Friday, April 04, 2008

Our education system: Time for radical change

(The writer was in UAE for two years before leaving for greener pasture in Qatar. This is his piece as per published in Malaysiakini)

Our education system: Time for radical change
Mohamed Zain Apr 3, 08 1:31pm

It is quite obvious now that Malaysia is heading towards a two-party system. This is certainly good for the country. There will more checks and balances. The winning and ruling party cannot do things according to their whims and fancies without worrying about the possibility of losing the next election.
Thus, as the country is heading towards a political maturity some drastic changes in our education systems are called for and perhaps are becoming inevitable. It does not matter which of the two eventual political parties rules the country. But the changes that I would like to suggest here are for the benefit of the country.
It is imperative that in this era of globalization and the fact that we want to make Malaysia more competitive as well as to make it a regional educational hub for attracting foreign students, we need to improve the quality of our education so that it is comparable if not better than the best in Southeast Asia.
Let me start first with our school systems. The outputs of the schools are the inputs of the universities. Thus, if we want to produce good products the raw materials must be of good quality as well. Every citizen of the country must have access to education. Hence, it must be made mandatory that every child attends school at least up to the lower secondary level. Thus, the school education in this country must be free for all. And it must be fee all the way up to the high school level.
Next, we need to have good and qualified teachers for our schools. Thus, most if not all the teachers, must have a bachelor’s degree in education. Those without a degree majoring in education need to also have a teaching credential such as the one-year diploma in education offered by some of the local universities.
Lately, we have heard a lot about the need for the country to have a meritocracy system. This can only happen if we have a level playing field for all our school children. Thus, if we are really serious about implementing such a system facilities of the rural schools must be comparable to those of the urban ones.

All schools – whether urban or rural-based - need to have, among others, good Internet access, instructional aides, library, sport, and other facilities.While there is a need for us to have a common national language so that all our citizens can communicate with each other in our multi-ethnic country, it makes a lot of sense that our children are multi-lingual as well. The current situations that most Malays can speak Bahasa Malaysia and perhaps English, but most on-Malays can speak at least two and perhaps three or more languages.

Hence, this imbalance needs to be addressed. Malay students should be encouraged to learn Chinese or another local language as well. Once our students have the choice to choose their additional language (especially their mother-tongue) in addition to the national language in the national schools, then the need to have he separate Chinese and Tamil schools (vernacular schools) in the country will disappear.

The presence of these vernacular schools in the country goes against he spirit of national integration. Of course, the offering of other languages for our students must be based on demand and it must be cost effective. More third language teachers must also be trained.

Bringing back EnglishLater, I will talk about the need to reintroduce English as the medium of instructions in universities. Thus, to prepare for this, the teaching of the English Language in schools need to be upgraded so that when the students enter universities, they will not be handicapped. Hence, more English language teachers need to be trained in the country.
Last, but certainly not the least, we need to introduce a semester system in all ur schools. This system needs to be standardized and synchronized with those of the developed world. In other words, our schools should have fall, spring and summer semesters where most students will go to school during the fall and spring semesters and they will take a vacation during the summer semester.

During the summer the older children, particularly those in cities and towns can start learning to earn money by taking up part-time or short-term employments in such places as fast-food restaurants or shops in the shopping malls. Of course, the system needs to be synchronized with the university system as well, so that on graduation, they will not be idle too long while waiting to enter universities.I will now talk about the required reforms for our universities.
Universities are excellent places for our country to train its citizens and future leaders in its efforts to fulfill the needs for skilled and knowledgeable human resources. University students are excellent change agents for the country. Thus, first and foremost we need to amend the Universities and Colleges ct of 1971 (UCA). The clauses that prohibit or restrict the independence of cademics and students must be removed.
There is also an urgent need for us to abolish the mandatory requirement for the employees to sign the ridiculous and silly “Akujanji”. University employees, particularly the academics, should not be made to obey the instructions of the overnment or political masters’ blindly. Instead, intellectual discourse should be encouraged because it can be a good source of creativity and innovation for the country.
Top and senior management are crucial to the success of any organizations. In the past, the appointments of university vice-chancellor and his/her deputies re made or at least required the approval of the minister.

This practice has not to stop because most appointments were based on the candidates’ political affiliations or inclinations rather on merits. Appointments of someone to these posts should be made based on the suitability and the capabilities of the candidates for the jobs. They should be made by a search committee instead.

Revise salaries

In a big company or a corporation the appointment of the chief executive officer is made by the board of directors. Therefore, the appointment of the vice-chancellor or the president of a university should be made by the board of regents or a similar body. Ofcourse, some of the members of the committee can be appointed by the minister.

Similarly, the appointment of deans can also be made via a search committee. Vacant positions for deans or even departmental chairs could also be advertised and relevant media such as newspapers or websites like the Chronicle of Higher Education to invite more capable candidates.
The salaries of academics should be revised. The current salaries for academics, articularly the starting salary for an assistant professor (someone with a PhD) s pathetically low and very unattractive and need to be increased to a level that is comparable to those in Singapore.
The salary scales of academics should also be different from those of other government servants. After all, the nature of their jobs and the required cademic qualifications are different. The current practice where the salaries or academics are decided by the Public Service Department officers always favour the civil servants, particularly the so-called PTD (administrative and diplomatic services) officers and not the academics.
Attractive salaries will not only attract the best candidates but it will also attract more top graduates to be interested in becoming academics by opting to become tutors after their first degree and to pursue their graduate degree leading to a PhD in their field. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.”
Government should also set aside funds to enable our best graduates from universities who are interested in becoming tutors to get enough stipends and scholarships to carry out their graduate research at the research universities in the country. This will help the country save money by not having to send them to foreign universities.

Nevertheless, top graduates should also be sent to study abroad but they should only be limited to those who manage to secure laces in the top universities of the world or in those areas of expertise that are lacking in the country.
If we look at the list of academics in all our universities, we cannot help but otice that a substantial percentage if not the majority of them are holders of only a master’s degree instead of a PhD. This deficiency needs to be urgently ddressed. Once the salary scheme is revised appropriately, this problem can be overcome gradually as more top students will be interested in pursuing research which culminates in a PhD degree.
We should be aware that before anyone, especially a prospective foreign student, begins to apply for a place in a university, s/he will first visit the niversity’s website and among the first information they will seek is the list of academic staff of the prospective department where s/he plans to study.

Thus, well qualified teaching staff will attract more students. Hence, this should bode well towards making Malaysia an education hub for the region by attracting more foreign students from all over to enroll in our universities, particularly the private ones.The academic ranking of positions in universities should also be standardized across all the universities in the country. It should be based on academic qualifications and experiences in teaching, research, and community work.

A person with a master’s degree should only be given a position of a lecturer. Those with a PhD should start as an assistant professor. As s/he gains more experience and produces more outputs in those three areas of work s/he can gradually climb the academic ladder to associate professor and eventually to the rank of a full professor.
The English language is now regarded as the international language. Just look at he availability of television networks across the world which broadcast free rograms in English via the satellites in their efforts to reach international udiences.

The major and common ones from among the countries whose native language is not English includes Al-Jazeera International (Qatar), DW TV Germany), Euronews (European Union), France 24, Russia Today, CCTV9 (China), and Arirang TV (Korea).

Thus, there is no doubt that our citizens now need to be proficient in English. And the best way to do just that is to revert the teaching of our students in our universities, especially in important fields of specializations such as business, economics, sciences, and engineering to English. After all, most of the text books in these fields are in English.
Here, I am assuming that our school children who graduated from high schools are lready proficient in our national language, in addition to one or two more of ther languages. We cannot compromise on this for the sake on peace and harmony n our country.
Malaysia needs to improve its competitiveness level in order to face the challenge of globalization and to remain relevant in this world. In this globalize world our citizens need to participate meaningfully in whatever international activities, be it business, economic, social, political, legal, or governmental. Thus, they must be proficient in English. Period.Many universities in the Middle East and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain) countries have already switched heir medium of instructions, especially for programs in business, economics, sciences, and engineering, from Arabic to English. It is not too late for us to do the same.

