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Why Malaysian universities are performing poorly

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Malaysian public universities have dropped in the Times Higher Education University Rankings over the last few years. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) made 87th position in 2013, but as at 2015, no Malaysian university made the top 100 Asian rankings.

Malaysian public universities have also shown mixed results in other rankings like the QS rankings, where three Malaysian universities had slight rises in their rankings, while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), International Islamic Universiti Malaysia (IIUM), and Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), all slipped in rankings from previous years. No Malaysian university made the top 100, According to the QS ranking profiles, Malaysian universities have lost significant ground in academic reputation and tend to be weak in research, where no Malaysian university reached the top 400.

Public Universities Vice-Chancellor/Rector Committee chairman Dr. Kamarudin Hussin, who is also vice chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) claims that the ranking methodologies favour older, more established universities. Yet many universities within the THES top 100 Asian universities were established relatively recently. Hong Kong University of Science and technology, ranked 7th was established in 1980, Nanyang Technological University, ranked 10th was set up in 1981, and Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked 11th, was established in 1986.

When comparing performance to Malaysia’s neighbour, Thailand, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, established in 1960 made 55th place, and Mahidol University came in with 91st placing.

In addition, a number of universities from countries which are not democratically governed like Sharif University of Technology 43, Iran), Isfahan University of Technology (61, Iran), Iran University of Science and Technology (69), King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (71, Saudi Arabia), and King Saud University (72, Saudi Arabia), all made the THES top 100 Asian university rankings last year.

Dr Kamarudin accepts that Malaysian universities have “many issues that must be resolved….(and) there are plenty of oversights that must be fixed”. However, unfortunately, he didn’t mention what they are, or offer any solutions.

World Bank economist Dr Frederico Gil Sander agrees with Kamarudin’s comment that the “stakes are high”, when he says that the poor state of Malaysia’s education system is more alarming that the country’s public debt. The talent needed to develop the Malaysian economy is not being produced.

Probably the tone used by Dr Kamarudin used in his article hints at the first problem with Malaysian public universities. That is, the view of authority over the rest. Kamarudin asserts that ‘academic freedom’ exists, yet this should be subject to the views of the ‘so called’ majority’, which could be read as authority. In August last year, he was one of the strongest opponents of students attending the Bersih 4 rally, threatening disciplinary action, such as suspension or even expulsion of students who attended from university.

Supressing independent thought, is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities espouse to develop. Among the characteristics of society required for progression are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose.

This attitude by university leaders doesn’t appear to be isolated. Hazman Baharom called their attitude ‘aristocratic’, in reference to the partisan political leanings of Professor Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, former vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). This institutional arrogance can be seen in the proposal to educate students about the ills of ISIS. The underlying assumption being that Malaysian students are easily led and cannot think for themselves.

Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorified with unnecessary ceremonies that make a mockery of academia, and tend to dominate the persona of universities, rather than act as facilitators for people to excel.

This leads to a lot of unnecessary expenses such as lavish dinners with highly paid entertainers to celebrate this event and that event, this award and that award. Some of these dinners are very extravagant at some universities costing up to hundreds of thousands of Ringgit. Vice Chancellors make lavish trips both domestically and internationally, where the benefits of these trips to the university have not been scrutinized, except for MOUs that are never acted upon.

This is in a time when university budgets are being slashed, the minister has directed university management to be frugal with spending and seek funds outside government allocations, and the public are suffering economic hardships through the economic downturn, GST, and depreciated Ringgit.

The waste goes much further. Within the few parts of the Malaysian Auditor General’s report that is released to the public, the 2012 report cited Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) mishandling of its computerized maintenance management system. After spending RM400,000 on the system between 2008 and 2012, the auditor general found that data was not keyed into the system and the person responsible for managing the system had no IT knowledge.

The cost of three building projects ballooned 8.9% at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) due to delays and inexperience of the contractor.

