Fix Education, Fix the Brain Drain


Oh, education. So important that we will “borrow” our relative’s electricity bills, sit hours in traffic each day, even uproot the family to a distant land, all so our kids can go to a good school.

Last week, the Malaysian government released its much-awaited plan to revamp government schools, to run from 2013 to 2025.

Many tears have been shed, many hands wrung over the decline of Malaysian schools, mostly in a data vacuum. For those of us who went to school in the 1970’s and 1980’s, our evidence is mostly anecdotal.

This report tells us it’s all true and worse.

It tells us that Malaysian students compare poorly with students around the world, despite the fact that we spend more than many other countries on education.

When Malaysia took part in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the first time in 2009, our students performed in the bottom third for Reading, Mathematics and Science amongst 74 countries. In effect, 15-year-olds in Malaysia are performing as if they have had three years’ less schooling than 15-year-olds in Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Yet Malaysia spends US$3,000 a year per student, or 3.8 percent of GDP. As a percentage of GDP, we spent double the ASEAN average of 1.8 percent and higher even than the OECD average of 3.4 percent. While high-performing countries such as Singapore do spend more, countries such as Chile, Thailand and Armenia spend less than Malaysia for better results.

It tells us our schools are more racially stratified than ever.

Ninety-six percent of Chinese Malaysians go to Chinese schools, up from 92 percent a decade ago. 56 percent of Indian students go to Tamil-medium schools, up from 47 percent a decade ago. That means 94 percent of students in Malay-medium national schools are now ethnic Malay.

It tells us the education ministry is a top-heavy behemoth that rolls out schemes and programs with little coordination. Teachers are swamped with administrative duties. Heads of school are picked on seniority not ability.

It tells us our schools have computers but teachers don’t know how to use them in day-to-day teaching.

The report took 11 months to complete and included input from experts at UNESCO, the World Bank, OECD, local universities, school principals, teachers, parents and students from every state in Malaysia.

Yet the Malaysian Education Blueprint was not a downer to read.

Frankly, we were pleased to find answers to many of our education questions.

We were excited to read about  a two-year-old pilot program by an organisation called Yayasan Amir.  Schools under the program – 10 to start with – continue to be funded by the ministry but have more leeway in managing their schools, including bringing in coaches for teachers and administrators.

(We did notice Yayasan Amir is funded by Khazanah, a government fund. And we wondered why the education ministry doesn’t just run the pilot themselves. Regardless, it sounds like a good effort.)

We were pleased that the government – instead of insisting that we have the best education system in the world – is acknowledging that we don’t. And finally doing something about it. We know it is not a coincidence that elections are close.

So many of us -parents of young children – live in limbo, plotting moves to Australia, the UK, Canada, the US or Singapore, just so our kids can get a good education without us getting in debt.

Our lives are a relentless calendar of looming education decision deadlines, beginning with primary school, with no let-up until university.

If we could fix Malaysian education, we’d go a long way in fixing the brain drain.

(Chen May Yee went to Bukit Bintang Girls’ School from 1977 to 1987. Her kids now go to an international school. You can some of her sentimental reminiscing about her alma mater here. This commentary on Malaysian education first ran in The Malaysian Insider on Sept 21, 2012.)


One comment on “Fix Education, Fix the Brain Drain

  1. Pingback: The YK Pao School in Shanghai (and why I wish it were in KL) | onebrainblog

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