Taking a leaf from the Avengers in our education system

The government maintaining the 90:10 matriculation quota in favour of Bumiputeras begs the question of how long more before we progress towards meritocracy. Education Minister Maszlee Malik said that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is only a year old and that correcting such an imbalance is too huge a task for the time being. The quota system will remain until the government successfully addresses the racial imbalance of students pursuing higher studies, and until the job market is more fair to hiring Bumiputera graduates. He quipped, “Even the Avengers could not do so in a year. It took eight years to kill Thanos.”

It’s hard to recall anything significant that Maszlee has done in reforming our education system, but many can recall the controversies he has created since assuming the post of education minister. We had the groundbreaking change from white shoes to black, him being forced to give up his appointment as president of IIUM, him calling on teachers stationed in Sabah and Sarawak to use their position as “medan dakwah”, and him wading into another controversy on matriculation quotas.

Maszlee griped that non-Bumiputeras form the majority in private and foreign universities in Malaysia, and that the matriculation quota is the government’s remedy to ensure that poor Bumiputera students are given a chance to pursue higher education.

Maszlee, speaking at a USM forum, also went off-tangent saying those calling for the pre-university course to be opened to other races should also address the unfair job market dominated by a particular race. He claimed the job market has been discriminating against non-Mandarin speakers as well as those wearing the Muslim headscarf.

Maszlee’s sweeping statement is not backed by any empirical evidence. Not all Chinese are rich and not all Malays are poor. As an employer myself, and having worked in multi-national companies, we look beyond the tudung and select employees based on merit. Employers are more concerned about the command of English and other pertinent factors than whether a person wears a tudung or speaks Mandarin.

Maszlee’s statement needs to be deconstructed in order to understand the issues and implications. Due to the NEP affirmative action policy, Bumiputeras make up the biggest population in public institutions of higher learning. It is plausible that non-Bumiputeras make up the bulk of the population in private institutions because the quota system denies them places at public institutions. At the same time, it is plausible to say that even when Bumiputeras want to study at private institutions, which are perceived as having “higher standards”, they cannot afford the high tuition fees. It is also plausible that few Bumiputeras qualify to enter these private institutions because of higher entry requirements. Whether the job market is fair is a red herring in the argument, especially when you use the tudung and Mandarin language as an example of discrimination.

Maszlee said one day, once prosperity is shared by everybody, there will be no need for quotas. But until then, we still need to help those who are in need, not because of their race or who they are, but simply because they need to be assisted. This “one day” could be a million light years away – meanwhile, what about the non-Bumiputeras who also require assistance?

The matriculation quota system is very much an NEP legacy launched by the government in 1971 under the former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak. It’s been 48 years since the NEP was implemented in 1971 and 20 years since the matriculation quota was introduced in 1999. In this context, the Avengers were more successful since it took them only eight years to kill Thanos. Perhaps Maszlee can learn from the Avengers how to speed up the process of transition.

There is nothing wrong with correcting the imbalance after May 13, 1969, but there is everything wrong when you continuously lower the bar in favour of a segment of the population. The world has not changed. In order to survive, we need to be resilient, hardy and competitive in any job market. Pampering to the underprivileged and keeping them in a protective cocoon forever and ever is not the best policy for the advancement of the Bumiputeras in nation building.

The setting of quota has now become a Catch 22 situation. To help Bumiputeras, you need to set a quota. The setting of quota lowers the bar of entry, resulting in mediocre graduates, and quota without a time frame will create a vicious cycle of producing more unemployable Bumiputera graduates. It seems the only way underprivileged students can ever enter universities is through a quota system.

We can also assume that this quota system is inherently more tolerant of lower standards than “normal” admissions. Therefore, if acceptance of the underprivileged is available solely through a quota system, and a quota system is inherently accepting of lower standards, underprivileged students are essentially less academically capable than those at private universities.

In the matriculation quota debate, we should be asking ourselves whether we are setting quotas to help the poor Bumiputeras or Bumiputeras that cannot compete on a level playing field. It’s important to consider the end result of such a policy in the production line. Will you be producing graduates who pass stringent quality controls or graduates who will eventually go into the reject bin? There is a distinction between setting quotas to help the poor and producing employable graduates. Helping the underprivileged through the back door may cause a negative blowback rather than the right results.

In most advanced countries, affirmative action is taken to admit more minorities in university intakes. In Malaysia, the Bumiputeras are the majority race but somehow we have labelled them as the less privileged lot that needs perpetual assistance in spite of their “advancement” under the NEP.

When talking about quotas, we should distinguish the argument between equality and equity. The debate about the quota system is more about equality. When we talk about equity, the debate shifts to whether we are fair and impartial in dealing with the matter. The PH government has cleverly solved this problem by increasing the intake for non-Bumiputeras while maintaining the 90:10 quota system. But this is only a short-term win-win situation.

Our education system is in urgent need of reformation. When the majority race in this country still depends on quotas to enter university, it does not augur well for the future of the country and generations to come. We should not just lower the bar in favour of the quota system but focus on producing resilient, hardy and competitive graduates whot can hold their own with the best in the world. How long can Maszlee use tudung and Mandarin as an excuse?

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.