KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Recently a senior economist for Malaysia has publicly stated that Malaysians should be “alarmed” that their children are doing worse in school than children in Vietnam, a country that is considered to be poorer than Malaysia.
Dr. Frederico Gil Sander has claimed the poor quality of Malaysian education is more concerning than national levels of household debt.
A world assessment of school performance, called PISA, measures how 65 countries did in mathematics, science and reading. According to the 2012 results, Malaysian students scored below average, ranking 52 out 65. Vietnamese students, in contrast, ranked 17 out of 65.
Substandard levels of education are failing to produce the skilled workers Malaysia needs to grow its economy. Sander is calling for a decentralized education system to tackle the problem, giving schools more power to tackle local issues.
Despite the poor results, the Malaysian government continues to insist that the country has a world class education system.
Borgen Magazine got in touch with Malaysian citizens to find out their concerns for their country’s education.
“I pity the kids who try to adapt; and I pity the parents more because they can’t comprehend what is happening today,” said Ms. Low, a lawyer and business owner in her 30s.
“The people managing the system constantly change it in view of supposedly improving it. But instead of advancing, it’s getting worse. Switching the teaching language to English a few years ago was a good move – but they just switched it back and confused the students more.”
Ms. Low refers to the overturning of a six-year policy in which students were taught math and science in the English language. The policy’s objective was to raise the level of English among students. To many parents’ frustration, many teachers have been found to have inadequate language skills, and are thus unable to deliver high quality lessons. As a result, the government has said the policy, known as PPSMI, stalled attainment.
Mother of two, Ms. Manikadass is a PR consultant in her 40s who strongly agreed that education standards are slipping.
“My sons are 13 and 14 years old. Their syllabus is OK but the quality of teachers is appalling. My sons were doing maths and science in English, and yet the teachers were unable to speak the language well.”
Ms. Manikadass also raised the issue of ethnic divides and claims of bias for ethnic Malays. “Like most government employees, teachers are also Malays. Promotions are not based on merit, but race.”
Malaysia’s population of 29 million is made up of several ethnic groups. Ethnic Malays, which make up 60 percent, are often accused of being given preferential treatment. In 2013, only 19 percent of government-funded universities places were awarded to ethnic Chinese, and 4 percent went to ethnic Indians. The majority of the remaining places were allocated to ethnic Malays.
“My husband and I did discuss whether or not to leave Malaysia for the sake of the children’s education, but we decided we were too old to start over in another country. Instead we will try and give them an education overseas when they finish school. I do know many people who have left the country for their kids education, although other factors have contributed to that decision too.”
Not a single Malaysian university is featured among the world’s top 200 universities. Many Malaysian’s prefer to study abroad in Germany, Australia, the UK or the U.S, rather than staying at home.
Malaysia’s difficulties are highlighted by the fact that for a second year running, no Malaysian students were accepted into Harvard, considered by many the worlds’ best university. This contrasts previous years, in which at least one Malaysian had been admitted to Harvard every year from 1985 to 2010.
Mr. Chong, a father of two girls, also pointed out that the change of language used by teachers was to blame, adding, “but then again, not getting into Harvard does not mean Malaysian students are less bright. On the contrary when I spoke to my nephews last month, their curriculum from one of the best Chinese private schools seems to be on par, if not more advanced than the curriculum my sister had in Singapore.”
“I think the smart and hardworking kids in Malaysia will continue to excel, but the system with its deficiencies will continue to affect the overall quality of education in the country.”
Gary Yeoh, a Malaysian father said, “Will I leave Malaysia for the sake of good education for my children? Sadly, my answer will be yes — if I can afford to. Many of my friends have done so, and many more plan to keep that option open. The future for education in Malaysia for the general population will continue to decline. The ruling parties have no political will or inclination to right the wrongs within our education system. They are entrenched in preserving their own power bases and interests.”
Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies, but the decline in education standards are a great concern for the country’s future. The Malaysian opposition parties have claimed that the government is in denial and out of touch, highlighting that there are no Malaysian Nobel Prize winners and that undergraduate enrollment in the Ivy League is higher in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
– Charles Bell