Speech by Lim Kit Siang on the Ministry of Higher Education in the 2009 Budget debate on Wednesday, 3rd December 2008: 

End the NEP in the universities as the first step to restore a world-class university system 

Malaysia is losing out in the unrelenting battle for international competitiveness among nations, with Malaysian universities even losing out to universities in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines – something completely unthinkable in the first three decades of our nationhood.

For the second consecutive year, Malaysia had fallen completely out of the list of the world’s Top 200 Universities this year in the 2008 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.

The national shame of Malaysia falling completely out of the list of the world’s Top 200 Universities this year in the 2008 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings is being compounded by the ignominy of Malaysian universities losing out not only to top universities in Singapore, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea but also to other South East Asian nations like Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines.

For the second consecutive year, there is not only not a single university in the 2008 THES-QS Top 200 Universities list, there is also not a single university in the separate ranking of Top 100 Universities for five subject areas – Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities; Life Sciences and Biomedicine; and Technology.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Malaya (UM) were in the 2006 Ranking, placed No. 185 and 192 respectively. UKM plunged to 309 last year and improved to 250 this year while UM fell to 246 last year improving slightly to 230 this year – but both remain outside the Top 200 Universities ranking.

The government named Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) as the Apex University but it has a dismal international rankings after being included once in the Top 200 Universities list – No. 111 in 2004, No. 326 in 2005, 277 in 2006, No. 307 in 2007 and No. 313 in 2008.

It is both sad and pathetic that our Apex University, the USM, at No. 313 ranking, is not only left far behind in South East Asia by Singapore (National University of Singapore No. 30 and Nanyang Technological University No. 77) but also by Thailand (Chulalongkorn University No. 166), Indonesia (University of Indonesia No. 287) and the Philippines (Ateneo de Manila University No. 254 and University of the Philippines No. 276).

Until last year, Malaysian universities were all ranked well ahead of the Indonesian universities, but in the 2008 THES-QS World Top Universities ranking, Indonesian universities are catching up with Malaysian universities in leaps and bounds.

Last year for instance, the three top Indonesian universities were all ranked behind the Malaysian universities – University of Indonesia (UI) No. 395, Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) No. 369 and Gajah Mada University (UGM) No. 360, as compared to the three top Malaysian universities University of Malaya (UM) No. 246, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) No. 307 and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) No. 309.

In this year’s ranking, University of Indonesia has improved by 108 placings to be ranked as No. 287, Bandung Institute of Technology No. 315 and Gajah Mada University No. 316.

This means that in the 2008 THES-QS Ranking, University of Indonesia (No. 287) has narrowed the gap with University of Malaya (No. 230) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (No. 250), while ahead of Malaysia’s apex university, Universiti Sains Malaysia (No. 313), University Putra Malaysia (No. 320) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (No. 356).

The performance of Malaysian universities in the 2008 THES-QS Top 100 lists for the five subject areas are even more dismal, with not a single university making into the five lists for two years consecutively although Malaysia secured four of these 500 prestigious slots in 2006 - University of Malaya was ranked 49 in Social Sciences and 95 in Natural Sciences, UKM was placed No. 62 in Natural Sciences, and University Sains Malaysia placed No. 96 for Life Sciences and Biomedicine.

For the 2008 THES-QS ranking, National University of Singapore (NUS) (No. 30) is ranked among the Top 100 Universities for all the five categories while Nanyang Technological University (NTU) (No. 77) is ranked among the Top 100 universities for three categories, viz: Technology (No. 26); Life Sciences & Biomedicine (No. 78) and Social Sciences (No.89).

NUS is ranked No. 11 for Technology; No. 17 for Life Sciences and Biomedicine, No. 31 for Natural Sciences; No. 18 for Social Sciences and No. 30 for Arts & Humanities.

NTU is ranked No. 25 for Engineering & IT; No. 99 for Natural Sciences and No. 88 for Social Sciences.

Even Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University is rated among the Top 100 Universities for two categories – Technology (No. 86) and Social Sciences (No. 72); Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology rated as among the Top 100 universities for Technology (No. 90) and two universities in Philippines ranked among the Top 100 Universities for Arts and Humanities - Ateneo de Manila University (No. 79) and University of the Philippines (No. 82).

After being placed in four of the 500 slots in the five Top 100 Universities for the five subjects in 2006, Malaysian universities has been conspicuously missing from
all the five listings of Top 100 Universities for the five categories for the past two years.

There are over 30 “elite of elite” universities, which are not only ranked in the Top 200 Universities list, but also ranked in every one of the five Top 100 subject list.

Universities in the Asia-Pacific region which are in this exclusive “elite of elites” list include six in Australia, two in China, one each in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. Why is Malaysia not in this “elite of elites” listing and when will Malaysia have a university which will have all-round excellence as to be included in this list?

Malaysians have not been told the real and true reasons for the shocking performance of Malaysian universities in the THES-QS Top 200 Universities ranking. Malaysian universities have been consistent in increasingly deplorable results in world rankings, whether the THES-QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong University World’s Best 500 Universities or the Newsweek’s Top 100 Global Universities.

If the government is serious about its slogan of “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang” to create a world-class university system to transform Malaysia into a knowledge-based innovative economy, it must end the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the universities and fully restore the policy of meritocracy and academic excellence coupled with social need to provide university education opportunities to economically-backward Malaysians regardless of race.

It is the NEP policy and mentality which caused University of Malaya to fall 200 rankings behind University of Singapore in less than four decades as both universities had started on the same footing some 50 years ago. University of Malaya is ranked No. 230 as compared to the 30th ranking for National University of Singapore.

The government must recognize that so long as the NEP is kept in place in the universities, there would be no way for any Malaysian public university to compete with other universities from other countries. This is why Malaysia is also losing out to universities from Thailand and Africa – which was unthinkable four decades ago!

If Malaysia is to get back to the trail of world-class academic excellence, all universities should be allowed to enroll the most qualified students, employ the most competent professors and researchers with competitive remunerations and restore a culture of academic excellence and freedom.

One simple test of whether the government is seriously committed to abandon the baggage of past NEP policies to create a world-class university system is whether it has the political will to end the annual brain drain depriving Malaysia of the best and brightest for the development of the country.

For a start, the Higher Education Minister should ask the Cabinet to check the annual four-figure brain-drain of the best and brightest STPM students and Chinese Independent Secondary school students to Singapore by providing them equitable higher education opportunities at home to demonstrate that the government is serious in wanting to build a world-class university system.

Secondly, the Higher Education Minister must ask the Cabinet to end the present fraudulent meritocracy using both STPM and matriculation by having a common university entrance examination.

This is the recommendation of the World Bank study on “Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System” submitted to the government in March last year.

Otherwise, the Higher Education Ministry is only continuing to pay lip service to university excellence and quality without the political will to bring about the institutional changes without which there is no way for Malaysian universities to return to world-class university status.

* Lim Kit Siang,  DAP Parliamentary leader & MP for Ipoh Timor