaysian education, rather more an attempt as being seen to be doing something.  It is no different from all the other reports of the various committees and commissions of inquiry.  This Abdullah Administration has yet to see a committee or commission it does not like.

I have long discovered this truism:  The ability of a leader to execute things is inversely related to his penchant for establishing committees.  And Abdullah Badawi just loves committees!