Datin Seri Rosmah should save taxpayers’ money and go to Singapore to learn how to get more Malaysians into Oxbridge rather than travel to the United Kingdom

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang, on the 16th of August, 2017[1]

Datin Seri Rosmah should save taxpayers’ money and go to Singapore to learn how to get more Malaysians into Oxbridge rather than travel to the United Kingdom

Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister, received much criticism for a trip she took to the United Kingdom earlier this month. In response, Rosmah said that her trip to the UK, including a visit to the University of Oxford, was not for a holiday but to ‘pave the way for children under the PERMATA early childhood education program to join the university’.[2] If PERMATA is under budget constraints, as claimed by Rosmah[3], I suggest that instead of visiting the United Kingdom, she can take a trip across the border to Singapore to learn how the top institutions there help their high achieving students to get into Oxbridge.

The latest statistics show that there are currently 290 Singaporean students at the University of Oxford as compared to only 145 Malaysians. At the University of Cambridge, there are currently 351 Singaporean students compared to 239 Malaysians. (See Table 1 below)

Table 1: Number of Singaporean and Malaysian students at the University of Cambridge and Oxford (Undergraduates and Postgraduates)[4]

Oxford Cambridge 2016/17
Singaporeans 290 351
Malaysians 145 239

Sources: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/international-oxford/oxfords-global-links/asia-south-east/asia-south-east-country-statistics?wssl=1#content-item–6 (Oxford), http://www.prao.admin.cam.ac.uk/data-analysis-planning/student-numbers/snapshot-nationalitydomicile (Cambridge)

Singapore sends 9 times more students to Oxbridge[5] than Malaysia on a per capita basis. Given Singapore’s success in sending so many more students to Oxbridge than Malaysia, it would make sense for Rosmah to visit Singapore to learn more about the ‘secrets’ of their success. She would just need to visit the top 5 ‘A’ level institutions in Singapore – Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong Institution, Victoria Junior College, Temasek Junior College and National Junior College – which are responsible for sending most of Singaporean students to Oxbridge (as well as a number of Malaysians). If she did, she would find the following:

1) High academic achievements across the board

In most schools, only a handful of students, perhaps the top 5%, would get 4As for their STPM. Those with 4.0 CGPAs are even rarer. In a top A level college like Raffles Institution, the percentage of students in a cohort with the equivalent of 4As was 53% for the class of 2016[6] (629 out of 1162 students). Basically, if you were to throw a stone into a crowd of students in this school, you would have a more than 50% chance of hitting someone who scored 4As.

Having a larger number of academic high achievers means that you have a larger pool of students who can potentially apply to places like Oxford and Cambridge. While we can discuss whether or not academic results are the best reflection of intellectual potential, there is no escaping from the need to have good academic results to gain entry into Oxbridge. Offers from Oxbridge are usually given to students contingent on them obtaining a certain academic result. Most entry offers are contingent of students obtaining 3As or 4As for their A levels (or the equivalent).

The question which Rosmah has to answer, as the patron of PERMATA, is how many of its pre-university students obtain straight As for the A level exams (or its equivalent)? What does PERMATA need to do in order to reach similar academic standards as the top pre-university institutions in Singapore?

2) Exposure to Various Intellectual Challenges

Students in these top A level institutions in Singapore are given opportunities to expand their intellectual horizons beyond their normal academic syllabus. Students who show greater aptitude in certain subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and Informatics, are given the training and the opportunity to compete for selection into the Singapore team for Olympiad competitions at the international level. The Olympiad infrastructure which exists at the school[7] and national[8] levels has allowed Singapore to improve its performance in these international student competitions over time. For example, Singapore has placed in the Top 10 in the International Math Olympiad since 2011.[9] Many of the students who participate in these Olympiads will go on to gain entry into top universities around the world, including Oxbridge.

