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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #1

M. Bakri Musa

In memory of my schoolteacher parents, Cikgu Haji Musa bin Abdullah (May 24, 1913 to June 15, 2000) and Cikgu Hajjah Jauhariah binte Sallam (June 30, 1917 to May 12, 1997)


Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1 A Preemptive Strike 1

Chapter 2 It’s More Than Just Education 26

Chapter 3 The Present System 67

Chapter 4 Deficiencies Of The System 83

Chapter 5 A Look At Other Models 107

Chapter 6 Attempts At Reform 127

Chapter 7 Strengthening The Schools 151

Chapter 8 Reforming Higher Education 202

Chapter 9 Mow Down MOE 236

Chapter 10 Putting It All Together 259

List of Abbreviations 269

Notes 271

References 285

About the Author 297

Index 299

Preface and Acknowledgments

While visiting my parents many years back, our conversation not surprisingly gravitated towards education. Although they had retired from teaching, they maintained an abiding interest in the field. At the time the consuming and acrimonious public debate was on the demand by the Malaysian-Chinese community to set up Merdeka University. This move was generally met with hostile opposition from Malays, and my parents were no exception.

I made the point that it is never a smart idea to stop anyone from expanding opportunities, on the contrary we should be encouraging, not blocking, the building of another university. My parents were surprised by my contrarian viewpoint, and remarked whether I was merely trying to be argumentative or did I really believe in what I said. I quietly explained that we should support the effort to ensure that the university would serve all Malaysians and not just a particular community, and that with proper planning and cooperation, the venture could be a win-win situation for all. In the end I made a believer out of them. My father went further. He encouraged me to pursue my ideas with the authorities so that they too would see my point. I told him that I already had, unfortunately those in power were not so open-minded. Nonetheless he urged me on in the hope that I would change many more minds.

This book is a commitment I made to my late parents those many years ago. That aside, I do hope to win over many, one at a time.

Education in Malaysia is a powerful political and cultural symbol. Being tightly bound up with these extraneous symbolisms takes its toll. As with the discussion on Merdeka University, rational thoughts are quickly replaced with the narrow politics of race and culture. Instead of looking at the potential for mutual benefits, we analyze policies and initiatives in terms of winners and losers. Such discussions and attitudes often result on all sides losing. The very fact that we have framed issues as “us” versus “them” instead of how best to make them work for all is itself destructive.

I do not look at education through the prism of race, politics, or nationalism, rather on how best to make it serve the needs of Malaysians. When that is done right, everything else falls into place. Conversely, when done poorly, the ugly repercussions are borne not only by the unfortunate students and their families but also society.

This book is my effort to make Malaysians look at their education system from a perspective different to what they have been accustomed. Doing this is a necessary prelude to the changing of minds.

These are my personal views and observations. I shy away from philosophical waxing and concentrate instead on the concrete and the mundane. It is said that when you do not know what questions to ask, that is philosophy; when you do know the questions, then you find ways to answer them. That is the realm of science. You seek empirical evidences, try different models (otherwise known as experimenting), and then fashion your own solutions. With Malaysian education, the questions are many and obvious.

There is also an axiom in science to the effect that when you cannot find the solution, chances are you are asking the wrong question. Thus I begin by raising some relevant questions, and once we are agreed upon them, the solutions would be that much less difficult to find.

I have highlighted different models and examples from various countries. It is not my purpose that Malaysia should blindly adopt or copy them rather these are principles to ponder.

I come from a family of teachers; consequently I have tremendous respect and affection for the profession and its practitioners. As a surgeon my work is exciting and very rewarding. But even if I had done my job perfectly, the best that I could achieve is to restore my patients back to their pre-morbid state. (My plastic surgery colleagues claim that they can make their patients better and younger, or at least feel and perhaps also look that way!) Not so with teachers. When they do their job well, no telling what heights of accomplishment their pupils would reach. Once the intellectual spark is ignited, one never knows where it would lead. I mention this at the very outset because in voicing my criticisms of the system–schools and other institutions–some of them will inevitably rub off on the practitioners. I try to be as narrow and specific as possible when criticizing so as not to tar everyone with a broad brush. The vast majority of our teachers and professors are dedicated professionals doing their best under some very trying circumstances.

It is unfortunate that their profession is today increasingly being inundated by the less-than-committed. My purpose is to bring about a better working environment for our teachers and professors so that their new colleagues would be among the brightest and best, and that together they would once again regain their due rewards and respect in our society.

The first half of this book covers general topics on education, its impact and role on society, as well as societal elements that bear on it. I also describe and critique the present system, and review for comparison purposes the system of a few selected countries.

The second half deals specifically with my reform proposals. I begin by critiquing previous and current attempts at reform. This is followed with my specifics on reforming the schools. Not surprisingly this is the longest chapter, as schools are the core of the system. My ideas on revamping higher education and the ministry of education follow in their own separate chapters. The last chapter is essentially a summary.

Portions of this book were written years ago and had appeared in various publications. I apologize for their inclusion here but had to so for the sake of completeness. My sincere thank you to readers who have kindly written me with their thoughtful viewpoints. Writing would be a futile exercise if not for readers. I value your contributions both when you agree as well as when you disagree with me. Putting my ideas in writing also help elevate them from being mere coffee shop talk.

I am indebted to my late parents for encouraging me to pursue my ideas, and more. They were also my severest critics; as former teachers they brought a much-needed reality check. I also deeply appreciate the editing of my son Zack. His skills honed by years working for his campus newspaper came in handy. Being a teacher, my wife Karen was a careful and critical first reader; she helped sieve the extraneous and lumpy until the final form flowed more smoothly.

M. Bakri Musa

January 2003

Morgan Hill, California

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #2

Chapter 1

A Preemptive Strike

There is considerable anxiety among Malaysians over the state of their schools and universities. This angst is manifested in many ways, from the thousands of children who cross the causeway daily to escape Malaysian schools, to well-to-do parents like the daughter of Prime Minister Mahathir who pack their young to boarding schools abroad.

On a more general level, foreign investments in the county are fast drying up; the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor and Biotechnology Valley schemes are stalling; and the nation’s competitiveness has declined precipitously. There are many other contributing factors for these phenomena, but there is no disagreement that the failure of the education system looms large in all.

To top it, the government is threatening to use the repressive Internal Security Act to browbeat citizens into accepting its brand of education reform. To be sure, education has always been a divisive issue in racially sensitive Malaysia. While it is the aspiration of its leaders right from the very beginning that education should serve to unite the nation, perversely today matters of education remain highly volatile and disruptive.

A look at the current headlines reveals how divisive educational issues are. Today the crisis revolves on the teaching of science and mathematics in English. While the goal is laudatory and agreed upon by most, many strenuously resist or are overtly hostile to the move.

The only redeeming aspect to this controversy is that at least it is not along racial lines, meaning many Malays as well as non-Malays oppose the scheme. But this being Malaysia, unless this issue is resolved soon it too will quickly degenerate along the racial divide.

In a plural society, education should mean more than just educating the young. It must be a force for fostering mutual understanding and respect, and thus encouraging greater integration. Failure to do so would result in a society that is highly educated and literate yet remains divided–another Northern Ireland.

The challenge for policy makers is to have an education system that would prepare citizens for the highly competitive world of globalization and simultaneously foster national unity while respecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. The present highly centralized system with its rigid controls and top-down command fails miserably on both counts. Parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education their young are getting, and today’s schools and colleges are even more segregated than they were during British rule.

My thesis is that Malaysia can have an education system that would serve her well for the K-(Knowledge) economy and at the same time bring Malaysians together. A diverse curriculum and school system but with a minimal core of commonality would simultaneously meet the needs of the various communities as well as foster greater integration.

Such a diverse system would also encourage innovations and competition, to the benefit of all. The commonalities are few and simple; they pertain to the curriculum and enrollment. One, these schools must teach Malay (the national language); English (the language of a globalized world); science; and mathematics. Two, the student body must reflect society at large.

Between these two broad parameters, schools and other educational institutions would be free to chart their own course. If they could attract Malaysians from all communities then they would be doing something right, and thus be deserving of state support. Unity is best achieved not through forcing down uniformity or unanimity, rather through encouraging diversity and flexibility.

Accepting this simple concept requires changing the mindset of our leaders and educators. The present Soviet-style Ministry of Education (MOE), with its tight command and control operations, would have to give way to a more decentralized and democratic system, with decisions shifted to the level closest to the community. The ministry’s function would change from a controlling mode to that of monitoring and encouraging innovation. Ministry officials would become enablers and coaches instead of controllers and manipulators. Also implicit in my proposal is that teaching and other educational wisdoms are not the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats and politicians.

The major defect of the current system is that it is trying to force national unity through a rigid common curriculum and school system.

The result is that while Malaysians may be learning the same thing, they are not doing it together. When the young do not learn with each other, they do not learn from one another. Malaysians today remain further apart than ever before because they are not given the chance to come together. After nearly half a century of independence, national unity still eludes the nation.

If the system has a common core and allows for variations at the periphery, we would find that there are common elements among the citizens that transcend race and culture. Academically-inclined Malays would have much in common with similar non-Malays. By building on such natural affinities, Malaysians then would have less reason for self-imposed segregation and instead would more likely develop these common bonds. We can reinforce this unity theme by rewarding those schools and universities that successfully attract students from all races and classes. Such positive reinforcements would bring the nation closer towards its vision of a united Bangsa Malaysia better than with punitive and coercive methods.

The present system of national, national-type, and religious schools aggravates and perpetuates existing racial divide. National schools are perceived (rightly) as only Malay schools (that is, schools for Malays), and national-type Chinese schools as Chinese. As for religious schools, well, no infidels need apply. My proposed changes would result in these schools being viewed differently. National schools would be seen more as truly national (that is they attract all Malaysians) that happen to use Malay as the language of instruction. Meanwhile national-type Chinese school would also be viewed more as a national school that uses Mandarin as the medium of instruction rather than its present characterization of “Chinese,” meaning, catering primarily to Chinese pupils. Religious schools would be integrated into the national stream and their students exposed to those from different faith.

The crux of my proposal is to encourage schools and other institutions attract all Malaysians regardless of the medium of instruction, curriculum, or label. Conceivably the nation could have a national-type Swahili school were there to be sufficient demand by a broad spectrum of citizens.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #3

Malaysian Education in Perspective

A measure of the importance of education is reflected by the fact that the ministry has always been regarded as very senior and prestigious.

The first Minister of Education was no less than the Deputy Prime Minister himself, Tun Razak. Every prime minister except the first had been in charge of that portfolio. The ministry consistently gets the largest budget allocation; in the latest year (2003) it received a whopping 27 percent of the total outlay.

Despite the generous allotment, there is general dissatisfaction with the results and performances. While the statistics are impressive, with more students in schools and universities today than at any other time, nonetheless there is a nagging feeling that while Malaysia has done well quantitatively, the quality remains much to be desired. The inadequacies are made obvious because Malaysia is an open society and citizens can readily compare their system to that of the rest of the world.

The first attempt at rationalizing the system was in 1956, with the release of the Razak Report. It was a comprehensive and daring initiative aimed at creating a uniform system of schools with a common national curriculum. Until then, schools were along racial lines. Malay schools were consumed with religious studies and limited to primary level only. Chinese schools were nothing more than fronts for the Communist Party, obsessed with glorifying the achievements of Mao Zedong and the dubious feats of the Cultural Revolution. Tamil schools might as well have been in Tamil Nadu, India. Only the English schools had a multiracial student body. But they were few, just enough to satisfy the social conscience of the colonial rulers. They were necessarily elitist. Their graduates learned more about old England than their homeland. No surprise then that their products were unabashed anglophiles, complete with their tweed coats and affected English accent. With the latter they consciously tried to distinguish themselves from the local peons who were products of vernacular schools; their tweed coats however, only made them look silly in hot tropical Malaysia.

I am a product of one such English school. While I am no anglophile, nonetheless I remember only too well learning about the English countryside through Wordsworth‘s beautiful poetry. But I learned very little of my own village and country. Only when I went abroad and actually experienced springtime and saw some daffodils did I appreciate the exquisiteness of his poetry!

The assumption of the Razak initiative was that if young Malaysians were to read the same books, know the same history facts, and speak the same language, then we would share the same common base and perspective, and national unity would be that much easier to achieve. It was a laudable and not an unreasonable assumption.

Bold and imaginative as the Razak Report was, its subsequent tweaking by lesser lights resulted in the gradual erosion and deterioration of the original core. Today the glaring deficiencies of the system are obvious, and the authorities are finally forced to address them. In October 2001 MOE released a comprehensive report, Education Development Blueprint 2001-2010, to address the issues. Just as one finished digesting its contents, the government announced a few months later the formation of a National Brains Trust to examine the whole system again. Not to be outdone, Prime Minster Mahathir announced in late 2002 yet another committee to be chaired by him to review national schools.

