Thursday, May 29, 2014

Making an English SPM 'pass' compulsory

Much has been made of the fact the DPM and Education Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin, did not know that it was not compulsory have a 'pass' in English at the SPM level. Later UMNO Youth came out to support making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level, subject to some caveats. I have some reservations about making a change to the current policy and here's why.

Firstly, this proposed policy change (making an English SPM pass compulsory) is premised on the false assumption that the standard of English will increase as a consequence of this policy change. Without any changes in the quality of teachers who teach English, especially those in the rural areas, or other resources aimed at improving the standard of English in our schools, all things being equal, this policy will only result in an increase of those who will fail their SPM because of failure to pass the English exam.

Secondly, this proposed policy change will increase the incentives to make the English exam even easier than it already is as well as to decrease the passing mark for the same exam. The bureaucrats at the MOE do not want to have political heat on their backs as a result of the protests of many parents whose children did not manage to pass their SPM English exam. The path of least resistance would be to either make the English SPM exam easier or to decrease the passing mark or to do both!

Thirdly, this proposed policy change presupposes that every SPM holder requires a passing level of English to get on with life. Sure, it would be difficult to read English textbooks and articles at the university / college level without a proficient understanding of English. But if the medium of instruction in our public universities continue to be in BM, then I see no reason why not having an English SPM pass should be the basis for denying a student entry into one of the public universities or a matriculation program. Furthermore, there are many career paths which are open to Malaysians which require only a minimal level of English proficiency. I don't see why Malaysians who choose to pursue these career paths should be denied an SPM certificate just because they fail to pass their English exam at the SPM level.

This is in no way an argument to diminish the importance of English. Most of the top jobs in the private sector require a high proficiency in English. Most of the top jobs in the civil service require at least a decent level of spoken English. But I think having this policy change distracts from the more important and pressing objective of improving the standard of English in Malaysia. Making an English pass compulsory at the SPM level is the easy part. Making substantive changes to the way English is taught in our schools in the much harder and more important challenge.

Making sense of the JPA numbers

Read this article in the Star about a question directed to Nazri in parliament in regard to JPA scholarships. I'll reproduce it in full below since it has a lot of numbers in it. My comments follow.

68% of merit scholarships went to non-Bumiputra

KUALA LUMPUR: Nearly 68% or 280 of the Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships under the 20% merit-category were awarded to non-bumiputras, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.

He said only about 32% or 135 scholarships were awarded to bumiputra in the latest round of applications for the PSD's overseas degree programme.

"This proves that the award was not based on skin color, that the Government is fair in the selection of the 20% without looking at race, culture or religion but based on academic excellence," he told Lim Kit Siang (DAP - Ipoh Timur) in Parliament Tuesday.

He also said that PSD scholarships looked at academic excellence based on nine subjects chosen by the student relevant to the degree of their choice.

"This limit was set to ensure all students were on an equal playing field because not all schools had the same facilities and teaching manpower," he said in reply to Tan Ah Eng (BN - Gelang Patah).

At the Parliament lobby, Nazri said: “We do not do things without referring to the Federal Constitution, which means that we cannot give all for merit,” he said.

Out of 2,100 PSD scholarships for students to study abroad this year, 20%, which is 417, was reserved for those with merit, regardless of race and religion, he said.

Of the 417, almost 68% were given to non-bumiputras based on merit and only 32% for bumiputras, he said.

On complaints by those with 13As and 14As and did not get scholarships, he said he could not give them because it was not fair since some schools did not allow students to take more than 10 subjects.

That was why the Government wanted to base it on 10 subjects only, he said.

Inside the dewan, Nazri said for year 2009, PSD offered 1,176 scholarships to Bumiputras and 924 to non-Bumiputras.

He also said that more than RM2.8bil in Public Service Department (PSD) sponsorships for overseas degree courses were given out between 2000 and 2008.

The sum was given to 12,485 recipients where 9,160 were bumiputera and 3,325 were non-bumiputera.

