On the State of Education in Malaysia and What it Means for the Country’s Economy

In New Naratif’s The Citizens’ Agenda 2022 survey in Malaysia, Jobs and Wages are the country’s number two concern after Cost of Living, while Education ranks fifth. This article explores the relationship between Malaysia’s education system and the country’s economy.

New Naratif’s The Citizens’ Agenda 2022 survey in Malaysia found that economic issues are considered to be the most pressing for the country. Jobs and wages rank second, while education ranks fifth. This article discusses the relationship between the current economic situation, the job market, and the role of education to improve the welfare of Malaysian citizens and the country’s economy in general.

Education is closely entwined with the economy and employability, so the article begins with a brief discussion of some of the salient features of Malaysia’s labour market and the structural issues it faces. Having established context, the next section explores various key claims and evidence regarding the quality of public education in Malaysia, focussing eventually on four structural factors that underpin it: child poverty, the (over)bureaucratisation of education, corruption, and the lack of open data. 

Following this, the article discusses some possible approaches to the urgent need of education reform, and puts the spotlight particularly on the question of inclusivity in education. It ends with calls to action for civil society and the concerned public in general. 

  1. Malaysia’s Labour Market and its Structural Issues
  2. The Quality of Public Education in Malaysia
  3. Structural Factors Influencing the Quality of Education in Malaysia
    1. Bureaucratisation of Education
    2. Corruption in Educational Infrastructure Development
    3. The Lack of Open Data
  4. The Urgency and Challenges of Reforming Education in Malaysia
  5. On the Question of Inclusive Education
  6. What Can We Do to Improve All of This?
  7. Conclusion

Malaysia’s Labour Market and its Structural Issues

First of all, let’s set the stage. What is currently happening in Malaysia’s economy? Is there a supply and demand mismatch in the labour market?

Malaysia is a middle-income country with an open, diversified economy, comprising primarily of a mix of manufacturing, services, commodities and tourism industries. The economy is exportoriented (regularly posting a trade surplus on products like semiconductors, petrochemical products, palm oil and others) while also having a relatively vibrant domestic demand. 

In popular discourse, two major challenges faced by the economy in recent times—notably exacerbated by the pandemic—are the need to transition from low- to high-value-added economic activity (with significant parts of the economy stuck in the low) as well as widening inequality compounded by rising costs of living (Muhammad Abdul Khalid and Li, 2021). Notably, much of this is happening in the context of rising national debt and a fiscal deficit, despite special dividends from Petronas, an energy group which is essentially the country’s oil company.

At face value, headline unemployment rates are encouragingly low (3.5% in February 2023, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2023), but there are important caveats to this. The first is the relatively low labour force participation rate, especially among women (52.7% versus 78.7% among men, according to the World Bank), and the second is the widespread phenomenon of underemployment. These include skills-related underemployment, the degree to which workers are overqualified for the jobs they actually hold (and therefore punching below their weight in terms of economic activity); and/or time-related underemployment, where people work for less hours than they would like.

Recent figures published by the Social Security Organisation (SOCSO) estimates that approximately 40% of tertiary graduates are underemployed in so-called semi-skilled and low-skilled jobs. Reasons for these are complex, but have been attributed to low wages, the growing popularity of the gig economy (according to the World Bank, currently approximately 26% of the Malaysian labour force, as cited by Loh and Farah Natasya, 2022), as well as the lack of jobs on offer by firms that can actually capitalise on a skilled labour pool. 
It is also noteworthy that labour (skilled or otherwise) is on average not particularly well-compensated in Malaysia. A quick comparison of wages as a percentage of GDP (32.4% in Malaysia) with other countries (42% in Singapore, 50% in the United Kingdom) lay bare the fact that, even after controlling for productivity, the median Malaysian worker (in the current climate of labour rights, etc.) is not as well-compensated as their counterparts abroad. Notably, current figures are a decrease from 35.2% in 2017 (Malaysian Trades Union Database, 2023). This growing disparity, which in effect favours capital over labour, is a lived reality that might disincentivize the very best talent from staying when the so-called ‘market rate’ for their labour may be much higher abroad, though some have argued that these conditions may encourage (capital) investment (both foreign and domestic) and thereby spur growth and job creation (The Edge Malaysia, 21 Aug 2023).

