Yaacob Harun


In Malaysia education is the most important channel for upward social mobility for the indigenous population (bumiputera) after Independence. During the colonial period, access to formal education for social mobility, i.e., education in the English language from primary to secondary and tertiary levels was only given to the members of the Malay royalty and to those peoples (the non-bumiputera communities) who had found favor with the colonial government. Formal education for the bumiputera natives through vernacular school system set up by the British was to fulfill the conservative function of maintaining social and cultural continuity. Basically, it was meant to teach them to be better farmers and better fishermen than their forefathers. Since it was only given at the elementary level, practically, there was no avenue for the bumiputera to experience upward social mobility by getting employed in occupations other than those carried out by their parents.

The situation persisted until the last few decades before Independence when more opportunities were given to the bumiputera to get access to English education. In the fifties, English Primary Schools were established in greater numbers throughout the country. Upon the completion of six years of primary education in these schools, pupils were admitted into English secondary schools, including into those elitist institutions formerly being the preserves of of the Malay royalty like the renowned Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). Pupils from the vernacular schools were also given the opportunity to enroll in English medium schools through the Special Malay Class (SMC) program upon the completion of Standard Four, and upon passing an entrance examination. For those who had completed six years of vernacular primary education could also enroll into English secondary schools through the Remove Class Program.

Despite the opportunities extended to them, however, only a small percentage of the bumiputera at that time sent their children to these English secondary schools. This was due to a number of reasons, which include: the lack of awareness among parents towards education as a means for social mobility; the preconceived notion that secular English education was contradictory to Islam; the high cost of sending children to English schools; and the problem of accessibility – as most of the English schools were found in the urban areas.

As from 1963 onwards when Malay language was used as the medium of instruction at the secondary level more bumiputera students were able to acquire higher education up to the university level. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) established in 1970 was to take care of the first batch of students who had undergone seven years of secondary education in the Malay medium. Upon graduation, they were employed in various occupations especially in the public sector with a salary structure several times more than that of their parents. The emergence of a bigger new bumiputera middle class group with new life styles is an indicator of an upward social mobility in the society.

However, rapid socio-economic development in Malaysia in the last two decades creates the demand for a new breed of trained manpower in the modern urban-based enterprises. Coupled with the objective of the New Economic Policy to create an indigenous industrial and commercial community, the need for trained bumiputera personnel in science and technology became more pressing. The government through its training programs gave priorities in terms of scholarships and bursaries to students from the science stream to study abroad. In the local universities, the quota system was introduced to address the issue of ethnic imbalance between the bumiputera and non-bumiputera students in both the arts and the science streams. This quota system, which is based on the ratio 45:55,  gives more allocation to the bumiputera students in the science stream to that in the arts The introduction of Basic Science Program (Program Asasi Sains) by Universiti Malaya in 1967 and Matriculation Program by other public universities in the seventies was meant to channel bumiputera students to the science stream particularly to make up for the lack of numbers of these students in the medical and engineering faculties. Deliberate and conscious efforts taken by the government are meant to ensure adequate bumiputera participation in the lucrative areas of scientific and technological enterprises, which Malaysia is embarking on with the objective of achieving the status of developed nation in by the year 2020.

However, looking at the population landscape of Malaysia, we find that a majority of the bumiputera population is still found in the rural areas engaging themselves in primary economic activities. The income from these activities is very much lower compared to that derived from urban-based secondary and tertiary activities. As a consequence, a majority of bumiputera parents in the rural areas are financially unable to provide the necessary educational supports to their children, which most wealthy urban parents would do to see their children excel in their studies. Being least educated themselves it is also very unlikely for the rural parents to give proper personal guidance and motivation to their children, leaving the tasks entirely to the teachers. Hence, financial assistance, loans and other forms of incentives given by the government to rural students are by no means necessary, and these should be made available to them, indefinitely.

Students from rural background who manage to get places in institutions of higher learning have nowhere else to turn to except to the government for financial support in terms of getting loans or scholarships. Without such support, their dreams of getting tertiary education would never materialize, even though they made the grade in their examinations. Those who were not successful in securing places in public universities, find it difficult to further their studies in private colleges as the fees charged by these institutions are beyond their reach. Furthermore, most of these private institutions are found in the cities and this makes it even harder for them to survive financially.

Bumiputera students from rural schools are generally less proficient in the English language. When they come to the university, most of them rely on the lecture notes and on the limited number of titles of books in the Malay language. Public libraries including university libraries in Malaysia offer little help to these students as almost ninety five percent of the collection of reading materials there are in the English language. The inability of these students to get access to knowledge through reading materials and books in the English language put them not only in a disadvantaged position, but also it limits the development of their mental and intellectual capacity.

Another important issue, which stirs a debate in the education system in Malaysia is meritocracy. The issue of meritocracy comes to the centre stage when it involves selection of students to public universities. Only those with high pointers manage to secure places in these universities. This is contrary to the situation in the last two decades when competition for places in public universities was not as keen as it is in the present context. Nowadays, students who have four principal Bs in their Higher School Certificate are still unable to secure places in the university, whereas such qualification was far beyond what was required in the last two decades. Even though Malaysia now has more than twenty public universities, they are still not enough places to cater for the increasing demand for higher education. The issue of meritocracy will not arise, if there are places for all students with minimum qualification to enter universities.

When this issue of meritocracy is linked to the quota system of bumiputera to non-bumiputera students, the scenario becomes more complex. It is also difficult to address the issue of ethnic imbalance between bumiputera and non-bumiputera students in the science stream when the selection process to public universities is to be based on merit. This is because not many bumiputera students have good enough qualifications in the science subjects to enable them to compete for university places on equal terms with their non-bumiputera counterparts. A stringent curb on the selection process of bumiputera students to enter public universities on the basis of merit is a move that will further upset the existing situation of ethnic imbalance in these universities. The situation of acute ethnic imbalance in private institutions is bound to appear in public universities if meritocracy is to be fully implemented.

In my opinion, if there is a need to impose a quota system in the economy to ensure at least, thirty percent bumiputera participation in the lucrative urban-based enterprises, such need is more pressing in the field of education, as education is the most important instrument for social mobility for the bumiputera. Education is still the factor that determines their very survival in their beloved country. To them, education agenda is the bumiputera agenda, and such an agenda should always be regarded as the most important agenda that should never be compromised.


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