Breaking point: How Malaysia’s education system is failing its children

The symptoms have been evident for some time. The national schools in Malaysia have lost their status of preference.

In some states, more and more parents are choosing private or Chinese vernacular schools to give their children a better education.

Yet the denial syndrome continues. The Ministry of Education (MoE) receives a fair allocation of the total budgetary provisions. Yet it is unable to meet the needs of our diverse society.

The option of private education gives a window of opportunity for some while others suffer in silence

Many of us are disappointed with the lack of priority in tackling the challenges facing primary and secondary school education.

Recently, many students did not even turn up for the SPM exams. No one has been held accountable and flimsy reasons are provided.

The results tell a story with 25.9% failing in the science subjects; 23.2% failed in maths and overall, 30% who will not receive the SPM certificates. The best score seems to be the subject “Quran and Sunnah”, achieving 84%.

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What does this say about our education system? If this report in social media is accurate, then what about the passing grade? For maths, the indication is that with 20%, one secures a pass grade. I wonder what is the pass grade for English and science!

All exams have since been removed. We neither have the UPSR (sixth-year exams) nor the PMR (ninth-year exams). So the journey seems to be just to promote incompetence from one stage to the other until students reach SPM (11th year exams).

We need objective standards to evaluate both the performance of students and the commitment of teachers.

Without exams, we are left to the subjectivity of performance evaluators. But they are not held accountable for the quality of teaching.

Yes, the claim that the teachers are hard-pressed has to be considered, but we must also not overlook the amount of leave and teaching days they have. Teaching days rarely exceed 200 days in a year.

Then you have private education to consider. We have nearly 185 private international schools, 80% of them in the Klang Valley. These schools range from those in shophouses and high-rise buildings to purpose-built schools providing wide-ranging facilities and opportunities. These have to compete with tuition centre and the like.

Everything is allowed presently. About 15 years ago, things were stringent and standards had to be maintained to qualify as an international school. Private sector groups then responded and established schools of repute in response to the call to make Malaysia an educational hub in the region.

Today, they are so regulated, and it is a paradox. It is private money, risk and marketing.

Yet they are controlled by the MoE in terms of enrolment of both foreign staff and students. They have under 10 staff to manage these schools. So, rigidity and control are the order of the day.

The fact that scores of parents opt to send their children to private schools at great cost to themselves is a reflection of the state of the national school system. The national schools are perceived as ‘suraus’, and this mix of religion and education has been found to be wanting.

We must respect diversity and interdependence, for the alternative will be costly in the long run. In healthcare and defence, it is all about Malaysians, and ethnicity should not be a factor in the opportunities provided.

There is a negative mindset at play and one wonders when people in Malaysia will wake up!

Religion is the primary responsibility of parents. Schools can help but they must not be held accountable. If parents are opting out of this responsibility, then is it the function of the school to take over this parental obligation? Doing so is not going to benefit either the parents or the children.

Even in a ‘Sharia-compliant’ state like Brunei, the medium of instruction is English. It is most embarrassing to listen to political leaders in Malaysia and their command of the language. One can understand the sentiments from both Sabah and Sarawak in this regard. We are all for bilingual proficiency.

With every change in the MoE’s leadership, government policies were compromised in the name of the democratisation of education. Not only has Malaysia’s international reputation been affected, the situation internally has likewise been compromised.

We now have a “dual-language programme” that aims to balance the language crisis. But this again adds to the injustice between rural and urban schools.

We need to steer a new vision for Malaysian education that is fair and just, one that is not based on ethnicity and fear. We need equal opportunities and quality, with standards that are objective and measurable.

Language is a medium of communication and understanding. The more languages an individual is able to command, the greater are the capacities that are available in an interdependent world. We are a trading nation. As soon as we politicise language as an issue, education suffers.

The “Madani” government has let me down by not tackling the problems that plague the education system. This will continue to have serious implications for the future of the nation.

Move away from politicising education. Get a qualified technocrat well versed in national and international education to steer this ministry.

Not that the present minister is not doing her best, but she has challenges she has inherited. And as a first-time minister, does she have the capacity to turn things around?

This requires a person with a clear vision for education – both for the immediate and long term – that is clearly spelt. Society as a whole has to buy into that vision.

Let him or her be a senator and aim to do what is right for the future of the nation. Education remains an instrument for enhancing inter-ethnic understanding and goodwill. We have to move away from the polarised situation that we now face at all levels of education.

We need fresh thinking. Otherwise, today’s problems will ferment tomorrow’s crisis. The thinking that has created today’s crisis cannot be the basis for any solution.

We need to move away from fear and ethnic considerations. Consider an inclusive approach to education that makes us competitive and respected in both the arts and sciences.

While education is a priority in many countries, this area has been singularly devalued in Malaysia.

One of the greatest bulwarks against change is the civil Service and the MoE. Be inclusive and move forward, and implement the ideas from all sectors of Malaysian society.

Do not be imprisoned by racist and bigoted ideas. Let the responsibility of teaching religion be in the hands of the parents. The schools can have a part but not at the expense of the teaching, learning and exam process. This could be done after school from 15:00 onwards.

When you raise questions and suggest ideas for change, then the common response is that this issue is a political decision. Or that we need direction “from above”.

Imprisoned by their rigid departmental rules that are apparently non-negotiable, these ‘Napoleons’ imprison and protect themselves from change and progress.

There is far too much rigidity. Ministries have become more regulatory instead of facilitating change, progress and response.

Overall, the civil service remains the most entrenched sector. Now in Putrajaya, they are all to themselves, living in ivory towers and regulating everything.

As a parent whose three children went through the government school system, I can only look on with sadness at what parents today have to face. It is a polarised and compartmentalised situation. And it is racism that will destroy this nation.

Sadly, there is no opportunity to make a difference. It is difficult to even dialogue with MoE officials. They do not respond to the opportunity of meeting them.

Unless the bureaucracy become more professional and confident, the hope for the future seems dim.

Wake up and realise that education is the legacy you will leave behind for the future!

K Haridas
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
9 July 2024

The views expressed in Aliran’s media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran’s official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran’s official position.

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K HaridasK Haridas

K Haridas, an Aliran executive committee member, is the current honorary secretary of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia, chairperson of the Association For The Promotion Of Higher Education In Malaysia and chairperson of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International.

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