Education in Malaysia

From Academic Kids

Education in Malaysia may be obtained from government-sponsored schools, private schools, or through homeschooling.



Education in Malaysia broadly consists of a set of stages which are:

Only Primary School education in Malaysia is mandated by law, hence it is not a criminal offence to neglect the educational needs of a child after he or she has completed all six years of it.

Primary and secondary education in government schools is handled by the Ministry of Education, but policies regarding tertiary education are handled by the Ministry of Higher Education, created in 2004.


Many pre-school programs exist in Malaysia. Attendance in a pre-school program is not universal and generally only affluent families can afford to send their children to private, for profit pre-schools.

The government has no formal pre-school program except "aid" based programs in more rural parts of the country. These programs also occur in rural enclaves within the nation's cities.

Other pre-school programs are run by religious groups. No formal training or certification is required to start a pre-school. Additionally pre-schools are not subject to zoning regulations and many of them can be found in residential buildings which have been converted for this purpose.Some private schools have pre-school sections.


Primary Education in Malaysia consists of 6 years of education, referred to as Standards 1 through 6. Standards 1 to 3 are also referred to as Tahap Satu (First Level) and Standards 4 to 6, Tahap Dua (Second Level). Students enter primary schools at the age of 7 and leave at the age of 12. Students are promoted to the next Standard, regardless of their academic performance.

Until 2000, the Penilaian Tahap Satu (PTS) or the First Level Evaluation was given to students in Standard 3 who passed a qualification test. Excellence in this test allowed students to skip Standard 4. However, the test was removed from 2001 onwards due to concerns that parents and teachers were unduly pressuring students. Some have alleged that the demographics of those who scored well on the PTS are ethnically skewed.

At the end of primary education, students in national schools are required to undergo a national standardised test known as the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) or Primary School Evaluation Test. The subjects tested are Malay comprehension, written Malay, English, Science and Mathematics. Chinese/Tamil comprehension, written Chinese/Tamil are also tested subjects in Chinese/Tamil vernacular schools.

The primary education system is divided into the national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan) and vernacular schools (Sekolah Rendah Jenis Kebangsaan) (literally national-type school). The official medium of instruction in national schools is Malay. Vernacular schools generally conduct classes in Mandarin for Chinese vernacular schools and Tamil for Tamil vernacular schools. Participation in the UPSR is not compulsory, but all vernacular schools also administer the UPSR to their students as this allows for re-integration of their students into national schools for secondary education.

Despite lack of government financial assistance, most students from Chinese schools excel in standardised tests. Some students from other ethnic backgrounds study in Chinese schools for the supposed better education. Opposition politician Lim Guan Eng has noted that the government refuses to fund Chinese primary schools despite the fact that 60,000 non-Chinese students attend these schools. This number represents 10% of all students in Chinese primary schools. [1] (

Recently, attempts have been made to establish (Sekolah Wawasan) or vision schools. Vision schools share facilities with one or more national schools, ostensibly to encourage closer interaction.

In 2004 the prime minister said "the national school, the main catalyst for the integration process in the young generation, has begun to lose its popularity as a school of choice, particularly among Chinese students. He went on to say that only about two per cent of Chinese students attended national schools. [2] (

In response Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, said the seating arrangements of students, especially in primary schools, would be planned to allow for maximum interaction among the races. He also stated "The Education Department is looking at introducing National Integration as a subject in the school syllabus," and that "The composition of teachers too should also reflect the various races". [3] (

Chinese primary schools are usually run by a Board of Governors. They make decision for the school but not in all matters. One matter is the running of school canteens (cafeterias) where the operator is appointed by the Education department. In 2004 Education Minister Datuk Hishamuddin Tun Hussein Onn stated this function would be returned to the Board but it has yet to occur.

Between 1995 and 2000, the Seventh Malaysia Plan allocation for primary education development allocated 96.5% to national primary schools which had 75% of total enrolment. Chinese primary schools (21% enrolment) received 2.4% of the allocation while Tamil primary schools (3.6% enrolment) received 1% of the allocation.


Secondary schooling consists of 5 years of schooling and this is referred to as Form 1 to Form 5.

Public secondary schools are regarded as extensions of the national schools. In Form 3, the Penilaian Menengah Rendah or Lower Secondary Evaluation is taken by students. Depending on their results, they will be streamed into either the Science stream or Arts stream. The Science stream is generally more desirable, and students are allowed to elect to go to the Arts from the Science stream, but not vice-versa.

In Form 5, students are required to take the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or Malaysian Certificate of Education examination, before graduating from secondary school. The SPM is the equivalent of the British General Certificate of Education 'O' Levels examination.

After Merdeka, the government mandated that all schools surrender their property and be assimilated into the normal school system. This caused an uproar among the Chinese and compromised was achieved with the government that the schools shall become National Type (N.T.) Schools where the government is in charge of the teaching personnel only, while the land belongs to the school privately (other schools' land belongs to the government). This still was viewed with scepticism among the Chinese. Shortly after the proposal was announced, the most influential Chinese High school then, Chung Ling High School, led by Principal Wang Yoong Nien, accepted this proposal. This caused a domino effect among the other Chinese High Schools, and 60+ of them converted to National Type Schools. The schools that converted included Chung Ling High School, Penang Chinese Girl High School in Penang Island and Jit Sin High School on the mainland. Teaching and learning of Mandarin was often compulsory in these schools, with most schools dedicating at least 1/7 to 1/5 of the time in a week to Mandarin studies.

A minority of Chinese Schools refused the proposal and became Private High Schools (more commonly known as Chinese independent high schools). During 1960s and 70s, there was a revival Chinese schools. Many of the national-type high schools reopened in parallel their independent high school branch. Currently there are 61 independent Chinese high schools in Malaysia, this includes the largest secondary school in the country, Foon Yew High School, which has >6000 students. Currently, there are no government-run Chinese secondary schools in Malaysia — all Chinese secondary schools are private (independent), supported by fees and donations. Students in these schools take a standardised test known as the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), which is restricted to the 61 Chinese independent secondary schools in Malaysia. Some students in these schools take SPM examinations as private candidates. UEC has been run by the Dong Jiao Zhong (the association of Chinese school teachers and trustees) since 1975. It is recognised as the entrance qualificaation in many tertiary educational institutions in the United Kingdom, United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and many others. It is not recognised by the government of Malaysia for entry into public universities, but most private colleges recognise it. In May 2004 the National Accreditation Board (LAN) required students entering local private colleges using any qualification other than the SPM would be required to pass the SPM Malay paper. This drew protests and Higher Learning Minister Dr Shafie Salleh exempted UEC students from this requirement.

The UEC is available in three levels: UEC - Vocational Unified Exam (UEC-V), UEC (Junior Middle Level-JML) and UEC (Senior Middle Level-SML). The syllabus and examinations for the UEC-V and UEC-JML are only available in the Chinese language. The UEC-SML has question for mathematics, sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), book keeping, accounting and commerce are available in both Chinese and English.

Chinese educationalist Dr Kua Kia Soong mentions the introduction of the UEC in his book Protean Saga: The Chinese Schools of Malaysia. According to the book, the introduction of the UEC led to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then the education minister and later the prime minister, summoning the Chinese educationalist to parliament. To quote the book "The latter (Mahathir) did not mince his words but told the Dong Jiao Zong leaders that UEC had better not be held or else ... He did not ask for any response and dismissed the Chinese educationalists with a curt ... 'that is all'."


After SPM, students would have a choice of either studying Form 6 or the matriculation (pre-university). Should they choose to continue studying in Form 6, they will also take the Sijil Pelajaran Tinggi Malaysia or Malaysian Certificate of Higher Education examination (its British equivalent is the General Certificate of Education 'A' Levels examination). Form 6 consists of two years of study which is known as lower 6 and upper 6. In general, the STPM is only useful if one desires to attend a public university.

Additionally all students may apply for admission to matriculation which is a one year program run by local public universities. Not all applicants for matriculation are admitted and the selection criteria are not publicly declared, which has led to speculation that any criteria existing may not be adhered to. The matriculation programme has undergone some criticism as it is a general consensus that this programme is much easier compared to STPM and serves to help Bumiputeras enter the public university easily.

Some students have their matriculation in private colleges. They may opt for programs such as the British 'A' Levels program, the Canadian matriculation program or the Australian program, which are all offered.


Tertiary education in the public universities is heavily subsidised by the government. Applicants to public universities must have completed the matriculation program or have an STPM grade. Excellence in these examinations does not guarantee a place in a public university. The selection criteria are largely opaque as no strictly enforced defined guidelines exists.

The following is a list of the public universities in Malaysia open to all Malaysians, listed according to the date of their formation:

  • Universiti Malaya (UM)
  • Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)
  • Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)
  • Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM)
  • Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)
  • Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM)
  • International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM)
  • Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS)
  • Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS)
  • Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI)

The following Universities are restricted:

Racial quotas, a highly politicised and controversial issue in Malaysia, exist for university admission. However, in 2002 the government announced a reduction of reliance on racial quotas, instead leaning more towards meritocracy.

Yet 2004, 128 students who obtained 5As in the STPM (the best possible grade for university application) were denied their first choice of course which was medicine. The only thing they had in common was that they were non-Malay. All students managed to successfully gain offers to private institutions but some did not pursue a medical education due to lack of funds.

In 2004, the government created a new ministry called the Ministry of Higher Education to oversee tertiary education. The new minister, Dr. Shafie Salleh, stated at the United Malays National Organisation 2004 general assembly, "As the Higher Education Minister, I will ensure the quota of Malay students' entry into universities is always higher". [4] (

Some, such as prominent opposition figure Lim Guan Eng, have alleged that this quote may be taken out of context, stating that Shafie was instead guaranteeing that the number of Bumiputra students admitted to public universities would increase every year. [5] ( He has also stated that "Education is looked at from a racial perspective and not on the basis of educational needs."

Prior to 2004, all lecturers in public tertiary institutions were required to have some post-graduate award as a requisite qualification. In October of 2004, this requirement was removed and the Higher Education Ministry announced that industry professionals who added value to a course could apply for lecturing positions directly to universities even if they did not have postgraduate qualifications. To head off possible allegations that the universities faced a shortage of lecturers, Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Fu Ah Kiow said "This is not because we are facing a shortage of lecturers, but because this move will add value to our courses and enhance the name of our universities...Letís say Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg, both well known and outstanding in their fields, want to be teaching professors. Of course, we would be more than happy to take them in." He went on to offer architecture as an example whereby well-known architects recognized for their talents did not have a masters degree.

Students also have the choice of attending private institutions of higher learning. Many of these institutions offer courses in cooperation with a foreign institute or university. Some of them are branch campuses of these foreign institutions.

Many private colleges offer programmes whereby the student does part of his degree course here and part of it in the other institution. The nature of these programs is somewhat diverse and ranges from the full "twinning" program where all credits and transcripts are transferable and admission is automatic to programs where the local institution offers an "associate degree" which is accepted at the discretion of the partnering university. In the latter case, acceptance of transcripts and credits is at the discretion of the partner.

Some foreign universities have also set up branch campuses in Malaysia:

The net outflow of academics from Malaysia led to a "brain gain" scheme by then (1995) Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed. The scheme set a target of attracting 5,000 talents annually. In 2004, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister, Datuk Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis in a parliamentary reply stated that the scheme attracted 94 scientists (24 Malaysians) in pharmacology, medicine, semi-conductor technology and engineering from abroad between 1995 and 2000. At the time of his reply, only one was remaining in Malaysia.

Postgraduate Programs

Postgraduate degrees such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) are becoming popular and are offered by both the public universities and the private colleges.

Vocational Programs

Besides the university degrees, students also have the option of continuing their education in professional courses such as the courses offered by the ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators) etc.

Religious schools

Sekolah Pondok (literally, Hut school), Madrasah and other Islamic schools were the original schools in Malaysia. Early works of Malay literature such as Hikayat Abdullah mention these schools indicating they pre-date the current secular model of education. The earlier Hindu culture pre-dating the Islamic period of Malay history did not appear to spawn any formalised educational structure.

Such schools still exist in Malaysia, but are generally no longer the only part of a child's education in urban areas. Students in rural parts of the country do still attend these schools. Since the academic results published by these schools are not accepted by mainline universities, many of these students have to continue their education in locations such as Pakistan or Egypt. Some of their alumni include Nik Adli (Son of PAS leader Nik Aziz).

Some parents also opt to send their children for religious classes after secular classes. Dharma classes, Sunday schools and after school classes at the mosque are various options available.


Secular schools in Malaysia were largely an innovation of the British colonial government. Many of the earliest schools in Malaysia were started in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka, and Singapore. The oldest school in Malaysia is the Penang Free School, founded in 1816, followed by Malacca High School. Many of these schools still carry with them an air of prestige although there is no formal difference between these schools and other schools.

