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Going private

BEGINNING today, The Nut Graph examines the problems that have become entrenched in the national school system. While public schools were reliable and multiracial centres of education for Malaysian children not too long ago, today, parents who can afford it are sending their children to private schools. Those who can’t, opt for Chinese vernacular schools. There also seems to be a growing trend towards home schooling.

Do these trends indicate that the public school system is failing us? How did it come to this? And what needs to be done to stem the decline? The Nut Graph attempts to answer these questions in a four-part series.

(Pic by sueanna /

PRIVATE schools used to be the unpopular choice and “last resort” for Malaysian parents, but they may now be leading the pack of education options, educators say. “Ten years ago, parents rarely considered private schools, but now they are shopping around,” Sekolah Sri KDU marketing manager Rina Thiagu-Kler says.

This trend seems to indicate a growing disenchantment with national schools, when once upon a time public schools were the natural choice for parents. Just how serious is the problem, and what is the increased interest in private schools telling us?

Significant increases

For certain, the statistics indicate that a significant number of Malaysians seem to be losing faith in Malaysia’s public school system.

For instance, there is clearly growing demand for private education. The number of private kindergartens, for example, went up from 263,307 in 2004 to 668,287 in just two years, according to statistics from the Education Ministry’s Private Education Department.

Enrolment in international schools, meanwhile, rose from 5,069 students in 2000 to 8,341 the following year.

And within seven years, the number of students enrolled in private primary schools nationwide increased more than 22% from 7,234 students in 2000 to 16,190.

Private education in Malaysia only began to flourish in the early 1990s, and even then the establishment of private schools tended to be concentrated at the pre-school, secondary and post-secondary levels.

Today, the private primary school figures are also ratcheting up, says Sri Kuala Lumpur chief executive officer Hanif Othman Merican. “We have waiting lists for almost every year and form in our school, and there is now a higher demand for parents to place their children in the primary schools first so that they have a better chance of continuing at our secondary school,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Push factor

Parents seemed even more interested after recent changes in the education system, such as the reversal of the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) to Bahasa Malaysia, Sekolah Sri KDU’s Rina says. “They were calling right after that announcement was made.”

Hanif says the PPSMI ruling was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. But many parents were unhappy about the situation in government schools in general and were looking for better options.

They were concerned about principals who were not qualified to head schools, as well as Islamisation, ethnic polarisation and the decline of standards in these schools, he says.

It is not just non-Muslims seeking private education for fear of growing Islamisation. “There are actually a number of Malay [Malaysian] parents who are looking for a secular education, even if they want their children to also go for Islamic classes. But they firmly believe in a secular educational system, and that is what we provide,” Hanif says.

One anecdote that surfaced during the interviewing for this feature told of how a private school sacked an ustazah after she demanded that her students cover up during physical education.

Indeed, with growing distrust and suspicion among parents now about public schools because of Islamisation, such an environment within private schools would be a pull factor.

Special needs

There are other reasons. For younger Malay Malaysian parents like Nadiah Tajuddin, national schools were not an option for her son, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at age four, and later dyslexia at age six.

He now goes to Itqan, a private Islamic integrated school which follows a mainly Singaporean syllabus and has English as its medium of instruction. She is very pleased with the school, and intends to send her two younger children there as well.

“I think that the national school system does not cater to kids with learning and behavioural difficulties, and I sincerely believe that Anuar would be labelled as a lazy and problematic kid by teachers or friends who may not know much better.

“I also believe that there the teacher-student ratio in national classrooms is too high for Anuar to thrive in such an environment,” she says.

(Pic by michael123/
“Bad to the core”

Hanif says many educators acknowledge that the national curriculum is “inherently sound”. But the educational system is “bad to the core”, resulting in poor teaching, educational standards and racial polarisation.

He notes that racial cliques also exist in private schools, a reflection of Malaysia at large. “And if you get that in a school like ours, what more will it be like in the government schools?” Hanif says.

For him, then, private schools provide a better option than the public education system.

The parents who spoke to The Nut Graph all came from the national education system, and had warm memories about their schools. But times have changed.

Parent Alicia Jackson says she is sad she cannot consider national schools, which are the most affordable, for her son. Cynthia Lim, who sends her 10-year-old to a private school and her eight-year-old to a Chinese-medium school, says she never once considered national schools. “Everything in the national education system is now going backwards,” she says.

Tomorrow: Chinese-medium schools to the rescue

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18 Responses to “Going private”

  1. U-Jean says:

    Seriously, I’ve even thought of this myself. And I’m 22, single, and have yet to graduate from uni.

    I’ve figured that my kid will either attend SGGS (my alma mater which is a public school) but depending on its degree of Islamisation or they shall attend private schooling. *shrugs*

    Just some honest opinions…

  2. sunnybunny says:

    Reading this article, I cannot help but reminisce about my primary and secondary education. I believe the education system has changed a lot in the past 15 years. Most Chinese [Malaysian] parents I know send their children to Chinese vernacular schools nowadays, while during my time, there were still quite a few Chinese [Malaysians] in national schools. One perception back then was that Chinese schools were old, facilities bad and students poor due to the language they spoke. Now in the age of China, everyone is bucking up in Mandarin. Perhaps now the government should have more language classes for mature students free of charge. Let us advocate this, what say you, The Nut Graph?


    sunnybunny, we are a media outfit in the business of imparting information and analysis for citizens. We are not in the business of advocating one partisan position or another. But as an independent media outfit, we stand for free and civilised debate, fair comment, accurate information and ethical journalism – all necessary ingredients for a democratic society to flourish.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  3. Farish A Noor says:

    The decline of national schools and falling standards of education which have led to parents sending their kids to private schools is a symptom of a deeper problem of institutional collapse in the country all round. With gated communities and privatised security becoming the norm, we are looking at the creation of two Malaysias: one for the rich and one for the poor, the latter of whom are forced to accept whatever substandard service the state gives them.

    I’ve seen the same in the other developing countries I’ve researched in South and Southeast Asia, but sadly we are not going to resolve this problem unless politicians have the will to make painful and politically-costly decisions, such as firing incompetent/non-performing teachers who don’t work but are only teaching because they cannot get better jobs. Those who can’t do, teach, so to speak.

    This general decline also happens to be one of the reasons other Malaysian academics like me have chosen to work abroad, for being attached to a state educational institution would effectively bring my career to a halt and destroy both my credibility and employment prospects in the long run. How sad to see this mess getting worse.

  4. Pratamad says:

    I love this topic. The future of Malaysia actually hinges on it – the success or failure of our national education system.

    TNG should also consider a group of students who are sent to S’pore for their education needs. This applies mostly to M’sians in the ‘greater’ Johor Baru area. Many children (in their thousands) commute daily for hours! I have a blog post on those poor kids.

    My wife and I have been residing in S’pore in the last 15 years. Recently we bucked the trend and sent our eldest child to Primary 1 in a Chinese vernacular school in Segamat, Johor, our home town. It was a tough decision, especially after we toured the school and found the sorry state of the school (in relative terms to S’pore schools and time passed since our schooling years).

    But it is still within the acceptance range for us. The national schools will be a complete no-no, sadly, due to the poor management and teacher quality.

  5. Patrick says:

    Would you also be looking into what goes behind the selection of teachers in our national schools? More often than not, you tend to hear of stories of poorly-qualified teachers getting hired, while others with better qualifications (or a better aptitude, so they claim) being passed on.

  6. U-Jean says:

    Just to add, I will not send my kid to any school which places one race above another, one gender above another.

