They are our universities, matey!

FEBRUARY 26 — “And M’sian universities are world class! LOL!”

So read the tweet from no less than the chief minister of Penang and DAP boss Lim Guan Eng, two days ago. I’m sure it was in good humour, a kind of “look at me, look at me, I’m cracking a joke” because the tweet was accompanied by a single-drawing comic strip. 

He may need to forgive the millions of Malaysians local graduates, like me, who did not find him funny.

If he were to indulge us non-Monash graduates — mind you the chief minister graduated not from the Malaysian campus, but from Australia and I am guessing at the Clayton campus in the Melbourne suburbs — further, we’d tell him that we rarely find him funny in English. 

But if he wants some advice from me, I’d tell him to discuss about local universities reverently. 

Because if universities and their graduates are inseparable by association, when you point out flippantly as a joke about local universities and them not being world class, then you are also being flippant about their products and how un-world class they are. It bodes badly for him, if that was his intention.

It’s called displeasing your demographics. And even if it was not his intention, why put in writing anything that can be so easily and readily be misread as disrespect to local graduates?

DQMOT, even in non-world class universities’ political science departments’ 101 classes they teach students that while posturing and taking the mickey out of your opponents — in this case the education minister — is fun and necessary, you avoid demeaning a whole lot of other people.

I’m #justsaying.

It’s the greatest show on earth

How did this education tiff come about?

In the usual way, of course. Cyclically education ministers talk about the great strides our education policies have made. Rankings are mentioned, achievements are embellished and negative comments snubbed.

With our crumbling public education, from primary to tertiary, doomsayers have a field day.

A screenshot of Lim Guan Eng's tweet on February 24, 2015.
A screenshot of Lim Guan Eng's tweet on February 24, 2015.

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This time, Second Education Minister Idris Jusoh claims that local universities, both public and private, are world class. The DAP especially has taken umbrage with the claim and laid out their alternate charge sheet, from the rankings Malaysia has opted out of to how unemployable our average graduates are.

To this, I say hoorah. All active debates on all issues — and in this case the mother of issues — are necessary, but they do not need to descend to dragging the whole teaching profession through the mud. 

The best teachers and lecturers would be the first to stand up and critique the situation, and tell us what we need to do to fix the situation. But they would be the first to defend their institutions if they are brazenly attacked. 

With so many of DAP’s key leaders graduating abroad it may want to be showing a more compassionate tone when discussing local universities, less they want to be seen as aloof and judgemental.  Or worse, inconsiderate.

The local vs foreign chasm

Any discourse on what universities are worth have to be seen in the light of realities here and how “here not over there” plays out.

Local university graduates struggle for great jobs, as top firms tend to carte blanche filter out local products and prioritise foreign graduates. A foreign degree is akin to a free pass to interviews which is why private universities attract more when the degree has the one-year study abroad option. 

It matters little that a substantial number of these foreign graduates have improved very little their grammar but instead opted for healthy dollops of Western accents — even in a year.

The universities have their problems, but they are our collective problems. Our children, our watch, our collective future. Scoffing at the universities means scoffing at their graduates. Your workforce, or more importantly, your voters.

Every effort to better local degrees — even if well founded — finds its way to legitimising all foreign degrees as superior regardless of which university.   

Which is why these dissections — by Pakatan or Barisan Nasional politicians — have to be done with great care.

Education means all of it

That’s only half of it. Education has to be about primary, secondary and tertiary.

If DAP wants to talk about education, it can’t pick and choose. It is positing itself as the party of new ideas, perhaps it should be the party of all ideas, even those not convenient for them.

For instance, where is the clamour for a single public schools system?

With shrinking funding for public schools, increase in numbers of students and drops in education quality, asking if consolidating facilities and resources through reducing the four systems — Chinese, Tamil, religious and national — into one is a fair question. One nation one system, as far as public education is concerned.

Why has the DAP never broached this subject?

I’m not asking DAP — whose Chinese language-educated support base keeps it in good stead, support-wise and financially — to abandon Chinese-type schools, but I am saying, if it is real education and getting it forward, then all parts of the jigsaw need to be jigged, not just the convenient ones.

After all, the quality of our primary schools result in the potential of our secondary schools, and the quality of those secondary schools determine the quality of our local universities.

This is not a ground-breaking proposal.

It’s what the public primary and secondary schools in those countries where all the top world class universities are situated do.

Not in this part of the world perhaps?

Hwa Chong Institution, Nanyang Girls’ High School, Nan Chiau High School and Chung Cheng High School are among the top schools in PAP-run Singapore. They are all public schools that teach in English even if there are Mandarin classes. By the late 1980s Singapore had already left the legacy of Chinese-type schools, and moved the island republic to just English.

If it’s good enough for Singapore, does it translate the same for Malaysia, of course in our case to Malay?

In the Bangi lights

While it may appear as though this former undergraduate in Bangi does care too much about attacks on his university and other local universities, it does not mean he is inaccurate in his description of the situation.

Our universities need reform and they need better support. Academic rigour and freedom are intertwined, so are speech and new ideas. More money to facilities, not buildings, and better pay for dedicated teachers and lecturers.

But all of that, all that clamour for better things do not open up a path for ridicule or even snide remarks. Scoring cheap points won’t win the real votes.

Either that or the chief minister should reconsider the way he puts his ideas across, especially the ones he is convinced are hilarious.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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