Issues with Malaysia’s Education System


One thing that is constantly on the mind of every Malaysian parent is the standard of education in the country. There is a definite lacking in our students and graduates when compared to those of other countries. This has always been something for parents to lament on and one of the great reasons why Malaysians stood up for change in the recent general elections.

Just for introduction purposes, I was educated in national schools, throughout my primary and secondary school years, and obtained a Computer Science Bachelor’s Degree from UTM. Do bear in mind that I am looking at this from the point of view of a Malaysian and hopeful parent, and I do not have any educational related qualifications.

This is in no way meant to be a finger pointing session – nothing productive can come out of that. Instead, what I’m trying to do is identify some of the problems we currently face in our education system, so that we are one step closer to a solution.

Who knows? Malaysia’s golden era might be ahead. Anything is possible.

Malaysia Boleh, after all.

[Source: Free Malaysia Today]

PISA Rankings – Vietnam performs a hell lot better than Malaysia

How does the country currently fare compared to others when it comes to education? Not very impressively, I’m afraid.

We aren’t even average. We’re… *cringe* BELOW AVERAGE.

In the 2015 PISA rankings by the OECD, Singapore ranks 1st worldwide in Mathematics, Reading and Science. No surprises there. Because of this vast difference in the standard of education between our 2 countries, Malaysian parents especially those in Johor are even waking their children up at 4 am to attend school in Singapore. We are nowhere close to competing with this tiny neighbour of ours, but that’s understandable (somewhat) as they do have a much higher GDP per capita than we do (5 times more, at least).

But hang on… I’d like to invite you to take a look at Vietnam.

The GDP per capita of Malaysia is 4.3 times more than that of Vietnam, and yet, according to PISA rankings by the OECD Vietnam manages to appear in the top 10 for Science, and beat Malaysia mercilessly in Reading and Mathematics as well.

How can this be? I am at a loss when I try to figure this out. Did they cheat? Unfortunately not, but Malaysia probably did.


Malaysia in green, US in red, OECD average in purple [Source: Business Insider] *Note Vietnam’s impressive science ranking, and Singapore’s gold medal in all categories

Issues in Malaysia’s Education System

Science and Mathematics – English or Malay?

One of the main issues discussed is the medium for Science and Mathematical subjects. For a few years, it was moving towards English, and now it’s back to Malay.

Personally, I figure that if these subjects were taught in English, it would be easier for students to perform research online and in other books, considering that most materials are readily available in English, not Malay. Googling a question would be much faster. Understanding a discussion on a topic would be much simpler, as the student would be spending less time translating every single thing they read.

In addition, secondary school leavers would adapt much more easily when they attend international universities (assuming these use English as the medium of communication, and most do).

More (fun) STEM, please?

I hear a lot of parents out there asking for more STEM subjects, and that there is a severe lacking of STEM subjects and focus on them in Malaysian schools.

Actually, it turns out that STEM has been a focus in the Malaysian education system for the longest time, even since the 70s. What’s actually happening is that students aren’t interested in these subjects, and institutions are facing difficulty filling spots in science streams.

So the issue here, I believe, is how the subjects are taught. They’re too dry, and few attempts have been made to make these subjects fun with interesting subjects and experimentation.

According to a report, science labs aren’t even found in most schools anymore. I may be a novice here, but isn’t involving students and having them perform experiments the best way to build interest?

Exam oriented – What’s the point?

When the race is on for parents and children alike to be the best from a very young age, and exams are being introduced to kids as young as those in kindergartens, we really have to ask ourselves – Who are we kidding? Is all this really necessary?

No post like this is complete without a tiger mom meme

The kiasu attitude from Singapore is really making it’s way into our Malaysian society. While that is slightly better than our tidak apa attitude, do we really want to subject our children to the stress of test taking from age 5? IF anything, that’s the best way to get your child disinterested in learning.

Chinese schools and stress

There has been a lot of news recently on how parents are racing to send their children off to Chinese schools. So much so that even non-Chinese parents are doing the same.

What is their reasoning?

First of all, it’s for the benefit of learning an additional language (in addition to Malay and English) which will prove useful with the emergence of China as the next superpower of the world. Move over, USA. It’s China’s time to shine.

Just like in GoT

Secondly, Chinese schools are known for being difficult. Extremely difficult, in fact. Parents are spending hours daily helping their children complete their schoolwork. Some children are even losing sleep and are dragged to school crying with stress of not being able to keep up with the rest.

Kids 7 years of age are expected to answer mathematical questions that involve multiplication. What are we, trying to make our kids earn PhDs by the time they’re 12?