Exchange of academics
The current practice in the country of allowing private universities to offer academic programs in English while not allowing the government ones to do so is ot only discriminatory but it is also disadvantageous to those who graduate rom the government universities since they will be less conversant in English and thus making them more difficult to find jobs in the industry where English is very much in use.

These graduates will depend more on the government for jobs. The current situation where there are many unemployed undergraduates is probably the result of this practice.
Last, but again certainly not the least, there is a need to for the country to introduce the semester system into our universities. Just as I proposed for our school system above, our universities need to adopt a semester system as practiced by the universities in other countries.
Most universities in other, particularly developed countries have a tri-semester system comprising Fall September-January), Spring (February-June), and Summer (June-August).By having a standardized and synchronized system with other countries it will facilitate exchange of academics between our universities with their foreign counterparts. It will also enable foreign students to enter our universities ithout having to wait too long after they graduated from their high schools. This will again help promote making Malaysia as the education hub.
During the summer holiday, summer classes can be offered to those students who want to graduate faster and the academics who are willing to teach classes during that time can earn extra income. Those students who do not take summer classes can take part-time or short-term employments in the town and cities, just like the case for older school students mentioned above, giving them anopportunity to earn and save some money before returning to their school.
Those are some suggestions which I would like to propose to the government in order make Malaysia a better and a more competitive country.

DR MOHAMED ZAIN, PhD is Professor of Technology and Strategic Management in the College of Business and Economics of Qatar University, Doha. He can be reached at or

The China Diaries

From Dubai to Shanghai in 72 hours, a reporter joins the business delegation accompanying His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum on a tour of the world's fastest growing major economy.
Sunday March 30,
Royal Wing, Dubai International Airport
Being in the Royal Wing is a special experience. There are no announcements, no check-in desks, no queues, no passport control. Luggage problems? Forget it. My luggage was collected four days ago and I am told it is already in a hotel in China waiting for me.
What is clear is that the 20 people sitting in front of me, between them, control over US$150bn of revenues a year. You name it - everyone including the bosses of DIFC, Istithmar, Etisalat, DIC and Masdar - are here.
I just follow the crowd, who all seem to be heading in the same direction, towards the only plane at the terminal - a Dubai Air Wing specially converted Boeing 747-400. I am ushered to the upper deck.
Inside, there is no such thing as economy class. It is literally a flying palace, with several wide open spaces everywhere. Strangely, there are no announcements on board either, no safety display, nobody to tell you to put your seat upright.
The plane starts moving, and three minutes later, having jumped the huge take-off queue, we are in the air. Confirmation that we are going to Beijing comes in the form of a card I am handed which reads "China World Hotel, Room 1421, Vehicle M7".
The in-flight map is switched on which reveals it is a seven-hour flight to the Chinese capital. It transpires that His Highness is not actually on this plane, but a second one following soon after.

Somewhere over China
I like the way they serve lunch on board: a spectacular international hot buffet trolley appears, and you just help yourself.

Time for a wander around this flying palace to see just who else is on board.
I bump first into Jumeirah Group executive chairman Gerald Lawless. Jumeirah is rumoured to be planning a new hotel in Shanghai, and Lawless seems hard at work on the details. Next to him is Dubai International Capital boss Sameer Al Ansari.
We get into a lengthy discussion about this week's Champions League clash between Liverpool and Arsenal. Al Ansari is not only a huge Liverpool fan but also failed to get his hands on the club earlier this year in a takeover bid that didn't quite come off. I suggest he should buy Arsenal instead - he could use DIC's cash.