The breakdown of table showed that allocation for scholarships increased from RM109mil in year 2000 to RM659mil last year.

Similarly, the number of students also increased from 748 in year 2000 to 2,000 last year, while 598 Bumiputra students getting scholarships in 2000 and increased to 1,100 last year.

For non-Bumiputra, number of students in year 2000 was 150 and had increased to 900 last year.

From Jan 14, 2009, the awarding criteria of the Overseas Degree Programme was divided into four categories, he said.

The first was based on academic excellence without counting race and socio-economic backgrounds where selection was based on academic results (85%), co-curriculum (10%) and interviews (5%).

The category was based on current racial population ratios where one race's allocation would be divided to others if it was not used.

"Selection is also made based on academic excellence with at least A2 in all core and elective subjects.

"At the same time, the candidates were also selected based on their secondary school co-curriculum participation, families' socio-economic backgrounds and interviews," he said.

The third category, he said, were for Sabah (5%) and Sarawakian (5%) bumiputra.

The last category was given to socially disadvantaged students from rural areas with limited facilities and from low-income families.

Nazri added that applicants in categories three and four also had to have at least A2s in all subjects relevant to their degree of choice, which made up 65% of the selection criteria.

He said students under the programme were sent for first degrees in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Russie, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, Jordan, India and Indonesia.

Some general comments:

According to Nazri, 1176 out of 2100 overseas JPA scholarships were given to Bumiputra students while the rest went to non-bumi students. This is very close to the 55 / 45 ethnic quota which the government promised in June 2008.

The composition of these scholarships is as follows:

60% allocated based on 'excellence' as well as the racial composition of the country.

20% allocated purely on merit without considering any ethnic quotas.

10% allocated to students from Sabah and Sarawak (which is not the 20% promised earlier)

10% allocated to students from disadvantaged backgrounds (no ethnic quota specified).

If 280 non-bumi students were allocated the JPA scholarship from the purely merit based portion, this would mean that a balance of 644 non-bumi students were given the JPA scholarship from the other two allocations i.e. the 60% allocation based on 'excellence' and racial composition of the country and the 10% allocation based on the background of a student.

Questions of ethnic quotas aside, this kind of reply from Nazri doesn't really give me any more confidence in the way in which these JPA scholarship recipients are chosen. For example, how is the pool of 20% purely merit based students selected? How are they different from the group of 'excellent' students from which the 60% allocation is given? How is a 'disadvantaged' background determined?

Unless there is more transparency in regard to the criteria for giving out these scholarships, beyond the superficial information of 60%, 20%, 10%, 10% allocated to whom and what, the questioning of the JPA scholarship allocation will continue to rage on and on.

The future of La Salle Schools?

Well written letter in the Star by Dr. Goh Cheng Teik on the future of La Salle schools in Malaysia. I think his suggestion of handing back the administration of these schools to the 'brothers' is interesting but I'm not sure if there are enough 'brothers' around to administer these schools. I'll reproduce the letter in full below. (BTW, I was from La Salle PJ, primary and secondary, until Form 3)

Thursday June 18, 2009
Hand back ‘Saint’ schools to the La Salle Brothers

YOUR report “An end of an era for La Sallians” (The Star, May 1) stirred deep emotions in the hearts of those who had studied at the 50 La Salle schools in the country. The exit of Bro Paul Ho, the last Brother Director from St Xavier’s Institution does look like the end of an era.

But Old Xaverians and Old Lasallians do pray that Bro Paul’s retirement would not be the end of the involvement of Christian Brothers in Malaysian schools. At the recent Yayasan La Salle Board meeting on June 6, former UPM Vice Chancellor Tan Sri Syed Jalaluddin, an Old Xaverian, made a passionate plea for the Christian Brothers to stay engaged in Malaysia. The meeting was chaired by Tan Sri Kamarulzaman Shariff, another Old Xaverian and a former Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, who mandated Syed Jalaluddin to sketch out a road map for the coming years.

