Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

February 17, 2015

Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

Ambitious education policies don’t work because they are premature given the current inadequacies of the system.

COMMENT by Wan Salman Wan Sallam

Although he is actively critical of the Najib Administration, Tun Dr4th PM of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad seems to be still in possession of his sense of humour. He quipped recently that he’d want to be Prime Minister again if he had the chance. He said one of the things he would do would be to bring back the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI).

PPSMI is one of the many things he gave the nation during his tenure as Prime Minister. It was intended as a means of globalising students at an early stage. But things didn’t turn out as nicely as they should. It did not, for instance, succeed in narrowing the gap of educational opportunities between the urban and rural populace.

The problem of availability of extra materials and classes to reinforce learning has always been more severe in the rural areas. To worsen the situation, English language education has always been less effective in the rural areas. It is an open secret that in schools with large majorities of Malay and Bumiputera students, English teachers speak more Malay than English during lessons, perhaps thinking that this would help the students better understand the lessons. This happens even in secondary schools.

The students therefore do not have enough opportunities to communicate in the language, let alone enhance their skills. At the end of the day, they essentially don’t learn much. They experience problems not only with English, but also with understanding the basics of Mathematics and the Sciences. Thus the urban-rural gap is widened even further, and we can conclude that Mahathir’s policy was premature and problematic. It was premature because it was implemented without the conditions being ready for it.

After Mahathir retired, PPSMI was abolished and Science and Maths are now taught in Malay again. A problem may have got solved, but another one arises.

A step forward

In 2014, the Ministry of Education introduced a more thorough implementation of the School-based Assessment System (PBS). Formerly, it was implemented mainly in the form of oral tests for language subjects.

DPM of MalaysiaIt is good that we have finally found a way out of an extremely exam-oriented system and made a step forward. But yet again, the implementation was premature, with the pre-conditions not satisfied beforehand.

The enhanced PBS makes it necessary for teachers to keep updating students’ achievements in the system, adding yet another burden to their teaching duties.

Generally, we can assume that a classroom has about 40 students. Unlike a university lecturer, a school teacher must get to know his students individually and constantly give them personal support. Now that they are burdened with greater workloads, their chances of nurturing the pupils through the personal touch are reduced.

It has been reported that nearly 30% of schools in Malaysia are categorised as “schools with very small numbers of students”. One would think that the PBS system would work better in these schools. But no, 90% of these schools are poorly funded. Some of them even operate in other schools’ buildings and use their facilities. These schools, due to having few students, practice multi-grade teaching. As far as we can see from the environment of these schools, this is not a conducive condition for the implementation of PBS.

If that isn’t bad enough, the PBS management system (SPPBS) adds to our compilation of the worst things about PBS. With the system continually lagging if not hanging, we have another huge burden to add to the tons of workload already piled upon the shoulders of teachers.

Furthermore, the Internet speed also argues against the implementation of the online system. According to an Asean report, Malaysia’s average Internet speed is only around 5.5 Mbps, far from the global average of 17.7 Mbps, let alone Singapore’s 61 Mbps. Even Vietnam beats us.

With the implementation of PBS, both teachers and students are expected to make use of information and communication technology (ICT). But from a study done in a rural secondary school by a team from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, almost 80% of the students don’t have computers at home and more than 50% of them are not competent enough to use them. In fact, 70% of them get to use a computer for only about an hour a day. A good 42.9% don’t know how to use Microsoft Word and 60% aren’t familiar with e-mail.

PBS is, after all is said and done, another premature education policy. So if Mahathir wants to be PM again or if anyone else has the ambition to take over from Najib Abdul Razak, I’d ask him to please make sure that education policies are made to be compatible with current conditions. What is the point of an education policy if it benefits only a certain group of people, and a small one at that?

Wan Salman Wan Sallam is an FMT reader

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Where values begin

January 8, 2015

Where values begin

by Tricia

Tricia YeohFOR all of our technical analysis of how to improve such-and-such a public policy, the most current of which being the deforestation decisions that may have contributed largely to the flood disaster, the main question often asked is whether there is political will to follow through.

This is the conundrum that policy wonks like us in think-tanks have to face squarely each day: whether or not facts and figures really influence policymakers at the end of the day (both civil servants and politicians).

Sure, it is still crucial that someone does the job of number-crunching and doing comparative policy research. But perhaps it is equally – if not more so – important that non-governmental organisations like ours get our feet dirty to wade in the more difficult waters of changing cultural values in a more direct way.

It is our values that shape us, which influence our weltanschauung (worldview), sometimes “through a glass darkly”. These values are inculcated at a young age, influenced by the society we keep, both family and otherwise. The great divide we have observed in the ethno-religious debate in Malaysia is a perfect example. Just like how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it is near impossible to convince several deeply entrenched NGOs that the Sedition Act should be abolished, for instance.

If I were to recall my personal motivations for doing the things I do today, one would need to trace the values imbibed from a young age. Books that I read, experiences encountered during those very impressionable years of teenagehood, and most profoundly, people I looked up to as leaders, who eventually became – and still remain – mentors to me during periods of vocational self-doubt in this journey.

It is for this reason that IDEAS, after much deliberation, decided to embark on a new and exciting project, based on the understanding that it is the shaping of values from a young age that can truly transform the future of this now fragile nation. Through this, we hope to provide the same experience that many of us now working hard in civil society had the opportunity of having those many years ago.

We are calling for 20 of the brightest young Malaysian leaders from all over the country to be part of a nine-month National Unity Youth Fellowship programme, during which they will engage in a series of roundtable discussions, seminars and national conference where they will interact with community and religious leaders and other speakers we will identify. This is being done with the support of the National Integration Research and Training Institute at the Department of National Unity and Integration.

We hope that by the end of this period, we would have built up a strong and united, multi-ethnic and diverse “fellowship of 20″, whom, through their close-knit interaction, discussions and purposeful sessions of working together to formulate solutions, will become advocates for liberal ideas in tackling the problem of unity that we face today.

Values TreeIt is not enough that the youth of today have access to online media. Being connected to the internet ensures young Malaysians are exposed to the many dimensions of a particular issue. But a structured programme like this allows for young leaders with the greatest potential to be given specialised training on technical skills, the opportunity to build relationships with academics, opinion-shapers and thinkers, and most importantly, the ability to network with other like-minded leaders from different states across both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak.

It is a continuing challenge for the moderate-minded in Malaysia who feel frustrated over the way this nation of great potential has instead regressed. Overhauling the system would be ideal, but it will also take a long time, with many corresponding layers to tackle.

We have instead chosen to channel those frustrations into this programme that can have an immediate impact upon the young. It is hoped that at least one or two eventually feel that this intervention was meaningful to them, and that the right leadership, mentorship and training helped them reframe the way they see Malaysia and its plethora of identities. Perhaps we would then have contributed to the values of these future leaders, whatever they choose to do next with them – this is where values begin.

Dedicated to the families of those affected in the floods and the recent AirAsia crash.

Message of Moderation for 2015

December 27, 2014

Message of Moderation to Najib, PERKASA and ISMA for 2015

by Azmi (12-24-14)

When facing the challenges of a nation, one can approach it through a crude and hateful ideology determined that it is the only valid viewpoint and filled with the malicious intent of the bigoted. Or we can choose rationality, compassion, fairness, justice and inclusiveness.–Azmi Sharom

Azmi Sharom 3WHAT do the IS, Taliban and Boko Haram have in common?Firstly, they all describe themselves as Islamic.Secondly they all have carried out acts of despicable brutality.Finally, they are convinced that they are absolutely correct in what they do.

I think there is a lesson to be learnt from these three groups for us in Malaysia. I don’t think we in Malaysia can truly comprehend the horrors felt by those who are the victims of these three organisations.

Mass kidnappings, forced conversions, the murder of schoolchildren, the beheadings of innocents, out-and-out war; these are things which are so grotesque that, to me at least, they seem almost unreal. But they are real and we are blessed that we do not have to experience them first hand. But we must not be complacent.

I am not here to be a cheerleader for the anti-terrorism law now in the works. I have my doubts about this new law, but more importantly, the need for such laws indicate a failure to deal with a problem before it becomes a problem.

Desmond Tutu

Now it would be naïve and foolish to think that the IS, Boko Haram and Taliban, for all their pious posturing, are purely about religion. I am certain that any in-depth study of them will show that their roots are economic, political and social in nature. However, religion is a very useful tool and these people know how to use them.


How much easier is it to convince your followers that killing people is all right if is clothed in the language of a holy war. It is much simpler to deal with economic problems by making the cause of these problems the infidels and the answer is to eliminate them. And controlling society becomes a breeze when you can convince people that you are doing God’s work and only you are correct (coupled with a vicious system of law of course).

What does this have to do with us? Frankly folks, I do not know what our future holds. I do not know if our economy is going to be strong or whether it will collapse. What I do know is that if things get bad, then people will become desperate and they will turn to something to give them hope. The language of the extremist is one such place

It is absolutely vital therefore that we must have many voices and views out there. There has to be opinions which are not reactionary but measured, thoughtful and just. We must dilute the potency of the extreme with a variety of alternative thought.

There are extremists amongst us, and make no mistake they are there, if not in out and out terrorist mode their language and stance is but a few steps away. If we allow only their voices to be heard, then what we are doing is preparing the soil for extremist behaviour to seed and take root the moment things get bad.

inclusivenessOne Choice: Inclusiveness with Compassion

It is therefore of utmost importance to place into the consciousness of the nation a choice. The choice is a clear one. When facing the challenges of a nation, one can approach it through a crude and hateful ideology determined that it is the only valid viewpoint and filled with the malicious intent of the bigoted. Or we can choose rationality, compassion, fairness, justice and inclusiveness.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone.


Politicians and Public Figures told not to meddle in University Academic Affairs

December 21, 2014

Politicians and Public Figures told not to meddle in University Academic Affairs

by Zafira

nazrinsultanHRH Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah.

POLITICIANS and public figures should not interfere in the academic affairs of a university to ensure its integrity, says Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah.

Revisiting his late father Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Al-Maghfur-lah’s speech during a Universiti Malaya (UM) convocation ceremony in 1987, Sultan Nazrin said his father placed high importance in ensuring that universities had full autonomy over its academic management.

Quoting his late father’s speech, Sultan Nazrin said: “Historically, we have seen instances where outsiders have interfered in the management of a university, leading to the deterioration of the academics and making it difficult to improve, not just in a third world country, but even in developed nations.

“I urge political leaders and other public figures in society not to lead, influence or lobby a university in academic affairs,” he said in his speech at a special commemoration ceremony for Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah Al-Maghfur-lah at UM’s Dewan Tunku Canselor here yesterday.

Earlier, several academicians took turns revisiting their experiences working with Sultan Azlan with the audience, comprising UM students and its alumni. Present were Raja Permaisuri Perak Tuanku Zara Salim and UM Vice-Chancellor Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin.

Before Sultan Nazrin took to the rostrum for his speech, a slide presentation was played showing photographs and quotes of Sultan Azlan in his early years with UM.

Sultan Nazrin appeared teary-eyed during the three-minute presentation and was visibly emotional in delivering his speech, at times pausing to wipe away tears.

Sultan Nazrin said in the 28 years that his father was the university’s Chancellor, all 26 of his father’s convocation decrees consistently stressed the importance for the university to mold a holistic educational syllabus that covered aspects of religion, intellect, moral values and integrity.

He said this was to ensure that the varsity produced graduates that were knowledgeable, ethical, honourable, responsible and capable, as well as honest and sincere.

In a fragile social climate, Sultan Nazrin said it was important for the nation to have an independent judiciary, uphold the Federal Constitution and protect the sovereignty of the country.

“During a convocation ceremony on June 30, 1979, after receiving an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the university, Sultan Azlan, who was then the external examiner for UM’s Bachelor of Law degree, shared his words of wisdom, which were ahead of its time.

“Touching on sensitive issues pertaining to conflicts over race and religion, his words should be used as a guide and reference to deter the country from sensationalising sensitive issues that could ignite conflicts and jeopardise harmony in the country.

“His speech ended with this reminder: to forge a Malaysian society that is strong, dynamic and long-lasting, everyone must come together under one flag, the Malaysian flag; one ruler, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong; one language, Bahasa Malaysia; one song, Negaraku; one culture, a culture based on Malay culture; and, under one motto, ‘Bersekutu bertambah mutu’ (Unity improves quality),” said Sultan Nazrin.

He said yesterday’s ceremony was a manifestation of appreciation by UM to a special individual who had contributed to the university for 28 years.

“The best form of appreciation and remembrance is through embracing and practising all of Sultan Azlan’s guidance,” Sultan Nazrin said, adding he hoped his late father’s words of wisdom would be adopted by many in their daily lives.

Later, Sultan Nazrin was presented a robe and mortar board that was worn by his late father during the university’s past convocation ceremonies.

Economics Inside Baseball

December 1, 2014

Notes on the Floating Crap Game (Economics Inside Baseball)

by Paul Krugman (November 30, 2014)

  A new paper by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan on the  structure of academic economics (pdf) is getting a fair bit of attention among people I talk to. The tone is rather jaundiced, but that’s surely a defensible attitude, and everything substantive it says about economics rings true from my own experience; I’m glad to see that quantitative analysis confirms what I thought.

Their basic point is that successful economists tend to be intellectually arrogant because they live in a social setup that is very hierarchical, with steep gradients of prestige, widespread agreement about what constitutes good work and who is doing it, and pretty big rewards by professorial standards for climbing to the top of the heap. Quite. I’ve played that game and lived that life; I’ve even written about it. My observations may be somewhat out of date, because while I’ve kept my academic ties I spend more and more of my time in my second career as public intellectual. But maybe I can still add a bit to the description, and also talk about how all of this bears on some recent controversies.

So, academic economics is indeed very hierarchical; but I think it’s important to understand that it’s not a bureaucratic hierarchy, nor can status be conferred by crude patronage.

The profession runs on reputation — basically the shared perception that you’re a smart guy. But how do you get reputation? Not by having a chair at a major school; that helps your visibility, but doesn’t protect you from being perceived as none too bright (in fact, even past work doesn’t do that — you hear younger economists wondering how that guy wrote those papers.) Nor does having the support of a powerful person do very much; you can be the favorite student of the top person in your sub field, but that won’t do more than get your foot in the door.

Instead, reputation comes out of clever papers and snappy seminar presentations. There are problems with that, which I’ll get to. But the point for now is that while it may seem like a vague concept, within each sub field everyone knows who the top guns are, and there’s a very steep slope downward from the few people at the very pinnacle and the next level. In my original home field, international trade, we used to joke that senior hires were difficult because there were only four people in the top ten.

Having sufficient reputation gets you into a charmed circle; as I wrote in that old essay,

In the modern academic world there tends, in any given field — whether it is international finance, Jane Austen studies, or some branch of endocrinology — to be a “circuit”, the people who get invited to speak at academic conferences, who form a sort of de facto nomenklatura. I used to refer to the circuit in international economics as the “floating crap game”. It’s hard to get onto the circuit — it takes at least two really good papers, one to get noticed and a second to show that the first wasn’t a fluke — but once you are in, the constant round of conferences and invited papers makes it easy to stay in.

I may have been exaggerating the extent to which this is true of other disciplines, but economics for sure.

Because everything runs on reputation, a lot of what you might imagine academic politics is like — what it may be like in other fields — doesn’t happen in econ. When young I would have relatives asking whether I was “in” with the department head or the senior faculty in my department, whether I was cultivating relationships, whatever; I thought it was funny, because all that mattered was your reputation, which was national if not global. If you kept turning out clever papers and giving great seminars — I used to pride myself on turning out the best paper in the field each year (not a bit arrogant, not me) and giving the best seminars in the profession — you’d get a tenure offer somewhere good really soon, and your home school would almost surely match.

By the way, the field most in the news — business cycle macroeconomics, aka economic fluctuations — can give you a misleading impression of how the profession in general works, precisely because macro is divided into hostile camps. Trade wasn’t and isn’t; neither, for the most part, was my other home, international macro, which was surprisingly free of hard-line anti-Keynesianism. Because there weren’t rival camps, the hierarchy of reputation was crystal clear and undisputed.

And reading Fourcade et al, it occurs to me that the way everything outside macro works may explain one of the things that has puzzled me in the disputes over macro policy — namely, the seemingly unquenchable certainty among some of the freshwater guys that Keynesians are stupid.

Again and again we’ve seen freshwater macro economists declare that New Keynesians, let alone those who respect the older stuff, don’t get some basic point; they don’t understand the accounting identities, they don’t understand Ricardian equivalence, they don’t understand the Euler condition, they don’t understand the Fisher equation. Each time it has turned out that the Keynesians understood the concepts perfectly well, and that it was the anti-Keynesians, in their haste to cry “Gotcha!”, who were making elementary logical errors or suffering failures of reading comprehension. You would think that at some point they’d catch on, and realize that New Keynesian economics may be wrong, but it’s not stupid, and neither are the people who do it. (If your worldview says that Stan Fischer and Olivier Blanchard must be dumb, you have a problem.) But they never do seem to learn. Why?

Well, my guess is that it’s the habits that come from the economists’ reputation-based hierarchy interacting with the insularity of the freshwater macro school. People in that camp tuned out alternative views more than 30 years ago, so all they observe is their own repetitional universe. They haven’t heard about these New Keynesian guys or their papers, so there must be nothing there — which is something you can get away with in trade, but not in macro amid a global crisis.

But back to the structure of academic economics. It’s hierarchical; it can be very frustrating to people who haven’t managed to get in on the floating crap game; I suspect that it has a lot to do with the barriers women face in the field (which will have to be a different essay.) But here’s one question: Are the reputations deserved?

I used to think so. Hey, it worked for me. But the macro wars have been revealing: we’ve seen quite a few highly successful academics, with lots of widely cited papers, prove remarkably dense when trying to weigh in on real-world events. It has been all too obvious that there are people with big reputations who can push equations around but don’t seem to have any sense of what the equations mean. And they don’t even seem to know what they don’t know; there has been an awful lot of Dunning-Kruger effect at work in some of these debates.

I guess I hope that these things are outliers. But if you feel cynical about economics after reading Fourcade, you may be right.

Anwar Ibrahim at University of Malaya (October 27, 2014)

October 28, 2014

Anwar Ibrahim at University of Malaya

Anwar at UM

Anwar Ibrahim spoke with passion to students at the University of Malaya last night (October 27, 2014). He asked his audience, why is the government in power is so scared of a simple human being like him that they won’t allow him to speak in the campus of his alma mater. Where is academic freedom, where is academic excellence and where is our dignity as a people? He spoke of racism and disunity, corruption and abuse of power. Listen to him.–Din Merican