Archive for November, 2009

Enhancing The Role of the Private Sector in Education – Part One

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

[First of Six Parts]

Introductory Remarks

In the proposed Tenth Malaysia Plan scheduled to be unveiled next year (2010), the government will again re-commit to develop human resources through improving our education system. We have heard all these before, but the twist this time is that the government will actively engage the private sector.

I applaud this. There are many avenues for private sector involvement in education at all levels, either independently or in a variety of public-private partnerships (PPP).

Two points are worth noting as Malaysia embarks on this endeavor. The first is that there are already many models of private sector involvement in education throughout the developed and developing world. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. All we have to do is study these existing models, ascertain their strengths and weaknesses, and then adopt with suitable modifications the ones that would best suit our needs.

There is no point in adopting wholesale a system that works wonderfully in South Korea or the Netherlands. Their society is very different from ours. Theirs is homogeneous ethnically, culturally and also linguistically. Ours is diverse, separated by race, culture, language, and religion, among others. Failure to recognize this essential difference would doom any plan.

The second is that no matter how brilliant and diligent our policymakers are, they cannot anticipate everything. Thus the policies they create can never be perfect. Even when the policy is sound but if the implementation were flawed, that would also destroy and discredit the policy. That would make the later resurrection of what otherwise had been a sound policy that much more difficult.

In Malaysia there is a wide gulf separating the formulation and implementation of a policy. There are many ready examples, the latest being the debacle over the teaching of science and mathematics in English. In the end it is our students, not our leaders and officials, who bear the brunt of that poor planning and execution.

I may be stating the obvious, but it would take more than just a bit of humility on the part of our leaders to acknowledge and then accept this reality. Our leaders and policymakers think they know it all.

When formulating a policy, you want the greatest possible input from all sources, especially the various stakeholders. The best time to do this is after you put forth your preliminary plan. Then post it on the Internet and invite written submissions from all. Go beyond simply issuing a passive open invitation but actively solicit the views of key players like heads of private universities, leaders of industry, local and foreign educators, student and faculty leaders, and yes, even if not especially politicians. Make it clear to all that the plan at that stage is only preliminary and subject to radical changes.

Again I would also post those submissions on the web so others could view them. At this stage the submissions would have to be written to ensure that only those who are serious and willing to put their thoughts on paper would respond. This is also an effective way to weed out those who are interested only in posturing and spouting off. This would also discourage ugly and distracting demonstrations.

Asking for submissions before you have a preliminary plan would result only in unfocussed and jumbled submissions, as responders would not have an idea of the scale and scope of your proposed reform.

When all the comments are in, I would invite those with substantive ideas (as judged by their submissions) to direct conversations. Only after all that would I rewrite the policy incorporating the fresh insights and perspectives. This is the only way to garner the widest possible input and to tap the wisdom of the crowd. It is also an effective way to make the stakeholders buy into your proposed policy as they had been engaged in its formulation.

Even after all these I would still be cautious when implementing it. I would first do some downstream analyses anticipating possible problems and sources of opposition. Anticipate a problem and you are already halfway to solving it.

Again to be cautious, I would start small, with a limited number of pilot projects that could be easily monitored closely. It would also be easier to iron out the inevitable kinks, get feed back from the participants, and evaluate the preliminary results. Only when all is working smoothly and as expected would I expand the program nationwide. Anything less and you would risk jeopardizing your policy.

Likewise with the upcoming policy of engaging the private sector in education; I would post the proposed policy on the Internet, seek the widest possible input, and then revisit your policy based on those comments. When implementing the final policy, be cautious and start with a manageable number of pilot projects. Only when all is smooth sailing would you expand the program.

Malaysia has yet to recognize the full potential contributions the private sector could make to education as there is as yet no coherent policy to govern it. Instead, what we have is a series of ad hoc rules and policy pronouncements.

