Saturday, January 11, 2014

Public Education, Not Private Employment, Is Racist

There has been a big hue and cry lately that private employers in Malaysia are discriminating against the Malays, and favouring the Chinese. The origins of this controversy dates back to a research conducted in 2012 by two local academics, Lee Hwok Aun and Muhammed Abdul Khalid. 

Last December, Awang Hitam, a columnist for News Straits Times, reopened old wounds by suggesting that the findings proves that "apartheid is alive and well in Malaysia due to the "minority-dominated and controlled private sector". Koon Yew Yin challenges this view, whilst questioning the "shelf-life" and relevance of the research. Thereafter, Lee has hit back at Koon to defend his research. Not to be outdone, Koon musters another rejoinder to Lee's defence. To be fair, Lee is with Koon in his equally scathing condemnation of Awang's view

The exchanges have been lengthy and fiery, but the source of the debate is simple. The research was premised on the credit grade point average (CGPA) i.e. the standard grade system used at tertiary level education. The academics discovered that private employers are more likely to call back a Chinese applicant, rather than a Malay one, for a job interview - even when the Chinese has the same or lower CGPA score than the Malay. This, according to Lee and Awang, shows that employers are deliberately discriminating against Malays.

Unlike Koon, I do not doubt the accuracy of the research results. However, the conclusion that I draw is very different from Lee and Awang. To me, the research only further highlights a long-standing problem in Malaysia - that our public educational system is racist and defective, which the private employers are aware and deeply distrustful of, ironically to the detriment of the very group that the system had intended to protect i.e the Malays.  

If one day this appears in Penang Island, maybe then we can talk, Encik Awang.

False Premise, Flawed Proposition

The sole premise of the research is that the CGPA of Malaysian graduates is a fair reflection of their competence. Sadly, in reality, it is NOT. Is there a correlation between CGPA and competence of Malaysian graduates? The research simply assumes there is one, without proving it. And that is why the proposition that the private sector is racist is fundamentally flawed - it rests entirely on a premise which is false to begin with.

Koon hits the nail on the wall when he says: "In my experience as an employer I have found that the Barisan Nasional’s pro-Malay bias in education and employment has resulted in sharply lowered standards". It is unfortunate that he did not further elaborate on this sweeping statement - perhaps out of political-correctness. But I will.

Grassroots Full Of Weeds

Education begins at primary and secondary school. In Malaysia, it begins on a wrong footing, and goes downhill from there.

The weaknesses are multifarious. We focus excessively on examination results and rote learning. Our syllabus is linear and limited, and do not encourage critical thought. There is a dearth of qualified and competent teachers, particularly in the rural areas. For decades up until recently, students are taught Science in Malay - whilst this policy may help native-speaking students absorb knowledge at an early age, the failure to implement a gradual transition to English hinders their development at tertiary level studies where almost all resources are in English. 

All such factors have led the World Bank in its 2013 report to conclude that there is an "urgent need to transform Malaysia's education system". Based on the same report, the Wall Street Journal expresses concerns on whether the system "can provide the type of graduates needed to fill high-skilled jobs considered key to economic development".

Entry to local universities is heavily skewed towards the Malay students. Scholarships and loans are handed out to them on the basis of affirmative action, rather than academic accomplishment. Matriculation, open to mainly Malays, is a far easier ride than STPM. The government denies there being a racial quota that filters hopeful applicants to local universities - yet every year, the newspapers are splashed with tragic tales of Chinese and Indian students with excellent STPM results not getting a spot.

Discrimination at the grassroots level has many implications, none of them pleasant. Firstly, it leads to undeserving students filling up many places in public universities. Secondly, it drives the rejected deserving ones away to private universities.

Hmm... This looks awfully similar to a certain sign on the beach...

A Tale Of Two Institutions

At tertiary level, the paths of Malays and non-Malays greatly diverge. Malay students dominate traditional public universities like UM and UKM. Newer universities like UiTM and IIUM are almost exclusively reserved for Malays, albeit with a sprinkle of natives, foreigners and the rare token Chinese. Few Malays foray into private institutions, where tuition fees are higher.

Non-Malays still do have a decent population in the traditional institutions. But in recent years, many prefer to flock to private ones - some of which are linked to reputable foreign universities. Public institutions do not excite them as they did to their parents decades ago, and with good reason too. Consider the QS World University Rankings for 2013 - Malaysia's highest representative is UM ranked number 167, whilst Singapore has two representatives in the Top 50 and China has three in the Top 100. The truly smart student would always study abroad, and return with a degree that far outshines any local degree.

