Malaysia PSD ( JPA) scholarship flip-flop decision

Posted on July 12, 2010

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On Jun 14,  Datuk Nazri, who is the minister in charge of the Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships otherwise known as  as JPA ( Jabatan Perkhimatan Awam ) said  the Cabinet had decided to eventually scrap the 1,500 scholarships offered yearly to students for undergraduate studies overseas. The reason was simple – the the government do not have the “capacity” to finance the studies of the growing pool of bright students in the country anymore. “We just cannot afford it. Just like how a parent cannot afford to send their children abroad to further their studies, the government cannot afford it.” He’d subsequently defended the decision as another means to  prevent a further “brain-drain” of talent. “Sending overseas students causes brain-drain where some of them won’t want to come back after studying there for a few years. “If you keep sending students overseas, when are we going to improve our standards (locally)?” He said that the money saved from the scrapping of the PSD overseas scholarships will be put to better use in “improving the facilities” of local universities.

This led to some outburst of dismay  from parents, some academics and politicians. MCA Youth was the most vocal protesting against this decision and its head Wee Ka Siong  has urged the government to review its decision by re-evaluating its selection criteria. He said  many students depend on PSD scholarships to further their studies at oversea universities.

About 3 weeks later, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the government will continue to sponsor students with excellent SPM  results through the PSD/JPA scholarships to pursue their first degree locally or abroad. The scholarships offered will be on critical fields such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary, engineering, science and technology and social sciences.  Just three days later, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib added “Each student irrespective whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan or others who obtain 9A+ (in their SPM results) qualify for the JPA scholarships, be it for studies locally or overseas,”.  Najib said this scholarship opportunity showed that the government was serious about bringing forth a transformation in line with the 1 Malaysia concept, saying  “This shows that 1 Malaysia is not only a slogan but is being practiced in Malaysia,”.

What a FLIP-FLOP situation ! This is not the first time the Barisan Nasional government had flip-flop on its policies. Sometimes I wonder is it the case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing ? Only after the usual round of brickbats and complains , we see a reversal of decision or a postponement. As a citizen of the country, I view with great concern that major policy decisions on this and  so many other issues need to go through such rigmarole every time. This reflects badly on the government and its decision making procedures. Perhaps we need to spend another few hundred million ringgit to send all our Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, and Directors for training in management and decision making ?

Parents will be glad to know now there is no more restriction on race/quota  and evaluation of other criteria such as family income, extra curricular activities, assessment interview etc. I’d like to offer my 5 cents assessment of the country’s scholarship offer.

Firstly, let me talk about the “A’s” . During my time in the mid 70’s studying for the “O” level, to achieve an “A” was an outstanding achievement. Students scoring 7 to 9  “A” were few. In each school, such number rarely exceed 10 students. But in the last 10 years, we read and hear students scoring A’s as common news. Best part of it all, every year the number of “A”  scorers increase together with improved passing percentages. To an alien from outer-space,  he would come to two conclusions. Each year the students are getting smarter and those students in the 70’s, 80’s must be really dumb compared to those during and after the 90’s period. I have 3 children and they are now in their early to mid 20’s.  Two of them had completed their secondary education in this country about 6-7  years ago and the youngest just a year ago. My wife is a senior secondary graduate teacher. Through them I could see what is happening to our Malaysian education system. What I am going to say now will hurt parents and the Education Ministry.

Parents of today : Don’t be proud that your child is a straight “A” scorer. It does not necessary means he is a superb and bright student. Of course there are exceptions to this generalization.

This is the hard cold fact :  Passing standards is reduced and the number of marks to achieve “A” has come down. In the 70’s/80’s , “A” means a score of  at least 85 marks and above. What is the standard now ? Depending on subjects , 65 marks and above !!!  The situation has deteriorated so badly, last year the Ministry came up with this brilliant idea of reclassification to A+, A, and A- . My wife gave up marking the SPM papers after 3 years as she was so frustrated with the new marking scheme. She was under pressure every time to award marks even though the answers were incorrect or partially correct. The guideline given to her by the Examination Syndicate was simple – as long as the student shows some understanding or highlighted some key points/key words ( even if spelling is wrong or answers given in a rojak combination of English and Bahasa ) , marks should be given. For the past ten years, she could see with her own eyes , students who averages grade C can achieve A grades in the final results. Students who cannot even write a single sentence legibly  with correct grammar, students who cannot even converse fluently can achieve an A in English and Bahasa. My two children were very disappointed with their SPM results as even though they score A’s ; their fellow classmates who were usually scoring B and C in the term exams similarly score A. They questioned us where is the standard of the education heading to ? The present education system is in a  quagmire state. The government is creating an illusion to all that the standard of education is improving every year. I’d say most parents who are educated know exactly how their children fare; it is only those who are not so well educated are disillusioned. But it is a rat race to achieve performance and a chance to get scholarship if the child perform. So who  cares whether the A is a strong A or a weak A.  It is plain simple – “A” is “A”. Average students who scored straight A’s suffered when they are pressured by their parents to take up professional courses such as Medicine, Engineering, Pharmacy. Many fall out during their undergraduate days as they just couldn’t cope as their  “A” foundation is in reality weak.

The need to achieve an A had spur the mushrooming of private tuition centers all around the country. For those who can afford,  it is not uncommon for a family to  spend an average RM 200 to RM300 on tuition fees for their children. The tuition classes is also due to peer pressure from other families action and the need to ” keep up with the Jones’s”  or as the chinese say  “kiasu” ( scare to lose to others) . Many parents are sending their children to tuition centers as the common complain is teachers in school are not dedicated and do not teach well. As a surety for their children’s academic performance, the  tuition center is the solution.

The government decision to award all 9A+ students scholarship should be reviewed against their course of study and the availability of such courses in local public universities or private college-universities. It is not necessary to sponsor a student to the full 4-5 years term overseas. With credit due to the Education Ministry efforts, many of the local colleges has strong affiliations and co-operation with foreign universities in their twinning 3+0, 3+1 programs. Such programs will reduce the government expenditure tremendously. At an average cost of about RM500,000 to RM800,000 for a 4-5 year program overseas, the country need to spend close to a billion ringgit sponsoring the 1500 students. Having a program to have bright students pursuing courses locally will raise the standards of the local public universities. This is a long term development program of talent the government should seriously consider to raise the standards of tertiary education.

Full sponsorship overseas could be decided through further assessment and interview of the students. The government must have a good system to monitor the progress and performance of these students. Most important of all, these students must return to serve the country. It is common knowledge that quite a number of JPA scholars  are relieved of their bond and not offered jobs when they are back to the country. The government had spend so much of the tax payer’s money on them and yet did not receive any contribution back from such scholars. I knew of a few friends whose children were on scholarship overseas studying medicine but they never came back to serve the country. The reasons given to me was their application to return back to serve was not processed by the relevant Ministry. They could be lying but I find it strange that such students are allowed to stay back and work overseas and the government did not take any action to recall them back ? Isn’t there a monitoring system to do this and if so , exactly which Ministry is responsible for this ? Money spend on scholarship is an investment by the government and all investments must have a return of investment benefit.  Our government cannot afford to take this lightly as this is all our  tax payer’s money they are spending.