The flurries of reviews and studies merely reflect the general anxiety and dissatisfaction over the current system. They also prompted my writing this book because these reports fail to address the fundamental problems. Both say essentially, “We need more of the same” (more English, science, and mathematics), rather than analyzing why the current system fails miserably.

I bring two distinct perspectives. As I no longer live in Malaysia but a frequent visitor, I notice the deterioration much earlier. Also as a consequent of my being away, I can readily compare the Malaysian system with those of other countries.

I first voiced my concerns in private communications to the education establishment as early as the mid 1980s, and when that did not produce any response, I began expressing them in the popular media.

My interest in education however, dates further back to my high school days in Kuala Pilah in the mid 1950s. It was sometime in 1955, shortly after the Alliance Party overwhelmingly won the first general election, when Tun Razak undertook the first massive data gathering exercise aimed at identifying children who would enter school in the following few years. The whole country was mobilized, and I too was involved in trailing the village headman going house to house counting young bodies. Razak wanted an accurate count in order to plan how many schools to be built and teachers trained. He could have taken the easy way out and simply looked at the birth registry, but he was smart enough not to trust the official figures. That massive exercise was appropriately named Gerakan Lampu Suloh (Operation Torch). The survey literally touched every hut and every youngster.

Metaphorically, that operation would later bring light to a nation that hitherto been kept in darkness. I was truly impressed with and in awe of the intensive and extensive effort. It was a dramatic and tangible demonstration of the new government’s commitment to its citizens.

Sadly that was the first and only time I was impressed with the performance of MOE.

A few years later there was a Commission of Inquiry headed by Razak’s successor, Rahman Talib. This was over the lack of Malays in science, a problem that still grabs the headlines nearly half a century later. He was to visit our school and the few of us Malay students in science were eagerly anticipating the occasion to present our ideas. On the appointed day the man did show up, but instead of meeting us he was consumed with being feted and led around like a sultan. Up close he was nothing more than the run-off-the-mill pompous politician, his diminutive figure notwithstanding. We were piqued, partly in missing the opportunity to meet a top honcho but more so in not being able to present our ideas. When the commission released its report a few months later, it was full of nonsensical fluffs about worms, culture, and lack of science aptitude among Malays, but addressed none of the practical problems we faced. His report would set the pattern of future policy documents emanating from the ministry – full of blarney and far detached from reality.

To cite one dramatic example of the stupidity of that report, in 1960 in my science class of over 30, there were 20 Malays. Because of the severe shortage of Sixth Form slots, only four were admitted, two of whom were Malays. Six of the Malay students who did not get into Sixth Form eventually managed to get their degree through the circuitous route of technical colleges and other institutions. Among them, one received a master’s degree from an Ivy League university (Napsiah Omar), and another, a PhD (Tengku Azmi Ibrahim). Additionally, another six of my Malay classmates were potential university material, but because of the limited space in Sixth Form, their aspirations were thwarted. Had Rahman Talib and his fellow commissioners concentrated on providing enough Sixth Form classes and be less concerned about worms, nutrition, and culture, the number of potential Malay undergraduates then would have been 14 instead of 2, an astounding 700 percent (seven-fold) increase! And this was only from one rural school.

Rahman Talib and all those distinguished commissioners missed this crucial point because they did not listen to those in the trenches. They thought they could solve the problem by just cutting ribbons and being lauded. His present day successors are no different.

A few years later as a medical student in Canada, I spent some time reflecting on the issues that the commission so sorely missed. I put my thoughts into a letter to the Minister of Education (now another person), and mailed a copy to my representative in Parliament. Surely the minister would not toss out a letter from a Malay medical student abroad (at that time a sufficiently rare breed). If he did, then my Member of Parliament would not as he knew me. Imagine my surprise in not getting even an acknowledgment from either!

Soon after, I read about a dynamic and up-and-coming young doctor who had been appointed chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

On a lark and not having much expectation, I resubmitted my ideas to him. To my utter surprise he wrote back to say that my ideas were “interesting.” Then perhaps not meaning to be condescending, he urged me to concentrate on my studies first and wished me the best. That was the end.

Events in Malaysia and in my life then took divergent paths. Malaysia was consumed with the aftermath of the May 1969 trauma, and I was equally absorbed in pursuing my career. Years later, the young doctor to whom I had written earlier had by now, after a dramatic detour along the way, been made the Minister of Education, and much later, Prime Minister. But what pleased me even more was that many of the ideas I had mooted earlier were now being implemented. It would be presumptuous of me to claim credit, but at least I knew that there were others who shared my views. It reinforced my conviction that despite being away from Malaysia, my ideas were not on the lunatic fringe.

Here I digress momentarily to reinforce this last point. In 1997, I wrote a series of essays advocating the teaching of science and mathematics in English as a way to attract more Malays into science. This idea came about after my visit to a Malay secondary school. The science textbooks, written in Malay, were deplorable and of inferior quality. Worst was the content; opaque explanations and dense prose. The translations were erratic; where they were not silly, they were simply hilarious. I also watched with the students a videotape in Malay purporting to explain the solar system. The graphics were appalling, and the explanations convoluted. It was a local production, and even with my science background I could not follow it. I was certain the class was lost too.

I had viewed many such educational tapes in America. They were all professionally done and comprehensible, with imaginative and captivating graphics. If those Malay students could understand English, they could have viewed some of these excellent tapes instead of the amateurish local productions. They could also supplement that by reading the numerous excellent texts and reference books available in English.

When the government decided in mid 2002 to teach science and mathematics in English, many of my readers jubilantly wrote me, “See, they are finally accepting your ideas! Keep writing!”

Much as I appreciate the encouragement and presumed credit, I am realistic enough to realize that the government’s move has nothing to do with the persuasive powers of my earlier essays. I doubt whether the officials have even read them. It is just that the government is finally forced to see the errors of its ways and now has to adopt my sensible suggestions. Meaning, our officials do come to their senses eventually, it just takes them a bit longer!

Thus it can be said that this book has a long genesis. More practically, it expands on the chapter “Enhancing Bumiputra Competitiveness” in my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, and “Islamization of Education” in my second, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #4

Basis For Reform

In making my reform proposals, I am guided by the following principles. In a plural society, education must serve more than just to educate the young. It must also be a force for greater social and racial integration, that is, nation building. This is not a novel idea; I am merely reiterating Tun Razak‘s vision first enunciated in1956. Also as a consequent of this plurality, there is no “one size fits all;” we should expect and indeed encourage different models. Such diversity must however, have a common underlying theme or core commonality lest young Malaysians would develop along divergent paths. As a corollary to the first two, there must be parental choice. Parents must be free to choose the school that best fits their children. Parents know their children better than any educational expert or ministry official. Parental choice leads to parental involvement; this could only bring positive consequences. The education system must also prepare students for the challenges of the global marketplace. With globalization, good enough for Malaysia isn’t. To compete effectively in this K-economy, Malaysians must be fluent in English, science literate, and mathematically competent. Malaysians can no longer be insulated; they have to compete with the outside world. There must also be private sector participation at all levels. This would not only encourage new and innovative models but also lessen the burden on the public purse.

The focus of my reform revolves around three major areas: efficiency, equity, and quality. Efficiency is defined simply as getting better or more with the same resources or input. This efficiency could be viewed technically from the business viewpoint (how many schools can be built for X dollars) as well as the social aspects. That is, the government should help those most deserving and not squander its resources on those who do not need them. This goal ties in with the second theme of equity. Everyone regardless of race, gender, social class, or intellect must be given every opportunity to develop his or her full potential. We should remove all barriers, overt as well as subtle, which prevent a child from getting an education. In Malaysia, the glaring divide between urban and rural schools is a crime, for we are in effect dismissing all those precious minds in the villages. And the last point, quality, speaks for itself.

These issues are very relevant but often ignored. Building a successful school is not the challenge. I can create one where the graduates would qualify for top universities if I choose carefully to admit only the children of the rich and highly educated. Such a school may be considered very successful or “very good” but in effect it has not added much value. The probability of those children achieving superior results would be high anyway regardless of what school they would attend. Their parents would ensure that. The purpose of a good school is to break the vicious cycle where children of those with low socioeconomic status and limited educational achievement would repeat their parents’ pattern.

The World Bank describes the three pillars of a good education system: access, quality, and delivery. Access refers to where students are ready to learn in a supportive and healthy environment with adequate supporting elements such as shelter, nutrition, and health. A supportive environment is where the leadership is interested only in education, and where there are clear goals and expectations. Quality means a relevant curriculum that will produce competent products that would thrive in a global economy and contribute to the social development of society. The teaching staff should be well motivated, solidly trained, and have ample avenues for professional growth and enhancement.

They should also be adequately compensated. The delivery system should be where the governance has clear responsibility and accountability, and where significant decisions would be made by those most affected by it. Thus there should be appropriate decentralization. The changes I am proposing follow these themes. My reforms do not question the basic assumptions of nor radically change the present system. The existing structures (number of school years, supremacy of Malay language, national and national-type schools) remain the same.

The emphasis is on strengthening the evident weaknesses, and enhancing and replicating the successes. The changes I am advocating are incremental and evolutionary, not radical and revolutionary.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #5

Integration Through Education

Schools are powerful institutions for acculturating the young. American schools successfully integrate millions of children of immigrants into the mainstream. The elite of America, from government and business to the professions and academia, are inundated with children of first generation immigrants. Every year America garners more than its fair share of Nobel prizewinners, but what is not appreciated is that many of those luminaries are foreign born. What is remarkable is that these naturalized citizens feel and are treated no differently than native born ones.

Education also serves as a great elevator. As the Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, Horace Mann, stated in 1848, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” With such farsighted individuals in charge of education, no wonder that state in general and Boston in particular are famous for their colleges and intellectuals.

Malaysia has always been conscious of the importance of schools in molding a united Malaysian nation. That was the central aspiration of the Razak Report. Unfortunately, purity and nobility of intentions alone are not enough. Today young Malaysians remain even more segregated.

Worse, unlike the segregation of the past that was essentially imposed by the colonial structure, today Malaysians choose to remain apart. Malaysian parents deliberately decide that their children attend schools with only their own kind. They express no desire to mix or integrate. You see this not only in schools but also on college campuses.

The British had no grandiose pretensions of trying to unite the various races. On the contrary, the system was designed specifically to perpetuate existing divisions, all part of the colonialists’ grand strategy of “divide and conquer.” They built just enough schools to produce the necessary functionaries to run the country for the colonial office. Ironically while the British had no desire of bringing the various races together, nonetheless there was far greater social and racial integration among the students during British rule. The English schools with their integrated student body had this unintended consequence.

This integrative role of schools and other educational institutions must be strengthened lest Malaysia becomes a highly educated but divided nation.

The remarkable success of American education is precisely because it is decentralized to the local level. The consequent flexibility allows it to meet the different needs of a diverse nation, while maintaining its core of commonality. There is much that Malaysia can learn from that system.

No One-Size-Fits-All

If I have learned anything about being a parent it is that my three children are all very different. I was fortunate to be sensitive of such individual variations early to be able to help them.

Nowhere are these differences best demonstrated than in their attitude towards school. My two older children managed to go through the large comprehensive public school quite well. My youngest did fine at the small elementary school, but by the time he was ready for middle school, we encountered problems. He made up his mind not to go to the same school his older sister and brother attended. He heard enough horror stories of drugs and bullies. The fact that his older siblings did all right did not impress him. That was before, he said. We did not realize how adamant he was until he absolutely refused to go to school, despite our encouragement, cajoling, and yes, also our anger. He also had a ready and convenient excuse as at that time we had moved out to the country and the school was far away.

Fortunately we were able to put him into a private school in a neighboring town. When we took him for the interview he immediately liked this new school. We did not know what attracted him but months later when we visited him on parents’ day, we knew we had made the right choice. My son cheerfully greeted the headmaster who in turn beamed and replied, “Hi Azlan! How’s that science project of yours?” You can tell a lot about a school when its principal knows not only the name but also the latest project of some random students who happened to bump into him in the schoolyard.

My son thrived there but when it was time for high school, we had problems. He was accepted to two private schools but they were too far away (there was no private high school in our town). I could not bear to see my wife driving him to and fro every school day. I imagined some horrible road accident on some wet winter day. Thus after much cajoling he agreed to attend the local high school. It was the typical comprehensive American public school with over two thousand students.

He managed to stay a year, and what a year it was! He was miserable, had disciplinary problems, and his grades suffered despite our many conferences with his teachers. Fortunately at this time a new public school was being built in a nearby town, and because it was a small district, the school too was small, with less than 200 students, a tenth the size of his present school. We took him there for a week’s trial attending classes in converted temporary trailers. Despite the less than ideal surroundings, he liked the school. So we transferred him. He settled in quickly and by the time he was in his last year he was among the top students. What a difference in four years! All we did was listen to him and found a school that met his needs. I shudder to think had we lived in Malaysia where there are no choices. When I see school-age children loitering and dropping out of schools in Malaysia today, I wonder how many of them could be saved if only we could find a school that would meet their needs. We are more likely to find such schools if we give our children and their parents choices. There is no one school or teaching style that will suit all children. If there are differences in the children from one family, imagine how much dissimilar children would be from different families, races, and cultures. There is no such thing as one national system that would suit all children.

