Sunday 3 November 2013

An alternative solution to Malaysia’s education woes

The poor quality of Malaysian public schools and universities is a hot topic, and has had a significant impact on ordinary Malaysians and the government. We are not just talking about its impact on knowledge and innovation, but also on household incomes and social structure.

The poor quality of our public education system is not just a perception issue. Just ask any employer, or look at the global rankings of our public universities. International, private and home schools have mushroomed throughout the suburbs, catering now for locals rather than expatriates. 

I wonder if there are any children or grandchildren of cabinet ministers currently studying in local public schools or “sekolah kebangsaan”. 

Middle-class Malaysians are increasingly turning to private schools, not just for tertiary but also primary and secondary schooling. This is squeezing a middle class that is already highly stretched. For many middle-class Malaysians, switching to private schools is not an elitist decision; some have even mortgaged their homes for it. 

And as they pay for private schooling in addition to private healthcare and highway tolls, they feel somewhat disillusioned that they are not getting much back from the taxes they pay. 

There are also social and national implications. A widening social class and ethnic divide starting at a young age threatens national integration in the future. Schools – both public and private – are increasingly turning into exclusive enclaves, drawn along the lines of social class or ethnicity.   

How much do we spend on education? 
Could the poor quality of public education be due to under-investment?
According to World Bank statistics, public spending on education amounted to RM39.3 billion in 2010. Of this, RM3,831 was for each primary student per year and RM5,093 for each secondary student.

Statistics from the government show that total spending on education, comprising operating and development expenditure, increased to RM54.59 billion in 2012.  

According to a 2011 World Bank report, Malaysia’s public expenditure on basic education –defined as preschool to secondary, amounted to 3.8% of GDP. 

Put into perspective, this ratio was more than double the other ASEAN members’ average of 1.8%. It was also higher than the 2.2% average for the Asian tiger economies of South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. 

Even the developed OECD countries had a lower average ratio of 3.4%.

Malaysia’s expenditure on education as a percentage of total government spending at 16% was also almost double that of the OECD average of 8.7%. 

Our ratio is the second highest in Asia, behind Thailand’s 18%, but ahead of Hong Kong’s 12%, Korea and Singapore’s 11% and Indonesia’s 9%.  

What is our student quality?

Malaysia spends a lot on education. This is good if we get the desired results. But what have we achieved after spending so much money? 

There are two main internationally recognised assessments for quality among primary and secondary students: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 

When Malaysia first participated in TIMSS in 1999, its average student score was higher than the international average in Mathematics and Science. By 2007, it had slipped to below the average. Some 18% and 20% of students failed to meet minimum proficiency levels in Mathematics and Science, respectively, a two to fourfold increase from 7% and 5% in 2003. 

The results from PISA in 2009 showed Malaysia in the bottom third of 74 participating countries, below both the international and OECD average. Almost 60% of the 15-year-old Malaysian students failed to meet the minimum proficiency level in Mathematics, while 44% and 43% did not meet minimum proficiency levels in reading and science respectively.

In terms of tertiary education, for the third consecutive year, no Malaysian universities have made it to the top 400 list in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings. There are over 60 Asian universities in the top 400 list, including universities from Thailand, Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, India and Iran. 

So we spend more on education than other countries, but our students perform much worse. Is this contradiction due to wastages, inefficiencies, genetics, politics or other factors? Is our education aimed at quality or has it been hijacked for political ends? 
What can be done? 

Putting blame is not constructive. Instead, we need to ask what can be done.  

A meaningful discussion of how to revamp the education system would involve a plethora of sensitive issues, ranging from ethnicity, language, politics and religion. It will involve so many issues, many of them taboo that a one-size-please-all solution can never be found. 

Instead of discussing these issues, allow me to propose a solution – a system that cuts across all these issues and allows market forces to make the education system better. 

Every Malaysian will have the basic fundamental right to affordable education. The government will fund ALL Malaysians for education, but where parents will get to CHOOSE which schools they want. The schools are allowed to operate in an independent and entrepreneurial way to improve and to attract students. 

This proposed system is based on the “School Choice” concept first espoused by economist Milton Friedman. Some variations of the “School Choice” concept have been successfully implemented in Sweden, France, Chile and several states in the US.  

How does it work?

We know the government spends RM3,831 per year per primary student and RM5,093 per year per secondary student, based on 2010 World Bank statistics.  

The government can issue RM4,000 vouchers for each primary student and RM5,000 vouchers per secondary student. They would be valid only for education in public schools. The parents can then choose which public schools to enrol their children in, and redeem these vouchers. If the cost is higher, say in certain urban schools, they only need to pay the difference. 

They can choose based on quality or location, or any other attribute. The choice of public schools will no longer be forced down on them, such that the only alternative is a private school.  

This will create a market-driven approach to public sector education. Consumers can choose, and the schools will compete among themselves to attract students. Students will be attracted to a school in terms of quality or location, rather than ethnicity or social class factors. This promotes integration and creates a positive virtuous cycle. 

