Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia Part 5: Education Will Change Your Life

"Education is the most power weapon you can use to change the world."
-Nelson Mandela- 

When I was young, I asked my dad on many occasions why we didn’t have the good life as other children had. My father’s reply was always this, “Study hard, Bee Yin, education will change your life.”

Indeed, it has. It not only changed my life but the lives of my siblings and childhood friends. Education opened up possibilities we would never have imagined as children from a small town. Although we may not be rich, many of us are better off than our parents’ generation. Education changes and improves lives, sometimes above and beyond what we could imagine.

Education is not only important at the individual level – it is also a factor that leads to the success of a country. Education prepares the next generation who will drive the country’s wheel of economy and development. A free, democratic, developed and prosperous country needs an educated workforce as well as equally educated and dynamic leaders.


The world is not fair. By accident of birth, some people enjoy better starting points than others. The sons of traditional fishermen in Tanjung Karang do not get the same family upbringing as the sons of engineers and lawyers in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. The daughters of blue-collared workers, who stay in low-cost flats in the cities, do not get the same learning environment as the daughters of white-collared professionals, who stay in condominiums, terrace houses and big bungalows in the cities.

A good public education is a great equaliser as it provides an equal opportunity for children of the haves and the have-nots. Public education makes the unfair world fairer.

The Standard of Public Education in Malaysia

Unfortunately, the standard of our public education system has been deteriorating. Malaysia continuously ranks in the bottom one-third of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a once-in-three year international assessment of 15-year-old students in mathematics, reading and science. Malaysia has participated in PISA since 2009 and has scored below global average from the start, ranking 55 out of 74 countries in 2009 and 52 out of 65 countries in 2012[1].

Just when we thought we had achieved some improvement in 2015, PISA announced that it would not recognise the result because Malaysia’s data response rate fell short of PISA’s 85 percent requirement, at only 51 percent [2]. As a result, Malaysia became the only country amongst the 72 participating countries to have been dropped from the official ranking.

It was evident that the schools that participated in PISA were high-performing schools, raising suspicion that the Malaysian government attempted to deceive PISA to get higher PISA scores.5 Even more pathetically, despite this artificially “better” PISA scores, we still lag behind the global average – we scored 446 in mathematics, 431 in reading and 443 in science while global average was 490 in mathematics and 493 for both reading and science [3].

How can we become a developed country when most of our children are studying in an education system that is at the bottom one-third of the international rankings? And even worse, the government tried to cheat to paint a rosier picture about it!

You may think that it is unfair to compare our PISA scores to other countries because we are a developing nation. According to international trends, a country’s PISA scores is positively correlated to its GDP per capita, whereby countries with higher GDP per capita achieve higher PISA scores. This figure clearly demonstrates that Malaysia is the exception to the rule to this positive correlation. We have performed worse than our GDP per capita level.

Average PISA (2009) Against GDP per Capita
Source: Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Preschool to Post-secondary Educations), p. 3-27

There is genuine concern among parents that our young will lose out to their counterparts in other countries in terms of competitiveness. As a result, we are seeing an increasing number of parents sending their children to private schools, which are mushrooming in cities around Malaysia.

During my school days, even the children from the rich families in town went to the same public schools as everyone else (except the super-rich ones). The generation before me was the same. Today, even middle-class parents send their children for private education. Some have to change their lifestyles in order to be able to do so. For those who can’t afford private education, many will still squeeze their last ringgit to send their children for private tuition classes.

More and more parents are sending their children to international schools. While we are a middle-income country, Malaysia’s international schools actually rank 8th on the list of the most expensive schools in the world according to Expat Finder[4]! Despite such steep prices, the number of international schools is increasing rapidly with a growth rate of more than 20 percent per year2.

Indeed, public education is still free in Malaysia, but good education is no longer free. For the first time in the history of Malaysia, our children are separated by social classes.

Who Will Be Affected The Most?

When public education is bad, everyone suffers. Sadly, the most affected group is the children of the bottom of the pyramid. Their parents can hardly afford anything more than sending them to school and some even have to incur debt when the school year begins.

In addition, among those who attend public schools, there is also inequality in access to good schools between students of different social classes. Let me show you some numbers. The figure is a graph of distribution of schools according to their performance with Band 1 being the highest performance and Band 7 the lowest. The Poor Students’ Trust Fund, or Kumpulan Wang Amanah Pelajar Miskin (KWAPM), is a financial assistance scheme to help students from low-income families.

