THE Unified Examinations Certificate (UEC) has become a hot topic of discussion after Sarawak's Chief Minister remarked that the Federal Government was "stupid" for not recognising this qualification that has won global acceptance.
On Nov 4, Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem hit out at Putrajaya's policy of not recognising the UEC, saying this had led to a brain drain of educated Chinese and an exodus of talent to countries that recognise the qualification.
The UEC is a standardised examination conducted by leading Chinese education group Dong Zong (United School Committees Associations of Malaysia) in the country's 60 Chinese secondary schools. In the 1960s, these schools were privatised after they chose to retain Mandarin as their medium of instruction.
Largely funded by donations from the Chinese community, these 60 schools have been providing affordable education to students, charging them monthly fees ranging from RM60 (S$19) to RM300.
To ensure students can enter local public universities if they want to, many schools compel students to sit for both the national SPM examination and the UEC exam. Some even hold STPM classes. Among those known for academic excellence are Foon Yew High School, Chung Hwa High School and Kuan Cheng High School.
Putrajaya has said it does not recognise the UEC as Chinese secondary schools do not follow the national education curriculum and students lack proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia. But many Chinese educationists see this denial as a political strategy to discourage Chinese education in Malaysia.
With Sarawak's endorsement of the UEC, the urge to get Federal recognition is ignited again, particularly after Sabah, Selangor, and Penang state governments have said they will follow suit.
Adenan, who is leading Barisan Nasional in Sarawak to contest in the up-coming state election, went a step further when he directed the state-owned Yayasan Sarawak to provide education loans or scholarships to UEC holders.
"I don't care what the Federal Government does but I think it's stupid. I'm prepared to stand up for it," Adenan was quoted as saying. "Other countries would pinch them. What a waste. How could we deny these people opportunities (in Malaysia)?"
He noted that Sarawak would lose talent to countries such as Singapore and Taiwan, which recognise the UEC.
Taiwan has an official policy of allocating a certain quota for Chinese students from Malaysia, and Singapore has been aggressively recruiting top UEC holders into its public universities, including the world-class National University of Singapore. Officials from Singapore visit the large Chinese secondary schools here after the UEC results are out to offer scholarships to outstanding students and place them under a bond.
National Taiwan University, a leading state-owned institution of Taiwan, has accepted 26 Malaysians this year, says its local alumni association.
Indeed, foreign recognition goes beyond Taiwan and Singapore. The other countries with universities that endorse this qualification include Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.
Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia, says refusal to recognise the UEC defies logic as the vision of Malaysia is to become a regional education hub.
"There is no reason to usher a lot of foreign students into our universities while rejecting our own students and forcing them to leave our shores for universities overseas," Pheng says.
The fact that many universities around the world accept the UEC shows that its standard is high enough for most entry requirements, contend Chinese educationists.
Comparing text books printed by Dong Zong and those printed for the government syllabus, the UEC's standard is definitely higher than SPM, particularly in Science, Mathematics, and English.
For instance, second year students in Chinese secondary schools are already learning some Science topics found in the Form Four syllabus of government schools.
This explains why many students at Senior 2 (fifth year in a Chinese secondary school) can score strings of As when they sit for the SPM.
While Chinese secondary schools are known to have devoted teachers committed to nurturing elites, they also have vocational courses to cater for weaker students. This is seen in Confucius High School in Kuala Lumpur.
In general, many Chinese send their children to Chinese secondary schools because of their love for Chinese education and their trust that the system inculcates good values such as filial piety, respect for elders, integrity, discipline and diligence.
With the emergence of China as the world's second largest economy, there is one more compelling reason for parents to opt for Chinese secondary schools.
With China's growing influence in the world, the Chinese language could become an international language in the future, just as its currency, the renminbi, is evolving into an international currency and a currency of reserve for its major trading partners.
While debating the UEC's recognition, there is also an inevitable discussion of the contribution of the Chinese-educated to nation building.
The Dong Zong contends that in supporting the 60 secondary schools every year, the Chinese community and educationists have helped the Government to save hundreds of millions annually.
It notes that the 60 schools have also nurtured countless talents for the country in various fields for decades.
"The Chinese-educated have contributed a lot to nation building, particularly in the realm of commerce and economy," says Mew Jin Seng, president of the Nanyang University Alumni Association of Malaya.
"The Chinese-educated have played an important role in leading the development of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs), whose total output now accounts for 36 per cent of Malaysia's GDP while creating 90 per cent of the country's jobs.
