Wednesday, May 21, 2014

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It seems like almost every day the name of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) is being presented in the media one way or another. It’s quite clear what the agenda may be at times, and for the most part, I just sit back and listen.

However, in a write up by Robert Chaen entitled A Tale of Two Universities, there are a couple of discrepancies and factors I feel he failed to consider that should be adressed here. It’s published by The Malaysian Insider, so you can check it out if you wish. In that piece, he basically used the time-tested classic of selective anecdotes to peddle a fairly incomplete and inaccurate picture, in comparing students from University Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) and UiTM.

The first thing I have an issue with is the tendency to use the term Bumiputera and Malay almost as if they are one and the same. He may or may not know this, but they are not always the same thing. Officially speaking, a Malay is considered a Bumiputera, but it does not mean that a Bumiputera is a Malay. It is the bigger umbrella under which Malays come, but it is not the same. I am personally against such specific identifications, but that is a part of the reality we have to deal with on a day to day basis, and he has a responsibility of getting this fact right.

Moving forward, to a certain extent, it is not untrue that a large number of Bumiputeras and Malays are interested in attending universities with a larger segment of their own kind. However, this has to be looked at in a more critical fashion. There’s a difference between those who wish to stick with their own race or group (more on this later), and those who wish to stay away from others. I do agree that this can have its disadvantages in many ways (eventual lack of familiarity with others, for example), but it is not always malicious in nature.

The tendency to stick with what you know arises from a number of different factors, and a part of it is to feel comfortable. This manifests itself in a number of different ways, and one of them is to basically stick with what you know. The people whose prayers patterns will be largely the same as yours. Those who speak the same language in the same way as you. Those who share the same kinds of accumulated cultural capital for you to discuss with.

A brief foray into any university will reveal this to be true. A lot of the time, such divisions are made along racial lines. Going beyond that, there are other factors such as the socio-economic class, linguistic ability, and even nationality. At UiTM, students from Borneo have a tendency of sticking closer together for a number of reasons. At the very least, they make the effort to know who is from their home states or towns.

Even in private institutions, such divisions occur. Indonesians make up the biggest percentile of the foreign student population at Monash University Malaysia, but most of them have a tendency of only hanging out with other Indonesian students. A similar statement could be made for the Australian exchange students.

I must stress that these does not encompass all the students there. There will always be exceptions to the rule, but I do feel this observation should be considered if one is to look at discrimination in universities in more detail. People may want to look at universities like Monash, Sunway or UTAR (maybe) as bastions of international exposure and such, but while it is not entirely untrue, just like everything else it is not always the complete truth either.

He also fails to completely mention the different objectives and natures of these two very different institutions. Yes, both are places of education and such, but there are very significant differences, and one of the biggest difference is the the private/public divide.

Someone entering a public university for their education only has to pay a relatively small amount for the privilege of their stay there. Removing all the other costs, tuition fees can sometimes amount to a few hundred ringgit in some cases. Of course, I say relatively small amount, but this can be a cost and a burden for some others; what can be a troublesome amount for some is drinking money on a Friday night at Lust for others.

Someone entering a private university, however, will not be able to get past the gates with a few hundred ringgit. He or she will not even be able to enter the class with four figures. Private education in Malaysia can be exorbitantly expensive, and it gets incrementally more expensive every year. When I studied at Monash a decade ago, it costs 50% less than it does now. People may have to pay five figures (and above, if you’re doing the science/engineering based courses) to have a chance to enter these universities now.

Of course, he was talking about UTAR in his article, and not Monash University. In the comment section, he replied saying that the kinds of families who attend such universities are of a higher income category, and that is a factor , which made me wonder how much it costs to actually attend UTAR. According to their website, a Bachelor of Journalism in Chinese Media(!) costs a minimum of RM35,000. I don't actually know whether this is for all three years of the programme or just for one year of the programme. The Monash website is clearer, and a similar programme there costs RM31,000 a year.

