The crutch stigma and the quota system
DR Maszlee Malik touched off a furor with his recent statement on the contentious Matriculation Quota System.

The Education Minister said the Cabinet had agreed to increase the Matriculation Programme Student Intake from 25,000 to 40,000 but the 90 per cent quota for Bumiputeras would remain.

His statement sparked a firestorm of protests that led to a petition on social media, calling on the Prime Minister to replace him.

Recently, The Borneo Post sat down with Assistant Minister of Education and Technological Research Dr Annuar Rapaee for a Q&A interview to get his views on the issue.
Q: Yang Berhomat (YB) Dr, I’m made to understand you are a product of the Matriculation Programme. Can you share your experience on this?

A: Yes indeed, I’m a product of University Malaya (UM)’s Centre for Foundation Studies in Science or Pusat Asasi Sains UM in Bahasa Melayu. That Centre, as I recall, was established a few years before I enrolled in 1981 – more than three decades ago. In fact, I was among the first five early batches at that time. In UM, they don’t call it matriculation but Foundation Studies in Science.

Back then, it was a Centre to recruit Bumiputera students from across Malaysia, who excelled in Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as well as Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE). At that time, it was still MCE for Sarawak.
The Centre was meant to prepare Bumiputera students for taking up science courses such as dentistry, medicine, engineering, science and education (for teaching science subjects) in UM.

There were about 500 to 600 intakes per session and the duration of the course was two years – divided into four semesters. Each semester had a final exam. In other words, every Science Foundation student needed to sit for four exams.

Hence, they would not be able to proceed further if they failed an exam. So, the semester exam functioned as a filter to weed out those who didn’t make the grade.

We had to take English, maths, biology, physics and chemistry. And you could also be kicked out if you failed English.

So, it was actually very tough and totally different from Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and Higher School Certificate (HSC) where candidates only sat for the exam at the end of Upper Six.

I found out that between 20 and 30 students failed in each of their semester exams and were not allowed to continue in the university. The most important advantage for the Bumiputera students was that they would be guaranteed a place in the university if they passed all the four exams. The excellent graders would either pursue medicine, dentistry or engineering.

During my time, there were no matriculation centres except within the universities. At that time, the idea was to increase the number of Bumiputera students in science-related courses because not many were doing engineering, medicine and dentistry. So that was why the government, at that time, believed this was the way forward.

But as the 1990’s set in, the situation changed and matriculation centres were set up outside universities. For example, in East Malaysia, the centre is in Labuan.
However, the course was only for a year – unlike in Foundation Studies, which was a two-year programme. That means after SPM, you would only need to do a year of matriculation programme to enter university.

This, I totally disagree with because for STPM students, they have to spend two years in Form Six before entering university whereas in the matriculation system, students only need to complete a year of study to enter university.

That’s why I prefer Foundation Studies in Science which was a very tough course at that time – tougher than STPM.

The duration of the current matriculation programme is only a year. That’s why non-Bumiputera students thought they too should be given a chance to do matriculation as it is perceived to be a faster route to university than STPM.

This, perhaps, is one of the factors that has led to dissatisfaction (among the other races) as matriculation students need only a year of study to enter university whereas Form Six students need two years to achieve the same purpose.

Q: In the context of Sarawak, what’s your stand on Dr Maszlee’s recent announcement that the number of places for students enrolling in public universities’ matriculation has been increased to 40,000 from 25,000 but still retaining the 90 per cent quota for Bumiputera students and 10 per cent for non-Bumiputera students?

A: We welcome the increase in numbers as there are more chances for students to enroll in public universities’ matriculation. But will the entry criteria be lowered just to accommodate this increase?

If so, this will cause uneasiness among the public because when you lower the entry requirement, the number of students with lower grades joining the programme will also increase. Furthermore, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has likened this to a ‘backdoor’ for Bumiputera students to enter universities.
On the other hand, in the case of Centre for Foundation Studies in Science, UM would select the excellent ones from the rest through the four tough exams but matriculation will not able to do this. In some ways, I do concur with him (Dr Mahathir).

Furthermore, given the 90:10 quota, the substantial increase will involve Bumiputera students which again will create unhappiness among the population.

Therefore, my questions to Maszlee are (1) do we have enough facilities, manpower (teachers) and accommodation to house these students and (2) are we going to lower the entry qualification just to accommodate the increase in students doing matriculation?

Now, if we were to lower (the entry requirement), we should increase the duration of the matriculation programme to two years as a starting point. In fact, I’m sure the 15,000 students (from the proposed increase) will include those with lower grades.

