30 March 2013

There are still many problems in our education system yet the reforms needed are moving at a glacial pace, compared with the world our children will grow up in.

A RECENT headline claimed that Malaysia’s education system is fast becoming the world’s best.
I really had to blink several times because it seemed as farfetched a claim as Malaysian women now being equal to our men.
Further down in the article it said that we still had a long way to go before we could “justify” the claim that we are at par with the world’s best.
Once again, we are handed a confusing statement. Are we improving or are we not?
According to our Government Transfor-mation Plan (GTP) report: “The rate of improvement of the system in the last 15 years is among the fastest in the world.”
But that actually says very little because it can mean that while 15 people can now read when previously there were 10, it still means there are only 15 literate people.
I really wish the media would ask tougher questions of pronouncements like this.
One of the GTP targets is to get 92% enrolment in pre-schools.
For a long time, we have been proud of our literacy rates. But it turns out we measure our literacy rates through school enrolment rates, which any schoolchild will tell you is not the same thing. Just because you went to school doesn’t mean you’re literate.
Indeed, just because you pass your school exams, it doesn’t mean you’re literate either, as any frustrated employer can tell you.
So achieving high enrolment should be only part of the goal, the rest is about giving our children quality education.
Undoubtedly, there are supposed to be four key GTP initiatives to improve the quality of education but this does not necessarily translate into a “fast-improving” education system.
Our problems are so numerous yet the reforms needed in our education system are moving at a glacial pace, compared with the world our kids will grow up in.
I also have a problem with the stated target of reducing the rural-urban achievement gap by 25%. What is the gap in the first place?
If it is huge, is reducing it by 25% enough? When will this be achieved?
In another study a few years ago, urban parents who cannot afford to care for their children in the cities are sending them to their home villages to be cared for by their grandparents.
Undoubtedly, the schooling that these kids will get will be inferior to what is available in the city, not to mention other disadvantages they will have, including the lack of civic amenities in the rural areas.
What’s more, the family background they will be in may not be as conducive to high achievement as if they stayed with their own parents, who are in all likelihood better educated than the grandparents.
Are these issues considered in the Education Blueprint? What would be the psychological cost of separating children from their parents for most of their impressionable years?
While a good educational foundation is good for our children, we should not also neglect the other end of the educational scale – tertiary education.
Assuming our children survive their early education to get to tertiary education, what happens there?
As it is, employers are complaining about the quality of the graduates we bring out. What are we doing about this end?
And here’s a question: If our youths coming out of public universities are not meeting employable standards, how is it that we are going all out to market our universities to foreign students? What will they get out of it?
It makes me wonder why any foreign student would want to come here and study because if the quality of our local graduates are not up to par, then they cannot be much better off.
But yet in our public universities, there are thousands upon thousands of foreign students here. How do we select them?
Are we selecting the best and the brightest, or just anyone who can pay the fees?
What exactly is our reason for opening up our low-ranking universities to foreign students?
A neighbour of ours has made it their policy to give scholarships to the best and the brightest from the countries around them. In this way they not only attract the best brains to study there but eventually these brains don’t want to go home.
Even if they do, like all foreign students who study overseas, they will retain friendly ties with the country of their alma mater, useful for both parties in the future.
Our policy, however, is not to invest in brains, whether it’s ours or other people’s.
As long as foreign students pay to put their warm bodies behind our desks, we don’t care what they have to offer, and then feign surprise when some of them get into some very troublesome activities.

16 March 2013

We should be grateful that the war of words doesn’t actually spill blood because otherwise the cyber sphere would be strewn with dead bodies by now. Still, there must be a lot of wounded.

IN 1982, two largish nations went to war over a tiny group of islands. One of them, Argentina, decided to assert a long-standing claim over the islands they call the Malvinas. Unfortunately, the islands had long been a British “dependent territory”.
One country saw it as a “re-occupation” while the other saw it as an invasion. And so the Falklands War began, ending only 72 days later with 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland islanders dead.
I don’t want to go into the politics of that war but it was between two countries trying to protect their sovereignty. Unlike the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1990, the war between Great Britain and Argentina remained between just those two countries.
Eleven years later, a group of people representing no country “attacked” the United States and set off wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and basically changed the world for the worst, with many deaths, mostly of innocent civilians.
All of this to me seems to point to one thing, which is that war doesn’t make sense. Which is why we should be careful when declaring war on anyone.
In the last few weeks, a ragtag band of people have occupied a bit of our territory mostly to draw attention to their alleged claims to that piece of land.
We took a while to realise that they were serious, and seriously armed, and once we did, suddenly it was war.
Now I use the word “war” loosely here, meaning that our authorities finally decided that they had to deal with this group aggressively.
We could not actually declare war on another country because no country had invaded us, only the delusional citizens of a neighbouring one.
This fine point seems to have been lost on some. All at once, “war” broke out, mostly online. We should be grateful that the war of words doesn’t actually spill blood because otherwise the cyber sphere would be strewn with dead bodies by now. Still, there must be a lot of wounded.
Suddenly, otherwise mild and liberal people turned belligerent and the baying for blood abounded. Patriotism morphed into nationalism, then into plain old-fashioned jingoism. Flags flew high and fervent prayers for victory were said.
Those of us who were shocked by the gall of these people scrambled around to get more information.
The appalling lack of it on our side pointed to one obvious deficit in our country: there is hardly anyone here who can explain what this is all about.
This invariably led us to scour the news sites in the Philippines for some explanation of these people and their claims.
While some of the Philippine media are just as sensationalist as ours, the more serious ones published several articles by academics with a good grasp of the historical background of those islands where the invaders come from.
On our side, we have only one academic who, at this time of writing, has done 26 interviews on the subject.
Unfortunately, not everybody is interested in nuance and historical background. Suddenly because it is “war”, everything becomes acceptable, including violent name-calling.
I began to understand the real effect and relevance of Bush’s “war on terror”, how it made jingoism in the United States acceptable and how demo­cracy could be so easily suspended. Already we are possibly seeing some “collateral damage”.
In times like these, talking about peace becomes politically incorrect. To be properly patriotic, one must shake one’s spears and not hold out bouquets of flowers.
Yet this was what a group of young people did last Friday in a project called Ops Bunga. They went to the Philippine embassy to place bunches of flowers as a gesture of peace towards our neighbours.
A tiny gesture but a much needed calming one, a moment of solidarity among Malaysians and a hand extended in friendship.
It is instructive that in moments of tension, it is almost always young people who think up positive ideas to smooth the waters.
Resolutely apolitical, these young ones refuse to allow any hijacking of the issue by politicians. Indeed, they could be said to be a response to the political grandstanding that often accompanies these events.
Meanwhile, I have to wonder where our usual rabble rousers are, the ones who are ever ready to pick fights with their fellow citizens, yet who have become strangely silent. Confused maybe?