However these debates will run, the current Malaysian government under the Madani Economy framework has set itself the ambitious goal of increasing labour income share to 45% of GDP, boosting women’s participation in the labour force to 60% within a decade (Hajar Umira, 2023). Therefore, one might argue that to an extent labour conditions in the Malaysian job market are less than ideal for workers, but there are—at the very least—political signals that suggest that these conditions are being acted on. 

Some scholars argue that there are structural issues to the labour market, underpinning un/underemployment figures (see Lee, 2020 for a simple overview). For one thing, the lower labour force participation of women has been attributed to a lack of availability of affordable childcare, among other things. For another, it has been argued that the labour situation in Malaysia faces severe skills mismatch, where the training of new graduates (whether from universities, colleges, or from technical and vocational training institutes) do not match the skills which are in higher demand (Rusmawati et al. 2021).

How do we address these? Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng had this to say:

“A tripartite platform comprising the government, educational institutions and employers is needed to address this structural issue on a continuing basis.”

Professor Dr Yeah Kim Leng in Lee, 2020

In Malaysia at least, (public) education and government are one and the same as the vast majority of educational provision is provided by the State. But what about its quality?

The Quality of Public Education in Malaysia  

Debates regarding the quality of public education in Malaysia have been front and centre for some years now, without signs of abating. Much of the discussion, unfortunately, is often anecdotal and partial. This is not to say they are inauthentic or untrue, but they are less able to give a representative appraisal of the system as a whole. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Education appears to acknowledge the need for education reform and improvement, and it should be emphasised that at the time of writing, the system is in the late stages of an ambitious reform programme under the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-25

What is the quality of the education system? That is a complex question; even such a highly centralised system as Malaysia’s is certainly not a monolith: perceived quality would vary greatly according to the different parts of the systems (geographically and otherwise). The first port of call to begin answering such a question would naturally be to look to International Large-Scale Assessments (ILSAs), such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). These studies have their caveats and limitations. For example, they focus only on a selected range of desired educational outcomes. Moreover, whether by design or as a byproduct, they lead to the questionable practice of ranking national systems according to their performance on ILSAs, which can lead to distortionary and undesirable washback effects. Nonetheless they uniquely afford some baseline of comparison for Malaysian learners against their counterparts in other countries. 

Using secondary data from TIMMS, a 2019 study suggests that on the whole, the Malaysian schooling experience has significant room for improvement to match counterparts in other Asian countries (Tan et al. 2019). Using Singapore (the top performer in TIMMS 2015) as the benchmark, the authors estimate that although the mean years of schooling for Malaysian students was 11.2 years at the assessment age, their achievement was better likened to that of 8.6 years of schooling in the Singaporean system. Malaysia also compares unfavourably to other Asian education systems such as South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, as well as the USA. Notably, another study comparing Malaysian data to other high-spending and high-performing Asian states (i.e. Singapore and South Korea) found that the attainment differences could only partly be explained by socio-economic factors and school resources, implying that the quality of teaching itself is probably one important difference-maker (Perera & Asadullah, 2019).

The idea that the quality of teaching might be a factor appears to be supported by the hallmark IMCEP (Inquiry into Malaysian Classroom Educational Practices) study of 2013 by researchers at Universiti Malaya, which to my knowledge is the only one of its kind (publicly available, methodologically rigorous) to attempt at delivering a snapshot of teaching quality across the country (Tee et al. 2018). Through classroom video recording of a random sampling of 24 secondary schools and 140 teachers across four core subjects (Malay, Science, Mathematics, English), the study found the persistent lack of activities and teacher talk patterns that are associated with fostering an engaging and thinking classroom (in the sense of higher order thinking). This finding (note that the data was collected around the time of the beginning of reform efforts under the Blueprint) is at odds with the stated aspirations of the system to cultivate 21st century competencies and nurture the human capital required for a high-income nation. 

