Getting affordable education as a Malay is like shooting fish in a barrel. Getting affordable education as a non-Malay is like shooting at that same barrel but with a bulletproof glass lid.
While Malaysia is still a long way from having free education, public universities and other state-funded tertiary education institutions are still considered as affordable and have some of the lowest tuition fees in the world due to government subsidies.
Be that as it may, a caveat of this system is that most state-funded institutions have a fixed intake quota set in favour of Bumiputera citizens, those legally considered to be the descendants of the indigenous peoples of the Malay world. This system, by virtue of the New Economic Policy, has been a controversial issue for decades, becoming a visceral touchpoint for both citizens and politicians. Once again, it is floating in the zeitgeist due to the government’s recent decision not to change the 90:10 quota but instead increase the number of overall seats in the matriculation programme.
On average, the cost of an undergraduate degree at a Malaysian public university rarely exceeds RM30,000, which is why placement in these institutions is highly sought after. One way to almost guarantee a spot is to go through a pre-university course called matriculation.
The matriculation programme, which provides a diploma-level certificate in science, accounting, or technical, is highly coveted by those looking for an affordable route to higher education. The one-year course only costs RM580 after subsidies and students even receive a significant monthly stipend. This makes the programme especially coveted by the B40, the economic group categorised by the government as having a household income of less than the national median.
Notwithstanding the affordability of public education, many non-Bumiputera students in the B40 group are cast aside due to the rigorous quota system and are left to either take an extensive loan to attend a private college, which many are unable to afford, or put their education on hold and start working low-income jobs until they have saved up enough money, if ever.
Since the change of government in 2018, many had hoped that the quota in the matriculation programme would be adjusted to accommodate the marginalised B40 Chinese and Indians. Alas, the prime minister announced that instead of decreasing the 90% quota for Bumiputera students, it would increase the number of slots by 60%, boosting non-Bumiputera seats from 2,500 to 4,000. While this seems like a step in the right direction, conversely the decision takes two steps backwards as it could have adverse impacts on all stakeholders, Bumiputera or otherwise.
As the programme is heavily subsidised by the government, an increase in seats means that the programme is now 60% more expensive for government coffers, not to mention that more seats in public universities will have to be allocated for said students – an ostensibly irresponsible decision considering how the new government has been expounding non-stop about the dire state of the country’s financial debts.
The additional seats also lead to a higher student-faculty ratio, increasing the workload for lecturers and giving them less time and opportunity to focus on individual students. This could lead to a drop in the quality of education. The student body is also affected as a higher number of students means that competition is tougher and more stressful due to the fact that the aforementioned near-guaranteed ticket for public university placement is diluted as these institutions would not be able to afford opening allocations for the overflow of matriculation graduates.
It is a ubiquitous Malaysian story: many Chinese and Indian parents have experienced their straight-A children being denied placement in the matriculation programme while discovering that many Malays with subpar grades are accepted. The standard of acceptance for Malay students is likely to lower due to the extra 15,000 seats. This not only diminishes the concept of meritocracy in academia but is also an affront to the self-dignity of the Malays. A quota system favouring the Malays implies that Malays are lesser and unable to perform outstandingly on their own efforts, an indignation overlooked by those who are for the system, who often pressure dissidents to stay reticent through political rhetoric.
Staunch supporters of the quota system often disregard the fact that the taxes that fund these institutions are contributed by citizens of all races. The concept of public education is to provide equity to the poor. Racial discrimination only negates the effects and keeps the vulnerable demographic stagnant.
Opportunities should be afforded to all, and only those with merit should be rewarded – that is a universal truth.
Understandably, the government is unable to ignore those who are able to vote it out of power and make drastic changes overnight. Changing a public mindset takes time, effort and amicable understanding, but for that to occur, communication is key. The public must be allowed to discuss these issues out in the open, without interference from the powers that be, which at the moment, are the biggest bulwark.
Ikmal Rozlan is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.