The auditor general further found at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) that funding allocations didn’t take into account the basic needs of students in the planning and construction of its main campus. Despite RM438.64 Million allocated for setting up Unimap under the 8th Malaysian Plan, only 25% of these campus plans have been completed, which university management blamed on budget constraints.

What is even more startling according to the AGs report is that Unimap made the first payment to the contractor working on the permanent campus before the contract was fully negotiated and signed. The report further states that workmanship is extremely poor, where cement in many places is cracking and crumbling, roads and parking areas where inappropriate, and much of the equipment supplied is not functioning.

According to the AGs report from 2002 to 2012 the university has no hostels of its own, and has been renting them and ferrying students to campus instead, which cost RM138.4 Million. As of 2015, Unimap entered into an arrangement with the Proven Group of Companies to supply additional privately owned accommodation at Titi Tinggi, some 35kms from Kangar and 40kms from the main campus at Ulu Pauh. Details of this agreement have never been made public, but Unimap will pay rent for 15 years for the use of this accommodation, but ownership will remain private after this period.

The Unimap-Proven venture is contrary to the Education Ministry’s vision of universities earning income through hostel rental to students. Thus in the medium to long term the university will be restricted in the ways it can earn revenue to fund future budget cuts.

Similar issues exist at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) where the lack of student accommodation has led to severe overcrowding at hostels.

Mismanagement and waste is one issue, but outright corruption is another.

If one has spent any significant time within Malaysian academia, stories about corruption within the institution will no doubt arise. However, most, if not all of these remain hearsay, as there are few reports of corruption to higher authorities and very few charges are ever made, with no convictions made in this area.

Just some examples that have come to the writer’s attention are consultancy companies run and operated by a faculty, where directors and shareholders are the dean and deputy deans. Students have come forth and told the writer in confidence that examiners at master and PhD level ask outright for payments to pass. A particular dean of a new faculty, used a company owned by proxies to supply equipment. University cars have been sent to workshops for repairs that don’t exist. Academics are paying for articles to be published in academic journals without peer review, and the heavy use of research grants for travel that is questionably related to the research topic it was granted for.

University staff tend to be fearful of their superiors, most are extremely hesitant to speak out and whistle-blow on their peers and superiors. In an interview with a state director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the writer was told that the MACC would provide a neutral and discrete place for those who wanted to remain anonymous and report corruption. However those few that came forward faced hurdles with the MACC that were almost insurmountable, such as being requested to file a police report which would jeopardize anonymity.

A major problem is the leadership of Malaysia’s public universities today. Vice chancellors tend to be domineering, not allowing too much room for dissent from their own faculty and university members. Often, staff are selected upon loyalty rather than merit, breeding a culture of gratitude within their institutions. Strong vice chancellors can browbeat the university board, and senate, getting their own way on operational issues, due to the transitory nature of university boards.

Universities within Malaysia have become dominated by vice chancellors who are intent on micromanaging their universities. The strong power-distance relationships that develop between the leader and subordinates in Malaysia is powerful enough to destroy many of the management checks and balances that exist to prevent mis-management and even abuse of power.

It’s time to re-organize Malaysian public universities from the top down. Not only is new leadership needed, but heavy reform of the university organization so that these institutions should function how they are really meant to. All importantly, vision beyond self-glorification is desperately needed by public university leadership.

Make this change and Malaysian universities will very quickly feature in the top 100 Asian university rankings.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

In Myanmar, Better Oversight of Forests a Vital Step in Transition to Rule of Law

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Authors: Art Blundell and Khin Saw Htay

For the first time, the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (MEITI) has opened the books to share information with the public on revenue Myanmar’s government collects from harvesting timber. Last month, the MEITI released two reports juxtaposing statistics on production and tax payments from government ministries’ ledgers with corresponding figures reported by the state-owned Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) and forestry companies.