"No chance," he says.
Arsenal shares are too expensive and in any case Arsenal has already reached its full value. There are actually very few clubs in the world that are worth buying, and Liverpool is one of them," he says.
Al Ansari is heading to Shanghai, and there is much speculation that the DIC will set up a fund to invest purely in Chinese companies. This could be a fund worth over US$2bn. He is giving nothing away though, explaining: "I'll make sure you are first to get the press release."

4pm It's starting to bug me that Al Ansari and his pals are talking about being in Shanghai tonight, whereas my hotel card definitely says Beijing. I run into Istithmar CEO David Jackson below deck, but he isn't much help.
"I'm just going wherever the plane is going," he says jokingly.
(local time) It is dark and we have landed, and everyone says it is definitely Beijing. I follow the crowd on the upper deck and we get off the plane, straight into a waiting fleet of black Mercedes cars.
Amusingly, one of the UAE business delegation joins us, before realising he is in the wrong town and rushes back onto the plane before it heads off for Shanghai. Half an hour later we are in the spectacular China World Hotel, told to go and relax.

Monday, March 31

6pm It's amazing how long you can spend doing nothing. I have been hard at it for 10 hours. HH has, it is being reported, arrived in Beijing and is holding talks with the Chinese president. Suddenly though, there is a rush of activity and I am told to be in the hotel business centre at 7pm. Could this be the moment?

Tuesday, April 1
China World Hotel

12.45pm I think I have been away for around 48 hours now, and apart from meeting some very rich and very successful people (who have all since disappeared), nothing has happened. I need a lot to happen in a hurry. I'm not about to be disappointed...

1pm Luggage packed and sent off to I don't know where, I get into a convoy of VW 3.0 V6 People Carriers, that makes its way through the streets of Beijing at high speed. It's difficult to see much: Beijing is like Dubai with twice the smog and three times the cranes.

The pace of growth here is nothing short of staggering. We drive past the new Olympic Stadium, built in the shape of an egg basket. It's just two miles north of Ikea in case you want to go there.

1.25pm We arrive at the Tsinghau University - the "Harvard" of China, supposedly the best management and economics school in the country. His Highness will also be here shortly, for a round-table with the students.

2.49pm It's time to go - and this time, we are definitely getting closer to Sheikh Mohammed.

I can see in front of me a convoy of around 50 cars, and a police escort in front and behind us. We head at over 160km/h down the main highways of Beijing towards the Great Wall of China. It is a surreal journey - every other road has been cordoned off, every traffic light we pass has been turned to green.

There is not another vehicle moving (outside our convoy) for miles. Traffic everywhere else is at a standstill, and hundreds of locals gather on the sides of the streets to find out what exactly is going on. I can't lie - I like travelling like this. George Bush would be impressed.

Badaling, Great Wall of China
3.30pm The convoy comes to a sudden halt just outside the Badaling Hotel, and I head up to an open tourist area on the Great Wall of China. There is a tap on my shoulder, and the now familiar "what are you doing here?" question. It is Emaar chairman Mohammed Alabbar. Behind him, is His Highness.

At long last. "So, your Highness, what do you think of China," I ask.

"I like China," he says, adding: "We can learn a lot from China and China can learn a lot from us."

This is Sheikh Mohammed's first visit to China in 18 years, and he looks pretty impressed, taking in as much detail as he can of the Great Wall of China. Below us, crowds are looking up at the royal party, though His Highness notices many of them have stopped in their cars.

"I came here in 1990 and all I saw were bicycles. Now look around and see the difference for yourself. It's all because of hard work that we see these results. If you sit around idle in life then nothing happens in your life," he says.

It isn't just HH who is impressed. Dubai Holding boss Mohammed Al Gergawi and Dubai Ports chairman Sultan Bin Sulayem are deep in conversation with Emirates Airline chairman HH Sheikh Ahmed, marvelling at everything around them.

"It is special, something very special being here. I am finding out how they do business and they are seeing how we do business. It is good to share our knowledge," says His Highness. Equally impressed is Mohammed Alabbar. Could Emaar have built the Great Wall?