The exposure to various intellectual opportunities goes beyond training and participating in Olympiad competitions, which are only open to a relatively small number of students. Students who show interest in other fields, including the arts, public policy, scientific research and information technology have access to specialist programs in these fields.[10]

In addition, students who want to gain exposure to university standard courses can opt to take H3 level papers for their A-levels (This is an addition to their ‘normal’ A level papers which are called H2 level papers). Students who take H3 level papers are better prepared to ask more insightful and critical questions in their field of studies which would also help them when writing essays and answering questions during interviews for Oxbridge entry.

This is perhaps one of the intentions of Permata Pintar’s Nobelist Mindset program which is a program to give Malaysian students a sense of what it takes to have the mindset of a Nobel Prize winner.[11] But from the following description of the Nobelist Mindset program, we have a long way to go in terms of producing graduates who can write proper sentences in English, let alone Nobel Prize winners:

“This workshop was held for 5 days at the PERMATApintar Center. Students are divided into 12 groups and will be taught by two instructors in the classroom. Students will learn and be exposed sciences to become a scientist and features a prize winner. The workshop was also attended by the students of the boarding school from the outside (SBP, BPT, SKK and so on. The highlight is the selection of students and Young Scientist who managed to qualify for Londo trip. The trip to London was to provide an opportunity for participants to visit special laboratories relating Nobel there.”

3) Having well-trained Academic Councillors

Gaining admissions into a top overseas university is not as simple as merely getting good academic results. It requires well-written application essays which can make you stand out from the crowd. It requires good reference letters from credible sources. It requires extra preparation for Oxbridge courses which require subject exams. It requires knowing what questions to anticipate and how to converse with professors from Oxbridge during interviews. Most of the top A level institutions in Singapore have well-trained academic councillors whose full-time jobs are to help students prepare their applications to these top universities.[12] This is one of the reasons cited as to why Raffles came out top in terms of number of students accepted into Cambridge.[13]

As far as I know, PERMATA Pintar does not have any full-time academic councilors to help guide students on their higher education options. The closest item I found was a research mentoring program whereby a student can be mentored by a UKM academic in an area of his or her interest.[14]

4) Having well-qualified and well-trained teachers

Many of the teachers in these top institutions are Ministry of Education teaching scholarship holders. This means that they were sponsored by the Ministry of Education to study overseas before coming back to Singapore to teach. Some of them have studied in top overseas universities including Oxbridge. There are also expatriate teachers in these top A level institutions with experience in teaching in some of the top secondary schools overseas including schools in the UK which send a high number of students to Oxbridge.

Does PERMATA have a similar cohort of teaching staff who can create the right academic environment for the geniuses who are studying at PERMATA? Do the staff have the right experiences which can help these students to not just do well academically but create a mindset among the students which can enable them to apply to some of the top universities overseas including Oxbridge? The evidence does not seem to confirm this.

The onus is on PERMATA to create a high achieving environment for its high IQ students. The environment at PERMATA should be one where high performers are created across the board. The last thing we would want is for places at Oxbridge to be ‘bought’ in exchange for visits and special donations to Oxford or Cambridge by Malaysian dignitaries such as Rosmah.

Rosmah does not have to take a contingent of 30 or more people to the United Kingdom to help future generations of PERMATA students gain entry into Oxbridge. She should just go across the border to Singapore with a few of the PERMATA top management and teachers. If she wants to save even more money, she should visit some of the top A level colleges in Malaysia which routinely send many students to Oxbridge including KYUEM, Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar (KTJ), Methodist College, Taylors College and INTEC Education College in Shah Alam.  Then she wouldn’t have to ask her husband, Prime Minister Najib for more funding for PERMATA.

Ultimately, regardless of the number of overseas trips which Rosmah takes, on behalf of PERMATA, I’m not sure if she will learn a much more basic lesson – which is that programs for ‘gifted’ students such as PERMATA cannot be the launchpad to promote one individual’s agenda or to make one person look good but must be built on strong institutional foundations in order to make the program sustainable and successful.