Old Lasallians like Syed Jalaluddin and Kamarulzaman value what the Brothers have done and wish that they can do more. Unfortunately, the congregation of La Salle Brothers worldwide has shrunk. F

ewer and fewer youths in the modern world are prepared to embrace the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for the sake of educating children from impoverished families. The Brothers have to conserve their manpower and deploy their resources smartly.

The present thinking is that Old La Sallians who have friends in high places should convince the Government to hand back two schools, St John’s Institution and St. Xavier’s Institution, to the La Salle Brothers to manage and administer. At the same time, the Government should convert both schools from being sekolah bantuan modal into sekolah-sekolah bantuan penoh.

Schools like St John’s and St Xavier’s have shown that they have withstood the test of time. After all, St John’s has produced Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the present Prime Minister; Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Home Minister; Datuk Sri Nazir Tun Razak, the banker and younger brother of Najib and Raja Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak.

St Xavier’s has produced Karpal Singh, the opposition leader; Tun Hamid Omar, the former Lord President; Tan Sri Nor Nor Mohamed Yakcop, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Both schools can be depended upon to make proper use of the financial resources and enhanced powers given to them. They should be challenged - at the right moment - to bring back the academic and extra-curricular excellence that they had enjoyed in the past. These include competency in the English language, both written and spoken.

I believe making St John’s and St Xavier’s fully-aided schools and mandating the La Salle Brothers and the respective boards of governors to administer them is the answer. Taking both schools private sounds great in theory but in practice, funds would have to be raised all the time. Fees have to be charged and revised upward regularly.

Those students who cannot pay would have to be barred from attending classes. The La Salle Brothers would not be comfortable with a fee-based regime. Their philosophy is to provide education to those who need it, not only to those who can pay for it.

Syed Jalaluddin’s mission is delicate and important. As someone who had studied in a La Salle school and who had worked as a Vice Chancellor of a public university, he can bridge the communication gap between the La Salle Brothers and the politicians and civil servants.

He can get a dialogue going. For all you know, he may find an ally in the person of the PM since Najib is an Old Lasallian.


Missionary schools model for 1 Malaysia?

Malaysia's 6th PM, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, is a product of St. John's Institution in KL. Recently, he went back to his alma mater and proclaimed that the missionary school model represents what he sees in his 1 Malaysia vision. I'll reproduce the full article from the Malaysian Insider below and comment after that.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 27 — A visit to his Christian alma mater was used today by Datuk Seri Najib Razak to drive home his vision of 1 Malaysia which was officially launched at Dataran Merdeka earlier this morning.

The prime minister, who officiated the opening of the Conference of Christian Mission Schools in Malaysia at the St John’s Institution here, paid tribute to mission schools and their role in nation building.

He said mission schools had a special ethos which promote unity, very much like his vision of 1 Malaysia.

Najib is led by the school captain, as he walks to the St.John's school hall for the conference.
“The ethos of mission schools shaped the values and beliefs of students which is in line with 1 Malaysia.”

He said that part and parcel of the concept of 1 Malaysia was to accept diversity and a plural society as a heritage and strength instead of a source of problems.

“1 Malaysia goes beyond tolerance but accepts diversity,” he said, adding that it would be achieved if Malaysians could look beyond race, colour and religions.

“I am convinced it we continue on this path Malaysia can be stronger.”

Najib said that St John's had provided him the sound grounding which eventually made him the prime minister of Malaysia.

He said that returning to the school had brought back special memories, including the times he walked up the hill (Jalan Bukit Nanas) to the school with his heavy bag and playing pranks with his friends.

He also joked that his father gave him a promotion, enrolling him straight into Standard Two at St John’s Primary School, where he spent five years, and a further three years at St John’s Secondary.

He paid tribute to the former and present teachers of the school and even called out to a La Salle Christian Brother in the crowd, who was his former teacher.

This was the scene earlier when Najib entered his alma mater accompanied by the famous St.John's school band.
Najib also took the occasion to have a swipe at Victoria Institution, the traditional rivals of St John’s.

