Deteriorating standards of education

The general standard and quality of education in Malaysia is a cause for grave concern to parents and Malaysians. It is obvious to many that the standard of education has deteriorated gravely in recent years.

In almost every town, we find Form III students who cannot even make a proper sentence, whether in English or in Bahasa Malaysia. This is all the more shocking when it is remembered that these students have had nine years of schooling.

One of the greatest indictments on the present government’s education policy and system is the high incidence of unemployment among Malaysians in the age group between 15 – 24. Unemployment as a whole is already a very serious problem for Malaysia. But its incidence is highest among the younger age groups, particularly among youths between the ages of 15 – 24. In 1962, this age group constituted 63% of total employment. In 1967 – 68, this has grown to 75%. In 1972 today, young Malaysians between 15 – 24 easily constitute more than 80% of total unemployment.

All these young unemployed are the products of the present government’s education policy and system. They are either school drop-outs primarily during the transition from primary school to secondary forms, or they are failures at the L.C.E. level. We know that last year alone 70,000 standard six students dropped out of the education system, and tens of thousand failed the L.C.E.

These youngsters are thrown out of schools, not educated and trained for any gainful employment. They can only stoke the fires of discontent, social unrest and finally national upheaval.

A study of the Standard V Assessment Test results is very illuminating about the standard of education in the country. We will take the figures for 1970, as provided by the Ministry of Education itself.

For 1970, in Kelantan for Malay-medium primary students, the following are the percentage of failures for each subject of the Standard V Assessment Test: Primary School – Malay (Kelantan)

Subject Percentage of failures
Bahasa Melayu 43.1
Bahasa Inggeris Rendah 58.7
Ilmu Hisab 66.6
Ilmu Sains 56.4

From the result, we reach the unavoidable conclusion that five out of every 10 students in the State of Kelantan could not understand a single subject that is being taught in schools.

Yet they would be promoted nonetheless to upper classes up till Form III because of the automatic promotion system. Is there any wonder that a high percentage of them dropped out after Primary Six, having failed to understand what all the lessons are all about, and those who had the grit to go up to Form III failed the L.C.E. because of the poor basic foundation they have had in the primary schools?

The 1970 Standard V Assessment Test results highlight the shockingly poor performance of Malay-medium students in mathematics and science, despite all the government’s boast about emphasis on science and mathematics, and new teaching methods.

The best State for both these subjects was Penang, where the percentage of failure for mathematics was 36.8% and for science 37.3%.

The percentage of failures of other States in mathematics was as follows:

State Percentage of failures
Perak 49.7
Negeri Sembilan 58.7
Malacca 60.9
Selangor 61.3
Johore 61.4
Perlis 63.8
Pahang 65.4
Trengganu 65.7
Kelantan 66.6
Kedah 67.7

The percentage of failures in other state for science was:

State Percentage of failures
Perak 43.6
Negeri Sembilan 45.7
Malacca 47.1
Selangor 49.4
Johore 51.3
Perlis 53.0
Pahang 54.3
Trengganu 56.0
Kelantan 56.4
Kedah 58.9

It is clear from these results that the standard of education, in particular mathematics and science – which is to be the key to break the back of rural poverty and backwardness – is deplorably low. The Government calls on the Malay students to pay more emphasis on science subjects but how can they do so when at their primary school level, they fail to secure any healthy elementary grasp of the subjects?

If there is to be any breakthrough, to achieve a more balanced educational structure with greater emphasis on science, and de-emphasis on arts, language and religious subjects, a strong base at the primary level must be laid.

It is the most short-sighted, foolish and thick-headed policy to send students who cannot grasp their subjects in primary school levels up to secondary forms, for this is not only a waste of public funds, but will breed in the minds of the students concerned a sense of inferiority complex and social resentment.

Before we leave the subject of Standard V Assessment Test, I want to briefly look at the results of the English-medium and Chinese-medium primary schools, to show that even in these schools, the standard of education had deteriorated badly.

Thus, for Chinese medium primary schools in the 1970 Standard V Assessment Test, in Selangor, 71.3% failed the Bahasa Kebangsaan paper, 44.9% failed the Chinese paper, 58.8% failed the Lower English paper, 48.2% failed the mathematics paper and 48.9% failed the science paper. Selangor, in fact, had the distinction in 1970 of having the worst results in every one of the assessment test subjects.

For the English-medium primary schools, for the 1970 Standard V Assessment Test, in Perak, 56.3% failed in Bahasa Kebangsaan paper, 49.9% failed in English language, 46.7% failed in mathematics paper and 48% failed in science paper.

Although as a whole, the Chinese-medium and English-medium schools do better than the Malay-medium schools, yet their results are not such as to be proud about for they have an unusually and undesirably high percentage of failures.

I can only shudder to think of the further deterioration of results and standards in the hitherto English-medium primary schools, as a result of the very poorly conceived and executed conversion of the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Malaysia.

