Archive for the ‘An Education System Worthy of Malaysia’ Category

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


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #58

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE   (Cont’d)

Dispense with Dewan

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

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

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 Consequently the pictures were of outdated instruments and equipment.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next:  Examination Syndicate


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #57

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Chapter 9:  Mow Down MOE  (Cont’d)

Sponsoring Students Overseas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next:  Dispense with Dewan


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #52

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education (Cont’d)

Graduate Programs


Like the undergraduate program, graduate studies must also be revamped and upgraded. Universities have a mission beyond simply transmitting knowledge – important though that is – to creating and applying knowledge. We cannot simply assume that the principles and assumptions that apply elsewhere are applicable or even relevant locally. They have to be empirically proven within the Malaysian context. If they are not applicable we have to discover why. Research must be an integral component of local universities, and with it, strong graduate programs.

Presently entry into graduate studies is based entirely on having a good undergraduate degree. The problem is, universities vary greatly in quality and there must be another independent yardstick. America has the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) where students are tested on general principles and in broad areas. Malaysia does not have anything comparable. Many Malaysians view the GRE as simply a barrier preventing their entry into American graduate programs. The main reason for this attitude is that Malaysians fare poorly on such tests; thus they prefer doing their graduate studies elsewhere other than America where the GRE is not required.

I would make all potential graduate students take the GRE. Until more data are collected to determine its relevance, I would not base admission decisions on the GRE scores alone. GRE would be yet another yardstick to assess the students and programs. The validity and reliability of that yardstick will be known only after the data are analyzed.

In America, in addition to the GRE, all doctoral students undergo at least a year of candidacy where they have to take courses in related fields. Thus social science doctoral candidates would have to take courses in statistics and calculus, as these are two powerful tools for their research. In addition they would have to take formal courses in research methodology, data collection and interpretation, plus in depth courses in their specific and related disciplines. Apart from getting above average scores on the coursework, candidates have to sit for a comprehensive oral (candidacy) examination. All these before they begin their research. It is a rigorous program; hence the high regards American doctorates command worldwide. In contrast, a Malaysian PhD is entirely by research, with no formal course work.

Two specific disciplines deserve special discussion: medicine and law. Today these two are like any other undergraduate programs; students enter directly from high school. In America, medical and law are graduate programs, students must have a baccalaureate degree before pursuing them. Australian medical schools are slowly converting into America model, with Britain contemplating the same. Singapore is planning its second medical faculty modeled along similar lines.

Medicine is highly specialized and very intense. The curriculum is already crowded with the necessary basic and clinical sciences; there is no time for other studies. If students already have a baccalaureate degree and have taken courses in the basic science and liberal arts, they could then concentrate purely on medicine and the program could be shortened to four instead of the present five years. We would get more broadly trained doctors to boot, instead of the present narrowly focused technicians.

Some of my classmates in medical school had degrees in engineering, history, music, religious studies, and even architecture. This makes for an intellectually stimulating class. It is this hybridization of the various disciplines that makes for the remarkable intellectual vigor of American professional schools.

The training of medical specialists also needs revision. In the past they had to acquire recognized international (usually British or Australian) qualifications like FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) and MRCP (Membership of the Royal College of Physicians). Unfortunately the local training was haphazard or non-existent; the trainees were left on their own with no formal seminars or teaching. Consequently the pass rate was atrocious; it was the rare candidate who succeeded on the first try. Thus Malaysian academics did away with these foreign examinations and substituted local ones on the pretext that those foreign tests were not valid. Nobody has shown that a Malaysian with an acute appendicitis should be treated differently from an Englishman with the same malady. Unless Malaysian researches can show otherwise, then we should stick with the standard treatment, British or otherwise. The unstated reason to do away with the foreign tests was because local candidates fared poorly.

When I was associated with the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur, I instituted a training program similar to that of an American teaching hospital, with regular teaching rounds and formal seminars. I also assigned each of my medical officers with specific research topics for them to pursue independently. As a result all my trainees passed their FRCS examination, including two who sat for the first time. One is Freda Meah, now a Professor of Surgery at UKM, the other, Zulkifli Laidin, later to become a pediatric surgeon. Further all my trainees managed to publish a paper in refereed journals. My point is, when young Malaysians are rigorously trained and high standards set, they respond.

Today UKM is reverting to its old pattern; trainees now sit for an internal M. Med. examination instead of recognized foreign qualifications. No surprise that I rarely find papers in refereed medical journals emanating from Malaysia.

One reason local academics give for not demanding higher standards or aspiring to greater heights is that doing so would risk losing their graduates to the First World. If the West recognized their qualifications, these graduates would be tempted to emigrate. Forty percent of the graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology end up in America, likewise their top doctors. Thus by having local graduates fluent only in Malay and their qualifications recognized only locally, they would not be tempted or able to leave. This mentality is akin to that of the ancient Chinese who wrapped the feet of their female infants so that when they grew up they would not run away from their husbands. Trapping by handicapping!

Yes, there would be that danger when you meet or exceed international standards, but the solution to the “Indian problem” is not to downgrade your institutions, rather to treat your valuable and talented graduates accordingly by paying them globally competitive salaries so they would not be tempted to leave.

Would-be lawyers too need broad-based liberal education before pursuing their profession. Law in a modern society is highly complex. How can we expect them to craft contracts involving biogenetic engineering when they have no clue as to what DNA is? Or represent their high tech clients when they do not know the difference between bits and bytes?

Before my daughter entered law school, she had an undergraduate degree in political science, but she also took courses in such seemingly unrelated fields as calculus and genetics. Now as a corporate lawyer and litigator, she finds all this background knowledge immensely helpful.

The other major deficiency of Malaysian universities is their lack of extension and continuing education programs. There are limited opportunities for nontraditional students (those who have left the formal school system) to enter university. Presently they would have to enroll in private colleges first for their matriculation. American universities have extension services catering for these students as well as providing non-certificate enrichment courses. Harvard’s extension department offers beginners’ level courses as well as those leading to masters’ degrees. Many American universities have formal programs for nontraditional students. Columbia’s School of General Studies is one such outstanding program. Colleges in my area, from the local community college to Stanford University, offer such courses and I have taken them both for personal enrichment as well as for continuing medical education.

Continuing professional education is big business on American campuses. Georgia Tech has one for business popular with executives because it is so well equipped, complete with hotel and conference facilities. By providing these services, universities would be more directly involved with the community. More importantly the community too would feel connected with the campus. This would ease the perception of the ivory tower isolation and aloofness so common with many Third World institutions.

The university experience is more than just going to lectures and handing in your assignments. It also means learning from your classmates and exposing yourself to those of different views, cultures, and aspirations. I find the segregation of students on campus along racial lines as well as disciplines disappointing. The university must play its role in integrating the students.