Note that due to their currency, much of the discussion above does not account for the possibility of extensive learning loss as a result of prolonged and widespread COVID-19 school closures, especially in 2020 (Asian Development Bank, 2021). Studies show that during that time, there were serious and widespread disruptions to learning: many respondents reported irregular online schooling sessions, that their households ill-equipped for emergency remote teaching, and a non-trivial percentage of respondents claimed they had no provision of online schooling at all (Asadullah, 2022). One can only imagine the extent to which these would entail knock-on effects on learners and teachers alike. Evidence from other contexts suggest that the pandemic contributed significantly to learning loss (especially among the already-disadvantaged), as well as school dropout (Moscoviz & Evans, 2022). Accordingly, the 2022 PISA assessment conducted in Malaysia shows a significant decline in scores across all domains (Reading, Mathematics, Science) compared to the more encouraging 2018 assessment. While this was the case across many of the participating countries, Malaysia’s decline was relatively higher than most in the region (OECD, 2023).

The PISA 2022 finding that only 42% of Malaysian participants (compared to the OECD average of 74%) attained Level 2 or higher for Reading (regarded to be the minimum level where as 15 year-olds, students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit criteria, etc.) appears to corroborate findings of another recent (post-pandemic) study by the World Bank which estimates that the learning poverty of 10-year-olds in Malaysia to be at around 43%, notably also 10.5 percentage points higher than similar upper middle-income countries. This study operationalises learning poverty simply by whether a child is able to read and interpret an age-appropriate sentence at the age of 10, on the premise that basic literacy is so crucial to subsequent success in education (World Bank, 2021). 

Structural Factors Influencing the Quality of Education in Malaysia

What are the structural factors that contribute to these issues over the quality of public education in Malaysia? Despite the paucity of evidence, there are some likely candidates that we can address.

1. Child Poverty

The first structural issue somewhat lies ‘outside’ of the artificial boundaries of what we might consider public education, that is the problem of poverty. Within everyday discourse, there is a truism that education is a, if not the, solution to poverty, and so the inverse, that a lack of education causes poverty, is also assumed. Yet the causal direction does not only run in one direction. The evidence is also abundantly clear that the statement can be turned on its head: poverty, or low socio-economic status, is a significant predictor of poorer educational outcomes. As mentioned earlier, parental support and opportunities to learn vary greatly according to socioeconomic status (Asadullah, 2022).

Moreover, a recent study by UNICEF (2019) found that Malaysia’s children faced the double burden of both stunting (20.7% of children under five) and obesity (12.7% of children from 5-19 years old), with implications on their health as well as their ability to capitalise on their (free) physical access to school. It is estimated that child poverty and the various forms of deprivation have only deepened since the pandemic (Norhaslinda, 2023). Even as discussions about improving the education system (rightly) continue, attention should rightly be given to the lived realities of learners and the communities they belong to: education begins at home. 

2. Bureaucratisation of Education

More firmly situated in the education system itself is the degree of bureaucratisation, performance management and institutional culture(s) that shape the working conditions of educators. The highly centralised nature of educational administration, and the accumulation of various policy initiatives over the years (including policy “u-turns”) have been subject to critique (Lee, 2019). In a trend that is in keeping with the wider region, interviews of key actors in the Malaysian education system suggest that they experience reform overload, work intensification, in addition to a lack of system perspective and strategic coordination, and a clash of values between culture and reforms, often ‘imported’ as ‘best practices’ (Hallinger, 2010).

Somewhat concerning is the effect this has on teachers and schools. A more recent in-depth study argues that the system ‘has somewhat disempowered or de-professionalized the teachers and school leaders, leaving little room for them to be more responsive to the distinct needs of their students’ (Tee & Lee, 2023, p. 10). As mentioned earlier, this is not unique to the Malaysian system, but is nonetheless a cause for concern as it compounds with the widening incidence of poverty and what appeared to be at best an imperfect adaptation to emergency remote learning during the pandemic.

