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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #19

Chapter 3: The Present System (Cont'd)

Malaysian Schools Today

Education in Malaysia is federal responsibility. It is highly centralized with MOE controlling every detail of the system, from the curriculum and syllabus right down to the choosing, printing, and distributing of textbooks. At one time the ministry also had its own architectural and public works department responsible for designing and building schools. State governments do not partake in education except for some religious schools in PAS-controlled Kelantan and Trengganu.

This may change soon, as there are other states like Selangor and Negri Sembilan that are planning to have their own universities.

Malaysia provides for 11 years of free but not compulsory schooling; 6 primary, and 5 secondary. As of 2003, primary schooling would be compulsory. There are preschools for 4-5 years old, mostly run by private entities and as expected, located mainly in urban areas. There are some public ones run by MOE as well as the Ministries of Rural Development and of Unity and Community Development.

The term “free schooling” requires clarification. It means only that there are no tuition fees, but parents still incur other expenses for sports and other extra curricular activities, in addition to books, transportation, uniforms, and lunches. These are substantial. For rural students, transportation can be a major cost although now with many schools built in villages, this is becoming less a significant factor.

After preschool, children enter primary school at age six, and after six years move on to five years of secondary schooling. This is the national stream where the medium of instruction is Malay. English is taught only as a subject, and although it is taught at all levels, it is not a compulsory subject in the sense that students need not pass it.

To cater for the needs and sensitivities of the vernacular groups, there are the “national-type” schools at the primary level where pupils are taught in their mother tongue (Chinese or Tamil), with Malay offered only as a subject. After Primary 6, the pupils would spend a year in Malay immersion class (Remove Class) prior to entering the regular “national” stream for their secondary education. The old Chinese secondary schools still exist physically but they now use the national curriculum with Malay as the medium of instruction.

Students sit for standardized national tests at the end of Primary 6; Form 3 (Year 9); and Form 5 (Year 11).

There is a separate parallel Islamic stream, starting at preschool and going all the way up to Year 13 and the university. Here as expected, the emphasis is exclusively on Islamic Studies. These schools claim that they also teach other subjects like mathematics and science; in reality those are being taught at the most elementary level. Their laboratories (only in the most generous way can they be called as such) would be lucky to have a few test tubes–for demonstration purposes only! The Islamic stream has its own matriculation examination where only Islamic Studies subjects are tested.

This education dualism of two separate and mutually exclusive streams operating independently is the dilemma facing Malaysia today, especially when the philosophies and goals of the two streams contradict each other. One is essentially secular, the other religious. One tries to be inclusive and integrative, the other is exclusive and prides on its insularity. The divisive potential of this dualism is finally dawning on policymakers, but because of the powerful symbolism of Islam, the challenge of reconciling the two would be immense. Worse, there has been little or no attempt at doing that.

There are also special education schools, few in numbers, to take care of those with special needs. In addition some of the regular schools also have limited facilities to handle these students.

For Bumiputra students, the Year 6 examination is critical as the top scorers are offered the opportunity to continue their secondary education at residential schools where tuition and boarding are free. The Form 3 examination is also critical, as students would be streamed to enter the academic, technical, or vocational stream at the upper secondary level. Students chosen for the academic pathway are further streamed into Arts or Science.

Beyond Form 5 the system gets messy. Students either leave to enter the workforce, enter two years of pre-university class (Form 6–Upper and Lower), or seek further training at teachers’, technical, and other colleges. As expected, those chosen for Form 6 would be the top scorers.

Within the last two decades Form Six has been emasculated, with students now increasingly choosing the faster path of matriculation classes (matrikulasi) run by local universities. Matrikulasi, designed specifically for Bumiputras, is popular as it cuts the pre-university years to one. Non-Bumiputras too are shying away from Sixth Form; instead they enroll in the many private colleges and sit for foreign matriculation examinations. Of the 350,000 candidates who sat for the Form V examination in 2001, less than 30,000 continued on into Sixth Form.

Most schools are day schools, with some providing limited hostel facilities for students staying far away from campus. The government also operates a number of fully residential secondary schools both under MOE as well as the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development (through MARA). There is also one under the Defense Ministry (The Royal Military College). The oldest is the all-boys Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), established in 1905 by the British to educate children of royal families and nobility to prepare them for junior positions in the colonial civil service. Such modest goals notwithstanding, to Malays that school is revered as Babut Darjat (Gate to Heaven). Evidently Malays then (and perhaps now too) did not have high aspirations; they were easily satisfied with the crumbs handed to them by the British.

After independence the college began admitting those from the peasant class. This was not an attempt at meritocracy or democratization, rather a reflection of the dwindling numbers from the upper class who could benefit from the college or could fill the classes.
Despite the moniker college, MCKK is merely a residential school. During the 1960s and 70s with the influx of talent beyond the royalty class, the college did produce some luminaries. Its top students routinely matriculated into elite universities. Come the1980s with the general emasculation of Sixth Form, MCKK also dispensed with its Sixth Form. Its graduates now have to spend an additional year or two elsewhere for finishing school prior to entering university; a definite step down in mission.

A comparable institution for girls, The Malay Girls (now Tunku Kurshiah) College (TKC) was set up in 1949. Like their counterpart at MCKK, TKC graduates too now have to go elsewhere for matriculation.

Following the successes of these two schools in the 60s and 70s, the government expanded the program and set up dozens more. This substantially increased the number of Malay undergraduates. One of my recommendations back in the mid 1960s was precisely to expand these residential schools, but to limit them to children of disadvantaged Bumiputras. Today these schools are a mere shadow of their former glory. Few prepare their students for matriculation, the rest like MCKK and TKC goes only to Form 5. The few exceptions include the MARA Junior College in Banting that prepares students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The government is committed to expanding these very expensive schools. The Eighth Malaysia Plan calls for building at least a dozen more such schools. These schools cater exclusively for Bumiputras, but in March 2002 the government announced as part of a general plan to introduce meritocracy and greater competition, that 10 percent of the slots be allocated to non-Bumiputras, at least for MARA residential schools. The residential schools emphasize the sciences, all part of the national effort to increase the number of Malays in the sciences.

The figure that is most interesting is that less than 5 percent of Chinese students choose the national schools, and that number is fast declining. The figures for Indians are only slightly higher. Thus national schools are essentially schools for Malays. In contrast, in the last few years there is an increasing tendency for Malays to choose Chinese schools. Additionally many more Malays are opting out of the national stream into religious schools.

The much-vaunted national schools are now losing students from both Malays and non-Malays. The Razak Plan, tinkered once too many, is finally unraveling.

Other relevant statistics to ponder are these. Out of a population of over 23 million, there are about 2.9 million students in primary and 2 million in secondary schools. There are over 6,000 national primary schools and 1,700 secondary ones. The Chinese and Tamil schools number 1,300 and 530 respectively. The pupil to teacher ratio at the primary level is 19:1; at secondary, 17:1. These ratios look impressive but I have yet to see a class with less than 40 pupils. These figures, like others emanating from MOE, are suspect.

Next: Public Universities and Other Post Secondary Institutions

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