By Wan Saiful Wan Jan for The Edge 11 June 2012

The Ministry of Education is undertaking a major review of our education system. This is perhaps the most important work done by the government today because its repercussion will be felt for decades to come. I congratulate Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for taking this bold step in his capacity as the Minister of Education.

The recorded history of Malaysia’s education system goes back to hundreds of years ago, to the time when the Malacca Sultanate was founded. Records show that education for the traditional aristocracy was historically conducted by private tutors. But there were also the ‘sekolah pondok’ or madrasahs that were set up for those who wanted to focus on Islamic knowledge. The early Chinese and Indian immigrants must have also set up their own education institutions, adding early variety to the mix.

The year 1816 saw the establishment of Penang Free School, the first known English-medium ‘modern school’ in the country. Then in 1855 the first Malay School was established in Bayan Lepas, also in Penang. Our schools have evolved greatly since then, and today there we have schools that fall into various categories such as the Malay-medium National Schools, vernacular National Type Schools, cluster school, high performing schools, boarding schools, trust schools and more. Of course, we also have the private national and private international schools.

The different types of schools can sometime be rather confusing. Their existence was a result of the evolution of our education system and policies. The 1950 Barnes Report called for the abolition of vernacular schools. The 1951 Fenn-Wu Report reputed Barnes, and urged for the preservation of the different types of schools. The 1952 Education Ordinance implemented many of the recommendation of the Barnes Report but the 1956 Razak Report created a compromise between the Barnes and Fenn-Wu reports.

Then came the 1960 Rahman Talib report which led to the introduction of the 1961 Education Act. The National Education Philosophy was introduced in 1988. The Education Act 1996 to some extent protected school choice. The National Education Blueprint was published in 2006 but it failed to make a bang, and it was only to be effective until 2010 anyway.

So, the last time we really had a major revamp was back in 1960 in the form of Rahman Talib Report. Now, 52 years later, if a new policy document called the ‘Muhyiddin Report’ were to be published, it can only be welcomed.

The government actually started their review late last year. The first significant output was a rather big document called ‘Education System Review: Malaysia”. The report was ready in April, and it was this report that helped the Ministry identify the nine key areas (teachers, school leaders, school quality, curriculum and evaluation, multilingual proficiency, post-school opportunities, the role of parents and the community, the efficacy of resources and information
sharing, and the administrative structure of the Education Ministry) they must focus on.

I am disappointed that the government has chosen to not publish this important report. I appreciate that some of the findings can be damaging to the government, but, without knowing the problems that has been identified through the taxpayer-funded studies, it would be difficult for us, the taxpayers, to provide in-depth suggestions that can directly address the identified issues.

The government is now running a series of national education dialogues across the country. So far half of the scheduled dialogues have taken place. My team and I attended and observed the dialogues in all the states thus far. Our conservative estimate is that at the very least 5000 people have attended the dialogues. In terms of public engagement, the dialogue series is a very important element in the bigger review process.

We published a brief commentary to summarise our opinion on the public engagement stage of the review. Of major concern is the demographics of the participants. As it stands, the dialogues are not at all inclusive. The vast majority of the participants are teachers, and there are some Parent Teacher Association representatives. But we have not found people who attended as parents.

Understandably the government wants to make sure they have a guaranteed number of people in the audience at each event. To achieve that, teachers were asked to attend. Unfortunately this resulted in the events becoming like a teachers’ union meeting wherein the conversations focused too much on teachers welfare, remuneration, workload, and working conditions. And, unsurprisingly, there was no conversation around how to sanction or remove underperforming and failing teachers. There were numerous demands for increased pay and grants, but we did not hear demands for value for taxpayers money.

To ensure the dialogues really become a “public” consultation, there needs to be more effort to collect inputs from other groups. The government needs to engage with parents of children with special education needs. Our education system will not be complete unless we think about all the children, including those with special needs.

We also need to actively seek the views of parents who fall under the “bottom 40%” group. This is the group that needs the most help and their concerns and aspirations must be included. We cannot expect the poor and underprivileged to spend their own money to travel all the way to the bigger cities and towns just to attend the dialogue sessions. And unless there are active efforts to go to them, their voice will not be heard.

Equally important is the voice of the private sector. The government is pushing for more public private partnerships in the education system. Hence it is extremely important for the government to engage with private sector players in drafting the new policy.