If we were to have an enlightened policy we would realize that creatively marshaled, the pubic sector’s contribution could be significant. It would lighten the government’s load, thus enabling it to focus on the truly needy and be able to do a better job. With its flexibility and responsiveness, the private sector would be in a better position to meet the increasingly sophisticated and varied educational needs of Malaysians. Most importantly, the entry of the private sector would provide much needed competition thereby improving services all around. It would also provide our students (and their parents) with some meaningful choices.

Before these could happen however, our leaders must rid themselves of their entrenched “zero-sum” mentality that views the private sector in adversarial rather than complementary terms. Otherwise all those fancy policy statements and earnest public pronouncements would mean nothing; the reality on the ground would remain unchanged.

In this six-part essay I explore ways for meaningful and productive private sector participation in Malaysian education. Following this introduction, I will discuss the rationale for such a participation (Part Two), followed by my examination of the current state of affairs. The fourth part is my appraisal of the experiences elsewhere, from both developed and developing countries, for useful lessons that Malaysia could learn. The next two parts are my specific prescriptions for greater private sector involvement in our schools (Part Five), and then post-secondary institutions (Part Six).

We have seen far too many examples of ill-conceived policies, of sound policies incompetently implemented, and privatization projects that benefited only the few at the expense of the many. I hope this time around the government will do it right. This commentary is my contribution towards that goal.

Next: Part Two: The Rationale For Private Sector Participation

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #129

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Lessons on Leading the Muslim World

There are two ready examples for Malaysia to emulate in aspiring for leadership of the Muslim world. One is the earlier successful example of Iberian Islam, and two, the West’s lead position in today’s world.

There are many commonalities between Iberian Islam and today’s West. Iberian Islam was the beacon to the world in its time, just as the West is today. America leads the world intellectually, militarily, economically, and in other spheres, just as Iberian Islam was the center of intellectual and cultural refinements in its time.

What made both successful was their openness to the outside world. While the rest of Europe was mired in entrenched anti-Semitism, the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim rule was the model of enlightenment and tolerance. There, Jewish and “heretic” Christian scholars were welcomed and could pursue their intellectual curiosities freely. They were also free to practice their faith. Today’s Muslims would do well to emulate our ancient brethrens, in particular, their tolerance of minorities and other cultures, reverence for knowledge, and openness to new ideas regardless of where they originate.

Today the West is the shining light for the rest of the world. One measure reflective of this is the flow of humans. It is from the rest (including Muslim World) to the West, rarely the other way around. This is true for the masses as well as the intellectuals and the gifted.

Many Muslim countries today are consciously aligning themselves with the West. The Gulf States are learning quickly and profiting greatly from the knowledge that there is great wealth beyond oil and gas. They are turning their tiny little kingdoms into tourists’ and shopping havens, and becoming educational hubs. The world’s grandest hotels are located there, and United Emirate Airlines is fast overtaking the likes of Singapore Airlines. Emirate Airlines is also much more profitable, better run, and has a vastly greater fleet than the long established airlines owned by Egypt and Iran.

If Malaysia were to aspire leadership for the Muslim world, it must begin by being more tolerant of fellow believers, especially those who subscribe to other Islamic schools of thought like the Ismailis, Ahamdiyyas, and Shiites. Malaysia is a Sunni state and follows the Shafie School of jurisprudence; it is intolerant of other versions of Islam.

In early 1990 when the International Islamic University was setting up its medical school, I applied for an academic position. I was attracted because its language of instruction would be English. I did not get beyond the application process; I was so offended by the intrusive questions. The university was not interested in my publications or academic experiences (only a few lines devoted to that), but pages were devoted to inquiring about my intimate beliefs and practices as a Muslim. Presumably, if you did not subscribe to the government’s version of Islam, you would not be appointed.

IIU should be encouraging the study of all Muslim thoughts and ideologies. It should be exploring with a view to greater understanding of the various sects of Islam. The Shiites and Sunnis may be slaughtering each other in the Middle East, but Malaysia could show that Muslims can get along not only with non-Muslims but also with fellow believers who have different interpretations of the faith.

