Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Economic Class and Education in Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 4:52:22 am Apr 12, 2008.
Categories: ,

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon this letter to the editor in The Star titled: Unfair to discriminate against the rich in scholarships. I hope that the flaws in the author's reasoning are sufficiently transparent for most to see through, but nevertheless, I think it is fit to first critique her letter, and move on in an attempt to relate this to the ridiculously warped attitude many of us have towards education.

The first thing that strikes me is her complete abuse of the dictionary to prove a point; she somehow obtains the conclusion that financial need should never be a factor in the disbursement of scholarships from the definition:

the position of a student, who because of merit, needs, etcetra is granted money or other aid to pursue his studies.
Apparently, the word "needs" means something else to P. Sarojini. Indeed, her view of the world is quite distorted; in her utopic ideal, a hardworking student from a rich background should receive a scholarship, while an equally hardworking student from a poor background should just take a loan out instead:
If a student came from a poor background, he or she has to work extra hard to secure a scholarship as otherwise he can always apply for a loan.
She makes a big deal out of how scholarships should only be awarded on the basis of merit, but never provides anything more than a twisted dictionary definition to prove her case. It does not even cross her mind that if you take two equally competent individuals and place them in varying economic situations, it is all but certain that one will have greater access to educational opportunity than another, and that this in turn will bias the results of any measure of actual educational attainment.

Indeed, her case for making merit the only factor in awarding scholarships is so weak that she falls back to insisting: "The fact that the student is making an application shows that he or she needs the money for further studies." It's almost as if Sarojini has never lived in a world where people lie.

But even if we assume that everyone applying for a scholarship sincerely needs the money, there are different degrees of need. Someone who has a lot of rich uncles and aunties probably needs less financial assistance than a kampung boy who will be the first in his family to ever attend university. To say we should not even attempt to look at various financial needs is akin to saying that a student who scored straight As in Form One and failed his Form Five should be treated the same as one who failed Form One but obtained straight As in Form Five.

Of course, one can forgive Sarojini. From personal experience — I don't know of any studies done on this — it seems to me that most middle and upper class Malaysians don't really have a sense of perspective on life. I freely include myself in their numbers; I may personally know a lot of disadvantaged students, and I may personally know their plight, but that is not the same as having come from their background. You can never fully appreciate what you have or understand the advantages God has blessed you with until they are gone; a bit of myopia on our part is understandable.

Accidental myopia is excusable; willing myopia is not. I don't know how many privileged Malaysians intentionally close their eyes to the stark facts; God only knows the inner thoughts of man. However, I feel it is rather safe to say that if someone tries to explain the situation to you, and you reject the explanation out of hand, then you are freely deciding to ignore the plight of a majority of the people in our country.

About a year ago, I penned a strongly-worded diatribe against people with this attitude. Needless to say, given the chance to revisit my piece, I would reword it (though this is true of many less bitchy things I have written). In spite of this, I believe the sentiments behind it remain well-founded. Most middle to upper class Malaysians don't really understand the life of a typical Malaysian student, and when someone tries to point this out, they argue from their skewed background that the truth is really otherwise.

I live in one of the most wealthy parts of the country; I have no qualms about saying that I attended some of the better schools in our country as well. But even then, it was pretty transparent to me that there was some sort of unbridgeable dichotomy between one class of students and another. One group put a good deal of effort into our studies; many of us had private tuition, parents pushing us on, and exposure to a broad variety of extracurricular activities at home in addition to whatever we had in school. The other hardly cared about their studies, had parents too busy trying to make ends meet to pay much attention to them, and were hardly exposed to anything more stimulating than whatever happened to be on television in the evenings. I of course generalise a huge deal here; there were all sorts of students in between, and outliers who did not fit the mould. However, I believe it is safe to say that on the whole, poor students were more likely to lack opportunities for self-actualisation or educational attainment outside what we had in school, and also any real drive to do well in school or learn.

Any Malaysian who has been to a typical public school should find this a rather familiar setting. However, even within the standard public school system there are all kinds of gradations. We can forget about the missionary schools and the like; they are fundamentally outliers, and although their alumni are disproportionately represented in our academic, corporate and political creme de la creme, the experience of a missionary school student is so far removed from that of a typical public school student that they can be practically ignored. What is more interesting is the distinction between urban and rural public schools, and in turn the subdivision of urban schools into the achievers and failures.