It would be naïve to assume that a system of teaching or schooling that would be suitable for the son of a doctor in Ukay Heights would also be appropriate for the daughter of a rice farmer in Ulu Kelantan.

With the former, there is high background intellectual activity and English proficiency at home and in the community, not so with the latter. We ignore such crucial differences at our own peril. More specifically, our children (and so too our nation) will suffer the consequences of such foolish thinking.

America is able to achieve remarkably rapid assimilation of its immigrants’ children precisely because there is no central authority governing education for the entire nation. Education is decentralized; with schools under local control and setting their own standards and evaluating their own students. There is no national school-leaving certificate.

Similarly for higher education, there is no central bureaucracy controlling the universities. Apart from the public system there are private schools and colleges; they all thrive and meet the needs of various students.

Despite the diversity and bewildering models, the system is able to achieve its primary goals of educating and acculturating young Americans.

What can Malaysia learn from America? Could Malaysia achieve its goals of national integration as well as produce an educated citizenry with such a decentralized system? Absolutely! The whole thesis of my book is to convince readers that this is not only possible indeed it is the only option for Malaysia.

Underlying the diversity of the American system is a core of commonality. All schools use English as the medium of instruction and all students have to take US history and government, science, mathematics, and a foreign language. Although there are no national exit examinations nonetheless there are standardized tests like the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT) and Achievement Tests (AT) to enable universities to compare students from various schools and districts. Additionally, students are continuously evaluated throughout their school year by those most competent to do so–their teachers. Many universities now regard this evaluation, the Grade Point Average (GPA), to be more reliable and a better predictor of college performance than standardized test scores. There is currently a movement to have national or at least statewide school-leaving test, but this has not been widely accepted. Even if it were fully accepted, such testing is designed more to ensure that students achieve minimum competency levels and to make the schools accountable, not to rank the students.

Teachers rightly fear that adopting and emphasizing national tests would cramp their classroom style and freedom. Teachers would then be tempted to “teach to the test” rather than use their imagination and style to fit the individual class and student. It is this freedom that accounts for the unique success of American schools. Students are allowed by their teachers to experiment, explore, and express themselves instead of being bound rigidly to a tight syllabus and examination requirements.

When students in Monterey, California, learn about the environment, they have the vast Pacific Ocean at their doorstep to study, and their teachers plan their lessons to take full advantage of this natural attribute. Students in Colorado have the wonders of the Rocky Mountains.

Having a rigid national curriculum would inhibit such local experimentations and variations. Likewise with the study of foreign languages; schools near the Quebec border of Maine would more likely offer French, while those at El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, would offer Spanish. The beauty and genius of the American system is precisely this great flexibility to accommodate local and individual variations, a lesson that Malaysia would do well to note.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #6

Education in the Era of Globalization

Globalization is bringing the world closer. With the coming together of the global community, there is an imperative for a common language. By default, English is that language. Why English and not Chinese is an interesting question. In terms of the number of native speakers, more people speak Chinese. Nonetheless the market has spoken, and English is now the most widely spoken. Trying to explain why English and not Chinese is like trying to explain why VHS format is favored over Beta for videotapes, and personal computers over Apple.

Undoubtedly, had the native English-speaking countries of America and Britain been third-rate economic powers, that language would not have been widely accepted. The current impetus to improve the English proficiency of Malaysians is because senior civil servants and diplomats are severely handicapped in dealing with international organizations and when negotiating international agreements. Malaysia’s interests would not be protected if her negotiators and diplomats do not understand the basic language, much less the nuances.

Malaysia is handicapped because of its British colonial past. Malaysians are rightly leery of anything English. Thus current attempts at improving the English proficiency of students are viewed with deep suspicion as yet another subtle manifestation of the colonial mentality.

No amount of rational explanation seems capable of overcoming this deep suspicion. In this regard the Indonesians have an advantage. Although they too had been colonized, it was by the Dutch. Thus the Indonesians do not harbor the same suspicion towards English.

In truth the future does not belong to the English speakers rather those who are fluent in English and another language; next would be those who speak only English; and the least advantaged would be those who speak only other than English. The Europeans have known this for along time. Speakers of English are handicapped as their language is widely spoken they have little incentive to learn another language. America is awakening to this fact and is now encouraging its students to be bilingual. Being fluently bilingual means more than simply knowing two languages, it offers other cognitive and intellectual advantages.

With globalization the world needs a common standard. This makes sense. We should expect that Chinese pilots be deemed equally competent as American ones so they could land their jet at any airport.

With better and open communications, Malaysians are fully aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. Malaysians would want for themselves and their families the same standard and quality of medical care and education as available elsewhere. When they cannot get that locally or if they deem that the quality of local services is not up to par, they will leave. Every year thousands of Malaysians go abroad for their medical care and education, costing the nation billions in lost foreign exchange. With such matters as health care, education, and personal consumption, nationalism plays a minimal role. Malaysians go to Britain for such matters simply because they perceive they would get better services there, ex-colonialist notwithstanding.

The king flew to Singapore to have his pacemaker inserted, and the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister went to Los Angeles for treatment of her breast cancer. She spoke glowingly of her treatment by American physicians. Despite her husband’s Islamic credentials, she had no qualms about being examined by infidel and male doctors. Beyond a certain level you do not care about religious scruples or nationalism, you just want the best for yourself and your loved ones.

When Malaysia built the i-hate-petronas TwinTowers, it unhesitatingly employed many skilled foreigners. If Malaysians ever want to participate in such projects not only in Malaysia but also elsewhere, they too must have internationally recognized training and qualifications.

Malaysians must now assess themselves by international yardsticks. Malaysian schools and universities must be cognizant of this. Their graduates must, at a minimum, be bilingual in Malay and English, science literate, and mathematically competent. Anything less would be doing the students, and the nation, a great disservice.

In the modern economy wealth resides less with the natural resources or the strategic location of a country, more with its people. As the UN Human Development Report 2001 states, “People are the real wealth of nations.”

Malaysia is proud of its i-hate-petronas Twin Towers that grace the skyline of its capital. That monument symbolizes the country’s preoccupation with building things physical and material. But the most important infrastructure of the new millennium will be human resources, and the twin pillars to developing that would be education and health. Prime Minister Mahathir never fails to take visitors to see his pride and joy, The Twin Towers. Would it not be nice if our schools and universities too were of such eminence that foreigners would want to visit them?

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #7

Education should concern everyone as it affects us as individuals, parents, employers, and employees.

Many professionals in the field would like us to believe that education is their sole prerogative and that they and they alone have the right to comment on such weighty matters. While I appreciate the professionalism of teachers and educators, nonetheless as education affects us all, we have every right to be involved. My simple rebuttal to such professional parochialism is this: Education is not quantum physics; concepts and issues in education can easily be framed in a fashion understandable to the average citizen. Many of the significant innovations in education in Malaysia and elsewhere have been through the efforts of non-educators.

The first major reform in Malaysian education was undertaken not by a teacher or educator, rather a politician who was a former civil servant – Tun Razak. His professional training was in law. His landmark 1956 Razak Report was responsible for the massive restructuring of the system. Nearly five decades later, the framework of that revolutionary report still underpins the country’s education – a testament to his wisdom and foresight.

Further away in place and time, the greatest innovation in medical education was undertaken not by a medical doctor rather a former school principal, Abraham Flexner. Medical education in America during the early part of the last century was a haphazard affair. Medical schools were less places to train doctors but more moneymaking enterprises.

And the results showed: mediocrity. To reform the sorry and dangerous state of affairs, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned Flexner. His searing criticism of the status quo and his bold prescription put American medical education on its firm scientific foundation.

In particular, he recommended that medical schools be part of a university rather than freestanding institutions, and that would-be doctors must first have a liberal education and be well versed in the sciences prior to undertaking rigorous medical studies. He further advocated a core of dedicated medical educators, complemented by the clinical faculty, to train these students. Directly as a consequence of Flexner, American medical schools today are unanimously regarded as the best.

Like the Razak Report to Malaysian education, the Flexner Report still governs medical education in America and elsewhere.

It would be pretentious of me to consider myself to be in the same league as these two eminent gentlemen. Rather my hope is that this book will be a catalyst for a much-needed wide debate on education in Malaysia. It is only through such broad participation and from hearing the views from the whole spectrum of society will Malaysia discover the system or systems of education that would best fill her needs.

My book is not a compilation of how-to’s or a laundry list of what ails the system, rather a discussion of broad concepts and ideas. A recipe book this is not. Absent is the nitty-gritty of the how and what to teach. Nor are details of the curricula or textbooks listed. Those are clearly the prerogative of the professionals. Similarly I will not be citing figures and statistics except in so far as to demonstrate some points.

To better illustrate my approach, I will compare education to my own profession: medicine. How health care is funded, doctors paid, or whether a hospital should be built and where are clearly for society to decide. In making those decisions policymakers must consider the views of health care professionals, but once the priorities are set, then let the professionals free execute them.

In my practice I actively involve my patients in the decision. The days when doctors were aloof, placed on a pedestal, and practically deified are thankfully gone, and rightly so. When a patient comes to me for a breast lump I do not dictate what she should do, I merely recommend the necessary steps and the consequences of not doing so. Even if the lump proves to be cancerous and the best treatment is surgical, the patient is still intimately involved in the decision. There are still questions as to what type of surgery and whether it should be combined with reconstructive procedures, radiation, and chemotherapy. There is no one right or best solution. Even if there were one best solution that the doctor thinks would suit the patient, she may think otherwise.

I remember a young lady who consulted me for early breast cancer. She would have benefited from conservation breast surgery, removing only a small portion of the organ while maintaining its cosmetic integrity. That too was the consensus of the tumor board reviewing her case. When we presented her with the various options, much to the surprise of all the professionals, she opted to have total removal of her breast. When I inquired why, she replied to the effect that to her that organ no longer defined her beauty and femininity, rather her potential killer. She did not want anything more to do with it. As she aptly put it, “I would prefer it to be in a jar of formalin rather than on my chest!”

Thus even when we professionals think that we have the best solution for a particular patient or client, we can sometimes be very wrong. We have to involve our clients and consumers. Blindly accepting the doctor’s prescription is not good enough. But once the patient has chosen a course of action such as surgery, then let the surgeons operate. Decisions as where to place the incision, types of sutures, and hundreds of other technical details are properly the surgeon’s expertise. But even here surgeons have to be mindful of the patient’s special needs and wishes. For Jehovah Witness patients whose religious beliefs preclude their accepting blood transfusions, I would be extra meticulous in my dissection. Someone sensitive of the scar, I would make the incision as small and inconspicuous as possible.

Returning to education, in this book there will be no discussion of the details that are properly the purview of the professionals–teachers and educators. How and what they should teach, or how best to motivate and engage the students are clearly their expertise. I would not want to second-guess them. They are the ones who see the children every day, and who have been professionally trained. The choice of textbooks and curriculum too is their prerogative. Nor should I be telling teachers how to test their students. But what we as society should expect of teachers and our schools is that they remain accountable both to the students and their parents, as well as to society.

This accountability can be measured partly by showing that the students are indeed making progress as indicated by their periodic test results. Other measures of accountability could be the dropout rates and the discipline level. I also shy away from discussing the philosophy of education. This book will deal more with pragmatic issues like ensuring our students are able to read and write, be mathematically competent, and be an asset to the community. All Malaysians deserve the best education regardless of where they live, their parents’ political affiliations, or their socioeconomic status.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #8

No Mission Statement

I am not a fan of the modern obsession with mission statements or their equally fashionable “client charters.” The more high-sounding and noble they are, the less likely they are to relate to the realities of the organization. MOE has a long mission statement emboldened on its home web page. I can imagine the numerous hours of meetings to compose that. I suggest that those goals and aspirations would be more readily served if only we teach our young well. Once we do that, the values and objectives of that mission statement would fall in place, whether elaborately stated or not.

One of the objectives of the ministry’s mission statement is “to inculcate positive values.” Whatever that means! The philosophy of education is stated thus: “…developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in God.” Presumably if you turn out to be an atheist, the system has failed you.

The trouble with such mushy statements and objectives is that they would be difficult to judge when they have been achieved. How would you gauge that someone is “balanced and harmonious?”

If I were to draw up the ministry’s objectives, I would state them thus: Our students should be able to read and write in our national language as well as English, do basic computations, understand the physical world around and the living world within them, and have an appreciation of our history and our diversity. With such clear objectives it would be easier to measure whether we are successful or not.

