Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysian Education: A Chronicle of Mishaps and Errors

Written by johnleemk on 10:34:53 am Jun 13, 2005.
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One cord that apparently binds Malaysians together is our unanimous agreement that something is wrong with our schools. Just what exactly is wrong, however, is a subject of much contention.

Some UMNO politicians argue that it is because we are segregated, while we should be uniting our children in national schools. Others say that we are not building enough vernacular schools. Parents of children just starting school often complain of heavy schoolbags. Lately bullying has also become a hot topic when it comes to discussing Malaysian schools.

What is often overlooked, however, are two important factors: the syllabus/curriculum, and the teachers/school administrators. As a mere student, I cannot provide hard statistics or surveys to back up my experiences. However, I believe my run-ins with the system do indicate that something is very wrong with the way we run our schools, statistics or no statistics.

Problem #1: Activist school administrators. In early 2003, I was attending secondary school for the first time. Those were turbulent days, politically. It was the build-up to the Second Gulf War. Being kindhearted Malaysians, we formed a pressure group, Malaysians For Peace, and circulated a petition against the war. This petition reached my school, and the school administrators decided it would be a wonderful thing to pass this around for the students to sign. However, defeating the purpose of a petition, they made signing mandatory.
Exactly what punishment would be consequent should anyone dare to not sign, nobody could tell. Form one students, after all, are not exactly the type to challenge authority.

Anyhow, I asked a couple of class monitors, who were in charge of ensuring everyone signed, if I couldn't sign, as a matter of principle. They looked at me as though I was nuts. They would be the ones in trouble, they said, if anyone did not sign. Shrugging it off, I signed. I didn't support the war anyway. Later at recess, I found out that there actually were a few people who supported the war but signed anyway because they were forced to.

Problem #2: Money-crazed school administrators. At the end of 2003, I transferred to another school, mainly because of the lax discipline and isolated location of my old one. The school administration here, however, seems to be more concerned with money. In 2004, we had a jogathon, attended by the local State Assemblywoman for fundraising. Then because our target was not met, the funds raised were spent immediately instead of being kept to accumulate with the funds from the 2005 jogathon.

What was the money spent on? Carpet for the stage in the hall. We students weren't too sure what that was for, as we hardly ever use the stage except for once-a-year events, none of which ever faced a setback due to a lack of soft flooring. What else was our money used for? Raising of the stage in front of the assembly ground. Strangely enough, the students this year don't seem any taller than last year, so we're still wondering what a higher stage was needed for.

In 2005, it got worse. We were ordered to purchase and wear school socks. Now, if these had been priced reasonably and of decent quality, nobody would mind. But the pricing was outrageous (RM5 for a pair), and the socks were thin enough to see through. And the school's excuse for pushing these socks? Girls were wearing their socks too low. Strangely enough, the largest size of these socks for girls wasn't any bigger than the standard size. After a lot of complaints, the school scrapped the idea.

The school also holds extra classes after usual schooling hours for students sitting the PMR and SPM (Penilaian Menengah Rendah and Sijil Pendidikan Malaysia, or Lower Secondary Evaluation and the Malaysian Certificate of Education). These classes cost RM25 for each subject, and are mandatory. Considering PMR-sitters have about ten subjects, that works out to RM250, as much as the school fees paid at the beginning of the year. And for what? An extra hour per week for each subject.

And getting out of these classes is no easy task either. There is no opt-out choice on the form for parents to fill out. Stating on the form you refuse to enrol your child in these classes is not an option either. An official letter is demanded. Nevertheless, this method is not publicised unless you request to be excused. Otherwise, the only recourse offered is if you already attend tuition outside, in which case, a letter from the tutor is required. Some classes had their teachers tell them there was absolutely no way you could be excused
from classes unless you already take tuition outside.

The school also holds ICT (Information and Communications Technology) classes during school hours for two periods (70 minutes) each week. These classes are available only to Form 1, 2 and 3 students, and are mandatory. No option to opt-out is given; the cost of RM100 is built into the school fees at the beginning of each term. However, most of the time devoted to these classes is spent on outlining simple tricks in Microsoft Excel. For example, teaching how to add up numbers in columns makes up the lesson for the week.

Problem #3: Incompetent teachers. In a form 2 class, for example, the following conversation was overheard:

Teacher: Bla, bla, bla, Dutch, bla, bla...
Student: Teacher, where did the Dutch come from?
Teacher: Um, ah, you don't need to know that. It doesn't come out in the exam.

In that same class, the geography teacher would pass out typed notes for students to paste in their notebooks. These notes, although comprehensive, were the only sort of teaching or mentoring done in class. That same teacher's lectures were mainly her reading aloud the notes she had just handed out.

Another teacher, who specialises in English famously pronunced the name Nigel as "neegel". A number of science teachers often teach by copying the answers for exercises, as well as the variables, hypotheses, inferences and conclusions for experiments on the blackboard, and ordering students to copy those down. While the students scribble, the teacher will lecture on the topic. Most students goof off during science class and study science at tuition.

A maths teacher made secondary school students cut and paste colourful pieces of paper like kindergarteners. Another English teacher appears to suffer from bipolar disorder, being extremely nice half the time, and the other half of the time going off on tangential rants about how evil the class is. Her complaints have on occasion, reduced students to tears. On one occasion, she demanded to know the latest gossip in class about her from one student, or else she would deduct his marks. He refused, and nothing came of the incident.

