SINGAPORE — When some 600 ethnic Chinese students who passed a string of examinations with distinction failed to gain admission to public universities in Malaysia recently, a controversy erupted in the media over a major flaw in university entrance criteria.

Whatever explanations the authorities dished out in defense of what they regard as a complex selection system based on racial quotas, they had no satisfactory answers as to why the students who scored the maximum 10 rating were rejected by 14 universities.

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