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Moves by the Malaysian government to continue with a controversial affirmative action policy for its preuniversity program have reignited a debate over the fairest ways of admitting students to higher education.

The education minister, Maszlee Malik, announced last month that the number of places on the government matriculation, or preuniversity, program would increase by 60 percent to 40,000, but 90 percent of these places would still be reserved for bumiputeras, or the indigenous Malay population. The remaining 10 percent of places are open to non-bumiputeras, predominantly Chinese and Indian minorities, who tend to perform better academically.

The matriculation program was introduced in 1998 to create more opportunities for the Malay majority to enter higher education. The race-based quota was launched in 2003.

However, there have long been calls for the government to abolish the policy, with critics highlighting that it is discriminatory and does not target the most disadvantaged students.

Students are able to take an alternative national preuniversity program, known as the Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM), which is open to all Malaysians. However, the matriculation program is an easier and faster route to university. Meanwhile, preuniversity programs at private colleges are expensive.

There are concerns that the recent government announcement will reduce STPM graduates’ chances of entering higher education if the total number of places in public universities remains the same.

Peter Chang Thiam Chai, deputy vice chancellor (research and innovation) at the University of Malaya, said that while “Malay representation must be protected, the 90-10 formula has had serious fallout.”

“It has severely alienated the minorities and adversely impacted Malaysia’s public university academic standards,” he said.

“The need for affirmative action, and the delicate balancing act required, was vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Malaysia’s racialized politics, and the new Harapan government has not found of a way out of this dilemma.”

Koh Sin Yee, senior lecturer in global studies at Monash University Malaysia, said that the quota meant that the matriculation program “doesn’t offer the same degree of opportunity to all who … are underprivileged,” adding that the policy “does not seem to be clearly needs based nor merit based.”

“Increasing the placement numbers but keeping the 90-10 quota could result in a larger number of bumiputera students opting for matriculation rather than STPM,” she said.

“In the long run, this could result in two issues: first, higher numbers of bumiputera matriculation graduates who may not be sufficiently equipped or prepared for university education, and second, higher numbers of bumiputeras entering the work force at least a year earlier than their non-bumiputera counterparts. There seem to be compounded issues further down the line that have not been addressed.”

Lee Hwok-Aun, senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that “the rigor, breadth and quality of matriculation programs must be raised” and that the system must eventually “settle on one common entry qualification, in place of the current unequal alternatives.”

“The stark and complicated reality is that bumiputeras depend on the matriculation system, and any abrupt change to the quota, or even dismantling of this parallel preuniversity channel, is untenable socially and politically,” he said.

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