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WEAK MALAY STUDENTS?

Assalamualaikum, 

Just wanna share an article from one of my lists... Rahimah (IMah) Ibrahim

 >Forwarded message: For the past few weeks, the issue of some 500 or so non-bumiputra students’ not getting admission into our local universities despite their getting excellent results has been practically a topic of daily discussion in our various dailies. Unfortunately, in some of these discussions, there were those who chose to tie this issue to the purported “mediocre academic performance” of Malay students when compared to their non-bumiputra counterparts. 

This issue has also led at least one Malay newspaper to interview Malay academics seeking their views as to the factors supposedly causing Malay students to be “weak” in their studies. What I fail to see is how anyone could even think of tying these two issues together. 

The issue of our students’ not being offered places in our local universities is an issue that merits serious discussion and towards which we need to find a long-term solution. However, it is, and should be seen as an issue separate from that of the “poor” or “disappointing” performance of Malay students in their studies. 

The issue of how “poorly” Malay students are supposed to have been performing academically should not have been raised in the first place. Perhaps all this was a reaction to the statement made by the Higher Education Department Director, Prof. Dr. Hasan Said, that there were not enough bumiputra students that met the minimum standard to fill the vacancies allotted for bumiputras. 

However, as the Ministry of Education later explained, the statement was a mistake (which is understandable, considering the confusion that was caused when The Star concluded that the difference between the projected intake of 38,000 and the 30,832 approved intake during the meeting among the various public universities reflected vacancies that were not filled) and that in actual fact, these “vacancies” were actually the places that had been reserved for the 8,265 matriculation leavers, whose admission had been approved some time prior to the meeting.

 Given the fact that the Ministry of Education had clarified the matter, there was no need for our Malay newspapers to pursue the issue of the “mediocre” academic performance of Malay students the way they had. It is not my intention to raise the issue of university intake policy or the quota system, as many parties have already expressed their opinions on the matter. But I do wish to express my disagreement to the assertion that Malay students are not as “able”, academically, as their non-bumiputra counterparts. 

In my view, this reflects a generally-held perception of the academic ability of Malay students than it does the truth. If the results of examinations such as the SPM are to be used as a yardstick to measure a student’s level of achievement and academic excellence—as it obviously has, judging from the attention and praise being given to students who have scored the maximum number of A’s possible—it is quite obvious that Malay students have, throughout the years, done exceptionally well. 

If one were to follow the results of past SPM examinations, and especially scrutinize those of the numerous boarding schools, one would be able to note the number of Malay students who had scored 10 1As and 10 As, not to mention those who had scored 9 As, 8 As—all the way “down” to 7 As—if one does not wish to consider anything less than 7 As as “excellent”. 

The majority of these schools have not only recorded 100% passes in the SPM, but many have recorded 100% Grade 1s, as well as a very high percentage of students scoring the maximum number of As possible (prior to the SPM of 2000, the maximum number of As possible was 10 1As). Even among the top scorers in day schools, we can find a sizeable number of Malay students. 

In fact, Malay students have not only done very well in exams such as the SPM, but they have also done very well overseas. Many have been consistently included into the Dean’s list, as well as being inducted into Honor Societies such as the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, and so on, for being among those in the top 5% of their graduating year. 

However, I have noticed—in reading the coverage of the SPM results in the newspapers over the past few years—that despite the outstanding achievements of these Malay students (known only by looking at the results from certain schools), rarely have they been highlighted individually. This is quite unfortunate, because a more proportionate coverage of the individual high achievers of various racial backgrounds could help to dispel the myth of the “low achieving” or “mediocre” Malay student. 

If the results of Malay students studying overseas as well as in the SPM examinations are anything to go by, why, then, all this self-criticism? Are Malay students really so complacent that they do not care about achieving excellence? Are they not also capable of having the desire to achieve (academic) success, just as their non-bumiputra counterparts? Are there no Malay students who have achieved excellent results in the examinations, to have all these questions raised as to their lack of academic ability? 

Yes, there are Malay students who are not performing as they should, but to use these students as an example of the “poor” or “mediocre” performance of the rest is not only unwarranted and unjustified, but unjust to the rest who have aimed for and worked towards excellence. Yes, it is true that there is a quota system.

 However, it does not necessarily mean that those Malay students who have been admitted into the universities are less qualified because of this. It is quite obvious that there is a generally-held perception that academically, Malay students do not perform as well as their non-bumiputra counterparts. Perhaps it is our experiences with some Malay students that caused us to have this perception. 

However, the ability of these students may not represent the ability of the majority of Malay students. When comparing the results of students of various racial backgrounds, we have to ask ourselves if we are really comparing the good or the top students (from one racial background) with the good or the top students (from another racial background). One should bear in mind that as early as Form 1, and then again in Form 4, for example, the majority of Malay students who have done exceptionally well in the examinations are offered places in boarding schools, which many, though not all, have chosen to accept. 

Secondly, prior to the economic downturn, a sizeable number of Malay students who had done exceptionally well in the SPM were offered full scholarships, partial scholarships, or loans to study overseas. This is not to say that the students who did not study in boarding schools or who did not study overseas are not as able academically, but we are talking about a significant proportion of those who had done well—especially those in the sciences—practically being omitted from the comparison. 

Naturally, this would affect our perception of the ability of the rest. The percentage of students who received first class honours at local universities should not be taken as indicative of the academic ability—or lack of it—of Malay students in general. Which batch of students are, or were, they referring to? Is this true of all fields? What would the inclusion of a significant proportion of Malay students that are left out of the comparison have done to the percentages? 

