More Malaysians turn to international schools

(The Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 – More middle-class Malaysians are enrolling their children in international schools despite long waiting lists, as parents grow increasingly frustrated with the local education system.

Up to 2006, the only Malaysians who could send their children to these schools were those who had lived abroad for at least three years, or had a foreign spouse.

An exception was those with businesses that could attract foreign direct investments for the country. These business owners were wealthy Malaysians.

Thus, there were not many local students enrolled in international schools.

But since 2006 – when the rules were relaxed and international schools were allowed to enrol up to 40 per cent Malaysians – middle-class Malaysians have started placing their children in such schools, which have increased in number, from 32 three years ago to 40 now.

The number of Malaysian students has also gone up – from 2,608 among an estimated 10,000 students, or 26 per cent, in 2006, to 5,000 among an estimated 15,000 students, or 33 per cent, in 2009.

At least 20 more international schools are scheduled to open soon, according to school operators.

One reason some parents are transferring their children to international schools is the changes in the curriculum of the national schools.

One example: the decision last month to reverse the policy of teaching maths and science in English, which had been in effect for six years.

Another change was when the government decided to limit the number of subjects students are allowed to take for their O-levels, compared with the unlimited number previously.

“The Education Ministry is very fickle minded, they do not know what to do most of the time with the policies,” said property agent Tan Ching Suan, 49, who is unhappy with the constant changes in the local system.

So, even though the national schools are free of charge, she transferred her daughter to an international school two years ago.

More middle-class Malaysians have, like her, become willing to draw on their savings to send their children to the more expensive international schools.

Some of them also work overseas or are highly mobile. Having their children in international schools makes it easier for them when they move from one country to another.

Foreign schools charge from RM10,000 (S$4,000) to RM60,000 a year for pre-school to O-levels. Parents also have to pay a non-refundable fee to put their children on the waiting list as part of the enrolment process.

But the rates are getting more competitive as they increasingly take aim at Malaysia’s middle class.

Most of these schools are equipped with state-of-the-art facilities such as gymnasiums, swimming pools, tennis courts and studios for performing arts.

“When we expand our school and improve the facilities, it doesn’t mean that we want to take in more students. It is just to make it a better place for them,” says Simon Mann, the principal of Garden International School (GIS) in Kuala Lumpur.

As part of its regular upgrading, GIS recently spent RM2 million to resurface the school field with turf grass.

The 60-year-old GIS is the oldest international school in Malaysia. It has 2,000 students and 40 per cent of them are Malaysians.

The 5,000 Malaysian students in international schools are a drop in the ocean compared to the five million students in national schools. But the small proportion belies the growing demand. The waiting time can be two years.

“I registered my daughter in GIS two years ago but there was no news, so I had to enrol my child in Mutiara Grammar School instead,” said Aida Aleemah, 31.

Most international schools are in KL while some are in Penang and Pahang. Students in these schools are taught based on the British and American education systems.

The Malaysian government has never done a study on why some Malaysians prefer to send their children to international or private schools.

In fact, the Education Ministry feels that international schools play a complementary role in the education system. They provide an alternative to parents who are willing to pay for their children’s education.

“In a way private, schools have helped to lessen the burden of the government,” Education Ministry director-general Alimuddin Dom told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview.