Malaysia’s new leader urged to drive diversity and transparency

Experts call for new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin to separate universities from education portfolio and foster multiculturalism in senior HE levels

March 9, 2020
Source: Getty

Malaysia’s new government may be only weeks old, but it is already being encouraged to overhaul the nation’s education system.

Muhyiddin Yassin was inaugurated as prime minister on 1 March, and in his first week on the job, the former education minister made it a priority to hold meetings with both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Observers hope that this might signal that global education will feature prominently on his agenda.

After the collapse of the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which won a shock victory in the country’s 2018 election, Malaysia’s education sector, like the country itself, has been through a political roller coaster that has left vital issues unaddressed.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas, a lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia, told Times Higher Education that “education matters under the [former] PH government were a source of extreme anxiety and disagreement among the public”.

In 2018, the government wings for schools and another for universities were combined into a single ministry. But plans to again separate those units were thrown into flux by a shuffling of ministers.

Dr Alatas said she hoped the new government would break up those two portfolios. “Education is a highly contentious issue in Malaysia, given the ethnic and religious demands,” she added of the Ministry of Education. “It also has to handle a huge budget.”

Multiculturalism has long been a point of contention, and Mr Muhyiddin is a renowned conservative who once referred to himself as “Malay first” in reference to the country’s largest ethnic group. Since 2003, Malaysia has had a quota system that allocates 90 per cent of pre-university spaces to Malays despite the presence of significant Chinese and Indian minority communities.

Currently, all of Malaysia’s major public universities are led by Malays, and Dr Alatas challenged the new government to improve diversity in senior positions. “The general public…prefers to see multiculturalism in our universities − not just in the student body, but also in top administration,” she said.

“I hope the minister of higher education – if there is such a portfolio – relooks at the current slew of vice-chancellors we have in our public universities,” she continued, adding that institutional heads should be vetted on academic credentials as well as their “involvement in non-academic activities and societies, such as religious-oriented and other partisan groups”.

Malaysia has invested heavily in internationalisation in recent decades. It is home to EduCity, a state-funded hub that includes branch campuses for Newcastle University, the University of Southampton and the University of Reading from the UK, plus institutes from the Netherlands and Singapore.

Khor Swee Kheng, a Malaysian physician specialising in health systems and policies based at the University of Oxford, credited Malaysian universities for their rise in the world rankings but added that “some issues remain timeless, such as the need to improve standards, prepare for the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and the knowledge economy, strengthen independent governance for universities and decide on the right mix between tertiary and vocational education”.

For Dr Alatas, clear communication was key. “We need the ministers of education and higher education to discuss their ideas and future policies with the public…parents do not like to be surprised with sudden policies that affect their children,” she said. “Transparent engagement of society is the essence of good governance, especially in education.”

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