To ensure public-private partnership works, the government must treat the private sector as a true partner. It cannot be just another slogan. Of course we as an organisation would be happy to help because we too are actively engaging with both the private sector and the government. But the team drafting the new education policy should continous open their doors to the private sector so that there can be proper synchronisation. Only then we can see truly effective public-private partnerships blossoming.

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


  • Arif Chris Bell 2012 Jun 19 / 08:27

    The National Education Dialogue is most welcome but “It is better late …”. Idiom completion lesson numer 22!

  • Hussaini Abdul Karim 2012 Jun 19 / 10:03

    Dear Sir,

    National Integrated School

    In my research on school and education systems, I discovered that Finland arguably has the best systems and Singapore is a close second. So, if the Ministry of Education wants to send people to study the best school and education systems, send them to either Finland or Singapore.

    A national integrated primary and secondary school system combines and offers various programmes, subjects, curriculum and syllabus ‘under one roof’. A Malay medium stream, an English medium stream, a Chinese medium stream and a Tamil medium stream can be offered in a national integrated primary and secondary school system. If needed, a technical and even a vocational stream can also be included. Just like universities that has many faculties; science, arts, law, engineering, architecture, etc. a national integrated primary and secondary school system also offers many streams and subjects that can be made choices for students to study. Technically, all programmes, subjects, curriculum and syllabus as recommended in the various education reports from 1957: Razak Report, Rahman Talib Report, Cabinet Report, Amendments made in 1988 to improve the national education’s philosophy and the 2000 Education that emphasises on the teaching of ICT, science and technology can be incorporated into the national integrated primary and secondary school system. Even PPSMI and MBMMBI can also be incorporated into it. An integrated school can be organised and run just like a university.

    Henceforth, let me call the national integrated primary and secondary school system as the ‘new national school system’.

    The new national school system stresses the teaching and learning of all subjects in both Bahasa Malaysia and English language equally in both primary and secondary schools and it also offers the learning of all other vernacular languages as well as some foreign languages. One can choose to enter either the ‘Malay’ stream or the ‘English’ stream in the same school or the other streams that are on offer. The Malay stream, SJK (C) and SJK (T) also offers English language as a compulsory subject as we do not want anyone to be left behind.

    Bahasa Malaysia shall still be a ‘must pass’ subject for the SPM national examination.

    I believe, my proposal will meet all the needs of all stakeholders; parents, students, teachers, administrators, policy makers, lawmakers, activists, NGO and the majority of the comprising Malaysians of all races, religions and culture and ages. Schools need to be transformed but not a revamp.

    The aim is to produce students who are not just good academically and technically but are also physically enhanced and are equipped with leadership qualities, high moral values, competency and ready to take on the world; in short, a very capable ‘all-rounder’ and a ‘go-getter’. We do not want any more ‘spoon-feeding’ methods of teaching students from primary schools right thorough universities and we want all students from primary schools to those studying at universities and graduates to be bi-lingual, at least.

    Furthermore, the national integrated primary and secondary school system I am proposing here does not breach any part of the Federal Constitution as the proposal does not call for the SJK (C) and (T) to be closed.

    Bahasa Malaysia shall remain the main language used in all national schools, both primary and secondary, and all vernacular languages are to be offered in the schools; Chinese, Tamil and English as well as other ethnic languages, as in the case of Sabah and Sarawak. This, to me, will be a ‘win – win’ solution for all and everyone will benefit from it. First and foremost, being in one place, ‘perpaduan’ (unity and solidarity) between the different people of the various communities in the country can be best encouraged, developed, built and practised in a national school system such as the one proposed here compared to any program, system or campaign that we have now.

    All languages, including vernacular languages, are offered as options to students. The teaching of English and Bahasa Malaysia are to be at par, i.e. taught and practised with equal intensity, to meet the aims of MBMMBI. Books for both must be complete and be made available to all students.

    All pupils and students are to be supplied with iPads and the school will have the complete and necessary infrastructure to support ‘IT learning’ to meet the standards of and be at par with the best world’s school system.

    Muslim pupils/students attend ‘agama’ lessons at Sekolah Agama, that’s why I did not include that in my proposal. The people from other races and religion may want to organise something for them the same as Muslims do.

    Scholarships are to be offered for students who excel their studies and selected sports.

    Smart students are to be allowed to leap-frog from primary three to primary instead of being promoted to primary four, for example.

    Age for primary school pupils are to be lowered from as young as 5 or 6 years old. Schools should be able to asses them based on their pre-school performance and progress reports.

    Examinations: UPSR at the end of six years of primary school. Students will sit for the national SPM/’O’ level examination at the end of four (not five) years of secondary school education. Total period from primary one to secondary four is ten years.

