Early changes




After Mahathir


Education has always been perceived as a medium of fostering national unity, social equality and economic development in Malaysia. However, education remains a highly sensitive topic as it is frequently connected to ethnic politics and identity. Most part of the government’s long term budget has been allocated to improving the education sector.  Under Mahathir, the education system underwent various changes, including the decentralization of the education system and the increase in accessibility.

Early changes
The decentralization of the education system took place in 1982 when education offices were established at the district level. This was to ensure the smooth running of schools and the placement of students and teachers in schools within the district. [Welsh ed. 440]

Further on, based on the recommendations in the 1979 Cabinet Report, the years of free basic education was extended from nine years to eleven years, alongside the revision of primary and secondary school curriculum [Welsh ed. 438]. The primary and secondary school curriculum were replaced by Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Rendah (KBSR) - The New Primary School Curriculum in 1982. This new curriculum emphasized the need of acquiring skills and knowledge through active involvement. Whereas the

Kurikulum Berpaduan Sekolah Menengah (KBSM) – Integrated Secondary School Curriculum was implemented since 1988.  This system introduced a few new subjects – Moral Education for non-Muslim students, Islamic studies for Muslim students and Living Skills for the lower secondary students. Students in the upper secondary were categorized into two streams based on their choice and academic ability, which is the Arts or the Science stream. 

In 1991, the Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP) public examination was replaced by the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) which was to be taken in Form 3 (Year 9). This new public examination enables students to complete five years of secondary education until the upper secondary level. By increasing the years of secondary education, the literate workforce of Malaysia has risen.

The ongoing issue in education has been the language policy, including the main medium of instruction in schools. Since the 1970s, the main medium of instruction in national schools was Malay, whereas Mathematics and Sciences were also taught in Malay except in Chinese and Tamil vernacular primary schools. During the late 1990s, politicians soon realized the importance of English and started leaning towards improving the standard of English. This was evident when the Private Higher Education Educational Institutions Act of 1996 was introduced. Under that Act, courses were allowed to be taught in English if the Ministry of Education approves of it. 
Similarly, the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) became a mandatory test for all students who plan to pursue their education in public institutions of higher learning since 1999. In 2003, Mahathir changed the language policy of all national schools. Under the new policy, Mathematics and Science were to be taught in English, instead of Malay. This change was opposed by various people, mostly Malay groups. They felt that rural children will be disadvantaged with their poor grasp of English. On the other hand, Chinese political parties felt that the new policy threatened the cultivation of Chinese culture.

Nevertheless, Mahathir managed to implement the policy but with some compromises. Since then, Mathematics and Science has been taught in English in all national schools, though it is taught in both Chinese or Tamil and English in vernacular schools.

Other than that, ethnic quotas in education were also introduced in 1970 under the New Economic Policy (NEP). “Under the quota system, student admission to public institutions of higher learning was based on the ratio of 55:45 for Bumiputera (ethnic Malay and all other indigenous groups) and non-Bumiputera students” [Welsh ed. 443]. Thus, this caused resentment among the non-Malays they felt they were unfairly treated. It became a common sight that Malay students of lower academic performance compared to the non-Bumiputera counterparts to gain admission into local universities. In recent years, the quota system has been reduced slightly but it still in practice and remains an ongoing issue in Malaysia.

Another significant change in Malaysian education is the rising number of private institutions. Under the 1995 Education Act, private universities were no longer barred from the country. Thus, the number of private universities rose from 0 in 1995 to 16 in 2001, whereas the number of private colleges increased rapidly from a mere 156 in 1992 to 690 in 2001 [Welsh ed. 444]. The percentage of students studying in private institutions has also increased rapidly over the years, from 8.9 percent in 1985 to 39.1 percent in 2000. This created more options for the non-Malays to pursue their studies locally.

The main entrance of University Malaya

As higher education expanded, steps were taken to regulate the higher education system. The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act and the National Accreditation Board Act were passed in 1996 to monitor the quality of private education. The National Higher Education Fund was also established to provide loans to students in need of financial aid for furthering their studies.

The 1995 Education Act also widened the scope of the national education system from preschool to post-secondary and special education. In that same year, the Ministry of Education was restructured whereby new departments for higher, private, technical and special education were added. The expansion of the education system resulted in the huge increase in the number

of schools, school districts, division offices, state education departments and education personnel all over the country. 

From 1996 to 2000, a special test administered upon Year 3 students was introduced, that is the Penilaian Tahap Satu (PTS) exam - Level One Evaluation. Passing this exam, enabled students to skip Year 4. However the exam has been canceled since 2001, due to the rising concern that students were being pressured to excel.

After Mahathir
Problems still remain in the education system, as the government has yet to succeed at decreasing the ethnic divide and ultimately remove the ethnic quota system. In addition, the quality of education in local universities has deteriorated over the decades with the University of Malaya’s ranking dropping 80 places from 89 in 2004 to 169  in 2005[Ince] .


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Last Updated Wednesday, April 13, 2009   Contact me at teh20y@mtholyoke.edu
Copyright © 2009 Yen Ping, Teh