Happy 200th Birthday Penang Free School: Fortis Atque Fidelis

October 21, 2016

Happy 200th Birthday Penang Free School: Fortis Atque Fidelis

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The PFS Class of 1959 and I offer our sincere congratulations on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the founding on October 21, 1816 of our alma mater today. Owing to heavy commitments at The University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, I am unable to be with you in Green Lane to join the celebrations.

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I was indeed fortunate to have been an Old Boy of the School, which gave me a good beginning and for that I thank my teachers, many of whom have passed on, for their hard work and dedication, in particular our Headmaster John Michael Hughes, and his colleagues Howe, Davies and Williams, Captain Mohamed Noor, Ambrose, Ong Poh Kee et.al.

I am also privileged to have made some wonderful and kind friends like Lim Say Chong, Sheriff Kassim, Kadir Sulaiman, Muthulingam, Goh Thong Beng,  the Din Brothers (Rahim and Zainuddin), Ali Ibrahim,  the late Anis Isa, Loo Quek Shin, Zain Yusuff, Khoo Soo Ghim and Khoo Soo Ghee (not brothers) and many others .

I thank these guys for making life at the PFS unforgettable. It has been great fun and that’s what life is about (to quote Bing Crosby). Here’s to you, guys.–Din Merican

Memorial held for Founder of 200 year-old Penang Free School

By Balvin Kaur- 21 October 2016 @ 9:39 AM


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A memorial ceremony in honour of Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, the founder of the 200 year-old Penang Free School (PFS), was held at the Protestant Cemetery in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah here today. The event was attended by around 130 people, including PFS students, teachers and alumni, who took turns laying wreaths at Hutchings’ final resting place, which is marked with a marble tombstone with an epitaph that reads ‘Founder of Penang Free School 21 October 1816.’ The service was conducted by Bishop Charles Samuel and assisted by Reverend Ho Kong Eng, who is also an alumnus the school.

Alumnus Ho Chu Hor, 38, said the commemoration is held annually in conjunction with the school’s anniversary. However, he said, it is grander this year, as it is the school’s 200th anniversary. Ho said it was important to honour Hutchings, who had played a key role in improving education standards in Penang.
Hutchings was born in 1782 and died in 1827, aged 45. He founded the school, which was the first English-medium institution in Southeast Asia at the time, on October 21, 1816. The school was initially located at Lebuh Farquhar here, but was moved to the present location in Jalan Masjid Negeri.
(File pix) Former students of Penang Free School going through an exhibition on the school’s history.

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A memorial ceremony in honour of Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, founder of the 200 year-old Penang Free School (PFS) in 1966. It is held on October 21 annually.

The World Bank: Right Part of the Time and Wrong On Occasion on Malaysia

October 18, 2016

The World Bank: Right Part of the Time and Wrong On Occasion on Malaysia

by Dr Lim Teck Ghee

The World Bank’s occasional economic reports on Malaysia can generally be relied upon to offer sound analysis on the country’s economic development that is different from those emanating from our national sources. They provide a more critical perspective on entrenched policies or proposed new ones by stake players who should be independent and should not be beholden to the Malaysian government or any interest or lobby group.

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Two recent reports should be of interest to our policy makers. The first which came out in June this year affirmed the importance of leveraging on trade agreements and partnerships for the nation’s continuing economic prosperity.

The Economic Monitor report noted that

  • Malaysia is one of the most open economies in the world, with a trade to GDP ratio of 148% (from 2010 to 2014) compared to 58% in developing countries in East Asia and Pacific.
  • About 40% of jobs in Malaysia are linked with export activities.

Most Malaysians are aware of the importance of trade. But we have also seen the rise of uninformed and often xenophobic sentiments targeting the Trans-Pacific Partnership when it was being negotiated by the government. The Bank’s opinion on this and other similar agreements needs to be reflected upon.

In essence the Bank argues that implementation of new regional trade agreements can help Malaysia carry out key economic reforms and accelerate the country’s transition to high-income status. It notes that the new generation of regional trade agreements – including the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, Trans-Pacific Partnership and European Union Free Trade Agreement – will shape trade and investment over the next decade.

It also calls for commitment to these agreements which goes beyond tariff reduction This is because not only will they have a significant impact on attracting investment, and further open up market access for the country’s exports of goods and services; they can also be used to push for deeper reform in competition policy, services trade and support to SMEs that would otherwise be difficult to initiate.

The Bank rightly warns that the transition will not be easy and proactive measures will be needed to ensure wider benefits under the new regional trade agreements.

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Notwithstanding the problems and difficulties, it is important for our policy and decision makers to get the Bank’s message and stay the course of this road of reform if we want our economy to grow and become more resilient.