I would make the first undergraduate year fully residential, even for students living nearby. Exceptions would be rare and only under the most extenuating circumstances. I would abolish the present separate residential colleges based on faculty. Mix the students; it would do immense good were medical students to share dorms with music majors. I would also intentionally mix the students by race. I would make this explicit to all applicants so that those who would be uncomfortable with such arrangements would know way ahead and not bother to apply. If a Chinese student wants to share a room only with his or her own kind, then he or she would be well advised to apply to a university in Taiwan instead. Similarly if a Muslim student does not want to room with an infidel, then he or she should apply to a university in Saudi Arabia.

Such rules should be flexible. Students who are stuck with a totally incompatible roommate should be allowed to change. This could happen even when sharing a room with a previously good friend or classmate. Universities should be a place where all ideas are explored, including and especially those currently not popular. There must be an atmosphere of open inquiry and tolerance for differences in viewpoints, and for healthy debate. Unfortunately today universities have to get the minister’s permission even to invite outside speakers. It is interesting that in 2001 Johns Hopkins University successfully brought representatives of all Malaysian political parties to a conference. If representatives of Malaysia’s wildly divergent political parties could gather and express their views on an American campus without resorting to fist fights or inciting a riot, why cannot such an event be held on a local campus? Of course not even the UMNO representatives would dare approach their superiors back home about planning a similar gathering in Malaysia.

When citizens cannot or are not allowed to sit together to express their differences in an open and civil manner, why, then they would do so on the streets. Recently there was much talk on bridging the increasing polarization of Malays with respect to Islam. Why cannot a Malaysian university convene a seminar and have speakers representing the whole spectrum of opinion similar to what Hopkins did to the politicians?

Had local academics taken the initiative, there would not be the charade of the on and off “great debate” between PAS and UMNO that never came about. No one took that initiative because they were all waiting for a directive from the ministry. Such are the negative consequences of too much central control.


Next:  Personnel


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #51

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education  (Cont’d)  

Academic Offerings


The second area needing reform is the academic offerings, specifically undergraduate programs. They are too narrowly focused and rigid. Students are not exposed to a broad-based, liberal education. When they graduate they have little flexibility in the marketplace or in furthering their studies. The problem is compounded by their low English fluency and limited mathematical competency.

Consider the typical liberal arts majors of a local university. The last time they had been exposed to mathematics, science, and English was in Form 5. During Sixth Form or matrikulasi, they were not required to take these subjects. Thus they have the mathematical skills of an American Grade 11 student, at best. Considering the low standard of mathematics at most Malaysian schools, I would lower that assessment to that of Grade 10 – very minimal and elementary. Islamic Studies graduates are worse as their entire school and undergraduate years consumed with religious studies. Yet these are the graduates who will man the civil service and run such ministries as Treasury and Trade where they will be in charge of billions of ringgit. One of them, Abdullah Badawi, is destined to be the next prime minister.

The sorry caliber of these public servants is best illustrated by an encounter I had recently with a former senior Treasury official. We were discussing interest rates, and he made the comment that an increase of 5 to 6 percent represented only a 1 percent increase. One does not need to understand higher mathematics to realize that that represented a massive 20 percent hike (one fifth higher). Similarly, a country with a population growth rate of 2 percent annually is growing twice as fast (100 percent more) as one growing at only 1 percent.

The difference is not only 1 percent. If one has a deeper understanding of mathematics and a better grasp at the meaning of numbers, the differences between figures take on entirely different implications. There are obvious quantitative as well as the more significant qualitative differences between growth rates that are arithmetic, geometric, and exponential. Even with simple arithmetical growth, there is a world of difference between simple and compound rates. A savings account with a simple interest rate of 7 percent will double in about 14 years, with compound interest, in 10. Put differently, $100 at 7 percent compound interest would yield $100 in ten years but only half that ($49) with simple interest. Quite a difference!

Consider the magnitude (or order) of difference between geometric and exponential growth. In the real world different rules apply to entities with such different growth patterns.

On another occasion a senior official of a Malaysian trust company on a business trip to America was showing me his company’s cashiers check he was carrying. He was trying to impress me with his heavy responsibilities as the check was for a substantial sum. When I asked him why he bothered with the check instead of wiring the funds, he was perplexed. That would not only have been safer but also save his company the incurred interest during his two-week trip. Had he kept the money in Malaysia and then wired it to America on the day he closed the deal, the amount of interest earned during his travel would more than pay for his travel.

When you are dealing with small sums, a few days of interest matter little. But in dealing with millions and billions, you want the interest rates negotiated to the fourth or fifth decimal point, and days count. On a transaction to buy a 747 jet, nobody carries checks; funds are instantaneously transferred electronically. With such loans the difference between an interest rate of 7.0250% and 7.0275% is worth the tough negotiations.

The greatest show of ignorance for figures was demonstrated by Anwar Ibrahim. As is typical with most Malay politicians, Anwar is a Malay Studies graduate of a local university, but through politics he became Finance Minister. After he was fired as Deputy Prime Minster he made the spectacular accusation that one of his cabinet colleagues had smuggled billions of ringgit out of the country. Anwar related how an airline cabin crew supposedly described to him in graphic details of the minister with his attaché case bulging with smuggled notes. It does not take much imagination to see through the absurdity of that wild claim, yet it was widely disseminated in cyberspace and in the local media controlled by Anwar’s supporters.

Here is why I scoffed at the ridiculous accusation. Even if the loot had been issued in the highest denomination (RM1,000), the culprit minister would need a few gunny sacks full, not a briefcase. When I posted this simple physical fact on the many pro Anwar websites and chat groups, they sheepishly discontinued carrying that “news” item. Anwar obviously had no conception physically and perhaps even fiscally of a billon ringgit. Yet he was Finance Minister!

Such demonstrations of gross ignorance among ministers and senior civil servants can no longer be hidden. They are too obvious. Earlier I mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister’s concerns over the performance of the nation’s senior diplomats and officials at foreign conferences.

I have been following the highly contentious negotiations with Singapore over the sale of water. While Singapore sends Harvard MBAs to negotiate, we send officials who think that the difference between 1 and 2 percent is only 1 percent! If our officials would only open their eyes and widen their intellectual horizon, they would realize that water, especially clean unpolluted water, is fast becoming a scarce and thus invaluable commodity. In supermarkets a bottle of water costs more than gasoline! Malaysian officials who negotiated long-term contracts without any clause for periodic reviews or automatic increases deserve to be screwed royally.

The last contract negotiated by Malaysia extended Singapore‘s term to 2060, with no provisions for periodic reviews! Nothing remains constant for such a long period; no one can predict that far ahead. The British managed to get that great deal from the Sultan of Johore early in the last century simply because Britain was an imperial power and could dictate the terms. They did the same thing to the Chinese over Hong Kong. Unfortunately it is not the civil servants who will pay the price for such incompetence, rather the nation.

