4th International Conference on Language and Education:
Multilingual Education for All in Asia and the Pacific –
Policies, Practices and Processes
November 6-8, 2013
Imperial Queen’s Park Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand
Language-in-education policy in Malaysia:
Context, implementation and challenges
Helen Ting Mu Hung
IKMAS, National University of Malaysia
Post-WWII British Malaya
• 1947 census of British Malaya:
Malays = 43.5%, Chinese = 44.7%, Indians =
• Sino-Malay violent conflicts after Japan
• Contentions and intense interethnic
negotiations over access to equal citizenship,
political status, mother tongue education,etc
Pragmatic Multiculturalism
Modus operandi of inter-racial power sharing:
Alliance  Barisan Nasional
Limited mother-tongue education in National
Education System
• Politics of multiculturalism = negotiating
tension between constructing Malaydominated nation and accommodation of
cultural diversity
1955 Alliance Election Manifesto on
• allow normal expansion of vernacular schools;
• encourage rather than destroy the schools,
language and culture of any race living in the
• accord equal treatment to all schools;
• ensure that its education policy would
promote the cultural, economic, social and
political development of the people as a
International Trends affecting Language-in-education
Policies in Malaysia
• International norm: cultural homogeneity as ideal of
nation, hallmark of national cohesion
 Social cohesion = cultural uniformity or homogeneity
• Post-colonial ethno-nationalist leaders inculcate aspirations
to project particular ethnic identity, culture or religion as
well as values onto the state
 nation-building efforts become a thinly veiled state
project to assimilate minorities
• Post-WWII ‘human right revolution’  rethinking of role of
language and ethnic identity in democratic scheme of
nation-building (multiculturalism)
• Importance of English to Malaysia as an open economy
• The rise of Chinese economy
• Internationalising trend of education standard setting
Malaysian Education System
• Inherited schools taught in four different
languages (English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil)
• Now, 3 linguistic options as medium of
instruction among public primary schools
• Government secondary schools in Malay
• There are also private English-medium or
international secondary schools and
community-managed Mandarin medium
secondary schools
Challenges faced by Malaysian Education System
• Cognitive performance of students below average
international standards
• Variance in standard between national and
international assessments
• Need to improve return on investment of public
• Need to enhance quality of teachers
• Need to achieve equitable student outcomes (ruralurban, gender, school types, indigenous minorities,
• Limited range of linguistic proficiency
• Overcentralisation in the administration of Education
• Prevalent perception of “islamization” of national
Performance of ‘Orang Asli National
Schools’ as proxy of Indigenous students
Situation of Indigenous Peoples’
• 4% of all primary and secondary students
• 68% rural, 80% in Sabah and Sarawak
• Poverty, geographical isolation (no preschool ed),
inadequate training of teachers  lack of local
understanding, community support, etc
• Govt initiatives: 2 boarding schools,
contextualised curriculum, inclusion of minority
languages (Iban, Kadazan-Dusun, Semai), teacher
recruitment from communities, literacy classes
for parents
Enrolment in (public + private) schools
for 2011 (Education Blueprint)
• 96% of cohort at primary level
• 91% of cohort at lower secondary schools
• 82% of cohort at upper secondary schools
19% of cohort did not complete 11 years of
schooling (2011)
• 2000 Primary 1 student cohort
– 7% did not sit for PMR in 2008
– 36% failed to attain SPM minimum standard
Challenges Common for Tamil & Chinese Schools
• Insufficient state allocation of funding for
maintenance (operational and infrastructure)
• Restrictive policy on building of new schools
• Population movement leading to simultaneous
overcrowding and under-enrolment of schools
• High number of untrained teachers but problems
getting resolved currently
• Lack of effective planning and administrative
power in education ministry to oversee needs of
these vernacular schools
• Low proficiency in Malay language
Differences between Chinese and
Tamil Schools
• strong community support
across socio-economic
• Regarded as providing best
education among the three
• Options to continue
studying in Mandarin
beyond primary level
• Staunch preservation of
the use of Mandarin as
medium of instruction
throughout six years
• Community support
increasing over past 10
• Regarded as gen. low
performing schools
though image changing
• Language switch at
secondary level needed
• Openness to
accelerated switch to
English or Malay at
higher grade of primary
Language Switch Challenge
• 23% of 2010 sjkc leavers went to remove class
• Since 1995, sjk(c+t) students scoring a minimum
of C for Malay UPSR result may skip remove class
2010 survey by NUTP among 159 Chinese students
(11-18 years):
• 33% understood teaching in Malay
• 22% partially understood
• 36% didn’t understand;
• 8% understood nothing
Prof Rajendran: about 30% students from
vernacular schools did badly in Malay (UPSR)
Language Transition in Secondary
• Santhiram (1999) found no correlation
between the academic performance and
school origins of Indian students in three
secondary schools case study
• Indian students from both streams did badly
• Nonetheless, he found that those from Tamil
primary schools had more positive self-esteem
segregation insulates minority from “psychic
Challenge of Learning Malay by
Vernacular School Students
• Inappropriate pedagogy (not as 2nd language)
• Inappropriate teaching material
• Students not exposed to conducive linguistic
environment for oral practice
• Some may score in written exams but not able
to converse well in Malay
• Remove class not always given due attention
and resources in secondary schools
Problem of Dropouts
Difficult to get facts and figures
Wee (Oct 2011) on public school statistics:
• For 2006-2010 period, 1.32% for primary and
9.42% for secondary (3.5% after deducting those
found outside public system)
But 2002 study found only 75.5% of 1997 UPSR sjkc
students finished Upper secondary
• 34.5% dropouts had problems with language
• 31% (work), 16.5% (not interested in study)
Government Plan to Improve Delivery
(those related to language)
• To recruit only top 30% school leavers for teacher
training programs
• To train bilingual teachers to teach Malay as a second
language in first 2 years of vernacular schools
• Close tracking of student Malay language performance
in vernacular primary schools
• To upskill English language teachers
• To emphasise development of higher order thinking
skills in new curriculum
• Making Malay standard ‘uniform across all schools’
Recommendations by NGOs
• Fair treatment of all school-types (resources allocation,
building of new schools)
• To set up an ‘Education Ombusman’ to ensure fair,
transparent and effective execution of education policy
• To set up administrative unit to resolve dropout
problems especially among Indigenous minority
• Review teachers’ training system and promote
multicultural sensitivity among teachers
• Recognise, promote, and develop mother tongue
education, especially among vulnerable indigenous
• Improve remove class delivery system