Consequently I have dispensed with discussions of such nebulous issues of building “a society of high moral character, ethical, just,” and other highfalutin ideas encompassed in the ministry’s mission statement, and concentrated instead only on the pragmatic nuts and bolts issues. How much should we pay teachers so as to attract the talented? Why are our students dropping out in such high numbers? How do we fund adequately school laboratories and libraries? Why are rural schools not provided with generators so they can at least have fans in their classrooms and perhaps later, computers? These are real issues and affect how our young learn, but they are never covered in mission statements or ministerial missives.

I am not an outsider when it comes to education. As a parent I am acutely aware of its importance. I am also born into a family of teachers. My parents were longtime teachers, as are nearly all my siblings. My wife too is a teacher both at high school and college; she taught briefly in Malaysia. I was also a teacher in the early 1960s in the hiatus before entering university, and more than a decade later, I taught medical students in Malaysia.

The one lesson I learned during my teaching tenure in Malaysia was how far detached the policies and statements uttered by top officials were (and still are) from the realities.

When I was teaching at a Malay secondary school, there were no textbooks and the laboratory facilities rudimentary. Yet that did not stop the leaders from extolling the virtues of such schools. Similarly while the government was pouring funds into building the new medical school, I could not even get such basic supplies as journals and books for my students. Nor I could not get funding for buying papers or paying a secretary to type my surgical seminars for distribution to my trainees. Meanwhile the medical school was paying first class airline tickets for its external examiners and putting them up at luxury hotels.

When I complained to the dean, his reply was simply, “We have to maintain our status!” Such misplaced priorities! One does not have to be an educationist to see the idiocy of such viewpoints.

It is also easy to be distracted by discussions on the philosophy of education and other abstract ideas when much more mundane details like lack of textbooks and basic supplies are being ignored.

In this book I avoid listing the deficiencies of the system (that would require a separate volume!) except in so far as to illustrate a particular point. I will be discussing concepts and ideas gleaned from my own experience with the education of my children in America and comparing their experiences with that of their cousins back in Malaysia.

My book is not simply a critique, nor is it the scribbling of a dilettante. I put forth my own proposals for a modern system of education that is worthy of Malaysia. I begin by discussing some general issues on education – its role in development; its political and cultural symbolism; factors in society that bear on education; and the role of technology (Chapter Two). Chapter Three describes the present system, followed by a discussion of its weaknesses and deficiencies. For comparative purposes, I review the education system of a few selected countries, in particular United States, Canada and Germany (Chapter Five).

There are no shortages of recommendations on reforming the system, and I will critique some of them, in particular MOE‘s Education Development 2001-2010, as well as the recommendations of the National Brains Trust (Chapter Six). My reform proposals are presented in three chapters. Chapter Seven covers the schools, and the chapter following, higher education. Chapter Nine reviews other activities of MOE, in particular Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literary Agency), Accreditation Agency, and the Examination Syndicate. I recommend dispensing or privatizing these ancillary agencies.

My book ends with a summary. I debated whether to put it at the beginning but decided against it. Doing so would have made the book look like a bureaucratic report or Government White Paper. A definite “turn off” for readers! I am after all writing an expository essay, not a policy manual. My aim is to persuade, not to dictate. And if my readers are not persuaded, they can at least begin the debate. That in the end is my objective.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #9

Chapter 2

It’s More Than Just Education

Education is more than just schools and colleges. Investment in education benefits the individual, society, and the global community. For the individual, education is a great leveler. The American patriot John Adams observed that education makes a greater difference between men than nature has made between man and brute. Through education America is able to acculturate and bring into the mainstream its diverse immigrants. A century earlier those immigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe and Catholics from Ireland and Italy. More recently they were Buddhists from Vietnam and Cambodia, and Muslims from Afghanistan and Somalia. Through education they all became Americans and aspired for the American dream. As they better themselves, America too benefits.

In Malay culture, an uneducated or unlearned person is likened to a frog underneath a coconut shell (katak di bawah tempurong). His or her world is very limited and dark. The idiomatic Sanskrit equivalent is kupamanduka (frog in a well). Once outside, the horizon opens up; no telling where the frog would end up. Education and learning are the equivalents of flipping the shell over or lowering a ladder into the well – a way out of the darkness and confining wall.

An indication of the significance of education is that illiteracy is the strongest predictor of poverty. Poverty is a complex issue with many intertwining causes and links, but empirically, providing basic education is the necessary prerequisite in the battle against poverty. Education by itself will not solve Third World poverty, but it is an enabling condition. As the World Bank president James D Wolfensohn observed, “…[T]he single most important key to development and poverty alleviation is education.”

At the other end of the spectrum, in a modern economy education is, in the words of Louis Gertsner, chief executive of IBM and head of the foundation that funds the New Century School reform, “the engine of growth and prosperity.” This is especially so in this K-economy.

The key to Malaysia successfully navigating globalization is through providing high quality education for its citizens.

Another well-documented benefit of education at the individual level is its spillover effect on personal health. The more educated the society is, the more healthy is its members, as indicated by such indices as life expectancy, childhood mortality rates, and general nutritional status.

These effects are more profoundly seen with girls where improved education reduces child mortality and enhances reproductive health, and the subsequent better immunization rates and nutritional status of their babies. Women with formal education also tend to have lower fertility rates, delay marriage and childbearing, and use reliable contraceptives.

They have fewer but healthier babies. The World Bank estimates that one year of formal schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent, with the effect most pronounced with secondary schooling.

Malaysia’s obscenely high rate of child marriages could be effectively reduced if girls have longer formal education. As most of these child marriages end up in divorce, the fewer such marriages there are, the better it would be for society. “Children having children” is one sure way to entrap the next generation into perpetual poverty. This is true in America as well as in the Third World.

Globally, reduced fertility could only have a positive impact on an already overcrowded planet.

Education is also an essential component of public health. Education is the single most effective preventive weapon in combating diseases like HIV/AIDS, as well as reducing such potentially lethal enteric diseases like cholera and gastroenteritis. HIV/AIDS may be incurable but experiences both in the First World as well as the Third show that effective public health education goes a long way in reducing and preventing the spread of the disease. In San Francisco, the wide dissemination of information on safe sex proved effective; in Uganda the reinforcing through education of traditional Islamic values of abstinence and fidelity had a stunning effect on reducing the incidence of the disease.

The reverse, the impact of health on education, is equally significant. Health, in particular the state of nutrition, has a dramatic influence on learning. America’s school lunch programs successfully ameliorate this factor, something that is worthy of Malaysia to emulate.

In Africa where AIDS is devastating the bulk of young adults, schools are also terribly impacted through the deaths of teachers as well as their frequent absence through illnesses or having to attend funerals and the sick members of their family.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #10

Education and Development

If we compare countries that are fast developing to those that are stagnating, the glaring difference is the educational attainment of their citizens. This is true not only between but also within nations. In Malaysia much has been said and written on the gaps in development between Malays and non-Malays, and invariably such differences are attributed simplistically to race or culture. But if those researchers and commentators had been more meticulous and looked beyond race, they would find that the better correlate would be educational achievement.

I wrote this once in my column and received a blistering reply from a Malaysian sociologist. How would you explain, he demanded, the lower earnings of Malays with a degree as compared to those of non-Malays? He was intimating that there were other factors, like discrimination.

I referred him to some studies that showed the best predictor of success in the workplace is achievement in mathematics, and asked him to review the data to see which was the better correlate, race or scores in mathematics. I predict that a Chinese with a BA in history would earn less than a Malay with an engineering degree. Malay graduates earn less than similarly qualified non-Malays because most Malays have degrees in the liberal arts rather than the sciences. And most schools attended by Malays (national and religious) do not emphasize mathematics. Skills in mathematics have the greatest transferability in the marketplace.

Education benefits society through increases in productivity and earnings of its citizens. This in turn translates directly into superior economic performance and growth of that society.

In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I related the dramatic differences in service and productivity between my secretaries in America as compared to the ones I had in Malaysia, and between American limousine drivers as compared to their Malaysian counterparts. This was directly related to the superior education of American workers. I also cited the example of the Japanese factory worker who successfully traced the source of her factory’s product defects to the interference from the vibrations of the nearby train. She was able to make the connection because of her superior education. Japanese factory workers are among the most highly educated, very unlike the typical assembly line workers in the Third World.

There are many studies correlating economic development with levels of education of citizens. Of course correlation means just that, it does not imply causation. It may very well be that rich nations could afford to spend more on education and that improved educational achievement is the result and not the cause of wealth.

Studies show that individual wages increase with years of schooling, with the improvement greatest in poorer countries. In Indonesia the MIT economist Esther Duflo show that investments in primary education alone resulted in increased economic returns ranging from 6.8 to 10.6 percent. It is estimated that for agricultural workers, four years of education translates into a 10 percent increase in agricultural output.

In East Asia, each additional year of education contributes 3 percent in real GDP. An American study on twins showed that every extra year of schooling translated into a 10 percent increase in earnings. These are empirical figures, not guesswork.

American farmers, unlike those in the Third World, are rich because they are highly educated. They typically have a degree from state-supported Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) universities, very unlike their illiterate counterparts in the developing world. Improving the plight of farmers in Malaysia and other developing countries would take more than just providing better agricultural techniques and supporting infrastructures like irrigation, rather on nourishing and tilling the minds of the farmers in the form of better education. The key to improving agricultural productivity and reducing rural poverty resides not in the rice fields or rubber estates, rather in the classrooms.

Malaysia was fortunate in that its early leaders saw the wisdom of investing in education over everything else, including defense. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, knew that the nation then had limited resources, thus he prudently signed a defense treaty with Britain so he could concentrate on education. Many at that time thought that the country’s independence was a sham because of that treaty. But as Tunku wisely observed, he would rather build schools instead of barracks and train teachers instead of soldiers. With defense thus taken care of by the British, Tunku was able to focus on developing his people.

Tunku was one of those rare wise leaders who, though not terribly bright, knew exactly his and the nation’s limitations. Had Tunku been endowed with Sukarno‘s megalomaniac ego and grandiose pretensions, and concentrated on buying tanks and battleships instead, Malaysia today would be like Indonesia – stagnant and poverty stricken.

It was the enduring wisdom of Tunku that he was not bothered by being labeled pro-British or a cryptic neocolonialist by signing that treaty; he did what he thought was best for his beloved nation. Malaysia’s subsequent trajectory of development owes much to that earlier insight and decision of Tunku’s.

Economists have elegant formulas to quantify the benefits (or what they technically refer to as rates of returns on investment – ROI) of education. ROI can be viewed from two perspectives, the individual (Private ROI) and society (Social ROI). The elements considered in calculating Private ROI are the direct costs to the individual of acquiring that education (cost of tuition and books), and the foregone income while attending school or college. Social ROI takes in all the costs in providing that education, the running the ministry of education, building schools, and training teachers. These are externalities from the perspective of the individual and thus not included in the calculation of Private ROI. The cost factors are necessarily larger with Social ROI, but so too are the returns.

These economic calculations not withstanding, one can intuitively appreciate that such investments are rewarding and good on their own merit. There is no moral virtue in keeping the citizens ignorant. There is no biblical refrain to the effect that the ignorant shall inherit the earth. The Qur’an exhorts every Muslim to acquire knowledge, and this is reaffirmed by the various hadith (sayings of the prophet).

Here, a brief digression. I have always thought this (the value of education and knowledge) to be self-evident and that everyone subscribes to it. Not so. Many years ago I met a senior official (later to become head of education) of Brunei who was on a study tour of America. We got into a discussion on education; he saw no merit in educating the masses, it would only feed their expectations and lead to trouble. The policy of his government, he explicitly told me, was to educate just enough of the citizens to keep the government running. Beyond that he saw no necessity of spending additional precious funds. He also added that Brunei Malays are a very happy lot with this policy. To the likes of him, spending money on royal ponies would yield greater returns.

Lest we think this mentality exists only among medieval Malays of Brunei, consider this recent statement by the Malaysian linguist, Nik Safiah Karim. An extremist nationalist, she vehemently opposes the greater teaching and use of English to the point of calling those advocating such moves traitors to the race and culture. Strong stuff! I respect people with strong convictions, but what troubles me is the basis of her arguments. She exhibits the same medieval mentality as that Brunei official by suggesting that Malaysia needs only about 20 percent of her citizens to be conversant with English, the rest can get by with knowing only Malay. For a supposedly esteemed scholar to say that more knowledge is superfluous is just absurd. Left unstated is that she and her children would be among that 20 percent who should be fluent in English. The rest can languish in their kampongs speaking only Malay.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #11

Poverty and lack of education may seem to be in a vicious cycle, with one feeding the other. This is more apparent than real, for the cycle can be broken through effective strategies and interventions. Poor Malay fishermen do not invest in their children’s education not because they do not value education, rather they could not afford to. While education is the key to eradicating poverty, ironically poverty is also the greatest impediment to getting an education. While to economists the value of the foregone income of the youngster attending school is minimal, to that poor family the son being at school and not being able to help in hauling the net may mean the difference between surviving and not having a meal for that day. The solution to this intractable problem is not simply to lecture the poor fisherman endlessly on the value of education, rather to shift the balance in that family’s personal equation to make the child attending school to be worth more than having him out in the high seas. In Chapter Five I discuss the novel Brazilian social experiment of paying parents to keep their children in school as one effective way of shifting that balance in the equation.

