Towards A Competitive Malaysia #42

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 31 16:19:43 UTC 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #42
Chapter 6:  People:  Our Most Precious Asset

Schooling Does Not Equal Learning

Alison Wolf, a stern critic of Britain's higher education policy,
notes that the current faith on education as an instrument for
economic growth can be carried too far. She pointed out that both
South Korea and Egypt spend generously on education, yet the former is
an economic powerhouse while the latter is falling behind.17 Hong Kong
never spent much on education (or any social expenditures for that
matter), yet its economy is robust. Then there is Switzerland; it is
one country that is bucking the trend towards democratization of
higher education. It purposely restricts university education to
approximately 15 percent of its high school graduates. By comparison,
America matriculates 60 percent and Malaysia, 25 percent. And
Switzerland is far from being an economic laggard.

Such anomalies are seen even within nations, with Malaysia being a
ready example. The educational achievements of Malays and non-Malays,
in particular the Chinese, as measured by formal years of schooling
are comparable. In fact the Chinese have a higher dropout rates
especially at the primary level as compared to Malays. Yet, the
economic achievement of Malays lags behind those of Chinese. Yes,
Malays may have more years of formal schooling, but many attend
religious schools or pursue Islamic or Malay Studies. When Chinese
students drop out of school, they work for their parents where they
learn the lessons of business and life far more effectively than they
could at school.

The same could be said of young Malays who dropped out of their
increasingly irrelevant rural and religious schools. Many, especially
the girls—the "Minah Karans"—end up working in factories of
multinational corporations where they learn far more valuable lessons
of life than they could ever get from their listless teachers in their
dilapidated schools. Studies indicate that these Minah Karans (which
incidentally is a derogatory term applied to these young ladies) show
all the demographic characteristics of someone who had gone through
many years of formal schooling, like marrying late and having low
fertility.18 Those much-maligned multinational corporations do a
better job in training and educating these rural girls than government

Studies by the California Public Policy Institute show that an
education system that emphasizes language, science, and mathematics
has a direct impact on subsequent economic performance as measured by
earning power.19 In Malaysia, at least in the private sector, the
earning power of Malays consistently lags those of non-Malays, leading
many to charge discrimination. Before we accept that serious and
inflammatory allegation, we should do a more careful study to include
other variables, like ability in English, science, and mathematics. If
such a study were done, it would show that a Malay with qualifications
in the sciences would earn more than a non-Malay qualified in the
liberal arts.

Wolf and her colleagues in their report, Mathematical Skills in the
Workplace, indicate that mathematics is being deployed at all skill
levels and in all industries. With the widespread application of ICT
and the use of such applications as spreadsheet and graphing,
mathematical skills become even more crucial. In quality improvement
exercises, some knowledge of sampling, statistics, and graphing is
necessary. As British schools are not teaching these skills, industry
is forced to provide on-the-job training.20

As for language ability, in this globalized world the most advantaged
are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English.
That is why the East Asians are rushing to study English, and why
American schools teach foreign languages. Top American colleges
require their students to take a foreign language.

The second most advantaged are those who are fluent only in English.
The least advantaged are those who know only one language, and that
language is other than English.21 Sadly that is the fate of most
Malays. Combined with their generally abysmal quantitative skills, is
it not surprising that Malays lag behind economically. In the world of
business, the only official (and useful) language is that of one's
customer. Three-quarters of Malaysia's trade are with the
English-speaking world. Simple pragmatism and good business sense
dictate that we should be conversant in English. To be sure, English
is no panacea. A visit to the Philippines will quickly disabuse one of
such a silly notion.

Tunku was correct in emphasizing schools and not follow the Nehru
debacle by concentrating on higher education. Malaysia should improve
the quality of its schools by ensuring that the curriculum is relevant
and emphasizes English, science and mathematics.

Yet today Malaysian schools remain overcrowded, with double sessions
the norm. Libraries and laboratory facilities are abysmal. When
queried, the pat answer is always the lack of funds. Malaysian leaders
are falling into the Nehru trap of building more universities at the
expense of schools. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of
yet another new campus being built, further feeding the public
perception of "credentialism" (paper qualifications). At least Nehru
emphasized quality; while Malaysia, quantity. Indian graduates could
at least emigrate; Malaysian graduates are unemployable even in their
own country.

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