What’s next for Malaysia’s controversial race-based admissions quota?

What's next for Malaysia's controversial race-based admissions quota?
Is race a fair way to gauge eligibility for pre-university admission? Source: Shutterstock

Controversy has rocked Malaysia’s education sector this week, spurred by the government’s decision to uphold the ethnic quota for admission to pre-university programmes.

This follows education minster, Maszlee Malik’s announcement last month that the number of places on the government’s “Matriculation” (pre-university) programme will increase by 60 percent to 40,000.

But the statement was met with public outcry, with the government outline stating that 90 percent of these places would still be reserved for Bumiputra, the Malay indigenous people, leaving just 10 percent open to non-Bumiputra, who are generally of Chinese or Indian descent.

The Malaysian Matriculation programme, or Matrikulasi as it’s widely known, was first introduced in 1998, after the Matriculation Division was established by the Ministry of Education. It’s the favoured academic route for students hoping to gain acceptance to the country’s leading universities, known as a cost-effective study pathway for which participants pay only a small registration fee, while the rest of the costs are fronted by the government.

The first one- or two-year pre-university preparatory programme launched in 1999, but the problematic race-based selection process wasn’t introduced until 2005. Calls for the government to overthrow the policy have resonated since, with critics deeming it discriminatory, claiming it further restricts accessibility for the most disadvantaged students.

The results of last year’s election meant 2018 was monumental in the history of Malaysia. Of the 32 million people residing in the country, those registered to vote drove the victory of Pakatan Harapan, or “The Alliance of Hope” – a political coalition chaired by Mahathir Mohamad, now Prime Minister of the country.

The result was perceived as revolutionary; 40 percent of the population are not of Malay descent, and yet the country has only ever known a Malay-dominated government since gaining independence in 1957.

The nation was inspired by Pakatan Harapan’s promise to forge a “New Malaysia” built on merit and free from racial divide, but one year on, education professionals, politicians and students alike claim the government’s unwillingness to abolish the policy goes against this pledge.

“To me, government has changed, but the mentality remains the same,” educationist, N Siva Subramaniam, told CNA.

Mohd Azizul Hafiz Jamian, graduate of Labuan Matriculation College, said: “It is a stage 4 cancer that needs immediate chemotherapy.”

Labuan Matriculation College, set up by the Malaysian Government to provide foundation courses for students entering the universities in Malaysia. Source: Shutterstock

Now a university lecturer, 32-year-old Mohd Azizul told CNA that the 90:10 quota should be adapted to reflect Malaysia’s growing diversity.

“[The] quota should stay, but with improvements made on the criteria, such as prioritising the hardcore poor, the B40 (bottom 40 percent of households) and people in rural areas regardless of their ethnicity,” he said.

Back in April, the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE) and the National Patriots Assiociation called for a move towards meritocracy over race in admissions .

“GREAK (MOVE) is pushing for meritocracy. We have more than enough space for everybody. So there’s no need for race-based admission anymore. So that’s why we call for equal opportunity and access to education at all levels,” Rosli H. Mahat, MOVE’s secretary-general, told the Malay Mail.

Koh Sin Yee, senior lecturer in global studies at Monash University Malaysia, told Times Higher Education that the Matriculation programme “doesn’t offer the same degree opportunity to all who…are underprivileged”, adding that the policy “does not seem to be clearly needs-based nor merit-based”.

“In the long run, this could result in higher numbers of Bumiputra matriculation graduates who may not be sufficiently equipped or prepared for university education; and second, higher numbers of Bumiputras entering the workforce at least a year earlier than their non-Bumiputra counterparts. There seem to be compounded issues further down the line that have not been addressed,” she said.

A 2016 study by Mohd Nahar Bin Mohd Arshad, published in the International Journal of Economics and Management, sought to investigate factors that influence earning differentials across Malaysia’s three main ethnicities: Bumiputra, Chinese and Indian. The study, titled Return To Education By Ethnicity: A Case For Malaysia, found that earnings in Malaysia are significantly influenced by education level, among other factors.

Mohd Nahar’s study found that in terms of earnings, the effects of pursuing higher qualifications were resoundingly positive across all three ethnicities.

But the study notes that returns on education varied across education level, gender and ethnicity, with the return on investment (RoI) for university degrees coming out on top of lower-level qualifications.

Ethnic comparisons showed that for those with degrees, the RoI for Indian students was the highest at almost 25 percent, followed by Bumiputra at almost 23 percent, and finally Chinese at almost 15 percent.

While the study found varying effects determined by race, generally, it uncovered the positive impact of higher study on future earning potential and prosperity. But if the government truly hopes to achieve equitable social and economic growth in the future of Malaysia, this education policy must be seriously considered. How can the country’s aspiring Chinese and Indian students fairly compete with their Malaysian counterparts when the playing field is not level to begin with?

Then again, is the problem really as simple as overhauling the race-based quota?

As Mohd Nahar’s study concludes: “Policy debates, nevertheless, should not just be about narrow ethno-centric education issues. Focus also needs to be placed on issues related to gender discrimination, occupational opportunities, and regional/urban-rural development, as these factors also significantly affect earnings across all ethnics in Malaysia.”

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