Isnin, 15 Julai 2013

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Politicians and Zealots Are the Main Culprits For Malaysian Education Decay

Posted: 14 Jul 2013 04:09 PM PDT

If the discourse of education remained the same from 10 years ago, that the best students were not selected for local universities, the Federal government should not lament over the outflow of talents overseas. If some students with cumulative grade point averages (CGPA) of 4.0 were unable to get places in universities, the Ministry of Education and the selection panel have to ponder over their roles seriously. 

A lack of integrity and meritocracy in the selection process is a sure bet to push the nation backward. How can we hope to compete on brain power and attract FDI on our best talents if the authorities are working to deny the best students places in our local universities? We are barely 7 years away from the grand vision and milestone of 2020. I do not think it bears any significant meaning if our dialogue on education is still stuck with the same issue? 

Now, the zealots in the ministry want to make the Islamic and Asian Civilisation Studies (Titas) to be a compulsory subject for local private colleges. The question is why just the Islamic studies? In a Friday report, Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a parliamentary written reply to Dr Ko Chung Sen (DAP-Kampar) that the move was to standardise requirements between public and private universities. He said that the move, to take effect in private tertiary institutions on Sept 1, would also include Ethnic Relations and Malaysian Studies.

Yet, the ministry and Pemandu want to make Malaysia a regional education hub? What can the ministry hope to achieve by making these subjects compulsory? Again, the politicians are making the people the sacrificial lambs for their own political mischief that has been contributing to disunity, ethnoreligious conflicts and racial tensions. 

Why would international students want to come to Malaysia and spend their time taking so many compulsory subject which do not contribute to their cognitive skills? Why would non-Muslim students would want to do the same?


Reflections on Ramadan: Beyond The Fast

Posted: 14 Jul 2013 12:10 PM PDT

[Presented at the South Valley Islamic Community's Iftar, Morgan Hill, Ca, July 13, 2013.]

When giving talks on religious topics especially during Ramadan, it is customary to quote generously the Koran and hadith. In deference to those who are far more knowledgeable on matters hadith and those whose tajweed are exquisite when reciting the Holy Book, I will depart from tradition. I do not wish to strain their patience!

Instead I will share my perspective on Ramadan drawing on three insights:  one, my earlier experience as a surgeon in an Oregon lumber town; two, the findings from a landmark experiment in social psychology; and three, comparing Ramadan in Malaysia to America.


Surgeon in Oregon

As a young surgeon in Oregon, I treated many workers with severe injuries from the huge local sawmill. To better understand their injuries, the manager kindly took me on a tour of his factory.

Those massive logs were effortlessly thrown by giant cranes onto steel conveyors with the ease of your tossing away used chopsticks. Then the logs were spun around by rollers with stubby studs to be de-barked, much like a housewife peeling carrots. Then high-speed circular saws would slice through the logs back and forth, reducing them to pieces of lumber. If not for the bone-shaking floor vibrations, the high-pitched sound reminded me of a plugged-up vacuum cleaner.

Those pieces were then mechanically sorted and then forced through yet more spinning saws to be cut into specified lengths. Finally they were subjected to human touch and scrutiny as they rolled towards the finishing line, pieces with splits, nodes and uneven cuts having been shunted aside. Then they were stacked and carried into a special room to be "cured."

This curing room was quiet and cool, its humidity, temperature and airflow strictly controlled. The lack of noise and vibrations was instantly felt; it was a tranquil oasis in marked contrast to the rest of the mill. On the factory floor we shouted and hand-gestured; in the curing room we whispered and cupped our mouths. Even the rhythm of our walk changed, from brisk noisy strides to soft silent steps, as in a mosque. We feared disturbing the sanctity of the room.

The manager told me that after the stresses of being cut, pushed, spun and thrown around, the lumber needed "rest time" so they could withstand the inevitable subsequent stresses at the construction sites or furniture factories. Without this curing, the lumber would readily bend, splinter or even break, soiling the factory's brand.

If an inanimate object – wood – has to be "cured" before it faces its next phase of stresses, imagine how much more humans would need this time and space. This is what Ramadan means; a "time out" so we could pause and reflect. After all we too have been through the mill in our regular daily lives!

Plants and trees too need this change of pace. The forced dormancy of the long cold weather ensures a full bloom come spring, and with that a bountiful harvest. Winter is the plants' Ramadan.


Children and their Marshmallows

My second insight comes from the Stanford marshmallow study on preschool children. They were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study shows that individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned very early.

If that was the only conclusion, the study would not be regarded as "one of the most successful behavioral experiments."

Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, decided to do a follow up study. It turned out those "impulse controlled" children (those who successfully deferred devouring their treats) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. Indeed, the ability to delay eating marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parent's educational level!

This insight is fully leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. It is remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This marshmallow study has other vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would not likely save. Low capital formation (from lack of savings because of this propensity for immediate gratification) leads to economic stagnation. Malays would do well to ponder this.

The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do. The latter have self-discipline – key to their success – and more importantly, to maintaining that success. Again, a point for Malays to ponder!

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