Archive for May, 2012

Removing Quotas In International Schools A Postive Development

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Removing Quotas in International Schools A Positive Development
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

In striking contrast to the horrendously expensive and unbelievably stupid idea of sending our teacher-trainees to Kirby, the Ministry of Education’s other decision to remove quotas on local enrollment in international schools is very much welcomed and definitely positive. The Minister confidently assured us that because of the small number of students involved, the move will not impact our national schools. I respectfully disagree; his confidence is misplaced and analysis flawed. On the contrary, this measure will have a tremendous impact on our national schools and ultimately the nation, for good or bad depending on how it is managed.

Consider the liberalization of higher education instituted in 1996. The rationale was to increase access and save foreign exchange by keeping at home those who would have gone abroad. It achieved both, the most successful of government initiatives. And it did not cost a sen except for the pay of government lawyers who drafted the enabling legislation.

The policy’s impact however, went far beyond. It permanently and profoundly altered the academic landscape of our public universities. Their current emphasis on the use of English for example, is the consequence of the impact of these private universities. Local employers (other than governmental agencies of course) made it clear that they prefer these graduates over those from public universities because of their demonstrably superior skills in English.

There were initial attempts at imputing ugly racial motives to this preferential treatment of private university graduates as most of them were non-Malays. That worked, but only temporarily. Ultimately the horrible truth was exposed. That realization was the impetus to the current greater use of English in public universities, with their erstwhile nationalistic Vice-Chancellors now fully embracing the move. They had to; the pathetic sight of their unemployed graduates was a constant and painful reminder.

Yes, liberalizing higher education aggravated the inequities between Malays and non-Malays specifically with respect to their employability in the private sector. It did however, forced public universities to change their ways, as with emphasizing English. That ultimately benefited their students who incidentally are mostly Malays.

Removing limits on local enrolment in international schools will have the same profound and irreversible impact on national schools and on Malays. Yes, initially it would aggravate gaps in educational achievements, again especially between Malays and non-Malays, but in the long run it would jolt Malay leaders to make the necessary adjustments to our national schools. Either that or face the prospect of future generations of young Malays doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

Currently the locals in these international schools are children of the super-rich, and thus overwhelmingly non-Malay. Even the upper middle class (with slightly greater Malay representation) could not afford these schools. The concerns expressed that this liberalization would exacerbate educational inequities between rich and poor are therefore valid and reasonable. However, the rich are already different in many other ways; educational advantages for their children would just be another.

It also bears reminding that the impact of any policy is dynamic. Yes, there will be the expected increased inequity initially but with time people adjust and you may get radically different reactions and consequences, as was seen with the earlier liberalization of higher education.

Those harping on inequities ignore economic realities. There is demand for these international schools because they offer quality albeit expensive education. The imposition of quotas only aggravates the situation. Its removal would expand the market, enticing new players. Greater competition puts downward pressure on price, an economic truism that cannot be ignored. This is already happening in Thailand where international schools are found even in small towns and within the financial reach of the middle class, at least those families prudent enough to think of their children’s future and not on current conspicuous consumption. The lower costs in small towns would make these schools even more affordable.

There are three ready markets for international schools. One would be the super-affluent Malaysians who already have children in schools abroad. That however, is a miniscule market; besides, those parents are not likely to change course. The cachet of an overseas education still sells. A much bigger market would be the next tier of the wealthy. Those parents value education and recognize only too readily the inadequacies of local schools. At present they would require special dispensation from the minister and other hurdles in order to enroll their children in international schools; money alone would not do it.

Thus it is not a surprise that local students (especially Malays) in these schools are the children of Malaysia’s “Politburo” members. If you wonder how they could afford the costs based on their parent’s official pay, then you have not appreciated the culture of negotiated contracts, “Approved Permits,” and other quirks of the New Economic Policy, as well as the Malaysian way of doing business.

The third and also sizeable market would be those parents in Johore who now send their children to schools in Singapore. To be sure, Malaysian international schools are still considerably more expensive than the republic’s public schools, nonetheless after factoring in transportation and other costs, quite apart from wasted time and energy in commuting, these parents might well fork out the added expense and opt for the much superior local international schools. After all their reasons for choosing Singapore are to get an education in English and avoid local public schools; Malaysian international schools offer both.

To repeat because of the potential political significance, these three markets are essentially non-Malay. So expect a racial angle to the argument for reinstating the quota. If not handled skillfully, political pressure will build up to jettison the policy. Already the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), otherwise made up of liberal professional Malays, is already against the idea though for reasons other than race.