These realities are beyond the grasp of our civil servants. Their intellectual horizon is narrow; their reading does not extend beyond the civil service bulletin. They were not encouraged during their student days to be adventurous intellectually. Just read the prescribed texts and remember what had been lectured long enough to regurgitate at examination time.

The examples I describe involve essentially elementary arithmetic where the relationships are linear; nothing sophisticated mathematically. Consider more complicated situations with many more variables to factor in and where the relationships are non-linear. Here you would need an understanding of higher mathematics including calculus and statistics. I do not mean that one has to be able to do the calculations – we have computers that could do that in seconds – rather we should understand the underlying concepts, their meanings, and correlates in real life. I have long forgotten how to solve quadratic equations and how to differentiate and integrate variables, but the concepts still remain clear to me.

There have been some tepid and tentative changes introduced recently to broaden the undergraduate curriculum. Deputy Prime Minister Badawi proposed that Islamic Studies students take one elective outside their major. More recently, UUM and UPM require their students to take the MUET test and some courses in English. These are tentative, very tentative; more needs to be done.

I would restore the undergraduate years back to four. If that cannot be done, than at least make the honors program four years. Broaden the curriculum so students are exposed to a wide variety of disciplines. The present pattern is a hangover of the British system where the emphasis is on depth at the expense of breath. There is plenty of time to go into depth later in the later undergraduate years.

Malaysia must emulate top American universities where all undergraduates take at least one year of English, liberal arts, mathematics, and a laboratory science as part of the “general ed” core. They are also expected to have written dozens of term papers by the time they graduate. Some have their senior thesis in addition. All first year students must take a seminar course where the emphasis is on class participation and oral communication. This should be conducted in English and in small groups to enhance the students’ verbal skills.

I am baffled that with the nation now emphasizing English, few universities have a Department of English. This “disconnect” between the campus and the outside world is obvious to all except those in charge. The English Department on all campuses must be strengthened in anticipation for the greater emphasis on English.

Additionally all incoming students must be computer literate. They should be able to use word processor, e-mails, and the Internet. The universities need not provide these non-credit courses; students could acquire them through the many proprietary classes available during the hiatus between school and university.

Next: Graduate Programs




An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #50

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education


Universities sit at the apex of the education pyramid. In the past they were a filtering system to select those destined for the elite class. They still do. But in a modern society universities serve far greater functions. They are not only the repositories of the nations’ best and brightest but also the critical element and pillar of the modern economy.

Universities produce skilled professionals and others that Robert Reich refers to as the “symbolic analytic workers.” These are the high value-added workers who will propel a nation into the new Keconomy. In the words of the Economist, “Universities are the nurseries of the next generation’s brains.” They and other institutions of higher education are no longer a luxury; they are essential for the economic as well as social growth of a nation.

This chapter contains my proposals for revamping higher education, beginning with the universities.

Public Universities

Public colleges and universities are clearly not meeting the needs of the nation. Consider these facts. Less than 20 percent of high school graduates continue on to post secondary institutions; impressive when compared to Zambia and Papua New Guinea, but not so hot when compared to Japan or South Korea. More and more students, in particular non-Malays, are opting for foreign matriculation examinations, and there is a proliferation of private institutions to cater for this growing market. This is not a reflection of the nation being the “center of educational excellence,” as the authorities would like us to believe rather students and their parents lack confidence in public institutions.

Where there is a tradition of quality public institutions as in Singapore, private universities and colleges have a tough time competing. Only the likes of Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago dare enter the market; East London University need not bother.

The most damaging indictment is that employers rate graduates of local public universities poorly. Earlier I noted the plight of over 40,000 local graduates unable to find jobs. That’s not all. The performances of public servants, who are mostly products of local universities, leave much to be desired. This last point was highlighted recently by concerns expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister that Malaysian civil servants and diplomats cannot understand much less negotiate effectively treaties and agreements with foreign governments and international bodies. Malaysians abroad who have frequent encounters with our diplomats, especially the younger ones, are not surprised by this revelation. We knew this a long time ago.

In the past, professional qualifications from UM were recognized abroad, thus facilitating the post-graduate studies of local students. The British General Medical Council long ago revoked its recognition of UM’s medical degree. Even Anuar Zaini, UM’s vice-chancellor and former dean of it’s medical faculty, is alarmed at the rapidly declining standard of medical education. The student to instructor ratio in Malaysia, as the good doctor rightly pointed out, is a dangerous 18 to 1; in Singapore and elsewhere in the advanced world, it is 5 to 1 or better.

Few local graduates end up at leading graduate schools abroad, and locally minted PhDs rarely seek or can secure post-doctoral appointments at major centers. The list goes on.

The deficiencies of our public universities are in three major areas:  management, academic offerings, and personnel. All three are interrelated, but I will dissect them separately.

The Management

Public universities are functionally administrative units of MOE, with the minister making all the decisions, major and minor. He decides who can be invited to speak on campus or become professors and deans. Universities have supposedly independent Board of Trustees headed by such luminaries as sultans and former kings. I am sure they do make some independent decisions, like what to serve at the convocation pageantry and the design of graduation gowns. On substantive matters, they defer to or await orders from the bureaucrats at the ministry.

As the World Bank noted, government should be supervisors, not directors of higher education. It should set general guidelines and then give the universities the freedom to operate within those parameters. Empower the intellectuals and professionals on campus, trust their judgment; if they are not up to snuff, fire them and get others more competent and talented.

In a feeble attempt at liberalization, MOE embarked on a flurry of “corporatization” exercises aimed at giving public universities greater freedom. In theory the corporate structure would liberate them from the oppressive stranglehold of the ministry. Thus far only UM has been incorporated. Unfortunately only its legal status has changed, everything else including policies and personnel remains the same. MOE still calls the shots.

As state-financed institutions, public universities must remain accountable to the body politic. I am not disputing or challenging that. But this control could be achieved without putting the university on a tight leash and strangulating it. The minister could exert control through the careful selection of trustees. Once you have chosen a group of talented individuals to lead the campus, leave them alone. Let the trustees pick the vice-chancellor and other key personnel. If the vice-chancellor does not perform, frits his time away, or wastes valuable funds on gaudy graduation exercises instead of on the library, let the trustees straighten him or her out. If the trustees are not keeping close tabs, then remove or do not reappoint them.