Investments in education at all levels and across many nations consistently yield double-digit returns. In Venezuela, investments at the primary level yield a private ROI in excess of 25 percent, and a social ROI of 16.9; for secondary education, the returns are respectively 10.6 and 11.5 percent; and for university education, 13.5 and 12.0. The private and social returns are highest for investments at the primary level. This is especially true for developing countries.

Beyond the primary level the picture gets complicated. For the individual, the loss of income while attending school becomes a significant factor. With the child now older and stronger, he or she could earn considerably more, and his help in the field would be greater. Thus the private ROI would be lower. The societal ROI would also be lower as secondary and higher education cost considerably more to provide.

Beyond elementary education, the societal ROI would also be dependent on the nature and kinds of education provided. A system that emphasizes the sciences, mathematics, and foreign language (in particular English) yields the greatest returns. The remarkable economic success of Singapore is attributable in part to the fact that its early leaders intuitively recognized this. Goh Keng Swee, the island’s long-time economic minister and the man many regard as the brain behind its remarkable transformation, credited the republic’s success to the many parents who encouraged their children to pursue science and mathematics.

It is not enough to simply increase the number of years devoted to science and mathematics. Quality matters more than quantity, as shown by cross-national studies like the Third International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS). Additional studies by California’s Public Policy Institute show that the one factor that correlates best with the students’ future success in college as well as the workplace is their achievements in mathematics and language while in school.

Skills in both areas have the greatest transferability to other areas. A system that does not emphasize these key subjects would not yield great returns. India is a striking example, so too are many Muslim countries. Within Malaysia we see this dramatically demonstrated.

Malays with degrees earn considerably less than non-Malays both in private and public sectors because Malays tend to have qualifications in other than mathematics or science. They are also markedly deficient in English proficiency. In many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, literally millions of brains are being wasted in religious schools where the curriculum is singularly devoid of much mathematics and even less science.

In America, differences in economic and social achievements of the various ethnic groups are often attributed to culture (and more sinisterly and unconsciously to race), but had these studies been analyzed more rigorously, education would be the more consistent correlate and accurate predictor. Such thinking also exists in Malaysia. Differences between the achievements of Malays and non-Malays are invariably portrayed as rooted in race and culture when in fact they are more a function of educational attainment. Culture may have a lot to do with Malay attitude towards education, but ultimately the final critical element is still education. Thus to enhance Malay achievements requires exploring ways to improve their education, especially in science and mathematics, and not, as is the present practice, incessantly harping on the inadequacies of culture or race. If this means changing those aspects of Malay culture, social environment, and reward system that impede excellence in education, yes, that would be fruitful. But that is quite a different approach than the wholesale condemnation of Malay culture and mores.

Differences in the economic status of the various regions in Malaysia are also better correlated with educational achievement, not race, culture, or geography. The commonality of poverty among Dayaks in the interior of Sarawak, Tamils on the rubber estates, and Malays in remote kampongs, is due to their poor education.

Our diverse world could only benefit from better education of its inhabitants. Positive exposures to the various cultures would be the first step towards understanding and tolerating the differences among us. Further, transnational issues such as pollution, conservation, and environmental degradation can only be tackled through better education.

Malaysia spends considerable sums on education as compared to many countries, both in absolute terms as well as relative to the economy, population, and overall budget. Yet it has little to show for all the resources expended.

There are many reasons for this. In part the inefficiency is consequent to the ministry’s mission being tangled up with extraneous issues like helping Malay contractors. Another, Malaysia does not emphasize mathematics, sciences, and technical fields. This Technical Intellectual Capital (TIC) is a far more powerful predictor of development than just simple education. South Korea emphasizes TIC, catapulting the nation into an economic powerhouse. India by contrast chooses the British route of emphasizing education for its own sake, meaning heavy doses of the non-technical. India is stagnant but has plenty of taxi drivers with degrees and an abundance of petition writers, otherwise known as lawyers.

The remarkable aspect of investments in education is that, properly done, the benefits are both cumulative and synergistic. Stated simply, the more we invest, the more the benefits. Or in the language of the economists, such investments yield high marginal returns. I will illustrate this concept with an example.

My son is an aspiring pilot, but instead of going straight to flight school or joining the air force to get his training, he decided to get his degree in business first and take his pilot training on the side, figuring that his academic qualifications and technical training would enhance his employability. We were watching a television program about a revolutionary jet engine pioneered by NASA and now being incorporated into new model executive jets. They are markedly more efficient, and costing much less to build and operate. My reaction was simply, “Very interesting!” My son however, immediately saw the splendid opportunity for air travel between small towns now not adequately served by major airlines. He saw the potential of an air taxi service using those executive jets at a price comparable to the current coach fares. Additionally, passengers would be spared the hassle and delays at major airports especially today with the heightened security checks. As this jet could land at small airports, this would reduce congestion of the major ones as well as increase the use of currently underused country airports.

He was so excited with the potential that he decided to explore it. The upshot is that he is making that project into his senior thesis and considering running air taxis his career.

My point is that to someone who does not have the necessary background knowledge, the development is simply “interesting.” But to him, it opens the potential of a new business.

When we embark on seeking new knowledge, we will never know where it will lead. At one time many were against spending money on space research contending that the funds were needed more on earth.

Today directly as result of those researches we see the benefits accruing in medicine, agriculture, and telecommunication. The elemental diet now used widely in clinical medicine was the direct result of space research necessitated by the need to find zero residue diet for astronauts because of the limited lavatory facilities in spaceship. Similarly, today’s ubiquitous cell phones are the direct spin off of space and satellite research.

The Muslim philosopher Saidina Ali wisely observed on the difference between wealth and knowledge, and the much superior benefits of investing in the latter. Knowledge protects us, but we have to protect our wealth against theft and inflation. Not so with knowledge. My knowledge and skills as a surgeon are always with me, no one can take those away. The world around may crumble but I can still practice my profession. Wealth is reduced and diluted when shared; knowledge on the other hand gets amplified and enhanced when shared, to the benefit of everyone. The remarkable progress of science is precisely because of this open sharing of information, knowledge, and discoveries.

Knowledge kept secret would lose its value. Knowledge retains if not increases its value with time, wealth risks being eroded with time and inflation. Investments in knowledge are durable; investments in fancy skyscrapers could be easily destroyed by fire or suicide bombers. Likewise investing in education is durable; nothing could destroy it. The first thing the ancient Mongols did in subjugating and destroying the Muslim civilization was to kill the intellectuals and burn all the books and libraries. They failed; instead they ended up becoming Muslims, a testimony to the power and endurance of knowledge.

Education is no panacea, but a well-educated citizenry is a prerequisite or an enabling condition for socioeconomic development. To maximize the returns on investments in education we must also simultaneously provide opportunities. The remarkable transformation of South Korea and Taiwan is because they combined education reforms with increased economic opportunities. Malaysia in contrast invests heavily in its Multimedia Super Corridor and Biovalley, but those programs do not produce the anticipated returns as they are few trained Malaysians able to take advantage of the opportunities. The lack of qualified local personnel is also stalling the projects.

Opportunities are more likely to come to those who are ready with the skills and knowledge; to those who lack such skills and knowledge, the opportunities would simply be missed. And providing quality education is the surest way to make the citizens ready.

If our leaders are worried that Malay culture and race would be lost with globalization, the best and most effective remedy would be to ensure that Malays get the best education.

Malaysia is suddenly realizing that its competitiveness has slipped. This is the final expression of a failed education system. Unless steps are taken to improve the quality, broaden its access, reduce the inequities, and increase its relevance, Malaysia will remain poorly served.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #12

Education As A Political and Cultural Symbol

Education is a very powerful political and cultural symbol in Malaysia. This unfortunate association proves to be a major distraction. Major efforts are expended in the name of education not on improving it, rather on scoring political points and furthering the objectives of ambitious politicians.

The consequence of this mindset is that initiatives in education are first analyzed in terms of which race or community “won” and which one “lost.” The corollary to this destructive thinking is that what is good for one community must be at the expense of the other–a “zero-sum” mentality. Chinese parents consider teaching Malay to their children a sop to Malay nationalists rather than as an asset in of itself. Fortunately, this negative attitude is fast receding. Malays however, are still trapped by the bugaboo of colonialism. Many among the educated and enlightened, as exemplified by Nik Safiah Karim, consider learning English as glorifying the colonialists or worse, of wanting to be a Mat Salleh (Malay epithet for the English, an idiomatic equivalent of Uncle Tom). It never occurs to them that English fluency is a highly useful skill.

Because of this powerful political symbolism, Ministers of Education with rare exceptions have been politicians known best for their ability to “stand up” against non-Malays. Such leaders also have a singularly insular view of the world, in addition to their thin managerial and other talents. The degradation of Malaysian education can be blamed in large part to the appointments in the past of such mediocre personalities as Rahman Talib and Khir Johari as Ministers of Education.

Their more recent successors are not much better. The sinister aspect to this politicization at the highest level is that it filters down to poison the atmosphere at lower levels. When I was associated with UKM, I had a competent pathologist colleague. He was enthusiastic, hardworking, and very effective; definitely an asset to the university. Imagine my anger and surprise when he approached me one morning with the news that his contract might not be renewed. Only then did I know that he was not a Malaysian. I brought his plight to his departmental head. He assured me (and I believed him) that he was indeed trying very hard to reverse the decision. Unfortunately the hierarchy at UKM was particularly chauvinistic (still is). To them the presence of every foreigner on the faculty is a reflection of the inadequacy of native talent. In the end, the man’s contract was not renewed. I am sure that those in charge did not even consider the effect of their decision on the students and teaching program.

The challenge for Malaysia is how to de-politicize education. This does not mean that it should operate outside the political realities. Far from it! The successful minister must have the necessary political finesse to balance the conflicting demands of the various constituencies.

What he should not do is have his every decision governed by politics. Aware of the heavy political significance of the portfolio, many ministers have used it to further their personal political agenda. Politicians are inherently ambitious creatures; they cannot fail to note that all of the nation’s prime ministers (except of course the first) had been Ministers of Education. This emboldened those ministers coming later that they too were destined for higher calling.

Anwar Ibrahim, who held the portfolio in the 1980s, was the most obscene example of this crass ambition. His successor Najib Razak also exhibited this tendency, albeit more coyly. But their performance as Minister of Education was nothing but a running record of ineptitude.

The hubris of Anwar was his arrogant attempt to dictate how Malay should be spoken – his famous dictate on the artificial Bahasa Baku (original Malay), now thankfully ignored. Najib’s legacy was in permitting private colleges and universities. He was very good at it, approving in the space of couple of years hundreds of institutions! He must have had an inflated sense of his (and his subordinates’) ability to monitor them all. I have a more suspicious take (pardon the choice of word), for later in 1999 Najib was returned with the highest number of votes as one of UMNO‘s Vice-Presidents. He ran a very slick and, I might add, a well-financed campaign. The consequence of that flurry of approvals is that today’s headlines carry stories of colleges set up by fly-by-night operators and a medical school approved that did not even have a laboratory. Yet this character has the gumption of thinking that he is competent to be a future prime minister!

In a dramatic departure from tradition, in 1999 Prime Minister Mahathir for the first time appointed a non-politician as Minister of Education. Musa Mohamad was trained as a pharmacist, and was previously the vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), remarkable for someone lacking a terminal qualification in his field and without an iota of scholarly contribution. No surprise then that as minister he has been fumbling from one crisis to another.

The most recent was over the teaching of science and mathematics in English. When the government first announced it, there was considerable opposition. The Chinese objected because their schools were already doing a good job, they saw no reason to change a working formula. Malays viewed such measures as further widening the gulf separating urban from rural (and thus Malay from non-Malay) schools.

Online polls conducted by the mainstream media and read mostly by urbanites overwhelmingly favored the proposal. But a similar survey done by Harakah, a publication of the opposition Islamic Party PAS, the results were the exact opposite. The mainstream media (owned by the ruling political party) carried little or no coverage of those opposing the scheme, thus giving readers the false impression that the initiative was universally welcomed.

Had the government concentrated on providing well-trained English teachers to rural schools, the measure would not have generated such hostile responses. Indeed had the government done that, rural (read: Malay) students would have high levels of English fluency and the problem would not have risen in the first place.