These issues are important also because they shape the conditions under which teachers do their essential duties. As Kennedy (2010) argues, it is vital not to conflate teacher quality with teaching quality: when the quality of teaching is deemed poor, some may instinctively take that as indicative of the quality of the teacher (a person); but it is also true that that may be a function of the conditions, circumstances and support structures available to teachers. The same teacher that appears ‘low-performing’ or ‘average’ in one context may perform adequately or even exceed expectations in another, for a variety of reasons. Disentangling the two is challenging for obvious reasons, but important to ensure that we are attributing effects to their proper causes.

It is right and good to aspire to create a culture of excellence and professionalism in the teaching profession, but this has to be supported by leadership and policy that creates the conditions for that kind of culture to thrive.

3. Corruption in Educational Infrastructure Development

Next, an elephant in the room is the question of whether the government is able to efficiently deploy resources to develop supporting educational infrastructure and solve problems, with minimal leakages. Large scale and costly initiatives in the past to progress towards digitalisation (virtual learning environments, internet access), to bring renewable energy to rural schools in the interior, and even ongoing expenditure to provide safe and nutritious food to learners in day and boarding schools, have to different extents attracted controversy, and hampered the system’s progress.

More recently, the Auditor-General’s report on 2022 claiming RM681.71 million losses involving federal departments, statutory bodies, serves to highlight that this remains a problem (Basyir, 2023). Corruption, whether in the form of rent-seeking behaviour, clientelism or simply mismanagement, if unchecked, greatly reduces the capacity of the government to deliver better return of investment in education—yet as some have demonstrated, the former two have been entrenched features of the Malaysian political economy (Gomez and Jomo, 1999). As such, calls to eradicate corruption have been frequently made by politicians and the public alike. 

4. The Lack of Open Data

Finally, a structural issue, at least from the point of view of a friendly outsider to the Ministry of Education, is the lack of open data so that researchers can better support educational improvement. In this respect, we laud recent initiatives by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) under the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) to make their data (whose collection is enabled by public funds) available in a clean and accessible format. To their credit as well, the Ministries of Education and Higher Education regularly publish annual ‘Quick Facts & Figures’ documents for all to have a snapshot of basic information such as enrolment by school type, student numbers, classroom numbers, teachers, etc.

Having said that, it would be a game-changer for educational research locally if more granular data, such as student attendance figures, (anonymised) measures of student learning/attainment over time, demographics, etc. are made available. Moreover, universities, research institutes and schools should foster closer links to advance educational improvements, subject of course to established ethical and professional codes of conduct. 

The Urgency and Challenges of Reforming Education in Malaysia

With all of these structural issues, it is quite clear that an educational reform is needed. But why aren’t we already doing it? Or, rather, why haven’t we made any significant progress in the area of creating a more effective education system?

One way to describe ‘effective education’, to me at least, is an accumulation of many large and little things done right, on a habitual and sustained basis. Good teaching is a result of having well-trained teachers who not only have deep subject knowledge, pedagogical understanding, and craft knowledge, but are also motivated, supported, and working in positive organisational cultures. To ensure this happens, the roles of policy, leadership and administration are paramount. 

One might begin with the concepts of scarcity and opportunity cost. There is a tendency for even good ideas in education to be bolted unto systems without regard for the existing burden of work, and how to either reduce that burden or make some other tasks more efficient. One cannot pour more water into a glass already full, without expecting to cause a mess. If you want to add something in, you must first decide what is to be taken out, lest the system fall prey to ‘feature creep’. 

Protecting both instructional time as well as teachers’ time for planning, assessing, etc. is paramount. Given that the public has invested so much into the training and then remuneration of teachers as highly skilled workers, it makes sense that they are primarily deployed towards teaching-related duties, not only contact time, but time for planning, reflection, team-teaching and professional development. Teachers should also be given space so that they are sufficiently well-rested to perform at their best.

Some of this may just be a simple matter of reducing what is called ‘unproductive busywork’ (Chandler, 1988). It may also involve reoptimizing and reprioritising tasks, such as the recent initiatives to lower teachers’ workload (New Straits Times, 23 March 2023), including the invitation to the general public to apply to be (paid) invigilators for the school-leaving national exams (The Star, 17 September 2023). These are relatively low-cost approaches to reducing workload that helps free teachers up for the specialised work they are trained for. 

As a general rule, systems should (with care and due consideration) follow the evidence; especially for interventions and protocols that are found to be cost-effective. For example, reducing class sizes from 30 to 20 students (or by 33.3%) might, all other things remaining equal, yield some positive outcomes. However, it is one of the most expensive changes to make, since it would require the cost of hiring a proportionately higher number of teachers (Gomendio & Wert, 2023).

An example of the opposite intervention (low cost, high yield) in my field of English language teaching would be to set up an extensive reading programme in every school based on collections of graded readers across proficiency levels (Nation, 2013). Such an intervention would benefit the entire school, cost no more than 1-2 months’ of a single teachers’ salary, have a simple upkeep (perhaps under the custody of the school library or English panel) and can be used for an extended period of time. It is also simple enough to train teachers to integrate extensive reading as a complementary component of their teaching, which is essential for students to effectively learn English as a foreign language, especially if they come from homes with less resources. This is just one of the many low-tech solutions that can be piloted and then implemented at scale. A costlier intervention that would nonetheless have a profound impact on outcomes is to expand the existing targeted school feeding programmes to be universal (Jarud Romadan & Tan, 2020). 

Ultimately, policymakers should draw from the best (inter-/multidisciplinary) research available on how to improve educational systems. We live in an incredible era where some of the very brightest are supported to conduct research on the effectiveness of pedagogical approaches, instructional design and education policy decision (e.g. de Jong et al. 2023; Gomendio & Wert, 2023; Hwa, 2023) and then publish their work for the world to read.

No doubt education is a profoundly complex endeavour, and so it would be remiss not to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of global and local research. When we do benefit, though, there is still one glaring issue we need to address–who gets to benefit most?

On the Question of Inclusive Education

The issue of inclusivity is both multidimensional and intersectional, and so a proper answer to this would exceed the scope of this explainer; nonetheless, I might propose a few key points regarding physical access and disability, socio-economic class, the issue of parental and local community involvement, and the cost of higher education.

Note that I will not be discussing race and ethnicity, not because it is unimportant (in fact it is extremely prominent in Malaysia) but because it is both emotive and deeply complex, so I believe it would be unhelpful to the reader to give only a brief and partial exposition. 

With regards to making education more inclusive, part of the answer lies in improving the quality of provision across the board, as discussed earlier. I cannot stress enough just how much a difference it would make to the problem of educational inequity if we can raise the average quality of public education provision across the board (as the Ministry is of course striving to do). Yet, the rising tide does not truly lift all boats, unless special attention is given to enable access to marginalised communities.

Public education is free for Malaysian citizens and very affordable for foreigners with student passes issued by the Immigration Department, enabling them to enrol as non-citizen students in public schools. However, this provision excludes Malaysia’s sizeable refugee and stateless communities without access to education (Malay Mail, 2 February 2021). Solving this would seemingly be a matter of policy—access was granted to stateless children in 2018 but reportedly restricted again in 2021. In any case, there would have to be significant allocation of resources in some parts of the country to properly equip schools and train teachers to take in learners that have been traditionally underserved by the system.

Technical expertise and acquired wisdom on how to engage these communities in a culture- and context-sensitive manner, from non-governmental schools that have been doing the hard work of serving these communities over the year, such as Dignity for Children (serving refugees in Kuala Lumpur) and Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal (serving stateless children in Semporna), would be of great benefit. Inclusive practice should draw from local knowledge, and heavy-handed approaches are often detrimental to vulnerable communities. 