Unfortunately most trustees of public universities today are either civil servants or discredited politicians. This perpetuates the civil service mentality on campus. The next time a vice-chancellorship becomes vacant, I suggest the minister should invite the trustees to convene a select committee with representatives from the faculty, students, and alumni to short list the candidates and make a final recommendation. I have no problem with the minister having veto power over the appointment; that would be considerably better than having him directly appointing the candidate. With representatives from the academic community the committee would more likely select someone highly respected on campus, most likely an accomplished scholar or scientist. Political types usually do not carry much weight among academics. It is important that whoever is selected must have the confidence of the academic community. Civil servants, “has been” politicians, and less than outstanding scholars, the usual staple of ministerial appointments, would have difficulty commanding respect on campus.

The best candidate would be a solid scholar or scientist with exceptional executive talent. But if it were a choice between accomplished scholars with less than capable administrative skills versus capable administrators with no academic bent, I would definitely pick the former. At least then you could provide them with capable administrative assistants.

All too often top campus officials are picked more for their political leanings rather than academic achievements. Ministers rarely seek outside counsel, least of all from academics, in making these senior appointments. Peruse the resume of top campus officials, with rare exceptions they are individuals singularly lacking in scholarly accomplishments. When these academic leaders have not done significant research or published anything original, it is hard for them to appreciate much less respect scholarly pursuits.

In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I relate the experience of Ungku Aziz, the distinguished former vice-chancellor of UM, in trying to expand the campus library. The senior civil servant at the ministry insisted that all the books then in the library must be read first! It would not surprise me if that civil servant were later promoted to head a new campus. Ungku Aziz is the rare exception of an accomplished scholar being picked to head a university, but he was of the old era. The key person on campus is the vice-chancellor. If he (thus far they have all been males) does not value scholarly pursuits, then he is not likely to encourage such activities. Nor would he be supportive of intellectuals, scholars, and researchers. More than likely the creative and the productive would be shunted to some remote corners on campus. The whole academic atmosphere would be destroyed.

By actively involving the entire campus community when making top appointments, the authorities are implicitly expressing their respect for the scholars and professors, and value their input.

What I find reprehensible is the disdain and outright contempt ministers and politicians have for academics. This is especially so when those academics dare criticize the authorities. Earlier I mentioned the cheekiness of a junior UMNO functionary Azalina Othman calling for the resignation of UM‘s Annuar Zaini. If we want our graduates to be capable of independent and critical thinking, then we must allow their professors some freedom. If we shackle them, one consequence would be that we would attract only the meek and those with a propensity to ingratiate themselves to the powerful. They in turn would transmit those same values to their students. Before long we would have a nation of sheep, waiting to be herded by the shepherd, unable or afraid to venture out on their own. When one bleats, the rest would quickly follow. That is not a recipe for a competitive society; it is a design for disaster. There would be no one to warn the shepherd that they are all heading for the cliff.

I would throw out the highly restrictive elements of the Universities Act. If academics misbehave, there are enough laws to take care of such miscreants. The Act gives undue power to the minister; and he has not hesitated in wielding it. During the haze of 1977 the minister prohibited academic environmentalists from releasing their studies. Now professors have to get the minister’s permission to publish. Imagine!

Giving universities autonomy means decentralizing their management. Make each campus an independent administrative entity; the equivalent of SBM, with a global budget based on agreed upon performance criteria. This would be more effective way of exerting control instead of the present crude and oppressive mechanisms. Let each university decide how to spend its funds. There is no need for prior approval from the Treasury once that budget is allocated. Surely the university’s accountants are as competent to track the funds as those of Treasury and MOE. If a vice-chancellor decides to waste the funds on lavish graduation ceremonies and ornate entrance arches, let him. Trust the trustees and the greater university community to keep him in line. If the minister does not like the path the university is taking, be patient. Do not reappoint the trustees, and then be extra careful in selecting their replacements.

Presently academics are bound by the same rules as civil servants, right down to the class of air travels they are entitled. I recently met a dean on a study tour of America and was surprised to find that he was given first class air tickets. External examiners at Malaysian universities are also given similar royal treatment. Heck, even Stanford‘s deans do not get such cushy perks. On inquiring, I was told that that was the appropriate status per civil service code. The difference between economy and first class return air ticket between Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles is over US$10,000, enough to double the campus annual library acquisition! But the university is unable to establish its own priorities. If the dean conscientiously opts for economy travel, the money saved would simply revert to MOE or Treasury, for their officials’ first class travel. The library would still have to beg.

Decentralizing the management would enable the university to escape the stranglehold of both of MOE as well as Treasury. Today every expense has to be approved by these two authorities, and knowing the pace of the civil service, one can imagine how fast things get done.

Independent management would also free the university to chart its own course. Malaysian universities are essentially clones of one another, with little or no differentiation. They do not even select their own students; the ministry does that.

Being a corporation allows the university to enter into partnership with private entities in providing ancillary campus services. Presently substantial resources are directed merely to feed and house the students. The university could free itself of this onerous burden by contracting it out. Marriott, the company that caters to airlines, provides food services on many American campuses. Similarly private developers could lease campus land to build and operate dormitories and apartments. This would not only alleviate the housing shortages but also free the university from the administrative hassles and headache of running these non-academic services. Those can be more efficiently run by private companies, and become revenue sources instead of cost items. The university could then dispense with the position of deputy vice-chancellor for housing, and send him back to the classroom!

Universities should select their students. The present central application process at MOE should be just a data-gathering and coordinating center, with the students stating their preferences of campus and majors. It does not serve the students or the universities to have the ministry do the selecting. It should act merely as a facilitator to avoid duplication of efforts with students having to file separate applications for every campus they aspire. What I am suggesting is similar to the service run by the University of California System.

This would also encourage competition among the campuses to attract students. We would also get a clear picture of what students think of the various universities. Students too would benefit. A student who wants to be a doctor but his or her test scores are not high enough, would want to apply to the less competitive campus.

MOE has enough responsibilities without having the bother of running the various campuses. These universities have smart people; surely they do not need supervision or control from the ministry. All MOE has to do is issue general guidelines, and then use the more effective mechanism of funding and selection of trustees to exert influence over the universities.

Next:  Academic Offerings

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #49

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

Chapter 7:  Strengthening the Schools  (Cont’d) 

Schools of Second Chance


After discussing examinations, it appropriate to ponder the fate of those who fail and fall through the cracks. No matter how good a system there will always be failures. In the past when opportunities were limited, those who slipped were simply let go; there was no second chance. Many through sheer grit would make something of themselves; the rest would suffer their fate in silence. If they have learned their bitter lesson they would pass it on to their loved ones in the hope that the mistakes would not be repeated; others would have their children and loved ones repeat it, and the same cycle is repeated.


The remarkable aspect of human capital is this: citizens are either assets or they are by default, liabilities. There is no neutral zone. They are either contributors to or takers from the economy; they either add to or subtract from the wealth of the nation. The contributors are obviously the producers and workers. The takers come in many forms: the young, elderly, and infirm. The young are takers only temporarily; with good education they too would later become contributors and pay back many times more what they had taken from society and what society had invested in them. Likewise, the infirm could be turned into contributors with good medical and rehabilitative care. Even if their infirmities were permanent and irreversible, with appropriate training and ingenuity we could turn those citizens into assets.