Malaysia would be the ideal place to study and separate the essence of our faith from its underlying Arabism, and thus prove the faith’s universality. For Malaysia to achieve this goal, it must empower its intellectuals and ulama and grant them freedom to explore the vast intellectual and philosophical spectrum of our faith. It is probably too late to start with the present crop of ulama and scholars brought up under the old rigid and intolerant system. Start with the young, the future ulama and scholars. They should be exposed to all schools of thought in Islam during their formative years. Additionally, they must be well grounded in modern subjects like the sciences and mathematics so they can meaningfully relate their faith to the modern world, much like earlier Iberian Muslims.

Muslim schools and colleges in Malaysia and elsewhere in the Muslim world are less educational institutions and more seminaries, less places for getting an education and more for indoctrination. Were Islamic schools to be reformed, they would attract non-Muslims, much as Christian schools and colleges in America attract non-Christians. Malaysia would then truly begin the rebirth of Islam, one that would serve as a powerful and effective antidote to the virulent version propagated by the likes of Osama bin Ladin. The world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, would definitely be better for that.

Islam and the West share many common values. The Judea-Christian belief that is the foundation of the West shares much in common with Islam. Malaysia must take full advantage of this to the benefit of itself, Islam, and the world.

Next: Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #128

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Revamping Islam

A saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has it that the sun (nur) will one day arise from the West. That hadith (saying) was part of his general observation as to the end of time.

One does not have to be knowledgeable in astronomy to consider that statement preposterous. However, if one interprets “nur” to mean not the planet sun but light or enlightenment, as some interpreters would have it, then that statement makes eminent sense.

There is ample evidence historically for this statement. After the first burst of enlightenment in the Arab world with the arrival of the prophet’s revelations, the faith flowered in Western Europe, in particular the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim world still looks longingly to those glorious days of Andalusia and Cordova that produced such luminaries as Ibn Sina. Their intellectual contributions enlightened the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. To those early Muslim scholars, there were no artificial divisions between the secular and spiritual. Knowledge is knowledge, and it all begins with Allah. Nor did they have compulsions learning from the infidels. They eagerly learned from the Greeks and Romans, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions.

Today, the West is enjoying the fruits of its enlightenment. Its citizens enjoy the highest standards of living and are spared the worries of privation. The bulk of the knowledge, innovations, and insights that lead to the betterment of humankind originate in the West. The West is to the world today as Iberian Islam was to the then civilization.

Also less appreciated is the role of the West today in emancipating Muslim intellectuals, and the consequent emergence of innovative and liberating interpretations of the faith. It is significant that the only two Muslim scientists ever to win the Nobel Prize came not from the Muslim world but from the West. Drs. Abdus Salam (Physics, 1970) and Ahmad Zewail (Chemistry, 1990) may have been educated initially in the Muslim world (Pakistan and Egypt respectively), but the nurturing and flowering of their talent occurred in the West. Even after they were honored, their native countries still refused to appreciate their enormous contributions. The Pakistani Assembly even voted to strip Abdus Salam of his citizenship!8

The Muslim world is doing everything possible to drive out its talented and brightest. Most end up in and are welcomed by the West. Among those driven out are Islamic scholars and ulama, especially those who in good conscience could no longer provide religious justifications for the increasing tyranny and corruption of their leaders back home. The West is today home to many brave and bright Islamic scholars. They use their prodigious intellect to advance Islamic scholarship, and to give fresh interpretations and new meanings to those ancient texts without worrying whether they might incur the wrath of the ruling class.9

Consequently many of the fresh insights in Islam today originate in the West, a refreshing contrast and counterbalance to the ossified, stultifying and oppressive version prevalent elsewhere. Their contributions are a refreshing breath of fresh air that is slowly peeling away the petrified accretions that have burdened the faith since the tenth century. Through the freedom afforded by the West, the views of these scholars are disseminated to the greater Muslim world through the wonders of modern communications that effortlessly overcome the tight censorship of Muslim countries. These emancipated scholars expose the shallowness and insularity of their homegrown counterparts who are increasingly reduced to being apologists and propagandists for oppressive leaders.