The urban and rural divide is perhaps extraordinarily blatant in our school system. You don't have to do much more than peruse the list of top scoring schools every year to find that those which do well are primarily urban. Rural schools are generally inferior to their urban counterparts, both in physical facilities and human resources. In urban areas, it is not too hard either to ferret out the better schools; I attended one of the worser primary schools and two of the worst secondary schools in my area. They were primarily populated by students from working class families; for each year or form, each school had one class comprising students from the wealthy surrounding suburbs whose parents didn't know better to send them elsewhere, and at least half a dozen other classes comprising students from the surrounding working class areas.

Clearly, not all public schools are created equal, just as not all students are created equal. Unsurprisingly, the better public schools have better extracurricular programmes, better teachers, and so forth. That is not to say that they are particularly good; they just happen to be less bad than most other schools. It is difficult to make any definitive statement about this because I do not know of any empirical studies about school quality in Malaysia, but anyone visiting the schools I attended, and afterwards touring some of their higher-calibre counterparts would know what I mean. The range of extracurricular opportunities and the competence of the teachers at one of the latter schools often far outstrips those which most poorer students attend. (To make this a bit more concrete for someone from the Klang Valley, a helpful comparison might be between SMK Bandar Utama Damansara (3) with SMK Damansara Jaya, or SK Bandar Utama with SK Damansara Utama.)

To make the convoluted clear, the present state of affairs is this: the richer you are, the likelier you are to attend a better school and be exposed to opportunities for self-enrichment. Of course, all these things are strongly correlated with future success, which explains why most people who set the boundaries of debate in Malaysia and determine the direction our government and businesses take consistently underestimate the deficiencies of our education system.

This in turn directly leads to policies which do not reward the handful of poor students who take the trouble to make the most out of the hand life has dealt them. What's the point of doing your best in school or taking an outstanding role in student activities if you attend a typically deficient school? You know, a school where the first thing half your teachers tell you is that they don't want to be there because they couldn't get a job in their chosen field, or the district education department made them teach a subject they aren't even trained in? A school where the headmistress decides to force out the Scoutmasters because they can only hold troop meetings on Saturdays?

Of course, there are many, many students from similar backgrounds in the handful of better public schools we have out there. But still, what is the point? You cannot afford tuition — your classmates from wealthier families can. You cannot afford to buy an additional uniform, so forget about becoming a prefect or joining a real uniformed body like the Scouts. When you apply to university or for a scholarship, all these things will be held against you anyway, so what is the point? Nobody really cares that the reason you didn't get straight As is that you couldn't pay for a tutor, or the reason you have a sketchy extracurricular record is that you didn't have the time or money to spend on those things.

This brings us back to P. Sarojini and her misguided letter to The Star. The sad fact is that it is people like her, with their incorrect perception of the state of education in the country, who drive policy decisions and set the course of public debate. It is all too easy to assume that the typical educational experience resembles yours; if you have not realised it yet, I too made that implicit assumption in this article, because I have no real way of knowing empirically that my schools are representative of the state of public education. However, if asked to stake money on the question, I would readily bet my life savings that the typical Malaysian student has never had access to the kind of opportunities P. Sarojini or even myself have had.

Naturally, it's ridiculous to say that people like us should have no say in determining where education in Malaysia should go next. Like it or not, the wisest and most intelligent Malaysians fit to deal with the important questions facing us come from relatively patrician backgrounds. But all the intelligence and competence in the world cannot save us if they proceed from the wrong assumptions. A most egregious mistake would be to assume that our public education system is homogeneous. Only slightly less horrendous, however, is the assumption that the typical school looks more like SMK La Salle than SMK Taman Tun Dr Ismail, and the typical student looks more like the cleancut, ambitious scion of the middle class than the teenager trying to sell you an RM9 DVD. We in the middle and upper classes are not typical of Malaysia, and we can never forget that — not when we try to craft policy for something so far-reaching socially as our education system.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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