Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset
Schooling Does Not Equal Learning
Alison Wolf, a stern critic of Britain’s higher education policy, notes that the current faith on education as an instrument for economic growth can be carried too far. She pointed out that both South Korea and Egypt spend generously on education, yet the former is an economic powerhouse while the latter is falling behind.17 Hong Kong never spent much on education (or any social expenditures for that matter), yet its economy is robust. Then there is Switzerland; it is one country that is bucking the trend towards democratization of higher education. It purposely restricts university education to approximately 15 percent of its high school graduates. By comparison, America matriculates 60 percent and Malaysia, 25 percent. And Switzerland is far from being an economic laggard.
Such anomalies are seen even within nations, with Malaysia being a ready example. The educational achievements of Malays and non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, as measured by formal years of schooling are comparable. In fact the Chinese have a higher dropout rates especially at the primary level as compared to Malays. Yet, the economic achievement of Malays lags behind those of Chinese. Yes, Malays may have more years of formal schooling, but many attend religious schools or pursue Islamic or Malay Studies. When Chinese students drop out of school, they work for their parents where they learn the lessons of business and life far more effectively than they could at school.
The same could be said of young Malays who dropped out of their increasingly irrelevant rural and religious schools. Many, especially the girls—the “Minah Karans”—end up working in factories of multinational corporations where they learn far more valuable lessons of life than they could ever get from their listless teachers in their dilapidated schools. Studies indicate that these Minah Karans (which incidentally is a derogatory term applied to these young ladies) show all the demographic characteristics of someone who had gone through many years of formal schooling, like marrying late and having low fertility.18 Those much-maligned multinational corporations do a better job in training and educating these rural girls than government schools.
Studies by the California Public Policy Institute show that an education system that emphasizes language, science, and mathematics has a direct impact on subsequent economic performance as measured by earning power.19 In Malaysia, at least in the private sector, the earning power of Malays consistently lags those of non-Malays, leading many to charge discrimination. Before we accept that serious and inflammatory allegation, we should do a more careful study to include other variables, like ability in English, science, and mathematics. If such a study were done, it would show that a Malay with qualifications in the sciences would earn more than a non-Malay qualified in the liberal arts.
Wolf and her colleagues in their report, Mathematical Skills in the Workplace, indicate that mathematics is being deployed at all skill levels and in all industries. With the widespread application of ICT and the use of such applications as spreadsheet and graphing, mathematical skills become even more crucial. In quality improvement exercises, some knowledge of sampling, statistics, and graphing is necessary. As British schools are not teaching these skills, industry is forced to provide on-the-job training.20
As for language ability, in this globalized world the most advantaged are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. That is why the East Asians are rushing to study English, and why American schools teach foreign languages. Top American colleges require their students to take a foreign language.
The second most advantaged are those who are fluent only in English. The least advantaged are those who know only one language, and that language is other than English.21 Sadly that is the fate of most Malays. Combined with their generally abysmal quantitative skills, is it not surprising that Malays lag behind economically. In the world of business, the only official (and useful) language is that of one’s customer. Three-quarters of Malaysia’s trade are with the English-speaking world. Simple pragmatism and good business sense dictate that we should be conversant in English. To be sure, English is no panacea. A visit to the Philippines will quickly disabuse one of such a silly notion.
Tunku was correct in emphasizing schools and not follow the Nehru debacle by concentrating on higher education. Malaysia should improve the quality of its schools by ensuring that the curriculum is relevant and emphasizes English, science and mathematics.
Yet today Malaysian schools remain overcrowded, with double sessions the norm. Libraries and laboratory facilities are abysmal. When queried, the pat answer is always the lack of funds. Malaysian leaders are falling into the Nehru trap of building more universities at the expense of schools. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of yet another new campus being built, further feeding the public perception of “credentialism” (paper qualifications). At least Nehru emphasized quality; while Malaysia, quantity. Indian graduates could at least emigrate; Malaysian graduates are unemployable even in their own country.