Hence, if we want to help the weaker ones, there should be a system for them to do pre-matriculation for a year. Otherwise, the mediocre would enter universities and this, in turn, would create unhappiness among the different races.

Q: Do you foresee the matriculation quota further dividing the country along racial and religious lines as pointed out by Bintulu MP and Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) president Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing?

A: I’m glad people now are concerned about our education system dividing our people. In fact, I have received feedback from some people, expressing concern our education system is one of the factors dividing our people.

We have divided the students since their early education – as early as seven years old, not only during matriculation.

In fact, matriculation compounds the division among the people. In that sense, Datuk Seri Tiong is quite right (about education system) dividing the people.

The most important thing is how to overcome our education system that has divided us. Prior to independence, we had collectively agreed there must be vernacular schools. This has worked out very well and we cannot deny these schools have produced quality human capital for the country and contributed to the education of the younger generation.

But some people are blaming these schools for causing polarisation of our society and even suggesting they be closed down.

We’re pointing fingers at the schools when we should be finding solutions to bring the younger generation together.

To iron out this issue, we, perhaps, should have a special programme once a week or month for all school students to get together. Or even a students’ exchange where, for example, pupils from SK Abang Ali here can go to another school for a week or month so that they can make friends with each other.

What I’m trying to say is we cannot ‘burn’ down what we have agreed on vernacular schools. We cannot deny these schools have contributed to the country.

We must think forward on how we want to make sure our young generation can come together informally – outside the school curriculum.

The Education Ministry could create a co-curriculum that caters to all races. For example, in Sibu, perhaps, five (SK) national-type schools and five SJK(C) schools can come together to brainstorm, introduce activities or programmes and mingle with each other.

Otherwise, we’ll be talking endlessly about our differences when we should be guiding our younger generation towards nation-building.

Q: Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohamad Kadim Suaidi has pointed out that Sarawak Bumiputeras as ‘still in need of the quota system.’ Do you agree with this?

A: The idea of the quota system is to give opportunities to those who are behind. This prompts the question as how many of the matriculation students are from the rural areas.

I don’t have the statistics. Kadim has rightly pointed out that rural schools in Sarawak are still lagging behind. If there is no quota system, these students will fall far behind others.

But does the matriculation quota system really address this issue? If these students are from the rural areas, then the system works. However, we’re not tackling the issue of poor and weak students who’re not from the rural areas. We’re just giving that as a reason to have the quota system. So until when should the quota system continue?

To me, this is just a symptomatic treatment when the best treatment to ensure enough Bumiputera students are doing Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) courses is to do so at an early stage, not at the end level of matriculation.

Rightly, such emphasis to ensure enough Bumiputera students are doing STEM should start from either the primary or secondary level, NOT at matriculation. Only then will there be no longer a need for the quota system.

Having said that, the best system, in my humble opinion, is one that takes in students, based on merits and family income, irrespective of racial background.

There will then be no question of whether the students are from rural or urban areas as there are also urban people who are poor. There are also poor Chinese and so, with that system, merit and family income will erase the unhappiness among the races.

Why should the Bumiputeras be worried? They’re known to be poor among all the races. So, automatically, they (Bumiputeras) will be included in this system that focuses on merit and family income. Moreover, this can also prevent abuse by well-to-do Bumiputera students, thus ensuring only those eligible are offered places in matriculation.

But if we were to base (the quota) on race – 90 per cent Bumiputera, 10 per cent non-Bumiputera – it would create a lot of uneasiness and unhappiness. We should avoid this type of system.

Furthermore, the matriculation system also creates unhappiness among STPM students. Perhaps, there should only be one entrance criterion into university. If there were poor and weak students requiring assistance, the government could set up centres for them (after completing Form Five) but specifically, these centres need not be matriculation centres.

I can tell you the majority of the weak students are Bumiputeras, so why worry if such centres were created?

They are meant for everyone who is poor and weak in his or her studies due to dilapidated conditions of the schools or who cannot go further, if not given help. This will break the vicious cycle of being poor.

The current matriculation system should ensure that the poor students are the target group.

Q: Will this quota system trigger a brain drain as those academically excellent are targeted by foreign universities?

A: Well, to me, I don’t view it that brain drain is due to those professionals not wanting to return to the country. But I do agree this can partially contribute to brain drain.

The good non-Bumiputera students – since they were not offered places in local universities – could go overseas. However, I would say the brain drain stemmed primarily from Form Six’s entrance to university, not from matriculation.

Q: Recently, Dr Maszlee said the number of students taking up Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) was dropping every year. Would the quota system cause this number to drop further?