Muslim scholars in the West, like the late Fazlur Rahman, relate Islam to the modern world and do not hide behind obscure ancient texts. They treat their readers, followers and students not as a benign shepherd would his flock, rather as thinking and rational human beings, capable of independent thoughts and having essentially good intentions.10

The Muslim world has less to fear from the bumbling crusading efforts of the likes of George Bush and Pat Robertson, but more from the extremists and fanatics within its midst, the Ayatollahs and the Osamas. They do more to turn Muslims away from our faith.

We see the same pattern in Malaysia. Directly as the consequence of the excesses of the religious establishment, with its moral police and other intrusive agencies, more Muslims especially the young are turning away from the faith. Some, like cult leader Ayah Pin, are brazenly denouncing their faith and directly challenging the state’s apostasy rule that demands capital punishment for such offences.

The Islamic establishment is fixated on such trivial issues as women wearing tudung (headscarves) and separate checkout lines for males and females. Meanwhile the rates of child and spousal abuses, incest, abandoned children, drug abuse, and other indicators of social dysfunction are skyrocketing in the Muslim community.

I am used to the diversity, tolerance, and greater freedom in the West, so I have no problem with someone (Muslim or non-Muslim) wearing headscarves. I remember the days when head nurses (“Sisters” as they were called then) wore similar headgears, to separate them from the regular nurses. If the Muslim establishment were not fixated on the tudung and if we make it attractive, then non-Muslims would not hesitate wearing it as a fashion item. We do not need to force Muslim women to wear them. There was a time not too long ago when women in the West would not be caught outside their home without a hat, scarf, and gloves.

I do not look upon women wearing tudung as more pious or God-fearing than those who do not, anymore than I would view a woman with tattoos as being morally loose, or a young man with earrings up his nose, a drug addict. We should look beyond such superficialities.

Malaysia is well versed with modernity; it leads the Muslim world on gender equality, with women visible at the highest levels of government and the corporate world. The only field not open to them is, perversely, the Islamic establishment. While Malay women have been named to the highest court of the land, Muslim scholars and ulama are resisting the very idea of women as Sharia judges. Aspiring to lead the Muslim world and actually doing it are quite different. There will be no shortage of formidable competitors. Malaysia was one of the earlier and leading proponents of Islamic banking and financing. Today, the Gulf States are rapidly usurping Malaysia’s role.

Malaysia Airlines was once the pride and joy of not only Malaysia but also the Muslim world. Today Emirate Airlines surpasses Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia has a few relatively well-run institutions that could be ready models for the Muslim world. One is its national oil company, Petronas. I am no fan of GLCs, nonetheless if the government were to be involved in the oil industry, as is the fascination with many Muslim countries, then Petronas is a far superior model, certainly much superior to Indonesia’s corrupt-ridden and incompetently-run Petromina. In Brunei and Saudi Arabia, their oil industry is the private preserve of the royalty, a much worse situation.

Tabong Haji is another credible institution despite its recent brush with scandals and ill-advised investment forays. It is today the biggest mutual fund in Southeast Asia. It could be expanded into neighboring countries and the greater Muslim world. It is very effective in making Muslims save and in mobilizing those savings. With competent and imaginative management, Tabong Haji has the potential for global reach.

A major contender for leadership of the Muslim world is, surprisingly, America, with Muslims being the fastest rising minority. More significantly, America is attracting and welcoming the brightest Muslims from around the world, 9-11 notwithstanding. American Muslim scholars are wielding great influence in the Muslim world, with English now being the most important language in Islam, second to Arabic.

Apart from America, the other contender for Muslim leadership is Indonesia by virtue of it being the most populous Muslim nation. Indonesia however can barely manage itself; its very survival is questionable. It may still surprise everyone. I am pleasantly surprised that it survived the brutal years of Sukarno and Suharto to have peaceful and relatively honest elections. Quite an achievement! Its recently elected leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is well versed in economics, for a change.

Next: Lessons on Leading the Muslim World