The controversy surrounding the intake composition into the Ministry of Education-run matriculation colleges is illustrative of the many things that are not right with our public institutions and, particularly, the discussions surrounding them.
As with most such discussions, this one very quickly acquired racial overtones. We cannot have frank discussions about issues without everything becoming about race. As a result, we skirt around it, but then, we are not honest about things and, consequently, problems are not addressed and things do not improve. Over time, the same problems, which are not racial in nature, get perpetuated and normalised as much as the racism afflicting them too gets to be institutionalised. And institutions decline.
The matriculation programme, introduced some 40 years ago — initially in public universities — was an intervention to achieve socioeconomic objectives using educational means. It was another entrance into public universities for bumiputera students apart from the typical Higher School Certificate (Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia or STPM). The presumption must have been that the quality of the two pre-university preparations was equivalent. But what did it say about the school system or the bumiputera students then?
It must have been that all students have the same potential, and differences in performances are due to the different process that they go through. But everyone went through STPM, so it must have been that if the matriculation stream was not created, the number of bumiputera students entering public universities would have been smaller than with the matriculation stream. So, the original objective was to increase the enrolment of bumiputera students — that is the policy objective — but the assumption, as this is done via educational means, must have been that matriculation would be as rigorous as STPM, for without that, the quality of university education and of public universities themselves will go down.
The theory must have been that while they are two separate streams, they compete for places in public universities based on some equivalent measure between matriculation and STPM. So, what happened?
What happened, in my view, is what happened in many other institutions where people — from policymakers to the civil service — got confused between the policy intervention of developing bumiputera by giving them access to the best possible institutions and actually “bumiputerising” the institutions themselves. In short, the ends and the means to achieve the ends got entangled. And it has been perpetuated for so long that it is perhaps the single most significant factor holding back the bumiputera development agenda itself.
The education agenda of providing the best pre-university preparation in the matriculation colleges, at par or even better than the internationally recognised STPM, was not emphasised and did not happen. There was no convergence between the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) own STPM in schools and its matriculation colleges to eventually become a single system.
Instead, the separation resulted in institutionalised segregation in every sense of the word — STPM for non-bumiputera and matriculation for bumiputera with differences in curriculum, examination and the learning environment. Hence, despite the partial opening up of enrolment to non-bumiputera students, the matriculation colleges evolved to become bumiputera institutions instead of excellent national educational centres for the bumiputera students. And this, of course, is to the detriment of the bumiputera themselves.
STPM is still an internationally recognised qualification equivalent to the A levels, and while matriculation is now nationally accredited, it is largely a domestic qualification. One consequence of this policy is that bumiputera students who did not obtain the STPM qualification limit their options going forward. While STPM remains like what it has always been, an 18-month programme stretched over two years at day schools, matriculation is largely a one-year programme in a residential setting. I happen to believe that the Form Six experience builds character and resilience better than the matriculation experience — a better overall preparation for life in university.
The dual track segregation also does not result in more bumiputera students enrolled in universities generally. Since many bumiputera students go through matriculation for their pre-university education, their options are limited to primarily public universities while the non-bumiputera students with STPM have access to both public and private universities. Over time, if competition to enter private universities is fiercer than that of public universities, and that these applicants enter with STPM or A levels, the quality of public universities themselves will deteriorate, and we can see that already. Apart from the older public universities, the more numerous newer ones are quite nondescript. Again, it is the bumiputera students who will find themselves on the short end of the deal.
All of these started from an MOE system, a dual segregated pathway to pre-university training that lost the plot many years back. It became a bumiputera agenda in the parochial sense instead of developing into an excellent national education system that bumiputera have access to.
In the political marketplace, access to these bumiputera institutions becomes sacrosanct, a symbol of some inherent privilege, and the noise surrounding the recent debate on matriculation enrolment had to do with retaining this exclusivity of access. Non-bumiputera want more places in matriculation as it means access to much cheaper public universities. And the debate did not focus on the quality of the process and educational outcomes of the bumiputera institutions. There was little interest in the broader issue of the quality of national schools or universities. It was just about rights and turf, not the education agenda itself. Nor is it about the broader educational outcome such as national unity.
Maybe the problem is in the solution itself, and a new solution is required, one that is predicated on building excellent national institutions and to make these institutions accessible to those in need of them. Certainly, there must be a view that everyone, regardless of who they are, has the potential to excel as much as anyone. The extremists need to be marginalised by chastising them, that their views of racial identity and privilege in ensuring survival are both insulting and undignified to the very people they claim to represent.
It should be pointed out that their 3R — race, religion and royalty — doctrine is a fallacious one, that it does not engender competitiveness and survival. It spreads a false sense of group
identity that does not provide the individual with anything — a false construct that only appeals to emotions, not the mind. That it is a false sense of living under some sort of patronage and, therefore, being protected.
Life here on Earth is very much like in the hereafter: You are responsible for your own actions, an individual accounting, not done jointly with anyone. Neither race nor your religious group or patronage matters. It is how you live your life, hard work, perseverance and the belief that we all live together and our fates are somehow intertwined.
The protests against the government’s proposed ratification of International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statute emanate from the same sources as the matriculation debate. So do the noises coming from the appointments of the attorney-general and the former chief justice.
The pervasiveness of race in everything seems unavoidable at this stage. We have to accept the fact that we are, despite our statements on diversity and unity and all that, racially driven, and the public institutions themselves have institutionalised these racial precepts and prejudices.
But we must confront these squarely with better arguments and cut down these pedlars of hate and bigotry to size. There must also be better leadership to confront these challenges and provide clarity to the issues, not muddling them further. Or else, we will not have the best public institutions that we can have as a country and that will be to the loss of those who depend most on these institutions and to all Malaysians more generally.
Dr Nungsari A Radhi is an economist and the views expressed here are not related to any of his organisational affiliations