Ironically, PAGE advocates the greater use of English in national schools especially in the teaching of science and mathematics. Perhaps PAGE could be persuaded that international schools are but a backdoor path towards this objective (and beyond), albeit available only to those who could afford it. This path also conveniently sidesteps possible constitutional conundrum of having English-medium public schools. Fortunately, Malay language nationalists are not sophisticated enough to see through this.

In truth, the constitutional hurdle, like all man-made ones, is easily surmountable. Consider that the International Islamic University uses English. It overcomes this legal barrier by being registered under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, not Education, hence exempted from the language rule.

Expanding international schools would be a far superior move than simply bringing back the old English schools or increasing the number of hours devoted to the subject in our national schools, as many including PAGE are advocating. The deficiency with our national schools goes beyond its medium of instruction. International schools (especially those following the American pattern) have a very different curriculum and pedagogical philosophy, far from the stultifying ones that plague national schools.

On a related issue, if there were to be a blossoming of Arabic or Indonesian International Schools as a consequence of this liberalization, with Malays flocking to enroll their children, then we would be no further ahead. Indeed we would regress even worse. The two education systems are not worthy of emulation.

Western international schools enjoy two complementary advantages. One is of course their superior curriculum, facilities and teaching, quite apart from the international ambience. The other and perhaps more important is that the quality of local schools is atrocious. The recent rescinding of the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English only made matters worse. Consider that today’s Malay elite would rather send their children to Garden International School over supposedly exclusive Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

Where public schools are excellent, few locals would opt for private schools, as in Alberta, or international ones as in Finland. The clamor for Malaysians wanting to send their children to international schools reflects a much greater and more basic problem – our lousy national schools. Seen from this angle, for PEMANDU, the government’s transformation program, to view the growth of international schools as positive could only be construed as misplaced and misguided. Only if you are convinced that our national schools are beyond redemption would you consider this a positive development. And I do.

Next: Consequences to the Growth of International Schools

Resurrecting Kirby Is Fiscally Irresponsible

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Resurrecting Kirby Is Fiscally Irresponsible
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

It is incomprehensible that with the Ministry of Education still in the midst of its review of our schools, the Minister and his Deputy saw fit to announce two decisions that could potentially have a profound impact on the system. The first, announced by the Minister, would resurrect the old Kirby/Brinsford Lodge program of the 1950s, and the second, announced by his Deputy, would remove the current quotas on local enrollment in international schools.

Before analyzing the two decisions, it is worth pondering as to why they were made before the completion of this “exhaustive review.” A cynical interpretation would be that the current “review” is nothing more than a charade rather than a serious deliberative process. If that were to be so, then it would be a terrible insult to those distinguished Malaysians who have been co-opted or have volunteered to serve on the panel. On a moral level, it would also be an unconscionable fraud perpetrated upon citizens, especially parents who have been banking on the review to improve our schools.

Another view, equally less charitable, is that the Minister and his Deputy are not fully aware of the potential for enormous consequences of their decisions. A more practical explanation is that both announcements reflect the seat-of-the-pants style of policymaking typical at the upper levels of our government. It would have been more reassuring had both proposals been first vetted by this review committee.

In the absence of the panel’s analysis, I will examine the merits and demerits of the two initiatives, as well as offer my ideas on enhancing both.

Resurrecting Kirby

The old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge program was undeniably superb and successful. Thousands of students benefited from the tutelage and influence of those dedicated professional teachers who were trained at both institutions. Many of those teachers went on for their baccalaureate and graduate degrees to become distinguished Professors of Education at home and abroad, reflecting the high caliber of their talent.

If we wish to resurrect the program it is important to elucidate the many contributing factors to its earlier success. We also have to remember that conditions today are vastly different from those of the 1950s. That may be obvious but is often overlooked. For example, to say that the current Form Five graduates – the potential trainees – are very different from those of the 1950s would be a vast understatement. Thus if we were to send those with Form Five qualifications to Kirby today, the results would also be vastly different if not disastrous.

The success of Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had less to do with their being operated by the British or located in England, rather with the candidates selected to undergo the training. As mentioned earlier, they were simply superior to begin with. It is well to remember that in the 1950s only the top five percent of Fifth Formers could go on to Sixth Form and from there, to universities. The next level would be the potential Kirby candidates; they may not have been at the very top nonetheless they were still high up there above the 90th percentile. I knew a few who were qualified for the local university but instead opted for Kirby simply because of the opportunity to go to England, thus deliberately settling for a teacher’s diploma.