Am I advocating the privatisation of schools? NO. 

All the schools will still belong to the government. But a board made up of the Parent-Teacher Association, past teachers and present students will independently administer each school. Each school will need to look after its own quality and costs. Essentially it injects private sector entrepreneurship to public sector administration. 

While they would be non-profit oriented, there will be a financial incentive to improve efficiency. Excess profits would be reinvested in the school. 

The elites and upper class have a choice when it comes to education for the children. A large majority of the middle- and lower-income parents do not. They are stuck with poor quality public schools (often not of their choice), or an alternative where private schools cost the equivalent of a year’s GDP per capita. 

Such a scheme will give parents access to choices they can't afford in the free market. Besides levelling the educational playing field, it will also rebuild quality, confidence and trust in public sector education. Equally important, it will help reduce racial polarisation amongst the young. 

I will be the first to acknowledge potential pitfalls of this scheme. For example, in rural areas, the small population means these schools will have less financial resources and, therefore, less facilities or quality teachers. 

But each of these challenges can be practically addressed. For example, we can have different voucher values per student, based on underlying economics of the geography.

The point is that the current education system is not in good shape and continuing on the same path is not rational.  Let's try something out of the box.


  1. The idea sounds workable but how about attracting quality teachers with passion for educating children? For this to work, the school should have autonomy in choosing their own teachers regardless of ethinicity and also their own remuneration package. Without quality teachers, the results may be the same and that is also one of the reason why private tuition is mushrooming all over the country. This again squeezes the middle class and also the poor student where all they do during their student days are attending tuition classes and no time for activities such as sports, uniformed bodis which are equally important to develop other skills such as communication, leadership and more importantly, to enjoy what would surely be the best time of their lives. It would be sad if all they remember is only tuition.

  2. Introducing conpetition between schools will definitely improve the quality of our education system but there is also a major issue to solve together with this; unhealthy racial polarisation which could happen when people are given the choice.

    1. i dont subscribe to the view that racial polarisation is caused by schooling attendance perse. if at all they comprised a majority of one race children it may have been unconsciously the result of that school's premium teaching standards wherein if say a majority of chinese parents ( being traditionally passionate about education ) strove to enrol their kids due quality hoped for

  3. As ideal as any alternative to our present educational system is, it would be difficult to convince the present government in any degree. They have to buy in the idea that it needed to be change in the first place. With so much inefficiencies, bureaucracies and devoid of any fresh impetus and know how , this government would need first to be 'educated ' themselves. We seriously doubt that they have the open mind or conviction to do so.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Your idea wouldn't work. Its another form of instilling competition, hoping that it will bring out the best in schools. The private schools that we have today, even the Chinese National type schools (to a certain extent) - don't they provide some form of competition? And its not working and you know what the underlying issues are. The same issue affecting our national car producer, rice producer, sugar producers, taxi service, - cronyism, entitlement mentality and corruption.

  6. Mr Ong,

    Milton's approach has merits but it then relies on caveat emptor to make the correct choices. Obviously, not all parents know what they are doing and this will create a situation not that much different from what it is now - concerned parents try to get their kids into excellent schools while the rest get lump/dump into sink schools.

    UK is trying out free schools and there isn't any obvious 'wow' factor here so far either.

    It is worth noting that academic education is not for everyone and the economy doesn't need just 5A STPM achievers - we need electrician, plumbers etc too.

  7. I can see how the middle class and the rich will be able to reap the benefits of such a system but they make up a minority and they have somehow, though painfully, worked out a solution/workaround our current education system.
    Its the kampung folks and the small town folks that I am more concerned about.
    Many Malaysian parents protested when the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English was shelved in 2011.
    The sad truth is there are not enough teachers who can speak English good enough to deliver lessons in English. If 2/3 of teachers trained to teach English and are currently teaching English cannot meet the proficiency level, what do you think the proficiency level is for those who teach Math & English?
    Recently, someone posted a trial UPSR paper which translated "gosok baju" to "rub clothes" and we all rolled our eyes as we read it.
    As long as we dont have enough decent English-speaking teachers, we have to put PPSMI on hold.
    The push for PPSMI is from those from urban areas who are already speaking good English, whose children speak good English and worries that the children can't cope if Math & English is taught in BM.
    If PPSMI were to be reviewed, I would say, do it slowly. Start it the rural area first. Send good English speaking teachers there who understand that their role is not just to teach Math and Science, but also help the children improve their English. Those who stay in kg, villages, small towns, they're the ones who need PPSMI. And a PPSMI implemented correctly. Not one who tells their kids "rub clothes". Good quality teachers. The best that we have. Nothing less.
    A new generation of rural kids speaking good English will arise. They are the ones who are more likely to go into teaching. Not your kids. Not our kids in PJ, in KL.
    Our best returns will come from them.