It is important to also add that physical access to education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for equitable and inclusive education. What matters is that physical access to education is translated to equitable and meaningful learning for children (Tan, 2012). Earlier, we have established that socio-economic disadvantage can seriously hamper a child’s learning. On top of this, we might add that ethnicity and disability also make a difference. 

With regards to socio-economic disadvantage, strengthening the social safety net will likely yield positive outcomes, as would strategic investment into schools that serve disadvantaged communities. In all cases, however, sensitive stakeholder engagement is necessary to ensure the communities’ needs are being met, not simply throwing money at the problem. The country has a very active non-governmental organisation/civil society organisation network and the relevant consultations should be made.  

With regards to disabilities and special needs, the national system has long-standing structures in place to provide education for such learners, ranging from specialised schools, integrated programmes, centralised resource centres—all publicly funded (Ministry of Education, 2023). Having said that, public literacy about this topic is generally low, and this is concerning as it hinders early intervention, particularly for disabilities that are less visible or understood (Tan & Zhooriyati, 2019). Should a more extensive screening system be implemented at scale, I speculate that education provision generally would have to greatly expand its capacity to support all learners with special needs, which would be costly but be of immense benefit to lives and livelihoods. Much progress is needed on this front to develop a more mature eco-system—as recently as 2021 for example, the number of registered clinical psychologists nationally was as low as 300, serving a national population of more than 30 million (The Star, 8 July 2021). This number is growing, but starting from a very low base. 

Regarding parental and community involvement, we should say that generally this is encouraged. As a matter of policy, the Parent-Teacher Association (PIBG in Malay) is provided for in every school, though the degree to which these are active often varies. Disadvantaged groups sometimes lack the economic and social capital to engage in these forums, or face barriers to doing so. Aside from that, school principals are formally incentivized to network and collaborate with other schools and external parties (Mohd Tahir et al. 2023). Moreover, Malaysian education has an active non-governmental or non-profit space, e.g. private-public partnerships and corporate social responsibility initiatives (Aizuddin and Chankseliani 2023). Some public schools are also registered with the Inland Revenue Board of Malaysia and therefore attract significant donations which individuals and corporations can file for tax purposes—unfortunately, this does not appear to apply to all schools and it would likely be a simple bureaucratic fix that would give schools more room to acquire and utilise funds for the benefit of its students. 

Finally, with regards to whether university education can be made free, this is ultimately a matter of policy trade-offs. It should be noted that (public) university education is already heavily subsidised, possibly to the tune of 80-90% of its ‘sticker price’. This is highly laudable because education is a public good and its benefits are not restricted to the student and their families alone—in theory at least, all of society can enjoy the spillover effects of a more educated citizenry; moreover, heavily subsidised studies ensure that qualified students can access tertiary education despite not being able to afford its true cost, and without having to take out substantial debt.

As for whether the government should go the last mile and fully subsidise university education across the board (waiving fees altogether and perhaps even introducing a living stipend for students), it seems to me that this can only be possible through borrowing, taking resources from other areas of public expenditure, and/or seriously restricting enrolment. Given the aforementioned fiscal deficit (which the government is seeking to reduce) this might be viewed as fiscally unwise and/or politically challenging. It is noteworthy, however, that institutions like Zakat and other charitable foundations (religious or otherwise) offer means-tested support to students. 

What Can We Do to Improve All of This?

Responses to this question often swing between the ground-up view (education is the responsibility of families, individuals, communities) and the top-down perspective (governments, policies). Both perspectives have their merits, but from a policy perspective, the most significant levers of change, by far, are in the hands of the Ministry of Education in the Federal Government.