Today however, the top 25 percent of our students are headed for universities. Those left for teacher training would be the next tier, those at the 75th percentile at best. Unless we get the top students – those above the 90th percentile – to go into teacher training, we will never get good, much less great teachers regardless where we train them or by whom.

This is the crucial lesson from countries like Finland that have excellent schools. They get the best students to go into teaching, and the best students make the best teachers. If the lure of spending a few years at Kirby would attract the best and brightest to apply, then by all means resurrect the program. After all, many bright students change their career choices simply because of the opportunity to go abroad. I have met many who dreamed of becoming doctors but instead pursued accounting or engineering simply because of the chance to go abroad.

Economic Aspect of the Proposal

Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had a total of about 600 students at any one time. Let us assume that the cost today would be about RM100K per student per year (a reasonable estimate), for a total of about RM60 million annually. A hefty sum! That is the total outflow of foreign exchange from Malaysia. The money will be spent in Britain with zero multiplier effect in the local Malaysian economy.

Imagine if we were to spend the money differently but for the same purpose and using the same personnel – those British lecturers. Using a faculty/student ratio of 1 to 15 as a guide (comparable to top universities), we would need about 40 professors. With a generous pay package of RM300K per year we would have no difficulty recruiting them. The total cost would then come to about RM12 million annually. With another RM3 million for non-academic support staff, the total payroll would be about RM15 million. We would still have RM45 million remaining!

If we were to pay the trainees RM600 each per month, that would certainly interest top students, and the cost would be just over RM4 million. To entice them even more, incorporate elements of the major matriculation examinations into the curriculum so that these students could sit for their STM, GCE A Level, or SAT tests while in training. Then reward those who are successful with guarantees of scholarships to pursue their degrees in return for their committing to teaching.

Having done all that, we would still have RM41 million left. Out of that I would spend RM6 million for soft costs (food, computers, library books), with RM35 million left over. Assume that to be the annual mortgage payments instead, and spread over 30 years (the typical amortization period for real estate loans) at 4 percent interest rates, you could build a campus costing about RM600 million. Even after accounting for the inevitable leakages through “negotiated tenders” and “facilitation fees” to local politicians, we could still build quite a fancy facility, almost luxurious and definitely far superior to the old barn-like and warehouse structures of old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge.

Then think of the economic impact of RM60 million being spent locally, with the multiplier effect from the construction workers to the gardeners as well as the teh tarik peddlers to the hair dressers. About the only foreign exchange loss would be the remittance by those British professors. After paying for their housing and other living expenses, (which would be high for expatriates), as well as their hefty Malaysian income tax, they would be lucky to have RM40K at the end of the year to send home.

Thus the total outflow of foreign exchange would be under RM2 million in a year. Contrast that to the outflow of RM60 million in cold cash if were to send 600 trainees to Britain; thirty times more expensive! And I have not included the multiplier economic benefits of the RM60 million being spent locally.
There are also other non-economic benefits, the most important being academic and scholarly. Those professors would be interested in doing local research and be consultants to our schools, as well as conduct workshops for the continuing professional education of our teachers. Leading education journals would carry articles with the footnote, “From Kuantan Teachers’ College, Malaysia.”

The Minister’s objective is still being achieved, that is to have Kirby-trained quality of teachers for our schools. The signal difference between my plan and Muhyyiddin’s is that I would import Kirby-quality professors to train our would-be teachers while he would export our students (and precious foreign exchange) to Britain.

Of course Kirby would like us to send our trainees there and would lobby very hard to secure the contract. After all we have seen such august institutions as the London School of Economics engaging in shady deals with Third World dictators like Muammar Ghaddafi to secure lucrative contracts and endowments. Thus expect these Kirby folks to engage in intense lobbying to influence the Minister of Education.

Muhyyiddin feels that the only effective way for our would-be teachers to learn English is to send them to an English-speaking country. I suggest that he visit Tuanku Jaafar College in rural Malay-speaking Mantin, Negri Sembilan. Not only do those students speak impeccable English, they also have acquired some of the finer Anglo Saxon habits. It would not surprise me that they prefer tea and crumpets for their afternoon snacks!

Those students sent to Kirby in the 1950s were already well versed with matters English, at least in theory from their textbooks. They may be ignorant of the practical aspects as with using knives and forks, chewing with their mouths closed, and not burping after dinner, nonetheless their English fluency enabled them to learn and adapt quickly. Thus it did not take them long to appreciate Beethoven as much as dondang sayang, their tea and crumpets as much as teh tarik and pisang goreng! Sending our students to Kirby today would only aggravate their culture shock. Far from enjoying and benefiting from the English ambience, they would recoil and retreat to their little kampong on campus.

