Intense debate on MRSM’s private wing proposal

A PROPOSAL to float a private wing of the Mara (Majlis Amanah Rakyat) Junior Science College, better known by its Malay acronym of MRSM, has received mixed responses. 

Last week, newly appointed Mara chairman Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki shared the idea of Mara possibly establishing the private wing for fee-paying children of wealthier parents. 

By right, the rich kids are not supposed to get a place at MRSM. The existing MRSM schools, numbering 55 nationwide, are supposed to cater to Bumiputera children coming from poor families. Education is their ticket out of poverty, and possibly a chance to excel in life and uplift an entire family. 

MRSM, which stands for Maktab Rendah Sains Mara, is a high-demand boarding school. For the 7,000-odd spots for the 2023/2024 academic calendar year, more than 90,000 applied. That’s 12.5 applicants for each seat at the popular boarding school famed for its talented teachers. 

Apparently, some MRSM alumni parents, who no longer sit in the lower brackets on earning count, want to send their children to these schools. And they are willing to pay for it. 

In one of his first engagements with the team at Mara, Asyraf Wajdi had raised the MRSM private wing suggestion. It’s a venture that can be parked under Mara Corp, the investment arm of the statutory body, without impacting or compromising the existing MRSM colleges, he had shared on his social media page. 

A few days later, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was questioned about the idea in Parliament. In response, he said the suggestion will not involve any government funding. Just as with Asyraf Wajdi’s Facebook page, Ahmad Zahid’s social media account was deluged with comments of all shades. 

First, let’s deal with the brickbats. 

A good number of them are laced with politics. Asyraf Wajdi is first and foremost an Umno politician. He comes from a family steeped in politics. His father, Datuk Dusuki Ahmad, was MP for Tumpat and the political secretary to former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2000. In January, Umno made him the chairman of its newly formed Ulama Council. 

Umno president Ahmad Zahid has recently appointed Asyraf Wajdi as the party’s secretary general. Earlier, he served as Umno Youth chief from June 2018 to March 2023. So, you can take some of the criticism as political salvos in ongoing intra-party turf battles, as well as those between Umno and arch-rivals like Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PAS. 

Aside from the battle of supremacy among the Malay political parties, there is also the issue of whether Pakatan Harapan (PH) should have appointed an active politician to chair a government body. Now, that’s a debate in itself. But the political realities of the current coalition that makes up the federal government may limit the manoeuvring room of PM Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. 

Then there are those who want to see Mara sticking to its core purpose. Mara is the successor to the Rural and Industrial Development Authority, whose original aim was to promote Bumiputera participation in the economy by setting up rural or cottage industry. This statutory agency was formed to aid, train and guide Bumiputera in the areas of business and industry. 

On the education front, MRSM is one of its success stories. It began with MRSM Seremban, which opened its doors in 1972. The objective was to provide opportunity to majority students in suburban and rural areas a more conducive studying environment to propel them to achieve excellence in national examinations like the Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP) or the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM). 

Hence, some of the critics want MARA to have a laser-sharp focus on the existing MRSM schools, and not get possibly distracted by something like a private wing. 

To be fair, education is not something alien to MARA. Aside from MRSM, also under its wings is the University Teknikal Mara Sdn Bhd, which runs UniKL. The university claims to have 20,000 students and 55,000 graduates. 

So, Mara has dabbled in education all these years. Seen in that light, a potential MRSM private wing falls within the core areas of its responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, some may still quibble on the implementation of the project. This is a source for worry for many as Mara in the recent past has not been the shining beacon for good governance. Will the construction of the schools be done via open tenders or handed on a platter to companies connected to politicians? 

Here, Mara needs to step up and regain the trust of the people. Even if it’s a private venture, the losses may somehow creep into the national coffers, as seen in many past deals by government agencies. 

On this, Asyraf Wajdi recently announced two new appointments to Mara’s council, partly to enhance governance at the outfit. They are Bank Negara Malaysia former governor Tan Sri Muhammad Ibra- him and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) former VC Prof Tan Sri Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali. 

The private wing may also solve another growing problem. Casual observation tells you that a good number of MRSM students come from well-to-do families. 

“I have T20 (top 20% income group) friends and their children are in MRSM,” one lawyer friend told me. “Just drop by the MRSM on the weekend and check out the cars that come to visit the students.” 

So, a private wing may absorb the children of the wealthier families, and free up more space for kids from the poorer families who truly deserve to be at MRSM. 

If they decide to proceed with the idea, Asyraf Wajdi and the team will have to put in place some iron-clad conditions to avoid the proposed MRSM private wing from turning into another misadventure. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor at The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition