|Laman Webantu KM2A1: 4487 File Size: 7.2 Kb *|
ATimes: Doubts rise about Malaysia's school policies
By Anil Netto
17/5/2001 1:50 am Thu
Doubts rise about Malaysia's school policies
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Ong Sheng Wuey just could not understand it. The Malaysian
student was euphoric when he scored distinctions in 10 subjects in
national examinations taken after secondary school, and was invited
for lunch with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad along with the
country's top students.
But that heady feeling soon evaporated when he found out his
application for direct admission to a local university had been
Students who top the examinations that Ong took are eligible to apply
directly for selected courses at a few tertiary institutions,
bypassing the usual route of having to go through additional education
before getting into university. But competition for the limited
university places using this route is intensely keen. As in the
selection process for other tertiary courses, the determining factors
are grades, involvement in sports and in student societies - and
"I kept reading the list on the Internet and I could not find my name.
It is very disappointing," Ong, a Chinese Malaysian, told a local
newspaper. "I had hoped to attend local university because both my
pensioner parents cannot afford to send me to a private college."
In recent weeks, cases such as Ong's have fuelled a debate over
ethnic-based quotas for university admissions that favor the majority
bumiputra (ethnic Malay and other indigenous) communities. It has
raised complex issues surrounding affirmative action policies designed
to lift the economic status of bumiputras, who were lagging behind
when Malaysia gained independence in 1957.
These policies are part of a larger economic policy meant to address
racial tensions that flared three decades ago, and are often cited as
the reason racial relations have been generally smooth in this country
since then. Meanwhile, the controversy has rekindled anxiety among
students in Malaysia's other ethnic communities - Indian and Chinese
Malaysians - about their chances of entering university.
Ethnic Malaysians and indigenous people make up 60 percent of the
country's 24 million people. About half the population are ethnic
Malays, a quarter are Chinese Malaysians and about 8 percent are
Indian Malaysians. But so far, the debate has shed little light into
how far the education system has succeeded in propelling economically
disadvantaged groups - the rural and urban poor, the Orang Asli or
indigenous people, plantation communities, and squatters - out of
Instead, the discussion has assumed ethnic overtones. It has zeroed in
on the pros and cons of the 55:45 university admissions quota policy,
under which bumiputras would get 55 percent of seats with the
remainder going to Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
Controversy first flared when newspapers on May 3 quoted an education
ministry official as saying that the intake into universities had
dipped by 15 percent from the targeted 38,000 university places due to
a shortage of qualified bumiputra science students. The news prompted
suggestions that the 7,168 unfilled bumiputra seats be given to
qualified non-bumiputra students, including star achievers who had
failed to secure a university admission.
On May 6, Mahathir announced that the government was prepared to
abolish the quota policy for university admissions if that was what
the people wanted. "Throughout the 43 years of independence, we have
provided various opportunities for bumiputras such as opening up more
universities and so on," he said. "If they have no interest, then the
opportunities should be given to others."
But two days later, the same education official quoted by the media
produced new statistics showing that all available places in public
local universities had in fact been filled - and there were actually
11,376 eligible bumiputra pupils who failed to secure university
admissions. He said two batches of bumiputra matriculation students
totalling 8,365 had been inadvertently omitted from the earlier
statistics and the total intake was actually 39,197 - higher, not
lower, than the projected 38,000.
More controversy came on May 10, when Education Minister Musa Mohamad
said the government was prepared to raise the bumiputra intake quota
from 55 percent to 66 percent to reflect the latest ethnic composition
of Malaysia. "This idea needs to be tested," he said. "So let's look
at the views of others, especially those who keep talking about the
He was referring to Chinese and Indian Malaysians, who may feel they
would stand to lose if their quota is reduced from 45 percent to 34
percent. In truth, only a few universities appear to closely reflect
the 55:45 formula in their student populations while the bumiputra
intake in other institutions may be higher. Statistics of ethnic
breakdowns seem to vary from university to university and are
difficult to obtain.
But as long as statistics take center stage, few are prepared to probe
deeper into the woes of Malaysia's education system. These include low
teacher morale caused by poor salaries and lack of opportunities for
promotion. Underfunded and poorly maintained schools with shabby or
inadequate furniture and libraries add to the problem, especially for
schools in deprived communities in plantations or urban working-class
areas including squatter settlements. Hundreds of schools in rural
areas lack electricity and some even piped water.
Opposition politician Lim Kit Siang said the message the government is
sending out from the university admissions row is that it is not
attuned to the needs of the new economy and does not give the highest
priority to talent, creativity, or innovation. Indeed, critics have
called for quality reforms that emphasize creative and critical
thinking rather than rote-learning.
"The cabinet should wake up to this reality in the New Economy that
human capital is more important than physical capital, and that the
quality of knowledge generated within our higher education
institutions is becoming increasingly critical to our national
competitiveness," Lim said.
At present, many top students who fail to enter public universities
and cannot afford private education locally are offered scholarships
abroad. Many work and settle overseas - a brain-drain Malaysia can ill
afford and which Mahathir sought to address when he said he was
willing to amend the system.
Critics have argued for a needs-based quota policy given the vast
income disparities and the lack of facilities among deprived
communities. This policy, they add, should be based on socio-economic
circumstances rather than ethnicity, while taking into account
performance and merit.