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Wake up, UiTM. Do the brave and right thing

Wake up, UiTM. Do the brave and right thing
Wake up, UiTM. Do the brave and right thing 4

Wake up, UiTM. Do the brave and right thing 5

Fresh off the controversies about the poor World Bank report card on our education system, another education-related matter has popped up, yet again perfectly illustrating many of the things wrong with our country.

You’ve probably been following the recent issue about recognition of cardio-thoracic specialists’ qualifications. If so, please explain to me what it’s all about! I’ve heard many complex and convoluted explanations from various experts, with some of them even descending into uncharitable name-calling and mud-slinging!

But if you’re beginning to think today’s topic is about our kindergartens, you’re wrong, but not by much. Today, we’re talking about something higher: our universities.

As for the controversy itself, regardless of what’s being said, it’s more about paperwork – certification and syllabus and approval and accreditation etc – and also about incumbents and newcomers and turf politics, then about anything else.

Cardio-thoracic surgery

It seems our local university UiTM (Universiti Teknologi Mara) has the only approved training programme for doctors to specialise in the field of cardio-thoracic surgery. There are calls for UiTM to open up its course to some of these doctors caught in the controversy so they, too, can qualify.

As in anything Malaysian, that’s when the race stuff hits the fan. UiTM is a bumiputera-only university, and as it stands won’t admit non-bumiputera students, even if they’re doctors studying to become specialists.

Did you notice that when the issue of allowing the non-bumiputera doctors into UiTM came up, it suddenly became a sensitive issue, and even the loudest of politicians chose discretion and kept quiet?

Has UiTM been added to the three sensitive things in Malaysia – becoming 3R + U: Race, Religion and Royalty plus UiTM? Things that you only speak of in whispers, for fear of offending somebody powerful who could ruin your day?

Perhaps not, or at least not yet. But the UiTM topic does touch one, and perhaps more, of the 3Rs directly. Hence any discussion about it becomes either hushed or shrill, with nothing in between.

University with mythic status

The vice-chancellor of UiTM came out with some justifications, citing our country’s constitution. UiTM itself doesn’t appear in the constitution, but inferences were made that the heavy weight of the country’s supreme law will bear down upon any misguided efforts to change it.

In other words, the 3Rs will be used to whack you.

For many Malays, UiTM has acquired mythic status. It has produced the highest number of Malay university graduates compared to other universities in Malaysia. So, there’re a lot of fiercely loyal alumni out there.

But why is it that most of these alumni, and most of the Malay society as well, cannot countenance an exception for a few non-Malays to complete their masters in this field?

Is it the fear of lowering UiTM’s standards? I doubt it. UiTM is a decent enough university, but it’s no Harvard. It was created to allow as many bumiputeras (read, Malays) as possible to receive a tertiary education as part of the country’s affirmative action programme.

A focus on quantity

So, there was, and is, a focus on quantity. But even so, I know of some excellent graduates of UiTM who went on to excel in other top universities in the world, as well as in top careers in the country.

Assuming the non-bumiputera student doctors are vetted properly, there‘s no reason to believe UiTM’s standards will fall by their admission. So no, it’s not about standards.

Is it because there are laws that say non-Bumis must not be allowed into UiTM?

None that I know off, though I can see this idea forming in some people’s minds already! Our constitution certainly doesn’t preclude any non-bumiputera from being admitted. If anything, the constitution has clearly stated that all Malaysians are equal before it.

But even if there’s such a law, and even if that law is the constitution itself, there’s nothing to stop it from being changed if it’s for the good of the country.

Us versus Them

Are there any other issues? Costs? Capacity? Capabilities? If there are, they certainly can be overcome – charge full unsubsidised fees, or expand the programme, or bring in outside experts and academics to boost UiTM’s capabilities.

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I doubt any of these are issues, except for the often unspoken one, that UiTM is “ours” as far as the Malays are concerned, and it’s not for sharing.

This is yet another example of the Malays’ sense of insecurity – if “they” come in, even if in a small number, what will it lead to? Will there be more of “them” soon? Will “they” take over and kick us out?

Personally, I don’t think it’s a smart move to keep UiTM bumiputera-only, both in this case and in general too. It becomes counter-productive in the long term, if not already.

A bumiputera-only UiTM may have made sense in the early days, but now that “exclusivity” only creates and cements fears about facing the world out there – a world made up of diverse ethnicities and demographics, many of whom didn’t have such an “advantage” and hence had to work harder than many Malays.

The world is becoming increasingly global and diverse and competitive, yet the mere existence of UiTM is a denial of these realities. It ring-fences itself against open competition and keeps its students and faculties mollycoddled from the real world. It perpetuates and grows the sense of insecurity that’s already deeply embedded in the Malay psyche.

It produces more graduates who see, as a birthright or at the very least, a safe option, a job in the public sector, whether directly for the government or indirectly with the many agencies funded by taxpayers, or in the almost totally Malay-run GLCs.

Whilst UiTM is capable of producing excellent academic results, it’s failing in producing people who can be resilient and competitive in the real world. Sure, there are the odd ones who achieved excellence, but they’re not the rule, as in the case of Harvard or Oxbridge, but rather the exception.

I doubt many people with this sense of insecurity will accept any of my arguments. Opening up UiTM will help in its painful but necessary journey towards real-world excellence; it will also shake up too many comfortable but powerful people who see their positions there as their right and privilege and a welcome sanctuary from the messy real world.

Rights versus responsibilities

Ultimately though, my strongest argument is encapsulated by something I had written in these columns much earlier – the unfortunate and excessive focus on rights rather than on responsibilities.

Sure, it’s useful to throw articles of the constitution around, even if they say nothing about whether UiTM can or cannot admit non-bumiputera medical students. But that’s another example of arguing about rights and ignoring our responsibilities.

The country is in dire need of medical specialists of all disciplines, and in this particular case, cardio-thoracic ones, and it seems UiTM holds a critical key towards helping ease this situation.

That UiTM, or rather the misguided people associated with it who are fighting to hold on to their privileges, is focusing on its rights rather than its responsibilities, is a sad testament to how bad things have become.

Wake up, UiTM, and do the brave, but the right, thing for the nation. You yourselves will benefit immensely from it in the long term.

 

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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