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ATimes: Doubts rise about Malaysia's school policies
By Anil Netto

17/5/2001 1:50 am Thu

Asia Times
16th May 2001

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 rejected.

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 ethnicity.

"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 poverty.

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 quota system."

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.