Dr. Ong Kian Ming
Member of Parliament for Serdang

[1] Disclosure: Dr. Ong Kian Ming did his ‘O’ levels in Raffles Institution and his ‘A’ levels in what was then Raffles Junior College under the Asean scholarship

[2] https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/391057

[3] https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/391059

[4] These figures may underestimate the number of Oxbridge entries the Singapore education system is responsible for since some of the Malaysians who go to Oxbridge also studied in Singapore.

[5] Abbreviation for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge

[6] https://rafflespress.com/2017/02/24/a-level-results-2017-rafflesian-excellence/

[7] https://rafflesmatholympiad.wordpress.com/programme/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore_Mathematical_Olympiad,

[9] https://www.imo-official.org/results.aspx

[10] http://www.ri.edu.sg/#Page/RafflesProgram-36/

[11] http://www.programpermata.my/en/pintar/nobelist

[12] http://www.ri.edu.sg/#Page/Student-45/ for Raffles Institution; http://www.hci.edu.sg/advantage/future-after-hci/tertiary-education for Hwa Chong Institution; https://sites.google.com/a/vjc.sg/the-vjc-scholarships-guide/scholarship-programme-at-vjc for Victoria Junior College.

[13] https://www.crimsoneducation.org/au/blog/cambridge-acceptance-rates-schools

[14] http://www.programpermata.my/resources/download/RESEARCH-MENTORING-PROGRAM-2013.pdf

The Ministry of Education is guilty of gross incompetence in administering the 2015 PISA test

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang,  Tony Pua, MP for Petaling Jaya Utara and Zairil Khir Johari, MP for Bukit Bendera, on the 29th of March 2017

The Ministry of Education is guilty of gross incompetence in administering the 2015 PISA test

The poor performance of Malaysian students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, where Malaysia was ranked in the bottom third of all countries, was highlighted in the National Education Blueprint 2013 to 2025 (See Figure 1). Malaysia’s performance in the 2012 PISA test did not show significant improvement. Not surprisingly, there was much attention on the 2015 PISA test scores to see if the efforts of the Ministry of Education would be able to boost Malaysia’s performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science.

Figure 1: Comparison of Malaysia’s PISA 2009+ ranking and scores against other countries (selected)

Unfortunately, even though Malaysia’s scores for Reading, Mathematics and Science did show an increase from 2012 to 2015 (from 398 to 431 for Reading, from 421 to 446 in Mathematics, from 420 to 443 in Science), Malaysia was not included in the 2015 PISA ranking. According to the 2015 PISA report, “In Malaysia, the PISA assessment was conducted in accordance with the operational standards and guidelines of the OECD. However, the weighted response rate among the initially sampled Malaysian schools (51%) falls well short of the standard PISA response rate of 85%. Therefore, the results may not be comparable to those of other countries or to results for Malaysia from previous years”.[1]

In a parliamentary reply to MP Tony Pua, on the 22nd of March, 2017, the excuses given by the Ministry of Education for this low response include: (i) students were not used to answering the questions using computers resulting in their response not being recorded and (ii) technical problems such as damaged data and data which were lost during the taking of the test.

These excuses are unacceptable for the following reasons:

  • The Ministry of Education had at least 2 years, starting in 2013, to prepare for the 2015 PISA test.[2]
  • This is not the first time which Malaysia is going through the PISA process. In 2009, the response rate for the students selected was 99.3% and in 2012, it was 100.0%. How was it that in 2015, the response rate had dropped to 51%?
  • Before the release of the PISA report, the Ministry of Education had given assurances that both students and teachers had been adequately prepared for the taking and administering of the PISA tests.[3]

The admission of these technical failures shows that the Ministry of Education was grossly incompetent in administering the 2015 PISA tests. In doing so, it has put Malaysia in an embarrassing situation of not being featured in the PISA rankings.

