Outcry over retaining ethnic quota for pre-university admission in Malaysia

Outcry over retaining ethnic quota for pre-university admission in Malaysia

Malaysia ministry of education file photo
Malaysia's Ministry of Education building in Putrajaya. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

KUALA LUMPUR: A recent decision by the Malaysian government to retain the ethnic quota for the pre-university matriculation programme to favour the bumiputras has been met with criticism from various segments of society.

Educationists, politicians and students alike said a reluctance to radically overhaul the policy goes against the Pakatan Harapan’s pledge of creating a merit-based society. 

“To me, government has changed, but the mentality remains the same,” educationist N Siva Subramaniam told CNA.

Labuan Matriculation College graduate Mohd Azizul Hafiz Jamian added: “It is a stage 4 cancer that needs immediate chemotherapy.”
The 32-year-old, who is now a university lecturer, said that the 90:10 quota should be updated to reflect Malaysia’s diversity.
“(The policy of having a) quota should stay, but with improvements made on the criteria, such as prioritising the hardcore poor, the B40 (bottom 40 per cent of households) and people in rural areas regardless of their ethnicity,” he said.
Mr Mohd Azizul blamed the politicians for having played the race card, which led to insecurities in both bumiputras and non-bumiputras. 

Education policies also have a hand in polarising the society, he said. “It should be about Malaysians. Education should not encourage ethnic polarity.”

READ: Progress in Pakatan Harapan's ‘new Malaysia’ plagued by same old issues

The outcry began with the Education Ministry announcing that the quota – 90 per cent of seats reserved for bumiputras and the remaining for non-bumiputras – would remain in place, and that last year’s 2,200 seats for Indian students and an additional 1,000 for the Chinese was only a “one-off” initiative.

To calm backlash, Education Minister Maszlee Malik followed up with an announcement that the pre-university programme would be expanded to accept 40,000 students instead of 25,000, with the 90:10 quota kept in place. 

Mazlee Malik
Malaysian Education Minister Mazlee Malik. (Photo: Bernama)

The Cabinet’s decision was perceived as slapping a band-aid hastily on the age-old debate surrounding affirmative action and meritocracy in Malaysia.

While an additional 1,500 seats have been created for non-bumiputra students (bringing the total to 4,000), seats reserved for bumiputra students jumped by 13,500 to 36,000. 

The matriculation programme is a pre-university course introduced back in 1998 to create more opportunities for bumiputras – sons of the soil – to seek higher education in science, technology and applied arts. Subsequently, 10 per cent of the seats were opened up to non-bumiputras beginning 2003, hence putting in place the 90:10 ethnic quota.

Mahathir Mohamad (1)
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. (Photo: Bernama) 

In a group media interview on Monday (May 6), Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad admitted matriculation is a “back door” access into public universities for Malays. The matriculation initiative was rolled out during his first stint in office.

READ: Malaysia PM Mahathir rates his Cabinet 5 out of 10, but says there will be no reshuffle

Compared to the other national pre-university programme commonly known as Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM), matriculation is appealing because a spot in one's preferred course in public universities is almost guaranteed.

The matriculation route is also shorter - it can be completed in two semesters - as compared to the three-semester STPM option.

For the 2018/2019 session, the Education Ministry received a total of 84,891 applications for matriculation, including 20,040 from non-bumiputra students. A total of 4,068 non-bumiputras were eventually accepted.

According to the ministry's website, students who obtain mostly Cs in their Malaysian Certificate of Education (SPM) examination can apply to enrol into the matriculation programme. 

“Matriculation leavers have a better chance of getting into universities and enrolling into popular courses. If the student intake for matriculation is increased by 15,000, this will further diminish the opportunities for STPM students to enter public universities,” Mr Chiong Yoke Kong, Democractic Action Party’s (DAP) Tanah Rata assemblyman said.

Ideally, the government should introduce one standardised university admission examination and abolish matriculation, he added.

“Let students of all ethnic groups stand at the same starting line. Any affirmative action policy should be need-based and not race-based,” he said.

Mr Siva Subramaniam, who is the former secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession added that the ethnic quota has caused brain drain, with the “best brains” leaving for other countries.

Students are urging the government to implement a fair education policy. 

Ms G Gayatri, 19, said she hoped the government would increase the quota for non-bumiputras.

“It is unfair for non-bumiputra students who obtain excellent results in SPM examination but are not accepted into matriculation, while there are others who get in without even meeting the minimum requirement,” she said.

“I understand why bumiputras should be given priority, but 90:10 is too lopsided.” 

Ms Gayatri has just completed her matriculation studies and is waiting for her examination results. She applied for the matriculation programme because she wanted a “shortcut” to attend a public university. 
“When it comes to education, we need to be fair. The unfair policy makes students feel as if their hard work is not appreciated, and this will cause discord among races. If we want peace in our multiracial country, we need to be fair to all,” she added.

Other non-bumiputras are realistic that affirmative action is here to stay.
Business analyst and matriculation graduate Mr Lee Hau Wei, 28, said: “The bumiputra privilege has been implanted in Malaysia for decades. Taking it away at one go is impossible.”
He attributed Malaysian Chinese’s perseverance to decades of unfairness. “We weren’t given equal opportunities and that’s what made us appreciate every little opportunity offered to us.”  

“If one day there is really equal opportunity among Malaysians, I wish we would remain as competitive as we were and propagate the spirit to all Malaysians,” he said.

Source: CNA/tx(aw)