The perennial problem of JPA scholarships: is the government failing students?

by Kamilia Khairul Anuar

I read an article recently in The Star about SPM students (once again) expressing their disappointment that the government has (once again) announced cutbacks in its provision of JPA scholarships to top SPM scorers.

This is an article that appears perennially, and one that, every year, elicits largely the same responses ― a brave delve into the Facebook comments of said article revealed to me three strains of thought among Malaysian netizens with regards to reductions in JPA scholarship provisions :

― These SPM students are whiny entitled brats, expecting the government to foot the bill for their university education solely off the back of their SPM results, which, excellent as they may be, are not necessarily a reliable indicator of future success in university

― The government is a corrupt dumpster fire that has whittled away public funds instead of using it to invest in the nation’s future talents by providing more JPA scholarships

― The reduction in JPA scholarships is discriminatory, because Bumiputeras have the option of applying for MARA scholarships/loans and are able to obtain funding with considerably lower grade thresholds, as opposed to non-Bumiputeras which have to compete for ever-more competitive JPA scholarships

In all probability there may be an element of truth to all of the above ― but these are not the only sources of the conundrum. Let’s dissect the situation a little more.

In the first place, let’s examine ― why is it the case that our bright students desire, in the first place, to study at such expensive universities? Many SPM graduates seek to study abroad ― and studying abroad is far from cheap and affordable to the average Malaysian.

In the UK, one of the most popular destinations for Malaysian students (indeed, statistically we are among the top 5 largest groups of international students in the UK), the standard three-year non-science degree costs upwards of RM450,000++, inclusive of living costs.

If we go further down the scale of costs, private universities in Malaysia are still expensive, but comparatively much more within reach of the average (at least urban) Malaysian. A degree at Taylor’s University, for instance, would cost around RM80,000 in total.

And if we look for cheaper still, public universities ― such as the University of Malaya and International Islamic University ― charge only around RM5,000 per year in tuition fees, comparatively much more affordable.

So why do our students not want to study locally, at public universities? It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. To a great extent, a university is only as good as the students and staff that it houses ― places like Oxford University is at the calibre that it is because it attracts exceptional academic talent, people who are passionate about their subjects of study.

But smart students do not want to go to a university that they perceive as lacking in prestige, good teaching staff, or quality of facilities.

Sadly, it is the truth that our public universities seem to be lacking in all three areas ― even the University of Malaya, long considered Malaysia’s crown jewel of public higher education, ranked 133rd in the 2016 QS World University Rankings, and 59th in the 2017 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings.

By contrast, the National University of Singapore was ranked at an impressive 12th place in the 2016 QS World rankings and 1st place in the 2016 Times Asia University Rankings.

Certainly, our young students’ perceptions of the quality of local public universities cannot be aided by the fact that the government has recently chosen to significantly cut funding to public universities by 10-31 per cent, the rationale being that public universities had become “too dependent” on government funding.

But we know, of course, that money doesn’t simply grow on trees ― if our public universities can no longer rely as much on state funding, inevitably as the UK did when university funding was cut in 2000 ― and again in 2006 and 2010 ― it must survive by raising its tuition fees, or else see a further drop in teaching quality (because capable academics will go where the money takes them), and study facilities.

Eventually, this will make one of the biggest incentives to study at a public university – their relative affordability ― largely obsolete.

So, has the government failed Malaysia’s students? Yes, but not, as many seem to think, by failing to provide more JPA scholarships.

It has failed by consistently failing to create a comprehensive plan of action to improve the calibre of our nation’s local institutions, and thus reassuring our SPM graduates that even if they cannot afford to study anywhere else, they will still get a good quality university education in Malaysian public institutions.

There is of course still a place for university sponsorship by the government to study abroad ― there always will be, for what our own universities lack now can be gained by students at other universities, who then, it is hoped, will utilise their expertise in advancing Malaysia.

But this should not be a long-term or permanent solution. Not everyone wants to study abroad, or can afford to study abroad, and we owe it to young Malaysians to give them a realistic choice between studying at home and studying in another country ― for not being able to study abroad, as it now seems to be viewed, should not be synonymous with having to subject oneself to a hugely lower quality of education.

For SPM students who may be reading this, JPA is but one (albeit the biggest) scholarship provider. Set your sights on other scholarships and apply, apply, apply.