Reducing Vulnerabilities the Wrong Way

The latest Bank report – a newly released East Asia and Pacific Economic Update entitled “Reducing Vulnerabilities” – focuses on current global economic uncertainties; the risks that come from external developments as well as touches in its country chapter on Malaysia on our own home grown financial crisis arising from 1MDB which “could impact investors’ sentiments and divert the Government’s focus from needed reform, while an unanticipated sharp adjustment among households to a higher cost of living or a more pronounced softening in labour market conditions could also affect private consumption”.

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To alleviate the impact on the bottom 40% population, the Bank is recommending targeted measures “to support the most vulnerable households”. This, in its view, could include the introduction of “unemployment benefits [which] could help to improve matching in the labour market and provide support as the labour market softens” (https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25088/9781464809910.pdf; p.128).

Bank guidance on this issue is clearly off the mark if not plain wrong. Firstly, the nation’s finances are in no position to support a social welfare system providing benefits to the section of the population that is registered as unemployed or do not currently have a job. For now and the foreseeable future, the nation needs to exercise financial prudence and discipline in spending. In fact, the Bank itself has noted in the same report that recent increases in the minimum wage and public sector salaries would be difficult to sustain as the necessary fiscal consolidation continues.

Any social welfare or social protection system that is being proposed needs to be sustainable, financially viable and well targeted. In Malaysia it is especially important to ensure that the new proposed system does not become a political football and/or is open to wide scale fraud and abuse. Both negative possibilities are very likely given the present state of politics and governance in the nation.

A stronger and more rigorous defence of the proposal for the introduction of unemployment benefits by the World Bank with empirical data proving its case is necessary if it wants this policy recommendation to be taken seriously. For now, the advocates of this policy in the Bank may be comforted by the fact that a de facto unemployment benefits system already exists in Malaysia through the use of the civil service to employ hundreds of thousands of otherwise unemployed and unemployable school leavers, graduates and others primarily from the  Bumiputra community.  Poor Indians have been left out leaving them marginalized from the mainstream.

Such a system has been ongoing for at least the last 20 years and makes Malaysia a role model for countries in this field of racially targeted labour market intervention.


Excellence: A Point of View

October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

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We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

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Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

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From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161

A.C. Grayling on why Read

October 9, 2016

Why Read

by A.C. Grayling

How many a man dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book–THOREAU

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A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience–A.C. Grayling

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medicines to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred  to a bibliotherapist–yes, bibliotherapist–who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians  that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them or by distracting  them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about something about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask,What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one  of the chief resources of life! Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalization of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance–very easy to give; it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian’, which is excellent advice)–on how to find any required book or a kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, an entertainment leaving  no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that But for anything more, reading has to be an activity , not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes  good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that  they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world differently as a result. In short, they elicit the activity in active reading. “We find little in a book but what we put there”, Joseph Joubert said. “But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.”

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Rodin’s Thinker @ Columbia University, New York

Reading does not automatically people wiser or better. When it has that effect  it is because readers have the work themselves, quarrying the materials from  their response to the printed page (or today the e-page). But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor,scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivates others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, an even to sympathize  with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behavior towards others; it is also  the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall.The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine  lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating  the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed, among an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

This scene is wonderfully expressive to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavors–even of the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the key thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary of dead books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling point for postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

In the Library, The University of Cambodia

A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Virgil’s Gerogics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time–gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey 2000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action of great wealth and great love.

Note: This essay is from A.C. Grayling’s book, The Meaning 0f Things–Applying Philosophy to Life ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001). pp. 178-181. I recommend this book because, to quote the publisher’s note, it is “a wonderfully stimulating book and an invaluable guide to what is truly  important in living life whether  facing success, failure, passion, intolerance, love, loss or any other of life’s profound experiences”– Professor Din Merican, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards

September 24, 2016

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards, says my  Academic Friend, Dr. James Gomez@Bangkok University, Thailand

by Pratch Rujivanarom
The Nation


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Bangkok University’s Dr. James Gomez
ACADEMICS have highlighted the challenges that higher education institutions within the region face in trying to meet international standards, including syllabus problems, system diversity, a lack of international staff and limited government support.

With the ASEAN Economic Community officially set up this year, improving the quality of education remains one of the community’s main goals.  This topic was the focus of a forum titled “Can Asean be a Global Higher Education Destination?” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand recently.

Prof James Gomez from Bangkok University said many universities in ASEAN were restructuring to become international institutions to improve the quality of education and, more importantly, rebrand themselves to attract more students.

“Many university administrators chose internationalisation for increasing the university brand value, because it ensures the financial viability of the institutions by attracting more students,” Gomez said.

However, he said most universities usually directly translated syllabuses from the national language into English, so the curricula were not truly internationalised. He said another issue was that syllabuses were usually drafted by nationals, which resulted in a focus on issues particular to the home country instead of a truly international emphasis.

“From my experience in the field, most of the international university staff typically work in the language institutions or international colleges of the universities and are not stationed at the main faculties or executive positions that can guide the university’s policy,” he said.

Assoc Prof Nantana Gajaseni, Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, said there was great diversity and disparity between educational systems in ASEAN states, so it was hard to harmonise a standardised system within the region.

‘Diversity makes credit transfers hard’

“The major challenge of internationalisation of higher education in Asean is the system diversity and quality recognition of the education. This disparity is making student and credit transfers among [ASEAN countries] and beyond the region hard,” Nantana said.

Gomez added that there was a lack of international staff in the region because of low salaries, the lack of research grants and government regulatory barriers. “There is the income gap between the rich countries in the region, such as Singapore and Malaysia, and the rest of the region. This income gap makes fewer international staff choose to work in these [lower-income] countries,” he said.

“Another barrier is the limitation of research grants. For instance, Malaysia limits applicants for its grants to Malaysian citizens only. Furthermore, consideration for research scholarships usually focuses on the national perspective only and it is hard for the researchers to apply for funds to study the international perspectives.”

Wesley Teter, UNESCO senior consultant for the Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, related his experiences teaching in China, where government regulations could be a barrier for international staff. In his case, strict information restrictions imposed by the Chinese government made academic research more difficult, reducing the appeal for international researchers.

Nantana said another big problem for internationalisation was budgetary. She said high-income countries in the region such as Singapore and Brunei had an easier time encouraging the internationalisation of their universities, but for poorer countries the task was difficult.

“There are many problems from shortages of budgets in low-income countries such as the lack of infrastructure. Even in Thailand, the state has just let public universities rely on themselves to find revenue and does not grant governmental support anymore,” she said.

“However in my view, an abundant budget does not ensure quality education and successful internationalisation … I believe that the mindsets of university administrators and professors need to change as well to suit global education.”

Listen to the Brilliant Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore

September 19, 2016

Listen to the Brilliant Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore

I admire and respect Singapore’s  Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for his intellect, eloquence  and  leadership. He is a living example of what a meritocratic society can produce, irrespective one’s race, colour, religion  and political bent. It is a culture of integrity and competence that makes Singapore what it is today. Malaysia pales by comparison.

DPM Tharman’s official resume (below) is impressive.–Din Merican

The Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore


DPM Tharman has served as Deputy Prime Minister in the Singapore Cabinet since May 2011. He was also appointed Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies on 1 Octöber 2015. He is in addition Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Singapore’s central bank and financial regulator.

He has spent his career in public service, in roles mainly around economic policy and education. He served as Minister for Finance for eight years, over 2007- 2015. He was Minister for Education for five years, over 2003-2008. He spent much of his earlier professional life at the MAS, where he was the Managing Director before entering politics in 2001.

Among his current responsibilities, he leads the Skills Future initiative, which seeks to build the skills of the future among Singaporeans, and empower them to learn at every stage of life.

He was appointed by his international peers as Chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC), the key policy forum of the IMF, for an extended period of four years from 2011, and was its first Asian chair. He is also a member of the Group of Thirty, an independent global council of leading economic and financial policy-makers and academics.

He chairs the International Academic Advisory Panel that advises the Government on strategies for the university sector. In addition, he chairs the International Advisory Council of the Singapore Economic Development Board.

Besides his responsibilities in Government, he chairs the Board of Trustees of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), which seeks to uplift educational performance and aspirations in the Indian Singaporean community. He also chairs the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute.

He was first elected as a Member of Parliament in 2001 in Jurong GRC, and has been reelected three times since. He was elected to the Central Executive Committee of the People’s Action Party in 2002, and was appointed 2nd Assistant Secretary-General in 2011.

He did his schooling in Singapore, before studying at the London School of Economics and Cambridge University for undergraduate and masters degrees in Economics. He later obtained a masters in Public Administration at Harvard University, where he was named a Lucius N Littauer Fellow.

He is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics. He was also made the fifth Honorary Fellow of the Economic Society of Singapore, in  2010.

Married to Jane Yumiko Ittogi, a lawyer by background and now actively engaged in community work and the non-profit arts sector. They have a daughter and three sons.

Copyright @ The Government of Singapore. All rights reserved.