The reports are an important step toward improved transparency and accountability in Myanmar’s forest sector because they shine a light on irregularities that may point toward mismanagement or illegal activities. Unclear legal frameworks and weak enforcement in Myanmar’s forestry sector – a remnant of decades of military rule – have created an environment ripe for illegal logging and illicit trade, and mismanagement of natural resources.

The role of forests in Myanmar’s transition to democracy cannot be overemphasized. Money from illegal logging helped to fuel Myanmar’s decades-long civil war. Smuggling of illegally harvested timber to countries like Chinahas led to the loss of millions of dollars each year in government revenue. Corruption also fuels continued violence and prolongs armed conflict, especially in the heavily forested states that are home to most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

The MEITI is committed to sharing its results at the state level—especially in Myanmar’s forest-rich regions. Myanmar’s citizens have the right to understand how their forests are being managed for the public good.

The EITI framework was launched globally in 2003 with a focus on oil, gas, and mining, given that these lucrative sectors are often key drivers of corruption in resource-rich countries. Myanmar is one of only a few countries (following Liberia’s lead) to add forestry to its EITI reporting, thanks to advocacy from civil society. 

Myanmar’s newest MEITI reports are a commendable step by the government toward transparency. But producing a report like this is not easy. The reporting highlights numerous disparities and irregularities in government record-keeping. This is not unusual for a first EITI report. It is also a major objective of the EITI: transparency leads to meaningful discussion about necessary reforms, while regular reporting creates an accountability mechanism to demonstrate progress.  MEITI is now preparing their next report covering fiscal years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.

The MEITI is already driving progress. Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance (MoPF) has announced it will close the so-called “other accounts” maintained by State-owned Economic Enterprises, like the MTE, that have kept more than half their profits separate from the government’s central budget. Data in the MEITI report suggest that MTEretained74% of its $1 billion profits from fiscal years 2014-2015and2015-2016 in these other accounts–significantly more than the 55% that is permissible.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MoNREC) now holds important data that can be used to investigate and resolve irregularities uncovered by the MEITI reporting. For instance, the Forestry Department’s data on production does not match the data provided by the MTE, and it is substantially more than the Annual Allowable Cut (a government-determined sustainable level of harvest). Likewise, the MTE indicated that more teak was sold than its total reported supply. The source of the additional volume of teak logs is unexplained.

Reforms should help MoNREC address these irregularities.  Current reporting is obviously insufficient to capture reality.  With the help of a workshop that followed the MEITI launch, stakeholders are working with MoNREC to develop appropriate reforms for MTE and the Forestry Department, and to improve forestry sector governance in general. 

Opacity hurts the country in more ways than one. Illegal logging, corruption, and smuggling siphon off revenues meant for programs serving the public. Illegalities also threaten forests – and the communities that rely on forests for their livelihoods – and they drive off credible investment, leaving a gap often filled by investors with less regard for environmental and social regulations.

It is important to note that the MEITI reports cover only the period from April 2014 through March 2016, prior to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party coming into power. The current administration has committed to fairer distribution of benefits from Myanmar’s natural resources among its citizens, yet systematic barriers remain. Endorsing the recommendations from the MEITI report and implementing a roadmap for reform would signal the NLD’s commitment to good forest governance. Meanwhile, companies should do their part to comply with the law and accurately report production, sales, and other data in an accessible manner that allows for independent monitoring.

Myanmar’s forest resources hold great promise for the country’s people, its economy, and the government budget, if managed responsibly. The MEITI has a clear role in charting that path forward and in helping Myanmar manage its natural resources based on the principles of good governance.

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South-East Asia youth survey: Skills prized over salary

MD Staff

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Young people in South-East Asia face a relentless challenge to upgrade their skills as technology disrupts job markets, according to research released today by the World Economic Forum and Sea.

In a survey of 56,000 ASEAN citizens aged between 15 and 35, some 9% of respondents say their current skills are already outdated, while 52% believe they must “update their skills constantly.” Only 18% believe their current skills will stay relevant for most of their lives.