Although ground-up initiatives by civil society, schools, teachers and the like are meaningful in themselves, these do are less likely to have systemic effects at scale. Yet the Ministry of Education (radiating outwards from the federal government into the various State Education Departments, then the District Education Offices), is not a monolith, but a complex and multifaceted organisation with so many stakeholders and perspectives. This complexity perhaps underpins the challenge of implementing policy rhetoric into reality (Ng, 2008; Tee & Lee, 2023). 

Therefore, advocacy should certainly be made towards the sitting Minister of Education: although their power is not absolute, they nonetheless bear the political mandate to oversee the education system, and as politicians are in principle answerable to the electorate. To extend this further, however, the shadow Minister of Education (or Opposition spokesperson) should also be engaged, as should the designated spokespersons for Education across all political parties, and members of the relevant Parliament Select Committee. In a context of (often) heated political competition, it would be a game-changer if politicians from across the existing political spectrum, regardless of ideologies, can reach an agreement on some points of common ground (e.g. to protect instructional time, to prioritise resources for the disadvantaged, to improve school attendance, to make schools safe for every child, to safeguard mental and physical health, to improve the accuracy and reporting of educational data, etc.). It would be deeply disheartening if the country’s elected representatives cannot reach some sort of unequivocal consensus on these.

These discussions should also include representatives of important organisations, both local (e.g. Universities, Civil Society Organisations, Research Houses) and international (e.g. UNICEF, World Bank). Agreements arising from these discussions can then be published as a joint resolution, to insulate the system from political shocks, give a clearer runway for policy implementation and issue a much-needed boost in public confidence. It would also serve to educate the public on how to appraise politicians’ actions in the education system—as a function of sober rather than reactionary policymaking. 

If possible, people at the grassroots should (emulating successful movements like UNDI18) organise to make their collective voice heard on the issue, and to lobby the politicians accordingly. Ideally, such a movement should not be dominated by any single interest group or demographic, but might comprise a coalition of many. With the current runway of 3-4 years until the next general election, there might just be the time and space now for such a movement to develop momentum and be an influence by the time the GE16 campaign season begins, and to shape the terms on which the political parties engage with the electorate. I would think that key personnel with existing platforms: retired civil servants (including former directors general at the Ministry) and academics in particular would be in a privileged position to lead and catalyse such a movement, alongside members of the media. 


These days, complaining about the education system in Malaysia is practically a national sport. A common refrain that one hears regarding this is that ‘all we need to do is keep politics out of education’. The problem about this take, in my view, is that education is inherently political, as is any form of significant decision-making and societal organisation. What we need instead is ‘better politics’, for people to speak up and pressure the relevant actors, and for an informed and engaged electorate to reward politicians for improving both quality and equity. 

The issues with the system highlighted above are deep and structural, and will require substantial investment of both economic and political capital. The saving grace, however, is that advances in the learning sciences and technology, if harnessed wisely and ethically, can help even a lagging system speed up its improvements, via raising the quality of teachers, teaching and improving conditions for learning. A few possible inroads into these have already been discussed; many more should be considered. Patience will also be needed: education is an inherently cultural institution. The bad news is that culture is sticky and hard to change. The good news is that people make culture, and so people can change culture too. But we must be decisive and determined.

An improved education system would be a game-changer for the country’s future outlook. Given internal issues such as underemployment, inequity and corruption, in tandem with global challenges such as climate change and geopolitical tensions, it is evident that there are serious hurdles to face in the coming years. A better system that supports teaching, learning and wellbeing would, in the first instance, help ‘stop the bleeding’ from the cumulative effects of learning loss, and hopefully raise as many learners up to or above the minimum required proficiency in the core skills like literacy and numeracy. For starters, this would greatly improve life chances and productivity.

An effective system would build on the strong foundation of those basic skills to build advanced technical skills, critical thinking and intercultural communication. This would, given a sufficient gestation period, result in a more competitive and productive workforce that could potentially enlarge the economic pie for everyone, and widen the tax base to better fund public services. Outside the realm of education however, comprehensive labour reforms, conducive policies for talent management/retention, and more inclusive politics have to come hand-in-hand with improvements to the schooling system.


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