There is a boy I know who scored 10 A1's. His mother is a primary school teacher and Andrew has two younger brothers. His father, a civil servant, had already passed on by the time the son sat SPM in 2006.
Armed with his excellent result, Andrew applied for a scholarship to study mechanical engineering. The government rejected his application. Petronas rejected his application too. Can you imagine how disappointed and frustrated he was?
As soon as I learned of Andrew's difficulty, I offered him financial assistance to do accountancy in Utar. He has been scoring top marks in every exam to earn a scholarship from the university. Although Andrew is now exempted from paying fees, I still bank him RM400 a month to cover cost of living.
I have given assistance and allowances to more than 40 poor students to study in Utar in Kampar, Perak. Andrew is typical of their calibre; he prefers to get what is his due on merit, and his university has deservingly waived his fees.
On my part, I expect nothing from those that I've supported except for them in future to help young people in similar circumstances, and to hope that they will all stay back in Malaysia so that they can lend their talents to building up our nation.
Asean (mainly M'sian!) Scholarships: Our brains, their gain
There are others that have deeper pockets who have extended a helping hand to our youngsters. One of them offers the cost of school and exam fees, hostel accommodation, RM5,800 a year for expenses, RM1,200 settling-in allowance, and transport/air ticket. Furthermore, the recipient is not bonded. Or in other words, the giver asks for nothing back.
I'm talking about the pre-university Asean scholarship extended to Malaysians by 'the little red dot' Singapore.
Of course, Singapore is not doing it for purely altruistic reasons. The country is giving these much coveted Asean scholarships to build up her national bank of talent. Some Malaysians accuse them of 'poaching' the creme de la creme of our youngsters. I don’t look at it as poaching. Their far-sighted government is doing it in their national interest.
And why not? Singapore can afford it. It has three times our GDP per capita. On another comparative note, the GDP per capita of Taiwan and South Korea are 2.5 times and double ours respectively. Before the NEP's introduction in 1970, the four countries were at parity.
The big question is why are we surrendering our assets which Malaysian parents have nurtured but the state neglected?
Tens of thousands of young Malaysians have left our shores on the Asean scholarship. I am not sure if Singapore is willing to give out the figure. But I am pretty sure the Malaysian authorities do not give two hoots about this, whatever number they may have arrive at. If they do, there seems to be no policy change to stem the outflow.
Malaysia is optimistically indifferent to the continuous brain drain, little caring that it is detrimental to our aspiration of becoming a developed country (I hate to say this) like Singapore.
Behaving like a failed state
Consider this startling statistic: There are more Sierra Leonean doctors working in hospitals in the city of Chicago than in their own homeland. More Malawian nurses in Manchester than in Malawi. Africa's most significant export to Europe and the United States is trained professionals, not petroleum, gold and diamond.
The educated African migration is definitely retarding the progress of every country in Africa. Today, one in three African university graduates, and 50,000 doctoral holders now live and work outside Africa. Sixty-four percent of Nigerians in the USA has one or more university degrees.
If we carry out a study, we are likely to find a very large number of non-Malay graduates emigrating to Singapore, Australia and other countries that is proportionately similar to the African exodus. However the compulsion is different, seeing as how some African countries are war-torn and famished which is certainly not the case with Malaysia.
The push factors for our own brain drain lie in NEP policy and this needs to be addressed with urgency.
State Ideology: Be grateful you're Malaysian
Try putting yourself in the shoes of an 18-year-old. This young Malaysian born in 1991 is told that Umno was very generous in granting citizenship to his non-Malay forefathers in 1957. Thus as a descendant of an immigrant community – one should be forever grateful and respect the 'social contract'.
Gratitude is demanded by the state while little is reciprocated. Under the NEP – and some say this policy represents the de facto social contract – every single Vice Chancellor of every single Malaysian public university is Malay.
Promotion prospects for non-Malay lecturers to full professorship or head of department are very dim, hence we have the dichotomy of non-Malays predominant in private colleges while correspondingly, the academic staff of public institutions proliferate with Malays.
The civil service is staffed predominantly by Malays too, and overwhelmingly in the top echelons. The government-linked corporations have been turned into a single race monopoly. Hence is it any surprise that almost all the scholarships offered by government and GLCs seem to be reserved for Malays?