These concerns about skills are reflected in attitudes to jobs. ASEAN youths say the number one reason they change jobs is to learn new skills – the desire to earn a higher income comes second. 5.7% report having lost a job either because their skills were no longer relevant, or because technology had displaced them. Other reasons include the desire to create a more positive social impact and to have a more innovative working environment.

The survey also shows 81% of ASEAN youths believe internships are either equally important or more important than school education. In addition, over half are keen to spend time working overseas in the next three years, probably to gain new skills, with a significant portion wanting to work in another ASEAN country.

“It is impossible to predict how technology will change the future of work.” said Justin Wood, Head of Asia Pacific and Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum. “The only certainty is that job markets face accelerating disruption, where the lifespan of many skills is shortening. It is encouraging that ASEAN youths are aware of these challenges and show a deep commitment to lifelong, ongoing learning.”

Soft versus STEM skills

Overall, ASEAN youth attach greater importance to soft skills, and less importance to STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and maths. They see “creativity and innovation” as the most important skill – in which they also rank themselves highly – followed by the ability to speak multiple languages. They are confident about their soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, and list the two least important skills as “maths and science” and “data analytics”. They are particularly positive about their ability to use technology such as social media platforms, e-commerce sites, and e-payment systems.

Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist of Sea, noted: “While it is essential that the region continues to invest in developing STEM skills among young people, we can also see that soft skills will have a vital role to play – even in the tech sector. In the world where knowledge becomes obsolete more quickly, soft skills such as adaptability, leadership and creativity will be crucial in ensuring young people have the resilience to constantly evolve their skill-sets in step with a changing market.”

The importance of re-skilling

Responding to the need to train workers in the face of technological change, the ongoing ASEAN Digital Skills Vision 2020 programme, launched by the Forum in Bangkok in November 2018 is assembling a coalition of organizations to train 20 million workers at ASEAN SMEs by 2020, and to provide internship and scholarship opportunities.

“The World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Digital Skills programme is delivering significant impact. In its first eight months, the initiative has already secured commitments to train over 8.9 million workers at SMEs, and to provide over 30,000 internships,” said Mr Wood.

Some 16 organizations have so far joined the programme: BigPay; Certiport, a Pearson VUE Business; Cisco; FPT Corporation; General Assembly; Golden Gate Ventures; Google; Grab; Lazada; Microsoft; Netflix; Plan International; Sea; thyssenkrupp; Tokopedia; and VNG Corporation.

“Government policy and business practices need to catch up to what is happening on the ground. Advances in technology will continue to impact labour markets into the future, and this requires ongoing education and skills training,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director and Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the Forum. “Anything less than a systematic shift in our approach to education and skills risks leaving people behind.”

Future jobs

When asked what type of organization they work for today, and where they would like to work in the future, ASEAN youths show a strong preference for entrepreneurial settings. Today, 31% are either entrepreneurs or work for a start-up. In the future, 33% want to work in an entrepreneurial setting. 19% of young people also aspire to work for foreign multinationals in the future (the current figure is 9%).

Traditional SMEs (as opposed to start-ups) are seen less favourably. While SMEs form the backbone of ASEAN labour markets, the survey reveals that small companies face recruitment challenges. 18% of youths work for SMEs today, but only 8% want to work for an SME in the future. One reason for the low interest is because young people say they receive less training at small companies compared to larger ones.

When asked what industry sectors are most attractive, the results reveal a clear preference for the technology sector, with 7% working in the industry today and 16% aspiring to work there in the future. In comparison, more traditional parts of the economy may face recruitment challenges. For example, 15% of youths work in manufacturing today, but only 12% want to work there in the future. Likewise, 8% work as teachers, yet only 5% want to work in education in the future.

