Malaysian education and quotas


IF there is one other thing that I am passionate about, it is education. Education is the bedrock of progress in society. So today, I want to walk all of us down the memory lane of Malaysian education.

For my generation, Malays that grew up in the late 60s and 70s, the emphasis on education by our parents cannot be understated. It was not just any education, it was secular education.

Our parents saw that in order for their children to attain a better life, for Malay society to progress, secular education is key. They want their children to grow up to become teachers, lawyers, engineers, medical doctors and the likes.

The government then, saw that too. Malays, who were basically rural and agrarian, needed to be modernised and urbanised, they said, and so, they started us young.

The government realised that rural children needed to be taken out of their “natural surroundings” of Malay society and placed them into a secular educational environment with emphasis on learning modern knowledge. So, at around the age of 12, the best of us, mostly, were plucked out of our mainly rural surroundings and placed in the so-called elite boarding and semi-boarding schools in order to drum modern education into us.

In those days, do not forget, our education and curriculum were not far removed from that of our ex-colonial masters, the British.

Hence, in my opinion, started the great Malay education revolution. Our liberal and progressive leaders, thinkers and policy makers in the 60s and early 70s realised something profound – that if Malay society is to catch up with their other fellow Malaysians, their children need to be educated in modern secular thought and knowledge.

They went about implementing this for Malay children by ensuring that primary secular education was mandatory and widespread and those with potential were placed into not just modern secondary secular education but were taken out of rural mindsets.

This was not about creating quotas for Malays, this was about creating a mental revolution at the foundational level for Malay children, in their primary and secondary education. Giving them as best as a modern education so that they can have the opportunity to compete for places at tertiary institutions, on par with non-Malay students.

We succeeded beyond expectations. How do I know this? Because the best of these Malay children then were able to be placed after “O” levels and later SPM – not STPM, not matriculation – into overseas institutions of higher learning. They were competing for positions in colleges and universities overseas against local and international competition, not here in Malaysia, but over there in developed foreign lands, mainly in the UK, US and later Australia. They not only entered these institutions on merit but also graduated on merit. They had no back doors to enter from and yet enter they did.

At that time, we created Institute Teknologi Mara (ITM) for lesser qualified Malay students to provide diplomas, rather than university degrees for those less qualified. This was mainly staffed by foreign teaching talents to supplement our lack of qualified resources.

Again, this is not about quota. This is about recognising that lesser Malay students cannot compete with the best of the non-Malays at local universities on merit but could graduate with diplomas for technical and vocational professions. Mind you, a minority of these diploma holders were late bloomers, and went on to obtain degrees as well as post graduate degrees after their diplomas or even after a period of work – on merit. I am the living proof of this.

But then, like most stories, the middle part is a mess. Hubris set in and our policy-makers went hog wild championing their race. What was then an attempt at levelling the playing field at foundational levels (primary and secondary schooling) and promoting Malays to the next level on the basis of merit, whether through university or technical/vocational route, we decided to send as many Malays through into university to socially engineer Malaysian society and have Malays dominate the next level regardless of capability.

Therein lies the root of our failures today.

It morbidly reminded me of the quote Samuel L. Jackson’s character from that scene in Pulp Fiction, “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men”.

Malay leaders, either for their need to champion their race or to cling to power, decided that instead of promoting the people by giving them tools to succeed on merit, to leap frog those among us who are not capable so that we can dominate the levers of society!

Therefore quota based on racial make-up favouring Malays were implemented for local universities to the point that the Malaysian-Chinese population had to build its own tertiary institution in the form of Tunku Abdul Rahman College to cater for their educational needs, which for the longest time was not allowed to confer degrees even when they merit it.

The UEC (United Education Certificate) is not conferred the accreditation for domestic university entry because of pure racist politics. This is to ensure that places are primarily available to Malays, qualified and mostly unqualified – plain and simple. When it is accepted by foreign universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and our Malaysian students can enter universities in the UK, US and Australia on our Malay-language based certificate of SPM, what is the issue with respect to UEC in its home country?

Even the vocational and technical school of ITM, in the misguided hubris of racial pride was turned into a university. In an instance, a once competent vocational college that took on second tier students was transformed into a university. Why? It had a real purpose and function for a real segment of the student population. Why turn qualified diploma holders who can enter the right positions in the job market into unqualified degree holders who are unemployable?

And we therefore populate our domestic tertiary student population with a bulk of unqualified majority race. Yes, I said it – unqualified by merit by denying those who are more qualified because of race.

To make matters worse, (Datuk Seri) Najib Razak, the then Education Minister, in the late 90s practically de-regulated tertiary education and made it an industry. We increased the number of public universities while maintaining a quota system based on favouring the majority race.

Our third world country, with limited quality teaching resources, now opens up numerous public universities that can only fill up its teaching positions, again heavily favoured by a majority race-based recruitment quota, by those who came from its own non-merit based university graduates. What on earth could go wrong?

That basically sums up the

history of our Malaysian race-based education policy and subsequent civil service recruitment and promotion policies and then the government-linked-companies (GLC) creation. Malaysian race

politics in education, ladies and gentlemen, made simple for your understanding.

An artificial graduate population dominated by the majority race, that is largely unemployable in the private sector has to then be absorbed into the civil service and GLC.

So what are the consequences? Devastating. The laments that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad keep making about Malays still not being able to compete till today has its roots in this race-based discriminatory education policy and that which extends into our civil service and GLCs. And he wonders why the machinery of government today is worse than it was when he first became the Prime Minister of Malaysia in 1981.

Birds of the same feathers flock together, Sir. If you fill up your tank with sludge, sooner or later algae will fill it up and rise to the top. And they make more algae.

Race-based quota system in education and in recruitment need to stop. We must insist that our government take the lead. It is not about the loss of opportunities or placement of one race against the other.

The government needs to understand and insist its people understand that the country cannot afford to be negligent in this. We need to rectify past mistakes. Quotas in education do not work.

They ultimately wreck our administrative capabilities, our economy and eventually, our education. It becomes a vicious cycle that spirals downwards.

We should prepare our children to compete at foundational levels (primary and tertiary). After that let merit wins the day. Let those that qualify fill the right places in education. Those that qualify to be in universities get into universities. Those that qualify for vocational schools go for vocational places. Those that don’t qualify for either should find their right places at work after secondary education. No more quotas.

I have a bit to say about affirmative action. Firstly as I said, do it at the foundational levels. Secondly, any affirmative action at tertiary levels or at the work place must be on minority allocation. That means, as a rule of thumb, affirmative action cannot be more than 10% of the total on the basis of giving opportunity for the less fortunate. At the end of the day, even the less fortunate upon being given the opportunity must perform on merit.

The nation needs to progress on merit because the world works on merit. No one gives two hoots about our place in the sun. We therefore need our best to take us to be the best.

We are Malaysians. We need the right qualified people in the right places irrespective of their race, religion or creed. We need the right people to administer, manage and lead the nation in education, the civil service and the private sector, so that we can be more than we can be.

We need Malaysians to help other Malaysians irrespective of race. That can only happen when truly qualified people hold the right positions. It starts in education.