Sad state of affairs in our schools

If a Form One student is unable to write his own name and has to take out his identity card and copy his name, it is a reflection of the gross malaise in the basic education that had been provided in his formative years. This is the sad state of affairs in our schools, and yet, we boast that “our schools are better than those in the UK”. 

Citizen Nades, The Sun

“SIR, I don’t have a desk!” These were the first few words I heard when I “went back to school” last Wednesday. They were from a puny Fourth Former at a school in the suburbs of Klang where I had volunteered to teach during the “Teach for Malaysia” week.

I had advance notice of what I was to expect – the students came from challenging backgrounds, and often brought these challenges into the classroom. Some may be shy and intimidated by the presence of strangers; others may try to seek attention. The advice given was: Be patient and know that you may not get the reactions you might be expecting.

For the sake of the students and all the young people at Teach for Malaysia, I shall not name the school but I can tell you that I taught the class of Form 4H – class No. 8 out of 12 classes.

I spent a whole hour with the students and it gave a glimpse of what is wrong with our education system. It was not just one student who did not have a chair and desk – three other students carried desks and chairs from the next class.

The blame should be not on the teachers or the schools, but an education system that has systematically eroded over the years and priority is given to pretentious projects but not basic requirements. If we can spend millions sending a Malaysian as a space tourist, it is a travesty in honesty if we can’t provide such indispensable needs for schools.

If a Form One student is unable to write his own name and has to take out his identity card and copy his name, it is a reflection of the gross malaise in the basic education that had been provided in his formative years. This is the sad state of affairs in our schools, and yet, we boast that “our schools are better than those in the UK”.

When these teenagers, who will step out into adult life in a few years, are unable to read a simple sentence and unable to know the meaning of simple words, the conclusion is inevitable – our system has failed them.

When schools in urban areas produce exceptional results with students scoring a string of A’s, the school gets the glory but with the best teachers, teaching aids and equipment, anything less would be a letdown. Don’t expect the same from schools in the rural areas because they are being given the crumbs.

The country boasts of several universities and university colleges, but with such standards in secondary schools, are they enrolling under-qualified undergraduates?

Then, the other question is: With such poor command of the language, how did they pass the PMR examinations? Were pass levels lowered to allow them to pass? Little wonder that many of the graduates of Malaysian universities are unable to land jobs.

All these show the foreseeable: These students have not been given the basics – reading and writing – at primary school level. No serious attempt is being made at this level to ensure that they have these skills before even attempting to teach other subjects like mathematics and science.

The figures from Pemandu tell us the story. The Education National Key Economic Area (NKEA) research shows that only 4% of the population is enrolled in pre-schools. A total of 46% of students pursuing tertiary education are enrolled in private higher education institutions. Equally baffling is that Malaysians make up nearly 43% of students enrolled in international schools. Is it a case of having no faith in the local education system?

Urbanites must surely account for all of this small percentage of pre-schoolers because parents are willing to spend sometimes up to RM6,000 a year on pre-school or kindergarten.

But what is there for the poor and the rural kids? They spend six years in primary school and “cruise” along. No special attention is given to slow learners or the “disadvantaged” lot and at the end, they become mere statistics when the UPSR exam results are announced.

This exam does not solve yet alone isolate the problem. The problem is “transferred” to the secondary school, where it becomes even more difficult to address and find solutions to the problem. When results are bad and pass percentages keep dropping, the teachers and the schools get blamed.

The headmaster or headmistress is taken to task but there is little that can be done as he or she is merely inheriting the problem – served on a platter of melancholy from the primary school system.

We now take pride in telling the world of being an education hub with branch campuses of Nottingham University, Newcastle University, Swinburne University, Curtin University and Monash University. Yet, what value does it bring us when we have an education system that does not address the basic needs of the rakyat?

The answer is not in building more schools or sending teachers abroad or inviting foreigners to teach in our schools. It is no use having flamboyant buildings or state-of-the-art paraphernalia when the children do not have the basics to understand simple instructions.

The education system needs a revamp. It needs a fresh re-look by someone who views it without wearing blinkers or ear-plugs. We need experts – not politicians – to draw up policies that provide quality education.


FORMER hockey international and coach, Datuk R. Yogeswaran, is as passionate about the game as he is with education. Being a former teacher himself, whenever the issue of teaching comes up, he relates this story when he was in primary school.

The teacher from India who was brought in to teach English asked the class if anyone knew the meaning of the word “phenomenon”. There was utter silence. No one knew and the teacher explained.

“When a cow moos in the meadows, it is not a phenomenon. When a bird sits on a tree and sings, it is not a phenomenon. But when a cow sits on a tree and sings, that is a phenomenon,” Yoges said with a chuckle as he imitated his old teacher, complete with the Indian accent.

To date, he remembers this episode and this was how children were taught English and the meaning of some of the more difficult words.

“But these days, when teachers pronounce words like “apel” and “oren” instead of “apple” and “orange”, it would be a phenomenon if any of the students pass their English tests.


IN the course of my classroom assignment, I asked if anyone reads newspapers. Five hands went up. How many watched television. All 39 hands went up. How many watched the news over TV? All hands went down. So, if they don’t read newspapers or watch news on TV, how do they know that Datuk Seri Najib Razak is the prime minister of Malaysia? There was utter silence.

When I was in Form Four, the class was told, I read the Straits Times daily. I would start from the back reading the sports pages for news not on the English Premier League but news on Malaya Cup and later Malaysia Cup matches.

In Form Two, our literature teacher, P.K. Singh made us read a book every month and we had to write a synopsis and had to identify 10 new words that we learnt. We had to use the dictionary to explain the meaning of these words. That was our first encounter with fiction and we read abridged editions of The Count of Monte Cristo, King Solomon’s Mines and other classics.

Last Wednesday, I asked the class if anyone had a dictionary. None. How do they find meanings of words in their text books which they don’t understand? There was pin-drop silence.

Later, I was told that some of them can’t afford to buy text books, let alone a dictionary. So, what is happening with the book assistance scheme for poor students? Shouldn’t a simple dictionary be on top of the list?

Reading is a must in any system of education. Many become avid readers and all managers and directors still fall back on the dictionary to check on spellings when writing their reports. The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow and if they don’t get into the reading habit, then it will be disastrous.

The last word comes from Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan who described his secondary school classmate in Kuantan, now World Bank consultant, N. Kokularupan as a fervent reader. “He memorised the entire book – The History of South East Asia – from cover to cover.” Need anything more be said?