By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, for The Edge 1 January 2012 and The Edge Online 9 January 2012

Around this time last year I asked several contacts if they would be interested to partner with us to hold a national conference on ‘school choice’. All of them responded with a question: “What do you mean by school choice?”. Not many people are familiar with the meaning of the phrase.

School choice is a concept that we in Malaysia don’t usually talk about. In broad terms, it is about giving parents ownership and responsibility to choose and manage school education for their children.

The philosophy behind this concept is rather straightforward. We as parents are the ones responsible for the education of our own children. Therefore it is us who must make the decision on which school our child will go to. This is actually one of the most important decisions we have to make because the school environment will produce a big impact on the future of our children.

Not only must we be given the right to decide, we also have the responsibility to decide. How ironic is it that, while we would never allow a stranger to hold our children’s hands to cross the road, we are indifferent when surrendering all powers to strangers in Putrajaya to decide about the eleven years of education that our children will experience.

But, assuming that we do want to be responsible parents, we are actually still powerless. It does not matter how much we love our children. If we live in the wrong area, we have no option but to send to children to a bad school. As a result, children in affluent areas usually get better schools than those in rural ones. The current policy of forcing a postcode lottery is cruel and immoral. By denying parents the right to choose schools, we perpetuate education inequity.

Unless we can afford private school fees, our children are completely at the mercy of the Putrajaya strangers. Perhaps the existence of private schools does provide a level of choice. But apart from some Islamic schools, almost all private schools in Malaysia use differentiation as their business strategy. I have not found any private school that takes the cost-leadership path. As result, school fees are generally beyond the reach of the average Malaysians. Children from poor families who desperately need better quality schools are automatically excluded.

I have visited India twice to look for a potential solution. Back in February I visited two private schools in the slums of New Delhi. And last month I attended the School Choice National Conference in New Delhi, organised by India’s Centre for Civil Society. Both trips reinforce my belief that private education can be made to work for those at the bottom half of the pyramid.

At the school choice conference, I heard case studies on how low cost private schools have improved access to education for children from poor tribes in north east India as well as for those in slum areas. I also spoke to several operators of low cost private schools, who told me that many poor parents they serve do have access to free government schools. But they are willing to spend quite a big chunk of their monthly income for private school fees because the government schools are not as good.

Of course it would be wrong to blindly assume that all private schools are better than government ones. The point I am trying to make here is that some parents in rural and slum areas of India actually have more choice, and exercise greater responsibility, than the average Malaysian parents. Most of us simply accept whatever school the government says our children must go to. But many poor Indian parents, out of love and care for their own children, actively take things into their own hands. They refuse to be dependent on government.

James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University, was also at the conference. As a world-renowned researcher-practitioner, he combines his work with running a chain of low cost private school in India and Ghana. When I asked him if the low-cost model can be sustainable, he didn’t just affirm the sustainability of the model, but also its profitability.

With all the challenges facing our school system, and the dire need to improve the quality of schools in rural areas, I am curious what is actually preventing Malaysian private school operators from looking at the low-cost model. Why do we not yet have the equivalent of Air Asia and Mydin among our private schools?

And why is the government not looking at the private sector as a potential partner to address education inequality in the school system? The Entry Point Projects in the ETP are focused mainly on creating more premium private schools. What will happen to the poor in rural areas, as well as other financially excluded children such as those who are stateless and refugee? Is there not a business opportunity to provide them with better quality education?

I firmly believe there are rooms in the Malaysian market for low cost, for profit private school model. Several colleagues and I are actively looking into this matter, and we are learning from the experiences of our friends in India and other countries.

