UPSR & PMR Quandry

A few years ago, I tried to place my daughter in a Singapore secondary school after she obtained 5As in the UPSR but was told the bitter truth that our UPSR has no criteria whatsoever, let alone regarded as a gauge, and that my daughter would have to repeat primary 6 in Singapore and that too if she does well in a placement exam.

By K. Jeyaraj

The Minister’s invitation for opinions on whether or not to scrap the UPSR and PMR must stem either from a dissatisfaction of the current state of education in our country or from a desire to further improve upon a satisfactory system. I trust the former is the predominant feeling of the entire nation. With that premise, I write.

Amongst the many criteria which influences the success of an education system, the primary contributors would be
(i) a culture of excellence, high-achievement and perfection at school level;
(ii) a focussed leadership steering towards this high achievement and excellence;
(iii) a well-trained, knowledgeable and skilful teaching force;
(iv) an acceptable physical infrastructure.

The objective of the educational system is to produce high calibre school-leavers who can easily live up to the expectations of whatsoever career, profession or vocation they are guided to or when no employment offered, with the ability to move towards enterprise, productivity and creativity by themselves. Some may gravitate toward tertiary studies and must excel in their chosen fields. Our tertiary graduates must be knowledgeable and skilful and live up to the expectations of their chosen field.

Unfortunately, employers both of local and foreign origins have been in recent years criticizing our young graduates of being completely inadequate, to the extent of not only lacking in skill and creativity but totally lacking in initiative or even worse, they sometimes conclude our graduates are not even trainable.

Our schools have utterly failed. The general student population of our schools do not see the need to excel. Excellence is neither an objective nor even the norm of general behaviour. Students are not pushed to excel and they don’t seem to have pride in their studies. On the contrary, our syllabus has been eased to enable more to pass or even to score all “A”s. Teachers generally teach or even spoon-feed without ensuring that students learn. The syllabus covered is alleged as an achievement even when provoking questions over the syllabus are not exercised or even attempted.

Our UPSR examinations used to be screening gauge of who better students were until, not only the syllabus was utterly loosened but the grading marks were lowered resulting in thousands having the maximum 5“A”s. It does not take geniuses to conclude that if the maximum “A”s were not restricted to the best 10-15% of the student population then it can no longer be treated as a screening gauge.

It used to be the choice of some parents in the ‘70s to send their children to Singapore after their primary schooling in Malaysia when Singapore accepted our students direct into their secondary schools, giving regard to our then UPSR results. A few years ago, I tried to place my daughter in a Singapore secondary school after she obtained 5As in the UPSR but was
told the bitter truth that our UPSR has no criteria whatsoever, let alone regarded as a gauge, and that my daughter would have to repeat primary 6 in Singapore and that too if she does well in a placement exam. Upon further investigation, I found that their primary 6 syllabus was way beyond ours and where we covered similar syllabus, their exercises were more challenging and provoking. There you have it – our perception of excellence is way, way below the international norm.

The UPSR, if used as a gauge of extracting the best students, has utterly failed. In fact it has encouraged mediocrity and has killed initiative and any zeal for high achievement. By suppressing the syllabus and allowing lesser qualified students to obtain all “A”s, we are rewarding lackadaisical attitude. As a result we have seen UPSR 5A students who eventually obtain mediocre or bad results for SPM.

On the other end of the pole, a student who fails in the UPSR is promoted to Form 1. How would any right thinking person urge such a student to grasp the “D,E,F”s of anything when he does not even know the “A,B,C”s. Are we at least using the UPSR results to give special attention to these failing students by having special programs for them to catch up? No, we let
them progress to secondary school deceiving ourselves that its up to them to catch up. Then when these students, unable to cope with demands of school, capture the glory of gangsterism, touting, petty trading or even pimping, we point fingers at them, accusing them of being out of control and thereby hiding the fact we, the society have failed these poor students.

Yes, we sat back and allowed the almost total destruction of our education system. Many parents, unable or unwilling to challenge the mass and momentum of the destruction of the local education system, have migrated or sent their children overseas. English/Malay educated Chinese parents, having given up on our Sekolah Kebangsaan, where they had once thrived, now send their children to Chinese schools. The advent of private schools speaks volumes on the failure of our national schools. Such an attitude would definitely run contrary to the building of a uniform Malaysian society free from racial prejudices but who is to blame?

Now let me whip some words into that quagmire now known as PMR. It used to be the most important examination in Secondary school. In those days, you fail your Form 3, you’re out of school or you repeat your year. Those who somewhat pass go to Vocational schools and move towards technical training. Only those 1st graders get into the science stream and the rest to the Arts. Wow, you don’t play with what used to be the LCE or SRP. What did we, a progressive nation, pretending that in less than a decade we would be “a developed nation”, do with this great screening examination? We murdered it, as we did the UPSR.

