Monday, July 20, 2015

Malaysians deserve better education

The Low Yat incident has brought into sharp focus how our education system is failing Malaysians. Half of Malaysian 15 year olds are functionally illiterate. At the same time, half of Malaysian employers in a recent survey identified the shortage of talent as a constraint for future economic growth. The under-schooled youth end up in the job market with low basic numeracy and literacy skills and with little if any communication or problem-solving abilities. Yet they live in a society that is visibly prosperous and of course they want their share of the good life. Being unemployed or under employed, this group of Malaysian youth is ripe for recruitment by the criminal fringe elements which promise them the wealth and status that they know they cannot get otherwise.

Clearly the national educational system has failed these Malaysian youth. While we lament over how poorly Malaysian kids are performing in global standardized testing, there is a clear correlation between socio-economic status and educational performance with the schools catering for poorer Malaysians being more likely to be under resourced and under managed. Access is still a challenge: about a third of kids from rural households live more than 5 km away from the nearest secondary school.

The quality of teaching and school leadership and management remains a significant challenge. The respect and social status enjoyed by teachers and school heads has eroded over the years. The blatant politicization of the educational system has not only marginalized non-Malay teachers and parents but also disillusioned all teachers who are committed to excellence. Mediocrity and group thinking in schools has overshadowed innovation and passion and it is not surprising that the cream of Malaysian school leavers do not view teaching as a preferred career option. Most tragically, the education system has failed in creating an integrated, inclusive Malaysian society and is more ethnically and socially polarized today than at independence.
The Low Yat rioters and the many others like them, irrespective of ethnicity, are a product of a school system that is simply broken. Clearly it is not a problem of a lack of resources but effectiveness of delivery and results. In 2013, the Government spent about RM54 billion on education and training of which around 10% was on post-secondary technical, vocational training and labor market programs. It is time we take a hard look at the effectiveness of this considerable public spending.  To start with perhaps we need a more reform minded Minister of Education who has a stellar track record as an educationist and who is committed to excellence irrespective of ethnicity and political affiliations.

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