Distribution of Student Population Receiving KWAPM by School Band in 2011
Source: Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Preschool to Post-secondary Educations), p. 320

What we can see here is that poor students, i.e. those who receive KWAPM, are more likely to end up in under-performing schools – only 7 per cent of Band 1 and 2 schools have more than two-thirds of the student population receiving KWAPM, compared to 19 percent on average in Bands 3, 4 and 5 schools and 52 per cent of under-performing Bands 6 and 7 schools. The inequality situation is even more severe among indigenous children, which I will discuss in later episode of the series.

What will happen to the children from low-income families who are more likely to end up in under-performing schools and whose parents can’t afford to send them to tuition classes? The answer is that they will drop out of school. The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) found that 90 percent of school dropouts were from the bottom 40 percent of income earners [5].

The Poor Don’t Want Education?

Many people say that poor students drop out of school because they don’t like to study or that their parents don’t want them to go to school. This is an unfair generalisation.

At the end of 2013, I started a free tuition centre at Damansara Bistari, a low-cost apartment development in my constituency, to provide free tuition to children whose parents could not afford to send them for private tuition. Close to four years of experience tells me that with the right strategy, and most importantly, passionate teachers, the children will attend the classes, improve and even achieve good results.

I hired a coordinator, Loyis Uding, to coordinate the free tuition initiative shortly after launching the project. With his help coordinating the volunteer teachers and students, the free tuition project runs more than 20 classes a week. There are classes from Standard 1 to Form 5 for English and Mathematics (as well as Science for higher grades). Below are some pictures of the classes. 

Loyis occasionally organises non-academic programmes such as visits to the zoo and science centre that are aimed at sustaining the students’ interest and motivating them to continue attending classes. 

A month before UPSR each year, he organises intensive classes for Standard 6 students. Students that achieve more than 90 percent attendance get to go to Sunway Lagoon after UPSR, fully sponsored by my office. Below is the picture of the UPSR students together with Loyis (left most) and volunteer teacher Carissa (fourth from right) in one of the Sunway Lagoon trips. 

You will probably be surprised to learn that a simple Sunway Lagoon trip coupled with passionate teachers are actually enough to motivate UPSR students to come for these intensive classes. They work hard because someone is willing to invest in them and help them in their studies. Many of them have achieved good results in their UPSR.  

Hundreds of students have benefitted from the free tuition project. Until today, four years after the inception of the project, there are still parents who come up to me during community events to thank me for this initiative. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction in my job than seeing lives change because of the little things we do.

Nevertheless, it isn’t enough to change the lives of a small group of people. We need policy change at the national level so that all children with a similar or even worse background can benefit. Every child, regardless of family background, must have access to good education in the school he or she attends. 

Why Should The Middle Class Care?

You probably belong to either the middle or upper class and may wonder why you should care about the unequal access to good education that children at the bottom of the pyramid face. After all, you can afford tuition classes or private education for your children.

Aside from its injustice, a practical answer is that inequality is bad and it will result in negative consequences not just for the poor but for everyone, including social instability and a worsening economy.

A thriving talent pool is a big part of a vibrant economy. When the job market is filled with people who have a good education and are well-trained, the economy flourishes because of greater worker productivity. Or who knows, the son or daughter of those at the bottom of the pyramid could well be the next Jack Ma, the Chinese business magnate who created hundreds of thousands of jobs for his country.

Education enables rags to riches stories at the individual level as well as higher labour productivity and job creation at the macro level. Everyone benefits when there is good public education, regardless of whether they are direct consumers of public education or not. Because of this, educational reform should be at the top of the list of our nation-building agenda.

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss the important aspects of improving public schools.

This article is extracted from a chapter of my book, "Reimagining Malaysia."

[1] Kang Soon Chen. Malaysia ranks 52 out of 65 countries in international assessment programme. The Star Online. 5 Dec 2013 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] Ong Kian Ming. Did the education ministry artificially boost Malaysia’s school scores? Malaysiakini. 8 Dec 2016 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[3] Sandhya Menon. Malaysia sees improvement in Pisa scores. The Star Online. 6 Dec 2016 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[4] ExpatFinder. International school fees survey 2016. [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[5] Tammana Patel. Dropping out of school in Malaysia: what we know and what needs to be done. Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). Policy IDEAS No.14. July 2014 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
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