"Many graduates with non-recognised degrees from Nanyang University (in Singapore) and Taiwan universities were jobless in the 1960s and 1970s. So they entered the field of business and set up SMEs. This is why SMEs are dominated by ethnic Chinese today," says Mew.
Indeed, the Chinese-educated - including former MCA deputy president Tan Sri Michael Chen - also helped Malaysia establish bilateral ties with China in 1974.
Bilateral trade with China has exceeded US$100bil (RM435bil) since 2013, rising from US$500mil (S$712 million) in 1974 - and pioneers of China trades in the 1960s can claim credit for laying the foundation. These include the current leaders of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce led by Datuk Bong Hong Liong, a graduate of Singapore's Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Taiwan returnees have also played a role. When Malaysia was facing the recessions of 1987 and 1997-1998, graduates of Taiwan universities along with Datuk Ng Peng Hay, a now retired MCA leader, joined hands to woo Taiwanese investors.
Mainly buoyed by billions of investments from Taiwan, Malaysia posted a high annual GDP growth of 9 per cent to 10 per cent for most years in the 1990s until it was hit by the 1997/1998 financial crisis.
Indeed, with global acceptance of the UEC and the sterling performances of many Chinese graduates, it is obvious that the value of the UEC does not depend on the Malaysian Government's recognition.
The graduates of Chinese schools and universities today can find jobs easily in the private sector due to their training and trilingual skills. For those who have gained entry into world-class universities, there is no shortage of scholarships for them.
And within Malaysia, most private colleges and universities accept the UEC. With their language advantage, these graduates can then venture into China to seek opportunities in the world's largest market.
Still, Dong Zong's president Temenggong Datuk Vincent Lau Lee Ming says the movement will not give up demanding for government recognition.
"It is the aspiration of the Chinese community to see the UEC getting government recognition after struggling for the past 40 years," he says.
A major advantage after getting local recognition is that students who are financially disadvantaged can gain direct entry into public universities where tuition fees are much lower than those of private institutions. It would also be easier to apply for government loans and scholarships.
In addition, with a government-recognised UEC, holders of the certificate can apply to become civil servants in the public sector.
Dong Zong's unwavering stand is supported by the MCA. But MCA Youth leader and Deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon has urged the Chinese community to be patient and stay hopeful.
He told the Chinese media last week: "The status of the UEC has been lifted substantially. There have been positive signs in recent years. For example, the Education Ministry had in 2012 started a special teachers' training course for UEC holders who subsequently joined the civil service.
"Getting recognition is a very long road. This issue has been around for a long time, so a solution cannot be hammered out overnight. But we in the MCA will continue to try. The recognition of the UEC by Sarawak is a good start."
Top universities accept the UEC
More than 800 universities in the world open their doors to UEC students (as long as their academic results meet the entry requirements), according to the latest compilation by the Dong Zong (United School Committees Associations of Malaysia).
Among the top-ranking institutions that recognise the senior UEC are the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Oxford University, University of Cambridge, University of Toronto, University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore, University of Hong Kong, University of Melbourne, Peking University and Kyoto University.
"Based on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings Top 200 of 2014, more than 70 of these world-class universities have accepted the enrolment of UEC graduates to pursue tertiary education in their universities," says Dong Zong in an internal report on "Access to Higher Education with UEC Qualification", made available to Sunday Star.
The United Examinations Certificate (UEC) is a standardised examination conducted by the Dong Zong in the country's 60 Chinese independent secondary schools. After studying for three years, students will sit for the junior UEC exam, and after six years, they will sit for the senior UEC exam.
In another report on the whereabouts of senior UEC leavers after they sat for their examination in 2013, the Dong Zong report says that out of 8,088 Chinese secondary school graduates, a total of 6,235 students, or 77.16 per cent, chose to pursue further studies.
Among those seeking higher education, 3,017, or 48.39 per cent, enrolled in local colleges and universities while 2,895, or 46.43 per cent, went to universities overseas.
Within Malaysia, most UEC students are in private institutions and branch campuses of foreign universities.
Only two UEC graduates managed to get into local public universities.
Among foreign countries, Taiwan took in the largest number of UEC students with Singapore ranking second.
The other favourite destinations of the 2013 batch were Australia, Britain, and China.
The Dong Zong says this report tracing UEC students is the outcome of a survey carried out from June to November 2015.