OVER the years, our country’s approach to education has undergone a remarkable transformation, driven by a quest for excellence, inclusivity and relevance.
From traditional chalk-and-board classrooms to virtual learning environments, from note memorisation to skill-based pedagogies, the journey of our education system has been one of adaptation and innovation.
In Malaysia, The Education Act 1996 (Act 550) is a law that governs the provision of education and encompasses the legal framework for the establishment, administration and management of educational institutions, as well as the regulation of education policies and practices. The Act has been amended several times which reflects the changing needs of the journey in the education system.
From a very young age, Malaysians are bound by the education system which has shaped the role of our academics, local talents and sector experts that bring significant contributions as a fruit of labour.
Compulsory Primary and Secondary Education
Education in Malaysia is compulsory for all Malaysian citizens. Children and youth between the ages of seven and 17 are required to attend formal education at any primary and secondary school. The primary education consists of six years of education which lays a foundation in core subjects and essential skills for a citizen.
They can choose to go to government-funded national schools or vernacular schools such as Chinese with Mandarin as media of instruction, that follow Malaysia’s standard curriculum or they can enrol in private schools.
After completing their primary education, students move on to secondary school that is divided into two stages: Lower and upper. At this stage, students continue with a broader range of subjects. They have the option to continue their education in upper secondary school (Form 6).
However, upper secondary education is not compulsory, and students may choose to enter vocational or technical programmes, enrol in pre-university courses or enter the workforce after completing their lower secondary education.
Being a country with a diverse background and a variety of religious practices, Malaysia also caters to the needs of its citizens through providing education and guidance based on various faiths.
Despite the fact that Islam is the predominant religion, the educational system gives other races the freedom to learn as Christian, Buddhist or Hindu as the schools also exist so that students can learn their doctrines, languages and cultural traditions.
As we celebrate inclusion, moderation and mutual understanding, this signals an educational system that is progressive.
Public Universities in Malaysia
Malaysia’s public universities stand as pillars of higher education, playing a vital role in shaping the nation’s intellectual landscape, fostering innovation and driving economic progress.
As a centre of learning, these institutions have evolved over the years, adapting to changing global trends, promoting not just learning and research but also a cultural and knowledge exchange for the seekers globally.
The establishment of University Malaya in 1962 marked the birth of higher education in the country. Since then, Malaysia has witnessed a proliferation of universities and colleges offering a diverse range of academic programmes, enabling the public to pursue their pretertiary and tertiary education.
Today, Malaysia boasts a network of 20 public universities that cater to a wide spectrum of academic pursuits such as the Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Not only that, the role of Islamic universities such as the International Islamic University Malaysia, which integrates Islamic principles with various academic disciplines, also contributes to the development of Malaysia as a Muslim-majority country.
So far, Malaysia also has 36 polytechnics, 105 community colleges and over 50 private institutions which have carved their niches, offering programmes ranging from science and technology to arts and humanities.
TVET in Malaysia
Understanding the need to balance academic and technical skills development, technical education and training and vocational (better known as TVET) was implemented in the education system as a pathway for the less academically inclined students.
The aim of TVET is to serve different needs and expertise while ensuring inclusivity, with an objective to eventually complement the economy and fill the skills gap in the high-demand and technical industry. TVET is important to ensure the workforce and youth are equipped to fill the market needs.
TVET was implemented in the education system in 1964 from the establishment of two public TVET institutions to provide skills train- ing to youths namely the Dusun Tua Youth and National Skills Institute and the Kuala Lumpur Industrial Training Institute.
To date, there are more than 500 public TVET institutions that offer a variety of TVET programmes for all levels of education nationwide. Through TVET, the graduates later have the opportunity to go to public or private universities and private skills training institutes or directly into the working world.
In recent years, there has been more focus on empowering TVET education as one of the major focuses in the country for talent employability and economic development.
On top of that, the current Economic Ministry recently announced a new programme called Academy in Industry (Ail) with a mission to enhance marketability and reduce the unemployment rate by implementing a reverse approach to this system.
It is allocating a budget of RM40 million and offering 20,000 school leavers to join the Ail programme this year for nine to 18 months of “on-the-job training” and upskilling to fill the gaps in the industry, especially in the technical and manufacturing sectors.
This programme is a collaboration with the participating companies, intended to support upskilling and enhance lives for the group keen to pursue the workforce straight after schooling without tertiary education.
“This new approach takes into account the tendencies of young people who are more interested in working directly without continuing education after graduation schooling,” Economy Minister Rafizi Ramli said when announcing the programme recently.