When I finished my SPM back in 2011, I did not qualify for the bursary programme that existed at the time, so JPA did not sponsor me ― but thankfully, after several scholarship applications I was able to find funding for my studies in the UK.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (29 March 2017)

In the small, large town of Cambridge

by Samuel Goh

I have spent all my life in small towns. I grew up in Kuching, where the most exciting thing you can do on a weekend is walk along the Waterfront and try and not get mugged.

After my SPM I did my A levels in Acton Burnell, UK, where there were more farm animals than villagers and the nearest shopping centre was a half hour, 20 ringgit-taxi ride away.

By some miraculous luck — that to this day I often wonder about — I was accepted to study medicine in Cambridge.

Cambridge is also a small town. The town centre is traversable in five minutes and the most interesting thing you can do during the day is use a stick to push a large boat down a narrow, dirty river. This is called punting, and it is the most inefficient form of transport to have ever been created.

But Cambridge isn’t really a “small town”, not in the same sense as Kuching. It’s home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Everywhere you go there are landmarks that document the achievements of scientists, artists, philosophers, and politicians.

There are buildings where three or four Nobel prize-winning scientists work together on a daily basis. Research on the frontiers of all fields — maths, science, medicine — go on behind closed dingy halls, on every corner of the Cambridge streets.

This was a place where smart people go to feel dumb. And here I was, a kampung boy from Sarawak who didn’t know the difference between a Masters and a PhD.

In my first few months of this new course, I stuck out like a sore, clueless thumb. I looked different from everyone else. I spoke differently from everyone else.

I would say “lah” sometimes and my supervisor would think I just had a mini stroke. But I also felt out of place because everyone around me was just so, so clever.

I thought I knew smart people before in A levels. In fact, I thought I could count as one of them. But you meet people in Cambridge who can memorise pages and pages of their anatomy book even after a drunken night out; people who talk eloquently about the most complex of subjects without a sign of hesitation; people who, when they talk, have many more gears turning in their heads than you.

I went through the classic Cambridge existential crisis — I felt like a fraud, that I didn’t deserve my place in this university and that I belonged back in my tiny town on the tiny island of Borneo. I wanted to leave so many times, but I didn’t.

After many long walks, late night conversations, stress eating, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the know-it-alls and the I-can-do-it-alls affect me.

They could go on and cure cancer, for all I care. I was just going to focus on my studies, and prepare for exams that loomed in the summer months.

For all the medicine that I have learned in Cambridge, the biggest lesson I have learned wasn’t about the human body. It was about surviving in this big, cut-throat world.

Cambridge is no small kampong — it brings together some of brightest minds around the world into the same lecture hall. But Cambridge has taught me that you can’t go through life worrying about how well people around you are doing, or what they think about you.

In the real world, nobody cares if you didn’t score as many marks, or didn’t get that one MCQ question right.

All that matters is that you’re trying the best you can in your given situation, and every day you’re trying to be a little better than the person you were yesterday. The only benchmark that matters is the person that stares back at you in your bathroom mirror.

In turns out as well in the real world that nobody really has everything figured. All these geniuses that I met, who I thought knew everything? There was just as clueless, lost, and worried as me.

We all just learn to hide it because of ego; it prevents us from showing weakness. As I grew closer to my friends here, and got to know everyone’s days — good and bad — I realised that we’re all in the same boat.

We all have our moments where we think that we aren’t good enough. Because it turns out, the perfect human doesn’t exist. Not even in Cambridge.

I’ve spent five years in this small little town in the East Anglian plains. Over this time I’ve learned many things; not just about being a doctor, but about myself, my friends, and the fine balance between humility and self-confidence.

It hasn’t been the easiest of rides, but I can’t say I regret any moment here. Not even all those hours spent punting in circles on the river.

**First published on Malay Mail Online (6 April 2017)

A poem for Leeds

by Shaun Liew

It is true when the British tell you the parties in Leeds are the best,
but truth is the party is in the British – any disagreement on this should be put to rest.

Leeds is up north, beside Manchester.
Down south there is London, it’s overrated, doesn’t get that much better.
Back in Warwick University there is too little of everything,
Whereas Leeds has just enough, so while I’m here onto it I will cling.

