Ninth Malaysia Plan should begin to phase out the subsidy mentality with a programme of meritocracy coupled with need as formula to create  “towering Malaysians” in all fields of human endeavour so that a future Vijjay Singh in Malaysia could become the world’s top golfer

Speech (5)
on the Royal Address 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Dewan Rakyat, Wednesday): In another 17 months, Malaysia will be celebrating half-century of nationhood since Independence in 1957.  The Ninth Malaysia Plan is being formulated and we are at the mid-point of the 30-year Vision 2020 for Malaysia to become a Bangsa Malaysia and a fully-developed nation. 

However, from several recent developments and pronouncements, Malaysia seems to have gone backwards in nation-building instead of being half-way in the 30-year Vision 2020 journey towards the creation of a Bangsa Malaysia from the diverse races, languages, cultures and religions which make up Malaysia. 

Last month, in an UMNO speech in what has been hailed as “the best speech he has given”,  the Prime Minister called for the generation of “Malays with  towering personalities”,  outstanding in the respective fields they embark upon.

Abdullah’s speech provoked questions such as:

  • Why  48 years after independent nationhood, we are talking about “towering Malays” when the focus  should be on  “towering Malaysians”;
  • Whether it will be equally acceptable for calls to be made for the generation of “towering Chinese” and  “towering Indians” in Malaysia;
  • Where are the “towering Malays” in the various fields of national endeavour 48 years after Merdeka; and
  • What are we doing to ensure that Malaysia has “towering institutions”, like “towering Parliament”, “towering judiciary”, “towering public service”, “towering media”, “towering universities”, “towering police force”, “towering “Anti-Corruption Agency”, “towering Election Commission”, etc.  for the emergence of “towering Malaysian personalities”?

Malaysians are often reminded of the  lack of a “towering university” in international academia  - an internationally-recognized university of academic excellence. 

Recently,  the Minister for Higher Education Datuk Dr. Shafie Salleh revealed that foreign students had  plunged from some 40,000 at the end of 2003 to 23,000 this year. 

This was   a far cry from  60,000 foreign students  currently in Singapore and the island republic’s  ambitious target under its “Global Schoolhouse” project to increase its  50,000 international students in 2003 to 100,000 international full-fee paying students and 100,000 international corporate executives for training by 2012.  

Malaysian universities have been getting  poor international rankings , such as

(i)  the Asiaweek Best Universities 2000 where regionally, University of Malaya was ranked a lowly 47th position out of 77 universities, with Universiti Putra Malaysia in 52nd and Universiti Sains Malaysia in 57th position.

(ii)  The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global ranking of the world’s best 200 universities in November 2004,  with University of Malaya ranked No. 89 and the Universiti Sains Malaysia ranked No. 111; and

(iii) The Shanghai Jiao Tong University 2004 World’s  Best 500 universities, where not a single Malaysian university was listed.

It is because of these poor  world university rankings that I had called  for a masterplan to develop Malaysia into an international centre of academic excellence by ensuring that at least three  Malaysian universities are internationally recognized as among the world’s 50 best universities by 2008.  

This should not be a tall order and a mission impossible, when Singapore has two universities and Australia six universities in the world  Top 50 universities in the Times Higher Education Supplement global ranking.

I was truly shocked however when I came across  a “web”  ranking of 1,000  Universities, by the Madrid-based InternetLab (Observatorio de Ciencia y Tecnologia en Internet), as  there was not a single Malaysian university listed on it.  The Internet  ranking of 1,000 universities started from the assumption that the Web has become one of the main sources to obtain information on academic and scientific activities, and it used several “webometrics” indicators, such as size, visibility, popularity and number of rich files.

There can be many different views about the criteria used for the Web ranking of universities, but what should be a  very late wake-up call for Malaysians is that there is not a single university listed in the 1,000 universities, although we have been talking so much and so long about turning Malaysia into an international centre of academic excellence as well as the nation’s ICT  quantum leap into the information age.  

The reason  why Malaysia has failed to become an international centre of academic excellence , compounded by the latest problem of 80,000 unemployed graduates,  is not difficult to find – the lack of political will to build and maintain “towering universities” with international repute in the country.

To resolve  the crisis of higher education, Malaysia must rebrand itself truly as an international centre of academic excellence so that Malaysia can  be competitive with countries like Singapore and Australia and  be a magnet for international students – with quality of education and meritocracy at all levels and aspects of higher education in the country. 

Claiming to want to be an international centre of educational excellence and actually being one are two completely different things.  Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), for instance, announced last April its aim to be “among the top of globally-acclaimed institutions of higher learning by 2006”, but who believes it could achieve this aim in a decade or two unless it is prepared to open its doors to the  “best and brightest”, whether bumiputra, non-bumiputra or even foreign students? 

Is  UiTM prepared become one of the top-notch world universities with the recruitment of the “best and brightest”, whether bumiputra, non-bumiputra or foreign students, or it is only condemning itself to mediocrity  by restricting its student enrolment solely to one ethnic group?

It  is imperative that there should be a national consensus transcending political differences  on how to rebrand  Malaysia  as a truly  international centre of academic excellence, and how to find the political will to ensure  that meritocracy undergirds the entire policy and system of  higher education to transform Malaysia from a regional centre of academic mediocrity into an international centre of academic excellence.  

Malaysians  cannot but wonder whether the government has the  political will to create  “towering universities” when they read  press reports for instance  that quote  the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak expressing  pride during his recent visit to the United Kingdom  when referring to two Malaysian universities, University of Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia,  being ranked No. 89 and No. 111 in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global ranking of the world’s best 200 universities!

It is only when national leaders are prepared to publicly express their disappointment and even shame about such rankings, when Singapore has two universities in the Top 50 universities, while   Australia has six universities in the Top 50 or eight in the Top 60, and that Malaysia will not be satisfied unless there are at least three Malaysian universities in the world’s  Top 50 universities that Malaysia can be said to be on track to achieving international renown as a  centre of academic excellence with  world-class universities.

Are MPs prepared to endorse such a high aim for our higher education programme and to hold the Higher Education Ministry to such a goal?

Recently, Najib made the observation  that if Vijay Singh had been granted permanent residence, he might not have become the top golfer in the world – as frank an admission as any that the present Malaysian environment stunt the full growth of human potentials and capabilities instead of nurturing the creation of  “towering personalities”. 

The Ninth Malaysia Plan should stand out from all previous five-year development plans by beginning  to  phase out all forms of  subsidy mentality to give way to a system of meritocracy coupled with social need untainted by any form of gender, racial or religious discrimination as the  formula to create  “towering Malaysians” in all fields of human endeavour.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman