By Ong Kian Ming
Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister Najib Razak, received much criticism for a trip she took to the United Kingdom earlier this month.
In response, Rosmah said that her trip to the UK, including a visit to the University of Oxford, was not for a holiday but to “pave the way for children under the Permata early childhood education programme to join the university”.
If Permata is under budget constraints, as claimed by Rosmah, I suggest that instead of visiting the UK, she can take a trip across the border to Singapore to learn how the top institutions there help their high achieving students to get into Oxbridge.
The latest statistics (as taken from official websites) show that there are currently 290 Singaporean students enrolled in the University of Oxford compared with 145 Malaysians, and 351 Singaporeans in the University of Cambridge compared with 239 Malaysians.
Singapore sends nine times more students to Oxbridge than Malaysia on a per capita basis.
Given Singapore’s success in sending so many more students to Oxbridge than Malaysia, it would make sense for Rosmah to visit Singapore to learn more about the “secrets” of their success.
She would just need to visit the top 5 A-Level institutions in Singapore – Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong Institution, Victoria Junior College, Temasek Junior College and National Junior College – which are responsible for sending most of the Singaporean students to Oxbridge (as well as a number of Malaysians).
If she did, she would find the following:
1) High academic achievements across the board
In most schools, only a handful of students, perhaps the top 5%, would get 4As for their STPM. Those with 4.0 CGPAs are even rarer.
In a top A-Level college like Raffles Institution, the percentage of students in a cohort with the equivalent of 4As was 53% for the class of 2016 (629 out of 1162 students).
Basically, if you were to throw a stone into a crowd of students in this school, you would have a more than 50% chance of hitting someone who scored 4As.
Having a larger number of academic high achievers means that you have a larger pool of students who can potentially apply to places like Oxford and Cambridge.
While we can discuss whether or not academic results are the best reflection of intellectual potential, there is no escaping from the need to have good academic results to gain entry into Oxbridge.
Offers from Oxbridge are usually given to students contingent on them obtaining a certain academic result. Most entry offers are contingent of students obtaining 3As or 4As for their A levels (or the equivalent).
The question which Rosmah has to answer, as the patron of Permata, is how many of its pre-university students obtain straight As for the A-Level exams (or its equivalent)?
What does Permata need to do in order to reach similar academic standards as the top pre-university institutions in Singapore?
2) Exposure to various intellectual challenges
Students in these top A-Level institutions in Singapore are given opportunities to expand their intellectual horizons beyond their normal academic syllabus.
Students who show greater aptitude in certain subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and Informatics, are given the training and the opportunity to compete for selection into the Singapore team for Olympiad competitions at the international level.
The Olympiad infrastructure which exists at the school and national levels has allowed Singapore to improve its performance in these international student competitions over time.
For example, Singapore has placed in the Top 10 in the International Math Olympiad since 2011. Many of the students who participate in these Olympiads will go on to gain entry into top universities around the world, including Oxbridge.
The exposure to various intellectual opportunities goes beyond training and participating in Olympiad competitions, which are only open to a relatively small number of students.
Students who show interest in other fields, including the arts, public policy, scientific research and information technology have access to specialist programmes in these fields.
In addition, students who want to gain exposure to university standard courses can opt to take H3 level papers for their A-Levels (This is an addition to their “normal” A-Level papers which are called H2 level papers).
Students who take H3 level papers are better prepared to ask more insightful and critical questions in their field of studies which would also help them when writing essays and answering questions during interviews for Oxbridge entry.
This is perhaps one of the intentions of Permata Pintar’s Nobelist Mindset programme which is a programme to give Malaysian students a sense of what it takes to have the mindset of a Nobel Prize winner.
But from the following description of the Nobelist Mindset programme from the Permata website, we have a long way to go in terms of producing graduates who can write proper sentences in English, let alone Nobel Prize winners:
“This workshop was held for 5 days at the Permatapintar Center. Students are divided into 12 groups and will be taught by two instructors in the classroom. Students will learn and be exposed to sciences to become a scientist and features a prize winner.
“The workshop was also attended by the students of the boarding school from the outside (SBP, BPT, SKK and so on). The highlight is the selection of students and Young Scientist who managed to qualify for the London trip.
3) Having well-trained academic councillors
Gaining admissions into a top overseas university is not as simple as merely getting good academic results. It requires well-written application essays which can make you stand out from the crowd.
It requires good reference letters from credible sources. It requires extra preparation for Oxbridge courses which require subject exams.
It requires knowing what questions to anticipate and how to converse with professors from Oxbridge during interviews.
Most of the top A-Level institutions in Singapore have well-trained academic councillors whose full-time jobs are to help students prepare their applications to these top universities.
This is one of the reasons cited as to why Raffles came out top in terms of number of students accepted into Cambridge.
As far as I know, Permata Pintar does not have any full-time academic councilors to help guide students on their higher education options.
The closest item I found was a research mentoring programme whereby a student can be mentored by a UKM academic in an area of his or her interest.
4) Having well-qualified and well-trained teachers
Many of the teachers in these top institutions are Singapore education ministry teaching scholarship holders.
This means that they were sponsored by the ministry to study overseas before coming back to Singapore to teach. Some of them have studied in top overseas universities including Oxbridge.
There are also expatriate teachers in these top A-Level institutions with experience in teaching in some of the top secondary schools overseas including schools in the UK which send a high number of students to Oxbridge.
Does Permata have a similar cohort of teaching staff who can create the right academic environment for the geniuses who are studying at Permata?
Do the staff have the right experiences which can help these students to not just do well academically but create a mindset among the students which can enable them to apply to some of the top universities overseas, including Oxbridge?
The evidence does not seem to confirm this.
High achieving environment
The onus is on Permata to create a high achieving environment for its high IQ students. The environment at Permata should be one where high performers are created across the board.
The last thing we would want is for places at Oxbridge to be “bought” in exchange for visits and special donations to Oxford or Cambridge by Malaysian dignitaries such as Rosmah.
Rosmah does not have to take a contingent of 30 or more people to the United Kingdom to help future generations of Permata students gain entry into Oxbridge.
She should just go across the border to Singapore with a few of the Permata top management and teachers.
If she wants to save even more money, she should visit some of the top A-Level colleges in Malaysia which routinely send many students to Oxbridge, including Kolej Yayasan UEM, Kolej Tuanku Jaafar (KTJ), Methodist College, Taylors College and Intec Education College in Shah Alam.
Then she wouldn’t have to ask her husband, Prime Minister Najib for more funding for Permata.
Ultimately, regardless of the number of overseas trips which Rosmah takes, on behalf of Permata, I’m not sure if she will learn a much more basic lesson – which is that programmes for “gifted” students such as Permata cannot be the launchpad to promote one individual’s agenda or to make one person look good but must be built on strong institutional foundations in order to make the programme sustainable and successful.
Ong Kian Ming is Serdang MP and DAP election strategist.
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