It will be difficult to talk to people at first but it’s easier than Liverpool.
Here, breakfast is lunch, lunch is dinner, and dinner is supper – is that not cool?
And sometimes if you’re nice to a friend from the North and she finds you lovely,
She will call you a petal as she chugs down her seventh, her eight, her ninth cup of Yorkshire Tea, roughly.

Before you say ‘hello’, ‘morning’, or ‘how are you’,
Say ‘y’alright’ as half-question half-statement without expecting a longer conversation than ‘I’m alright, you?’.
And instead of ‘goodbye’, drop her a ‘ta’,
While if you are thankful for some beer, then cheers! Hurrah!

Usually when outsiders visit Leeds, they will think of York, Yorkshire pudding, and finally, Lake District.
Two of them you can visit, and one of them you can eat.
The Grand Theatre and Opera House, that’s lovely too,
Though not as lovely as Hyde Park Picture House, ain’t that true?
In the first, you will hear sweet songs and horrifying screams;
In the second you might fall asleep to La La Land, so sweet dreams.

Buildings in Leeds are strange, one is called Parkinsons,
There is another, called Roger Stevens.
Its staircases are fused with its lecture halls,
But don’t forget the EC Stoner corridors.
One of them allegedly the second longest in Europe,
But your classes shall not be there, you should hope.

Outside university, there is a pub called The Library,
And a church-turned club (called Halo) but it definitely isn’t holy.
It is here Asian societies profited and held their Halloween events,
Down the road pubs offer a pint for two quid and fifty pence.

You may hear that people get stabbed often in Hyde Park.
But really the only time I got stabbed in Leeds was in the heart.
Is this merely a metaphor,
Or is there something more?
Heartbreak is in the mind, it’s abstract,
And now even with dusty love letters, I remain intact.

Once I waited beside a crime scene outside a church.
Someone reported a foul smell; so I tried to search.
I took pictures and the policeman then told me,
My phone would be evidence if I continued and I did, gingerly.

Once, Alt-J performed in Leeds,
Give a listen to their beats.
And if you want more deets,
Know that Charles Xavier and Chris Pine used to walk these streets.

If that has not impressed you,
Leeds was where J.R.R Tolkien used to study English,
Terence Gomez once taught here too,
Presumably about how a few Malaysians got dirty rich.

So many places, so little time!
You are supposed to study, everything but is a crime!
But if that is so, getting rejected from internships are no better.
Like the sticky nightclubs and messy relationships, all of them you will endeavor.

It takes time to navigate your course while figuring what you want to be.
It will be hard to juggle studies and events as you please.
And if you manage to pull through with a first class honors,
Well done! But remember that grades are not wisdom, let’s be honest.

In December, when it is Christmas, it will not snow despite Daily Mail’s warnings of snowstorms.
But it might in January, February or March, stay put in your dorms.
In April, Easter begins,
May and June are for exams so you study, study, study so long you wonder,
How long has it been?

By July or August, it may be too hot.
Only radiators, no air conditioners, so damn bloody hot.
And by September come new juniors just like you a year ago.
Bring them around the city, they might enjoy it – no guarantees though.

You may introduce them to the Malaysian societies and some of them will be interested.
Others however will challenge themselves by living without Malaysians instead.
You may also explain to them that there is no one Malaysian society, but three: Kelab UMNO, Malay, non-Malay. Want to change it? Let it be.
If you manage to understand why before you launch into a righteous rant,
You could volunteer to bring them closer together just as I, and other society presidents, with their committees’ bent.

Sometimes religion trumps collaboration, like in Malaysian Night the annual play.
It may be difficult to follow requirements to separate men from females in the audience, or not have a Malay be a billionaire playboy, even if for one day.

But there is much more to a Malay than his culture,
And more to his culture than his religion.
It is on us to realise this – if not what is the point of any Vision?

If you stay in Hyde Park, live near the row
Where you have a continental supermarket, a burger place, a Chinese takeaway, Dixy’s Fried Chicken, two DIY shops, a barber, an alcohol store…Wait, wait, wait, that’s a lot to remember, bro.

Here in Leeds you may just create the best memories of your time,
Or even your worst.
But with the right friends, all your wounds – groggy hangovers, failed exams, mental breakdowns, and complicated girls
All of them will be nursed.