Hence, there is a huge of disparity in racial distribution between public and private institutions. And so are the quality of students. But one constant remains - the CGPA system. Each university has its own academics and examiners. There is no true standard of syllabus between institutions, even within the same course and degree. Universities have discretion to grade their undergraduates. Hence, a CGPA of 3.7 from University A may not necessarily carry the same weight as a 3.7 from University B.

In a perfect world, where education is not blinded and blighted by racism, good students will enter into good universities and score good grades. But Malaysia is far from perfect. The same strand of racism infecting the grassroots continues to poison the treetops. Malay students in public institutions, benefiting from the generosity of the academia, continue to score high CGPA grades. Rumour has it - though hard to prove - that they are given extra tuition classes, where examination tips are discreetly distributed.

Private institutions, in contrast, are driven by profit. To attract students, it is not inconceivable that their academia too are prone to inflate the CGPA grades of their students. But the difference is how they are more adaptive to the ever-shifting global standards. They recognise the value of the English language and soft skills. They are more attuned to the demands of the private sector.

Filtering Malaysia's best in the QS World University Rankings for 2013

The Market Knows Best

CGPA alone does not tell the whole story of one's competence and marketability. Comparing CGPA grades between a student from an average public institution with a student from a good private institution is like comparing apples with oranges.

Private enterprises, being creatures of capitalism, are driven by productivity and profit. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the educational sector is regulated by the government with a proven track record of implementing racial discrimination policies in the guise of 'affirmative action' and 'alleviating poverty'. On the balance of these two sectors - one driven by profit, the other driven by politics - which is more likely to succumb to prejudices?

Recruitment in the private sector is all about attracting the best talents. Employers aren't easily fooled by high CGPA grades from not-so-reputable universities. They know, by experience from hiring and working with young graduates, how to read between the lines and beyond the numbers. 

If the price of rubber plummets tomorrow, it's naive to attribute it to a global conspiracy to boycott rubber. More likely than not, it's because the world is losing confidence on the value of rubber, and has found a more efficient alternative.  

We don't read and count too well, do we?

The Malay Dilemma

Lee and Awang are right to question why are there so many Malay graduates with decent CGPA being spurned by the private sector. Where they go wrong, however, is stopping short of questioning the system that produces these Malay graduates. If goods are rejected by a buyer, why automatically blame the buyer for being unreasonable and unfair? Should one not perhaps consider that the goods themselves may suffer from defects, and try investigating the manufacturer instead?

Hence, the research results does reveal a problem - that Malaysia's educational system is racist. And instead of benefiting the Malays, the system produces a class of Malay graduates who are not readily equipped to meet the high demands of the workplace. They are given stripes of honour they have not earned, and thrown into the deep of the ocean without being properly trained to swim. Constantly being a given leg-up causes them to struggle standing on their own two feet. Public universities are not shorn of funds - but such funds are unwisely spent on frivolous frills, instead of building better facilities and attracting better lecturers.

Ironically, the non-Malays - Chinese and Indian (to a lesser extent) - are the beneficiaries of this broken system. Turning their backs on the system, they invest their time, money and effort elsewhere at institutions where they can actually learn, and not just pass exams. They diligently pick up second languages and obtain working experiences through internships. Some, but not all, are born rich. Those who can't afford high tuition fees are willing to take private loans. To them, education is an investment, not a privilege. To them, paying more for better education is a worthwhile investment in the long run.

In his 1970 book 'The Malay Dilemma', Mahathir Mohamad exhorted for affirmative action to assist the Malays to compete with the Chinese and Indian, which he carried out with great vigour during his premiership as Prime Minister. More than forty years on, little has changed for the better, much has changed for the worse. Sure, there may be more Malays proudly tossing their convocation hats now than before, but such celebration is rather premature and nothing more than patting one own's back. Sure, they may proudly carry certificates, but like tickets sold on the black market, such certificates also carry a high risk of rejection.

Lagging Behind, Looking Ahead

Lately, the Malaysian government has launched a long-term plan called the "Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025", presumably to narrow the gap between Malaysia and the countries that have raced miles ahead of us. But for now, it's evident that we have a lot of catching up to do in the international circuit, especially the Malays. Holding our own village races where certain individuals get a head start and fewer hurdles - then later blaming the rest of the world for refusing to recognise the awards we dish out - helps nobody.

And while we continue to bicker among ourselves, the world is watching us. And probably shaking their heads and laughing, too.

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