Total Recall: Scholarship Woes in 1998

Our government has recently refined the national budget due to the slowing economy in Malaysia. One of the victims of the modified budget is the JPA scholarship programme. You will find details about it reported elsewhere.

I’m not going to talk about the rightness or wrongness of reducing the JPA scholarships. What I intend to do is share a story – one that is familiar with the scholars around my age.

The year was 1998.

We were promised scholarships to pursue our studies abroad the year before. Then, the Asian Economic Crisis hit and the government had to tighten its purse strings. One of the victims was the JPA scholarship programme, but it wasn’t the only one.

Those who were already overseas were fortunate as they were allowed to continue their studies abroad. However, there were many who were less fortunate.

Those who had just finished their pre-university studies and had gotten offers from various universities around the world, and those who were partly through their pre-university studies were hit the worse. These two groups were redirected to local universities – mostly UTP, MMU and UniTEN – and made to sign new local scholarship contracts that superceeded the overseas scholarship contracts that they had signed previously.

The worst hit were the ones who were only partly through their pre-universeity studies. Since the highest academic qualification that they had at the time was SPM, they had to reboot their education and start over. Effectively, they lost a year of their time preparing for a pre-university examination that they never took.

At the time when JPA announced its cuts, there were many other scholarship awarding bodies – such as PETRONAS – who did not announce any cuts. In fact, many PETRONAS scholars thought that our scholarships were safe because oil is traded in USD and PETRONAS was not that badly affected by the falling exchange rate.

However, due to government policy, other government related scholarship funds made similar changes. I got caught up by this as we were told that our scholarship program was cancelled. I will always remember the day that I received that letter printed on thick paper with a PETRONAS letterhead in the post box starting with, “dukacita dimaklumkan…”

Those of us who had yet to begin our journeys were redirected to local foundation programs and offered local scholarship contracts instead. We were the lucky ones as we had just finished our SPM and hadn’t yet gotten a foot on the plane yet, unlike our seniors who were kicked off the plane.

Some still managed to appeal the decision and got to go overseas but these were treated on a case-by-case basis and were far and few between and often required a trade-off.

I had a fellow PETRONAS scholar on a Chemical Engineering programme who opted to switch to a MARA scholarship for Accounting as he was insistent on going overseas and he didn’t really care what course he did.

When I was asked to reconsider my engineering course for an accounting one, I barfed at the idea.

I had a room-mate who was one of those JPA scholars who had already completed his pre-university and had received an offer from a university in the UK. He was extremely unhappy with his change of situation and expressed his frustration very visibly.

However, we all got on with our lives eventually.

Orientation week at our local university was like attending an AA meeting. We would begin by introducing our names, then telling each other what course we were supposed to pursue in whichever country we were supposed to be in. This was followed by our current course at the local university.

In a way, I think that this was therapeutic as we were surrounded by hundreds of others who were caught in the same situation and were equally as frustrated and unhappy. This also helped us to bond as a group as we were going through adversity together.

In the end, I think that things turned out for the best as I still had a wonderful time at university.

I think that our lecturers enjoyed teaching us too as we were essentially the crème-de-la-crème of the country who would have normally ended up studying abroad but are now studying locally instead. They certainly gave us a lot of room to work and shine independently.

Looking back at this experience, I think that it taught me the lesson that there are many things beyond our control in life and plans do not always go the way they were inteded. However, it isn’t the end of the world. Life is much more than an overseas education experience.

As they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

In the end, I still managed to work my way to an overseas education for my PhD, at one of the top universities in the world.

So, this story has a happy ending.


What is My Malaysia?

This video got me thinking.

What is my Malaysia?

I see Malaysia as full of possibilities. We’re a nation blessed in so many ways. We have an abundance of natural resources, have a diverse population, and are strategically located. But I think that it’s our people that are our greatest assets.

Malaysians are special.

We are a nation of cynics. Malaysians view the cops as the most corrupt, more so than politicians. That’s quite an achievement for a country with the longest surviving civilian government in power for over 5 decades, to be considered less corrupt than the cops.

We are a nation of creative thinkers. Sure, our kids don’t do very well in problem solving tests, but give them a road without a zebra crossing and they will find a way to cross it even if they don’t have to. You won’t find this in Singapore. We have our own ways to settle all problems.

We’re also a nation of geniuses. Every Malaysian is multi-lingual. Recent studies have shown that people who speak more than one language are smarter. Malaysians are so damn smart that we’re in high demand throughout the world. As a recent World Bank study showed, we have the highest level of diaspora in the world.

We are also the most lalang people around. We can bicker and fight about the most sensitive of things such as race and religion. But give us a Thomas Cup finals and we can flip aside all differences and come together as a nation for at least 6-hours. Of course, we go back to arguing about race and religion right after. But this shows that our differences aren’t all that deep.