The Ministry of Education should not be boasting about Malaysia’s improvement in its PISA scores since the PISA report has clearly stated that our 2015 scores cannot be compared to past PISA scores. Instead, it should issue a detailed report on why the sample of schools included in the PISA test and explain why the response rate of 85% was not reached. Deputy Education Minister, Chong Sin Woon, promised in December 2016 that such a detailed report would be released but till now, we have seen no such report.[4]

Figure 2: Reasons given on why Malaysia only managed a 51% response rate for the 2015 PISA test

Dr. Ong Kian Ming
Member of Parliament for Serdang

[1] PISA 2015 Results – Policies & Practices for Successful Schools Vol.II, pg. 261.

[2] http://english.astroawani.com/malaysia-news/malaysia-capable-improving-its-position-pisa-2015-26809

[3] http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/02/13/students-being-prepped-for-pisa-assessment/

[4] http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/report-on-malaysias-pisa-disqualification-underway

PTPTN deficits is a ticking time bomb that needs to be addressed before it explodes

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, General Manager of Penang Institute in KL, on the 21st of December 2016

Note: Some newspaper reports on my statements during a PTPTN forum on Monday, 19th of September have been misreported. The recommendation to revise the 1st class waivers for PTPTN loans only applies to students from middle and upper income families. As it clearly states in the full report, 1st class waivers for PTPTN loans for students from low income families should be maintained. In addition, there were many other recommendations that were proposed in the Penang Institute report such as putting in an income threshold of RM3500 per month before one has to repay his or her PTPTN loan that was not covered in many of the newspaper reports)

PTPTN deficits is a ticking time bomb that needs to be addressed before it explodes

Between 1997 and 2015, 2,464,937 loans with a value of approximately RM55.83 billion were approved for students pursuing their higher education studies in Malaysia. While it is undeniable that PTPTN has been an important factor in increasing access to higher education for many Malaysians, the financial hole which PTPTN finds itself in is very serious and will become even more serious moving forward.

According to the PTPTN Annual Reports from 2011 to 2015, the agency had been making profits from 2011 to 2015 (RM18m, RM12m, RM21m, RM109 and RM401m in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively). Though seemingly encouraging, these positive profits mask serious underlying financial problems. In reality, PTPTN was only able make these profits due to substantial annual government grants, totalling RM6.456 billion from 2011 to 2015. Without the injection of financial support from the government, PTPTN would have suffered losses totalling RM5.894 billion from 2011 to 2015. (See Table 1 and Figure 1 below)

The amount of government grants has almost doubled from RM915 million in 2011 to RM1.715 billion in 2015, mostly to cover the growing interest payments which PTPTN has to pay out to banks and the EPF for the money it has borrowed from them. To give a picture, interest servicing costs as a percentage of total expenses reached a high of 81.5% in 2011 before coming down to 75.5% in 2015. Interest servicing costs reached a high of RM1.519 billion in 2015 (Figure 2 below).

Penang Institute is proposing 9 recommendations to address the financial problems faced by PTPTN.

(i)               Conduct a comprehensive survey of PTPTN loan holders to accurately identify the reasons for the low repayment rate

This survey, which would be carried out by an independent survey firm, would collect data on the financial patterns of fresh graduates, such as the distribution of starting salaries, the type of jobs held vis-à-vis qualifications, other loan obligations besides PTPTN, daily and monthly expenses such as rent and other types of expenditure. The 2015 survey commissioned by PTPTN involved a very small sample of 200 respondents and did not include crucial information such as starting salary, type of course and the type of the IPTA or IPTS.

With more concrete data, PTPTN would be better-placed to introduce new policies such as income contingent loan repayments, variable interest rates and means tested loans (see below). Going a step further, the Ministry of Higher Education would be able to evaluate important trends such as completion rates in individual colleges and universities, as well as starting salaries of fresh graduates by course and individual colleges and universities. Overall, this would help in better planning for the higher education needs of the country moving forward.

