Monday, February 19, 2018

Reimagining Malaysia Part 6: Improving Public Schools

I’ve discussed in Part 5 of the series on how while public education is free, good education is no longer free. We urgently need to reform our public education system. In this article, I’ll discuss two aspects of educational reform that I believe are important, firstly, to maximise student outcome for every taxpayer ringgit; and secondly, to reinvent human resources development in education.

I shall elaborate further.

Maximising Student Outcome For Every Ringgit Spent

Both education blueprints - Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Preschool to Post-secondary Educations)[1] and Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Higher Education)[2] - pointed out that there is a low return on investment in education in Malaysia in term of student outcome compared to other countries.

According to World Bank data, Malaysia’s government expenditure on basic education – from preschool to secondary school – as a percentage of GDP is one of the highest among ASEAN countries and Asian Tiger countries, the latter being South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China. See figure below.

Basic Education Spending as a Percentage of GDP

Source: World Bank

At such levels of spending, Malaysia’s education system deserves a better student outcome (measured by the PISA score) according to international benchmarking. Figure below compares the PISA performance of different countries with respect to their education spending per student. The performance bands – poor, fair, good, great and excellent – represent the difference of one year of schooling from one band to another. For example, if we compare Malaysia, which falls in the poor performance band and Singapore, which falls in the great performance band, the difference is 3 years of schooling. In another words, a standard three Singaporean student will be able sit for UPSR in Malaysia. (Yes, it’s sad to know that!)

International Benchmarking: PISA Performance with respect to Public Spending per Student
Source: Malaysia Education Blueprint (Pre-school to Post Secondary School) 2013-2025, p.3-12

At the same level of spending per student, ie. USD2,000-3,000 per student, the Malaysia’s education system is under-performing when compared to Iran, Chile, Romania and Mexico. Our performance also lags behind countries that have lower spending per student than us, among them Armenia, Syria, Turkey, Thailand, Uruguay, Algeria and Mauritius! 

All of these countries are developing nations that have the same challenges in providing public education as we do. Hence, we have no excuse for not having achieved the same results as they have.

Not only does basic education in Malaysia show a low return of investment, higher education demonstrates a similar trend too. Figure below shows the general international trend of the higher education output with respect to the resources investedd. Once again, the outcome of our higher education investment is much lower than what would be expected of us when compared to the international trend.

Education Output vs Education Investment (Higher Education)
Source: Malaysia Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015-2025, p. B-14, 2015. 

Therefore, the first thing that we should do in education reform is to settle the money matter. We should have a mechanism that measures the education outcome in term of students performance with respect to the investment as well as an accountability structure that keeps the Education Ministry accountable. Otherwise, education reform will cost taxpayers a lot while giving us a less than desirable outcome, or worse, no positive outcome at all.

We need to increase the return of investment in education. We need to maximise every ringgit of taxpayers’ money spent to improve students’ outcome at least to the level comparable to our international peers at the same level of spending.

Reinventing Human Resources Development in Education

Education does not only educate, it nurtures, inspires and enables the next generation to search for new knowledge. The education system is platform that connects the educators to the students. Overall, education is about people – it’s about people teaching people.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint (Pre-school to Post Secondary School) 2013-2025 identified the quality of teachers as the most important school-based determinant of student outcomes (p.5-2)2. It cited research done in Tennessee, USA in the mid-1990s, which showed that when two average eight-year-old students were assigned to high-performing and low-performing teachers separately, their academic performances would differ to the scale of 50 percent within three years.

The blueprint also cited research that showed how the quality of principals impact on student achievement in schools. In short, the better the quality of school leaders, the better the school performance. By replacing an average principal with an outstanding one, student achievement can be improved by over 20 percent.

We are talking about a big margin of change to student outcome here. Thus, recruiting and developing good educators should be the main focus of educational reform. This is not just cold facts and statistics, and I will reIate a story to demonstrate this.

