From Jonathan Lee
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced on Saturday that the living allowance for local and overseas students sponsored by Mara will be increased with immediate effect.
As an active member of the Malaysian student community overseas, I can say that this change has been in the making for a long time. Student representative organisations overseas will have cause for celebration as they have been lobbying tirelessly for this increment.
From the UK to Australia, I witnessed these organisations reach out to ministers, government bodies and external organisations to present their case. More notably, the case for this increment was presented to the prime minister during his official visit to the UK last May.
For Mara-sponsored students, this will bring about much-needed relief. Globally, rising inflation has resulted in higher costs of living, particularly in countries where students have to deal with a high exchange rate for the ringgit.
For example, Australia reported an inflation rate of 6.1%, while the UK recorded a rate of 8.2% in June. Students reported that the price of various necessities have doubled, or even tripled as a result of inflation.
Mara, being an organisation founded under the premise of facilitating socio-economic development by the rural development ministry, naturally has many students in need of financial aid.
Be it from rural areas, those from a less privileged socio-economic background, or students raised by single parents, I have encountered Mara students from all walks of life.
Being a student in the UK, I understand and empathise with the Mara scholars over their request for the increment.
However, having acknowledged that the increment is timely, this issue also begs the bigger question of whether Mara scholarships are still relevant.
Mara scholars are not bonded to serve the government at all. In essence, a recipient of a Mara scholarship need not even return to Malaysia upon completion of his or her studies.
This is unlike many scholarships offered by institutions or companies where the recipient must return to Malaysia and is bonded to serve in a specified role for a few years.
Therefore, I question if this is a worthy investment that the country is making with the non-binding Mara scholarships.
I have also found that the selection of Mara scholars have been especially lax of late.
I fully acknowledge that there are needy students who are recipients. However, it is only fair of me to point out that there are a number of students who have the liberty to travel, dine in luxury, and even have their parents visiting them in the UK.
The number of recipients of the Mara scholarship this year is a whopping 1,500, which certainly raised my eyebrows.
Most importantly, and perhaps controversially, is the race-based premise of this scholarship. As long as scholarships like these exist, it is ensured that there will be hardworking and deserving non-Bumiputera students who will never reach their full potential because existing educational policies are not in their favour.
Of course, many would defend the scholarships by saying that the Bumiputeras are of poorer economic standing. But after 65 years of independence and 51 years since affirmative action in the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced, one really has to wonder if that argument holds up to scrutiny.
So, regardless of whether the increments are justified or not, should we even continue with Mara scholarships at all?
To end this on a more positive note, I present three recommendations on how Mara scholarships could be improved.
Firstly, have stringent measures in place to ensure that selected scholars are highly deserving of the award. This includes making the eligibility requirements public. Make sure every investment made is worth it.
Secondly, make it a bonding scholarship. Every Mara scholar should be mandated to serve in Malaysia for at least two years, as per the standard practice of many other scholarships for the same education level.
The skills and knowledge these scholars acquired overseas will be a huge asset to the development of this country.
Last but not least, it is high time to transform race-based scholarships into open-for-all, merit-based scholarships. Education should never be used to perpetuate the exclusivity of races but should instead be used as a uniting force.
Offer every mind in Malaysia an equal opportunity to pursue their education overseas for the betterment of themselves and the country.
Jonathan Lee is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.