I am not negating the fact that there are Malay students who do not meet our expectations as to what university or good students should be. But to state, as a headline, that “Malays lack a culture of knowledge” in one English newspaper (although Prof. Syed Husin al-Attas was referring specifically to those Malay students who had done poorly and not to the Malay high achievers who are children of teachers or professionals who “come from an environment where a culture of knowledge already exists”) is to make a sweeping generalization. 

When one says, “Malays lack a culture of knowledge”, it is saying, “Most Malays (if not all) lack a culture of knowledge. A newspaper has the responsibility to be precise in its choice of words—even when writing headlines—as the wrong choice of words can foster and perpetuate a negative stereotype of a particular racial group, in this case, the Malays. And all of us know how painful negative stereotyping can be. 

The issue of the “poor” or “mediocre” performance of Malay students is something that has been raised time and time again. This is why I feel that it is important to comment on this issue. It is an issue that our Malay dailies have often chosen to focus on, and consequently, our Malay academics have been asked to comment on, and it is also an issue that our Malay leaders have frequently raised, presumably, to encourage the Malays to be competitive. 

While it is commendable to look at our weaknesses so that we may better ourselves, I feel that with regard to this particular issue, the Malays have been bashing themselves too much for their own good. The point of the matter is, if we continue to harp on the issue, if we continue to hammer into young minds that they are not as able, academically, as their non-bumiputra brethren or “not as excellent” as Chinese students—as raised as a question in one Malay newspaper (Malay students are almost always compared to Chinese students with regard to academic ability), or that “they don’t have the inner desire to excel”, then they would start to believe that such is true of themselves and of their friends. 

Mr. Ranjit Singh, based on his experience with hundreds of bumiputra students, describes, in his “Letter to the Editor” to “The Star” how “Many bumiputra students lack self-confidence and have become their own worst enemy by harbouring self-sabotaging beliefs” and how “They have an unfounded fear of certain subjects and consider themselves, albeit erroneously, as less intelligent than Chinese students”. 

I have also come across countless of Malay students who feel this way, although they are, in fact, good students. Could this not be due to the fact that they had often heard these things being described of them? As an educator, I feel that we should stop stressing on how Malay students are supposed to be “lagging behind” in academic performance when compared to their non-bumiputra counterparts, as this could lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Do we want to raise a generation of children who have low self-esteem, who do not believe that they can succeed, and who believe that they are not as good as the others? It is ironic that while we cheer our athletes on with, “Malaysia boleh,” we have not done the same with our students. Malay students ARE capable of achieving academic excellence, just as their non-bumiputra brethren, and very many of them have, in fact, done so. 

It is important that they, their parents, their teachers, and their leaders accept this fact, as the first step towards success is to believe in oneself. As educators (as parents, teachers, principals, newspaper reporters or editors, or leaders, we all play a role in educating our youth) we should inspire our youth to succeed and to excel. And one of the first steps towards that direction would be to help them believe in themselves. 

It is this belief in themselves that will give them the strength, the perseverance, the determination, and the stubbornness, if you will, to work hard to achieve their goals. We have to be able to recognise in our children and in our students their potential to excel, and we have to begin from here, not with the assumption that they are not motivated or that they do not have the desire to excel, or that they are not as good as other children or students—for that would affect our expectations of them. And our expectations of them will affect their expectations of themselves. 

If we have low expectations of our children and our students, then they will have low expectations of themselves—unless they are such determined individuals who would not be affected by the fact that we do not believe in their ability. It is in this regard that it is important for us to teach our children and students the value of believing in themselves. As parents and teachers, we should expect the best of our children and students, given our knowledge of their ability, and help our children and students to achieve the best they can achieve. 

Given the fact that the academic ability of Malay students has been so frequently questioned, other parties should also do their bit to correct the situation. Newspapers should provide a more proportionate coverage of the individual achievements of students of different racial backgrounds, as this would provide their brethren with “role-models” to look up to. It would also help to dispel the myth that Malay students are not quite “up to the mark”. Malay newspapers, especially, should play their part in helping to foster a culture of knowledge among its readers. 

The achievements of scholars, scientists, and students should be highlighted so that lessons could be learned from their achievements. For example, prominent scholars could be interviewed on their work or achievements so that students and other readers would be able to not only know about their work, but also draw inspiration from what motivated or inspired them. 

Perhaps if the achievements of scholars, scientists, students, and people who have excelled in their respective fields were given more coverage, and less coverage be given to aspects related to entertainment, our dailies would have considerable success in fostering a culture of knowledge among its readers. 

Finally, Malay leaders could also help to inspire Malay students towards excellence by focussing on the importance of education and achieving excellence when delivering their “ceramahs”. The focus should be on inspiring the youth to achieve, and helping them to believe in their ability, and not so much on how they are not “quite up to the mark”, as this has been emphasised too much, and for as long as I can remember. Perhaps if everyone is involved in the “upliftment” of the Malay youth, then their performance may not be as “dismal” or as “mediocre” as many have made them out to be. 


Associate Professor Dr. Ratnawati bt. Mohd Asraf, Faculty of Education, International Islamic University Malaysia. Home address: 82, USJ 2/4, Subang Jaya, 47600 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Email address: drratnaiiu@hotmail.com Phone number: 03-56331161

 

 


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