It was unbelievably stupid and fiscally irresponsible for Muhyyiddin to put forth that proposal. I began by suggesting that he may be unaware of the potential consequences, monetary and otherwise, and that his announcement merely reflected the seat-of-the-pants modus operandi at upper levels of our government. Perhaps there is a more mundane explanation. Sending our trainees to Britain would be the perfect excuse for Ministry officials to make frequent “official” tours there. It that be the reason, it could easily be remedied; give those senior officers paid annual trips to Britain. That would be considerably cheaper.

Next week: Liberalization of International School Enrollment A Positive Development

BERSIH 3.0 Broke Many Glasses (Including A few Glass Ceilings)

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

BERSIH 3.0 Broke Many Glasses
(Including A Few Glass Ceilings)
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

First of Two Parts: Seeing The Bright Side
(Next Week: Part Two: Lessons To Be Learned)

In the aftermath of the largest public demonstrations against the Barisan government, the officials’ obsession now turns to the exercise of apportioning blame and the associated inflicting of vengeance. Both are raw human reactions, but hardly enlightening, sophisticated, or even fruitful. Besides, there is plenty of blame to go around. I prefer to look at the bright side and on the lessons that can be learned.

BERSIH 3.0 clearly demonstrates that Malaysians no longer fear the state. In that regard we are a quantum leap ahead of the Egyptians under Mubarak, the Iraqis under Saddam, or the Chinese under Mao (or even today). When citizens are no longer afraid of the state, many wonderful things would follow. BERSIH is also the first successful multiracial mass movement in Malaysia. In a nation obsessed with and where every facet is defined by race, that is an achievement worthy of note. Another significant milestone, again not widely acknowledged, is that the movement is led by a woman who is neither Malay nor a Muslim. Ambiga Sreenevasan broke not one but three Malaysian glass ceilings!

On a sour note, BERSIH 3.0 revealed that Barisan leaders (and a few from the opposition) have yet to learn and accept the fundamental premise that dissent is an integral part of the democratic process, and expressing it through peaceful assembly a basic human right. At a more mundane level though no less important, the authorities’ performance in BERSIH 3.0 also exposed their woeful incompetence and negligence in basic crowd control.

In any mass rally you expect a minority to get carried away or be willfully indulging in criminal acts. It is the duty of the authorities to prevent and apprehend them, but not to use that as justification to treat as criminals the vast majority who are otherwise peaceful, or for the police to behave like criminals in responding.

To keep things in perspective, and with no intent to insult those injured, whose properties were damaged, and those otherwise inconvenienced, the mayhem last Saturday was no worse than that following an American college championship game. More to the point, considering the vastly much larger crowd and the much more pivotal issues at stake, no lives were lost.

Discerning The Winners and Losers

As with a college championship game, there were definite winners – and champions – from last Saturday’s contest. As for the losers, there were plenty of them too. If you were to appear late on the scene or just a distant observer like me, it would not be terribly difficult to figure out who were the new champions and who were the sore losers just by watching their reactions.

It was a tribute to BERSIH’s leaders that they did not gloat – the hallmark of genuine champions. They remained cool and confidently went on to target their next trophy, the removal of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Elections Commission for the pair’s blatant political partisanship by being, among others, UMNO members.

Although BERSIH was a coalition of NGOs, it nonetheless welcomed participation from all, including members of political parties. Thus there were generous representations from the opposition as they too shared BERSIH’s objective of clean and fair elections. Again it was a tribute to BERSIH’s enlightened and sophisticated leadership that it welcomed their participation and did not try to control or otherwise censor their speeches and actions. BERSIH leaders respected individual freedom, again reflecting their maturity and sophistication.

As for the political players on either side of the issue, we too could also easily discern the winners and losers among them. KEADILAN’s leader Anwar Ibrahim described the event as a “celebration of unity, an awakening for liberation. [It] … shall go down in the nation’s history as Merdeka Rakyat when 300,000 spoke in one voice to demand a free and fair election. …. [Those who] came down in full force were encouraged by a sense of justice to demand liberation from usurpers. Their message cannot be mistaken – a free country cannot be enslaved anymore.”

He continued, “BERSIH 3.0 represents the hopes and dreams of all Malaysians that the political legitimacy of any government in the future can only be attained through a genuine democratic process.” That is the confident voice of a winner.

