By DAH IKHWAN
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik may be the most controversial figure in the government today. He is much disliked by the Chinese. On the other side in Peninsular Malaysia the Malays are probably warming up to him.
Immediately beneath the surface is one of the most racially charged issues over education, the matriculation quota. The quota figure of 90:10 in favour of the Bumiputera students admittedly looks lopsided and is actually difficult to defend as a permanent feature of the Malaysian education policy.
I was full of sympathy for an Indian taxi driver whom I met in KL not too long ago. He had four children, but the elder ones had already missed the opportunity for university education.
“Abang” he said to me, “life has been too difficult for me raising my children, now none of them have managed to enter university. We Indians feel there is no hope for us in Malaysia now.”
Sentiments such as this drove Indians away from the Barisan Nasional. The Chinese undoubtedly have similar sentiments as they are more vocal, though they have a “safety net” in the form of Chinese education and a large number of companies in the private sector that provide them employment.
However, the Cabinet decision to maintain the 90:10 quota while at the same time increase the total matriculation intake from 25,000 to 40,000 is understandable.
Obviously, it is intended to appease both the Malays and the Chinese. Dr Maszlee must have felt that all races should be happy as their respective figures have increased while the quota remains unchanged. But there is still a problem as the increase in matric student intake may crowd out the STPM intake to universities.
So, there is no quick fix to this issue. Furthermore, it has the effect of giving more opportunities for the matriculation system, which is widely viewed as a shortcut and “inferior qualification” compared to STPM. Therefore, asking for a larger matriculation quota does not look right for DAP, the party that prides itself as a fighter for meritocracy.
The Pakatan Harapan government (particularly DAP and PKR) has been trying to champion a meritocracy and need-based system and pull away from the race-based one adopted by the previous Barisan Nasional government.
Now this policy is put to the test and PH realises that it is easier said than done. Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) being the youngest member with only a small number of MPs is the stumbling block. Yet it has proven to be the lynchpin of the PH government.
No matter how vocal the Chinese-based parties are in condemning Dr Maszlee, it is not likely to change anything, at least not in the near future.
My random checks on the views of Malays in Peninsular Malaysia find them to be rather defensive and prefer to skirt around the issue. This could mean only one thing – the Malays generally support the stand taken by Dr Maszlee.
For that matter, the decision was actually made by the Cabinet and not by Dr Maszlee alone. This could mean that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is himself behind this decision.
In fact Dr Mahathir has come out in defence of Dr Maszlee as reported in the New Straits Times.
The reason for this decision is quite obvious. Bersatu does not wish to appear out of tune with the prevailing Malay opinion. After all, though small, it cannot afford to be seen as being bullied; it is a Malay-based party and struggling to keep its constituents.
Look at the U-turns that Dr Mahathir took recently – Icerd (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) and the Rome Statute being the most notable ones.
It is interesting to note who voted for Bersatu MPs now embroiled in the matric issue. We reckon Dr Maszlee was voted in by Malay and Chinese voters in the ratio of 41:59.
However, this is a Malay-majority area and not considered a safe seat unless he is sensitive to Malay sentiment. This is more so given the background of recent cooperation between Umno and PAS.
The same case goes for Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, and Minister of Rural Development Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun, two Bersatu MPs who have been Dr Maszlee’s most vocal supporters on the matric issue.
For Sarawakians, it may be better to stay out of this issue which we cannot influence. Under the existing arrangement where education is under Putrajaya, either way we will lose.
If we opt to do away with the matriculation quota, there would not be enough candidates from Sarawak to qualify for university entry. On the other hand, if we support the 90:10 quota, it does not look fair to the Chinese community.
Perhaps, we have more reasons now to strengthen our resolve to fight for education autonomy. We would be freer to work on our own destiny.
As widely reported, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg has stated that the Sarawak government will seek decentralisation or devolution of authority over education due to the federal government’s unsatisfactory performance in the state.
Indeed, there is sufficient authority under Article 95C (1) read with Article 80(4) of the Federal Constitution for the federal government to transfer certain executive functions, including education, as well as to provide funding to the state to discharge these functions.
This should be a dream for us in Sarawak; however, it will only remain a dream if funding is not forthcoming.
Sarawak’s claim for 20 per cent petroleum royalty should be handy for this purpose or at least a further increase in sales tax may be a good option. Cost of operating all existing education establishments in Sarawak has been estimated in an earlier article at RM4.26 billion based on 2016 federal budget figures. The current estimate should not be less than RM5 billion.
Upon implementation of these executive functions, Sarawak would have more leeway to plan for its own future which would depend to a large extent on the standard of education and human resource development in the state.
With that, the way should be open for us to upgrade our education facilities and curriculum, reintroduce English alongside Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction and provide a more conducive atmosphere in Sarawak’s multiracial and multi religious environment. With this, Sarawak will definitely develop as a model for the rest of the country.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.