Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Higher Education in Malaysia: A Vicious Cycle

Do you know that Minister Nazri Aziz recently shouted the word “Racist!” 41 times in parliament?”

I received blank stares from the six Chinese-educated medical students.

“Do you who is Nazri Aziz?”

Blank stares again.

“Do you know what a ‘racist’ is?”

More blank stares.

“Go and ask your friends what a racist is,” I said.

“Sorry super senior, how to spell racist?” the Chinese guy closest to me asked.

“R-A-C-I-S-T – Racist.” I replied, in rather irritated and bewildered tone.

They went off in hurry and started asking the others what a racist is. A few metres away, I overheard their intellectual brainstorming session.

“Hey, what is racist ah?” one of them asked in fluent Mandarin.

His friend replied confidently, “STUPID, ‘RACIST’ also you don’t know ah? Like Michael Schumacher lah.. He drives the F1 car and race, he’s a RACIST la…..”


As funny as it was and still is, my short conversation with the few students was a rough but rather accurate representation of the current state of higher education in Malaysia.


Higher Education: A Vicious Cycle


By June or July, the local public universities will be welcoming their new intake of students. The routine hoo-ha will follow, with each ethnic group claiming that their community is under-represented in the institutions of higher learning.

I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with the first year medical students in University Malaya. As a final year senior, it was customary for us seniors to become acquainted with the freshmen. My conversation with a few freshmen somehow veered into the area of general knowledge and recent events.

“Do you know that Minister Nazri Aziz recently shouted the word “Racist!” 41 times in parliament?”

I received blank stares from the six Chinese-educated medical students.

“Do you who is Nazri Aziz?”

Blank stares again.

“Do you know what is a ‘racist’?”

More blank stares.

“Go and ask your friends what a ‘racist’ is,” I said.

“Sorry super senior, how to spell racist?” the Chinese guy closest to me asked.

“R-A-C-I-S-T – Racist.” I replied, in rather irritated and bewildered tone.

They went off in hurry and started asking the others what a racist is. A few metres away, I overheard their intellectual brainstorming session.

“Hey, what is racist ah?” one of them asked in fluent Mandarin.

His friend replied confidently, “STUPID, ‘RACIST also you don’t know ah? Like Michael Schumacher lah.. He drives the F1 car and race, he’s a RACIST la…..”

As funny as it was and still is, my short conversation with the few students was a rough but rather accurate representation of the current state of higher education in Malaysia.

It must be borne in mind that the few students I was talking to were supposed to be the cream of the crop in Malaysia – the top-scoring students among the sea of top-scorers. It was not acceptable that they were not aware of significant happenings in the country as Nazri Aziz is a pretty important character to know, for without him, it was highly unlikely the DAP could have fared so well in the recent elections. These students either read nothing except school books or they simply were not bothered about anything other than themselves. It was equally unpardonable that they did not know the term racist or even how to spell it. They were the generation that had to go through the so-called Malaysian University English Test (MUET) prior to entering university. It was appaling that these future doctors did not recognize an insult when they hear one. Imagine one being called a racist and receiving a dumb smile in reply.

Above all else, it was abysmal that the equally ignorant medical student proudly called the other stupid. It was the epitome of the popular Malays phrase ‘bodoh sombong’.

If I were to summarise all that is wrong with our local universities in one phrase, I will say that higher education in Malaysia is currently in a state of vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

When the intake of students is flawed to begin with, it is really a tall order trying to sigificantly improve the outcome of the final products. Worse, when the students come from mediocre primary, secondary and pre-university education, there is little we can do to improve the quality of students entering universities even with a transparent and objective intake system. The employment of academic staff is as flawed as the intake of undergraduate students. This is best characterized by the SLAB program. Further along, shady and dubious promotion criteria have pushed many talented teachers from pursuing a long-term career in higher education.

Essentially, we have ended up in a situation where mediocre teachers produce mediocre graduates who later on become mediocre teachers producing more mediocre graduates.

A constellation of factors have resulted in this vicious cycle.

Years of quota-based student intake in the past have denied thousands of competent students from pursuing their courses of choice here in Malaysia, forcing them to seek opportunities elsewhere. Simultaneously, the doors of our ivory towers were ushering in too many students who were never built to survive proper university education. This resulted in the ‘need’ to compromise the very basic standards of evaluating and passing an undergraduate candidate.

The situation has now improved with the current practice of intake by ‘meritocracy’. Much the opposite, in fact. In the past, UMNO had no choice but to follow a quota of 6:3:1 for Bumiputera, Chinese and Indian students, with all the non-bumis presumably being from STPM background. With the abolishment of such restrictions, UMNO had a free reign in the intake of Malay students. As a result, in many faculties Malay students can form as high as 80-90% of the student population. While the absolute number of non-bumis has increased tremendously, their percentage has decline in respect to the increased total intake.

