Is Malaysia's education system really on par with Singapore's?

A ministry study purportedly confirms that Malaysia's education curriculum is on par with Singapore's and Japan's.

An asian girl in an education facility, likely a library, doing her homework.
Can the Malaysian education system actually breed world-class students and workforce? (Photo: Getty images)

By Ng Miaoling

For years, critics have slammed Malaysia's education system for its seeming lack of progress. Indeed, a former minister even admitted, in a not-too-distant past, to it being stagnant.

Despite that, however, and another politician recently alleging that the Malaysian syllabus lags behind Singapore's by three years, Malaysian Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek thinks the country's doing just fine.

In fact, according to her, a ministry study purportedly confirms that Malaysia's education curriculum is on par with Singapore's and Japan's.

But is that the whole truth?

Key differences

For starters, it is essential to differentiate between curriculum and syllabus.

A curriculum is a comprehensive guide for teachers that covers topics, courses, tasks and educational goals. In contrast, a syllabus is how those topics are presented to students in a classroom.

That being the case, Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, who heads Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia, an educational non-governmental organisation, believes Fadhlina may be correct.

She explains that this is because the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), an examination that is taken by Malaysian students in the final year of secondary school, offers more subjects than similar assessments in the region, including the GCE 'O' Level, which Singaporean students take.

Education activist Zul Fikri Zamir, however, thinks differently.

He said the focus should be primarily on Malaysia's education syllabus. Indeed, the chief executive of educational rights group Untuk Malaysia believes that this, rather than comparisons with the curricula of different countries, is what can help address the inherent flaws in the system.

"If we want to judge the school system from the outside, we need to know the entire system. The curriculum is just a guide. How the curriculum is taught inside the classroom is more important as it translates to student learning."

A tale of two systems

In 2018, the last time the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) benchmarking Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) was conducted, Malaysia fared very poorly.

Coming 59th to Singapore's 2nd place finish in the international study that featured just 79 countries, the results painted a worrying picture of the gulf between Malaysia and its southern neighbour.

Yet this state of affairs did not occur overnight.

Malaysia's education system, like Singapore's, is highly centralised.

All power rests with the Education Ministry, which enacts policies for the whole country. But while there are benefits to this system, among them that a uniform approach can be implemented for the entire country, education is overly politicised.

For instance, curricula have often included politically-driven courses, a situation that has then resulted in inadequate resources for essential subjects like mathematics, reading, and science. In some schools, students are even required to learn multiple languages.

The problem is further compounded by shifting targets depending on who is in power and/or appointed to head the ministry. This fact is exemplified by the years-long kerfuffle over the teaching of science and mathematics in English and the one-time planned introduction of Arabic calligraphy.

See Ho, a parent who sent three of her four children to Singapore to study, is, unsurprisingly, frustrated.

"I want my children to learn subjects that will be beneficial for their future and open up more opportunities, rather than subjects or languages that are only useful in Malaysia," she said.

"It is so important to master English. Compared with Malaysia, Singapore's English education is more advanced. Learning two languages (English and Mandarin) is already very challenging, so by studying in Singapore, my children won't have to learn a third language — Bahasa Melayu, which is only useful in Malaysia."

Additionally, there is the problem of questionable teacher recruitment policies and training, which, critics say, has resulted in a lack of quality educators.

Untuk Malaysia's Zul Fikri concurs with this assessment and also highlights how teachers in Malaysia do not receive proper training once they are in the system. He notes, too, how teachers are forced to juggle multiple duties, which do not have a significant impact on student learning.

"Unfortunately, teachers do not get trained after a certain number of years; they train on their own, like getting a master's degree … So, how do you measure the effectiveness of teachers after 10 years?" he said.

A mother dressing her son for school in their house.
Some parents in Malaysia have also decided to send their children to Singapore in hopes of getting more quality education. (Photo: Getty Images)

No easy fix

But things could improve, Zul Fikri says, if Malaysia begins decentralising its education system.

He suggests that a centralised core academic curriculum can be maintained but that schools should be given the autonomy to decide on the proportion of other subjects. Furthermore, the transfer of oversight to state governments might provide more funding for infrastructure and digital resources.

"Putrajaya has the sole say on the curriculum and teachers, which is a real problem. We have to bear in mind that Sabah, for example, has a different set of problems as compared to Putrajaya. This is why decentralisation is very important.

"The idea is to give power to the states; for the states to have about 80-90 per cent say, for instance, on how they should treat their physical infrastructure, recruit teachers, pay salaries, and their curriculum," he said.

Incidentally, decentralising control would then mirror, in some way, Singapore's education system, which has moved from top-down control to more bottom-up initiatives.

Both Zul Fikri and Tunku Munawirah Putra, PAGE's honorary secretary, meanwhile, stress that effective teaching should be a paramount focus. And this should begin with better training and perhaps the implementation of a "pay and promotion" structure that rewards good teaching.

"Effective teaching is key to increasing students' understanding … and if good teaching can be rewarded with pay and promotion, that will really motivate teachers to constantly discover ways to increase students' understanding of the subjects instead of treating teaching as a job of last resort," Tunku Munawirah said.

A "tougher syllabus", though, should not be considered, Zul Fikri noted, if the goal is simply to improve our standing in the eyes of the world.

He pointed especially to the staggering high school dropout rate as justification, and adds that getting these students back should be the primary objective.

He said that when kids from the B40 economic group and poor families do not have money to buy books or laptops to learn, they struggle to follow the syllabus. And when that happens, these students fail and/or drop out of school.

"My suggestion is to change the syllabus in other ways, not by using the Pisa themes and metrics, but by designing a syllabus that caters to students' needs and builds their capacity for the future," he said.

Note that the Education Ministry has refuted the high dropout figures that Untuk Malaysia and other groups have alleged. But what remains true is that many students appear to be struggling to cope, and end up leaving school early.

Commenting on whether she would consider bringing her kids back to study in Malaysia, See Ho said it is a possibility, but that things would have to change significantly.

"It pains me to see my children waking up at 4am daily to cross the border and return at 8pm just to receive a better education in Singapore. I hope our new government can prioritise improving the quality of education and prioritise core subjects such as English and Maths, and remove politically motivated subjects, so that our kids can learn and thrive in the education system here in Malaysia," she said.

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