Youngsters from the minority communities see that Malays are the chosen ones regardless of their scholastic achievement and financial position. Some are offered to do a Master even though they did not even apply (but the quota is there to be filled, so these disinterested Malays are approached).
Our lesson today is ...
How the government apparatus conducts itself and the consequences of its policy implementation will upset an individual's innate sense of justice.
The government pays about RM1.8 billion in annual salaries to teachers. A child is taught moral studies in class but he learns in life that adults condone and conspire to immorality by perpetuating the unfairness and injustice which impacts on Malaysia's young.
On the other hand, the favoured group is given more than their just desserts without either merit or need. When one is bred to think that privilege is only his rightful entitlement, we would not expect this young person to pay back to society in return.
Our Malaysian education system has been flip-flopped, pushed and pulled this way and that until standards dropped to alarming levels. The passing mark for subjects in public exams have fallen notoriously low while the increasing number of distinctions have risen fatuously high with SPM students notching 14A's, 17A's and 21A's.
With top scorers aplenty, there will not be enough scholarships to go around now that the Education Ministry has decided to put a cap on the SPM, limiting takers to 10 subjects.
The human factor
It's unrealistic that the education system can be effectively overhauled. Even tweaking one aspect of it, such as the language switch for Math and English, created havoc.
It's not that our educational framework is so bad as after all, a lot of study and planning did go into it. It's only when the politicians dictate from on high and overrule the better judgment of the educationists – Dr Mahathir Mohamad being case in point – that we slide deeper into the doldrums.
The politicization of education and the hijacking of the country’s educational agenda has clearly cost us heavily in terms of policy flip flops and plummeting standards, and the loss of a good part of our young and talented human resources.
Matters become worse when Little Napoleons too take it upon themselves to interfere with teachers. For instance, the serial number assigned candidates when they sit public exams. Why is a student's race encoded in the number? What does his ethnicity have to do with his answer script?
There is further suspicion that the stacks of SPM papers are not distributed to examiners entirely at random (meaning ideally examiners should be blind to which exam centres the scripts they're marking have originated from).
A longstanding complaint from lecturers is that they are pressured to pass undergrads who are not up to the mark, and having to put up with mediocre ones who believe they are 'A' material after being spoilt in mono-racial schools.
Letting teachers do their job properly and allowing them to grade their students honestly would arrest the steep erosion of standards. And unless we are willing to be honest brokers in seeking a compromise and adjustment, the renewed demonizing of vernacular schools is merely mischievous. Either accept their existence or integrate the various types of schools.
But are UiTM and its many branch campuses throughout the length and breadth of the country, Mara Junior Science Colleges and the residential schools willing to open their doors to all on the basis of meritocracy if Chinese, Tamil, and not forgetting religious schools, were abolished? Not open to a token few non-Bumiputera but genuinely open up and with the admission numbers posted in a transparent manner.
Finally, there are teachers genuinely passionate about their profession. There are promising teachers fresh out of training college who are creative and capable of inspiring their students. It's not only Form 5 students who have been demoralized. Teachers are human capital that we seem to have overlooked in the present controversy.
Conclusion: Ensuring fairness for the future well-being of our young
A segment of Johoreans cross the Causeway daily to attend school in Singapore. Many continue their tertiary education in Singapore which has among the top universities in the world. Eventually, they work in Singapore and benefit Singapore.
Ask around among your friends and see who hasn't got a child or a sibling who is now living abroad as a permanent resident.
I can't really blame them for packing up and packing it in, can you? It's simply critical at this juncture that we don't let our kids lose hope and throw in the towel. The system might be slower to reform but mindsets at least can be changed easier.
It starts with the teachers, the educationists and the people running the education departments and implementing the policies. Please help Malaysian youngsters realise their full potential. Just try a little fairness first.
Readers may be interested to know that I have four children all of whom are accomplished in their respective fields. Three of them are part of the brain drain and have elected to settle down abroad; only one is back in Malaysia.
My son who has double degrees in civil engineering and chartered accountancy is an investor in Canada. He could be here to create hundreds of jobs to enrich Malaysia but he has been so disgusted with our policies and their implementation that he has chosen not to return.
I am sure that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of similar young Malaysians that our country has lost, no thanks to our short-sighted education and NEP policies. And yet the Government is so keen to attract foreign investors. Where is the logic and rationality?
Koon Yew Yin, Columnist