Contrast that to the reactions of the Prime Minister, his Deputy Muhyyiddin, and Home Minister Hishammuddin. Muhyyiddin was first to the draw, threatening to make BERSIH pay for the damages, presumably including those caused by those ubiquitous razor fences, tear gas explosions, and blasting water cannons. For his part, Hishammuddin contemptuously dismissed the smashing of journalists’ cameras as “standard operating procedure,” only to be contradicted later by his Chief of Police. As many later found out, the police smashed more than just cameras.

Najib’s hospital visit to the injured journalist Radzi Razak was a gracious personal touch. However, the heavily-covered media event backfired as it revealed too much. Radzi’s facial expression during Najib’s nearly quarter-of-an-hour monologue where he (Najib) apparently apologized to the injured reporter showed that he (Radzi) was anything but comforted by the Prime Minister’s presence or words. Later Najib blasted the demonstrators for not respecting a court order banning entry into Dataran Merdeka, conveniently forgetting his administration’s contempt for citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. The irony of the venue; Dataran Merdeka – Freedom Square!

In short, the political trio of Najib, Muhyyiddin and Hishammuddin behaved like typical losers, consumed with blaming others and seeking vengeance. They were not unlike the three blind mice running around as if BERSIH had cut off their tails. The trio may not be blind but they certainly behaved like three myopic mice, unable to see beyond their whiskers.

Futility of the “Blame Game”

Trying to apportion blame at this stage of the game, even when attempted by well-meaning and neutral observers, is a futile exercise. When done by political hacks, as most surely it would, the exercise would serve only to aggravate old wounds.

When you have dry rubbish strewn all over, cans of gasoline purposely left open, and match boxes recklessly tossed around, the question of who lit the first matchstick becomes irrelevant. There will always be someone who saw somebody else who struck a match earlier. Then the analyses and debates would quickly degenerate into the minutiae of determining the exact seconds or minutes, or interpreting what certain gestures and phrases may or may not mean in the heat of the occasion. Indeed such a puerile exercise is already well underway, and worse, it is being taken seriously by the authorities!

A more useful endeavor would be to learn ways of, metaphorically speaking, getting rid of the dry tinder, the thick brush of mutual suspicions, the open cans of inflammatory slimes, and the readily available matches. Such an exercise would require of Najib, Muhyyiddin and Hishammuddin to be other than the three blind mice. Mice, blind and otherwise, thrive in rubbish.

Najib et al. need to look far beyond their whiskers and ponder whether the laying of razor fences at Dataran Merdeka and turning the center of modern peaceful Kuala Lumpur into an Israeli-occupied West Bank, Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, or Stalin’s Gulag is the equivalent of removing open cans of gasoline or merely spewing more fuel. This point was forcefully made by a poster on one razor fence, “Welcome to Tel Aviv!”

There are hundreds if not thousands of such pictures as well as personal accounts of BERSEH 3.0. One touched me immensely. “Up ‘til Friday afternoon I was still unsure about going,” she wrote. “… Then I saw the photos of the police rolling out the barbed wire and I saw red. Since when did our police, or whoever is their boss, roll out barbed wire – barbed wire!! – against their own people?? Are we thugs? Terrorists? Thieves?”

The observer who wrote that is no raging anti-establishment anarchist. On the contrary, Marina Mahathir is a thoughtful commentator, very much mainstream. She saw only the pictures of police laying down those razor fences, and she was incensed. Imagine if she had been strolling down the street and been rudely confronted by that hideous sight? What if she was a foreign tourist?

Ponder the mindset of those who proposed the idea in the first place, or the personnel who laid down those razor fences. Did they think that Malaysians are such unruly hooligans that could only be kept away by those menacing barriers? Or were the authorities gleefully imagining and salivating in anticipation of some innocent citizens being ripped apart by those sharp blades? We judge others through our own image. To our leaders we must be a nation of thieves, thugs, and terrorists because they themselves are.

Najib and others readily referred to the damages done by the demonstrators while conveniently overlooking those incurred by the police, as with the unnecessary road closures long before the event. I wonder how many ambulances and doctors were delayed on their way to the hospital to attend to emergencies before the rally because of the massive road closures. Violence was perpetrated upon the city long before the first demonstrators arrived.

Do not expect much introspection from our leaders; sore losers are incapable of that. They could not for example, fathom that the laying of razor fences, widespread closing of streets, and heavy police presence contributed to the violence. Such an insight escapes them.

Next Week: Second of Two Parts: Lessons To be Learned