“We are even better than the ‘other school’ in KL,” he joked.
He closed his speech with a special announcement, saying that he would officially declare his old school a National Heritage Site on July 12.

I won't go into the debate on what 1 Malaysia means exactly.

Rather, I want to make a couple of observations:

(i) I think it's a good thing that Najib is planning to declare SJI as a National Heritage Site next month. Hopefully this means that the school will not be torn down to make way for a shopping center, the way BBGS was torn down because it was located in prime real estate.

(ii) More importantly, I think the spirit and nature of many of the missionary schools in Malaysia, including SJI, has changed since the time when Najib was in school. The 'nationalization' of these schools which includes putting in headmasters and headmistresses which have no conception of the philosophy of the missionary schools or the La Sallian tradition and many attempts by MOE officials to 'de-Christianize' these schools have led to a drop in standards, both academic and disciplinary.

It is not enough to just say that the philosophy of the missionary schools capture the spirit of what 1 Malaysia means but Najib has to act in such a way to ensure that this spirit is returned to the missionary schools and promoted in other national schools.

One possible way, which Dr. Goh Cheng Teik has recommended, is to bring back the brothers into the school boards of the various La Salle schools to that their influence is still felt.

Other ways include emphasizing a culture and spirit which respects diversity and inclusiveness in the teacher training schools so that the teachers and headmasters can teach as well as practice what it means to respect all religions and races.

I'm not sure about the educational background of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the current Minister of Education, but hopefully he can pick up on what Najib has said and will make this an important priority in his agenda.

Thoughts on the university admissions process

A friend of mine, Rajan Rishyakaran, has written a good blog post critiquing the Malaysian university admissions process. While I don't know enough about local universities to comment on many things he raises, there are a couple of points which I think are worth emphasising: the difference between policy in theory and policy in reality, and the importance of decentralising some decisions.

There are many illustrations of the difference between something in theory and something in practice, but Rajan's example of coursework is as good as any. In principle, adding coursework to the evaluation process for university admissions would be a good thing.

After all, a major problem with our education system is that it focuses a lot on examinations which only assess students at one point in time, and often encourage rote memorisation instead of actual learning. If you fall sick during exam period, it can dramatically change your life's course, because you might not get into the university you otherwise could, or not pursue the degree you otherwise would attain. And because the format and style of exams is so predictable, all you need to do is practice with enough exam papers from previous years to be prepared -- you don't necessarily need to understand anything on the exam (I have found that understanding too much can actually be detrimental to your marks in some Malaysian exams).

If we emphasised coursework more, then one-off incidents which might negatively impact your exam performance would matter less: you have a substantial amount of time to do your coursework. Because the key element of your coursework is usually a report on something you have researched, you actually learn something useful: you learn how to write academically, and you learn some basic research or factfinding skills.

That's the theory; the practical reality is something else altogether. When I was in school, nobody took coursework seriously. Or rather, they took it the same way they took an exam: they figured out the best way to game the system, and they did it. Everyone would Google their topic, and instead of writing up a report about it, they would plagarise the most relevant websites. If they were too lazy to do this, they would plagiarise from one another very openly -- there was no stigma to copying or cheating off someone else's work.

It's not that they were lazy; it's that they knew this was the most efficient way to get things done. Teachers don't really care if the material is obviously plagiarised -- to them the coursework system is often a burdensome imposition on them because they have to read through dozens, if not hundreds of reports. Students know this, so they intentionally put a lot of work into making their reports more burdensome on teachers. One teacher's son told me that he intentionally put lots of irrelevant diagrams and photos in his coursework because this would discourage the teacher from looking too hard at his work -- she would see he had obviously worked hard on the report, and give him high marks.

The problem with coursework is that it is an arbitrary, artificial system of evaluation imposed by the central government with little thought as to what the schools and teachers can do, and little thought for what universities want to see. As Rajan notes, our university admissions process is extremely centralised -- everything is boiled down to a couple of numbers, which are then fed into the government's system. The government then tells you what university you will attend, and what degree you will pursue.

Likewise, with coursework, the government tells schools how to grade students' work, and it tells universities how these grades must translate into admissions decisions. There is no room for a teacher to assess students in his or her own way, to try something different. Neither is there room for a university to assess students in a different way, such as through tailored interviews or personal statements.

Obviously, there are pitfalls to granting educators more autonomy. But I don't think there is any question that at the moment we err far too heavily on the side of ridiculous centralisation. The government has attempted to standardise the education system to an extreme, and the result is something easily gamed by the pretence of ability, instead of actual demonstrable results. The government needs to grant universities more leeway in making their admissions decisions, and at the same time experiment with giving schools more freedom in coming up with alternative methods of assessment.

'New' JPA scholarship next year?

Read this in the Star last weekend. "A new category will be established starting next year for scholarships under the Public Services Department scheme to be awarded purely based on merit, regardless of race."

PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun razak said he was sure that such a category would be welcomed by all communities, including the Chinese.

“We are re-studying the distribution of scholarships under the Public Services Department scheme to introduce a new category.

“Starting next year, we will see the distribution of scholarships based purely on merit, regardless of race.

“We will announce it next year and with the plan to limit to 10 subjects, we expect to see a more level playing field,” he said in his speech at a dinner organised by both MCA and the Associated Chinese Chamber of Industry and Commerce here Saturday.

Najib said this would allow Malaysia’s best students to get aid to pursue higher studies.

“So we will get the best of best and the creme de la creme getting aid for higher studies.

“I believe this will be accepted well and it will allow each individual a fair chance to realise his full potential,” he said, adding however that he was not “letting the cat out of the bag” just yet on the scheme.

Najib said contrary to common perception, not all Chinese were rich.

“Like all Malaysians, they also want to see their children have good education and become successful. All this involves costs,” he said, adding that every race had its needs and if the Government could bring policies that were fair, the Chinese would continue to support Barisan Nasional.

Najib said the Chinese was not against Malays succeeding or opposed to efforts to help the Bumiputra but that they wanted policies that looked at the needs of all Malaysians fairly.

“And that’s why I included it in the 1Malaysia concept,” he said, adding that he would also look into MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat’s request for more government land to build Chinese vernacular schools.

Najib added that during his trip to China, the Chinese government had also promised to bring more investments into Malaysia in the term of equity investments.

“I’m told they are preparing a loan fund if we need this as a sign of their commitment to us. I believe there is an opportunity for China to make an economic boost in Malaysia in terms of development that will include banking as well,” he said.

“I looked into the needs of the local Chinese community when I introduced the 1Malaysia plan, which looks into the needs of every community regardless of the colour, ethnicity and culture.

MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat said in his speech that the dinner was not just to celebrate the appointment of Najib as Prime Minister but to also show that the Chinese community would always be with the Government and his leadership as it strived to overcome the current economic problems.

A few comments:

(i) There is already a portion of the JPA scholarships which are allocated by merit (20% out of 2100 foreign JPA scholarships). Read this previous entry for more details. How will this new category of JPA scholarships be any different? Will they be restricted to those students who only take 10 subjects at the SPM level? Will there be a separate application and interview process?

(ii) Nothing is said here about the process by which these students will be bonded to the government. I've said this time and time again - most JPA foreign scholarship holders do not come back to serve the government, if they come back to Malaysia at all. There's no use giving out a new scholarship that is merit based if these students are not made to come back to serve the government in some capacity.

(iii) Nothing is said here about how the civil service will be restructured to cater to these scholarship holders. Again, I don't put the entire blame on these JPA scholars because the civil service is reluctant to take in these JPA scholars probably because they know that these high achievers will probably be bored by the career path taken by most civil servants.

I'd prefer the PM to focus on ensuring that JPA scholars are held accountable and the civil service is restructured so that these JPA scholars can come back to serve the government instead of creating another category of scholarships at taxpayers' expense.

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