  8. Mr Tong, blame or not blame will not solve the issues. Millions spent but implementation n results is pittyful. Put it this way, if u want to see the change not only to educational, social, justice, human rights, economic etc.....listen to the song 'Wind of Change ' & God bless Malaysians will heading to a brighter day 5 years from now.... if u want to invest in a country, invest in good leadership which will change this country. I don't have that kind if ambitious & rather turn to Global Citizen than doing something beyond my control.

  9. Dear Mr Tong,

    I read your post above with great interest as it is relevant to something that we are currently constructing to help grow education in Malaysia back to a healthy efficient state.

    If possible, I would like to send you an email outlining the goals that me and my friends have in developing a product called "Guru-app" which can be downloaded in the Google Play store or accessed in "". It is essentially a online education social network which provides education materials for aspiring secondary school students who are also able to bounce ideas/notes of each other.

    If you are indeed interested, please feel free to send me an email on

    Many thanks,


  10. Probably somebody already mentioned this in the comments above, but I would think part of the problem lies in the quality of teachers being churned out yearly and of existing teachers currently already within the system. These teachers act as the base where all other things fall in place. For things to start changing for the better, fix the base

  11. Even though Singaporeans work longer hours than Americans, the Americans has higher productivity than Singaporens. Singaporean work around 2300 hours per year compare to Americans who work around 1700 hours per year. But Americans productivity is 63.27 compare to Singaporeans 43.84. Productivity is calculated by GDP (PPP) per hour.

    Same goes with the Japanese. Japanese productivity is only 44.5 but they work less hour than the Singaporeans which is around 1700 hours per year.

    Shouldn't we follow the American models of education which emphasize more on criticial thinking rather than blind memorisation.

    1. Productivity have something to do with a country economy structure. Country like Switzerland, they made chocolate, watches, high end stuffs, they able to sell for higher price and work less hour i.e. more productive nation. US is highly productive nation due to its high tech industry thus need to use American education model is way too oversimplify this issue. US can have this kind of achievement, high tech is part of factor, not the core. Its financial sector is the power house to its wealth, the core of everything. US public education is really suck if you know what i meant. It is only the tertiary part they privatize and make it competitive (i.e. student loaded with debt to get their uni degree). Think about it, those who had western educated, how good they are in critical thinking? I mean what so difficult about critical thinking? I blind memorize a lot during my school days... but my critical thinking tell me that facts that you put out isn't from your critical thinking, i do read a lot of this kind of argument from journal, prof, economist etc, but can you tell me their flaw of calculation when they quantifying their data? Answer me, to prove you have critical thinking skill.


  13. Less than 10% of Singaporean work force are happy with their compare to 30% of Americans who are happy with their work.

    1. i suppose happiness comparatives cannot be singled out from the perspective of work - content /scope alone. I should think that us people by n large shd be easily happier than most people on earth ( including teeny tiny spore ) due land sizes, freedom of mobility all within driving distances, other cultural diversities bcos of population mass etc.

  14. 60+ Chiiese Independent school all over Malaysia get zero allocation from the government but yet they excel..Sad that the graduate from these school are not accepted into our national uni but the neighboring country grab them immediately after they leave school. All our left & not returning

    1. the independant schoolies not deemed as malaysians ????

      truth is stranger than fiction. Welcome banglas, happy return home !!!!!

    2. UEC exam recognized by uni all over the world except our own government. U believe it? That is y these students don't return after they graduated in other country, and then our dear minister will say Chinese don't love Malaysia. But they forgot they abandoned us first.

  15. quite a lot of the ills and misalignment of national interests albeit via the educational sector had been victimised by no less the political non-will by the ruling. the ruled had to navigate out of this inefficient arena by tolerating long arduos hoors of tuition , not to mention costs and loss of family and play time. I for one , do not think the educators did not see through this flawed reengineering..... since they ( the non nationalistic leaders ) can always throw in some spare dimes to send their own kids to private/ international schools while casting a blind eye to their poorer msians . Without righteous political will , even the best of voucher systems n open school competition will grind into a halt. Begin with transformation in their hearts to do right for the people, by the people n of the people.,

  16. Guys, we need to get something in perspective. I am a chinese, but I am living in a 60% malay dominated country. The government will never recognise chinese unified exam due to racial polarisation. There is no way, the chinese can win this battle.

    Even in Australia, the government don't fund chinese school in Australia. If you were to setup a chinese unified exam in Australia, I don't think the government will recognise it either.

    Some compromise need to be done here before we can move forward. The Dong zong group is very hardcore chinese education group that is in denial mode that we are living in Malaysia where 18.8 million of the populations are Malays and only 6 millions are CHinese. We need to compromise to have all race study in 1 school.

  17. Since many are interested in this topic, The Edge will be hosting an education policy conference and all are invited to attend and share their views. Details on the date and venue will be announced later.

    1. tqvm. we all look forward to it as responsible citizenry

  18. i may also be alerted via

    we wish for a new dawn for education empowerment soonest possible