So shallow has its syllabus been brought that a student I know who miserably failed in his trial exams, could be coaxed with personal attention for 3 months and obtain 5 “A”s. No wonder many of our students are not performing – simply because there is no incentive to excel. Our syllabus is so faint that they would rather faint for two and a half years and wake up for 3 months and grasp the entire 3 year syllabus. And we are blaming them for being mischievous, flaunting class, getting into bad habits and staying in cyber cafes and pool studios?

On the other hand, when they play truant and fail the PMR miserably, we promote them to Form 4, a class above, and con them into believing they’re equipped to do their SPM or “O” levels and have purportedly grasped the level of study equivalent to their international peers of their age. We have been adopting a defeatist approach by easing our syllabus when students don’t cope.

The same students, when placed in an environment of challenge with inspiration to excel, would definitely become high achievers. The PMR has hence been reduced to an irrelevant state today. Are we to succumb again and remove it altogether or are we to overhaul the entire education system to enhance its status?

Before deciding on the PMR, let’s digress towards the SPM and STPM – as by the trend that is moving there may be a suggestion to scrap the SPM too. Perhaps the STPM may go first, as it has lost its purpose though the STPM remains the only examination of true international quality in our country.

Having brought upon the SPM, candidates who should have been guided into other trades or vocations, then having a conniving desire to swell figures to show-off the aptitude of our general student population, the SPM had to be compromised, perhaps an unfortunate victim to earlier decisions regarding the UPSR and the PMR. In order to keep healthy figures, again in similar fashion, the syllabus is watered down and examination questions made not so challenging, enough to enable good students to recognize the syllabus of the next level but not enough to ensure their competency.

We have the greatest number of students getting the greatest number of straight “A”s in the SPM. If this truly reflects their competency, our industry would be at par with Germany or Japan but alas, we’re dependent only on oil in the sands of the sea and of the palms. Suggestions of reducing the number of examination subjects in our context are again another camouflage unless all subjects are truly raised by some 6 notches or more.

How could we lead our ill-prepared SPM students into our glorious STPM? We can’t leave our SPM grads in the lurch either. Then our solution was to create another avenue to get students into universities – the matriculation or foundation program. So we got our SPM grads into a compromised course which had no nationwide standard to judge and used this matriculation/foundation program to place them into universities.

We have become champions in expounding mediocrity. Of course, what goes in must come out. Hence we churn out ill-prepared tertiary graduates, who are unable to face the real world of employers who would not tolerate less than excellence.

Every nation promotes with great pride their pre-university qualification knowing confidently that only the best must pursue tertiary degrees for in their hands we will place our future and confidence. But hail Malaysia, while maintaining the STPM, has flooded our universities with their matriculation students and having no place for those who excelled in what is amongst the most challenging pre-university course in the world, the STPM.

Even for STPM graduates, the prospect of using their qualifications to enter our public universities is now a mere dream. Entering Form 6 no longer offers the pride and romantism it once used to. The compromising and lackadaisical university entry requirements no longer makes STPM an attraction to our best students. The perception is that only those who are unable to get a scholarship and unable to afford better options end up in Form 6. A far cry from the seventies and eighties when one shunned foreign studies in favour of doing the Form 6. The prospect of a place in a local public university was at that time worth the strive for excellence. Today, the contrary is unfortunately the case.

Singapore maintained it’s “A” levels as the primary pre-university qualification. So does the UK with their A levels, Australia with their matriculation program and America with their SATs and the like. Our Malaysian students are now galloping to obtain foreign pre-university qualifications to get good university places. We, on the contrary maintained the superiority of the STPM but killed its relevance.

And when our once great public universities have led by example by compromising their entry requirements, then allowing hundreds of private universities and university colleges to mushroom, forcing them to skim from the remaining under-performing SPM graduates, their very existence force them to lower the entry requirements to the lowest ebb. We see students with 2 low science credits in SPM being groomed for engineering degrees, even that within 3 year courses. Those who cannot cope to get even 2 Principles in A levels, are invited to do law and accounts, the perceived easier courses, by other modes known as foundation programs. Now a centre for international tertiary studies, Malaysian colleges are wooing foreign students to survive as Malaysian students run afar to foreign universities to escape their compromising stunts.

Where once scholarships were given only to the best STPM grads, now is dolled out to SPM students where there are neither assurances of eventual great scholars nor even completing undergraduates, where students flaunt the terms of their scholarships, some neither returning nor repaying. Such is the quality and honour of some of our scholarship holders and instead of learning from our experiences, we yield to allow our scholarships to become political favours.

Having produced such compromised graduates, it is alarming that we appear alarmed when our bridges shake, our roofs crumble, our patients untreated, our sand stolen, our cars losing market-share and our industry in doldrums. And when our graduates, unaware of basic principles that they can only spend what they earn and can only borrow what they can repay,
become bankrupts before they’re 30, we set up an after-care establishment for them instead, offering pity and inculcating “tidak-apa” and blame credit cards instead. In these hands which we sow the seeds of irresponsibility are we to place the trust of the country’s future.

