MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku



10 APRIL 2024

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The current Malaysian dilemma

There is an old joke about dealing with underperformers in the public service (or at least I think it is an old joke) – you promote them so they do less damage. What happens, however, if they continue all the way up to the top ranks?
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar

HERE we are, the end of another year, and what a year it was. A general election with a record turnout which saw the popular vote swing to the opposition. However, it did not result in the change that many thought possible.
It was the year of the Chinese tsunami and purportedly unjust claims of unfair elections, and a bumper year for sedition cases and prosecutions under the Peaceful Assembly Act. It was also a year in which we saw a record number of election petitions being thrown out by the court on mind-boggling technical grounds, plus the awarding of staggering costs.
With the return of detentions without trial and the introduction of what seem to be anti-whistleblowing crimes - how else can one describe the "newly minted" offence of leaking information concerning the goings-on of government - it has been what some might describe as "an incredible trip".
So much so that I find myself wondering how it is that next year is not going to be boring.
Perhaps it is to ensure that we are mentally prepared for the potential tedium of next year, the universe has reminded us of a few old favourites. We are among the top five again for illicit capital outflow, according to the latest report by Global Financial Integrity, with all the attendant implications.
Race relations will almost certainly remain as it is, the heightened emphasis on race and religion in national politics this year exacerbating an already worrying state of affairs. And politics next year will undoubtedly remain as fatuous and infantile as it was this year, as the adventures of those at the helm continue to take centre stage.
Hope for some real excitement may lie in the field of education. Malaysia had its proverbial behind given a swift kick by the World Bank this year. As the online media has taken pains to emphasise, its 2013 report on our education system has brought into relief some of the systemic issues that plague it and, in my view, by extension, other governmental delivery systems.
There are several features of the report that I think bear emphasis here, and offer food for thought for the coming year.
The report says the education system is in serious need of reform. While the Education Blueprint unveiled by the Ministry of Education this year is recognised as having provided "a candid overview of the challenges faced by the public education system in Malaysia, and proposes extensive, wide-ranging solutions in every facet of basic education in the country", the authors say transformation requires addressing the "deep-seated problems that constrain learning outcomes in the country, and focused reform efforts that target institutional barriers and provide the right incentives for performance at each level of governance within the education system - mostly importantly, at schools".
The report goes on to recognise that Malaysia's education system is not producing the quality graduates required by a high-income economy, a fact that continues to undermine our competitiveness and impedes our trajectory of becoming such an economy.
As it underscores, a "nation's human capital, which is largely built by its education system, is a fundamental driver of economic growth. Education systems build cognitive skills, equipping workers with knowledge that makes them more productive and allows innovations to emerge".
Damningly, the report says, "Malaysia's performance in international tests is sobering". Among East Asian countries that participated in the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), Malaysian students only outperformed their Indonesian peers, and lag even those from lower-income countries (including, by a wide margin, Vietnam).
In part, this is seen as being due to the lack of quality teachers that the system continues to deploy. The report says that though teacher numbers are ample, there are significant concerns about teacher quality.
It states, "46 per cent of principals report a lack of qualified teaching staff as a constraint, and the Ministry of Education (MoE) admits that in recent years, some candidates enrolling in teacher training institutions did not meet minimum requirements of academic achievement at the secondary level."
It further notes that proficiency in the English language among English-language teachers is very low, and is particularly so among English-language teachers at primary schools.
The report observes that a mere 25% of English teachers in primary schools were actually proficient in the language, and hence did not need any further training to improve their skills in the language.
At the secondary level, this figure rose to 51% of teachers. "Thus, not only is the vast majority of the Malaysian teaching force not ready to teach English today because they do not possess the necessary language skills, the deficiency in skills is particularly acute at the primary level, which is the level at which it is easiest to develop language skills among children."
The situation is so critical that the report states that reform is needed in Malaysian teacher training institutes to address "deep weaknesses in core skills in the existing body of Malaysian teachers".
It makes me wonder how it is that the situation could have been allowed to become so dire, and when exactly the rot first set in.
There is a further dimension to the analysis. The report says the system has also undermined our diversity as a society. The data relied on for this finding is significant for its wider implications. The authors observe, "Student and teacher diversity in national schools has decreased, especially at the primary level. Ethnic stratification in schools has increased, with the proportion of Chinese students enrolled in SJKCs (Chinese schools) up from 92% in 2000 to 96% in 2011.
Indian students enrolled in SJKTs (Tamil schools) have also increased from 47% to 56% for the same period. "According to the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, 97% of students in SKs (national schools) are bumiputeras. Although students then largely converge at the secondary level and SMKs are more reflective of the country's diversity, there appears to be a missed opportunity for greater interactions in early years.
"In this regard, the Education Blueprint recognises the need to create avenues for students from different school-types to interact. Similar to the importance of diverse peers, students benefit from role models of different ethnicities to properly reflect Malaysia's diverse population and to bridge the gaps between ethnicities.
"However, the teacher population in SKs is also becoming less diverse. In 2001, 78% of the teachers across all national schools were bumiputeras, and this number rose to 81% in 2011. Although the proportion of Indian teachers remained fairly constant at 5%, the share of Chinese teachers in national schools dropped from 17% to 14%."
Given the level of centralisation of the system's governance structure, Malaysia's is apparently among the world's most centralised systems. It is not surprising then that in more ways than one, the system has fallen victim to the politics of the government of the day.
The root of the problems that many a Malaysian parent is routinely confronted with today in schools is readily appreciated when viewed in that light. Logically, the report advocates the decentralisation of the education system and increased institutional autonomy.
It is self-evident that structural reform is crucial. And while the government has committed to some such reform in the Education Blueprint, this is a process that the government anticipates will take place over the next 10 years or so, in "three waves".
As the authors remark, "Malaysia's planned reforms in education change very little in terms of sanctioning low performance among teachers.
Given the young age profile of teachers in the system, low-ability and low-skilled teachers currently in the system will stay in the system for decades. Under the blueprint reform plans, teachers will undergo enhanced professional development described above in the first wave of the reform (2013-2015).
"An exit strategy for low-performing teachers is mentioned only under Wave 2 of the reform (2016-2020), where the blueprint states that the MoE will propose an exit policy or redeployment for teachers who perform poorly for three consecutive years despite the provision of intensive support.
"Under this policy, the ministry will redeploy teachers to other functions within the school such as administration, discipline management and co-curricular management. Similarly, teachers who do not meet the minimum proficiency standard in the English language after undergoing training will be given up to two years to make the necessary improvements.
"The MoE estimates that as the average non-proficient teacher only requires training over two years to meet the proficiency standard, it is anticipated that most who adhere to the training regime will be able to pass the evaluation by 2015. Those who still do not meet the proficiency standard will be tasked to teach other subjects or redeployed.
"This suggests a worryingly long duration of professional development - and a large financial investment - for each low-performing teacher, with little or no guarantee of success in terms of improvement in student learning. Given the high combined cost of personal emoluments and in-service professional training, one option that MoE may consider would be to reduce the 'grace period' teachers are allowed for improving performance before they are redeployed."
In all that it says, the report is a clarion call for action even as it red flags much of what is holding back this nation. The last feature noted above offers some insight into what must be the current Malaysian dilemma; we have a large number of underperformers throughout the public service whom the government has no clue how to handle.
And because it does not, these individuals continue to impact on our lives.
There is an old joke about dealing with underperformers in the public service (or at least I think it is an old joke) - you promote them so they do less damage. What happens, however, if they continue all the way up to the top ranks? Then, I think, the joke is on us. This too, I think, could rightfully be called the current Malaysian dilemma.
Oh, dear. As I reflect on the year past and consider what is that I would like to see next year bring into our lives, I appreciate that our recovery as a nation will take conviction, continued faith in all that can happen and a tremendous amount of patience.
We must believe that true transformation can take place in the most unassuming of ways.
Take the Education Blueprint. It has acknowledged, indirectly if not directly, some hard truths. The persons behind the blueprint ought to be credited for having had the gumption to do so. They have given us a foothold. I do not think it impossible for others to follow suit.
The vast majority of us only have this one nation to call home. Our recognition of that truth might be what we need to pull out of the nosedive that we appear to be in.
Happy New Year.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is a practising lawyer and the immediate past president of the National Human Rights Societ. This article was published in The Edge Malaysia, Dec 23 - 29 issue.

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