We also have so many pretenders around – Chinese who do not speak Chinese, Indians who do not speak any Indian, and even Malays who have trouble with Malay. A nation of pendatangs, we’re all caught in an identity crisis. None of us are truly who our ICs say we are. We are truly and uniquely Malaysian, in that sense.

Anyway, I could go on but I need to get back to studying.

I love you, Malaysia.

PS: When did Nat become an artiste?

GST is Good for Malaysia

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Last week, tens of thousands of Malaysians descended on the road in front of Merdeka Square (as the Square itself was being refurbished) to have a protest rally on the upcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) that our government intends to introduce in April 2015. However, I did not join the rally this time around because I actually think that the implementation of GST will be good for this country.
Continue reading GST is Good for Malaysia

Toppling BN

English: Results of the Malaysian Dewan Rakyat...
English: Results of the Malaysian Dewan Rakyat based on the 2008 general election, showing parliamentary constituencies represented by equal-area hexagons with approximate geographic locations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to an article in FMT, there are parties that plan to forcibly overthrow the BN government this year possibly through street rallies.

Personally, I am against the idea of taking to the streets to overthrow a corrupt regime. My reason for this is that our situation isn’t yet dire enough to warrant such drastic action. Yes, there is a time and place for such coups but I do not think that our country is ready for it yet.

I have always eluded that things need to get worse before they can get better and that things are not yet bad enough in Malaysia. Yes, the bottom 40% of our people are struggling to survive, but they are still able to struggle. As a result, I do not think that the movement would be able to garner enough support and many people will probably get hurt in the process.

But the million dollar question that I need to answer is this: will I go to the streets in support of such a cause?

I will go to the streets to demand the mass resignation of the Elections Commission. They have screwed up so horribly that in more civil societies, they would have all committed ritual suicide to save their honour. But these people are bereft of honour and in so doing, dishonour the rakyat.

To those who keep harping that our EC did a good job – please stare at your left index finger. The botched up job that they did on the indelible ink already proves that they are either incompetent to play the role of an EC or that it was a willful and deliberate deed to mislead the Malaysian people.

To me, that alone is enough to demand their mass resignation.

However, that is about as far as I am willing to go on this. While I do know that representative democracy has failed us miserably this time around but I also understand that, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else that has been tried.”

The system is rigged. But that does not mean that we abandon the system itself.

I think that we should take to the streets as and when there is a need for it. Malaysians are now primed for street rallies and mass demonstrations. Democracy is very much alive and kicking in Malaysia. More and more people are being awakened on our duties to ensure that the system works.

One occasion might be when the delimitation exercise is conducted, to demand that the drawing of boundaries be free and fair. In fact, the EC should involve the rakyat in the delimitation exercise. I am sure that there are enough mathematicians among us to help carve out fair electoral boundaries.

I feel that Malaysians in general still believe in the system, even if they are highly dejected with the outcome of GE13.

However, we do not have the stomach for violence… yet!

Venting GE13 Anger

I read with incredulity what the IGP said in the papers today. Wasn’t he retiring this week? Or was that merely a rumour that I had mistakenly heard from someone else.

“The police have warned political party supporters not to engage in any further acts of provocation over the 13th general election (13GE) results to prevent an upheaval. Every day we delve on national security. Let me remind these quarters, we have plans of action on know what to do if things get out of hand.”

I think that what these people don’t get is that there is real frustration and anger on the ground. People need to vent. It would be better for the rakyat to vent out in stadiums than for them to take their anger onto the streets and the authorities, if things ever get to a boiling point.

Our government has to realise that there is a silent majority no longer; and that the majority are now a really noisy bunch, thanks to vuvuzelas. The government has to handle the situation tactfully so that things do not get out of hand.

For starters, I would encourage the IGP to stop making provocative statements like this, to challenge the will of the people. They should very well know that our people are pantang dicabar in so many ways. Just let people vent while you stock up on tear gas.

The political opposition plans to bring this rally nationwide and I actually applaud them for doing so. Instead of threatening these people will S.141 of the Penal Code on unlawful assemblies, the police should actually facilitate things, control traffic, etc.

It’s time to wake up to the new political reality, people!

“V: People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

Post-GE13 Thoughts
It’s been three days after our 13th general elections (GE13).

While I do not claim to know what people think, I do know that Malaysians from all walks of life, across all racial groups, are coming together to express our distaste at how we have been denied the change that we sorely need and crave. The rakyat’s anger is very real and palpable. There are many people who know that they have been robbed of the government of their choice. Those who feel that GE13 was free of fraud, need only take a look at their left index finger.

For this alone the Elections Commission (EC) should resign en-bloc instead of saying that they will use a more long-lasting indelible ink for GE14. Honestly, I would not trust any of them with my poop, much less the sanctity and security of my vote. There are just so many voting irregularities reported across the nation. The one that stares everyone in the face is that of the less than indelible ink, which was supposed to stain for a week but was washable within minutes.