"Hmm. I'm not sure," he says. "You see the Chinese people, they are amazing people. I look at what they have achieved here and I wonder if Emaar could have done this. It shows us that moving at a normal pace is not good enough."

So what makes the Chinese so special?

"Do you have children?" he asks.

"Because if you do you will know that it is in your genes how you perform in life. And the Chinese, I realise that it is about they way they have been brought up. These people you see here, they work very hard and they work very fast. And all the success they are now having, you know what, they deserve it."

4pm We're off again, doing close to 200km/h as we head towards Beijing International Airport. I really do like travelling this way - being in the middle of Sheikh Mohammed's convoy means we again have no traffic or traffic lights to worry about. The cars pull up right next to the private jumbo jet and we get on board, ushered upstairs again.

5.15pm We take off for the journey to Shanghai, which should take around 90 minutes. This plane is like the other one except a bit nicer. Daveham Fine Bone China plates are put out on the table as that amazing international buffet prepares to make another appearance. 300 miles North of Shanghai, 31,000 feet high

5.45pm Suddenly His Highness appears on the upper deck of his plane, with Mohammed Al Gergawi, Sheikh Ahmed and Reem Al Hashimi. All four of them look extremely happy with the progress of the trip so far.

"You must travel between London and Dubai a lot," Gergawi says to me.

"And how far is that? Several thousand kilometres? Well, so is the Great Wall of China. Isn't that amazing?" he says.
His Highness sits down, and is also still marvelling at the Great Wall trip.

"Amazing," he says.
Then I get straight into it. With the current valuation of the dollar, and the dirham, and what's happening in the US, and with inflation rising, does he...."

He interrupts me.

"What you are trying to ask me is if I am going to stick with the dollar. Why are you running around the bush asking different questions? Of course I will stick with the dollar," he says.

So that's clear enough. But for how long will he back the dollar?

"Up to now we are still with the dollar. Dropping the dollar peg is not easy. However, a committee is studying the benefits of staying with the dollar or not," he says.

But what about the US mortgage crisis? Surely that is going to affect the Dubai property boom at some stage. He totally disagrees, saying: "It will affect many countries but it will not affect us. We have made arrangements to enable our property market to avoid such negative impacts," he says.

We get back to the dollar again somehow, with HH adding that his special committee is looking carefully at what the impact of dropping the dollar peg would be, and will report its findings back to him.

It is clear is that the Ruler of Dubai is not going to make any knee-jerk reactions. We then skirt around several subjects - he reveals he is interested in making a bid for the Olympics, having been impressed by what he has seen Beijing.

We have been chatting a while and the plane is clearly making its final approach into Shanghai. HH gets up and heads back to the lower deck.

Emirates Airline chairman Sheikh Ahmed is still upstairs. "I'm just relaxing, don't ask me anything!" he says. Just one question I insist.

"What is the name of the new low-cost airline that Dubai is launching?"

"I don't have one. Do you have any ideas?" he asks?

"Emirates Express", I suggest.

"No, no. This is not being run by Emirates. We can't use the word Emirates," he says.

"What about Gulf Express?"

"Gulf Express? I like that. Yes, I like that," he says, before rushing back down as we land.

6.45pm We land in Shanghai, as usual storming through the cleared streets en route to the Shangri La hotel. It will be difficult, I know, to ever drive my own car again.

Wednesday, April 2
Shangri La Hotel

1.30pm The great and good of the UAE are assembling on the third floor for the main event - the reason we are all here - the UAE China Business and Economic Cooperation Forum. Just as I am about to enter the room, I run again into Emaar chairman Mohammed Alabbar.

"What did you make of the trip?" he asks me.

"There is passion everyone here has. A really strong passion," I reply.

"Yes," says Alabbar.

There is passion. You see a lot of people that jump around, and actually a lot of what they are jumping around about is hollow. But for every 10 people that are jumping for hollow things, one or two are doing concrete things. And they are the ones who make a difference."