In the beautiful poetry of classical Malay literature, the deaf would work in a noisy environment, the blind in the dark, and the mute be entrusted with state secrets! They all have their place. The elderly, well, they had been contributors when they were young, now they deserve to reap their harvest. Increasingly in the West, with better medical care, senior citizens are contributing right into their ripe old age. William Deming, the revered management guru, is still consulting and giving seminars even in his 90’s. A number of my colleagues in their 70s are still operating.


America spends an inordinate amount of resources training the intellectually challenged. Visitors may consider this to be a waste. For Third World nations with limited resources it would certainly make more sense to spend them on educating the smart ones first. But for a wealthy country like America that has taken care of the basic needs, spending funds to educate these unfortunate souls is money well spent. These children attend special classes where they are trained to do simple jobs. Then they are placed in a sheltered work environment, not subject to the regular stresses of the normal workplace. All these are attempts at turning them into producers instead of takers, to put them into the asset and away from the liability column.


The obvious societal liabilities apart from the above are criminals, dropouts, and drug addicts. They cost society indirectly by not being producers as well as directly by the damages they inflict and the costs they incur upon society. Criminals cost society directly as a result of their criminal activities, and society in turn has to expend resources to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate them – all very expensive undertakings. In America it costs about $30,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail, just about as much to attend Harvard. Drug addicts in addition are a public health menace, harboring such lethal communicable diseases as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. The public will bear the burden for treating them. And if they are not treated, the public will again bear the direct burden of their spreading their deadly diseases.


Thus we must have as good and attractive a school system as possible to minimize dropouts who would enlarge the pool of criminals, addicts, and other takers in the economy. But no matter how excellent and innovative a system, we should still expect failures. As can be surmised from my earlier argument, it is not whether we should provide a second (or even third and fourth) chance for them rather how should we do it to prevent them from slipping into the liability column and costing society.


We would be spending these resources on those who fail anyway. The question is whether we pay that later (and much more expensively) through the criminal justice system and healthcare when they become criminals and addicts, or pay less now by providing effective remedial programs so they can become productive members of society.


Malaysia already has a jumbled mess of expensive remedial programs like Rakan Muda (Friends of the Young) and more recently, the equally expensive national service. These are run by agencies that have little experience in dealing with the young. Rakan Muda is run by the Youth and Sports Ministry, while the proposed national service by the Defense Ministry. The objectives of these programs are by no means clear, making it difficult to assess their effectiveness. But because they have strong political advocates, rest assured these programs would simply multiply and grow. It is naïve to believe that by simply marching our young under the blazing Malaysian sun would somehow turn them into useful citizens. Instead of spending expensive resources on Rakan Muda and national service, use those same resources to provide remedial classes and other enhancement programs in the schools.


The best place for children is still in the school. If regular schools fail them, then we should modify the system. We should allow students to repeat UPSR, PMR, or STM. These repeaters (I would not label them failures, as such pejorative tags tend to stick for life and unfairly burden their bearers) should not be lumped together with the regular students; instead they should have their own special class. Hopefully it would be a small one so their teachers could pay individualized attention. I would also assign the most experienced teachers for that class. I would offer these students the extra benefit by recording on their final certificate only the better of their two examinations, the first or the repeat. Thus if in the first examination a candidate scored a B in English and a C in science but F in Malay and mathematics, but in the second (repeat) test he or she scores a C in all subjects, then the final transcript would show a B English (last year’s better score) and C (this year’s same or better score) for the rest. This would guarantee that their second effort would be better (certainly not worse) than the first, giving these students an added incentive.


For the more problematic (or severe) students who cannot be accommodated at regular or vocational schools, I would consider two other options: military and farm (or ranch) school. Both would be completely residential but unlike the regular boarding school, the students would have to do most of the work and earn their keep. These students would rotate through the kitchen, maintenance yard, and farm. They are not simply doing menial jobs rather they would learn specific skills – how to cook, operate machineries, and raise animals. It is not simply that they would raise chickens or cows like their forefathers did but they would also learn some mathematics and statistics (graphing egg productions, feedings, and weight gain) and animal husbandry so that when they do return to their villages at least they would be better farmers than their parents were. The schools could even contract out the students’ services. The ultimate objective is for the students to acquire some usable skills and at the same time get a basic education.


America has experimented with military academies for the problem kids in the inner cities. A similar program would work in Malaysia. Malays in particular have a fascination with uniforms and regimentation, and a military academy may just be the answer for these problem students. The academy I have in mind is very different from the present very expensive Royal Military College. I am certain that the alternatives I am suggesting would not only be cheaper than national service or Rakan Muda but also more effective.


These schools could emphasize sports and other extra-curricular activities, as well as vocational subjects and the performing arts. Such varied offerings would ensure that the students would find an activity that would suit their temperament and aptitude. This would also fit with the modern understanding of the multiple facets to human intelligence as conceptualized by Howard Gardner. We should offer these different types of schools and teaching styles to cater to those whose talent and intelligence are manifested in different areas.


In custodial characteristics, these schools would be like prisons, with the students’ time and whereabouts strictly controlled and regimented, but in philosophy it should be an educational institution. Its mission is learning, not punitive. We are more likely to succeed if we treat these students not as failures rather that we have yet to find a suitable program or teaching niche that would reach and touch them.


We must also be mindful that schools and learning or education are not synonymous. Effective learning can take place outside the classroom, and many a learned and educated man never saw the inside of a classroom. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are two famous examples. In America more and more parents are home schooling their children. In the past when access to schools was severely limited many Malaysians effectively educated themselves through correspondence courses. By offering different models including home, military, and ranch schools we increase the probability that the one of them would meet the particular and unique need of a particular student.


Another remarkable observation is that once students excel in one area they would then transfer their success and confidence into other areas. American schools emphasize sports for this very reason. They found that students who initially do not do well academically but are good at sports or fine arts, develop better self esteem that would help them cope with their studies later. Not to mention that should they excel in those fields, they could potentially have a more rewarding career as professionals in those areas. Many inner city youths managed to climb out of their ghettos through sports and entertainment. Look at Mike Tyson (boxing) and the many rap stars. Apart from entertaining their fans, these individuals contribute millions in income taxes. Given a different scenario, the state would have to expend resources to incarcerate them.


Coming back to military academies, another unanticipated benefit is that they provide excellent recruits for the armed services. Considering that these young men and women could easily have ended in the criminal justice system, that is a definite improvement for themselves as well as their families and society.