A: He (Maszlee) increases the number of places (in matriculation), yet the number of students taking STEM is dropping. At the end of day, who are you going to accept into this quota system?

That’s why I say the root cause is not being addressed. The issue of dilapidated schools and the concomitant problems such as the decreasing number of students taking STEM, STEM, teachers not increasing and many schools not having proper science labs, have to be addressed. Otherwise, we will be promoting mediocrity and this is not good.

So, I don’t know why he (Mazslee) wants to increase the number of matriculation places because to me, it’s just showing off the numbers. He couldn’t justify the rationale behind the increase in matriculation when it came under public scrutiny.

I don’t think it’s right for Dr Maszlee to state the 90 per cent Bumiputera matriculation quota should not be looked at in isolation, basing his argument, as he did, on the fact that there were Bumiputera being denied jobs because they didn’t know how to speak Mandarin.

The way I see it, this has nothing to do with the matriculation issue. No doubt, there’re certain jobs where, among the prerequisites, is the ability to speak Mandarin. This is where there should be a government regulation to the effect that a job without Mandarin requirement should be advertised as such.

But that’s a different issue, and for Maszlee to have made it as a reason to increase the number of matriculation places does not look right to me.

I don’t think he could fulfill that number as there might be a lot of dropouts in university later on simply because you are increasing the number of lower graders just to make the number.

Q: Can you enlighten us on the dilemmas faced by matriculation students based on your experience as a product of the same system?

A: There are two points of entry to university – STPM and matriculation. There is a stigma that we’re not on par with STPM students in entering university. Because of that, certain lecturers have a different perception of us. We are likened to having entered medical school with the aid of a ‘walking stick’ (crutch). Such perception is unfair to those who have worked very hard to enter medical school.

Also, when I graduated as a medical doctor, there was an unfair perception hurled at me that I had been able to enter medical school because of the Foundation Studies at the Science Centre. So, I had to prove I was better than the rest. That was the dilemma that engulfed me at that time. I felt quite stressed as I had to double my efforts to prove to my non-Bumiputera course mates I was on par with them.

Due to such stigmatisation, I never sat for any local specialist exam except my post-masters. I sat for my Membership of Royal Colleges of Physicians (MRCP) of United Kingdom just to prove I was on par with my peers. That exam was, indeed, very tough. In fact, I was the first Malay from Sarawak to have passed that exam – all because I wanted to prove what they thought about me was inaccurate. And that’s going to be a challenging dilemma for matriculation students.

Perhaps, we should just scrap this matriculation so that everyone will sit for one exam to enter university. But for the Bumiputeras and those who are poor and weak, we can help them in the centre that I mentioned earlier – but all will sit for the same exam. Then, there will be no question of who is better – that should be the way forward to enter universities in Malaysia.

Q: Dr Maszlee also stated the quota system would be maintained until Bumiputeras were given a fair chance in the job market. Your thoughts on this?

A: To me, it’s not about giving a fair chance in the job market but that the Bumiputeras must realise education is most important. The labour market takes in those who are good.

To me, if you were really good, nobody would be able to deny you the opportunity. My response to Dr Maszlee is that the best way to increase the number of Bumiputeras in the job market is to increase the number of well qualified and skillful Bumiputeras.

By merely increasing the number of students in matriculation does not address this issue in toto. It’s most important for the Bumiputeras to realise that education is the key to uplift themselves.

Therefore, the Bumiputeras should emulate the Chinese community where education is a culture. Individual Bumiputeras should be daring to invest in education for a better future. Until all this is achieved, the Bumiputeras will continue to think the government should help them.

Q: What do you think is the way forward?

A: We have to think of a better way than clinging to the quota system to address the issue. I don’t believe the quota system can ever improve or ensure Bumiputera numbers in the job market are on par with the rest of workforce because of the attitude that needs to be changed among the Bumiputeras, especially with regard to making education a top priority.

The system will have to be revamped to ensure there is only one entrance to local public universities. They may be from different centres – if the Bumiputeras were poor and weak in their studies, they could be placed in one centre.

And this centre could also accommodate the poor students from the other races. They all could sit for one exam, and from then on, we could gauge if the Bumiputeras were getting good education. With the proper guidance, they could produce good results as well.

So, only when the Bumiputeras place high emphasis on their children’s education will the quota system be no longer needed.

The quota system should not make people uneasy and there shouldn’t be anyone who excels academically but is not accepted into university. Or else, it’s a waste of talent.

Having said that, we must also give due consideration to providing some leeway to the poor students so that there will be democratisation of education where all have equal access to good education.

Source: The Borneo Post

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