This close linking of politics and education means that the ministry’s basic mission of providing quality education often gets tangled with and distracted by extraneous considerations. In 2001, as part of the government’s economic recovery plan, over RM2 billion were allocated for the building of schools. But because of race politics, these contracts were given only to Bumiputras, thereby effectively ensuring that the costs would be jacked up because of the limited competition.

What the government should have done was to open the bids to all, including foreigners, and then accept the best price. In this way it would be spending the scarce resources prudently and would be able to stretch them even further, thus benefiting more students.

I estimate that such restrictive contracts boost the costs in excess of 25-50 percent. In one example, the government spent RM50 million to build a MARA residential school. I visited the site during its construction with a contractor friend who had done many similar projects.

We looked at the blue print, talked with the workers, and scouted around for the cost of the land. My contractor friend confidently said that he could have built the same for under RM30 million and still would have made a handsome profit. And by modifying the design to get rid of the extraneous and expensive arches and fancy roofs, he could have brought the price down to under RM25 million, about half price!

Had there been open bids, the government could have built two such schools for the price of one. With the current practice, the government may have helped its favorite Bumiputra contractors, with the second it would have helped thousands of young students.

In another instance, the ministry embarked on an equally expensive project of building computer labs at schools, a laudatory enterprise. Again the similar restrictions, and as a result less than 10 percent of the projects were completed on time. Appalling! The ministry was saddled with the twin problems of cost overruns and abandoned projects, all because of such favoritism and cronyism. Minister Musa made some seemingly brave statements about penalizing the errant contractors, but in the end nothing was done. The practice continues.

To be fair, such inefficiencies occur regularly in America. In California, every school must be designed from scratch. Obviously the architects’ lobby inserted that clause! And only unionized workers are to be employed, thus ensuring at least 30 percent hike in labor costs. There are also other rules purportedly for safety. Consequently public schools in California cost nearly twice that of private ones. It can be argued that California is rich and can afford such featherbedding practices. Not so Malaysia.

Another egregious example of prodigious waste was the sending of thousands of Bumiputra students abroad, mostly to mediocre institutions. The 1997 Asian economic crisis thankfully put an end to that profligate practice. While these precious funds were being wasted, local institutions struggled with meager resources. When I queried a senior official about this, his reply was as frank as it was frightening. By sending these students abroad and away from local public scrutiny, the government was hiding the fact it was spending billions on them. I would rather that the government been more prudent and sent only the best students and save the rest of the money to improve rural schools and local universities, thereby helping even more Bumiputras.

The quality of the students sent was such that when a team of officials from USM came to America to recruit potential lecturers among these students, almost all the applicants were rejected for the simple reason that few could communicate well in English. This raised the more fundamental question of why they were sent abroad in the first place.

When I encountered the first few students who had academic difficulties in the early 1980s, I blamed them for being lax and lazy. But when I later discovered that there were many more in the same sad shape, I knew then that it was not individual weaknesses, rather a system failure. I visited the centers that prepared these students and was appalled at both the lack of discipline and sense of purpose among the staff. No wonder few of the students were accepted to good colleges.

When I suggested that the selection be more rigorous, the officials replied that none would then qualify. They had such low expectations.

I heard every stereotype and caricature of the “lazy and dumb” Malays uttered by these officials who incidentally were also Malays. They further assured me that these students were the best they had. Note, the remarks were from the principals and senior administrators.

Lest I leave a negative impression, I will relate my experience with the teachers. First they apologized for their administrators’ dismissive treatment of me. Then they showed me the latest circular from the ministry asking them to further cut their syllabi. In physics they were to completely eliminate the whole section on optics. In chemistry, a number of experiments were now to be demonstrated only, not to be done by the students. When I queried why the ministry was doing this, they could not offer any explanation except to suggest that the ministry was pressuring the centers to pass as many candidates as possible, and to cut down costs.

I met with their biology teacher, and our conversation drifted towards teaching microscope, especially the ones with video and computer attachments so images could be stored on discs and projected onto the screen for the whole class to see. He said that he had been trying to acquire the equipment for the past three years but his request had been consistently deferred. My son’s school had just bought similar equipment. The cost? Less than 10 percent of what the Malaysian teachers were quoted! That reason? The school had to buy through the government-approved vendor and thus the consequent horrendous mark up.

Multiply such incidents and the aggregate wastage is truly staggering. Politics have corrupted the procurement process, driving up costs. The more sinister aspect to the intrusion of politics into education is that standards have gone by the wayside. Officials are impatient to get “good” results to prove a political point, thus they lower the standards.

Had they raised the standard, Malay students would have responded. There may be a year or two of bad results until the message gets through, but in the end they will respond.

Further, had such poor results persisted they would have elicited howling protests from the public and would have forced the ministry to rectify the inadequacies of the system. But by lowering the standards, more Malays appeared to be qualified and everyone was happy – until the day of reckoning.

Malaysian schools are also fast becoming the favorite hobbyhorse for ambitious politicians. In his zeal to prove his presumed piety and religiosity, Anwar Ibrahim instituted more teaching of Islamic Studies.

Later another politician, not to be outdone, pushed for teaching entrepreneurial studies, no doubt to boost his credentials among Malay business types. And a third was advocating his pet subject – tourism!

The latest is the Deputy Prime Minister pushing for IT. These politicians forget that there are only so many hours in the school day.

The current appalling standards of education at all levels are the consequence of having ignored the problems and letting them fester. A good start at reform would be to divorce as far as possible politics, especially the race and party variety, from education. Doing so would enable those involved in our schools and universities to focus on their basic mission of providing quality education to all.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #13

Socioeconomic Factors Affecting Education

While it is important that we focus on schools to make sure that they are adequately funded, well equipped, and have trained teachers, we should not be blind to the social factors that can have a major impact on students’ performance. Access to schools, even when they are made free and readily available, can be blocked by seemingly innocuous factors like the need for school uniforms and transportation. We should also be mindful that what many would regard as opportunities, to the disadvantaged they may well be looked upon as obstacles.

There are many factors outside of education, in particular the social environment and culture, which affect educational attainment. We ignore them at our own peril. In a landmark 1966 study, the American sociologist James S. Coleman showed that the most important factor influencing school performance is the family, not the type of school or the amount of funding it receives. Parental involvement in the school is the best predictor of academic performance. Or as an old English saying would have it, one father is more effective than a hundred schoolmasters.

California publishes an annual evaluation of its schools, the Academic Performance Index (API), based on such indicators as test scores and graduation rates. What is remarkable is that the API correlates very well with the socio-economic status of the parents, leading many to dub it as the Affluent Parents Index.

US News publishes an annual report on the best American high schools. Invariably the top ones are the elite private prep schools. But I am not impressed with them; with their high fees and rigorous selection process they would pick only the best. Those students would have done well even if they had attended the local high school. Occasionally the list comes up with some regular public schools, those are the ones that truly impress me because they and their teachers have truly added value to their students.

One such school was Garfield High, a public inner city school in East Los Angeles with predominantly poor minority students. Their teacher, Jaime Escalante, successfully challenged them to take rigorous mathematic classes including advanced calculus. His students did so well on the College Board examinations that it thought that they had cheated, and under some pretext so as not to arouse suspicion, asked them to re-sit the test. Again they scored well. When word spread about the truth for the re-examination, the students were at first furious and then on reflection, they felt truly proud of their achievement.

Their teacher became a celebrity, later portrayed in the 1988 movie, Stand and Deliver. His was not an easy task; he had to spend years upgrading the math classes at the lower levels first.

Singapore, with its obsession of aping everything American, has a similar ranking exercise of its schools, except that the paternal government does it. The same schools come on top every year. Again that does not impress me. Had the rankings been based on the educational achievements and socio-economic status of the parents, the list would be identical. Sorry, no kudos for the teachers at its top schools.

This is true of schools as well as universities. It is well known that graduates of elite universities consistently earn more than those of less selective ones, leading many to credit those august institutions. This makes intuitive sense too. But a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research put things in their proper perspective. Instead of simplistically comparing the earnings of graduates of top universities to those attending other institutions, they studied the subgroup of students who were admitted to elite institutions but instead chose for a variety of reasons to attend less well-known universities. It turns out both groups do equally well. Essentially if you are smart and hardworking it does not matter whether you attend Harvard or Podunk State University, you will do well.

American prep schools actively diversify their student body by granting scholarships to talented minority students. These schools also have special coaching classes to scout for promising candidates. The ABC (A Better Choice) is one such successful program. The socioeconomic trap can be broken with imaginative policies. Even here there are pitfalls and failures. To a few, being selected for Groton and Exeter is not an opportunity rather a severe culture shock.

The importance of parental involvement in education may be self evident, but we need to look further and ask the even more basic question: Why are poor parents not involved in their children’s education?

While we seek answers to that, we must also explore the exceptions, that is, where poor parents are deeply involved with their children’s education to the point of willingly sacrificing everything.

In America, private Catholic schools in the inner cities do a much better job than public schools despite being less generously funded.

One reason is that when parents send their children to these schools, they believe in the system. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values; that in turn encourages even more parental involvement. This does not happen only with Catholic schools. Later I will describe the experience of Deborah Meier with her small school in East Harlem where over 90 percent of her students go on to college, a rate nearly twice the national average and certainly way ahead of other inner city public schools. Her secret? Getting the parents involved by respecting them, and by having high expectations of their children.

The same phenomenon is also seen among Malays. Malay children attending religious schools have low rates of absenteeism and dropouts. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values, and the parents in turn feel involved with and are connected to the schools. Parents do not fear that the school is imparting an alien value system. Their teachers too are committed, believing that they are doing Allah’s work. We should capitalize on this affinity and use Islam as a powerful motivator to keep children in school, and their parents involved. As Malays are attracted to Islamic schools, all the more that we must make sure that these schools provide the education these children need to face the modern age.

The success of Catholic schools in America and Islamic schools in Malaysia may be attributed to what is called the Rosenthal effect. Robert Rosenthal is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA who discovered that experimenters’ expectations and teachers’ biases often influence the results of an experiment or class. That is, expectations are self-fulfilling. This is also termed the Pygmalion effect, after George Bernard Shaw’s play made famous by the Broadway show, My Fair Lady. The sheer confidence of the lead character, Professor Higgins, in transforming a lowly Cockney lass into a refined lady made it happen.

A major portion of my reform addresses specifically this important issue of the Rosenthal phenomenon. The frequent harping on the poor performance of Malays in science and mathematics may have the perverse effect of perpetuating it. When this assumption gets ingrained, it affects everyone: teachers, students, and policy makers. The teacher would, through his or her manner of speech, voice, body language, and facial expressions, communicate this message to the students. The students in turn would quickly pick up on them. And policy makers would purposely dumb down the standards. Thus expectations become reality.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #14

The Stanford psychologist Claude Steele describes the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” felt by those long stigmatized. When Malay students fail in science and mathematics, it is not simply that they have not studied hard enough or have not been taught well rather they are fulfilling the stereotype expectations of their race. Extra tutoring and better teachers could remedy the first two, but the last premise is more difficult to eradicate.

We should assume that Malays are just as capable in science and mathematics; they must take these subjects. Make them mandatory even in religious schools. Because religious schools are popular and successful with Malays, we must make these schools like their Catholic counterpart in America. Religion should only be one subject, not the consuming curriculum. These schools must produce their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, and executives.

During my school days under the British, my parents were not involved with my school although they did keep a close eye on my report card. The reason was simple; they physically could not do so as the school was far away. Even if they could, the language used was alien to them. This was typical of most Malay parents at the time; no surprise then the dropout rate for Malays was atrocious.

Today many schools in California have newsletters in Spanish as well as English in order to reach out to Hispanic parents. Additionally many schools have after-hours adult programs involving the parents.

One school, recognizing that many of the parents do not speak English, has evening classes to teach English, as well as other subjects specifically tailored to their needs such as how to become citizens. In this way parents would be made to feel involved with and connected to the school. These gestures go a long way to make parents (especially those from minority groups) feel welcome and be part of the school community.

Gender is also a formidable barrier to education especially in traditional societies. Many Malaysian parents actively discourage schooling for girls believing that such investments would be wasted. In Malay society specifically, this was a prevalent practice until a few years ago.

Today the achievements of Malay girls are much superior to that of boys, indicating that such cultural barriers can indeed be changed for the better.

Even mundane details like textbooks and uniforms affect school performance. Studies in Kenya show that when children are provided with free textbooks and uniforms (often substantial cost factors for rural families) these pupils tend to stay in school. Research shows that among Malaysians, family size is inversely related to educational attainment. That is, the bigger the family the lower the educational attainment of its members. Schools entail costs, thus poor families conserve their scant resources by limiting schooling only to their more promising progenies. In the past it was quite common for other siblings to sacrifice so one could finish his (usually a son) schooling. Such socioeconomic barriers can be effectively overcome by imaginative policies. It is interesting that for Malay children born after 1970, that correlation no longer holds. That year is significant in that the NEP was introduced giving Malays substantial aids in education. It was effective in breaking down that barrier for Malays.

