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UEC: A new chapter in national unity and economic opportunities

  • The govt must be more inclusive when formulating new educational policies to ensure no one is left out just because of different medium of instruction.

By Tarmizi Anuwar

GE14 witnessed the first ever change of federal administration in the country after 61 years of independence. The new Pakatan Harapan government is obliged to fulfill its election manifesto.

One of the most controversial items that have drawn widespread attention is PH's promise to restore the sovereignty of public universities and institutions of higher learning, which includes also a commitment to recognize the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) as a qualification for admission into public institutions of higher learning, with the condition the candidates also score at least a credit in Bahasa Malaysia at SPM level.

Generally speaking, the controversy over UEC has been largely evolving around a bigger issue, that is national unity, a national process aimed at uniting Malaysians from different ethnic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

There are some that believe UEC will constitute a conflict or stumbling block to national unity simply because the medium of instruction adopted is Mandarin Chinese.

These people see the language as the only tool to bring about unity, and any use of languages other than Bahasa Melayu in education could trigger ethnic and religious polarization, and hence threaten national unity and stability due to the presence of a rift in mutual interactions and understanding.

Conflicts can happen at all levels and forms. Indonesia has always been cited as an exceptional instance of national unity through the use of Bahasa Indonesia as the country's only medium in education.

That having been said, Indonesia has experienced political, ethnic and religious conflicts threatening national unity in more recent years, as in the case of jailed Jakarta governor Ahok.

In this age of globalization, seeing language as the only tool to ensure national unity has always been a very "classical" pretext. As a matter of fact, language is not the only element that will foster national unity. In its stead. we must reinforce the teaching of critical thinking in sensitive issues in our educational curriculum, and the government can act as a facilitator in providing greater room for our diverse communities to interact with one another.

The UEC issue opens up a whole new opportunity for students previously lacking the opportunity to interact with students from different backgrounds to do so. Although such interactions at university level may come a little too late, students must not be denied such an opportunity.

Some argue that SPM and single stream education should suffice in this country, but let me stress here that it is our goal to get every single student in this country to further his or her studies in an institution of higher learning some day.

For those well versed in the Chinese language, UEC offers an excellent alternative to do well in examinations in their native language.

As such, the government should see UEC recognition as one of the initiatives to diversify the teaching medium to effectuate healthy interactions.

The presumption that students taking UEC or attending independent Chinese high schools are from the upper economic class has been largely misinformed, because many of them are actually not from well-to-do families. For this group of students, their monthly school subscriptions are funded through community funds raised by civic organizations or the schools themselves.

Dong Zong has estimated yearly student subscriptions to be in the range of RM2,000 to RM5,000, while tuition fees for pre-U courses at private universities are between RM7,500 and RM35,000 or even higher. UEC offers a more affordable alternative for these students.

Tuition fees at public universities in any country are generally lower than those at private institutions. As such, recognizing UEC qualification for admission into local government institutions will allow needy students to gain access to quality tertiary education at more affordable rates, opening up a world of opportunities for them to improve their own economic conditions in future.

Cumulative total of UEC graduates as of 2018 stands at 645,699, and UEC recognition will allow them to gain access to public sector jobs in future.

Former home affairs minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a media statement in 2016 that some 56,576 Malaysian citizens had given up their citizenships between 2006 and 2016, of whom 49,864 were ethnic Chinese.

In a study titled "Attitudes and Ethno-religious Integration: Meeting the Challenge and Maximizing the Promise of Multicultural Malaysia (2017)", Oxford University concluded that 15.5% of Malays, 48.8% of Chinese and 37.3% of Indians were keen to leave Malaysia for good. And higher percentages of them were with at least a post-secondary education, i.e. 17.3% of Malays, 52.6% of Chinese and 42% of Indians.

This draws a significant correlation between post-education opportunities and the intention of emigrating.

UEC recognition is not a zero-sum game. UEC graduates intending to pursue their further studies at local public institutions of higher learning are still required to score at least a credit in Bahasa Malaysia at SPM level.

To fulfill this requirement, independent high schools will have to make sure they have suitably qualified teachers to teach this particular subject. And this provides tremendous career opportunities for Malay teachers.

Lest we forget, policy-making is a highly complicated process that must not be rushed through. The government needs to conduct holistic studies before recognizing UEC.

That said, this should not take too long as UEC already received ISO 9001:2008 certification on March 12, 2011, which is recognized in Malaysia, China, the United Kingdom and Japan.

The government must be more inclusive when formulating new educational policies to ensure no one is left out just because of different medium of instruction, and our educational reform requires renewed political will that will provide the opportunity for all students to contribute positively towards family, social and national harmony and prosperity.

(Tarmizi Anuwar is Research Manager of Institute for Leadership and Development Studies, LEAD.)



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