It is fitting that US President Obama’s critique of Malaysia’s racial and religious discrimination took place on Sunday at a university. The Universiti of Malaya, which hosted the President at a townhall meeting for students from the Youth South Asian Leaders’ Initative, offers few spaces for non-Muslim students and is a clear example of the nation’s unequal policies. Yet Malaysia will need more than Obama’s inspiring words to reshape a higher education system in which students’ enrollment is determined by their ethnicity.
Malaysia has an official policy of multiculturalism, established at its founding in 1957 and granting citizenship to the ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indians groups alike. But pro-Muslim, Malay leaders have held power for several years limiting the position of non-Muslim citizens. The result of these polices for Malaysia’s higher education is a system that is starkly divided along ethnic lines. At the same time, Malaysia is increasing as a destination country for international students and foreign programs.
The system is complex and diverse. At the publically-funded universities such as the Universiti Malaya, quotas limit how many non-Malay, non-Muslims are enrolled. Though these policies are designed to provide access to low-income Malays, in reality they alienate the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities. In the 1980’s the growing Chinese middle class responded by establishing their own successful, private universities. Institutions like the Universiti Malaya are directly linked to Chinese cultural and lobby groups. Others like HELP University have entered into franchise or twinning agreements with overseas universities to offer an extensive range of degrees.
Though Malaysia’s public universities have restricted access for all citizens, the government has intentionally developed policies to encourage cross-border education by promoting branch-campuses and twinning programs. Institutions like Nottingham University have established full campuses in Malaysia, drawing students from the all ethnic backgrounds. Many of country’s best students – barred from the federal universities – and skeptical of the local start-ups – head to international programs run by UK and Australian schools.
For the past two decades, this unique mix of private, local and international programs has filled the gap created by the governments’ ethnic quotas. Indeed the private system is so established, that the public universities have become marginalized and are less prestigious for students to attend. Malaysia’s public universities would benefit from Obama’s advice. In their case, changing the admissions policies is less about educating marginalized individuals and more about the quality of the institutions. By excluding top students, the federal universities have decreased their reputation. Rather they may wish to enroll students based on merit to reposition themselves as prestigious universities, while supplementing the at-risk populations with scholarships and accessible tuition.