The Politics and Practice of Education in Malaysia

 A Brief History of the Malaysian Educational System

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society that is composed of three main ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians. It proclaims to be a democratic nation with the definition of democracy as the right of every mature citizen to vote.

Before Malaysia gained its independence from the British in 1957, the educational system in Malaysia lacked uniformity in curriculum. The country’s three main ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians ran their own schools, with the latter two often importing a syllabus used in the countries of their origin and in their respective languages (Mandarin and Tamil). The Barnes Report recommended by the British a decade before the end of British rule suggested a national school system which would provide primary education for 6 years in Malay and English, hoping that over a period of time, the attraction to have separate schools in Chinese and Tamil would wane and disappear. The reaction of the Chinese community to the Barnes Report was not totally positive. While the community agreed with the basic recommendation that Malay be treated as the principal language, it felt that there should be some provision to recognize Chinese and Tamil as important components of a new definition of Malaysia’s national identity.

After Malaysia’s independence, the ruling party decided that Malay was to be the main medium of instruction in all national schools. However, national-type schools were allowed in the primary levels to teach in either Mandarin or Tamil. These schools however do not receive full funding from the government as the national schools do. The students are also required to complete one year of ‘remove class’ before entering into the national secondary schools. The implementation of Malay as the official national language and main language of instruction in schools was done with the belief that this would promote national unity and a Malaysian identity. This was seen as a very important goal for education to reach from the start and continues to be the main goal until today.


This paper examines the politics and practice of education in Malaysia within the context of ethnicity and nation-building. All around the world education is used as a nation-building tool – for example to create loyal citizens. Similarly in Malaysia, education is used as a nation-building tool to create ethnic, patriotic and ethical citizens. Education is largely politicized in Malaysia to the extent that every Prime Minister, excluding the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, has at one time or another been the education minister.The fact that education at the primary level is compulsory by national law in Malaysia also goes to show that education is in fact politicized. Education in Malaysia is also highly centralized particularly at primary and secondary levels, with state and local governments having little or no say at all in the major aspects of education such as the curriculum.

According to the Malaysian educational policy, the main aims of education are to create a 1) harmonious multi-ethnic society, 2) love for the country and 3) ethical citizens.

 Educational Policy, Ethnicity and Nation-Building

Since the major ethnic riots of May 1969, one of the main goals in nation-building has been the eradication of inter-ethnic economic disparities. These inter-ethnic economic disparities were created by the British for administrative convenience during the colonial period. During the colonial period, labourers from China and India were brought into Malaysia and were separated accordingly by their jobs. The Malays, the indigenous people of Malaysia were already mostly involved in agriculture even before British colonolization, therefore the Chinese were allocated to handle the businesses and the Indians were allocated to handle other resources such as the rubber tree estates which were a major export product at the time. When Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957, the Chinese were the most economically dominant whereas the Malays and Indians were highly economically disadvantaged. As Malays are the largest in number and highest in political power, they make up the majority of Malaysians (60%). The minorities in West Malaysia are the Chinese (30%) and Indians (10%). The ethnic riots of May 1969 were a result of the majority not being too happy about the fact that the minority Chinese population was enjoying most of the wealth. In response to this, affirmative action policy was formed in 1970 to ensure that the majority- Malays reached an equal status economically to the Chinese. Special privileges and opportunities were reserved for ethnic Malays following these preferential policies including educational opportunities.  Education was seen as a key medium in which the socio-economic backwardness of the Malays could be corrected. English language tuition was phased out of the national education system, making Malay the only language of tuition, and public examinations were likewise restricted to Malay. Private Chinese secondary schools were allowed to continue but their examinations were not recognized by the government, thus denying pupils in these school places in public higher education or jobs in the public sector. State-funded vernacular education (schools that use Mandarin or Tamil as their language of instruction) was allowed to continue at the primary level, but has apparently received significantly lower funding than the Malay language school; in 1984, Chinese primary schools constituted 27.3 per cent of all primary schools, but received only 3.4 per cent of the government allocation for primary schools (Pong, 1993). In higher education, state institutions were allotted quotas for the intake of Malays. Government funding for places at university, both in Malaysia and abroad, was almost entirely restricted to Malays; between 1980 and 1984, over 95 per cent of the successful applicants for overseas study grants were Malays (Takei, 1973). The quota system and preferential policies continue until today. Due to this, education is seen as a very sensitive and controversial topic in Malaysia. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are basic human rights that Malaysians unfortunately do not have the privilege to indulge in.