Our schools must not give up on any student; those unfortunate enough not to succeed the first time must be given ample opportunities to try again, and again. President Bush’s education initiative of 2001 has as its theme, “No Child Left Behind.” Malaysia too should have a similar commitment of not leaving any child behind, as well as giving every child all the opportunities that are needed for him or her to become a potential producer.

Next:  Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #48

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Chapter 7:  Strenghtening the Schools  (Con’td) 

Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!

The bane of testing in Asian schools is that they are being regarded as the end-all and be-all of learning. Even more sinister, we look upon test scores as the only dimension on which to assess an individual. Test scores become means of permanently labeling someone. We should look upon test scores “not as means of confirmation of fate but as clues to improving children’s learning,” to quote the Annenberg Challenge.


Testing is one measure of accountability, serving as an effective feedback for students as well as their teachers and schools. We all learn at different paces; it is part of the normal curve. We should not infer anything more beyond that. Take learning to read. All too often we label someone who is slow to read or who reads at an older age as a “slow learner,” and that tag would be permanently etched on the individual. Parents’ and teachers’ expectations are now predicated on that label; expectations often becoming fulfilling (Rosenberg phenomenon). Learning to read is like learning to ride a bicycle. Some of us learn it quickly and at a younger age, others take longer and have to be older – the bell curve distribution. We would never make the prediction that because someone learns to ride a bicycle earlier and faster that he or she would later become a champion cyclist. Yet we do that all the time with examination scores. Examinations and tests are an important part of the feedback and accountability process, but we should not be unduly obsessed with them or to presume making unrealistic prediction of someone’s potential.

We are now finding that dyslexic children are not slow learners or readers, rather they perceive the written word differently. This particular insight has helped thousands of children become better learners and productive citizens. We certainly would not label such dyslexics as Albert Einstein and Ted Turner (of CNN) as “dumb” or “slow.” Some like Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie became great writers.


An appropriate and more realistic perspective on examination and test scores is greatly needed. My reform de-emphasizes national examinations and calls for eliminating SPM (Year 11 examination). With the integration of Islamic schools into the national stream, STAM would also be eliminated.


I would also change the way we assess students and in calculating the final scores on national examinations. Currently Malaysia, like other Asian countries, relies exclusively on the end-of-year assessment. The students’ entire career depends on that test. If they are not feeling well that day or if there are interruptions in their personal lives like floods or a family emergency, then they would be doomed. No wonder the heightened anxiety and obsession.


I would limit standardized tests to only the four core subjects. In addition students would be continuously assessed by their teachers on all subjects throughout the year (the GPA), based on their class performance, homework assignments, as well as on regular mini tests. In ranking students for streaming and other purposes, I would use both the GPA as well as the scores on standardized tests, giving equal weight to both. Further I would use the standardized tests to evaluate both the schools and teachers, and to compare their performances with their peers of comparable size and demographic mix. In this way we extend the utility of such examinations. By reducing the number of subjects tested in standardized examinations, we reduce the temptations of teachers to “teach to the test,” thus giving them room for individual creativity. More importantly, it would greatly reduce the current obsession parents, teachers, and students have with examinations and test scores – the curse of Asian educational system.


I would modify the scoring of national examinations so that the final test would contribute only 70 percent to the total score; the rest (30 percent) would come from the teachers’ evaluation of the students’ year-round work (GPA). To correct for interschool variations in GPAs (some teachers are more generous, others more strict) the school’s GPA would be correlated with the students’ overall performance at the national examinations. There are reliable and valid statistical tools to do this. A school whose students’ aggregate GPAs correlate well with scores on the national examination would need no adjustment to their GPAs. But if the school’s aggregate GPAs are much higher than the scores on the national examination, then we know that the school is rather lenient, so the students’ GPAs would have to be lowered to factor in this lax grading. Conversely if students with average GPAs score highly on the national examination, then the school is strict with its assessments. To be fair to the students, the school’s GPA would have to be adjusted upwards to compensate for this.


There could be further statistical refinements by comparing the GPAs and scores on national examination of the top, middle, and bottom 10 percent of the students.


For the UPSR (Year 6), only the GPAs at Years 5 and 6 would count. They would each contribute 15 points to the 30-point final marks. For the PMR (Year 9), the GPAs for all three years of middle school (7, 8 and 9) would contribute equally (10 percent each) to the final score. For the STP (Year 13), the GPAs for the first two years of high school (Years 10 and 11) would each contribute 5 percent; the GPA for Year 12 would contribute 8; and Years 13, 12 percent to the final score of 30. Thus the students’ day-to-day performance during the entire high school years would contribute to the final STP score.


This would give a more holistic and thus fairer assessment. It would also have better predictive value. Such a mechanism would impress upon the students that their work during the whole year is important and contributes directly to the final score. This reinforces the point that studying is a long term and continual affair, not something you cram just before the finals. This would also reduce considerably the anxiety associated with the present system where the students’ entire future would be dependent on that few fateful days of testing.


Such a system would give teachers leeway to teach beyond the test. It would also discourage the present end-of-year practice where the class is consumed with “spotting” examination questions – not a particularly useful or educational exercise.


Although I call for eliminating SPM, nonetheless there could still be a national examination in the core subjects but the scores would not count. They would be used only as a trial or yardstick to measure the student’s progress as well as an assessment of the school. The school and teachers could then use the information to make the necessary changes or areas to focus on for the next two years. Although UPSR and PMR would test only the four core subjects, for ranking and streaming purposes, the GPAs of the other subjects not tested by the national examination would also be considered and be given equal weight. This would prevent students from slacking or not paying attention to these non-core subjects. These GPAs would have to be adjusted as per the formula discussed earlier to account for interschool variability.


The terminal Form 6 examination (STP) would see the most changes. Students would take six (the four core subjects plus two more) instead of the present five subjects. I would eliminate the current useless General Paper (Kertas Am). Those interested in medicine and the life sciences would take biology, physical science (physics combined with chemistry), and an Arts elective, together with the core subjects of mathematics (preferably calculus), English, and Malay. Aspiring engineers would take physics, chemistry, and mathematics, together with an arts elective plus the core subjects of English and Malay. A would-be economist or social science major would also have to take one of the sciences together with mathematics (preferably calculus and or statistics), and of course English and Malay.


Under the present system with the focus on matrikulasi and the consequent de-emphasis on Sixth Form, STP is fast losing its popularity. In 1995 there were over 60,000 candidates sitting for STP, in 2001 barely over 40,000. Students are abandoning Sixth Form. The irrelevance of STP can be gauged by the fact that the most popular subjects remain Malay Studies and History, while subjects like mathematics and biology account for only about 10 percent of the total. If we consider the Islamic stream with nearly 29,000 students sitting for STAM, one can see how far detached from the real world the system of education in Malaysia is, especially for Muslims.