For Muslims, yet a major impediment to excellence is their attitude towards education, in particular, secular education. This barrier arises from the traditional interpretations of and differentiation between worldly and religious knowledge. Present day Muslim scholars disparage the pursuit of the former lest it would contaminate their piety and religiosity. Much of the attempts at educational reforms in the Muslim world are geared towards the “Islamization” of the curriculum, that is, trying to put an Islamic spin to secular knowledge. This is a retrograde step as it merely reinforces this artificial separation and further demotes the value of secular education.

This fad is already entrenched among Muslim intellectuals in the social sciences. Unfortunately those in the natural sciences too are not spared. Inevitably this results in their producing adulterated “scientific findings” that will never see the pages of reputable journals. Worse, now we have Islamic “scientists” who have never seen, let alone used, a test tube. Consider the absurd comments of Muslim “scientists” attributing computer viruses to the works of jinn (devil)!

Science is science. Hydrogen mixes with oxygen under the right conditions to produce water, Islamic science or not. Science and religion is complementary, not adversarial. Science explores the world around and within us while religion answers our spiritual needs.

Advancements in science benefit all mankind; we should not belittle these discoveries. In trying to discern differences where none exists, these intellectuals and scientists are wasting their energy. They would be better off trying to elucidate the secrets of Allah. Such “Islamizing” activities simply mask their lack of intellectual ingenuity and curiosity.

They cannot discover or contribute anything original so they seek refuge in concocting such puerile intellectual pursuits as Islamizing established principles.

A more sinister aspect to these pseudo-intellectual activities is that their practitioners are hiding behind their Islamic cloak to advance their career. Religion has always been the refuge of scoundrels including academic ones. Nobody dares call them to the carpet for fear of being labeled anti-religious. These Islamic intellectuals remind me of third-rate Soviet scientists and scholars who, unable to advance on their own talent, hide behind their communist party credentials. In truth, those who truly uplift the image of Islam are the scientists who diligently pursue their curiosity. Scientists like Abdus Salam (1979 Nobel laureate in physics) and Ahmad Zeweil (Chemistry 1999), like thousands of others quietly toiling in their laboratories discovering the secrets of Allah, do more for Islam than third-rate scientists cloaking themselves in the veneer of the faith.

It is interesting that both Salam and Zewail found the fullest expression and appreciation of their vast talent in the West. More poignantly for Salam, his native Pakistan’s parliament passed a special resolution condemning him as an infidel. So much for the Islamic respect for knowledge!

A more fruitful approach, and the one that I am advocating, is to remove this artificial barrier. All knowledge – secular and religious – originates from God and thus is worthy of our quest.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #15

Education and Technology

My discussion revolves around two central issues. One is how well the education system prepares young Malaysians for this age of IT, and two, the role of IT in education. I will tackle the much easier second topic first.

Technology has long been used in education. During my school days there were the radio programs, usually broadcasts of some classic plays enacted on air. What I remember most of those sessions was staring at a lifeless box and having a tough time keeping awake.

The brilliant economist Ungku Aziz extended the medium into adult education with his wildly popular and very successful Kursus Ekonomi Radio (Economic Course via Radio). This was decades before the concept of distant learning. I had no difficulty keeping awake listening to his animated explanations!

At about this time in America, Thomas Skinner and his brand of behavioral psychology were the rage. There was much hype about his “teaching machines,” where students could be taught pretty much like pigeons, through “operant conditioning,” that is, by rewarding every time they make a correct response – a form of positive reinforcement.

Thankfully Malaysia and the rest of the world were spared the fad simply because those machines were prohibitively expensive.

Later, with the introduction of television, there was Educational TV, crafted along the old school radio broadcasts but with pictures. And with video recorders there was a quantum leap in effectiveness. Teachers could stop and rewind the tape for replay and emphasis.

Living in Silicon Valley, California, the nexus of IT, I am very much aware of the impact of high technology. With the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet a decade after that, IT has been democratized. It has reached the masses. IT enhances the reach and capability of television broadcasts and videotapes. Through web casting I can watch in the comfort of my home a master surgeon operate in real time just as if I were standing with him in the operating room. This is a considerable improvement over the old “wet clinic” where visiting surgeons would watch from the visitors’ gallery and all they could see was the surgeon’s back. Through web casting I can listen to a university lecture given thousands of miles away, or to a khutba (sermon) delivered by Tok Guru Nik Aziz, leader of the Islamic Party PAS. It is disorienting to hear this medieval-minded ulama using a high-tech medium to convey his ancient messages!

Computers are like automobiles in their ubiquity, utility, and impact on the economy. I can extend the analogy further to illustrate the point I wish to explore here. We readily appreciate the usefulness of cars; many would be paralyzed without them. We take the automobile in all its shapes and forms for granted. Everyone knows what a truck is for as compared to a limousine.

One does not have to be a car buff to appreciate the difference between a Porshe and a Proton Saga. Yet despite our familiarity, few really understand (or need to) how the machine works. Car owners do not have to understand the complexity of the laws of thermodynamics – the essence of internal combustion engine – to drive their car. Nor do most drivers know the significance of gear differentials. All they know is that when they are starting the car or going uphill, shift into lower gear, and when they want to go fast, shift to high gear. No need to know the complicated calculations of mechanical advantage or velocity ratio.

So it is with computers. One does not have to know the difference between bytes and bits to use and benefit from computers. I need not know the details to know that my new computer can download some jazzy graphics faster than my old one; or that with my old software I could not do the fancy editing and neat fonts that I now readily do with the upgraded version.

I cannot understand the present hullabaloo and obsession with making our students computer literate. My father-in-law was 72 years old when he first learned the computer. The only reason he did it was that the computer was in the guest room where he was staying when visiting us. Seeing my children pounding on the keyboard intrigued him and twigged his curiosity. He was determined to learn, and learned it he did, in a few days. Today he e-mails me about how to font his electronic newsletter and how to crop his “jpg” (picture graphic) files. He learned by doing and asking.

Yet today’s headlines carry the concerns of educators and politicians about how to make our students computer literate. The answer is simple: provide them with computers and let them loose. They will learn from each other and by trial and error, or if you want them to learn faster, organize a few classes in the afternoon or weekends. There is no need to take away valuable classroom time to teach these simple practical subjects.

The Indian computer scientist Sugata Mitra had a novel experiment of bringing IT to poor children. He placed in the slums and villages of India Internet-connected computers in a hole in the wall covered with a touch screen, and then monitored the activities around them via remote video camera. Within hours curious children were already learning how to use the machine and surfing the Web, visiting Disneyland websites, playing games, using paint world, and downloading Napster music files. They did not know what computers or Internet meant but they were able to use the device by fiddling with it. The adults in the village meanwhile were demanding why the government (whom they assumed put the computers up) did not send someone to train them how to use the machines. They obviously did not learn from their children. This experiment, appropriately called “Hole in the Wall,” has now spread to over 52 villages.

Clifford Stoll, the Berkeley astronomer and a severe critique of modern technology, goes so far as to say that computers do not belong in the classroom. I disagree with that extreme position but his point is well taken. Computers are expensive and they become obsolete very quickly. I still cannot read some of my old letters and essays that were written using PFS as the new software is unable to read those old versions.

And I do not want to waste my time rebooting my old jalopy to retrieve those ancient files. So my articles and notes of only a decade ago exist only in bits and bytes encrypted on some old floppy discs that no present-day computer could access.

Stoll’s basic argument (and I agree completely) is that we should not be mesmerized with computers and technology generally to the point that we neglect the basics. Schools must first have good teachers, adequate libraries, and well-equipped laboratories before we waste valuable funds on fancy computer labs. IT enhances the reach and effectiveness of the teacher but is not a substitute for one. Similarly IT complements but does not replace the basic school facilities.

A well-trained teacher who can capture the imagination of students is still the most important element in learning. We should not be distracted from this cardinal point. If I were to create a priority list, it would be thus: good teachers, single session, music lessons, library, laboratory, air-conditioned classrooms, and then computers. I would venture that our students would learn more if classrooms were air-conditioned. That would not only make the environment more conducive to intellectual activities but also cut out the extraneous noise. Teachers know how difficult it is to get the children’s attention in the heat of the day.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #16

Numerous studies show the benefit of early musical education. I would thus provide musical instruments and music classes ahead of computers. Music lessons are also much cheaper. Music would teach these youngsters the concept of symbols and abstractions, and also teamwork. Very few Malaysian schools now have music programs.

While we have been bludgeoned with the mantra that information is power, in truth it isn’t. As Stoll so rightly points out in his book, librarians are famous for having the most information, yet they lack power. Politicians on the other hand have no or very little information, yet they are very powerful. Having the information is only the first step, the more important issue is how to evaluate that information and put it in the proper perspective. That requires a faculty for critical thinking, rational reasoning, and a high degree of skepticism.

Again comparing with the car, the skills or level of understanding needed to use one is very simple. Start the engine (two seconds instructions: insert and turn key) and then practice steering and braking.

With those simple instructions you could drive the car safely on a deserted road. But if you want to take the car on the freeway, then you will need more skills lest you become a menace to yourself and others. You would need to improve your steering and braking, and learn defensive driving and rules of the road. If you want to fix the engine then you would need to learn to be a mechanic. Going further, if you want to design cars or build a better suspension system, then you would need to go to design or engineering school.

Likewise with computers; if you want to write software, then you would need to learn one of the programming languages. But for the vast majority of users, all you have to know is which key to punch to get a certain result on the screen. That is all. The most frequent question asked when I was learning the computer was, “How do I do…?” You do not need special classes in the school curriculum to teach how to use word processor and e-mail, connect to the Internet, or access data from the Web. A visitor from Malaysia learned all these in one evening, and by the time my wife was ready with dinner, he had already sent his first e-mail. Yet this gentleman and his colleagues back home had been clamoring for the government to set up special computer classes for senior civil servants! If you want to get fancy, you could learn other slightly involved software like spreadsheet (good for accounting), PowerPoint (for slide presentations), and web authoring. Once you have the basics and are comfortable with computers, then you wonder how on earth you coped in the days before word processing! Today I rarely compose an essay on paper anymore, I do it straight on the keyboard, editing as I go along.

While learning how to use word processor is easy enough, writing is not. That requires a patient teacher, frequent exercises, and the availability of good books. If your prose is of the variety, “It was a dark and stormy night…,” no amount of fancy fonts and jazzing up on the word processor will improve it. Had you written, “I could barely make out his wet face amidst the rough rustling of the reeds…” then regardless whether you have fancy fonts or merely scribble it on a yellowing piece of paper, your readers would know that it was a dark and stormy night.

More importantly, they would likely to continue reading. It is more important to teach students how to write using the word processor rather than simply teaching them how to use the software. Likewise it is better to teach them how to collect, present, and interpret data using the database and spreadsheet rather than simply teaching them about the software.

The government has a high-level committee looking into bringing IT to the schools. I agree that schools should have computers, but before spending billions in wiring our schools, I would first attend to the basics. Having done that then I would introduce IT, starting at the upper levels, the universities. I would provide every faculty member with a free computer and unlimited Internet access. I would also ensure that the campus is “wired” and encourage the faculty to post their class assignments and reading lists online. Students too should be encouraged to submit their assignments electronically. All incoming students must be computer literate. I do not mean that the university should run word processing classes rather students would have to spend the months while waiting to enter the university acquiring those skills. There are plenty of proprietary classes where they can do this.

Even the mosque in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, has such classes. There is no need to waste expensive university personnel or resources for students to acquire these basic computer skills.

Having computers in schools would be useless if there are no changes with the present Internet hook up fee structure. In America there is a fixed fee for unlimited access; in Malaysia it is hourly rates. Thus users are inhibited from reaping the vast potential of the Internet because of the additional costs incurred.

Deputy Prime Minister Badawi in a fit of enthusiasm recently proposed that IT be taught in schools. The curriculum is already crowded. Besides, I do not know exactly what he meant by it. Teach programming, software writing, and website designing? Surely our students have plenty of time acquiring those skills after they have mastered the basics and developed critical thinking. But if he means that students should be able to use computers and be comfortable with them, then you do not need to have a separate subject for that; it can be done in computer clubs and as extracurricular activities. Frankly I do not think Badawi himself knows what he is talking about. To him IT is only the latest buzzword to sprinkle his speeches.

The government demonstrated its commitment to IT by funding it massively, nearly a billion ringgit for 2003. In contrast, only RM 850million for implementing single session schools. The amount allocated for teacher training was considerably less and did not merit a separate line item. The prime minister is deluded into thinking that teachers could be mere facilitators, their job reduced to turning on the computers and letting the students learn via electronic modules. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have to differentiate computer literacy from computational literacy. The former as it is commonly understood means the ability to use the computer; it is a tool. In a way this is a misuse of the word literacy. A better term would be computer familiarity or facility. Computational literacy on the other hand is the ability to use programming language and to think, visualize, and extrapolate concepts in that medium. An illustration and comparison with text literacy would clarify my point.

Text literacy means more than just being able to read and write. It is a basic instrument to understand and communicate with the written word. Text literacy produces the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck, and also the countless memos, letters, and little notes we write each other. It is a basic tool: an intellectual infrastructure. Through it we can communicate our deepest thoughts and emotions, a significant advancement over communication via cave wall drawings and oral traditions.

The discovery of the printing press brought a quantum leap forward in enhancing the utility of and democratizing text literacy. It brought literacy to the masses.

Computational literacy is also an infrastructure, and computers enhance it in much the same way that printing presses do to text literacy. With our understanding of the language of computers we would be able to think and project our messages and thoughts or otherwise communicate in this new medium.

Andrea di Sessa (the man who coined the term computational literacy) in his book Changing Minds describe an experiment with computational literacy using his Boxer programming language to teach the physics of motion and other abstract mathematical concepts to Grade 6 students. The students were asked to picture someone on a roller blade sliding down the street with a tennis ball in his hand. He then dropped the ball from his chest while skating. The class was asked to visualize the motion of the ball from three perspectives: the skater, a miniature man looking up from the skateboard, and an observer standing by the roadside. This was an exercise on relative velocity, a difficult concept to teach.

The student who was asked to present the view from the skateboard explained his very simply. He pressed a function key and a small dot appeared in the middle of the computer screen. This then rapidly enlarged to fill the entire screen. He had to write only a line of codes in the program to effect this, and it captured accurately in a visual and concrete manner the image of a ball dropping and landing directly on the eye of the miniature observer on the skateboard. It would be tough to explain the motion of the ball using conventional text literacy or even standard mathematical formula. With computers, the message and the concept are readily grasped – very graphic representation and easily understood.

It is this ability to look at concepts differently that is so promising about computational literacy. At its most optimistic level, computational literacy would have the potential to do what text literacy and mathematical literacy do to our present understanding and level of communication. Galileo’s theory of motion took pages to explain in texts but only a few crisp lines of formulas to explain fully using modern algebra. He took that long because algebra was not yet invented in his time. Similarly with calculus; we could not begin to describe such concepts as acceleration without it. But with calculus, acceleration is merely a differential of velocity (dv/dt), or in words, the rate of change of velocity. Today calculus is taught at high school and is widely used to describe relationships and phenomena in the social as well as natural sciences.

Computational literacy is still rather primitive, or to use the ubiquitous phrase of the web, “under construction.” Past attempts at teaching programming in schools using first BASIC and later, LOGO, have floundered. But with better programs like Boxer, developed at the University of California Berkeley and tailored specifically for learning purposes and not to write applications, computational literacy may yet prove to be as infrastructural as text literacy. Malaysia must participate in these leading edge trials at selected schools but only under strict research protocol. But this is a totally different idea than the current mindless agitation for teaching IT in schools.

I am cynical of the current move to bring IT to the classrooms and provide teachers with laptops. This has less to do with enhancing the quality of education and everything to do with business. If it were the former, I would expect the ministry to provide computers to university lecturers and teacher trainees first; they need them more. Think of the billions worth of contracts, enough to make any executive drool at the prospects. Not to mention interested politicians who would gain by being the lucrative intermediaries. The whole scheme is business driven and corrupt, the pupils’ interest is only incidental. This program will end up like the computer ownership scheme sponsored by the Employees Provident Fund. It failed because EPF did not get substantial discounts or wholesale prices. Instead there were significant markups because of the “commissions” paid to politician middlemen. Likewise the schools and teachers will end up paying highly inflated prices.

The literature on the effectiveness of computers in classrooms is mixed and contradictory. Where they are successful it is because the authorities have clear and definable goals, and the efforts initially focused on few demonstration projects where the kinks could be ironed out. Once the project is running smoothly then it can be replicated and expanded. In choosing the software, teachers must have clear goals: computer assisted learning (CAL) as with self-directed drills in mathematics and language learning; for simulation and exploration; as computational tools as with word processing, spreadsheet, and Power-Point; part of a communication network; or merely as pedagogical administrative tool to keep track of students’ achievements.

Once the objectives are clear and agreed upon, key personnel can then be trained. It is better to concentrate the effort initially, once we can have a nucleus of competently trained experts, they can then spread their skills. The most logical place to start would be the teachers’ colleges and with teacher trainees. Once these are done only then could we consider selecting the hardware. With the goals and objectives clear, the hardware and specifications would be that much easier to define.

In 1999 Malaysia embarked on an ambitious “Smart School” project of bringing IT to selected schools. This program had yet to be digested and its lessons learned when the government embarked in its current and more massive project of providing laptops and LCD projectors to all schools. This is exactly the wrong approach. First, the teachers have yet to be trained and two, the objectives are not yet be clearly delineated. By next year all those expensive gadgets would be stored untouched or more likely be reported “stolen”. The students would be no further ahead.

There is one place where computers would be useful, and that is to help with the administrative chores like monitoring student attendance, payroll, accounting, and keeping tabs on supplies and budgeting. Not only would this be very efficient and accurate but it would also force the headmasters to be familiar with computers.

While it is easy to teach students how to use computers and surf the Net, the more difficult part would be to teach them the limitations and dangers lurking in cyberspace. The Internet is not filtered or censored; Einstein would have the same prominence in cyberspace as the simple villager. Those using the ‘Net must have the ability to think critically and be skeptical of the materials they get. The age of IT calls for even more emphasis on such traditional higher order intellectual activities like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, and information processing.

These can only be learned with the help of a good teacher. This point was illustrated to me recently when my readers asked me which websites they should look up on some questions about Islam I had discussed in one of my essays. How could they be sure that the information is genuine and the site authentic, and not the work of some anti-Muslim groups masquerading as believers? The answer is, you cannot be sure. Thus you must be able to evaluate critically the information as to its veracity and validity. There is nobody out there in cyberspace who will put a stamp of approval or to check the facts. The web is uncensored; that is its beauty.

This fact is extremely pertinent especially with medically related web sites. If someone suggests taking arsenic as a cure for baldness, you take that advice at your own risk. One needs to use one’s judgment. There is a lot of what is called “noise,” that is, irrelevant and nonsensical if not downright dangerous materials on the web.

There is also much hype on using IT for distance or e(electronic)-learning. I am in favor of this to a point. The Internet is much better and more efficient than the old correspondence schools. It is immediate; you do not have to wait for the mail and you can post your questions and have them answered immediately. It is also cheaper (after you invest in the computer) as there are no postages and papers. But this does not mean that e-learning could replace traditional classrooms.

There is much more to learning than the mere transfer of information from teacher to student. The class discussions and the social interactions are also very important. In a classroom you learn to relate with those you like and tolerate those you don’t – very important lessons in life. You cannot get that sitting alone before a computer screen. We must appreciate what can be achieved through e-learning as well as the limitations. I use e-learning for my continuing medical education (CME) but only as a supplement. It does not replace the live conferences and seminars.

The best e-learning programs are precisely those that combine distance learning with in-depth and intensive face-to-face class and residential experiences. One of the best executive e-learning programs is that of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Students gather every two months at various locations around the world for concentrated “live” sessions with their fellow students and instructors. In between they communicate and receive lessons via the ‘Net. Such programs are ideal for working executives who would have difficulty taking long stretches of time away from their jobs.

My small hospital has an electronic hookup with a tertiary medical center where we could participate in live CME conferences. Through a two-way cable hookup we can see the speaker and he could see us, and we could communicate in real time as if we are in the same room. This is entirely different from e-learning via the computer. Such hookups via satellite would be ideal to connect a Third World university with an elite institution in the West. MIT has a similar program with the two public universities in Singapore to conduct joint “real-time” seminars.

Malaysian universities should have similar links. With the 12-hour time difference, an early morning lecture would be an early evening one in Malaysia. There is a great potential for IT in enhancing the learning experience, but in our enthusiasm we should not forget that the basics remain the first priority.

The second more important issue of how well the education system prepares Malaysians for the age of IT can be turned around by asking the more fundamental question: What are the skills required to thrive in this age of IT? The specific and basic skills required are English fluency, high mathematical competency, and science literacy. Our students must also be adept at critical thinking and higher-level reasoning. They must have flexible and transferable skills. We should also inculcate early the need and importance of life-long learning.

It is in all these areas that our education system has failed miserably. The good news is that the government is finally waking up to this fact, forced by the overwhelming evidence that it can no longer ignore. The entire premise of my reform is to prepare Malaysians for the competitive era of IT and globalization.

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An Education System Worthy of Malaysia # 17

Education, The Economy, and Demographics

The two most important factors that bear on the quality of education lie outside its sphere: the economy and demographics. Stated differently, Malaysia cannot have a strong education system with a weak economy, nor a First World standard of education with Third World demographics. If we look at countries that have superior education systems, the remarkable correlates are that they all have healthy economies and low birth rates.

A strong economy does not guarantee a superior education system. Indonesia had an impressive economy under Suharto, but it squandered that golden opportunity by diverting it away from improving its schools. The Indian state of Kerala has a much superior education system and other social services despite an economy one hundredth that of Canada and a population of comparable size. Kerala’s literacy rates and educational attainment are the highest in India and near that of the First World. Similarly Cuba, despite a crawling if not stagnant economy, has universal literacy and high caliber education. Because of that it is a major force for biogenetic engineering, producing such sophisticated products like Hepatitis B vaccine.

A robust economy enables the nation to devote the necessary resources to improving its education system. Superior schools and universities in turn help buffer and sustain the economy. Much has been written on the rapid recovery of South Korea, Taiwan, and to a certain extent Malaysia following the 1997 economic crisis, but I venture that a major contributing factor is their superior education system. Indonesia and Thailand did not bounce back fast because their education system is that much more inferior.

The other important correlate of a superior education system is low population growth. Cuba and Kerala may have moribund economy, but their slow population growth enables them to devote their resources towards improving their social services instead of just trying to keep up with the population growth. China will leapfrog into the First World simply because it has tackled the most important factor, that of reducing its previously horrendously high birth rates. This together with a rapidly expanding economy ensures that China would be a major power soon. Indonesia and India on the other hand are still struggling merely to keep up, whatever gains they have in their economy are quickly absorbed and diluted by a rapidly expanding population.

Malaysia has the typical Third World demographics, with a pyramidal age distribution, in contrast to the more cylindrical First World pattern. Meaning, Malaysia has the greatest proportion of its citizens in the lower age groups. Additionally it is also at a dangerous transition with a rapidly increasing aging population to boot, thanks to its improving health care. Graphically the apex of the pyramid is broader, meaning more resources would have to be diverted to serve the needs of the elderly and consequently less for schools.

Assume an inflation and population growth rates of 3 percent each. This means the government would have to spend 6 percent more every year just to maintain the status quo, with none going towards improvement in quality. Every year Malaysia spends millions more on education, but these additional funds are simply consumed with building new classrooms and training new teachers just to keep up with the number of additional new school children.

I estimate that the number of births in Malaysia last year was around 600,000, and increasing at 3 percent annually. That means that country will have to build classrooms and find new teachers for 18,000 new children every year until those children finish their schooling 11 years later. The following year we will have to repeat the same process all over again. The cumulative costs are astronomical. But if we have an effective family planning program and manage to keep the number of new births constant, we do not need to build those extra classrooms and train those new teachers. Or if we do, then we could use the extra resources to reduce class overcrowding and pupil/teacher ratio. This would inevitably lead to improvement in quality. If we go beyond and reduce the number of births by only 1 percent, then we could use the resources currently used by the 6,000 fewer children to further benefit the rest. Note these savings would recur every year and be cumulative and additive.

Seventeen years later we would see even greater savings when we do not have to provide the additional spaces at the colleges and universities.

It is not enough to merely stabilize the fertility rates as you would then still have a steady increase in the number of births because the present cohort of childbearing women would continue to increase for at least the next 30 to 40 years. Thus Malaysia must go beyond and actually reduce the number of new births. To do this it has to markedly reduce the fertility rates to compensate for the increasing number of childbearing women now already in the pipeline.

Countries like Singapore and Ireland have improved their education system immensely not so much because their leaders are particularly smart or astute but because their nation’s birth rate has plummeted. Thus they can devote their resources to improving the quality instead of merely trying to cope up.

It is beyond the scope of my book to discuss ways to curb population growth; suffice to say that that is an important strategy to improving the quality of education and other social services. Malaysia can significantly reduce its population growth by making family planning readily available. It does not have to resort to the crude and intrusive ways of the Communist Chinese. Unfortunately Malaysia has the perverse policy of pursuing increased population growth rate with its misguided 70 Million Population program. This will make attaining the goal of a quality education that much more difficult to achieve.

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