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The Malaysian experience: Key takeaways on good education

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Pupils of Marigat Integrated Primary School in Baringo County during a lesson on ‎October ‎17, ‎2022. [Harun Wathari Standard]

We wrapped up the first quarter of our semester the week before last, and being in a dire need to decompress and recalibrate and reflect, I hopped onto a Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. About three and a half hours Southeast of Colombo.

You fall in love with Malaysia the moment you hit the road from KL international Airport. It’s scenic. Beautiful!

But then you sneak into the city, an hour’s drive from the airport, and you get a sense of an organized country. Meticulous even. KL is clean! The roads are smooth. Not just that, they are designed with the pedestrian and cyclist in mind. Traffic lights have meaning. You stop even when there you have the road to yourself. No cops to reinforce this commonsense. Where’s I wouldn’t say that I particularly experienced such warmth from locals like I do in other places like Sri Lanka, I was blown away by the sense of organization and civility. Considering, as we are told, that Kenya and most Asian countries were at by a few decades ago. At the minute, we are worlds apart. And forgot what your favorite politician tells you, we have such a long way to go!

As usual, it got me thinking about what makes Malaysia tick. What do they do right. How they are able to leverage on their natural and human resources. How they managed to evolve into a truly civilized society where systems work. And because education is the glue that binds the society together, I sort to look into the seriousness Malaysia takes her education.

Although Malaysia embarks on mega projects such as the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and ‘Cross border bullet train project’, some of the planned megaprojects are put on hold, whenever there is an economic downturn, while expenditure on education remains or at times increases . Expenditure on education in Malaysia always dominates the social expenditure realm. For instance, in the 9th Malaysian plan (2006-2010), education received the highest allocation.

For example, in Malaysia, only about RM6.5 million was spent on education in the year, 1970 and it increased to almost RM27 million in the year, 2005. The amount spent on education has always been on the increase since the 1990s. This reflects the importance given to education by the Malaysian government.

The Government of Malaysia has taken upon itself to provide education to its people. Although, there is private education in Malaysia, the number of public education institutions easily outnumbers private institutions. Education is still seen as a public good in Malaysia. Thus, education in Malaysia is financed almost entirely from the national revenue. The Ministry of Education (MOE) will make its own estimates of expenditures annually which would be presented to the Ministry of Finance for submission to the parliament for approval. The government plays a pivotal role in the education sector.

Since it is provided by the Government, the amount spent on education will have numerous interactions with the economy. The increase in educational spending could be attributed to the belief that education has the capacity to increase the income of an individual and life-time earning of individuals. The Government would like to use education as the mean to eradicate poverty in the country. Although the contribution of education to one’s income is still a disputed and debatable issue, this had not dampened the general belief that education plays a key role in improving one’s income.

The role of education in any economy can be seen through the role it plays in the formation of human capital in a country. The Traditional Human Capital Theory suggests that education increases productivity of a laborer through the enhancement of their skills. Many a research have indicated that education is an important endogenous factor of production, which can explain the economic growth of a country. How did education help nation building?

Improving education quality

The quality of education in this country has improved over the years. There are many ways to measure education quality. For example, in the case of measuring school quality, the number of teachers with a degree teaching in a school, pupil-teacher ratio or even per-pupil district expenditure is used. The development of a country is closely associated with the quality of education offered in a country. In the case of Malaysia, the quality of education especially at elementary level has improved. For example, the MOE had embarked in an ambitious project where at least all secondary school teachers possess at least a basic degree, while about 50 per cent teachers teaching at primary school were to be graduates by 2010 (MOE, 2006).

In this era of globalization, mere investment in education does not necessarily enhance the human capital in a country. It is necessary that students are exposed to technology while they are still in school. Almost all students at public schools are exposed to “computers”. In Malaysia, the MOE tries to incorporate technology into teaching and learning in schools. For example, in 1998 the MOE embarked in a project called Smart Schools. The MOE allocated almost RM100 million, where about 100 schools were selected in a pilot project. In this Smart School, computers were used extensively in teaching and learning.

Meanwhile, in all learning institutions, it has become a norm where computer lab was set up in every department. Through this, students are exposed to new methods of learning such as e-learning. Although computer technology is dynamically fast, exposing students to such technology has given rise to IT literate workers in this country. This has greatly contributed to Malaysia becoming one of the most sought outsourcing destinations for many multi-national companies which have set-up their operations in Cyberjaya, an IT city similar to the Silicon Valley in the US.

Most of the values ​​on the measure of quality of education in Malaysia show tremendous improvement. As a result of this, students’ performance had also progressed. In the long-run, the domino effect of this is reflected in the quality and quantity of human capital available in this country. The drop in illiteracy rate is a testimony to this.

Free education

Although the relationship between the expected future income and education is well established, many people in undeveloped countries are unable to provide education for their children. Much of this is attributed to the affordability of parents and the high cost of education. Realizing this, the Malaysian government has taken upon itself the responsibility of providing free pre-tertiary education to its people.

One of the recommendations made in the “Rahman Talib Report” in 1960 was to offer free secondary education to all students as to encourage more Malaysians to obtain secondary education. Even the private institutions of learning are encouraged to provide scholarship to students. The government incentivizes the private sector by giving them tax exemptions.

By offering free education, more people in Malaysia are given access to education which in the long term had increased the quality of workers available in this country. Prior to independence, the colonial government did not introduce measures such as free education, because of the fear of uprising by the locals which the British experienced in their other colonies. By doing so they had in reality “retarded” the formation of human capital in this country. As a result of this, at early stages of, the country was very dependent on independence foreign expatriates. However, over the years, through education, this shortfall was overcome.

Tertiary education

In the endogenous growth models, education is viewed as a factor which affects income growth rate. Changes in years of schooling was found to be either non-significant or had negative coefficients in a growth regression model. When ‘level of education’ was used as proxy for education, it was either positive or significantly correlated with growth.

Comparing that finding with the Malaysian experience, it can be seen that Malaysia’s economic growth was rapid after secondary and tertiary education began to increase. At the initial stages, the Malaysian government paid more attention to primary education, but at later stages secondary and tertiary education were given the necessary allocation too. For any country to sustain economy growth, it must invest sufficiently in education. In the case of Malaysia, education is always given priority in any developmental plan.

Nevertheless, the increase in the allocation is not sufficient to sustain the growth. What is more important is how the amount is used. Many tertiary institutions were built in this country to meet the increasing demand for a more skilled labor force. At the same time, private organizations were allowed to set up their own universities. To maintain quality and attract foreign students, these private universities were allowed to offer programs though collaboration with foreign universities. This, not only increases and ensures the quality of education but also assures, a positive spillover is enjoyed, for these foreign collaborations allow local graduates to obtain foreign knowledge without ever leaving the country. This has also helped in reducing Malaysia’s currency outflow.