by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 4 February 2016

The recent scaling down of government scholarships has renewed debate about how and why an individual’s education is funded.

I was violently introduced to the issue in my first year dorm of a dozen adolescent boys. One chap gloated that he was a scholar, and therefore cleverer than everyone else. Counter-claims ensued, and it emerged that we had an academic scholar, a music scholar and a sports scholar in our midst. There were also those who received bursaries, which had other criteria.

I quickly realised that I was extremely fortunate that my parents, with further assistance from other relatives, were able to provide me with a high quality education. Ever since then I have tried to repay that debt by trying to do something worthwhile, something they hopefully would approve of.

At university I better understood the role of Malaysian government scholarships in particular, not just to the students themselves, but to the future of nation building. The development of so many professions since Merdeka was propelled by those who received such scholarships, and this mindset has persisted ever since: if you get a government scholarship you are expected to serve the country.

By the time I became an undergraduate, I noticed that it came with a proviso, as I saw acquaintances who supported the Reformasi movement threatened with a withdrawal of their scholarships. I thought that was very wrong.

My reasoning, which has remained unchanged, is that when it comes to private scholarships, the sponsor rightfully has absolute discretion in providing the money to decide who should receive it. It is rather akin to parents paying for their own children’s education, although an anomaly arises when you consider that parents who are slogging hard to educate their children privately are nonetheless still being taxed to pay for other children’s education (one way to address might be to introduce a voucher system as previously outlined in research papers by IDEAS).

The proliferation of scholarships in the private sector has resulted in companies, as well as educational charitable foundations, competing to attract whoever they consider to be worthy according to their own criteria. They might be sometimes be criticised in their selection procedures and lack of transparency, but any response is a result of market dynamics, and rightly so.

However, when the source of scholarships is public money, the decision-making becomes a lot more complicated, for in the collective body of taxpayers there a multitude of different opinions. In the current debate, the focus is whether more weight should be placed on academic results or family income. One common argument is that rich kids can afford better schools and tuition, so of course they will have better grades; therefore it’s better to reward a promising kid from a poor family with less perfect grades. Unfortunately this logic is too simplistic as there are cases where a “rich kid” might have non-financial handicaps like a disability, or parents who are rich on paper but don’t invest in their children’s education.

But very few seem to care much about aptitude in music, sport or other soft skills when determining who should receive a scholarship. While there is an ethnic component (some public-funded scholarships are explicitly constrained by race, others de facto perceived as such), there is no appetite for women-only scholarships: more Malaysian women than men are already in university. In terms of eligible disciplines, there has always been a preference for those linked to certain professions: engineering, medicine, accounting & finance, actuarial science, law. The idea of “education for its own sake” is uncommon in Malaysia, and I doubt many taxpayers would approve of money being spent on a compatriot studying philosophy or ancient Greek. Despite this, there is nonetheless some diversity in public funded scholarships available, especially if you count those offered by Government Linked Companies.

Ultimately, the question of government scholarships at university level is a small part of the jigsaw. The answer will be easier to answer if weaknesses throughout the education system are addressed first: improving educational outcomes in primary and secondary schools and increasing confidence in how students are assessed.

If we achieve that, then these government scholarships will not, as they are now, be seen as a highly-coveted escape route from a constrained educational environment for a select few (some of whom might benefit from political connections), but rather, a prestigious privilege for those who are selected according to a transparent process out of an already well-educated public. Ideally, eventually we need not be so prescriptive on the scholars, too. Rather, the government should trust the most promising talent of the next generation to make their own decisions as to how they want to contribute back to their country.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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