Malaysia's education: Can It Get Worse? - Part 1 My 2 Cents View

MalaysiaLast updated on 10/08/2014
By - Lim Teck Ghee

OPINION: In the past few months, we have had a stream of negative news focusing on our educational institutions and system. The latest, relating to the forced dismissal of a university academic from his position as director of a research centre in Universiti Malaya, has led to Tun Musa Hitam lending his voice to the demand by many quarters for the Education Ministry to investigate the allegation of political interference in the running of the university and to clarify the matter to the public.

According to the former deputy prime minister, the government should not be defensive and “bash” those who criticise it, nor should it keep silent over these accusations.

What is happening in the nation’s ivory tower is the tip of the Malaysian educational iceberg that has been making its way towards disaster for a long time now. Consider these facts which come from the government commissioned National Education Blueprint (Preliminary report, Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, pp, E4-E5):

Malaysia was ranked in the bottom third of 74 participating countries of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 ; 60% of the 15-year-old Malaysian students who participated in PISA failed to meet the minimum proficiency level in Mathematics, while 44% and 43% did not meet the minimum proficiency levels in Reading and Science respectively; A comparison of scores shows that 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai are performing as though they have had three or more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia; Low achievement standards in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study): far behind first tier; now comparable to countries such as Indonesia; and By 2007 (last published cycle) 18% and 20% of our students failed to meet the minimum proficiency standards in Maths and Science, respectively.

Since that report, the situation has got worse. According to the latest TIMSS survey, Malaysia recorded the worst drop among all countries between 1999 and 2012 for the two critical subjects of Maths and Science. Our latest reading achievement scores from PISA also shows us near the bottom of the international test scores.

Not only are the gaps between Malaysia and other countries in our region growing, but these international assessments show that Malaysian student performance as measured by reading and science scores has declined in absolute terms between 2009 and 2012. In plain language, our student standards are getting worse, not better, even if we do not compare them with their counterparts from other countries.

But even before these international test results were widely disseminat­ed, it has been common knowledge among perceptive Malaysians that the present government has undermined our educational system and put us back at least one generation in our standards through politicisation of the educational system and use of it as a political and racial football.

When the country became independent in 1957 our educational system was acknowledged to be amongst the best in the region. Today we are scraping the bottom of the barrel in our standards of educational achievement at all levels. Whether it is in primary, secondary or tertiary education, the decline is clear.

Half-literate primary school products that cannot write or speak properly in either English or Bahasa and drop out early; secondary school students with abysmal standards in Mathematics, Science and other core subjects; tertiary-level students who are provided with university degrees but in fact are unemployable even after retraining.

Hand in hand with the falling standards was the great cover-up to conceal from the public the truth of our declining educational standards. The cover-up operated in at least three ways.

One way was to throw money into the system so as to convince the public that the government was serious about its commitment to education. Every year for the past 57 years the Education Ministry’s budget has been growing. As early as 1980, government spending on primary and secondary education as a percentage of GDP was already the highest in East Asia.

In 2011, the amount spent at 3.8% of GDP or 16% of total government spending was not only higher than the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) average of 3.4% of GDP and 8.7% of total public spending respectively; it was also at par with or more than top performing systems such as Singapore, Japan and Korea.

In 2012 with an education budget of RM50.2 billion the government has continued to devote the largest proportion of its budget – 21.7% – to the Education Ministry. Why did this massive investment fail to produce results? Part of the answer is that a disproportionately large quantum of resources was deployed towards an elite group of Mara schools and NEP-related projects catering for a small minority of students, mostly coming from already privileged backgrounds.

The second way was the manipulation of standards. We are well aware that it is difficult for the government to massage the results of international surveys. Not so with locally conducted assessments and surveys. Every year, without fail too, the ministry would report higher pass results in every subject for UPSR, PMR and SPM examinations and of record numbers of young students obtaining distinctions.

The grade inflation was intended to placate the public as well as to fool them into believing that educational standards in the country were going up and up. This diversionary tactic worked all too well with the mainstream media going along by uncritically playing up top performing schools and students with record number of distinctions.

In 2005, the media feted a student who received 17 A1’s – a record for number of A’s received by a student in the history of Malaysian education at that time. Several years later media and public attention was fixated on another student who obtained 21 A1’s.

Ignored or forgotten in the media frenzy focusing on top students and schools was the inconvenient reality of declining standards hidden from public view through the dishonest massaging of grades and standards.

The third way was to distract the public through racialising and politicising educational issues and developments. Whether it was with respect to mission schools, vernacular or SRJK schools; teaching of Science and Mathematics; teaching of English; appointment of administrators and heads of schools; the curriculum; vocational education; funding allocations; scholarship awards – a racial and political agenda was pursued by the politicians and policymakers bent on Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy).

Take for example the introduction of History as a compulsory pass subject in schools. First announced at the 2010 Umno general assembly meeting, the move smacked of a politicisation of the school syllabus and raised suspicions that policy changes were being initiated by politicians from one party and not by educationists.

Despite widespread opposition from members of the public to this change in the curriculum especially with an unchanged syllabus biased towards Malay and Islamic history and which would also reduce the time allocated to more critical subjects such as Maths and Science – a petition protesting the move drew more than 100,000 signatories – the measure was rammed through.

It is significant that the final report on Malaysia’s Educational Blueprint, 2013-2025, makes no mention at all of this change; neither does it appear that this retrogressive educational measure was brought to the attention of the international experts and agencies invited to help in the educational review programme.

Many Malaysians are of the opinion that the national schools and universities are beyond redemption. The rot has seeped into all aspects of the educational system: curriculum, teachers, administrators, teacher training, assessment systems, medium of instruction, etc.

Those who can afford it (and even those who cannot afford it) are opting out completely – hence the burgeoning proliferation of private education at all levels from pre-school to university. Or parents are trying to use all means possible to get their children into the elite schools such as Mara Junior science colleges with its privileged position in the national system.

Is there a glimmer of hope for meaningful reform and a brighter future for Malaysia’s education? When I broached this question to one of the country’s foremost educationists who has sat at the highest levels of policymaking in the educational system for over 20 years, he shook his head and pointed out the factor of political ideology and culture was the decisive paradigm impacting on the educational system. His last words: do not expect that this political ideology would change any time soon.

*TIMSS is an international assessment based on the Maths and Science curricula of schools around the world. It assesses students in Grades 4 and 8 (Malaysian equivalent is Year 4 and Form 2) along two aspects: content such as Algebra and Geometry and cognitive skills, namely the thinking processes of knowing, applying and reasoning.

**PISA coordinated by OECD is another widely recognised international assessment. Conducted every three years, PISA evaluates proficiency in Reading, Maths and Science in students aged 15 years old. Its focus is not on curriculum content but on students’ ability to apply their knowledge in real world settings.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is a long-standing intellectual critic and social activist.

This article was first published in The Big Issue on July 16, 2014. For more hot issues, go to

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