Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Concerned about the oversupply of doctors and housemen (junior doctors) in the country, the Malaysian government has recently imposed a five-year moratorium on medical courses.

According to the Malaysian Medical Council, Malaysia has 27,709 doctors (including 3,651 house officers). Malaysia is producing about 3,500-5000 medical graduates annually, a big figure for a country with a population of 27 million.

This is largely because of the sharp increase in the number of medical schools operating in the country. A few years ago, there were less than 10 schools offering medical programmes. Today, in contrast, there are 24 medical colleges: 10 public universities, 12 local private providers, and two foreign medical schools. Students are also allowed to study in about 50 accredited foreign universities.

The oversupply of doctors and housemen is obvious in the country’s 39 training hospitals, while in many urban hospitals, there are actually more doctors than patients.

The government hopes that the moratorium on medical courses will help Malaysia achieve a doctor to patient ratio of 1:400 by 2020, which is considered the benchmark for a developed nation. Doing so will be crucial if Malaysia is to its achieve goal of being a major medical hub in the region in the next decade.

But reducing the number of medical graduates is also a policy reform aimed at improving the quality of health care service within the country. After all, it has been noted by health authorities—and the general public—that the quality of new doctors has gradually been decreasing over the years. Hospital officials are complaining that the new batches of housemen, especially graduates from foreign schools, seem to be poorly trained.

There’s no question about the need to improve the quality of doctors, but is the moratorium an appropriate policy tool? Perhaps the government should also review the license granted to local and foreign schools in recent years—many of these institutions are churning out half-baked and underperforming graduates.

The government should also consider other proposals from the medical community. For example, senior health specialists are pushing for amendment of the Medical Act of 1971 to make the Medical Qualifying Examination compulsory for all students. The examination is only given to students from non-accredited foreign medical schools.

And it’s also necessary to probe the continuing brain drain of doctors in public hospitals. Despite the overcrowding of doctors in most private hospitals, several public hospitals are suffering from a shortage of qualified medical personnel. The government should therefore try to convince doctors to remain in government service.

Malaysia’s bold decision to introduce a moratorium on medical education (it also imposed a moratorium on nursing education in 2006) should inspire other countries in the region, most notably the Philippines, to review their medical education programmes. Malaysian educators proposed the moratorium precisely to avoid the mistake of the Philippines which is mass-producing doctors and nurses even if when the domestic demand couldn’t absorb the new graduates.

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore ‘Insults’ Neighbours

WikiLeaks can be an entertaining website, what with all the revelations over what US diplomats are saying about the leaders of the countries where they’re stationed. And the gossip-like reports tend to be credible because the sources are typically top local government officials. Or at least this is the case with Singapore.

If we’re to believe the leaked secret cables on WikiLeaks, it seems Singaporean officials don’t think highly of their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region. Otherwise, why would they describe the leaders of their neighbours as opportunists, sodomists, and corrupt?

First, there’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who allegedly described North Koreans as ‘psychopathic types’ ruled by a ‘flabby old chap who prances around stadiums seeking adulation.’

Then, it was reported last Sunday that Ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs and Permanent Secretary Peter Ho told a US official in March 2008 that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is an opportunist. Another MFA permanent secretary, Bilahari Kausikan, reportedly told US Deputy Secretary of Defence for South-east Asia David Sedney the same year that ousted Thailand leader Thaksin Shinawatra is ‘corrupt’, along with ‘everyone else, including the opposition.’

Singaporean intelligence officials also allegedly told the Australian government that Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is indeed guilty of sodomy in the case that he has been charged in. They apparently reached this conclusion based on intercepted ‘technical intelligence’ from Malaysia.

Another senior diplomat, Tommy Koh, described Japan as ‘the big fat loser’ as China’s relationship with ASEAN continues to improve. He blamed Japan’s ‘stupidity, bad leadership, and lack of vision.’ As if that wasn’t insulting enough, he called India ‘stupid’ for being ‘half-in, half-out’ of ASEAN.

Will Singapore still have any friends once WikiLeaks is done exposing everything that its officials are saying to the Americans about the ‘inconvenient truths’ of its neighbours?

Singapore leaders are for their part unfazed over the revelations, dismissing some of the remarks recounted as mere ‘cocktail talk.’ Aside from asserting that it enjoys good relations with the ‘insulted’ countries mentioned, the Singaporean government reminded the public that the embarrassing words attributed to its senior diplomats were taken out of context.

This may be true, and it’s wise to remember that the reports aren’t always based on solid facts. But whether or not the information it provides is reliable, WikiLeaks has given us a clear idea about the topics usually discussed by grumpy old diplomats during cocktail parties in government palaces. In particular, it seems the views of Singaporean politicians are the most solicited, and perhaps even most trusted, of the United States when it’s seeking insight into matters concerning the Asia-Pacific.

But, thanks to WikiLeaks, Singaporean diplomats are now working overtime to reaffirm ties with offended neighbours and appease the bruised egos of politicians in the region. Just this week, the Malaysian government summoned the Singaporean ambassador to explain the unflattering remarks.

Many Malaysian citizens might shrug at the ‘opportunist’ tag given their prime minister as many feel it’s not without some grounds. But they may be worried about the reported intercepted ‘technical intelligence’ used by the Singaporean government to conclude that Anwar is guilty as charged. They are right to demand that this matter be investigated further to establish how Singapore accessed the ‘intelligence.’

WikiLeaks may be guilty of assisting in the spread of unfounded rumours and scathing comments, but it remains a key website for promoting transparency in governance. In the case of Singapore and nearby countries, WikiLeaks is pushing governments and the public to start a conversation on accountability, open access to information, and even national security.

Written for The Diplomat

Related articles:

Mahathir versus Lee
Exporting doctors and nurses

Leave a Reply