One science teacher in particular deserves special attention. Her English was at best, difficult to understand. Her lessons sometimes went too in-depth for form three students (as a Biology teacher, she seemed to have been carried away on occasion by the subject). And a mid-term paper she prepared was a disaster. For example, she marked the following definition of the function of red blood cells as wrong: "To distribute nutrients and oxygen throughout the body." In addition,
a question regarding the differences between polar bears and tropical bears saw the answer, "Polar bears have thicker fur than tropical bears. This is because they require more insulation to keep warm than in the tropics," marked wrong, because the textbook example was about the colour of bears' fur.

This teacher then transferred out. Unfortunately, her replacement who graded the papers, gave the following response when asked about the red blood cell question: "Red blood cells are to protect from sick."

Problem #4: A brazen lack of ethics among students. Students in every form submit coursework for a number of subjects each year. Depending on the whims of teachers, which subjects are subjected to this requirement vary. However, at a minimum, history, geography and life skills, all require written reports, for students in form 3 and below. I decided to snoop among my classmates in form 3 just before handing in our reports (these comments were collected at different times):

"I copied a three page long essay off the internet into Microsoft Word! Damn chun."

"[name removed] copied his 50-page long report from his cousin."

"Luckily I got [name removed]'s project, otherwise I would never have finished this on time."

"Shit, John, you need at least four references! What, you don't care? Make some [references] up!"

"I copied everything off the internet."

"If you make the project thick enough, that's 10 marks already. Teacher's so overworked, she can't read through that project thoroughly anyway, so that impression's already good enough for an A."

"Wah, John, you did that by yourself ah! Never copied from the internet or a book is it?"

"You took that diagram from Book Y, didn't you?"

"I read one paragraph, and then I got bored so I just buta-buta copy sahaja."

After doing coursework for three years, and this is all we came up with: 50-page long reports with little to no substance stolen from friends and family or the internet. That no teachers appear to have cared enough to even notice such practices in itself speaks volumes. Also, these comments have only been taken from students in the upper percentile of our year. It would be interesting to see how much the less academically-inclined students plagiarised their reports.

Problem #5: A less than well thought out syllabus. For purposes of comparison, I decided to look at a couple of international examinations: the SAT Reasoning Test, which is a college entrance examination administered worldwide, but generally only used in the United States of America, and the GCE O-levels.

The SAT is divided into three components: critical reading, mathematics and writing. Aside from more probing and insightful questions in comprehension, I did not see much difference between our style of examining English and the SAT's. In mathematics, however, surprisingly, all formulae and whatever a student would require to answer the questions were provided at the beginning. Otherwise, not much difference.

The GCE O-levels are administered by two examination boards: the Cambridge International Examinations syndicate, and the Edexcel (also known as the London Examination Board) syndicate. Although the syllabi do differ slightly, both administrations of the examination are accepted as equals. Interestingly, however, a student accustomed to the Malaysian way of studying would have to readjust considerably when it comes to preparing for the O-levels.

English would be satisfactory, mostly because the Malaysian PMR and SPM formats are based on O-level English. The same goes for Mathematics and Science (in effect, all the subjects we learn in English in Malaysia). However, there is a great difference when it comes to other subjects, and not just because the syllabi cover international history and geography.

For example, Malaysian students would be used to regurgitating answers for history. Where was Tunku Abdul Rahman born? How many tanks did the Japanese have when they invaded Malaya? Describe three effects of the Japanese occupation. These are the sort of questions we usually face in our history examinations. However, the O-level papers take this further: instead of asking only what, when and where, they also add how and why.

Describe the domestic policies of Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s. What benefits did Mussolini's domestic policies achieve for Italy? What problems faced the Weimar Republic in Germany from 1919 to 1926? Why did the Weimar Republic survive this period? Outline the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a civil rights leader. Why were some Black groups opposed to his policies?

In such questions, there is no objective, right-or-wrong answer. Instead of testing one's memory skills, these questions tax the reasoning and logical skills of students. It is the same with Geography. For Malaysian geography, among other important factoids we must remember are the number of oil rigs in each state, the exact location on a map of every mining area in Malaysia, the strategic economic functions of every river in Malaysia, and much more. With the
O-levels, there are no specific details to memorise. Knowing the general picture helps much more. For example, a geography O-level paper might test you on "Why is the percentage of people over 60 years of age expected to increase in the world generally by 2025?" or "Explain how and why plates move."

Although not even counted in the PMR, I have also decided to consider an additional subject: moral education. This subject has no comparable counterpart in the O-levels, but the material tested is interesting enough: about half the questions on the test are common sense, which means if you have enough grey matter to know killing is wrong, you know enough to pass. Real moral or philosophical dilemmas rarely, if ever, come out in the examinations. Most questions typically ask for the definition of a particular moral value, such as honesty, trustworthiness, belief in God, and so on. Who sets this definition?
The Ministry of Education. If the number of "key words" provided in the answer is insufficient, the student is penalised. That's where the other half of the marks on the paper come from.

Of course, strictly defining the problems confronting Malaysian education is no mean feat, and certainly a difficult task. I have, by no means, scratched the surface of the issues faced by students, educators and administrators alike everyday. Instead, I have attempted to sketch out key issues that as a student, I have encountered, without passing judgement on which is paramount. Perhaps for some it may be the idea that everyone has the same uniform definition of a
moral value. Perhaps some may be disgusted by the mixing of politics with education. Others may simply be aghast at the incompetence of the adults in classrooms these days. Whatever your specific gripe is, it is my hope your knowledge of the key problems with our schools, as seen through the eyes of a student, has been exceedingly broadened.


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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.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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