When I was seven years old, my parents enrolled me at SRJK (C) Seg Hwa, which was one of the best schools in Segamat. However, I became a problematic student after being frightened by one of the teachers. I developed a phobia about going to school and began to lie to my parents by telling them I was sick to avoid going. Most of the time I used a stomachache as an excuse as there are no external indicators.

Because of my problematic first year in primary school (I attended less than half of the total school days), my father decided to transfer me to SRJK(C) Hwa Nan, which was walking distance from my house in Batu Anam and wasn’t a highly-ranked school.

In my first year at Hwa Nan, my class teacher helped to build up my confidence in learning. I didn’t skip classes anymore. The following year, our school had a new principal who was determined to improve the school. Her vision was assisted by the arrival of four young and passionate teachers who had bachelor degrees. (It was a big deal for a village school like Hwa Nan to receive so many new teachers with degrees.) These four new teachers brought in new ways of teaching. While they were strict, they cared for their students and told us stories that we had not heard before as kampung kids.

SRJK (C) Hwa Nan slowly climbed up the ranks in terms of its students’ performance during my years there. When I finished primary six, the school was ranked fifth or sixth in Segamat. The transformation of this village school changed my attitude towards learning and basically, life.

Every time I think about my childhood, I thank God that I was a lucky kid who happened to be in the right place at the right time, when there were good teachers and a good principal in the school that wasn’t my parents’ first choice for me. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I had continued to skip classes or was transferred to a school that had no good teachers to guide and motivate me to study.

In fact, along with other experiences, education plays a big part in my personal journey. This is why I have a deep desire to see every child in Malaysia receiving a good education. There is no short cut to making this happen. We need to change the way we hire, train, develop and empower teachers and principals. We need to reinvent human resources management in the Education Ministry.

I have discussed in more details how to do that in my book Reimagining Malaysia. 

Due to space limit, I would like to draw your attention to only one issue, which is the amount of hours Malaysians teachers spend on non-teaching tasks. Actually Malaysia has a strong 410,000 teacher workforce, which works out to a student-to-teacher ratio of 13:1. This is even lower than Singapore (16:1), South Korea (20:1) and the OECD average (16:1).

However, while our teachers workforce is relatively big and the total working hours for teachers is long, the proportion of time Malaysian teachers spend on teaching in the classroom (excluding lesson preparation and other school activities) is relatively low – between 2.4 to 2.9 hours a day, which is about 40 percent lower than the OECD average. Instead of teaching in classrooms or engaging in activities with their students, Malaysian teachers have to spend a whopping 15 to 30 percent of their working hours on administrative duties such as making reports, filling up forms etc [1]. Unnecessary bureaucracy distracts the teachers from their real job – teaching our next generation.

We must reduce bureaucracy in teachers’ reporting system and their administrative work. Teachers should be assessed on their instructional performances (their student outcomes and results) and not their administrative performances (how well they write reports).

While class size is important, with the same amount of public resources, there is always a balance between how many teachers we can hire and how much we can pay them. Higher quality teachers will require higher salaries. Policymakers around the world have debated for a long time how to find this balance. An OECD report in 2012 found that countries that prioritise higher teacher quality over smaller classes tend to perform better in PISA [3]. 

We need to pay good teachers more (measured in terms of student outcome) by reinventing the salary structure, career development plan and promotion pathway of our teachers. The teachers’ compensation and promotion structure must be such that it incentivises teachers and school leaders to produce the best student performances. 

Just imagine if the new generation of our workforce is being taught in national schools by high-performing, passionate and motivated teachers and principals throughout their school years. I would bet my last Ringgit that they would do wonders for the country’s economic and social development.

There are many more aspects of educational reform that I’ve not mentioned in the book. Overall, it is important for our generation to know that Malaysia must go through a period of painful yet much needed aggressive educational reform so we can better prepare our next generation to compete in the future.

Remember Mandela's words, "education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world."

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

[1] Ministry of Education Malaysia (2013). Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Preschool to Post-secondary Educations). 2013 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[2] Ministry of Education Malaysia (2015). Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education). 2015 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from
[3] OECD (2012). Educations indicators in focus. Nov 2012 [cited 31 Aug 2017]. Available from