  7. kahseng says:

    I suggest your investigation and analysis also look into these factual matters, challenge these assumptions, or raise these questions:

    1. Education being the largest portion of the national budget;

    2. The board of directors/governors in Chinese-medium primary schools and national-type high schools, and the successes that came from their autonomy and decentralised civil leadership roles. Contrast this with the lack of independent-minded directors at Malay and formerly English national schools, and how these may have contributed to demoralisation and corruption of resources;

    3. The misconception that national-type secondary schools use Chinese as a teaching medium. The fact is they teach in Malay, with a tradition of offering Chinese as an extra language subject and in extracurricular activities. Chinese is used as a teaching medium only in primary vernacular schools, and in some private secondary schools where the families have virtually given up hope of entry into public universities;

    4. The role that state-level education officers — more accurately Little Napoleons — have played in disrupting good pedagogy, through endless brainwashing programmes, bad human resource planning, and more;

    5. The impracticality of expecting good governance from parent-teacher associations in long-term and strategic matters, to replace the role of board of directors in national schools. By their nature, parents leave the schools as soon as their children do. Their attachment to the schools is short, even [in the case of] urban families with few children;

    6. The need to challenge the assumption that “unity” and nationalism should be the primary objective of school education, as opposed to the need for “diversity” of minds to excel in today’s globalised world;

    7. The assumption that there are no families in Malaysia that use English as their mother tongue;

    8. The assumption that primary schoolchildren can learn in whatever non-mother-tongue medium thrown at them — that children learn in a social and cognitive vacuum;

    9. The assumption by many English-educated parents that they can “hijack” the Chinese vernacular primary schools and pressure them to use more English, thus turning them into de facto English-medium schools;

    10. The assumption that families must not be free to determine their children’s future way of life; that government authorities know better; that national unity should trump family free choice;

    11. The assumption that private education is bad, that it must contribute to racial division;

    12. The lack of critical question about how high taxation combined with unquestioned acceptance of public education must by logic lead to a long chain of corruption and patronage in the Ministry of Education, and unjust laws and policies that seek to perpetuate the power behind the ministry;

    13. The lack of understanding that private education can provide benchmarks (cost, performance, etc) to clean up and upgrade public schools;

    14. The lack of appreciation for private secondary and tertiary education institutions, which are also guardians and safe harbours for independent, critical, brilliant, and dissident intellectuals;

    15. The assumption that independent private religious schools, including many started by Muslim volunteers in the rural areas, must be teaching extremism — that parents are so dumb as to let their children be indoctrinated without care;

    16. The assumption that it is wrong to teach religion in private school (where parents have a choice), but right to teach religion in public school (where parents normally do not have a choice);

    17. Our broader assumption that mixing religion with the power of government is desirable or even constructive, from the constitution down to laws, policies, budget, administration, and education;

    18. The lack of critical question that it is immoral to restrict public university entrance to able and needy students of any race;

    19. The lack of question that the failure of public education can trace a long but direct lineage to the unjust and corrupting influence of the NEP; and

    20. The assumption that all private secondary schools and colleges are operated at a profit, or aiming for profit. The fact is many are supported by communities and foundations, and do not aim to distribute monetary profit or dividends.

  8. robert choo says:

    Noted the major difference from my youngest son who attends a national type school in Form Two now compared to Chinese medium school where he completed his primary education. He comes home with no school homework daily, not interested in studying at all, complains that sometimes teachers disappear from classes, and students challenge teachers. During his primary school days in a Chinese medium school, he had tonnes of school homework to complete daily. I am very concerned as a parent and shall follow your next article for your insight and maybe a light in the tunnel.

  9. Kamal says:

    There are probably several ways we can read statistics, one of course is that more people sending their kids to private schools reflect a better economy. Of course, I am not denying the other reasons that have been suggested. There is no doubt we have a problem with public schools, but that is a different issue from more people sending their kids to private schools.

    I am continually amazed with the stories I hear coming out of government schools today and they do not reflect a system that is adapting well to change.

    Farish Noor in his letter pointed out that it isn’t only in our education, but it seems to be with everything else. With more and more private security companies employed to protect high-end housing estates. That is true, and perhaps not so easy to say it reflects a growing affluence. But it does.

    The gap between the rich and poor is becoming wider and it is a problem that needs to be address. But we also need to address the [apparent] decline in public services (education, security, etc.). I would say it has to do firstly with having a highly centralised system. A big bureaucracy, controlled from a centralised committee, reacts slowly. That is good in terms of policy, but bad in day to day management. When mid to senior level government officers do not dare or are not able to make decisions on their own, they cannot become effective managers.

