Malaysian universities must change from being conveyor-belt factories into more creative centres of learning, producing innovative graduates before they relapse into further chaos and the country slides back into backwardness

- Brickfields Rotary Club meeting
by Dr Tan Seng Giaw

(Kuala Lumpur, Wednesday): Since the 1957 Merdeka, Malaysia has witnessed great changes in education. In the 1960s, there was only one university, the University of Malaya (MU). Now, there are 17 public universities.

About 24% of the federal budget goes to education. For example, this yearís budget is RM109.801 billion of which RM26.269 billion is for education. Public universities get RM5.916 billion. Spending these huge sums on education is correct. We hope that the Education Ministry makes the best use of them.

There are eight private universities and campuses of four foreign universities. But, we shall concentrate on major aspects of public universities.

In 2000, 23,870 students enrolled at degree level in public universities and the total number in the public institutes of higher learning, IHLs, was 277,203. The total number of students in public and private IHLs was 753,003.

As there are further globalization, Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the dictates of the World Trade Organization (WTO), we find that the Malaysian educational system cannot cope. On 29 November, 2002, the UMNO Supreme Council resolved to establish the National Education Review headed by the Prime Minister Datoí Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The latter needs a Royal Commission instead of a review committee to do the job properly.

We have defined a university as the highest centre of learning where students learn to think and to pursue knowledge, realizing their potential for the furtherance of society.

What are the weaknesses of public universities? Among them are feudal mentality, lack of meritocracy and treating universities as conveyor-belt factories and monolingualism.


In many nooks and corners of the educational system, there are people who fester their own nests, seething with racialism and parochialism. They have learnt the trick of the trade. They put on a charade as shown in the British television programme, Yes Minister. With his review committee and limited time, Dr Mahathir may find it difficult to unravel the machinations of these little emperors or tin-pot despots. After he finishes his enquiry, they may resume their true colours.

For example, MU has courses that use English books. But, the students have to write their answers in BM. Even though the Prime Minister and MU Vice-Chancellor believe in the greater use of English, these tin-pot despots continue to hold sway over their fiefdom. Students must not write in English.

We wish that these proponents of BM help to improve the language, not just borrowing more words from English with phonetic spelling. The usefulness of BM in the modern world depends on many factors, not just on the coining of new words. It also relies on experts making it relevant. The Government must train better language teachers.

Once the students are proficient in BM after nine years of education. They should be encouraged to master English in universities. We hope Dr Mahathir can elucidate the career and life of those who are monolingual BM graduates.


The questioning of having only mono-ethnic vice-chancellors (V-Cs) in 17 public universities is sensitive. Some think that mono-ethnic V-Cs serve a definite purpose in getting more Malays in education. If V-Cs are appointed strictly on merits, then it upsets the balance.

As long as the appointments of V-Cs, professors, lecturers and university administrators are based on criteria other than merits and needs, universities will never be centres of excellence. Neither will Malaysian education attain world-class.

Last year, the Government announced that university intake was based on meritocracy. But, it used Matriculation and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM, Higher School Certificate) simultaneously. Matriculation is an in-house course of one year to enable Malays to enter universities. STPM is a two-year course that is very different from Matriculation. Hence, the Government has to work out credible criteria for university admission to convince the public that it subscribes to meritocracy.

Apart from university admissions, there are other aspects that continue to show discriminations. Before, nurses were mainly Non-Malays especially Chinese. For many reasons, Non-Malays think that nursing is less glamorous than other professions. But, there are still Non-Malays who apply for nursing.

I have quoted the racial breakdown of nursing students in the National University (UKM). There are 178 first-year students, out of whom only 2 are Chinese and 7 are Indians; second-year 102 students, 3 Indians and no Chinese; third-year 98 students, 3 Indians and no Chinese; 22 degree students, 2 Chinese & no Indians; 11 students in Advanced Midwifery course, 2 Chinese and no Indian. How does this happen? Dr Mahahtir must investigate.


Factories use conveyor belts to churn out products with uniformity. Public universities appear to function like conveyor belts, fulfilling the quotas and producing students with less enquiring minds. The best lecturers are those who give out good lecture notes so that students can memorize and reproduce them in their examinations.

Some lecturers and professors read widely, setting excellent examples for students. They publish research articles in internationally recognized journals. They encourage students to learn to think. Others donít read much or research. A few even plagiarize.

If many of the 277,003 students mentioned above do not learn how to think for themselves and the lecturers continue to be complacent, then universities are nothing more than conveyor-belt factories. Many students and graduates may not be innovative and visionary.

Dr Mahathir must look into this aspect and more. He must also study in what ways are or arenít our universities recognized internationally. He is familiar with MU medical degree that was recognized by British Medical Council (BMC). After the Education Ministry forced MU to teach in BM in the 1980s, many lecturers and professors left. BMC withdrew its recognition. At the same time, engineering degrees suffered the same fate. However, the ministry was proud of this incidence. How is Dr Mahathir going to deal with this anachronistic mentality? We want international recognition for our universities. After all, educational excellence also means this type of recognition.


The Government mistakenly annihilated English schools from 1970 without credible alternative. Then, it realizes that the standard and popularity of English has plummeted to the bottom. How does it reverse the trend?

Some political leaders have succeeded in inculcating the spirit that language is the soul of the race (Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa) with BM as the sole language. Many people especially those in the rural areas have a mental block against English. They are led to think that it is a colonial language and that it may not be good for Islam.

Now, the Government is bent on implementing the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English, starting from primary one. Science and Maths are languages by themselves. The spending of huge sums of money on the policy may not necessarily mean the standard of English and knowledge will improve. On the other hand, introducing English at primary one is correct.

The Rotary international theme 2002/2003 is Sow The Seeds of Love. Its four-way test seeks truth, goodwill, and better friendships that are beneficial to all.

Then, rotarians can help by having projects that will get rid of the mental block against English. Similarly, I notice that they are conversant with information and communications technology, ICT. They can popularize projects that aim at narrowing the digital divide. This divide or gap is between those who are familiar with ICT and those who are not. On the whole, urban people accept ICT more readily than rural folks. Thus, the divide may widen as time goes on. We must prevent this.

I believe that the proper way of learning English is by improving the syllabus and training more and better teachers. Instead of learning sine and cosine or iodine and molybdenum during English lessons, children also learn literature including poetry.


* Dr Tan Seng Giaw, DAP National Vice-Chairman and MP for Kepong