Tuesday 7 August 2012

Evolution of the Malaysian education policy — Hussaini Abdul Karim

AUG 7 — When Malaya was under British rule, the government at that time identified a need to establish a systematic school system that would offer quality education for all races in the country. However, it was made to satisfy British interests but not to the nation as a whole. In 1950, the Barnes Committee headed by LJ Barnes (Oxford University) was established to conduct a study on meeting such a requirement. The 1951 Barnes Report highlighted the following recommendation: All Malay and English schools would be preserved and should be given priority. Vernacular schools would be closed and replaced by the National School. English would be the medium of instruction at the secondary level. Free education was guaranteed in the National School.

The Chinese and the Indian communities were dissatisfied with Barnes’ recommendations and insisted that the national education system should take into consideration the interests of the Chinese and the Indian communities as well. The Fenn-Wuu Committee was then established to revise the education needs for the Chinese community. The committee recommended that the Malay, Chinese and Indian languages should simultaneously be a medium of instruction in the school system and therefore, all schoolbooks should use those languages. However, the government objected to the proposal. At the same time, the British administration implemented its own education policy that meets their interest but not the nation’s interest.

At the end of British colonialism era, society, especially several groups of educated Malays, initiated a move to revamp the colonial education system. The essence of having a new national education policy was to make it more representative of the nation. The aspect of nation building was seen by the movement as a priority when formulating an education policy. The government then agreed to set up a special committee led by Tun Abdul Razak (first minister of education and the second prime minister of Malaysia) to make several recommendations. This committee was composed of several high-level government officials and education experts from various groups (local and foreign). This comprehensive recommendation was known as the Razak Report 1956. The objective of this committee was to establish a national education system that would promote cultural, social, economic and political development that would be accepted by the nation as a whole, having regarded the Malay language as the national language. Hence, the Malay language should be the main medium of instruction in the education system. The content of the Razak Report was later to become the basis for establishing the Education Ordinance 1957. Furthermore, the Malaysian Government at that time had started to make several evolutionary changes especially on the education curriculum to suit the aspirations of projecting a Malaysian outlook. It was thought that the Education Policy should reflect a feeling of satisfaction and an endorsement of all the different communities in Malaysia.

Later, to speed up the process of national integration and unity, the Rahman Talib Report was made by a new special committee to review the education policy in 1960 and that became the basis in establishing the Education Act 1961. The act provided the legal basis for enabling the national language to be a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools and in all training institutions. The act required pupils to have a satisfactory grade in the national language subject in order to be awarded a certificate for public education examination, especially at the end of the lower and upper secondary levels. All schools using English as the medium of instruction were gradually adopting the national language. Since Malay is the national language and it had already been accepted by the Chinese, Indian and other communities; it was designed that such enforcement will enable Malaysian society as a whole to uphold the national language and the people be made proficient in the use of the language.

In 1979, a report from the Special Cabinet Committee chaired by Dr Mahathir Mohammad (Mahathir Report), who was the minister of education at that time (in 1981 he became the Prime Minister), was finalised after a six-year study. The objectives were to achieve national unity in a multi-ethnic plural society besides increasing the sense of patriotism, to produce skilled manpower for national development and to further extend the policy of democratisation of education in order to strike a balance in all aspects of education between rural and urban areas.

This report has become a guideline for reforming the education system in recent years. In 1995 and 1996, the Education Act was amended to give sufficient need to meet the challenges in the 21st century besides making Malaysia an international centre of excellence in education.

The current national education philosophy requires that it is essential to develop potential individuals who are responsible and capable of achieving a high level of personal well-being as well as being able to contribute to the harmony and betterment of the family, the society and the nation at large. Pre-school education has become one of the important components of the formal education system after the Education Act was enacted in 1996. It guarantees the access of pre-school education to children between the age of five and six in the urban and rural areas. This will guarantee that the rural society will get the same opportunity to develop their social status by having quality education. The New Primary and Secondary Education Curriculums were introduced to focus on developing skilled and knowledge manpower for the nation.

From the brief explanation above, we can conclude that the education policy in Malaysia is dynamic and changed from time to time in order to meet current and future demands. (However, some call it flip-flop for reasons only known to them). We also can observe that such policy will be effectively implemented through collaboration among races and also through enforcing it by legal means.

The National Education Dialogue

On April 28, the Education Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, announced the commencement of the National Education Dialogue and the government invited all strata of society to express their views and feelings through the National Dialogue on education to elevate the national education system.

“The series of dialogues is a historical initiative because for the first time, the government is inviting views from the general public on a large scale to participate together in drawing up the development plan for national education as we enter into the new phase of transformation,” he said.

Muhyiddin said a preliminary report would be prepared after the completion of the study and members of the public were again invited to give their views before the National Education Blueprint was finalised.

However, he pointed out that the series of dialogues was not an avenue for making excessive demands which contradicted the fundamentals enshrined in the Constitution, law and Rukunegara.

He said the series of dialogues were aimed at enhancing the quality of all schools including the national schools, Chinese/Tamil National Type Schools, mission schools and government-aided religious schools.

Muhyiddin said the government had stipulated nine major fields of review namely: elevating the teaching profession; raising the quality of school leadership; raising the quality of schools, which was an important element in the efforts to raise the quality of teaching and learning; strengthening the quality and assessment for preparing human capital for the 21st century.

Subsequently, to enhance the command of the various languages among students; the involvement of parents, the private sector and the community as partners in education; raising the preparedness of students to grab opportunities in higher education and the labour market; improving the efficiency and effectiveness of resource management and to develop the capacity and capability of the education delivery system.

The first leg of the dialogue series, known as the Townhall Series, was held in Putrajaya on April 28, 2012 immediately after the inaugural speech and the last one on July 14, 2012 at KSL Resort, JB and in between that, the series covered all the states in West and East Malaysia. A total of 16 series were held and the series recorded an attendance of more than 10,000 people with more than 2500 responses received.

The government blueprint on the national education transformation plan based on the responses received would be made public sometime in September this year, I was told.


The issue of language and schools is a key issue for many political groups in Malaysia. Umno champions the cause of using Malay as the medium of instruction in all schools. However, under the Razak Report, primary schools using the Chinese and Tamil language as medium of instruction are retained. Up until 1981 in Peninsular Malaysia (and some years later in Sarawak), there were also English-medium schools, set up by the former colonial government and Christian missionaries. Following the race riots in Kuala Lumpur in May 1969, English-medium schools were phased out from January 1970, so that by 1982, these became Malay-medium schools (“national schools”).

The existence of national-type schools is used by non-Malays components of the ruling Barisan Nasional to indicate that their culture and identity have not been infringed upon by the Malay people. Dong Jiao Zhong (the association of Chinese school boards and teachers) and other Chinese educational organisations took on the role of safeguarding Chinese education in the country, and are opposed to the idea of Malay replacing Chinese as medium of instruction in Chinese schools. They still shape much of the views of the Chinese educated community, which is a key electoral constituency.

In 2002, the government announced that from 2003 onwards, the teaching of Science and Mathematics (PPSMI) would be done in English, in order to ensure that Malaysia will not be left behind in a world that was rapidly becoming globalised. This paved the way for the establishment of mixed-medium education.

However, the policy was heavily criticised by Malay linguists and activists (Pejuang Bahasa), fearing that the policy might erode the usage of Malay language in science and mathematics, which led to a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur on March 7, 2009. Various Chinese educational groups were opposed to the policy as well, fearing that it might erode the usage of Chinese as the medium of instruction in Chinese schools. The government announced in 2009 that this policy would be reversed in 2012, where the teaching of both subjects would revert to Malay. Due to the lack of Chinese students attending national schools, coupled with the increasing number of non-Chinese students attending Chinese national-type schools, the government announced in April 2005 that all national schools would begin teaching Chinese and Tamil in order to attract more students, not as mother tongue courses but as elective courses.

The change in the use of Bahasa Melayu from English in national schools was completed in 1982 and now, a whole generation of Malaysians and more have undergone studies from pre-school to university completely in Bahasa Melayu and what is the result of this and its impact?

As a replacement for the PPSMI policy, the new MBMMBI policy was introduced and it took effect in January this year. MBMMBI is supposed to make our students proficient in both Bahasa Malaysia and English language but since day one of its implementation, it has been wrought with problems — not enough qualified teachers, not enough text books in English, etc., and it continuously is the subject of attacks by many quarters, especially the supporters of PPSMI.

The situation then and now

The most obvious negative impact is the eroding standard of English of our graduates and many fail to secure jobs, especially in the private sector due to this. The figure of graduates unemployed is very high, some say more than 10,000 and many have been in that situation for more than three years. The government can only take so much to join the civil service leaving many of them stranded. This has necessitated in the MOE and the MOHE coming out with various programmes to check the standard and improve the school students and the undergraduates’ command of English and spending a lot of money at the same time. So far, none of them have met with the required success. This has prompted many parents to send their children to tuition centres in order to enable their children to master English. Some are even trying home schooling.

It is not the responsibility of the universities to teach their undergraduates English however, due to their poor standard, and to improve their employability after they graduate, it has become a necessity. This is however, stretching their resources as well as the students’. The students should be grateful for the efforts taken.