Whatever the figures may be, the majority of students don’t pay for the costs of their own undergraduate degrees. There we find a more instructive factor to consider: class.

When someone graduates from a certain university, plaudits and praise are showered upon them. You have done it! You are now a…Monash grad. A Sunway grad. A UiTM grad. Well done to all! You go out, get a job, work, do well, and other people will think, “Well, he/she did very well there! Monash/Sunway/UM/UiTM prepare their students well.” On the flip side of that, the university will also get a fair amount of blame if the students don’t do well, but that depends as well.

I believe in this case, the family is the one who should be given as much credit as the university, if not more so. Of course, every once in a while, an outsider gatecrashes this party, but the fact remains that a very large proportion of private university students come from families who do not have to worry about where their next meal comes from.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is an important factor in the development of a person. Someone from that context may have already grown up with books by William Shakespeare, John Grisham and others on their bookshelves. They may have learned and studied in environments where English has been used extensively, to the point where it becomes second nature. They may have internet connections fast enough to the point where streaming full episodes of The Daily Show, further inculcating in them various methods of critical thinking as well as topping up on a dollop of the trendy American culture considered to be the standard, is possible.

As such, the students who are already entering Monash University, Sunway University, and, yes, UTAR, are already somewhat equipped by their family to begin with. This foundation is important, and for the university to be given sole credit for a graduate is a fallacy of the mind.

At public universities, it may be more varied. Yes, to put it bluntly, there are some poor people here. There are also some rich people here. There are some who are in between. The wide variety of cultural capital brought to the table here can be very interesting and challenging at the same time.

Some may not read. Some may read, but only certain kinds of novels. Others coule be experts in reading and writing (one student at our faculty has completed a bunch of critically acclaimed novels that’s commercially available). They may not have Shakespeare on their bookshelves…but they may have Usman Awang. They probably have not heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez…but they've read A. Samad Said’s Adik Datang a few times (as an aside, I believe the title of A Tale of Two Universities is more than just a nod towards Charles Dickens. Somewhat ironic, then, that he failed to consider the element of class more critically in his article).

There is a difference, then, in the language, cultural capital, and perhaps more importantly, value attached to them. Who are we to say that these are books not worth reading, or things not worth knowing about? A lot of them may have problems constructing sentences in English, but when it comes to Bahasa Malaysia…good lord, at times, I have been incredibly moved by some of their writings. I often tell them that they should consider publishing some of it. A lot of them don’t, because they have been shaped to belief that the pursuit of such ideals are not…well, ideal. I suspect a number of my students from Monash and Sunway may also have issues should they be forced to write in the national language. Just like any one of us when we are supposed to communicate in a medium we are not familiar with.

And therein lies the conundrum. There is a gap here between the value we attach to Western culture and the value we attach to our own culture. Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer, pinpoints this eloquently in her TED Talk. On an academic level, this has proven to be somewhat problematic, because across the board, people have been told that they need to adapt to the outside world, rather than consider how much of what they already know is valuable in some respects. Failure to adapt to this results in low marks, and many takes this to mean that they are stupid. Your English is not good enough, so you won't get this job. This and that and blah blah blah.

That is the greatest fallacy of our education system, as much as I can tell of it. We attach labels like UiTM, UTAR, Monash and Sunway and expect this to be enough. We set English as the standard, Shakespeare as the standard, Marquez as the standard, Spielberg as the standard, without truly considering the claims of Usman Awang, A. Samad Said, and U-Wei Haji Shaari. Those who do not conform to this are considered as failures. There is a mismatch between what they know, and what we think they need to know, but the existence of this gap is no automatic need to label them as stupid or incompetent.

It is an incredibly difficult thing to judge, and therefore incredibly difficult to decide. We approach this whole thing as if they are all one and the same, and yet people don’t take into consideration how variety in terms of their background, history, culture and knowledge can be expressed. Bumiputera is one label, but orang Melayu dari Kelantan dan orang Kadazan dari Sabah are very, very different.