    But I disagree with what Farish has to say as a solution, it isn’t just political will that we need, but we also need to respect that for the moment and probably the next twenty years, a bulk of our government servants are not going to be able to meet quickly the demands of society. Sacking those who fail to meet the standards is not the answer. We have to return to a more basic question first; if Farish, in his own words chose to build his career elsewhere because he felt teaching locally would “effectively bring my career to a halt and destroy both my credibility and employment prospects in the long run”, how do we expect the system to improve? Yet not withstanding the dent to their credibility and the end to future prospects, there are good people who continue within the system. Perhaps they recognise the mediocrity in government as a sign of a system failing to adapt to change. But change in this respect will have to come from sacrifice. Adaptation is a slow and deliberate process. We will improve, we have to belief that. We have to strive together to make that happen. It won’t happen over night. And it won’t happen from afar. It will need people to engage with the system.

    The politicians need to decentralise the government. But once we decentralise, we need people willing to come back who will work together with others to bring change; not someone who will bark orders and sack people, but leaders who have proven themselves elsewhere, who are capable in their field, but who also have compassion and wisdom to realise the larger implications of harsh actions.

    Finally, we need to recognise technical weakness from bad politics. Both are tangible and real. But we need to recognise that they are not the same thing. In this respect, just increasing salaries of government officers alone will not solve the problem with the delivery of service. To improve the delivery in government services we need both structural changes, but also and attitudinal changes. But above all, we need to stop discriminatory policies that are based on religion and race (this is where advocating change in politics comes in). To do all this we need people who understand, appreciate and are able and willing to sacrifice to lead the way. Politicians as good intentioned as they may be, cannot be there in each department running the daily affairs. This is where we have to start seeing the country as ours, and believe that if we want change, we need to engage with it. We need to vote, we need to push our political representatives to represent our interests, we need to join the government if need be. Basically, we need to get involved.

  10. Paul Ong says:

    Dear Farish A Noor, your comment is absolutely right! I lived in the Latin Americas for some years more than ten years ago. I used to laugh at their drivers ignoring all traffic rules and where homicides are the norm and even security guards at the condominiums are armed and visitors to some condos have to pass through double gated security sentry. The vigilante set up by the residents are the norm for there is great distrust of the local law enforcement. Everybody at least knew of somebody who got robbed by the mobs.

    Slowly but surely, Malaysia is heading that way..

  11. Rhan says:


    21. The ignorant by many English-educated parents on what constitutes “mother tongue”. Despite the spoken linguistic difference, the Chinese language is considered by its speakers to be a single language. As Mandarin is the most commonly used Chinese language, it is therefore not wrong to assume Mandarin, and with it only one writing system, is the mother tongue for most Chinese.

    22. The assumption that vernacular schools do implement racial segregation. Unlike the elite schools, there is no a single vernacular school that implements racial segregation.

  12. YY says:

    In the past, private tuition was generally unnecessary because school teachers were doing a competent job of teaching. In recent years, however, tuition classes outside of school hours have become de rigueur because schools are no longer doing the job they have been entrusted to do. It’s a sad state of affairs. Children have barely time to eat when they arrive home after school before they are rushed off to tuition classes. Some parents begin to ask themselves if they should be subjecting their children to this torturous routine. If their children learn so little from school, they reason, and gain so much from private tuition classes, why not dispense with school altogether and enroll their children in ‘full-time tuition’? Another name for ‘full-time tuition’ is of course ‘private school’.

  13. aca says:

    I sent my 8 year old kid to private school so that he has a better chance to get into international class in Form 1. I know he will miss Chinese-medium schooling after just one year but what choice do I have with the flip-flopping and politicising of the education system. National school was never in our consideration given the general atrocious standards unless one is able to get into some of the better schools.

    One surprise though. My son’s class is very well “mixed” with over 50% Malay [Malaysians], 40% Chinese [Malaysians] and 10% others. And from what I gathered, they are having a good time together. That’s very reassuring.