Ethnic groups often are politically constructed to serve a purpose; they are created and used by policymakers to achieve national and perhaps personal goals. Once they are constructed, individuals within each group begin to internalize the label, to accept the ethnicity as given and to act according to cultural norms. For example, under the Apartheid law in South Africa, the category “coloured” was created to refer to races other than Europeans and Africans. Thus the “coloured” group includes many diverse cultural groups. However, after a generation, the “coloured” people began to believe there was such a thing as the “coloured” culture. Similarly, in today’s Malaysia, ethnic consciousness and identity are strong, and race/ethnicity is everyday language. However, the Malaysian ethnicity categorization – Malays, Chinese, and Indians – that is so well internalized, in fact represents three broad ethnic categories that emerged in relatively recent history. They were created by the British for administrative convenience during the colonial period and have further evolved since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. These groups are by no means culturally homogenous within themselves. To a large extent, ethnicity is socially constructed. Having said that, I do not deny that there are physical attributes and deep cultural differences between groups. Groups do differ by their language, ancestry, and customs, however finely the line is drawn. But it is equally important to note that public policy has much to do with how groups are formed. Indeed, the same people in the three ethnic groups in Malaysia (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) would be considered the same ethnic group (“coloured”) under Apartheid law in South Africa. Under the Apartheid, the Malays, Chinese, and Indians who migrated to South Africa would feel closer to each other in terms of their cultural background than they did in Malaysia.


 Educational Practice, Ethnicity and Nation-Building

This section deals with how the curriculum attempts to meet the main educational goal of creating harmonious ethnic citizens in order to build a nation that is strong in patriotism and ethical standards.

Moral Studies and History are the two main subjects in my opinion which the objectives of nation-building are attempted to be met. Moral Studies is compulsory for all non-Muslim students in the primary and secondary levels. The Muslim students have Islamic studies instead. The Moral Education curricula in primary school are organized around five fields (Ministry of Education, 2000):

  1. Values relating to self-development;
  2. Values relating to self and family;

iii. Values relating to self and society;

  1. Values relating to self and the environment; and
  2. Values relating to self and country.

In the first years of primary school, moral values are usually taught through stories that involve all 3 ethnic groups working together towards a better future. For example, the story of Ali (Malay name) and Ah Chong (Chinese name) who help Raju (Indian name) with his school homework. Values such as cultural and religious tolerance are emphasized.

The field of self-development includes values such as being thankful to the national leaders and having pride in them and the country; and the moral obligation to later return the favour to the country by working hard. Students are often instructed to write thank you letters to national leaders as an activity for Moral Studies (Ministry of Education, 2000).

By secondary school, the Moral Education curriculum contains and entire field dedicated to patriotism. This includes activities such as discussions on ways of showing gratitude to the government for its efforts to develop and maintain the nation and people. Students are also encouraged to discuss the ‘bad effects’ of political demonstrations. Criticizing the government is seen as highly disrespectful and shows lack of gratitude. It is also punishable by law.


A country’s history, and how it is taught in schools, is clearly an important issue relating to citizenship. For example in Malaysia, students are taught that the British managed to extend their rule because they used the ‘divide and rule’ strategy; and the only way Malaysians could achieve independence was through unity and harmony of the three ethnic groups, and that in order to develop and grow as a nation, we must continue to work together in harmony.  The curriculum unabashedly states that the main focus of the History curriculum is directed towards instilling a patriotic spirit (Ministry of Education, 2002), which is then defined by the following characteristics:

  1. Pride in being Malaysian
  2. The spirit of loyalty to the nation

iii. The spirit of ‘we-ness’ (kekitaan)

  1. Discipline
  2. Industriousness and productivity

The curriculum also attempts to address the issue of ethnicity in other subject domains such as in Malay and English language classes. Students are often instructed to write essays about their respective ethnic celebrations or festivals.

Other than that, once a week, the Malaysian national anthem is sung in school and an oath is recited by all. The oath constitutes five elements:

  1. Faith in God;
  2. Loyalty to King and Country;

iii. Respect for the Rule of Law;

  1. Upholding the Constitution; and
  2. Morals and Good Behaviour.


The point of this paper was to examine the politics and practice of education in Malaysia in the context of ethnicity and nation-building. In doing so, one can now reach the conclusion that policy and practice of education in Malaysia is highly influenced by its multi-ethnic community and the nation’s attempt in balancing out inter-ethnic economic disparities by introducing preferential policies in the field of education in order to build up the Malay community. Values of patriotism are also highlighted in the educational system in order to avoid educational reform.


Ministry of Education. 2000a. Huraian Sukatan Pelajaran Pendidikan Moral KBSM. Kuala Lumpur: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum, Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia.

Ministry of Education. 2000b. Huraian Sukatan Pelajaran Pendidikan Moral KBSR.Kuala Lumpur: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum, Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia.

Ministry of Education. 2002. Huraian Sukatan Pelajaran Sejarah KBSM. Kuala Lumpur: Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum, Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia.

Pong, S. (1993). Preferential policies and secondary school attainment in Peninsular

Malaysia. Sociology of Education, 66(4), 245-61.

Takei, Y., Bock, J.C., & Saunders, B. (1973). Educational Sponsorship by Ethnicity: A Preliminary Analysis of the West Malaysian Experience. Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, Southeast Asia Program Papers in International Studies, Southeast Asia series, No. 28.


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