In his dialogue in Kuala Lumpur yesterday at the seminar on racial tolerance organised by the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia, Mahathir was asked if the government would extend the proposed meritocracy system for the next intake of bumiputra university students to the public service where one day non-Bumiputeras can be appointed as Vice Chancellors of universities and as the Chief Secretary to the Government.
Mahathir replied that meritocracy will be implemented in stages.
“The proposal to apply this concept with student admission into universities is just the first step and it will be carried out in ‘right doses’ as it was a corrective measure.
"I am a trained medical doctor and know about a lot of medicine but too much medicine is also not good for a patient. It must be given in the right doses.
"We can take the first step, if we succeed, we will continue but sometimes we must realise that the medicine can be too bitter to swallow although it can cure the ailment." (NST).
There are two distinct issues here which must be disentangled - the issue of bumiputra student academic performance and the issue of the proper critera for academic appointments and promotions.
Since the seventies, the DAP had consistently advocated that the proper policy for university admissions is one of merit coupled with needs which would meet the twin objectives of ensuring that our institutions of higher learning maintain the highest academic excellence as well ensuring that the economically and socially disadvantaged would receive special preferential consideration in enjoying higher education opportunities.
The Malaysian reality has always been such that the main beneficiaries of the second policy component of needs would be the bumiputera students, although it would not be completely confined to them.
In a Parliamentary debate in March 1979, I stressed that “Malaysians, including non-Malays, do not begrudge the provision of special assistance to Malay students to attain university education”.
I said: “All that they ask is that, without depriving any Malay student of university place, the government should also provide university education opportunities for non-Malay students. It is short-sighted and self-defeating to try to solve old injustices and inequalities by creating new injustices and inequalities.”
As the problem of poor educational attainment of bumiputera university students is not a present-day problem, Mahathir’s “shock therapy” raises the question as to whether it is motivated by genuine educational concerns or by the UMNO political agenda to clamp down on campus student activism which is increasingly alienated by high-handed government contempt for student idealism, self-respect and rights.
The second issue of meritocracy for academic appointments and promotions in the public universities has nothing to do whatsoever with the question of bumiputra student university admissions - but has everything do with maintaining excellence and quality in public universities, affecting both bumiputra and non-bumiputra students.
How can there be merit and excellence among our university students if merit and excellence are not the most important criteria for appointments and promotions for the academic staffs in all universities ?
Isn’t this the reason why Malaysian public universities had fared poorly in terms of educational excellence and quality when compared with other universities, whether in Asia or internationally?
If Mahathir really wants to establish a quality higher-education system the envy of other nations and where academic excellence is the motto for all academicians and students, then the first thing he must do is to introduce merit as the most important criteria for all academic appointment and promotions, starting with the appointment of qualified non-Malay Vice Chancellors in the country.