The universities (IPTA) now have to handle the problem and shoulder the burden which should not be the case had the Ministry of Education ensured that a better English language syllabus, sufficient qualified teachers and proper emphasis on English language were given at national primary and secondary schools very much like the earlier days when our students’ command of the English language were at par with the best in the world.

The liberalisation of rules and regulations on private international schools saw many parents sending their children there instead of sending them to national schools and many parents in Johor Bahru seem to prefer to send their children to study in Singapore, never mind the many inconveniences they and their children have to go through daily and the higher cost. Of course, the wealthy ones send their children to public or private schools in either the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia, etc. While these choices may be good in terms of getting better and quality education, they may not be good in moulding young children into good citizens.

When national schools used English as the main language, Malaysia had one of the best education systems in the world. In spite of using English as the main language for instruction in national schools, we were still bilingual and many, especially the Chinese and the Indians, and a few of the Malays as well, were trilingual. There were even those who mastered one or two additional foreign language, viz. French, German, Spanish and Japanese. That was possible because the schools allowed for the study of vernacular languages as an option. Students went on to study at local and overseas universities, some were among the best in the UK and the Ivy League in the US, some to the highest doctoral level, and they all came back with their identity as Malaysians intact. They still enjoyed eating rice with their fingers with ‘ikan masak lemak cili api plus ulam and sambal belacan’, char koay teow, tosei, apom, and bak chang, drink ‘air sirap limau’, dancing the joget, listening to the keroncong, singing P. Ramlee’s songs and wearing sarong when sleeping instead of going after Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips or steaks or wearing pajamas or Long Johns when sleeping and they still spoke Malay, Cantonese or Tamil at home more than English. They still went to pray at mosques, suraus, temples and they jointly celebrated the festivals of all the major communities. Cultural festivals of all communities were celebrated together and the customary ‘rumah terbuka’ (open house) during communal festivals were celebrated together too.

Many Malaysians in those days, because of their excellent command of the English language held positions in august organisations and institutions such as UNESCO, United Nations, the World Court at The Hague, ASEAN, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, etc.

Malaysian university dons were very welcomed when they held academic chairs by their peers, colleagues and students in universities in the UK and the US, among others and in the uniformed groups, very senior Police and Armed Forces Officers held senior command positions in the UN International Peacekeeping Forces Headquarters and they performed as exemplary officers, highly respected and regarded by their international colleagues.

One of the most important benefits national schools enjoyed those days were the ability to garner unity (perpaduan) among the people because children and youths of all races went to the same schools. They spoke both Bahasa Melayu and English or Chinese or Tamil. There, they mixed, worked and played together. Competition to be the best was real as everyone had the same opportunities to excel and we saw meritocracy being practised in a better way than what is being done currently.

What do we hear people talking about or read about every day in mainstream and some alternative newspapers today on education? We hear complaints about the poor education system and the loud cries to have the old school system brought back made by all the stakeholders from all cross-section of people including comments and criticisms made by foreigners in support for the people’s call to bring back English medium schools because they all are of the opinion that that is the best school system for the country and this has been going on since at least twenty years or so ago but the government has still remain to be stubborn and refuse to hear the people’s grouses.

The recently concluded National Education Dialogue does give us some promise but we do not know the outcome yet. We can only hope for the best. Many interesting and excellent proposals were submitted and we hope the MOE pays attention to them.

Let’s bring back public schools and use English as the medium of instruction and this will make our education system complete or, if this is not possible, at the very least, set up integrated schools and let our students learn in both English and Bahasa Malaysia but equal intensity and attention must be accorded to both languages. This way, our students can be truly bilingual and the new MBMMBI policy will be upheld by all.

In all the systems proposed here, all vernacular and foreign languages are to be offered as options and the SRJK/SMJK schools do not have to be closed down.

How long more does the government want to wait and continue to ignore the cries of the people demanding for a better education system and their demand for quality education for their children? One generation is already too long a wait.

Children and youths of today are our future.

The prime minister has lined up a very ambitious transformation programme that affects many areas of development including education in the form of the ETP and the GTP in order to achieve Vision 2020; i.e. in order for our country Malaysia to be a high income nation and a fully developed country with first world status.

If our people can master the English language and be as good in their mastery as with Bahasa Malaysia, there will be fewer obstacles for all to face and achieving Vision 2020 would be more realistic.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I do support the reestablishment of English-medium schools in Malaysia. It adds to the plurality of our education system and is way way better than hard-handedly removing all national-type and faith schools, leaving only national schools. In any case, entry into educational institutions and awarding of scholarships should be awarded based solely on both academic merits and financial status and not on ethnicity, such as certain institutions like MRSM and UITM. Scrap this bumi and non-bumi bullshit from Malaysia because it is only taking us backwards. Assuming that all odds are equal, Malaysians of all races and religion should compete on a level playing field.