    Special needs schools and classes to be set up – more teachers to be trained in special education.

    All teachers must at least have a first degree and all teachers must be professionally trained and qualified.

    The syllabus and curriculum rigour should be tailored according to individual student’s capability. There should be room for gifted students to horn their interests. Gifted students may excel in one area so for that particular subject e.g. a primary 2 student can attend classes for mathematics or science in primary 4. There should be flexibility to accommodate such gifted children.

    Physical Education must be compulsory for all medically and physically fit students.

    Literature, drama, public speaking, dance, sports and gymnastics all can be elective activities.

    There should be more ‘out of the classroom’ activities for students to experience the ‘real life’.

    We should emphasise on developing and instilling high moral values and exemplary character in all primary school pupils.

    Students should also be taught how to do projects and aggregate or get relevant information from the internet, newspapers, magazines and books and also, from the public libraries.

    Further, to prepare reports and presentation via Microsoft Office application programs.

    Those children who are interested in robotics and computer games programming and Microsoft Office applications can carry out these activities after school hours as ‘enrichment activities’.

    Those who are musically inclined can be tutored to prepare for ABRSM graded music examination as after school hours as their enrichment activity as well.

    They can have Olympiad Maths International and ICAS preparatory classes for gifted children.

    If national schools can organise all these adjuvant activities in order to create a better person in gifted children, it would safe parents a lot of money.

    A child needs to know the limited resources of the world, and how the unlimited mining, deforestation etc., which made up the traditional economic activities of the world are hurting the planet, and them in the long run. History and Geography must be taught to all.

    Encourage the young to dream about possibilities, so that there are still trees to count, and to count on. I recommend watching Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on TED tv. Help our kids find their element. Stop stressing them out with too much homework, there’ll be time enough for that. Don’t make them suffer ‘burnout’ at a young due to being overstressed.

    Include more sports, movements, and perhaps it’s time to consider paying some attention to counseling resources in schools, so that when the kids need to talk to someone, they will have access to appropriate help and support.

    This plan will require MOE to train sufficient competent and proficient English speaking teachers or perhaps relaxing on the working visa to allow the overseas teachers, such as the La Sallian brothers, teachers from India and the UK, to fill in the gap until we have enough of our own teachers to take over from them. These ‘imported English competent and proficient subject teachers’ from Great Britain, the UK and India may be employed as contract teachers during the transition period.

    We need the government and MOE to agree on the framework with increasing urgency. We need to give hard evidence not merely perceived emotional benefits why the mastering of English language as necessary in the current competitive world.

    There are many Commonwealth countries that use English as the medium of instruction in the local/ central/ national education systems, without compromising their cultural or religious identities or values – e.g. India, Maldives, Singapore, Brunei, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius, Fiji, PNG, South Africa, Caribbean nations, etc. Many non-English speaking medium countries who can afford it send their kids to private schools using the UK, US, Australia, Canadian or Indian curriculum (in English) – e.g. Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, Arabs, Russians, Koreans, etc. Let’s maintain PENS objective for a broader Malaysian school curriculum in English – with Bahasa Malaysia as the only single compulsory “must-pass” subject.

    We hope to see in the near future, national integrated primary and secondary school system to be the school of choice for parents and students, surpassing even the standards of private international schools.

    Therefore, while Bahasa Malaysia’s position and status as the national language is maintained, the mastering of English language will be enhanced and made better. The survival of vernacular and other ethnic languages, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, are assured.

    The country may not be able to employ all its citizens in future and it is the obligation of the government to teach, train and prepare students to be able to compete with people from other countries for jobs and businesses globally.

    The proposal above is aimed at producing bi-lingual students who are not just good academically but are also physically enhanced and are equipped with leadership qualities, high moral values, competency and ready to take on the world; in short, a very capable ‘all-rounder’.

    This proposed school system is to encourage students to be thinkers, be creative and innovative and I am not suggesting English be made into a second national or official language in Malaysia.

    This way, all the ETP/GTP aims and making our country as a 1st World status country and targeting a high income economy in 2020 can and will be achieved with less obstacles.

    Last but not least, looking at newspaper reports and watching TV news about children drowning, especially during every school holidays because of their inability to swim, all primary school pupils must be taught how to swim. Furthermore, our country has a very long shoreline and there are many rivers, natural and man-made lakes all over, it is only proper that all school children know how to swim.

    Yours sincerely

    Hussaini Abdul Karim
    Social Activist

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