Transforming education in Malaysia: Meritocracy meets quota reality

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim attends the National Training Week 2024. (Photo: Facebook/Anwar Ibrahim) Photo: Facebook/Anwar Ibrahim

In a bold move, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim announced that all students who score 10 or more As on the national SPM exam are guaranteed entry into the country’s university entrance program, regardless of race. The university prep course, known for its accessibility and affordability, has long been a stepping stone to higher education in Malaysia.

But the existing quota system — 90 percent Bumiputera (Malays and indigenous people) and 10 percent non-Bumiputera — will remain in place. This has raised concerns about whether the non-Bumiputera quota will be able to accommodate all top scorers from ethnic minorities. The government has promised alternative pathways, such as foundation programmes at public universities, for those who cannot secure a place.

Experts see Anwar’s announcement as a “brave change” but say it fails to address underlying social inequalities. Dr Lee Hock Aung of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute points out that while top achievers undoubtedly studied hard, some may have benefited from socio-economic advantages such as better schools or tuition exemptions. The new policy does not take into account these broader factors and could result in a “double disadvantage” for non-Bumiputera students who do not perform well in the SPM.

Looking to the future, experts suggest Malaysia should strive to balance higher education opportunities based on academic achievement, socio-economic need, and diversity. Some have suggested reducing the Bumiputera quota to 60-70 percent and allocating some of it to students from lower-income families. Moreover, alternative pathways such as diploma and micro-credential courses are emerging as viable options for young people seeking higher education and employment.

Anwar acknowledged that the decision was just one step towards addressing equity in education, but stressed that much more needs to be done, especially for the urban poor and rural and hinterland children. Malaysia’s challenge in navigating this education landscape lies in balancing meritocracy with existing quotas and tackling deeper socio-economic disparities.

(Based on reporting by CNA reporter Neo Chai Ching)

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