In the last few years too, local universities have witnessed a different breed of Chinese and Indian students. These are the non-bumis who took matriculation for pre-university education, thanks to MCA’s intense lobbying for a 10% non-bumi representation in matriculation. As a result, faculties of local varsities have seen a peculiar trend emerging over the last few years – an increasing number of non-bumis failing their exams badly to the extent some are retained for their semesters. In my opinion, these non-bumi students would have fared differently if they had taken the STPM and would definitely have not attained the same excellent results as in matriculation. If I were a mere racist, I would thank MCA and MIC for bringing in more non-Malays. I will instead curse the MCA and MIC however, for they have now created a new pool of under-qualified undergraduates.

As always, the ubiquitous NEP plays its role too. Racial elements in the selection and promotion of academics staff have discouraged many talented and enthusiastic lecturers from pursuing a long term career in higher education. The Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya has seen the resignation of so many senior clinicians in the last few decades, many of whom I can personally testify were great teachers and wonderful educators dispirited in a biased system. How many people can take it silently when one’s own ex-student end up being the head of department?

Restriction of academic thoughts by a communistic UMNO administration, as characterized by the cases of Terrence Gomez, Azly Rahman and Prof. P. Ramasamy has resulted in a pool of homogenous academics. They seem to sing the same tune, speak the same language and share the same thoughts on events and happenings around the country.

Under-qualified UMNO-appointed faculty deans and university vice chancellors completes the circle, ensuring a perpetual rot and putrefaction of Malaysian higher education. The current vice chancellor of UM typifies this.

Having said all that is so condemning of our local institutions, it is also undeniable that we are still producing many qualified and world-class graduates. These are the exception rather than the rule, and many of them were simply talented to begin with. The residual and shrinking pool of great academics in universities must also not be forgotten. These few teachers are creating an impact far greater than all the mediocre ones combined.

So yes, our varsities are still in a sad, sad state.

Is there a remedy for the rot in Malaysian higher education?

Yes, there is.

A total change of government with complete removal of all BN elements in local varsities.

Nothing less will suffice.














8 comments:

jedyoong said...

Nothing's changed since I passed my SPM.......WOW.....

CK Tan said...

jedyoong,

in fact, it became worse. at least during my time, the non-bumi matriculation lobbying has not started yet hence, i haven meet the new breed of non-bumi grads like POTS mentioned.

POTS r right abt the ignorance of the current breed of youngsters which is a common trend but what perplexed me was that some of them who's virtually oppressed of their chances in pursuing higher education in local uni also ignorant of the predicament that they faced. that's too much. but wat to blame except the education system who's totally BN-ised? the educators of mediocre std made it worse and like i said b4 in ur previous post, it started from the primary school already hence, no surprise for wat we see in university.

dun even start to mention the university ranking and the whole bro-hoo-ha.... sigh~

god bless our next generation.

Eddie said...

Just a rambling thought! First there is the odd picture of 2-headed fish, then you quoted '41', then an unusually short write-up....I thought..could it be because today is 1st April?

But on a more serious note - this is really the result of the slow frog in boiling water sydrome.

Anonymous said...

Never mind lah. We have a student with 21 A's in the SPM last year. He will win Malaysia's first Nobel Prize for Blufferlogy in 2020. This year we will produce an "Einstein" with 30 A's or maybe when things go wrong we can still have a Frankenstein. Ask any student where Timbuktu is and you get a blank stare or Sarawak as an answer. The Cabinet has alredy decided that we need not know about Beetthoven or Mozart when we have our P Ramlee. Afterall we still have the second tallest building in the world, the most monarchs and the only Transit System where you have to buy 2 tickets to reach your destination.

Dim Sum & Chutney said...

The brain drain has been going on for years...leaving people who think that Schumacher is a racist behind...

Kong said...

Something to cheer you people up. I have come across Australian, New Zealand and UK graduates whose command of the English language is unimaginably bad. And an engineer's knowledge of basic Physic worst than a good STPM student. So there you have it, there are also lemons from an overseas education.

Having said that, ya, our Malaysian education system is in the pits.

Anonymous said...

When the going gets tough, stpm students apply to foreign universities....

And the truly exceptional ones who were admitted into top universities were not given financial assistance...even if the student clearly needs it and deserves it.

And they wallow in malaysian universities...already rife with their own ...'meritocratic' systems...

THAT is a WASTE.

how equipped are we, exactly, to break the vicious cycle?

kbguy said...

Our education system is so fuckup. This year bumis with 3A's to 10As gets multiples offer including matrix college, JPA scholarship, UTP scholarships and UPU whiles our non-bumis with at least 8A's receive non. Their only hope is after the bumi's candidates rejected or have sellected what they wanted. Aren't we considered a 2nd class citizens ? What about point system from kokoriculum and National service ? They are not even been considered. It's all bull shit just to give excuse to trick us out. What is MCA doing about this all these years ?