(ii)              Loan repayments should be contingent upon income

To ensure that low income earners are not excessively burdened by PTPTN loan repayments, graduates should have the option of repaying their PTPTN loans only if their monthly income exceeds a minimum amount, at say RM3500.[1] On top of this, monthly payment instalments could be capped at a percentage of borrower’s income, say 10%. (Those who earn below this income threshold but who want to start repaying their loans should be allowed to do so).

(iii)            Removing / Reducing Interest Rate Subsidies

Currently, PTPTN charges a 1% annual interest rate on its loans under the Ujrah repayment scheme. This is far below the 4% interest rate on government housing loans borne by civil servants. The interest rate subsidy on PTPTN loans should be reduced or removed completely. Coupled with the income contingent payment, this would make PTPTN loan repayments more equitable as even if the loan holder is charged a higher interest rate, he or she would only need to start repaying once above a certain threshold income. Such policies are already in practice in the UK, where student loan holders are charged differential interest depending on income level.

(iv)            Automatic deduction of PTPTN loan repayments

In order to increase loan repayment rates, repayment should be automatically deducted from the salaries of those graduates who are already eligible to service their loans.  This mechanism is already in place for EPF and SOCSO contributions. It is also a common practice in countries like Australia where automatic deduction amounts are adjusted according to the amount of salary earned.

(v)              Means testing PTPTN loans

Currently, the amount of money that an individual can borrow from PTPTN is contingent on his or her family income. For example, a student from a family with household income exceeding RM800 a month would be able to borrow up to 50% of the maximum loan amount. But this is still not proper means testing. Students with parents earning over RM20,000 a month, for example, would still be eligible for a PTPTN loan. PTPTN loans should be properly means tested so that those above a certain monthly income threshold e.g. RM10,000 should not be eligible to take out a loan.

(vi)            Reducing / Removing 1st class honours waivers and discounts for PTPTN loans

1st class honours waivers have cost PTPTN over RM600 million since its inception, while the 10% / 20% discounts on early loan repayment have incurred a further RM300 million. The loan discount is a problematic policy since it benefits the well-off who have the financial ability either to pay off their children’s loans in one shot (20%) or regularly service their loans (10%). The 1st class honours waiver is also problematic since students from middle and high income families are disproportionately represented among 1st class honours holders. To increase its effectiveness, these policies should be revised. For example, the 1st class honours waiver should only be applicable to students from low-income families.

(vii)           Increasing the maximum loan period

Current PTPTN policy dictates that a loan must be repaid within 5 to 15 years. Extending the length of the loan period beyond 15 years would allow struggling loan holders to reduce their monthly repayment obligations and so ease their financial burdens.

(viii)          Shifting some of the loan burden to the private sector

Rather than relying totally on PTPTN to provide student loans, the government should shift part of the burden to the private sector. On its part, the government can provide loan guarantees similar to the My First Home financing scheme for first time homebuyers, whereby 10% of the total loan amount is guaranteed by CAGAMAS.[2]

(ix)             Consider a larger reform of the higher education sector

While the paper has focused directly on PTPTN, the government’s strategic plans concerning higher education also have a significant impact on the agency’s financial position. For example, the government envisions a rapid expansion in the number of students in IPTS but it has given little thought as to how these students will fund themselves, and the likely impact of this increase on demand for PTPTN loans. An attempt to address PTPTN’s underlying problems should incorporate a fundamental review of the current Higher Education Blueprint, including re-examining the balance between IPTA and IPTS students, their respective funding models and assessing the quality of these higher education institutions.

Will these measures be sufficient to address PTPTN’s woes? One cannot say for sure but if nothing is done, then PTPTN’s balance sheet will continue to be a ticking time bomb that is just waiting to explode.

Dr. Ong Kian Ming
General Manager of
Penang Institute in KL

(The full report and presentation are available on the website of Penang Institute.)

[1] http://penangmonthly.com/tag/ptptn/

[2] http://www.srp.com.my/docs/html/faq.html