A little learning is a dangerous thing

Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud’s biography, as laid out in the hushed, awed tones of his party’s website, is that he obtained an LLB degree from the University of Adelaide, Australia, in 1960. His only recorded postgraduate achievement was that “in 1964, he attended a Harvard International Seminar”.

One might suppose this little nugget of information was inserted to inform us he once had some kind of association with Harvard University, even if it was tenuous.

The thousands of Sarawakians searching for work abroad (economic activity for ordinary Sarawakians being moribund, thanks to Taib’s family) might be well advised to participate in some seminar, run by a well-known university, and then include it in their job applications, and see where it gets them.

Taib had the good fortune to have obtained a law degree at a time when there were few homegrown graduates in Sarawak, so he was a big fish in a small pond of graduates. Most other Sarawakians of that generation were deprived and poorly educated, so they could not even get their feet wet, so to speak, in the graduates’ pond.

Taib’s family connections to his maternal uncle Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, and his appeal as a local Muslim to the federal Alliance, and later the Barisan Nasional, were other important credentials.

These qualifications helped him scurry up the slippery pole of our slimy politics of race and religion, until he reached the dizzying (and nauseating) heights of Sarawak’s longest entrenched chief minister.

‘School life expectancy’ in Sarawak

An average Malaysian born in 2005 has a ‘school life expectancy’ of 12 years (13 for girls), according to the United Nations (UN). This means a boy born in 2005 would expect to study up to Form Six, and a girl would expect to reach Form Six or tertiary education.

This statistic is similar to the average in Thailand and the Philippines, and slightly below that of Indonesia. Sweden and other developed nations have an average formal education lifespan of around 16 years.

The average Sarawakian born in the 21st century, on the other hand, would have fewer years of formal education than the national figures would suggest.

UN resident co-ordinator for Malaysia, Richard Leete, pointed out in 2005 that 10% of Malaysians had never attended school, according to official Malaysian statistics. The corresponding proportion in Sarawak, the fourth poorest state in Malaysia, was 17%, and in Selangor, the richest state, a mere 5%.

In other words, one in six Sarawakians had never attended school.

Nationwide, among those who had attended school, 53% studied up to secondary level, while 9% reached tertiary education. For Sarawak, 51% attained secondary level and only 5% enjoyed tertiary education, while for Selangor, the figures were 54% and an impressive 15%, respectively.