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Mar 4, 2008

Abdullah Badawi Should Sack Hishammuddin Hussein


As Education Minister, you would expect Hishammuddin Hussein to know how much we spend on education, and what his government's official attitude is towards that spending. Earlier today, Hishammuddin declared that free education, promised by both the Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat in their manifestos, was impossible to achieve because of the extravagant costs we would incur. You would assume Hisham knows what he's talking about. (Ignoring, of course, his fanciful grasp of economics as demonstrated by his famous keris brandishing to defend the failed New Economic Policy.)

Unfortunately, Hisham has no idea what he's talking about. He apparently did not even bother to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate the real cost of making education free. More importantly, he apparently is so removed from reality that he thought he could actually get away with blatantly lying about the government's policy.

Hisham cited a recent increase of RM280 million alone in tuition allowances for teachers as one example of prohibitive costs. He said that we would spend hundreds of millions to achieve free education. These numbers are supposed to frighten us, but they do little more than make me think the London School of Economics should revoke his Master's degree for his mathematical illiteracy.

Let's do those calculations he neglected to carry out. First, kindergarten, primary and secondary education. This generally encompasses children aged 5-19 years old — let's be generous and assume everyone has two years of pre-school, and two years of form six. Now Malaysia has a population of about 30 million, rounding up. Assume each age bracket of one year has one percent of the population (a somewhat generous assumption, I think, since this would assume there are a lot of one hundred-year old Malaysians — probably more than those listed on the electoral rolls). Let's say 15% of the Malaysian population is presently attending pre-, primary, or secondary school. That works out to 4.5 million school-goers.

What about tertiary education? A bachelor's degree usually takes about 3 to 4 years to complete, but not everyone goes on to university, and not everyone attends a public university. Let's be generous and assume 2% of the population is presently attending a public university. That works out to 600,000 university students who get their education at public expense.

Let us assume that school fees are about RM500 per year, including uniforms and miscellaneous expenses. Everything else is already covered by the government. Let us also assume that one public university student currently has to pay RM10,000 in fees per year, which strikes me as extremely exorbitant, considering that the average undergraduate at Universiti Malaya pays less than RM2,000 per year, and the average PhD candidate pays RM5,800 a year.

So, doing the basic arithmetic, we arrive at an additional cost of RM2.25 billion for all pre-, primary and secondary education. For university education, we obtain an additional cost of RM6 billion. Let's round it down and say we're going to have to allocate an additional RM8 billion to education if we are to make education completely free.

Hisham comes off as rather mathematically illiterate, doesn't he? "Hundreds of millions", my foot. We would have to spend billions of ringgit to achieve free education! Is the opposition crazy? Who is more incompetent, the government or the opposition?

Well, the other thing Hisham has neglected to mention is our educational budget. Try guessing how much the latest budget allocated to education. RM42 billion — RM30 billion to Hisham's ministry, and another RM12 billion to the Higher Education Ministry. The Prime Minister's budget speech is publicly available on the Treasury website if you doubt these numbers.

What kind of idiot is Hisham, nitpicking over a stray hundred million here and a stray hundred million there? The bugger has RM30 billion to spend in his ministry alone, and he'd only have to spend an extra RM2 billion to cover all the costs parents already incur in sending their children to school!

What would be of greater concern is that we'd have to increase our higher education expenditure by about 50%. This is worrying, but bear in mind that my estimates are based on grossly exaggerated figures, to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

There are also a lot of ways to cut costs. The Education and Higher Education Ministries, for instance, could stop granting monopolies on the supply of materials such as textbooks, laboratory equipment, etc. to schools and universities. They could stop the process of closed tenders and open construction and maintenance projects to the free market, letting the best bidder win. These would easily cut costs — Hisham might not have to spend any extra to achieve free primary and secondary education, while the Higher Education Ministry might have to spend only an extra 25%, or even less.

Hisham's mathematical and administrative incompetence clearly in plain sight, we are not quite done yet. There is one other detail in the 2008 budget worth mentioning. One main goal mentioned in the Prime Minister's budget speech, given its own heading in the official Treasury transcript is, and I quote: "Free Education For All".

Let's try to remember the last time a member of the Cabinet publicly opposed government policy. Only a handful of cases come to mind. Lim Keng Yaik has said quite a few things about Bangsa Malaysia that were controversial, but they can easily be construed as part of the government's policy. Maximus Ongkili opposed the use of guns in National Service. I cannot really think of many others.

What about cases where the Ministers concerned were actually punished? Ah, now things become a bit clearer. Didn't a bunch of Ministers get in trouble for submitting a memorandum to the Prime Minister expressing concern about religious freedom? As I recall it, they didn't even criticise government policy. They just expressed concern that the policy was not being implemented properly. They got reprimanded.

Perhaps the most memorable case is actually that of Deputy Minister S. Sothinathan, who, in a debate about the government recognition of degrees from the Crimea State Medical University, openly said it was a bad idea and unjust. For that, he got suspended. How now, Hisham?

Hisham has basically said "We should not implement the opposition's proposal, even though the Prime Minister himself supports it, and laid out an actual plan to move towards free education for all in the 2008 budget. This is completely impractical and stupid." Can anyone tell me why Abdullah Badawi should not sack this incompetent Minister, who apparently lacks the sense to do even a few simple calculations, or know his own Prime Minister's initiatives before he opens his mouth?

Frighteningly, there are few men in Barisan Nasional more educated or supposedly intelligent than Hishammuddin. Not many people can lay claim to a degree from the London School of Economics. The Prime Minister himself has nothing more than a degree from Universiti Malaya, and the Deputy Prime Minister a degree from the University of Nottingham. If a man as educated and intelligent as Hishammuddin can say such things, it only indicates that being part of BN forces you to become dumb.

It is one thing to hear stupid ideas from men with relatively poor backgrounds; the kind of sexism and racism many of our MPs espouse is inexcusable, but not that out of proportion with the kind of backgrounds they come from. But Hishammuddin grew up in an educated, elite family — his father was the Prime Minister, for Pete's sake. He attended one of the best universities in the world for his postgraduate studies. He ought to know better. That he can say such transparently wrong things on the stump only proves the immense rot that is in our country, courtesy of the Barisan Nasional government.

There is naturally room to debate whether we should make education free. I personally wonder if making tertiary education completely free is the right route to take. But regardless of what the actual case may be, we must make informed decisions based on sound reasoning and well-founded facts. Hishamuddin Hussein's complete failure to command even the most basic of facts pertaining to government spending and official policy make it completely clear that he must go as Education Minister.


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