There had been various commissions and committees in the country on educational issues, like the Aziz Royal Commission on the Teaching Services in West Malaysia and the 1962 Committee on Higher Education Planning. But there has not been a single committee or commission on the standards of education of our 1.7 million primary and secondary school students, to ascertain whether they are learning the right things, or whether they are learning anything at all.

There is no use spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year if all that we are doing is to churn out hundreds of thousands of young Malaysians who cannot even be said to be literate, and who are strangers to the Three Rs.

No wonder, Ministers and top Alliance leaders are sending their children abroad for their education.

I call on the Government to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to inquire into the educational standards of the 1.7 million primary and secondary school students, to find out how to make use of every dollar allocated to the Education Ministry to turn out an educated young generation of Malaysians, and not a generation of ‘educated’ illiterates.

Such a Royal Commission of Inquiry should inquire into the causes for the shockingly low standards of education in Malaysian schools, particularly in national school, to identify the root factors and suggest remedies.

Such a Royal Commission of Inquiry will have to inquire as part of its terms of reference, the great problem of school drop-outs, the economic and environmental factors working against the poor pupils.

The gravity of the problem of low educational standards, the high percentage of failures, the high rate of unemployment among the young Malaysians between the ages of 17 – 24, the crying need of the country for a science-oriented educational system, all call for such a high-powered and comprehensive inquiry.

School drop-outs: Three point solution

We have heard a lot about the problem of school drop-outs, but sad to say, the Ministry of Education has to date done little to tackle the problem apart from making press statements.

I would like to give three proposals for the solution of this problem of drop-outs for consideration by the Ministry:

1. Modification of the automatic promotion system.

Many students dropped out of school because they could not understand the lessons and subjects taught in class. Thus, those who failed in the Std. V Assessment Test are promoted onwards year by year till Form III. It is obvious that with the passing year, they are going to absorb less and less with their weak primary base, and very soon their school lessons will simply become meaningless.

In fact, I will trace the large percentage of failures and low standards of education to the automatic promotion system. This system has done more harm than good to the pupils. I therefore call for the modification of the automatic promotion system to allow pupils who do not attain the required standard to be retained in a particular standard or form, so that his gap in education can be narrowed to permit him to continue his studies.

2. Compulsory free nine-year education

The government should introduce compulsory free nine-year education for every child, so that no parent will withdraw his child from school because of the social, environmental or economic reasons – thus blighting his child’s future.

3. Economic assistance to poor students

The enactment of nine-year compulsory free education however, will not solve the problem of drop-outs by itself. It must be accompanied by a government programme to help overcome the socio-economic reasons of poverty causing the school drop-outs.

Firstly, the government should as suggested by my colleague the Member for Kampar, introduce a nation-wide scheme to provide free hot meals for the poor school children. As my colleague has said, just a glass of milk and a loaf of bread per pupil can and will make a big difference to their health as well as their study performance.

Secondly, the government should relieve the economic burdens of the poor when sending their children to school, although there is free primary education.

One very grave problem is the burden of textbooks on the poor.

The burden of textbooks on the poor

For poor parents and guardians and those from the low-income bracket, the beginning of each new year is awaited with dread and horror.

For with the opening of each school year, the parents from the poor in the urban slums, new villages, estates and kampongs, are hard-pressed to find money to buy their children’s textbooks, school fees, for those in secondary forms, miscellaneous fees, money for transport, uniform and pocket expenses for their children.

On the average, a parent with five children in school will have to raise $150 to $200 to buy new text books and make other initial arrangements for their children’s schooling. For the poor farmer, fisherman, hawker, estate labourer, who may not earn $100 a month, it is clear that this is an impossible burden. As a result, we find in many schools, children go without some textbook all the year round. No wonder, the child of the poor gets bad results and remain poor.

What is unjustifiable is the frequent change of textbooks, despite repeated assurances to the contrary by the Ministry of Education. A younger brother or sister finds that the textbooks his elder sister or brother had used in the same form are no more usable.

While the poor suffers at the beginning of each school year, there are people who beam and jump with joy. These are the book publishers and those involved in the book trade, for they do a roaring trade and make a phenomenal profit.

But a government which feels and cares for the suffering, the education and future of the poor will not allow such an indefensible position to go on. It would take immediate steps to ensure that the textbook problem ceases to be an oppressive problem on the poor every school year opening.

I remember that when I was schooling, I did not have to buy a single text-book. There was in my school, the Batu Pahat High School, a school text-book loan system. At the beginning of each school year, the text-books were given out to the students, and each student had to pay only a nominal sum of few dollars for the loan. At the end of the year, the books were returned to the school and used by the next year’s batch of students.

There will of course have to be provisions for loss of books, replacements, etc., but these are merely administrative problems.

It is ironical that we hear so much about the improvements which Malaysia has achieved as a result of independence and the throwing off of colonial rule. But here is one instance, where during the colonial rule, the parents of the poor and have-not class are well looked-after and do not have problems about finding money to buy textbooks for their children.

Parliamentary speech by DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Melaka, Mr. Lim Kit Siang, at the Dewan Ra’ayat on the 1972 Education Ministry Estimates on January 24, 1972