My proposal would restore the original primacy of Sixth Form. Having these classes would have a positive ripple effect on the quality of teaching on the lower levels. The laboratory and library facilities would have to be improved and this would benefit the rest of the school. Having better qualified teachers teaching Sixth Form would also enhance the overall standard of teaching at that school. Eliminating SPM and STAM, and testing only the four core subjects in PMR and USPR would greatly reduce the load of the examination syndicate. The results then could be released much earlier. More specifically, students in Year 6 need not have to sit for their examination in early September. That could now be deferred to late November, thus giving pupils the whole of September, October, and part of November for meaningful class time. By eliminating SPM, students would continue directly into Sixth Form in January instead of having to wait six months for their examination results.


With a reduced load, the examination syndicate could undertake much-needed research to enhance the reliability, validity, and predictability of its tests. It could also present the test scores in a meaningful format so parents could gauge the quality of the schools to help parents make the appropriate selection for their children. Schools could be ranked nationally, by state, with their peers of comparable size, location, and socioeconomic indicators. Schools could also be ranked by their academic strengths. My point is the more information parents have, the more informed would be their decision.

Next:  Schools of Second Chance

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #47

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont’d)

Charter and Private Schools

Presently there is minimal private sector participation in the school system apart from preschools. Schools are essentially government monopoly, except for some private secular and religious schools. There are few private international schools but Malaysians are specifically excluded except under very unusual circumstances requiring ministerial permission.

Within the last few years MOE is relaxing its prohibition against private schools. Thus far these private schools are operated by or extensions of existing private colleges. They still have to follow the national curriculum, so there is no innovation in that area. The only changes are these schools are less crowded and have better facilities and longer hours. Like the private colleges, these schools are also dangerously segregated racially and socially. MOE does not require that they be more inclusive.

There is a definite role for the private sector. If we have private schools along the lines of international schools it would give Malaysians some choices. These schools would also give public schools much needed competition. To be effective and contribute their fair share, these schools should be more inclusive and not become enclaves of a particular social class or race. They should adhere to certain minimum academic, enrollment, and safety standards.

There are two ways in which the private sector could participate – one as a joint public and private venture in the form of charter schools, and the other as purely private schools receiving no state support. Charter schools are popular in America. The underlying concept is to empower the ultimate consumers of schools – students and their parents – by taking control away from the central bureaucracy and giving it to the schools. The ministry would be concerned only with monitoring the quality, compliance with rules and regulations, and setting the standards.

Well designed, charter schools would lead to greater integration of students; improve the level of English; involve the private sector in the education system; and most importantly, introduce much-needed competition to the present state monopoly. Such competition would enhance quality and encourage innovation.

To gain their charter such schools would have to meet certain conditions. Their graduates would have to demonstrate competency in the national language. Their curriculum would have the same four core subjects, with the school free to fill in the rest of the day. These schools would have to recognize the uniqueness and special sensitivity of Malaysian society. Their student body must therefore reflect the community. Exceptions would be rare; a school in Ulu Kelantan could have fewer non-Bumiputras.

In return these schools would get state funding – the same amount it would have cost the government to educate these pupils in its present system. Additionally the state would guarantee loans for capital expenses. The actual lending would be done by private sources.

Because of the guarantee, the interest rate should be favorable. The schools could also charge additional tuition. Any entity, local or foreign, could establish such schools provided they meet enrolment requirements stipulated earlier as well as those that would prevent them from becoming either the one-teacher school or the giant educational factories. Further, parents and teachers should constitute the majority of the governing board to ensure that the school’s mission would not be subverted. The board would have total control, including choosing the medium of instruction and the setting of fees. The board would be accountable to the students and parents; they would monitor the school better than any government official.

As added precaution, these schools must post performance bonds to repay the government’s grants as well as reimburse the students should the school be closed. Such schools should have clearly stated objectives. They could prepare students for any matriculating examination. Some could emphasize the fine arts, others, foreign languages or the sciences. These schools could look to their leading counterparts abroad as their model. Schools preparing students for American universities could emulate Groton and Exeter. Such schools would also attract foreign students and be a source of valuable foreign earnings.

For the non-college bound, there could be vocational charter schools started by private companies. Proton could have one to train automotive and body mechanics; a consortium of construction companies could start one to train plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. A group of hotels could start one to train workers for their industry. Industry, not the ministry, would set the curriculum. If there is a demand there could be schools preparing students for Arabic and Chinese universities. Such schools must of course meet the enrolment mix stipulated earlier.

Charter schools would lead to greater integration, as students would take classes and do extra curricular activities together, an improvement over the present vision schools or the Pupil Integration Plan. To prevent such schools from becoming enclaves of the rich, they would have to provide scholarships for the poor. They should also provide hostel facilities so students from rural areas would not be excluded. The schools should also have adequate facilities (playing fields, auditoriums) to preclude their being set up above shop lots.

Private schools on the other hand would not get any state funding. Like charter schools, they would still have to post performance bonds to protect their consumers. To make sure that they play their proper role in nation building and in fostering national unity, these schools should also have a student body that reflects society. The only curricular requirement is that their students must demonstrate competence in Malay and the subject should be taught daily. The students would also have to sit for the same national examination in Malay language as students in national schools. Private schools would thus have greater autonomy than charter schools, as befits their status in not getting any public funds.

Adopting charter and private schools would require a major shift in thinking and attitude on the part of the education establishment; a paradigm shift, to use the current cliché. They must also disabuse themselves from the ingrained idea that innovations and pedagogical wisdom are the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats or that the government is the only entity that can provide quality education.

Malaysia should start small, by granting charters to about 20-25 primary schools and 10-12 at the secondary level, and the same number for totally private schools. After a few years carefully evaluate the program with a view of enhancing it. Malaysia benefited immensely by allowing private sector involvement at the tertiary level. It would also benefit by having the private sector be involved in the schools. If Malaysia could reach the stage where Chile is today with nearly half the students opting for non-public schools, imagine the lessening of the load on MOE. It could then pay more attention to those who really need its help.

Next: Testing! Testing!…I, 2, 3!

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #46

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont’d)

Reforming Religious Schools

These religious schools must be modernized. They must produce more than just future mullahs; rather they must prepare young Muslims for the modern economy. America too has many church-based educational institutions, but they produce their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, and managers. Bellarmine, a Catholic school in San Jose, California, routinely sends its students to top colleges. Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, has outstanding law, medical, and diplomacy schools. Only a tiny fraction of its graduates end up in the clergy. Harvard started out training only ministers, but is now famous for other than its divinity school. These institutions do not insist that their students and faculty share their faith. Many Muslims enrich these campuses. I find the views of Muslim scholars at such institutions as Georgetown and Emory refreshing and highly enlightening. Countless Muslims have benefited immensely from the superior education afforded by these Christian institutions.

