Half-century race


The Lee-Mahathir debate reflected two polarised views: Umno’s bumiputra-first and protectionism on one end, and the Malaysians’ Malaysia and meritocracy of PAP on the other end.

Tay Tian Yan, Sin Chew Daily 

Queries surrounding the true or fake meritocracy and quota system have reminded me of what a friend of mine used to tell me.

During the mid-1960s when Singapore was still part of the Federation, PAP’s Lew Kuan Yew and Umno’s Mahathir Mohamad were once having an intense debate in the Parliament.

Mahathir, who was then a fresh MP, voiced out for expanded university quota for Malay students. He said more Malay graduates would be able to groom elite members of the Malay society, hence improving the socioeconomic status of the Malays.

Lee stood up to protest, saying that providing more places for Malay students and allowing students not meeting the requirements to get into universities would only bring down the overall academic standards.

He said once the students knew they did not need to meet the basic requirements for university admission, they would slowly develop an attitude of reliance on the government.

He felt it wasn’t that much a problem if no Malay students made it to the medical school of Universiti Malaya for that year. More importantly, if the students knew they had to perform well in examinations to get into the medical faculty, they would step up their effort and compete with students from other ethnic groups.

Perhaps a couple of Malay students could get into the medical faculty the following year, and more and more over the subsequent years.

These Malay students would no longer need to rely on the quota system to get into local universities several years down the road. At the same time, the overall standards of local universities were also maintained.

My friend is well versed in the early history of the country’s nationhood and the above information could be easily retrieved from the parliament files and Lee Kuan Yew’s speech collection.

The Lee-Mahathir debate reflected two polarised views: Umno’s bumiputra-first and protectionism on one end, and the Malaysians’ Malaysia and meritocracy of PAP on the other end.

Later, after Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore out of Malaysia, he implemented his meritocracy in the tiny island republic.

Meanwhile, Mahathir grew in popularity over this side of the Causeway and was immediately seen as the personification of Malay nationalism. He was later appointed the education minister and put his protectionist and patronising policy as well as quota system into implementation, which he carried through until after he took over as the country’s longest serving prime minister.

The number of Malay students in local universities are on the rise, from merely a minority in the 1960s to an overwhelming majority in public universities today.

Both Lee Kuan Yew an Mahathir have accomplished their respective advocacy albeit in two different countries.

Today, the National University of Singapore is ranked 25th worldwide and second in Asia in the QS global university ranking while our UM is 156th worldwide and 33rd in Asia. As for the Times Higher Education ranking, NUS is 29th worldwide and second in Asia while none of Malaysia’s universities make it to the top 500.

If these two polarised views were to be equated to half-century marathon, Lee’s advocacy is now at the forefront of the global race while Mahathir’s still struggling from far behind.

Despite all this, Mahathir still takes pride in his policy and has recently defended it by saying that majority of the students in public universities are Malays who are not wealthy enough to attend private universities, adding that meritocracy would only render these students labourers.

Looking at things from another angle, if the government back in those years adopted the views of Lee Kuan Yew and implemented meritocracy in Malaysia’s universities, how would things measure up today? Would our UM be on the same par as the National University of Singapore now?