Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysian Education: Memorise or Die

Written by johnleemk on 12:13:17 pm Jun 10, 2005.
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Note: This article was originally a post written in response to a thread at HeavenGames Forums entitled The Progression/Digression of American Schools.

Hehe, look on the bright side, guys. In Malaysia, elementary schools are voluntarily segregated. Not only do these schools operate legally, but they are funded by the government. Most "integrated" public schools are still predominantly Malay, because the option of sending your kid to a Chinese or Tamil school is always available.

And in secondary school, we don't have any choice of courses beyond in our equivalent of tenth grade, where if you did well enough in your ninth grade finals, you get to choose to be streamed into either the arts or science streams. Even so, in most schools you must take every single course available to you until eleventh grade, where you are allowed to choose the courses you prefer. After eleventh grade, you either graduate or continue to twelfth grade. Most choose the former, as school here is a complete waste of time.

In the ninth, eleventh and twelfth grades, we are administered standardised tests. I have not seen the syllabus for the eleventh or twelfth grades yet, so I have no idea whether it improves (although what my schoolmates have told me does not appear promising). For the ninth grade test, however, we are crammed full of useless material.

For example, in Geography, we are expected to know how many oil rigs are in each state, among other things. In addition, we're also expected to memorise more than 30 definitions of moral values. These values are not tested in ninth grade, but definitely are in eleventh (not sure about twelfth). If your definition does not contain any "key words", you are penalised. Recently a new subject was introduced, beginning with this year's seventh graders: Civics & Citizenship. I don't know how bad it is, but considering how badly screwed our moral education is, I don't think I want to.

Moving on, in eighth grade history (seventh and eighth grades prepare you for the ninth grade test), one chapter of the textbook alone covers more than half a dozen "patriots" who led insignificant insurrections against the British at around the turn of the century. None of these insurrections killed more than a few hundred men, and that's an optimistic figure. We are expected to know every single detail about these men, in some cases, extending even to places and buildings named after them. We need to know where they fought, where they retreated to, how many men they led, etc. This is just one chapter. Out of a book with about a dozen chapters. Three books per grade. You do the math.

I don't know how my "smart" classmates keep up, and I doubt I ought to know. Most of my classmates, including the ones who fare worse than me in class, attend tuition three or four times a week. The really poor (academically) rich (financially) ones may attend tuition daily. It's simply ridiculous.

For purposes of scouting and comparison (and also because I want to sit for them), I reviewed sample papers of the Cambridge International Examinations syndicate's examinations for subjects like history and geography for both O-levels and A-levels (O stands for ordinary, A stands for advanced). It's astounding. In A-level history, for example, students are asked to answer questions based on material given in the question! (In one case I saw, a question on World War I presented quotes from key players in World War I to assist test-takers.) In O-level history, students don't need to regurgitate facts either. Instead, they need to answer questions which assume they know the gist of the story and not necessarily the nitty-gritty details.

For example, you don't need to know how many people died in World War II to answer a question on the effects of the Holocaust. In a Malaysian exam, on the other hand, you'd need a few dozen statistics and facts at the ready. Perhaps Westerners find this ordinary, but for someone who has spent his whole school life faced by tests expecting regurgitation of mind-numbing details, this is extraordinary.

However, most students, despite the griping about Malaysia's exam-centredness, don't want change. They consider it easy to memorise facts than having to grapple with concepts and theories and ideas. To them, it's extraordinarily difficult to expend any brainpower at all. They figure it's a better allocation of time to cram their heads with enough data to fill the Library of Congress. I hope to high heavens it's not the same in the US of A. If it is, it spells America's doom, in much the same way, as it has set Malaysia on the spiraling course to mediocrity.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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