More school choice will be created if we can develop a model that charges just 20-30 percent less that today’s average private school fee. At that level, the fee may not be low enough for the poorest in society. But it is only the very first step. Once market competition kicks in, I suspect the potential market size for the low-cost private school model will be significant.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (


  • Dr Lim Ewe Ghee 2012 Jan 01 / 16:48

    Mr Wan Saiful: An interesting article, and an issue worth looking into. One issue that pops into mind is that a 20-30 percent discount to current private school rates presumes that the private education market in Malaysia is not a competitive market and there are unexploited profits to be made. That notion indeed is suggested by the question you pose as to why we don’t have more private schools, but the issue is not really discussed in your article. If the sector is not competitive, what are the barriers to entry, if any? What is causing the sector not to produce more private schools if 20-30 percent excess profits are implicitly now being made? Otherwise, we would have to attribute the insufficient (the article’s position) number of private schools to ignorance, lack of information etc. I was wondering which it is.
    Thank You.

    Lim Ewe Ghee

  • Desmond 2012 Feb 21 / 10:49

    Appreciate your article contribution, Wan. Though a little late respond, hope you don’t mind.

    This article interest me not because looking from education policy matter, but as a parent, I have a kid due to entering elementary school level soon. I have been looking around for a better school namely “private school”. If you pay attention enough, for the past 5 years or more “private school” have been increasing their positioning not because they are better, but because is an “alternative”

    At some point many parents feel “private school” gave our children some freedom and quality time to built their characters and right behaviors. I must said not all private schools did that, noticed several of them already looking into these matter.

    Education should be meant not only develop a child ability and skills but also their characters and behaviors. We need quality education to develop our children to be our future leader. I should not comment more what happened around to our nation leaders and corporate leaders today. I can say, they rise on their popularity and failed in their delivery.

    None of these important stuffs are being taught in our national schools and vernacular schools. As a result of dismayed and flip-flop of our Malaysian Government decision, many parents make a big shift sending their children to vernacular schools i.e. chinese schools. This impacted many other parents and schools in terms of intakes. Is vernacular schools better than private schools? Not really. Chinese schools for example are excellent if one intend to discipline their child in terms of home-work, practice and learning. For thousand of years, Chinese schools adopt this methodology and it works very well in producing top scorers and high performance in some areas.

    The only thing they fall short is they did not put enough priority to build a child characters, behaviors and leaderships skills which is so critical to our future nation. We can only have one Tunku Abdul Rahman, our founding Father of Malaysia! We can only have one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We can only have one Mahatma Gandhi. We can only have one Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

    In a nutshell we need more of these people around!

    Coming back to low-cost private school, is not because there’s no demand in terms of private school but simply the cost is certainly too high for even middle income group parent like us.

    Starting a low-cost private school is a good idea, however, having the right person to run it both ethically and profiting the right manner would be rare. Most if not all, want to make profit in the end of the day. So if one treat education as business approach then it will not make sense to run a low-cost model since it is private school. Why bother run it as low-cost?

    The other concerns would be does running low-cost private school align with the quality of education? Keep in mind, most parents want high quality education and they would sacrifice whatever income they could make-do for their children future. How do we keep intact or ensure low-cost private schools does NOT come with low quality education?

    I would love to know what comes up from your end in starting low-cost private schools if it within Klang Valley area. I certainly don’t mind to contribute ideas provided we are on right track. I do know some providers that offer “software” the approach in building our children character and behaviors, but they are not able to do it as the Government did not support their plan, strangely the same approach is being implementing slowly in Singapore most schools.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your innovative thought on this article.


  • Gin 2012 Mar 04 / 14:44

    Mr Wan Saiful. I would very much like to be part of the group of people exploring the possibility of a low cost private school model. There is nothing elitist about private schools.. I believe its all about giving people the choice to choose better for their children and their future. Just watched a documentary called ‘Waiting for Superman’ and am inspired to make a change. Appreciate any advice on how I can look further into this model. I believe there are enough good people out there to make this a reality. This is a sustainable business model worth looking into as our future depends on it. businesses do not need to make obscene profits, they can choose to decent profits and at the same time fulfil a need in society.

  • admin 2012 May 17 / 21:52

    We are actually exploring this model now, and we hope to be able to produce a result in the next 6-7 months. Hopefully it will work!

    Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply to Dr Lim Ewe Ghee Cancel reply