Once the world’s largest ethnically Chinese political party outside of China, the MCA is essentially a dead duck. It fared badly in GE13 with its top leaders scraping past their opponents with the narrowest of margins. The president chose to blame the Chinese for abandoning them instead of asking why. No amount of Viagra is going to help him rise up from this one. The knives are already out.

The fact that our dearest PM without a mandate, invented the term ‘Chinese Tsunami’ to blame the disastrous results on a particular racial group, would just quicken his political demise. Instead of being the leader of a nation divided, he chose to make irresponsible statements to stoke racial tensions. He continues to live in denial of the fact that it is impossible for a minority group to deny him a mandate.

His mentor – our ex-former PM Tun Dr Mahathir – blames pins the failings on both ‘ungrateful’ Chinese and ‘greedy’ Malays. At least he acknowledges that it takes more than just the Chinese minority, who only make up 25% of the population, to deny the BN the popular vote. But it’s not nice to label people as ungrateful and greedy just because they don’t like you.

As usual, in the discussion of national politics, the Indians and other ethnic minorities usually get left out. The MIC leader won with a razor thin margin of only merely 80 votes. I know that the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) would not have been able to make inroads into Sabah and Sarawak without the support of the natives there. So, it would seem that the majority of Malaysians have abandoned the BN regardless of race.

But amongst all this hate, I am glad for one thing – GE13 recorded a voter turnout of 85%. My fellow Malaysians have shown that while we may be tidak apa about a lot of things, we do care enough about the future of our country that we are willing to come out to make ourselves heard at the ballot box and boy, did we make a loud noise last weekend.

This gives me hope.

Finally, I ask – what’s up in Lahad Datu? I hope that they have not been forgotten in this mad scramble for power. I wonder if the ‘bad guys’ have been caught or are they still running around in the jungles of Sabah wreaking havoc.

Questionable SETARA 2011

Malaysian Qualifications Agency
Malaysian Qualifications Agency (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our local Malaysian ranking for undergrad teaching quality of local universities, SETARA, was recently released. I thought that it would be fun to check it out to see how things have changed since the last ranking exercise.

Some universities that improved tremendously from SETARA09 to SETARA11 are:

  • Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship – vaulted from Tier 3 (Good) in to Tier 5 (Excellent).
  • Wawasan Open University, Open University Malaysia, SEGi University – parachuted in at Tier 5 (Excellent) from being previously unranked.
  • TATi University College, University Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan – moved into Tier 4 (Very Good) from being previously unranked.

Needless to say, I was shocked.

I don’t know the detailed criteria nor methodology that was used during the survey but it shocked me that some of the universities that made it to Tier 5 (Excellent) were not what I would have expected. Granted, I am no expert in local universities nor their standards but some of the results just beggar belief.

I’m not trying to single anyone out but, two of these Tier 5 universities are classified as open and distance learning institutions. I do not understand how they could achieve excellent teaching quality when the students are not even in the same room as the lecturer. I know that internet based learning is all the craze these days but even places like MIT do not consider their open learning systems at par with their in-house teaching, yet.

Some of the other Tier 5 universities are virtual unknowns. Again, I do not claim to know all the universities in Malaysia (there are just too many to keep track of these days) but some of them are total unknowns. Some are even the butt of many jokes on education quality in Malaysia, the kind of university that you would not want people to know that your child was attending.

Furthermore, more than half of the universities ranked are of Tier 5 level while there is only one university at Tier 3 (Good). I would have expected something like this to be more normally distributed as it was in SETARA09. When I see such heavily skewed results, I tend to question the accuracy of the study. Something just does not smell right to me, statistically speaking. It’s highly improbable that the majority of institutions is Excellent.

Brings to mind an XKCD comic:

My personal opinion of this is that some of these Tier 5 universities must have gamed the system. I do not blame them for doing that though, as the SETARA rankings affect many aspects of a university including fees. Nobody would want to pay top dollar to study in a Tier 4 university when they can study in a Tier 5 one for cheap. So, I expect some of these virtual unknowns to raise their fees next year!

I hope that the MQA would take the effort to toughen and tighten the criteria for ranking in the next exercise. We need a ranking system that truly reflects the teaching quality of local universities. It would serve as a useful guide to parents, only if they actually trust the accuracy of the exercise. I don’t think that any parent would agree that more than half our local universities are Excellent!

I think that a lot of people who see the list would think and start to question the SETARA rankings and methodology. While I agree that there are always flaws within any sort of ranking system, when this happens, it will become more fodder for local coffee shop talk. We know that some of these Tier 5 universities deserve to be there while others are downright questionable.

Personally, I’m not going to even bother with SETARA11. I’ll stick to the more normally distributed SETARA09 rankings for now.