Is ‘meritocracy’ at Malaysian universities just an illusion?

Is 'meritocracy' at Malaysian universities just an illusion?
Unequal playing field. Source: Shutterstock

There are five types of pre-university qualification one can show when applying to join a Biomedical Science degree course at Malaysia’s flagship university, the University of Malaya –  the Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM), Matriculation/Foundation studies, Diploma in Medical Laboratory Technology, A Levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB).

For the two most common qualification used – STPM and Matriculation – applicants have to show either an A- or B+ in three Science subjects: Biology, Chemistry and Physics/Mathematics.

On the face of it, students from both streams are asked to produce the same results, giving the impression of a level playing field.

Not every A is created equal, however, a researcher argues in a soon-to-be published paper and the impact of this is one that has hurt Malaysians badly.

“The official meritocracy is illusory,” Hwok-Aun Lee, a Senior Fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute said in a seminar on Wednesday at the University of Malaya on the need for needs- and merit-based preferential system to complement the current pro-bumiputera policies.

Malaysia gives special privileges to the “bumiputera” i.e. people of indigenous descent, through access to education and employment opportunities. What started out as the New Economic Policy in 1971 to help two-thirds of the population who were poorer than their ethnic-Chinese and -Indian compatriots was supposed to end in 1990.

But the policy continues to be renewed through the New Economic Model in 2010 and strengthened more recently through the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Roadmap (BETR) 2.0. Apart from selective reforms, the bumiputera preferential regime stays embedded in the system.

Government rhetoric, however, maintains such race-based affirmative action is now in the past, and that need-based and merit-based programme is now in place. Prime Minister Najib Razak most recently used the Mass Rail Transit’s successful completion ahead of schedule and with budget to spare – both claims have been strongly contested by the Opposition –  as an example of meritocracy in action. The BETR 2.0, meant as a blueprint for the economic transformation of bumiputeras from 2017 until 2022, is also touted to be built on a “market-friendly, needs and merit-based” principles.

But Malaysia’s public universities tell a different story, Lee argues. Race-based preference is still very much alive, despite the announcement in 2002 and the Education Ministry’s insistence that public universities have abandoned the quota system in place since the 1970s.

“… the vast majority of bumiputera enter through matriculation colleges or foundation studies, where is there is exclusively or 90 percent bumiputera quota. It is an easier path than Form 6,” Lee said.

Data obtained from the Higher Education Ministry show that 17,000 of 2014’s science course intake came from a matriculation background, several times more than those with STPM.

Matriculation student outnumbering STPM ultimately means bumiputera outnumbering non-bumiputera – it’s a result of the lower benchmark matriculation colleges use when assessing grades compared to STPM. Lawmakers from both sides of the political divide have made this claim for a while now.

Lee cites two studies which have shown STPM students in university degree courses do better than their peers who come from matriculation colleges. One found that among students who scored As in STPM Mathematics, a much higher proportion of them later got As in the first year of university. This was not the case for matriculation students who scored As in their college’s mathematics exams.

Lee calls this an “achievement gap”, which not only manifests its ugly head during university but after graduation as well. There are more bumiputera unemployed graduates than non-bumiputera. A former University of Malaya vice-chancellor concurs with this calculation. A report by the Malaysian central bank also found that unemployment is worse among those with tertiary education.

The system “ultimately disserves bumiputera”, Lee said.

The mirage of meritocracy now serves as a barrier to full reform, stopping bumiputera from being more empowered and moving up the social ladder – the majority of bumiputera remain trapped in the Bottom 40 income category (which the government defines as those earning a median income less than RM2,600).

Many face unemployment. Source: Shutterstock

Lee proposes a “systematic” approach instead, where government help is given based on needs and merits as well to complement the current bumiputera preferential regime.

One way to do this, Lee suggests, is through improving the academic rigour at matriculation colleges, an idea that should not court too much politicisation, something which has been blamed for stalling many other reforms in Malaysia. So must there be more autonomy and equal access at universities.

The aim is also for Malaysia to graduate and exit from its affirmative action system. Lee believes that time will come when the majority say they don’t “need” it anymore, and not when the minorities say they won’t take this patronage no more.

“If you hold the former, I will just pose this question to you. We have been expressing that position, fair as it may be, since 1971 but how is it that we have still not moved on? … History has shown that [that] have not led to the actual pathways to reform”.

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