We can begin by modernizing the curriculum of religious schools to include my four core subjects. Islamic Studies should only be one subject, not the consuming curriculum. They would have a third language, Arabic. With their trilingual ability and enhanced science literacy and superior mathematical competency, these graduates would enjoy a premium in the marketplace. Not only would their scope for employment be greatly enhanced, their opportunities for further studies would also be vastly expanded.

There are many advantages in exposing these students to a wider curriculum. Many studies show that proficiency in mathematics correlates well with success at university and in later life. An understanding of biology would make them better appreciate such current dilemmas as transplantation and in vitro fertilization. A familiarity with modern economics would make them understand such sophisticated financial instruments as equity funding, bonds, and venture capital, and how these relate to and differ from Islamic financial principles. If these students were exposed to the social and behavioral sciences, they would be better prepared to deal with the ills of our community. If Islamic students were fluent in English, they would be able to communicate better with and have a greater impact on others, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Recently, some missionaries from Malaysia’s Islamic Institute were preaching (dakwah) in America. Unfortunately they could hardly speak a word of English. Some missionaries!

Malay parents value education when couched in Islamic terms. Because of this natural affinity, it is all the more important that we must not fail these students and their parents. The cause of Islam generally and Malays specifically would be served better if these religious schools were either abolished or integrated into the national stream. That is not a political reality; any politician who dares make that statement would be kissing his career goodbye. Yet there is merit to my argument; it would encourage greater integration. It would do immense good were future ulamas, ustads, and ustazahs to mix with all Malaysians in their formative years instead of being cocooned exclusively within their own kind. It would certainly end their academic and social insularity, and disabuse them of the false dichotomy between worldly and religious knowledge.

Mainstreaming religious studies would ensure that these students get a rigorous education. Islamic Studies is widely perceived as intellectually challenged, an easy way to get a degree. Encouraging it merely emphasizes credentialism–any degree will do–which is already ingrained in Malaysia. With a glut of these graduates, giving out more scholarships is simply stupid. We should use the rich Islamic scholarly traditions to expand the students’ intellectual horizon and stimulate their inquisitiveness. We should de-emphasize rituals and catechism. Sadly indoctrination passes for education at these schools. Critical thinking is discouraged; questions and doubts are not encouraged, while rote memory and conformity are expected and highly valued.

Communication in an Islamic class is strictly a one-way affair. As glorified in some ancient Arabic texts, teaching is akin to water flowing, always from the higher (instructor’s) to the lower (students’) level. That analogy implies something more destructive: student’s mind is but a can to be filled with recycled water, not intellect to be sharpened. Why cannot there be more rigorous intellectual discussions? How does the Muslim’s Allah differ from the Greek and Hindu Gods? Is the Koran to a Muslim comparable to the bible for a Christian? Students could analyze the tithe and how it differs from present day income tax. Would a tax based on wealth (the basis for tithe) be more equitable than an income tax? Similarly, is zakat superior to the modern welfare state? A lively seminar could be had comparing the Day of Judgment with the Hindu reincarnation, and how the concept of heaven and hell in Islam differs from that of other religions. I would give students hypothetical examples. Imagine had Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) been an Eskimo, would the imagery of hell be a place of intense scorching heat or a cold frozen dungeon? Would zealous young Malaysians be sporting thick parkas to emulate him? These are the kinds of exciting and stimulating intellectual discussions that could bring the religious class out of its usual slumber. And the answers are not given at the end of the book!

In the decade following merdeka, at the height of nationalism and pride in country and culture, a generation was wasted in the relentless pursuit of the national language. The dreams and hopes of thousands of young Malays were crushed when they discovered that their hard earned certificates were worthless. We are repeating the same colossal mistake today with our zeal and emphasis on Islamic Studies.

By insisting on rigorous standards, Islamic Studies would no longer attract academic loafers, and the nation would get better religious leaders. The cause of Islam would also be considerably enhanced if future ulamas have a broad-based liberal education. It gives them a wider and better perspective. They would then be less likely to resort to simplistic recitations of the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) or the Holy Qur’an when confronted with complex problems. Then they would make real and meaningful contributions to their ummah (community).

I would discontinue the Islamic High School (STAM—Sijil Agama Tinggi Malaysia) certificate. These students should take the regular STP, with Islamic Studies and Arabic as their two non-core subjects. Religious schools must not be the equivalent of Muslim seminaries. Nor should they be a refuge for Malays who wish to withdraw from the modern world. We must modernize these schools before they waste more Muslim brains. Meanwhile the present students with their useless diplomas must be given supplemental training so they can contribute to society. If we cannot discontinue the religious stream, then at least we should stop funding them. If parents want to send their children to exclusively religious schools then they would have to pay on their own. What parents do with their money is their right, but the government should not be subsidizing or funding a parallel school system that is at variance with the national aspirations.

I do not underestimate nor minimize the difficulties in reforming religious schools. The religious establishment would not take kindly to any diminution of its role or threat to its power. These people fervently believe that they are doing God’s work; anyone attempting reform or in any way perceived to diminish the importance of their mission would face their wrath. But if these schools were left as they are, Islam and Malays in particular would be the losers. Reform must take place, but very carefully and with the greatest trepidation.

The Islamic establishment in Malaysia is as entrenched as the communist party is in Red China today and the Soviet Union in the past. Gorbachev tried to reform the communist system too rapidly, and ended up disintegrating the Soviet empire and getting himself nearly killed. The Red Chinese leadership is much smarter; it reforms itself slowly and surely while ostensibly subscribing to the ideals of communism. As a result China is fast galloping economically past Russia, breeding new millionaires and capitalists every day. Their leaders still extol the virtues of communism and call each other comrades, but their new motto is, “Getting rich is glorious!” China today is only nominally a communist country but in every other respect it is as capitalistic as the West.

In reforming Islamic schools I would choose the Red Chinese strategy, slowly and carefully, giving due deference to the religious establishment while quietly changing the core of the curriculum by gradually introducing modern subjects like science, mathematics, and English, and reducing the hours devoted to revealed knowledge and prophetic traditions.

To be successful, reform must be sold to the religious establishment as a “win-win” proposition. It should be presented not as an attempt to curb its power and influence rather to enhance them. The aim of reform is not only to produce better and broader educated ulamas but also graduates for the secular world who have a core of Islamic belief and faith. I believe that professionals and executives would enhance their effectiveness if they were also well grounded in religious ethics.

Islamic institutions must produce their share of worldly experts and entrepreneurs. Once these institutions do that they would contribute immensely to reducing the socioeconomic gulf separating Muslims from non-Muslims. This would greatly improve race relations and bring the nation closer to its Vision 2020 aspirations.

NEXT: Charter and Private Schools