Yet, not they are to blame but the society which allowed the failure of our education system. A move towards a high-income society cannot be an objective. It must be a consequence. Raising the competence of our students must be the objective. Income is a market-driven commodity.

If only our census directs its attention to the number of high-income jobs being offered locally, it would conclude that we have a dearth of graduates who can match their requirements. Why blame local employers who now move their jobs elsewhere in today’s globalized world? We pump billions into mega construction projects purportedly to assist the local economy but we have to depend on foreign non-graduate labour who reap the fruits and who earn what our graduates are not even offered.

Then to our unemployed graduates, we are offering courses and even free allowances to reward their mediocrity while refusing to admit that we have failed them. A plant cannot bear good harvests however nurtured if it does not have strong roots.

The sooner we admit that our education system has utterly failed in providing a strong foundation in our children, the faster remedial action can be taken. If that remedial action is in tandem with the changes that had bought about the destruction of our education system, i.e. the gradual elimination of the relevance of our public examinations, then that remedial action is wrong and would only serve to be the nail on the coffin of our education system. Hence, removing the UPSR and the PMR, despite their lacking in relevance today, would be sending the wrong message to our students. On the contrary, enhancing it further to make it a true screening gauge even to an extent of making failing students repeat the year, would be a move
towards enhancing our education system.

To those who are against an examination-oriented system, see what our experiment with the lack of it has brought upon us. It would be different if there were in existence a well-skilled army of teachers, who having produced excellent graduates, now wish to experiment with the removal of examinations.

In all our slogans and campaigns of increasing creativity, have we forgotten that mathematics and science are the source and bane of creativity? That the arts, history, geography balances the other half of the brain? That games, sport, literature, drama and music build aptitude and attitude? We cannot de-emphasize mathematics and science and emphasize on others.

Finally it is on the examination paper that one is able to exercise that creativity. Otherwise he must repeat the syllabus for in real life he’ll have no second chance.

As in all organizations, society adapts and sways with its leaders. It would be impossible to dissect the education environment from the national agenda. If national leadership in general is not focussed on achieving excellence or rewarding merit, when lacklustre performance is perceived as the norm which in turn appears sufficient for comfortable sustenance, then no amount of direction or supervision with any amount of slogan-driven campaign can succeed.

Unless our students, however young they may be, truly see and feel a national paradigm shift excelling towards academic greatness, coupled with a strong uncompromising education system, they would not be inspired to achieve.

This article would not be complete without touching on the most sensitive aspect of education – the requirement of a well-skilled teaching force. The objective of teachers is not merely to teach, but to ensure students learn. Creativity must not be demanded in students’ learning skills but in teachers’ teaching skills in ensuring the students’ absorption of the teachings.

Mere presentations and lectures are not sufficient. Inadequacy at school has prompted the need for tuition, even for a watered down syllabus. Teachers who are entrusted with valuable time in the classroom thrive at home with giving tuition instead. Teachers must inspire students with their brilliance, discipline and commitment. Only then respect and awe would
encourage study. We must hire the best as our teachers and give them due regard. To fill-in vacancies in the teaching profession from the unemployment market is a recipe for disaster. There are undoubtedly very good and committed teachers around but our educational environment does not spur them to deliver.

Finally, to have a great physical infrastructure of schools, which may appear to be a paramount objective is in fact a lower requirement. While, we must in a civilized and modern society, move to have the physical requirements of comfortable classrooms, playing fields and now computers, we must never allow these to cluster our clearest sight that it only takes a
chalk and a board for a teacher to propel a good student.

If only we had the Cikgu Baba who slapped me on both cheeks for wrong spelling, the Mr Yong who swung the cane on the third “second” delay in replying his multiplication questions, the Mrs Bala who called my father on my first truancy, I would gladly offer them my children if they wanted to scrap examinations. This was the era of the seventies when the national zeal in the form of Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Cin Aun, Shukor Salleh and Santokh Singh were beating the Koreans in football, when we were the emerging tigers of Asia, when Malaysia not only was the largest exporter of rubber and oil palm but also of electronic chips and air-conditioners, when only the best 10% get straight “A”s, when one repeats a year if he fails or does not qualify for the field of his choice, when one gets into university only through the front door via the STPM, when a graduate delivers according to expectations and when even non graduates could write perfect letters.

A time when we soared for excellence in a focused nation, driven by skilful teachers who had only the chalk and the board.
Alas Mr Minister, not now. To remove the UPSR and the PMR during a decline of our education system would be a grave mistake. It would only erase any remaining wish for improvement and would convince me that I would not enjoy the company of my grandchildren as they may have to be extracted to a better educational environment. Some may call it brain drain but in essence it is survival in today’s globalized world.