Edu Nation: Resolving Malaysia’s education dilemma

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 23, 2018 - July 29, 2018.
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Sekinchan-born Datuk Pua Khein Seng is world-famous for inventing the pen drive. Educated in a Chinese independent school in Selangor, he completed his secondary education and qualified with a Unified Examination Certificate (UEC). The path he chose enabled him to pursue an engineering degree at a university in Taiwan.

This move provided him with the knowledge, exposure and opportunity to be involved in electronics-based research at the university and made it possible for him to incorporate an electronics company in Taiwan. Upon his success there, he opened a branch of the company in Malaysia, thus benefiting the country. Not only did he manage to bring the knowledge he gained in Taiwan back to his country but he also put Malaysia on the map for electronics.

Pua’s case shows how important it is for parents to carefully plan their children’s education and future. The Education Act 1996 stipulates that children are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. Pua’s parents chose that pathway for him knowing very well that he would pursue his tertiary education outside Malaysia instead of in a local public university.

Parents who enrol their children in the Chinese or English education streams are prepared and would have made plans to send their offspring for further education abroad or at local private higher learning institutions. They are spoilt for choice for there are several UK and Australia-franchised universities here that accept various secondary school leaving certificates as long as their entry requirements are met.

Higher learning institutions exist to provide students with tertiary education. Therefore, they should have the autonomy to select their students and accept different pre-university examination results as long as they are of acceptable standard. For example, if they recognise GCE (General Certificate of Education) Advanced Level, ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank), IB (International Baccalaureate) or SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores as acceptable standards for entry, and if students achieve the minimum grade requirement, they should be allowed to attend these universities.

Rejecting UEC or GCE on the grounds that they are “not national enough” is just wrong. Students should not be precluded from entering a university on the basis of race, religion and the school stream they come from. A student should only be rejected if his/her academic standard is deemed not of the level required for a rigorous university programme or if the student does not meet the language proficiency requirement to keep up with the course work. For example, if the course is taught in Malay, it must require a minimum standard of Malay language proficiency.

But having said that, Malaysians who are in non-national streams must make the effort to be proficient and to converse, read, write and use the national language whenever the situation calls for it. Our national language binds us together as Malaysians and should always be cherished and proudly utilised. We need to work together to improve ourselves as Malaysians, and this includes appreciating the national language as one of the common grounds for harmony and the spirit of camaraderie.

Our homegrown UEC and GCE-qualified students should be allowed to gain public tertiary admission if they meet acceptable national language proficiency requirements. A university is undoubtedly a prime place to foster national integration, therefore let us not be petty and pessimistic by trying to impose our language values on one another. Everyone is free to learn and use the language they prefer in speech and education. We need to preserve and safeguard national unity and not let it be destroyed by those who are always looking for opportunities to break us up. For this, we must keep improving the country’s economy and the well-being of the people.

It is easy to lay the blame on an education system that is diverse and defined by race and language. Yes, we are in that unique dilemma but we need to focus on our diversity as a strength and harness that as a competitive advantage to gain knowledge and economic wealth. Malaysia is a trading nation, and we need multiple skills and languages to trade and communicate with the rest of the world.

However, if we aspire to have a one-school system, the focus should be on rebuilding our national schools to be of high quality and standard, and make education, not indoctrination, our top priority. We need to have well-qualified teachers. Pay them well, give them good incentives and keep them motivated. Encroaching on other stream schools without fixing the national schools is unjustifiable and really stirring up a hornets’ nest.

Chinese stream education has made so much progress over the years. Their school infrastructure, resources and programmes are far more superior to those of the national schools. They keep up with the times and ensure that their students benefit from the best that they can offer. There is even an independent Chinese school that offers the British International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE Ordinary Level) as there has been much demand for it.

The national school system, on the other hand, is seen to be motivated by political and racial causes instead of offering the best education possible. This is one of the main reasons national schools are not progressing. Some parents are not keen to enrol their children in national schools, which they see as lacking in quality and foresight.

We need a new approach to improve the national school system to ensure that our children get the best education possible according to the wishes of their parents. Offering more English-medium subjects as well as other languages while improving quality and competitiveness is a must. This will surely make the national schools more attractive to all races, thus laying the foundations for integration and making national schools the schools of choice instead of their present sad state of being the school of choice because parents have no other choice.


Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE), an educational lobbyist that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders

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