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Being Wealthy Helps Singapore’s Naval Ambition

Bahauddin Foizee

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There’s an image that has been imprinted in the minds of the millions about Singapore, that it is a tiny yet wealthy city-state and an important Asian financial hub. But many are unaware of the fact that Singaporean armed forces are stronger than many regional forces, as it has one of the best navies, airforces and armies in the region.

Singapore’s navy, officially known as the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), in particular has been shaped over the years into a maritime force which is highly sophisticated and well-trained. An article on The National Interest ranked the RSN among the top five Asian navies, even when Indian Navy did not find a place in the list.

According to the aforesaid article, the RSN is a better navy than the Indian Navy in terms of quality, operation and policy-making, though the RSN lacks the experience, manpower and size of the Indian Navy. Arthur Waldron, an International Relations academic at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that if Chinese Navy, necessarily dividing the fleet, sends a taskforce to subdue the RSN at the Philip Channel, the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca, the RSN would beat the Chinese taskforce.

Ambitious Procurement Plans

Singapore intends to build a navy that could protect its territories and economic interest from the potential hostility by any immediate larger neighbours, and more importantly a navy that could become lethal if combined with other regional and extra-regional navies (like Australia and Indonesia) against a greater navy (e.g. against Chinese navy). That is why, the RSN is currently on a spree to acquire more capabilities and next-generation platforms.

As part of its submarine force renewal program, the RSN is acquiring four Type 218SG submarines from Germany to improve the operational and combat capabilities of its submarine fleet. These new submarines will be having far more capabilities and durability — and are built to stay submerged about 50% longer — than those of the existing ones.

It’s worth mentioning here that submarines, unlike surface warships that have both peactime and wartime functions, is built to shoot and destroy targets as well as to conduct surveillance, even surveilling foreign coasts to gather vital intelligence. The very fact that a small city-state like Singapore has submarines in operation and is now renewing its fleet with even more capable submarines — shows how ambitious Singaporean navy has become about increasing its naval power.

Because of the larger capacity, these submarines have plenty of scopes for future upgrades, meaning that these submarines could be equipped with weapon systems such as long-range missiles to carry-out an offensive strike.

There’s more to the Singapore’s naval ambitions. Take for example the Joint Multi-Mission Ships (JMMSs), one of the RSN’s major new procurements. With full-length flight deck, these vessels would be almost 540 feet long with an estimated displacement of around 14,500 tons, and are expected to carry five medium and two heavy helicopters on a flight deck. What’s more, these vessels could potentially support limited operations of fixed-wing aircraft, including the F-35B warplanes which Singapore airforce is expected to purchase from the U.S. sometime in near future. Therefore, these vessels could potentially serve as aircraft carriers.

The RSN is also very well aware of the fact that wars these days are fought from a distant with the help of unmanned drones and unmanned vessels that carry cameras and weapons in order to see farther and respond quicker. Hence, the RSN plans to procure new vessels that will be having multiple unmanned air and surface vehicles to extend their reach and flexibility against threats. Take the eight new Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs) for example. These LMVs will have a helicopter landing pad that will be able to carry an unmanned aerial vehicle. The aforesaid JMMSs and the new Multi-Role Combat Vessels (MRCVs) too will have unmanned air and surface vehicles.

Being Wealthy Helps

An Asian financial hub, the city-state of Singapore has a lot of wealth. The tiny landmass of the state and the already developed infrastructures allow the Singaporean government to allocate comparatively lesser wealth on infrastructures and other conventional sectors and to invest more on innovation and technology as well as defense and security. This is how the tiny state affords to make the quality defense procurements.

Singapore has been the Southeast-Asia’s largest military spender for several years now. Singapore was the top regional military spender in 2018 with an expenditure of US$10.8 billion and the Southeast Asian neighbour with the closest figures was Indonesia with an expenditure of US$7.4 billion. For 2019, Singapore has allocated US$11.4 billion for defense on its budget — something which amounts to about 19 percent of total government expenditures and around 3.3 percent of national GDP.

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