A Decades-old Sad Story

By Kee Thuan Chye

The intake of students into Malaysian public universities is a sad, sad story. A story that has been around for decades. A story that doesn’t want to end.

Since the establishment of the quota system for Bumiputera students in 1973, non-Bumputera ones have had to take part in what is virtually a lottery when they apply for places. They may not get admitted, or they may not get the course of study they applied for even though they have the best results.

When the system was introduced, 55 per cent of places were reserved for Bumiputeras, although apart from Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia, other universities reportedly admitted more Bumiputeras than was specified in the quota.

Non-Bumiputera families that couldn’t tolerate the unfairness of the system decided to emigrate with the chief aim of securing higher education for the young. New waves of emigration have since followed, resulting in a massive brain drain that is highly disadvantageous to the country’s development.

Those who stayed gave up on public universities as they did not want to put up with uncertainty over their children’s future. They resolved to work harder to earn money to send their children overseas.

This caused a huge flow of currency outflow. So to stem it and also to make Malaysia a future net exporter of tertiary education, the Government instituted the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act in 1996 that led to the sprouting of private colleges and universities locally.

By the end of 1999, according to Government figures, about 203,000 students had enrolled in private institutions, compared to about 167,500 in public universities. This showed the high demand among Malaysians for higher education.

Before private colleges and universities were set up in Malaysia, many bright non-Bumiputera students could not pursue higher education because their parents could not afford to send them overseas. They were deprived of the opportunity to better themselves and improve their lot in life.

I remember arguing with a Chinese multi-millionaire businessman who was then pro-Mahathir Mohamad and pro-BN (he has since changed his stance) because he didn’t seem to acknowledge the unfairness of the system and the plight of the poor non-Bumiputeras. What he said still rings in my head, “No worries, the Chinese can always go to KTAR.”

He was referring to Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman which at the time was not a university college (it was established in 1969 and became a university college only in May 2013), and its graduates were awarded only diplomas. That remark was nauseating coming from a multi-millionaire.

Today, non-Bumiputera students still depend on being admitted to public universities to obtain higher education. Many of them come from poor families that cannot afford to send them even to local private institutions.

In 2002, the Government replaced the quota system with a “merit-based” one, but even under this, studies have shown that the Bumiputera intake since has been at least around 60 per cent.

In 2004, 128 non-Bumiputera students did not get into Medicine, which was their first choice, although they had obtained the highest score of 5As in the STPM (Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia) examination. The Government’s shocking response to this was that they were not good enough. All of them were eventually accepted by private institutions, but some did not pursue Medicine because they did not have sufficient financial support.

This year, the sad old story is re-told.

The intake of Chinese students has sunk to 19 per cent. And it has been far worse for the Indians, with only 4 per cent admitted.

Shockingly, some non-Bumiputera students with the perfect CGPA (cumulative grade point averages) of 4.0 were not given places at all. And some who got in were not given courses of their choice.

After 40 years, we are still hearing this old story. What is happening to Malaysia?

MCA Youth chief Wee Ka Siong has now come out to say he is “tired” of facing the same issue every year.

He even said things had got worse after the merit-based system was introduced. “It is called merit system in name, but it is actually a quota system, in fact more quota than quota,” he said.

He also pointed out that the intake of Chinese students for eight major courses, like Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Chemical Engineering, had been declining in recent years.

“From 26.2 per cent in 2011, it dropped to 25.3 per cent in 2012 and 20.7 per cent this year,” he said. On the other hand, the intake of Bumiputera students for these eight courses this year went up to 70.2 per cent.

He gave the example of Chinese students with CGPA 4.0 and 9.8 co-curriculum marks who applied for Medicine but were offered Agriculture Science instead.

Well, Wee is one to talk about this issue now. When he was deputy education minister from 2008 till the last general election, did he do anything to stop the slide? Did he speak up against the system then? Or did he quietly collude with the MCA’s partners in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), especially big brother Umno, to maintain the system?

It therefore looks like the Chinese did the right thing in rejecting the MCA at the last general election, causing it to fall from grace by winning only seven parliamentary seats and having to stick to its threat of not taking up government positions for the poor performance. Now at least it has some guts to say something about this issue when in the past it would keep quiet.

Now it is the MIC’s P. Kamalanathan who is in Wee’s former position, and he is feeling the heat – even from his own party.

Instead of coming clean in the face of his community’s wrath over the low admission for Indians and high-scoring students not getting their course of choice, he said the problem could have been caused by some students wrongly filling in their university application forms.

Wee rightly dismissed it as a “silly explanation”. MIC treasurer Jaspal Singh was even tougher: “Sadly, even Kamalanathan … is a part of this deceitful trickery … (he) would do well to remember that he is there as the representative of MIC and the Indian community, not to cover up for the Education Ministry.”

Meanwhile, a few questions remain.

Did Malay students with CGPA of 4.0 fail to get into courses of their choice? Did any of them fail to get a place at all? When we talk about a merit-based system, should it still be restricted to so many per cent for Bumiputeras and the rest for non-Bumiputeras? If so, how does that fit the meaning of “merit”?

In 1984, I wrote a play called 1984 Here and Now in which a character, a Prole (meaning of minority race), says this:

Like our Prole party lah. Weak like anyting. Everyting Big Broder say, OK. Like balls shaking in der pants, man. And now, quarrelling some more, der leaders. Wan more power, wan top post. Firs, dey should be more strong to bring our problem to Big Broder. … No shame la, dese people. Meanwile, our people suffer. Our chiren carn get place in university. Every year, only so many people can go in. Not fair la.

I wrote it with the hope that not long after that, the university intake issue would be resolved. Today, nearly 30 years later, my hopes have not been fulfilled. The situation has actually become worse. And sadder.

So much for 1Malaysia.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling books No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians and Ask for No Bullshit, Get Some More!