At the university stage, educators play a critical role, of course, to further develop the student. How much the student develops, though, is largely dependent the family and the students themselves. We educators play an important role, but we are essentially building upon something that has already been established. It means that what comes out at the end of the three or four years of their undergraduate studies will be very different. Some will have maximised the opportunities presented, others will have pissed them away.

The difference at the end of the day will be the students themselves. I don’t know why, but people have a tendency of conflating students into one and the same. Monash students are like this, UiTM students are like that.

I will focus on UiTM, because I feel that such analyses are usually done by those not entirely familiar with how UiTM works, and the sheer breadth of the university itself. Simply put, there are many different faculties teaching many different kinds of courses to very different kinds of students. There are over 20 faculties spread out however many campuses all over the country, employing different kinds of lecturers, professionals and experts of varying levels from a number of different fields. Some are great, some are shit.

The fact is it is incredibly difficult to take a graduate from these faculties and claim him or her to be the model UiTM student. Each and every single student is different in their outlook and perspective on things; there are students who are unable to truly express themselves through unfamiliar discourses, then there are students who break down the walls and prove people wrong many times over.

It is instructive to look at the faculties in more detail. Law students, for example, have a propensity of greater and more critical expressions of the self. From my own faculty, I would expect the theatre students to shout you down (and come up with a dance while they’re at it) if ever you claim them to be incompetent simply because they are from UiTM. Of course, these are only from the faculties I am aware of, though, and again, I am basing this on the smidgen of experience I have with them.

One such experience was debating. The UiTM law students are consistently amongst the best in the country, and tend to do fairly well on the international stage as well. I have debated with them previously during my undergraduate days at Monash University, where they wiped the floor with us, and I have a strong hunch that the debaters from UiTM won’t have much trouble finding jobs.

From the film faculty, there are also students who have done well outside. A number has been praised by them whenever I meet people from the industry. Beyond the film industry, others have done works not-related to their actual degree as well. I know for a fact that one student, who completed her creative writing diploma studies under me, did her part-time work with the Berjaya Group.

She did her job very well indeed, to the point where she was doing the jobs of others, translating from and into…Bahasa Malaysia. “They’re Malaysians, and they can’t even speak Bahasa Malaysia!” she exclaimed during lunch some time ago. As much as it's great for students to pick up a number of different languages, I can't think of other places in the world where people make deliberate efforts to not improve their grasp of the main language in their own home country. I suspect this is true of quite a lot of students, but again, it would be very tricky to apply accurately enough.

We can sit here, share anecdotes and try to prove who is more right. If anything, the variety of anecdotes used for different reasons suggests one thing: that there is no one single truth to this. As much as there are students who do me proud, there are also a number of others who make me metaphorically tear my hair out.

That happens everywhere. In every single place there are students who do not do all that well. There are students who excel, scoring top marks every semester, and then there are those who only turn up for the exams. There are those who you have no worries about whatsoever (even when they themselves worry like hell about their assignments), and there are those who you wonder what will happen once they graduate.

Every student, every place, is different.

UiTM, UTAR, Monash, Islam, Christian, Bumiputera, Melayu, Cina, and more. Much, much more. There are all labels that can, in very specific contexts, be useful for the use of critical discussions, but in the end, they do very little to advance issues in a positive way.

Robert Chaen can only speak from his experience, as can any one of us, and many of his points are worth considering. However, I feel that his perspective is not as complete and as true to the day-to-day reality of what these students are like.

More to the point, it does not do justice to merely work with labels such as the above. The more I teach, the more I realise how useless such terms are, and that we have to consider each and every one of them as the human beings they are. At the very least, they deserve nothing less than that.

To paraphrase the Nelson Mandela quote from his article, education is indeed a powerful weapon, and it's about time we use it properly for more constructive reasons.

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