I was sitting with my wife in Peacock Theatre hall attending the graduation ceremony of my youngest child, Andrea, just a few days ago feeling proud of her achievement of a second upper grade (B.Science in Management) at London School of Economics.
At the same time, I felt a sense of relief that I have completed my duties as a parent in providing the best possible education for my three children. Over the past eight and a half years, Andrea and her two older brothers (degrees in Mathematics/ Business Management) were educated from A Levels to their undergraduate degrees in the United Kingdom.
Her two brothers studied an extra year, achieving Master’s degree in Finance, but she was not keen to pursue any additional studies despite my urging of offering her fair opportunities to do so.
My three kids are considered very lucky kids, schooled in Malaysian private schools from Standard One to Form Five then off to top schools and universities in the UK without any assistance of scholarships. Less than 1% of our student population study overseas because their parents can afford the financial burden. To be able to study overseas, other bright students depend on scholarships from foundations, big corporates, government bursaries and institutions.
I have to thank my oncologist, Dr Rachael Khong and interventional radiologist, Prof Edward Leen for enabling me to attend this graduation ceremony. For the last four-and-a-half years, Dr Rachael and I have been very strategic in managing my Stage 4 colorectal cancer. We had drawn up short-term and long-term practical survival strategies.
My short-term strategy was based on the results of my CT/PET scan done every three months. If new tumours appeared, I would have Prof Edward ablate immediately and that happened frequently. In between, if new tumours appear regularly over a period of time, Dr Rachael will recommend chemo therapy treatments to keep the tumours down for a while. A delicate balance of not weakening my immune system too much and giving me a reasonable quality of life.
My long-term strategy was simply to stay alive to attend Andrea’s graduation, bearing in mind that less than 5% patients survived beyond five years.
For her successful efforts, I will be sending Dr Rachael some bottles of fine wine from Bordeaux as part payment of an incentive programme. Nothing comes free nowadays and that includes the ability to breathe naturally.
Like in all sustainable businesses, we conduct our operations based on strategic planning. Short-term strategies are actionable immediately whereas long-term strategies requires immaculate vision and the will to transform into a better and more profitable organisation. Visions should be simple and clear, easy to follow and with the right integrity of sharing common good among all stakeholders.
Amongst all the new Ministers, I believe our Education Minister has the most difficult task at hand. He is faced with many legacy problems, most of them based on long-term policies set by political leaders from the 1970s and 80s. Then over the last 30 years, the education system and its schools skewed sideways, separating students in race, language and religion.
Somehow, our Malaysian education policies have managed to increase our distance between unity and integration, perpetuate racial divide via language differentiation and continuous drop in teaching standards and quality of students.
And then there are restrictive policies for places in the local universities for non-bumiputras. Strangely, Malaysia is one of the rare countries in the world, where special rights are reserved for the majority rather then protecting citizens of minority interests.
I spent 13 years of my life in La Salle Petaling Jaya from Standard One to Upper Six (1967-1979).
We had to pass intermittent exams at Standard 5 or we have to stay back for another year and it was the same for Form Three (dropout if you fail badly) and of course the dreaded Form 5 exam where you have to pass your Bahasa Malaysia with credit (requirement for local universities and civil service employment). Nowadays you can get up to a Form Five education even if you fail your exams every year.
I was the first batch of students in the country to study History and Geography in the Malay language. Some batches later, the new students had to study maths and sciences in the Malay language.
I do not think it was a problem then except for the primary school students from Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools who had to undergo a one-year transition class called Remove class. The non-Malays coped with the new requirements which eventually required all subjects to be taught in the Malay language.
Due to racial politics perpetuated by Barisan component parties, Umno has the biggest say in national schools and universities so MCA and MIC started to lobby for its own schools and universities.
Hence the birth of semi government and private Chinese secondary schools. Nowadays you can be educated in a Chinese language school from Standard One to Form 6 where you end up sitting for the Unified Exam Certificate (UEC), equivalent to STPM.
In a strange twisted way of Malaysian politics, UEC was never recognised by our national universities. However, UEC is recognised by universities in Singapore, Taiwan etc and also our local private universities. My late brother’s three children all studied up to UEC level in Chinese schools. His eldest son had six distinctions out of nine papers in his UEC exams and was offered a place in Nanyang University of Singapore.
The other two siblings studied in local private universities and received loans from Klang Hokkien Association and PTPTN. Since all of them are working now, they have repaid the loan from the Association and started repaying the PTPTN loan. I had advised them to repay their student loans so that other students in need may receive the same financial assistance in their pursuit of further education.
The Education Minister should not rush into formulating a long-term education strategy. Perhaps he should assemble a group of eminent educationalist from all races to advise him. No harm to invite inputs from foremost educationist from other countries too as their inputs will be unbiased and unemotional. Just keep politicians and racists out of this group of advisors or you will get the same unhealthy advice.
Once you are ready with your long-term vision of what the national education policy should be, put your ideas out to the public to discuss, debate and refine. If you get 75% of all parents to buy in, then you will have their commitments and support for your vision.
It is your short-term strategy that you should worry more. Keeping to your promised manifesto is one. PH government was voted in on your clear vision and promises. Be brave and ignore the racists that put the nation in such a precarious position in the first place.
What are your short-term plans to improve teaching of English language in schools? How are you going to retrain 500,000 predominantly Malay teachers? I am sure Tun M is as anxious as we are to know more.
I would like to suggest that the Minister conduct some short-term trials at the school and university level. Create selected schools of unity and excellence.
Put in the best teaching staff irrespective of race. Medium of instruction should be in Malay as per school curriculum but emphasise on other languages especially English and Chinese (international language for business opportunities) and IT.
Enrolment should be based on population ratio by race with a sprinkling of students from ethnic Sabah and Sarawak. Watch the children mingle and grow.
Out of the 18 public universities, may I suggest you experiment with three universities, namely Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Reverse the enrolment restrictions. Protect the minorities with minimum number of places in every course. Enrolments should be based on merits and qualifications. Replace the deadwood lecturers and racists amongst them.
Bring in working professionals/practitioners from doctors, engineers to business experts to be part of the teaching team. You will be surprised what these universities can achieve within five years.
Extreme racism and extreme religion if left to fester in national schools and universities is like a growing cancer that requires a multi-disciplinary approach which is surgery, radiotherapy and toxic chemotherapy. Cut, burn and kill before it kills you. What is your short and long term strategies in curing the ills of our education system?
In the meantime, I need to reset a new long-term strategy when I meet my oncologist early next month. Perhaps to attend my son’s wedding in 18 months’ time? That would be a really nice thought to aim for.