THE growing number of unemployable Malaysian university graduates is a matter of grave concern that needs to be addressed before disaffection and discontent set in.
There is every prospect, looking at recurring trends in recent years, of the situation getting worse before it gets better. We must, therefore, view seriously a development that has already taken on overtly unhealthy social, economic and political overtones. We ignore the red signal at our risk.
Decades of treating education as a free-for-all political football, and kicking it in all, except the right, directions, and consequently missing the goal mouth altogether, has debased and destroyed an important social tool for sustainable human development.
Continuing with the soccer metaphor, if I may, the decision to relegate English to the third division and promote Bahasa Melayu to premier league as the medium of instruction, was the final nail in our education coffin. The Prime Ministerís hope that Malaysians would take on global challenges is commendable, if unrealistic.
How can this possibly be achieved when our aspiring young Malaysians are equipped with but a smattering of English, not even enough to string three words together?
The Deputy Prime Minister was in New York recently. At an informal dinner meeting with some 200 Malaysians working and living in the Big Apple, he said he was concerned about the small number of Malaysians in Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges.
He felt that the friendships made and the networks established with other students in these internationally respected institutions would be useful later in life because these were the people most likely to provide the political, intellectual, diplomatic and corporate leadership in many countries.
A global "old school tie" network is not to be sneered at; it could pay dividends for Malaysia.
The reason for the paucity of Malaysians in top British and American universities is not far to seek. Our highly politically-charged educational system is simply not equipped for open and robust equal opportunity competition where a high level of proficiency in the English language is a minimum, basic requirement.
The overwhelming majority of our students in top Western universities are the products of the elite, high fee-charging, private school system, and come mainly from professional, upper middle-class homes where English is widely used. By definition, the Malays are out of the race before it even starts.
In the last four years, I have delivered two speeches to undergraduates at Harvard University on corruption and ethics issues. There were large numbers of Chinese students from Singapore, Hong Kong, a sprinkling from Malaysia and even China. I did not see a single Malay.
In the United States, Mara and other government-sponsored students, nearly all Malays, could at best be placed in mediocre state universities which are less fussy about standards.
The Malays have somehow become the unintended victims of misguided Malay chauvinism disguised as nationalism, the handiwork of over-zealous politicians with a keen eye on popularity.
Nationalism of the variety being propagated by the vocal minority is really irrelevant in today's Malaysia. It has no place in the larger context of the global social and economic order, with excellence as the only legitimate benchmark.
Malays do not need crutches to get through life, but they, together with other Malaysians of all races, can do with a clear and sensible policy direction in education that will, at least, enable them to make a real contribution to national development.
Who knows, with a little bit of luck, and lots of hard work, they might make it to the top of the pile internationally. Rabid self-proclaimed nationalists go so far as to suggest that countries such as China and Japan are doing fine without English. We cannot compare ourselves with them for any number of reasons. We know the symptoms; so, let us treat the disease if our ambitions for a role in the global arena are to be realised.
In the mid-Eighties, as director of administration in the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, I chaired many selection panels. What struck me most about Malaysian candidates for senior, including diplomatic appointments, was their difficulty in expressing ideas coherently in English compared with candidates from other parts of the Commonwealth. In all the years I was there, there were never more than half a dozen senior Malaysians. I could not, in all conscience, appoint many of those who were interviewed.
I remember attending a meeting of the Commonwealth Finance Sub-Committee and being greatly embarrassed by the Malaysian representative who could not express himself to save his life. He was probably thinking in Malay and then trying to find the right English words to convey his point.
In the event, he missed point after point. Malaysiaís participation did not amount to much. How he was appointed to the Foreign Service in the first place is a total mystery to me to this day.
Here in New York, there are many young Malaysians who have become part of the Wall Street financial scene. They are confident, communicate well in good English, and are truly global in their thinking, the sort of people our education system should be producing, but is unable to do. The Malays, I fear, are unrepresented.
I find it extremely gratifying that these highly marketable, professionally top-drawer, Malaysians are proud to proclaim their Malaysian origin. Over time we may lose some of them as they move to other countries that can use their talents, but this is in the nature of the globalised world.
The utility and quality of the Malaysian education system must be openly debated against a background of what we want for our country in the context of the global economy in which the concept of the nation state is changing, and the nation state itself is being dismantled before our very eyes.
The borderless world is the new faith that countries such as ours must embrace. Assuming this is where our ambitions lie, we need to look at our education system dispassionately, and overhaul it completely, if necessary, so that it can deliver what our country needs.
We need a world-beater in educational terms. Forget race which is an accident, anyway, and think of the nation and its needs. Do we have the stomach for this approach?
*The writer is a former president of Transparency International and now special adviser to the UN secretary-general in the Ethics Office.