Bob’s class has 46 students. Amanda’s class has 30-plus students. If counted in multiples of 5, 2 remain; and if counted in multiples of 2, 1 remain. What’s the total for both classes? (OK I’m a bad translator, but I hope you get it)

Low standard of English

The rising number of students obtaining As in English do not matter if the As are easily obtained. Malaysia is very good at lowering the grading standard in order to give the impression that students are performing better than previous years.

In other words, we are very good at lying to ourselves.

An interview a friend carried out once on a UiTM graduate went like this:

(After introductions were done in English)

Friend: So, tell me about more about yourself. How will you use your existing skills in this particular position?

Interviewee: (after being silent for a minute or so) Existing? Sir, can you repeat the question in Malay? Boleh tak?

How do I say facepalm in Malay? Anyone?

Low standard of local university graduates

Having had my fair share of interviewing fresh graduates for a job position, I must say, I am quite disappointed by their problem solving skills.

I’ve also found that they are very weak when it comes to brainstorming sessions. Getting ideas out of them during discussions are such a chore, as they just turn mute and don’t feel the need to participate.

It’s a shame, really.

When encountering a difficult task, their immediate position is to either ignore the problem, or ask seniors for help, without trying to find solutions on their own first. Again, these are my observations.

Not having faith in public education system

The number of able parents who opt to send their children to international or private schools have risen continuously in the past years. So much so that the number of private/international schools has doubled from 66 in 2010 to 126 in 2017!

A recent March report by ISC Research (ISC) has named Malaysia as the leading country in Southeast Asia with the highest number of enrollment in private/international schools.

So basically, the rich will gain access to better education, smaller classrooms, English as the main medium of learning, and the rest of us… won’t.

And let’s not forget our dance on the implementation of English for Science and Maths in schools:

“The inconsistency in education policies such as the ending of the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English in 2012 is another reason why international schools are popular.” – Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim

Huge classroom sizes

My French husband was shocked when he heard that there were 50 students in my class at one point. I believe it was when I was 12, in primary 6. To be fair, my school was an exception. There weren’t enough schools, and mine was one of the most sought after due to being one of the best performing in the area.

60! In France, it’s less than half of that (23 per class in 2015), and already parents are complaining.

OK so these days, I hear that the average classroom in Malaysia has about 32 students. As a comparison, France has 25 and the UK has an incredibly low number of 19 students.

Imagine yourself as a teacher, having 32 children to take care of, to guide, to teach, and to focus on. It’s a miracle any learning happens in these classrooms. I have 2 kids and can barely manage, let alone 32.

Let us hope we don’t need to start using cameras to monitor if our students are falling asleep or feeling confused in class, which could be really useful, but is really big brother.

Systems always changing with minister

With the appointment of every new Education Minister, comes his ambitious plan to revolutionize the education system of the country, that disrupts the implementation of previous plans, and so everything is reset to 0 every few years.

This was one of the reasons why Science and Mathematics, went from being taught in Malay, to English in 2001 (which was heavily celebrated), and back to Malay all over again in 2012 (much to everyone’s dismay).

Another little matter that is nonetheless annoying was the importance the ministry put on the title of the national language. Is it Bahasa Melayu? Or is it Bahasa Malaysia? Or Bahasa Kebangsaan, perhaps? Up till now, no one really knows, apart from these ministry folks since they decide to change it every few years.

Problem solving skills?

Students need to be taught a systemic method of solving problems, that they can apply in real life situations. There is a reason why schools all over the world are adopting lessons in computer programming. If-else statements and loops are not just for geeks, but are useful skills for solving problems.

Students are not only taught methods to approach the problem, but the way to break the problem into several parts, and to find steps to resolve these sub-problems, to ultimately solve the big question.

In OECD PISA 2012, in addition to Mathematics, Science and Reading tests, a Problem Solving test was included, and in this,

Malaysia students perform ridiculously poorly in this test, averaging a very low 422–far away from the OECD average of 500, and astronomically distant from our  Neighbour Singapore where the average score was 562. Basically the ability for our students to solve problem is missing, not surprising since problem solving isn’t really something our education system is geared towards. [Source: Keith Rozario]


I understand the hope all parents have for their children, that they only want the best for them. I get the pressure parents face to send their kids off for extra classes to help them achieve the best results in schools.

But at what cost? (And it isn’t just monetary cost we’re referring to, but the loss of the precious high spirits our children are born with.)

Perhaps what we as parents need to do is figure out, what really is the best for our children? Is it an ultimate necessity for them to be the best in everything they do, so much that they are faced with exams and get so stressed out from such a young age? Or would we want them to remember their childhood as a time of love and fun with their family? How about giving them the necessary skills that make them approach adulthood with a level of confidence that neither of us had?

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