  14. Sloane says:

    Why do urban parents and rural parents even send their children to school anyway? Oh, right. Mass sleepwalking. And no, please don’t tell me schooling is necessary to develop intelligence. The motivation to seek actualisation is innate. And when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

    @kahseng : Nut Graph has certainly opened a can of worms running this series. I doubt they can elaborate let alone challenge the assumptions laid out in your 99 theses of sorts. Since the desire has been born I am sure other readers will look forward to you picking up where Nut Graph has left off. You can then ask parents all over Malaysia to nail this 99 theses at the door of their respective Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri. I heard that’s how Martin Luther did it to bring Christians into a new age. Perhaps the same can be done for education.

    I have my doubts whether people can appreciate the need for such an in-depth commitment to statistics, facts and deliberate thinking but the only weapon against an institution embodying itself as a temple of intellect is a higher level of intellectualism. Only when the walls have fallen can Intellectualism lay its weapons down for other attributes to take their deserving place in the third millennium.

    @Farish : A simpler way is to stop demand for dumbed-down schooling. When schools empty out en masse the rakyat can then say, “Off with the Heads! Return the tax dollars, we’re hiring our own teachers!” (My premise: “Deschooling Society”, Ivan Illich).

    The ratio of Farish A. Noors to incompetent teachers is something like 1 :1000. So even if we (as Malaysians) sack all those teachers and hire academics like yourself, you would need some kind of content and learning management system to duplicate yourself digitally to compensate for the 1000 non-Farish A. Noors.

  15. faith04 says:

    I sent all my three children to Chinese vernacular primary school due to following:

    (1) To master reading and speaking of basic Mandarin and learning of Chinese language, which is important for their future career and laying foundation to preserve my ancestral culture and values. Teaching Chinese as a single subject in public school as a third language (Bahasa Malay first, English second) can’t fulfill the role, only Chinese vernacular schools using Mandarin as the medium of instruction can do that.

    (2) Chinese vernacular schools are sponsored by the community and are much more economical compared to private school.

    (3) Fear of conversion to Islam and “Ketuanan Melayu” racism in public schools.

    (4) Meritocracy, non-racial and non-religious discrimination in Chinese vernacular schools.

    (5) Chinese vernacular school principals are more accomodating of the sensitivities of different cultures/religion/customs of various races.

  16. Chan Chong Guan says:

    Everybody has to wake up and do something!

  17. matdene says:

    To faith04: Are you sure that Chinese schools are less racist? I have a friend from a prominent Chinese high school who told me that sometimes the kids are told during morning assemblies things like “Don’t trust Malays” and “We must protect our own race from them.” How could people tell such things to 13- to 17-year-olds? I’m not condemning Chinese vernacular schools per se, national schools are definitely at fault as well; but it would be unfair to say that only national schools are racist.

    Additionally, I believe having vernacular schools accelerates racism and racial segregation because of preferences towards a particular race. Children should mingle around with kids from other races because it is that stage that we humans are most innocent.

    No education system can be perfect, but can we have our education system guided by educationists, not politicians?

  18. Hesione says:

    How interesting. The grass is always greener on the other side. I am working in a highly-regarded private school and sad to say, not many parents are aware of the fact that none of us are qualified to teach, at least not in the usual sense. None of us have undergone any form of teachers’ training or certification. Ironically, the teachers of the national schools have.

    Going by international standards (not international schools but international, like global), teachers in say, the UK have to have the PGCE, the ones in the US and Australia the same before you are allowed to become a teacher, it is a licence.

    Having an MA or a PhD in education may be well and good but it still does not mean that you would know how to teach. The teachers in another private school that I know of here had to undergo a week-long crash course just so they can all receive a teaching certificate.

    Say what you like, quality of teachers and administrators have nothing to do with race or colour. No particular [race] is going to do a better job than another race or vice-versa.

    It has to do with believing in what is good for our young citizens and what the learning outcome should be. Only then good things can be implemented.

    Bear in mind, it is a tough job because you cannot please everyone.

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