Three steps for genuine meritocracy in Malaysian education system -  common university entrance examination system, depoliticize education, appointment of academic staff based on merit

at the "Meritocracy System in Malaysian Education System" forum organised by Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth Section
by Loke Siew Fook  

(Kuala Lumpur, Thursday): I'm a taking a big risk to speak at this forum tonight (the forum is conducted in Mandarin) as firstly I'm not Chinese-educated and hence my command of Mandarin is not fluent and I'm speaking together with another panelist who is our political opponent, Dr. Wee Ka Siong  representing MCA Youth.

However, I decided to represent DAPSY to speak at tonight's forum as I felt very strongly about the injustices in the so-called "meritocracy system" in the admission of public universities as I have gone through the hardship of sitting for the STPM examination and being a local graduate.

Common University Entrance Examination System

The application of the so-called "meritocracy system" has entered its  third year this year after it was introduced in 2002. From the very beginning, DAPSY has objected to the implementation of this system not because we are against meritocracy but the so-called "meritocracy system" introduced by the Barisan Nasional government is without merit whatsoever.

The whole system is without merit for the simple reason that a same  grading system applied to two entirely examination is most unfair and cannot be compared, just like we cannot compare an apple with an orange! The debate about the flaws of this system has started 3 years ago and I do not intend to repeat it tonight as I'm very confident that everyone here tonight can agree that the STPM students are in disadvantaged position compared to their peers who are taking Matriculation.

STPM is a two-year course and evaluations are based solely on the final examinations with its standards monitored by an external examiner while Matriculation is a two-semester programme run by the Education Ministry and evaluations are based on semester exams coupled  with course-work and class participations.

The yearly fiasco of high-scoring students did not get the courses of choice started since 2002 has continued this year and even worse, 128 top-scoring students who want to pursue their studies in medicine did not get their place before the interference by the Prime Minister.

Something is very wrong in the system and it just showed that the "meritocracy system" is flawed. Are we telling our children that if you want to choose what to study in our public universities, mere hardworking alone is not enough but one has to depend on luck and beg the top politician in the country?

Although the plight of the 128 top students who wanted to do medicine has been addressed this year, the problem of the system is still there. There will be no genuine meritocracy in the admission of public universities in Malaysia as long as the government is not prepared to admit that it is a policy failure and has the political will to change
the system by abolishing all the different university entrance examination systems and instead create a common one.

Depoliticize Education

The then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has pointed out in  1999 that the Ministry of Education (MoE) has been highly politicize and in the effort to de-politicize it, he appointed a non-politician for the first time to head the Ministry after the 1999 general election. However, it seems that the non-politician Education
Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad has failed miserably in this effort when he was dropped from the Cabinet after the 2004 general election and the Education Ministry which was split into two are now both headed by UMNO politicians.

What I want to stress here tonight is, we do not like to see certain quarters to gain political mileage every year when the issue of university admission arises and they jump into the bandwagon by showing that they are very concern about the plights of the affected students but without showing the political will to address the root cause of the problem which is the unfairness in the whole university admission system.

I urge MCA Youth who are present tonight to show political seriousness to address this problem by taking a strong position in urging the government to create a common university entrance examination system for all Malaysians regardless or race.

The BN politicians have always take the easy way out by claiming that the DAP is playing racial politics when we highlight this issue. I stress here that we are not championing the issue from a racial perspective. Don't forget that there are Malays, Indians and other races who are taking STPM too! It is solely an academic unfairness and
it should be dealt with from an academic point of view.

The top leadership in the country particularly UMNO leaders must realize that they cannot pretend that the Bumiputera students have done well and are now competitive enough just because they have scored high grades in Matriculation. It will be very unfair to give a wrong impression to the Bumiputera students in the long run.

We are living in the process of globalization and Malaysia being a very open economy is very vulnerable in this process. At the end of the day, the issue is how competitive we are as a nation not how competitive we are as a Malay, Chinese or Indian. I always like to cite this phrase when we talk about the challenge of globalization, "the competition is not between us - Malays, Chinese or Indians but between us as Malaysians with the rest of the world"!

Appointment of Academic Staff based on merit.

Another issue at stake is meritocracy in the appointment of academic staff in particular the Vice-Chancellors, Dean of Faculties and Professors in public universities. If we are serious about achieving the status of Centre of Academic Excellence in the region, then all academic operations whether in the promotion Vice Chancellors or
Faculties Deans, placement of students, granting of scholarships, etc must be evaluated solely on academic merit and must be color blind.

When I entered Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in 1997 as development science student, my peers and I were very proud as UKM's standing at the Asia's Top Universities was 20th while Universiti Malaya was 11th. In the last ranking in 2000, UKM was not in the list at all while UM has slipped to 47th position.

The reasons for the decline in our academic standards all this while are food for thought for every Malaysian. Our national focus has not been pointing at the right direction particularly during the Mahathir's era. We are racing with our neighbors to build the tallest building, the biggest airport, the longest bridge, etc but we are unable to catch up in terms of creating the best institutions of higher learning and producing the most competitive graduates.

We are not anti-modernization and development here. We want our country to develop and achieve as a developed nation. The time has come for the public sphere to stop talking about biggest mooncake, longest satay, etc but start demanding for the best and quality education in the country.

Today, we are talking about how to reverse brain-drain to the country. There are talks about recruiting some of the brightest non-Malays who are residing in overseas now to head some of the Government Linked Companies (GLCs). Did we ask why there are brain-drains in the first place? Were it because of the limited opportunities in Malaysia in the last three decades resulted from the quota system?

A genuine meritocracy system in our universities is the pre-requisite for Malaysia to march forward and stay afloat in the global competitive environment. From a social democrat point of view, we are asking for equality of opportunities not equality in results. The ball is in the government's court now.


* DAPSY National Secretary and Negeri Sembilan State Assemblyman for Lobak, Loke Siew Fook