Roman Catholic missionaries of the Josephian order also started a series of "mission schools" and many of these schools still stand and carry the names of various Roman Catholic saints. Due to government intolerance of non-Muslim views in the public space, none of these schools have brothers any more. There are also a series of convents which originally housed nuns but had a school attached to provide education to young girls. The education of young ladies at that time was considered very revolutionary. Similar to the brother schools, many of these convents no longer house nuns and so are convents in name only.

The Methodist Church in Malaysia also established a set of mission schools and these schools carry the name ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) and MGS (Methodist Girls School). The Methodist schools still maintain a single private school called Methodist College. Mission schools are largely single gender institutions while most government schools are mixed gender schools.

Language issues

The issue of language and schools is a key issue for many political groups in Malaysia. UMNO championed the cause of Malay usage in schools but private schools using the Chinese and Tamil language are allowed. These schools are referred to as "vernacular schools" as opposed to the "government schools" where Malay is the medium of instruction.

The existence of vernacular schools is used by non-Malays components of the ruling Barisan Nasional to indicate that their culture and identity have not been infringed upon by the Malay people. This is often a key issue as it is considered important by many. Dong Jiao Zhong (the association of Chinese vernacular school boards and teachers) and other such organizations still shape much of the views of the Chinese educated community, which is a key electoral constituency.

In 2002, the government announced that from 2003 onwards, the teaching of Science and Mathematics would be done in English, in order to ensure that Malaysia will not be left behind in a world that was rapidly becoming globalised.

In 2004, the prime minister announced that only two percent of Chinese students attended government schools. Opposition figure, Lim Guan Eng also came out in saying that 60,000 non-Chinese students attended Chinese vernacular schools.

The next day the prime minister made a statement in a written reply to a parliamentary question by Dr Tan Kee Kwong (another representative from the same coalition) that the policy of allowing vernacular schools may have to be re-examined. His specific statement was "various measures have to be taken to tackle this issue including a review of the education system which allows for different streams to be implemented in this country"[6] ( He was speaking on the issue of racial polarisation in schools.

Dr Wee Ka Siong MCA (the main Chinese component party of the prime ministers Barisan Nasional) responded that it was shocking and "We can't draw a conclusion to say that the government is going to abolish the vernacular schools although (the statement) was hinting at that, because the premier said that the government will review the system"

Chong Eng deputy secretary-general of the DAP (opposition party) stated "We unite as citizens, we don't betray the country, we defend the sovereignty of the country and all these have nothing to do with what school we came from"

On April 2005, in an attempt to make national schools more competitive and the first choice of non-Malay students, the government announced that all national schools will begin teaching Chinese and Tamil, not as mother tongue course but as elective course.

Education and politics

Education is largely politicised in Malaysia to the extent that every Prime Minister, except the first Prime Minister (Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj), has at one time or another been the education minister.

The ruling political alliance is composed of ethnically based parties and one of the concessions allowed by the controlling Malay party is to allow the Chinese and Indian parties to start colleges.

The subsequent upgrade of the Chinese TAR College (now known as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, or UTAR, a private university) bestowing upon it the title of University is largely seen as a reward for the Chinese party helping the government win a closely contested election is 1999.

Gender issues and education

In 2004 the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) representative Dr. Richard Leete stated that Malaysia's ranking in the UNDP gender index is not "as high as it should be". His exact quote was "I don't know Malaysia's present ranking (in the UNDP's gender index) offhand but I know it is not as high as it should be because of this unusual problem. Boys are dropping out of secondary and tertiary education, with females outnumbering the males with a high margin" Leete seemed to indicate this was a uniquely Malaysian situation.

However, Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh replied that "It happens in other countries too. It's a global phenomena". He then quoted statistics that for the 2004 session, enrolments of boys in all Malaysian polytechnics stood at 34,324 as against 24,601 for girls. For the enrolments in the 34 community colleges 5,041 were boys and 3,010 were girls. Shafie said of the 45,856 places offered at the public higher learning institutes 15,796 places were given to boys and 30,060 to girls.

Malaysian Polytechnics and community colleges are not degree producing institutions and none have post-graduate programmes. Most are vocational or technical institutions.

This imbalance is corrected once the respective genders leave the educational system. In a paper entitled [7] ( "Phantom Women Graduates: Where are They?" Nik Kamariah Nik Mat and Puan Filzah Md Isa (Associate Professors in Universiti Utara Malaysia) stated that "Only about five percent of women are working in management and professional positions in this country"


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