The Malaysian government supports TVET through various initiatives, funding and policies aimed at promoting the development of a skilled workforce and enhancing the overall quality of the TVET program.
STIE in Education
One of the standout features of Malaysia’s education journey has been its embrace of the science, technology, innovation and economy (STIE) aspects in education.
The government’s push for digital learning and the integration of technology in classrooms since primary education have paved the way for innovative pedagogical approaches and made education more accessible. This comes in handy in challenging times such as the recent global pandemic.
In Malaysia, the significant role of ICTs in promoting digital education is reflected in the national ICT in education policy such as the introduction of the Smart School programme which utilised differentiated teaching approaches to cater to the different academic levels of learners.
In addition, we have a national STI policy that outlines and describes the agenda to advance Malaysia toward a more competitive and competent nation built upon strong STI foundations including the policy, industry commitment and overall governance.
Not only that, the establishment of Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), mandated to oversee the said policy, also contributed to building thought leaders and brilliant minds while changing the STI landscape.
ASM plays a key role in fostering a diverse group of scientists and specialists in a variety of fields including medicine, chemical sciences, health, biotechnology, engineering, agriculture, through its expert network, support programme, publications and discourse, as well as industrial collaboration along with educators.
ASM president Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail said “great ideas” have been rolled out in previous plans like the Multimedia Super Corridor, New Economic Policy and Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 in term of STI development the country.
However, Malaysia still has not seen the full impact of these plans or policies as it was envisioned to achieve like countries such as South Korea and Singapore. Hence, she said much room is still needed to improve Malaysian STIE.
The academy has also been championing STEM-based programmes to promote greater interest among the youth and ensure that educators are better equipped to teach STEM subjects.
Another aspect that reflects the maturity of our education system is a robust research grant ecosystem that covers a wide range of disciplines including both traditional academic fields and emerging areas in place for the public.
With the growing concern to materialise innovation and problem-solving, Malaysia is accommodating research and development (R&D) grants across institutes and universities that enable them to confront the growing complexity of the innovation process.
Ranging from healthcare and technology to environmental sustainability, we have nurtured a research culture among students, faculty and researchers.
As education needs to adopt these to allow innovation to flourish, Malaysia also includes promoting critical thinking, curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge beyond traditional classroom learning.
In terms of technology advancement, the role of the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry is key through various policy and formulation implementations, R&D, technology infrastructure and promoting innovations propel the nation forward in the tech accelerations.
Over the years, for instance, Techlympics is a programme that aims to inculcate the culture of STI in the country and promote science and technology to inspire the younger generations to take an interest in these fields has translated significant results.
Apart from that, the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation was also established as a platform for launching technology and innovation to help entrepreneurs, researchers and creators to maximise the return of ideas and expand Malaysia’s innovation capabilities and economic growth through STIE.
Brain Drain Phenomenon
Even though Malaysia has invested significantly in education and producing a pool of skilled professionals in various fields, factors such as limited career prospects, insufficient job opportunities and stagnant wages have also forced many highly skilled Malaysians to seek better opportunities abroad.
Data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM) showed that Singapore is the favoured country for Malaysians to be employed followed by Australia (15%), the US (10%) and the UK (5%).
Meanwhile, the biggest deterrent to the brain drain phenomenon as cited by the World Bank’s Monitor Report (California-based Stanford Computer Science) is “a less attractive salary and benefits” in the Malaysian job market with a lack of career prospects and unavailability of opportunities in certain fields.
Malaysian experts in the sciences, medical and tech sectors, for example, preferred moving abroad. Without solid intervention, this will further aggravate creativity as well as innovation and hinder Malaysian overall growth to be a high-income economy.
In a recent remark, Human Resources and Development Minister V Sivakumar said while its ministry is fully aware of this debacle, he believes there is still a long way to for Malaysia to resolve the issue.
Worryingly, he also noted that Malaysia’s brain drain rate stands at 5.5% of the population, significantly higher than the global average of 3.3%, and out of 1.8 million rakyat who work abroad, with 1.13 million alone working in Singapore.
Resolving the brain drain issue requires a multifaceted approach. Interventions need to be done from education system restructuring and wage policy, as well as increasing the competitiveness in the labour market that pushes for a conducive environment for professional growth.
To help retain professional values, the government must strengthen collaboration between academia and industries to help align educational programmes with the demands of the job market, reducing the skills mismatch that often drives talent abroad.